There is a general misconception that Lingayatism is a sub-sect of Shaivism, which is itself a sect of Hinduism and that Lingayats are Shudras. But the truth based on textual evidence and reasoning is that Lingayatism is not a sect or sub-sect of Hinduism, but an independent religion. This can be shown as follows.
A. Scriptural authority
Every religion has its own metaphysical doctrines about God, creation, soul, liberation, etc. Even tribal religions have their own metaphysics, though it is not written down. All practices, like initiation, worship, prayer, chanting of the mantras, moral and spiritual acts are based on metaphysics. For example, a Hindu visits temples (a religious act) and gives charity (a moral act) for securing passage to heaven after death. Just as the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and the Koran provide the authoritative scriptural basis for Christianity and Islam, so the Vedas (including the Upanishads) provide the scriptural authority to Hinduism (also called Vedic religion). The Vedas, however, unlike the Bible or Koran, are not definitive on any issue because they were composed over many centuries by different kinds of authors. As a result, we find in them polytheism, henotheism, kathenotheism, monotheism and monism; concept of svarga (heaven) as well as moksha as the final goal of life; karma (selfless duty), bhakti (devotion) and jnana (knowledge) as the alternative paths of moksha. However, if one is a Hindu one must accept the Vedic authority.
Those who have rejected the Vedic authority are non-Hindus (Avidikas). The Buddhists, for example, who reject the Vedas rely on their own scriptures, Tripitakas, and are branded as heretics. If this argument holds, then the Lingayats who reject the Vedic authority and accept the authority of the Kannada Vachanas must be regarded as heretics. The following Vachanas written by the Lingayat saints of the 12th and later centuries bear out this.
- The Vedas, unable to penetrate (the Reality), became invalid . . .
- Vedanta is a basic mental disease . . .
- I will gird myself with arms to fight the Vedas,
I will insert hooks into the Shastras . . .
I will cut the nose of the Agamas . . .
- Those who studied the Vedas could not know the way of our Puranas and claiming ‘I am He’ died several deaths and became nameless . . .
The Vedas, the Shastras (sciences), the puranas (mythologies) are worth nothing, like husk . . .
On the contrary, the Lingayats have highest regard for the Vachanas written by their ancestors and the 12th century Sharanas. For example, they say,
- If you delve into ponds, streams and wells, you get only shells and the like; whereas if you delve into a sea you come across pearls, gems and the like; if you listen to the words pouring out from the hearts of our Kudalasanga’s Sharanas we can see Linga 
- If you offer me an elephant I reject it; if you offer me wealth, I reject it;
If you offer me a large kingdom I reject it; but if you offer me the words of Sharanas for a while, I am ready to sacrifice you, Ramanatha! 
- The Vachanas of the ancestors are touchstones . . .
B. Vedic Polytheism and Ritualsim:
The religion (of the karmakanda) of the Vedas is clearly polytheism. The Vedic people believed that there were 33 crore gods and goddesses, of whom only 33 were important. They classified them into three groups – celestial, atmospheric and terrestrial. Some of the important deities are Indra, Varuna, Yama, Agni, Mitra, Ushas, etc. Though at the end of the Veda it is declared “Reality is one, but the wise call it by many names” (Ekam sat, viprah bahudhah vadanti), the Vedic people did not give up polytheism, but regarded the performance of the rituals and sacrifices as a qualification for the study of the Vedas. Thus performance of sacrifices and rituals in the name of gods is an integral part of the Vedic polytheism.
The Vedas prescribe the performance of rituals and sacrifices in the names of many gods like Indra, Varuna, Yama, Agni, etc. for the attainment of material happiness here and hereafter. Though the modified Vedic sacrifices performed by the modern Brahmin priests are free from animal sacrifices, it is true that originally they did involve sacrifice of goats, horses, etc.
Performance of rituals and sacrifices is one among many points of difference between Hinduism and the non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism. In fact, it is said that Buddha gave up Hinduism (the Vedic religion) specifically for the reason that he did not like to regard animal sacrifice as religious act. He says, “And as for your saying that for the sake of dharma I should carry out the sacrificial ceremonies which are customary in my family and which bring the desired fruit, I do not approve of sacrifices for I do not care for happiness which is sought at the price of others’ suffering”. 
The Lingayats are strict monotheists. They enjoin the worship of only one God, namely, Linga (Shiva). It must be noted that the word ‘ Linga ’ here does not mean Linga established in temples, but universal consciousness qualified by the universal energy (Shakti). Though they often call him Shiva or Parashiva, for them he is not the mythological Shiva, who with wife Parvati and sons Ganapati and Kumara, abides in Kailasa permanently and visits the mortal world only occasionally. For them Linga or Shiva is formless God. They prefer to worship him in the form of ishtalinga, which every Lingayat is enjoined to wear on his/her person always.
The Lingayats condemn the performance of rituals and sacrifices, which include animal sacrifices, on the ground that any religion that involves violence to living beings is not religion worth the name.  Even the performance of rituals without animal sacrifice is abhorred in Lingayatism, for according to it, real devotion should be, not an excuse for asking God for material benefit either here or hereafter, but be a means to union with him. Moreover, performance of rituals implies polytheism which is diametrically opposed to the Lingayat monism.
Some may object that the Vedas have two parts, Karmakanda and Jnanakanda, and the Lingayats reject only the former while they accept the latter and therefore, they are not anti-Vedic. It is true that the Lingayats accept the latter and reject the former, but that is what the Buddhists and Jains also do. For example, the Upanishadic doctrines of ignorance as the root cause of bondage, karma and rebirth, moksha (final liberation from bondage) as the ultimate goal of spiritual life are shared by the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists. Even then the Buddhists and the Jains are regarded as anti-Vedic (non-Hindus) because they reject the Karmakanda. If all those who reject the Karmakanda, are anti-Vedic (non-Hindus), the Lingayats also must be regarded as anti-Vedic (non-Hindus) for the same reason. Though the early Upanishads themselves did not regard the Vedic sacrifices as effective means to final liberation, the later ones successfully brought about a compromise by holding that they are primary qualification for the upper caste Hindus to the study of the Vedas. The Shudras, the untouchables and all women, who cannot perform them are not eligible to the study of the Vedas and were denied the opportunity of gaining the Brahmavidya, a condition for moksha. 
C. Caste discrimination:
The earlier principle of inclination of people on the basis of which they were classified into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras was slowly given up and classification on the basis of birth came into being. This change meant that one is Brahmin only if he is the son of Brahmin parents; a Kshatriya only if he is the son of Kshatriya parents, etc. Manu ruled that nobody could choose a profession which his caste does not permit.
We cannot accept that the Lingayats are Hindus, for they do not certainly belong to the first three castes, because they do not wear the sacred thread which distinguishes the first three castes of Hinduism; nor are they Shudras because while Shudras have been forbidden by Manu from learning and teaching Sanskrit, Lingayats have been learning and teaching Sanskrit, at least since 12th Century. Moreover, they, unlike the Hindus, including the Brahmins of the Vedic times, are strict vegetarians.
While caste discrimination is central to the post-Manu Hinduism, Basavanna, the founder of Lingayatism, and his associates, who were painfully aware of the evil consequences of the inhuman caste discrimination, asked their followers not to observe it. They held that that once a man undergoes the initiation wherein he is given an ishtalinga, he becomes superior and therefore, all Lingayats must be treated as equal.
Here one may object that Lingayats, like the Hindus, observe caste discrimination; for example, the Jangamas are regarded as superior and barbers, washermen, etc. as inferior. But this objection is based on the misconception that philosophical religion is the same as practical religion. It is true that the Lingayats’ observance of caste system is against one of the main principles of Basavanna’s Lingayatism. Many Lingayats stealthily eat meat and drink alcohol – which is forbidden. Some of them even do not wear ishtalinga. But we can note that violation of many rules laid down by the religious founders is common among followers of all religions. But if we could say that the Christians, who observe caste system, do not cease to be Christians, the Brahmins, who do not perform rites and sacrifices or do not observe caste system, do not cease to be Brahmins, we could also say that the Lingayats who observe caste discrimination or do not wear ishtalinga do not cease to be Lingayats. If we could say that only those are Lingayats who observe all the principles taught by Basavanna and his associates, then we do not find a single Lingayat worth the name today. We should recall the saying “There was only one true Christian and he died on the cross”. The point is that Lingayatism does not, while Hinduism does, advocate caste system.
D. Renunciation (Sanyasa)
Hinduism upholds the sanyasin, i.e., the one who having renounced the family and social life goes to forest in quest of God-realization, as superior to others. Lingayatism, on the other contrary, advocates that one must not sacrifice social life for forest life, because everybody must contribute to the development of economy and well being of everybody else. Not only should everybody earn, but also share a portion of his earnings with the needy (like old, invalid people). Moreover, one can lead perfect spiritual life in one’s own society itself, and need not go to secluded places like forests. The well-known Lingayat woman-saint, Akka Mahadevi, says, “If we can defang a snake and play with it, even the company of snake is good”.  She elsewhere says, “If we have built a house on a sea shore, why should we be afraid of the roaring waves? If we have built a house atop a mountain, why should we fear the wild beasts?”  Similarly, if we live in samsara, why should we fear the evils? Some Sharanas declare that those retire to forests are selfish cowards. They out rightly reject the doctrine that woman is a temptress and is a great impediment in the spiritual journey. It is noteworthy that Basavanna, one of the greatest mystics, had two wives. Many of his mystic-associates were married people. But unfortunately, a few post-Basavanna Vachana-writers have written Vachanas which expressly hate women as temptress.
E. Brahmin Priests
There are specially trained Brahmins, purohits (priests), in Hinduism, who perform rites and sacrifices for others – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, on occasions like marriage, funeral, christening ceremonies, etc. The Lingayats do not observe some of the Hindu rituals as they have their own and these are performed their own priests, Jangamas.
F. Temple Worship and Priestcraft
F.1. Temple Worship:
Hindus worship idols and Lingas established in temples. The Lingayats reject worshipping idols and images in temples, for the specific reason that those who worship the idols of Rama, Krishna, Vishnu, Kali, etc. may come to believe that God or Goddess represented by the respective idol resembles the idol, while in fact, no idol represents God perfectly. They are enjoined to worship only ishtalinga, a black, oval shaped, flat based, shining object, which is a symbol of Parashiva or universal consciousness present in every human in the form of soul.
Normally, the idols and Lingas in temples are worshipped by specially appointed priests, mostly belonging to higher castes. The devotees, including those belonging to higher castes, are prevented from worshipping the idol – they have only to watch the worship and the idol from a distance. The priest in this case is believed to act as a middleman between God and the devotees for which he is revered. Basavanna opposed this and by offering ishtalinga to all those who came to him, insisted that nobody visit temples and if one is desirous of expressing his devotion one must himself worship one’s own ishtalinga and not ask a priest to worship on his behalf, just as one, who is hungry, must eat the food himself rather than asking others to eat on his behalf. Further he insisted that since God is one, it is enough that one worships one’s ishtalinga alone at any time and in any place. The concept of ishtalinga signifies freedom to all men and women to pursue spiritual ends.
Hindus believe that pilgrimage brings about religious merit (punya) and, therefore, those who can afford should visit as many holy places as possible, such as Varanasi (Benares), Gaya, Tirupati, Rameshwara, Srishaila, Puri, Kedar, Hardwar, etc. They also believed that a dip in rivers regarded as holy like Ganga, Yamuna, Kaveri, etc. wipes out their sins and makes them eligible to go to heaven. Lingayats uphold that the human soul is itself God and there is no necessity of worshipping anything other ishtalinga which is a symbol of that soul. Therefore, visiting holy places is as irreligious as rejection of this doctrine. They argue that if a dip in the Ganga makes one eligible to go to heaven, then the fishes, frogs and other marine creatures, which live in the Ganga, have already gone to heaven such that there is no place left for humans .
Since the post-Manu Hinduism prevented not only non-Hindus from converting into Hinduism, but also people of one Hindu caste from converting into other caste. Since Lingayatism is a non-Hindu religion, like Buddhism, it allows for religious conversion, on the condition that one who is converted to Lingayatism must not observe the earlier practices, like caste discrimination, etc. In fact, Lingayatism was born as a protest against the practice of caste discrimination. Basavanna was hated, and even now is hated, for converting people of lower caste into Lingayatism and conferring equality on them.