Lingayatism is derived from the Sanskrit root linga (Shiva's mark) and suffix ayta. The adherents of Lingayatism are known as Lingayats. In historical literature, they are sometimes referred to as Lingawants, Lingangis, Lingadharis, Sivabhaktas, Virasaivas or Veerashaivas. The term Lingayat is based on the practice of both genders of Lingayats wearing an iṣṭaliṅga contained inside a silver box with a necklace all the time. The istalinga is an oval-shaped emblem symbolising Parashiva, the absolute reality and icon of their spirituality.
Historically, Lingayats were known as Virashaivas, or "ardent, heroic worshippers of Shiva." According to Blake Michael, the term Veerashaivism refers both to a "philosophical or theological system as well as to the historical, social and religious movement which originated from that system." Lingayatism refers to the modern adherents of this religion. The term Lingayats came to be commonly used during the British colonial period.
In the 1871 and the 1881 colonial-era census of British India, Lingayats were listed as shudras.[note 8] In 1926, the Bombay High Court ruled that "the Veerashaivas are not Shudras".
The terms Lingayatism and Veerashaivism have been used synonymously.[web 1][note 1] Veerashaivism refers to the broader Veerashaiva philosophy and theology as well as the movement, states Blake Michael, while Lingayata refers to the modern community, sect or caste that adheres to this philosophy. In the contemporary era, some state that Veerashaiva is a (sub)tradition within Lingayatism with Vedic influences,[web 2] and these sources have been seeking a political recognition of Lingayatism to be separate from Veerashaivism, and Lingayatism to be a separate religion. In contrast, Veerashaivas consider the two contemporary (sub)traditions to be "one and the same community" belonging to Hinduism.[web 3]