Although the foundation of the Virashaiva conviction has been debated, the movement developed through its alliance with Basavanna in the twelfth century. Basavanna and other Virashaiva saints preached a faith without a caste system. In his Vachanas (a form of poetry), Basavanna appealed to the masses in simple Kannada and wrote, "work is worship" (Kayakave Kailasa). Also known as the Lingayats (worshipers of the Linga, the universal symbol of Shiva), these Virashaivas questioned several of the recognized norms of civilization such as the belief in rituals and the theory of rebirth and supported the remarriage of widows and the marriage of unwed older women. This gave more social freedom to women but they were not accepted into the priesthood.
Ramanujacharya, the head of the Vaishnava monastery in Srirangam, traveled to the Hoysala territory and preached the way of devotion (bhakti marga). Later he inscribed Sribhashya, a commentary on Badarayana Brahmasutra, a critique on the Advaita attitude of Adi Shankara. Ramanujacharya's stay in Melkote resulted in the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana converting to Vaishnavism, a faith that his successors also followed.
The impact of these religious developments on the culture, literature, and architecture in South India was profound. Significant works of metaphysics and poetry based on the teachings of these philosophers were written over the next centuries. Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, and a host of Basavanna's followers, including Chenna Basava, Prabhudeva, Siddharama, and Kondaguli Kesiraja wrote hundreds of poems called Vachanas in praise of Lord Shiva.
The esteemed scholars in the Hoysala court, Harihara and Raghavanka, were Virashaivas. This tradition continued into the Vijayanagar Empire with such eminent scholars as Singiraja, Mallanarya, Lakkana Dandesa and other prolific writers of Virashaiva literature. The Saluva, Tuluva and Aravidu dynasties of the Vijayanagar Empire were followers of Vaishnavism and a Vaishnava temple with an image of Ramanujacharya exists today in the Vitthalapura area of Vijayanagara. Scholars in the succeeding Mysore Kingdom wrote Vaishnavite works supporting the teachings of Ramanujacharya. King Vishnuvardhana constructed several shrines following his conversion from Jainism to Vaishnavism including the famous Chennakesava Temple at Belur.