An important landmark in the cultural history of medieval India was the silent revolution in society brought about by a series of socio-religious reformers, a revolution known as the Bhakti Movement. The Bhakti Movement stressed on the mystic realization of God within oneself and the ultimate union of the individual with God, based on loving devotion on the part of the devotee (Bhakta). The seeds of the Sanskrit term ‘Bhakti’ can be traced back to both the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions of ancient India as well as to the various scriptures such as the Vedas, Upanishads and
Gita, and had been in work in India long before the growth of Sufism in Islam and its arrival in India. With the worship of personal Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh – that grew in the post-Vedic age, the concept of Bhakti or personal devotion also grew. Historian Satish Chandra has noted two main aspects of Bhakti Movement. First is the path of devotion based on service to God, where the devotee throws himself completely at the grace of God which could be followed
without learning any religious text or following any religious ritual. This was the path of ‘prapatti’ or surrender. The second was that of a bond based on pure love which emphasized on equality rather than service. Vishnu Purana sets an example of this kind of devotion where Prahald prays that he might be blessed with unwavering devotion to God wherever he is born.
Later this was interpreted with carnal love between a lover and his beloved, more specifically the love of Krishna with Radha and Gopis. The later aspect was emphasized by a series of saints who flourished in South India between the late 6th and 10th centuries.
Although the seeds of Bhakti can be found from the very beginning, it was not emphasized during the early part and it was for the first time in South India between the 6th and the 10th century that Bhakti emerged from a religious doctrine into a popular movement based on
religious equality. The movement which was headed and inaugurated by popular saint-poets reached its apex in the 10th century after which it gradually began to decline. However, it was refurnished as a philosophical and ideological movement by a series of scholars or ‘acharyas’, beginning with Ramanuja in the 11th century. The establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi coincided with many widespread socio-religious movements in various parts of the country drawing upon the concepts of Bhakti. These movements have been perceived as revival of the older South Indian Bhakti movement, where each one of these later movements had a historical context of its own and its own peculiarities.
In South India, the spread of the concept of Bhakti among different sections of the society irrespective of caste and sex was initiated by the Saiva Nayanar saints and Vaisnava Alvar saints during the period between the 6th and the 10th centuries. “The saint-poets preached Bhakti in an intense emotional manner and tried to promote religious egalitarianism.” The South Indian Bhakti saints criticized the Jains and Buddhists who enjoyed a privileged status at the courts of South Indian monarchs during that period. They simultaneously resisted the domination of the orthodox Brahmins by making Bhakti accessible to all without any caste or sex discrimination. Starting from the Tamil lands under Pallava rulers, Bhakti spread to different parts of south India, including the Pandya and Chera kingdoms. Their philosophy disregarded the austerities preached by the Jains and the Buddhists and preached personal devotion to God as the means of salvation. They preached their egalitarian approach which disregarded caste and gender, and carried their message of love and personal devotion to God to various parts of south India using local languages especially Tamil. Since these Alvars and Nayanars used local Tamil language instead of Sanskrit to enlighten people with their ideology, they got acceptance by
people easily. Sankara’s (8th-9th c.) ‘Advaita’ or ‘non-dualism’ philosophy systemized Bhakti ideology of monotheist. He used dialectics to demolish Buddhist ideas, and to establish that the Vedas were the origin of knowledge. According to him, “the separation of God and the phenomenal world was due to ignorance, and the way to salvation was through the realization, by means of knowledge (jnan), that God and the created world was one” and the Vedas were the “fountainhead of knowledge”.
The South Indian Bhakti movement had some drawbacks. Although egalitarian in nature, it was integrated with the caste system and the lower castes continued to suffer from social disabilities. There was no elimination of Brahmanical rituals such as worship of idols, recitation of the Vedic mantras and pilgrimages to sacred places in spite of the predominant stress on Bhakti as the superior mode of worship. The Jains and Buddhists were its principal targets not the Brahmins. This may have been the reason why the Brahman dominated temples played an
important role in the growth of South Indian Bhakti movement. The ideological and social foundations of caste system were not challenged by the South Indian saint-poets. As a result, the Bhakti movement of the south in the long-run strengthened the caste system and ultimately after the movement reached its apex in the 10th century; it gradually incorporated within the
traditional Brahmanical religion.
Despite these constraints, the South Indian Bhakti movement succeeded in defending the cause of religious equality and therefore, the Brahmins had to accept the right of the low caste to preach, to have access to Bhakti as a mode of worship and to have access even to the Vedas. When the popularity of the Bhakti movement in South India was declining, the concept of Bhakti was defended at the philosophical level by some greatest Vaishnava Brahmin scholars
(acharyas) like Ramanuja (11th century) who provided philosophical justification for Bhakti. He tried to establish a careful balance between orthodox Brahmanism and popular Bhakti which was open to all. Although he did not support the idea of the lower castes having access to the Vedas but advocated Bhakti as a mode of worship accessible to all including the Sudras and even the outcastes. While propagating Bhakti, he did not observe caste distinctions and even tried to eradicate untouchability. He tried to link Bhakti with the tradition of Vedas and therefore it is said that, “Ramanuja was a bridge between the popular movement based on Bhakti, and total surrender to God (prapatti), and the upper caste movement based on Vedas.” Nimbarka, a Telegu Brahman, is supposed to be the younger contemporary of Ramanuja, who spent most of his time in Vrindavana near Mathura in North India and believed in total devotion to Krishna and Radha. Another South Indian Vaishnavite Bhakti philosopher was Madhava who belonged to the 13th century. He believed that Bhakti provided Alternate Avenue of worship to the Sudras and his philosophy was based on the Bhagvat Purana. Two other prominent Vaishnava acharyas were Ramananda (late 14th and early 15th century) and Vallabha (late 15th and early 16th century).
The 13th to 15th century was marked by many popular socio-religious movements in North India, East India and Maharashtra, whose chief characteristics were the emphasis on Bhakti and religious equality. Almost all the Bhakti movements of the Sultanate period have
been related to one or the other South Indian Vaishnava acharya, for which many scholars believe that the Bhakti movements of the Sultanate period were a continuation of the older Bhakti movement as there existed philosophical and ideological links between the two either due to contact or diffusion. Thus it is believed that the ideas of Bhakti were carried to the north by the old Bhakti scholars and saints, among which were Namadeva and Ramananda. There are
many similarities between the older Bhakti tradition of South-India and various Bhakti movements of the Sultanate and Mughal periods. Like the South Indian Bhakti movement the Vaishnava Bhakti movements of North and Eastern India and Maharashtra exhibited egalitarian trends in the religious sphere. But they never denounced the caste system, the authority of Brahmanical scriptures and the Brahmanical privileges. Like the South Indian Bhakti, most of the Vaishnava movements of the later period were ultimately assimilated into the Brahmanical religion, though in the process of interaction, the latter itself sailed through many changes. “Bhakti movement was never a single movement except in the broad doctrinal sense of a
movement which laid emphasis on Bhakti and religious equality.” Despite the similarities, the Bhakti movements of medieval India differed in many significant respects from the older South Indian Bhakti tradition and heterogeneity is noticed even among the Bhakti movements which flourished in medieval India, where each had its own regional identity and socio-historical and cultural contexts.
It is important to note that Bhakti in north India did not arise as the counterattack of Buddhism or Jainism like south Indian Bhakti movement. In north India Buddhism and Jainism lost its eminent position much earlier but the rise of Brahmanical rigidities surged the rise of
Bhakti in northern India. Earlier, the socio-political and religious authority in north India was mostly in the hands of Rajputs and Brahmans. After the Turkish conquest, the Brahmans had lost their power, prestige and wealth following the defeat of the Rajput rulers and hence broke the dominant “Rajput-Brahman Alliance”. As a result, movements such as the Nath Panthi
Movement challenging the caste system and the superiority of the Brahmans gained popularity.
These coincided with the Islamic ideas of equality and brotherhood preached by the Sufi saints and people were no longer satisfied with a religion that emphasized only on rituals and ceremonies, rather wanted a religion which could satisfy their reason and emotion. These
circumstances helped to popularize Bhakti movement in India during the 15th and 16th centuries. It has also been argued that Bhakti was a “defense mechanism”, to save Hindu society from the threat of posed to it by the Turkish rulers and the Islamic ideology. Thus, “the seeds scattered by” the Bhakti saints “fell on fertile soil”, since the medieval period had already made ground for a philosophical and religious revolution.
It has been suggested that the Bhakti movements of medieval India represented sentiments of the common people against feudal oppression. Therefore often these medieval Bhakti movements are considered as Indian counterpart of the Protestant Reformation in
Europe. However, we find nothing in the verses of the Bhakti saints to suggest that they represented the class interests of the peasants against the feudal state. The Vaishnava Bhakti sects were against the Brahmanical orthodoxies, but they never opposed the whole social or
religious system. Similarly, the Bhakti movement leaders did not give any alternative economic plan of living to the lower sect of the society, but they always tried to identify and associate themselves with the sufferings of the common and distressed people. Thus, the Bhakti movement cannot be regarded as Indian variant of European Protestant Reformation. But it should be remembered that the economic extraction and social exploitation of the Turkish rulers spread the
Bhakti movement rapidly among the artisans and peasant class of the 13th and 14th centuries.
The extraction of large agricultural surplus leading to enormous concentration of resources in the hands of the ruling class and the rise of demands of this class for manufactured goods and other necessaries leading to the introduction of many new techniques and crafts on a large scale, in turn led to the expansion of the class of urban artisans in the 13th and 14th centuries. The growing classes of urban artisans were attracted towards the monotheistic movement because of its egalitarian ideas since they were now dissatisfied with the low status accorded to them in traditional Brahmanical hierarchy. It has been suggested that some group of traders like the Khatris in the Punjab, who benefited directly from the growth of towns, urban
crafts production and expansion of markets, were also drawn into the movement for the same reason. Thus it can be said that “the popularity of the monotheistic movement was the result of the support it obtained from one or more of these different classes of the society.”
Among the saints who carried the message of Bhakti, Kabir and Nanak made a strong influence on people. Kabir belonged to a family of weavers (Julaha) who were indigenous converts to Islam. He spent greater part of his life in Banaras (Kashi). Kabir was strongly
influenced by Nath Panthis. He came in touch with both Hindu saints and Sufis and believed in human equality and unity of being. His verses were included in the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth in large numbers than those of other monotheists. Kabir’s poems were in vernacular
Hindi and they were transmitted by his followers. These poems are popularly known as Kabir’s Doha. Raidas (or Ravidas) most probably belonged to the generation next to Kabir’s and was a tanner by caste. He too lived in Banaras and was influenced by Kabir’s ideas. Another Bhakti saint was Dhanna, a 15th century Jat peasant from Rajasthan. Some other prominent saints of the same period were Sen (a barber) and Pipa. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) preached his ideas much in the same way as Kabir and other monotheists, but due to various developments later his teachings led to the emergence of a mass religion called Sikhism. “The basic similarity of his teachings with those of Kabir and other saints and the basic ideological agreement between them makes him an integral part of the monotheistic movement.” In his later life he travelled widely to preach his ideas and eventually settled in a place in Punjab now known as Dera Baba Nanak, where he attracted a large number of disciples.
Bhakti movement will remain incomplete without the mentioning of Sri Chaitanya and Mirabai. Chaitanya popularized Vaishnava Bhakti movement with his unconditional love and devotion to Krishna in Bengal, Orissa and other parts of India. Mirabai inspired many women of that period with her love and devotion to lord Krishna. The most significant feature of Bhakti
movement was that it was a monotheist movement in its nature, but was influenced by many other religious ideas specially Vaishnava, Nathpanthi and Sufism. It is important to state that Bhakti saints were very much connected with Sufism and their ideology of devotion and worship. It is evident that Sufi saints focused on the humanity and unconditional love, devotion towards god, their monotheist philosophy and unity of being’s ideology had thus influenced many Bhakti saints like Kabir, Nanak.
The teachings of all the saints associated with the monotheistic movement have certain common features giving the movement its basic unity. Most of the monotheists belonged to the low castes and were well aware about the existence of a unity of ideas among themselves and each other’s teachings and influences. “In their verses they mention each other and their
predecessors in such a way as to suggest a harmonious ideological affinity among them.” They believed that there was only one way of establishing union with God, and that was the way of personally experienced Bhakti. This was also the way of the Vaishnava Bhakti saints, but there was one fundamental difference that they all have been called monotheists because they uncompromisingly believed in one God. God of Nanak was non-incarnate and formless (nirankar), eternal (akal) and ineffable (alakh). The monotheistic Bhakti was nirguna Bhakti and not saguna like that of the Vaishnavites who rather believed in various human incarnations of God. It can be said that the monotheists adopted the notion of Bhakti from the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition but gave it a nirguna orientation. The monotheists followed a path which didn’t depend on both the dominant religions – Hinduism and Islam rather denied their allegiance to
either of them and criticized the superstitions and orthodox elements of both the religions. Some other features are that they preached in vernacular languages and travelled widely to propagate.
The discussion of Bhakti would be incomplete without mentioning its connection with Sufism. A prominent example of this argument is Nanak’s introduction of ‘langar’ or ‘free kitchen’ where irrespective of gender and caste people used to eat and serve food together. Sufis always emphasized on prayers through music or ‘sama’ and Sri Chaitanya also worshipped Krishna through ‘kirtan’. These similarities are important to understand the characteristics of Bhakti movement. Bhakti not only united people by its philosophy but also through regional languages. In south India Bhakti saints used Tamil instead of Sanskrit. Mirabai wrote her bhajans in Brajabuli language, Hindi literature also flourished during this period. Many books were written in Bengali about Chaitanya which enriched Bengali literature.
In order to conclude we can say that Bhakti helped to reduce social and religious discrimination among people and showed them the path of love and brotherhood. Their simple philosophy of worshipping God without grandeur rituals opened a new religious path to distraught people of the society. Bhakti connected people through the philosophy of monotheism, brotherhood and humanity and revived Hinduism from the hands of orthodox Brahmans giving it a new spirit and essence. The spirit of mutual understanding and toleration developed due to the
Bhakti movement reflected in literature, music, arts and spiritual life. Bhakti had some limitations too. For example, the Brahmin successors of Tulsidas mainly stressed the traditional and ritualistic aspects of his teachings and suppressed the humanistic view which confirms the fact that Bhakti movements were not always successful in challenging the Brahmana monopoly over knowledge. Though Bhakti had some limitations, still it engaged people to the path of
peaceful coexistence. Like Sufism, Bhakti taught people humanity is the moral of all religions and worship comes from pureness of soul, love and devotion towards the Supreme Being.