The Bhakti movement in Indian history represents a
movement that popularized de- votional surrender to a personally conceived
supreme God. Its origins are traced to the Brahamanical and Buddhist traditions
of ancient India. It was in south India that it grew from a religious tradition
into a popular movement based on religious equality and broad based social
participation. The movement led by popular saints reached its climax in the
10th century A.D. In its attempt to embrace the concept of bhakti the movement
in different regions drew from diverse traditions and assumed different forms
in different parts of the sub continent.
The bhakti movement attempted to break away from
orthodox Brahmanism. The movement gathered momentum in the early medieval
period. Historians have attempted to associate the origins of the bhakti
movement in India with the advent of Islam and the spread of Sufism. They argue
that the Turkish conquest paved the way for a reaction against the conformist
Rajput-Brahman domination. The rise of bhakti move- ment is considered by some
scholars as a reaction against feudal oppression. The anti feudal tone in the
poetry of bhakti saints like Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya and Tulsidas are seen as
illustrations of this point. There is no single opinion about the origins of
the bhakti movement that can be sustained. It is clear from the poetry and the
philosophy of the bhakti saints that they broke away from orthodox Brahmanism.
They believed in religious equality and identified themselves with the
sufferings of the common people.
Some scholars feel that the socio economic changes in
the early medieval period provide the necessary backdrop to understand the
emergence of the Bhakti move- ment. During the 13th and 14th centuries the
demand for manufactured goods, luxuries and other artisanal goods increased
leading to a movement of artisans into the cities. The artisans were attracted
to bhakti because of its ideas of equality. These groups were dissatisfied with
the low status accorded to them by Brahmanical system. The movement gained
support from these classes of society. There were also a few varia- tions in
places like Punjab where not only Khatris but Jat peasants as were also
attracted to this movement.
The bhakti movement in the early medieval period
represents an important movement of reform and change. After the rise of
heterodox movements of the 6th century BC the bhakti movement represents
another phase of Indian history in which new ideas and practices emerged
influencing the country as a whole initiating reform movements.
The Bhakti movement in north India
The bhakti movement in the north included socio
religious movements that were linked to one of the acharyas from the south and
is sometimes seen as a continuation of the move- ment that originated in the
south. Though there were similarities in the traditions of the two regions, the
notion of bhakti varied in the teachings of each of the saints. The Nirguna
Bhaktas like Kabir rejected the varnaashrama and all conventions based on caste
distinc- tion and championed new values, helping the emergence of new groups
and new unortho- dox/protestant sects. The Saguna Bhaktas like Tulsidas on the
other hand upheld the caste system and the supremacy of the Brahmins. They
preached religion of surrender and simple faith in a personal god and had a
strong commitment to idol worship.
(c.1440–1518 A.D.) was the earliest and most influential
Bhakti saint in north India. He was a weaver. He spent a large part of his life
in Banaras. His poems were included in the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth.
Among those who were influenced by Kabir were Raidas, who was a tanner by caste
from Banaras, Guru Nanak who was a Khatri from Punjab and Dhanna who was a Jat
peasant from Rajasthan.
There are similarities in the teachings of the various
monotheistic Bhakti saints in North India.
Most of the
monotheists belonged to the low castes and were aware that there existed a
unity in their ideas. They were also aware of each other’s teachings
and influence. In their verses they mention each other and their predecessors
in a manner suggesting ideological affinity among them.
All of them
were influenced by the Vaishnava concept of Bhakti, the Nathpanthi movement and
Sufism. Their ideas seem to be a synthesis of the three traditions.
given to the personal experience of Bhakti saint with God was another common
feature among the monotheistic bhakti saints. Nirguna bhakti and not saguna
bhakti was what they believed in. They had adopted the notion of bhakti from
vaishnavaism but they gave it a nirguna orientation. Though they called God
using different names and titles their God was non-incarnate, formless, eternal
saints refused any formal association with the organized dominant religions of
the time (Hinduism and Islam) and criticized what they regarded to be the
negative aspects of these religions. They rejected the authority of the
Brahmans and attacked the caste system and practice of idolatry.
their poems in popular languages and dialects spoken across north India. This
enabled them to transmit their ideas among the masses. It helped their ideas to
spread rapidly among the various lower classes.
In the 14th and early 15th centuries Ramananda emerged
as a popular vaishnava bhakti saint in north India. Though he was from the
south he lived in Banaras because he considered it to be the link between the
South Indian bhakti and North Indian vaishnava bhakti traditions. He looked
upon Ram and not Vishnu as the object of bhakti. He worshiped Ram and Sita and
came to be identified as the founder of the Ram cult in north India. He like
the monotheist bhakti saints also rejected cast hierarchies and preached in the
local languages in his attempt to popularize the cult. His followers are called
Ramanandis. Tulsidas also championed the bhakti cause. In the early 16 century
Vallabacharya, a popular bhakti saint popularized the Krishna bhakti. Among
those who followed in his footsteps were Surdas (1483–1563) and Mira Bai (1503–1573).
The vaishnava bhakti movement in Bengal was very
different form its counterparts in north India and the south. It was influenced
by the vaishnava bhakti tradition of the Bhagavata purana and the Sahajiya
Buddhist and Nathpanthi traditions. These tradi- tions focused on esoteric and
emotional aspects of devotion. In the 12th century, Jayadeva was an important
bhakti saint in this tradition. He highlighted the mystical dimension of love
with reference to Krishna and Radha. Chaitanya was a popular bhakti saint from
the region; he was looked upon as an avatara of Krishna. Though, he did not
question the authority of the Brahmans and the scriptures. He also popular-
ized the sankirtan (group devotional songs accompanied with ecstatic dancing).
With him the bhakti movement in Bengal began to develop into a reform movement
with the notions of caste divisions that came to be questioned.
In Maharashtra the bhakti movement drew its
inspiration from the Bhagavata purana and the Siva Nathpanthis. Jnaneswar was a
pioneer bhakti saint of Maharashtra. His commentary on the Bhagavad Gita called
Jnanesvari served as a foundation of the bhakti ideology in Maharashtra.
Arguing against caste distinctions he believed that the only way to attain God
was through Bhakti. Vithoba was the God of this sect and its followers
performed a pilgrimage to the temple twice a year. The Vithoba of Pandarpur
became the mainstay of the movement in Maharashtra. Namdev (1270–1350) was
another important bhakti saint from Maharashtra. While he is remembered in the
north Indian monotheistic tradition as a nirguna saint, in Maharashtra he is
considered to be part of the varkari tradition (the vaishnava devotional
tradition). Some of the other important bhakti saints of Maharashtra were the
saints Choka, Sonara, Tukaram and Eknath. Tukaram’s teachings are in the form of the
Avangas (dohas), which constitute the Gatha, while Eknath’s teachings
that were in Marathi attempted to shift the empha- sis of Marathi literature
from spiritual to narrative compositions.
The teachings and philosophy of Guru Nanak form an
important part of Indian philo- sophical thought. His philosophy consists of
three basic elements: a leading charis- matic personality (the Guru), ideology
(Shabad) and Organization (Sangat). Nanak evaluated and criticized the
prevailing religious beliefs and attempted to establish a true religion, which
could lead to salvation. He repudiated idol worship and did not favour
pilgrimage nor accept the theory of incarnation. He condemned formalism and
ritualism. He laid emphasis on having a true Guru for revelation. He advised
people to follow the principles of conduct and worship: sach (truth), halal
(lawful earning), khair (wishing well of others), niyat (right intention) and
service to the lord. He denounced the caste system and the inequality it
caused. He argued that the caste and honour should be judged by the acts or the
deeds of individuals. He laid stress on con- cepts of justice, righteousness
and liberty. His verses mainly consist of two basic con- cepts, Sach (truth)
and Nam (name). The bases of the divine expression for him were formed by, the
Sabad (the word), Guru (the divine precept) and Hukam (the divine order). He
introduced the concept of Langar (a community kitchen). Guru Nanak iden- tifies
himself with the people or the ruled. Though the Sikh guru’s stressed on
equality the social differentiation among the followers continued. It was only
towards the end of the 17th century that Guru Gobind Singh reasserted the idea
of equality. In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh attempted to resolve the differences
among the various Sikh groups and created the Khalsa. This institution removed
the masands as intermediaries. Thereafter every Sikh was to have a direct link
with the Guru. To create a sense of unity among the Sikhs the Guru started some
practices which were to be followed by Sikhs. These were initiation through the
baptism of the double edged sword, wearing uncut hair, carrying arms, adopting
the epithet Singh as part of the name.
The idea of Guru Panth was another institutional idea
that emerged during this period. It sanctified the collective authority of the
Khalsa Panth, which equated the Panth with the Guru. Guru Nanak in his last
days had nominated a successor and paid homage to him, this gave rise to the
idea that the Guru and the Sikh were interchange- able. This created a problem
for the institution of the Sangat (that was a collective body of the Sikhs) in
which God was said to be present. When Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa he
chose the panj piyare (the five beloved) and requested them to administer the
pahul (amrit chakhha) to him. With this the difference between the Guru and the
Khalsa was symbolically removed. Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have said
that the Khalsa is his own roop (form).
Guru Nanak was from the Khatri mercantile caste
whereas his followers were mostly rural Jats. It was Guru Gobind Singh who
inaugurated the Khalsa among the Sikhs. Guru Arjan compiled the Guru Granth
Sahib. After the death of Guru Gobind Singh the tenth Guru the tradition of
guru ended. It was believed that the spirit of the guru did not pass onto any
successor but instead remained within “Shri Gurugranth Sahib”.