The Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti Movement

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.

Monotheistic Bhakti

Kabir (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.

  The importance 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 and ineffable.

  The Bhakti 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.

  They composed 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.

Vaishnava Bhakti

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”.