Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bhakti Movement

The word “Bhakti” is derived from Sanskrit language, Bhaj, means devotion, intense personal attachment to God; in Hindu philosophy and thought, Bhakti is one of the ways to reach God; also the name of an important religious and social movement in medieval India that propagated Bhakti. Some time in medieval India, a religious movement broke out that emphasized on the devotion to God, as sole means of salvation, collectively known as the Bhakti Movement.

At the time of the arrival of the Musalmans in India, Hindu society, comprising the followers of Saivism, Vaishnavism and the cult of Sakti was divided between those who worshipped images, performed prescribed rites and offered sacrifices, and intellectuals, who had no faith in path of action (Karma-marga). To them, attainment of salvation was possible only through the path of knowledge (Jnana-marga). It was in these circumstances that the movement of Bhakti, devotion blended with love of God, found a favorable atmosphere.

According to Barth and Senart, Bhakti is not at all specifically Semitic. It is a sentiment everywhere diffused. It came naturally in India when devotion turned to a single personal God. The traditions by which it is inspired belong to Aryan as much as to Semitic thought. After all, during the time of the arrival of Islam in India, as Yusuf Husain stated, “The religious point of view of the Hindus, though always based on old foundations, became considerably modified”. Although stress on Bhakti can be found in much earlier texts, such as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Bhagavat Gita, it seems that the Bhakti propounded in these texts is radically different from the later developments. In both these texts, Bhakti is presented as a form of yoga, in which one contemplates God as part of a controlled and disciplined practice.

Yusuf Husain divided the movement of Bhakti into two periods. The first was from the time of the Bhagavat Gita to the thirteenth century, the time when Islam penetrated into the interior of India. The second period extends from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth century, an epoch of profound intellectual fermentation, the result of the contact between Islam and Hinduism.

Bhakti movement left very profound impact on the life and culture of Indians in the subsequent centuries. Numerous religions like Sikhism, and cults like Vaishnvism born then are alive today. The following are some of the important saints and teachers of the Bhakti movement.

Ramanuja. He gave a philosophic basis to the teachings of Vaisnavism. He wrote commentaries on Brahmasutras, Bhagavat Gita, and the Upanishad, expounded Visishtadvaita or qualified monism and established the Unity of God, possessing attributes. Being an orthodox Hindu, he performs all the rites enjoined and never preached any heterodox doctrine, implying disavowal of the authority of the Vedas and of Brahmanic traditions. The important thing to him is meditation on God.

His followers very scrupulously observed the rites of the past and the rule of the caste. His teachings confined to the higher section of Hindu society. The Sudras had no access to their order. Only the Brahmin could be initiated.

Basava. He is the saint of Karnataka, preached equality to all and taught the way to reach God through one’s vocation. His followers constitute the Lingayat or the Veerashaiva cult. His poems were known as the Vachanas, which preached devotion to lord Shiva as the means of salvation.

Madhva(1238-1319). He broke completely with the Upanishadic doctrine of unity of God and the human soul. He taught “Dvaita” dualism.

Ramananda(1400-1470 AD). He was a disciple of Ramanuja. He worshipped lord Rama and taught perfect love for God and human brotherhood. He founded his school and renounced the rigidity of Hindu rituals. His disciples adopted the name of Avadhutas, the detached, for they regarded themselves as free from all sorts of religious and social customs.

But Ramananda did not go far enough. Though he taught human brotherhood whatever their religion and caste might be, but he was not prepared to make a complete departure from the past traditions, for he did not recognize the right of a Sudra to read the Vedas. He did not go for social equality. He enjoined strict segregation and perfect privacy in the matter of food. Among his dozen disciples there were a Muslim weaver, Kabir, a currier and a barber.

Kabir (1440-1518 AD). A disciple of Ramananda, believed in formless God. He was the first to reconcile Hinduism and Islam. He preached a religious system strictly monotheistic, taught the absolute abolition of the caste, and cast doubt upon the authority of the Vedas and other sacred books. The followers of this school were heretics. Not believing in religious authority. It sought to understand Islam and even to establish a syncretic system appropriate to the life of the people of India.

Although brought up in a Muslim family, Kabir found the means to initiate himself into the sacred texts of the Hindus. He appears to have been influenced by Gosain Ashtananda, a Hindu saint of Benaras. Later he became the disciple of Ramananda. He continued the practice of Bhakti towards Rama, whom he did not consider to be different from Allah of the Muslims. He adored Him as the Supreme Being, the savior of the world and the personification of all goodness. He had no desire to attach himself to any organized religion, nor did he try to make any new religion or philosophical system. All he did was to popularize the ideas of Bhakti, as summarized in the “Bijak”, the book, which holds authority on all that concerns Kabir.

Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1538 AD). He was the founder of Sikhism. He worshiped one God, preached against idol worship and caste system and denied the Hindu rites. The teaching of Guru Nanak was inspired by Kabirpanthis and Muslim saints. The “Janam Sakhi”, Nanak’s book, contains the account of many interviews he had had with the Sufis of his time; among them were Shah Bu Ali Qalandar of Panipat, Sheikh Ibrahim and Mian Mitha.

Nanak believed in God as the omnipotent reality, but maintained that the human could attain union with God through love and devotion and not by knowledge of ceremonial observance. He taught the oneness of God and brotherhood of man, and considered ritual as useless.

The sacred book of the Sikhs, the followers of Guru Nanak is the “Adi Granth”, in which “Janam Sakhi” forms the part of it. Adi Granth was compiled at the time of Guru Arjun, fifty years after the death of Guru Nanak. Afterwards, Guru Tegh Bahadur incorporated the writings of the Gurus before himself to Adi Granth and formed the “Guru Granth Sahib”. The later Sikhs behave with the Guru Granth as a lived Guru.

Dadu Dayal (1544-1603 AD). He was a disciple of Kabir, who supports Hindu-Muslim unity. His followers were known as Dadu Panthis.

Chaitanya was a devotee of lord Krishna, the founder of Vaishnavism in Bengal and popularized Kirtan.

Mirabai was a devotee of lord Krishna, composed a number of songs and poems in honor of Krishna.

Tulsidas depicted Rama as the incarnation. He wrote “Ramcharitmanas”.

Tukaram was a devotee of Vithal, founded the Varhan sect. His teachings are contained in Abhangas. He was a contemporary of Maratha king Shivaji.

Ram Das is the author of “Dasabodh”. His teachings inspired Shivaji to establish an independent kingdom in Maharashtra.


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    Interesting analysis of the Bhakti movement. One of the important effects of the Bhakti movement was the explosion of Philosophy and methods to look within than without. One of the great proponents of Advaita, Adi Shankara seems to have been left out in the list of the stalwarts of the Bhakti movement.

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