Bhakti Movement in India

Bhakti Movement in India

The essence of the Bhakti movement is the union of the human soul with supreme being through devotion. The Bhakti movement took off in southern India between the 7th and the 12th centuries A.D., nurtured by Saiva Nayanar and Vaishnava Alwar sects. It became a widespread movement in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

The Bhakti followers did not owe allegiance to any specific religion, did not adhere to rituals, customs, Sastric dictates and strongly opposed caste division and idol worship.

They believed in monotheism and felt that the almighty could be called by any name, and he was one, supreme and indivisible. They preached that Bhakti or devotion was the only way to attain god. They discarded all narrow and parochial sentiments, worked towards harmony among all human being and establishing equality between men and women. Naturally, both Hindus and Muslims could adopt these ideals.

Some Reformers and their preaching

Ramananda: Ramananda, a Brahmin, was at the forefront of the religious reformist Bhakti Movement. He lived from the second half of 14th century A.D. and to the first half of the 15th century A.D. A disciple of Ramanuja, the founder of Vaishnavism, he worshipped Ram and Sita but preached the oneness of God and the doctrine Bhakti for everyone, irrespective of caste and religion. He dismissed the caste system and untouchability, simplified rules of worship and made rigidity of the Varnashrama tradition milder. He preached in Hindi and greeted even the lower castes as disciples. Ravidas, a cobbler, Kabir, a Muslim weaver, Sona, a barber, and Sadhan, a butcher, were his disciples as were many women.

Kabir: Kabir was the most celebrated of Ramananda’s disciples and the most liberal among medieval Indian reformers. He was possibly a contemporary of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi (1489-1517). Greatly touched by the Hindu philosophy, Sufism and preaching of saints, he considered all religions as one and same and aimed at bringing about harmony among all communities. He believed true faith could be attained by purity and genuineness of spirit, and not by Shastric norms, rituals, religious rites, pilgrimages, rigid penance, scholarship or caste distinc¬tion. He revered both Allah and Ram and called all human beings children of the almighty. Kabir had both Hindu and Muslim disciples who were called the Kabir-panthis.

Dadu: Another forerunner of Hindu-Muslim amity, Dadu Dayal or Dadu (1544-1603), was a worshipper of Lord Ram. He was not for caste or class distinctions and his objective was establishing harmony among all faiths. He, too, attracted both Hindu and Muslim disciples.

Guru Nanak: The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469-1538), was one of the best preachers and reformers in medieval India. He was critical of idol worship, pilgrimages, caste differences and the ceremonial frills of religion. Nanak founded his faith on a ritual-free, simple “Sat Shri Akal” or the worship of God and truth. He felt that `naam’ or singing the praise of God, ‘daan’ or serving all creatures, and `Snan’ or purifying the body were the key to spiritual development. God is one and unique, says Sikhism. Both Hindus and Muslims accepted his ideals and came to be known as Sikhs. “Sikh” comes from Sanskrit “shishya” or disciple; his preaching is compiled in the sacred text of the Sikhs called the ‘Granthasahib’.

Sri Chaitanya: The best among the Bhakti proponents, Shri Chaitanya (1486-1533) was born to an aristocratic Brahmin family at Navadwip and was a highly esteemed scholar of grammar, nyaya and philosophy. He renounced family life at the age of 24 and committed himself to preaching the ideals of Vaishnavism — renunciation, pure love, bhakti and kindness towards all creatures. He refused to accept the caste-riddled customs and the domination of Brahmins, devoting himself to preaching the religion of love for mankind. For this purpose, he travelled widely in the north and south. His disciples came from all strata of society, including the King of Orissa, Prataprudradeva, Nityananda, Sribas, Jiva Goswami, Roop Goswami, Sanatan Goswami and Yavan Haridas. His words ushered a new awakening of spiritualism and enlightenment for the lower castes. His faith is known as the Goudiya Vaishnava religion.

Vallavacharya: The Vaishnava leader, Vallavacharya, extensively spread Vaishnavism and Shri Chaitanya Bhakti in south India. Caste distinction had no meaning to him and .he regarded all creatures as children of god. According to him, salvation could be attained by serving Shri Krishna and all creatures in this world.

Mirabai: Married into the Shishodiya Rajput family, Mirabai was another forerunner of the Bhakti movement in medieval India. She was the daughter-in-law of Rana Sanga of Mewar and was a great worshipper of Krishna right from her childhood. To serve her ideals, she left royal luxuries and spent her days among saints and monks at Mathura and Vrindavan. She believed man could attain Krishna by sincere adoration and love, and her words spread far and wide in Rajputana. Mirabai was a wonderful singer and her emotions throbbed in the bhajanas she composed as prayers to Krishna. Mira’s bhajanas are still an invaluable treasure of Indian literature and music.

Namadeva: The Marathi reformer, Namadeva (1276-1350 A.D.), took upon himself the task of spreading Bhakti ideals in west India. His contribution in bringing Hindus and Muslims together was immense and his words swept across the whole of Maharashtra. He believed in monotheism and in Vishnu. Caste discrimination, religious rites and idol worship were discarded by him. He said salvation could come only by repeating the name of god and by pure Bhakti and there was no need to fast or practice penance or go on a pilgrimage.

Results and significance:

The Bhakti Movement left a deep impact on contemporary India as well as on subsequent times – on religion, society, cultural and political life of the country.

  1. It alleviated the long-standing Hindu-Muslim conflict and the two communities learnt to live in harmony.
  2. The Bhakti movement did away with caste and class distinctions in a big way and even the Varnashrama dharma somewhat lost its rigidity.
  3. The reformers were against the male-female distinction. Women freely attended religious congregations and it helped them to regain the social status.
  4. The preachers always chose to speak in local languages, thus encouraging their acceptance by all. Their preaching led to the development of local languages. The Padavalis of Namadeva and Eknath laid the foundation of the Marathi literature. Kabir enriched the Hindi language with his dohas and Nanak did the same to the Punjabi language and the Gurumukhi script by his religious advices. The Vaishnava poet of Bengal led the Bengali language towards new directions.

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