constitutes a very important chapter in the socio-cultural
history of India. The movement started in the 9th century A.D. by
Shankaracharya which continued up to 16th century A.D. by a number of Hindu
devotees, preachers and religious reformers. The word Bhakti is a very familiar
word in the Hindu religious system. It is derived from the Sanskrit root word
Bhaja whose literal meaning is ‘to utter’. But the inner significance of the
word Bhaja is ‘to adore’ or ‘to love with honour’. In the devotional literature
the word is used to mean ‘unquestionable faith and utter devotion to God’.
Thus, in a general sense Bhakti means devotion to God.
Bhakti is a Sanskrit
word that literally means "devotion" but it can be more specifically
thought of as one of the three Hindu paths to salvation. The concept of Bhakti
is an age-old one. Right from the time of the compilation of the Vedas, the
word Bhakti has come into vogue. In Rig Veda Samhita, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
Chhandyoga Upanishad, Katha and Kausitaki Upanishad, the word Bhakti has been
referred to several times. The Bhakti Yoga of Shrimad Bhagavad Gita is more
descriptive on this point. It prescribes Gnana (knowledge), Karma (action) and
Bhakti (devotion) as the three essential features to shatter the bondage of
material world and to serve the Almighty God. Thus Bhakti is one of the three
recognized means of achieving salvation.
The concept of Bhakti
was not a new one in the Indian tradition. It is as old as Hinduism itself. But
when we talk of Bhakti movement in the context of socio-religious background it
has a different connotation. Bhakti movement deals with the Indian
response to face a new challenge that appeared in the form of Islamic religion.
As a matter of fact, Bhakti movement was the direct outcome of the emergence of
Islam in India. The reasons for the birth and growth of this movement are
therefore not far to seek.
The genesis of the Bhakti movement lies in
the social evils prevalent in the-then Hindu society. During the time of Muslim
rule in India the Hindu society was full of many social anomalies like rigidity
of caste system, irrelevant rituals and religious practices, blind faiths and
social dogmas. The society also suffered from polytheism, segregation, severe
economic disparity due to casteism, untouchability etc.
The religion itself was
monopolized by the Brahmins who themselves led a degenerated and corrupt moral
life. Common men in general had developed an averse attitude towards these
social evils and were in need of a liberal form of religion where they could
identify themselves with simple religious practices. Therefore, popular
dissatisfaction against the existing social religious evils was a major
catalyst behind the spread of Bhakti movement all over India for a long period
In the ancient period Hinduism
had to face challenges from new religions like Buddhism and Jainism. Even some of
the prominent rulers of India became ardent followers of these religions. They
not only patronized these new religions but also extended whole-hearted support
to the spread of these religions. But in due course of time both these
religions lost much of their vitality due to the tolerant and liberal outlook
of Hinduism. Even Lord Buddha came to be regarded as the ninth incarnation of
Lord Krishna in the Hindu pantheon.
However, the case of
Islam was totally different. The Muslims first arrived in India in the 8th
century AD. Subsequently by the beginning of the 13th century AD they began to
rule over the destiny of the Indians. So it became the religion of the ruling
community. This religion had its own individual characteristics like universal
brotherhood, equality of all in the society, absence of any caste system or
untouchability, opposition to idol worship and above all, practice of
monotheism or oneness of God.
Among all these,
absolute monotheism or equality of all men greatly appealed to the Hindus,
especially the Sudras who were the worst sufferers and had no religious
freedom. These Islamic ideas threw a powerful challenge to the existing corrupt
aspect of Hinduism and the accompanying social evils.
After living together
for generations and continuous interaction between the people of two
communities there grew a feeling of magnanimity and generosity among the Hindus
and Muslims. Both consciously and unconsciously the ideals of Islam produced a
benevolent effect upon the minds of a section of Hindus and fostered the growth
of a liberal attitude. Giving up their mutual suspicion, hatred and rivalry a
new bond of unity and fraternity began to emerge. There was an absolute need to
change the existing system as well as bring radical changes in the fabric of
Hindu beliefs. Prof Srivastav remarks,
tried to defend itself by purging off some of its evil practices particularly
those related to regions of caste and image worship.” Thus, Hinduism needed
purification. The Bhakti movement aimed at the purification of Hindu religion
and liberation of the people from the monopoly and injustices of the priestly classes.
The influence of Sufism
cannot be set aside from the origin of Bhakti movement in India. Sufism is an
old religious sect of Islam. It is a reform movement within the Islamic
religion which started in Persia. It came to India towards the beginning of the
13th century A.D. and with the rise of the Muslim power Sufism became more
The term Sufi has come
from the word Safa meaning pure which implies purity of thought and action. In
the words of Sheikh- al-Islam Zakariyah Ansari, “Sufism teaches how to purify
one’s self, improve one’s morals and build up one’s inner and outer life in
order to attain perpetual bliss.” Thus, according to Sufists, self-purification
is the best way to attain eternal bliss.
Prominent Sufists like
Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya and Naseeruddin
Chirag fostered a spirit of reconciliation among the Hindus and Muslims in the
medieval society. The Hindu saints of India were influenced by the liberal
approach of Sufism.
The high philosophy of
the Vedas and Upanishads were very complicated for the common people. They
wanted a simple way of worship, simple religious practices and simple social
customs. The paths of Gnana marga and Karma marga were difficult for them to
practise in day-to-day life. So, the next alternative was Bhakti marga—a simple
way of devotion to get salvation from worldly life.
In the words of Srivastav,
“The Bhakti movement
received its impetus from the presence of iconoclastic Muslim preachers who
stressed upon the unity of God, vehemently criticized the Hindu religion and
thought and attempted to convert Hindus to their religion by resorting to all
kinds of means.” That is why Bhakti movement has often been presented as a
Hindu response to the egalitarian message of Islam and its spread among the
lower classes of Hindu society.
It was a challenge to
the Hindu religious leaders. They, therefore, felt the urgent necessity of
making the dormant Hinduism more active and a living force among the common
masses. Put differently, Bhakti movement was a reply to Islam’s monotheism and
egalitarianism by way of a new interpretation of Hinduism. The medieval period
witnessed many revivalist movements in Hinduism under different sages and
saints. They were based on Bhakti which was the outcome of the feeling of
escapism which dominated the Hindu mind as a result of the conquest of its
sacred places in Islam.
The Bhakti movement
started in the South in response to the conquest of northern India by Muslim
rulers. From 8th century A.D. to 15th century A.D. this movement gathered its
momentum in the south. The earliest reformer-saint in South was Adi Shankaracharya
who had a unique success. Further, the movement was carried forward by twelve
Alwar saints and sixty three Nayanar saints of the South. It is to be noted
that Southern Vaishnavite saints are called Alwars and the Saivite saints are
called Nayanars. In course of time the saints of Northern India got themselves
involved in this Bhakti movement.
The period witnessed
the emergence of a number of saints and reformers who tried to purge Hinduism
of its evils and blind practices. The chief exponents of the movement were
Shankara, Ramanuja, Kabir, Nanak, Shri Chaitanya, Mirabai, Ramananda, Namdev,
Nimbarka, Madhava, Eknath, Surdas, Tulsidas, Tukaram, Vallabhacharya and
Chandidas. They were the propounders of Bhakti movement who made Bhakti their
principal theme and gave a call to the people to worship in the simplest
possible way of devotion andlove.
Besides, the fifteenth
century is generally regarded as the century of tolerance. The character of the
age revealed itself for the growth of Bhakti movement. It gave a new dimension,
a sense of harmony and a spirit of liberalism to religious belief of the
people. The spirit of synthesis manifested itself in the teachings of the
Though the movement
originated in the South, very soon North India came under its spell. Its real
impact was felt when prominent saints like Kabir, Nanak and Shri Chaitanya
spread the ideas of fraternity, equality and love inherent in both the
religions. Due to this synthesising attitude Bhakti movement attained
Although the preachers of the
movement were from different parts of India, spoke different languages and
presented different sermons there was a marked similarity in their thoughts and
1. Bhakti movement
centred round monotheism or the worship of one God. To them Ram and Rahim,
Ishwar and Allah were but different names of one God that is the Supreme Being.
In other words, they emphasized upon the unity of Godhead.
2. The other prominent
feature of Bhakti movement was its emphasis on Bhakti or devotion to God as the
only means to achieve salvation. With supreme devotion to the Almighty one
could realize Him. Thus, Bhakti was superior to Gnana or knowledge and Karma,
or Action. No other formalities like ceremonies or rituals were required to
3. Bhakti movement
advocated the need of a preceptor or guru who would guide the devotee to this
ultimate goal. A true guru was the main source to attain God. He alone could
show the path of light to reach the proper destination. A guru could lead the
devotee from the material world to the spiritual world.
4. Equality of men or
universal brotherhood was another cardinal philosophy of the Bhakti cult. As a
matter of fact Bhakti movement had raised its voice against racial
discrimination, caste hierarchy and such social differentiations. It was
believed that all creations of God were equal and hence, all men should be
5. The Bhakti saints
strongly denounce image-worship of the Hindus. They condemned ritualism, false
practices, blind faiths and dogmas. To them, rituals and sacrifices were
meaningless. They believed in a formless and shapeless God which was the
Supreme power. Anybody, irrespective of caste, colour and creed, could reach Him
and realize Him through the simple method of selfless devotion.
6. As Bhakti movement
stressed upon Bhakti or a passionate feeling of love for God, purification of
the self was very essential for them. This purification could be achieved
through a high standard of morality in one’s thought and action. Positive
principles of truthfulness, non-violence, harmony, morality and humanistic
values were their creed and motto.
7. The attitude of
self-surrender constituted another important tenet of the movement. Formalities
or external rituals were of no avail to realize God. Observing fasts, going on
pilgrimages, reading namaz or worshipping deities were totally useless if they
were not done with purity of thought or a sense of surrender to God. Complete
surrender alone leads to salvation.
above-mentioned characteristics Bhakti movement began a new chapter
in the Indian society. The founder of this movement was a Keralite Brahmin
named Shankaracharya who started it in the 9th century A.D. Gradually it spread
to various parts of the country. By the 15th century A.D. it was a prominent
movement to reckon with both socially and culturally and left a lasting
influence on the people.
Three most prominent
propounders of this movement were Santh Kabir, Guru Nanak and Shri Chaitanva.
Bhakti movement that originally began in
South India in the 9th century with Shankaracharya spread over all
parts of India and by the 16th century was a great spiritual force to reckon
with, especially after the great wave made by Kabir, Nanak and Shri Chaitanya.
M.G. Ranade, in his book, The Rise of Maratha Power, sums up the deep impact of
this spiritual awakening.
“The main results of
Bhakti movement were the development of vernacular literature, modification of
caste exclusiveness, sanctification of family life, elevation of status of
women, preaching of humaneness and tolerance, partial reconciliation with
Islam, subordination of rites and ceremonies, pilgrimages, fasts etc, learning
and contemplation to worship God with love and faith, the limitation of excess
of polytheism and the uplift of the nation to a higher level of capacity both
of thought and action.”
To be specific, the
impact of Bhakti movement was felt in all spheres of Hinduism. It reformed the
religion to a great extent. The evils of caste system, the unnecessary
ritualism and Brahmanical orthodoxy of Hinduism received a setback due to the
powerful voices of eminent socio-religious reformers during the movement.
Following are the major
changes that took place during and after the Bhakti movement:
1. The Bhakti exponents
raised their powerful voice against different types of immoral acts like
infanticide and sati and encouraged prohibition of wine, tobacco and toddy.
Adultery and sodomy were also discouraged. They aimed to set up a good social
order upholding high moral values.
2. Another remarkable
impact was bringing about a unity among the Hindu and Muslim communities. The
movement tried to reduce the growing bitterness between the two and bridge the
gap. The saints of Bhakti movement and the Sufi saints spread message of
friendship, amity, tolerance, peace and equality among all.
3. The method of
worship and belief in God took a new turn during the movement. Hence forth,
importance was given to devotion and love for God who is the God of all-God of
both Hindus as well as Muslims. Bhakti or devotion for the Almighty was the
central theme of this movement.
4. The spirit of
tolerance, harmony and mutual respect which was inaugurated by the Bhakti
saints had another everlasting impact – the emergence of a new cult of worship
by both Hindus and Muslims. It is known as the cult of Satyapir. It started
under the initiative of King Husain Shah of Jaunpur which later paved the way
for the spirit of liberalism adopted by Akbar.
5. The Bhakti movement
promoted the growth of vernacular language and literature in different parts of
the country. Kabir Nanak and Chaitanya preached in their respective vernacular
tongues – Kabir in Hindi, Nanak in Gurmukhi and Chaitanya in Bengali. So subsequent
Bhakti literatures were compiled in these languages and many Muslim writers
also translated Sanskrit works into regional languages.
6. In Orissa, a new
trend was started in Oriya literature due to the Bhakti movement and medieval
Vaishnavism of Shri Chaitanya. Five writers of repute – Achyuta, Balaram,
Jagannath, Yasobanta and Ananta – heralded the age of Panchasakha literature,
known for its socio-religious exposition of Bhakti.
With such long-lasting
impacts, the religious depression of the medieval society was set aside. The
teachings acted as a healing balm to the suppressed classes. A deep-rooted
change came about to lay the foundations of a liberal and composite Indian
society. Bhakti was not only important in the development of Hinduism, but
provided an accessible avenue by which to obtain salvation. Love and devotion
are natural human emotions — Bhakti seeks to channel these emotions to God
through the worship of a particular incarnate form of God.
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