Bhakti in Hinduism - God's Otherness & Path to Salvation

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Bhakti movement 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 Movement in Medieval India (Social and Political Perspectives)

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.

Roots for the Origin of Bhakti Movement:

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.

Radha Krishna Bless Chaitanya and Nityananda Mahaprabhu

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 of time.

संत पीपाजी एवं भक्ति आंदोलन - Saint Pipaji and Bhakti Movement

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.

In Union with Krishna

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,

“Hinduism, therefore, 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.

भक्ति आंदोलन और भक्ति काव्य: Bhakti Movement and Bhakti Kavya

Influence of Sufism:

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 popular.

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.

Trends of Change in The Bhakti Movement in Bengal

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.

Shri Krishna Bhakti Songs Even Enchant Violent Animals

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.

Medieval Bhakti Movements in India (Sri Caitanya (Chaitanya) Quincentenary Commemoration Volume)

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 preachers.

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 tremendous success.

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 philosophy.

The major similarities and common ideas:

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 worship God.

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 treated equally.

Mirabai and Krishna

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.

With the 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.

Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective A study in the history of Ideas

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.

Brihat Sri Sri Chaitanya Bhagwat (Bengali)

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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