The Bhakti Movement stresses the mystical union of the individual with God had been in operation in India long before the arrival of the terms “Early Medieval Period”.

The first challenge faced by orthodox Hinduism came from the simple teachings of the Jains and Buddhist philosophies. Besides, with the advent of Islam, Hinduism had to brace itself up against a new challenge.

The complexities that had set into Hinduism were the results of dogmatic teachings that had led to spiritual stagnation causing it to lose its simplicity.

Thus, when Hinduism came into contact with the simple teachings of Islam and with its emphasis on monotheism, the former was naturally challenged and a religious revival.

What is Bhakti?

The term Bhakti denotes devotion to God and the Bhakti Marga or the path of devotion. It represents a way of worship that establishes a clean and pure relationship between God and his devotees. In this state of being the devotee becomes unaware of his own sense of self and struggles to emerge into that of the Supreme Being through pure love and devotion in thoughts and actions.

The Ideology of Bhakti

History has only shown the great influence of religion on human life. The tracing of historical origin and development of religions in India provides us an understanding of the evolution of the human mind.

An analysis of Indian history explains the fact that in many phases of history, religious thoughts and activities have been loosely linked with political, socio-economic, and cultural factors.

With the arrival of Muslims in India came a new religious and social idea as well before Islam people of numerous faiths such as Greeks, the Sakas, Kushans, Huns and many other who initially came as a conqueror but were eventually absorbed or merged into the force of Indian tradition, culture and even religious philosophy. The experience was however difficult with the Muslims since the basic social and religious tenants of Islam differed considerably from those of Hinduism. Though the Muslim settlers retain their distinct socio-religious identity with time they also got observe with the general Indian socio structure except for a few pockets. India remained under Muslim domination for 800 years, i.e. from the end of the 10th century to the mid-19th century.

Interaction between the Muslims and the Hindus

During this period there was a lot of interaction between the Muslims and the Hindus. It is a historical fact that whenever two clashing civilization has come into contact with each other both have been mutually influenced. Medieval India was no exception to this historical fact when Hinduism and Islam came into contact with each other. Some of the essential tenets of Islam such as the brotherhood of men, social equality, and the belief in and complete surrender to one God made a deep impression in the minds of the Indian solid thinkers and reformers.

Likewise, the Hindu theory of Karma (the belief that good or bad actions carry their own rewards and punishment). The belief in deep devotion to matters of spirituality also influences the Islamic mind. This prolonged intercourse and amalgamation of such spiritual concepts were partly responsible for the growth of the Bhakti movement among the Hindus and the Sufi thoughts among the Muslims. However, though the Bhakti cult became popular in the 12th century in India. The hymns in the Vedas and the Upanishads emphasized an intimate relationship between the deity and the devotee.

Causes of the Rise and Spread of Bhakti Movement

There are various causes and rise in the Bhakti movement. They are:

Evils of Hinduism:

During medieval times before the spread of the Bhakti Movement, some evils had crept into the Hindu religion. Evils such as the caste system and untouchability were widespread. As a result,  the ideas of brotherhood and equality preached by the Islamic missionaries attract a number of people in India.

Hindu-Muslim Integration:

Another basic cause of the Bhakti movement was because there were a number of propagations who tries to bring unity in the two communities, i.e. Hindus and the Muslims. They preached that Rama and Rahim were one. They were also against fasting and the concept of pilgrimages.

A number of devotees saints such as Shankaracharya and Khuaja Muinuddin, Shishti, the reformers of the period preached on the concept of Bhakti. Similarly, other devotee saints such as Ramaniya, Ramananda, Chaitanya, Kabir, Guru Nanak, etc. also helped the growth of the movement by their preaching.

Salient Features of the Bhakti Movement:

Some essential features of the Bhakti movement are the followings:

Unity of God:

A majority of saint devotees stress the fact that God is one. They said we may give different titles but God is one. They said Ram, Rahim, Krishna, Vishnu, and Allah are the names of the same God.

The path of devotion:

The term Bhakti denotes devotion to God and the Bhakti Marga or the path of devotion represents a way of worship that establishes a clean and pure relationship between God and his devotee. By being in this state the devotee becomes oblivious of his own sense of self and struggle to merge into the Supreme Being through pure love and devotion in thought and action. Humility and modesty help the devotee in eliminating his ego, thereby leading his soul to salvation.

Emphasis on Religious Simplicity:

The Bhakti Movement also emphasis against religious superstition and orthodoxy. They stressed more on human qualities and moral characteristics. Besides, they said that a man whose mind is simple and pure is religious. They asked the people to imbibe qualities like honesty, truthfulness, justice, brotherhood, co-operation, and mercy.

Opposition to Idol Worship:

All the propagators of the Bhakti movement opposed idol worship. Even both Gurunanak and Kabir oppose idol worship and they openly proclaim against it.

Emphasis on the devotion to Guru:

Many of the propagators of the Bhakti movement like Ramaniya, Kabir, Nanak, and the Chaitanya stressed the grace of a Guru for the attainment of liberation. According to them, surrender before the Guru is the only easy method of attaining liberation. They believe without the grace of Guru, liberation is impossible.

The popularization of common languages:

The Bhakti Saints did not consider Sanskrit as the only superior language. Therefore they preached their views in the language of the common man. They believed that language is the only medium for the exchange of ideas. The simpler the language, the easier it was for the people to understand the ideas expressed.

Self-Sacrifice:

The majority of the Bhakti Saints emphasized that man should surrender completely before the Lord. The wishes of the Lord should be accepted as the Supreme fact. A man should be above anger, attachment, greed, vanity before starting the worship of God.

Humanitarian Attitude:

The Bhakti Saints believed in humanitarian and they considered all men as equal and opposed those who differentiated between men on the basis of birth, sex, caste, religion. Etc. Both Kabir and Gurunanak propagated all their life that all men are equal by birth and that people of all castes and communities are children of the same Lord. They also opposed practices like untouchability and the consideration of high and low on the basis of birth.

Harmonious attitude and social reforms:

Most of the Bhakti Saints tried to generate an atmosphere of goodwill between the Hindus and the Muslims. They also believe in social reforms and proclaims untouchability to be a crime against humanity and God. They also made efforts to reform the condition of women and they oppose practices like Sati, female infanticide, and slave system.

Popular Saint of Bhakti Movement/ Famous Saint of Medieval India

There are various Bhakti Saints who contribute to a vast extent in the process of the Bhakti Movement.

Bhakti Saints are as follows:

Kabir:

Kabir was a disciple of Ramananda and render great service to the spread of the Bhakti Movement in Northern India. Unfortunately, nothing very definite is obvious about the early life of Kabir. He lives either in the 14th Century or at the beginning of the 15th Century. It is said that he was born to a Hindu widow who abandon him by a tank in Banaras. He was eventually found and brought up by Niru, a Muslim weaver. He was the first Bhakti Sain who made an earnest effort to create a spirit of unity between the Hindus and the Muslims.

The Teachings of Kabir:

Kabir’s teachings are found in his Dohas or Couplets, which are sung with devotion throughout India to this day. He denounced the caste system and believed in the equality of all before God. He was against idol-worship and the Supremacy of the Brahmanas. Besides, he did not give any importance to the performance of rituals and ceremonies or to pilgrimages to holy places. Temples and other places of worship are not important to him and most importantly he was against hypocrisy.

Kabir tried to unite the Hindus and the Muslims; he did not show any reference to the teachings of either Islam or Hinduism. He praised what was good in the two religions. Besides, he asserted that Allah and Rama were names of one and the same God. To him, God can be found neither in the temples nor in the mosque, neither in Banaras nor in Mecca, but only in the heart of a true devotee. He asserts that salvation can come only through Bhakti or true devotion towards God.

Differences Arose After Kabir Death

Kabir made no attempt to start a new religion and his disciples included both Hindus and Muslims. However, after his death, differences arose between his disciples regarding the disposal of his last remains. The Muslims wanted to bury him; the Hindus demands that he should be burnt. It is said that when the sheet covering his dead body was removed, his body was missing and only some flowers were found lying there. The Hindus and the Muslims distribute these flowers. After his death, his followers also started a new sheet called Kabir Panthis.

Thus, in the words of a modern historian, Dr. Tara Chaand. The mission of Kabir was to preach a religious love that would unite all castes and creeds. He rejected those features of Hinduism and Islam which were against this spirit and which were of no importance for the real spiritual welfare of the individual.

Chaitanya:

Chaitanya was a Bhakti saint from Bengal. Perhaps the most popular among the Vaishnava Saints of India. He was born in 1485 AD in a Brahmin family of Nadia in Bengal. He left home at the age of 24. Besides, he spent the rest of his life preaching the message of love and devotion. He became so popular that his followers began to regard him as an avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Chaitanya believes in one Supreme Being and designates him as Krishna or Hari. He said that the presence of God could be realized through love, devotion, song, and dance. He gave great importance to the inner and specialized way of realization of God, which he believes could be attained through a Guru alone.

Krishnadas Kaviraj has summed up the teaching of Chaitanya as, “If a creature adores Krishna and serves his Guru, he is released from the mashes of illusion and attain to Krishna’s feet”. Chaitanya denounced the caste system and expressed his faith in the principle of the universal brotherhood of men. He believes that every person irrespective of their caste or religion should have the right to engage themselves in the worship of Shiva. He opposed the domination of the priests and was against rituals and sacrifices. However, he was not against religious texts and idol worshipping. He laid great emphasis on Sankirtan or service of songs.

Contribution of Chaitanya to the Bhakti Movement:

Professor Radha Kamad Mukherjee praises the contribution of Chaitanya to the Bhakti Movement when he says, “the Chaitanya Vaishnava Movement adds to a new strand of morality and goodness to the Indian character, the maturity and the transcendent quality of authentic human approach to the deity. Through him, Vaishnavism which is the philosophical expression of the ideal love for God ushers in a new era”. Though Chaitanya did not organize any new religion, his followers started a new sect and began to worship him as an incarnation of Krishna.

Mira Bai (Vaishnava Saint)

Mira Bai belonged to a royal family of Rajasthan. She is famously known for her devotional pursuits rather than her royal status. She was born around 1500 AD and was married at the age of 13 to a prince. From an early age, she showed more interest in religious devotions rather than towards her worldly responsibilities. It is said that she even neglects her marital responsibilities and when asked about it, she said that it was impossible for her to marry the King when she was already married to Lord Krishna.

A major change in her life occurred upon the death of her husband. It was customary in those days for a wife to commit Sati, which she refused. In response to this, her in-laws began harassing her. She then left the palace and began wandering throughout Rajasthan. After she left, she sings her Bhajans or devotional songs, preaching the Bhakti Marga and gaining followers. She dedicated her entire life to God and endured all the difficulties of life.

Mira Bai was famous for her dedication to the worship of Lord Krishna. She thought only of Lord Krishna during awake or asleep. She is famous amongst many Bhajans for composing in praise of Lord Krishna.

However, Mira Bai died around 1550 AD. But, she continues to live in the hearts of Indians as one who uplifted the very meaning of the Bhakti Movement.

Guru Nanak:

Guru Nanak was born in a Khatri family in the village of Talwandi on the bank of the river Ravi, in 1469. Although he was married early and trained in Persian to take his father’s profession of accountancy, Nanak shows a mystic contemplative bent of mind and prefers the company of Saints and Sadhus instead. He later had a mystic vision and decided to forsake the world.  He composes hymns and sang them with the support of “Rabab”, a string instrument played by his faithful attendant Mardana.

Guru Nanak undertook wide tours all over India and even beyond it, to Sri Lanka in the south and Mecca and Medina in the west. He attracted a large number of people towards him and his name and fame had spread for and wide before his death.

Principles and Teachings of Nanak

Like Kabir, Nanak laid emphasis on the worship of one God. He preached that one can get salvation without distinction of caste, creed, or sect. However, Nanak laid great emphasis on the purity of character and conduct as the essential conditions to approach God and the need of a Guru for guidance. He strongly was against idol worship, pilgrimages, and other rituals and practices.

Guru Nanak had no intention of founding a new religion. His principles and teachings aimed at bridging distinctions between the Hindus and the Muslims, in order to create an atmosphere of peace, goodwill, and mutual understanding.

In the course of time, the ideas of Nanak gave birth to a new religion known as Sikhism. The contribution of Nanak and Kabir in the upliftment of the Bhakti ideology should also be studied from a broader point of view. They created a climate of opinion that continued to work through the succeeding centuries. It is well known that the religious ideas and policies of Akbar reflect the fundamental teachings of these two great Bhakti Saints.

Guru Nanak dies in 1539 AD. But his contributions to the propagations and upliftment of the Bhakti Movement not only brought the movement to the greater height of success but also led to the foundation of a new religion known as Sikkim. In fact, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world.

Shankaracharya:

Shankaracharya was an 8th Century Indian philosopher and religious reformer. He was one of the great advocates of the Advaita Vedanta. He is credited in bringing about a revolutionary change in Hindu philosophy. Alos. he was born in a very poor Brahmin family, in a village named Kaldi in Kerala, in the year 788 AD. Right from his childhood, he showed interest in spiritual knowledge. He could easily recite the Puranas and the Epics and mastered the Vedas during his early years in the Gurukul.

The Advaita Vedanta is a school of philosophy in Hinduism. In this school, it teaches there was no difference between the “atman or Soul” from the Brahman (Ultimate Being). He was one of the first exponents of this philosophy. He learned the sacred texts of Hinduism like the Upanishads and Vedas and wrote commentaries on these texts. In his commentaries, he proposes the theory of Advaita, where he said that the individual soul called Atman is not different from the ultimate reality called Brahman. He also teaches that there is only one essential principle called Brahman and everything else is a kind of expression of that one Brahman. Because of this theory of one being, his teachings became popular as the Advaita meaning “Non-Dual”.

Shankaracharya suggested the best way people can find the truth is to completely devote and surrender themselves to God.

The Philosophy of Shankaracharya

Shankaracharya traveled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy of Advaita through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He advocated the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra. He is reputed to have found four “Mathas or Monastries:”, which helped in the historical development, and revival and spread of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

Conclusion

Thus the Saints of the Bhakti Movement introduce a way of life. By showing a path of direct communion with God they brought the people out of the clutches of the priestly class. Their outlook on idol worship and pilgrimages help to check the expensive rituals and ceremonies that the people were to follow.

As a result, the Bhakti Movement had a great impact on society. The bonds of caste were loosened and evils of the caste system were eliminated to some extent.

The Bhakti movement also influenced religion. Because of this movement, ritualism, and superstitions among the Hindus decline. The feeling of Hindu-Muslim unity and integration received encouragement. The Bhakti movement was responsible for the birth of a new religion in the form of Sikh religion.

The Bhakti movement encouraged religious toleration and the bitterness between the Hindus and the Muslims decreased. The movement also encouraged the popularity of languages in India, such as Awadhi, Brij, Punjabi, Bangla, etc. It also helps to the growth in literature and influences art as many monuments were erect for the Saints poets. The later sultans and the Mughal emperors also adopted a liberal policy towards the Hindus and separated religion and politics. In the words of Prof.  Ranade, the Bhakti Movement not only developed devotion but also writing of literature in popular languages, development of liberation, loosened the bond of caste and brought in progress in society at the level of thought and action or both.

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