The Bhakti Movement

Though a well-known and large contributor to the culture and the layout of Indian society today, the bhakti movement cannot be viewed through a straight-forward, universally accepted perspective (Hawley 221). It has changed through regions and time periods and bhakti has become a broad term which has been perceived in different ways. Bhakti has been thought of as being a concept, an ideology, and a movement (Thakur 100). Bhakti, as a concept, refers to the loving devotion to a god. It is the unbending devotion to a particular god, which develops into a powerful love. This love is sometimes compared to the attachment between friends, the devotion of a servant to a master, or the love shared even more intimately as in a romantic relationship (Pande 1985: 231). As an ideology, bhakti has been described as a socially accepted, common interest for all members of society, regardless of class or caste, that shifts members focus to the group rather than one’s position as an individual (Thakur 100). Bhakti has also been regarded as a literary movement (which will be the focus of this article) rooted in religion which rose from a society calling for transformation (Pande 1987: 214), and continued developing and changing as it moved through regions (Pattanayak 117).

Ideas of bhakti were already being formed by the alvars in the fifth to eighth centuries. The alvars laid the foundation for the Vaisnava philosophy as well as the bhakti movement. They first wrote hymns, many of which referenced Krsna (Chari 279). Accounts of serious worship of the divine and total surrender of oneself have been found in alvar-literature (Varadachari 621). An early beginning to the concept of bhakti is also seen in the story of Andal, an alvar saint who combined the erotic with the spiritual in her relationship with Krsna (Thakur 103). These early ideas related to bhakti were not commonly integrated into people’s way of life until the bhakti movement began to gain momentum centuries later.

There was a variety of societal factors which contributed to the urge for change in India. The conditions of the time have been considered by some to be a social crisis, primarily due to the shifting modes of production occurring at the time (Thakur 101). Towns during the 14th century were experiencing steady growth and agriculture was decreasing in its prominence. Commercial industry was growing as goods were more quickly produced. Some of the technological developments involved in this growth included: the use of a vertical loom in carpet weaving, the use of a spinning wheel in the cotton industry, increase in the use of vaulted roofs architecturally, and more silver and gold coins being made for trade (Pande 1987: 215). Economically, these developments were worsening conditions for sudras because as the amount of industrial jobs and business increased, so did the amount of slave labour (Pande 1987: 215). As the conditions for the sudras declined, the merchants and artisans continued to elevate in their wealth and status. Though this was occurring, Brahmins continued to consider themselves in very high regard, not acknowledging the rising status of the artisans and merchants nor accepting these groups into the class system.

Brahmins became increasingly oppressive in order to maintain their own status and resist changes in the social structure (Pande 1987: 216). They required complex rituals to be done by people in order to prove their place within the varna system.  These rituals were done in Sanskrit, making them difficult to be performed by many of the lower classes who were not entirely familiar with this language. The result of the intense requirements was a large number of outcasts from the varna system, reinforcing the power of the Brahmins (Pande 1987: 216). Political factors also contributed to the need for reform. The larger, more powerful state was being regionally divided and the authority of the Sultanate was diminishing (Pande 1987: 215).  Overall, these conditions were bringing a challenge to the existing social hierarchy in India. The changing conditions of society primarily affected the sudras and Dalits in the hierarchy and they began to experience discontentment with society, becoming restless with a desire for reform.

Another aspect of society, which was a part of the foundation for reformation in India, was the conflicting perspectives between Muslims and Hindus. Bhakti was desirable as it could act as a resolution for this type of conflict: bhakti is accepting of any god to worship, as long is it is loving devotion (Pande 1987: 217). Therefore, the bhakti movement was attractive to those who sought a harmonious society as it would allow the ideas of Hindusim and Islam to find common ground, not interfering with one another (Pande 1985: 230).

The great appeal of bhakti was especially rooted in the discontentment of people in the lower levels of the varna system and outcasts. Bhakti, being the loving devotion to a god, was accessible to everyone, regardless of status. For the sudras, then, it was also a way of protesting the social order (Thakur 105). The bhakti ideology offered no way of socially dividing people and therefore was appealing to those of lower castes who had been oppressed and looked down upon within the hierarchical setup of the varna system. The ideology of bhakti also held appeal for those of high castes, though for different motives. The attraction to the rulers was in bhakti’s assurance of divine intervention in times when the effects of adharma were manifesting (Thakur 102). This offered some relaxation on the expectations of the ruler, as normally the karmic effects of a region were dependent on the alignment of the king/ruler with dharma. The appeal of bhakti is what drove the movement to gain momentum.

Saints who came primarily from the lower sections of society were momentous in bringing about the beginnings of the bhakti movement. It is clear through hymns written by the bhaktas that the saints aimed to create a culture of harmony between the Hindus and Muslims (Pande 1987: 216). The ideal of equality was a major aim of the bhakti saints. This ideal is verified by a study of Kabir which serves to unveil the beliefs, hopes and objectives of the saints who initiated the bhakti movement. Kabir was a weaver of low caste who was involved in the attempt to bring unanimity among castes and religions in India. Kabir made statements such as “in the beginning there were no such distinctions of race, caste and creed” and “one does not become a scholar by reading scriptures. It is only through the learning of love that one can become a real scholar” (Pande 1987: 217). The former statement makes evident the bhakti ideal that society was intended from the beginning to be casteless and people should be regarded as equal. The latter statement demonstrates the bhakti belief that love and relationships surpass intellect. Ideas of the bhakti movement reject the notion that ritualism is required by the gods to gain salvation. People began to reject meaningless ritualism, especially of the Brahmin class, in favour of an actual relationship between a human and a god (Pande 1987: 217).

Though early ideas of bhakti were introduced in the nineth century, the bhakti movement really began its course in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Pandey and Tyagi 129). The movement began in areas in the south of India and has been commonly believed to have expanded across India towards the north. Recent inquiry into the directional movement of bhakti indicates a different possibility that the idea of bhakti may have moved from south to west India. The knowledge base for this recent inquiry on the movement of bhakti came from the Bhagavata Mahatmya, a text written in the sixteenth or seventeenth century (Saha 299). As the range of these ideas was expanded, the idea of bhakti was developed and changed primarily due to the influence of Buddhism, Nathism, and other religions (Pattanayak 117).

The impacts of the bhakti movement continue into modern Indian society. In north India, bhakti remains intact, continuing but no longer characterizing a protest (Thakur 104-105). Since the bhakti movement was a protest against meaningless ritualism, it resulted in the divergence of language from Sanskrit as people embraced more individuality and rejected the rituals of the Brahmins, which were done in Sanskrit (Pandey and Tyagi 129). The saint’s goals for the bhakti movement achieved some success in that there was greater harmony between Hinduism and Islam. Though bhakti did create a more egalitarian society, the movement did not result in total equality among people. People among different castes experienced much less inequality, but injustices involving women remained unacknowledged. Women continued to be seen as an obstacle in obtaining salvation and their only purpose was considered to be serving their husbands (Pande 1987: 219-220). Women were widely perceived as having a fallen nature. They were thought to be created by Maya, and were distractions to their husband’s pursuit of salvation. (Sangari 1470). The protest presented in the bhakti movement cannot be considered complete then, as women were entirely left out of all social reconstructions (Pande 1987: 221).


References and Further Recommended Reading

Chari, S. M. (1998) “Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 79:279-280. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Hawley, John S. (2007) “Introduction.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 11:209-25. New York: Springer.

Pande, Rekha (1985) “The Social Context of the Bhakti Movement- A Study in Kabir.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 46:230-35. Indian History Congress.

Pande, Rekha (1987) “The Bhakti Movement- An Interpretation.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 48:214-21. Indian History Congress.

Pandey, Manager, and Alka Tyagi (2001) “Bhakti Poetry: Its Relevance and Significance.” Indian Literature 45:129-138. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Pattanayak, Debi P. (1992) “Sant Literature in India.” Indian Literature 35:115-120. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Saha, Shandip (2007) “The Movement of Bhakti along a North-West Axis: Tracing the History of the Pustimarg between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 11:299-318. New York: Springer.

Sangari, Kumkum (1990) “Mirabai and the Spiritual Economy of Bhakti.” Economic and Political Weekly 25:1464-1475. Mumbai: Economic and Political Weekly.

Thakur, Vijay K. (1994) “Bhakti as an Ideology: Perspectives in Deconstructing the Early Medieval Indian Tradition.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 55:99-107. Indian History Congress.

Varadachari, K. C. (1942) “Some Contributions of Alvars to the Philosophy of Bhakti.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 23:621-632. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.


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Varna system

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Article written by: Ashley Machacek (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content