The Bhakti movement refers to the theistic devotional trend that emerged in medieval Hinduism and later acted as the de facto catalyst to the formation and subsequent revolutionization in the form of Sikhism. It originated in eighth-century south India (now Tamil Nadu and Kerala), and spread northwards. It swept over east and north India from the 15th century onwards, reaching its zenith between the 15th and 17th century CE.
The Bhakti movement regionally developed around different gods and goddesses, and some sub-sects were Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), Shaktism (Shakti goddesses), and Smartism. Bhakti movement preached using the local languages so that the message reached the masses.The movement was inspired by many poet-saints, who championed a wide range of philosophical positions ranging from theistic dualism of Dvaita to absolute monism of Advaita Vedanta.
The movement has traditionally been considered as an influential social reformation in Hinduism, and provided an individual-focused alternative path to spirituality regardless of one’s birth or gender. The Bhakti movement began with the aim of reforming Hinduism. Postmodern scholars question this traditional view and whether the Bhakti movement ever was a reform or rebellion of any kind. They suggest Bhakti movement was a revival, reworking and recontextualisation of ancient Vedic traditions. Bhakti refers to passionate devotion (to a deity).
The Sanskrit word bhakti is derived from the root bhaiij, which means “divide, share, partake, participate, to belong to”. The word also means “attachment, devotion to, fondness for, homage, faith or love, worship, piety to something as a spiritual, religious principle or means of salvation”.
The meaning of the term Bhakti is analogous to but different from Kama. Kama connotes emotional connection, sometimes with sensual devotion and erotic love. Bhakti, in contrast, is spiritual, a love and devotion to religious concepts or principles, that engages both emotion and intellection. Karen Pechelis states that the word Bhakti should not be understood as uncritical emotion, but as committed engagement. Bhakti movement in Hinduism refers to ideas and engagement that emerged in the medieval era on love and devotion to religious concepts built around one or more gods and goddesses. Bhakti movement preached against the caste system using the local languages so that the message reached the masses. One who practices bhakti is called a bhakta.
The last of three epilogue verses of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 6.23, uses the word Bhakti as follows,
यस्य देवे परा भक्तिः यथा देवे तथा गुरौ ।
तस्यैते कथिता ह्यर्थाः प्रकाशन्ते महात्मनः ॥ २३ ॥
He who has highest Bhakti (love, devotion) of Deva (God),
just like his Deva, so for his Guru (teacher),
To him who is high-minded,
these teachings will be illuminating.— Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6.23
This verse is notable for the use of the word Bhakti, and has been widely cited as among the earliest mentions of “the love of God”. Scholars have debated whether this phrase is authentic or later insertion into the Upanishad, and whether the terms “Bhakti” and “God” meant the same in this ancient text as they do in the medieval and modern era Bhakti traditions found in India. Max Muller states that the word Bhakti appears only in one last verse of the epilogue, could have been a later insertion and may not be theistic as the word was later used in much later Sandilya Sutras. Grierson as well as Carus note that the first epilogue verse 6.21 is also notable for its use of the word Deva Prasada (देवप्रसाद, grace or gift of God), but add that Deva in the epilogue of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad refers to “pantheistic Brahman” and the closing credit to sage Shvetashvatara in verse 6.21 can mean “gift or grace of his Soul”.
Doris Srinivasan states that the Upanishad is a treatise on theism, but it creatively embeds a variety of divine images, an inclusive language that allows “three Vedic definitions for personal deity”. The Upanishad includes verses wherein God can be identified with the Supreme (Brahman-Atman, Self, Soul) in Vedanta monistic theosophy, verses that support dualistic view of Samkhya doctrines, as well as the synthetic novelty of triple Brahman where a triune exists as the divine soul (Deva, theistic God), individual soul (self) and nature (Prakrti, matter). Tsuchida writes that the Upanishad syncretically combines monistic ideas in Upanishad and self-development ideas in Yoga with personification of Shiva-Rudra deity. Hiriyanna interprets the text to be introducing “personal theism” in the form of Shiva Bhakti, with a shift to monotheism but in henotheistic context where the individual is encouraged to discover his own definition and sense of God.
The Bhagavad Gita, a post-Vedic scripture composed in 5th to 2nd century BCE, introduces bhakti marga (the path of faith/devotion) as one of three ways to spiritual freedom and release, the other two being karma marga (the path of works) and jnana marga (the path of knowledge). In verses 6.31 through 6.47 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna as an avatar of deity Vishnu, describes bhakti yoga and loving devotion, as one of the several paths to the highest spiritual attainments.
Poets, writers and musicians
The Bhakti movement witnessed a surge in Hindu literature in regional languages, particularly in the form of devotional poems and music. This literature includes the writings of the Alvars and Nayanars, poems of Andal, Basava, Bhagat Pipa, Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi, Kabir, Nanak (founder of Sikhism), Tulsidas, Nabha Dass, Gusainji, Ghananand, Ramananda (founder of Ramanandi Sampradaya), Sripadarajaa, Vyasatirtha, Purandara Dasa, Kanakadasa, Vijaya Dasa, Six goswamis of Vrindavan, Raskhan, Ravidas, Jayadeva Goswami, Namdev, Eknath, Tukaram, Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen, Sankardev, Vallabha Acharya, Narsinh Mehta, Gangasati and the teachings of saints like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
The earliest writers from the 7th to 10th century CE known to have influenced the poet-saints driven movements include, Sambandar, Tirunavukkarasar, Sundarar, Nammalvar, Adi Shankara, Manikkavacakar and Nathamuni. Several 11th and 12th century writers developed different philosophies within the Vedanta school of Hinduism, which were influential to the Bhakti tradition in medieval India. These include Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and Nimbarka. These writers championed a spectrum of philosophical positions ranging from theistic dualism, qualified nondualism and absolute monism.
Philosophy: Nirguna and Saguna Brahman
The Bhakti movement of Hinduism saw two ways of imaging the nature of the divine (Brahman) – Nirguna and Saguna. Nirguna Brahman was the concept of the Ultimate Reality as formless, without attributes or quality. Saguna Brahman, in contrast, was envisioned and developed as with form, attributes and quality. The two had parallels in the ancient pantheistic unmanifest and theistic manifest traditions, respectively, and traceable to Arjuna-Krishna dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the same Brahman, but viewed from two perspectives, one from Nirguni knowledge-focus and other from Saguni love-focus, united as Krishna in the Gita. Nirguna bhakta’s poetry were Jnana-shrayi, or had roots in knowledge. Saguna bhakta’s poetry were Prema-shrayi, or with roots in love. In Bhakti, the emphasis is reciprocal love and devotion, where the devotee loves God, and God loves the devotee.
Jeaneane Fowler states that the concepts of Nirguna and Saguna Brahman, at the root of Bhakti movement theosophy, underwent more profound development with the ideas of Vedanta school of Hinduism, particularly those of Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, and Madhvacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta. Two 12th-century influential treatises on bhakti were Sandilya Bhakti Sutra – a treatise resonating with Nirguna-bhakti, and Narada Bhakti Sutra – a treatise that leans towards Saguna-bhakti.
Nirguna and Saguna Brahman concepts of the Bhakti movement has been a baffling one to scholars, particularly the Nirguni tradition because it offers, states David Lorenzen, “heart-felt devotion to a God without attributes, without even any definable personality”. Yet given the “mountains of Nirguni bhakti literature”, adds Lorenzen, bhakti for Nirguna Brahman has been a part of the reality of the Hindu tradition along with the bhakti for Saguna Brahman. These were two alternate ways of imagining God during the bhakti movement.
The Bhakti movement was a devotional transformation of medieval Hindu society, wherein Vedic rituals or alternatively ascetic monk-like lifestyle for moksha gave way to individualistic loving relationship with a personally defined god. Salvation which was previously considered attainable only by men of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes, became available to everyone. Most scholars state that Bhakti movement provided women and members of the Shudra and untouchable communities an inclusive path to spiritual salvation. Some scholars disagree that the Bhakti movement was premised on such social inequalities.
Poet-saints grew in popularity, and literature on devotional songs in regional languages became profuse. These poet-saints championed a wide range of philosophical positions within their society, ranging from the theistic dualism of Dvaita to the absolute monism of Advaita Vedanta. Kabir, a poet-saint for example, wrote in Upanishadic style, the state of knowing truth:
There’s no creation or creator there,
no gross or fine, no wind or fire,
no sun, moon, earth or water,
no radiant form, no time there,
no word, no flesh, no faith,
no cause and effect, nor any thought of the Veda,
no Hari or Brahma, no Shiva or Shakti,
no pilgrimage and no rituals,
no mother, father or guru there…— Kabir, Shabda 43, Translated by K Schomer and WH McLeod
The early 15th-century Bhakti poet-sant Pipa stated,
Within the body is the god, within the body the temple,
within the body all the Jangamas
within the body the incense, the lamps and the food-offerings,
within the body the puja-leaves.
After searching so many lands,
I found the nine treasures within my body,
Now there will be no further going and coming,
I swear by Rama.— Pīpā, Gu dhanasari, Translated by Vaudeville
The impact of the Bhakti movement in India was similar to that of the Protestant Reformation of Christianity in Europe. It evoked shared religiosity, direct emotional and intellection of the divine, and the pursuit of spiritual ideas without the overhead of institutional superstructures. Practices emerged bringing new forms of spiritual leadership and social cohesion among the medieval Hindus, such as community singing, chanting together of deity names, festivals, pilgrimages, rituals relating to Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Many of these regional practices have survived into the modern era.
Seva, daana and community kitchens
The Bhakti movement introduced new forms of voluntary social giving such as seva (service, for example to a temple or guru school or community construction), dāna (charity), and community kitchens with free shared food. Of community kitchen concepts, the vegetarian Guru ka Langar introduced by Nanak became a well established institution over time, starting with northwest India, and expanding to everywhere Sikh communities are found. Other saints such as Dadu Dayal championed similar social movement, a community that believed in Ahimsa (non-violence) towards all living beings, social equality, and vegetarian kitchen, as well as mutual social service concepts. Bhakti temples and matha (Hindu monasteries) of India adopted social functions such as relief to victims after natural disaster, helping the poor and marginal farmers, providing community labor, feeding houses for the poor, free hostels for poor children and promoting folk culture.
Sikhism, Shakti and the Bhakti movement
Some scholars call Sikhism a Bhakti sect of Indian traditions. In Sikhism, “nirguni Bhakti” is emphasised – devotion to a divine without Gunas (qualities or form), but it accepts both nirguni and saguni forms of the divine.
The Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs, contains the hymns of the Sikh gurus, thirteen Hindu bhagats, and two Muslim bhagats. Some of the Bhagats whose hymns were included in the Guru Granth Sahib, were bhakti poets who taught their ideas before the birth of Guru Nanak – the first of Sikh Guru. The thirteen Hindu bhagats whose hymns were entered into the text, were poet saints of the Bhakti movement, and included Ramananda, Namdev, Pipa, Ravidas, Beni, Bhikhan, Dhanna, Jayadeva, Parmanand, Sadhana, Sain, Surdas, Trilochan, while the two Muslim bhagats were Kabir and Sufi saint Farid. Most of the 5,894 hymns in the Sikh scripture came from the Sikh gurus, and rest from the Bhagats. The three highest contributions in the Sikh scripture of non-Sikh bhagats were from Bhagat Kabir (292 hymns), Bhagat Farid (134 hymns), and Bhagat Namdev (60 hymns).
While Sikhism was influenced by Bhakti movement, and incorporated hymns from the Bhakti poet saints, it was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement. Sikhism, for instance, disagreed with some of the views of Bhakti saints Kabir and Ravidas.
Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the founder of Sikhism, was a Bhakti saint. He taught, states Jon Mayled, that the most important form of worship is Bhakti. Nam-simran – the realisation of God – is an important Bhakti practice in Sikhism. Guru Arjan, in his Sukhmani Sahib, recommended the true religion is one of loving devotion to God. The Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes suggestions for a Sikh to perform constant Bhakti. The Bhakti themes in Sikhism also incorporate Shakti (power) ideas.
Some Sikh sects outside the Punjab-region of India, such as those found in Maharashtra and Bihar, practice Aarti with lamps in a Gurdwara. Arti and devotional prayer ceremonies are also found in Ravidassia religion, previously part of Sikhism.
Buddhism, Jainism and Bhakti movement
Bhakti has been a prevalent practice in various Jaina sects, wherein learned Tirthankara (Jina) and human gurus are considered superior beings and venerated with offerings, songs and Āratī prayers. John Cort suggests that the bhakti movement in later Hinduism and Jainism may share roots in vandan and pujan concepts of the Jaina tradition.
Medieval-era bhakti traditions among non-theistic Indian traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism have been reported by scholars, wherein the devotion and prayer ceremonies were dedicated to an enlightened guru, primarily Buddha and Jina Mahavira respectively, as well as others. Karel Werner notes that Bhatti (Bhakti in Pali) has been a significant practice in Theravada Buddhism, and states, “there can be no doubt that deep devotion or bhakti / bhatti does exist in Buddhism and that it had its beginnings in the earliest days”.
Bhakti, according to William Dyrness, has been a “point of convergence” between Christian gospel tradition and the Hindu devotional tradition. It has helped Indian Christians devote themselves to God as distinct from his creation, and as a personal being to love, to expect grace from, through self-giving devotion. Songs were composed by poets such as A.J. Appasamy, Sadhu Sundar Singh and other early converts in the early twentieth century that were rich in lyrics and brought out the mysticism, legends and meaning of Christianity. According to Kugler, some of the pioneers of bhakti in Christian sects in India include Murari David.
Controversy and doubts in postmodern scholarship
Postmodern scholars question whether the 19th- and early 20th-century theories about Bhakti movement in India, its origin, nature and history is accurate. Pechilis in her book on Bhakti movement, for example, states:
Scholars writing on bhakti in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were agreed that bhakti in India was preeminently a monotheistic reform movement. For these scholars, the inextricable connection between monotheism and reform has both theological and social significance in terms of the development of Indian culture. The orientalist images of bhakti were formulated in a context of discovery: a time of organised cultural contact, in which many agencies, including administrative, scholarly and missionary – sometimes embodied in a single person – sought knowledge of India. Through the Indo-European language connection, early orientalists believed that they were, in a sense, seeing their own ancestry in the antique texts and “antiquated” customs of Indian peoples. In this respect, certain scholars could identify with the monotheism of bhakti. Seen as a reform movement, bhakti presented a parallel to the orientalist agenda of intervention in the service of the empire.— Karen Pechilis, The Embodiment of Bhakti
Madeleine Biardeau states, as does Jeanine Miller, that Bhakti movement was neither a reform nor a sudden innovation, but the continuation and expression of ideas to be found in Vedas, Bhakti marga teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Katha Upanishad and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
John Stratton Hawley describes recent scholarship which questions the old theory of Bhakti movement origin and “story of south-moves-north”, then states that the movement had multiple origins, mentioning Brindavan in north India as another center. Hawley describes the controversy and disagreements between Indian scholars, quotes Hegde’s concern that “Bhakti movement was a reform” theory has been supported by “cherry-picking particular songs from a large corpus of Bhakti literature” and that if the entirety of the literature by any single author such as Basava is considered along with its historical context, there is neither reform nor a need for reform.
Sheldon Pollock writes that the Bhakti movement was neither a rebellion against Brahmins and the upper castes nor a rebellion against the Sanskrit language, because many of the prominent thinkers and earliest champions of the Bhakti movement were Brahmins and from upper castes, and because much of the early and later Bhakti poetry and literature was in Sanskrit. Further, states Pollock, evidence of Bhakti trends in ancient southeast Asian Hinduism in the 1st millennium CE, such as those in Cambodia and Indonesia where Vedic era is unknown, and where upper caste Tamil Hindu nobility and merchants introduced Bhakti ideas of Hinduism, suggest the roots and the nature of Bhakti movement to be primarily spiritual and political quest instead of rebellion of some form.
John Guy states that the evidence of Hindu temples and Chinese inscriptions from 8th century CE about Tamil merchants, presents Bhakti motifs in Chinese trading towns, particularly the Kaiyuan Temple (Quanzhou). These show Saivite, Vaishnavite and Hindu Brahmin monasteries revered Bhakti themes in China.
Scholars increasingly are dropping, states Karen Pechilis, the old premises and the language of “radical otherness, monotheism and reform of orthodoxy” for Bhakti movement. Many scholars are now characterising the emergence of Bhakti in medieval India as a revival, reworking and recontextualisation of the central themes of the Vedic traditions.