Bhakti: The Great Wave



Few movements have influenced the Hindu faith as we know it, as much as the Bhakti Movement that started as a ripple deep down in what is today’s Tamil Nadu, in the 6th -7th CE . Over the next few centuries this ripple of religious fervour, turned into a tidal wave that spread as far north as the Punjab. Emphasising the idea of a personal God, the Bhakti movement took God to the people, allowing them to break free from the rigidities of the formal Brahmanical traditions that held sway at the time. In doing so, the movement not only revived Hinduism but also took it to the masses, gave it a new definition and ensured that it stood up against the many onslaughts it would, over time, face.


Emphasising the idea of a personal god, the Bhakti movement took God to the people

It is very difficult to translate what Bhakti means. It is derived from the Sanskrit word Bhaj which means to ‘to worship’ or ‘to revere’. It all started with the works of the Shaivite and Vaishnavite Poet-Saints in 6th and 7th century CE Tamil Nadu. It is very important to understand the context in which this movement emerged. The Sangam period had ended around the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Very little records remain of the period between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE. Historians believe that this period marked an important transition in the region. The Kalabhra kings ruled Tamil Nadu between the 3rd and the 7th century CE and the reason we know so little of this period from Tamil literary sources could be because the Kalabhras were great patrons of Buddhism and Jainism. This led to a great influx of Buddhist and Jain monks from the Deccan into Tamil Nadu.

Sculptures of Nayanar Saints 
Sculptures of Nayanar Saints |Wikimedia Commons

The Bhakti movement was a grassroot led reaction to this. Led by poet saints who propagated the ‘back to the soil’ movement, the narrative in their works reflected a clear shift. While the earlier Sangam poetry emphasized socio-cultural mores, the Bhakti poetry which emerged in the 6th century CE had distinct religious overtones. The poet saints would go from village to village singing and extolling the virtues of Shiva and Vishnu. Their poems, sung in the common man’s Tamil, gave them a great following among the masses. The poet saints drew their followers from every section of society, cutting across caste, gender and other hierarchies.


The poet saints would go from village to village singing and extolling the virtues of Shiva and Vishnu

The Vaishnavite and Shaivite saints of the Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu are collectively called Alvars and Nayanars respectively. There were 12 Alvars and 63 Nayanars in all. Together, they formed the 75 great poet-saints of the Tamil Bhakti movement. They all existed in different time periods and came from different social backgrounds. However, it was the complete devotion and surrender to their personal god, which was a common theme.

Saint Andal - the female poet saint
Saint Andal - the female poet saint|Wikimedia Commons

Of the Alvars, the 12 Vaishnavite saints who composed poems in praise of Vishnu, Andal was the only female poet-saint. The Alvars travelled from village to village and sang of their pure love for Vishnu. The great Vishnu temples mentioned in their compositions were later grouped together as the 108 Divya Desams and are scattered around Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The canonization of the 12 saints happened between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, when their poems were compiled together by a Vaishnava theologian named Nathamuni in a text called Naalayira Divya Prabhandham. It contained four thousand verses in praise of Vishnu.


There were 12 Alvars and 63 Nayanars in all

The 63 Nayanars saints were the followers of Shiva and lived between the 5th and 10th centuries. Like, the Alwars, they too existed at different times but were bound by their love for Shiva.  One saint- Appar, is said to have converted the Pallava King Mahendravarman to Shaivism, sometime between 600 to 630 CE. As the rulers became Hindu, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline. The compilation of Nayanar poetry and literature is called Tirumurai, which is a 12 volume compendium, compiled over different points of time. It comprises of 18,426 songs of these poet saints, dedicated to Shiva.

Alwar saint Appar lifting the g<i>opuram</i>&nbsp;
Alwar saint Appar lifting the gopuram |Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Indira Peterson, author and a specialist in Sanskrit and Tamil Literature, in her book, Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints points out a very important feature which separates it from Bhakti movement that emerged in other parts of India. She writes:

“The importance given to temple and ritual worship in Thevaram (text on Shaiva poetry) hymns highlights the most striking feature of early Tamil Bhakti. Many later Bhakti sects protested against or detached themselves from image, temple and ritual worship. By contrast the Tamil cults were closely associated with teaching and ethos of a large body of ritualistic literature called the Agamas and Tantras, which developed along with the spread of theism , image worship and temple worship in Hinduism“

Thus, Dr. Peterson believes that the Tamil Bhakti movement saw itself as a champion of Hindu traditions and communal solidarity against the dominance of Buddhism and Jainism. This was in contrast to the Bhakti movements in northern India, which were a reaction to Hindu orthodoxy and a form of social protest.

Stamp issue of Dnyaneshwari (L) and Dnyaneshwar (R)
Stamp issue of Dnyaneshwari (L) and Dnyaneshwar (R)|Department of post, Government of India 

From Tamil Nadu, the movement spread north to Karnataka in the 12th century through works of Basavanna (1105-68 CE) and then to Maharashtra in 13th century CE, through the Varkari movement. The greatest text of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra was the Dnyaneshwari which was a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita by Sant Dnyaneshwar (1275-1296 CE). This was revolutionary as till then, Bhagwad Gita, written in Sanskrit, was out of reach for most common people. The Bhakti movement unleashed a wave of translations of religious literature in regional languages from Kannada, Marathi to Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Punjabi in the North. This was interestingly similar to the reformation movement in 16th century CE Europe.


The Bhakti movement unleashed a wave of translations of religious literature in regional languages

Influenced by the works of the saints in the South, the Bhakti movement would spread to other parts of India between the 15th and 17th centuries CE. This was the time when the Tughlaq Empire had broken into numerous kingdoms and there was a great influx of Sufi saints from Central Asia. These Sufi saints were garnering large numbers of converts through their message of equality and love of god. The Bhakti movement in the North was also a way to counter this influence. Unlike the South, it was quite critical of the caste system and the rigid structures of the society.



The spread of the Bhakti movement across India
The spread of the Bhakti movement across India|Neha Parab

Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 CE) founded the Pushti marg of Vaishnavism, which spread rapidly across Gujarat and which emphasized love for Krishna. Around the same time, in the East, in Bengal, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534 CE) founded the movement for the Gaudiya Vaishnavism form of the Bhakti movement. Srimanta Sankardev (1449-1568 CE) , a disciple of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would propagate the Bhakti movement in Assam, from where it later spread to Manipur.

The most renowned Bhakti poets of north India were Sant Kabir (1440-1518 CE), Surdas (1478 – 1573 CE) and Meerabai (1498-1546 CE) , who were roughly contemporaries of each other. Surdas and Meerabai, sang devotional verses in praise of Krishna. Sant Kabir was critical of the rigidities of both Hindu as well as Islamic orthodoxy. In Punjab, Guru Nanak (1469-1593 CE) also emphasized the Bhakti message of equality and love among all men. We must study the Bhakti movement and Sufism together. Their common message of love, personal devotion and equality found great appeal among the masses being stifled by the rigidities of society.

Even today, after centuries, the popularity of the simple devotional songs and poems, composed by the saints who led the Bhakti Movement are a testimony to their everlasting appeal. They touched a chord deep inside and it is the legacy of these Bhakti saints that has defined the devotional worship that you see across most of India today.

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