Bhakti movement

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The Child Saint Sambandar, Chola dynasty, Tamil Nadu. from Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC, He is one of the most prominent of the sixty-three Nayanars, Saiva bhakti

The Bhakti movement was a Hindu religious movement of the medieval period that promoted the belief that moksha was attainable by everyone and advocated that a personal expression of devotion to God is the way to become at one with Him.

The Bhakti movement originated in seventh-century Tamil Nadu and spread northwards through India. While the southern movement favoured devotion to Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars, the northern devotional movement was centered on Rama and Krishna, both of whom are believed to be incarnations of Vishnu.[1] Despite this, the sects of Shiva or of Vishnu did not go into decline. In fact, for all of its history, the Bhakti movement co-existed peacefully with the other movements in Hinduism. It was initially considered unorthodox, as it rebelled against caste distinctions and disregarded Brahmanic rituals, which according to Bhakti saints were not necessary for salvation. In the course of time, however, owing to its immense popularity among the masses (and even gaining royal patronage) it became 'orthodox' and continues to be one of the most important modes of religious expression in modern India.

During the 14th–17th centuries, a great Bhakti movement swept through India, initiated by a loosely associated group of teachers or sants. They taught that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste, and the subtle complexities of philosophy, and simply express their overwhelming love for God. This period was also characterized by a spate of devotional literature in vernacular prose and poetry in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces.

While many of the mystics focused their attention on Krishna or Rama, it did not necessarily mean that the sect of Shiva was marginalized. In the twelfth century Basava founded the ViraShaiva school or Virashaivism. He rejected the caste system, denied the supremacy of the Brahmins, condemned ritual sacrifice and insisted on Bhakti and the worship of the one God, Shiva. His followers were called Vira-Shaivas, meaning "stalwart Shiva-worshipers". One of the prominent figure in this tradition is Akka Mahadevi, a contemporary of Basava.

Sant Kabir with Namdev, Raidas and Pipaji, early 19th century

Seminal Bhakti works in Bengali include the many songs of Ramprasad Sen. His pieces are known as Shyama Sangeet. Coming from the 17th century, they cover an astonishing range of emotional responses to Ma Kali, detailing philosophical statements based on Vedanta teachings and more visceral pronouncements of his love of Devi. Using inventive allegory, Ramprasad had 'dialogues' with the Mother Goddess through his poetry, at times chiding her, adoring her, celebrating her as the Divine Mother, reckless consort of Shiva and capricious Shakti, the universal female creative energy, of the cosmos. In the 19th century Ramakrishna Parmahansa led a life of devotion and surrender to Ma Kali.

It advocated communal harmony among various religious groups in medieval India through the teachings of sants like Kabir.

Origins and scope[edit]

The Bhakti movement emphasised an individualistic relationship with a personal deity rather than the more rule-bound strictures of traditional Vedic Hinduism. Customarily discussed as a unified whole, the movement's message was expressed in diverse ways. At the core was the idea that salvation was attainable by all who believed, thus challenging the Vedic system that claimed it was limited to male members of the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya caste groups.[2] Women and members of the Shudra and untouchable communities were included rather than excluded.[3]

The movement originated in South India during the seventh-century CE, spreading northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and Maharashtra; by the fifteenth century, it was established in Bengal and northern India. In the vanguard were poet-sants who eschewed the Sanskrit language and rituals of Brahmin priests in favour of emotive devotional songs expressed in regional vernaculars. These proselytisers had diverse opinions regarding such things as the nature of prescribed ritual practices and the identity of their deity, be it Shiva, Vishnu or some other, but they shared a common devotional fervour. They recast the Vedic texts and their legacy — community singing, chanting of deity names, festivals, pilgrimages, rituals — permeates popular Hinduism as practiced today. Many Hindu sects (panths), such as the Varkaris, have their origins in communities that formed around a shared belief in the works and traditions of individual regional sants or small groups thereof.[2]

Rama Bhakti[edit]

Ramananda was the leader of the Bhakti movement focusing on Rama as God. Very little is known about him, but he is believed to have lived in the first half of the 15th century. He taught that Lord Rama is the supreme Lord, and that salvation could be attained only through love for and devotion to him, and through the repetition of his sacred name.[4]

Ramananda's ashram in Varanasi became a powerful center of religious influence, from which his ideas spread far and wide among all classes of Indians. One of the reasons for his great popularity was that he renounced Sanskrit and used the language of the people for the composition of his hymns. This paved the way for the modern tendency in northern India to write literary texts in local languages.

Devotees of Krishna worship him in different ways, known as rasas. Two major systems of Krishna worship developed, each with its own philosophical system. These two systems are aishwaryamaya Bhakti and madhuryamaya Bhakti. Aishwaryamaya Bhakti is revealed in the abode of queens and kingdom of Krishna in Dwaraka. Madhuryamaya Bhakti is revealed in the abode of braja. Thus Krishna is worshiped according to the development of devotees' taste in worshiping the Supreme Personality of Godhead (Krishna) as father, friend, master or beloved.

Shri Madhvacharya (1199–1278) born at Pajaka near Udupi advocated Dvaita philosophy. He defeated many scholars in religious debates and identified God with Vishnu. His view of reality is purely dualistic, in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate Godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta. Madhva is considered one of the most influential theologians in Hindu history. His influence was profound, and he is one of the fathers of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement. Great leaders of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement in Karnataka like Purandara Dasa, Kanaka Dasa, Raghavendra Swami and many others were influenced by Dvaita traditions.

Srimanta Sankardeva's (1449–1568) propagated his school of thought, called Ekasarana Dharma, in the greater Assam region. An example of dasya Bhakti, there is no place for Radha in this tradition. The most important symbol of this tradition is the namghar or prayer hall, which dot Assam's landscape. This form of worship is very strong in Assam today, and much of the traditions are maintained by the monasteries (Sattras).

Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) called his school of thought Shuddhadvaita, or pure monism. According to him, it is by God's grace alone that one can obtain release from bondage and attain Krishna's heaven. This heaven is far above the "heavens" of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for Krishna is the eternal Brahman.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) defined his system of philosophy as Achintya Bheda Abheda (inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference). It synthesizes elements of monism and dualism into a single system. Chaitanya's philosophy is taught by the contemporary International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or Hare Krishna movement.

Vaishnava Bhakti[edit]

Vaishnava Bhakti is the devotion to Vishnu and his avatars, such as Krishna. Prominent exponents of Vaishnava Bhakti include:


The Shaiva Siddhanta school is a form of Shaivism found in the south. It incorporates the teachings of the Shaiva nayanars and espouses the belief that Shiva is Brahman and his infinite love is revealed in the divine acts of the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, and in the liberation of the soul.

See also[edit]





  1. Jagadeesan, N., The Life and Mission of Karaikkal Ammaiyar Bhattacharya, N.N. [ed] Medieval Bhakti Movements in India, Munishiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, (1989), pages 149-161
  2. Karavelane Kareikkalammeiyar, oeuvres editees et traduites, Institut francais d'indologie, Pondicherry (1956)