Prior to the coming of Islam to India, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were the dominant religions. Hinduism lost its simplicity. Many philosophical schools appeared. Two different sects, i.e., Vaishnavism and Saivism also appeared within Hinduism. In course of time Sakti worship also came into existence. Common people were confused on the way of worshipping God. When Islam came to India, the Hindus observed many ceremonies and worshipped many Gods and Goddesses. There were all sorts of superstitious beliefs among them. Their religion had become complex in nature.
Added to these, the caste system, untouchability, blind worshipping and inequality in society caused dissensions among different sections of the people. On the other hand Islam preached unity of God and brotherhood of man. It emphasized monotheism. It attacked idol worship. It preached equality of man before God. The oppressed common people and the people branded as low castes were naturally attracted towards Islam. It only increased the rivalry among religions. Fanaticism, bigotry, and religious intolerance began to raise their heads. It was to remove such evils, religious leaders appeared in different parts of India. They preached pure devotion called Bhakti to attain God.
Origin of the Bhakti Movement :
Bhakti means personal devotion to God. It stresses the Union of the individual with God. Bhakti movement originated in South India between the 7th and the 12th centuries A.D. .The Nayanmars, who worshipped Siva, and the Alwars, who worshipped Vishnu, preached the idea of Bhakti. They carried their message of love and devotion to various parts of South India through the medium of the local language. They preached among common people. It made some of the followers of the Vedic faith to revive the old Vedic religion. Saints like Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa gave their concepts of God and the individual soul.
Bhakti Movement in the North :
The Bhakti movement in North India gained momentum due to the Muslim conquest. The saints of the Bhakti Movement were men and women of humble origin. They came from all castes and classes. They had visited from place to place singing devotional songs. They had also preached the Unity of God and brotherhood of man. They had stressed tolerance among various religious groups. Their preaching was simple.
Principles of Bhakti Movement :
The main principles of Bhakti movement were : (1) God is one, (2) To worship God man should serve humanity, (3) All men are equal, (4) Worshipping God with devotion is better than performing religious ceremonies and going on pilgrimages, and (5) Caste distinctions and superstitious practices are to be given up. The Hindu saints of the Bhakti Movement and the Muslim saints of the Sufi movement became more liberal in their outlook. They wanted to get rid of the evils which had crept into their religions. There were a number of such saints from the 8th to 16th century A.D. .
Ramanuja : Ramanuja was one of the earliest reformers. Born in the South, he made a pilgrimage to some of the holy places in Northern India. He considered God as an Ocean of Love and beauty. His teachings were based on the Upanishads and Bhagwad Gita. Whatever he taught, he had taught in the language of the common man. Soon a large number of people became his followers. Ramanand was his disciple. He took his message to Northern parts of India.
Ramananda : Ramananda was the first reformer to preach in Hindi, the main language spoken by the people of the North. He was educated at Benaras. He preached that there is nothing high or low. All 109 men are equal in the eyes of God. He was an ardent worshipper of Rama. He welcomed people of all castes and status to follow his teachings. He had twelve chief disciples. One of them was a barber, another was a weaver, the third one was a cobbler and the other was the famous saint Kabir and the fifth one was a woman named Padmavathi. He considered God as a loving father. He lived in the 14th century A.D.
Kabir : Kabir was an ardent disciple of Ramananda. It is said that he was the son of a Brahmin widow who had left him near a tank at Varanasi. A Muslim couple Niru and his wife who were weavers brought up the child. Later he became a weaver but he was attracted by the teachings of Swami Ramananda. He wanted unity between the Hindus and the Muslims. He preached that both the Hindus and the Muslims are the children of a single God. He had no faith in idol worship, religious rituals and ceremonies. He taught that Allah and Eswar, Ram and Rahim are one and the same. They are present everywhere. The devotees of Kabir were known as Kabir Panthis. What Kabir said about God? I am neither in temple nor in Mosque, neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash; I am not in any ritual or rite nor in yoga or in renunciation; If thou be a true seeker, thou shall find me in a moment.
He also said : To the East is Hari, to the West Allah’s abode, search thy heart, within the inner core, Ram and Rahim live there. Thousands of people, both Hindus and Muslims became Kabir’s followers. He probably lived in the fifteenth century A.D.
Namdeva : Namdeva was a waterman by birth. He hailed from Maharashtra. He composed beautiful hymns in Marathi. They are full of intense devotion to God. He worshipped Vishnu in the form of Lord Vithoba. Some of his verses are included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. A large number of people from different castes became his followers.
Guru Nanak. (A.D.1469 – A.D.1538): Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion. From his childhood, he did not show any interest in worldly affairs. At the age of 29, he left his home and became a Sadhu. He went to Mecca and Medina. He had travelled far and wide to spread his teachings. Guru Nanak had finally settled at Karthpur. He laid emphasis on pure and simple living. He preached the Unity of God and condemned idolatry. He was against the caste system. Guru Nanak’s followers are called the Sikhs. He started the Langer or the common kitchen, where people belonging to all castes or religions could have their meals together. Nanak’s teachings were in the form of verses. They were collected in a book called the Adi Granth. Later Adi Grantham was written in a script called Gurmukhi. The holy book of the Sikhs is popularly known as ‘Grantha Sahib’. It contains verses from Kabir, Namdeva and other Bhakti and Sufi saints.
Chaitanya (A.D.1485 – A.D.1533) : Chaitanya, a great devotee of Lord Krishna, was a saint from Bengal. From his very childhood, he had showed great interest in education and studied Sanskrit. He married the daughter of a Saintly person. Later at the age of 24, he renounced the worldly life and became a sanyasin. He travelled all over the Deccan,Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. His followers regarded him as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He helped the old and the needy. He was opposed to the inequalities of the caste system. He emphasised the need for tolerance, humanity and love. He spread the message of Bhakti in Bengal. He popularised ‘Sankritan’or public singing of God’s name. His songs are still very popular in Bengal. He was addressed `Mahaprabhu’ by his followers. Tulsi Das : Goswamy Tulsidas was a devotee of Rama. His work gives the story of Rama in Hindi. He was the foremost in popularising Rama cult. His other works in Hindi are Janaki Mangal and Parvathi Mangal. In his writtings he insists the duty of a son to his parent, duty of a student to his teacher and duty of a king to his people. Rama was a dear son to his parents, devoted student to his teacher and a desirable king to his subjects.
Meerabai : Meerabai was a Rajput princess. She married the Rana of Mewar. She was a pious devotee of Lord Krishna. She has written many songs in praise of Krishna, her favourite God, in Rajastani. Her songs or hymns are even today sung all over India. Her palace was kept open to people of all castes to join her Bhajans of Lord Krishna. She had visited all places connected with the life of Lord Krishna. She had lived for the most part of her life in Mathura, the birth place of Krishna and Vrindaban. There is a temple dedicated to Meerabai in Chittor, the capital of Mewar.
Guru Ramdas : Ramdas was a famous teacher. He was born in A.D. 1608. Chatrapati Shivaji, the great Maratha ruler, was a follower of Ramdas. He stressed upon the equality of all men before God. He said that anyone could attain God’s favour by means of Bhakti. Guru Ramdas was not merely a religious preacher but also a Nation Builder.
Tukaram : Tukaram was a saint who lived in Maharashtra. He composed a large number of verses called Abhangas or devotional songs in praise of Panduranga or Krishna. He believed in one God who was kind, merciful and protective. He wrote all his abhangas in Marathi.
Jnaneshwar : He is one of the greatest saints of Maharashtra. He worshipped Vishnu in the form of Vithoba or Krishna. At the age of 112 fourteen, he translated the Bhagawad Gita into the Marathi language. This book is called Jnaneshwari.
BHAKTI MOVEMENT IN SOUTH INDIA
Nayanmars : In South India, the Nayanmars and Alwars were the noted saints of the Bhakti movement. The Nayanmars, the devotees of Siva, were sixty three in number. The most famous among them were Appar, Sundarar, Thirugnana Sambandar and Manickavachakar. These saints composed many verses in praise of Lord Siva. A saint named Nambiandar Nambi collected the devotional songs of Nayanmars. Appar, Sundarar and Thirugnana Sambandar composed the Thevaram hymns. Manickvachakar’s songs are known as Tiruvachakam. Periyapuranam, written by Sekhizhar, tells us the life stories of the Nayanmars.
Alwars : The Alwars were the worshippers of Lord Vishnu who were twelve in number. Among them Nammalwar, Tirumangai Alwar, Andal and Perialwar were famous. The songs of the Alwars were compiled in a book called Nalayira Divya Prabandham by Nadamuni. The devotional songs of Andal is called Thiruppavai. Thirupavai songs are famous in Tamilnadu. These songs are even now sung during the Tamil month of margazhi (December – January).
Basava : Basava lived in Karnataka. He founded the Virasaiva or Lingayat sect. According to Basava, Siva was the supreme God. Basava opposed child marriage and idol worship.
Effects of Bhakti Movement:
The Bhakti movement had brought the Hindus and the Muslims closer to each other. The equality concept preached by the leaders reduced the rigidity of the caste system to a certain extent. The suppressed people gained a feeling of self-respect. The reformers preached in local languages. It led to the development of Vernacular literature. They composed hymns and songs in the languages spoken by the people. Therefore there was a remarkable growth of literature in all the languages. A new language Urdu, a mixture of Persian and Hindi, was developed. The Bhakti movement freed the common people from the tyranny of the priests. It checked the excesses of polytheism. It encouraged the spirit of toleration. The gap between the Hindus and the Muslims was reduced. They began to live amicably together. It emphasised the value of a pure life of charity and devotion. Finally, it improved the moral and spiritual ways of life of the medieval society. It provided an example for the future generation to live with the spirit of toleration.