Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

A brief history of the Bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement empowered those on the lowest rungs of Indian society and provided impetus for the growth of vernacular literature

The world over, the image of the singer-songwriter has been a powerful one. Bards, who functioned as chroniclers and satirists mocking the meaningless conventions of their times, and who sometimes wrote and sang their verses, have featured in most world civilizations.

In India, the image of the singer-songwriter manifested itself in its fullest in what came to be known later as the Bhakti movement. The rigid caste system, the complicated ritualism that constituted the practice of worship and the inherent need to move to a more fulfilling method of worship and salvation perhaps spurred this movement.

Bhakti poets emphasized surrender to god. Equally, many of the Bhakti saints were rebels who chose to defy the currents of their time through their writings. The Bhakti tradition continues in a modified version even in the present day.

The movement probably began in the Tamil region around the 6th and 7th century AD and achieved a great deal of popularity through the poems of the Alvars and Nayanars, the Vaishnavite and Shaivite poets. Hailing from both high and low castes, these poets created a formidable body of literature that firmly established itself in the popular canon.

In the Kannada region, the movement begun by Basavanna (1105-68) in the 12th century for a time threatened the caste hierarchy and stretched the fabric of local society. While the orthodoxy managed to resist, the Bhakti movement in this region produced a rich vein of literature that came to be known as Vachana sahitya composed by Basava himself as well as his disciples (Akkamahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Devara Dasimayya and others). Consisting of pithy aphorisms, these Vachanas conveyed in unambiguous terms certain astute observations on spiritual and social matters.

Basavanna, the fount of the movement in Karnataka, was a minister of King Bijjala. He used his considerable powers to initiate programmes of social reform and saw his verses as extending his message to the masses. He was ultimately defeated by the orthodoxy, but he had initiated a new thinking in society that survives to the modern day, and in Karnataka, he remains an inspirational figure to this day.

As a social movement, the Bhakti movement in Karnataka, and indeed everywhere in India, challenged caste hierarchy, emphasized the individual's direct connection to god and the possibility of salvation for all through good deeds and simple living. As a literary movement, it liberated poetry from singing the praises of kings and introduced spiritual themes. From a style point of view, it introduced simple and accessible styles like vachanas (in Kannada) and other forms in various languages to literature and ended the hegemony of Sanskrit metrical forms.

In neighbouring Maharashtra, the Bhakti movement began in the late 13th century. Its proponents were known as the Varkaris. Among its most popular figures were Jnanadev (1275- 96), Namdev (1270-50) and Tukaram (1608-50), who have left behind many verses that embody the essence of Bhakti.

Tukaram was a rebel in more ways than one. A Shudra by caste, he became a merchant. Later, defying the injunctions of the Brahmins, Tukaram chose to write on religious matters, and that too in Marathi, the language of the people.

That a Shudra chose to write was itself unacceptable to the Brahmins. Writing on religious matters in Marathi and not in Sanskrit was yet another issue. Forced by the orthodoxy to throw his manuscripts into the river, legend has it that Tukaram undertook a fast unto death and after the 13th day, his sunken notebooks appeared from the river, undamaged.

The story itself is probably apocryphal, but nevertheless illustrates the extent to which society is prepared to go to silence the rebel.

In northern India, from the 13th to the 17th centuries, a large number of poets flourished who were all Bhakti figures of considerable importance. At times, speaking of a formless god, sometimes centring their devotion on a preferred god (ishtdevata), these poets have left behind a considerable body of literature in Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Maithili and a number of other languages.

Almost always instinctively rebellious, these poets played an important role in laying the foundation for a reconfiguration of society on more equitable lines. Several strains of thinking emerged out of their efforts.

Kabir, the renowned saint of northern India, falls squarely in this tradition of singer-songwriter-critic. Living in the 13th and 14th centuries (the exact dates are disputed, but fall between 1398 and 1518), Kabir upturned the religious notions and social conventions of his time.

Kabir preached a monotheism that appealed directly to the poor and assured them of their access to god without an intermediary. He rejected both Hinduism and Islam, as well as empty religious rituals, and denounced hypocrisy. This outraged the orthodox gentry.

But Kabir was not to be cowed down. He was something of a lone wolf, not afraid to stand up for himself and his beliefs.

Another singer-songwriter was Guru Nanak (1469-1539), an iconoclast and, yes, critic of the dominant societal values of his time. Nanak was of a syncretic mindset and attempted to fuse the tenets of Hinduism and Islam to serve as a guide for all humanity. He rebelled against a society that preferred ritual to devotion and sincerity. Among the institutions that he challenged was caste.

Nanak did not subscribe to caste taboos and was contemptuous of its ideas of “high" and “low". Given the injunctions against intermingling, Nanak frequently travelled with Mardana, a lower-caste Mirasi (a community of dancers and singers).

Mardana was a skilled rubab player who is said to have accompanied Nanak whenever he sang his verses. Eventually, Nanak founded a separate religion, Sikhism, which attempted to put his precepts into practice.

A near-contemporary of Nanak was Ravi Dass (1450-1520), who was born into a family of leather workers (chamars) in Varanasi. Like Nanak, Ravi Dass too spoke of the need for a casteless society, though, unlike Nanak, he had suffered its slings and arrows as he belonged to an untouchable caste.

In one of his popular poems, Ravi Dass speaks of “Begumpura"—“a place with no pain, no taxes or cares… no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture" (translated by Hawley and Juergensmeyer in Songs of the Saints of India). In this verse and in many others, Ravi Dass gave voice to lower-caste pain at Brahminical society’s treatment of them. The Ravidassia community that continues to flourish to this day is evidence of the everlasting nature of his appeal.

While Kabir, Ravi Dass and Nanak spoke of the formless god (nirgun bhakti), Meerabai (1498-1546) from Rajasthan composed and sung devotional verses in praise of Krishna. Meera’s intense devotion to Krishna in defiance of patriarchal norms was a rebellious act. Her determination to be united with the lord she thought of as her beloved was a source of deep friction within her family, but Meera held steady nevertheless.

The Bhakti movement empowered the underbelly of Indian society in fundamental ways and also provided the required impetus for the growth of vernacular literature. This tradition of those deemed “low" singing and writing did not, however, end with the Bhakti movement comingling into the mainstream.

In 19th century Karnataka, Shishunala Sharif (1819-89) was an influential figure. A Muslim by birth, Sharif also accepted the tenets of Hinduism and often sang of communal harmony. During the freedom struggle, the poet-revolutionary Ram Prasad “Bismil" (1897-1927) composed the songs Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai and Rang de basanti chola that were sung by many revolutionaries.

In recent years, a number of singer-songwriters have sung stridently and powerfully about what they see as injustices in the society they live in. In October 2015, folk-singer Koovan was arrested near Trichy in Tamil Nadu. He had for a while been singing songs highly critical of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa and her liquor policies.

The two songs that landed Koovan in trouble were Moodu Tasmac moodu (shut down Tasmac, the state liquor distribution agency) and Ooruku oru sarayam (A bottle of liquor for every village).

In 2011 in Pune, Sheetal Sathe and her husband Sachin Mali, along with two others—all with the Kabir Kala Manch—were arrested for Naxal links and also had charges of sedition slapped on them. The group had been formed in the wake of the Gujarat riots in 2002 and had performed songs and plays about social inequality, the exploitation of the labour class, farmer suicides, female infanticide, Dalit killings and corruption.

Also in Maharashtra, the lok shahir (folk poet) Sambhaji Bhagat has been a hugely influential figure. His songs too are about Dalit issues, the venality of the ruling class and the struggles of the labouring class.

In Punjab, Bant Singh and Jagsir Jeeda, both Dalits and hailing from agricultural labourer families, have sung of alcoholism, exploitation and ill-treatment by the landed class and the corrupt ways of politicians. Bant was targeted by the land-owning class of his village after he defiantly pursued legal action when his daughter was raped.

His limbs were hacked off and he was left to bleed to death. Bouncing back from the brink of death, Bant Singh in recent years has become a national figure after the publication of a book on him, The Ballad of Bant Singh, by Nirupama Dutt.

In Telangana, the name Gaddar resonates hugely with the working class. A poet, singer and political activist, Gaddar, has for decades been a popular figure with his biting songs about social issues. Brutally outspoken, he has in the past been targeted by the police and political rivals.

As is evident, the Bhakti philosophy of intense devotion, coupled with the defiant streak that ran through it, has not died out. It continues in modified forms—a true example of the meek seeking to inherit the earth and attempting to mould it to their terms.

These heirs to the Bhakti tradition are not religious in the sense of emphasizing worship and devotion. Their concerns, indeed devotion, is to the cause of economic justice and a more egalitarian world.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer.

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