Bhakti as a religious concept means devotional surrender to a personally conceived supreme God for attaining salvation. The origin of this doctrine has been traced to both the Brahmanical and buddhist traditions of ancient India and to various scripture such as Gita. But it was for the first time in South India between the seventh and tenth century that bhakti grew from a mere religious doctrine into a popular movement based on religious equality and broad-based social participation. The movememt which was led by popular saint-poets reached its climax in the tenth century after which it began to decline. But it was received as a philosophical and theological movement by a series of wandering scholars or acharyas, begining with Ramanuja in the eleventh century. The establishment of Delhi Sultanate in early 13th century witnessed great outbrust of many diverse and widespread socio-religious movements in various parts of the country drawing upon the concepts of bhakti. These movements have been seen as continuation or revival of the older south Indian bhakti movement. But each one of the later movements which grew in the Sultanate period had a historical context of its own and its own peculiarities. Morever, one of them, namely, the non-conformist monotheistic movement which associated with Kabir and other “low-caste” saints bear only superficial resemblance to the variants of the movement. Its social roots, its ideology, social composition of its leadership and even its concept of bhakti and God set it fundamentally apart from the older bhakti movement of South India as well as from the rest of the later bhakti movements.



The saiva Nayanar saints and vaishnava Alvar saints of South India spread the doctrine of bhakti among different sections of the society irrespective of caste and sex during the period between the seventh and the tenth century. Some of these saints came from the “lower” castes and some were women. The saint-poets preached bhakti in an intense emotional manner and promoted religious egalitarianism. They dispensed with rituals and traversed the region many times singing, dancing and advocating bhakti. The Alvar and Nayanar saints used the Tamil language and not Sanskrit for preaching and composing devotional songs. All these characteristics gave the movement a popular character. For the first time bhakti acquired a popular base.

The South Indian bhakti saints were critical of Buddhists and Jains who enjoyed a privileged status at the courts of South Indian kings at that time. They won in excess of several adherents of Buddhism and Jainism both of which through now had become rigid and formal religions. At the similar time, though, these poet-saints resisted the power of the orthodox Brahmans through creation bhakti accessible to all without any caste and sex discrimination.

But the South Indian bhakti movement had its limitations as well. It never consciously opposed Brahmanism or the varna and caste systems at the social stage. It was integrated with the caste organization and the “lower” castes continued to suffer from several social disabilities. There was no elimination of Brahmanical rituals such as worship of idols, recitation of the Vedic mantras and pilgrimages to sacred spaces in spite of the overriding emphasis on bhakti as the superior mode of worship. The Buddhists and Jains were its main targets, not the Brahmans. This perhaps was also the cause why the Brahman dominated temples played a significant role in the growth of South Indian bhakti movement. Since the ideological and social foundations of caste organization were not questioned by the South Indian saint-poets, the bhakti movement of the South in the extensive run strengthened it rather than weakening it. Ultimately, after the movement reached its climax in the tenth century, it was slowly assimilated into the conventional Brahmanical religion.

But despite these limitations, the South Indian bhakti movement in its heyday succeeded in championing the cause of religious equality and, consequently, the Brahmans had to accept the right of the “low-caste” to preach, to have access to bhakti as a mode of worship and to have access even to the Vedas.

Bhakti and the South Indian Acharyas:

When the popularity of the bhakti movement in South India was on the wane, the doctrine of bhakti was defended at the philosophical stage through a series of brilliant vaishnava Brahaman scholars (acharyas).

Ramanuja (11th century) was first in the middle of them. He gave philosophical justification for bhakti. He tried to set up a careful balance flanked by orthodox Brahmanism and popular bhakti which was open to all. Though he did not support the thought of the “lower” castes having access to the Vedas, he advocated bhakti as a mode of worship accessible to all including the Sudras and even the outcastes. While propagating bhakti, He did not observe caste distinctions and even tried to eradicate untouchability.

Nimbarka, a Telugu Brahman, is believed to have been a younger contemporary of Ramanuja. He spent most of his time in Vrindavan close to Mathura in North India. He believed in total devotion to Krishna and Radha.

Another South Indian vaishnavite bhakti philosopher was Madhava who belonged to the thirteenth century. Like Ramanuja, he did not dispute orthodox Brahmanical restriction of the Vedic study by the Sudras. He believed that bhakti provided alternate avenue of worship to the Sudras. His philosophical organization was based on the Bhagvat Purana. He is also believed to have toured North India.

The last two prominent vaishnava acharyas were Ramananda (late 14th and early 15th century) and Vallabha (late 15th and early 16th century). Since both of them existed mostly in North India throughout the Sultanate era and gave new orientation to the vaishnava bhakti, they will be discussed in the part dealing with North India.


There arose during the Sultanate era (13th-15th century) several popular socio-religious movements in North and East India, and Maharashtra. Emphasis on bhakti and religious equality were two general characteristics of these movements. As has been pointed out, these two were also the characteristics of the South Indian bhakti movements. Approximately all the bhakti movements of the Sultanate era have been related to one South Indian vaishnava acharya or the other. For these reasons, several scholars consider that the bhakti movements of the Sultanate era were a continuation or resurgence of the older bhakti movement. They argue that there lived philosophical and ideological links between the two either due to contact or diffusion. Therefore, Kabir and other leaders of non-conformist monotheistic movements in North India are believed to have been the disciples of Ramananda who, in turn, is believed to have been linked with Ramanuja‟s philosophical order. Similar claims have been made that Chaitanya, the most important figure of the vaishnava movement in Bengal, belonged to the philosophical school of Madhava. This movement is also believd to have been linked with Nimbarka’s school because of its emphasis on Krishna‟ bhakti.

There are undoubtedly striking similarities between the older bhakti custom of South India and several bhakti movements that flourished in the Sultanate and Mughal periods. If we exclude the popular monotheistic movements of Kabir, Nanak and other “low” caste saints, the two sets of movements can be shown to have possessed many more common features. For instance, like the South Indian bhakti movement, the vaishnava bhakti movements of North and Eastern India and Maharashtra, though egalitarian in the religious sphere, never denounced the caste organization, the power of Brahmanical scriptures and the Brahmanical privileges as such.

Consequently, like the South Indian bhakti, most of the vaishnava movements of the later era were ultimately assimilated into the Brahmanical religion, though in the process of interaction, the latter itself underwent several changes. However, the similarities end here. Bhakti movement was never a single movement except in the broad doctrinal sense of a movement which laid emphasis on bhakti and religious equality. The bhakti movements of medieval India differed in many significant respects not only from the older South Indian bhakti custom but also among themselves. Each one of them had its own regional identity and socio-historical and cultural contexts. Therefore, the non-conformist movements based on popular monotheistic bhakti contained characteristics that were essentially different from several vaishnava bhakti movements. Kabir’s notion of bhakti was not the same as that of the medieval vaishnava saints such as Chaitanya or Mirabai. Within the vaishnava movement, the historical context of Maharashtra bhakti was different from that of the Bengal vaishnavism or North Indian bhakti movement of Ramanand, Vallabha, Surdas and Tulsidas. Throughout the later era, when the vaishnava bhakti movement crystallized into sects, there arose frequent disputes between them which sometimes even turned violent. In the middle of all the bhakti movements of the era between the 14th and 17th century, the popular monotheistic movements of Kabir, Nanak, Raidas and other “lower” caste saints stand out fundamentally different.

Popular Monotheistic Movement and Vaishnava Bhakti Movement:

Both these movements arose in Northern India at the same time, that is, in the centuries following the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and advent of Islam in that part of the country. For this reason, the rise of both the movements is quite often attributed to certain common causes such as the influence of Islam on Hinduism. However, the causes and sources of the two movements and the factors exerting influence on them were quite diverse. It will become clear from the discussion in the next part of this chapter that a cause which explains one movement may not do so in the case of the other. This is so because the popular monotheistic movements arose and reached their peak in the Sultanate era, while the vaishnava movements began in the Sultanate era but reached their climax throughout the Mughal era.

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