Chapter 18: BHAKTI MOVEMENT IN INDIA
The coming of Islam to India resulted in many things. One
was the exchange of religious ideas between the Hindus and
Muslims. This led to the development of two popular religious
movements: the Suﬁ movement and the Bhakti movement.
No cultural pattern of the Sultanate period was more enduring
for the Muslim population than that of Sufi devotionalism.
The mystics of Islam are called Safis.
The Sufi holy men
typically adhered to the sharia, but they also stressed inner
realisation of the divine presence, the practice of moral and
physical disciplines, and the need to submit to the authority
of charismatic chains of saintly authority.
They served the
rulers, yet, to a varying degree, sought to present themselves
as distant from the corruption of worldly rule. The founders of
the most important Sufi lineages, Chisti, Suhrawarhi, Qadiri,
and Naqs bandi, were central and west Asian in origin, but
they flourished in the sub-continent.
The Qadiri order, for
instance, was introduced in India by Shaikh Niamatullah and
Makhdum Muhammad Jilani. Suﬁ teachings were enriched
and stimulated by the presence and competition of similar
holy men of the Indian bhakti traditions of devotion, spiritual
disciplines and sophisticated monistic philosophies. Bhakti
devotion and worship, in turn, ﬂowered as well.
Some say the name Sufi was derived from ‘sofa’ (pure)
because of the purity of their hearts; others from ‘sigf (wool)
because of the coarse woollen garments they chose to wear:
yet others traced the origin of the word to ‘suffa‘ from the
low clay built verandah attached to the Prophet Muhammads
mosque in Medina where some of the poorest among his
devoted followers used to sit.
A derivation from the Arabic
verb ‘safwe’. meaning those who are selected, is another
possibility. Eventually the word came to be identified with
seekers of spiritual enlightenment.
The emergence of Sufis as a group of people with a set
identity probably did not happen until about two hundred years
after death of the Prophet Muhammad. This movement came
as a reaction against the degeneration that had taken place
amongst the Muslims.
The years that followed the Prophet
Muhammads passing were to see a weakening of his teachings.
Islam became the basis of an empire and its leadership passed
into the hands of worldly men who sought temporal power
rather than spiritual.
Men of the art had the option either to rebel
against the leadership which was corrupt and bereft of spiritual
guidance — and there were many such rebellions — or to turn
towards their own inner development.
So it was that the more
the world of Islam grew in power and wealth, the more the
spiritually inclined embraced lives of ascetheism and developed
ways of enhancing their inner devotional state. as if to redress
the imbalance in the world around them.
The Suﬁs believe that there was a small circle of such men
around the Prophet Muhammad. Prominent among them was
the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, to whom the Prophet
transmitted the knowledge of agnostic sciences, Imam Ali,
who was to communicate these to his sons, Imams Hasan and
Husayn, and to a few close pupils, such as Hasan of Basra.
They, in tum, passed the truths on to their pupils,
and so the chains of enlightenment have continued up to our
The mystics were also to start their spiritual education with
the study of Quran. The ignorant Suﬁ was
considered a danger to himself and the community.
The Suﬁ orders sprang up around a recognised master.
There were several of them. They differed
in the methods adopted. even while their objectives were the
same - the opening of hearts. When the founder of the order
died his appointed successor would continue to teach in much
the same way as his predecessor had done.
The ultimate awakening of a Sufi, however, was considered
to be the gift of Allah, and thus beyond the wishes or efforts
of either the teacher or pupil.
The suﬁ orders were to perform a major role, not only in
the spiritual development of individual seekers. but also in the
regeneration of the Muslim world when it was devastated the
Mongols. They spread the message of Islam to distinct lands.
From the llth century, Sufi teachings spread from
Sind and Punjab across north and central India.
The teachings were designed to express the experience, the love of
god, culminating in reverence for Sufi saints and for the holy places associated with them, like in the bhakti
tradition of Hinduism. The Qawwali was a familiar form of
singing at their gatherings.
The Bhakti movement in medieval India spread due to
the influence of Islam.
The Islamic ideas were of monotheism, no idol
worship, no casteism, equality and brotherhood of man. The
influence of Sufi saints shaped the thinking of saints like Ramananda,
Nanak and Kabir.
The Sufism originated in Persia and came to India
in the eleventh century. The Sufi saints that were famous were Khwaja
Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer.
The Sufis were revered by both Hindus and Muslims.
Sufis stressed on love and devotion as effective means of
realisation of god.
They said service to man is tantamount to service
to god. Sufis believed in inner purity not external conduct.
They believed in devotion to god instead of blindly following
rituals. They inculcated a spirit of tolerance amongst their
Sufis protested against the materialism of
caliphate as a religious and political institution and turned
towards ascetism, mysticism. They believed Prophet as the
perfect human being.
Sufis were led by sheikh or Pir. They had 12
communities or Silsila means a chain – linking master and
The Sufis believed a guru is necessary to reach
spiritual development. They also preached meditation,
pilgrimage, suppression of passion, fasting, prayer, charity.
The influence of Sufism was seen on Bhakti movement. Their
message of equality attracted the lower castes of Hinduism as
they were oppressed.
The Mughal emperor Akbar too appreciated Sufi
doctrines and they shaped his religious outlook.
Bhakti and Sufi movement succeeded in bringing
Hindus and Muslims together due to their message of love,
The Bhakti saints talked about God being Supreme
Being and concept of one god. The message was self surrender to
god and removal of caste and birth distinctions.
They emphasized on complete devotion as the path to
god and urged people to shed age old superstitions. However the
Bhakti saints in early period belonged to Hinduism and
recognized Hindu gods although they too preached message of love
and unity. The teachers of this movement: Shankaracharya,
Mirabai, Surdas, Tulsidas.
The later Bhakti saints like Kabir, Nanak
remained apostles of Bhakti movement. They learned from old
masters but showed a novel path. They didn’t adhere to any
They preached against idolatry, superstitions,
casteism, polytheism, rituals and ceremonies. They believed in
devotion as only way of salvation. They asked for unity amongst
The Bhakti and Sufi movements were well developed before an
active process of interaction between them began from the 11th
century onwards. The Bhakti movement was a continuation of
the earlier devotional cult.
But what distinguished it now was
that the Suﬁ ideas inﬂuenced its doctrines, as did also certain
Islamic concepts, particularly those of social justice. Their
interaction grew till it reached a climax in the 16th century.
Its impact, however, continued to shape popular minds and
attitudes till the end of the 18th century when new conditions
were created with the advent of colonialism.
The Bhakti teachers taught that the relationship between
man and god was based on love and worshiping the god
with devotion was better than merely performance of religious
ceremonies. Bhakti teachers stressed the need for tolerance
among men and religions.
They also objected to the division
of society into castes and the low status given to women. They
encouraged the women to join the gatherings.
Bhakti leaders dating from this period whose teachings and
cults persist to the present include Ramananda (c. 1360-1470),
Kabir (1440-1518), Guru Nanak (1469-1539), Mirabai
(c.l495 — c.l550), Dadu (1544-1603). Tukaram (l608—l649),
and Chaitanya (1486-1533).
Ramananda was the first Bhakti
saint to use Hindi for the propagation of his message. Like the
Sufis, the bhakti teachers emphasised the individual's own
devotion to the divine. A minor, but extremely signiﬁcant
strand, represented by Kabir and Nanak, emphasised worship
of a personal God without forms i.e. Nirguna. In so doing,
they distanced themselves from dis1inctive Hindu and Muslim
More common than worshippers of a formless god were
Vaishnavites devoted to Lord Vishnu; Shaivaites, devoted to
Lord Shiva; and worshippers of the Goddess (devi) in her many
forms. Vaishnavite worship was focused on the manifestations
of Lord Vishnu as either the ideal king, Lord Ram, or as the
pastoral Lord Krishna, celebrated as child, cowherd, and
lover. This emphasis on individual access to the divine. often
coupled with critiques of merely formal ritual, nonetheless
accommodated, for the most part guidance of Brahman priests,
who played a central role in sectarian communities.
Kabir (1438-1518) either denied the Hindu and Muslim
ideas of God or else equated them by stating that they were
identical. Nanak (l469 -1539) went a step further and described
God without reference to either Hindu or Muslim concepts.
Kabir expressed his ideas in single couplets or dohas which
were compiled on his death. His followers were known as
Nanak’s teaching in the form of verses was collected in
the Adi granth. Nanak wanted his followers to eat together in
a common kitchen Langar - no matter what their caste.
grouped his followers together and on his deathbed, appointed
a guru to be their leader. They called themselves the Khalsa.
In the l7th century, the Khalsa under their tenth Guru Gobind
Singh, was to become a strong military group.
It was then
that the Sikhs distinguished themselves from other people by
the ﬁve characteristics which are commonly called the ﬁve
K's — kesha (hair), kangha (comb), kara (iron bracelet), kirpan
(dagger) and kachcha (underwear). Guru Govind Singh also
named the Grant Sahib as the everlasting Guru of the Sikhs.
Contributions of saints:
1. Ramananda: simplification of
worship and disregarding of caste system were his contributions.
2. Kabir: Disciple of Ramananda.
Studied Hindu and Muslim religions both. He wanted to establish
harmony between them.
Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism.
Attacked all ill effects of religion and gave a moral code for
Importance of Bhakti movement:
1. The Bhakti saints spoke and wrote in regional
languages. The movement provided an impetus to development of
regional languages like Hindi, Marathi, and Kannada.
The saints could establish close contact and appeal
directly to the masses.
They disregarded caste system and advocated equal
status to women. Hence they were popular amongst the lower
The movement gave people a simple religion to show
devotion to god and not rituals and sacrifices.