Bhakti Movement

Bhakti movement was a spontaneous movement and there are two views on its origin. First view is that it originated in Tamil Nadu during the seventh century and then spread through Karnataka, Maharashtra and spread in almost all parts of Northern / Eastern India by 15th century. In Tamil Nadu, the movement was started by Vaishnava saints {Alvars} and Shaiva saints {Nayanars}. The Alvars sang praises of Vishnu as the moved from place to place. They established shrines such as Srirangam and spread the ideas of Vaishnavism. The compilation of their poems called Divya Prabandham developed into a powerful literature of Vaishnavas. The Alvars emphasized on Bhakti and gave reference to Bhagvata Puranas often, they were called the pioneers of Bhakti Movement. The same is applicable to the Saiva Nayanar poets. They travelled from places to places and sang songs in praise of Lord Shiva. The compilation of their songs called Tirumurai, developed into the scripture on Shaivism. Both the Vishnu and Shiva bhakti saints influenced north India and this Bhakti Movement spread from South to North.

The other view is that Bhakti Movement in South and North India developed in parallel. While the movement in South was centered on devotion to respective deity (Shiva or Vishnu); in North India, it came as a response to the arrival of Islam and subsequent Islamic rule. This view can be supported by argument that at the time of advent of Islam, Hinduism had degraded due to superstitions, Brahamanic dominance and complex rituals. Islam came with simple doctrine of brotherhood, equality and oneness of God. Its simple doctrine challenged the social pattern of society and most important result of this was emergence of Bhakti movement and Sufi Movement. Both of these emphasized that God was supreme, all men were equal and Bhakti or devotion to God was the way to achieve salvation.

However, Bhakti was not new to India. Bhakti was propounded in Upanishads and epics. However, the Jnana and Karma were on forefront of Hinduism back then. With the advent of Bhakti, Jnana and Karma went into background and devotion to God to achieve salvation became a pillar of religious practices of the people.

Key Principles

The cardinal principle of Bhakti Cult was influencing devotion to a personal God, whose grace was the only means of attaining salvation or Mukti. It stressed the idea of a personal God and pointed out the absurdity of the caste system in the presence of God and the futility of external rites and ceremonies. It allowed both men and women to achieve salvation by Bhakti. The chief principles of the Bhakti Cult were the following:

Oneness of God and Indispensable Role of Guru

God is one, He alone should be worshipped. By following the path of true devotion (Bhakti) one can find salvation or (nijat, mukti).  A true guru is indispensable for realizing God or attaining salvation.

Nirguna and Saguna God

The Bhakti saints emphasized on two ways of imaging the nature of the God viz. Nirguna and Saguna. Nirguna is the concept of a formless God, which has no attributes or quality. Saguna has form, attributes and quality. Both of these can be traced to the famous Vedic Hymn “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” – Truth is one; sages call it many names. It is the same God, but is viewed from two perspectives. One is Nirguni, which is knowledge focussed and other is Saguni which is love-focused. Thus, the Nirguna poetry is Gyanshrayi (has roots in knowledge) while Saguna poetry is Premashrayi (has roots in love).

Those belonging to Saguna School worshiped the anthropomorphic manifestations of the divine being, particularly Rama and Krishna. Both Rama and Krishna were regarded as incarnation of God on earth. This school remained committed to the scriptural authority of the Vedas and emphasised the need of a human guru as religious mediator between God and man. The conformist saints like Ramananda and Chaitanya, espoused the doctrine of incarnation and worshipped the saguna Ram and Krishna respectively.

Those who followed Nirguna school conceived as Ishvara, the personal and purely spiritual aspect of godhead, beyond all names and forms (nama-rupa), and is to be apprehended only by inner (mystical) experience. This was radical non-conformist group, headed by Kabir, Nanak and Dadu. Kabir was the most radical of them.  They created a religious school which rejected the scriptural authority and every form of idol worship and institutionalised rites and rituals. They fought against social discrimination and strove for Hindu-Muslim reconciliation.

Focus on Equality

All men are equal and there is no question of superiority or inferiority among men. There is brotherhood of mankind. The image worship and caste distinctions and class hatred were the worst enemies of man. They strongly denounced useless ceremonies and rituals and rites must be given up. They are unnecessary and do not help persons to attain salvation. Only the good actions of man can help him to attain salvation. Hence, much emphasis was laid on right actions in place of rituals. It is not necessary to leave this world and go to jungles to reach God. There should be religious toleration. There is only one God only the paths to reach there are different. Both men and women can get salvation by Bhakti and good deeds.

Major Impacts of Bhakti Movement

Surge in vernacular Literature

Bhakti Movement resulted in a surge in Hindu literature in regional / vernacular languages mainly in the form of devotional poems and music.

Development of Philosphies

The Bhakti Movement led to development of different philosophies within the Vedanta school, ranging from dvaita to advaita.

Devotional transformation of society and Inclusiveness

It led to devotional transformation of medieval Hindu society and pushed the early means to achieve salvation {Vedic rituals and ascetic lifestyles} to background and brought individualistic relationship with personally defined God on forefront. Thus, Salvation which was hitherto considered achievable only for Brahmins, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes, was not available to everyone. Thus, this movement provided inclusive path to spiritual salvation to women and members of Shudra and untouchable community. In many ways, the impact was similar to that of Protestant Reformation of Christianity in Europe. It was able to evoke shared religiosity, direct emotional attachment to divine and pursuit of spiritual satisfaction without overhead of institutional super structures.

New forms of Worship

Bhakti Movement led to emergence of new forms of spiritual leadership and social cohesion such as community singing, chanting together of deity names, festivals, pilgrimages, rituals etc. many of which are in vogue even today. It also led to new forms of voluntary social giving such as Seva {service}, Dana (Charity) and Community Kitchens {Bhandra / Langar etc.}.  Some of the temples and Gurudwaras adopted social functions such as helping poor, providing education by establishing charity schools, charity hospitals, relief in the aftermath of natural disasters etc.

Bhakti Movement and India’s Freedom Struggle

In a recent speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a statement that “Bhakti Movement acted as the foundation for the country’s freedom struggle as the movement brought out of people an inherent quality to stand up and fight against evil forces.” This statement can be lifted by UPSC to frame a nice question for Mains. You can discuss the statement in the light of the below facts:

  • Gandhiji’s favorite Bhajan “Vaishnava Jana To” which inspired his ideals of non-violence and social cause was written by Narsi Mehta, who was a Bhakti poet of 15th century

  • Sardar Patel, in the Bardoli Satyagraha had associated the landless Mali and Dubla communities with him in the freedom struggle by the imaginative use of their religious activities expressed through their bhakti movement, bhajan mandlis and symbols of their gods.

  • Various reform movements in British India were directly influenced by Bhakti movement ideals.

In summary, Bhakti movement was essentially the phenomenal revolt of the marginalized segment at decentralizing the hierarchy imposed by the Brahminic domination.  It rebelled against the caste ridden system of the south and fought against Vedic fanatics in north.

Notes on Bhakti Saints and Poets

Alvar Saints

The twelve Alvars were Tamil poet-saints, who lived between 6th and 9th centuries AD and espoused ‘emotional devotion’ or bhakti to Visnu-Krishna in their songs. The devotional songs of the Alvars were created during the Early medieval period of Tamil history and they helped can be called the pioneers of the Bhakti Movement in India.

The collection of their hymns is known as Divya Prabandha. All the saints were male except one named Andal.

Nayanar Saints

The 63 Nayanars saints were the Shiva devotional poets, who lived between 5th and 10th centuries. One saint “Appar” is said to have converted Pallava King Mahendravarman to Saivism. The compilation of their poetry / literature Tirumurai is also called “Tamil Veda”.  These 63 Nayanar saints, along with the 12 Alvars are known as South India’s 75 Apostles of Bhakti movement.


Ramanuja was from the South and he taught in the language of the common people. His disciple was Ramananda who took his Guru’s message to the northern parts of India.


Ramananda was first Bhakti saint and founder of Bhakti Movement of northern India. He preached in Hindi, the language of the masses. He was a disciple of Ramanuja and a conformist saint.

Ramananda was born at Allahabad and educated at Varanasi. He preached at both these places. His 12 disciples included Anantananda, Sursurananda, Sukhanand, Naraharidāsa, Bhavanand, Bhagat Pipa, Kabir, Sen, Dhanna, Ravidas and two women disciples viz. Sursuri and Padyawati. Among them, Kabir was most radical and adopted non-conformist stand later on.


He was a disciple of Ramananda. He is seen as one who balanced the life of a householder, a mystic and a tradesman. Bijak, Sakhi Granth, Kabir Granthawali and Anurag Sagar are compositions of Kabir. The hallmark of Kabir’s works consists of his two line couplets (Doha), which reflect his deep philosophical thinking.

We note here that Kabir was born in 1398 and had died in circa 1448 {not confirmed}. India was attacked by Timur in 1398 and after that Sayyids and Lodis ruled Delhi. He had died many years before arrival of Mughal.


Guru Nanak Dev (October 20, 1469 – September 7, 1539) was the founder of Sikhism, and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. Because of his close connection with Hazrat Sheikh Farid-ud-din Ganj Shakar, the Punjabi Sufi saint, Nanak Dev is also considered by many Muslims to be a Sufi, or adherent of Sufic tenets.  He was born in Nankana Sahib in Punjab and died in Kartarpur.

Nanak, like Kabir, was also a radical saint who had strong faith Nirguna Brahma.

Chaitanya Maha Prabhu

Shri Krishna Chaitanya or Gauranga was born in Nabadwip in West Bengal. His original name was Vishvambhara Mishra. His mode of worshipping Krishna with ecstatic song and dance had a profound effect on Vaishnavism in Bengal.

At 22, he made a pilgrimage to Gaya to perform his father’s Shraddh. There he underwent a profound religious experience that transformed his outlook and personality.  He returned to Nabadwip entirely indifferent to all worldly concerns.

A group of devotees soon gathered around Chaitanya and joined him in the congregational worship called Kirtan, which involves choral singing of the name and deeds of God, often accompanied by dance movements and culminating in states of trance. For Chaitanya, the legends of Krishna and his beloved, Radha, symbolized the highest expression of mutual love between God and the human soul. Bhakti (devotion) superseded all other forms of religious practice and was conceived as complete self-surrender to the divine will.

Although Chaitanya himself wrote no works on theology or religious practices, his selection of and charges to core disciples gave birth to a major Vaishnava sect in his own lifetime, called familiarly the Chaitanya Sampradaya or Gaudiya Sampradaya Chaitanya’s own frequent and prolonged experiences of religious rapture took their toll on his health; he himself diagnosed some of his seizures as epileptic.

Thus, the Gaudiya Sampradaya is an intensely emotional form of Hinduism which flourished from the sixteenth century, mainly in Bengal and eastern Orissa. It started from Nabadwip and spread.  A theology for the movement was worked out by a group of Chaitanya’s disciples who came to be known as the six gosvamins (religious teachers; literally lords of cows). At Chaitanya’s request, this group of scholars remained in Vrindavan, near Mathura, the scene of the Krishna-Radha legends.

The six gosvamins turned out a voluminous religious and devotional literature in Sanskrit, defining the tenets of the movement and its ritual practices.  Their reestablishment of the pilgrimage sites of Vrindavan and Mathura was an achievement of importance for all Vaishnavas (devotees of Lord Vishnu).  Although Chaitanya appears to have been worshipped as an incarnation of Krishna even during his lifetime, the theory of his dual incarnation, as Krishna and Radha in one body, was systematically developed only by the later Bengali religious writers.

The present leaders of the sect, called gosvamins, are (with some exceptions) the lineal descendants of Chaitanya’s early disciples and companions. The ascetics are known as vairagins (the dispassionate).

Among this group was the late A. C. Bhaktivedanta, known as Swami Prabhupada, who believed that Chaitanya’s faith would benefit people throughout the world. He is the founder of the international Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, commonly called the “Hare Krishnas”, which has attempted to establish the beliefs and practices of the Chaitanya Movement around the world.


Another offshoot of the Bhakti Movement was the Krishna cult of Vallabhacharya. He belonged to a Telugu Brahmin family and was born in 1479 Banaras, when the family was on pilgrimage to the place. He was looked upon as prodigy. After finishing his education he went on his travels. At the court of Krishna Deva Raya of Vijyanagar, he scored a triumph over the Saivas in public debate. After visiting Mathura, Brindavan and other places he finally settled in Banaras. He composed many works including Bhagvata Tika, Subodhami. He taught the doctrine of Suddha Advaita which denied any distinction between God and individual soul and regarded Bhakti as the means for the soul to escape its bandage due to delusion. In spite of Vallabha’s stress on self-control and renunciation, his doctrine came to be known as “Pushti Marga” for his successors laid stress on the physical side of Krishna’s sports so that the creed came to be called as the “Epicureanism of the East“.

He laid emphasis on the worship of Krishna as an incarnation of the Almighty God. e preached that there was no difference between the Atma and Parmatma (God). “It is by means of Bhakti alone that one can get salvation and merge with him.”


Eight Disciples of Vallabhacharya are called the Ashta-chhaap, meaning, eight reprints (of the Master). Surdas is considered to be the foremost among them. In the 16th century devotional renaissance in India, poems were sung when recited, and the great mystic poets of those times were often great musicians. Therefore, the poetry composed by the eight Ashta Chhap poets is meant to be sung to music. Its essence is rhythmic invocation, and its real meaning is best expressed when performed as part of devotional service.


She was the great worshipper of Krishna, who preached in the common language of he people. Her songs are very popular all over India. It is Bhakti or devotion to Lord Krishna that can alone ensure salvation from the endless circle of births and deaths.


Raidas or Ravidas was another Nirguna Bhakta disciple of Ramananda. He belonged to a family of leather workers.

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  • Mrinal Shastry

    Kudos to gktoday

  • Rampersad Parasram

    I do believe that Sant Tulsidas (1532 to 1623)who was a chela of Swami Narharidas and whose Ram Carit Manas and dohas,geet and chalisa are very significant, is very much a significant figure in the Bhakti movement..