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Day 18: History - History (Day 13 to 23)

Bhakti-Sufi Movements

Bhakti-Sufi Movements

Bhakti movement


  • The development of Bhakti movement took place in Tamil Nadu between the seventh and twelfth centuries. It was reflected in the emotional poems of the Nayanars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu). These saints looked upon religion not as a cold formal worship but as a loving bond based upon love between the worshipped and worshipper. They wrote in local languages, Tamil and Telugu and were, therefore, able to reach out to many people.
  • In course of time, the ideas of the South moved up to the North but it was a very slow process. Sanskrit, which was still the vehicle of thought, was given a new form. For instance, the Bhagavata Purana of ninth century was not written in the old Puranic form. Centered around Krishna’s childhood and youth, this work uses Krishna’s exploits to explain deep philosophy in simple terms. This work became a turning point in the history of the Vaishnavite movement which was an important component of the Bhakti movement.
  • A more effective method for spreading of the Bhakti ideology was the use of local languages. The Bhakti saints composed their verses in local languages. They also translated Sanskrit works to make them understandable to a wider audience. Thus we find Jnanadeva writing in Marathi, Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas in Hindi, Shankaradeva popularising Assamese, Chaitanya and Chandidas spreading their message in Bengali, Mirabai in Hindi and Rajasthani. In addition, devotional poetry was composed in Kashmiri, Telugu, Kannad, Oriya, Malayalam, Maithili and Gujarati.
  • The Bhakti saints believed that salvation can be achieved by all. They made no distinction of caste, creed or religion before God. They themselves came from diverse backgrounds. Ramananda, whose disciples included Hindus and Muslims, came from a conservative brahman family. His disciple, Kabir, was a weaver. Guru Nanak was a village accountant’s son. Namdev was a tailor.
  • The saints stressed equality, disregarded the caste system and attacked institutionalised religion. They did not confine themselves to purely religious ideas. They advocated social reforms too. They opposed sati and female infanticide.
  • Women were encouraged to join kirtans. Mirabai and LalDedcomposed verses that are popular even today. Amongst the non-sectarian Bhakti saints, the most outstanding contribution was made by Kabir and Guru Nanak.
  • Their ideas were drawn from both Hindu and Islamic traditions and were aimed at bridging the gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims.

Alvars and Nayanars of Tamil Nadu

  • The Vaishnavite and Shaivite saints of the Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu are collectively called Alvars and Nayanars respectively. There were 12 Alvars and 63 Nayanars in all. Together, they formed the 75 great poet-saints of the Tamil Bhakti movement.
  • They all existed in different time periods and came from different social backgrounds. However, it was the complete devotion and surrender to their personal god, which was a common theme.
  • Of the Alvars, the 12 Vaishnavite saints who composed poems in praise of Vishnu, Andal was the only female poet-saint. The Alvars travelled from village to village and sang of their pure love for Vishnu. The great Vishnu temples mentioned in their compositions were later grouped together as the 108 DivyaDesams and are scattered around Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The canonization of the 12 saints happened between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, when their poems were compiled together by a Vaishnava theologian named Nathamuni in a text called NaalayiraDivyaPrabhandham. It contained four thousand verses in praise of Vishnu.
  • The 63 Nayanars saints were the followers of Shiva and lived between the 5th and 10th centuries. Like, the Alwars, they too existed at different times but were bound by their love for Shiva. One saint- Appar, is said to have converted the Pallava King Mahendravarman to Shaivism, sometime between 600 to 630 CE. As the rulers became Hindu, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline. The compilation of Nayanar poetry and literature is called Tirumurai, which is a 12 volume compendium, compiled over different points of time. It comprises of 18,426 songs of these poet saints, dedicated to Shiva.

From Tamil Nadu, the movement spread north to Karnataka in the 12th century through works of Basavanna (1105-68 CE) and then to Maharashtra in 13th century CE, through the Varkari movement.


  • In the Kannada region, the movement was begun by Basavanna (1105-68) in the 12th century for a time that threatened the caste hierarchy and stretched the fabric of local society.
  • The tradition of Lingayatism is known to have been founded by Basavanna. The term Lingayat denotes a person who wears a personal linga, an iconic form of god Shiva, on the body which is received during the initiation ceremony.
  • While the orthodoxy managed to resist, the Bhakti movement in this region produced a rich vein of literature that came to be known as Vachanasahitya composed by Basava himself as well as his disciples (AkkaMahadevi, AllamaPrabhu, DevaraDasimayya 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.


  • 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.

North India


  • Kabir believed that the way to God was through personally experienced bhakti or devotion. He believed that the Creator is One. His God was called by many names - Rama, Hari, Govinda, Allah, Rahim, Khuda, etc. No wonder then that the Muslims claim him as Sufi, the Hindus call him Rama-Bhakta and the Sikhs incorporate his songs in the AdiGranth. The external aspects of religion were meaningless for Kabir. His beliefs and ideas were reflected in the dohas (Sakhi) composed by him.
  • Kabir’s ideas were not restricted to religion. He attempted to change the narrow thinking of society. His poetry was forceful and direct. It was easily understood and much of it has passed into our everyday language.


  • Born at Talwandi (Nakana Sahib), he showed leanings towards a spiritual life from the early age. He was helpful to the poor and needy. His disciples called themselves Sikhs (derived from Sanskrit sisya, disciple or Palisikkha, instruction).
  • Guru Nanak’s objective was to remove the existing corruption and degrading practices in society. He showed a new path for the establishment of an egalitarian social order. Like Kabir, GuruNanak was as much a social reformer as he was a religious teacher. He called for an improvement in the status of women. He said that women who give birth to kings should not be spoken ill of. His vani (words) along with those of other Sikh Gurus have been brought together in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.

Ravi Das

  • A near-contemporary of Nanak was Ravi Das (1450-1520), who was born into a family of leather workers in Varanasi.
  • Like Nanak, Ravi Das 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.

Vaishnavite Movement

  • During this period, another movement based upon devotion towards a sakar form of God had also developed. This movement called the Vaishnavite movement, centered around the worship of Rama and Krishna.
  • Its main exponents were Surdas, Mirabai, Tulsidas and Chaitanya. Their path to salvation was expressed through the medium of poetry, song, dance and kirtans.
  • Surdas (1483-1563) was a disciple of the famous teacher, Vallabhachara. He was a blind poet, whose songs are centered around Krishna. His Sursagar recounts the exploits of Krishna during his childhood and youth with gentle affection and delightfulness.
  • The Vaishnavite movement spread in the east through the efforts of Chaitanya (1484- 1533). Chaitanya considered Krishna not as a mere incarnation of Vishnu but as the highest form of God.. The devotion for Krishna was expressed through Sankirtans (hymn session by devotees) which took place in homes, temples and even street processions.
  • The worship of Rama was popularised by saints like Ramananda (1400-1470). He considered Rama as the supreme God. Women and outcasts were welcomed.
  • The most famous of the Rama bhaktas was Tulsidas (l 532-1623) who wrote the Ramacharitmanas.
  • The Vaishnavite saints developed their philosophy within the broad framework of Hinduism. They called for reforms in religion and love amongst fellow beings. Their philosophy was broadly humanist.

Sufi movement

  • Among the Sunnis, there are four principal schools of Islamic Law viz. Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali. Of these, the Hanafi school of the eighth century was adopted by the eastern Turks, who later came to India.
  • The greatest challenge to orthodox Sunnism came from the rationalist philosophy or Mutazilas, who professed strict monotheism. According to them, God is just and has nothing to do with man’s evil actions. Men are endowed with free will and are responsible for their own actions.
  • The Mutazilas were opposed by the Ashari School. Founded by AbulHasanAshari (873-935 AD), the Asharischool evolved its own rationalist argument in defence of the orthodox doctrine (kalam). This school believes that God knows, sees and speaks. The Quran is eternal and uncreated. The greatest exponent of this school was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), who is credited with having reconciled orthodoxy with mysticism.
  • The influence of the ideas of Ghazali was greater because of the new educational system set up by the state, It provided for setting up of seminaries of higher learning (called madrasas) where scholars were familiarised with Ashari ideas. They were taught how to run the government in accordance with orthodox Sunni ideas. These scholars were known as ulema. Ulema played an important role in the politics of medieval India.
  • Contrary to the ulema were the Sufis. The Sufis were mystics. They were pious men who were shocked at the degeneration in political and religious life. They opposed the vulgar display of wealth in public life and the readiness of the ulema to serve “ungodly” rulers.
  • The Sufis laid emphasis upon free thought and liberal ideas. They were against formal worship, rigidity and fanaticism in religion. The Sufis turned to meditation in order to achieve religious satisfaction. Like the Bhakti saints, the Sufis too interpreted religion as ‘love of god’ and service of humanity.
  • In course of time, the Sufis were divided into different silsilahs (orders) with each silsilah having its own pir (guide) called Khwaja or Sheikh. The pir and his disciples lived in a khanqah (hospice). A pir nominated a successor or wali from his disciples to carry on his work. The Sufis organised samas (a recital of holy songs) to arouse mystical ecstasy. Basra in Iraq became the centre of Sufi activities.
  • It must be noted that the Sufi saints were not setting up a new religion, but were preparing a more liberal movement within the framework of Islam. They owed their allegiance to the Quran as much as the ulema did.

Sufism in India

  • The advent of Sufism in India is said to be in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. One of the early Sufis of eminence, who settled in India, was Al-Hujwari who died in 1089, popularly known as Data GanjBaksh (Distributor of Unlimited Treasure).
  • In the beginning, the main centres of the Sufis were Multan and Punjab. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Sufis had spread to Kashmir, Bihar, Bengal and the Deccan.
  • AbulFazl while writing in the Ain-i-Akbari speaks of fourteen silsilahs of the Sufis. These silsilahs were divided into two types: Ba-shara and Be-shara.
  • Ba-sharawere those orders that followed the Islamic Law (Sharia) and its directives such as namaz and roza. Chief amongst these were the Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdawsi, Qadiri and Naqshbandisilsilahs.
  • The besharasilsilahs were not bound by the Sharia. The Qalandars belonged to this group.


  • It was founded in a village called KhwajaChishti (near Herat).In India, the Chishtisilsilah was founded by KhwajaMuinuddinChishti (born c. 1142) who came to India around 1192. He made Ajmer the main centre for his teaching. He believed that serving mankind was the best form of devotion and therefore he worked amongst the downtrodden. He died in Ajmer in 1236. During Mughal times, Ajmer became a leading pilgrim centre because the emperors regularly visited the Sheikh’s tomb.
  • Among his disciples were Sheikh Hamiduddin of Nagaur and QutubuddinBakhtiyar Kaki. The former lived the life of a poor peasant, cultivated land and refused Iltutmish’s offer of a grant of villages. The khanqah of QutubuddinBakhtiyar Kaki was also visited by people from all walks of life. Sultan Iltutmish dedicated the Qutub Minar to this Saint.
  • Sheikh Fariduddin of Ajodhan (Pattan in Pakistan) popularised the Chishtisilsilah in modern Haryana and Punjab. He opened his door of love and generosity to all. Baba Farid, as he was called, was respected by both Hindus and Muslims. His verses, written in Punjabi, are quoted in the Adi Granth.
  • Baba Farid’s most famous disciple ShaikhNizamuddinAuliya (1238-1325) was responsible for making Delhi an important centre of the Chishtisilsilah. He came to Delhi in 1259 and during his sixty years in Delhi, he saw the reign of seven sultans. He preferred to shun the company of rulers and nobles and kept aloof from the state. For him renunciation meant distribution of food and clothes to the poor. Amongst his followers was the noted writer Amir Khusrau.
  • Another famous Chishti saint was Sheikh Nasiruddin Mahmud, popularly known as NasiruddinChirag-i-Dilli (The Lamp of Delhi). Following his death in 13 56 and the lack of a spiritual successor, the disciples of the Chishtisilsilah moved out towards eastern and southern India.


  • This silsilah was founded by Sheikh ShihabuddinSuhrawardi. It was established in India by Sheikh BahauddinZakariya (1182-1262). He set up a leading khanqah in Multan, which was visited by rulers, high government officials and rich merchants.
  • Sheikh BahauddinZakariya openly took Iltutmisht’s side in his struggle against Qabacha and received from him the title Shaikhul Islam (Leader of Islam). The Suhrawardisilsilah was firmly established in Punjab and Sind.
  • It must be noted that unlike the Chishti saints, the Suhrawardis maintained close contacts with the state. They accepted gifts, jagirs and even government posts in the ecclersiastical department.


  • As a branch ofSuhrawardiSilsilah, it was introduced in India by Syed BadruddinSamarqandi. He was a friend and contemporary of HazratNizamuddinAuliya.
  • It was popularised by ShaikhSharfuddinYahya.


  • Abdullah Shattari, a great-grandson (fifth generation) of Sheikh ShihabuddinSuhrawardi, introduced it in India during Lodhi Dynasty.
  • Tansen was the follower of this order.


  • It was established in India by Niyammad-ulla-Qadiriduring Babur’s reign.
  • A great follower of this order was DaraShikoh, the eldest son of Shah jahan.
  • During Aurangazeb’s reign, the Qadri order lost its patronage.


  • It was founded by KhwajaBaqiBillah, the disciple ofKhwajaBahauddinNaqshbandi, and the followers were very orthodox compared to all other orders.
  • It was popularized in India by Babur who was deeply devoted to Naqshbandiyya leader KhwajaUbaidullahAhrar.
  • Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi of this order opposed all the secular practices and beliefs of Akbar and demanded re-imposition of Jizyah.

Philosophy in Medieval India

The major religious movements were brought about by the mystics. They contributed to the religious ideas and beliefs. Bhakti saints like AdiSankaracharya, Vallabhacharya, Ramanuja, Nimbaraka brought about new philosophical thinking which had its origin in Shankaracharya’sadvaita (non-dualism) philosophy.

Advaitaby Sankaracharya

  • Sankaracharya was a great thinker, distinguished philosopher, and leader of the Hindu revivalist movement of the 9th century, which gave a new orientation to Hinduism.
  • He was born in Kaladi (Kerala) and propounded the Advaita (Monism) philosophy and Nirgunabrahman (god without attributes).
  • In Advaita, the reality of the world is denied and Brahman is considered as the only reality. It is only Brahman at its base that gives it its reality.
  • His famous quotes include, “Brahma Satyam JagatMithyaJivoBrahmatraNaparaha”, meaning, “The Absolute Spirit is the reality, the world of appearance is Maya”.
  • According to him, gyaan (knowledge) alone can lead to salvation.
  • He wrote commentary on the Bhagvat Gita, on the Brahmasutra and the Upanishads, and wrote books like:
    1. UpadeshShastri
    2. VivekChudamani
    3. BhajaGovindumStotra
  • He stablished mathas at Sringiri, Dwarka, Puri, and Badrinath.

Vishistadvaita of Ramanujacharya

  • Vïshistadvaita means modified monism.
  • The ultimate reality according to this philosophy is Brahman (God) and matter and soul are his qualities.
  • Ramanujacharyawrote:
    1. Sribhashya
    2. Vedanta dipa
    3. Gita Bhasya
    4. Vedantasara

Sivadvaita of Srikanthacharya

  • According to this philosophy, the ultimate Brahman is Shiva, endowed with Shakti.
  • Shiva exists in this world as well as beyond it.

Dvaita of Madhavacharya

  • The literal meaning of dvaita is dualism which stands in opposition to non-dualism and monism of Shankaracharya.
  • He believed that the world is not an illusion (maya) but a reality full of differences.

Dvaitadvaita of Nimbaraka

  • Dvaitadvaita means dualistic monism.
  • According to this philosophy, God transformed himself into world and soul. This world and soul are different from God (Brahman). They could survive with the support of God only. They are separate but dependent.

Suddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya

  • Vallabhacharya wrote commentaries on Vedanta Sutra and Bhagavad Gita. For him. Brahman (God) was Sri Krishna who manifested himself as souls and matter. God and soul are not distinct, but one. The stress was on pure non-dualism.
  • His philosophy came to be known as Pushtimarga (the path of grace) and the school was called Rudrasampradaya.

Importance of the Bhakti-Sufi movements

  • It opposed religious bigotry and social rigidities. It emphasised good character and pure thinking. At a time when society had become stagnant, the Bhakti saints infused new life and strength.
  • They awakened a new sense of confidence and attempted to redefine social and religious values. Saints like Kabir and Nanak stressed upon the reordering of society along egalitarian lines. Their call to social equality attracted many a downtrodden.
  • The importance of the Bhakti and Sufi saints lies in the new atmosphere created by them, which continued to affect the social, religious and political life of India even in later centuries. Akbar’s liberal ideas were a product of this atmosphere in which he was born and brought up. The preaching of Guru Nanak was passed down from generation to generation. This resulted in the growth of a separate religious group, with its separate language and script Gurmukhi and religious book, Guru Granth Sahib.
  • Like the Bhakti saints who were engaged in breaking down the barriers within Hinduism, the Sufis too infused a new liberal outlook within Islam. The interaction between early Bhakti and Sufi ideas laid the foundation for more liberal movements of the fifteenth century.
  • Like the Bhakti saints, the Sufi saints contributed greatly to the growth of a rich regional literature. Most of the Sufi saints were poets who chose to write in local languages. Baba Farid recommended the use of Punjabi for religious writings. ShaikhHamiduddin, before him, wrote in Hindawi. His verses are the best examples of early Hindawi translation of Persian mystical poetry. Syed GesuDaraz was the first writer of Deccani Hindi. He found Hindi more expressive than Persian to explain mysticism. A number of Sufi works were also written in Bengali.
  • The most notable writer of this period was Amir Khusrau (l 252-1325) the follower of NizamuddinAuliya. Khusrau took pride in being an Indian and looked at the history and culture of Hindustan as a part of his own tradition. He wrote verses in Hindi (Hindawi) and employed the Persian metre in Hindi. He created a new style called sabaq-i-hindi. By the fifteenth century, Hindi had begun to assume a definite shape and Bhakti saints such as Kabir used it extensively.
  • The interaction between the Bhakti and Sufi saints had an impact upon Indian society. The Sufi theory of Wahdat-al-Wujud (Unity of Being) was remarkably similar to that in the Hindu Upanishads. Many Sufi poet-saints preferred to use Hindi terms rather than Persian verses to explain concepts. Thus we find Sufi poets such as Malik Muhammad Jaisi composing works in Hindi. The use of terms such as Krishna, Radha, Gopi, Jamuna, Ganga etc. became so common in such literature that an eminent Sufi, Mir Abdul Wahid wrote a treatise Haqaiq-i-Hïndi to explain their Islamic equivalents. In later years this interaction continued as Akbar and Jahangir followed a liberal religious policy.
  • The popular verses and songs of the Bhakti saints also served as forerunners of a musical renaissance. New musical compositions were written for the purpose of group singing at kirtans. Even today Mira’s bhajans and Tulsidas’schaupais are recited at prayer meetings.

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