A Little Light on the Bhakti Movement

I am set alight by the Bhakti movement. What a rich and exciting part of Indian history, of which so little is known in our corner of the world. Yet, it seems to me that understanding the Bhakti culture is essential to understanding the myriad perplexities of Indian religion, as well as the Hindustani relationship to song. So what is ‘bhakti’? We are usually supplied with the ready-to-go English gloss of ‘devotion’, but does this really give us a sense of what it’s all about, in its cultural and historic context? Well, here is my attempt to sketch out the contours of this remarkable story.

By about the 8thC (A.C.E.), the major Indian religions had solidified themselves into some highly elaborate and hierarchical institutions. Power was in the hands of an educated elite who served as intermediaries to the sacred lore. The spiritual teachings were in archaic languages, the way to heaven or nirvana presided over by the pandits or monks, trained in the correct rituals, complexity ad infinitum. (Sounds familiar to those who know some Occidental history)

Then a new and dynamic movement began in the South, around the 9thC, and swept northward with vivacity. This very grass-roots movement rejected the religious power bases and emphasised a real and intense personal connection with the Sacred. No good just to go through the motions, or have the right knowledge; it’s all about feeling it within oneself, generating an intense inner dialog with the divine, a personal relationship. It rejected the exclusivist languages of Sanskrit and Pali in favour of the common parlance, such as local dialects of Hindi. The movement gravitated around inspired bards, or poets, who spread the message through their verses. Music was paramount: it could express the actual sensation of deep devotion, divine communion, surrender, communicate the very emotion that the devotee feels, bring on the intensity. Dance was also important. Whatever engages one’s whole being. And one can’t help noticing the proximity to Persian Sufism in all this, which was seeping down from the North as the Bhakti movement took form. That Persian love of poetry is there as well, the poet as some sort of shaman who receives exalted insight into reality. And music as a way to divine ecstasy. A wonderful cultural tapestry was taking place; a fecund cross-pollination.

 “By the 12th to 18th centuries, the bhakti movement had spread to all regions and languages of India. Bhakti poetry and attitudes began to colour many aspects of Hindu culture, religious and secular, and became an integral part of Indian society. Prominent bhakti poets such as Ravidas and Kabir wrote against the hierarchy of caste. It extended its influence   to Sufism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Jainism. Bhakti offered the possibility of religious experience by anyone, anywhere, at any time.” (wikipedia ‘bhakti’)

 So this Bhakti thing was all about intense personal experience through poetry and music, at the place where these two mediums were still fused: the song. Bhaktans and ascetics wandered the country, meeting in holy places for bhajan, devotional singing. The songs and their teaching (bani) spread orally and the poets became revered as sant-s, many of them spurning sects which survive to this day. The great Western bard, Chaitanya, for example, is the source of the current Krishna bhakti sects of Bengal, and the prodigious Guru Nanak became the founder of Sikhism. Some other famous bhakti poets were Kabir, Tulsidas and Gorakh; Mirabai, Lala and Mahadevi for the female contingent. The Sufi way was illumined by poets such as Baba Farid (Sheik Farid) and Bulleh Shah.

There is a very interesting relationship between the Bhakti movement (first seen as a Hindu Phenomena) and the Sufi culture which had entered India at that time. Some see the Bhakti movement as an attempt to rescue Hinduism from the clutches of stratification and convolution, thereby adopting the attractively egalitarian aspects of Islam which were tempting so many to convert. So one could argue that Islam was a catalyst for change in the native religion; and Islamic culture on the sub-continent was, in return, strongly affected by the Bhakti wave. One only has to listen to that particular  Hindustani genre of Sufi music called Qawali to realize the inter-sectarian continuity of Bhakti culture.   The Hindu bhagats and the Sufi sants came closer together, preaching unity and inclusiveness. With some poets (e.g. Kabir & Nanak), religious distinctions were even vehemently rejected.

The Bhakti and Sufi movements encouraged the spirit of toleration. The gap between the Hindus and the Muslims was reduced. They began to live amicably together. The movements emphasized the value of a pure life of charity and devotion.” (‘Bhakti and Sufi movements in the undivided India’, B. L. Razdan,, June 2, 2012.)

The voices could be heard from Afghanistan to Bengal, and south to Karnataka. And they still can be heard, whether you are singing bhajans in the mandir, Qawali in the darghar or Gurbani in the Sikh Gurdwar. Medieval bhakti poetry forms the canon of classic literature for the Hindi language, and this reveals why Hindi is sometimes called ‘the language of song’. And now you know why Hindi films contain all that singing, and why life in India can imitate art in the same way.