Bhakti is inherent in Indian culture. However, at a particular turn of history, Bhakti took the form of a socio-religious movement, and soon it became the largest cultural movement in India. From the viewpoint of the time period, it covered more than 1000 years and it lingers even today.It is an inclusive cultural phenomenon. It assimilated within itself both high Brahmanic culture and lower tribal culture, orthodoxy as well as liberalism, and elitism as well as popular elements. So, it was heterogenous in character.Meaning of the term – Devotion? The term Bhakti-marga is one of the three ways to achieve moksha.
- Yajna, Japa, Tapa, Anushthana, Vratas etc.
- Knowledge, as described in Upanishads
- Spiritual practices like Shravana, Manana, Nididhyasa
- The root is Bhaj. It means attachment, participation, fondness for. It may be a devotion towards Guru, a king, and a god.
- In religious sense, it is a mode of worship, where there is an intense emotional love/devotion for a personal god. It may be Vishnu/Shiva, Vyankatesha, Vithoba, Ram/Krishna/Radha/Durga.
(a) Saguna/Nirguna: Two alternative ways of imaging the nature of the divine (Brahman) –
- Saguna Brahman was envisioned and developed as with form, attributes and quality.
- Nirguna Brahman was the concept of the Ultimate Reality as formless, without attributes or quality.
(b) Panth and Sampradaya: Each of the major divinities of Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, and the various forms of the Goddess—have distinct devotional traditions.
(c) Vidha: Various devotional practices like reciting the name of the god, singing hymns in praise of the deity, wearing or carrying identifying emblems, and undertaking pilgrimages to sacred places associated with the deity.
(d) Bhav: In Bhakti, there is an emotional relationship between the god and the devotee.
- Different local traditions explored various possible relationships like servant-master, a friend-friend, a parent-child, a child-parent, and a woman-beloved.
(a) Although Vedic religion was primarily worship through Yajna and Mantras, some elements of Bhakti can be seen even in ancient texts like Vedas and Upanishads. Bhakti has been inherently present in the Indian culture. The term bhakti first time appears in Shvetashvetara Upanishad. But it only appears once there.
(b) However, as a social-religious ideology, we find the full extent exposition of Bhaktism in the text, Bhagvat Gita, first. It explicitly uses the word “bhakti” to designate a religious path (marga). In fact, by the post-Maurya period, Bhakti emerged because of assimilation between higher Brahmanic culture and lower tribal culture.
Challenges to Hinduism during the post-Mauryan period:
- Influx of many foreign rulers.
- Greeks were primarily idol-worshippers.
- Emergence of Mahayana Buddhism.
- There was rising Avadana literature.
To counter/because of all these, Hindu Synthesis took place in which:
- Non-Aryan/tribal elements were assimilated by Sanskritizing many local deities into Aryan pantheon through the practice of land-grants (process of cultural integration)
- The idea of avataravad was accepted.
- Reduction in complex sacrificial rituals
- Various Buddhist influences were incorporated.
- Emergence of Shaivism and Vaishnavism
- Started the cult of temple.
- Composition of smriti, epics and Puranic literature which form the basis of the ideas and practices of classical Hinduism.
(c) All this change reached its zenith during the Gupta period which was characterized as the zenith of classical Hinduism. As the focus was towards assimilation, it was broadly characterized by tolerance, acceptance, and synthesis.
(d) Trends in north India during post-Gupta and Early Medieval period:
- Tantricism became dominant and it overpowered Bhakti for some time.
- Emergence of Nathpanthi reaction to Tantricism
- Development of Shaiva Tantra in Kashmir
Meanwhile, in the post-Gupta era (6th and 7th centuries), Bhakti appeared in South India as a popular movement.
- Here the initiative was taken by 12 Alwar and 63 Nayanar saints.
Matsyah Kurmo Varahas-cha Narasimhas-cha Vamana
Ramo Ramas-cha Ramas-cha Buddha Kalki-cha te dasa
—Adivaraha cave (7th century), Mahabalipuram;
- Alwar and Nayanar saints made a demand not simply of religious equality but also of social equality. That’s why initially Bhakti movement in south India was also a social movement, apart from being a religious movement.
- There is emergence of Shankar’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta at the same time.
In the Early Medieval period, there was a fundamental re-orientation.
- Brahmanic elements started to penetrate the Bhakti movement. They were known as Vaishnava Acharya.
- Association with monarchy and temple cult
- Simultaneously, there was the rise of Imperial Cholas. There emerged a religious structure based on an alliance between monarchy and Brahmans who were being supported by idol worship and temple cult.
- In parts of North India, Bhaktism got associated with
(e) North India in Medieval Times:
- The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century witnessed great outburst 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 a continuation or revival of the older South Indian bhakti movement. However,
- Each one of the later movements which grew in the Sultanate period had a historical context of its own and its own peculiarities.
- Moreover, non-conformist monotheistic movement (e.g. Kabir and other ‘low-caste’ saints) bears only superficial resemblance to the variants of the movement.
In view of these wide and at times even basic differences among various bhakti movements, they must be discussed individually in order to clearly bring out the characteristics of each one of them and also to discover elements of unity and diversity among them.