Bhakti Movement: Part I

February 10, 2018

For Bhakti Movement: Part-II (click here)

For Bhakti Movement: Part-III (click here


The world over, the image of the singer-songwriter has been a powerful one. Bards, who functioned as chroniclers and satirists mocking the meaningless conventions of their times, and who sometimes wrote and sang their verses, have featured in most world civilizations.


In India, the image of the singer-songwriter manifested itself in its fullest in what came to be known later as the Bhakti movement.



Reasons for emergence of Bhakti Movement in India:


The rigid caste system, the complicated ritualism that constituted the practice of worship and the inherent need to move to a more fulfilling method of worship and salvation perhaps spurred this movement.


Bhakti poets emphasized surrender to god. Equally, many of the Bhakti saints were rebels who chose to defy the currents of their time through their writings. The Bhakti tradition continues in a modified version even in the present day.






The movement probably began in the Tamil region around the 6th and 7th century AD and achieved a great deal of popularity through the poems of the Alvars and Nayanars, the Vaishnavite and Shaivite poets.

Hailing from both high and low castes, these poets created a formidable body of literature that firmly established itself in the popular canon.


Bhakti Movement: 2 Types:

  1. Saguna:

    1. Those poet-saints who composed verses extolling a god with attributes or form.

    2. Example: Tulsidas

      1. Upheld caste system.

      2. Upheld supremacy of the Brahmans.

      3. Preached a religion of surrender and simple faith in a personal god.

      4. Strong commitment towards Idol worship.

  2. Nirguna:

    1. Those extolling god without and beyond all attributes or form.

    2. Example: Kabir

      1. Rejected Varnashrama and all conventions based on caste distinction.

      2. Championed new values, helping the emergence of new groups and new unorthodox or protestant sects.

    3. Nirguna Bhaktas are also known as Monotheistic Bhakti Saints, who gave more importance to personal experience of Bhakti saints with god.

    4. Rejected the authority of the Brahmans and attacked the caste system and the practice of Idolatry.

    5. All of them were influenced by Vaishnava concept of Bhakti, the Nathpanthi movement, and Sufism, and their ideas seemed to be a synthesis of the three traditions.

    6. Adopted the notion of Bhakti from Vaishnavism, they gave it a nirguna orientation.

    7. Called their god using different names and titles, but their god was non--incarnate, formless, eternal, and ineffable.

Similarities between Nirguna and Saguna:

  1. Both focused on singular devotion, mystical love for god and had a particular focus on a personal relationship with the Divine.

  2. Highly critical of ritual observance as maintained and fostered by the Brahman priesthood. In fact, many poet saints , specially in northern areas were themselves of lower caste lineages. 

  3. Usage of vernacular or regional language of the masses.


Prominent Leaders of the Bhakti Movement:

  1. Sankaracharya:

    1. Born in Kerala.

    2. Gave Advaita (Monism) philosophy and Nirgunabrahman (God without Attributes).

    3. Advaita: 

      1. Reality of the world is denied and Brahman is considered as the only reality. Can be understood with the analogy of rope and snake in the dark.

    4. Knowledge alone can lead to salvation.

    5. Wrote commentary on the 

      1. Bhagvat Gita, 

      2. Brahmansutra

      3. Upanishads.

    6. Also wrote:

      1. Upadesh Shastri.

      2. Vivek Chudamani.

      3. Bhaja Govindum Stotra.

    7. Established Mathas at Sringiri, Dwarka, Puri and Badrinath. 

  2. Ramanuja:

    1. Born at Sriperumbudur, near modern Chennai in the 12th Century.

    2. Opposed mayavada of Sankara and advocated the philosophy of Vishista Advaitavada (Qualified Monism) and founded the Srivaishnav sect.

    3. God is saguna Brahman.

    4. God, soul, matter, are real but god is inner substance and the rest are his attributes. World and Brahman are considered two equally real entities as in dualism, but here the world is not separate from Brahman but is formed out of Brahman.

    5. Brahman is personal god with omniscient qualities and he has created the world out of his own self.

    6. Analogy given is of the sea and wave.

    7. He considered Brahman to be Vishnu or one of his avatar.

    8. Advocated Prabattimarga or the path of self-surrender to God. He invited the downtrodden to Vaishnavism and advocated salvation by Bhakti.

    9. Wrote:

      1. Sirbhashya.

      2. Vedanta dipa.

      3. Gita Bhasya.

      4. Vendantasara.

  3. Madhavacharya:

    1. Born in Kannada region.

    2. Propagated Dvaita or the dualism of the Jivatma and Paramatma.

    3. World is not an illusion but a reality, full of real distinction.

    4. Brahman and the world are considered to be two equally real entities and not related in any way.

    5. God of dualism is the Hindu god, Vishnu.

    6. Founded the Brahma Sampradaya.

  4. Nimbraka.

    1. Contemporary of Ramanujam.

    2. Propounded the Dvaita Advaita philosophy of Bheda Abheda (difference/non-difference).

    3. Brahman or the supreme soul transforms itself into the souls of the world, which are therefore real, distinct, and different from Brahman. 

    4. Like Vishista Advaita, Bheda Abheda school also believes that the world and Brahman are both equally real, and that the world is a part of Brahman. The difference is on emphasis only. The world also is but a manifestation of Brahman, but it is a very small manifestation, and the difference with Brahman is very large.

    5. Preacher of Vaishnavaite Bhakti in the Telangana region.

    6. Worshipper of Krishna and Radha and established his ashrama in Braja (Mathura).

    7. Founded the Sanak Sampradaya.

  5. Vallabhacharya:

    1. Born in Banaras and lived at the court of Krishna deva Raya.

    2. Propounded Shudhadvaita (Pure Monism).

    3. World is taken to have a existence as also Brahman. But, there is no change of Brahman into the world, the world exists as it were as an aspect of Brahman without undergoing any change. It is part of Brahman like two sides of coin. World is an inseparable, unchanged aspect of Brahman.

    4. Gave the theory of Pushtimarga.

    5. Founded the Rudra Sampradaya.

    6. Surdas (Sursagar) was his disciple.

  6. Vidyapati:

    1. 14th Century Maithili poet.

    2. Was a Shaivite.

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