Bhakti movement

From Academic Kids

Bhakti movements are Hindu religious movements in which the main spiritual practice is the fostering of loving devotion to God, called bhakti. They are monotheistic movements generally devoted to worship of Shiva or Vishnu or Shakti.

The first documented bhakti movement was founded by Karaikkal-ammaiyar. She wrote poems in Tamil about her love for Shiva and probably lived around the 6th century AD. 1, 2, 3

The Alvars were vaishnavite devotees and the Nayanars the shaivite devotees whonurtured the incipient bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu.

In the thirteenth century Basava founded the Vira-Shaiva school or Virashaivism. He rejected the caste system, denied the supremacy of the Brahmins, condemned ritual sacrifice and insisted on bhakti and the worship of the one God, Shiva. His followers were called Vira-Shaivas, meaning "stalwart Shiva-worshippers".

The Saiva-Siddhanta school is a form of Shaivism (Shiva worship) found in the south of India and was established around 1300 AD. Based on Tantra, it espouses the belief that Shiva is God, and his infinite love is revealed in the divine acts of the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, and in the liberation of the soul.

In the period between 1400 and 1650, a great bhakti movement swept through Northern India. The implications of this movement were that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste and the subtle complexities of philosophy and simply express their overwhelming love for God.

This period was also characterised by a spate of devotional literature in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces.

The mainstream Bhakti movement in the state of Karnataka resulted in a burst of poetic literature in praise of Lord Vishnu by leaders of the Bhakti movement, including Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa. This literature also laid down the foundations for Carnatic music.

Seminal Bhakti works in Bengali include the many songs of Ramprasad Sen. His pieces (known as Shyama Sangeet, or Songs of the Dark Mother) are still actively sung today in West Bengal. Coming from the 17th century, they cover an astonishing range of emotional responses to Ma Kali, detailing complex philosophical statements based on Vedanta teachings and more visceral pronouncements of his love of Devi. Using inventive allegory, Ramprasad had 'dialogues' with the Mother Goddess through his poetry, at times chiding her, adoring her, celebrating her as the Divine Mother, reckless consort of Shiva and capricious Shakti, the universal female creative energy, of the cosmos.

In Southern India, there had been two parallel devotional movements just before this period, one centering on Vishnu and the other on Shiva. It was the Vishnu movement that mainly spread to the north, where it itself divided into two camps, the one worshipping Vishnu mainly in the form of his avatar Rama, the other in the form of Krishna.

The leader of the bhakti movement focusing on the Lord as Rama was Ramananda. Very little is known about him, but he is believed to have lived in the first half of the 15th century. He taught that Lord Rama is the supreme Lord, and that salvation could be attained only through love for and devotion to him, and through the repetition of his sacred name.

Ramananda's ashram in Varanasi became a powerful centre of religious influence, from which his ideas spread far and wide among all classes of Indians. One of the reasons for his great popularity was that he renounced Sanskrit and used the language of the people for the composition of his hymns. This paved the way for the modern tendency in northern India to write literary texts in local languages.

Devotees of Krishna worship him either as an adult together with his first wife and queen Rukmini (Rukmani) or, far more commonly, as an adolescent together with his childhood sweetheart and eternal consort Radha, who is regarded as an incarnation of Lakshmi and the embodiment of devotion. Two major systems of Krishna worship developed, each with its own philosophical system. Still others see Krishna as 'Gopal.' the infant Krishna who loved to eat butter and the beloved of his little village in northern India.

Shri Madhvacharya (1238-1317) identified God with Vishnu, but his view of reality is purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate Godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta. Madhva is considered to be one of the influential theologians in Hindu history. He revitalized Hindu monotheism in light of attacks, theological and physical, by foreign influence, especially the spread of Buddhism. His influence was profound and he is one of the fathers of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement. Great leaders of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement in Karnataka like Purandara Dasa, Kanaka Dasa, Raghavendra Swami and many others were influenced by Dvaita traditions.

Vallabhacharya (1479 - 1531) called his system of thought Shuddhadvaita (pure monism). According to him, it is by God's grace alone that one can obtain release from bondage and attain Krishna's heaven. This heaven is far above the "heavens" of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for Krishna is himself the eternal Brahman.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1485 - 1533) named his system of philosophy Achintya Bheda-Bheda (incomprehensible dualistic monism). It attempts to combine elements of monism and dualism into a single system. Chaitanya's philosophy is one of the main elements in the belief system of the contemporary International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known by Chaitanya's mantra as the Hare Krishna movement.

Srimanta Sankardeva (1449-1569) named his religion ek sarana naam dharma and propagated it in Assam. An example of dasa bhakti, in this form there was no place for Radha. The most important symbol of this religion is the naamghor or prayer hall, which dot Assam's landscape. This form of worship is very strong in Assam today, and much of the traditions are maintained by the monastries called Satras.

Beyond the confines of such formal schools and movements, however, the development of bhakti as a major form of Hindu practice has left an indelible stamp on the faith. Philosophical speculation was concern for the minority, and even the great Advaitist scholar Adi Shankaracharya, when questioned as to the way to God, said that chanting the name of the lord, was essential. The philosophical schools changed the way people thought, but Bhakti was immediately accessible to all, calling to the instinct emotion of love and redirecting it to the highest pursuit of God and self-realization. In general a liberal movement, its denouncement of caste offered recourse for Hindus from the orthodox Brahaminical systems. Of course, however, Bhaktis message of tolerance and love was not often heeded by those ensconced in the societal construct of caste. Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries.

For more information about leaders of the Vaishnava bhakti movement, one should consult the book, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta by Swami Tapasyananda, which describes the lives and theologies of five great philosophers, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva, Vallabha, and Chaitanya. Such book is available on the web at


  1. Schouten, pages 11-26
  2. Karavelane Kareikkalammeiyar, oeuvres editees et traduites, institut francais d'indologie, Pondicherry (1956)
  3. Jagadeesan, N The Life and Mission of Karaikkal Ammaiyar Bhattacharya, N.N. [ed] Medieval Bhakti Movements in India Munishiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, (1989), pages 149-161

External Links


  • Schouten, Jan Peter (Dutch) Goddelijke vergezichten - mystiek uit India voor westerse lezers, Ten Have b.v., Baarn, the Netherlands, (1996), ISBN 9025946445
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