Devotional Bhakti Traditions Emerge Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Religious teachers used bhakti, a Hindu practice of devotion to the divine, to synthesize Hinduism and Sufi Islam and further develop Sikhism. With vernacular poetry, storytelling, and music they transcended traditional boundaries of creed, caste, and gender and gave voice to marginalized peoples, thereby challenging religious and social convention.

Summary of Event

Bhakti, an important component of Hindu practice, is the path of devotion extolled by Krishna in the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785), one of the most sacred of Hindu texts. The expression of this devotion has led to thousands of years of works in literature, music, dance, and painting, reflecting the rich cultural diversity of the peoples of India and extending into all regions and strata of society. Bhakti movement Religion;India Kabīr Nānak Ravidās Sūrdās Mīrābaī Akbar Kabīr Ravidās Sūrdās Mīrābaī Nānak

Bhakti is regarded as a form of yoga that strives to unite the individual with the divine. Over time, a large body of literature developed, including the bhakti poetry written in southern India from 6,000 to 1,000 b.c.e., and the twelfth century Gitagovinda, a Sanskrit poem written by Jayadeva, which celebrates the love between Krishna and his human consort, Radha, a metaphor for all devotees. Around this time, Muslim Sufis, mystics who also used music and poetry in ecstatic worship, began wandering into parts of northern India, winning converts and entering into dialogues with their Hindu counterparts. In fourteenth century Kashmir, Lal Ded, a Shaivite devotee and practitioner of yoga, began preaching and creating devotional poetry in the Kashmiri language, sharing her knowledge, challenging caste divisions, and earning the respect of her Muslim counterparts. Kashmir

With the ascendancy of the Mughal Dynasty Mughal Empire in India in the sixteenth century came increased Islamic influence and control over a feudal structure that included both Muslim and Hindu provincial rulers. The Mughal emperor of India, Akbar (r. 1556-1605), was fascinated with Hindu literature, arts, and theology, so he established a pattern of court patronage to ensure that material originally inspired by bhakti practice would be cultivated for the enjoyment of the ruling elite.

At the other end of the social spectrum, a continuous evolution of local oral traditions, rituals, and festivals expanded on devotional themes. As Hinduism Hinduism responded to the impact of Islam Islam;India in the sixteenth century, several key figures appeared who inspired the population with their emotional intensity and creative use of regional languages in songs and poetry. Some of them were able to draw on insights from both Hinduism and Islam, and all of them offered a dynamic alternative to hierarchical social conventions.

Two of these figures were of humble origin: Kabīr, a Muslim weaver, and Ravidās, a cobbler. Like most of their contemporaries, their lives were described in stories orally, long before being recorded in writing, and both figures were probably illiterate, sharing their ideas through poetry and song. Both of them were inspired by the devotional teachings of Ramananda, a Vaishnavite guru who lived in Benares. Kabīr was very iconoclastic, and he criticized all creeds. Using the metaphor of a diamond that withstands the strokes of a stonecutter, he argued that the truth can withstand scrutiny. His followers included both Hindus and Muslims. Ravidās, said to have been younger than Kabīr, was of even lower social standing. Because they worked with the skins of dead animals, leather workers were regarded as ritually unclean. Ravidās used his occupation as a metaphor for transcendence, explaining that since earthly life is short and full of suffering, one should place more value on one’s spiritual development.

The blind poet Sūrdās lived in the Braj region, where Krishna was born. He left an abusive home at a very early age but was fortunate to be taught by the sage Vallabhacharya, from whom he learned Sanskrit literature. Most of his thousands of songs, written in the vernacular Braj, express devotion to Krishna, and he is especially known for his tender descriptions of Krishna’s childhood.

In contrast to the other major figures in the bhakti movement, Mīrābaī was born into a high social position, the daughter of a Rajput chieftain, and is sometimes described as a princess of Rajasthan. As a female, however, her life was in some ways just as restricted as those of her poorer male brethren. From an early age, she was an intense devotee of Krishna. After being married to the Rajput prince Bhoj Raj, she refused to submit to the authority of her new family, claiming allegiance to Krishna instead. When her husband died, she refused to be immolated with him as was the custom. Instead, she spent more and more time with wandering mystics and began to dance in front of the image of Krishna, a practice considered improper for a woman of her status. Her husband’s family became outraged and then tried to kill her, but she escaped and began her new life as a composer of devotional songs and a leader of devotees.

Nānak, revered as the founder of the Sikh Sikhism religion, had much in common with most of the other great religious innovators, including his activities as a composer of verse, his use of vernacular language, his incorporation of ideas from both Hinduism and Islam, and his implicit challenge to the power structures of the time. Nānak was born to a Hindu family in the Punjab region, which is now in northwest India and Pakistan, and grew up in a community administered by Muslims. As a child, he learned to read Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. Although he showed an early interest in matters of faith, he assumed family and occupational responsibilities, too, when he came of age. After a pivotal experience of enlightenment, he began a series of travels, presenting his ideas by interacting with people of various faiths. He wrote poetry in his native Punjabi, using a very clear and direct language. Like Kabīr, he was an iconoclast, and he asserted the unity of God as transcending sectarian divisions. As time passed, a community of followers developed, and he eventually appointed the first of his nine successors. His religious poetry was written down and is called Guru Granth Sahib Guru Granth Sahib (Nānak)[Guru Granth Sahib (Nanak)] , the sacred text of the Sikhs.

The main musical-literary genre for most of the bhakti mystics of this time was the bhajan, or devotional song. These songs were most commonly in vernacular languages so that they could be completely understood by all individuals, even those who were predominantly illiterate. Painting, sculpture, and dance often were used to convey the deep emotional content and associations of the material, without the symbolic rigidity of spoken language. Bhakti also influenced the development of storytelling, in which the loves and adventures of Krishna, the lives of the saints themselves, and folk wisdom from the various regions of India were narrated. In many cases, parallel written versions of these poems and stories helped to articulate regional languages.

In the courts of the Mughal emperors and their local princes, professional writers, artists, musicians, and dancers set bhakti narratives into forms that reflected the prestige and power of their patrons. In many cases, these were inherited positions, so that generations of specialists developed various schools of technique and interpretation, often being influenced by styles from Persia, Turkey, and the Arabic speaking countries.

In terms of theology and the practice of meditation, there are two major approaches to bhakti, and the figures from the 1500’s are usually included in one or another of these categories. Saguna bhakti is based on the attributes of a specific deity, which can be experienced through the senses and immersion in the narrative of the deity, usually through the worship of Krishna or Ram as an incarnation or avatar of Vishnu. Sūrdās and Mīrābaī were poets in the saguna bhakti tradition. While equally passionate, nirguna bhakti is more monotheistic and recognizes the immanence of the Supreme Being in all of reality. Guru Nānak, Kabīr, and Ravidās were part of the nirguna bhakti tradition.


Long before the lower castes, women, and other marginalized groups were offered political equality, the bhakti movement gave them a voice, revitalizing Hinduism and helping to provide a social context for the birth of Sikhism. In subsequent years, bhakti influenced the arts and contributed to the formal development of several major Indian languages. Its message of universality and its passionate quest for unity with the divine resonate still. Bhakti movement Religion;India

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ahmad, Aziz. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A very thorough work that includes chapters on syncretism and the opposition between Hinduism and Islam.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hay, Stephen. Sources of Indian Tradition. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. A comprehensive compilation of primary literary sources, including introductory historical and analytical material. Includes discussion of the bhakti movement, Guru Nānak, and the emergence of the Sikh tradition.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jaikishandas, Sadani, trans. Rosary of Hymns (Selected Poems) of Sūrdās. New Delhi, India: Wiley Eastern, 1991. English translations of significant poems, with an extensive introduction. Includes the Hindi originals, a glossary of terms, and indexes of first lines in both English and Hindi.
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    xlink:type="simple">Mukta, Parita. Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mīrābaī. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Uses the devotional songs of Mīrābaī to reveal developments in popular culture and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singh, Daljeet, and Kharak Singh, eds. Sikhism: Its Philosophy and History. Introduction by Choor Singh. Chandigarh, India: Institute of Sikh Studies, 1997. Comprehensive anthology of essays on all aspects of Sikhism; delves into the history of the religion and the role of Nānak in its founding.

c. 1490: Fragmentation of the Bahmani Sultanate

1556-1605: Reign of Akbar

1577: Ram Dās Founds Amritsar

Categories: History