Category Archives: f. Devotional Worship (Bhakti)

Ramprasad Sen and Bengali Saktism

Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) was a prominent poet during the 18th century. Though precise details regarding Ramprasad’s childhood and upbringing are often mixed with legend, he is said to have been born to Tantric Brahmins in Bengal, and is remembered for showing a skill and inclination toward poetry and music from a young age (McLean 42). Ramprasad’s upbringing is also characterized by his diligent religious study, especially that which focused on the Navya Tantric-scripture of Krishnananda Agamavagisha, the well-known 16th century Sreehattan Pandita and Tantra Jain Sadhaka (McLean 42). In adulthood, Ramprasad would achieve renown for his love songs, especially of a sort known as bhakti, still popular today.

The ecstatic loving fervor expressed in Ramprasad’s poems, directed toward the goddess Kali, has since come to encapsulate the devotional energies which the Bengali Saktas feel at the epitome of their faith. Appropriately, Ramprasad has since come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets in Indian history. The following work will evaluate Ramprasad Sen, the bhakti movement he originated from, and explore the intense devotion to the Goddess Kali which is present in many of Ramprasad Sen’s poetic works. Interestingly, the life of Ramprasad is very much intertwined with myth and legend which have arisen after his death, meaning that many of the pivotal experiences outlined by biographers are perhaps apocryphal. That said, the vast influence which Ramprasad has exerted over the Bengali Sakta canon and religious practice will form the core of this examination. Particular focus will be paid to the ways in which, despite his Tantric background, Ramprasad deviated from traditional devotional poetry, and even used his works as a platform for criticism of traditional Bengali Saktism.

Ramprasad Sen’s bhakti poetry can best be described as the product of its author’s unyielding devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali. This goddess is known as a destroyer of evil, and oversees, by such action, one of the four groups of tantric Saivism known as Kulamarga (Kinsley 116). Periodically throughout history, this goddess has been worshipped by her adherents directly, through devotional practice. In this role as religious icon, Kali is alternatively described as the Divine Mother, or the Mother of the Universe. Under Hindu Saktism and Tantrism, Kali was often thought to be the Brahman, both a powerful protector and the goddess who would provide moksa (Kinsley 116). Given the prominence that Kali has held in Tantric Brahmin worship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ramprasad chose her as the object of his life’s poetic work.

Accounts of Ramprasad’s family life also reflect the powerful presence that the goddess Kali held in his life. One such account found Ramprasad building a fence and asking for his daughter’s help, a task he performed while reciting his poetry to Kali. When his daughter appeared, she chastised him for his singing to a goddess who would never appear. After helping him with the fence, Ramprasad and his daughter separated, but later he learned that his daughter had been in another town since morning, and realized he had been visited by the Divine Mother (McDaniel 2018: 45). Another perhaps apocryphal story about Ramprasad Sen’s early life concerns his work as an accountant in Kolkata. At this work, he is said to have busied himself writing poems to the Divine Mother in his workbooks. When exposed, he was not punished by his employer, but instead hired as a poet for the accounting firm (McDaniel 2018: 45).

One final account tells that Ramprasad would spend long hours lost in meditation, “often while standing deep in the Ganges river,” and the boat workers would listen to him as they passed (McDaniel 162). The account indicates that one day “the Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia” passed by and heard Ramprasad as he recited his devotional poetry, and was so impressed that “he asked [Ramprasad] to be his court poet” (McDaniel 162). Without strong evidence, there is no way to know whether either of these three accounts of Ramprasad’s early life are true, but the persistence of these legends of are themselves a testimony to the power of Ramprasad’s poetry and influence. In particular, it reflects the prominence that Ramprasad’s works would attain in Bengali Saktism, as considered in the section below.

The movement which would seize upon Ramprasad’s works as basis for a its literary and religious tradition is known as Bengali Saktism. This faith describes Kali as a goddess to be worshipped either as a “powerful force or life and death,” or as a “tantric and yogic goddess who [provides] supernatural knowledge,” but a third variant, one less prominent than the rest, would form the focus of Ramprasad’s work (McDaniel 2018: 44). Within Sakta devotion, and in Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess is understood as a “loving mother who saves her devotees from painful rebirth,” as well as provides them with protection from harm and “entrance to her heaven” (McDaniel 2018: 44). In Ramprasad’s work, by contrast, his poetic vision of the Divine Mother manifest not as a loving mother, but with Kali taking the form of either “the universal mother or [an] innocent girl,” a figure which is “sometimes frightening on the outside, but inwardly loving and compassionate” (McDaniel 2018: 44). Ramprasad’s ecstatic works of devotional poetry to this dynamic figure would influence Bengali Saktism from then on, and has come to typify the effusive love which such adherents express for the goddess Kali.

Given the strong role which Ramprasad’s works play in epitomizing modern Bengali Sakti ecstatic devotion, there is certainly much evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s choice of subject was directly compelled by his faith. In particular, biographers present evidence to show that Ramprasad’s poetry is derived from the Kularnava Tantra, that millennia-old work of epistemology and logic upon which much of Tantric practice is based (McDermott 71). Official accounts will also refer to Ramprasad’s long years spent practicing “kundalini yoga meditation,” a variant common to Bengali Sakti communities (McDermott 71). There is evidence of this faith derived from Ramprasad’s works themselves, some of which provide “descriptions of Kali derived from [the] Tantric dhyanas” (McDermott 71). There is also Bengali Sakta religious precedent for the great deal of ecstatic loving fervor which flows through Ramprasad’s works. McDaniel (2018: 44) indicates that Ramprasad’s works, and his life, are an embodiment of the ecstatic states outlined in the Kularnava Tantra, a major text of the Bengali Saktas. This work describes ullasa, or the “ecstatic joy…which occurs during ritual practice,” where the practitioner seeking the highest (divya) state described as the “ecstatic or blind madman” (McDaniel 2018: 46). Ecstasy at this level brings loss of control, described in by Bengali Saktas as feeling like “[the adherent’s] limbs are stretched, his hair stands on end, [and] he laughs and cries and stutters” (McDaniel 2018: 46). While in this state, known as divyonmada, or “ecstatic madness,” individuals are made “beyond control by the body and the senses,” and will paradoxically “[gaze] outward but [look] inward,” and thus are seem as the “equivalent to the God Shiva Bhairava” (McDaniel 2018: 46). During his life, Ramprasad was frequently described as a madman, a factor which does much to support the use of his works and ambition as a basis for Bengali Sakta ecstatic practice. Though such textual evidence is persuasive, there is also strong evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s poetry diverged from the purely devotional and traditional Tantric poetry to which it is often compared.

As described by Schelling (2011: 14), Ramprasad’s bhakti poetry was often purely devotional, but this author ascribes its endurance in the Bengal popular imagination to the ways in which it diverted from tradition. Schelling (2011) cites the intimacy of Ramprasad’s works, or its often playful or scolding tone, as well as its deep esotericism and profusion with symbolism, as key areas where it diverges from traditional devotional work (Schelling 14). Moreover, in addition to these works lacking uniform devotional intent, they also contain a wealth of confessions of doubt “concerning the kindliness of [Kali]” which indicate a much more complicated relationship between author and subject (McDermott 71). Moreover, Ramprasad’s works included a range of heartfelt criticism against the “scriptures, images, pilgrimages, and surface acts” upon which the faith of so many people was often predicated (McDermott 71).

Accordingly, Ramprasad’s poetry is notable for the considerable depth and complexity he brings to its subject. His works focus upon “a single great goddess,” often called Kali but sometimes referred to as “Durga, Bhairavi, Sita, Uma, [or] Kalika” (McDaniel 2018: 45). These works emphasize not just the greatness and power of Kali, but tell of “passionate love which must be experienced, and cannot be found in books or philosophies” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Reflected in Ramprasad’s poetry, this intense and worldly love, as emphasized in devotion, was a way for Ramprasad (and Kali bhakti practitioners) to “[draw in] the goddess like a magnet attracts iron” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Of the poems not directed toward Kali herself, Ramprasad’s work also includes “songs of secret sadhana practices,” but each is unerring in its focus upon the act of devotion and the ecstasy to would result from such practice (McDaniel 2018: 45).

Moreover, Dalmiya (2000: 126) describes bhakti poetry as of “feminist significance,” as reflected not just in the “paradoxical” shifting attitude its author holds toward the subject, but due to each of these shifts in tone reflecting “a devotee’s worshipful attitude towards Kali” (Dalmiya 127). This author indicates that the “mother-child motif at the core” of Ramprasad’s work represented “not only a dramatic construction of femininity but of selfhood in general” (Dalmiya 125). As Ramprasad challenged the definition of devotional poetry through the “indigenous worshipful attitude of Kali-bhakti,” he transformed what had been an art form predicated on worship and devotion alone into a far more dynamic instrument (Dalmiya 125).

The transformative power of Ramprasad’s poetry is stressed in other works. In McDermott’s (2001: 71) analysis, this author explains that this poet’s biographers, no matter how stymied by anecdotal accounts, have also sought to offer a view of this eminent artist somewhat ‘divorced’ from “solely Tantric terms” (McDermott 71). This author indicates that some authors will describe Ramprasad not as a mere devotee, but as a bhakta, a “poet who transformed, rather than accepted wholeheartedly, the esoteric Goddess of Tantric heritage” (McDermott 71). The result of the poetry and legacy of Ramprasad, thus lies in his unwavering focus on expressing love for the goddess Kali, and the influence of that love, as expressed in his works, upon the Bengali Sakta tradition. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Ramprasad’s poetry, their legacy is thus felt as much by its deviation from classical poetic art forms as by its embodiment of them. A century after Ramprasad’s death, Yogendranath Gupta would argue that all of the “miracle stories” were comprised of “faith and devotion (visvasa and bhakti).” This is an indication that Ramprasad’s poetry, and his role as sadhaka (religious practitioner) who “softened the hard wood of kaula-sadhana”, the traditional Sakta practice, “through syrupy streams of bhakti and love” (McDermott 71). This description is notable for its acknowledgement that Ramprasad’s works were less an epitome of Bengali Sakta practice as a force for change in this faith.

To this end, while Ramprasad’s work has found a central place in Bengali Saktism, his poems are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they divert from this tradition. To indicate where Ramprasad’s work deviates from Sakta practice most strongly, it is important to consider the different kinds of bhakti practice. McDermott (2001: 71) indicates that there are three types of bhakti, namely (1) Vaisnava bhakti, described as a “dualistic devotion based on external image worship,” (2) Nirguna bhakti, which focuses on a “formless conception of the divine,” and (3) Saka bhakti, under which the goddess is “not understood as a real presence ‘out there’ but as a symbol of the world or of the self,” which can be “introjected into the spiritual physiognomy of the body” through kundalini yogic practice (McDermott 71). Under this formulation distinguishing between variants upon bhakti practice, the sort which is best-emphasized in the work of Ramprasad is the third type, Saka bhakti. While Ramprasad’s language may be interpreted by adherents of the first type (Vaisnava bhakti) as being purely devotional in nature, this “Vaisnavized perspective” often fails to account for Ramprasad’s symbolism, and for what is symbolized by the ecstasy which is strongly emphasized throughout his works (McDermott 71). Specifically, this author indicates that whenever Ramprasad mentions the act of loving Kali, or the idea of keeping Kali in his heart, he is in actuality “referring to [Kali’s] visualized presence in the heart,” and not “thinking of a particular [goddess whom] he worships within an external, dualistic framework” (McDermott 71). The result of Ramprasad’s intent is an art form co-opted by Bengali Shaktism which contains only superficial resemblance to the works which inspired it.

A promising alternative inspiration for Ramprasad’s works has been theorized as derived from the work of the “esoteric Bauls” (McDermott 71). Ramprasad’s songs addressed to the mind, as an example, “mirror the language and concerns of Baul maner manus songs,” themselves focused on a “man of the heart” (McDermott 71). Moreover, both Ramprasad’s works and those by the Bauls represent the mind as a bird, as well as “the body as a place of sadhana,” likened to a boat, as well as “reliance on a guru,” each of which are less emphasized or not present in traditional Bengali Saktism (McDermott 71). For this reason, McDermott (2001) argues that it is reductive and disingenuous to describe Ramprasad as a bhakti poet, despite centuries of subsequent literary works and religious tradition among the Bengali Saktas people suggesting otherwise (McDermott 71).

This work has touched upon the reductive power of religious symbolism over time. So enamored were the 16th-century Bengali Saktas with the depth of Ramprasad’s stated devotion to the goddess Kali, they neglected the deeper criticisms and complexity of these symbolic and esoteric works. In the intervening centuries, Ramprasad’s works have come to be celebrated for their ecstatic devotion alone, but they have lost much of the intricacy of the author’s original voice. Though Bengali Sakta celebrations are renowned for their fervor, their ‘basis’ in Ramprasad’s works, considered the epitome of their practice, is perhaps less direct than it seems.

References

Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving paradoxes: A feminist reclamation of the goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1: 125-150.

Gross, Rita M. (1978) “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.1: 269–291.

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu goddesses: Visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McDaniel, June (2018). Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion. Springer: Oxford University Press

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2001) Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McLean, Malcolm (1998) Devoted to the Goddess: the life and work of Ramprasad. SUNY Press.

Schelling, Andrew, ed. (2011) The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. Oxford University Press.

Related Research Topics

“The Alvars”

“Bhaskararaya (1690-1785”

“Kali”

“Kali Puja”

“Nirguna bhakti

“Prakrti”

“Saktism”

“Siva”

“Tamil Literature”

“Tridevi” & “Navaratri”

“Understanding Sanskrit”

“Vaisnava bhakti

 

Related Websites

https://www.ancient.eu/Mahabharata/

https://www.everyculture.com/South-Asia/Bengali-Shakta.html

http://www.goddess.ws/kali.htmlg

http://www.mahavidya.ca

https://www.poemhunter.com/ramprasad-sen/

https://spiritualray.com/list-of-hindu-gods-goddesses-their-powers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramprasad_Sen

This article was written by Zach Myrtrunec (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Kirtana

THE ECSTASY OF KIRTANA

Kirtana is a Sanskrit word that means “to praise” or “to glorify.” Kirtana is primarily used in a form of call and response chanting of sacred Sanskrit names of Hindu deities (LaTrobe 10). Through the centuries, kirtana metamorphosed into devotional hymns and mantras extensively glorifying the great deity Krsna (Kinsley 1979:176). It is also known as sankirtana which encompasses group acting performances, storytelling, singing and dancing, accompanied by drums and various exotic instruments (Delmonico in Bryant 549).

Kirtana has historical roots in the 6th century when a new form of devotional worship arose in the Tamil speaking part of southern India. The two main groups of Tamil poet-saints were the Alvars and the Nayanars who attributed special devotion to their gods Visnu and Siva respectively. These poets traveled from temple to temple or village to village singing ecstatic hymns and praises in adoration of their gods. They promoted the use of all the senses and the body to enhance a fuller experience of divine bliss (Dehejia 13). Tamil saints not only walked the path of love themselves but through their songs they promoted love and devotion toward God. They attracted many followers because their message was simple; all that was required was an intimate and constant abiding love of God. Followers did not require a deep knowledge of the scriptures or need to be learned in philosophy or religious tradition (Dehejia 13).

Tamil hymns composed by the saints were often set to the music of traditional ballads so that everyone could join in singing the responses (Dehejia 30). Hymns were expressly designed to move the hearts of the listeners to a passionate love and devotion to God. Followers of Tamil poet-saints were encouraged to engage in ecstatic and emotional singing, dancing and worshiping of the gods. This newly created culture became known as bhakti – a passionate and personal love relationship between the Beloved and the Devoted (Bhattacharya 47). Sensuous, erotic, and ecstatic personal experience with God were prominent characteristics of early Tamil bhakti saints and their followers.

Bhakti had its main source already in the first century from the Bhagavad-Gita, a dialogue between the god Krsna and his friend Arjuna. The Bhagavad-Gita, or simply the Gita, was handed down orally in the form of hymns, ballads, and folk-songs. The philosophy of the Gita was a religion of love that embraced God’s creatures as brothers of the same family; it did not recognize classes, castes, sexes, or races (Bhattacharya 49). The bhakti movement was a resistance to ritually oriented orthodoxy dominated by priests. It took mantras out of the temples and into the streets where all peoples could engage and connect with their deities through singing and dancing. Thus, promulgated by the Tamil poet-saints who sang songs of total devotion for their God that disregarded caste distinctions and other hierarchies of orthodox Hinduism (Peterson 9), the bhakti movement is about deep social reform and liberation for the masses (Hawley 8).

Kirtana was the outcome of the bhakti movement. In the bhakti tradition, communion with a deity was described as blissful, intoxicating and overwhelming and often culminated in weeping, singing, and impulsive dancing. An early proponent of kirtana was Sri Caitanya, a 16th century Bengali mystic who is said to have introduced kirtana as an exceptional way of attaining and expressing bhakti (Kinsley 1979:177). So great was his intoxicating love for Krsna that he often appeared to be a lunatic as much of his life was spent in continual fits of uncontrollable weeping and wailing, laughing, singing, and dancing in ecstatic love (Kinsley 1974:291).

Kirtana was used by Caitanya and his followers as an effective medium of communication and proliferation of emotional bhakti (Chakrabarty 18). When orthodox Brahmans attempted to ban kirtana, Caitanya organized a massive demonstration where thousands came out in the streets. Led by kirtana singing and dancing groups, the people soon began to sing, dance, cry and weep. “Men grew almost insane in ecstasy…the kirtana sounded like an earth-shaking roar, the impact of which was very much enhanced by the continuous sounds of drums, cymbals, and clapping” (Chakrabarty 19). The Caitanya tradition proposes that kirtana is the proper form of religious worship for the current age, the Age of Kali, the Age of Quarrel (Delmonico in Bryant 549). Kirtana leaders will occasionally remind participants that chanting the names of God prepares one for salvation during Kali Yuga which is a period of dishonesty and spiritual degradation (Cooke 24).

While there is no structured pattern followed in the performance of kirtana, chanting and singing praises to Krsna is often followed by ecstatic and frenzied dancing. It is common for the whole kirtana group, including the musicians, to get up and dance as they play their instruments or clap their hands. Some kirtana singers will smoke marijuana before they sing to enhance the intensity of the experience (Henry 36). When the devotees sing and glorify Krsna a celebratory excitement permeates the gathering, and many will fall into trances or become giddy like children. Even grave, old men with perfect manners will succumb to the powerful crescendo of sound and movement and engage in blissful devotion to Krsna (Kinsley 1979:181).

Kirtana is often held in the evenings along a riverbank or at the centre of a village. To the villagers, it is a religious and social event. The leader of the kirtana, known as the kirtankar, can capture the hearts of illiterate listeners and encourage them towards a deeper spiritual life (Naikar 96). Although most kirtanas are meant to glorify God, they also provide opportunities for the kirtankar to teach, expose social injustices, and even provide entertainment in the form of plays. Participants become active players in the poem being sung by the kirtankar and strive to communicate with the deity. For example, if the theme is Krsna playing with the gopis (milkmaids), devotees will get up and dance in circles, often culminating in an ecstatic frenzy of jumping, clapping of hands, beating of thighs, and rolling on the ground (Kinsley 1979:178). It is written in the Caitanya-bhagavata that a kirtana held at the home of a companion of Caitanya became so exuberant that some devotees could not keep their clothes on and others passed out in an ecstatic trance. (Kinsley 1979:177).

Musical instruments are an important characteristic of kirtana. Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanisads consider music and musical instruments as sacred sounds closely identified with the Hindu Gods and Goddesses (Beck 20). For example, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, is portrayed as playing the hand symbols. Lord Krsna plays the flute, prompting the gopis to dance ecstatically with him in the moonlight. Lord Visnu plays the conch shell and Lord Siva the damaru drum. Each of these instruments represents Om, which is Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The notion of sacred sound expresses the connection between the human realm and the divine (Beck 20).

Kirtana events typically include flutes, drums, cymbals, harmonium, and various stringed instruments. One of the oldest and most popular musical instruments used in traditional kirtana is the bamboo flute, including a bamboo nose flute (LaTrobe 111). These flutes have since been replaced with the more vigorous clarinet. The clarinet provides musical reinforcement for the singers and can be heard above the clashing cymbals and robust drum rhythms.

The kohl drum is a double-sided drum made from a piece of jackfruit wood which has been hollowed out and covered with pieces of goatskin leather (Beck 23). A black paste made from a mixture of rice flour and stone dust is pressed layer upon layer on top of the skin. According to ancient literature, the black paste represents the crying eyes of Radha after her painful separation from her lover Krsna (LaTrobe 107). The kohl drum, and the kartal, small wooden clappers with six cymbals inside, are central to the kirtana performance as they provide the rhythmic foundation of the music. Exotic sounding stringed instruments include the sitar, ektara, and the ananda laharii, which means “waves of bliss” (LaTrobe 111).  Single stringed instruments such as the ektara and the ananda laharii are symbolic of single-mindedness towards spiritual goals (LaTrobe 110).

Music was viewed as a personal journey toward moksa (liberation). The bhakti movement emphasized that moksa also depended on one’s emotions and the deepness of one’s personal relationship with the deity (Beck 24). Singing and chanting, accompanied with musical instruments connected deep religious ecstasy with spiritual self-realization for participants of kirtana.

Chanting became popular in the western world when a charismatic Indian monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought kirtana to North America in the mid-1960s (Ketola 312). Challenged by his guru to preach Lord Caitanya’s message of devotion to Krsna and bhakti yoga throughout the world, the penniless samnyasi travelled to New York on a cargo ship where he soon attracted a group of devotees, mostly hippies (Ketola 312). One day he took his followers to a local park for a public kirtana. The dancing, singing, and chanting attracted significant audiences and soon kirtana became very popular. Shortly after his arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada formed the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krsna movement which pushed kirtana into the public limelight. Converts to the Hare Krsna movement became known for their public chanting of sacred Vedic deities specifically the mahamantra (the great mantra):

Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

As the sound vibrations of repeating the holy names of deities are sacred, singing and chanting kirtana benefits the listener, performer and the environment where the names are sung. Participants who sing kirtana and repeat the mahamantra claim to experience both a transcendental connection with the Divine and physical sensations of bliss that has even resulted in healing of physical and emotional ailments (Cooke 124, 125).

Kirtana serves to unite spirituality through bhakti yoga – the yoga of love and emotional attachment to God and can be found in many yoga studios today. Kirtana is sound vibration and chanting mantras invokes the presence of God himself. Participants who combine kirtana and bhakti yoga claim to experience peace and happiness (Brown 2012:77).

Kirtana has influenced modern-day styles of popular music such as reggae, hip-hop, and dubstep (Brown 2014:458). Hare Krsna festivals all around the world feature popular kirtana artists. Kirtana experienced through call and response chanting, singing, dancing, or yoga is likened to a divine love affair between the devotee and God. It is a religion of the heart, a process of pursuit, continuously changing, full of surprises and hidden delights, delicate and yet passionately ecstatic, all in the quest of a perfect union with God and self.

Bibliography

Beck, Guy L. (2007) “The Magic of Hindu Music.” Hinduism Today, 29 (4): 18-27. (October/November/December 2007)

Bhattacharya, B., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) Bhakti: The Religion of Love. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd.

Brown, Sara (2012) “Every Word is a Song, Every Step is a Dance: Participation, Agency, and the Expression of Communal Bliss in Hare Krishna Festival Kirtan.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Brown, Sara Black (2014) “Krishna, Christians, and Colors: The Socially Binding Influence of Kirtan Singing at a Utah Hare Krishna Festival.” Ethnomusicology 58 (3): 454.

Chakrabarty, Ramakanta (1986) “Vaisnava Kirtana in Bengal” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 17 (1): 12.

Cooke, Jubilee Q. (2009) Kirtan in Seattle: New Hootenanny for Spirit Junkies. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Dehejia, Vidya, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Delmonico, Neal (2007) “Chaitanya Vaishnavism and the Holy Names” In Krishna: A Sourcebook, edited by Edwin F. Bryant and MyiLibrary, 549-575. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (2015) A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Henry, Edward O. (2002) “The Rationalization of Intensity in Indian Music.” Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 33-55.

Ketola, Kimmo (2004) “The Hare Krishna and the Counterculture in the Light of the Theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (3): 301-20.

Kinsley, David R., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lĩlã. 1st – ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kinsley, David R. (1974) “Through the Looking Glass: Divine Madness in the Hindu Religious Tradition.” History of Religions 13 (4): 270-305.

La Trobe, Jyoshna (2010) “Red Earth Song. Marāī Kīrtan of Rāṛh: Devotional Singing and the Performance of Ecstasy in the Purulia District of Bengal, India.” PDF. Accessed October 09, 2018.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (1989) Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Ramaswamy Sastri, K. S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) The Tamils: The People, their History, and Culture. Vol. 1-5. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Alvars

Nayanars

Bhakti

Bhagavad-Gita

Sri Caitanya

Krsna

Brahma

Kali Yuga

Visnu

Siva

Om

Moksa

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Hare Krsna

International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON)

Mahamantra

Bhakti Yoga

Hare Krsna Festivals

Popular Kirtan Artists

Dubstep

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

https://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/07/spiritual-ecstasy-through-the-ancient-art-of-kirtan-steven-j-rosen-satyaraya-das/

https://kripalu.org/resources/beginners-guide-kirtan-and-mantra

http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/bhakti-movement-causes-hindu-society-and-features/3166

http://www.krishna.com/phenomenon-sankirtana

http://www.iskcon.org/festivals/

http://newworldkirtan.com/kirtan-music/kirtan-artists/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZmv1YJnszw

 

Article written by: Joey Grace (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

The Bhakti Movement

Though a well-known and large contributor to the culture and the layout of Indian society today, the bhakti movement cannot be viewed through a straight-forward, universally accepted perspective (Hawley 221). It has changed through regions and time periods and bhakti has become a broad term which has been perceived in different ways. Bhakti has been thought of as being a concept, an ideology, and a movement (Thakur 100). Bhakti, as a concept, refers to the loving devotion to a god. It is the unbending devotion to a particular god, which develops into a powerful love. This love is sometimes compared to the attachment between friends, the devotion of a servant to a master, or the love shared even more intimately as in a romantic relationship (Pande 1985: 231). As an ideology, bhakti has been described as a socially accepted, common interest for all members of society, regardless of class or caste, that shifts members focus to the group rather than one’s position as an individual (Thakur 100). Bhakti has also been regarded as a literary movement (which will be the focus of this article) rooted in religion which rose from a society calling for transformation (Pande 1987: 214), and continued developing and changing as it moved through regions (Pattanayak 117).

Ideas of bhakti were already being formed by the alvars in the fifth to eighth centuries. The alvars laid the foundation for the Vaisnava philosophy as well as the bhakti movement. They first wrote hymns, many of which referenced Krsna (Chari 279). Accounts of serious worship of the divine and total surrender of oneself have been found in alvar-literature (Varadachari 621). An early beginning to the concept of bhakti is also seen in the story of Andal, an alvar saint who combined the erotic with the spiritual in her relationship with Krsna (Thakur 103). These early ideas related to bhakti were not commonly integrated into people’s way of life until the bhakti movement began to gain momentum centuries later.

There was a variety of societal factors which contributed to the urge for change in India. The conditions of the time have been considered by some to be a social crisis, primarily due to the shifting modes of production occurring at the time (Thakur 101). Towns during the 14th century were experiencing steady growth and agriculture was decreasing in its prominence. Commercial industry was growing as goods were more quickly produced. Some of the technological developments involved in this growth included: the use of a vertical loom in carpet weaving, the use of a spinning wheel in the cotton industry, increase in the use of vaulted roofs architecturally, and more silver and gold coins being made for trade (Pande 1987: 215). Economically, these developments were worsening conditions for sudras because as the amount of industrial jobs and business increased, so did the amount of slave labour (Pande 1987: 215). As the conditions for the sudras declined, the merchants and artisans continued to elevate in their wealth and status. Though this was occurring, Brahmins continued to consider themselves in very high regard, not acknowledging the rising status of the artisans and merchants nor accepting these groups into the class system.

Brahmins became increasingly oppressive in order to maintain their own status and resist changes in the social structure (Pande 1987: 216). They required complex rituals to be done by people in order to prove their place within the varna system.  These rituals were done in Sanskrit, making them difficult to be performed by many of the lower classes who were not entirely familiar with this language. The result of the intense requirements was a large number of outcasts from the varna system, reinforcing the power of the Brahmins (Pande 1987: 216). Political factors also contributed to the need for reform. The larger, more powerful state was being regionally divided and the authority of the Sultanate was diminishing (Pande 1987: 215).  Overall, these conditions were bringing a challenge to the existing social hierarchy in India. The changing conditions of society primarily affected the sudras and Dalits in the hierarchy and they began to experience discontentment with society, becoming restless with a desire for reform.

Another aspect of society, which was a part of the foundation for reformation in India, was the conflicting perspectives between Muslims and Hindus. Bhakti was desirable as it could act as a resolution for this type of conflict: bhakti is accepting of any god to worship, as long is it is loving devotion (Pande 1987: 217). Therefore, the bhakti movement was attractive to those who sought a harmonious society as it would allow the ideas of Hindusim and Islam to find common ground, not interfering with one another (Pande 1985: 230).

The great appeal of bhakti was especially rooted in the discontentment of people in the lower levels of the varna system and outcasts. Bhakti, being the loving devotion to a god, was accessible to everyone, regardless of status. For the sudras, then, it was also a way of protesting the social order (Thakur 105). The bhakti ideology offered no way of socially dividing people and therefore was appealing to those of lower castes who had been oppressed and looked down upon within the hierarchical setup of the varna system. The ideology of bhakti also held appeal for those of high castes, though for different motives. The attraction to the rulers was in bhakti’s assurance of divine intervention in times when the effects of adharma were manifesting (Thakur 102). This offered some relaxation on the expectations of the ruler, as normally the karmic effects of a region were dependent on the alignment of the king/ruler with dharma. The appeal of bhakti is what drove the movement to gain momentum.

Saints who came primarily from the lower sections of society were momentous in bringing about the beginnings of the bhakti movement. It is clear through hymns written by the bhaktas that the saints aimed to create a culture of harmony between the Hindus and Muslims (Pande 1987: 216). The ideal of equality was a major aim of the bhakti saints. This ideal is verified by a study of Kabir which serves to unveil the beliefs, hopes and objectives of the saints who initiated the bhakti movement. Kabir was a weaver of low caste who was involved in the attempt to bring unanimity among castes and religions in India. Kabir made statements such as “in the beginning there were no such distinctions of race, caste and creed” and “one does not become a scholar by reading scriptures. It is only through the learning of love that one can become a real scholar” (Pande 1987: 217). The former statement makes evident the bhakti ideal that society was intended from the beginning to be casteless and people should be regarded as equal. The latter statement demonstrates the bhakti belief that love and relationships surpass intellect. Ideas of the bhakti movement reject the notion that ritualism is required by the gods to gain salvation. People began to reject meaningless ritualism, especially of the Brahmin class, in favour of an actual relationship between a human and a god (Pande 1987: 217).

Though early ideas of bhakti were introduced in the nineth century, the bhakti movement really began its course in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Pandey and Tyagi 129). The movement began in areas in the south of India and has been commonly believed to have expanded across India towards the north. Recent inquiry into the directional movement of bhakti indicates a different possibility that the idea of bhakti may have moved from south to west India. The knowledge base for this recent inquiry on the movement of bhakti came from the Bhagavata Mahatmya, a text written in the sixteenth or seventeenth century (Saha 299). As the range of these ideas was expanded, the idea of bhakti was developed and changed primarily due to the influence of Buddhism, Nathism, and other religions (Pattanayak 117).

The impacts of the bhakti movement continue into modern Indian society. In north India, bhakti remains intact, continuing but no longer characterizing a protest (Thakur 104-105). Since the bhakti movement was a protest against meaningless ritualism, it resulted in the divergence of language from Sanskrit as people embraced more individuality and rejected the rituals of the Brahmins, which were done in Sanskrit (Pandey and Tyagi 129). The saint’s goals for the bhakti movement achieved some success in that there was greater harmony between Hinduism and Islam. Though bhakti did create a more egalitarian society, the movement did not result in total equality among people. People among different castes experienced much less inequality, but injustices involving women remained unacknowledged. Women continued to be seen as an obstacle in obtaining salvation and their only purpose was considered to be serving their husbands (Pande 1987: 219-220). Women were widely perceived as having a fallen nature. They were thought to be created by Maya, and were distractions to their husband’s pursuit of salvation. (Sangari 1470). The protest presented in the bhakti movement cannot be considered complete then, as women were entirely left out of all social reconstructions (Pande 1987: 221).

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Chari, S. M. (1998) “Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 79:279-280. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Hawley, John S. (2007) “Introduction.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 11:209-25. New York: Springer.

Pande, Rekha (1985) “The Social Context of the Bhakti Movement- A Study in Kabir.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 46:230-35. Indian History Congress.

Pande, Rekha (1987) “The Bhakti Movement- An Interpretation.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 48:214-21. Indian History Congress.

Pandey, Manager, and Alka Tyagi (2001) “Bhakti Poetry: Its Relevance and Significance.” Indian Literature 45:129-138. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Pattanayak, Debi P. (1992) “Sant Literature in India.” Indian Literature 35:115-120. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Saha, Shandip (2007) “The Movement of Bhakti along a North-West Axis: Tracing the History of the Pustimarg between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 11:299-318. New York: Springer.

Sangari, Kumkum (1990) “Mirabai and the Spiritual Economy of Bhakti.” Economic and Political Weekly 25:1464-1475. Mumbai: Economic and Political Weekly.

Thakur, Vijay K. (1994) “Bhakti as an Ideology: Perspectives in Deconstructing the Early Medieval Indian Tradition.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 55:99-107. Indian History Congress.

Varadachari, K. C. (1942) “Some Contributions of Alvars to the Philosophy of Bhakti.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 23:621-632. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Alvars

Bhagavata Mahatmya

Bhaj

Bhaktas

Bhakti

Gender roles

Islam

Krisna

Movements

Vaisnavaism

Varna system

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://knowindia.gov.in/culture-and-heritage/medieval-history/bhakti-movement.php

http://www.sikh-history.com/sikhhist/events/bhakti.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhakti_movement

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhakti

http://pluralism.org/religions/hinduism/introduction-to-hinduism/bhakti-the-way-of-devotion/

Article written by: Ashley Machacek (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content