The Bhakti Movement is a Hindu movement of devotional worship that took place between the 9th and 17th centuries. Bhaktiwas initially elaborated upon in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, prior to the first century (Novetzke 257). During this time, the doctrine’s attitude towards ritual worship deviated from that which was upheld in Hindu orthodoxy and worked to undermine the religious authority of the priestly Brahmin class. It was not until India had undergone a period of great sociopolitical and economic reformation that the philosophy of bhakti grew in popularity and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Bhakti Movement is a movement tied not only to religion, but to Indian culture as a whole. Today, the movement is largely discussed in terms of the literature produced during this time, known as bhakti poetry. The general message of loving devotion that is expressed in this poetry reflects the experiences of common people in their culture and society (Pandey 129). While the poetry is an integral component in the history of the Bhakti Movement, the social world that foreshadowed the revival of bhakti must not be ignored.
The wide acceptance of bhakti is complex involving a web of interconnections between the religious, economic, and political spheres of India’s culture, and the social stratification that occurred during the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526 CE). Changes in each realm of society contributed to the escalation of discomfort with Indian life, ultimately leading to the proliferation of bhakti. The Delhi Sultanate was an Islamic Empire, characterized by Muslim conquest of India that unified the subcontinent under a single sovereign state. This political reformation triggered civil conflict among feudal lords and intensified marginalization of Indian workers and common people. The increasing discontentment with Indian life eventually worked to undermine the authority of the Sultanate, and by the declining years of the Empire, many small feudal states asserted independence from Delhi (Pande 215). The economic sphere of India was arguably where the most change occurred, producing an economy that was infinitely superior to the previous. Changes such as improvement in technology, expansion in towns, and advancements of craft production and commerce called for a surplus of merchant and artisan workers. The high demand for workers belonging to the Vaisya class allowed these people to benefit in terms of wealth and power; however, the social rigidity of the Hindu caste system remained unchanged. Therefore, the Sultanate created a social stratification in which the most wealthy and economically powerful members of society were excluded from the uppermost religious echelons (Pande 216). The social sphere was characterized by oppression of lower caste individuals, known as Candalas, or ‘untouchables’ (Pande 216). Attitudes embedded in orthodox Brahminism, which held supreme religious authority at the time, allowed this social oppression to flourish. Prior to the reign of the Sultanate, orthodoxy held that the Brahminclass were the only people to receive education of the Vedas, as well as lessons in reading and writing Sanskrit. Because Hindu ritual worship required recitation of the Vedas, the Brahmins were able to monopolize the religious sphere in India and thus maintain their status quo (Pande 216). The Candalas were completely excluded from their culture’s religion, as orthodox Brahminism regarded them as ritually impure and deemed them incapable of achieving spiritual liberation. The synthesis of civilizations resulted in the accumulation of social unease across the castes, and bhakti provided these marginalized members of society with a liberative platform to let their voices be heard.
The Bhakti Movement gave rise to a number of bhakti sects. To provide a more comprehensive illustration of bhakti ideology and the movement’s ties to a transitional society, this article will focus on one community in particular, the Pustimarg. The Pustimarg, or “Path of Grace”, is a Krsnaite devotional community that sustains a philosophical system of Pure Non-Dualism, suddhadvaita (Saha 302). This school centralizes devotion to Krsna, the Hindu deity of love and compassion, as the means to salvation (Saha 307). Vallabhacarya, also known as Vallabha, is identified as the founder of the Pustimarg, establishing the school in the 16th century (Saha 299). Vallabha lived through the chaos of the Sultanate’s disintegration and rise of the Mughal Empire (Saha 302). According to Vallabha, he received a message from Krsna to administer the brahmasambandha-mantra (Saha 303). This mantra became key to the Pustimarg as its administration acted as an initiation to one’s pursuit of a devotional life on the path of grace. Evidence of the Pustimarg institutionalization as a response to the pandemonium in India can be found in the Srikrsnasryah, a written account by Vallabha. His work also provides possible evidence for how the fall of the Delhi Sultanate and rise of Mughal Empire influenced the trajectory of his travels (Saha 305).
Vallabha travelled around India and spread his philosophy in various cities. There are many reasons to account for the great success and acceptance of the Pustimarg. One reason may be the fact that his philosophy was not of a radical nature for its time. Certain similarities have been identified between Vallabha’s philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita, pointing to the Pustimarg’s possible inspiration (Saha 304). Another factor may be due to the target areas where Vallabha travelled. It seems as if he travelled to target areas where patronage of Hindu institutions was weakest and social instability was greatest (Saha 306). The Pustimarg also outlined a means of salvation that transcended the class system and was accessible to everyone, contrary to traditional Hinduism, which requires a Brahmin priest to perform any religious worship to the deities. It also emphasized the compatibility between pursuit of worldly duties, such as pursuit of wealth, so long as one channels it towards the cultivation of a “single-minded devotion to Krsna” (Saha 307). For this reason, the Pustimarg carried a message that resonated most deeply with the dominant Baniyacommunity (Saha 312). The Baniyas were a Gujarati mercantile community who, due to the Sultanate Empire, served as the economic backbone of society (Saha 307). This period was particularly unsettling for the merchants of society as their livelihoods were dependent upon social, political, and economic stability, making any form of social conflict detrimental to their survival (Saha 308). Vallabha’s ability to appeal to the dominant wealthy class is fundamental to the Pustimarg success as it provided financial support to guarantee material and physical well-being of this particular Bhakti community (Saha 310). Vallabha also appealed to the marginalized members of lower classes, offering these oppressed people of society a sense of community and freedom to worship. While the Path of Grace transcended the caste restrictions in a religious sense, it still upheld the varnasramadharma system in a social sense.
As mentioned previously in this paper, the Bhakti Movement is largely interpreted as a literary movement in which poet-saints of lower ranking castes transcended the limitations preserved by the orthodox Hindu notion of ‘Brahminhood’ and were able to speak on the sociopolitical oppression engrained in Indian culture. In turn, the poetry and songs of bhakti devotion worked to spread the idea that a reform of social democracy was in order. It was the preaching of these devotional songs that unified the marginalized members of society and gave shape to the idea of an egalitarian society (Pande 218). In the past, education was limited to Hindus belonging to the Brahmin class. This class alone understood Sanskrit and thus held religious authority to perform Vedic rituals and rites. The steady increase of cultural awareness brought about by the Bhakti Movement triggered a linguistic reform in which several vernacular languages were developed, reducing the power held by the hierarchy. For the first time, the gap was bridged between Sanskrit and common everyday language. Although expression varies, the general theme of bhakti poetry is distinguished by its expression of rebellion against the feudal-system and priests and themes of love and devotion (Pandey 206). A contributing factor to the success of this poetry is that their stories are “born out of the idealized tradition of Sanskrit poets and are popular takes on public life” (Pandey 135).
It is clear that the Bhakti Movement marks a period of great transition in nearly all realms of society. However, it would be incorrect to assert that bhakti is a socially progressive philosophy. As discussed in the sections above, the accumulating discontent across the Ksatriya, Vaisya, Sudra, and Candala castes called for an egalitarian reform, and the Bhakti Movementwas the answer. Despite the movement’s considerable success in democratizing the caste-bound religious limitations, the austerity of the varnasramadharma system in India is still prevalent today. Why did such a widely accepted and powerful movement fail to effect social change? The answer to this question may be tied to the ambiguity of the word ‘Brahmin’ as it appears in bhakti poetry (Burchett 130). In subtle ways, the poems and songs of bhakti saints actually reinforce the social hierarchy and preserve the notion that Brahmins possess “a social identity of higher purity and value than any other” (Burchette 116-117). In a social context, ‘Brahmin’ refers the identity of the class that one is born into. In a spiritual context, the members of this class, ‘the Brahmins’ are identified as the spiritual ideal. The poet-saints work to break down the notion that ‘Brahminhood’, pure spiritual conduct, is not a function of caste but rather a mindset of devotion; however, ‘the Brahmin’ is still regarded to as the spiritual ideal in these texts (Burchette 130). In this light, bhakti can be seen to emphasize the inherit inferiority and superiority of the classes. The Bhakti Movement’s impact on society is not so much radical changes but rather modest modifications. These small adjustments helped to reduce ridged caste attitudes and make norms more flexible, but at the same time they made those norms and attitudes more durable (Burchette 126).
The Bhakti Movement was influenced by several
interconnected elements of India’s sociopolitical and economic climate
throughout the 20th century. By tracing the history of Vallabha’s
Pustimarg community, it is clear to see the reasons behind this philosophy’s
appeal and the significant ties to the period when it flourished. Devotional
worship to Krsna granted civilians a sense of security and control during a
period of great social unease and strife. The works left behind from the
poet-saints provide evidence for the Bhakti Movement as a call for an
egalitarian and democratic reformation in the social world. However, because
the Hindu class system and religious system are inextricably linked through the
notion of Brahminhood, the movement only resulted in relief from caste
distinctions in the religious sphere. Nonetheless, by democratizing worship and
offering a path to liberation that was fit for the householder’s life, bhakti
revolutionized Hinduism as it is known and practiced today.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Burchett, Patton. (2009) “Rhetoric in the Hagiography of ‘Untouchable’ Saints: Discerning Bhakti’s Ambivalence on Caste and Brahminhood.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 13: 115-141. Accessed February 2, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40608021.
Latif, Shaikh A. (1993) “The Indian Elements in the Bureaucracy of the Delhi Sultanate.” Proceeding of the Indian History Congress 54: 158-162. Accessed February 2, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44142942.
Pande, Rekha. (1987) “The Bhakti Movement -An Interpretation.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 48: 214-221. Accessed January 29, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44141682.
Pandey, Manager, and Tyagi, Alka. (2001) “Bhakti Poetry: Its Relevance and Significance.” Indian Literature 45: 129-138. Accessed February 1, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23345761.
Saha, Shandip. (2006) “A Community of Grace: The Social and Theological World of the Pusti Marga vrata Literature.” Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies 69: 225-242. Accessed February 2, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20182037.
—. (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. Accessed January 29, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25691069.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Hindu Caste System
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Article written by: Josi Koerber (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.