The Bhakti Movement was essentially founded in South India and
later spread to the North during the late medieval period. The notion
of 'Bhakti' (loosely translated as devotional love to God) prevailed
in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity. A nascent consciousness
of what 'Bhakti' constitutes was already to be found in the earliest
Vedas, especially in relation to such deities as Varuna. A clearer
expression of Bhakti began to be formed during the so-called Epic
Period and the Puranic periods of Hindu history. Texts such as the
Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana clearly explored Bhakti Yoga
or the Path of Devotion as a means to salvation.
The Bhakti Movement itself is a historical-spiritual phenomenon
that crystallized in South India during Late Antiquity. It was spearheaded
by devotional mystics (later revered as Hindu saints) who extolled
devotion and love to God as the chief means of spiritual perfection.
The Bhakti movement in South India was spearheaded by the sixty-three
Nayanars (Shaivite devotees) and the twelve Alvars (Vaishnavaite
Among the earliest Shaivite mystics was Karaikkal Amaiyar, who
probably lived around the late 5th century AD or perhaps the early
6th century. She was said to be a contemporary of the Vaishnavaite
saints Bhuttalwar and Peialwar. Kannapa Nayanar was also an early
Shaiva Bhakti saint. But most famous among the Shaiva Bhakti saints
were the 'Nalvar' (The Four Eminent Ones), namely Sundarar, Appar,
Sambandar and Manikkavasagar. Their devotional hymns are ecstatic,
lyrical and moving.
The Vaishnavaite Bhakti movement was contemporaneous with the
Shaiva Bhakti movement. The hymns of the twelve alvars are held
together as the 'Nalayira Divya Prabandham' and recited (as are
the Shaiva texts) in temple rituals. Whilst all the saints are held
in great reverence, Andal (or Goda-devi) in particular holds a special
place among the Vaishnava saints. Not only is she the only female
Vaishnava saint but also her hymns are among the best expressions
of bridal mysticism in the Hindu religion.
The twelve Alvars and the sixty-three Nayanars nurtured the incipient
bhakti movement in South India under the Pallavas and Pandyas in
the fifth to seventh centuries AD. They constitute [[South India's
75 Apostles of Bhakti] and were greatly influential in determining
the expression of faith in South India. The path of devotion as
expounded by these mystics would later be incorporated into Ramanuja
and Madhva philosophical systems.
During the 12th and 13th centuries A.D., the Virashaiva movement
and, during the rule of the Vijayanagar Empire in South India, the
Haridasa movement spread from present-day Karnataka. The Virashaiva
movement spread the philosophy of Basavanna, a Hindu reformer. The
seeds of Carnatic music were sown, and the philosophy of Madhvacharya
was propogated by the Kannada Haridasas.The Haridasa movement presented,
like the Virashaiva movement, another strong current of Bhakti,
pervading the lives of millions. The Haridasas presented two groups
– Vyasakuta and Dasakuta. The former were required to be proficient
in the Vedas, Upanishads and other Darshanas, while the Dasakuta
merely conveyed the message of Madhvacharya through the Kannada
language to the people. The philosophy of Madhvacharya was preserved
and perpetuated by his eminent disciples like Vyasatirtha or Vyasaraja
Naraharitirtha, Vadirajatirtha, Sripadaraya, Jayathirtha and others.
In the fifteenth century, the Haridasa movement took shape under
Sripadaraya of Mulbagal; but his disciple Vyasatirtha provided it
a strong organizational base. He was intimately associated with
the Vijayanagar Empire, where he became a great moral and spiritual
force. His eminent disciples were Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa.
The late Bhakti movement led to the proliferation of regional
poetic literature in the various vernacular languages of India.
The Bhakti movement in what is now Karnataka resulted in a burst
of poetic Kannada literature in praise of Lord Vishnu. Some of its
leaders include Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa, whose contributions
were essential to Carnatic music. The later Carnatic Trinity is
also no doubt a product of this long Bhakti Movement.
The Bhakti movement began to spread to the North during the late
medieval ages when North India was under Muslim domination. There
was no grouping of the mystics into Shaiva and Vaishnava devotees
as it was in the South. The movement was spontaneous and the various
mystics had their own version of devotional expression. Unlike in
the South where devotion was centred on both Shiva and Vishnu (in
all his forms), the Northern devotional movement was more or less
centred on Rama and Krishna, both of whom were incarnations of Vishnu.
Though this did not mean that the cult of Shiva or of the Devi went
into decline. In fact for all of its history the Bhakti movement
co-existed peacefully with the other movements in Hinduism. It was
initially considered unorthodox as it rebelled against caste distinctions
and made disregarded Brahmanic rituals which according to Bhakti
saints not necessary for salvation. In the course of time however,
owing to its immense popularity among the masses (and even royal
patronage) it became 'orthodox' and continues to be one of the most
important modes of religious expression in modern India.
In the period between the 14-17th centuries, a great bhakti movement
swept through Northern India initiated by a loosely associated group
of teachers or 'Sants'. Caitanya, Vallabha, Meera Bai, Kabir, Tulsi
Das, Tukaram and other mystics spearheaded the Bhakti movement in
the North. Their teachings 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 vernacular prose and poetry in the ethnic languages of the various
Indian states or provinces.
As aforementioned whilst many of the Bhakti mystics focused their
attention on Krishna or Rama, it did not necessarily mean that the
cult of Shiva was marginalised. The growth of the Vira-Shaiva and
the older Shaiva Siddhanta schools in this period, which incorporated
Bhakti into their teachings are testimony to the growth of the Shaiva
faith in this period. 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 and is of hoary antiquity. It incorporates the
teachings of the erstwhile Shaiva nayanars and espouses the belief
that Shiva is Brahman 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.
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.