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Bhakti-Sufi Traditions Devotional Texts- NCERT Notes UPSC 

Jul 08, 2022

Bhakti-Sufi Traditions Devotional Texts

New textual sources available from 8th to 18th century include compositions attributed to poet-saints, most of whom expressed themselves orally in regional languages. These compositions were compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after the death of the poet-saint. Elevate your UPSC Mains 2022 preparation for History with this detailed article. Dive deep into it to get useful insights on the Bhakti-Sufi traditions and upgrade your UPSC preparation.

Mosaic of Religious Beliefs and Practices

Most striking feature of this phase is the increasing visibility of a wide range of gods and goddesses in sculpture as well as in texts. 

The Integration of Cults

  • There were two processes at work:
  • Propagating Brahmanical ideas, explicitly meant to be accessible to women and Shudras, who were generally excluded from Vedic learning.
  • Brahmanas accepting and reworking on their beliefs and practices. For example, at Puri Temple, Orissa, the principal deity came to be identified as Jagannatha (the lord of the world), a form of Vishnu.
  • Such instances of integration are evident amongst goddess cults as well.
Buddhist Goddess - Bhakti-Sufi traditions

Buddhist goddess, Marichi, Bihar, an example of integration

Differences and Conflict

  • Tantric practices: These were widespread in several parts of the sub-continent.
  • They were open to women and men.
  • They ignored caste differences.
  • Shaivism and Buddhism were influenced by these ideas. These beliefs would come to be classified as Hindu over the next millennium.
  • Followers of Vedic tradition condemned practices that went beyond the closely regulated contact with the divine through sacrifices or mantras. Meanwhile, followers of Tantric practices frequently ignored the authority of the Vedas.
  • Relations with other traditions, such as Buddhism or Jainism, were also often fraught with tension if not open conflict.

Poems of Prayer: Early Tradition of Bhakti

Bhakti Tradition

It is classified into two categories:

  • Saguna: It focused on the worship of specific deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars and forms of the goddess.
  • Nirguna: It was the worship of an abstract form of god.

Early Proponents: The Alvars and Nayanars:

  • Some of the earliest bhakti movements (sixth century) were led by the Alvars (devotees of Vishnu) and Nayanars (devotees of Shiva). 
  • They travelled from place to place singing hymns in Tamil in praise of their gods.
  • These singing compositions became part of temple rituals as did worship of the saints’ images.
  • While travelling, the Alvars and Nayanars identified certain shrines as abodes of their chosen deities, which later developed as centres of pilgrimage. 

Their Attitudes towards Caste:

  • The Alvars and Nayanars initiated a movement of protest against the caste system and the dominance of Brahmanas.
  • They claimed their traditions to be as important as the Vedas.
  • The Nalayira Divyaprabandham, an Alvar composition, was described as the Tamil Veda and claimed to be as significant as the four Vedas in Sanskrit.

Women Devotees

A striking feature was the presence of women.

  • The compositions of Andal, a woman Alvar, were widely sung.
  • Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a devotee of Shiva, adopted the path of extreme asceticism in order to attain her goal. Her compositions were preserved within the Nayanar tradition.
  • Their very existence and compositions posed a challenge to patriarchal norms.

Relations with the State

  • Opposition to Buddhism and Jainism is the main theme of bhakti hymns due to competition between religious traditions for royal patronage. 
  • Chola rulers: They supported both Brahmanical and bhakti traditions, making land grants and constructing temples for Vishnu and Shiva.
  • For example, Shiva temples at Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, were constructed under the Chola rulers.
  • Stone and metal sculpture in temples were built to recreate the vision of bhakti saints by the Chola rulers to win their support.
  • Initiative of Singing of Tamil Shaiva hymns in temples and organising them into a text (Tevaram) was also introduced.

The Virshaiva Tradition in Karnataka

  • A new movement led by a Brahmana named Basavanna emerged in the twelfth century.
  • The followers were known as Virshaivas (heroes of shiva) or Lingayats (wearers of Linga).
  • Lingayats bury their dead instead of cremating them as they believe they will be united with Shiva and will not return to this world.
  • They also challenged the idea of caste and rebirth and encouraged post-puberty marriage and remarriage of widows.
  • Vachanas, composed in Kannada by the followers throws light on Virshaiva Traditions.

Religious Ferment in North India:

  • During this period, several Rajput states had emerged, where Brahamanas occupied important positions without any significant challenge to their authority. 
  • However, other religious leaders who challenged orthodox Brahmanical framework started gaining ground. These were the Naths, Jogis and Siddhas
  • They came from artisanal groups, who became important with the development of organised craft production. 
  • These religious leaders questioned the authority of the Vedas and spoke in the language spoken by the local people.
  • New development during this phase was the establishment of Delhi Sultanate (thirteenth century), which led to marked changes in cultural and religious realm.

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New Strands in The Fabric: Islamic Traditions

  • Faith of Rulers and Subjects:
  • Muslim rulers were to be guided by the Ulama, and were expected to rule according to the Shari‘a, which made the situation complicated as majority population did not subscribe to Islam.
  • Due to this, the category of Zimmi (the protected) developed for people of other religions. They paid Jizya and in return they were to be protected by the Muslims.
  • Several leaders adopted flexible policy towards their subjects and also expressed devotion towards non-Muslim religious leaders.
  • Grants were also made by Mughal rulers like Akbar and Aurangzeb.
  • The Popular practice of Islam:
  • The universal feautres of Islam were overlaid with diversities and influence of local customary practices.
  • For example, the Khojahs, a branch of the Ismailis (a Shia sect), developed new modes of communication for propagating Qur’an through devotional poems in local dialects.
  • Arab Muslim traders who settled along the Malabar coast (Kerala) adopted the local language and customs such as matriliny and matrilocal residence.
  • Several features of mosques also show variation, such as roof and building materials.
Mosque in kerala- Bhakti-sufi traditions

Mosque in Kerala. Note the Sikhara like roof

  • Names for communities:
  • According to historians, terms Hindu and Muslims, as labels for religious communities were virtually never used during this phase.
  • Instead, people were usually identified from the place they came from.
  • Turkish rulers were designated as Turushka, 
  • Tajika were people from Tajikistan,
  • Parashika were people from Persia.
  • A more general term for these migrant communities was Mlechchha.

The Growth of Sufism

  • A group of religious minded people called sufis turned to asceticism and mysticism in protest against the growing materialism of the Caliphate.
  • They laid emphasis on intense devotion and love for God by following His command.

Khanqahs and Silsilas:

  • By the eleventh century Sufism evolved into a full-fledged movement with their own literature and sufi practices. 
  • The sufis began to organise communities around the hospice or khanqah (Persian) controlled by a teacher known as shaikh (in Arabic), pir or murshid (in Persian)
  • He enrolled disciples (murids) and appointed a successor (khalifa)
  • He established rules for spiritual conduct and interaction between inmates, laypersons and the master.
  • Sufi silsilas (chain) began to crystallise in different parts of the Islamic world around the twelfth century.
  • Inmates took an oath of allegiance, wore a patched garment, and shaved their hair.
  • Shaikh’s tomb-shrine (dargah) became the centre of devotion after his death because the followers believed that saints united with god after death.

Outside the Khanqah:

  • Some mystics initiated movements based on a radical interpretation of sufi ideals. 
  • Many scorned the khanqah and took to mendicancy and observed celibacy.
  •  They ignored rituals and observed extreme forms of asceticism. 
  • They were known by different names – Qalandars, Madaris, Malangs, Haidaris, etc.

The Chistis in the Subcontinent

Chistis were the most influential of the groups that migrated to India in the Twelfth Century because they adopted to the local environment and traditions.

Life in the Chishti Khanqah

  • Khanqahs were the centre of social life.
  • Shaikh Nizamuddin’s hospice in Delhi comprised of several rooms and big hall.
  • Inmates included family members of the Shaikh, his attendants and disciples.
  • A veranda surrounded the courtyard and a boundary wall ran around the complex.
  • There was an open kitchen (langar), run on futuh (charity).
  • People from all walks of life came seeking discipleship.
  • Visitors included poets such as Amir Hasan Sijzi and Amir Khusrau and the court historian Ziyauddin Barani.
  • Practices such as bowing before the Shaikh, offering water to visitors, shaving the heads of initiates, and yogic exercises, represented attempts to assimilate local traditions.

Also, watch this video lecture by Hemant Jha Sir to understand the topic better:

Chisti Devotionalism: Ziyarat and Qawwali

  • Pilgrimage tom tombs of sufi saints is called ziyarat. This practice is an occasion for seeking the sufi’s spiritual grace (barakat).
  • The most revered among these is that of Khwaja Muinuddin, popularly known as “Gharib Nawaz”.
  • It was popular because of the austerity and piety of its Shaikh, the greatness of his spiritual successors, and the patronage of royal visitors.
  • Muhammad bin Tughlaq was the first Sultan to visit the shrine but the earliest construction was funded by Sultan Ghiyasuddin Khalji.
  • Akbar visited the shrine fourteen times and gave generous gifts.
  • Use of music and dance including mystical chants performed by specially trained musicians or qawwals to evoke divine ecstasy was also a part of Ziyarat.
  • The sufis remember God either by reciting the zikr (the Divine Names) or evoking his Presence through sama (audition). 

Languages and Communication

  • In Delhi, those associated with the Chishti silsila conversed in Hindavi, the language of the people
  • Sufis such as Baba Farid composed verses in the local language, which were incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib. 
  • Sufi poetry was composed in and around the town of Bijapur, Karnataka. These were short poems in Dakhani (a variant of Urdu) attributed to Chishti Sufis.
  • Sufis of this region were inspired by the bhakti tradition of the Kannada vachanas. 

Sufis and the State

  • The sufis accepted unsolicited grants and donations from the political elites.
  • The Sultans set up charitable trusts (auqaf) and granted tax-free land (inam).
  • These donations were used for requirements like food, clothes, living quarters and ritual necessities.
  • It was believed that the auliya could intercede with God, which is why kings often wanted their tombs to be in the vicinity of sufi shrines.
  • However, there were instances of conflict between the Sultans and the sufis.
  • To assert their authority, both expected that certain rituals be performed such as prostration and kissing of the feet.
  • Sufi Shaiks were often addressed with titles, for example, disciples of Nizamuddin Auliya addressed him as sultan-ul-mashaikh.

New Devotional Paths: Dialogue and Dissent in Northern India

Weaving a Divine Fabric: Kabir

  • Verses ascribed to Kabir have been compiled in three distinct but overlapping traditions:
  • The Kabir Bijak is preserved by the Kabirpanth (the path or sect of Kabir) in Varanasi and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh.
  • The Kabir Granthavali is associated with the Dadupanth in Rajasthan.
  • Many of his compositions are found in the Adi Granth Sahib. 
  • All these manuscript compilations were made long after the death of Kabir.
  • Kabir’s poems are in several languages and dialects.
  • Some are composed in the special language of nirguna poets, the sant bhasha
  • Ulatbansi (upside-down sayings), are written in a form in which everyday meanings are inverted. 
  • These hint at the difficulties of capturing the nature of the reality in words: expressions such as “the lotus which blooms without flower” or the “fire raging in the ocean” convey a sense of Kabir’s mystical experiences.
  • He described the Ultimate Reality as Allah, Khuda, Hazrat and Pir.
  • He also used terms drawn from Vedantic traditions, alakh (the unseen), nirakar (formless), Brahman, Atman, etc.
  • Terms with mystical connotations such as shabda (sound) or shunya (emptiness) were drawn from yogic traditions.
  • Diverse and conflicting ideas are expressed in these poems
  • Some poems draw on Islamic ideas and use monotheism and iconoclasm to attack Hindu polytheism and idol worship; 
  • Some use the sufi concept of zikr and ishq to express the Hindu practice of nam-simaran (remembrance of God’s name).
  • Hagiographies within the Vaishnava tradition attempted to suggest that he was born a Hindu but was raised by a poor Muslim. 
  • They also suggested that Ramananda was his guru but it is difficult that they both were contemporaries.

Baba Guru Nanak and the Sacred Word

  • He was born (1469-1539) in a Hindu family in a village called Nankana Sahib near the river Ravi.
  • The message of Baba Guru Nanak is spelt out in his hymns and teachings which suggest that he advocated a form of nirguna bhakti.
  • For Baba Guru Nanak, the Absolute or “rab” had no gender or form.
  • He rejected sacrifices, ritual baths, image worship, austerities and the scriptures of both Hindus and Muslims
  • He proposed a way to connect to the Divine by remembering and repeating the Divine Name, expressing his ideas through hymns called “shabad”.
  • He organised his followers into a community and set up rules for congregational worship (sangat) involving collective recitation. 
  • The fifth Guru, Guru Arjan, compiled Baba Guru Nanak’s hymns along with those of his successors and poets like Baba Farid, Ravidas (and Kabir in the Adi Granth Sahib.
  • The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, included the compositions of the ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and this scripture was called the Guru Granth Sahib.
  • Guru Gobind Singh laid the foundation of the Khalsa Panth and defined its five symbols: 
  • Uncut hair, 
  • Dagger, 
  • Pair of shorts,
  • Comb 
  • Steel bangle. 

Mirabai, the Devotee Princess

  • She is perhaps the best-known woman poet within the bhakti tradition.
  • She was princess who was married against her wishes but she later escaped to live as wandering saint.
  • She recognized Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, as her lover.
  • Her guru was Raidas, a leather worker, which indicates her defiance of the caste society.
  • Although Mirabai did not attract a sect or group of followers but her songs continue to be sung by the poor and those considered “low caste” in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Timeline: Some Major Religious Teachers in The Subcontinent

  • 500-800 CE: Appar, Sambandar, Sundaramurti in Tamil Nadu
  • 800-900: Nammalvar, Manikkavachakar, Andal, Tondaradippodi in Tamil Nadu
  • 1000-1100: Al Hujwiri, Data Ganj Bakhsh in the Punjab; Ramanujacharya in Tamil Nadu
  • 1100-1200: Basavanna in Karnataka
  • 1200-1300: Jnanadeva, Muktabai in Maharashtra
  • Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan
  • Bahauddin Zakariyya and Fariduddin Ganj- i Shakar in the Punjab
  • Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Delhi
  • 1300-1400: Lal Ded in Kashmir
  • Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sind 
  • Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi 
  • Ramananda in Uttar Pradesh 
  • Chokhamela in Maharashtra
  • Sharafuddin Yahya Maneri in Bihar
  • 1400-1500: Kabir, Raidas, Surdas in Uttar Pradesh 
  • Baba Guru Nanak in the Punjab 
  • Vallabhacharya in Gujarat 
  • Abdullah Shattari in Gwalior
  • Muhammad Shah Alam in Gujarat
  • Mir Sayyid Muhammad Gesu Daraz in Gulbarga 
  • Shankaradeva in Assam
  • Tukaram in Maharashtra 
  • 1500-1600: Sri Chaitanya in Bengal
  • Mirabai in Rajasthan
  • Shaikh Abdul Quddus Gangohi, Malik Muhammad Jaisi, Tulsidas in Uttar Pradesh
  • 1600-1700: Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi in Haryana
  • Miyan Mir in the Punjab

Frequently Asked Questions About Bhakti and Sufi Traditions

What are Bhakti and Sufi movement UPSC?

The Bhakti movement is a religious movement that originated in India, characterized by devotion to a personal god and the rejection of caste distinctions. It emerged in the medieval period and reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. The movement was led by saints and mystics from various regions and backgrounds, and it had a profound impact on the religious and social fabric of India.

The Sufi movement is a mystical Islamic movement that emphasizes the inward search for God and the personal experience of union with the divine. Sufism emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries in the Islamic world and has had a significant influence on Islamic culture and spirituality. Sufi saints and mystics have played a major role in spreading Islam and fostering a culture of tolerance and pluralism.

Both Bhakti and Sufi movements are important religious movements in Indian history and have been important in shaping the culture and spirituality of the region. They are important topics for students preparing for UPSC Civil Services examination.

What is the main aim of Bhakti and Sufi saints?

The main aim of Bhakti saints is to achieve a personal and emotional connection with a deity, typically through devotional practices such as singing hymns and prayers. The goal is often to attain union with the divine or to attain spiritual liberation.

Sufi saints aim to achieve a direct personal experience of God through spiritual practices such as meditation, asceticism and the repetition of God's name. Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief system, the goal is often to achieve a state of union with the divine, known as "Fana" or "annihilation of self" and ultimately to reach the state of "Baqa" or "remaining in God."

Who started the Bhakti and Sufi movement?

The Bhakti movement in Hinduism began in the 7th century CE and was largely led by saints and mystics in South India, such as the Alvar and Nayanar saints. The Bhakti movement in Islam, called Sufism, began in the 8th century CE and was largely led by Islamic mystics, known as Sufis, in Central Asia and Persia.

What is Bhakti movement UPSC?

The Bhakti movement was a religious movement that originated in medieval India, characterized by the devotion of its followers to a personal god or goddess. It was a reaction against the formal, ritualistic practices of Hinduism and emphasized the personal nature of a spiritual experience. It was influential in the development of devotional sects in Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, as well as in the emergence of new religious movements, such as Sikhism. It is also referred to as Bhakti Yoga and is considered as one of the important topics for UPSC Examination.

Difference Between Bhakti and Sufi Movements

The Bhakti movement and the Sufi movement are both religious movements that emerged within the Indian subcontinent.

The Bhakti movement was a devotional movement that emerged within Hinduism in the medieval period. It emphasized the devotion and love of God, and rejected the caste system and ritualism of traditional Hinduism. The Bhakti movement produced a number of saints and poets, such as Ramanuja, Chaitanya, and Kabir, who spread the message of devotion and love for God through their teachings and writings.

The Sufi movement, on the other hand, was a mystical movement that emerged within Islam during the medieval period. It emphasized the personal, direct experience of God through meditation and devotion. The Sufi movement produced a number of saints and mystics, such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Jalaluddin Rumi, who spread the message of the unity of God and the importance of love and devotion through their teachings and writings.

In short, Bhakti movement was a Hindu devotional movement and Sufi movement was an Islamic mystical movement. Both movements emphasized the personal, direct experience of God through meditation and devotion.

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