• An important landmark in the cultural history of medieval India was the silent revolution in the society known as the Bhakti Movement. The term ‘Bhakti’ symbolises ‘devotion or passionate love for the Divine’. Its meaning has, however, evolved with time, along with the concept of Bhakti itself.
    • Since the times of the Indo-Aryans and the sacred texts, i.e., the Vedas, the meaning of Bhakti as a tradition has varied. The Vedic period, with its focused image of the rishi or the seer (a visionary figure who was able to communicate with and about the various gods of the Vedic pantheon through a complex system of rituals; Moksha could be attained through the precise performance of these rituals), did contain the seeds of the Bhakti movement, but it was clearly not the true depiction.
  • This process of ‘adoration of a personal god’ started during the course of the 6th century BCE, with the rise of the heterodox movements of Buddhism and Jainism. For instance, under Mahayana Buddhism, the worship of the Buddha started in his avalokita (gracious) form. The worship of Vishnu too started around the same time, which was popularised to a great extent by the Gupta kings, who supported the pantheon of gods (Vishnu, the cosmic king; Shiva, the great yogi and ascetic; and his feminine counterpart, Shakti, or divine energy) through the worship of divine images (puja), the Puranas (mythological compositions about the gods). The Gupta kings also built temples dedicated to these gods and patronised the various devotional groups.
  • However, what is known today as the Bhakti Movement had its genesis in southern India in the 7th and 12th century CE. It was in south India that Bhakti grew from a religious tradition to a popular movement, based on notions of religious equality and broad-based social participation. It is characterised by the writings of its poet-saints, the Shaivaite Nayannars and the Vaishnavaite Alvars, who preached the Bhakti movement under the Pallavas, Pandyas, and the Cholas. They disregarded the austerities preached by the Jains and the Buddhists and preached that personal devotion to god was the only means of salvation.
  • They extolled passionate devotional love for the Divine and stressed on the fact that Moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) could be attained not by following rules, regulations, or social order, but through simple devotion to the Divine.
  • The Bhakti saints usually emerged from lower castes, preached a religion which was non–ritualistic and open to all without any distinction of caste or creed, encouraged women to join in the gatherings, and taught in the local vernacular languages. These ideas of Bhakti were carried to the north by scholars as well as by saints.
Alvars and Nayanars
  • The Nayanars and Alvars were Tamil poet-saints who played an essential role in the propagation of a Bhakti Movement in the South part of India during the 5th – 10th centuries.
  • Alvars bestowed their belief and devotion to Lord Vishnu
    • The poetry of the Alvars echoes Bhakti to God through love, and in the ecstasy of such devotions they sang hundreds of songs which embodied both depth of feeling and felicity of expressions
    • The collection of their hymns is known as Divya Prabandha. The Bhakti literature that sprang from Alvars has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that broke away from the ritual-oriented Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path for salvation.
  • Nayanars bestowed their belief and devotion to Lord Shiva
    • Among the Nayanars, the poets Nanachampantar, Appar, and Chuntaramurtti (often called “the three”) are worshipped as saints through their images in South Indian temples.
    • In the 10th century Nambi Andar Nambi collected the hymns of the Nayanars in an anthology called the Tevaram

The Bhakti Movement in North India

  • Interestingly, the evolution of Bhakti Movement in medieval India, which gained momentum in the northern parts of the country during the 12th−17th century CE, differs from the southern Bhakti Movement.
  • The Bhakti Movement in the north included socio-religious movements that were linked to one of the acharyas from the south, and is sometimes seen as a continuation of the movement that originated in the south. Though there were similarities in the traditions of the two regions, the notion of bhakti varied in the teachings of each of the saints.
  • The northern medieval Bhakti Movement had the influence of the spread of Islam in India. The distinctive characteristics of Islam such as Monotheism or belief in one God, equality and brotherhood of man, and rejection of rituals and class divisions certainly influenced the Bhakti Movement of this era. Moreover, the preaching of Sufi teachers shaped the thinking of Bhakti reformers like Ramananda, Kabir, and Nanak, as the Bhakti Movement also initiated certain reforms in the society.
  • There is also difference of opinion about the reasons behind the origins of the Bhakti Movement. Some scholars consider the rise of the Bhakti Movement as a reaction against feudal oppression and against conformist Rajput−Brahman domination. The anti-feudal tone in the poetry of Bhakti saints like Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, and Tulsidas is seen as testimony to this point.
  • However, some scholars feel that the socio-economic changes in the early medieval period provided the necessary background reasons for the emergence of this movement.
    • According to them, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the demand for manufactured goods, luxuries, and other artisanal goods increased, leading to a movement of artisans into the cities. The movement gained support from these classes of the society as these groups were dissatisfied with the low status accorded to them by the Brahmanical system, and hence they turned towards Bhakti since it focused on equality.
  • Though there is no single opinion about the origins of the Bhakti Movement, there is unanimity of thought over the fact that the Bhakti Movement focused on the message of equality and devotional surrender to a personally conceived supreme God.
  • The Bhakti movement is also divided into two different ideological streams of ‘Saguna’ (those poet-saints who composed verses extolling a god with attributes or form) and ‘Nirguna’ (those extolling god without and beyond all attributes or form).
    • For instance, the Saguna Bhaktas like Tulsidas upheld the caste system and the supremacy of the Brahmans, and preached a religion of surrender and simple faith in a personal God, having a strong commitment towards idol worship.
    • On the other hand, the Nirguna Bhaktas like Kabir rejected the varnashrama and all conventions based on caste distinctions. They championed new values, helping the emergence of new groups and new unorthodox or protestant sects. The Nirguna Bhakatas are also known as Monotheistic Bhakti saints, who gave more importance to the personal experience of Bhakti saints with god. They rejected the authority of the Brahmans and attacked the caste system and the practice of idolatry.
      • All of them were influenced by the Vaishnava concept of Bhakti, the Nathpanthi movement, and Sufism, and their ideas seemed to be a synthesis of the three traditions.
      • Though they had adopted the notion of bhakti from Vaishnavaism, they gave it a nirguna orientation. They called their god using different names and titles, but their god was non-incarnate, formless, eternal, and ineffable.
      • The monotheistic poet-saints were also aware of each other’s teachings and influence, and in their verses they frequently mentioned each other and their predecessors in a manner suggesting ideological affinity among them.
  • While the differences between these two branches are indeed important, their overarching similarities cannot be minimised:
    • Both focused on singular devotion, mystical love for God, and had a particular focus on a personal relationship with the Divine.
    • Both were highly critical of ritual observances as maintained and fostered by the Brahman priesthood In fact, many poetsaints, specially in northern areas, were themselves of lower caste lineages.
    • Another commonality was their usage of the vernacular or regional languages of the masses, as opposed to the sacred language of the elite priesthood, Sanskrit. They composed their poems in popular languages and dialects spoken across north India. This enabled them to transmit their ideas among the masses and also among the various lower classes.

Prominent Leaders of the Bhakti Movement

Prominent Leaders of the Bhakti Movement

Shankaracharya (c. 788 – 820 CE)

  • Great thinker, distinguished philosopher, and leader of the Hindu revivalist movement of the 9th century, which gave a new orientation to Hinduism.
  • He was born in Kaladi (Kerala) and propounded the Advaita (Monism) philosophy and Nirgunabrahman (god without attributes).
  • In Advaita, the reality of the world is denied and Brahman is considered as the only reality. It is only Brahman at its base that gives it its reality.
    • The analogy given for Advaita is the famous analogy of the snake and the rope. In the dark, we may mistake a rope for a snake and for a time take it to be a real snake. But soon we realise that it is in fact only a rope. Once we know it to be a rope, we do not see the snake anymore. The rope had never existed, it was purely in our minds. So also, although it is only the Brahman that exists all around us, we see the world, which is only a reading of Brahman by our minds. But once we attain realisation and see that it was Brahman all along, we do not see the world anymore.
  • His famous quotes include, “Brahma Satyam Jagat Mithya Jivo Brahmatra Naparaha”, meaning, “The Absolute Spirit is the reality, the world of appearance is Maya”.
  • According to him, gyaan (knowledge) alone can lead to salvation.
  • Wrote commentary on the Bhagvat Gita, on the Brahmasutra and the Upanishads, and wrote books like:
    • Upadesh Shastri
    • Vivek Chudamani
    • Bhaja Govindum Stotra
  • Established mathas at Sringiri, Dwarka, Puri, and Badrinath.

Ramanuja (c. 1017 – 1137 CE)

  • Born at Sriperumbudur near modern Chennai in the 12th century.
  • He opposed the mayavada of Shankara and advocated the philosophy of Vishista Advaitavada (qualified monism), and founded the Shrivaishnava sect.
  • According to him, God is Saguna Brahman. The creative process and all the objects in creation are real but not illusory as was held by Sankaracharya. Therefore, God, soul, matter, are real. But god is inner substance and the rest are his attributes.
  • In Vishista Advaita, the world and Brahman are also considered two equally real entities, as in dualism, but here the world is not separate from Brahman but is formed out of Brahman.
  • In Vishista Advaitavada, Brahman is a personal god with omniscient qualities. He has created the world, but he has created the world out of his own self. Thus, the world bears to Brahman the relation of the part to the whole, or the relation of a ‘qualified effect’ to the base (hence qualified monism).
    • The famous analogy given for this is the sea and waveBrahman is the sea and the objects of the world, both non-living and the living souls, are like waves upon this sea. All waves are ultimately the sea only, but as long as we see the wave we think it to be different from the sea. The wave is of name and form only. Other analogies given for this are gold and gold jewellery, clay and clay pots, the spider and his web, etc.
  • Brahman as defined by Ramanuja is an entirely personal God. Ramanuja considered Brahman to be Vishnu or one of his avatars. Vishnu has all the qualities of a personal God like omniscience, omnipotence, etc. Vishnu creates the world out of his love for humans, and controls the world at every step. The duty of humans is to love and worship the Lord Vishnu so that he will grant deliverance when our worship has ripened.
  • The practice of religion in Vishista Advaita is similar to Dualism, and the only difference is that mankind enjoys a higher status than in pure dualistic worship and is nearer to God.
    • Thus in Vishista Advaita, although both the world and Brahman are considered equally real, they are not considered two separate entities as in Dualism.
  • He also advocated prabattimarga or the path of selfsurrender to God. He invited the downtrodden to Vaishnavism and advocated salvation by bhakti.
  • He wrote:
    • Sribhashya
    • Vedanta dipa
    • Gita Bhasya
    • Vedantasara

Madhavacharya (c. 1238 – 1317 CE)

  • In the 13th century, Madhava from Kannada region propagated Dvaita or the dualism of the Jivatma and Paramatma.
  • According to this philosophy, the world is not an illusion but a reality, full of real distinction. According to Madhava, Brahman and the world are considered to be two equally real entities and not related in any way.
    • The God of dualism is the Hindu God, Vishnu. Vishnu has created the world, and the world stands separate from God and in an inferior position to God with no link between the two. Vishnu controls the world and all world events, and the duty of all persons is to worship and pray to god.
  • God, soul, and matter are all unique in nature, and hence they are irreducible to each other.
  • He also founded the Brahma Sampradya.


  • Younger contemporary of Ramanujam who propounded the Dvaita advaita philosophy and the philosophy of Bheda Abheda (difference/ non–difference).
  • According to him, Brahman or the supreme soul transforms itself into the souls of the world, which are therefore real, distinct, and different from Brahman.
  • Like Vishista Advaita, the Bheda Abheda school also believes that the world and Brahman are both equally real, and that the world is a part of Brahman. The difference is on emphasis only.
    • The same analogy of sea and wave, clay and pot, etc. is used here. A particular analogy of Bhed Abheda is the sun and the sun beam. The sun beam cannot be called separate from the sun, it arises from the sun, and is attached to it. Yet it is not the sun either, it is only a part of the sun, a reflection of the sun, and it gives only a part view of the sun.
    • Hence the world also is but a manifestation of Brahman, but it is a very small manifestation, and the difference with Brahman is very large.
  • Preacher of Vaishnavite Bhakti in the Telangana region.
  • Worshipper of Krishna and Radha and established his ashrama in Braja (Mathura).
  • He also founded the Sanak Sampradaya.

Vallabhacharya (c. 1479 – 1531 CE)

  • Born in Benaras in the 15th century and lived at the court of Krishnadeva Raya.
  • He propounded the Shudhadvaita (pure monism). In Shudhadvaita, as in Vishista Advaita, the world is taken to have a real existence, as also Brahman. But it is said that there is no change of Brahman into the world, the world exists as it were as an aspect of Brahman without undergoing any change, it is a part of Brahman.
    • We may consider it like two sides of a coin, with Brahman as one side and the world as another side. There is no change – the world is a part of the coin that is Brahman.
    • Hence, this is called ‘Shudh Advaita’ because it is said that there is only one and there is no change.
  • However, we see that though Shudhadvaita calls itself monism, it recognises the presence of both, the world and Brahman, as being equally real. Hence, there are two realities. Hence, even if we say that it is a part of Brahman, the world does exist as a different reality from Brahman, the other side of the coin as it were.
  • So it is actually a branch of Vishista Advaita, in that it recognises both the world and Brahman as being two equally real existences, though it emphasises the non-difference more by saying that the world is an inseparable, unchanged aspect of Brahman. Thus it tends more towards pure Advaita than the Vishista Advaita of Ramanuja.
  • Its philosophy is Pushtimarga.
  • He founded the Rudra Sampradya.
  • According to him, God is omnipotent and omniscient and cause of all that is there in the universe. Surdas was the disciple of Vallabhacharya who was blind but he was largely instrumental in popularising the Krishna Bhakti Movement in north India.


  • He was a 12th century administrator, philosopher, poet, Lingayat saint in the Shiva-focused Bhakti movement.
  • He raised social awareness through his poetry, popularly known as Vachanaas.
  • He introduced new public institutions such as the Anubhava Mantapa (or, the “hall of spiritual experience”), which welcomed men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds to discuss spiritual and mundane questions of life, in open.
  • He was a propagator of Visishtadvaita.
  • Basavanna literary works include the Vachana Sahitya in Kannada Language.
  • He is also known as Bhaktibhandari, Basavanna or Basaveswara.

Vidyapati (c. 1352 – 1448 CE)

  • Vidyapati was a 14th century Maithili poet known for his poetry dedicated to Shiva, whom he addressed as Ugna.

The Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra

  • The Bhakti movement in Maharashtra centred around the shrine of Vithoba or Vitthal, the residing deity of Pandharpur, who was regarded as a manifestation of Krishna. That is why it is also known as the Pandharpur movement, which led to great cultural and social development in Maharashtra such as the development of Marathi literature, elevation in the status of women, breaking of caste barriers, etc.
  • In Maharashtra, the Bhakti Movement drew its inspiration from the Bhagavata Purana and the Shiva Nathpanthis. The Bhakti Movement is broadly divided into two sects:
    • Varakaris: The mild devotees of God Vitthala of Pandharpur, who are more emotional, theoretical, and abstract in their viewpoint.
    • Dharakaris: The heroic followers of the cult of Ramadasa, the devotee of God Rama, who are more rational, practical, and concrete in their thoughts.
  • The difference between the two schools, however, is only apparent, and the realisation of God as the highest end of human life is common aim of both.
  • The great saints belonging to the Vithoba cult were Jnaneswar, Jnanadeva, Namdeva, and Tukaram.

Jnaneswar or Jnanadeva/ Gnaneshwar ( c. 1275 – 1296 CE)

  • A 13th century pioneer bhakti saint of Maharashtra, whose commentary on the Bhagvat Gita called Jnanesvari served as a foundation of the bhakti ideology in Maharashtra.
  • His followers are known as Varkaris.
  • They believe in attaining the presence of God through religious songs or Bhajans and prayers.
  • They worship Lord Vithoba whom they believe to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. 
  • Arguing against caste distinctions, he believed that the only way to attain god was through bhakti.

Namadeva (c. 1270 – 1350)

  • He was a poet-saint from Maharashtra belonging to the 14th century, who belonged to the Varkari sect. He attracted individuals from diverse classes and castes during community-driven bhajan singing sessions.
  • It is interesting to note that while he is remembered in the north Indian monotheistic tradition as a nirguna saint, in Maharashtra he is considered to be part of the Varkari tradition (the Vaishnava devotional tradition).
  • He is considered one the five revered gurus in the Dadupanth tradition within Hinduism, the other four being Dadu, Kabir, Ravidas, and Hardas.
  • According to tradition, Namdeva was a tailor who had taken to banditry before he became a saint. His Marathi poetry breathes a spirit of intense love and dedication to god.
  • His companions during worship sessions included Kanhopatra (a dancing girl), Sena (a barber), Savata (a gardener), Chokhamela (an untouchable), Janabai (a maid), Gora (a potter), Narahari (a goldsmith), and Jnanesvar (also known as Dnyandev, a Brahmin).
  • It is believed that his Abhangas were included in the Guru Granth Sahib.

Sant Eknath (c. 1533 – 1599 CE)

  • He was a prominent Marathi saint, scholar, and religious poet of the Varkari sampradaya, belonging to the 16th century CE.
  • In the development of Marathi literature, Eknath is seen as a bridge between his predecessors – Dnyaneshwar and Namdeva—and the later Tukaram and Ramdas.
  • He introduced a new form of Marathi religious song called Bharood. Eknath’s teachings in Marathi attempted to shift the emphasis of Marathi literature from spiritual to narrative compositions.
  • He is believed to be a family man and emphasised on the fact that stay in monasteries or resignation from the world are not necessary for leading a religious life.

Tukaram (c. 1608 – 1650 CE)

  • Tukaram was a 17th century poet-saint of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra who also was part of the egalitarian Varkari devotionalism tradition and was a Sudra by birth.
  • Tukaram is known for his Avangas (dohas), which constitute the gathadevotional poetry, and community oriented worship with spiritual songs known as kirtans.
  • His poetry was devoted to Vitthala or Vithoba, an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu.
  • He was a contemporary of Shivaji and was responsible for creating a background for Maratha nationalism, ‘Parmaratha’.

Samard Ramdas (c. 1608 – 1681 CE)

  • He was born in c.1608 CE and was the spiritual guide of Shivaji.
  • He inspired Shivaji for founding Swaraj.
  • He wrote Dasabodha, combining his vast knowledge of various sciences and arts with the principles of spiritual life.
  • He was a devotee of Lord Rama. He established Ashramas all over India.

Non-Sectarian Bhakti Movement

  • In the 14th and 15th centuries, Ramananda, Kabir, and Nanak emerged as the great apostles of the Bhakti cult. Though they drew inspiration from old teachers yet they showed a new path. Unlike the early reformers, they were not linked with any particular religious creed and did not believe in rituals and ceremonies. They condemned polytheism and believed in one god. They also denounced all forms of idolatry. They helped the common people to shed age-old superstitions and attain salvation through bhakti or pure devotion.
  • They greatly emphasised on the fundamental unity of all religions.

Ramananda (c. 1400 – 1476 CE)

  • He is believed to have lived in the first half of the 15th century, born in Prayagraj, and was originally a follower of Ramanuja. Later, he founded his own sect and preached his principles in Hindi at Benaras and Agra. He considered it to be the link between the South Indian Bhakti and North Indian Vaishnava Bhakti traditions.
  • Ramananda brought to North India what Ramanuja did in South India. He raised his voice against the increasing formalism of the orthodox cult and founded a new school of Vaishnavism based on the gospel of love and devotion. His most outstanding contribution is the abolition of distinctions of caste among his followers.
  • He looked upon Ram and not Vishnu as the object of bhakti. He worshiped Ram and Sita and came to be identified as the founder of the Ram cult in north India.
  • He, like the monotheist bhakti saints, also rejected caste hierarchies and preached in the local languages in his attempt to popularise the cult. His followers are called Ramanandis, like Tulsidas.
  • He put emphasis on bhakti and avoided both gyana marg and karma marg.
  • Gave rise to two schools of thought:
    • Orthodox school – Represented by Nabhadas, Tulsidas
    • Liberal – Represented by Kabir, Nanak, and others
  • Other followers included:
    • Raidasa – A cobbler whose songs are included in the Guru Granth Sahib
    • Kabir – A weaver who preached that Ram, Rahim, and Allah are all the same
    • Sena – A barber
    • Sadhana – A butcher
    • Dhanna − A farmer
    • Naraharai −A goldsmith
    • Pipa − A Rajput prince


  • Among the disciples of Ramananda, one of the most famous was Kabir. He was a 15th century Bhakti poet and saint, whose verses are found in the Sikh holy scripture, Adi Granth.
  • He was born near Benares to a Brahman widow, but was brought up by a Muslim couple who were weavers by profession. He possessed an inquiring mind, and while in Benares, learnt much about Hinduism and became familiar with Islamic teachings also.
  • He denounced idolatry and rituals and laid great emphasis on the equality of man before God. He regarded devotion to god as an effective means of salvation and urged that to achieve this one must have a pure heart, free from cruelty, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and insincerity.
  • Though familiar with yogic practices, he considered neither asceticism nor book knowledge important for true knowledge. He strongly denounced the caste system, especially the practice of untouchability.
  • Kabir’s object was to reconcile Hindus and Muslims and establish harmony between the two sects. He emphasised the essential oneness of all religions by describing Hindus and Muslims “as pots of the same clay”. To him “Rama and Allah, temple and mosque” were the same.
  • He is regarded as the greatest of the mystic saints and his followers are called Kabirpanthis. Among those who were influenced by Kabir were Raidas, who was a tanner by caste, from Benares, Guru Nanak, who was a Khatri merchant from Punjab, and Dhanna, who was a Jat peasant from Rajasthan.
  • Bijak is the best known of the compilations of the compositions of Kabir.

Guru Nanak (c. 1469 – 1539 CE)

  • The first Sikh Guru and founder of the Sikhism, who was also a Nirguna Bhakti Saint and social reformer.
  • He was born in a Khatri household in the village of Talwandi (now called Nankana), on the banks of the river Ravi in c.1469 CE. His father was an accountant, and even Nanak was trained in Persian to follow his father’s footsteps, but he was inclined towards mysticism.
  • He was opposed to all distinctions of caste as well as the religious rivalries and rituals, and preached the unity of god and condemned the formalism and ritualism of both Islam and Hinduism.
  • He laid a great emphasis on the purity of character and conduct as the first condition of approaching, God, and the need of a guru for guidance.
  • Like Kabir, he advocated a middle path in which spiritual life could be combined with the duties of the householder.

Dadu Dayal (c.1544–1603 CE)

  • Dadu Dayal is one of the major representatives of the Nirguna Sant traditions in Northern India. He was a saint from Gujarat, who spent the best part of his spiritual life in Rajasthan.
  • ‘Dadu’ means ‘brother’, and ‘Dayal’ means ‘the compassionate one’. Later, his followers came to be known as the Dadupanthis who set up ashrams known as Thambas around the region.
  • According to tradition, he was the foster son of an affluent businessman who had found him floating on the river Sabarmati. It is believed that Emperor Akbar was one of his followers.
  • Dadu believed that devotion to God should transcend religious or sectarian affiliation, and that devotees should become non-sectarian or nipakh.

Nathpanthis, Siddhas, and Yogis

  • They condemned the ritual and other aspects of orthodox religion and the social order, using simple, logical arguments.
  • They encouraged the renunciation of the world.
  • To them, the path to salvation lay in meditation and to achieve this they advocated intense training of the mind and body through practices like yogasanas, breathing exercises and meditation.

Vaishnavite Movement

  • Apart from the non-sectarian movement, the Bhakti Movement in north India developed around the worship of Ram and Krishna, two of the incarnations of the God Vishnu.
  • The leading light of the Ram Bhakti Movement was saint-poet Tulsidas. He was a great scholar and had made a profound study of Indian philosophy and literature.
    • His great poem, the Ramacharitamanasa, popularly called Tulsi-krita Ramayana, is very popular among Hindu devotees till date, in which he portrays the image of Sri Ram as all virtuous and all powerful, the Lord of the World, and the very embodiment of the Supreme Reality (Parambrahma).
  • On the other hand, the followers of the Krishna Bhakti Movement founded the Radha Ballabhi sect under Hari Vamsa in c.1585 CE. In the early 16th century, Vallabacharya, a popular bhakti saint popularised the Krishna bhakti cult. He was followed by Surdas (c.1483–1563 CE) and Mirabai (c.1503–1573 CE).
  • Sur Das wrote Sursagar in Brajbhasha, which is full of verses on the charm of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha. Mirabai, the daughter-in-law of Rana Sanga, was a great devotee of Krishna, and she became popular in Rajasthan for her bhajans.
    • Later, the exponent of the Ram Bhakti Movement and the Krishna Bhakti Movement among the Vaishnavas branched off into a number of sects and creeds.
  • Interestingly, the Vaishnava Bhakti Movement in Bengal was very different from its counterparts in north India and the south. It was influenced by the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition of the Bhagavata Purana, and the Sahajiya Buddhist, and Nathpanthi traditions. These traditions focused on the esoteric and emotional aspects of devotion.
    • In the 12th century, Jayadeva was an important bhakti saint in this tradition. He highlighted the mystical dimension of love with reference to Krishna and Radha.
    • Chaitanya was another popular bhakti saint from the region, who was even looked upon as an avatar of Krishna.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

  • Well-known saint, ascetic Hindu monk, and social reformer of Bengal, who popularised the Krishna cult in the 16th century.
  • He was also known as Gouranga and Vishwambar. He was the disciple of Keshav Bharti.
  • With him, the Bhakti Movement in Bengal began to develop into a reform movement as it questioned social division on the basis of caste. Popularised the Sankirtan/Kirtan system (group devotional songs accompanied with ecstatic dancing).
  • He renounced the world, became an ascetic, and wandered all over the country preaching his ideas.
  • He proclaimed the universal brotherhood of man and condemned all distinction based on religion and caste, and emphasised love and peace.
  • He showed great empathy towards the suffering of other people, especially that of the poor and the weak, and believed that through love and devotion, song and dance, a devotee can feel the presence of God.
  • He accepted disciples from all classes and castes, and his teachings are widely followed in Bengal even today.
  • The form of Vaishnavism that he preached came to be called as ‘Gudik Vaishnavism’.
  • The biography of Chaitanya was written by Krishnadas Kaviraj.

Narsingh Mehta

  • Saint from Gujarat who wrote songs in Gujarati depicting the love of Radha–Krishna.
  • Author of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan – “Vaishanava jan ko

Saint Tyagaraja (c.1767−1847 CE)

  • Was one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music, who composed thousands of devotional compositions, most in Telugu and in praise of Lord Ram.
  • He was a prolific composer and composed the famous Pancharatna Kritis (meaning five gems).
  • He was highly influential in the development of the classical devotional music tradition.

Shankar Dev

  • He was the first to preach Vaishnavism in Brahmaputra valley.
  • He was the founder of Eka Saranadharma and Veerapurushamarga.
  • He is widely credited with building on past cultural relics and devising new forms of music (Borgeet), theatrical performance (Ankia Naat, Bhaona), and dance (Sattriya), literary language (Brajavali).


  • He was a Haridasa philosopher from Karnataka.
  • He is considered as the father of Carnatic music.
  • One of his most notable works is Dasa Sahithya.
  • He introduced the RagaMayamalavagowla as the first scale to be learnt by beginners in the field – a practice that is still followed today.
  • Most of his keertanas deal with social reform and pinpoint the defects in society.
Bhakti Saints

Importance of the Bhakti Movement

  • The Bhakti movement had a tremendous impact in medieval India. For instance: Bhakti movement provided an impetus for the development of regional languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, etc. Since various preachers spoke and wrote in the regional languages, it resulted in the growth of these languages.
  • As the caste system and lower position of women was condemned by the Bhakti saints, the lower classes and women were raised to a position of greater importance.
  • Moreover, the Bhakti movement gave to the people a simple religion, without complicated rituals. The new idea of a life of charity and service to fellow human beings developed.
  • With the synthesis of Sufism and Bhakti tradition, unity among the two communities, Hindu and Muslim, was fostered. With the mutual influence of Sufism and Bhakti tradition on each other, even the masses got an opportunity to understand each other’s religious traditions and practices, which resulted in not only appreciation for each other tradition but also developed mutual respect among each other. In fact, the emergence of Urdu as a new language is a best example of this interaction and synthesis.

Women in the Bhakti Movement

  • Female poet-saints also played a significant role in the Bhakti Movement. Nonetheless, many of these women had to struggle for acceptance within the largely male-dominated movement. Only through demonstrations of their utter devotion to the Divine, their outstanding poetry and stubborn insistence of their spiritual equality with their contemporaries, were they were able to garner acceptance and more egalitarian access to the Divine.
  • Since most of the bhakti poetry was grounded in the everyday familiar language of the ordinary people, it is not surprising to find that women bhaktas wrote more around the same issues such as the obstacles faced by them at home, family tensions, the absent husband, meaningless household chores, and restrictions of married life, including their status as married women.
  • In many cases, the women saints rejected traditional women’s roles and societal norms by leaving husbands and homes altogether, choosing to become wandering bhaktas, while in other instances, they tried to engage with Bhakti without discarding their household roles. Interestingly, conforming to the patriarchal ideology that upheld the chaste and dutiful wife as ideal, these women transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as the “lovers” or “wives” to their Divine Lover or Husband. In fact, far greater numbers of women took part in the movement’s earlier development from 6th to 13th centuries, while during the later centuries, male bhaktas and sants dominated the Bhakti scene.
  • Some of the female Bhaktas are:
    • Akkamahadevi: During the 12th century CE, Akkamahadevi, also known as Akka or Mahadevi, belonging to the southern region of Karnataka, established herself as an ardent devotee of Shiva whom she addressed as Chennamallikarjuna.
    • Janabai: Was born around 13th century in Maharashtra in a low caste Sudra family. She worked in the household of one of the most revered of the bhakti poets, saint Namdeva. She wrote over 300 poems focusing on domestic chores and about the restrictions she faced as a low caste woman.
    • Mirabai, or Mira: She belonged to a high class ruling Rajput family. Mirabai’s poetry speaks of her vision of Lord Krishna when she was a child.
      • From that point onwards, Mira vowed that she would forever be his bride. However, against her wishes, she was married to the song of Rana Sanga of Mewar at an early age. Central to these accounts are Mirabai’s struggles within the family she had been married into, including unsuccessful attempts made by her jealous husband to kill her, and her sisters-in-law’s efforts to obstruct Mirabai in her desires to join the company of wandering saints.
      • Eventually, Mirabai left her husband and family and went on a pilgrimage to various places associated with her divine husband, Krishna. Here too she was rejected initially because she was a woman, yet Mirabai’s reputation of devotion, piety, and intellectual astuteness eventually led to her inclusion within the community of the saints of Brindavan.
      • Mirabai’s poetry portrays a unique relationship with Krishna as she is not only being portrayed as the devoted bride of Krishna, but Krishna is also portrayed as in pursuit of Mira.
    • Bahinabai or Bahina: She was a poet-saint from 17th century Maharashtra, writing in the form of abangas, women’s folk songs, that portray the working life of woman, especially in the fields.

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