The period from 8th to 12th Century AD was the interregnum between the ancient and medieval phase of Indian History.
This period marked the decline of trade and commerce, changes in polity, religion centric habitations and decline of large urban centers.
The decline in trade and commerce can be attributed to the disruption in the land trade routes and collapse of India’s biggest trading partner, Roman Empire. The land routes of Central Asia were plagued with mercenaries who looted and plundered the transport caravans passing through these areas. With no centralised authority in Central Asia it became difficult to provide safe passage in the area. This led to disruption of trade on a large scale through land routes.
The polity that was centralized before turned more into a localized society. The loss in trade had resulted into the loosing of central control over villages leading to emergence of a large number of autonomous villages and towns. The Brahmins were given large tracts of lands by the ruling classes to legitimize their leadership. This resulted in Brahmins gaining the feudal lord status and they were entitled to enact their own laws in the granted areas. As the central leadership weakened these Brahmanical land grants emerged as autonomous principalities.
The period from 8th to 12th century AD marks the revivalism of Hinduism. The revival of Hinduism can be attributed to doing away with brahmanical orthodoxyand the leniency shown by the Hindu priest towards the vaishyas and shudras. Apart from it all the important religious figures like Buddha and Mahavira were considered to be incarnation of Lord Vishnu by the Brahmans. Many religious movements like the Bhakti movement, Sufi movement came into existence which helped in doing away with the Brahmanical rituals.
This era marked the decline of Buddhism and Jainism. Their ideologies were challenged, temples taken over and their monks were persecuted as they were huge reserves of wealth. These religions were confined to smaller regions on the basis of the royal patronage they received like Buddhism got confined to East India on account of patronage provided by the Pala rulers. As the patronage declined so did the religion in these regions.
Decline of Buddhism
During medieval period, Buddhism was confined to eastern Indiaas the Pala rulers patronized it. Decline of Pala power was a blow to Buddhism.
Internal developments in Buddhism gave rise to Mahayana school of Buddhism in 1st Century AD where Buddha began to be worshipped as God. This became more elaborate and the belief grew that worshipper could attain his desires by uttering magical words. They believed austere life and secret rites could bring them supernatural powers. This was a clear sign of degradation for Buddhism.
Philosophers like Sankaracharya and Ramanuja challenged Buddhism and Jainism at an intellectual level with their philosophies.
Importance of Temples
Temples held an important place in the agrarian economy of medieval India. The importance of temples was more visible during the early medieval period largely because of the fact that land grants during this period were given more prolifically. Temples became symbols of power of the ruling kingdom. The more the grandeur of the royal temple implied the more the royalty of the ruling dynasty.
Temples had a share in agricultural produce in the form of taxes. The temples worked as an autonomous units of power and hence had a control over society.
Temples flourished on the grants by the rulers, merchants, guilds. The temples became the biggest employer, moneylenders and consumers. Temples employedscholars of Sanskrit and Tamil works, teachers, musicians and poets.
The economic value of consecrated food had an important function in the endowment of money to the temple.
Temples discharged the functions of money lenders and depositories. The grants by the rulers, merchants, guilds in form of cash and goods gave the temples capital to be reinvested in productive ways. They granted loans to cultivators, traders and artisans in return for various articles given as interest. At social level the temple acted as place for centre of activity as assemblies and schools.
The era of 8th to 12th century AD is marked with revivalism of Hinduism and starting of Islamic movements in India. The Bhakti movement, Tantrism and Sufism movement were highlights of the era in India. The revival of Hinduism can be greatly attributed to Bhakti movement. This was led by saints like Sankaracharya who made Hinduism more accessible for the masses and revived it.
These movements were spread across North and South India. These movements put a renewed emphasis on old rituals combined with powerful literary and intellectual movement. These movements were more inclusive in nature and tried to alleviate the Brahmanical orthodoxy that led to the rise of Jainism and Buddhism.
Tantrism in North India
With growth of Mahayana School of Buddhism in the early centuries of Christian era, elaborate worshipof Buddha as a god was in full practice along with the belief that by uttering magical words desires were to be fulfilled and men would attain supernatural powers.
Many Hindu Yogis also adopted these practices. The most famous among them was Gorakhnath. His followers were called Nath-Panthis and were popular all over North India.
The yogis predominantly belonged to the lower class, denounced caste system and the privileges claimed by the Brahmanas. The path they preached was called tantra which was open to all, irrespective of caste distinctions.
The Bhakti movement formed the base of the revival and expansion of Hinduism during the 8th to 12th AD. During this era, Shiva and Vishnu became the primary gods with a large number of tribal gods and goddesses being subordinate to them.
The Bhakti movement was started in South India and popularized by a large number of saints in South India like Sankaracharya, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya. These saints denounced the Brahmanical orthodoxy and rituals. They professed a connection between the god and the human.
The Bhakti movement was inclusive of the lower castes that were left aloof by the Brahmanical society. Many of the saints of the Bhakti movement were from the lower castes and broke the Vedic monopoly of the Brahmans. The Bhakti movement led to the expansion of Hinduism in the tribal areas and helped in curbing the popularity of Buddhism and Jainism in India.
Bhakti Movement in South India
In south India, the Bhakti movement was led by saints called Nayanars and Alvars. These saints looked at religion as a love between the god and the worshipper and rejected austerities.
Characteristics of Bhakti Saints
They worshipped Shiva and Vishnu
They wrote and spoke in local languages like Telugu and Tamil
They were nomadic and carried their message of love and devotion
They belonged to lower classes and some were
Brahmans and some were women also
They disregarded inequalities in the society and was open to all.
Vir Shaiva Movement
The Vir Shaiva movement was one of the popular movements of the 12th century founded by Basavanaand his nephew Channabasava. They lived at the court of the Kalachuri Kings of Karnataka.
The Lingayats worshipped Shiva. They opposed caste system, rejected fasts and sacrifices; opposed child marriage and allowed remarriage of widows.
Of the many challenges that Buddhism and Jainism had to face, Sankaracharya’s reformation of Hindu philosophy was the most serious.
Founded by Sankaracharya and called Advaitavada or the doctrine of non-dualism, it said that God and the created world was one. The difference between the two entities arose because of ignorance. The way forward to salvation was devotion to God, strengthened by the knowledge that God and the created beings were the one and the same. This philosophy is called Vedanta.
Shankaracharya upheld the Vedas as the fountain head of true knowledge.
Vishishtadvaita philosophy was founded by Ramanuja.
According to the philosophy the grace of god was more important than knowledgeabout him in order to attain salvation.
It said that the path of Bhakti was open to all.
Growth of Sufism
Sufism was combined name given to mystical movements in Islam. They aimed at establishing a direct communion between man and god. The methods of this communion were open to the interpretation by the practitioner but within the realms of Islam. The Sufi orders is also known as Silsila, in and outside India. Sufism stressed on the importance of the way to establish the communion between the Sufi and the god. A spiritual guru was required to supervise the method of communion with god. The path could be achieved by reciting musical poems in the praise of the god.
Though there were no Sufi Silsilas that were active in India in the early 8th to 10th century period some influence of Sufi culture can still be seen in India. Mansur al-Hallaj, a prominent early Sufi poet/teacher gave the mystical formula “I am god” that played an important role in the evolution of Sufi ideas in Iran and then in India.
Sufism became organized movement with the establishment of the Turkish rule under the Ghaznavids. It flourished under the Seljuqs in various parts of Central Asia, India and Iran in the later 10th and 11th centuries. The Sufi movement gained much prominence in Central Asia and Iran during the 8th to 12th century AD but it only picked up in India after the 13th century with great Sufis like Muinuddin Chisti.
In the period ranging from the 8th century to 12th century AD Indian economy underwent a tectonic shift. The trade and commerce had declined on account of unstable trading routes and collapse of the Roman Empire. This had weakened the centralised polity of the many kingdoms that were present during the time.
India started moving towards a village centric economy from a centralised economy. This change occurred due to the lack of funds leading to weakening of central control.
Another factor of emergence of such local village was huge land grants to Brahmins and the amount of freedom they enjoyed in managing it. The autonomy of these land grants enabled the Brahmins to become lords of these lands.
These autonomous land grants became the biggest economic centers of the state. Large amount of grants and endowments in forms of cash and articles like precious metals were received by Brahmins in these lands. This helped these places to become the largest employers of the land. The economy became centered across these temples in this era.
Along with the Brahmins also grew government officers who were paid by granting revenue bearing villages like Samantha, Ranak, Rautta etc. All these positions became hereditary and also these people contended against each other and tried to enhance their sphere of authority and privileges.
The hereditary chiefs gradually began to assume many of the functions of the governments and also more administrative powers like right of awarding punishments and exacting fines.
All the above criteria gave birth to Feudalism in Indian society. It weakened the position of the ruler and made him more dependent on feudal chiefs. These small areas discouraged trade and commerce and aimed to be selfsufficient.
Trade and Commerce
During the period of 7th to 10th Century AD the trade and commerce from India had declined due to the collapse of India’s largest trading partner i.e. Roman Empire.
The decline in trade can be seen in the decline of towns and absence of gold and silver coins that were once in abundance. North India saw a significant decline in trade due to constant infighting on the land routes in Central Asia.
New powerful empires like Byzantines and Sassanid Empire emerged on the ruins of Roman Empire. The navigation technology had developed leaps and bounds during this period. The land routes of Central Asia were war affected and hence sea routes become preferred mode of transport for goods. The states of South India, Bengal and Gujarat gained the most in terms of trade as they had long coastlines. The most famous port for sailing to Java, Sumatra etc. was Tamralipti in Bengal.
Decline of trade was also because of the orthodoxy of the period. Some of the Dharmashastras didn’t allow people to travel or trade beyond the point where munja grass does not grow or the black gazelle does not roam. Travelling across salt sea was considered polluted. But this is also known to be flouted by merchants and priests who travelled to other countries for trade and settlement.
But the situation gradually changedwith the emergence of Arab empire in West Asia and also trade grew between South-East Asia and China during this period. The demand for Indian fabrics, incense and spices by the wealthy Arab rulers led to an increase in trade with India and South-East Asia, the latter being called the spice Islands. The main sea-port for foreign trade in China during this period was Canton or Kanfu. Buddhist scholars went from India to China by this sea-route.
The Japanese records give credit to Indians for introducing cotton and rice in their country. Indian rulers, particularly Palas and Senas of Bengal and Pallavas and Cholas of South encouraged this trade.
Growth of India’s foreign trade in the area was based on strong naval tradition, including ship building and a strong navy and the skill and enterprise of its traders. Indian ships gradually gave way to the Arabs and the Chinese whose ships were bigger and faster. But later while Indian scientific and technological development was stagnating, Chinese encountered growth with inventions like Mariner’s compass.
Indian society evolved a lot in the period between 8th to 12th centuries AD, Local chieftains gained a lot of power due to the weakening of the central authority of the dynasties.
New classes of people like the Samanta, Ranak and Rajputs emerged. Most of these local leaders were either government officials or Brahmins that got land grants or were local tribal chiefs who were able to carve out their territory due to the weakening of the ruling dynasties. With such huge number of local principalities tensions prevailed between them with everyone looking to gain more territory.
This infighting among Indian local chieftains gave the opportunity for Turks to carve out their empire in India and thus Delhi Sultanate was formed. The society became more inclusive and assimilated. The Brahmanical orthodoxy and exclusivity over the rituals was challenged in a successful way by the lower caste people. Many saints in South India emerged during the period belonging to low castes. All this was done to counter the threat posed from religions like Jainism and Buddhism.
There were no visible signs of lowering of the standard of living on account of the loss of trade. The rulers and nobility lived a life of grandeur as they used to. They were indulged in magnificence and luxuries as their predecessors used to do. They used to maintain an army of domestic help and had attendants wherever they went.
By this time the merchants at trading ports had amassed loads of wealth on account of foreign trade. These wealthy merchants tried to mimic the nobility’s way of living and the grandeur that they had. These wealthy merchants bought articles of conspicuous consumption, handicrafts and other items of luxury.
According to the Arab accounts the soil fertility of India was high and a peasant had decent standards of living.
With the increasing number of local small principalities or autonomous units there emerged a structure similar to feudal structure of the West. The land grantees acted as lords and had their vassals who performed various activities for them.
Temples became the largest employers and a rise in the number of occupations like scholars, poets, cooks and barbers associated with temples was seen.
While there was prosperity there was unequal distribution of wealth too. The author of Rajatarangini wrote about different types of food that were eaten by people of different class. Lives of peasants did not improve but their taxes did. Peasants had to pay extra taxes over and above the land revenue and also had to render forced labour (visti). The growth of feudal society created a burden on common man.
Smriti writers exalt the privileges of the Brahmans and disabilities of the shudras. People started considering any contact with shudras as polluting. Marriages between different caste were not allowed.
Large number of castes such as potters, weavers and gold smiths emerged which was once a guild of workers. Handicrafts were regarded as a low occupation and eventually began to be treated as untouchables. New caste emerged during this period, i.e., the Rajputs. They were believed to be descendants from the solar and lunar families of Kshatriyas and lot more theories attached.
Individuals and groups could rise above the varna system and could also fall. Hinduism was expanding during this period and absorbed lot of other castes and sub-castes including Jainism and Buddhism.
Condition of Women
The condition of women continued to be the same as previous eras. Women were continued to be subjugated and literary texts have references like the Matsya Purana where the husband is allowed to beat his erring wife.
Women were not allowed to go for higher education and were trained to be homemakers. The marriageable age was low. According to smriti writers child marriage were prevalent. Remarriage was allowed but only if the husband had deserted, died, denounced the world, become impotent or was declared an outcaste.
The practice of Sati was prevalent in the society only for religious reason. The women were given a share in the inheritance of their husbands and maintenance on account of husband leaving them. They even had right to property, a concept that garnered strength due to growth of feudalism in India.
State of Education
The system of education continued from the previous eras. The education was more individual centric rather than mass education. Temples were centers of education and acted as residences for their students. There was no concept of fees though the students gave gifts to the teacher after the completion of education.
The education was based on the religious scriptures of the time. The subjects taught were grammar, Vedas, logic philosophy and science. However vocational education was left to be taught by the guilds. The professional and occupational education was to be given by the guilds or by families. Education was mixture of formal and informal education in nature.
Secular education was given by some Buddhist Viharas of which the Nalanda in Bihar, Vikramashila and Odantapuri were the most famous. Kashmir was another important centre for learning. Saiva sects and centres of learning flourished here. Important Maths were set up in South India at Madurai and Sringeri.
Religion and philosophy would be the main topics. The development in the field of science and technology slowed down due to religious and caste based reasons. The research in surgery was stunted as cutting and dealing with dead bodies was considered to be done by people of lower castes. Astronomy was pushed to background by astrology.
Some advance was made in the field of mathematics. The Lilawati of Bhaskara II was written during this period. Advancement was made in the field of medicine by use of mineral especially mercury. Many books were written on plant science and treatment of animals.
Reasons for Decline in Science
Growth of science was connected to the society as a whole which increasingly became rigid, narrow and complex.
There had been setbacks in urban life due to growth of religious orthodoxy.
Tendency of Indians to isolate themselves from the main currents of scientific thought outside India.
They didn’t share knowledge and believed in maintaining secrecy and keeping it to themselves.
Bhakti Post 12th Century
The teachings and philosophy of Guru Nanak form an important part of Indian philosophical thought. His philosophy consists of three basic elements: a leading charismatic personality (the Guru), ideology (Shabad) and organization (Sangat).
Nanak evaluated and criticized the prevailing religious beliefs and attempted to establish a true religion, which could lead to salvation. He repudiated idol worship and did not favour pilgrimage nor accept the theory of incarnation.
He condemned formalism and ritualism. He laid emphasis on having a true Guru for revelation. He advised people to follow the principles of conduct and worship: sach (truth), halal (lawful earning), khair (wishing well of others), niyat (right intention) and service to the lord. He denounced the caste system and the inequality it caused.
He argued that the caste and honour should be judged by the acts or the deeds of individuals. He laid stress on concepts of justice, righteousness and liberty. His verses mainly consists of two basic concepts, Sach (truth) and Naam (name). The bases of the divine expression for him were formed by, the Sabad (the word), Guru (the divine precept) and Hukam (the divine order ).
He introduced the concept of Langar (a community kitchen). Guru Nanak identifies himself with the people or the ruled. Guru Nanak in his last days had nominated a successor and paid homage to him, this gave rise to the idea that the Guru and the Sikh were interchangeable. This created a problem for the institution of the Sangat (that was a collective body of the Sikhs) in which God was said to be present.
Kabir was the earliest and most influential Bhakti saint in north India. He was a weaver and spent a large part of his life in Banaras. His poems were included in the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth.
Among those who were influenced by Kabir were Raidas, who was a tanner by caste from Banaras, Guru Nanak who was a Khatri from Punjab and Dhanna who was a Jat peasant from Rajasthan.
There are similarities in the teachings of the various monotheistic Bhakti saints in North India. Most of themonotheists belonged to the low castes and were aware that there existed a unity in their ideas. They were also aware of each other ’s teachings and influence and in their verses they mention each other and their predecessors in a manner suggesting ideological affinity among them.
All of them were influenced by the concept of Bhakti, the Nathpanthi movement and Sufism. Their ideas seem to be a synthesis of the three traditions. The importance given to the personal experience of Bhakti saint with God was another common feature among the monotheistic bhakti saints.
Nirguna bhakti and not saguna bhakti was what they believed in. They had adopted the notion of bhakti from Vaishnavaism but they gave it a nirguna orientation.
Though they called God using different names and titles their God was non-incarnate, formless, eternal and ineffable. The Bhakti saints refused any formal association with the organized dominant religions of the time (Hinduism and Islam) and criticized what they regarded to be the negative aspects of these religions. They rejected the authority of the Brahmans and attacked the caste system and practice of idolatry. They composed their poems in popular languages and dialects spoken across north India which enabled them to transmit their ideas among the masses. It also helped their ideas to spread rapidly among the various lower classes.
In the 14th and early 15th Century AD Ramananda emerged as a popular Vaishnava bhakti saint in north India. Though he was from the south he lived in Banaras because he considered it to be the link between the South Indian bhakti and North Indian Vaishnava bhakti traditions. 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 cast hierarchies and preached in the local languages in his attempt to popularize the cult. His followers are called Ramanandis.
Tulsidas also championed the bhakti cause. Tulsidas of Rama was a worshipper and composed the famous Ramcharitmanas, the Hindi version of Ramayana.
In the early 16th Century AD Vallabhacharya, a popular bhakti saint popularized the Krishnabhakti. Among those who followed Vallabacharya’s footsteps were Surdas and Mirabai. Surdas popularized Krishna cult in north India.
Mirabai is perhaps the best-known woman poet within the bhakti tradition. Biographies have been reconstructed primarily from the bhajans attributed to her, which were transmitted orally for centuries. According to these, she was a Rajput princess from Merta in Marwar who was married against her wishes to a prince of the Sisodia clan of Mewar, Rajasthan. She defied her husband and did not submit to the traditional role of wife and mother, instead recognising Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, as her lover. Her in-laws tried to poison her, but she escaped from the palace to live as a wandering singer composing songs that are characterised by intense expressions of emotion.
The Vaishnava bhakti movement in Bengal was very different form its counterparts in north India and the south and was influenced by the Vaishnava bhakti tradition of the Bhagavatapurana and the Sahajiya Buddhist and Nathpanthi traditions.
These traditions focused on esoteric and emotional aspects of devotion. In the 12th Century AD, Jayadeva was an important bhakti saint in this tradition. He highlighted the mystical dimension of love with reference to Krishna and Radha.
Chaitanya was a popular bhakti saint from the region; he was looked upon as an avatara of Krishna. Though, he did not question the authority of the Brahmans and the scriptures. He also popularized the sankirtan (group devotional songs accompanied with ecstatic dancing).
With him the bhakti movement in Bengal began to develop into a reform movement with the notions of caste divisions that came to be questioned.
In the late fifteenth century, Shankaradeva emerged as one of the leading proponents of Vaishnavism in Assam.
His teachings, often known as the Bhagavati dharma because they were based on the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, focused on absolute surrender to the supreme deity, in this case Vishnu. He emphasized the need for naam kirtan, recitation of the names of the lord in sat sanga or congregations of pious devotees. He also encouraged the establishment of satra or monasteries for the transmission of spiritual knowledge, and naam ghar or prayer halls.
Many of these institutions and practices continue to flourish in the region. His major compositions include the Kirtanaghosha.
Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra
The liberal religion preached by the saint poets of Maharashtra is popularly known as Maharashtra Dharma, which was a stream of the medieval Bhakti movement, but socially it was more profound, unitary and far more liberal in the field of social reforms.
The bhakti movement in Maharashtra drew its inspiration from the Bhagavatapurana and the Siva Nathpanthis.
Jnaneswar was a pioneer bhakti saint of Maharashtra. His commentary on the Bhagavad Gita called Jnaneswari served as a foundation of the bhakti ideology in Maharashtra. Arguing against caste distinctions he believed that the only way to attain God was through Bhakti.
Vithoba was the God of this sect and its followers performed a pilgrimage to the temple twice a year. The Vithoba of Pandarpur became the mainstay of the movement in Maharashtra.
Namdev (1270-1350) was another important bhakti saint from Maharashtra. While he is remembered in the north Indian monotheistic tradition as a nirguna saint, in Maharashtra he is considered to be part of the varakari tradition (the Vaishnava devotional tradition).
Some of the other important bhakti saints of Maharashtra were the saints Choka, Sonara, Tukaram and Eknath.
Tukaram’s teachings are in the form of the Avangas (dohas), which constitute the Gatha, while Eknath’s teachings that were in Marathi attempted to shift the emphasis of Marathi literature from spiritual to narrative compositions.