The Bhakti Movement and Monotheism, Part 2

BY: SUN STAFF - 9.10 2019

A serial presentation of the Bhakti Movement's development in India.

The monotheists followed a path which was independent of both dominant religions of the time – Hinduism and Islam. They denied their allegiance to either of them and criticised the superstitions and orthodox elements of both the religions. They launched a vigorous ideological assault on the caste system and idolatry. They rejected the authority of the brahmans and their religious scriptures. For example, Kabir used a harsh and abrasive style of ridicule as a means of denouncing orthodox Brahmanism.

The monotheists composed their poems in popular languages, some of them using a language that was a mixture of local dialects spoken in various parts of North India. Many of the monotheistic saints preferred this sort of common language to their own native dialects, because they considered it fit for the propagation of their non-conformist ideas among the masses in various religions.

The monotheists also made use of popular symbols and images to propagate their teachings. Their utterances tended to be expressed in short verses that could be easily remembered and repeated. Kabir's poetry, for instance, employs a rustic, unpolished colloquial quality that makes it a fitting poetry of the people.

Most of the monotheistic saints were not ascetics. They led worldly lives as grihastas, and often vaisyas. They lived and preached among the people, often over the course of conducting their business, and they had great distain for professional ascetics. In this way, they were not unlike the medieval European Christian saints, who were often recognised as "holy" by the church. They often referred to themselves and each other by the honorific sant or bhagat. In the Adi Granth, Kabir, Raidas, Dhanna, Pipa, Namdev, etc. have all been addressed as bhagat.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu listening to Gadadhar Pandit's discourse on Srimad Bhagavatam

These monotheistic saints travelled widely to propagate their beliefs. Their unique forms of Vaisnava or Saivite siddhanta was throughout northern and central India among the "lower" classes, and their popularity served to break territorial barriers. This is evidenced by the high position accorded to Kabir in the Sikh tradition and in the Dadu panthi tradition of Rajasthan.

Hundreds of years after their departure, and in distant regions, their continuing popularity is notable. The 17th Century Persian work on comparative religion, Dabistan-I-Maxahib, testifies to the continuing popularity of Kabir among the people in North India. Likewise, the mid-17th century Maharashtrian saint Tukaram describes himself as an admirer and follower of Kabir, Raidas, Sen, Gora, etc.

Despite the widespread popularity that their teachings enjoyed among the masses, the followers of each one of the monotheistic movements, eventually each one of these preachers of the Bhakti cult organized their own exclusive sectarian order. Their religious societies were called panths, e.g., the Kabir panth, Raidas panth, Nanak panth, etc.

Of all these panths, Guru Nanak's panth alone crystallised into a mass religion that has followers around the world today. The Sikh religion, a break-away movement of the Vaisnava kshatriyas, is thriving in the world. Nearly all the others still have some following, although their numbers are greatly reduced and their literatures little known.

The Bhakti Movement has been dominated by the appearance of Sri Krsna Chaitanya in the Gaudiya Vaisnava line. Under the guidance of a successive line of Sampradaya Acaryas, the Bhakti Movement is now known worldwide, with the chanting of the Holy Names being heard in every town and village. This topmost success in propagating bhakti would certainly be found pleasing to the early monotheists, who delivered the Bhakti cult to rural India in centuries past.