The Bhakti Movement, North and South

BY: SUN STAFF - 10.10 2019

An Ecstatic Vaishnava
Patna, 19th c.

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

In summarizing the relationship of the early Bhakti Movement saints and the common threads of their siddhanta and preaching practices, we have focused primarily on the Bhakti cult's progression through Central and North India. But there is an equal influence coming from the South of India, where Vaishnava-bhakti developed in a form that is, in many respects, siddhantically closer to the Bengal Vaisnava Movement. The latter, of course, was inaugurated by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the associates who set the stage in advance of His arrival.

The South Indian influence on the Bhakti Movement is described in a paper on socio-religious movements in India, published by eGyankosh. They describe a number of traits that are also seen in the Bhakti Movement's progression through the northern half of the Indian subcontinent.

'The Saiva Nayanar saints and Vaishnava Alvar saints of South India spread the doctrine of bhakti among different sections of the society irrespective of caste and sex during the period between the seventh and the tenth century. Some of these saints came from the "lower" castes and some were women. The saint-poets preached bhakti in an intense emotional manner and promoted religious egalitarianism. They dispensed with rituals and traversed the region several times singing, dancing and advocating bhakti.

The Alvar and Nayanar saints used the Tamil language and not Sanskrit for preaching and composing devotional songs. All these features gave the movement a popular character. For the first time bhakti acquired a popular base. The South Indian bhakti saints were critical of Buddhists and Jains who enjoyed a privileged status at the courts of South Indian kings at that time. They won over many adherents of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which by now had become rigid and formal religions. At the same time, however, these poet-saints resisted the authority of the orthodox Brahmans by making bhakti accessible to all without any caste and sex discrimination.

But the South Indian bhakti movement had its limitations as well. It never consciously opposed Brahmanism or the varna and caste systems at the social level. It was integrated with the caste system and the "lower" castes continued to suffer from various social disabilities. There was no elimination of Brahmanical rituals such as worship of idols, recitation of the Vedic mantras and pilgrimages to sacred places, in spite of the overriding emphasis on bhakti as the superior mode of worship. The Buddhists and Jains were its main targets, not the Brahmans. This perhaps was also the reason why the Brahman dominated temples played an important role in the growth of the South Indian bhakti movement.

Since the ideological and social foundations of the caste system were not questioned by the South Indian saint-poets, the bhakti movement of the South in the long run strengthened it, rather than weakening it. Ultimately, after the movement reached its climax in the tenth century, it was gradually assimilated into the conventional Brahmanical religion. But despite these limitations, the South Indian bhakti movement in its heyday succeeded in championing the cause of religious equality and consequently, the Brahmans had to accept the right of the "low-caste" to preach, to have access to bhakti as a mode of worship and to have access even to the Vedas.

Nammalvar: Two Brahmins flank the Alvar (Saint)
Sri Ramanujacarya in foreground
Tamil Nadu, c. 1820


Bhakti and the South Indian Acharyas

When the popularity of the Bhakti Movement in South India was on the wane, the doctrine of bhakti Was defended at the philosophical level by a series of brilliant Vaishnava Brahman scholars (acharyas). Ramanuja (11th century) was first among them. He gave philosophical justification for bhakti. He tried to establish a careful balance between orthodox Brahmanism and popular bhakti which was open to all. Though he did not support the idea of the "lower" castes having access to the Vedas, he advocated bhakti as a mode of worship accessible to all, including the Sudras and even the outcastes. While propagating bhakti, he did not observe caste distinctions and even tried to eradicate untouchability.

Nimbarka, a Telugu Brahman, is believed to have been a younger contemporary of Ramanuja. He spent most of his time in Vrindavan near Mathura, in North India He believed in total devotion to Krishna and Rama. Another South Indian Vaishnava bhakti philosopher was Madhava, who belonged to the thirteenth century. Like Ramanuj, he did not dispute orthodox Brahmanical restriction of the Vedic study by the Sudras. He believed that bhakti provided an alternative avenue of worship to the Sudras.

His philosophical system was based on the Bhagvat Purana. He is also believed to have toured North India. The last two prominent Vaishnava acharyas were Ramananda (late 14th and early 15th century) and Vallabha (late 15th and early 16th century). Since both of them lived mostly in North India during the Sultanate period and gave new orientation to the Vaishnava bhakti, they are generally discussed in the context of the Bhakti Movement in North India.'

An Assembly of Sikhs
Company School, c. 1850

When comparing the progression of the Bhakti cults in both North and South India, there is another important perspective to consider. This one is particularly emphasized by today's Sikh scholars. The home of Sikhism is the Punjab, in northwestern India. There, a branch of kshatriya Vaishnavas developed their own unique religion, identifying with certain aspects of the Tamil Bhakti movement. This is describe by the Sikh author, M.S. Ahluwalia in his paper, The Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

'It appears that one major problem in the history of socio-cultural and religious ideas in our own times is to study inter-relationship between the Bhakti movement in the North and South of Vindhyas, particularly relating to the Tamil and the Sikh Bhakti movements. As pointed out by a number of scholars, the term Bhakti has been used as a blanket term to denote movements, which have different backgrounds and purposes. The powerful and the direct impact of the Tamil and the Sikh movement on the contemporary religion and culture may be considered as an important feature of these two movements. The question therefore, arises as to how these movements originated and developed almost in isolation and to what extent these influenced each other in their own specific ways.

Tamil Nadu and Punjab are isolated from each other due to geographical distance but have intimate connection in the field of religious and cultural ideas, which got wide acceptance in North beyond the Vindhyas and vice-versa. In spite of almost negative mutual contact, there had been much greater interplay of ideas from time to time and it is wrong to say that it was a great divide between the North and the South or that these regions lived in isolation and developed on separate lines. In fact there was and has been a regular contact and absorption of new ideas in religion and culture between the so-called Aryan North and the Dravidian South.

There has been in fact so much of give and take, at least in the field of religion and culture, which led to close contact and adjustment between the North and the South. This is more true in case of the Bhakti movement. It is now an established fact that the Bhakti cult of North India had been very much influenced by the saints and philosophers of South, notably of Tamil Nadu. It may be noted that the Aryanisation of the South, particularly of the Tamil Nadu, was not a one-way phenomenon but resulted in Dravidianisation of Brahamanism to a great extent, as can be seen from the Brahmanical devotion to the institution of the temple. During the medieval period, at least, the country South of the Vindhyas contributed to the enrichment of the Indian culture as much as it had earlier imbibed from the North.

Any scholarly study of the Bhakti movement during the medieval period would reveal that it traveled from South to North. The process of change through the Bhakti movement not only provided a powerful base and ideology, but also integrated various components of culture both in South and North India. The transformation, which the movement brought at various levels - social, economic, religious and cultural - on the Indian society, can no longer be viewed as isolated developments. In fact South India can proudly claim to have laid the cultural foundations of India. Although several aspects of the medieval Bhakti movement are known to us, much remains to be known, understood, and interpreted with regard to the two parallel movements going in North and South, particularly with regard to Tamil Nadu and Punjab, to know precisely as to who borrowed from whom and to what extent.

Thus from the historical point of view, the Bhakti mode of worship begins with the teachings of the Bhagvad Gita in the pan-Indian context. Later during the imperial Guptas, Hinduism spread its wings through Sanskrit exerting great influence all over India. The South also could not avoid this influence, but it emerged victorious with the torch of Bhakti held afloat and burning into two flames - Shaivite and Vaishnavite. It has been rightly pointed out that when the fire of Bhakti was waning in the North and was going to be nearly extinguished, it was the flames from the South that revitalized it.'

(To be continued…)



Socio-religious Movements in India: Bhakti Movement,
The Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu and Punjab by M.S. Ahluwalia (1995)
Excerpts edited slightly for readability