The Bhakti Movement, North and South - Part 2

BY: SUN STAFF - 10.10 2019

Vaishnavite, Saivite and Sikh Devotees
Painting by S. Rajam

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

In our last segment, comparing the progression of the Bhakti cults in both North and South India, we began to explore a perspective sometimes emphasized by Sikh scholars. Discussing the proliferation of Bhakti through the message of Bhagvad-gita, and its fructification in the Vaishnavite and Shaivite lines, Sikh author M.S. Ahluwalia offers his thoughts on how the Sikh influence played a part in the revitalization of the Bhakti Cult, as it waned in the North but enjoyed renewed energy from the bhaktas of South India.

"As early as the post-Sangam era, religious changes and practices are broadly viewed as a revival of orthodox forms, though not strictly a revival of the Vedic religion in South India. These changes are visible in Puranic and epic stories, new iconographic concepts, both of the Vaishnava and Shaiva, new forms of art and architecture, especially the rock cut forms of the Dravid architecture and a boost to temple building activities by the Pallava-Pandya ruling families, the creation of Brhamadays (or Brahmins created through land-grants to Brahmins by the ruling chiefs) and land and other gifts to the temples as is well known to the students of Indian history.

The changes are also reflected in the literary output of the Age. The Bhakti or devotion was expressed through emotionally powerful hymns of the Bhakti saints. The movement assumed the form of popular resurgence intended to bring a mystic religious experience within the reach of the common folk through personal relationship i.e. communion, between the individual and God through devotion. It was undoubtedly a popular dissent or protest against the social hierarchy of the Brahmanical order. Two important aspects characterized the nature of Bhakti movement in South. It was not only a response to the challenge posed by the orthodox religions of Jainism and Buddhism but also a change in the occupational background of the early Bhakti exponents.

True Bhakti Age in the history of the Tamils is generally believed to have lasted from sixth century A.D. to the end of the Vijayanagara period. It can further be divided into two broadly recognizable divisions. In the earlier phase of Bhakti, a number of saintly and pious persons, endowed with poetical and musical talents, wandered about the country, visiting temple after temple, and sang hymns in praise of deities presiding there. They drew a vast following and moved the common man to religious fervor who became god-conscious in their own way. These men belonged either to the Vaishnavite sect or to the Shaivite.

Svami Nammalvar, 5th among the Srivaishnava Alvars

The basis for the very thought-system, termed as Bhaktivad, was founded by Ramanuja and Srikantha. But the emergence of a distinct Bhakti cult in South India was the result of the emotional fervor of Alvars and Nayanars, who flourished between the seventh and eleventh centuries and had drawn their ideas from ancient scriptures and the epics. It is important to note that in South India, the Bhakti ideology helped in transformation of Vedic Brahmanism into sectarian religions of Shaivism and Vaishanavism. The former, however, acquired a stronger and more extensive material base which was achieved through incorporation of worship of mother Goddess and tribal forms such as the tree and pillar deities associated with funerary practices which became major components of Shiva worship.

The Vaishnavite saints called Alvars and the Shaivite saints called Nayanmars spearheaded the Bhakti movement in the Tamil country. For the Vaishnavites, the Lord is Krishna/Vishnu (Narayana) and to the Shaivites, Shiva is the Lord. The triumph of Vaishavism in the South was achieved mostly by philosophers like Ramanuja and his successors who produced excellent commentaries on the Alvar hymns that were considered no less sacred than the Vedas.

The Bhakti tradition created by the Nayanmar saints later developed into a religio-philosophical system called Shaiva Siddhanta. Likewise, various Vaishnava schools were also formed in which Bhakti and liberalism were grafted onto the theistic interpretations of the Vedanta. But neither the Shaivites nor the Vaishnavites ever denied the Vedas or supremacy of the Brahmans in the social order. These sects did not coexist peacefully, as is generally claimed by many historians of the Indian culture. Their hostility to each other or the schism may be attributed to the veritable consequences of earlier polytheism.

The Bhakti way, in theory, as well as in fact, was open to all, irrespective of caste, creed or sex. But the Hindu social organization was thrown in a Varnashrama framework, which is based on the philosophy of inequality. Bhakti was not concerned with social relations among men but dealt only with God. However, it laid down the principle of equality among all people in the presence of God and of social respectability of pious people even belonging to the lower castes."


The Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu and Punjab by M.S. Ahluwalia (1995)
Excerpts edited slightly for readability