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Bhakti Movement in early medieval India

The early medieval period stood witness to major religious and cultural developments that shaped the course of Indian history. The period saw the transformation of Brahmanism into a new kind of popular Hinduism called Monism, which took place under the tutelage of philosophers like Sankaracharya. Another popular movement that took root outside the confines of orthodoxy and in fact challenged the conventional order of things was the Bhakti movement. The Bhakti cult espoused a virulent rejection of Brahmanical orthodoxy and suggested that salvation was a personal matter, which did not require the intervention of priests and clerics. It could be attained by means of pure devotion to God. The movement took root in the sixth century in Tamil Nadu where it had distinctly heterodox origins. The Bhakti cult then spread to other parts of India and finally also to northern India, giving an entirely new perspective to Hinduism. The movement was led by sixty-three Saivite and twelve Vaishnavite saints called the Nayanars and the Alvars respectively. These Nayanar and Alvar saints of south India spread the doctrine of Bhakti to different sections of society, irrespective of caste and gender. Nayanar saints were Brahmins and most others were traders and peasants. Many came from the lower castes and took women into the fold. The saint-poets preached Bhakti and promoted religious egalitarianism. They dispensed with rituals in which the lower classes could not afford to participate. They also rejected the caste system. The Alvar and Nayanar saints used Tamil for communicating with people and composing devotional songs. All these features gave the movement a popular character and for the first time Bhakti acquired a popular base. The south Indian Bhakti saints were critical of the Buddhist and Jain priests who enjoyed a privileged status at the courts of the south Indian kings of that time.

It never consciously opposed Brahmanism or the Varna and caste systems at a social level. It was integrated into the caste system and the lower castes continued to remain a highly disadvantaged group.

Brahmanical rituals like the worship of idols, recitation of Vedic mantras and pilgrimages to sacred places remained in vogue in spite of the fact that the Bhakti cult seemed to offer a simpler and less ritual-ridden mode of worshipping God. The Buddhists and Jains were the main targets, not the Brahmins. This perhaps was also why Brahmin-dominated temples came to play such an important role in the growth of the Bhakti movement in south India. Since the ideological and social foundations of the caste system were not subjected to a mode of rigorous questioning by the south Indian saint-poets, the Bhakti movement of the South, in the long run, ended up supporting the caste system instead of subverting it. Eventually, when the movement reached its climax in the 10th 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. Consequently, the Brahmins had to accept lower-caste preachers, and had to grant the lower-castes access to Bhakti as a mode of worship and also eventually to the Vedic texts. Saiva and Vaishnava saints, and their followers, practised and propagated the cult of Bhakti in the countryside, and would often proceed upon pilgrimages, singing and dancing along the way. They received royal patronage, often entered into heated debates with the Jains and Buddhists, presumably healed the sick, and performed other miracles of note. Their hymns, addressed to several deities, constitute the bulk of Tamil literature. Therefore, many early scholars have treated Bhakti chiefly as a literary movement or an ideological phenomenon with religion as the primary source of inspiration. The Bhakti movement was based on this literary philosophical conception, because there is no clarity regarding either its chronological sequence or its social significance. The Bhakti in south India was viewed as a pure Tamil movement and was never really understood in a larger context. Even today historical works have not yet been able to assess the Tamil Bhakti movement from an all-India viewpoint. It was M. G. S. Narayanan and Keshvan Veluthat who tried to analyse the movement not only within the larger framework of the development of society and culture in India, but also in its socio-economic context with special reference to the elements of dissent, protest and reform. The Bhakti tradition did not approve of the Varna system and accepted members from all castes within its fold. M.G.S. Narayanan and Veluthat argue that the idea of Bhakti had a deep impact upon popular consciousness in early medieval India.

The philosopher and theologian Shankara, with all his emphasis on unqualified monism and the Upanishadic idea of salvation through knowledge, accommodated the Bhakti doctrine in his philosophy. Ramanuja, a Vaishnava Tamil Brahmana, and an ardent exponent of qualified monism, laid much emphasis on Bhakti as a means to achieve salvation. The cult of devotion was thus the most popular ideology during the early medieval period. The Bhakti doctrine endorsed the theory of incarnation. Although the concept of incarnation was originally a feature of Vaishnavism, it now influenced other religions as well. Most of the twenty-eight avatars of Siva are said to have been Vishnu incarnations. M.G.S. Narayanan and Kesavan Veluthat opine that royal patronage seems to have intensified the tempo of the Bhakti movement. Mahendravarman is alleged to have destroyed a Jaina monastery and build a Hindu temple in its place. This seems to have been followed by it temple-building spree which spread from the Pallava-Chola territory to the Pala and the Chera territories. This was also where the Bhakti cult found acceptance in popular belief. Hundreds of inscriptions from the 7th to the 10th centuries refer to the construction of temples, which naturally could not have been possible without the active support of kings. The Brahmins succeeded in bringing in indigenous people as tenants and temple servants, hierarchising them into castes and sub castes and bringing in infinite variations of economic and ritual status. They were in a position to mobilize the manpower of the vast tenant class for royal military service. A number of kings made use of the hugely popular cult of Bhakti to enhance their own prestige and power. The destruction of the Jaina monastery and the alleged religious persecution of several thousand Jainas under the aegis of the Bhakti movement indicate that many Nayanars prompted rulers to use state power for the promotion of their creed even through the use of violence. Thus, the Bhakti movement may, in effect, have helped rulers to consolidate the power of monarchy as an institution. The starting point of the Bhakti cult was the system of offering material objects like land, cattle, utensils and lamps according to M.G.S. Narayanan and Keshvan Veluthat. Puja was the most common manifestation of Bhakti. It meant offering land and property and other services to the lord in return for land, fiscal rights, and protection. This gave encouragement to the idea of construction of temples on a large scale by kings and landed magnates.

When the popularity of the Bhakti movement in south India was on a decline, a philosophical justification was provided for the doctrine of Bhakti. Nimbarka tried to establish a careful balance between orthodox Brahmanism and popular cult of 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 for all including the Shudras and the outcastes. As a Bhakti propagandist, Nimbarka did not observe caste distinctions and even tried to eradicate untouchability. He 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 Radha. Another south Indian Vaishhavite Bhakti philosopher was Madhava did not dispute the orthodox Brahminical opinion that was staunchly opposed to the idea of allowing Shudras to read and study Vedic texts. He believed that Bhakti provided alternate avenues of worship to the Shudras. His philosophical system was based on the Bhagvat Purana.