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Bhakti & Sufi Movements in the Undivided India

B L Razdan
Bhakti Movement is the socio-religious revolution brought about by a galaxy of reformers in Indian society and constitutes an important landmark in the cultural history of medieval India. The concept of bhakti is traceable to our ancient scriptures, the Vedas, where it is discernible in the hymns addressed to various deities before whom our ancestors chose to surrender. However, the word bhakti does not occur there. It is in the later scriptures, the Upanishads that the word occurs for the first time. The word bhakta means to serve, to honour, to revere, to love or to adore. In religious context, bhakti implies ardent attachment or fervent devotion to God.
The Bhakti movement in India was not the work of a single person or class, but of saints who sprang more often from the lower orders of the society, such as tailors, gardeners, potters, goldsmiths, shopkeepers and even mahars, than from Brahmins. These sons of soil struggled against the exclusive spirit of caste denomination and asserted the dignity of the human soul as being independent of the accidents of birth and social rank. They emphasized that faith and devotional love or bhakti were superior to other forms of worship, such as performance of rites and ceremonies, self-mortification and fasts, penances and pilgrimages. They also upheld the sanctity of family life against the traditions of celibacy and asceticism. It started in the South of India (800-1700 A.D) and slowly spread to the central and north India (1300-1800 A.D.). The real essence of Bhakti is found in the great Hindu epics known as Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Hinduism and its off-shoots, Jainism and Buddhism, were the dominant religious denominations of India before Islam entered upon the scene. Being the oldest faith, Hinduism had lost its simplicity. Religious practices, which were relevant at their inception, had become redundant with the passage of time and superstition was dominating the society. Caste system, untouchability, blind faith and inequality in society caused dissensions among different sections of the people. The common people were confused on the way of worshipping God, which had become somewhat complex.
On the other hand Islam preached unity of God and brotherhood of man. It preached monotheism and equality of man before God. It attacked idol worship. Added to it, the political power and the aggressive conversion designs adopted by the invaders, the oppressed common people and the people branded as low castes found it safe and beneficial to join Islam. This naturally led to rivalry among religions. Fanaticism, bigotry, and religious intolerance began to raise their ugly heads. It was with a view to protecting their faith and removing the social evils that religious leaders appeared in different parts of India to preach pure devotion called Bhakti for the attainment of God.
Bhakti movement originated in South India between the 7th and the 12th centuries A..D. The Nayanmars, who worshipped Siva, and the Alwars, who worshipped Vishnu, preached the idea of Bhakti. They carried their message of love and devotion to various parts of South India through the medium of the local language. They preached among common people. It made some of the followers of the Vedic faith to revive the old Vedic religion. Saints like Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa gave their concepts of God and the individual soul. They succeeded in not only arresting the conversion spree to Islam but also in reconversion from Budhism and to some extent from Jainism back to the Hindu fold.
In the North, Bhakti movement gained momentum as a resistance to the Muslim conquest. The saints of the Bhakti Movement were men and women of humble origin, who came from all castes and classes. To save their faith, they went from place to place singing devotional songs and also preaching the Unity of God and brotherhood of man. Through their simple preaching, they stressed tolerance among various religious groups.
Looking to the religious upheaval caused by the Bhakti Movement, the Muslims initiated a parallel campaign by its saints that gave birth to the Sufi Movement in India. The terms Sufi, Wali, Darvesh and Faqir are used for Muslim saints who, like Hindu seers, aimed at achieving development of their intuitive faculties through ascetic exercises, contemplation, renunciation and self-denial. By the 12th century A.D., Sufism had become a universal aspect of Islamic social life as its influence extended over almost the entire Muslim community. Unlike Wahabism, Sufism represents the inward or esoteric or the mystical dimension of Islam. The Sufi saints transcended all religious and communal distinctions, worked for promoting the interest of humanity at large. The Sufis were a class of philosophers in their own right and gained followers from other religions for their remarkable religious catholicity and secular outlook. Sufis regarded God as the supreme beauty and believed that one must admire it, take delight in His thought and concentrate his attention on Him only.
Like Bhakti, Sufism took roots in both rural and urban areas and exercised a deep social, political and cultural influence on the masses. It rejected all forms of religious formalism, orthodoxy, falsehood and hypocrisy and aimed at creating a new world order in which spiritual bliss was the only and the ultimate goal. At a time when struggle for political power was the prevailing madness, the Sufi saints reminded men of their moral obligations. To a world torn by strife and conflict they tried to bring peace and harmony. The most important contribution of Sufism is that it helped to blunt the edge of Hindu-Muslim prejudices by forging the feelings of solidarity and brotherhood between these two religious communities.
The Hindu saints of the Bhakti Movement and the Muslim saints of the Sufi Movement, both, became more liberal in their outlook. They wanted to get rid of the evils which had crept into their religions. The Bhakti movement and the Sufi movement brought the Hindus and the Muslims closer to each other. The equality concept preached by the leaders reduced the rigidity of the caste system to a certain extent. The suppressed people attained a feeling of self-respect. The reformers’ preaching in local languages was easily understandable and therefore, was more effective. They composed hymns and songs in the languages spoken by the masses. It led to a bonus in the development of Indian regional languages. Therefore there was a remarkable growth of literature in all these languages. A new language Urdu, a mixture of Persian and Hindi, also was born.
The Bhakti and Sufi movements encouraged the spirit of toleration. The gap between the Hindus and the Muslims was reduced. They began to live amicably together. The movements emphasized the value of a pure life of charity and devotion. To top it all, it improved the moral fabric and the spiritual ways of life of the medieval Indian society inasmuch as it exhorted the coming generations to live in peace and harmony with the spirit of toleration.


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