Era of Bhakti Yoga: The Golden Period of Devotional Faith

This chapter has been named as ‘The Golden Period’, because it was in this period that a serious attempt was made by number of saints, sages, poets, and other reformists to do away with the harmful caste system, without sacrificing the essential good teachings of Hinduism. They basically propagated the Hindu teachings but kept the caste division out of the religion. They emphasized humility and surrender as the most important divine virtues. They also prompted the cultivation of moral virtues like truthfulness, compassion, patience, tolerance, contentment, self-control, service, sincerity etc. They usually sang in their popular vernacular languages, instead of in Sanskrit, which was out of reach for most commoners. In the Hindu culture, devotion to God became a way of life.

The Bhakti, or Devotional era started first in South India, with the Alvar and Nayanar saints, in the sixth century CE. The Alvar saints sang about Lord Vishnu, while the Nayanars were devotees of Lord Shiva. The Alvar saints developed an emotional and personal relationship with God. Alvars means one who is immersed deeply in the love of God (Vaishnav tradition.) To the Alvar, the Lord is not merely an idea, but a concrete presence. They would describe Vishnu as the incarnate Lord Krishna in the form of a beloved and charming cow herder, and themselves were the maids, the gopis, who would be love-torn in separation. Female saint Antal (725–755) became most famous with her passionate devotional songs. It is believed that the impact on Hindu society of these saint/poets was so enormous that the personal God became more accepted than the abstract, formless Divine. The poetry of these Dravidian saints later influenced the devotional traditions in various regions of India.

The second wave of the Bhakti movement, which started in the northern and western parts of India, began in the thirteenth century. The saints of this era belonged mainly to the Vishnu sect of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. They would often compose songs of personal experiences with the Lord, in form of a saguna god (god with form), or they would describe the Lord as formless—a nirguna god. The devotees of the saguna worship would treat the idols of God, the murtis, in a most intimate manner. The physical body, the emotions, and the embodied forms of the Lord, which could be seen and worshipped, subtly replaced the soul’s abstract world of the Vedic Rishis.65 The bhakti, or surrender, relationship is described in six different forms:

  1. Madhura Bhav—sexual love
  2. Kanta Bhav—love of wife for husband
  3. Shanta Bhav—love of child for parent
  4. Vatsalya Bhav—love of parent for child
  5. Sakhya Bhav—love of friendship
  6. Dasya Bhav—affection of servant for his master

Thus, a man is extolled to see the Divine in all situations and relationships. It was the endowment of Hindu seers to guide mankind to spirituality in all walks of life. The bhakti, or surrender, should be total and unconditional, without any personal or selfish motives.

Three steps of the bhakti have been described:

Samarpan or surrenderthis often begins with the worship of the idol, the murti.

Sambhandh or relationship with the Divinethere is a bond of love for God.

Chintan or thinking and meditating on the Divinewhen a person mentally visualizes God in all beings and in all situations.

The Bhakti movement in Hinduism owes its later development to various schools:

Ramanuja (1017–1137) was the first to propagate the worship and surrender to Lord Vishnu Vaishnav Bhakti, which was started earlier by Alvar saints. Madhava (1197–1280) taught that God is the supreme, independent and omniscient. All beings are dependent and subordinated to God. Nimbarka paved the way for the concept of Radha and Krishna around the fourteenth century. Vallabha (1479–1531) taught “God with form,” or saguna Brahman. This God is worshipped as the baby Krishna Bankey Bihari. Chaitanya (1485–1534) emphasized the importance of glorifying the name of Lord and chanting it in congregation. The present Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON) is based on this philosophy. These devotional saints, in turn, created their own traditions and sects (sampradayas) in Hindu society, with a great variety of attitudes and disciplines.66

A number of devotional saints—a few of which are noted below—entranced the followers during this period, with their spiritual songs, or bhajans, which have become extant in Hindu society. Even today people render these devotional songs with great passion and feeling. It is rather interesting to note that throughout India’s long history, a large percentage of Hindu saints have come from non-Brahmin castes.

Bhagat Namdev (b. 1269) was born in a low-caste family of tailors. His devotional songs (abhangs) became most popular. He adored Lord Krishna as Vithal. His poems also appear in Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Scripture of the Sikh religion.

Sant Gyaneshwar (b. 1332) was born near Pune, Maharashtra. He wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, “Gyaneshwari,” which became very popular, especially in Maharashtra.

Sant Kabir (b. 1398) was born in Kashi into a Brahmin family and was later brought up by a low-caste weaver. He went to Guru Ramanand for initiation but was not accepted. One day, he purposely slept on the path taken by Guru Ramanand as he was returning from his bath at the Ganges. Guru Ramanand’s feet accidentally touched Kabir’s body, and the guru uttered, “Ram, Ram.” Kabir thus got his mantra. He wrote large volumes of poetry with many spiritual teachings. So truthful and touching were his poems that they found a most honored place in the Sikh sacred book, Shri Guru Granth Saheb.

Sri Guru Nanak Dev (b. 1469) hailed from Punjab. From his early childhood it was recognized that he was different from other children; he was deeply involved in acts of charity. He roamed on foot all over the country and even went outside the country to propagate the name of God. His lifestyle was extremely simple and pure. He preached Hindu-Muslim unity. He had a large following that later started the separate religion of Sikhism.

Bhagat Narsi Mehta (b. 1470) was born in Saurashtra, Gujarat. He wrote many religious poems, which still are popular today. His song “Vaishnav Jan to Taine Kahiye’’ was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi and was sung in his prayer meetings regularly.

Vallabhacharya (b 1479), a Brahmin, originally hailed from the South and later moved to Gujarat. He founded the sect popularly known as Vallabh Sampradaya, also called the Pusti Marg or “Path of Prosperity.” The merchant class largely joined this sect, which believed in both the grace of God and one’s personal efforts toward material gains. He was a firm devotee of Lord Krishna, particularly in the form of the infant Bankey Bihari and as the youth Bal Govinda.67

Chaitnaya Mahaprabhu (b. 1486) was born in Bengal. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna and spent a large part of his life in the vicinity of the Jagannath temple at Puri, Orissa. He would dance and sing, and tears would flow from his eyes. Many devotees would follow him wherever he went. It was he who introduced the chant “Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare.”

Sant Ravidas (b. 15th century) was a poet-saint of exceptional qualities. He was born in Varanasi, North India, into a low caste family. He ridiculed the idea of a hereditary caste system. There are as many as forty-one poems written by him that are included into the Sikh Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Saheb.

Goswami Sant Tulsidas (b. 1532) was born in Rajpur, Uttar Pradesh, India. He wrote the immortal classic Shri Ramcharitra Manas. This Ramayana was written in the true spirit of complete surrender. It is said that in youth, Tulsidas was extremely fond of his wife. One day, when she went to stay at her father’s place, he could not bear the pangs of separation. That night, there was a torrential rain. Tulsidas had to cross the river to reach his beloved wife. So deeply was he enamored that he mistook a floating dead body for a raft and, later, a snake for a rope, but he ultimately arrived on the other side with his wife. When she realized Tulsidas’ blind passion, she rebuked him by saying, “If you had shown so much love for God, you would have attained salvation.” Tulsidas was instantly transformed. For the rest of his life he was the devotee of Lord Rama. His scripture, Shri Ramcharitra Manas, has touched the lives of millions of people.

Bhagat Surdas (b. 1535) was blind, but his inner vision was very strong. He saw Lord Krishna in all beings. He had a melodious voice. He sang songs that he composed himself, which became very popular.

Sant Haridas (b. 1537) hailed from Brindavan. From early childhood, he was fond of the Krishna Leela. He was a master of classical music and became the guru of the famous singer Tansen. When Emperor Akbar asked Tansen the secret of the melody in Haridas’ voice, Tansen replied, “We mortals sing to please other men, but Haridas sings only for God.”

Sant Mirabai (b. 1560) hailed from Mewar in Rajasthan. From early childhood she was devoted to Lord Krishna. When she was just ten years old, she was given an idol of Krishna. She would not be separated from it, even for a short time. At age eighteen she was married against her will to a royal prince, Bhojraj. She took the idol of Lord Krishna along with her to her husband’s home and would constantly worship and meditate on it. This annoyed her in-laws. Several attempts were made to kill her, but each time, the Lord protected her life. She spent the rest of her life singing the songs of her love for Krishna, which have become legendary: Mere toh Giridhar Gopal, dusero ne koyi

Swami Ramdas (b. 1665) hailed from Maharashtra. He brought a new awakening in the socio-political structure of his time with a spiritual transformation in the political system. He was a devotee of Lord Rama and Hanuman, and with his teachings he uplifted the lives of many. In 1706, the famous warrior King Shivaji Maharaj adopted Swami Ramdas as his guru. Swami Ramdas asked King Shivaji to conduct his rule with utmost spirituality.

Sant Tukaram (b. 1665) was born in Maharashtra. He was most compassionate to the poor and needy. He was from a low-caste family and was often humiliated for singing songs of God, because he did not belong to the higher Brahmin caste. When he sang, he often cried profusely, with words such as, “I am not a learned person; but like a small child, I come before you, Lord!” Ultimately, Lord Vithal appeared before him at the Pandharpur temple, and he attained salvation.

The Golden Era of the Bhakti Yoga was also a key resistance movement against the stern caste system prevalent at the time. However, these saints adopted the most humble, non-violent approach in their task. They resorted to positive methods, eulogizing the spiritual qualities of the religion, and especially highlighted and emphasized the grand virtues and merits of God. They composed hundreds of songs and bhajans in praise of the Divine, and sang them in enchanting tunes in temples, homes, and streets with utmost passion and intimacy. They preached to the common people to live simply with moral values and charity. They sang in popular vernacular languages instead of Sanskrit, which was beyond the comprehension of most. They taught people to become devotional, and to develop complete and full faith in God. They described God ‘both’ either of a saguna god (god with form), or they would describe the Lord as formless—a nirguna god. However they more popularized the saguna worship with murtis (idols) of God. The physical body, the emotions, and the embodied forms of the Lord, which could be seen and worshipped, subtly replaced the soul’s abstract world of the Vedic Rishis. The formless God was not totally disowned but the God with form was more accepted by the common man.

















NOTE: This chapter is adapted from Asha Dayal, Bharat jaa Bhagat (Sindhi Language), Veena Devidas Mirpuri, Madras, India, 1981.