The History and Bhakthi Movement or Bhakti Cult: a Lookback

Sep 3, 2021 - 23:33

The Bhakti movement originated in South India during the seventh to eighth century CE, spread northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and gained wide acceptance in fifteenth-century Bengal and northern India.

The movement started with the Saiva Nayanars and the Vaisnava Alvars, who lived between the 5th and 9th centuries CE. Their efforts ultimately helped spread bhakti poetry and ideas throughout India by the 12th–18th century CE. The Alvars, which literally means "those immersed in God", were Vaishnava poet-saints who sang praises of Vishnu as they travelled from one place to another.

They established temple sites such as Srirangam and spread ideas about Vaishnavism. Various poems were compiled as Alwar Arulicheyalgal or Divya Prabhandham, developed into an influential scripture for the Vaishnavas. The Bhagavata Purana's references to the South Indian Alvar saints, along with its emphasis on bhakti, have led many scholars to give it South Indian origins, though some scholars question whether this evidence excludes the possibility that the bhakti movement had parallel developments in other parts of India.

Like the Alvars, the Saiva Nayanar poets were influential. The Tirumurai, a compilation of hymns on Shiva by sixty-three Nayanar poet-saints, developed into an influential scripture in Shaivism. The poets' itinerant lifestyle helped create temple and pilgrimage sites and spread spiritual ideas built around Shiva. Early Tamil-Siva bhakti poets influenced Hindu texts that came to be revered all over India.

Some scholars state that the Bhakti movement's rapid spread in India in the 2nd millennium was in part a response to the arrival of Islam and subsequent Islamic rule in India and Hindu-Muslim conflicts. This view is contested by some scholars, with Rekha Pande stating that singing ecstatic bhakti hymns in the local language was a tradition in south India before Muhammad was born.

According to Pande, the psychological impact of Muslim conquest may have initially contributed to community-style bhakti by Hindus. Yet other scholars state that Muslim invasions, their conquering of Hindu Bhakti temples in south India and seizure/melting of musical instruments such as cymbals from local people, was in part responsible for the later relocation or demise of singing Bhakti traditions in the 18th century.

According to Wendy Doniger, the nature of the Bhakti movement may have been affected by the "surrender to God" daily practices of Islam when it arrived in India. In turn, it influenced devotional practices in Islam such as Sufism, and other religions in India from the 15th century onwards, such as Sikhism, Christianity, and Jainism. Klaus Witz, in contrast, traces the history and nature of the Bhakti movement to the Upanishadic and the Vedanta foundations of Hinduism.

He writes, that in virtually every Bhakti movement poet, "the Upanishadic teachings form an all-pervasive substratum, if not a basis. We have here a state of affairs that has no parallel in the West. Supreme Wisdom, which can be taken as basically non-theistic and as an independent wisdom tradition (not dependent on the Vedas), appears fused with the highest level of bhakti and with the highest level of God-realization.

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