The Bhakti Movement and Monotheism


Mar 04, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of the Bhakti Movement's development in India.

Thus far in the Bhakti Movement series, we have offered a brief survey on several saints who became famous proponents of the Bhakti cult in northern and central India, including:

    Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449–1568 A.D.) in Assam
    Sant Ramanand (1400–1476 A.D.)
    Ramanand's disciple, Kabir (1440–1518 A.D.)
    Snat Janeswar (1275–1296 A.D.) in Maharashtra, and
    Sant Namdev (1270–1350 A.D.), a contemporary of Janeswar in Maharashtra

Before proceeding with biographies of the other famous Bhakti Movement saints, like Kabir, Guru Nanak, Eknath, Tukaram, Basava, etc., it might be helpful to step back for a broader view of how these many personalities relate to one another in the general sense. According to the Pearson Indian History, the teachings of all the saints associated with the monotheistic movement in India have certain common features which allowed them to naturally dovetail with the Vaishnava Bhakti cult.

'Most of the monotheists belonged to the "low" castes and were aware that there existed a unity of ideas among themselves. Most of them were aware of each other's teachings and influences. In their verses, they mention each other and their predecessors in such a way as to suggest a harmonious ideological affinity among them.

Thus, Kabir speaks of Raidas as a 'saint among saints'. Raidas in turn respectfully mentions the names of Kabir, Namdev, Trilochan, Dhanna, Sen and Pipa. Dhanna takes pride in speaking of the fame and popularity of Namdev, Kabir, Raidas and Sen, and admits that he devoted himself to Bhakti after hearing of their fame. Kabir's influence on Nanak is also beyond dispute. It is therefore not surprising that later traditions link Kabir, Raidas, Dhanna, Pipa, Sen, etc. together as disciples of Ramananda.

The ideological affinity among the monotheists is also clear from the inclusion of the hymns of Kabir, Raidas, etc. along with those of Nanak by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan in the Adi Granth.

Guru Granth Sahib

All the monotheists were influenced in one way or another and in varying degrees by the Vaishnava concept of bhakti, the nathpanthi movement and Sufism. The monotheistic movement represents the synthesis of elements from these three traditions. But more often than not, they did not accept the element of these traditions in their original form and made many innovations and adaptations which gave new meaning to old concepts.

For the monotheists, there was only one way of establishing communion with God: it was the way of personally experienced bhakti. This was also the way of the Vaishnava Bhakti saints, but there was one fundamental difference of perceptions: they have all been called monotheists because they uncompromisingly believed in only one God. Nanak believed that God was non-incarnate and formless (nirankar), eternal (akal) and ineffable (alakh).

The monotheistic bhakti therefore was nirguna bhakti and not saguna -- which was the case with the Vaishnavites who believed in various human incarnations of God. The monotheists adopted the notion of bhakti from the Vaishnava bhakti tradition but gave it a nirguna orientation. Quite often Kabir called God by the name Ram. For this reason he has been called a Rama-bhakta. But Kabir himself made it clear in his utterances that the Ram he was devoted to was not the one who was born as an incarnation in the house of King Dasarath of Ayodhya, or who had killed Ravana, but rather a formless, non-incarnate God.

In addition to the oneness of God and nirguna bhakti, the monotheists also emphasized the crucial importance of repetition of the Holy Name, spiritual guru, community singing of devotional songs (kirtan) and companionship of saints (satsang).


'The Pearson Indian History Manual' by Singh, excerpted and paraphrased


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