Art & Culture

Mint article on bhakti movement reeks of ignorance about Indian culture

Hari Ravikumar
Hari RavikumarNov 14, 2016 | 09:38

Mint article on bhakti movement reeks of ignorance about Indian culture

Karthik Venkatesh's recent article in Livemint is presumptuously titled "A brief history of the Bhakti movement". If readers hope to learn about bhakti, bhaktas, or their history, they will be utterly disappointed.

This piece is an unfortunate result of someone who understands neither Indian cultural heritage nor the concept of bhakti, nor Indian history engaging in public instruction. Venkatesh's verbal histrionics is singularly lacking in integrity but abounding in malice.


Before we embark on a critique of his puerile jottings, let us first understand the meaning of the word "bhakti". It comes from the root word "bhaj", which means "to share", or "to belong to".

It can also be derived from the root word "bhaj sevayam", which means "to serve". Therefore, the word "bhakti" means "participation", "affection", "love" or "service".

I had discussed in one of my previous articles on DailyO that the etymology of the word itself suggests that "bhakti" can take many forms - from motherly affection to romantic love to friendship to servitude. (See my article "Bhakti can show you how to love and reach god").

The Narada Bhakti Sutra, a remarkable set of aphorisms on the subject of bhakti, starts off by defining it (bhakti) to be of the form of supreme love (verse 2).

Then it says, "One who attains bhakti becomes accomplished, unafraid of death, and fulfilled" (v 4). "Having attained it, one doesn't crave for anything nor grieve nor harbour hatred; one doesn't indulge nor has the urge" (v 5). "Having realised this, one becomes lost in it, attains stillness within, and delights in the Self" (v 6).


This view aligns closely with what earlier Hindu works speak about bhakti. It is a means to attain the highest bliss - a state which is beyond material attributes and bindings.

Kabirdas. (Photo credit: Google)

While the objective of "bhakti" itself is to transcend the material, why would a true "bhakta" be bothered about social reform? Many of the bhakti poets mention that their poems are spontaneous outpouring in praise of their chosen deity.

An intense emotional feeling of bhakti became manifest in the form of words. Doubtless, we see bhakti poets doubling as social reformers but that is more incidental than intentional.

They happened to work towards bettering the society around them in different ways. In fact, none of the bhakti saints claim to be social reformers.

The core values of Sanatana Dharma - and indeed of the bhakti movement - are fundamental principles such as integrity, compassion, fortitude, ahimsa, gratitude, etc. (referred to as "samanya-dharma").

Varna - loosely translated as "caste system" - is not a core value but a peripheral concept (referred to as "vishesha-dharma"). What was conceived as a social framework based on occupation became more and more rigid, reaching its darkest hours with the barbaric invasion (starting from eighth century CE) of the religious fundamentalists hailing from the desert sands of Arabia.


A wholesale attack on a people naturally makes them cautious and rigid - one can only imagine the result of centuries of violence on the Indians from marauders from West Asia.

Let us now consider Venkatesh's opinion piece on the history of the Bhakti movement in India. His initial comparison of the bards with the bhakti poets itself is off the mark. The bards in ancient India were the sootas (eg Sanjaya in the Mahabharata) who also doubled as charioteers. Bhakti poets came from various classes of society with different preoccupations and not everyone was a wandering minstrel.

In his article Venkatesh says, "The rigid caste system, the complicated ritualism that constituted the practise of worship and the inherent need to move to a more fulfilling method of worship and salvation perhaps spurred this movement." This is incorrect at many levels.

First, there is no bhakti "movement". And therefore the claim that it began in the seventh and eighth centuries in the Tamil region is incorrect. India has had a continuous line of great poets who emphasised the idea of bhakti. Their objective was not rebellion or social reform but to express their love for the Supreme.

Second, we see the idea of bhakti in the Vedas, the earliest known literature. Long before the caste system became rigid and rituals became complicated there was bhakti.

Third, "a more fulfilling method of worship" is purely subjective and deserves no place in that sentence.

Fourth, the idea of salvation (what we call "mukti" or "moksha") has always been multi-pronged in Sanatana Dharma and bhakti is merely one of the paths. Venkatesh ends up publicly displaying his ignorance of Hindu philosophy.

Venkatesh writes, "Bhakti poets emphasised surrender to God. Equally, many of the Bhakti saints were rebels who chose to defy the currents of their time through their writings. The Bhakti tradition continues in a modified version even in the present day."

Anyone who understands bhakti and the bhakti tradition will know that there are several methods of bhakti. It could be "prapatti" (surrender to the Supreme) but it could also be through "ninda stuti" (criticising the deity).

It could be by singing songs about the Supreme or by listening to lectures on topics like the Itihasas and Puranas. The Bhakti poets composed spontaneous poems, which ended up making the wisdom of the Vedas accessible to all. They faced some backlash from a certain section of society but they stuck to their resolve of "being inclusive", which is the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma.

A careful observer will find that not a single bhakti poets attacks Hinduism or the tradition of Sanatana Dharma. On the contrary, they echo in their verses the wisdom of the Vedas, the most revered works in the Hindu tradition.

The examples that Venkatesh provides for the so-called modern day Bhakti tradition have nothing to do with either Bhakti or tradition. They are merely social reformers who are interested in singing songs.

Venkatesh declares, "As a social movement, the Bhakti movement in Karnataka, and indeed everywhere in India, challenged caste hierarchy, emphasised the individual's direct connection to god and the possibility of salvation for all through good deeds and simple living."

If the learned journalist had taken the trouble to read a text by the name of Bhagavad-Gita, he would have been pleasantly surprised to find verses that "challenge caste hierarchy" - BG 4.13 says that Krishna himself created all varnas; in 9.29 Krishna says that none is hateful to him and that he is equally present in all beings; in 5.18 Krishna says that a wise person is one who treats everyone equally.

He would have found verses that "emphasise the individual's direct connection to god" - in BG 18.66 Krishna says, "Giving up all forms of dharma take refuge in me alone. I will liberate you from all sins, do not grieve."

And as for "the possibility of salvation for all through good deeds and simple living," there are a bunch of verses in the Gita - see BG 4.36, 9.26, 9.30, 12.16, 17.14, 18.52, etc. The Gita was composed long before seventh century CE, the supposed date of the onset of the "bhakti movement".

Further, what is the reaction of bhakti poets towards the Gita? Without exception it is one of reverence and adulation.

The freelance journalist continues, "As a literary movement, it liberated poetry from singing the praises of kings and introduced spiritual themes. From a style point of view, it introduced simple and accessible styles like Vachanas (in Kannada) and other forms in various languages to literature and ended the hegemony of Sanskrit metrical forms."

The praise of kings continued unabated on the one hand while scores of bhakti poems were written on the other. Raja-prashastis and Bhakti-kavya never had a problem in coexistence.

Bhakti poetry might be in simple language and easily accessible to people, but it was largely inspired by Sanskrit metrical poetry. Most bhakti poems - be it the ones by the Alvars and Nayanars in Tamil, or Kabir and Tulsidas in Hindi, or the Varkari poets of Maharashtra - were mostly written in meter.

In the Vachana literary canon, the poems of Sarvajna are set to a meter called "tripadi". It was Sarvajna's poems that popularised the tripadi meter.

Further, none of these poets criticised Sanskrit or its metrical forms. In fact, if one studies the poetical structures of the Divya-prabandhams of the Alvar saints, they are far stricter in poetic meter as compared to the early Sangam poems, which are composed in rather loose poetic meters (with the exception of the Agaval meter).

To write an article about the history of the bhakti movement in India and to leave out Jayadeva is like writing about the history of science and forgetting Newton. Jayadeva's Gita Govinda, written in metrical Sanskrit is a great work of bhakti.

These songs inspired musicians, dancers, and artists for generations. It reached the commonest of people and is venerated even today as a masterful work. Venkatesh also makes no mention of the "Stotra Sahitya" in Sanskrit, which are all bhakti poems written in poetic meter, in praise of the various Hindu gods and goddesses.

Without an understanding of the Indian literary tradition, it is impossible to understand this connection between bhakti poets and poetic meter. Sanskrit and other Indian languages naturally embrace poetic metres.

In ancient India, treatises on mathematics or astrology or sex were all written in metre. Further, meter is so important for song and dance. From the time of the Vedic rishis, the people realised the value of meter and of poetry. Poems were composed to bring joy.

All these bhakti poets wrote purely for that reason. Not only did they bring joy but they also reinforced dharma (see this in light of Bhagavad-Gita 7.11 where Krishna says "I am the desire that doesn't violate dharma").

When we see the great bhakti poets - be it Shankar Dev of Assam, Narsinh Mehta of Gujarat, Meera of Rajasthan, Ravidas of Uttar Pradesh, Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka, Tukaram of Maharashtra, or Auvaiyar of Tamil Nadu - we find that they hail from all classes of society and from varied backgrounds.

Urilingapeddi was a Dalit, Basavanna was a Brahamin. Jnaneshwar was a Brahmin, Tukaram was a Shudra. Tiruppanalvar was a Dalit, Kulashekharalvar was a Kshatriya, Nammalvar was a Shudra. Purandaradasa was a Vaishya, Kanakadasa was a Shudra.

Several poets of ancient India - irrespective of their caste - were well-versed in Sanskrit. For example, Bhartrmenta was a mahout, Bhoja was a king, Dhavaka was a washerman, Tirumalamba was a courtesan, Shankara was an ascetic, and Vedanta Deshika was a scholar.

Over time, when Sanskrit ceased to be the lingua franca, poets started composing poems in the languages that they were using regularly, like Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, etc.

The learned Venkatesh has a predisposition towards wild generalisations. He says, "Almost always instinctively rebellious, these poets played an important role in laying the foundation for a reconfiguration of society on more equitable lines."

As we have seen earlier, the bhakti poets were interested in aligning themselves with the Supreme and they didn't start out being rebels, although some of them can be perceived so.

Musical composers such as Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastry can easily be counted among bhakti poets but they never brought any social changes. They just sang songs in praise of the Supreme.

What about the several Sangam poets or the seers of the Vedas? In the hundreds of the Bhagavata Melas that happened (and happen) in different parts of India, poets and Harikatha artistes sing songs about ancient heroes. Did they all engage in social reform?

If the bhakti poems helped towards equity in society, that's merely a byproduct and not the fundamental intention of bhakti. Further, no society can be truly equitable - this is what we have observed over thousands of years of human history.

Venkatesh claims that "Kabir preached a monotheism that appealed directly to the poor and assured them of their access to god without an intermediary. He rejected both Hinduism and Islam, as well as empty religious rituals, and denounced hypocrisy. This outraged the orthodox gentry."

Even a casual glance at Kabir's couplets will show us that his conception was perfectly aligned to the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy (as with many other bhakti poems).

Probably the learned journalist doesn't know the difference between monism and monotheism. If Kabir rejected both Hinduism and Islam, why does he invoke the deities of both religions in his couplets?

He says in one of his couplets, "Guru gobind dou khade kaake lagu paen…" invoking the Hindu deity Govinda (Krishna). In another couplet, he says "Avval allah noor upaya kudrat ke sab bande…" invoking the Islamic god. And if Kabir denounced hypocrisy, it is nothing new - from the Rigveda Samhita till modern saints, everyone denounces it.

On more than one occasion, Venkatesh brings up the point that the bhakti poets were against brahmanas and their orthodoxy. But for the bhakti poets, there would be no equality in society, he claims.

If these bhakti poets were truly against brahmanas and the establishment, why were they hailed and revered by brahmanas through the centuries?

Ramanuja revered the alvars, Samarth Ramdas hailed the Varkari poets, and Vyasatirtha was deeply influenced by Kanakadasa and Purandaradasa. Even today, Hindus across caste greatly admire the bhakti poets.

A vigilant reader of Karthik Venkatesh's ramblings will realise that his intention has been to show that Hinduism is fundamentally casteist and patriarchal - and it was a bunch of singer-songwriters who changed the equations and brought in equality in society.

As much as the Marxist in him can wish that Hinduism is a defunct, evil, and fascist system, the truth is not, sadly, on his side. And we Hindus believe in that Upanishadic dictum that truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.

(Thanks to Shashi Kiran BN for reviewing my piece and giving valuable suggestions to bolster my argument. Thanks to Ramesh Rao for bringing Karthik Venkatesh's article to my notice via a Facebook post. I have benefitted from the comments of Aravindan Neelakandan, Jay Jina, Nithin Sridhar, and Sumedha Verma Ojha on Ramesh Rao's post.)

Last updated: November 14, 2016 | 09:56
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