The Bhakti Movement

In the 15th and 16th centuries, India languished under the barbaric rule of the foreign invader and the backward Brahmanical order with its caste system and oppressive religious orthodoxy. It was against these ideas that the people of India rose up in revolt from one end of India to the other. The Bhakti movement kept the religious shell, but its content was secular, progressive and, in many and essential ways materialist, (i.e. not metaphysical). According to the Bhaktas, (as they were popularly called), religion was a matter of personal devotion, Bhakti, and not dependant on this or that rite or ritual. They challenged the monopoly of the Brahmans on knowledge, which was the basis for the relegation of other castes to inferior roles. They preached a radical equality and stood for the accessibility of knowledge to all men and women, a thing unheard of under the Brahman system. The barbarity of the Brahmanism and its caste system was such that according to the Manu Simiriti: "...the ears of the toiler must be filled with lead, lest they hear anything or aquire any knowledge. For a woman to aquire knowledge, it was necessary for her to be reborn as a man belonging to a high caste in the next life, otherwise knowledge and enlightenment denied to her." The Bhakti movement is officially considered the first democratic movement of the masses. It democratised the "knowledge of God"; and once the "knowledge of God" was democratised, then how could other knowledge remain the preserve of the Brahmans? The strong conviction of the Bhaktas was that religion is a matter of personal devotion. It is for the development of this idea, that today inspires the people t unite irrespective of religious, language, caste, racial or regional differences and go into battle against the native and foreign exploiters: the idea of the necessity to oppose all exploitation and oppression. The leaders of the Bhakti movement came from every corner of India: Madhava Vallabhcharya from the south; Ramanand from the North; Kabir from the North-central India, Dadu from the north; Mandeo, Tukaram, Ek Nath and Ram Das from Maharashtra. Chaitanya preached in Orissa and Bengal; Shankar Dev and Madhav Dev came from Assam; the poetess Lalla was from Kashmir; Guru Nanak came from Punjab, and Vehmana was a Telugu poet. Their movement shook the old Brahminacal order to it's very foundations and posed a great threat to the foreign invader. Another important feature of the Bhakti movement was that it developed and enriched the various national languages, the languages of the masses of people, raising them to the level of literary languages. The Brahminical order and the invaders were enemies of the languages of the masses. The leaders of the Bhakti movement wrote in vernacular, not in Sanskrit, the language of the privileged Brahmans. Bhaktas gave rise to scripts consistent with these national languages and with the psyche of the people In their writings they paid great attention to the people's traditions of valour and courage in the centuries-long struggle against exploitation and oppression. It is no coincidence that the poetry of the Bhaktas is still today recited with great enthusiasm by the masses. The leaders of the Bhakti movement were opposed to all the backward social customs. Among these were child marriages, and widow burning, both sanctioned and enforced by Brahmanism. Again according to the Manu Simiriti: "a woman whose husband died no longer had the right to live. She was burned alive on the same funeral pyre that served to cremate her dead husband's body." The Bhaktas opposed this barbaric custom imposed by the Brahminical order and sanctified in the "holy" Scriptures. The Bhakti movement maintained that women have the same rights as men and should have the same opportunities in spiritual and social affairs. Thus the Bhaktas advocated that no woman should be forced to accept a marriage against her will. Meera Bai, one of the leaders of the Bhakti movement, chose to die rather than accept a marriage against her will. The Bhakti movement was not only a social movement but a national movement which encompassed the masses from all over India. Comprising the merchants, traders, farmers/land owners, craftsmen, and artisans, a force which stood against the barbaric and stagnant relations of production imposed by the Brahminical order and against the barbarism of Mogul and all other invaders and occupiers. Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the Sikh religion, belonged to this period and was one of the leaders of the Bhakti movement. Like the other Bhaktas, so too, Guru Nanak revolted against the caste system of Brahmanism and preached the equality of all human beings. He recognised no privileges between men and women; he taught all the people, irrespective of caste; he advocated that religion was a matter of personal devotion and opposed the use of rites, rituals and superstitions advocated by the Brahmans. He also opposed their parasitical mode of existence. There is a famous story to illustrate this: "A certain Malik Bhago had invited Guru Nanak to his house to eat with him at his festival, but Guru Nanak refused saying that Malik Bhago's food was made from the blood of the toilers whom he was exploiting. Guru Nanak preferred to associate with Bhai Lalo, who was a toiler. Even though Bhai Lalo's food was very meagre and made for the barest subsistence, Guru Nanak relished it! He found greater happiness in the home of Bhai Lalo and considered it a privilege to share his food." The Bhaktas awakened the masses of the people to look into their real condition and rise up against their enslavement and oppression. Mughal and Brahminical idealism and obscurantism were weapons in the hands of the exploiters and oppressors, weapons used to perpetuate the exploiting order and to reconcile the people to their fate and provided support to both foreign invader and the backward relations of production. The Bhakti movement shook the foundations of the Braminical order, the patriarchal and feudal ideas, and the ideological corruption of the invader. Even the most cursory study of the period convinces the student that secularism, atheism, and materialism (as opposed to asceticism), developed on Indian soil, as the offspring of the Indian toiling masses, and gives the lie to the tired refrain of the reactionary bourgeoisie of imperialism, to the effect that the masses of Indian people were and are backward. This is a deliberate slander designed to justify the policy of imperialist plunder and the imposition of backwardness and poverty as was imposed by British colonial imperialism, and is still carried out today by the "exploitive class rulers" of India...A legacy of backward British Colonial structure. The Sikh Guru's and the Bhakti movement shared many similarities as well as a number of differences. Sikhism should not be looked at as simply an extension of the Bhakti movement but as a new movement entirely. While the Bhagat's shared some of the same beliefs as those expressed by the Guru's, the Bhagats were not able to make a clear break from their religious heritage. The Sikh Guru's on the other hand were able to make that clean break to form a new religion which grew and has survived the test of time, unlike many of the Bhakti reform movements which did not. Sikhs consider the works of the various Bhagats in Sri Guru Granth Sahib as being equal to the writings of the Guru's themselves and as such, deserving of the same respect and reverence.

Similarities: Outspoken criticism of the caste system. Stern condemnation of idol worship. Harsh attacks on the hypocrisy of the priestly Brahmin class and ritualisation of religion.

Differences: Bhagat Kabir regarded the world and life as suffering and welcomed death as the beginning of a blissful existence. The Gurus believed you can achieve blissful mukhti while alive and do not have to wait for death. Bhagat Kabir believed that either one should become a householder and do good actions or he should become a Vairagi and renounce the world. Guru Nanak believed only in the path of the householder. Bhagat Ravi Das believed in a physical heaven, while the Sikh Gurus did not believe in a physical concept of heaven. The Sikh heaven is to merge and become one with God.



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