How the Bhakti movement flourished

Raza Naeem tells the story of Kabir, a weaver who took on centuries of tradition and inequality in South Asia

How the Bhakti movement flourished
The Bhakti Movement from the 12th century was the Indian shape that Sufism acquired. At the same time, it was also a people’s movement ignored by most mainstream textbooks today. The popular perception about it is that it was a ‘Hindu’ movement, but in reality it was a collective movement of lower-class Hindus and Muslims, whose precursors were also Muslim Sufis. Most of the Bhakti saints like Swami Ramanand, Kabir, Sadhana, Namdev, Guru Nanak and others were sons of the soil i.e. the Indus Valley. Love of  Ishwar, to see the brilliance of Jagdev in jag and the image of saroop in roop; to understand the unity of the Divine across various religions; to love all men whether they be chamar or chandal, Turk or Afghan and beat the drums of the premraag; not to accept the difference between high and low, or zaatpaat; to reject ostentatious, worldly rituals like puja paat, jantarmantar, teerathjatra, ganga ashnan, bartbhog and tilak mala; to consider brotherhood and intermingling as dharam; not to grieve anyone, but rather to serve the aggrieved; not to be attracted to wealth; to cultivate the heart and  be unconcerned with the comfort of the flesh; to remain aloof and away from sarkar and darbar (rulers and their courts, i.e. centres of power) ; and light the lamps of gyaan and wisdom; these were the basic principles of bhakti. Like Sufism, the Bhakti Movement was also the product of the peculiar social conditions of the subcontinent. But the question is: just what were those social conditions or dynamics which gave rise to the Bhakti Movement and what were the reasons that it became very popular in northern India even in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries? Based on original bilingual translations of major Bhakti poets into Urdu and English, and focusing especially on the roles of Kabir and Guru Nanak in the Movement, this essay tries to answer this question. It also engages with the question of the impact of the Bhakti movement on Hindu-Muslim relations and on the nurturing of the Urdu language in the subcontinent.

Depiction of a gathering of Sufis, 11th century India

The Sufis of the 13th and 14th centuries paved the way for the Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti Movement began in south India in the 12th century. Its founders were Swami Ramanuj (1016 - 1137), Madhav (1199 - 1278), Anand Teerath, Vishnu Swami and Basav. The reason for the advent of Bhakti Movement in south India was that it was in that area that Hindus first got the opportunity to meet and interact with Muslims, and be introduced to Islamic teachings.

Numerous settlements of Arab traders and seafarers existed in the coastal areas of Gujarat, Malabar, Konkan and Coromandel since a long time. In the eighth century, members of the Banu Hashim and a great number of their supporters also sought refuge in south India, irked by the oppression of Hajjaj bin Yusuf. Then in the 9th and 10th centuries began a series of arrivals of Ismaili claimants (these areas still have a majority of Ismailis, who are professional traders). Sheikh Zainuddin Abu Yahya (873-923), Nur Satguru and Pir Sadruddin are more famous amongst them. These Ismaili claimants assumed Hindu names due to preaching expediencies; and emphasised their faith using the religious terminologies of the Hindus themselves. For example, one of the Ismaili holy books is called Das Autaar (Ten Incarnations). Such daring  deviation from the mainstream could only have come from Sufis who followed a particular order. So the founder of the sat-panthi (seven-creed) sect of the Bhakti Movement was Syed Imamuddin Ismaili (Aab-e-Kausar,pp. 350)

Orthodox religious authorities opposed movements which emphasised the unity of the Divine and equality of people

Arab settlements in south India were established for the purposes of naval trade. Sea-travel was forbidden in the Hindu faith. Therefore naval trade had become the unlimited monopoly of the Arabs. The Hindu rajas of the western coast greatly welcomed the Arabs, since they benefitted from naval trade. In fact one raja, mindful of commercial benefits, had even issued the edict that at least one boy from every family of fishermen should be educated and trained as Muslim. (Ibid. pp. 47) The rajas had given total freedom of worship to Muslims. They were generally free to build mosques, give azan, open madrassahs and celebrate festivals. Additionally in the export-import business, thousands of Hindus had to deal with the Muslims day and night; and they were becoming aware of the habits and beliefs of the Muslims.

In such conditions, it was natural for Islamic teachings to influence Hindu minds. This influence manifested itself in the shape of bhakti. Therefore the close connection between Sufism and bhakti has been dealt in great detail by Dr. Tara Chand in his book The Influence of Islam on Indian Culture and he has concluded that while it is true that the traces of various elements of bhakti philosophy can be found individually in the Upanishads, Mahabharata and Bhagwat Puran, etc. but:

“Collectively these elements and then the method of insistence on various aspects of these elements clearly tells us that they are related to Islamic beliefs. The dominant possibility is that these are the product of Islamic influences.” (pp. 107)

Amir Khusrau (centre) teaches young people

The writer is of the opinion that Islam had a direct influence in the initial period i.e. the Hindu bhakts did not reform their beliefs after reading Islamic literature, but by the verbal teachings of Muslim Sufis or by observing their habits. These opportunities could only have been availed by them in south India. So according to Dr. Tara Chand,

“During the era of Ramanuj, the Muslims were settled in the ports of Coromandel and Muslim Sufis like Nath Wali were preaching Islam among the people and converting them to Islam and Hindu rajas like Kun Pandya were granting them lands for the construction of mosques.” (pp. 112)

The demands of life which had led to the advent of the Bhakti Movement in south India also began to appear in north India in the 13th century. Though the difference is that in south India Muslims were only concerned with trade; but in north India they had arrived as conquerors and the whole country from what later became the NWFP to Bengal was under their control. So now conditions were forcing both Hindus and Muslims to determine the nature of their mutual relations at every level. There were two routes before the Muslim rulers: the first one was to forcibly convert the Hindus to Islam, and to kill whoever resisted, to take over his property and enslave his children. The second was to treat the Hindus with kindness and tolerance, and to persuade them to cooperate with the government; and to support those movements which strengthened Hindu-Muslim unity. The majority of Muslim rulers adopted this route.
The pundit and maulvi both became upset with Kabir

Meanwhile, the Hindu population was standing at a crossroads. It had four routes before it. The first route was of rebellion, but the dominant classes of Hindus no longer had the strength for that sort of combat. Then there was no possibility of a fundamental transformation in social relations through rebellion. Had the rebellion succeeded, more or less some Rajput would have ascended the throne in Delhi instead of a Khilji or Tughlaq, but could ordinary Hindus have gotten anything out of it except emotional fulfillment? After all, the days of Prithvi Raj were not exactly halcyon days for the subjects. The second route was of submission, lest this submission not lead to a blow to the cultural traditions and religious individuality of the local inhabitants. The ordinary Hindus led by their minor rajas and pundits adopted this route. Several also learnt the Farsi language for the sake of the ruler’s goodwill or government jobs; and wore Persian-style clothes. Despite this, there could never be complete cultural harmony between the rulers and the ruled. Both progressed separately; although both were affected by each other’s cultural values. The third route was to convert to Islam, adopting which would mean automatically getting rid of the limitations of caste (zaatpaat) and untouchability (chootchaat) and getting access to a few benefits. Plus Islam was a relatively easy and inexpensive religion. So many lower-caste Hindus saw their betterment in adopting Islam. The fourth route was the nourishment of a common culture and common belief system with the mingling of both cultures and religions. The nourishment of the Bhakti Movement and the Urdu language took place by following this route; both are very beautiful symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Swami Ramanand sowed the seed of the Bhakti Movement in north India and his disciples Kabir, Pipa, Anant Nand, Bhuvanand, Sukha, Sursura, Padmavati, Narhari, Raidas, Dhanna and Saeen, etc. nourished this plant. But it was the Sufis of the 13th and 14th centuries who paved the way for the Bhakti Movement. There was hardly a corner of India where the voice of the Sufis did not reach or their teachings did not spread widely. For example, Khwaja Mueenuddin Ajmeri (1138 - 1235) in Rajputana; Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) in Delhi, who was a resident of Badaun; Makhdoom Allauddin Sabir (1195 - 1291) in Piran-e-Kalyar; Bu Ali Qalandar in Panipat; Sheikh Taqi in Allahabad; Sheikh Jalaluddin Tabrizi (died 1244) in Bengal; Sheikh Allauddin Alla-ul-Haq Lahori in Pandua; Syed Muhammad Gaisu-Daraz (1321 - 1423) in Gulbarga; Syed Jalaluddin Bukhari (1191 - 1291) and Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht (1307 -1384) in Ucch; and Makhdoom Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (died 1274) in Sindh used to preach unity of God, love of God and humanism day and night. Therefore it is impossible that they did not have the ear of the founders of the Bhakti Movement. On this basis, the author of a history of the Sikhs, McAuliffe has claimed that Ramanand “definitely benefitted from the company of Muslim scholars in Benares”. (Volume 6, pp. 102)

Social movements and spiritual orders had to deal with religious divides and caste divisions across the Indian Subcontinent

Swami Ramanand was born in Allahabad at the end of the 13th century i.e. the early days of the Slave Dynasty. He was educated in Benares and then he began to live in the same city on a permanent basis. His guru Raghavnand was a disciple of Shankar; and had complete faith (vishvash) on Vedant. But Ramanand rejected Vedantic philosophy and became a bhagat of Ram instead of Vishnu. He did not even follow Shankar’s direction of not admitting shudras and women in his circle. He said that caste and untouchability are ruses of the Brahmins. Ishwar is love (prem) and love is Ishwar. A shudra, Brahmin, Hindu, Muslim, male, female – nobody can be prohibited from prem bhakti; in fact whoever had gyaan (recognition) of Ishwar, he became free of all social ties.

Why, of course, would the high-caste Hindus, especially in Kashi Nagar, accept his teachings, although the hearts of lower-caste Hindus and Muslims were attracted to him? So it was that all his eminent disciples were of lower caste. Kabir was a julaha (weaver); Dhanna was a Jat; Saeen was a naii; and Raidas a chamar. One of his ashloks, which is a refrain of the Sufistic ‘Hamaa Ost’ is included in the Guru Granth Sahib:

“Where should I go? I am happy at home

One day I wished to go for Bhagwan’s darshan

So I rubbed sandalwood and extracted the nectar of aloes

And was about to leave for puja in the temple

Thanks to my guru, I visited Ishwar in my own heart

Now wherever I go, I sacrifice with just water and stone

But O Bhagwan you are present in everything

I scanned all the Vedas and puranas

If Bhagwan is not here, go there

Ramanand’s bhagwan is to be found everywhere

The shabd of the guru saved me from a thousand sins”

Of all the disciples of Ramanand, the most famous was Kabir (1425 - 1518), but devotees have covered both his birth and death with the paint of legend. It is said that Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow of Benares who, fearing for her reputation, left him on the bank of the Talao canal outside the city. From there, a Muslim weaver named Ali (Neeru) brought him home. His wife Naeema was issueless, so she brought him up like her son. Nothing can be said with certainty too about Kabir’s education. Tradition holds that he was illiterate, but he liberally utilises Islamic terminology in his dohas, banis and geets. It is unknown whether he learnt these from maulvis in a maktab or sitting in the company of Sufis when he was older.

Kabir adopted his father’s profession and spent his whole life operating the loom and selling cloth, but since childhood he had a bent towards gyaan and dhyaan (knowledge and understanding); and he remained aloof of the religious rituals of both Hindus and Muslims. So his fellow Hindu and Muslim boys often used to tease him. In his youth, he had the opportunity to participate in the company of Swami Ramanand. Ramanand taught him about Hindu religion, Hindu philosophy and bhakti. “I appeared in Kashi and Ramanand woke me up from sleep.” But he did not remain in Ramanand’s company for long; and set out from his house in search of truth. He would visit wherever he would hear of any sufi or sant in Benares, Jaunpur and Allahabad, and learnt about understanding and knowledge. During this journey, he met a Sufi sage of Jhoosi (Allahabad), Sheikh Taqi. “Sheikh Taqi apprised Kabir about the circumstances of twenty-one pirs.”

When the weaver had attained all the destinations of tariqat from iktisaab (attainment) to inkishaaf (manifestation) he returned home and got busy in preaching bhakti. The pundit and maulvi both became upset with Kabir because of this, but Kabir did not desist. When the Hindu pundit objected, he would reply:

“There is a pile of cotton in my home and I constantly spin cloth

Although you have merely one cotton round your throat

You know how to read merely the Veds and the gayatri

But Bhagwan resides in my heart

He is on my tongue, in my eyes

You are a Brahmin and I a weaver of Kashi

But listen to me with ears open

You beg at the doorstep of kings and the rich

So tell who among the two of us is better?”

And when the maulvis jeered that he had not even been circumcised, so how could he mention Islam, Kabir would reply as follows:

“Wherefrom did the Hindu and Muslim come?

Who set them upon separate paths?

Think deeply and tell who will ascend to heaven and who to hell?

O qazi what use is your knowledge

He who you taught remained ignorant

Not even one attained understanding

O fool! Refrain from this bookish talk

And pray to God, and

Refrain from cruelty

Kabir has caught the rope of God”

When the dohas and ashloks of Kabir began to become very popular, the kattar panthis (orthodox believers) became more determined to hurt him. At last, Kabir was forced to take refuge in Jaunpur. Sultan Sikandar Lodhi (1488 - 1517) was the king in Delhi in those days. He was so impressed with Kabir’s teachings that he issued an order that nobody was permitted to inflict any pain on Kabir. Then Kabir returned to Benares and no one hurt him. In his last days, he went from Benares to Maghar and died there. Maghar is a small weavers’ settlement in Basti division and tradition held that whoever dies there is reborn in the shape of a donkey! Kabir was not a believer in aavagon and no settlement was blessed or cursed according to him.

So he says:

“Whether it is Kashi or desolate Maghar, both are equal for me

Because bhagwan resides in my heart

If Kabir’s soul attains salvation by abandoning this body in Kashi

Why should one thank Ram for it”

The bhajans, ashloks and geets of Kabir and other sants were also very popular in Punjab and Sindh and bhakti also came to be preached here. But the reality is that the Bhakti Movement had reached Punjab and Sindh before it had done so in north India. Amongst the preachers of bhakti in the Indus Valley, Namdev, Sadhana and then Guru Nanak are more famous.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association (Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen) in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (Harper Collins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic partition novel ‘The Weary Generations’ (Udas Naslein). He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979