The Bhakti tradition

The Bhakti movement was a grassroots spiritual movement, particularly in Hinduism, that brought empowerment to the masses. It upheld a path to salvation through a personal relationship of love, devotion and surrender to, usually, a particular deity. This form of religion could be practiced by anyone, irrespective of sex or caste.

The movement is believed to have begun in South India with the Alvars (6th to 9th century CE), worshippers of Vishnu, and the Nayanars (5th to 10th century CE), who were Shiva worshippers. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, the movement spread throughout the country, aided and abetted by the immense collection of songs and literature produced by the leaders of the tradition in their local dialects. Four of the prominent figures of the movement were Tulsidas, Kabir, Mirabai and Surdas.

The Bhakti influence, which also contributed to the greater mutual understanding of the Hindu and Muslim communities, has left an indelible mark on Hindu culture as well as the Indian religious and secular ethos, in general.

Tulsidas and the ‘Ramacharitamanas’

Tulsidas (1532 – 1623), a philosopher-saint and composer, is considered to be the greatest of the Hindi poets of all time. He is the author of the epic ‘Ramcharitmanas’, a rewriting of the ‘Ramayana’ in Hindi.

His other great work is the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ in praise of Ram’s faithful aide, Hanuman, the Monkey-God. Songs from these two compositions are still sung everyday in many Hindu homes across North India. Of the 22 works that comprise Tulsidas’ extensive repertoire, 12 are major literary works.

Tulsidas is considered to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, the sage who wrote the great Indian epic ‘Ramayana’ in Sanskrit. By choosing to write in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, Tulsidas made the holy book accessible to the common people thus breaking the hegemony of the Brahmins.

The ‘Ramcharitmanas’, also called ‘Tulsi-krit Ramayan’, is an inspiring collection of beautiful couplets. Many of the verses have become popular proverbs and many of his phrases are now part of common parlance in the Hindi belt. Moreover, though he never founded a school to perpetuate his school of thought, he became an authority on religion and good conduct, even in his life-time, and exerted a profound influence on Hinduism as a whole.

Kabir - saint of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs

Kabir, the 15th century poet-singer, is one of the most influential figures of the Bhakti movement as well as one of the most important saints of India. He is unique in that he is revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

In his poems and songs, Kabir, a member of a Muslim community of weavers, uses the vernacular as his medium of expression and does not adhere to the strict rules of grammar that were followed during his time. Everyday metaphors and similes abound in his verses. He wrote a number of dohas or simple two-line verses, replete with imagery from everyday life, to propagate his philosophy of life.

From Hinduism, he has accepted the concept of reincarnation and Karma; from Islam, the affirmation of a single god and rejection of the caste system and idolatry. Many of his verses have been included in the Holy Book of the Sikhs, the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.

Kabir spoke relentlessly against ritualistic and ultra-orthodox piety and against the imposed superiority of the Brahmins. He was as popular with the members of the low caste as he was hated and persecuted by members of the ruling upper classes of both the Muslim and Hindu communities.

Mirabai and Mirabhajans

Mirabai is a 16th century mystical poet and singer known for her songs of devotion to Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the One who sustains the world. Her bhajans or devotional songs of high literary value are sung all over the country, even today, and her life has been depicted in many poems, songs, dances, films and paintings. She is, undoubtedly, one of the most important women in the history of India.

Mira, also spelt as Meera, began her life as a member of the aristocracy in a village of Rajasthan. She belonged to a family of Krishna worshippers and imbibed devotional love for Krishna at a very young age. At the age of 13, her father got her married to Prince Bhoj Raj of Chittor. Her preoccupation with Krishna worship, her refusal to worship their family deity and her disdain for silk and jewels made her a thorn in the flesh for her husband’s family.

When her husband died three years later, Mira refused to commit Sati. She also began to dance on the streets in the ecstasy of worship and move among all kinds of people, irrespective of caste or creed. Soon, she was disowned by her husband’s family as well as her birth family and entered her new life as an emancipated devotee of Krishna. She wandered almost the entire region of the north of India, singing and dancing to her lover-lord Krishna and acquired a great number of followers from various parts of the country.

Mira has left behind around 1300 songs of passion, eroticism and complete surrender to her lover and master, Krishna. A childless woman, who fearlessly broke with tradition and resisted feminine stereotypes, Mira is also an enduring symbol of a liberated woman who risked all to protect her independence, freedom and happiness.

Surdas - the blind saint-singer

Surdas (1478/79 - 1581/84) was a poet, singer, composer and saint of North India. His works, that belong to the Bhakti tradition, include his magnum opus, the ‘Sur Sagar’, the ‘Sur-Saravali’ and the ‘Sahitya-Lahiri’. Surdas has been described ‘the sun in the sky of Hindi literature’.

Though blind from birth, Surdas, an ardent devottee of Krishna, achieved great heights as a poet and was revered as a singer-saint even in his life-time. The mighty King Akbar, renowned for his religious tolerance and broadmindedness, came to Surdas to listen to him sing when Surdas politely declined his invitation to sing at his court.

‘Sur Sagar’ is a compilation of a 100,000 poems though only 8000 of them have survived to this day. The poems vividly describe Krishna’s childhood. The ‘Sur-Saravali‘, which originally consisted of 100 verses, has as its theme a story of creation with Lord Krishna as the Creator. The ‘Sahitya-Lahiri’ comprises songs of devotion. His poems have also been included in the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ of the Sikhs.

Surdas hailed from a poor, Brahmin family where he suffered much neglect and discrimination because of the total absence of empathy for his blindness. The boy was not even given a chance at literacy and so, naturally, turned to his local dialect when it came to his creative endeavours. It was his many disciples and followers who recorded his songs of Krishna that he recited with such startling vividness that he seemed to giving first-hand accounts. Through his poetry, Brij Bhasha, a dialect of Hindi, attained the status of a literary language.

Jayadeva’s ‘Gitagovind’

‘Gitagovind’, the epic poem written by 12th century saint-poet Jayadeva who belongs to the Bhakti tradition, is one of the greatest works in Indian literature. The epic, the most lyrical Sanskrit work of the medieval era, has had a profound influence on Vaishnavism or the worship of Krishna as well as on countless Indian artists and artisans, across the ages.

The theme of the ‘Gitagovind’ is the love between Krishna, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is in all aspects the most human of the incarnations in the Hindu pantheon, and the beautiful cowherdess, Radha.

Jayadeva lived in an age when eroticism was considered most natural. He also belonged to the Bhakti tradition that upheld unfettered love for a personal divine entity. Thus, he has taken an unabashed approach in his description of the physical aspects of the relationship between Radha and Krishna.

This has produced a poem that is surcharged with passion and at the same time, brimming with devotion and lyricism. Even today, when eroticism is a delicate issue, the poem or parts of it are sung daily in Krishna temples across the country.

Rabindranath Tagore and Rabindra Sangeet

“Music is the purest form of art... therefore true poets, they who are seers, seek to express the universe in terms of music... The singer has everything within him. The notes come out from his very life. They are not materials gathered from outside.” This is one of the famous quotes of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize winner and legendary musician, who has made unparalleled contributions to Indian music.

Tagore is the only person who has penned the lyrics and composed the music for the national anthems of two nations, India and Bangladesh. He also set to tune our national song Vande Mantaram, written by fellow Bengali, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

Tagore created over 2,000 songs in Bengali which are now collectively known as Rabindra Sangeet. Much of his literature was used as lyrics for his songs. Rabindra Sangeet is an integral part of Bengali culture and of Indian music as a whole.

Sufi music and the Qawwali

Sufi music is a genre of music inspired by Sufism and the works of Sufi poets. Sufism is the inner mystical dimension of Islam that was born largely as a reaction to the excesses of the religious leaders of Islam. According to classical Sufi scholars, the practitioners called Sufis or dervishes aim to train the mind to dwell on God, turning away from all worldliness. The classical proponents laid great emphasis on asceticism and the repetition of the many names of God.

Qawwali is a Sufi form of devotional music based on the principles of classical music.Its main themes are love, devotion and longing for the Divine. It has been and is still performed by men - professionals known as qawwals. Usually, there are one, two or many lead singers, several chorus singers and the singing is done to the accompaniment of the harmonium, the tabla and the dholak.