Bhakti Movement: Origin, List of Bhakti Saints, Bhakti Movement UPSC Notes

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

Bhakti movement was one of the impactful religious movements started by Adi Shankaracharya in South India. The movement began in South India. Later, the movement spread to other parts of India, i.e., North India and Maharashtra. The movement stresses the union of an individual with the almighty God between the 8th and 18th centuries CE.

Bhakti Movement Saints like Shankaracharya, Madhavacharya, Mira Bai, etc., were responsible for spreading the bhakti movement among the masses. This topic holds significant importance in the Indian History segment. The article covers the origin of the bhakti movement, its rise in India, schools of Bhakti, Alvars, and Nayanars of Tamil Nadu, its prominent leaders, and its significance in India.

Bhakti Movement

Bhakti movement, a religious reform movement in medieval Hinduism, originated in Tamil Nadu in the 6th century CE and subsequently expanded throughout India. It reached its peak during the 15th to 17th century CE. Bhakti Saints were divided into two groups, Nayanars and Alvars, who were devoted to Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. These saints composed regional language poems and spread their teachings among the masses, emphasizing devotion and a personal connection with the divine.

However, in the later half of the Bhakti movement, there was a change in the ideology of the reformers who believed that God is universal and condemned the idol worship of God. The period from the eighth century to the eighteenth belonged to the bhakti movement. It involved a lot of saints (Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus) who taught the masses about devotion and the transition of life through salvation.

Bhakti Movement in India

Bhakti refers to the Sanskrit word “bhaj,” meaning participate in or share. Thus, Bhakti is a spiritual term that means total devotion. The origin of the Bhakti Movement dates back to the 7th and 12th centuries in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, and the 15th century in North India. In South India, the Bhakti Saints were divided into two groups, i.e., Alvars (Vishnu Devotees) and Nayanars (Shiva Devotees).

  • These Bhakti Movement Leaders were poets who wrote many poems in regional languages like Telugu and Tamil. Their poems were subjected to the holy relationship between God and its devotees.
  • Along with this, a wave was initiated against the priest, and the Bhakti saints thought the priest’s presence was unnecessary. This ideology got great support from ordinary people.
  • The caste system and other religious ceremonies of the Hindu society influenced the rise of Bhaktism. At that time, there was an influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Still, these two groups rejected the austerities they taught them, and because of this, people left these religions and moved towards the Bhakti Movement to advocate several changes in their already established religions.
  • Along with this, Sufi Movement was also gaining popularity at that time because of its ease of prayer and democratic beliefs.

Origin of Bhakti Movement

Bhakti Movement, a significant religious and social reform movement in India, originated during the medieval period. It emerged as a response to the complexities and rigidity of existing religious practices. Here is the key points regarding the origin of the Bhakti Movement:

  • Emerged in the 6th century CE in Tamil Nadu, South India.
  • Spread to other regions of India, including Maharashtra, North India, and Bengal.
  • Originated as a reaction against the ritualistic and hierarchical nature of the existing religious traditions.
  • Aims to establish a direct and personal connection between devotees and the divine.
  • Influenced by the teachings of various saints and reformers, including Ramanuja, Basavanna, and Shankaracharya.

List of Bhakti Saints in India

Bhakti movement had a lot of popular Bhakti saints who influenced this movement. From Shankaracharya to Yogis, here are the brief descriptions of the contributions made by these Bhakti Saints:

  • Shankaracharya: Shankaracharya was one of the prominent Bhakti Saints born in 788 CE. He was responsible for giving a new orientation to Hinduism. He explained the theory of Monism (Advaita philosophy) and was also of the thought that God is without any attributes ( Nirgunabrahman). He thought that Gyan (knowledge) was the only way to salvation. His famous quotes were Ekameva Adviteeyam Brahma and Brahma Satyam Jagat Mithya Jivo Brahmatra Naparaha.
  • Ramanuja: Ramanuja was a supporter of Vishista Advaitavade, meaning qualified monism. He believed that God has attributes. According to him, all the creative processes were held by Shankaracharya. He found Brahmin as the personal God with omnipotent power. He wrote Vedantasara, Gita Bhasya, Vedanta Dipa, Sribhashya.
  • Madhavacharya: Madhavacharya was a bhakti leader from Kannada who believed in the dualism of Jivatma and Paramatma. He was the founder of the Brahma Sampradaya and thought that the universe and the Brahmins were equal entities. According to him, matter, soul, and God are unique. Vishnu was the God of dualism who controlled all worldly affairs. He believes everyone must pray and worship God.
  • Nimbarka: Nimbarka was Ramanuja’s younger contemporary. He pronounced the philosophy of Bheda Abheda and Dvaita Advaita. He believes that the world is a part of Brahmins. He founded the Sanak Sampradaya and was the preacher of Vaishnavite Bhakti.
  • Vallabhacharya: Vallabhacharya was the founder of pushtimarg and Rudra Sampradaya. According to him, Shudh Advaita forms the basis of pushtimarg devotional practice. He believed that the universe and Brahmins are two different parts.

Women Bhakti Saints in Bhakti Movement

Bhakti movement was restricted to prominent male leaders, and women leaders significantly impacted the movement. At that time, women were not allowed to go out of their houses and were considered homemakers, but they refused to follow the old norms and left their homes to lead the path of God by becoming wandering saints. Though it was not an easy task for these women to get a hold of the movement, they fought for their acceptance and changed the narrow-minded thinking of the people. Check some of the important women saints of the Bhakti Movement-

  • Akkamahadevi: Akkamahadevi was a passionate Shiva devotee. She was a 12th-century female bhakt who lived in the southern region of Karnataka. The great philosophers of the 12th century (Prabhu Deva, Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, and Madivalayya) gave her the title of Akka, meaning elder sister.
  • Janabai: Janabai was a 13th-century devotee born into the Shudra Caste. She was one of the household workers of one of the most reputed Bhakti Saint, Namdeva. She has composed more than 300 poems. Her poems were based on her daily life matters, like the difficulties of being a lower caste woman and household chores. But she was able to write poems without any formal education.
  • Mira Bai: Mira was one of the most chanted Krishna devotees who belonged to the high-class ruling Rajput family. She was the wife of the son of Rana Sanga of Mewar. But her love for God made her leave her husband and family. She went to different pilgrimage places. Her writings show her love for Krishna, but her poetry depicts a unique relationship between God and her wherein she is Krishna’s devotee bride, and Krishna is characterized in her pursuits.
  • Andal: Andal is another devotee who considers herself the beloved of Vishnu. She was the only female Alwar whose verse explains her divine love towards Vishnu.
  • Bahina Bai: Bahina Bai was a devotee from Maharashtra. This 17th-century poet-saint wrote various abhyanga. She took inspiration from the life of women working in the field and wrote folk songs about women.
  • Karaikkal Ammaiyar: There were 63 Nayanar, of which only 3 were women. She is one among those 3 women who was Shiva devotee. She leads the path of asceticism to attain her goals.

Bhakti Leaders According to their Year of Birth

It is believed that the Bhakti Movement was started in South India in the 9th century by Adi Shankaracharya and grew throughout India. Go through the complete list of Saints of the Bhakti Movement as per their birth year.

  • Shankara (788 – 820 AD)
  • Ramanuja (1017-1137 A.D)
  • Basava (12th Century)
  • Madhva (1238-1319 AD)
  • Ramanada (15th century)
  • Kabir (1440-1510 AD)
  • Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1538 AD)
  • Purandara (15th century)
  • Dadu Dayal (1544-1603 AD)
  • Chaitanya (1468-1533 AD)
  • Shankaradeva (1499-1569 AD)
  • Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 AD)
  • Surdas (1483-1563 AD)
  • Mirabai (1498-1563 AD)
  • Haridas (1478-1573 AD)
  • Tulasidas (1532-1623 AD)
  • Namdeva (1270-1309 AD)
  • Jnanesvar (1275-1296 AD)
  • Eknath
  • Tukaram
  • Ram Das

Bhakti Movement in Medieval India

Bhakti Movement in the medieval period emerged as a response to various factors and societal challenges. It provided a simpler and more accessible form of devotion, addressing the complexity of existing religious philosophies and rituals. The movement aimed to reform Hindu society by addressing societal problems and challenging prevalent practices. Religious reformers played a crucial role in promoting the ideals of the Bhakti Movement. Here are the key points about the Bhakti Movement in the medieval period:

  • Response to Religious Complexity: The Bhakti Movement arose due to the complexity of religious texts like the Upanishads and Vedas, which were difficult for the common people to comprehend. There was a need for a simpler way of devotion and religious understanding.
  • Simplicity in Worship: The movement offered a more straightforward approach to worship, focusing on love, devotion, and spiritual practices that were easily accessible to the masses.
  • Addressing Societal Issues: Bhakti Movement aimed to address societal problems prevalent during the medieval period, such as caste rigidity, social dogmas, and evil practices. It sought to bring about a more liberal and inclusive form of religion.
  • Critique of Hindu Culture: The movement challenged and critiqued certain aspects of Hindu society, including irrelevant rituals, blind faith, and social inequalities. It aimed to promote a more meaningful and egalitarian interpretation of religious practices.
  • Role of Religious Reformers: Influential figures like Ramanuja, Shri Chaitanya, Namdev, Mirabai, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Surdas, Tukaram, Tulsidas, Chandidas, Vallabhacharya, and many others played a significant role in spreading the ideals of the Bhakti Movement and bringing about social and religious reforms.

Bhakti Movement in South India

The development of the Bhakti movement took place in Tamil Nadu between the 7th and 12th CE. It was reflected in the emotional poems of the Nayanars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu). These saints viewed religion not as cold, formal worship but as a loving bond based upon love between the worshiped and the worshiper. Following are the key features of the Bhakti Movement in South India

  • Discarded rituals and sacrifices.
  • They emphasized purity of heart and mind, humanism, and devotion.
  • Monotheistic in nature.
  • God has either Saguna or Nirguna form.
  • An egalitarian movement, they denounced casteism.
  • These saints preached in local languages.
  • They rejected the austerities preached by Jainism and Buddhism. These religions saw a decline in their growth due to the Bhakti movement.

Bhakti Movement in North India

Bhakti Movement in North India was a significant religious and social reform movement that emerged during the medieval period. It witnessed the participation of numerous saints who wrote in local languages, such as Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Bengali, enabling them to connect with a wider audience. The movement also witnessed the translation of Sanskrit works into local languages. Some notable saints associated with the Bhakti Movement in North India include:

  • Jnanadeva: He composed his devotional works in Marathi, making them accessible to the people of Maharashtra.
  • Kabirdas, Surdas, and Tulsi Das: These saints wrote in Hindi, contributing greatly to the devotional literature in North India.
  • Sankaradeva: He propagated the Bhakti Movement in Assam and composed his works in Assamese.
  • Chaitanya and Chandidas: They were prominent figures in the Bhakti Movement in Bengal and wrote in Bengali.

Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra

Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra was a significant religious and social reform movement that emphasized devotion and love towards a personal deity. Led by saints like Jnaneshwar, Tukaram, and Namdev, it played a vital role in spreading the message of Bhakti and bridging social divisions through the use of vernacular languages like Marathi. The features of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra are as follows-

  • Monotheism was the basic principle of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra.
  • They were against idol worship.
  • The bhakti reformers spread the idea of universal brotherhood.
  • They opposed fasts, pilgrimages, and rituals.
  • They do not believe in the cycle of life and death.
  • They composed poems in regional languages, making it more accessible for ordinary people to sing those hymns as they considered accolades a language to connect with God.
  • They believed that self-surrender is bliss and preached its importance among the masses.

Features of the Bhakti Movement

Bhakti Movement was a religious and social reform movement in medieval India, emphasized the path of devotion and love towards a personal deity, rejecting social and religious hierarchies. It promoted inclusivity, equality, and a direct connection with the divine through inner spiritual experiences. Following are the features of the Bhakti Movement:

  • They rejected the idea of idol worship.
  • God is believed to be one and called up by different names.
  • It was firmly against the rituals and the religious activities being performed, and thus, they condemned blind faith, ceremonies, and other practices.
  • It is believed that one needs to surrender oneself to God completely.
  • It supported both Schools of Bhakti- Nirguna and Saguna and emphasized both teachings.
  • It is believed that one can achieve salvation through Bhakti.
  • It brought open-mindedness among the masses regarding religious matters.
  • It was the thought that all humans are equal. It is also against the rejection of people based on the caste system.
  • It supported all the regional languages and rebelled against the dominance of the Sanskrit language in society.
  • It was of the idea that teachings must be delivered in the regional languages, and for ease of understanding, the literature must be created in the local languages.

Schools of Bhakti Movement

Bhakti Movement in India witnessed the emergence of two distinct schools of thought: the Nirguna School and the Saguna School. These schools held contrasting beliefs about the nature and perception of God, influencing the devotional practices of the followers during this significant religious and social reform movement.

  • Nirguna School: Adi Shankara introduced the Nirguna School. They believed in a formless and attribute-less god. This school was represented by poet-saints like Kabir and Nanak. Nirguna School opposed caste-based traditions, Brahmin supremacy, and idol worship. They adopted the Vaishnava concept of Bhakti with Nirguna emphasis on it.
  • Saguna School: The popular saints of the Saguna School were Surdas, Meera, Chaitanya, and Tulsidas. They favor idol worship, but this also spreads the idea that one should believe in a personal God. They supported the caste system, idol worship, and the role of brahmins as intermediaries. They believe that Vedas hold spiritual validity.

Literature and Poems of the Bhakti Movement

Bhakti Movement emphasized devotion and faith in God for attaining liberation. Prominent reformers like Kabir, Basavanna, and Shri Chaitanya played a significant role during this influential spiritual period. The movement also witnessed the flourishing of regional literature, particularly in the form of devotional poems and songs. Here are some essential writers and poets of the Bhakti Movement:

  • Tulsidas (1527-1623) wrote Rama Charita Manasa (holy lake of Rama’s deeds), the first and greatest Hindi epic where he saw Lord Ram as the embodiment of God.
  • Surdas (1478- 581), on the other hand, wrote a devotional poem about Lord Krishna.
  • Meerabai (1498-1546) of Rajasthan penned and sang devotional lyrics in the glory of Lord Krishna.
  • Saint Purandaradasa (1480-1564) developed a large following in Karnataka by singing the praises of God – ‘Jagadodharana.’
  • Jayadeva, a poet-devotee from the 11th century, wrote the Sanskrit masterpiece Geeta Govinda, which narrates the tale of Lord Krishna.
  • Basavanna (1105-68) developed a rich vein of literature in the Kannada region known as Vachana Sahitya, composed by him and his pupils (Akkamahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Devara Dasimayya, and others).
  • Jnanadev (1275-96), Namdev (1270-50), and Tukaram (1608-50) were among the most popular Bhakti Movement figures in Maharashtra, having penned many hymns that encapsulate the essence of Bhakti.

Significance of the Bhakti Movement

Bhakti movement was established to spread the idea of monotheism. It was against idol worship. Thus, it condemned the practice of idol worship. It is strongly believed that rituals and religious rites are not the way to reach God. Instead, one can get God through love and adoration. The primary significance of the Bhakti Movement is as follows-

  • Regional languages, like Marathi, etc., were promoted among the masses.
  • It resulted in unity for all the Hindu gods.
  • There was a rise in devotion among people.
  • People adopted a loving and open-minded approach to faith and religion.
  • It resulted in equality, and evil practices like the caste system were brought to an end.
  • It empowered Indian society in a lot of fundamental ways.
  • There was an introduction to the practices like social giving (Seva)
  • Apart from Bhakti, it helped poor farmers.
  • People started to believe in non-violence.

Bhakti Movement UPSC

Bhakti Movement is of paramount importance for IAS Exam and comes under the History syllabus for UPSC. If you want to obtain good grades on the exam, it is essential to have a hold on the topic thoroughly. You can learn about the Bhakti Movement and all other related topics through the NCERT Books.

Candidates preparing this topic can check the detailed information about the Bhakti Movement in Medieval India, including its presence in North and South India, as well as its features and a list of Bhakti saints. To enhance exam preparation, candidates can also practice solving UPSC Previous Year Question Papers for better results.

Bhakti Movement UPSC Questions

The following questions have been curated by experts to help students in revising the topic last minute. Practicing sample questions before the exam helps a lot, and students get an idea where they need to focus more.

Question: Who among the following Bhakti saints propagated the idea of unity among all religions and preached love for humanity? (A) Kabir, (B) Ramananda, (C) Tulsidas, (D) Namdev

Answer: (A) Kabir

Question: Who among the following was the first Bhakti saint to use Hindi to propagate his message? (A) Dadu, (B) Kabir, (C) Ramananda, (D) Tulsidas

Answer:(C) Ramananda

Question: Evaluate the nature of the Bhakti Literature and its contribution to Indian culture.

Question: Discuss the major features and contributions of the Bhakti movement in medieval India. How did the Bhakti saints challenge the existing social and religious norms of their time?

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