Satchidanandan K – Bhakti as Social Critique
Bhakta Surdas. Courtesy - brian.hoffert.faculty.noctrl.edu
Lessons from the South: The Early Phase
The Bhakti Movement can be seen as a great revival and re-inforcement of the sramanic tradition of spiritual enquiry, subaltern religiosity and social protest. This does not imply that Bhakti was a monolithic movement; it was a polyphonic movement spread over fourteen centuries, from the 6th to the 19th, which accommodated conservatives as well as radicals. But even social conservatives like Tulasidas who recognized the varnasramadharma succeeded in creating a new poetic idiom with fresh dimensions of imagination and thus helped radicalize ...view middle of the document...
There were vaishnavites, saivites and sakteyas among the Bhaktas besides those who followed the nirguna cult and practitioners of tantra. Let us remember that the poets themselves were not often aware that they belonged to or were creating a movement though it seems so in retrospect. However this hind-vision gives the majority of them enough shared features to make them look like the participants in a larger radical spiritual movement. Some of these are:
1. they have a predilection for pre-Aryan patterns of life and thought as implied in the rejection of Brahmin privilege, egalitarian content and the tribal character of collective worship;
2. they emphasized the similarities among different religions and cults, finding them to be different paths to realise the same goal and at times even attempted integration like that exemplified by Sikhism and Sufism;
3. most of them rejected the varna-jati system and the Brahmin claim to superiority by birth;
4. they problematised the intermediary institution of priesthood by directly addressing the Supreme;
5. they privileged the oral tradition against the written;
6. they gave up Sanskrit, the language of the elite, and chose to compose in regional languages and local dialects;
7. many of them traveled widely and were multilingual-like Kabir, Meerabai, Guru Nanak, Namdev or Vidyapati;
8. poetry and philosophy co-existed supporting each other and the barriers between the physical and the metaphysical grew thin in their aesthetic-spiritual practice so much so that the works of Vemana or Jnandev look like pure philosophical texts;
9. they developed a popular symbolism of their own mixing traditional symbols like tree, bird, sky, river, fire etc with symbols chosen from the the workplace like loom, wheel and bellows, or from the kitchen like knife, ladle, fireplace, veil, sindoor etc;
10. they replaced the supposedly vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, Mitra and Yama mostly
by supposedly pre-Aryan deities like Shiva, Vishnu/Krishna and Sakti/Kali and
11. they created or introduced several new forms of poetry, music and dance like doha,
pada, prabandha, bijak, vakh, vachana,abhang, bharud, barahmasa,qasida, rasa (poetry), kirtan, bhajan, dhun ,nagarasankirtana, krishnalila, ramlila, tungi, angkiyanat, harikatha, burrakatha ( group performances ) that gave rise to classical /semiclassical forms like kathakali, thullal, yakshagana, bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, manipuri andodissi.
Taken together, Bhakti was a comprehensive cultural revolution with profound ideological, aesthetic and practical implications that attempted to create an alternative religion of the people articulating subaltern aspirations.
In this paper I am only making some observations based on the above features on the early phase of the Bhakti movement as it developed and evolved in Tamil and Kannada.
The Tamil Bhakti poetry of the period from 6th to 13th century AD, especially that by the Siddhas ( chittars ) qualified by...