Sufism and Bhakti movements

The Bhakti movement in Indian history represents a movement that popularized devotional surrender to a personally conceived supreme God. Its origins are traced to the Brahamanical and Buddhist traditions of ancient India. It was in south India that it grew from a religious tradition into a popular movement based on religious equality and broad based social participation. The movement led by popular saints reached its climax in the 10 century A.D.

The development of Bhakti movement took place in Tamil Nadu between the seventh andtwelfth centuries. It was reflected in the emotional poems of the Nayanars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu).

The Bhakti movement in India was characterized by:-

(i) the rejection of the then existing ritual hierarchy and Brahmanical superiority’

(ii) The use of vernacular or local language in preference to Sanskrit (the language of the elite)

(iii) the emergence of the low-caste non-literate’ persons like Rameja Dasar, Pillai Uranga, Villi Dasar and Kanak Dasar in the south and Kabir, Raidas, and Dadu in the north as great spiritual leaders. There was large scale participation of peasantry, artisans, and other lower classes as well as of ritually inferior but economically powerful groups like merchants and craftsmen in these devotional movements.

The term bhakti is defined as “devotion” or passionate love for the Divine. Moksha or liberation from rebirth was not in the following of rules, regulations or societal ordering, it was through simple devotion to the Divine. Within the movement at large, useful distinctions have been made by contemporary scholars between those poet saints who composed verses extolling God with attributes or form, namely, “saguna” bhaktas, and, those extolling God without and beyond all attributes or form, “nirguna.”

Some of the famous Bhakti Saints are:-

  • Ramanuja: Born in A.D. 1166 in a small town near Chenni (Madras), Ramanuja was a worshipper of Vishnu and preached Vaishnavism. He had a great following in the South. Ramananda: The greatest preacher of this cult in north India was Ramananda. He discarded all caste distinctions and his disciples belonged to all castes.
  • Kabir: He was perhaps the most popular reformer of his times. He was a disciple of Ramananda. Kabir was against idol worship or any sort of rituals.
  • Namdeva: He was a Maratha saint, born into a low family. He too believed in the oneness of God. He travelled far and wide and had discussions with the Sufis. A large number of Muslims also became his followers.
  • Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: He was a religious teacher from Bengal and an ardent devotee of Lord
    Krishna. HE travelled widely and popularized hymns sung in praise of Krishna.
  • Mirabai: Mirabai was a Rajput princess and a passionate devotee of Krishna. She preached in Brijbhasha, the common language of the people. Her song and verses are very popular even today.
  • Guru Nanak : Nanaka was born in 1469 in the village to Talwandi. Presently the place is known as Nankana in the Sheikhupura district of West Punjab. His parents belonged to Khatri caste. His father Kalu was the Patwari of the village. Nanaka was educated in the village school.
  • Vallabhacharya : Vallabhacharya was a Tailang Brahmin. He preached the worship of Vishnu in the form of Krishna. He was born in 1479 in the Telugu country. He visited Mathura, Vrindavan and many other sacred places and finally settled at Varanasi. The feeling of Bhakti or devotion can be traced back to the Rig Veda. It is the very first hymn of the Rig Veda, which gives expression to a feeling of intimacy with the highest god. In the Katha Upanisad it is said that the divine help, which is the reward to Bhakti, is necessary before one can be saved.


‘Sufism’ is a term used to refer to mystical religious ideas in Islam. It had evolved into a well developed movement by the 11 century. Sufis, stress on the importance of traversing the path of the Sufi pir enabling one to establish a direct communion with the divine. Sufism or mysticism emerged in the 8 century and among the early known Sufis were Rabia al-Adawiya, Al-Junaid and Bayazid Bastami.

Sufism is deeply rooted with Islam and its development began in the late 7th and 8th centuries. The Sufis love their creator, cherish the desire of His closeness and follow His path. According to Islam, there are two types of service. Throughout the night, they remain in prayer, meditation and contemplation of Allah and throughout the day, they
serve His creatures especially human beings.

The following fundamental Principles of Sufism are found in Islam:-
i. Kashf is a source of knowledge.
ii. God is unique, eternal and all-pervading.
iii. The world is transitory.
iv. God is near to His creatures.

The khanqah (the hospice) was the center of activities of the various sufis orders.The khanqah was led by shaikh, pir or murshid (teacher) who lived with his murids (disciples). In time the Khanqahs emerged as important centres of learning and preaching. By the twelfth century the sufis were organized in silsilahs (orders). The word silsila meant chain and it represented signifying an unbreakable chain between the pir and the murid. With the death of the pir his tomb or shrine the dargah became a centre for his disciples and followers.

The major silisilahs in India were the Chisti, Qadri, Naqshbandi and Suharwardy Abul Fazl in Ain-i-Akbari gave a list of all that existed during his time, with some details leading Sufis

The Chishti order was founded in a village called Khwaja Chishti (near Herat). In India, the Chishti silsilah was founded by Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (born c. 1142) who came to India around 1192. He made Ajmer the main centre for his teaching. He believed that serving mankind was the best form of devotion and therefore he worked amongst the downtrodden.

Suharwardi Silsila entered India at the same time as the Chishtis and its activities were confined to the Punjab and Multan.It was established in India by Bahauddin Zakanya. The Most well-known saints were Shaikh shihabuddin Suharwadi and Hamidud-din Nagori.

Naqshbandi Silsilah was established in India by Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi. From the beginning the mystics of this Order stressed on the observance of the shariat and denounced all innovations or biddat. Sheikh Baqi Billah the successor to Khawaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi settled near Delhi, and his successor Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi attempted to purge Islam from all liberal and what he believed were ‘un-Islamic’ practices. He opposed the listening of sama (religious music) and the practice of pilgrimage to the tombs of saints.

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