The foundation of the Bhakti Movement was laid in South India between the 7th and 12th century A.D. Several factors favoured the rise of the Bhakti Movement: (a) Hinduism became more ritualistic and dogmatic and was ridden by caste system, which alienated the lower castes; (b) Both Buddhism and Jainism preached extreme austerities and had gradually lost their charm; (c) With the advent of Islam in India, the Sufi saints preached the idea of equality and brotherhood and (d) People were seeking religious thoughts that could satisfy their reason and emotions.
Nayanars and Alvars:
The Bhakti Movement of South India was led by a series of popular saints ‘Nayanars’ (Shaiviites) and ‘Alvars’ (Vaishnavites), who disregarded the austerities preached by Jainism and Buddhism, but instead preached personal devotion to God as a means of salvation. These saints, some of whom were also women, spoke and wrote in local languages like Tamil and Telugu and travelled widely to spread their message of love and devotion to everyone, irrespective of caste, colour and creed.
Saguna and Nirguna Schools:
The Bhakti saints belonged either to the traditional ‘Saguna’ School, which believed in the existence of God in many forms and attributes like Rama and Krishna, or the new ‘Nirguna’ School, which followed from the ‘Vedanta’ philosophy and believed that God has no attributes. Ramanuja gave the Bhakti Movement a new meaning and helped it in its spread to other parts of India during the 12th century A.D. At the same time, Basava and his nephew Chinnabasava founded the Lingayat or Vir Shaiva Movement in Karnataka. The Lingayats strongly opposed the caste system and rejected fasts, feasts, pilgrimages and sacrifices. They tried to bring about a reform in the Hindu social order by opposing child marriage and encouraging widow re-marriages. Ramanuja founded the ‘Visistadvaita’ philosophy. His ‘Sirbhasya’, containing a commentary on the Vedanta, and the ‘Gitabhasya’ are great masterpieces.
Other philosophies that came into being were ‘Dualism’ expounded by Madhavacharya, ‘Dvaitadvaitavada’ (dualistic monism) expounded by Madhavacharya and the ‘Suddhadvaita’ (pure non-dualism) propounded by Vallabha.
The spreading of the Bhakti Movement from southern to northern parts of India was a long-drawn process. Namdev (first part of 14th century) and Ramananda (second half of 14th century) were the earliest Bhakti saints to spread their ideas to the north. Ramananda, who was a follower of Ramanuja, preached the doctrine of Bhakti in Hindi to people of all the four ‘Varnas’ (castes). He substituted the worship of Rama in place of Vishnu. Kabir (1398-1518 A.D.) was the most renowned disciple of Ramananda and belonged to the Nirguna School of Bhakti. He emphasised on the unity of God, whom he called by many names. He denounced the caste system, untouchability, idol worship, pilgrimages and other rituals. He rejected those principles from the Hinduism and Islam that were of no significance in attaining real spiritual knowledge. Other important saints of the Nirguna School include Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Baba Malukadasa, Baba Dharinidasa and Garibadasa. Guru Nanak also laid emphasis on one God and advocated the purity of character and conduct as the conditions for approaching God. His teachings gave birth to a new religion called Sikhism.
The Saguna School of Bhakti developed in North India around the worship of Rama and Krishna. Tulsidas, Surdas, Mira Bai and Chaitanya were the most renowned saints of this school. Tulsidas (1532-1623 A.D.) composed the ‘Ramacharitamanas’ in Hindi, which described the episodes from the life of Lord Rama. He also wrote the ‘Vinayapatrika’. Surdas (1483-1563 A.D.) narrated the childhood escapades of Krishna and his love for Radha in his book ‘Sursagar’. Mira Bai (1498-1546 A.D.) was an ardent devotee of Krishna and worshipped Him as her lover. Chaitanya (1486-1533 A.D.) epitomised the love between Radha and Krishna and spread the message of Raga-Marga. He popularised ‘Kirtan’ as a form of devotional music. The other important Bhakti saints of this school were Sankaradeva in Assam, Janadeva in Maharashtra and Narsinha Mehta in Gujarat. Their philosophic beliefs were a brand of Vedantic monoism, which emphasised on the fundamental unity of God and the created world.