Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.

8 thoughts on “Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma”

  1. Wimpy .. This is from Kabir……”Pothi kitabe banchta .. auro ko nit samjhawta … targhat mehal khoja nahin … bak bak mara to kya hua”

  2. Prior to the Bhakti period, the subtle philosophies of Sanatana Dharma were essentially the pre-occupation of the educated priestly castes and the Junta was by and large either following tribal customs or Buddhism/Jainism. Around 500 AD, I think we can safely bet that there were more Buddhists+Jains than the followers of the Vedic religion.

    It was the Bhakti cult that took Brahminical Hinduism to the masses and essentially created the Hinduism we know today. So in the absence of Bhakti cult, would we have had a better religion? Maybe. But that wouldn’t have been the religion of 800 MM people. The mass religion which has contributed greatly to our national consciousness and made the idea of India possible!

  3. It’s in some ways analogous to the question – “Would cricket have been better off as a purely red-ball game?”

    Yes. But it is the White ball game which made cricket a mass religion in places like India thus helping the game move beyond its traditional Anglo Saxon confines. As with the Bhakti cult, Democratization even in cricket has had its plusses and minuses

  4. Many inaccuracies in your post.

    1) A North Indian history bias I see. Bhakti movement was before Islam in India. Started in Tamil Nadu with the Azhwars and the Nayanmars. Not much fundaes about the Nayanmars, but the last of the Azhwars was sometime in AD 700. It went to North India later. For e.g., Ramananda, the Guru of Kabir and to whose philosophic genealogy Tulsidas also belonged, was someone who was inspired by Ramanuja.

    2) You are wrong in stating that the philosophical developments were disconnected from the Bhakti movement. They actually came up The Buddhists were anti-Vedas. To counter this, Sankara came up with Advaita based on Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutras (essentially Vedic). Sankara’s philosophy concluded that Jnana was the path to Moksha. I doubt if this was too accessible to the common masses. Next came Ramanuja (in the middle of the 11th century) who used the same texts, came up with Visishtadvaita (special Advaita) and concluded that Bhakti was the way to Moksha. This made things more simple and was able to spread among the people better. (as pointed out by Shrikanth above)
    Thus the Bhakti movement is just an evolution of Sanatana Dharma and not something different.

    3) Saints might have chosen Rama or Krishna as the object of their affection, but everything that was said to have been done by Vishnu was also attributed to Rama or Krishna. For e.g., when Jayadeva wrote Gita Govinda, he said that Krishna took 10 avatars and not Vishnu. A devotee of Krishna or Rama was never opposed to other Vishnu avatars.

    4) Your conclusion of there being no debates in current Indian religious life is based on insufficient data. Atleast elders in my family/religion have been kind enough to answer my questions. (probably as many data points as you have) I agree to the fact that most people have forgotten the philosophical underpinnings of the various religions in India (yes, you and I belong to different religions) If everyone needed to know philosophy to worship, we would all be Christians or Muslims.

  5. Baada,
    Pray tell how following Christianity or Islam requires philosophical knowledge. I don’t mean to offend anyone but the Bible and the Koran are essentially a book of rules that essentially dictate the lifestyle of a follower with virtually no philosophical underpinnings. In Hinduism, the Vedas are also the same way. Upanishads took off where Vedas trailed and they explore the philosophy behind the rules. I’m don’t know if other religions have an equivalent.

    Pardon me if I’m incorrect but I don’t feel like researching now.

  6. Narayanan: There is a philosophical tradition in Christianity – the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon in the middle ages for instance.

    Baada: Very good points especially on the Alwars and Nayanmars preceding Islam by a few centuries.

  7. Also as Baada suggested it is a fallacy to divorce Indian philosophical life from the Bhakti movement.

    If one is really keen to trace the roots of the ancient Sanatana Dharma and go back to the Vedic era (circa 800 BC), one finds essentially a tribal religion that emphasizes sacrificial rituals with none of the sophistication to match up to the religion of 1000 AD in South India (Upanishads notwithstanding).

    Though the old Aryan religion may have originated in the plains of the Punjab, a case can be made that the modern Hinduism we know today is probably of South Indian origin.

    And the development of this new Hinduism Mark II (far richer in philosophical and ethical content than the Vedic religion) happened alongside the development of the Bhakti cult. And this new religion was essentially a reaction to Buddhism rather than a reaction to the Semetic faiths – which never really threatened to render Sanatana Dharma extinct the way Buddhism did.

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