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.