Bhakti Movement – UPSC Notes – Art and Culture

The term ‘Bhakti‘ signifies ‘devotion,’ representing a movement that underscored the profound emotional attachment and love shared between a devotee and a personal deity, reciprocated by the god’s affection for the devotee. Originating in South India between the 7th and 10th centuries CE, particularly in the verses of Alvars and Nayanars composed in Tamil, these poetic expressions were dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, respectively. The Bhakti movement subsequently extended its influence to North India, prominently manifesting in the 10th-century Sanskrit work, the Bhagavata-Purana.

Gaining momentum from the 15th century onward, it swept across east and north India, reaching its zenith between the 15th and 17th centuries CE. Bhakti Saints, in opposition to the ascetic practices advocated by Buddhist and Jain schools, advocated that unwavering devotion to God served as the pathway to salvation.

Reasons behind the Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti Movement, a profound spiritual and cultural phenomenon in medieval India, originated as a response to the evolving socio-religious landscape. This movement, marked by a fervent devotion to deities, gained traction for several compelling reasons.

The Spread of Islam:

One pivotal catalyst for the Bhakti Movement was the widespread influence of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. The encounter with Islamic ideas prompted a reevaluation of traditional Hindu beliefs and rituals. In response to these changing dynamics, the Bhakti Movement emerged as a platform for fostering a more inclusive and personalized form of devotion. The movement sought to address challenges posed by the new religious paradigm, advocating for a direct, personal connection with the divine.

Emergence of Great Reformers:

Central to the Bhakti Movement’s momentum was the emergence of visionary reformers. These charismatic individuals played a crucial role in popularizing the principles of devotion and in cleansing Hinduism of perceived corruptions and rigidities. Through their teachings and efforts, these reformers rejuvenated the spiritual fabric of society, providing a platform for individuals to forge a more personal connection with their faith.

Influence of Sufi Sects:

The Bhakti Movement also drew inspiration from the mysticism and spiritual practices of Sufi sects within Islam. The emphasis on love, devotion, and direct communion with the divine in Sufism resonated with the core principles of the Bhakti Movement. The resulting cross-cultural exchange fostered a climate of spiritual syncretism, contributing to a more tolerant and inclusive religious atmosphere.

Influence of Vaishnavism and Shaivism Ideologies:

Within the Hindu fold, the Bhakti Movement found nurturing ground in existing Vaishnavism and Shaivism traditions. This integration allowed the movement to adapt and incorporate elements from these sects, emphasizing the importance of personal devotion and surrender to a chosen deity. Bhakti saints often drew inspiration from the rich theological and philosophical traditions of Vaishnavism and Shaivism, further enriching the Bhakti framework.

Key Teachings of the Bhakti Movement

  • Equality: The movement advocated for equality, challenging the prevailing societal divisions based on religion, caste, and gender. Notably, disciples of Ramananda included individuals from varied backgrounds like weavers, cobblers, and barbers.
  • Universal Brotherhood: Emphasizing values such as love, care, and affection, the Bhakti Movement aimed to establish universal brotherhood within society. Kabir, through his Dohas, exemplified the promotion of this inclusive brotherhood.
  • Social Reformation: The movement actively worked to eliminate societal evils and religious malpractices. Guru Nanak, for instance, condemned caste differences and rituals like bathing in holy rivers, proposing a practical and morally upright concept of religion.
  • Bhakti as the Path: A significant aspect of the movement was its emphasis on the path of ‘Bhakti‘ over superficial rituals for realizing God and attaining salvation. This spiritual approach sought a deeper connection with divinity beyond mere external practices.

Alvars and Nayanars in Southern India

The Bhakti Movement in the southern part of India during the 5th – 10th centuries involved Tamil poet-saints known as Alvars and Nayanars.

  • Alvars expressed their belief and devotion to Lord Vishnu, using poetry to convey Bhakti through love. The collection of their hymns, known as Divya Prabandha, contributed to a cultural shift away from ritual-focused Vedic religion, emphasizing devotion as the sole path to salvation.
  • Nayanars, on the other hand, dedicated their belief and devotion to Lord Shiva. Poets like Nanachampantar, Appar, and Chuntaramurtti, collectively known as “the three,” are revered as saints in South Indian temples.
  • In the 10th century, Nambi Andar Nambi compiled the hymns of the Nayanars into an anthology called the Tevaram.

Divergent Philosophies within the Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti Movement unfolded within two distinct schools of thought, each with its unique perspectives.

Schools of Thought within the Bhakti MovementNirgunabhaktiSagunabhakti
BeliefsBelieved in formless worshipAdvocated worship of form
IntroductionIntroduced by Adi ShankaraEmbraced by philosophers like Ramanuja, Nimbaraka, Madhva, Vallabha, and prominent figures such as Meera Bhai, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Tulsidas, Surdas, etc.
Representative SaintsKabir, Guru Nanak, Dadu Dayal, etc.Meera Bhai, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Tulsidas, Surdas, etc.
Nirguna and Saguna Bhakti Movement


  • Shankaracharya was born in Kaladi, Kerala, and attained saintly status at the age of 5.
  • He was a disciple of Govindacharya and is renowned for formulating the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.
  • Dedicated to propagating and safeguarding dharma, he established Ashramas/mathas in Sringeri (Karnataka), Dwarak (Gujarat), Puri (Odisha), and Badrinath (UP).
  • Shankaracharya’s notable literary contributions include commentaries on Brahmasutras and popular works like Vivekachudamani, Saundaryalahari, Bhajagovindam, and Shivananda Lahari.
  • The followers of Shankaracharya are known as Smratas.

Advaita Vedanta:

  • Meaning: The doctrine is based on the concept that the higher or true Self is identical to Brahman, the Absolute Reality.
  • Jnana Yoga: In Advaita Vedanta, Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge leading to Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
  • Moksha in this life: The doctrine asserts that Moksha can be achieved in this life (Jivanmukthi), contrasting with other Indian philosophies that emphasize videhamukti, or liberation after death.
  • Influences: Advaita Vedanta has been influenced by and has influenced various traditions and texts of Hindu philosophies. These include Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, other sub-schools of Vedanta, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, the Puranas, and the Agamas.

Ramanujacharya (1017-1137AD)

  • Ramanujacharya (1017-1137 AD) was born in Sriperumbudur.
  • He studied under the guidance of Yamuna Muni and Vedprakash.
  • The philosophy he founded is called Vishishta Advaita, and he actively promoted Vaishnavism.
  • Despite facing banishment by Kulottanga Chola, a Shaivite ruler opposed to Vaishnavism, Ramanujacharya remained committed to his beliefs.
  • He wrote Sri Bashya and served as the head of Srirangam Vaishnava Math.
  • Ramanujacharya’s teachings emphasized that individuals from all social backgrounds, including Shudras and outcastes, could achieve salvation through complete surrender to a guru’s guidance.
  • Reverently known as Ilaya Perumal, meaning the radiant one, he played a significant role in shaping the development of Vaishnavism.

What is Vishishta Advaita?

  • Vishishta Advaita is a school of Vedanta philosophy.
  • It originated from the worship of Lord Vishnu.
  • It is characterized as a non-dualistic philosophy, specifically non-dualism of the qualified whole.
  • In this philosophy, only Brahman is considered to exist, but it is marked by multiplicity.
  • Unlike some Hindu philosophies, Vishishta Advaita does not consider the world as an illusion separate from Brahman; instead, it views the material world as an integral part of Brahman’s nature.
  • Moksha (spiritual liberation) in Vishishta Advaita is not solely seen as release from the life-death-rebirth cycle.
  • Moksha is perceived as the joy derived from contemplating Brahman, emphasizing devotion, praise, worship, and the contemplation of divine perfection.
  • The philosophy underscores the interconnectedness of the material world with the divine and highlights the role of devotion in attaining spiritual liberation.


  • Nimbaraka was a disciple of Ramanujacharya.
  • He is credited with introducing the Radhamadhav cult, a religious practice centered around the worship of Radha and Madhav.
  • Nimbaraka founded the philosophical system known as Dwita Advaita, which sought a balance between the principles of Advaita and Visishtadvaita.
  • Among his literary contributions are the works Dashasloki and Vedanta.
  • In addition to his philosophical pursuits, Nimbaraka was recognized as a prominent astronomer.
  • According to his philosophy, individuals are bound in physical bodies constrained by prakrti (matter).
  • Liberation from the cycle of rebirth, in Nimbaraka’s view, could only be achieved through surrender to Radha-Krishna, rather than through personal efforts.
  • He believed that upon death, those who had attained grace through surrender to Radha-Krishna would naturally shed their physical bodies.


  • Born to Narayana Bhatta and Vedavati in Pajaka, near Udupi, Shri Madhvacharya came into the world on the auspicious day of Vijayadashami in the year 1238, and he was named Vasudeva.
  • He stands as the third influential philosopher in the trinity that shaped Indian thoughts, following the eras of the Vedas and Puranas. The other two philosophers in this trinity were Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya.
  • Madhvacharya is the proponent of the philosophy of Dwaita or Dualism.
  • Initiated into sanyasttva by Achyutapreksha, he received the name Purnaprajna at the time of initiation. The title ‘Madhva,’ by which he is more widely known, was bestowed upon him by Achyutapreksha.
  • Known for his extensive scholarly contributions, Madhvacharya wrote commentaries on significant Hindu sacred texts, including the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra.
  • His philosophical system, known as Tattvavada or more popularly, Dvaita, is detailed in various texts. Some of his notable works include Gita Bhashya, Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Anu Bhashya, Karma Nirnaya, and Vishnu Tattva Nirnaya.

About Dvaita philosophy

  • Dvaita philosophy refutes Sri Shankara’s Mayavada and affirms the reality of the world, dismissing it as an illusion.
  • According to Dvaita, the soul is bound to the material world due to ignorance.
  • Liberation from this bondage is attained by seeking the grace of Sri Hari.
  • The path to Sri Hari involves practicing Bhakti, with no alternative means suggested.
  • Engaging in Bhakti requires meditation.
  • To meditate effectively, one must clear the mind and cultivate detachment through the study of sacred texts.


  • Known as ‘Achinitabhadra.’
  • Pioneered the promotion of Krishna Bhakti based on Maha Bhagavad Purana.
  • Founded the philosophy of Shuddha Advaita, advocating absolute union.
  • Prescribed Pushtimarga as the means for salvation, emphasizing extreme devotion to God.


  • 12th-century administrator, philosopher, poet, and Lingayat saint in the Shiva-focused Bhakti movement.
  • Raised social awareness through Vachanaas, his poetic expressions.
  • Introduced innovative public institutions like the Anubhava Mantapa, fostering open discussions on spiritual and mundane aspects for people from all socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Propagator of Visishtadvaita philosophy.
  • Literary contributions include the Vachana Sahitya in the Kannada language.
  • Also known as Bhaktibhandari, Basavanna, or Basaveswara.


  • 14th-century Vaishnava devotional poet saint.
  • Developed philosophy and devotional themes, drawing inspiration from:
    • Nathpanthi ascetics of the Yoga school of Hindu philosophy.
  • Noteworthy as an early social reformer:
    • Accepted disciples without discrimination based on gender, class, caste, or religion.
    • Notable disciples include Kabir, Ravidas, Bhagat Pipa, and others.
  • Verses featured in the Sikh scripture Adi Granth.
  • Some notable works:
    • Gyan-lila and Yog-cintamani (in Hindi).
    • Vaishnava Mata Bhajabhaskara and Ramarcana paddhati (in Sanskrit).

Kabir (1440-1510 AD)

  • 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint.
  • Influential in shaping Hinduism’s Bhakti movement; his verses are included in Sikhism’s scripture Guru Granth Sahib.
  • Disciple of Ramananda.
  • Criticized the superficial religious practices of both Hindus and Muslims.
  • Advocated that Truth lies with those on the path of righteousness, treating all creatures as one’s own self, and maintaining passive detachment from worldly affairs.
  • Pioneered the reconciliation of Hinduism and Islam.
  • Believed in a formless God.
  • Legacy persists through the Kabir panth (“Path of Kabir”), a religious community recognizing him as its founder within the Sant Mat sects; members are known as Kabir panthis.
  • Notable works include Sabad, Bijak, Doha, Holi, and Rekhtal; he propagated Ram Bhakti.

Guru Nanak (1469-1538 AD)

  • Born in Talvandi near Lahore.
  • Celebrated annually by Sikhs worldwide on Guru Nanak Gurpurab.
  • In 1496, embarked on spiritual journeys through India, Tibet, and Arabia lasting nearly 30 years despite being married with a family.
  • Spent the latter part of his life in Kartarpur, Punjab, attracting many disciples with his teachings.
  • Central teachings include the belief in one God and the assertion that all humans can directly access God without the need for rituals or priests.
  • Radical social teachings denounced the caste system and emphasized the equality of all, regardless of caste or gender.
  • Introduced the concept of the formless, timeless, omnipresent, and invisible entity known as ‘Vahiguru’ as God, along with other names like Akaal Purkh and Nirankar in Sikh faith.
  • Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest book of Sikhs, contains 974 poetic hymns composed by Guru Nanak.


  • Renowned as the most popular Bhakti reformer.
  • Born in Rajasthan.
  • Married into the royal family, becoming the wife of Rana Bhojraj.
  • Pioneer in introducing the Giridhara Gopala cult of Brindavan within the Bhakti movement.
  • First to introduce Bhajan in the Bhakti movement.
  • Composed her bhajans in the language of Vraj Bhasha.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

  • Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is a renowned Bhakti reformer hailing from Bengal.
  • He was born in Nabadwip, Bengal.
  • A devoted disciple of Keshav Bharti, he is also known by the names Gouranga and Vishwambar.
  • Chaitanya Mahaprabhu actively propagated Vaishnavism in the regions of Bengal and Odisha.
  • The primary hub for his influential activities was in Puri.
  • He played a pioneering role in introducing Kirtans as an integral part of the Bhakti movement.
  • The form of Vaishnavism he advocated came to be widely known as ‘Gudik Vaishnavism‘.
  • His teachings and influence left a lasting impact on the spiritual landscape of the time.


  • Tulsidas was a contemporary of Akbar.
  • He authored the epic ‘Ramcharit Manas’ in the language of Avadi.
  • Tulsidas is credited with the foundation of the Sankatmochan Temple in Varanasi, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. It is believed to stand at the spot where he had a divine encounter with the deity.
  • He initiated the tradition of Ramlila plays, a folk-theatre adaptation of the Ramayana.
  • Among his other notable works are ‘Dohavali,’ ‘Sahitya Ratna’ or ‘Ratna Ramayan,’ ‘Gitavali,’ ‘Krishna Gitavali’ or ‘Krishnavali,’ and ‘Vinaya Patrika.’

Dadu Dayal

  • Born into the community of weavers in Ahmedabad.
  • Dadu Dayal was a proponent of Nirguna Bhakti.
  • His profound teachings were compiled in the literary work known as ‘Dadu Dayaram ki Bani‘.

Shankar Dev

  • Shankar Dev is credited as the first to propagate Vaishnavism in the Brahmaputra valley.
  • He is the esteemed founder of Eka Saranadharma and Veerapurushamarga.
  • Shankar Dev played a pivotal role in cultural innovation, building upon existing cultural traditions. He is widely recognized for devising new forms of music, known as Borgeet, as well as contributing to theatrical performances through Ankia Naat and Bhaona. Additionally, he made significant contributions to dance, particularly through the creation of Sattriya, and influenced literary language with his contributions in Brajavali.


  • A Haridasa philosopher hailing from Karnataka.
  • Revered as the father of Carnatic music.
  • Notably known for his work, Dasa Sahithya.
  • Introduced the Raga Mayamalavagowla as the foundational scale for beginners in the field, a practice that endures to this day.
  • His extensive collection of keertanas primarily focuses on social reform, pinpointing the societal defects of his time.


  • Among the earliest Maratha reformers.
  • Authored a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, known as Gnaneswari or popularly referred to as the Maratha Bhagavad Gita.
  • His followers are identified as Varkaris.
  • The Varkaris emphasize attaining the presence of God through religious songs (Bhajans) and prayers.
  • They worship Lord Vithoba, whom they regard as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu.


  • Pioneering as one of the first reformers to stress the development of the Marathi language.
  • Advocated the idea that individuals could devote themselves to God while leading a family life and fulfilling all the responsibilities of a householder.
  • Notable for composing a variety of religious songs, including Abhangas, Owees, and Bharuds.


  • Earned a living as a tailor by profession.
  • Emphasized the cultural unity of the Marathas by introducing the tradition known as Mahapurusha Sampradaya.
  • Strongly believed in the equality of all men and women.
  • Advocated the practice of devotion as a means to realize God.
  • Several of his devotional songs are included in the Guru Granth Sahib.


  • A contemporary of Shivaji.
  • Regarded as the greatest Maratha Bhakti reformer.
  • Popularized the Vithoba cult.
  • Composed devotional songs dedicated to Vithalswamy, known as Abhangs.
  • Preached a message centered on equality and universal brotherhood.

Samarth Ramdas

  • Guru of Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire.
  • Played a pivotal role in inspiring Shivaji to establish Swaraj.
  • His teachings and messages were compiled in the text known as ‘Dasabodha‘.
  • Devoted to Lord Rama, he established Ashramas across India.

Significance of the Bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement holds significant importance in Indian history for several reasons:

  1. Reform of Social Practices: The Bhakti movement initiated a process of reform within major religions, aiming to eliminate regressive social practices and encourage a more inclusive and egalitarian approach.
  2. Promotion of Regional Languages: It played a crucial role in the growth and development of regional languages, as many Bhakti saints communicated their teachings in vernacular languages, making spiritual knowledge more accessible to the common people.
  3. Platform for Unification: The movement created a platform for the unification of India under a national consciousness, emphasizing common spiritual values and a shared sense of devotion.
  4. Contribution to Arts and Culture: Bhakti movement significantly contributed to the development of arts and culture in India. It played a key role in the evolution of music, dance, literature, and other artistic expressions.
  5. Check on Orthodox Supremacy: The Bhakti movement challenged the dominance of orthodox practices, promoting a more direct and personal connection with the divine, irrespective of caste or social status.
  6. Positive Environment for Social Emancipation: It created a positive environment for the emancipation of vulnerable sections in society, advocating principles of equality and universal brotherhood.
  7. Improved Hindu-Muslim Relations: The Bhakti movement contributed to improved social relations between Hindus and Muslims by emphasizing common spiritual values and shared humanity.
  8. Promotion of Social Service: Many Bhakti saints actively engaged in social service, addressing issues related to poverty, inequality, and social injustice.

Despite these positive impacts, the Bhakti movement faced challenges in achieving its objectives in their truest form. Reasons for this include the lack of organizational unity among the movements, strong opposition from orthodox classes, and persecution by ruling authorities. Nonetheless, its enduring legacy has left a lasting impact on the cultural, social, and spiritual fabric of India.

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FAQs on Bhakti Movement

  1. What is the concept of Bhakti movement?
    • The Bhakti movement emphasized the unity of all Hindu gods, surrender of the self to God, equality and brotherhood among people, and prioritized devotion to God as a way of life. A significant impact was the rejection of the caste system.
  2. Who is the founder of Bhakti movement?
    • Basavanna, a minister of King Bijjala, is considered a key figure and founder of the Bhakti movement in Karnataka.
  3. What are the 3 principles of Bhakti movement?
    • The main principles include the belief in one God, serving humanity as a form of worship, equality among all individuals, prioritizing devotion over rituals, and advocating the abandonment of caste distinctions and superstitious practices.
  4. What are the causes of the Bhakti movement?
    • Causes include the impact of Muslim rule and Islam, Sufi influence, and a desire for solace among Hindus who had suffered under certain rulers.
  5. What are the main features of Bhakti?
    • Key features include a loving relationship between a devotee and their chosen god, emphasis on individual worship, and the rejection of discrimination based on gender, caste, or creed.
  6. When did Bhakti movement start?
    • The Bhakti movement originated in South India during the 7th to 10th centuries CE, primarily through the poetry of Alvars and Nayanars. It later expanded to North India.
  7. Who was the main leader of Bhakti movement?
    • Ramananda, a 14th-century Vaishnava poet, was a prominent leader of the Bhakti movement focusing on Lord Rama. He founded the Ramanandi Sampradaya and emphasized salvation through love and devotion to Lord Rama.
  8. Who is the leader of Bhakti movement?
    • Basavanna, the founder of the movement in Karnataka and a minister of King Bijjala, played a significant role in initiating social reform programs and reaching out to the masses through his verses.

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