“Bhakti” in Maharashtra

Since I decided to explore the past along the west coast of India, various cultural, artistic and economic currents in the past entered my purview of study. The socio-religious movement that took South Asia by storm (or hit like a wave?) was an intellectual movement of devotion – “Bhakti”

The Bhakti movement took root in c. 8th century CE South India, and travelled north. The central tenets of submission, devotion and egalitarian reach set the movement apart from others in the past. Influence of Sufism from North-Western part of South Asia was a crucial contribution to this period of social history.

Why Bhakti “movement”?

We wonder why call this emerging belief system as a “movement”. On many accounts, it was a paradigmatic shift from the traditional societal setup in then South Asia. The traditional society (Hindu majority) was stratified in hierarchical rungs of Brahmins (scholars, advisors, office-bearers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishya (traders, merchants), Shudra (land tillers, labourers) – sometimes with a further classification of Pariahs (leatherworkers, sanitation workers, etc)*. The so-called “Dwija” (the twice-born) Brahmins and Kshatriyas were given access to religious education and a right to perform religious rituals. Stringent observances around purity and piousness enforced the other groups of the society to be considered lowly, and discriminatory treatment. The awakening that Bhakti brought with it, was an access to the divine through slefless devotion.

The saints and bards rose against the ills of social discrimination and proclaimed an egalitarian access to god. One of the ways in which the bards achieved this access, was through the medium of local languages in various regions of South Asia. Sanskrit, the language of the religious texts, held as “elite”, had, for centuries, created a barrier for accessing the content from literature for the unlettered. The saints and bards distilled this knowledge into local languages – the lingua franca – across various regions, and as if freed the dammed waters of knowledge for all.

The movement further grew to include and acknowledge the contribution of thinkers and saints from all walks of life, irrespective of their gender. If we were to look at Maharashtra, in western India, prominent saints such as Chokhamela, Chngdev, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Janabai are talked about. Mirabai, Kabir Das, Vallabhacharya and others are known from regions outside Maharashtra.

The period between 8th-15th centuries CE was a formative period for the socio-religious skein of South Asia, with Bhakti movement as its catalyst. Some scholars postulate the rising influence of Islam in South-Asia as one of the aspects that led to the proliferation of Bhakti. However, a general consensus points to a secular fervor, with acknowledgement of a god, not a specific god. Some might argue against this statement, but I believe the texts and poems produced during the Bhakti period to acknowledge one truth, and the means to reach that truth was through the form of different deities by the saints. Kabir is known for his “doha” (couplets) that melt the distinction between the Hindu and Islamic notion of divinity.

The Sufi Movement

In the same vein, the tradition of Sufi saints can be termed as a “movement” in South Asia. Sufism rose around 14th century CE with the element of selfless love at its center. Sufi saints were often termed as “mystics”, owing to their transcendental nature of teachings and discourse. (It was probably a way of later British writers to color the Sufi tradition with a certain viewpoint, but let us drop the discussion on speculations).

Bhakti in Maharashtra

The songs and literature produced during Bhakti movement in Maharashtra is predominantly in Marathi. The rise of vernacular literature is also described as the “death of Sanskrit” by prominent Sanskrit scholars such as Sheldon Pollock. It will be useful to point out, that even in this period after c. 8th century CE, Sanskrit texts were being written, commissioned and circulated, as we have seen for the case of Maharashtra in the form of Shayadri-Khanda, and others. It is useful to appreciate the moments of literary production as dialogical points of intertextuality, rather than a stream that either flows or dries up. Let us set aside the discussion on literary data for some other time.

As the texts and songs were produced in lingua franca, the ideas reached the masses as never before. In this case, one did not need a mediator, translator or a bard to explain or unpack the concepts from other language (Sanskrit in most cases), but could sing, or hum the sing for the masses to understand the core. This further fostered an interesting tradition of the grind-mill songs. Much as the name suggests, the grind-mill songs were composed and sung generally by women as they went about their day, grinding grain and doing other chores. This language and possibility of expression was one of the freeing moments in the social history.

Bhakti movement and its facets through texts: The case of Dnyaneshwar

One of the most celebrated Bhakti poet/saint is Dnyaneshwar. The hagiographic (biographies of the saints) accounts on Dnyaneshwar describe him as a prodigy, who translated the Sanskrit text of Bhagwat Gita in 8th century CE Marathi for the common people. Bhagwat Gita is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, containing a detailed dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. Bhagwat Gita has the renown of being a guidebook for righteous conduct for Hindus.

Dnyaneshwar’s work is aptly titled “Dnyaneshwari“, forms a highlight of Bhakti literature, as described by many contemporaries and a tradition of saints and scholars to this day. Details about Dnyaneshwar and other saints form a rich tradition of oral, aural and literary history in the form of hagiographies. Hagiographies gained momentum , and numerous “miraculous” stories swiftly entered the oral literature of the Bhakti movement. The descriptions go very close to the nature of Sufi saints and “Pirs” described in living traditions.

The encounter of Dnyaneshwar and Changdev (top register), Sanjay and Dhritarashtra from Mahabharata (lower register) – Page from manuscript of Dnyaneshwari (c. 1700 CE), Nagpur, Maharashtra, India (retrieved from: Asian Art Museum Collection: http://searchcollection.asianart.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/766?t:state:flow=6ed75b0b-bb72-4913-aed5-364a8b404275)

One such episode from Dnyaneshwar’s life is his encounter with another saint – Changdev. Changdev was a celebrated yogi of his time, and had recently heard of Dnyaneshwar and his three siblings (Nivritti, Sopan and Muktabai). In disbelief, that the four young children were capable of philosophical discourse on Gita, Changdev decided to test them. Changdev sent a piece of paper – a blank note – which Dnyaneshwar returned with some verses as a distilled treatise of Vedanta philosophy. Changdev, unable to grasp the full meaning of the verses, concluded that these verses were an insult and challenged his power.

Changdev summoned his yogic powers, and rode on a tiger’s back, with a snake in his hand for a whip. He wanted Dnyaneshwar and his siblings to witness his taming of the wild and his superior powers of knowledge and mediation. Followed by a throng, Changdev raeched the village, riding on the tiger.

Dnyaneshwar and his siblings were seated on a wall in the village, oblivious to Changdev’s arrival. Changdev called out to them, to see the beast that he was riding. Dnyaneshwar gently tapped the wall, and lo, the wall started moving! The siblings rode the wall and approached Changdev. On seeing this miracle, Changdev was humbled and chose to receive training in philosophy from Dnyaneshwar and his sister, Muktabai.

Page from the Manuscript of Dnyaneshwari, depicting the first verse of Mahabharata accompanied by the depiction of characters from Mahabharata – the army of Pandavas, Duryodhan and Dronacharya. (c. 1700 CE), Nagpur, Maharashtra, India (retrieved from: Asian Art Museum Collection: http://searchcollection.asianart.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/766?t:state:flow=6ed75b0b-bb72-4913-aed5-364a8b404275)

Notice the details in the illustrated folio of Dnyaneshwari represented above. The Sanskrit text of the Gita appears with its commentary in Marathi. This text is further supplemented by illustrations of the characters in discussion. As a means to remind the reader/listener of the work by a saint, some hagiographic details such as the episode of Dnyaneshwar meeting Changdev is illustrated in the text. In some sense, the manuscripts produced or commissioned as a commemorative piece of history (c. 8th century would be considered old by people in c. 1700 CE) present a deeper understanding of the impact and influence of the Bhakti movement .

Driving principles of Bhakti movement continue to manifest through the “Varkari” community in Maharashtra. Emanating from Dnyaneshwara, the tradition of Varkari pilgrimage (vari) continues as a palpable reminder of a social movement that changed the course of social history as we know it.

(Varkari pilgrimage at Alandi in Maharashtra is pictured on the post banner)

Further reading:

Sanyal, Hiteshchandran (1985) Trends of Change in Bhakti Movement in Bengal. London : Oxford University Press

Poitevin, Guy (1996). Stonemill and Bhakti – From the Devotion of Peasant Women to the Philosophy of Swamis.New Delhi: D.K. Printworld

A database for gring-mill songs and “ovi”: https://grindmill.org/

Iraqi, Shahbuddin (2009) Bhakti Movement in Medieval India: Social and Political Perspectives. New Delhi: Manohar Publications

Novetzke, Christian (2011). Religion and Memory: A Cultural history of Sant Namdev in India. New York: Columbia University Press (details here)

Shima, Iwao; Teiji Sakata and Katsuyuki Ida (eds.) The Historical Development of the Bhakti Movement in India: Theory and Practice. New Delhi: Manohar Publications

Hawly, John S. (2015) A Storm of Songs: Indian and the Idea of Bhakti Movement. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Rajagopachary, M and K. Damodar Rao (eds.) (2016) Bhakti Movement and Literature: Re-forming a Tradition. New Delhi: Kaveri Book Service

* the theory on caste system and class distinction furnishes various names and labels. This enumeration of classes in the medieval society is by no means uniform throughout the sub-continent. The mention of these class distinctions appears merely to make a point about the Bhakti movement, and does not intend to offer a political commentary, support to the system or prescription of any kind.