On February 28, a controversy broke out when a video of a faculty from UPSC training academy – Vision IAS made rounds on social media wherein a faculty was seen calling the ‘Bhakti Movement’ as a cult inspired by the rise of Islam in India. It was learnt that on many such instances during her lectures, blatant Islamic propaganda and political brainwashing were often peddled. This is not the first time that a genesis outside the indigenous traditions has sought to be attributed to positives of Indian culture. A closer scrutiny however reveals the hollowness of her motivated trivialisation of Bhakti tradition:
1. What would she say about the following verse from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, composed at least 1,000 years before Islamic Prophet was borne, that talks about Bhakti:
यस्य देवे परा भक्ति: यथा देवे तथा गुरौ ।
तस्यैते कथथता ह्यथाथि: प्रकाशन्ते महात्मनि: ॥ (These teachings will be illuminating him who has highest bhakti for Deva as well as for his Guru).
1. If Bhakti was a reaction to Islam, it could not, ipso facto, pre-exist Islam.
2. How would one explain the Bhagavad Gita that prescribes "bhakti" as one of three possible religious approaches to reach God, the other two being karma (disinterested action) and jnana (knowledge). In fact, the Bhagavad Gita favours him who thinks of God single-mindedly; such a person is ekabhakta. Gita prescribes hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord as a path to Bhakti. These become shravan and jap-kirtan of Bhakti saints.
3. Were Bhakti tradition as a “movement” a reaction to Islam, how come it was started by the Saiva Nayanar and the Vaishnava Alvar saints who lived from 3rd Century—350 years before birth of Islamic Prophet? And how come it became a well-trenched “movement” in South India from the 7th Century onwards when Islam was hardly visible in Tamil land that time?
In Bhakti tradition, you can love Rama without hating Krishna and can accept Shiva without discarding Shakti unlike Islam wherein Allah can be accepted only be excluding Al-lat and Al-uzza. Clearly, far from matching to “liberal” Islam as the tutor tries to portray, Bhakti saints attempted to bring the essence of Hinduism to the fore
4. If Islamic way of seeing God is so superior that it prompted Bhakti saints to undertake a “reform” of orthodox Hindu religion, why did our Bhakti saints approached God as a friend, playmate lover, husband, or as as an indwelling spirit seated in the heart of every seeker? Thewse notions are virtually unheard of in Islam.
5. If Bhakti was “inspired” by Islam, as the tutor Smriti Shah implies, why didn’t Bhakti follow the same territorial trajectory of Islam’s spread. That is, its spread starting from West or North to South part of Indian subcontinent? Why did instead of originating at West or North part of subcontinent, Bhakti actually spread as a movement from South India? And why did not a movement similar to Bhakti was witnessed in other parts of world where Islam spread?
6. Despite being separated by temporal and cultural milieu, there was a general attitude of rapprochement amongst different strands of bhakti tradition. In case of a conflict, a reconciliation was sought to be reached. For instance, the Ramcharitmanas tries to reconcile Saiva and Vaishnava sects.
In Bhakti tradition, you can love Rama without hating Krishna and can accept Shiva without discarding Shakti unlike Islam wherein Allah can be accepted only be excluding Al-lat and Al-uzza. Clearly, far from matching to “liberal” Islam as the tutor tries to portray, Bhakti saints attempted to bring the essence of Hinduism to the fore.
7. If Bhakti was a “monotheistic” reform movement inspired by Islam then how come the Bhakti tradition is not monotheistic like Islam? Typical of a sanatani tradition, the god(s) have been conceptualised by Bhakti saints in both polytheistic (e.g. Tulsidas) and monotheistic (e,g, Guru Nanak), transcendental (e.g. Kabir) as well as immanent (e.g. Ravidas) terms. Further, the conception of God in Bhakti is henotheistic (I.e. devotion to a single God while not denying other deities) and pantheistic (God is world and world is God exemplified in kann kann me bhagwan hain)—both unacceptable in Islam.
8. The saguna school of Bhakti is diametrically opposed to Islamic version of God as it preaches, inter alia, devotion to a personal deity which is invalid in Islamic teachings. Even the conception of God in nirguna (God without attributes) school of Bhakti is markedly different than Islamic version. Observe the distinctly Upanishadic style of Kabir, a Bhakti saint of nirguna school, in his following verse:
There's no creation or creator there, no gross or fine, no wind or fire, no sun, moon, earth, or water, no radiant form, no time there, no word, no flesh, no faith, no cause and effect, nor any thought, no Hari or Brahma, no Shiva or Shakti, no pilgrimage and no rituals, no mother, father, or guru. If you understand it, you’re Guru and I’m disciple
9. Despite the predominant centrality of “personal God” in the conception of God by Bhakti saints, Orientalists and Marxist historians have attempted to project Bhakti as a “monotheistic reform” movement. This is trying to understand an essentially indigenous “Indian” tradition in terms of Islamic-Westerns constructs that is dominated by the Abrahamic belief that monotheism represents a higher stage of religion. Therefore, Bhakti movement was projected as “reform” within Hinduism. This approach is unmindful of the fact that Bhakti saints, like Hindus in general, took a pride in being polytheistic—and for that matter, also monotheistic—which let them approach every being and path as full of divinity.
10. Some scholars have cherry-picked verses of Bhakti saints that seemingly support monotheism. For instance, selected verses of most popular Bhakti saint Kabir—like Bhai re do jagdis kahan se aya; kahu kaune bauraya—are cited to prove monotheistic strand of Bhakti tradition. However, reading the full verse demystifies that it is Kabir’s style to
paraphrase Vedic “Ekam sat Vipra Bahuda Vadaanti”:
भाई रे दुइ जगदीश कहााँ ते आया, कहु कौने बौराया।
अल्लाह राम करीमा केशव, हरर हजरत नाम धराया॥
(O brother, who has misled you into believing that there can be more than one true God! Allah, Ram, Rahim, Keshav, Hari, Hazrat are just different names of a single God.)
11. Coming to supposed egalitarianism and liberalism of Islam. How would one defend the scripturally-sanctioned inequality between believers vs. non-believers, man versus woman, master versus slave? Or, of straights versus homosexuals, Sunni vs. Shia vs. Ahmadia, sanction of slavery including sex slavery, and so on. Even genuine criticism of Islamic prophet is likely to get you beheaded. Marital relations are heavily loaded in favour of men. Contempt for reason is ubiquitous in Islamic societies. Islam-inspired terrorism is galore in the world over. So much for liberalism!
Bhakti: A Reaction to Islamic Atrocities
“O’ God, these Mughal dogs have destroyed this diamond-like Hindustan”—Guru Nanak.
However, this is not to say that Bhakti was not a reaction to Islam. With advent of Islamic rule, Bhakti also came to provide a refuge of last resort for a devout sanatani. How else could you endure destruction and trauma that accompanied Muslim rule! Let’s see how Islamic rule was described by none other than Guru Nanak, one of the most popular Bhakti saints and also the founder of Sikhism:
Ikna vakhat khuvai ahi iknaha pooja jayi
Chauke vinu hindvandiyan kiyu tike kadhayi nayi
Ramu na kabhu chetiyo huni kahni na mile khudai….
(Hindus have been forbidden to pray at the time of the Muslim’s namaz, Hindu society has been left without a bath, without a tilak. Even those who have never uttered ‘Ram’, even they can get no respite, not even by shouting ‘Khuda, Khuda’…. The few who have survived Babar’s jails wail… the land is desolated… The entire races have been exterminated, have been humiliated….) [Source: Babar Bani in Sri Guru Granth Sahib].
The above views are straight from the horse’s mouth, from a highly spiritual Bhakti saint. Yeah, surely Bhakti was a reaction to Islam though not a “reactionary cult”.
The celebrated American historian Will Durant has described Islamic rule as, “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.” Or, as Koenraad Elst opines “The Muslim conquests, down to the 16th century, were for the Hindus a pure struggle of life and death. Entire cities were burnt down and the populations massacred, with hundreds of thousands killed in every campaign, and similar numbers deported as slaves. Every new invader made (often literally) his hills of Hindus skulls.” Islamic atrocities were a lived reality for the local populace which Bhakti was part and parcel of, not the rose-tainted picture that a motivated IAS tutor tries to depict of it.
The celebrated American historian Will Durant has described Islamic rule as, "The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.” Or, as Koenraad Elst opines “The Muslim conquests, down to the 16th century, were for the Hindus a pure struggle of life and death. Entire cities were burnted down and the populations massacred, with hundreds of thousands killed in every campaign, and similar numbers deported as slaves
Karen Pechilis Prentiss in her The Embodiment of Bhakti shows that contemporary scholarship has largely dropped the language of radical otherness, monotheism, and reform of orthodoxy while describing Bhakti tradition. In Karen’s words “scholars today represent bhakti as a religious perspective that developed from reflections on the Vedic context; rather than innovation, it is understood to be a reworking of tradition within a distinctive religious frame. Some scholars characterise the emergence of bhakti as a revival of tradition. ”
Similarly, Madeleine Biardeau’s brilliant research proclaims that the Yajurveda might have provided a cornerstone for the development of bhakti as Bhakti structures are unintelligible if they are cut off from Vedas.
Discarding numerous well-researched findings, it is clear that tutor Smriti Shah, in the guise of teaching, has sought to advance her narrativised propaganda to belittle indigenous traditions. How else could you undermine an ancient rich civilization like India’s than by undermining its traditions and attributing the genesis of its positives to the outside?