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Sahitya Akademi

Bhakti Poetry: Its Relevance and Significance


Author(s): Manager Pandey and Alka Tyagi
Source: Indian Literature, Vol. 45, No. 6 (206) (November-December, 2001), pp. 129-138
Published by: Sahitya Akademi
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Bhakti
Its Relevance

Poetry:
and Significance

Manager

Pandey

the Bhakti

With

Indian society, its literature and


Movement,
culture, enter a new phase of growth and evolution.
The Bhakti Movement
is a pervasive
cultural movement which

appeared

in various

forms of cultural

including religion,
expression
art and literature.
philosophy,
language,
In fact this is a pan-Indian
culture against
uprising of a people's
feudalism.
This movement
had its roots in some very significant

of change in the 11th and 12th centuries, when various


processes
castes came into being and regional languages
and their literatures
evolved.

As a result of the Bhakti Movement,


the process of building
of
various
and
the foundation
was
up
regional languages
quickened
laid for the growth of modern Indian languages.
Free from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Apabhransha,
literatures
in regional
entered
into
a
new phase
of growth and
languages
development.
Consequently,
shackles
of feudalism
and

Indian

seem

literature

to have

and

headed

culture

towards

broke

the

a more

culture. Bhakti poetry, liberated from the formalism


creative, people's
of ancient poetics, feudalist culture and from the courtly atmosphere,
is an expression
of people's
in their own
culturetheir
emotions
Cultural awareness,
languages.
in the Bhakti Movement
and
to culture
of Indian

and society
culture and

and sensibilities expressed


ideologies
its literature are more closely related

of its own

times

than

to ancient

traditions

literature.

The Bhakti Movement

recognises the absurdities of social systems.


It not only portrays the anti-human
of feudalist society
ideologies
in their various
and
but
also expresses
a feeling of
forms,
aspects
rebellion against them. This spirit of rebellion against feudalism and

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the resultant

creative

potential
form of Indian

in any other
Because

of mass culture had not been expressed


poetry before the Bhakti period.

of a new kind of cultural awareness


during the Bhakti
the content, perspective
and expressive patterns of Bhakti
Movement,
in a way which was quite free from Sanskrit poetry
poetry evolved
and poetics. The people-oriented
literature of the Bhakti period is
different not only in form and contents. It is quite novel and free
from classicist literatures of Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Apabhransha.
The essence
and

people
from those

of the Bhakti poetry stems from experiences


Poetic forms of Bhakti period

their culture.
of Sanskrit.

literature

and

inherited

oral tradition

of common
are different

forms of folk
They are more developed
Bhakti lyricism is what we find in the
of village songs. Its metrical forms are closer

folk-culture.

to Hindi

and are very different from those of Sanskrit. However


the
most significant fact is that for the first time in the history of Indian

literature the spoken language began to move closer to poetic language


in Bhakti poetry. For the first time, the artificial gap between
the
and
sheer
so called
literariness
of conventional
poetic language
was bridged.
of day-to-day
language
this kind of novelty of form and content in Bhakti poetry
of Sanskrit poetry to base
free from the poetic conventions

spontaneity
Since

is quite
the evaluation

of Bhakti
would

Sanskrit

of
parameters
poetry on the conventional
to
a
re-assertion
of
tradition
at
the
lead
only

poetics
cost of neglecting a new kind of creative potential and the historical
context of the origin and evolution of Bhakti poetry. While evaluating
the more sensitive part of some critic's mind does get
Bhakti-poetry,
and unprecedented
astounded
originality of Bhakti
by the unique

part of their mind


poety but, at the same time, the more conventional
as
with
establishing
merely a new form
Bhakti-poetry
gets contented
The
of the old poetic traditions of Sanskrit, Pali and Apabhransha.
Bhakti
cannot
be
and
content
of
of
the
form
poetry
uniqueness

in the conventional
critical framework. A critical perspective
explained
and poetic traditions is
which is free from conventional
parameters
for the interpretation

essential

and evaluation

of the people-oriented

Bhakti-poetry.
and literature, some
In their analysis of the Bhakti Movement
and
critics search only for the main sources of Bhakti philosophy
Such critics
neglect the historical context of the Bhakti Movement.
trace Bhakti history back to the Vedas but do not see the contemporary
basis and creative nature of the Bhakti Movement.
Here the question of pattern is worth looking into the context

socio-cultural
of ideas

It is more important
and the history of a cultural movement.
the historical context in which the cultural or ideological

to analyse

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Literature

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movement
source

has

evolved

of its central

cultures

and idea

spread than to search for the original


It has often been seen in the history of

and

idea.

that a certain idea


and when

as an abstract

concept
it takes the form of comprehensive

remains

in the historical

it finds a conducive

social

process
context,
of Bhakti

movement. The concept


might have been very old as an idea and an emotion but it evolved
as a widespread
cultural movement only in the period between 12th
and 17th centuries. If we keep our attention limited to the ancient
form of Bhakti

as an idea

and

its all pervasive


contemporaneous
be very difficult to find answers
to the Bhakti
Movement

Movement

and

and

an emotion

and

socio-cultural

keep
base,

on neglecting
then it would

to many important questions


related
its literature. Scholars
of the Bhakti

literature

are repeatedly
confronted
with certain
did
this
of creativity take place during the
questions.
Why
explosion
Bhakti Movement
amongst Dalits and lower classes who had lived
under

for centuries
in feudal system and why did it
oppression
an expression
of rebellion against the system. Why did anti
feudalist people's
culture arise only during the Bhakti Movement?

become

Why did the process of evolution of other regional languages quickened


and humanist
during the Bhakti Movement.
Why did anti-feudal
in Bhakti poetry? What was the social basis of this
voices develop
new form and content of Bhakti poetry. In order to find answers
to all such questions it becomes necessary to place the Bhakti Movement
and literature in its historical context and its socio-cultural
milieu.
The lovers of Bhakti Movement
Some

of them

read

Bhakti

and literature are of many types.


for
only to ensure a place

literature

in heaven. Others use Bhakti literature to progress in this


themselves
world as well as in the other. Some of them see Bhakti literature
as a traditional
form of worship
and yet others, with a desire to

of the past, summon


Bhakti literature
give the present a semblance
as a golden-age
in the cultural history. Slightly different from these
people are the ones who, in the name of seriously searching for the

cultural

and social

norms of that era in Bhakti literature, feel contented


the lists of names of foods, dresses and jewellery
preparing
popular
during the period.
Another perspective of Bhakti Literature is the one held by those
who want to preserve
the pastness
of the past in the name of
with

historicism.

Such naive historicists do not consider its


contemporary
On the other hand, are the modernists who
significance.
completely
neglect the objectivity and historical context of Bhakti poetry and
talk only about its present relevance.
Then there are some eager
revolutionaries
who are different from the above-mentioned
kind and
about the future, think of the sense
who, being overly concerned
Manager

Pandey

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/ 131

of pastness
as a burden and try to get free from it.
One can take up a historical view of the artistic-modes,
forms and

logical
literature.

socio-cultural

of Bhakti

basis

Movement

ideo
and

its

Except for this, it is also necessary to analyse the artistic


and aesthetic relevance of Bhakti poetry and the rise of an extensive

movement
of people's
culture in the present context.
pan-Indian
About the criticism of literature of the past, the famous critic Walter
it as an
observed
that it is not sufficient to evaluate
Benjamin

of the past and that it is necessary


to examine
its sig
experience
nificance for the present.
with the Indian
Even today Bhakti poetry is most popular
and needs of the people
aspirations
who
care
for the socio-cultural
those

It still fulfills the cultural

masses.

to a certain extent. Therefore,


progress of the masses cannot neglect Bhakti poetry. This is not just
a question of the attitude of the pro-people
thinkers towards tradition
in the context of emergence
of
but also that of their responsibility
a new

culture.
people's
In the history of Hindi literature, the history of the evaluation
and its poetry is a history of the evolution
of the Bhakti Movement
critical vision and of the
of literary perspectives,
poetic sensibilities,
Bhakti poetry was
literature and society. Though
relation between

by the aristocracy in the age of formalist court poetry and


poetic interests, even at that time it was the main source
of the common masses. It became
of fulfilling the cultural aspirations
to
the
aspect of the
recognize
significance of the democratic
possible
neglected
feudalist

Bhakti

Movement

and democratic
and

and

culture

the freedom

when

literature
came

movement

an awareness

When, in Bharatendu's
of people's
'the evolution
sensibilities,'
of his own
the
literature
of
greatness
characteristic

fundamental

of nationalism

into being with the rise of Renaissance


in the modern period.
Bhatt called literature
time, Balkrishna
he made

age,
of Bhakti literature.

but

clear
also

not only the


at a
pointed

Bharatendu

and other

with the collective


of his age, who were concerned
aspect
and literature, could recognize the value and significance
of language
kinds of
of Bhakti literature. Later on, protesting against various
Dwivedi
and conservatism,
formalism
forged an
Mahavirprasad

writers

of Bhakti poetry. By the investigation


approach for a proper evaluation
a kind
Shukla evolved
of Bhakti poetry itself, Acharya Ramchandra
with which he could stoutly oppose anti-people
of literary judgement
and

formalist

Shukla's
Acharya
poetry shaped
and his objectivist critical vision made the evalu

literatures.

literary judgement
ation of Bhakti poetry

Jai Shankar

232 / Indian

Prasad

and

Literature

Bhakti

possible.
Nirala

Works
have

of the great romantic poets


a close relation with

revealed

: 206

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Bhakti poetry time and again. In Indian social history, after the Bhakti
movement
which served as the
Movement
it was the Progressive
second extensive cultural movement leading to the growth of people's

culture.

a new perspective,
on the
Movement,
During the Progressive
relation between literature and society and the role and significance
of literature in the progress of society, evolved
which created the

of a new kind of evolution


of Bhakti literature.
possibility
In the same period, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi
evaluated
the place
of Bhakti poetry in the evolving tradition of Indian literature. During

the progressive
period itself, struggling against some progressivist
critics narrow outlook against the Bhakti period, Ram Vilas Sharma
and critiqued the historical context of the Bhakti Movement
analysed
and

and

poetry. Ram
anti-feudalist

Vilas

Sharma

has

outlined

aspect of the Bhakti


its socio-cultural
foundation.

the

Movement

humanist

tone

and

poetry by
In the history of Hindi
explaining
of Bhakti poetry have
literature, these fluctuations in the evaluation
that
the
of
Bhakti
has
increased whenever
proved
significance
poetry
there was a rise in the influence of collective and democratic elements
in literature
whenever

and criticism
the

and that Bhakti-poetry has been


and anti-people
tendencies

individualist

dominant.

neglected
became

Many scholars who have studied the history of Indian culture,


literature and society believe
that the process
of building
up of
nationalites
started in 11th and 12th centuries in India. Emergence
of nationalites

growth
eratures.
changes

meant

of mercantile

the beginning
of the dissolution
of feudalism,
and
of
and lit
capitalism
regional languages

in the economic
base of a society brings about
Changes
in the balance and relationship between various social classes.
the early stages of the formation of nationalism
the power

During
of the farmer, craftsman and the trading class increases.
in
Change
the society's
economic
base and relations of production
transform
the ideological
forms and new possibilities
appear for the evolution
of art, culture and literature. The classes which are affected
by this
new change in economic
and
relations
of
growth
production
play
a very important role in literature, art and culture.
There is a very close relation between
the Bhakti Movement
and literature on the one hand and the socio-economic
changes taking
of 12th century on the other. The process of
place in the beginning
formation of nationalites
of
began with the simultaneous
process
of
feudalism
which lead to the growth of a pervasive
disintegration

movement

comprising
of the ongoing process

of the rise of people's


culture. It was because
of disintegration
of feudal-system
and gradual
Manager

Pandey

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/ 233

dominance

of farmers and

shape
among
literature.
These

Dalit

craftsmen

castes

castes

which

who

that a feeling of rebellion


in the
expression

found

were

of education
deprived
to express
their creative potential
consequent
opportunity
of
also.
Otherwise
growth
regional languages
only Aristocratic

took
saint

got an
on the
classes

the right to enjoy the creative literature in the age of Sanskrit,


Pali, Prakrit and Apabhransha.
So, the growth of regional languages
the beginning
of a new literary and socio-cultural
era
symbolised
had

in India.

Saint poets and Bhakti-poets


were inspired by and devoted
to
a feeling of common good. Their experiences
and their poetic practice
were rooted in common
life. Their poetry grew out of the popular
culture and this culture then became the preserver of Bhakti poetry.
that the poets

It is inevitable
mass

culture

against

popular
based poetry, became

and poetry, representing


the rise of
and its court
the culture of feudalism

on the people. Expressing


defiance
dependent
rule and feudal system, they declared, 'what has saints

against king's
to do with Sikri,

[Santan ko kahan sikri* se kam].


refutation and rebellion against the priests,
casteism and against the social discrimination

This

pocrisy,
high and the low classes
of rebellion

against

of rebellion

religious
between

hy
the

which is found in Saint poetry is an expression


This feeling
society and its. ideologies.
has a revolutionary
the feudal ideologies
sig

the feudal

against
in its own

historical context. It not only reflects the social


of
the
era
but
has the power to inspire new social change.
changes
an idea of an
Even the mysticism
of saint poets has expressed
an
to
the
feudal
social
order
as
alternative
tyrannical
egalitarian
nificance

system. This imagined country of saint-poets is not an exclusive other


think that saint
world, different from the real world. Some people
This notion is
a
dissent
and
rebellion.
is
of
poetry
merely
poetry
a result

of half-knowledge
about saint-poetry.
Saint poetry besides expressing the rebellion against a feudalist
realities of common
also expresses
social order and its ideologies,

social
life, the beauty of folk culture and a desire for an egalitarian
love
order. Sufi-saints based their poetic creations on the popular
stories and using the age old structures of tales, their poems have
expressed
Padmavat

various

forms of contemporary
for the pervading

is remembered

culture. Jayasi's
people's
of
emotional
experience

But because
of the use of
from her husband.
separation
Nagmati's
a
But
there
is
'Barahmasa'.
the popular
form
very poignant
poetic
of the mood
portrayal of public life and culture in this description
*

Skr

was

134 / Indian

the

centre

Literature

of political

power.

: 206

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of Nagmati's
of separation
which is no less significant. Pervasiveness
is
emotional
of
expressed
experience
separation
by taking public life
and culture as the base. Another testimony to Jayasi's anti-feudalist
consciousness
is that he has seen and portrayed
Sultan Alauddin

<5f Delhi

as a devilish

of
figure who was an active representative
of
the
feudal
order.
view
of
feudal
supreme authority
Jayasi's
monarchy
was different from that of the ones who considered
the Lord of Delhi
as

of the World.'

'Lord

of a violent
rebellion
the ideologies
against
in a challenging
is
found
less
in Saguna
language
in
than
saints'
But
the
poetry
Nirguna
poetry.
poetry of
devotees
has rebelled against the feudal order and its ide

Declaration
of feudalism
Bhakti
Saguna

through devices
through an awareness
ologies

life.

The

stories

like characterisation,
narrative structure and
of the real, and of emotions
and values
of

of Krishna

and

Rama

which

Surdas

and

Tulsidas

have used as a basis of their poetic creation are born out of the idealised
tradition of Sanskrit poetics and are popular tales in public life. Heroes
of these

tales are the courageous


men who rebel against injustice
and exploitative forces. In its rebellion against and despotism of feudal
a concrete form of their own
system, the common
public visualizes

for struggle in the struggle of these heroes. This is the


aspiration
reason for the all-pervasive
of these tales. Krishna and
popularity
Rama of Sur and Tulsi establish a benevolent
order
socio-political
the inequitable,

and

tyrannical rulers. Tulsi's


desire to replace the exploitive
imaginary Ramrajya
feudalist political order for a justice-loving
and popular political order.
this
Though
imaginary
egalitarian
political order is influenced
by
the historical
limitations
of the age of feudalism,
it has overtly
Tulsi's concern for public welfare and people's
desire for
expressed
freedom from feudalism.
by killing

oppressive
expresses a public

Bhakti poets' anti-feudalist consciousness


has found expression
in the forms of human relations and sentiments
in
expressed

even

their poetry. In Surdas's


poetry, Krishna's
is
free
from
the
feudalist moral
Gopikas
of unrestrained
human
and

relations

love

for Radha

and other

conventions.

This concept
in the form of
portrayal of its evolution
is in opposition
to the feudalist perspective
on love

love

and

marriage.
The variety,

of simple human
depth and comprehensiveness
and generous forms of love as portrayed in Sur's
poetry are seldom
found elsewhere.
No love-poet in Hindi is as great as Surdas. Sur's
description of profound affection has the power to evoke and preserve
situations.
Sur's devotional
humanity even in inhuman
path is the
Manager

Panda/

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/ 235

the simple,
and human
path of love which expresses
generous
forms of love-relationships.
Sur's poetry originates
from a true
attachement
to this life and the world and it, in turn, invokes
a
true attachment
totality
various

of

life

towards
where

life and

the world.

It is the poetry of the


of emotion
and
in
action,
beauty
life childhood,
adolescence
and youth

the

stages of human
is suggested.
Ram Vilas Sharma

has

said

that Bhakti

Movement

was

not

restricted to any particular class. All classes including farmers, traders


and craftsmen were involved in it. In fact the Bhakti Movement
was
a pervasive
cultural movement of all the classes who were victimised
the
feudal-order
and were struggling to get free from it. But farmers
by
and

craftsmen

a major role in it and that is why it could


played
a movement
of the rise of popular culture. On the one hand
it expresses
the truth and beauty of common life, a desire for freedom
from feudalist social system and violent rebellion against the priests,

become

on the other hand, it declares


the falsehood
of
detachment
from
this
life
and
the world,
feeling

while,

pessimism.
In fact the social rebellion

of the world, a
illusionism
and

in the feudal era which was manifested

means

was not completely free from the influences


through religious
of feudalist ideologies.
But, in spite of these influences, these rebellions
and movements
an important role in social development.
played

In philosophy,
movements
of the Bhakti
poetry and sowal
in
even
instances
where
is
taken
as
and illusion
illusion
period,
reality
as reality due to an inverted worldview
or a false consciousness
in
relation

to life and

in the criticism

the world, criticism


life
and the world.
of

of feudalist

order

is visible

Bhakti philosophy
of false-conscious
is not merely a philosophy
It has a pre-eminence
relations
and emotions
of human

ness.

that evolve

in this life and

of emotions.

Bhakti

the world.

The

age of bhakti is the


become
enthralled
by
make
human
feelings

poets, therefore,
of life in this world
and
splendour
themselves
the bedrock of devotional
feelings and poetic creativity.
in the
Wherever
there is no underlining
of the illusionist
views
age
the

attains
of beauty and truth of this world, Bhakti poetry
depiction
this- worldly reality
its highest point. Bhakti teachers expounded
Bhakti
various
the
vedantic
view
of
illusion;
against
poets made

the very
human
relationships
feeling and many-faceted
of the relation between the deity and the devotee. In Bhakti
far outweigh
the reality of this world and its acceptance
worldview,
the illusionist understanding
of the world and the consequent
feelings
human

essence

of dispassion.
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a very important
part in the
played
Indian
The
Bhakti
Movement
culture today.
shaping up of what we call
Not only
mark on its various
has left an indelible
aspects.
Bhakti

Movement

has

and language,
but all the live and significant traditions
in Indian ways of life are bequeathed
to us by the Bhakti
One reason for this all pervasive
and permanent
effect
Movement.
literature
found

of Bhakti-movement

is that it contains

the memories

of the past of
and a

our culture, socio-cultural


awareness
of contemporary
times
for
the
future.
It
is
not
a
cultural
movement
concern
deep
it is a comprehensive
social movement
to the aspirations and realities of people's
forms.

alone;
it
as
also,
gives expression
social life in various cultural

Bhakti Movement

aims at the growth and preservation of human


or
The
whole creativity of Bhakti poetry is inclined
reality
humanity.
towards this objective. The vision of Bhakti poets considers nothing
above humanity, caste, class, race, gender, creed or illusionist view

of the world.

As the pertinence of all these elements obstructs the


of
growth
humanity, Bhakti poetry attacks them in an uninhibited
and dauntless
manner.
Bhakti

poetry reflects a wish to replace a social order based


on all kinds of discrimination
by a more human social order that
is based on equality and humanity, which still gives inspiration and

and vicitmised
masses
of India.
strength to the exploited
Bhakti is a religion of the heart. And most popular,
extensive
and generous among the religions of the heart is the religion of love.
It raises man above the limitations of caste, class, race and religion
and makes him free from fears of all kinds of dominant authorities.
Bhakti poetry unites Sufis with the Vaishanavites
and Sagunas
with

the Nirguna
saints. In this way it forms a basis for the unification
of people
with humanist
Nowhere
in Bhakti poetry do
emphases.
we see religious fanaticism or sectarian parochialism.
It is true that
forms

of love

are not the same in all the Bhakti poets.


Forms
Surdas
and
Mira
are
But
Kabir,
different;
Jayasi,
in spite of this, variation in tone and form, the
emotion
underlying
is the same.
It is the need of the present hour to explore
the
various aspects of this ideal and radical form of devotional
sentiment
in popular
culture and expression
of its various aspects in Bhakti
of love

poetry.
crisis

in

Indian society is going through a deep crisis. This


a cultural crisis than a socio-political
one because
warfare is now using cannon balls of culture only. This new

Presently
is more

political

politics is moving ahead


cism, narrow-sectarianism

favoured
and

by the storms of religious fanati


anti-humanist
tendencies.
And it is
Manager

Pandey

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/ 137

destroying the heritage of broad minded human values, social ideals


In this situation
and cultural aspirations
of the Bhakti Movement.
it becomes

significance
the present

to recognise
the past relevance
and present
necessary
of Bhakti poetry. Bhakti poetry can help us to rise above
crisis as this poetry is woven into the life of the people

today. Therefore, it helps in creating


intimate dialogue
with the masses.
even

the possibilities

Translated from Hindi by Alka Tyagi

138 / Indian

Literature

: 206

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for an