One significant cultural trait that is pervasively manifest in Indian society is the quality of devotion to one’s chosen deity, be it is a major godhead, a local deity, a great saint, or a relatively insignificant sect-head. This cultural trait is described as bhakti, in English translation “devotionalism”, rather than just “devotion”. A large part of the second millennium of India’s past is marked by bhakti as a widespread movement. The historical Bhakti movement brought about a radical shift in people’s sensibilities. It also gave rise to several modern languages such as Bangla, Assamiya, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Odiya, and Hindi. Mainly, the movement challenged religious orthodoxy.
Given this phenomenal impact on Indian society, the bhakti movement is seen as a progressive movement. The desire to subvert the conventions of over-stylised Sanskrit, to confront the Brahminical monopoly of metaphysics and ethics, and to assert the identity of regional aspirations, was the essence of bhakti. It brought with it a new social philosophy, metaphysics, and aesthetics.
The tremendous wave of bhaktipoetry impacted India across all linguistic boundaries, and over an extended time span, it endowed dignity to the regional and desi (the sub-stream) cultures against the hegemonic and over-rigid marga (the mainstream) traditions. The upsurge of bhakti literature was the visible index of complex but fundamental changes taking place in Indian society during the second millennium.
Much of the literature of the pre-British Bhasaperiod is still a living heritage in India. The poetry of Namadeva (1270-1350) and Tukaram (1598-1650) in Marathi, that of Narasimh Mehta (1414-81) and Akha (1615-1674) in Gujarati, of Kabir (1440-1518) and Surdas (1483-1567) in Hindi, of Guru Nanak (1469–1539) in Punjabi, and so on have formed an inalienable part of the Indian consciousness. Tukaram, Mira, Kabir, and Basaveswar, among others, have been some of the dream images of India’s cultural unconscious. The music, painting, dance, architecture, and poetry that emerged during this period form a glorious chapter in India’s cultural history. Yet, no simple formula of the relationship between living cultural traditions and great social problems can explain the entire period satisfactorily.
However, bhakti was a movement and not a philosophical system. It had its own dynamics, but it never attempted a systematic theorising of the values it upheld. In reversing the established relation of hierarchy between the marga and the desi traditions, it rattled the bones of an already ossified society and substantially changed its complexion. The development of bhaktipoetry was a natural consequence of the emergence of Bhasa literature. Bhakti unleashed an emotionalism which classical Indian literature had held under the strict control of conventions and rigidly defined social ethics.
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In revolting against them, and in turning to an unrestrained emotionalism, bhaktimade itself incapable of developing intellectual systems founded on rational thought. It had a revolutionary social and literary drive which manifested symbolism and mysticism but could not find the rational strength necessary to formulate intellectual discourse. It tried every kind of experimentation with style and diction and replaced every established convention of poetry, but it never tried to formulate a statement of the new conventions of poetry. Sociologically, devotional poetry was a challenge posed by the oppressed classes to the Brahminical monopoly of cultural and scriptural knowledge.
The challenge, however, did not make a dent in the formal system of knowledge transmission. The prevalent patterns of patronage intensified this “class war” in literature. Bhakti literature, therefore, was not welcomed by the class capable of providing political patronage to literature. It would be more appropriate, perhaps, to say that the marga tradition accepted only the theological content of bhakti, neglecting its rebellious spirituality.
Hence, the ruling classes continued to provide uninterrupted patronage to Sanskrit-based formal education all through the middle centuries. In other words, formal education belonged to marga, while the experience of life’s complexities was perceived and articulated through desi idiolects. The gap between lived experience and formalised knowledge was at the root of the non-emergence of a large-scale transition to a modernity for bhaktiliterature.
New Bhakti cult
At present, a new bhakti cult has emerged in India. Its members call themselves bhakts (devotees), a term that those who do not subscribe to the cult also use for them. However, the current brand of “bhakti” is almost the exact opposite of the bhakti tradition of medieval times. I shall use the term “bhakti-now” while commenting on it.
Bhakti-now does not preach devotion to an abstract godhead or a mythical character. It is directed at a living person. An elaborate communication set-up invisibly controlled by this individual is used to communicate with bhakts through digitally conveyed messages. The bhakts lap up whatever comes in the messages as the truth. Anyone questioning the authenticity of the information is marked out as “enemy”, “traitor”, and “anti-social”. The bhakts no longer use poetry or music to express their devotion. They do exactly as the digital messages flowing to them in cyberspace direct them to.
In the medieval bhakti movement, bhakts used to address their deity, appeal to it, argue with it, cajole it, and speak of its glory. Now, the communication set-up of the deity sends messages to the bhakts. They express their love for the deity mainly by launching vitriolic attacks on the deity’s opponents, critics, and other freethinkers. The deity’s communication mechanism makes a note of the bhakt’s action and includes the more active bhakts to the deity’s list of “like” or “follow”.
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The medieval bhakti movement wanted to humanise god. Bhakti-now likes to elevate the deity to heights beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. The bhakts are so entirely assured that the deity has far exceeded any predecessor in performance and potential that they find even the slightest doubt about its superhuman abilities an offence against India’s great traditions, present pride, and imagined future.
The bhakts now prefer nationalism to humanism, theological pride to the modern idea of citizen-equality, and propaganda to factual truth. Bhakti-now seeks to close the minds of bhakts, to root out their rational abilities, to replace constitutional values with pride in an imagined national prestige. Bhakti in the past had attempted to rescue religion from its orthodoxy and bring out the true spirit of the scriptures to bring humans closer to one another. Bhakti-now seeks to envelope diversity and difference in a single identity tag, to equate one ideology with the nation, the nation with a single individual, and the individual with the destiny of millions.
Bhakti in the past gave rise to new languages and new literary expression. Bhakti-now has brought complete and unquestioning agreement with the presiding deity to be the norm of society, life, thought, and culture. A millennium after bhakti emerged as a movement, how far and further India has come in the time of bhakti-now. I do not know what the saints and poets of the bhakti movement and the freedom fighters who ushered India into the life of a modern nation would think of us. I wonder if the India of the past would look at the present India with pride.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.
- The historical Bhakti movement brought about a radical shift in people’s sensibilities. It also gave rise to several modern languages such as Bangla, Assamiya, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Odiya, and Hindi.
- The desire to subvert the conventions of over-stylised Sanskrit, to confront the Brahminical monopoly of metaphysics and ethics, and to assert the identity of regional aspirations, was the essence of bhakti.
- At present, a new bhakti cult has emerged in India. Its members call themselves bhakts (devotees), a term that those who do not subscribe to the cult also use for them.
- Bhakti-now does not preach devotion to an abstract godhead or a mythical character. It is directed at a living person.
- An elaborate communication set-up invisibly controlled by this individual is used to communicate with bhakts through digitally conveyed messages.