*The “Bhakti Movement” and a Nation in the Making

The idea of a “bhakti movement” has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of “Indian civilization” and, more specifically, the notion of a “composite culture”.  Bhakti is in English generally rendered as “devotion”; in the generally accepted narrative, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the 8th century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country.  India’s history for a thousand years, from the early medieval period until around 1650, a period perhaps not quite accidentally coinciding with the advent and then ascendancy of Islam, is thus described as having been preeminently shaped by a remarkable number of men (and often women) whose philosophical and literary compositions were marked by an intense devotional spirit.  Whatever the differences amongst these great devotees (bhaktas) of God, and whether they considered themselves followers of Shiva or Vishnu or conceived of God as formless (nirguna), they are supposed to have shared certain attributes.  The bhakti movement is said to have opened the doors to God to women and the lower castes; where Brahminism affirmed the ritual superiority of the Brahmins, the infallibility of the Vedas, and the idea that each person was bound to the observance of his ‘caste’ duties, the adherents of bhakti are said to have rebelled against the authority of the Vedas and the upper castes and prioritized the idea of personal experience of God.

Much of the scholarly literature on bhakti has pivoted around certain themes.  The distinction between saguna (conceiving of God with form) and nirguna (the notion of God as formless) was a bedrock of the literature for a long time.  Another strand of the scholarly literature focused on differentiating women bhaktas from men bhaktas.  From around the early 20th century, some colonial writers had dwelled on what might be called the social capaciousness of bhakti, or, to put it with a tinge of provocation, the insurrectionary and rebellious aspects of bhakti.  Some of the more recent scholarly works on bhakti, showing an awareness of how the language in which we speak of bhakti has changed, have worked in themes of subaltern agency and Dalit consciousness into their discussions of the works of bhakti poets such as Kabir and Tukaram.


Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

John Stratton Hawley of Barnard College has been a student of bhakti over the last several decades, and in his most recent study of the subject he takes the study of bhakti in very different directions.  The fundamental achievement of A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a “bhakti movement” came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility.   Hawley hints, though he could have dwelled on this idea at greater length, that the colonial period generated an anxiety, which Indian nationalists commencing in the late 19th century were eager to address, about the basis of Indian unity.  From the late 18th century, it became a staple of colonial writing to argue that India had never constituted a “nation”.  If the colonial claim that only British rule had succeeded in giving geographical integrity to a people divided by immense differences of caste, religion, and language was to be ably contested, some palpable evidence of India’s cultural unity had to be put on offer.  The Sanskritist V. Raghavan, in his 1964 Sardar Vallabhai Patel Memorial Lectures, led his hearers on a tour where the itineraries of bhakti and its most sublime exponents—the Alvar poets, Virasaivas, Jnandev, Narsi Mehta, Jayadev, Caitanya, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Laldeo, Tukaram, among many others—might reasonably be construed as having wrought a tapestry of emotional and territorial integration that led inescapably to the idea of “India” itself.  Raghavan described his religious subjects as “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, but he was scarcely alone in giving voice to such a view.  Two decades earlier, working in an entirely different medium, the artist Binodbihari Mukherji and his students created frescoes of these “Medieval Saints” on the walls of the Hindi Bhavan at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati (pp. 275-83), a “world university” envisioned as a monument to interculturality, civilizational dialogue, and an integrated conception of the “human”.


Kabir, the Poet-Weavr, with his Disciple, a painting from around 1825.

The more precise contribution of Hawley’s impressive study, which draws upon his four decades of experience of India’s massive devotional literature and the concomitant scholarship in a number of Indian languages, however lies in his delineation of the two major constituents of what would become known as the bhakti movement.  The central part of his story revolves around the notion of the four sampradays, that is the traditions of teaching and reception which were the conduits through which bhakti was thought to have made its way to the north from the south.  Secondly, two prominent Hindi scholars, Ramchandra Shukla and especially Hazariprasad Dvivedi, emerge as the principal figures who helped to shape the commonplace understanding of the bhakti movement.  This portion of Hawley’s narrative, esoteric and rather detailed at times, will be of interest mainly to specialists, but its wider import can be estimated if we pause to think how the idea of a bhakti movement became enmeshed with the desire to carve out a space for Hindi as something like a national language.


Binodebihari Mukherji, “Medieval Saints”, a fresco at Visvabharati, Hindi Bhavan (North Wall)

Few scholars can claim the wide and erudite command over the literature that Hawley brings to his subject.  His articulation of the politics of knowledge that has informed the idea of the bhakti andolan (movement) is enviable and forces us to consider anew some of the most important strands of the cultural and intellectual history of India. However, some readers might find it amiss that there seems to be comparatively little analysis of bhakti compositions, and readers will get acquainted with very few bhakti poems or compositions as such.   Most of the verses that Hawley chooses to quote and analyze have a bearing on his discussion of the four sampradays: having dwelled on the notion of ‘movement’, the reader might perhaps in vain look for the spirit of bhakti.  More striking, still, is the comparatively understated role and near omission of certain major figures who, in various ways, were critical to the consolidation of the idea of a bhakti movement.  India, the great Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji was to proclaim in Krsnacaritra (“The Life of Krishna”), had become overwhelmingly captive to the idea of bhakti, and this passivity and devotionalism seeded the country’s oppression under the Muslims and then the British.  The question of whether Bankim’s essay is at all persuasive aside, the influence of this long essay was very considerable and remains to be gauged.  Similarly, while Hawley recognizes the supreme importance of Narsi Mehta’s bhajan (devotional song), “Vaishnava Janato” (p. 28), in the Gandhian rhetoric of resistance to colonialism in the language of love, he might perhaps also have considered the fact that Gandhi dared to describe the venerated Rammohan Roy, the author of the “Bengal Renaissance” and by some measures the architect of Indian modernity, as a “pygmy” in comparison with Kabir and Nanak.  Nevertheless, in A Storm of Songs, Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.


[This is a modified and slightly lengthier version of my review of John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2015), first published in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2017).]



3 thoughts on “*The “Bhakti Movement” and a Nation in the Making

  1. some questions

    1. do dalit activists and scholars in trying to construct the idea of a dalit nation also use symbols like kabir and tukaram? – since all good nations have to have a ‘history’. if so, then in this day and age, will only that politics be heard by the state which articulates itself in the language of the nation state?

    2. there was also a sufi movement flowing and intertwined with the bhakti movement. do nationalist historians exclude this as fundamentally islamic (just like urdu has become fundamentally islamic) – and consign it to the history of pakistan (but not india, just like urdu is somehow construed as being foreign)?


  2. Hi Utsav,
    There is a general awareness that the Bhakti poets and the Sufi saints can reasonably be viewed as different streams of the same movement. Thankfully, I don’t think we’ve reached that point where the Sufi movement can just be discarded, or dismissed, as merely something that has a place within the history of Islam. But, having said that, most histories of Bhakti are not sufficiently attentive to the writings of the Sufi poets/saints; and much the same can be said for the inattentiveness to Bhakti among scholars of the Sufi movement. One of the difficulties, of course, is that everyone is now a self-proclaimed “Sufi”, which is another way of saying that liberals or inter-faith advocates who embrace “Sufism” have conveniently forgotten its grounding in the Koran. There is a lot of discussion, for instance, about the manner in which modern readings of Rumi have eviscerated the various ways in which the Koran is invoked and prefigured in Rumi’s writings. With regards to your other point about Dalits and their relation to some of the Bhakti poets, it can be argued that Dalits have certainly laid claim to Kabir, and with good reason. Milind Wakankar has delved into some of these questions in detail and with much insight.


  3. Hello Utsav Banerjee,

    I would like to take your 2nd question; there are unlimited resources perhaps there should be genuine anticipation which cannot be achieved in ambiguity this is cycle of nature you have to fight for it, by selection that can be more influential. You should visit any local library around you, sufism is a silent pooja.

    History is eternal and various tangible part of it ( resources) around our country scratch’s conscious ideological preferences which still prevails. History is never distributed and marketed not being vague. Sufism philosophy is not a mainstream segment but there are various mediums that influence the research of the subject, which itself says base of Indian language and literature is (Indo – Aryan Group) and Sanskrit was born out of it that is “foreign” for every history reader, and if this piece of information can be shared as i am certainly right now, then you should believe it has not faded away till now.

    Information has got various shapes today because we are resident of this global village that is most influential era in itself, we have to first define who are nationalist historians’ those who prefer being authors or those who have not been read till date because sufism is not loud enough; every dharm has its own homework perhaps all meet on that edge where individual dwell to seek their own celebration of destination, for example SATISH CHANDRA’S Medival history of India dissect every period according to migration and time frame which NCERT publishes and read by school students and by different administrative competition aspirants in the country.

    This Land is My Land, Book by Syeda Hameed that draws complete geography of transportation, how languages and literature got rolled on with struggle of power and so on.

    Teachers of history can manipulate history but it cannot be erased, the “two- nation theory” which point out religion perhaps, Indian Muslims still have decent fraction following Urdu in the country and it is mentioned in our Constitution that is 23 languages according to which division of states had been done that gives legitimate support to the language , what ever there may be previous assertions.

    Sources, which tells us history plays very crucial role in forming value system in society for example people who will read “Gandhi” will come to know he never agreed on one religion one nation, division of the country he expressed unity in diversity, these are such spectrums which may clean grey area but effort has to be made by individual who call him father of nation, and many others because it is inevitable to skip all the leaders of country their thoughts, that is why getting admitted in best institution is tougher. which gives major languages shape but presentations are personal and they change with time but history is same.


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