Religious Movements: Medieval History
Baljit Dhaka
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Religious Movements: Medieval History

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Ancient and Medieval History

Religious Movements: Medieval History

Religious Movements: Medieval History

Bhakti Movements

  • Bhakti was accepted as a means to attain moksha along with Jnana and Karma. 
  • The development of this cult took place in South India when the Nayanars and Alwars moved against the austerities propagated by the Buddhist and Jain schools and professed that ultimate devotion to god was the means to salvation.
  • People were no longer satisfied with a religion that emphasized only ceremonies.
  • The cult is the combined result of the teachings of various saints, through the then times.
  • Each of them had their own views, but the ultimate basis of the cult was a general awakening against useless religious practices and unnecessary strictness. 
  • The cult also emerged as a strong platform against casteism.
  • Always represent the emotional side of Vaishnavism through collective songs called Prabandhas.
  • It declined after the 10th century.
  • But it was revived as a philosophical and ideological movement by “Acharyas” (who represented the intellectual side of Vaishnavism in the 11th century)
  • Most important among them was Ramanuja, whose disciple Ramananda took it to North India.

Religious Movements: Medieval History

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Main features of Bhakti movement:

  • Discarded ritual and sacrifices,
  • Emphasised purity of heart and mind, humanism and devotion
  • Monotheistic in nature
  • God has either form (Saguna) or is formless (Nirguna)
  • Knowledge was a constituent part
  • An egalitarian movement that denounced Casteism
  • The best form of worship is singing bhajans and the realisation of God by personal effort.
  • No need for the priestly class
  • Saint preached in local languages.




Ramanuj Acharya

Dvaitavaita/ Bhedabhed

Nimbark Acharya


Madhva Acharya


Vishnu Swami

Bhakti Saints of South India


  • 9th century: started a Hindu revivalist movement giving a new orientation to Hinduism.
  • Born: Kaladi in Kerala.
  • Gave doctrine of Advaita.
  • He taught that Brahma, the only or Ultimate Reality, was formless and without any attributes i.e. Nirguna Brahma (god without attributes).
  • He considered the world around us to be an illusion or Maya. 
  • Renunciation of the world and adoption of the path of knowledge. 
  • With the emergence of the idea of Saguna Brahman (God with attributes), there was a reaction against the Advaita concept of Nirguna Brahman


  • 12th century
  • Gave doctrine of Vishishtadvaita or qualified oneness in that the soul even when united with the Supreme God remained distinct. 
  • Born: Sriperumbudur near modern Chennai. 
  • According to him, God is Saguna Brahman.  
  • All the objects in creation are real but not illusory as was held by Sankaracharya.
  • Therefore, God, soul, matter are real.  He also advocated prabattimarga or the path of self-surrender to God. 
  • To attain salvation- through intense devotion to Vishnu.


  • 13th century- propagated Dvaita or dualism of Jivatma and Paramatma.
  • Born: Pajaka near Udupi, a coastal Malabar region of southwest India in the state of Karnataka.
  • God is Saguna Brahman. 
  • According to his philosophy, the world is not an illusion but a reality. 
  • God, soul, the matter is unique in nature.
  • Nimbarka and Vallabhacharya are other preachers of Vaishnavite Bhakti in the Telangana region.

Bhakti Saints of North India

  • In the 14th and 15th centuries, Ramanand, Kabir and Nanak remained great apostles of the Bhakti cult.  
  • They drew inspiration from old masters but showed a new path to attain salvation through Bhakti or pure devotion. 
  • Unlike the early reformers, they were not linked with any particular religious creed and did not believe in rituals and ceremonies.  
  • They condemned polytheism and believed in one god.
  • Denounced all forms of idolatry. 
  • They strongly believed in Bhakti as the only means of salvation. 
  • Emphasised the fundamental unity of all religions.


  • Surdas was the disciple of Vallabhacharya and he popularized the Krishna cult in north India.
  • His compositions, compiled in the Sursagar, Sur Saravali and Sahitya Lahiri, express his devotion.
  • He was contemporary to Sankaradeva of Assam (late fifteenth century) who emphasised devotion to Vishnu, and composed poems and plays in Assamese.
  • He began the practice of setting up namghars or houses of recitation and prayer, a practice that continues to date.


  • The Rajput princess married into the royal family of Mewar in the 16th century. 
  • Mirabai became a disciple of Ravidas, a saint from a caste considered “untouchable”. 
  • She was devoted to Krishna and composed innumerable bhajans expressing her intense devotion.  
  • Her songs also openly challenged the norms of the “upper” castes and became popular with the masses in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Tulsidas :

  • Tulsidas conceived of God in the form of Rama.

Tulsidas’s composition, the Ramcharitmanas, written in Awadhi, is important both as an expression of his devotion and as a literary work.

Ramananda (14-15 century)

  • Born: Allahabad.
  • Originally a follower of Ramanuja.
  • Founded his own sect and preached his principles in Hindi at Banaras and Agra. 
  • Worshipper of Rama. 
  • First to use the vernacular medium to propagate his ideas.
  • Simplification of worship and emancipation of people from the traditional caste rules were his two important contributions to the Bhakti movement. 
  • He opposed the caste system and chose his disciples from all sections of society disregarding caste.  

His disciples were:

  • Kabir (a Muslim weaver), Raidasa(a cobbler), Sena (a barber), Sadhana (a butcher), Dhanna (a Jat farmer), Narahari (a goldsmith), Pipa(a Rajput prince)

Read Also: Sangam Age

Kabir (1440-1510)

  • Born: Banaras
  • Learnt Hinduism and Islam. 
  • His objective was to reconcile Hindus and Muslims and establish harmony between the two sects. 
  • Emphasised the essential oneness of all religions.
  • Opposed idolatry and rituals
  • For salvation, devotion to God is an effective means.
  • His followers are called Kabir Panthis.  
  • The language of his poetry- a form of spoken Hindi.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539):

  • Founder of the Sikh religion and a disciple of Kabir. 
  • Born: Talwandi near Lahore. 
  • He denounced caste distinctions and rituals like bathing in holy rivers.
  • His idea of religion was highly practical and sternly ethical.
  • His life was dedicated to establishing harmony between Hindus and Muslims. 
  • His followers were known as Sikhs.  
  • The sacred space thus created by Guru Nanak was known as Dharamshala (Gurudwara).

Bhakti saints of Maharashtra

  • From the 13th to 17th centuries Maharashtra saw a great number of saint-poets, whose songs in simple Marathi continue to inspire people.
  • The most important among them were Janeshwar, Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram as well as women like Sakkubai and the family of Chokhamela, who belonged to the “untouchable” Mahar caste.  


  • Founder of the Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra in the 13th century. 
  • It was called Maharashtra dharma.
  • He wrote a commentary of Bhagavad Gita called Gnaneswari. 
  • He opposed idol worship, priestly domination and the caste system. 


  • In the 16th century, he opposed caste distinctions and sympathetic towards the lower castes.  
  • He composed many lyrics and his bhajans and kirtans were famous. 


  • A contemporary of Shivaji. 
  • He was responsible for creating a background for Maratha nationalism.
  • He opposed all social distinctions. 

Importance of the Bhakti Movement 

  • It provided an impetus for the development of regional languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, etc.
  • Lower classes status was raised.
  • Gave equal importance to women.
  • It gave to the people a simple religion, without complicated rituals.
  • The new idea of a life of charity and service to fellow people developed.


  • Kind of a reform movement in Islam. 
  • Sufism is an English word coined in the nineteenth century.
  • The word used for Sufism in Islamic texts is Tasawwuf. 
  • Sufi word meaning has been interpreted differently by different historians.
  • Derived from word ‘suf’ means wool Or derived from word Safa means purity Or derived from word suffa means the platform outside the Prophet’s mosque.
  • Origin – in Persia
  • Came to India: 11th century 
  • Shaikh Ismail of Lahore:1 st Sufi saint to preach Sufi ideas 

Religious Movements: Medieval History

Main features:

  • Organised in different Silsilas (orders).
  • Absorbed a variety of ideas and practices from Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.
  • Sufis aimed at the service of mankind through spiritual self-development
  • Eager for Hindu-Muslim unity and cultural synthesis.
  • Opposed to orthodoxy, they preached faith and devotion to God.
  • Discouraged materialistic life but not in favour of complete renunciation.

Methods of training the heart to unite with God: 

  • Zikr (chanting of a name or sacred formula)  Contemplation  Sama (singing)
  • Raqs (dancing)
  • Discussion of parables,  Breath control etc. Under the guidance of a master or pir 


  • A genealogy of Sufi teachers
  • Each Sufi teacher follows a slightly different method (tariqa) of instruction and ritual practice.
  • Chishti Silsila  Founder:  Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (1235)  
  • Place: Ajmer
  • Al Hujwiri, who established himself in north India was buried in Lahore and regarded as the oldest Sufi in the sub-continent.
  • Among the important Sufi Orders in the history of Medieval India were those of the Chishtiya, Suhrawardiyya, Qadiriya and Naqshbandiya.
  • Chisti and the Suhrawardi silsilas were popular during the Sultanate period.
  • The Suhrawardy were active in Punjab and Sindh while the Chishti’s were active in Delhi, Rajasthan and parts of the western Gangetic plains. 
  • The patronage of this dargah peaked after the reign of the Akbar.
  • The Chishtis believed in love as the bond between God and individual soul and tolerance between people of different faiths.
  • They associated with Hindu and Jain yogi’s and used simple language.
  • The Chishti Peers laid great emphasis on the simplicity of life, poverty, humility and selfless devotion to God.
  • Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti argued that the highest form of devotion to God was to redress the misery of those in distress, fulfilling the need of the helpless and feeding the hungry.
  • Chisti’s refused to accept any grant for their maintenance from the Sultans.
  • Nizamuddin Auliya was the best known Chishti saint of the Sultanate period. 
  • He lived in the fourteenth century, during a period of political change and turmoil.
  • During his lifetime he was witness to the establishment of the Khalji rule after the death of Balban and subsequently the establishment of the Tughlaq’s.
  • Between the 14th and 16th centuries, many Chishti Sufis migrated to Gulbarga.
  • This was accompanied by a change where some of the Chishtis began accepting grants and patronage from the ruling establishment.

The Suhrawardi Silsilah

  • Founded by Shihabuddin Suhrawardi in Baghdad.
  • Established in India by Bahauddin Zakariya who founded the Suhrawardi Order, based in Multan, which was under the control of Qubacha.
  • Bahauddin Zakariya was critical of Qubacha and openly favoured Iltutmish over his rival.
  • Bahauddin Zakariya's ways were different from that of the Chishtis.
  • The Suhrawardy, unlike the Chishtis, accepted, maintenance grants from the Sultans.
  • They believed that a Sufi should possess the three attributes of property, knowledge and mystical enlightenment.
  • Bahauddin Zakariya stressed the observance of external forms of religious belief and advocated a combination of ilm (scholarship) with mysticism.
  • After his death, the silsilah continued to play an important role in Punjab and Sindh.

Naqshbandi Silsilah

  • Established by Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi.
  • From the beginning, the mystics of this Order stressed the observance of the Shariat and denounced all innovations or bidder.
  • Sheikh Baqi Billah, the successor to Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi settled near Delhi, and his successor Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi attempted to purge Islam from all liberal and what he believed were ‘un-Islamic’ practices.
  • He opposed the listening of sama (religious music) and the practice of pilgrimage to the tombs of saints.
  • Opposed interaction with Hindus and Shias.
  • He criticised the new status accorded by Akbar to many non-Muslims, the withdrawal of the Jizya and the ban on cow slaughter.
  • He believed that he was the mujaddid (renewer) of the first millennium of Islam.
  • He maintained that the relationship between man and God was that between the slave and the master and not the relation of a lover and beloved.
  • He emphasized the individual’s unique relation of faith and responsibility to God as a creator.

The Qadri Silsila

  • Popular in Punjab.
  • Sheikh Abdul Qadir and his sons were supporters of the Mughals under Akbar.
  • Famous Sufis: Miyan Mir had enrolled the Mughal princess Jahanara and her brother Dara as disciples.
  • The influence of the sheikh’s teachings is evident in the works of Prince Dara.
  • Shah Badakhshani another pir of this silsilah while dismissing orthodox elements, declared that, the infidel who had perceived reality and recognised it was a believer and that a believer who did not recognise reality was an infidel.
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