Bhakti could be described as loving of one’s chosen god or goddess the way a lover loves their beloved, a parent loves their child, or a friend loves another friend. Bhakti is a deeply personal spiritual intimacy on the part of the devotee, and open to everyone regardless of gender or caste. Bhakti as a devotional practice was never exclusively Hindu but also important in Buddhist and Jain traditions, having spread to Sufism, Christianity and Sikhism as well (note 1).
As a Hindu devotional philosophy and a means to achieve moksha (note 2), Bhakti has been known for millennia but didn’t really become popular until the early medieval period around 600 AD. At that time, seemingly out of nowhere, itinerant poet-saints began wandering from temple to temple throughout south India chanting deeply personal, and at times frankly erotic, hymns praising their chosen gods and goddesses. When focussed upon Vishnu and/or his avatar, Krishna they were known as these poets were known as Alvars, when praising Shiva they were Nayanars, and when the focus was upon one of the Divine Goddesses they were Shaktics.
Prior to the rise of Bhakti, Hindu worship was primarily a function of an ancient Vedic sacrifice ritual carried out by Brahmin priests deep inside the temples. Devotions were a quid pro quo type of ceremony where the worshipper, through the priests, would offer something of value, such as food or flowers or cash, to the deity in exchange for a gift or their blessing. Bhakti offered a much more personal alternative for the worshipper, a direct connection to God, without the need for either priests or structured ritual. Temple worship remains an important element of Hindu practice, however it is the personal devotion of Bhakti through which most Hindus offer their prayers, whether through a simple puja ceremony at home or a quick invocation to a postcard of Ganesh on the dashboard of their autorickshaw.
Note 1 – personal devotion to the Buddha may have been common practice from Buddhism’s earliest days (500 BC) though Bhakti as a term is Hindu in origin.
Note 2 – the two other paths to achieve moksha are; a) Vedic ritual and knowledge, and b) Yogic meditation and contemplation on the nature of Brahman.
Bhakti – The Love of GodTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:24:22-08:00
When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.
A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.
“Youth who shines as a ruby, In a cluster of emeralds! Being who enters my heart, Stirring memory! Come to me in my sleep, Be my friend, Give me refuge in your grace, O dweller in Avatuturai!”
As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.
Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.
Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long.
Hinduism in The Chola EmpireTerry Curell2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00