7 History

Devotional Paths

Learning Goals:

  • The Supreme God
  • Rebirth and reincarnation
  • Bhakti Tradition

Different people show their devotion to God in different ways. Some of them perform rituals, some sing bhajans, kirtans or qawwalis, and some are moved to tears when they do these or repeat the name of God in silence. These forms of intense devotion towards God form the foundation of various kinds of Bhakti and Sufi movements that have evolved since the 8th century.

The Idea of Supreme God

Before the emergence of large kingdoms, different groups worshipped different Gods. We have read in the previous chapter about different tribes worshipping their tribal Gods. New ideas regarding God began to develop when people were brought together through the growth of towns, trade and empires. There was wide acceptance of the idea that all people passed through countless cycles of birth and rebirth performing good and bad deeds. The idea of all human beings not being equal right from birth, also gained ground during this period. Many learned texts dealt with the ideas of social privileges that came from birth in a ‘noble family’ or ‘high caste’.

Those people who were not comfortable (there were many such people) with the above ideas turned to the teachings of Buddha or the Jainas. According to these teachings it was possible to break the cycle of rebirth through personal effort. There were some who endorsed the idea of a Supreme God who could relieve people from such bondage if approached with devotion or bhakti. This idea was advocated in the Bhagwadgita and became more popular in the early centuries of the Common Era.

Worship of Shiva, Vishnu and Durga as supreme deities through elaborate rituals became popular. Also, at the same time, the gods and goddesses worshipped in different areas came to be identified with Shiva, Vishnu or Durga. In the process, local myths and legends became a part of the Puranic stories. Also methods of worship recommended in the Puranas were introduced into local cults. It was also laid down in the Puranas that it was possible to receive the grace of God regardless of the caste status of the local cults. There was so much increase in the idea of bhakti that even Buddhists and Jainas adopted these beliefs.

Concept of bhakti in South India

A new kind of bhakti evolved in South India in the seventh to ninth century, comprising of the emergence of new religious movements which were led by Nayanars and Alvars. Nayanars were saints devoted to Shiva and Alvars were saints devoted to Vishnu. They belonged to all castes, including the ones who were considered untouchable like the Pulaiyar and Panars. They were highly critical of the Buddhists and Jainas and preached the ardent love of Shiva or Vishnu as the path to salvation. They preached the ideas of love and heroism found in the Sangam literature and blended them with the values of bhakti.

Sangam literature is the earliest example of Tamil literature, composed during the early centuries of the Common Era.

The Nayanars and Alvars went from place to place composing exquisite poems in the praise of deities that were enshrined in the villages they visited, and set these poems to music.

The tenth to twelfth centuries

Cholas and Pandya kings built many temples between the tenth and twelfth centuries. These were built around many of the shrines visited by the saint-poets. This helped in strengthening the links between the bhakti tradition and temple worship.

Hagiographies or religious biographies of the Alvars and Nayanars were also composed. These texts are used today to write histories of the bhakti tradition.


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