Bhakti ideals, the Nirguna movement and rise of Sikhism

At a time when north India had immersed itself into the fathomless waters of practising orthodox evils in the likes of the obdurate four-fold societal division (in this context, the division is based on birth; originally however, social division was occupation-based in nature) into the varnashramas (Rig Veda, hymn 10.90), polytheism, untouchability (chandals and doms, who were ostracised as outcastes) and bowing down to the unassailable supremacy of the Brahmanas (priestly class, who effectuated the sacred rituals, as stated in the scriptures, in order to help a devotee attain salvation [moksha or mukti: the ultimate goal of life]), a more just and humane approach towards divine dharma and the ideal human karma, came from far flung south.
What is known to us as the Bhakti movement today, was actually a series of reformative (in the sense that the varna system, in every way, was rejected, polytheism opposed, and the so very authoritative rituals were questioned) doctrines inside Hinduism, as had been propagated by the medieval Indian saints, especially poet-seers that came from the south, the earliest examples of them being the Saiva Nayanars and their contemporary, the Vaishnava Alvars. Their message was simple and effortlessly construable: salvation is a path that all men, irrespective of what societal background he may belong to, can stride on, solely through love and faithful devotion (bhakti) to their (movements were, at times, divided with regard to the Hindu sampradaya (sect) they would follow) venerate Amighty (Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Smartism and Shaktism had all (except for Shrautism, that followed the teachings of the Purva Mimansa ideology) come under the Bhakti influence).
As a consequence, scholars Karine Schomer and WH McLeod, in their work entitled ‘The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India’ have come to observe that “Salvation, once considered unattainable except by men of the three upper castes, came to be seen as the prerogative of all, and spiritual leadership shifted from the Brahman priest knowledgeable about ritual and Sanskrit scriptures to the figure of the popular poet-saint who composed fervent songs of devotion in the regional vernacular.”
The consequent impact of this movement, on the society, was three-fold: A socio-religious, in the sense that the societal division, often taken to be one of the greatest legacies of the Vedic age, was forsworn, and Hinduism, after the reformation, became acceptable to the people anew, leading to the gradual decline of Buddhism, Jainism and the other shramana schools in the Indian landmass, b. politico-administrative, and, c. a sudden outpour of a lot of Hindu religious works and the popularisation of the vernacular languages in which they were usually composed.
The Bhakti movement was diverse and although regionalised in nature, widespread. Its roots stemmed out of the Peninsular plateau in around the 7th century AD, and within another four centuries, the branches of the ever-expanding tree had resolutely extended to, and established their ideals in the likeness of parasols over the Central, Northern and Eastern Indian populace (Jainism continued to be preached, as it is preached even today, in the Western Indian kingdoms, for their patronage was extended mostly by the detested mercantile class. Even then, Bhakti poet-saints like Mirabai, Rajjab, Charan Das, and the Dadupanthis were not a very uncommon sight).
The word ‘Bhakti’ has its origins in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (hymn 6.23), which, as translated by Paul Deussen in his ‘Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1’, reads, “He who has highest Bhakti (love, devotion) of Deva (God), just like his Deva, so for his Guru (teacher), To him who is high-minded, these teachings will be illuminating.”
Every ‘guru’ that so came into being, had his own path to moksha. As they gradually emerged, with their gospels, in hundreds and thousands, the basic framework of Hinduism, as people knew it until then, was altered. If a closer look is taken at the divisions of the Hindu sampradayas that now exist, it would be amusing to observe how each of them revere (taking the non-Puranic Saivite philosophy as an example) the Shiva as the common Lord of the Universe, notwithstanding which the ‘how to worship Shiva’ is so varied and so discrete. For an illustration, while the Nathpanthis, who adhered themselves to the teachings of Goraknath and Matsyendranath revered the sattva (goodness) qualities of Shiva, the Kapalikas and the Aghoris worshipped Lord Bhairava, a tamasic incarnation of the Shiva. Yet, their destinations remained the same, the ultimate goal of life and that of their teachings being the attainment of moksha or salvation, through paths that differed, not only in terms of the ‘how to worship’ but also, ‘which incarnation to worship’. The same holds true for the Vaishnavite sects as well, though it is to be noted that, most, and not all of the sects, however subsistent they might be, (in both Shaivism and Vaishnavism) trace their origin to the Bhakti times.
The two broader and more popular dimensions of the Bhakti movement that encompass most of the above talked about regionalised movements under their parasols, include the Nirguna Bhakti and the Saguna Bhakti. In his work ‘Talks on the Gita’, eminent philosopher and the man behind the Bhoodan Movement, Acharya Vinoba Bhave notes that the “discussion of bhakti is going to be completed in the Twelfth Chapter. Arjuna has asked a question here, which is similar to what he had asked in the Fifth Chapter, when the exposition of the science of life was concluded. He asks: “Some devotees worship you in saguna form, while others worship you in nirguna form. Whom do you like more?”
Nirguna and Saguna hence, as can be inferred from the aforesaid interpretation of verses in the Bhagavad Gita, be said to, in generalised words, represent the forms in which a devotee worships the Almighty. A more contextual explanation for the same has been provided by Bhave himself, in the following paragraphs, where he states that, “It is just like asking a mother having two sons, “Whom do you love more?” The younger son is a little child, deeply attached to his mother. He is happy only in her company and is restive if she is out of sight even for a moment. He cannot bear separation from her even for a moment. Without her, the world is like a big void for him. The elder son too is full of love for the mother, but he is grown up and mature. He can stay away from her. He serves her and takes all the burden and responsibility upon himself. Being absorbed in work, he can endure separation from her. He is admired by the world and his reputation pleases his mother. If you tell this mother that she can have only one of these two sons and she will have to choose between them, what could she do? How can she make a choice? Try to understand her plight. She will be totally nonplussed and may mumble, “I can bear separation from the elder one if I cannot help it.” It is more difficult for her to tear away the younger son from her bosom. His special attachment to her will weigh with her and she may reply accordingly. But it cannot be said to be the real answer to the question as to which of the two sons is dearer to her. She will reply, if she must; but it would not be proper to take her words literally…The question of choice between saguna and nirguna is similar. The saguna devotee serves the Lord through his organs, whereas the nirguna devotee thinks of the good of the whole world…These two types of devotees may appear outwardly different, but they are intrinsically one and the same. Both of them are dear to the Lord…Bharat, Rama’s brother, is an example of nirguna devotee and Lakshman, another brother, is an example of saguna devotee.”
Sikhism, a way of life, founded sometime in and around 1500 AD by Guru Nanak Dev, a spiritual preacher originally associated with the Nirguna Bhakti movement, discarded, as observed by Eleanor Nesbitt in her work ‘Sikhism: a very short introduction’, the Saguna theory of avatara and instead stressed on the formlessness of God and his universal existence, as was propounded by the thirteenth century Vaishnavite poet-saint Namdev.
“I long not for a kingdom or for mukti but only for the lotus feet of the Lord”, a statement from the holy Guru Granth Sahib makes it more manifested.
The Sikh Encyclopaedia tries to shed some light on the underlying features of Sikhism that seem similar to the Bhakti cult and the major differences, if any, between the two. “For the Bhakti cults, bhakti is the be-all and end all of everything; for Sikhism two other crucially important ends are ethical living and spiritual liberation. The cultivation of moral qualities, in Sikhism, is the requisite precondition for bhakti.” “Without morality bhakti is not practicable”, is what the Guru Granth Sahib states on the same.
That the Bhakti movement has had no effect, whether it be implicit or explicit, on Sikhism, would be factually incorrect to state, for major Sikh tenets like formlessness of God, universality, openness to willing followers without discrimination, and the blatant rejection of the Saguna concept of avatara and personification, have been primarily drawn from the Nirguna Bhakti movement, of which Guru Nanak Dev himself, was an important part. For instance, in the Guru Granth Sahib itself, besides the writings of the six Sikh gurus (Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Angad, Guru Arjan Dev, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Teg Bahadur), there is a separate section (Bani Bhagtaan Ki) devoted entirely to the teachings of fifteen important Bhakti saints, some prominent names amongst them being Kabir, Namdev, Surdas, Ramanand, and Jaidev.
However, besides the aforesaid Sikh tenets, there does exist a specific Nanakpanthi (philosophy first propagated by Guru Nanak Dev) ideology that includes the practice of fearlessness, the five K’s (Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (a wooden comb), Kara (an iron bracelet), Kachera (cotton underpants) and Kirpan (an iron dagger)), the practice of not living on alms but on what a Sikh would earn from his own labour (kirt), and the selective acceptance of bhajans and kirtans, while rejecting the rigid Bhakti practices of tantras, sacrifices and upasanas, thus forming a very valid reason as to why Sikhism cannot simply be taken to have emanated out of, without change or modifications, the Bhakti principles. How Sikhism came into being is actually a process that can be, in the generalised terminology, called evolution, amalgamating some of the widely practiced Nirguna Bhakti ideologies with, and incorporating in them, additions somewhat based on the socio-political ambience of their times, helping followers of the faith to choose a life of dharmic practicality and not one that would simply encompass the dimensions of devotional mysticism and spirituality.
Note: In this article, I have refrained myself from using ‘caste’ in order to replace ‘varna’. Although the aforesaid use has been generalised by most scholars and academics now, ‘caste’ when seen in the Hindu standards, transliterates to ‘jati’, a concept that is entirely different to and at times, a subsidiary of the ‘varnashrama’. For instance, among Brahmins (which is a varna), Kulina Brahmin is a ‘jati’ or a caste. Hence, it is to be kept in mind that every varna has a separate hierarchy of jatis and that not all castes under the Brahmana varna enjoyed equal dominance in society.

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He can be reached at