Around 5th Century Before Christ, Bhagawan Buddha started teaching the principles of Buddhism. Around the same time, Vardhamana Mahavira was also teaching the Jain spiritual path.
Common people were instantly attracted to these new religions and, a huge number started following these two masters.
For the next 10 centuries, these two religions spread like wildfire. Buddhism spread across the whole of Asia. As the centuries passed, these religions too started to lose lustre. Something new was required.
Then, during the medieval period, a new spiritual movement started in south India. It is the neo Bhakti movement.
From south India, this movement spread towards the north and left a profound impact on the life and culture of the whole of the nation that is resonating even now.
The movement began in the 5th century with a sect of saints called Alvars, in Tamil Nadu. Alvars worshipped Lord Vishnu and were called as Vaishnavites. They travelled and sung songs in praise of their deity. There were 12 Alvars, including one female saint-poet named Andal.
Along with Alvars, a sect of Shaivaits named Nayanars also began to preach the path of Bhakti in Tamil Nadu. There were sixty-three Nayanar poet-saints.
These two sects of bhakti saints carried the tradition until around 10th century.
Acharyas and Bhakti
Along with Bhakt saints, there were some Acharyas/scholars who defended the path and the importance of Bhakti. While Bhakti saints said that surrendering to God leads to salvation, these acharyas postulated theories on how the man and the God are connected.
Three prominent acharyas are Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya.
During the 8th century, Adi Shankara travelled all over India proposing his Advaita (absolute monism) philosophy. He said that God (Paramatma) and Soul (Jivatma) are not two. A profound spiritual thinker from Kerala, Shankara highlighted that Bhakti was the best method for spiritual enlightenment. He wrote the same in his devotional composition ‘Bhaj Govindam’.
In the 11th century, Acharya Ramanuja from Tamil Nadu, postulated the theory of Vishishtadvaita, or qualified monism. He tells that Lord Vishnu is the ultimate God and surrendering to him, which is Bhakti, leads to liberation.
In the 13th century, Madhvacharya from Karnataka postulated the theory of Dvaita or dualism. He says though Paramatma (God) and Jivatma (Soul) are separate entities, by devotion, the soul can reach the God.
Other important acharyas of the tradition are Nimbarka, Ramananda and Vallabhacharya.
Nimbarka, a contemporary of Ramanuja, propagated the theory of Dvaitadvaita. His Nimbarka Sampradaya teaches total devotion to Krishna and Radha.
Then came Ramananda, a 14th-century Vaishnava poet sant, the founder of the Ramanandi Sampradaya. His spiritual theories were influenced by Ramanuja and also Nath Panth. He is called as the founder of Sant tradition in north India. While he believed in Vaishnava Bhakti, he also believed in Nirguna brahman. His disciples such as Kabir promoted nirguna brahman worship.
In the 15th century, Vallabhacharya proposed the philosophy of Shuddha Advaita. He also founded the Krishna-centered Pushti sect of Vaishnavism.
While other sects of Bhakti movements started with individuals, the 12th century, Sharana Kranti movement in Karnataka was a mass movement. This movement involved more than 800 Shiva devotees named as Shiva sharanas.
They practised devotion (Bhakti) towards their chosen deity (Ishta Linga).
Around the same time, saint-poet Jayadeva promoted Bhakti tradition is Odisha. His ‘Geet Govind’ is considered one of the greatest works in Indian literature.
Bhakti tradition in Maharashtra
The Bhakti movement in Maharashtra is divided into two sects – Varakaris and Dharakaris. Varkaris are devotees of Lord Vitthal of Pandharpur. Jñāneśvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, and Tukaram were the main saints of this Bhakti tradition.
Dharakaris followed Samarth Ramadasa and are devoted to Lord Rama.
Monotheistic movements in north India
From 13th century to 17th century, the bhakti tradition spread to the northern part of India.
Ramananda was the bridge between the south and the north in the expansion of Bhakti tradition. His disciples Kabir, Raidasa, Sena, Dhanna, Sadhana, Narahari and Pipa helped promoted the tradition in the northern part of India.
While South Indian saints followed two different devotional traditions – Shaivism and Vaishnavism, North Indian saints mostly promoted Vaishnavism.
Then came Guru Nanak (1469-1539) who founded Sikhism.
At the beginning of 16 century, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu popularized the tradition of Bhakti in Bengal through his kirthans. He preached that Krishna as the supreme being.
A great poet and a devotee of Rama, Tulsidas composed the famous. Ramcharitamanas in Hindi. His other works are Vinaya-Patrika and Kavitavali.
A saint and a poet, Surdas taught love and devotion to a personal deity. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna and Radha and made use of Brajbhasa in his works, which include Sursagar, Sahitya Ratna and Sur Sarawali.
Shankar Dev (1449-1568):
Other well known Saguna bhakti saint was Sankar Dev, who popularised Vaishnava Bhakti tradition in Assam.
Narasi or Narasimha Mehta popularised Vaishnava tradition in the state of Gujarat.
Dadu Dayal (1544–1603)
Another saint from Gujarat, Dadu Dayal formed Dadu Panth.
Surdas (1478/79 – 1581/84)
Surdas was a blind from his birth. But, as an ardent devotee of lord Krishna, he composed many literary pieces, which keep him high in the Hindi literary tradition.
A Krishna devotee from Rajasthan, Meerabai is famous for her devotional verses.
Sant Charandas (1706-1782)
An 18th-century saint from Rajasthan, Charandas is also taught Krishna Bhakti. His two disciples are Sahajo Bai and Daya Bai. Both these women saints wrote devotional poetry.
In the 19th century Karnataka, Shishunala Sharif (1819-89) was an influential figure.