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Chapter 14. Sufi And Bhakti (Indian History Notes)




The medieval period saw the rise and growth of the Sufi and Bhakti movement in India. These movements brought a new form of religious expression amongst people. The Sufis were mystics who emphasised on an egalitarian society based on universal love. The Bhakti saints transformed Hinduism by introducing bhakti as the means to attain God. They considered all human beings as equal irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
They did everything to establish brotherhood between the Hindus and Muslims. They were called ‘Sufi’saints.
The Sufi movement was a socio-religious movement that was a solution to the problems mentioned above. The exponents of this movement were Muslim saints who had a deep knowledge of Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy. They had come in contact with sages and seers of India and could see the Indian religion closely. The Sufi movement in India, therefore, was the result of the Hindu influence on Islam.
This movement influenced both the Muslims and Hindus and thus, provided a common platform for the two.
► Sufism emerged in India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
► One of the early Sufis of eminence was Al-Hujwari, popularly known as Data Ganj Baksh (Distributor of Unlimited Treasure). By the fourteenth centuries, the Sufism had spread to Kashmir, Bihar, Bengal and the Deccan.
► The Sufis came to India via Afghanistan on their own free will. Their emphasis upon a pure life, devotional love and service to humanity made them popular and earned them a place of honour in Indian society.
► Abul Fazl while writing in the Ain-i-Akbari speaks of fourteen silsilahs of the Sufis.
► These silsilahs were divided into two types: Bashara and Be-shara. Ba-shara were those orders that followed the Islamic Law (Sharia) and its directives such as namaz and roza.
Chief amongst these were the Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdawsi, Qadiri and Naqshbandi silsilahs.
The be-shara silsilahs were not bound by the Sharia.
The Qalandars belonged to this group.
Sufi Orders
An order is also called a tariqah (pl. turuq), which is the Arabic word for ‘path’ or ‘way’. Sufi orders include a broad spectrum of activities. Sufis gradually became important part of the religious life of the general population and began to gather around themselves groups of followers who were identified and bound together by the special mystic path of the teacher. By the twelfth century A.D. (the fifth century in the Islamic era), these paths began to provide the basis for more permanent fellowships, and Sufi orders emerged as major social organizations in the Islamic community.
Sufi orders were characterized by central prescribed rituals, which involved regular meetings for recitations of prayers, poems, and selections from the Quran. These meetings were usually described as acts of “remembering God” or dhikr (Zikr). In addition, daily devotional exercises for the followers were also set, as were other activities of special meditation, asceticism, and devotion. The founder was the spiritual guide for all followers in the order, who would swear a special oath of obedience to him as their shaykh or teacher. As orders continued, the record of the transmission of the ritual would be preserved in a formal chain of spiritual descent, called a silsilah. As orders became firmly established, leadership would pass from one shaykh to the next, sometimes within a family line and sometimes on the basis of spiritual seniority/ mastery within the tariqah.
The Chishti Order
The Chishti order was founded in village Khwaja Chishti (near Herat). In India, the Chishti silsilah was founded by Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (born A.D. 1142) who came to India around A.D. 1192. He made Ajmer the main centre for his teaching. He believed that serving mankind was the best form of devotion. He died in Ajmer in 1236. Ajmer became a leading pilgrim centre during Mughal period because the emperors regularly visited the Sheikh’s tomb.
Even today, millions of devotees visit his dargah. Among his disciples were Sheikh Hamiduddin of Nagaur and Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. The former lived the life of a poor peasant, cultivated land and refused Iltutmish’s offer of a grant of villages. Sultan Iltutmish dedicated the Qutub Minar to saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki.
Another saint – Sheikh Fariduddin of Ajodhan (Pattan in Pakistan) – popularised the Chishti silsilah in modern Haryana and Punjab. Popular as Baba Farid, he was respected by both Hindus and Muslims. His verses, written in Punjabi, are quoted in the Adi Granth.Baba Farid’s disciple Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) was responsible for making Delhi an important centre of the Chishti silsilah. He came to Delhi in 1259 and saw the reign of seven sultans. Amongst his followers was the noted writer Amir Khusrau.
Another famous Chishti saint was Sheikh Nasiruddin Mahmud, popularly known as Nasiruddin Chirag-i-Dilli (The Lamp of Delhi). Following his death in 1356 and the lack of a spiritual successor, the disciples of the Chishti silsilah moved out towards eastern and southern India.
The Suhrawardi Order
This silsilah was founded by Sheikh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi. It was established in India by Sheikh
Bahauddin Zakariya (1182-1262). He set up a leading khanqah in Multan, which was visited by rulers, high government officials and rich merchants. Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya openly took Iltutmisht’s side in his struggle against Qabacha and received from him the title Shaikhul Islam (Leader of Islam). It must be noted that unlike the Chishti saints, the Suhrawardis maintained close contacts with the state. They accepted gifts, jagirs and even government posts in the ecclersiastical department.
The Suhrawardi silsilah was firmly established in Punjab and Sind. Besides these two silsilahs there were others such as the Firdawsi Silsilah, Shattari Silsilah, Qadiri Silsilah, Naqshbandi Silsilah.
Importance of Sufi Movement
1. Spread of Islam
Sufi orders had been vehicles in the missionary expansion of Islam. The approach of Sufis often involved an adaptation to specific local customs and practices. This helped Islam to become a part of popular religious activity with a minimum of conflict. At the same time, the traditions of the Sufi devotions represented ties to the broad Islamic world that could integrate the newer believers into the identity of the Islamic community as a whole. In this way, orders like the Qadiriyah played a significant role in the expansion of Islam.
2. A reformist movement
The liberal ideas and unorthodox principles of Sufism had a profound influence on Indian society. The liberal principles of Sufi sects encouraged many Muslim rulers to pursue tolerant attitude to their non-Muslim subjects. Most Sufi saints preached their teachings in the language of common man that contributed greatly to the evolution of various Indian languages like Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Kashmiri and Hindi. The impact of Sufi Movement was deeply felt on some renowned poets of the period, like Amir Khusrau and Malik Muhammad Jayasi who composed poems in Persian and Hindi in praise of Sufi principles.
3. Spiritual progress of followers
Different Sufi traditions were involved in many different ways in helping to shape Muslim responses and also in defining Islamic forms of modernity. Sufi orders continued to serve as an important basis for popular devotional life; they were important forces in responding to imperial rule; they helped to provide organizational and intellectual inspiration for Muslim responses to modern challenges to the faith; and they continued to be an important force in the mission of Muslims to non-Muslims.
4. Enrichment of Culture
Sufi saints contributed greatly to the growth of a rich regional literature. Most of the Sufi saints were poets who chose to write in local languages. Baba Farid recommended the use of Punjabi for religious writings. Shaikh Hamiduddin, before him, wrote in Hindawi. Syed Gesu Daraz was the first writer of Deccani Hindi. A number of Sufi works were also written in Bengali.The most notable writer of this period was Amir Khusrau (l252-1325). He took pride in being an Indian and looked at the history and culture of Hindustan as a part of his own tradition.


Bhakti movement took place in Tamil Nadu between the seventh and twelfth centuries. It found expression in the poems of the Nayanars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars
(devotees of Vishnu). These saints looked upon religion as a strong bond based upon love between the worshipped and worshipper. They wrote in Tamil and Telugu and were able to reach out to masses.
Main Features
The Bhakti saints made no distinction of caste, creed or religion before God. They themselves came from diverse backgrounds. Ramananda, whose disciples included Hindus and Muslims, came from a conservative brahman family.
His disciple, Kabir, was a weaver. Guru Nanak was a village accountant’s son. Namdev was a tailor. The saints stressed equality, disregarded the caste system and attacked institutionalised religion. The saints did not confine themselves to purely religious ideas. They advocated social reforms too.
They opposed sati and female infanticide. Women were encouraged to join kirtans.Mirabai and Lalla (of Kashmir) composed verses that are popular even today.
Role of Local Language
An effective method for spreading of the Bhakti ideology was the use of local languages. The Bhakti saints composed their verses in local languages. Thus we haveJnanadeva
writing in Marathi, Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas in Hindi, Shankaradeva popularising Assamese, Chaitanya and Chandidas spreading their message in Bengali, Mirabai in Hindi and Rajasthani. In addition, devotional poetry was composed in Kashmiri, Telugu, Kannad, Oriya, Malayalam, Maithili and Gujarati.
Bhakti Saints
Amongst Bhakti saints, the most outstanding contribution was made by Kabir and Guru Nanak. Their ideas were drawn from both Hindu and Islamic traditions and were aimed at bridging the gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Kabir (1440-1518) was brought up in the house of a Muslim weaver. Kabir said that the Creator is One. His God was called by many names – Rama, Hari, Govinda, Allah, Rahim, Khuda, etc. It is the reason that the Muslims claim him as Sufi, the Hindus call him Rama-Bhakta and the Sikhs incorporate his songs in the Adi Granth. The external aspects of religion were meaningless for Kabir. His beliefs and ideas were reflected in the dohas (Sakhi) composed by him.
Kabir emphasised simplicity in religion and said that bhakti was the easiest way to attain God. He refused to accept any prevalent religious belief without prior reasoning. Kabir’s belief in the unity of God led both Hindus and Muslims to become his disciples.Kabir’s ideas were not restricted to religion. He attempted to change the narrow thinking of society. His poetry was forceful and direct. It was easily understood and much of it has passed into our everyday language.
Guru Nanak
Guru Nanak (1469-1539)was born at Talwandi (Nankana Sahib). From an early age, he showed inclination towards a spiritual life. He was helpful to the poor and needy. His disciples called themselves Sikhs (derived from Sanskrit sisya, disciple or Pali sikkha, instruction). Guru Nanak showed a new path for the establishment of an egalitarian social order.
Like Kabir, Guru Nanak was as much a social reformer as he was a religious teacher. He called for an improvement in the status of women. He said that women who give birth to kings should not be spoken ill of. His vani (words) along with those of other Sikh Gurus have been brought together in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.
The Vaishnavite Movement
Saints such as Kabir, Namdev and Guru Nanak had preached devotion towards a nirankar form of God. During the same period, another movement based upon devotion towards a sakar form of God had also developed. This movement was called the Vaishnavite movements which focused on the worship of Rama and Krishna as incarnations (avatars) of Lord Vishnu. Its main exponents were Surdas, Mirabai, Tulsidas and Chaitanya. The path to salvation, according to them, was through poetry, song, dance and kirtans.
The blind poet Surdas (1483-1563) was a disciple of Vallabhachara. His Sursagar recounts the exploits of Krishna during his childhood and youth.
► The love for Krishna was also expressed through the songs of Mirabai (l503-73). Her poems have a quality of their own and are popular even today.
► The Vaishnavite movement spread in the east through the efforts of Chaitanya (1484-1533). Chaitanya considered Krishna as the highest form of God. The devotion for Krishna was expressed through Sankirtans (hymn session by devotees).
► The worship of Rama was popularised by saints like Ramananda (1400-1470). He considered Rama as the supreme God.
Tulsidas (l532-1623) wrote the Ramacharitmanas.
The Vaishnavite saints called for reforms in religion and love amongst fellow beings. Their philosophy was broadly humanist.
At the same time, Bhakti saints like Vallabhacharya, Ramanuja, Nimbaraka brought about new philosophical thinking which had its origin in Shankaracharya’s advaita (non-dualism) philosophy.
Vishistadvaita of Ramanujacharya
Vïshistadvaita means modified monism. The ultimate reality according to this philosophy is Brahman (God) and matter and soul are his qualities.
Sivadvaita of Srikanthacharya
According to this philosophy the ultimate Brahman is Shiva, endowed with Shakti. Shiva exists in this world as well as beyond it.
Dvaita of Madhavacharya
The literal meaning of dvaita is dualism which stands in opposition to non-dualism and monism of Shankaracharya.
He believed that the world is not an illusion (maya) but a reality full of differences.
Dvaitadvaita of Nimbaraka
Dvaitadvaita means dualistic monism. According to this philosophy God transformed himself into world and soul.
This world and soul are different from God (Brahman). They could survive with the support of God only. They are separate but dependent.
Suddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya
Vallabhacharya wrote commentaries on Vedanta Sutra and Bhagavad Gita. According to him, Brahman (God) was Sri Krishna who manifested himself as souls and matter.
God and soul are not distinct, but one. The stress was on pure non-dualism. His philosophy came to be known as Pushtimarga (the path of grace) and the school was called Rudrasampradaya.
Points to Remember
► The Sufi and Bhakti movements were religious movements within Islam and Hinduism emphasising a personalised relationship between the human being and God.
► The message of the Sufi movement was universal love and brotherhood of mankind.
► Due to its belief in the concept of unity of being, Sufism was able to establish an ideological relationship with Hindu philosophy.
► The Bhakti movement grew amongst Nayanars and Alvars of the south and stressed upon a new method of worship of God.
► The Bhakti saints were divided into the Nirgun and Sagun believers.
► Unlike the Nirgun believers the Sagun believers saw God as having a definite form such as Rama or Krishna.
► The Bhakti and Sufi saints made valuable contributions to medieval Indian society by promoting social harmony and growth of regional literature and local languages.
The Mughal Empire

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