The Bhakti Movement
The Development of Devotional Hinduism
Devotion to God
~ With or Without Form ~
[The bhaktas or] saints (as they are often called in English) have enough in common for the phrase “bhakti movement” to be meaningful; but it should not be imagined that it was the undifferentiated spread of a single mode of worship. Wherever bhakti arose, it found expression in accordance with the period, place, and personality of worshipper and worshipped. Some bhaktas adored God in a particular form; others gave their devotion to the Formless. Some formal worshippers preferred Vishnu or his incarnations, others Shiva, and still others the Mother Goddess. Some pursued a path of quiet inwardness, others the demonstrative expression of intense emotion. Despite these and other differences, the various bhakti traditions had a number of things in common. Most gave considerable importance to the Name of the Divine, which was considered not a label but a living portion of the godhead. Chanting the Name and singing songs about the beauty and majesty of the chosen deity (istadevata) were frequent forms of worship. Temple ritual, though often given a place, was regarded as inferior to direct communion with the ista devata. Accordingly, the offices of the priest were considered less important than the initiation and guidance of a guru. Most bhakti traditions were open to men and women of all castes; a number of influential bhaktas were women or outcastes. On account of this comparative freedom from the strictures of the Hindu social system and from temple organisation and Sanskrit learning, the bhakti movement was implicitly revolutionary and in some cases actively anti-establishment. (Indian Religions, 304)
The “Sagun” Tradition
Worshiping God With Form
The heart of the sagun school is attachment to a name and form of the Divine, often of a particular avatar. Its bhaktas gave expression to the moods and emotions of specific human relationships: pupil and teacher, child and mother, lover and beloved. (Indian Religions, 357)
The Miraculous
The Birth of a Shrine
[Krishna], with skin the color of blue-gray storm clouds, had spent his childhood and adolescence in Vrindaban, on the pastoral shores of the Yamuna River. ... One of his most famous pranks was to tease a group of cowherd women who had left their clothes on the bank of the Yamuna when they bathed. While they were in the water, Krishna stole their clothes and hung them in the branches of a kadamba tree on the riverbank. The young women pleaded with Krishna to give them back their clothes, but he refused to so until they came out of the river and faced him in their nakedness. Once they had dropped their veils before the divine presence, it is said, Krishna promised them that for the first time they could join him in the great circle dance of union [rasa lila].
In time Krishna had to leave the scenes of his happy youth and assume his rightful place in the royal house of Mathura. He left behind Radha and her friends, who were inconsolable. One day as the women were sitting on the banks of the Yamuna, at the spot where Krishna had come ashore for his nocturnal trysts with Radha, Krishna’s trusted friend Uddhava arrived from Mathura to comfort them. He told them that Krishna, the fundamental essence of everything in the world, could in no way be separated from them, so why should they grieve?

In reply, the women spoke eloquently of their love for Krishna, of their delight in caring for him, serving him, and embracing him. So great was their feeling that Uddhava was convinced that devotion like theirs was a more direct path to realization of Krishna than all the knowledge and ritual practice he had assiduously cultivated. Overcome, he was about to prostrate himself before them and touch Radha’s feet in devotion. Just then, a bhramara landed on the ground near Radha’s feet. ... Some say that the bhramara was the embodiment of Uddhava’s newfound devotion, others that it was Krishna himself, who could not bear the separation from his beloved Radha. (The Life of Hinduism, 53-4)
In 1515 C.E., when the area around what is today Vrindaban was still an uninhabited forest, the Bengali saint Caitanya came here to identify the sites. He used to sit in meditation near the same long-lived kadamba tree under which the cowherd women had emerged without their clothes, and pray that he, too, would lose the veils before his eyes. In a state of ecstasy, he became aware of the location of many of the sacred sites, and other holy men associated with him identified additional ones. When Caitanya left Vrindaban, he charged his most able followers, the Six Goswamis, to establish Vrindaban as a pilgrimage center where reenactments of the pastimes of Radha, Krishna, and their companions could be enjoyed by devotees. (The Life of Hinduism, 54-5)

[In 1992, Maharj-ji, a direct descendant of one of the followers of the Six Goswamis,] decided to organize an astayama lila — the eternal lila — eight successive daily performances depicting twenty -four hours in the life of Radha and Krishna, three hours at a time. ... His devotees believe that Krishna still lives in Vrindaban and the land around it, and that he and Radha play there still. Before the lila could begin, it was necessary to invoke these eternal performers, to bring the space and the time to life. Beginning on the morning of October 31, for twenty-four hours, a relay team of sadhus recited the mahamantra: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare,” marking out time and space with the name of the divinity. (Hare is the vocative of Hara, which means “one who steals the heart” of Krishna — that is to say, Radha. “Hare Krishna” thus means “Radha Krishna.” Rama comes from the Sanskrit too, meaning “to dally, go around with, keep company with” Radha, so “Hare Rama” again invokes the names of Radha and Krishna.) ...
These ceremonies all took place under a large tent that covered the site of Radha’s and Krishna’s trysts, right behind Krishna’s ghat. On the rear wall of the tent was a large painted hanging that had been created especially for the occasion. It depicted Radha and her companions under a tree, looking at a large bhramara at Radha’s feet ....
After all the brahmins had spoken, Maharaj-ji asked one of his followers to speak. Just as she finished her invocation, a large black insect, about two inches long and looking very much like the bhramara in the painting, flew into the tent from the direction of the river and landed on the ground in front of her. Astounded, those devotees who were close enough to see rose to their feet, exclaiming, “Jai ho!” and “Jai Sri Radhe!” The visitor danced on the ground and flew up to dance in the air, alighting two or three more times. After less than a minute, it flew off again in the direction from which it had first come. Maharaj-ji spoke, saying that the divine spirit can take any form, and for those who could see with devotion and love, it was Krishna’s presence that had become visible. He declared that a beautiful bower should be created to commemorate this manifestation. ... An octagonal platform was prepared from the sand of the Yamuna River and decorated with small statues of Radha’s companions, as well as flowers, banana-wood carvings, and auspicious patterns drawn with colored powders. In the center was an eight-petaled lotus made of banana wood. To dedicate a shrine to a deity, an image is needed, so a photograph of the bhramara taken at its first appearance was placed in a silver frame and kept to one side until needed by the priest. During the first part of the ritual, all went as planned. But then, just at the moment when the priest asked for the photograph of the bhramara to be placed on the platform, the bhramara itself was sighted. It flew in again from the north and landed on the ground next to the octagonal platform, opposite the priests. A devotee picked it up carefully on a leaf and placed it on the platform, where it walked directly to the central lotus and installed itself underneath the flower. There it stayed quietly throughout the rest of the ceremony. ... The bhramara made a third appearance two nights later. ... This time there was no image on the platform — the site itself was the sacred object of worship. Puja was performed: oblations of milk, honey, yogurt, ghee, and sugar were poured into the sand of the platform during the chanting of mantras. Then as devotional songs were being sung, the bhramara flew in. This time it stayed behind the small gathering, landing on the rug and rising repeatedly to dance and swoop in the air, with every appearance of pure happiness. (The Life of Hinduism, 55-9)
In many forms of Indic religion, the highest state of existence is thought of as a formless one, full of consciousness unrelated to any object, but not so in Vaisnavism. In Vaisnavism, the highest state of existence is one formed and embodied with indestructible, unchanging bodies of consciousness. Thus, in order to enter into the sport of Radha and Krsna, one needs an eternal body of consciousness. ... One needs, along with that body of consciousness, an identity or “role” that fits into the eternal narrative that informs the unending sport of Radha and Krsna. The cultivation of these bodies of consciousness with their appropriate identities forms the substance of the final level of religious practice in Caitanya Vaisnavism, and it is to this level of practice that Krsnadasa’s text pertains. (Religions of India in Practice, 245)
In his description of this practice, Rupa suggests that any of Krsna’s eternal associates might act as models for a “perfected” body and that thereby one can cultivate the feelings of that associate in the exercise of his or her relationship with Krsna. ... The most common relationship to Radha and Krsna is that represented by the manjari, which literally means “flowering bud.” A manjari in the sport of Radha and Krsna is a younger girlfriend of Radha who is in part a friend (an equal) and in part a servant (a subordinate). As a girlfriend she is included among Radha’s confidantes when the latter goes to meet and enjoy Krsna. As a servant she is given certain intimate services to perform that make her a witness to and participant in the most private aspects of the sport of Radha and Krsna. The members of the tradition regard this intimate access as a special grace bestowed upon them by the loving couple through Caitanya. ... The other identity that has been cultivated in the Caitanya tradition is that of the male cowherd friend of Krsna. (Religions of India in Practice, 246-7)
The day of Radha and Krsna is divided into eight periods that act as divisions of their sport, and these periods correspond to eight divisions of roughly three hours each in the day of the practitioner, and thus can be given exact times in the earthly day of twenty-four hours. This allows a practitioner to visualize what Radha and Krsna are doing at any time during the day. The practitioner is expected to fill his or her day with the visualization or “remembering” of the sport of Radha and Krsna as Krsnadasa has described it, using his or her perfected body and identity as the perspective from which the sport is viewed. Eventually, the sport comes alive and the practitioner becomes a spontaneous participant in the sport, gradually shifting his or her identity from the “practitioner’s” body to the “perfected” body. When the practitioner’s material body dies, as it must in time, the erstwhile practitioner’s consciousness moves permanently to the perfected body and lives on in the eternal sport of Radha and Krsna in its new form and identity as an eternal associate. (Religions of India in Practice, 247)
“O twice-born, sometimes the couple along with their friends become tired from the many games suited to those various moments and, finding the base of a tree, most true of sages, they sit on shining seats and drink honey wine. Then, becoming intoxicated by that honey wine, their eyes drooping with sleep, they take hold of each others’ hands and fall to the arrows of desire. Desiring to make love they enter a bower along the path, their words and minds faltering, and they enjoy themselves there like leaders of elephants. The friends too, being intoxicated with honey, their eyes laden with sleep, all lie down in pretty bowers all around, and Krsna too, the powerful, visits all of them simultaneously with separate bodies, being repeatedly urged on by his dearest. After giving them pleasure as the king of elephants does his female elephants, he goes with his dearest and them to a pond in order to play. The couple with their friends enjoy themselves splashing water on each other. They then are adorned with clothes, garlands, sandal paste, and shining ornaments right there on the shore of that pond in a shining, bejeweled house.” (Religions of India in Practice, 265)
The bhaktas of this movement often called themselves, and were called by others, sants, a word that means a good or wise or holy person, and is often translated by “saint”. ... In contrast to the [sagun attachment to a particular form of the Divine], the bhaktas of the nirgun school turned away from God as Form, giving their attention to God as Name. The Divine of their conception was impersonal and featureless, yet somehow still interested in them and their trials, and willing to come to their aid. There is, to be sure, something paradoxical about the idea of establishing a personal relationship with the Impersonal, and some critics have doubted whether such a thing could really exist. The only answer to this objection is that for several hundred years there have been devotees of the Divine Name who had no interest in the Divine Form, and the literature they produced shows that they knew what they were talking about.
       The bhaktas of the sagun school have for the most part been assimilated into mainstream Hinduism. Indeed, one could say that the devotionalism of the bhakti movement, increasingly mediated by priests and organisations, is the principle component of contemporary Hinduism. The sant tradition, on the other hand, has remained outside the mainstream. The more important sants stand at the head of their own panths or paths, which reject the primary determinant of membership in Hinduism: acceptance of the authority of the Veda. More than most other bhaktas, the sants were open to influences from marginal Hindu and even non-Hindu sources, for instance the nath yogis and the Sufis [i.e. the mystical branch of Islam]. At the same time, they served as a conduit of Hindu ideas to those beyond the pale of organised Hinduism. (Indian Religions, 357-8)

Kabir was born in Banaras [a.k.a. Varanasi] at the beginning of the fifteenth century into a weaver jati. Although members of his caste had recently converted to Islam, he was probably influenced by meditative and devotional teachings learned from a Hindu guru. Although regarded by his followers as illiterate, he composed poetry of startling power, emphasizing the value of such oral teachings by a master that might lead one to a spontaneous (sahaja) awakening to Truth. He advocated use of the mantra Rama, not so much in reference to Visnu or his avatara, but as a meditative focus leading to God-realization. Even though he enraged both Hindus and Muslims during his life, since his death both religions have attempted to claim him as their own. Many hundred of his verses are included in the Sikh sacred scripture. Interestingly, Kabir promoted no particular religion, and criticized the foolishness found among religious believers in all traditions. He also encouraged independence in the spiritual path, not desiring to create a tradition centered on following him blindly. One of his poems runs something like this:
Oh seeker, where ever are you looking for me?
I am right with you.
I am not to be found in mosques, temples, the Ka’bah, or Kailasa,
Nor am I found through rituals, prayers, austerities, or dispassion.
If you just look with sincerity, you will see me in an instant: this very instant!
Kabir says: "Holy one! Know that the Lord is the essence of breath itself." (IH, 292)

When I was, Hari was not,
    now Hari is and I am no more:
All darkness vanishes
    when I found the Lamp within my heart.
Him whom I went out to seek,
    I found just where I was:
He now has become myself
    whom before I called “Another”!
(Indian Religions, 362)
[Ravidas] was a man of Benares [a.k.a. Varanasi]; and though he lived in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, he still qualifies today as the great Untouchable saint of North India. If one means by Hinduism the religious system whose central rituals are entrusted to Brahmins, whose central institutions require a set of reciprocal but unequal social relationships, and whose guiding ideas set forth what life should be within this hierarchically variegated world and how it may rightly be transcended, then Ravidas was not really a Hindu. As he saw it, there was nothing fundamental about the institutions of caste. His position in society helped him see the point, for he was a leatherworker, a camar, a shoemaker, someone whose work brought him into daily contact with the hides of dead animals. Strict Hindus either shun the touch of such skins altogether, believing them to be polluting, or contact them only with the lowest portion of their bodies, the bottom of their feet. And that, by extension, is what the camar is in relation to almost all of Hindu society.
       But Ravidas was special; he was a poet and singer, and the hymns he sang evidently had such a ring of truth that even Brahmins came to hear them. His poet’s charisma must have been equally powerful, for he says that the Brahmins actually bowed before him, in a total inversion of religious and social protocol (AG 38). Yet he never forgot his own condition. In praising God he habitually contrasted the divine presence to his own: God, he said, was finer than he, as silk was to a worm, and more fragrant than he, as sandalwood was to the stinking castor oil plant (AG 9). (The Life of Hinduism, 200)
A family that has a true follower of the Lord
Is neither high caste nor low caste, lordly or poor.
The world will know it by its fragrance.
Priests or merchants, laborers or warriors,
half-breeds, outcastes, and those who tend cremation fires—
their hearts are all the same.
He who becomes pure through love of the Lord
exalts himself and his family as well.
Thanks be to his village, thanks to his home,
thanks to that pure family, each and every one.
For he’s drunk with the essence of the liquid of life
and he pours away all the poisons.
No one equals someone so pure and devoted—
not priests, nor heroes, nor parasolled kings.
As the lotus leaf floats above the water, Ravidas says,
so he flowers above the world of his birth.
(The Life of Hinduism, 212-3)
Meera, also known as Meera Bai or Mirabai in (1498-1546) was a Hindu mystic poet and devotee of Krishna. She is a celebrated Bhakti saint, particularly in the North Indian Hindu tradition. Meera Bai was born into a Rajput royal family of Kudki Pali district, Rajasthan, India. She is mentioned in Bhaktamal, confirming that she was widely known and a cherished figure in the Bhakti movement culture by about 1600 CE. Most legends about Meera mention her fearless disregard for social and family conventions, her devotion to god Krishna, her treating Krishna as her husband, and she being persecuted by her in-laws for her religious devotion. She has been the subject of numerous folk tales and hagiographic legends, which are inconsistent or widely different in details. Thousands of devotional poems in passionate praise of Lord Krishna are attributed to Meera in the Indian tradition, but just a few hundred are believed to be authentic by scholars, and the earliest written records suggest that except for two poems, most were written down only in the 18th century. Many poems attributed to Meera were likely composed later by others who admired Meera. These poems are commonly known as bhajans, and are popular across India. Hindu temples, such as in Chittorgarh fort, are dedicated to Mira Bai’s memory. Legends about Meera’s life, of contested authenticity, have been the subject of movies, comic strips and other popular literature in modern times. (Wikipedia: Meera)
Come to my house, O Krishna,
Thy coming will bring peace.
Great will be my joy if I meet Thee,
And all my desires will be fulfilled.
Thou and I are one,
Like the sun and its heat.
Mira’s heart cares for nothing else,
It only wants the beautiful Shyam [i.e. Krishna].

That dark Dweller in Braj
[the land where Krishna was born]

Is my only refuge.
O my companion,
Worldly comfort is an illusion,
As soon you get it, it goes.
I have chosen the Indestructible for my refuge,
Him whom the snake of death
Will not devour.
My Beloved dwells in my heart,
I have actually seen that Abode of Joy.
Mira’s Lord is Hari, the Indestructible.
My Lord, I have taken refuge with Thee,
Thy slave. (Indian Religions, 350-1)