NCERT Textbook - Bhakti Sufi Traditions Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

History Class 12

UPSC : NCERT Textbook - Bhakti Sufi Traditions Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

 Page 1


 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 140
We saw in Chapter 4 that by the mid-first
millennium CE the landscape of the subcontinent
was dotted with a variety of religious structures –
stupas, monasteries, temples. If these typified
certain religious beliefs and practices, others have
been reconstructed from textual traditions,
including the Puranas, many of which received
their present shape around the same time, and yet
others remain only faintly visible in textual and
visual records.
New textual sources available from this period
include compositions attributed to poet-saints,
most of whom expressed themselves orally in
regional languages used by ordinary people. These
compositions, which were often set to music, were
compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after
the death of the poet-saint. What is more, these
traditions were fluid – generations of devotees tended
to elaborate on the original message, and occasionally
modified or even abandoned some of the ideas that
appeared problematic or irrelevant in different
political, social or cultural contexts. Using these
sources thus poses a challenge to historians.
Historians also draw on hagiographies or
biographies of saints written by their followers (or
members of their religious sect). These may not be
literally accurate, but allow a glimpse into the ways
in which devotees perceived the lives of these path-
breaking women and men.
As we will see, these sources provide us with
insights into a scenario characterised by dynamism
and diversity. Let us look at some elements of these
more closely.
Bhakti- Sufi Traditions
Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and
De De De De Dev v v v vo o o o otional T tional T tional T tional T tional Te e e e exts xts xts xts xts
( ( ( ( (c c c c c. eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century)
Fig. 6.1
A twelfth-century bronze sculpture of
Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva
who composed beautiful devotional songs in Tamil
THEME
SIX
2019-2020
Page 2


 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 140
We saw in Chapter 4 that by the mid-first
millennium CE the landscape of the subcontinent
was dotted with a variety of religious structures –
stupas, monasteries, temples. If these typified
certain religious beliefs and practices, others have
been reconstructed from textual traditions,
including the Puranas, many of which received
their present shape around the same time, and yet
others remain only faintly visible in textual and
visual records.
New textual sources available from this period
include compositions attributed to poet-saints,
most of whom expressed themselves orally in
regional languages used by ordinary people. These
compositions, which were often set to music, were
compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after
the death of the poet-saint. What is more, these
traditions were fluid – generations of devotees tended
to elaborate on the original message, and occasionally
modified or even abandoned some of the ideas that
appeared problematic or irrelevant in different
political, social or cultural contexts. Using these
sources thus poses a challenge to historians.
Historians also draw on hagiographies or
biographies of saints written by their followers (or
members of their religious sect). These may not be
literally accurate, but allow a glimpse into the ways
in which devotees perceived the lives of these path-
breaking women and men.
As we will see, these sources provide us with
insights into a scenario characterised by dynamism
and diversity. Let us look at some elements of these
more closely.
Bhakti- Sufi Traditions
Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and
De De De De Dev v v v vo o o o otional T tional T tional T tional T tional Te e e e exts xts xts xts xts
( ( ( ( (c c c c c. eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century)
Fig. 6.1
A twelfth-century bronze sculpture of
Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva
who composed beautiful devotional songs in Tamil
THEME
SIX
2019-2020
141
“Great” and “little”
traditions
The terms great and little
traditions were coined by a
sociologist named Robert
Redfield in the twentieth
century to describe the cultural
practices of peasant societies.
He found that peasants
observed rituals and customs
that emanated from dominant
social categories, including
priests and rulers. These he
classified as part of  a great
tradition. At the same time,
peasants also followed local
practices that did not
necessarily correspond with
those of the great tradition.
These he included within the
category of little tradition. He
also noticed that both great
and little traditions changed
over time, through a process of
interaction.
While scholars accept the
significance of these categories
and processes, they are
often uncomfortable with the
hierarchy suggested by the
terms great and little. The use
of quotation marks for “great”
and “little” is one way of
indicating this.
1. A Mosaic of Religious Beliefs
and Practices
Perhaps the most striking feature of this phase is
the increasing visibility of a wide range of gods and
goddesses in sculpture as well as in texts. At one
level, this indicates the continued and even extended
worship of the major deities – Vishnu, Shiva and
the goddess – each of whom was visualised in a
variety of forms.
1.1 The integration of cults
Historians who have tried to understand these
developments suggest that there were at least two
processes at work. One was a process of disseminating
Brahmanical ideas. This is exemplified by the
composition, compilation and preservation of Puranic
texts in simple Sanskrit verse, explicitly meant to
be accessible to women and Shudras, who were
generally excluded from Vedic learning. At the same
time, there was a second process at work – that of
the Brahmanas accepting and reworking the beliefs
and practices of these and other social categories. In
fact, many beliefs and practices were shaped through
a continuous dialogue between what sociologists have
described as “great” Sanskritic Puranic traditions
and “little” traditions throughout the land.
One of the most striking examples of this process
is evident at Puri, Orissa, where the principal deity
was identified, by the twelfth century, as Jagannatha
(literally, the lord of the world), a form of Vishnu.
Fig. 6.2
Jagannatha (extreme right) with his
sister Subhadra (centre) and his
brother Balarama (left)
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
Page 3


 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 140
We saw in Chapter 4 that by the mid-first
millennium CE the landscape of the subcontinent
was dotted with a variety of religious structures –
stupas, monasteries, temples. If these typified
certain religious beliefs and practices, others have
been reconstructed from textual traditions,
including the Puranas, many of which received
their present shape around the same time, and yet
others remain only faintly visible in textual and
visual records.
New textual sources available from this period
include compositions attributed to poet-saints,
most of whom expressed themselves orally in
regional languages used by ordinary people. These
compositions, which were often set to music, were
compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after
the death of the poet-saint. What is more, these
traditions were fluid – generations of devotees tended
to elaborate on the original message, and occasionally
modified or even abandoned some of the ideas that
appeared problematic or irrelevant in different
political, social or cultural contexts. Using these
sources thus poses a challenge to historians.
Historians also draw on hagiographies or
biographies of saints written by their followers (or
members of their religious sect). These may not be
literally accurate, but allow a glimpse into the ways
in which devotees perceived the lives of these path-
breaking women and men.
As we will see, these sources provide us with
insights into a scenario characterised by dynamism
and diversity. Let us look at some elements of these
more closely.
Bhakti- Sufi Traditions
Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and
De De De De Dev v v v vo o o o otional T tional T tional T tional T tional Te e e e exts xts xts xts xts
( ( ( ( (c c c c c. eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century)
Fig. 6.1
A twelfth-century bronze sculpture of
Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva
who composed beautiful devotional songs in Tamil
THEME
SIX
2019-2020
141
“Great” and “little”
traditions
The terms great and little
traditions were coined by a
sociologist named Robert
Redfield in the twentieth
century to describe the cultural
practices of peasant societies.
He found that peasants
observed rituals and customs
that emanated from dominant
social categories, including
priests and rulers. These he
classified as part of  a great
tradition. At the same time,
peasants also followed local
practices that did not
necessarily correspond with
those of the great tradition.
These he included within the
category of little tradition. He
also noticed that both great
and little traditions changed
over time, through a process of
interaction.
While scholars accept the
significance of these categories
and processes, they are
often uncomfortable with the
hierarchy suggested by the
terms great and little. The use
of quotation marks for “great”
and “little” is one way of
indicating this.
1. A Mosaic of Religious Beliefs
and Practices
Perhaps the most striking feature of this phase is
the increasing visibility of a wide range of gods and
goddesses in sculpture as well as in texts. At one
level, this indicates the continued and even extended
worship of the major deities – Vishnu, Shiva and
the goddess – each of whom was visualised in a
variety of forms.
1.1 The integration of cults
Historians who have tried to understand these
developments suggest that there were at least two
processes at work. One was a process of disseminating
Brahmanical ideas. This is exemplified by the
composition, compilation and preservation of Puranic
texts in simple Sanskrit verse, explicitly meant to
be accessible to women and Shudras, who were
generally excluded from Vedic learning. At the same
time, there was a second process at work – that of
the Brahmanas accepting and reworking the beliefs
and practices of these and other social categories. In
fact, many beliefs and practices were shaped through
a continuous dialogue between what sociologists have
described as “great” Sanskritic Puranic traditions
and “little” traditions throughout the land.
One of the most striking examples of this process
is evident at Puri, Orissa, where the principal deity
was identified, by the twelfth century, as Jagannatha
(literally, the lord of the world), a form of Vishnu.
Fig. 6.2
Jagannatha (extreme right) with his
sister Subhadra (centre) and his
brother Balarama (left)
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 142
If you compare Fig. 6.2 with Fig. 4.26 (Chapter 4)
you will notice that the deity is represented in a
very different way. In this instance, a local deity,
whose image was and continues to be made of wood
by local tribal specialists, was recognised as a form
of Vishnu. At the same time, Vishnu was visualised
in a way that was very different from that in other
parts of the country.
Such instances of integration are evident
amongst goddess cults as well. Worship of the
goddess, often simply in the form of a stone smeared
with ochre, was evidently widespread. These local
deities were often incorporated within the Puranic
framework by providing them with an identity as a
wife of the principal male deities – sometimes they
were equated with Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, in
other instances, with Parvati, the wife of Shiva.
1.2 Difference and conflict
Often associated with the goddess were forms
of worship that were classified as Tantric. Tantric
practices were widespread in several parts of the
subcontinent – they were open to women and
men, and practitioners often ignored differences
of caste and class within the ritual context. Many
of these ideas influenced Shaivism as well as
Buddhism,  especially in the eastern, northern and
southern parts of the subcontinent.
All of these somewhat divergent and even disparate
beliefs and practices would  come to be classified as
Hindu over the course of the next millennium. The
divergence is perhaps most stark if we compare Vedic
and Puranic traditions. The principal deities of the
Vedic pantheon, Agni, Indra and Soma, become
marginal figures, rarely visible in textual or visual
representations. And while we can catch a glimpse
of Vishnu, Shiva and the goddess in Vedic mantras,
these have little in common with the elaborate
Puranic mythologies. However, in spite of these
obvious discrepancies, the Vedas continued to be
revered as authoritative.
Not surprisingly, there were sometimes conflicts as
well – those who valued the Vedic tradition often
condemned practices that went beyond the closely
regulated contact with the divine through the
performance of sacrifices or precisely chanted mantras.
On the other hand those engaged in Tantric practices
Fig. 6.3
Sculpture of a Buddhist goddess,
Marichi (c.tenth century, Bihar),
an example of the process of
integration of different religious
beliefs and practices
2019-2020
Page 4


 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 140
We saw in Chapter 4 that by the mid-first
millennium CE the landscape of the subcontinent
was dotted with a variety of religious structures –
stupas, monasteries, temples. If these typified
certain religious beliefs and practices, others have
been reconstructed from textual traditions,
including the Puranas, many of which received
their present shape around the same time, and yet
others remain only faintly visible in textual and
visual records.
New textual sources available from this period
include compositions attributed to poet-saints,
most of whom expressed themselves orally in
regional languages used by ordinary people. These
compositions, which were often set to music, were
compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after
the death of the poet-saint. What is more, these
traditions were fluid – generations of devotees tended
to elaborate on the original message, and occasionally
modified or even abandoned some of the ideas that
appeared problematic or irrelevant in different
political, social or cultural contexts. Using these
sources thus poses a challenge to historians.
Historians also draw on hagiographies or
biographies of saints written by their followers (or
members of their religious sect). These may not be
literally accurate, but allow a glimpse into the ways
in which devotees perceived the lives of these path-
breaking women and men.
As we will see, these sources provide us with
insights into a scenario characterised by dynamism
and diversity. Let us look at some elements of these
more closely.
Bhakti- Sufi Traditions
Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and
De De De De Dev v v v vo o o o otional T tional T tional T tional T tional Te e e e exts xts xts xts xts
( ( ( ( (c c c c c. eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century)
Fig. 6.1
A twelfth-century bronze sculpture of
Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva
who composed beautiful devotional songs in Tamil
THEME
SIX
2019-2020
141
“Great” and “little”
traditions
The terms great and little
traditions were coined by a
sociologist named Robert
Redfield in the twentieth
century to describe the cultural
practices of peasant societies.
He found that peasants
observed rituals and customs
that emanated from dominant
social categories, including
priests and rulers. These he
classified as part of  a great
tradition. At the same time,
peasants also followed local
practices that did not
necessarily correspond with
those of the great tradition.
These he included within the
category of little tradition. He
also noticed that both great
and little traditions changed
over time, through a process of
interaction.
While scholars accept the
significance of these categories
and processes, they are
often uncomfortable with the
hierarchy suggested by the
terms great and little. The use
of quotation marks for “great”
and “little” is one way of
indicating this.
1. A Mosaic of Religious Beliefs
and Practices
Perhaps the most striking feature of this phase is
the increasing visibility of a wide range of gods and
goddesses in sculpture as well as in texts. At one
level, this indicates the continued and even extended
worship of the major deities – Vishnu, Shiva and
the goddess – each of whom was visualised in a
variety of forms.
1.1 The integration of cults
Historians who have tried to understand these
developments suggest that there were at least two
processes at work. One was a process of disseminating
Brahmanical ideas. This is exemplified by the
composition, compilation and preservation of Puranic
texts in simple Sanskrit verse, explicitly meant to
be accessible to women and Shudras, who were
generally excluded from Vedic learning. At the same
time, there was a second process at work – that of
the Brahmanas accepting and reworking the beliefs
and practices of these and other social categories. In
fact, many beliefs and practices were shaped through
a continuous dialogue between what sociologists have
described as “great” Sanskritic Puranic traditions
and “little” traditions throughout the land.
One of the most striking examples of this process
is evident at Puri, Orissa, where the principal deity
was identified, by the twelfth century, as Jagannatha
(literally, the lord of the world), a form of Vishnu.
Fig. 6.2
Jagannatha (extreme right) with his
sister Subhadra (centre) and his
brother Balarama (left)
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 142
If you compare Fig. 6.2 with Fig. 4.26 (Chapter 4)
you will notice that the deity is represented in a
very different way. In this instance, a local deity,
whose image was and continues to be made of wood
by local tribal specialists, was recognised as a form
of Vishnu. At the same time, Vishnu was visualised
in a way that was very different from that in other
parts of the country.
Such instances of integration are evident
amongst goddess cults as well. Worship of the
goddess, often simply in the form of a stone smeared
with ochre, was evidently widespread. These local
deities were often incorporated within the Puranic
framework by providing them with an identity as a
wife of the principal male deities – sometimes they
were equated with Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, in
other instances, with Parvati, the wife of Shiva.
1.2 Difference and conflict
Often associated with the goddess were forms
of worship that were classified as Tantric. Tantric
practices were widespread in several parts of the
subcontinent – they were open to women and
men, and practitioners often ignored differences
of caste and class within the ritual context. Many
of these ideas influenced Shaivism as well as
Buddhism,  especially in the eastern, northern and
southern parts of the subcontinent.
All of these somewhat divergent and even disparate
beliefs and practices would  come to be classified as
Hindu over the course of the next millennium. The
divergence is perhaps most stark if we compare Vedic
and Puranic traditions. The principal deities of the
Vedic pantheon, Agni, Indra and Soma, become
marginal figures, rarely visible in textual or visual
representations. And while we can catch a glimpse
of Vishnu, Shiva and the goddess in Vedic mantras,
these have little in common with the elaborate
Puranic mythologies. However, in spite of these
obvious discrepancies, the Vedas continued to be
revered as authoritative.
Not surprisingly, there were sometimes conflicts as
well – those who valued the Vedic tradition often
condemned practices that went beyond the closely
regulated contact with the divine through the
performance of sacrifices or precisely chanted mantras.
On the other hand those engaged in Tantric practices
Fig. 6.3
Sculpture of a Buddhist goddess,
Marichi (c.tenth century, Bihar),
an example of the process of
integration of different religious
beliefs and practices
2019-2020
143
frequently ignored the authority of the Vedas. Also,
devotees often tended to project their chosen deity,
either Vishnu or Shiva, as supreme. Relations with
other traditions, such as Buddhism or Jainism, were
also often fraught with tension if not open conflict.
The traditions of devotion or bhakti need to be
located within this context.  Devotional worship had
a long history of almost a thousand years before
the period we are considering. During this time,
expressions of devotion ranged from the routine
worship of deities within temples to ecstatic
adoration where devotees attained a trance-like
state. The singing and chanting of devotional
compositions was often a part of such modes of
worship. This was particularly true of the Vaishnava
and Shaiva sects.
2. Poems of Prayer
Early Traditions of Bhakti
In the course of the evolution of these forms of
worship,  in many instances, poet-saints emerged
as leaders around whom there developed a
community of devotees. Further, while Brahmanas
remained important intermediaries between gods and
devotees in several forms of bhakti, these traditions
also accommodated and acknowledged women and
the “lower castes”, categories considered ineligible
for liberation within the orthodox Brahmanical
framework. What also characterised traditions of
bhakti was a remarkable diversity.
At a different level, historians of religion often
classify bhakti traditions into two broad categories:
saguna (with attributes) and nirguna (without
attributes). The former included traditions that
focused on the worship of specific deities such
as Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars (incarnations) and
forms of the goddess or Devi, all often conceptualised
in anthropomorphic forms. Nirguna bhakti on the
other hand was worship of an abstract form of god.
2.1 The Alvars and Nayanars of Tamil Nadu
Some of the earliest bhakti movements (c. sixth
century) were led by the Alvars (literally, those who
are “immersed” in devotion to Vishnu) and Nayanars
(literally, leaders who were devotees of Shiva). They
travelled from place to place singing hymns in Tamil
in praise of their gods.
Ü Discuss...
Find out about gods and
goddesses worshipped in your
town or village, noting their
names and the ways in which
they are depicted. Describe
the rituals that are
performed.
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
Page 5


 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 140
We saw in Chapter 4 that by the mid-first
millennium CE the landscape of the subcontinent
was dotted with a variety of religious structures –
stupas, monasteries, temples. If these typified
certain religious beliefs and practices, others have
been reconstructed from textual traditions,
including the Puranas, many of which received
their present shape around the same time, and yet
others remain only faintly visible in textual and
visual records.
New textual sources available from this period
include compositions attributed to poet-saints,
most of whom expressed themselves orally in
regional languages used by ordinary people. These
compositions, which were often set to music, were
compiled by disciples or devotees, generally after
the death of the poet-saint. What is more, these
traditions were fluid – generations of devotees tended
to elaborate on the original message, and occasionally
modified or even abandoned some of the ideas that
appeared problematic or irrelevant in different
political, social or cultural contexts. Using these
sources thus poses a challenge to historians.
Historians also draw on hagiographies or
biographies of saints written by their followers (or
members of their religious sect). These may not be
literally accurate, but allow a glimpse into the ways
in which devotees perceived the lives of these path-
breaking women and men.
As we will see, these sources provide us with
insights into a scenario characterised by dynamism
and diversity. Let us look at some elements of these
more closely.
Bhakti- Sufi Traditions
Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and Changes in Religious Beliefs and
De De De De Dev v v v vo o o o otional T tional T tional T tional T tional Te e e e exts xts xts xts xts
( ( ( ( (c c c c c. eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century) . eighth to eighteenth century)
Fig. 6.1
A twelfth-century bronze sculpture of
Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva
who composed beautiful devotional songs in Tamil
THEME
SIX
2019-2020
141
“Great” and “little”
traditions
The terms great and little
traditions were coined by a
sociologist named Robert
Redfield in the twentieth
century to describe the cultural
practices of peasant societies.
He found that peasants
observed rituals and customs
that emanated from dominant
social categories, including
priests and rulers. These he
classified as part of  a great
tradition. At the same time,
peasants also followed local
practices that did not
necessarily correspond with
those of the great tradition.
These he included within the
category of little tradition. He
also noticed that both great
and little traditions changed
over time, through a process of
interaction.
While scholars accept the
significance of these categories
and processes, they are
often uncomfortable with the
hierarchy suggested by the
terms great and little. The use
of quotation marks for “great”
and “little” is one way of
indicating this.
1. A Mosaic of Religious Beliefs
and Practices
Perhaps the most striking feature of this phase is
the increasing visibility of a wide range of gods and
goddesses in sculpture as well as in texts. At one
level, this indicates the continued and even extended
worship of the major deities – Vishnu, Shiva and
the goddess – each of whom was visualised in a
variety of forms.
1.1 The integration of cults
Historians who have tried to understand these
developments suggest that there were at least two
processes at work. One was a process of disseminating
Brahmanical ideas. This is exemplified by the
composition, compilation and preservation of Puranic
texts in simple Sanskrit verse, explicitly meant to
be accessible to women and Shudras, who were
generally excluded from Vedic learning. At the same
time, there was a second process at work – that of
the Brahmanas accepting and reworking the beliefs
and practices of these and other social categories. In
fact, many beliefs and practices were shaped through
a continuous dialogue between what sociologists have
described as “great” Sanskritic Puranic traditions
and “little” traditions throughout the land.
One of the most striking examples of this process
is evident at Puri, Orissa, where the principal deity
was identified, by the twelfth century, as Jagannatha
(literally, the lord of the world), a form of Vishnu.
Fig. 6.2
Jagannatha (extreme right) with his
sister Subhadra (centre) and his
brother Balarama (left)
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 142
If you compare Fig. 6.2 with Fig. 4.26 (Chapter 4)
you will notice that the deity is represented in a
very different way. In this instance, a local deity,
whose image was and continues to be made of wood
by local tribal specialists, was recognised as a form
of Vishnu. At the same time, Vishnu was visualised
in a way that was very different from that in other
parts of the country.
Such instances of integration are evident
amongst goddess cults as well. Worship of the
goddess, often simply in the form of a stone smeared
with ochre, was evidently widespread. These local
deities were often incorporated within the Puranic
framework by providing them with an identity as a
wife of the principal male deities – sometimes they
were equated with Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, in
other instances, with Parvati, the wife of Shiva.
1.2 Difference and conflict
Often associated with the goddess were forms
of worship that were classified as Tantric. Tantric
practices were widespread in several parts of the
subcontinent – they were open to women and
men, and practitioners often ignored differences
of caste and class within the ritual context. Many
of these ideas influenced Shaivism as well as
Buddhism,  especially in the eastern, northern and
southern parts of the subcontinent.
All of these somewhat divergent and even disparate
beliefs and practices would  come to be classified as
Hindu over the course of the next millennium. The
divergence is perhaps most stark if we compare Vedic
and Puranic traditions. The principal deities of the
Vedic pantheon, Agni, Indra and Soma, become
marginal figures, rarely visible in textual or visual
representations. And while we can catch a glimpse
of Vishnu, Shiva and the goddess in Vedic mantras,
these have little in common with the elaborate
Puranic mythologies. However, in spite of these
obvious discrepancies, the Vedas continued to be
revered as authoritative.
Not surprisingly, there were sometimes conflicts as
well – those who valued the Vedic tradition often
condemned practices that went beyond the closely
regulated contact with the divine through the
performance of sacrifices or precisely chanted mantras.
On the other hand those engaged in Tantric practices
Fig. 6.3
Sculpture of a Buddhist goddess,
Marichi (c.tenth century, Bihar),
an example of the process of
integration of different religious
beliefs and practices
2019-2020
143
frequently ignored the authority of the Vedas. Also,
devotees often tended to project their chosen deity,
either Vishnu or Shiva, as supreme. Relations with
other traditions, such as Buddhism or Jainism, were
also often fraught with tension if not open conflict.
The traditions of devotion or bhakti need to be
located within this context.  Devotional worship had
a long history of almost a thousand years before
the period we are considering. During this time,
expressions of devotion ranged from the routine
worship of deities within temples to ecstatic
adoration where devotees attained a trance-like
state. The singing and chanting of devotional
compositions was often a part of such modes of
worship. This was particularly true of the Vaishnava
and Shaiva sects.
2. Poems of Prayer
Early Traditions of Bhakti
In the course of the evolution of these forms of
worship,  in many instances, poet-saints emerged
as leaders around whom there developed a
community of devotees. Further, while Brahmanas
remained important intermediaries between gods and
devotees in several forms of bhakti, these traditions
also accommodated and acknowledged women and
the “lower castes”, categories considered ineligible
for liberation within the orthodox Brahmanical
framework. What also characterised traditions of
bhakti was a remarkable diversity.
At a different level, historians of religion often
classify bhakti traditions into two broad categories:
saguna (with attributes) and nirguna (without
attributes). The former included traditions that
focused on the worship of specific deities such
as Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars (incarnations) and
forms of the goddess or Devi, all often conceptualised
in anthropomorphic forms. Nirguna bhakti on the
other hand was worship of an abstract form of god.
2.1 The Alvars and Nayanars of Tamil Nadu
Some of the earliest bhakti movements (c. sixth
century) were led by the Alvars (literally, those who
are “immersed” in devotion to Vishnu) and Nayanars
(literally, leaders who were devotees of Shiva). They
travelled from place to place singing hymns in Tamil
in praise of their gods.
Ü Discuss...
Find out about gods and
goddesses worshipped in your
town or village, noting their
names and the ways in which
they are depicted. Describe
the rituals that are
performed.
BHAKTI-SUFI TRADITIONS
2019-2020
 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY – PART II 144
During their travels the Alvars and Nayanars
identified certain shrines as abodes of their chosen
deities. Very often large temples were later built at
these sacred places. These developed as centres of
pilgrimage. Singing compositions of these poet-saints
became part of temple rituals in these shrines, as
did worship of the saints’ images.
2.2 Attitudes towards caste
Some historians suggest that the Alvars and
Nayanars initiated a movement of protest against
the caste system and the dominance of Brahmanas
or at least attempted to reform the system. To some
extent this is corroborated by the fact that bhaktas
hailed from diverse social backgrounds ranging from
Brahmanas to artisans and cultivators and even
from castes considered “untouchable”.
The importance of the traditions of the Alvars
and Nayanars was sometimes indicated by the
claim that their compositions were as important
as the Vedas. For instance, one of the major
anthologies of compositions by the Alvars, the Nalayira
Divyaprabandham, was frequently described as the
Tamil Veda, thus claiming that the text was as
significant as the four Vedas in Sanskrit that were
cherished by the Brahmanas.
2.3 Women devotees
Perhaps one of the most striking features of these
traditions was the presence of women. For instance,
the compositions of Andal, a woman Alvar, were
widely sung (and continue to be sung to date). Andal
saw herself as the beloved of Vishnu; her verses
express her love for the deity. Another woman,
Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a devotee of Shiva, adopted
the path of extreme asceticism in order to attain
Compilations of devotional literature
By the tenth century the compositions of the 12 Alvars were
compiled in an anthology known as the Nalayira
Divyaprabandham (“Four Thousand Sacred Compositions”).
The poems of Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar form
the Tevaram, a collection that was compiled and classified
in the tenth century on the basis of the music of the songs.
Source 1
Source 2
The chaturvedin (Brahmana
versed in the four Vedas)
and the “outcaste”
This is an excerpt from a
composition of an Alvar named
Tondaradippodi, who was a
Brahmana:
Y ou (Vishnu) manifestly like
those “servants” who express
their love for your feet,
though they may be born
outcastes, more than
the Chaturvedins who are
strangers and without
allegiance to your service.
Ü Do you think
Tondaradippodi was
opposed to the caste
system?
Shastras or devotion?
This is a verse composed by
Appar, a Nayanar saint:
O rogues who quote the law
books,
Of what use are your gotra and
kula?
Just bow to Marperu’s lord
(Shiva who resides in Marperu,
in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu)  as
your sole refuge.
Ü Are there any
similarities or differences
in the attitudes of
Tondaradippodi and Appar
towards Brahmanas?
2019-2020
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