Bhakti Movements in North India


09:09 AM

1 min read

Prelims: History of India

Mains: India Culture-Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times

The Emergence of Religious Movements in North India

The religious movements in ancient and medieval India emerged due to several political, socio-economic and religious factors.

  • Varna System: The religious movements were sentiments of common people against oppression.
  • Rituals: The Brahmanical rituals became rigid. Thus, many from the upper caste also favoured simple religious practices.
  • Feudal Order: Religious movements represented the sentiments of the common people against feudal oppression.
  • Rise of Vaishyas and Sudras: The growing classes of urban artisans were attracted to the religious movements because of their egalitarian ideas, as they were not satisfied with the low status in the traditional Brahmanical hierarchy.
  • Coming of Islam: Islam brought ideas of non-compromising faith in one God, their rejection of incarnation, their conception of nirguna bhakti and their attack on idolatry and the caste system.
  • Simplicity: Most of the followers of religious movements were illiterate. Therefore, the language of Acharyas, other than Sanskrit, was simple to understand.
  • Settled Population: From the sixth century onwards, expanding and integrating various peasant settlements in the river valleys and transforming the tribal population into settled peasant communities provided a base for new state systems.


Vaishnava Bhakti Movement in North India

Ramanand and Vallabhacharya were prominent figures in spreading Vaishnava bhakti in north India.

Ramananda (1486-1533)

Ramananda was the most prominent scholar saint of the Vaishnava bhakti in Northern India. He lived in South India early but later settled in Banaras.

  • He is considered to be the link between the South Indian bhakti tradition and North Indian Vaishnava bhakti.
  • However, he deviated from the ideology and practice of the earlier South Indian acharyas in three important respects,
    • He looked upon Ram and not Vishnu as an object of bhakti. To him, Ram was the supreme God who was to be adored by Sita.
      •  In this sense, he came to be regarded as the founder of the Ram cult in North India within the framework of the Vaishnava bhakti tradition.
    • He preached in the language of the common people and not in Sanskrit to propagate the Ram cult. 
    • He made bhakti accessible to all, irrespective of caste. He significantly relaxed the caste rules. Though a Brahman, he took food with his ‘low’ caste Vaishnava followers.
  • Ramananda’s teachings were similar to Ramanuja's, except that he dropped the interdiction on intercaste dining and the strict rule that all teaching and texts used had to be in the Sanskrit language.
  • His original twelve disciples are said to have included at least one woman or member of the lower castes (including the leatherworker Ravidas) and a Muslim (the mystic Kabir).

Vallabhacharya (1479-1531)

  • He was a Telugu Brahman born in Banaras.
  • He gave the philosophy of Shuddha-Dvaita (complete duality).
    • The entire universe is real and delicately Brahman.
    • The individual souls are in quintessence with Brahman. 
    • Jiva, Kala (time) and Prakriti are eternal existences. However, they have no separate existence apart from Brahman.
  • He was the founder of Pushtimarga (way of grace). It also came to be known as Vallabha sampradaya (Vallabha Sect). 
  • He advocated Krishna bhakti. 
  • He was a Famous Krishna bhakti saint-poet; Surdas and seven other Krishna bhakti poets belonging to the ashtachhap were believed to have been the disciples of Vallabha. 
  • The sect later became popular in Gujarat.
  • The main temple of the sect is at Nathdwara, in Rajasthan state, where there is a distinctive image of Krishna called Shri-Nathaji.
  • Surdas (1483-1563): He was a disciple of the famous teacher, Vallabhacharya. 
    • He was a blind poet whose songs are centred around Krishna. 
    • His Sursagar recounts the exploits of Krishna during his childhood and youth with gentle affection and delightfulness.


Monotheistic Movements of North India

The main proponents of monotheistic tradition were Kabir, Guru Ravidas and Guru Nanak.


  • He was the earliest and undoubtedly the most powerful figure of the monotheistic movements that began in the 15th century. 
  • He belonged to a family of weavers (Julaha – who were indigenous converts to Islam). He spent the greater part of his life in Banaras.
  • He is regarded as the greatest of the mystic saints, and his followers are called Kabirpanthis
  • Kabir is also a proponent of Nirguna bhakti (the Supreme Being without form and properties).
    • This concept, which came into philosophy with the Advaita School, caught the imagination of Kabir as well as Tulasidas.
    • Kabir’s strong opposition to idolatry stems from this philosophy. 
  • Bijak is the best-known of the compilations of the compositions of Kabir.
  • His verses are found in the Sikh holy scripture, Adi Granth.
  • Guru Nanak mentions Kabir in his work, Janam Sakhi (Evidence on the Story of Birth), and states that he is a ‘Bhagat’ (devotee) equal in merit to Nanak himself.
  • Kabir’s object was to reconcile Hindus and Muslims and establish harmony between the two sects.

Guru Ravidas

  • Ravidas was an Indian mystic poet-saint of the Bhakti movement during the 15th to 16th century AD. 
  • Venerated as a guru (teacher) in the region of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the devotional songs of Ravidas have had a lasting impact on the bhakti movement.
  • He was a poet, saint, social reformer and spiritual figure.
  • If tradition and medieval era texts are to be believed, then Ravidas was one of the disciples of the bhakti saint poet Ramananda and a contemporary of the bhakti saint-poet Kabir.
  • Ravidas' devotional songs were included in the Sikh scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib
  • The Panchvani text of the Dadupanthi tradition within Hinduism also includes numerous poems of Ravidas.
  • Ravidas taught the removal of social divisions of caste and gender and promoted unity in pursuing personal spiritual freedoms.
  • The songs of Ravidas discuss Nirguna-Saguna themes and ideas that are at the foundation of the Nath yoga philosophy of Hinduism. 
  • He frequently mentions the term Sahaj, a mystical state with a union of the truths of the many and the one.

Guru Nanak,

The teachings and philosophy of Guru Nanak form an important part of Indian philosophical thought.

  • He was the first Sikh Guru and the creator of Sikhism, as well as a Nirguna Bhakti Saint and social reformer.
  • He preached his ideas much in the same way as Kabir and other monotheists, but due to various developments later, his teachings led to the emergence of a mass religion, Sikhism.
  • Both Sufism and Bhakti contributed to the development of Nanak’s religious philosophy. So his teachings comprise the noblest principles of Hinduism and Islam. 
  • His philosophy consists of three basic elements: a leading charismatic personality (the Guru), ideology (Shabad) and Organization (Sangat).
  • He repudiated idol worship and did not favour pilgrimage nor accept the theory of incarnation.
  • He preached Nirguna bhakti (the Supreme Being without form and properties).
  • He emphasised having a true Guru for revelation.
  • He advised people to follow the principles of conduct and worship: sach (truth), halal (lawful earning), khair (wishing well of others), niyat (right intention) and service to the lord.
  • He denounced the caste system and the inequality it caused. He argued that the acts or deeds of individuals should judge caste and honour.
  • He laid stress on concepts of justice, righteousness and liberty. 
  • His verses mainly consist of two basic concepts, Sach (truth) and Nam (name). 
  • The bases of the divine expression for him were formed by the Sabad (the word), Guru (the divine precept) and Hukam (the divine order). 
  • He introduced the concept of Langar (a community kitchen). 
  • The hymns he composed were incorporated into the Adi Granth by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun, in 1604.


Similarities in the teachings of the various Monotheistic Bhakti Saints

  • Most of the monotheists belonged to the low castes and were aware that there existed a unity in their ideas. They were also aware of each other’s teachings and influence.
  • All of them were influenced by Vaishnavism, the Nathpanthi movement and Sufism. Their ideas seem to be a synthesis of the three traditions.
  • The importance given to the personal experience of Bhakti saints with God was another common feature among the monotheistic Bhakti saints. 
  • Though they called God using different names and titles, their God was non-incarnate, formless, eternal and ineffable.
  • The Bhakti saints refused any formal association with the organised dominant religions of the time (Hinduism and Islam)
  • They rejected the authority of the Brahmans and attacked the caste system and practice of idolatry.
  • They composed their poems in popular languages and dialects across north India. This enabled them to transmit their ideas to the masses.


Importance of Religious Movements in North India

  • They awakened a new sense of confidence and attempted to redefine social and religious values. Saints like Kabir and Nanak stressed upon the reordering of society along egalitarian lines.
  • The famous verses and songs of the Bhakti saints also served as forerunners of a musical renaissance. 
    • New musical compositions were written for the purpose of group singing at kirtans. Even today, Mira’s bhajans and Tulsidas’s chaupais are recited at prayer meetings.
  • It did not discriminate against anyone based on caste or gender.
  • Also came the guru or spiritual teacher, whose function was to give people hope, strength and inner courage.
  • Their literary compositions, rendered into geet, qawali, etc., united the people as nothing else could have done. It also stimulated the development of regional languages.



Previous Year Questions (PYQs)



Q) Evaluate the nature of the Bhakti Literature and its contribution to Indian culture. (2021)




Q)  Consider the following statements:

1. Saint Nimbarka was a contemporary of Akbar.

2. Saint Kabir was greatly influenced by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2



Q)  Consider the following statements: 

1. 'Bijak' is a composition of the teachings of Saint Dadu Dayal. 

2. The Philosophy of Pushti Marg was propounded by Madhvacharya.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 and 2



Q)  Consider the following Bhakti Saints:

1. Dadu Dayal

2. Guru Nanak

3. Tyagaraja

Who among the above was/were preaching when the Lodi dynasty fell and Babur took over?

(a) 1 and 3

(b) 2 only

(c) 2 and 3

(d) 1 and 2


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Q)  Is bhakti movement in North India similar to bhakti movement in South India?

No. The basic idea of devotion to one supreme God was similar. However, the North Indian bhakti movement rose against Brahmanical rituals, such as worshipping idols, unlike South Indian bhakti.


Q)  Which dance form evolved in North India from the effects of the bhakti movement? 

Kathak evolved during the Bhakti movement, particularly by incorporating the childhood and stories of the Hindu god Krishna and independently in the courts of north Indian kingdoms.