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Cultural Syncretism: Bhakti Movement in India

Introduction

Like all cultural traditions, religion too does not exist in isolation. It adapts to existing situations and meets both social and spiritual needs of the people. As a country with a long history, religion in India developed by interacting with various traditions. Vedic religion, which came with the advent of Aryanspeaking peoples to India, absorbed many elements from the Indus civilization. Mother goddess worship had its origins in Harappa. Similarly an image found in the Indus script has been identified as that of Siva. The prime Vedic gods were Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc. and it was only later that the worship of Siva and Vishnu developed. In the mid-first millennium before the Common Era (B.C.) two great religions emerged in the Indo-Gangetic valley: Buddhism and Jainism (apart from other heterodox religions such as Ajivika) which challenged the orthodox Vedic religious practices. Similarly, in the mid-first millennium of the Common Era, in the southern country, a great religious tradition flourished in the form of a devotional or bhakti movement. Bhakti as a religious concept means devotional surrender to a supreme god for attaining salvation. Even though texts such as the Bhagavad Gita talk about the path of bhakti, or bhakti-marga, the movement gained force only in this period. Historians argue that this emerged in opposition to the ethical, fatalistic and atheistic traditions of Jainism and Buddhism. Vedic theism incorporated certain features from both. While Adi Sankara provided Hinduism with a philosophic doctrine of Advaita to counter the heterodox religions it remained at the intellectual level. It was the great Saiva Nayanmars and Vaishnava Azhwars, with their moving verses, gave form to the Bhakti doctrine and won the support of the people. Historians refer to this as the Bhakti movement. This movement, supported by the ruling kings, made a deep and lasting impact on all aspects: social, political, religious, cultural and linguistic. T hus south India became the home of religious renaissance from the 7th to the 10th century. With theologians like Ramanuja it turned into a philosophical and ideological movement in the eleventh century. Inspired by many poet-saints the bhakti cult became widespread from 14th century in the whole of India. We analyze here the general features of the bhakti movement, its main proponents, the two different trends of the movement and its impact on social and cultural life of the people.

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