Manohar Seetharam
Bhakti Movements : Sharana Movement And Social Equality
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

( This post is the English translation of the original Kannada article by Shri Chidananda Murthy that appeared in the Kannada daily Vijaya Karnataka on 25 June, 2011. The article deals with the Bhakti movements in India with a special focus on the Sharana movement of Karnataka and their inherent social inclusiveness. In the light of frequent occurrences of caste oppression and the following clamor for purely statist solutions, we hope this article would hi-lite the importance of social institutions and actions and thereby underscore the necessity of social institutions to effectively deal with the malice. A little rewind might help us on the way forward)

Narada bhakti-sutra defines “bhakti” as “Parama Prema-Roopa”, meaning , having a pure love for the almighty god. “Movement” refers to the process by which a passive being comes to life and a stationary object begins to move. A tree that had sheds it’s leaves and stayed still all along the summer coming to life in spring with new flowers and becoming a home for singing birds is a movement. When I had visited America during the winters I noticed a lake that had completely frozen and people were walking over it. On the third day the ice melted and the water had begun to flow with a force. This reflects the dynamism associated with any movement in a very effective way.

Observe the Sharana movement (11th-12th century) witnessed in Karnataka. The main force behind the movement was Basavanna. There are evidences available about many people having raised their voice against injustice and oppression before him, for instance, Kondaguli Keshiraja, Telugu Jommanna (1120) stood firmly against the authority for the cause of caste equality. Jedara Daseemayya (1120) struggled to ensure equal status for women. These were the beginnings of the Bhakti movement. Despite the central focus of the movement being one of unmatched love for the almighty there was also a strong opinion that there was no scope for discrimination on the grounds of castes, sex when it comes to bhakti. None of the Bhakti movements envisioned or worked to start a new religion but were focused on reforming the existing dharma and thereby to improve the living condition of the people.

Chaitanya (15th century) of Bengal criticised the procedures recommended in shaastras as meaningless. He gave importance to sankeertanas which the devotees sang and danced to, this was outside the scope of traditional classical music. Ramanuja (1100) of TamilNadu took the veda-mantras taught by his guru to the masses. Gyanadeva of Maharashtra, Shankaradeva of Assam opposed the performance of yagnas and animal sacrifice. The Nanak’s from the Sikh school of thought in Punjab claimed the Hindus and Muslims both to be the children of lord and brothers. They too condemned the caste hierarchy of society.  Sheikh Abdul (16th century) came to Gujarat from Arabia and became a Sufi darvesh and led a simple life associating himself with the common man. Chaitanya of Bengal was a Brahmana by birth but gave the Vaishnava deeksha to everyone including the untouchables and declared all to be equal through his sankeertanas. Many of his students were from the lower castes, few of them like Shamananda and Govinda Karmarkar have composed many keertanas. The famous poet of Uttar Pradesh and a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity, Kabir , himself came from a caste of tailors. His disciples included people like Ravidas – a shoemaker, and Dhanna – a farmer from the Jaat community. Gyanadeva was a Maharashtrian Brahmana and his disciples included Naamadeva – a chippiga ( Textile and tailor caste) , Sena – a barber, Gora – a potter and Jhokhamela – an untouchable. Annammacharya (15th century) of Andhra said that an untouchable who became a devotee of Vishnu is superior to a non devotee Brahmana. Despite the widespread social prejudice that women were lesser to men, all Bhakti traditions gave an equal position to women. Gyanadeva’s sister Muktabayi was considered as a sant in those days. Women disciples included notables like, Janabayi – a servant, Kanhopatra – a prostitute. Both of them were Gyanadeva’s disciples and they have both composed beautiful abhangas in Marathi. Andal from Tamil Nadu has composed Thirupavai songs in Tamil. Mererabai, a rajput queen has composed numerous bhajans in Hindi that are still very popular.

Even though most Bhakti movements were not opposed to Sanskrit, they all gave more importance to vernacular languages and used them as the medium to spread their message. A portion of one of Kabir’s poems reads “Deva-Bhasha koopa jal | Bhasha behata neer | “. Meaning that Sanskrit was like water in the well where as vernacular languages were like flowing water. Even though none of the languages, Sanskrit or the vernacular languages were less significant, but Sanskrit like water from the well was available only to a few, whereas the vernacular languages like flowing water were available to all. Ekanatha(15th century) from Maharashtra posed the following question, “If Sanskrit alone is devabhasha then is Prakrit the language of ghosts” ? Narasi Mehta’s keertanas enriched the Gujarati language. The devotional songs of Nayannars are very popular in Tamil Nadu under the name of Tevaram. The Tamil compositions of the Aalvars following the Shri Vaishnava Tengalai tradition are called as “Dravida Veda”. Haridasa of Karnataka had two complementary groups known as Dasakoota and Vyasakoota. Those from the Dasakoota stressed on Kannada and Kannada keertanas whereas the member of Vyasakoota gave importance to the Sanskrit scriptures. Along with a Bramhana like Purandaradasa, we also have Kanakadasa who despite coming from a low caste occupies a very prominent position in this movement.

With this overall background and context now let me discuss about the 12th century bhakti movement of Karnataka, the sharana movement. This movement not only had all the general characteristics of the bhakti movements discussed above but also managed to grow beyond them. Everyone associated with the movement was a devotee whose aim was nothing but realization of god. This otherworldly outlook however did not prevent them from addressing the issues faced by the people in the real world. They thought and worked hard to improve the prevailing social conditions. The movement produced more than two hundred people who composed vachanas (couplets). Let us note the profession of a few of these poets – boat rowers, barbers, tailors, fishermen, wood-cutters and hunters to count a few. Many dalits like Maadara Chennayya too have composed vachanas. More than thirty women have composed vachanas. Women poets like Akka Mahadevi were also independent thinkers who posed many hard questions to the society. Urulilingappa and Kalavve were a dalit couple and they both composed vachanas. Sankavve a prostitute, is perhaps one of the earliest women writers of India. Uruli Lingadeva’s disciple Uruli Lingapeddi was also a dalit who learnt vedas and shastras from his guru and later went onto become the leader of his guru’s matha. This was indeed a watershed event in the course of Indian history. The other big achievement of the movement was the inter-marriage among Brahmins and dalits (Somethings difficult to imagine even today). These marriages had the complete approval of the then sharana society. Between 1100 and 1180 the movement successfully spread far and wide. How the movement spread so rapidly or how could so many people learn to read and write and compose vachanas still remains a mystery. Basavanna whom Allamma describes as a symbol of the “energy of the age”, was the central personality of the movement and an inspiration.

The vachana movement shared most of it’s characteristics with the remaining Bhakti movements all over India. However it had one notable and distinguishable feature, while all movements accepted the spiritual equality of all individuals the vachana movement alone also gave equal importance to the social equality of the people. Spiritual equality becomes fully meaningful only when it makes way for cordial social relationship among the people. Accepting everyone as equal is “Theoretical equality” ; encouraging all communities to live as equals and by encouraging reforms like inter-caste marriages etc achieves “Social equality”.