Part I: Saintly Teachings of the Bhakti Movement
There is but One God. He is obtained by the True Guru’s grace.
When there was egoism in me, Thou wert not with me.
Now that Thou art there, there is no egoism,
As huge waves are raised by the wind in the great ocean, but are only water in water.
O Lord of wealth, what should I say about this delusion?
What we deem a thing to be, in reality it is not like that.
It is like a king falling asleep on his throne and becoming a beggar in dream;
His kingdom is intact, but separating from it, he suffers pain. Such indeed, has been my condition, ….
Amidst all, the One Lord has assumed many forms
And He is enjoying within all hearts.
Says Ravi Das, the Lord is nearer to us than our hands and feet.
So let it happen as will naturally happen, …
The World of Illusion: Saint Song by Ravi Das
An Anthology of Living Religions: 3rd Edition Chapter Hinduism P. 81
The above excerpt is taken from a devotional saint song, The World of Illusion written by Shri Guru Ravi Das Maharaj Ji, a prominent North Indian saint and mystic of Bhakti Movement during the 15 century CE. Away from traditional Sanskrit scriptures and Brahman priests, the followers of bhakti tradition and saintly devotees of the Hindu deities began to sign their ecstatic realization of the Divine, in their own languages. This paper will concentrate on the universal nature of the Bhakti Movement, which not only expanded the spiritual reach to all people regardless of their background but also provided a more devotional approach of relationship between a devotee and the deity while seeking the presence of God inside and around us. Saints like Ravi Das, a shoemaker by profession and considered a low caste in traditional Indian society, took devotion to Hindu Deities at a whole new level by providing men and women of all classes a new devotional path. The Bhakti movement in Hinduism promoted intense devotion to a personal aspect of the deity between the periods of C.600-1800. The movement provided new approach to spirituality and religion especially to lower casts in a divided Indian culture by Brahmic teachings. New aspect of relationship between a Bhakti and the deity, as provided by the Bhakti Movement around 600 CE, has been the primary path for Indian masses especially for Shudras (a cast of manual labors and artisans) and women to enjoy their connection with their deities (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 85). The Bhakti movement came at a time when the Indian society was heavily divided into classes and women and people of lower classes were kept away from Brahman Hindu religious paths as Brahmins controlled the Vedic religion and contact between castes was limited. The Vedas, other scriptures and historical customs have all conditioned the Indian people to accept their social roles (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 99). These were set out in religious-legal texts such as the Code of Manu, compiled during 100-300 CE. The path of bhakti yoga encourages a relationship of intense love between bhakta (devotee) and the deity. Bhakta Nam Dev describes his deep love in sweet metaphors:
Thy Name is beautiful, Thy form is beautify and very beautiful is Thy love, Oh my Omnipresent Lord.
As rain is dear to the earth, as the fragrance of flowers is dear to the blank bee, and as the mango is dear to the cuckoo, so is the Lord to my soul.
(Living Religions: Hinduism P. 84)
The selected saint song shows that God is understood to be present around us in every form by the Bhakti Movement and does not belong to any specific gender. His presence is rather personified through both physical and metaphysical forms, in human emotions and outcomes, and as the core of all forms of life as Ravi Das points out to the Deity’s presence in our hearts that also outlasts our lives. The use of the metaphor of “water in water” by Ravi Das shows that despite of the varying nature and role of various objects and beings, and regardless of any social class, we are one as living example of God’s presence in all of us and in everything around us. Ravi Das also highlights the importance of Deity in one’s life as the only driving factor towards welfare and the ultimate goal, without which nothing is meaningful, by using the analogies of a “king without his kingdom” and “bird perching on a tree”. This universal presence of deity provided more reasons and avenues to a devotee (Bhakti) to seek God.
Part II: Relationship Between a Bhakti and God
As I mentioned in my paper statement, Bhakti saint teachings provided a more integral and expanded relationship framework between a devotee and God, a connection that makes the deity the closest part of all life. Mary Pat Fisher states, “In the Bhakti path, even though the devotee may not transcend the ego in Samadhi, the devotee’s whole being is surrendered to the deity in love” (Living Religions: Hinduism P. 85). The strength of the relationship is guided by the intensity of a devotee (bhakti) with the goal of achieving “true knowledge” and “Liberation” by completely giving oneself up. According to the saint song, if God lives in a devotee’s heart and is closer than one’s hands and feet, the deity therefore should guide every feeling and action of the devotee. Ravi Das uses the metaphor of a King’s plight when he loses his wealth to underscore that a devotee should be in complete distress without deity’s presence in his/her life. Although the bhakti song and associated teachings bring forward the universal nature of the path by finding deity’s presence in all life, they also stress upon the unity of the deity and a devotee. Egoistic values separate one being from another; therefore, the absence of egoism is given by the bhakti movement as the precondition to forming a strongly bonded relationship between deity present in all forms and a devotee.
Reward in bhakti movement takes on many forms mostly associated with achieving spiritual, emotional, and metaphysical goals. Search and unification with deity requires complete understanding of the presence of God in its every form and a devotee can only reach that state if he/she transforms his/her life, decisions, and goals according to the deity’s will. The act of complete devotion leads a devotee towards the stage wherein the self becomes absent and the assimilation of devotee with deity in all forms encourages him/her to take positive steps for others. Reward in turn is sought in the form of inner satisfaction. This in turn provides the level of satisfaction and happiness that is a reward in itself. Ravi Das points to such assimilation by using the metaphors of “association of a pilgrim to the place of pilgrim” which may require a tough journey by the pilgrim but in the end reward lies in making the pilgrimage. Therefore, according to the bhakti song reward for a devotee lies in the act of devotion itself, which includes the journey of a devotee in becoming one with deity. Since God is present inside and around a devotee in various forms, therefore, the presence of the One in all aspects of life is depicted by the song as “all knowing”, “source of welfare and prosperity”, “ultimate reality”, and “the light” which continue to empower the devotee’s life. While appreciating the rewarding aspects of God, devotee summons God’s guidance, as He is the guiding light and owner of the loftiest palaces and beauteous brides, in finding the right path that can help him/her in making the right decisions. The term salvation (mukti) in bhakti movement, like other Hindu traditions, is also used for liberation. Once a devotee seeks salvation, he/she is liberated from suffering, desires, and may also achieve liberation from successive lives. According to the song, a devotee’s goal is to achieve sainthood (a state in which one achieves liberation) by purifying his/her mind through pure consciousness; therefore, achieving salvation or liberation.
Part III: Thought Comparison
South Asian saint movements have a great impact on my religious outlook, which finds the presence of God inside and around us. Kabir (c. 1440-1518), a Muslim-born weaver with Hindu guru wrote hymns that showed cross religious influence into Muslims and Sikhs as well as Hindus. Kabir writes,
O servant, where dost thou seek me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time
Kabir says, “O Sadhu!” God is the breath of all the breath.”
The World of Illusion: Hymn by Kabir
An Anthology of Living Religions: 3rd Edition Chapter Hinduism P. 83
My understanding of religion originates from my religious belief that the Ultimate Reality exists and human responses to this Supreme Reality have been expressed and institutionalized as the structures of religions is further enriched by the ideology described in Ravi Das’s saint song which emphasizes on attaining the acceptance of the Ultimate Reality by completely giving oneself in as the only way to acquire true wealth and happiness in life. Like the Bhakti movement that promotes complete devotion between a devotee and deity who is present in many forms around us, my religious belief also finds the presence of God in every living being; however, differentiates in not worshipping its physical or exemplary forms. Therefore, my outlook of religion sits somewhat close to the religious ideology described in the saint’s song. In my view however, giving oneself in does not mean cutting off from the world and going into complete seclusion to seek the Ultimate Reality or the True Guru. By living a balanced life in which one understands and performs all his/her worldly duties with honesty and dedication and promotes the presence of good through actions and emotions, one can not only seek true happiness in this world but also can hope to have a rewarding after-life. Ravi Das in his song takes the moral and ritual discourse to seek the divine, which is important yet completely ignores the physical and worldly side of religious ideology. The teachings of the bhakti movement in Hinduism explain the concept of salvation (mukti) as the liberation of the soul by completely alienating a devotee from the world and by seeking pure consciousness. My view of liberation, however, does not require a devotee’s alienation but provides salvation through a code of moral and religious conduct that is aligned with normal human life.
The teachings of Hinduism do exemplify my definition of religion. I think the teachings of Hinduism provide us with an essential code of life, outlining both social and economic dimensions, which is an essential part of my definition of a religion. The syllable of OM in Brahman and Bhakti Movements interpret individual human interaction and societal behavior, another part of my definition. OM connects humans to the metaphysical, a narrative aspect of a religion that provides a connection to divinity with a historical perspective. As one of the oldest world religions, Hinduism offers cognitive, practical and social elements through rich set of rituals and texts. Through Vedas, Upanishads and other mode of literature, the Belief Perspective of Hinduism provides us with an understanding of the beginning of the universe and life and answers to the associated questions, without which a religion may not hold much foundation. A set of symbols and acts presented by Hinduism help us answer the critical questions about our existence, which are an essential part of my definition of a religion.
The teachings of the bhakti movement expand to all people, regardless of their background, and develop a relationship of intense devotion and love between a devotee and a deity which provides it universal aspect and brings it into the forefront with other living religions in the world.