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How the Bhakti movement flourished under Mughals

At a recent rally in Madhya Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a link between the 14th century social reformer and Bhakti saint Sant Ravidas and the Mughals. While laying the foundation stone of a temple dedicated to Ravidas, Modi praised him for holding his ground and showing courage to fight against the “oppressive rule” of the Mughal Empire.

Placing Ravidas in the context of the Mughals is interesting because it is often forgotten, or rather ignored, that the Bhakti tradition, to which Ravidas belonged, emerged and even flourished in large parts of north India at a time that coincided with Muslim rule in the Subcontinent. Although the Bhakti movement first emerged in the Tamil south between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, it spread to north India during the late Sultanate and Mughal periods. As historians have noted, not only did the Bhakti movement in the north carry influences of the culture introduced by the Muslim rulers, it, in fact, flourished to a large extent thanks to the politico-administrative structure envisaged under the Sultanate and Mughal rulers.

In his book, A Geneology of Devotion: Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga and Sufism in North India (2019), Patton Burchett, a scholar of religious studies, has argued that the Bhakti of North India was one inflected by the values, institutions, and perspectives of Persian literary and political culture on the one hand, and by popular Sufism on the other.

A Persianate cosmopolitan culture had made its way to South Asia with the Ghaznavid invasions of the 11th century. It was based upon a political ideal that society must be governed by a just king whose rule is divine in origin and who ensures the well-being and prosperity of diverse religious and cultural groups. The Ghaznavids were followed by the Delhi Sultanate that ruled north and central India between the 13th and the 16th centuries. Burchett argued that under the Sultanate rulers, the predominant tantric ritual traditions of the region underwent a palpable decline. It coincided with the Mongol invasions of Iran and Central Asia, resulting in a large immigration of Persianised cultural elites into India. Indirectly, it resulted in the rise of a new mass-based Sufism throughout Asia. This new form of Sufism was more interested in making an impact on the political culture and popular religious life of people.

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It is in this historical context that the Bhakti movement emerged in North India, and was quick to absorb many of the characteristics of the Sufi orders.

Several scholars have over the years commented on the similarities that the Bhakti movement shared with Sufism. Diana Eck, for instance, had noted that both Bhakti and Sufism “stressed the inner life of devotion and love, not the outer world of ritual and practice”. Historian Shahabuddin Iraqi, on the other hand, remarked that “the various trends of spiritual thought that developed under the Bhakti and Sufi movements drew much from each other, consciously and unconsciously.”

Burchett explained that the commonalities between Sufism and Bhakti become all the more apparent when it comes to the Nirgun Bhakti order to which Ravidas belonged. The Nirgun saints mostly belonged to the lower castes and contested the religious authority of the Vedas and their Brahmin exponents. While Sagun saints like Mirabai and Surdas were devotees of God in form such as Krishna, the Nirgun saints believed in worshipping God that is without a form. “The Nirgun traditions had much more porous boundaries when it came to Sufism and Islam,” said Burchett. He added that one sees this especially in the Sikh tradition and scriptures which carry writings from the Sufi saints along with the Nirgun saints like Ravidas and Kabir.

It is under the Mughals though, that Bhakti tradition really begins to thrive. In his work, Burchett has argued that the political alliances that Mughal Emperor Akbar formed with the Rajputs went a long way in allowing Bhakti institutions and literature to flourish in early modern north India. The Kachwahas of Amer, who were followers of the Ramanandi Bhakti community, served in the Mughal court of Akbar and were influential in shaping imperial policies and practices of rule.

In 1526, for instance, Akbar made a land grant to the officiating priest of the Govindadev temple in Vrindavan. By 1580, the Mughals had awarded jagir grants to at least seven temples in the Braj region. It is due to the patronage extended by the Mughal-Kachawaha nexus that Vrindavan emerged as one of the most important Bhakti religious centre of the period. “Bhakti could not have thrived the way it did without Mughal support,” remarked Burchett.

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At the same time, it is also to be noted that the Bhakti movement provided a much-needed religious ground for the Mughal rulers to operate in.

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Historian Harbans Mukhia explained to The Indian Express that Bhakti provided a wonderful solution in medieval Indian society wherein the rulers were Muslim and the majority population were Hindus. The Muslim state, he suggested, benefited quite a bit from the emergence of Bhakti. “Islam brought a totally different concept of God and his worship, emphasising on monotheism. It was completely opposite to what the majority population in the subcontinent followed,” he explained. “In this context, the Bhakti movement gave us a marvelously original idea. It gave us the concept of one universal God who is both Allah and Ishwar.”

Mukhia noted that the affinity that Muslim rulers held for Bhakti traditions is evidenced from the fact that Akbar’s religious policy of ‘Sulh-e-kul’ or ‘universal peace’ is a literal translation of Kabir’s philosophies. Moreover, Akbar’s court historian, Abul Fazl, is known to have paid great tribute to Kabir in his writings. “He in fact does not talk of ‘Allah’ or ‘Mohammad’ in his writings. He rather adopts the same religious formula of universal God as that proclaimed by Kabir and prefers to use the term ‘ilahi’ in his works which means divinity,” said Mukhia.

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Given the historical circumstances in which a Bhakti saint like Ravidas lived and spread his social philosophies, it would seem clear that he did not need to hold his ground in the face of Mughal domination. Rather, the rule of the Muslim emperors perhaps provided the ideal socio-political atmosphere for his teachings to prosper.

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