Indian History Part 61 Section III: The Mingling Mysticism

Mumbai, 18 December 2017


In early 14th century the religious make up of India was gradually altering. Buddhism had almost vanished from the land of its birth; Jainism was confined to a narrow area in the west of the sub-continent; and Islam was in its infancy, spread across scattered settlements in North India and holding a tenuous foothold in the west coast of South India. Even though it was split into different sects, orthodox Brahmanism held sway across the entire sub-continent. This situation reinforces the fact that the Hinduism was imbibed with a unique culture. It was normal for Hinduism to add to existing institutions but normally they were not superseded through the creation of new ones. This trait ensured that even when completely new concepts were introduced into the practice of the religion, the old practices were retained and continued to be followed with minor adaptations. This is one of the fundamental reason for the longevity of Hinduism, staying dynamic even after it has suffered centuries of foreign onslaught.

The Hindu Mystics

The medieval period saw the Hindu religion go through a concerted renaissance, brought about by a number of prominent socio-religious teachers and reformers. They came to be called sants or saints, and were also mystics, with large number of devotees and followers. These mystics had some common traits and characteristics. They were non-sectarian and did not belong to any sect; they had no aspiration to create a separate sect of their own, but only wanted to reform the fundamental approach to religion and worship within the existing practices of Hinduism; none of them were bound by religion, caste or creed; all of them abhorred blind faith in the words of the scared scriptures; they did not observe any rituals or ceremonies; each one condemned polytheism and believed in one God; they did not follow any dogma and denounced the practice of idol worship; and they realised the unity of God, invoked differently by different sects and religions.

The sants believed in Bhakti, love or devotion, as the only means of salvation. In order to make sure that the lay person understood the fundamental idea of Bhakti, they provided profoundly illustrative analysis and interpretations of the concept. Bhakti is explained as single-minded and uninterrupted devotion to God that gradually evolves into love. The Hindu mystics stated that Brahman, meaning the Supreme God or Universe (not to be confused with the term ‘Brahmin’ used to demote an individual or caste), which is the ultimate reality, could be called by any name since it is an abstract idea. Brahman is also the source of eternal bliss. In simple terms, this eternal bliss can be achieved only through self-surrender to Him after which final salvation or complete emancipation will occur.

In propagating the concept, the sants took into account only the overall personality of the human being practising Bhakti without placing any undue emphasis on the person’s rational faculty. Religious truths and beliefs are not matters of pure reason alone, but is also influenced by the personal nature of the individual. Therefore, the sants, in their role as teachers, did not completely exclude religious factors and their influence on the common people. The Hindu mystics ‘taught’ in the regional vernacular and not in Sanskrit that had become the language of the educated elite. By using commonly understood dialects, they were able to bring the concept of Bhakti to the ordinary and un-educated people. They were able to explain to the lay person the idea of universal truths, which are more valuable than sectarian doctrine in understanding religion. The noble objective of the Hindu sants was the upliftment of the masses and therefore none of them considered caste distinctions as an impediment to teaching the basics of Bhakti.

The Hindu mystics exercised absolute freedom of thought and practised intense self-exertion in both intellectual and spiritual contemplation. Because of their critical ability to decipher the virtues, and more importantly the pitfalls, of traditional religious teachings there was a prevalent spirit of revolt against orthodox Brahmanism among all the mystics. The teachings of the sants were sufficiently radical for the orthodox religious practitioners to keep these mystics and their followers away from the more sedate religious forums. This may have been one of the reasons for the followers of these teachers to form closed sects, even against the injunctions by the saints themselves to avoid doing so. On the other hand, Hinduism with its age-old tradition of tolerance and absorption accepted some of these sects into its fold and gradually chipped away at the more heterodox views held by them, till their extreme states were whittled down to acceptable traditional levels.

Acceptance into the Fold of Mainstream Religion

There are two distinct examples of groups that followed mystics, albeit on different paths, that adapted to traditional religion and became accepted into the mainstream.

The first is Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism, which remains a power sect in the religious life of Bengal, even today. When the saint initiated his teachings, he was spirited in embracing the ‘chandals’, meaning the untouchables, and Muslims into the sect and taking them on as disciples. However, this universality vanished from ethos of the sect a long time ago. Today, there is no obvious and outwardly visible difference between the Chaitanya sect and orthodox Brahmanism as practised in Bengal. A similar sort of assimilation into mainstream Hinduism took place in the case of most other sects created by followers of other sants.

The second example is the sect founded by Guru Nanak, which is numerically small and mostly confined to the region of the Punjab. The sect went on to create a new religious order, Sikhism. Today it is the most powerful one of all the sects that represent medieval Hindu saints. However, the importance of this sect, turned religion, is derived from factors other than religion or spirituality.

[The background and teachings of Chaitanya and Nanak are explained in the next chapter.]

Other sects that have survived as separate entities have numerically small followings and are insignificant, functioning at the fringes of mainstream Hinduism with very limited influence.

There are three major reasons for the sects becoming assimilated into the mainstream religion. First, the teachings of Hinduism, at the very basic level is entrenched in the ‘soil of India’ and therefore they are not difficult for the un-educated farmer to understand. Once the veils of Sanskrit, rituals and ceremonies are removed, the lay person is able to identify the religion and its core values. The saints were only facilitating this revelation. Second, the sants were not propagating any new concepts—the unity of God and the practice of Bhakti were known, if not familiar, ideas. The saints only made them popular through simplified explanations. Third, the Vedas had described these two concepts and therefore they had always existed in the shadow of Hinduism, side by side with the belief and worship of a plurality of Gods.

Medieval Hindu mysticism did not suddenly appear on the scene. It originated in Maharashtra under two great teachers – Jnanadeva and Namadeva, spreading across the region gradually and carried forward by other equally erudite sants and socio-religious reformers to far corners of the sub-continent. The broad concept of Bhakti in Hinduism finds a parallel in the Sufism that originated in Islam. Sufism was also conceived as the belief of loving devotion to God being the path to find union with God through the annihilation of the self and human attributes. Similar to the relationship of Bhakti and Hinduism, the Sufi concept was also considered heretic in orthodox Islamic thought. Many Sufi preachers sacrificed their lives to ensure the propagation of their particular practice of worship.

A Complex Interaction

There are various theories, which are discussed even today, regarding the origin of medieval Hindu mysticism. Some eminent European scholars who researched and analysed Indian history, religion and culture in the 18th and 19th centuries erroneously put forward the idea that the concept of Bhakti was borrowed from Christianity and that it echoed the condition of salvation and monotheistic doctrine as explained in the Christian religion. Today, this claim cannot be considered seriously and does not have any merit. There is no evidence of close contact and interaction between Hinduism and Christianity during the period when the Bhakti movement originated. Such interactions are necessary for religion to impose sufficient influence on another for the second one to start a dedicated movement within itself. The claim of Christian ideas being borrowed to start the Bhakti movement has to be completely disregarded.

The question and debate regarding the influence of Islam on the concept of Bhakti is more complex. Even in this case, there was only limited contact between Islam and Hinduism before the 12th century. Therefore, the chances of mutual influence and the possibility of the exchange of philosophical views and religious ideas and doctrine are very remote. There is also an opinion that continues to be put forward by some analysts even today that Sankaracharya’s concept of monism was a copy of Islamic ideas. Nothing could be more distant from the truth. The opinion is completely wrong and biased, and merits no further discussion.

Analysing the developments from the mid-13th century, a different perspective emerges. By this time, Islam had already been established and become entrenched within the sub-continent. It would never leave the region after this time. There is no doubt that the philosophy of Islam affected Hinduism, just as the core ethos of Hinduism also impacted the ideas of Islam. Muslim thinkers were definitely affected by the rich heritage of Indian culture based on Hinduism. A comparison of changes that took place in both religions for the six centuries, from the 12th to 18th centuries before Christian influence further changed both the religions as practised in the Indian sub-continent, would in all likelihood produce some indication of the mutual influence exerted by both the religions. Such a comparison has not been undertaken because of the difficulties in quantifying influence in an empirical manner. As an unbiased analyst, the author believes that it is unwise to make clear and dogmatic assertions regarding the influence exerted by both the religions on each other during the six centuries of bilateral interactions as they developed in medieval India. These interactions continue to be an on-going process in the Indian context, making such an enterprise a hazardous undertaking for a historian.

In a repeat of earlier assertions without the backing of any evidence, some modern historians have ventured so far as to state, in very general terms, that medieval Hindu mysticism was the product of the impact of Islam on Hinduism. Statements are made such as, ‘…influence must have been acquired…’ (Author’s italics) and other similar sentiments. Such statements cannot be considered erudite, unbiased or the product of academically sound research and evaluation. One such author has stated that the Bhakti movement in North India represents the first impact of Islam on Hinduism. He then goes on to observe that the Bhakti movement was essentially indigenous and shares its principles of universal brotherhood and human equality with Islam. Thus the argument of Islamic influence on the Bhakti movement is defeated by the author himself. It has to be clearly understood that the concept of brotherhood in the Islamic viewpoint did not extend beyond its own fold and by no stretch of imagination can it be considered to have been universal. In the Muslim tenets, the non-believer, the Kafir, was a distinctly inferior being in all respects, let alone being considered worthy of acceptance into universal brotherhood. Some facts about Hinduism and the Bhakti movement will dispel the myths that are being perpetuated as truths by some biased analysts.

Fact 1: The theory of universal brotherhood and equality of man is enshrined in Vedanta, where they are placed as the fundamental basis for identifying individual souls. Further, every soul is considered identical to Brahman, the Universe. While it could be accepted that Islamic theory or its practice may have held some appeal to the Hindus, it is equally clear that Islam did not bring with it any new message of equality that the Hindus were unaware of or had not practiced earlier.

Fact 2: Medieval Hindus, under forced Islamic rule in North and East India were under no illusion regarding their status as second-class citizens. They were forbidden to practice their religion in public; denied political, civil and judicious rights; and lived under an administration that declared Islam as the only state-approved religion and imposed it across the entire country. Authors such as Yusuf Hussain, who in his book Glimpses of Medieval Indian Culture, first published in 1957, propagates the theory that ‘universal brotherhood’ was practiced in the Delhi Sultanate, are merely attempting to rewrite history, taking it far away from the prevalent facts of the time. Such writings are only pretensions attempting to ‘white wash’ the travails perpetuated on the Hindu population by the Muslim Sultans and their fanatical clergy. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fact 3: The Hindu saints found much commonality between orthodox Islam and the traditional practice of Hinduism in medieval India. The Hindu mystics of the time do not owe anything to orthodox Islam that had invaded the sub-continent by way of direct influence. Islam is a strong proselytising religion and as it came into the sub-continent it posed a serious and real challenge to a caste-ridden and moribund Hinduism. The situation could have provided added impetus and inspired learned Hindus to seek the truth within their own religion to force a reformation from within. In an obtuse manner this could be considered a limited and indirect influence of Islam on Hinduism. The result of the introspection of the educated Hindus was the development of the saints and mystics into teachers propagating the core of the religion and the introduction of a ‘new wave’ Hinduism. [A similar movement originated when the influence of Christianity had started to threaten a languid Hinduism in the 18th and 19th centuries. A group of Hindu reformers rose to protect the core of the religion through advocating revolutionary changes to the practice and customs of the religion. This aspect of Hindu reform will be discussed in a later volume in the series at the appropriate stage of the narration.]

Fact 4: The medieval Hindu mystics did not make inroads into the religious fortress of Islam, or for that matter, to the core of traditional Hinduism. Their teachings directly affected only a minority, insignificant in the context of the overall spread of the religion in the sub-continent. However, through their socio-religious intervention, the mystics or sants or saints, who also doubled as teachers and masters, managed to arrest the decay that had set in within the practice of Hinduism brought about by the rigidity enforced by traditional Brahmanism.


In an unbiased and overarching assessment, the impact of both Hindu mysticism and Islamic Sufism on the broader Indian cultural and religious development seems to the disproportionately exaggerated. It is also obvious that both these movements have their intrinsic value as distinctive phases in their respective religions, from a moral, spiritual and philosophical point of view. However, historically they are not very significant events or even of great importance, since only relatively few Indian were affected even at the zenith of their influence. Further, the numbers following the teachings of the masters dwindled rapidly as their influence started to wane with time.

Perhaps the most important observation to put forward is that both the religions showed no signs of being affected by the radical elements within their fold and continued on their own individual journeys. Neither Hinduism nor Islam showed any long-term recognition or acceptance of either mysticism or Sufism. The Hindu mystics and Muslim Sufis remained at the fringes of their mainstream religions, without ever being able to make even semi-permanent changes to the practice of their respective faiths.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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