Indian History Part 61 The Dance of Religions; Section IV The Medieval Hindu Revival

Udaipur, India 2 January 2017 


At the time when the Islamic conquest of the sub-continent began in earnest, Hindu Brahmanism was fully established in India. All religious questioning and competition that had been posed by Buddhism and Jainism had been comprehensively removed. The most important socio-cultural event of the 14th and 15th century medieval India was the revolution that took place in the Hindu society, brought about by a large number of socio-religious reformers. When Islam had first appeared in Peninsular India a religious upheaval was already in the offing in Hindu South India. The leader of this movement was Shankaracharya, whose teachings and preaching had completely obliterated Buddhism from the region, while also providing a new impetus and orientation to the practice of Hinduism.

Shankaracharya was however, more a philosopher than a reformer. His concept of ‘Sacchidananda Brahma’ was beyond the comprehension of the common person. The concept represented ‘existence, consciousness and bliss’ or ‘truth, consciousness and bliss’ and is the description of the subjective experience of the ultimate and unchanging reality of Hinduism that is called Brahman. In this explanation ‘Brahman’ is the unchanging and highest reality amidst and beyond the world that cannot be exactly defined. His ‘Advaita Vedanta’ was at a high intellectual plane and therefore remained, and remains to this day, the subject of discussion amongst the educated and philosophically oriented people. Almost a century after Shankara consolidated his doctrine and unified the different streams of Hinduism into one recognisable mainstream, the Bhakti movement originated a counter proposal against the Advaita doctrine, which had not been easily understood by the lay person.

Ramanuja, a 11th century saint, protested against the monism that Shankara preached and modified it to lay the foundation for the concept that became known as ‘Vishist Advaitawad’. While Ramanuja’s idea was also based on monism, it was not very rigid and was qualified. It derived inspiration from ancient Hindu scriptures—the Puranas, Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. Ramanuja also derived inspiration from some Tamil saints who had preceded him.

Ramanuja and Contemporaries

Ramanuja is acknowledged as a great Vaishnavite reformer, thought to have been born around 1016. Traditional accounts credit him with having lived for 120 years (1016-1136). He was educated in Kanchipuram under Yadava Prakasha who was the head of the philosophical academy in Kanchi and a renowned Advaita teacher of the time. Subsequently Ramanuja moved to Sringeri and because of his learned disposition was appointed the head of the temple administration. This rapid rise within the temple and religious hierarchy at a relatively young age, led to internal jealousy and there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life. In later years he was persecuted by the Chola king Kulottunga who wanted Ramanuja to become a Shaivite. The threat to his personal safety prompted Ramanuja to migrate to the neighbouring Hoysala kingdom.

During the period of his development, Ramanuja had imbibed the spirit of Bhakti from the Alwars, a group of Tamil saints. He developed the primary doctrine of ‘Vishisht Advaitawad’, which was a qualified monism that provided scope for the feeling and practice of Bhakti. Ramanuja’s philosophy was that it was not necessary for individual souls to be part of the Supreme Being, even though they all emanated from Him. Further, the Supreme was not an abstract Being but possessed qualities of goodness and beauty to an infinite degree. The philosophy supported the concept of a ‘Saguna Ishwara’, a God endowed with all auspicious qualities. In the final stage of a person’s spiritual evolution, Bhakti became transformed into a particular mode of Jnana, or knowledge. This knowledge is achieved in turn through devotion, creating a sort of perpetual and eternal cycle.

‘But how can knowledge be attained: Krishna says in the Gita: “To those who are ever devoted and worship me with love, I give that knowledge by which they attain me.” Bhakti must be reached by desirelessness; action must be done in the spirit of renunciation, and all desire for “fruit,” for reward hereafter must be abandoned.’

Ishwari Prasad,

History of Medieval India, pp. 561-62

Along with Shankara, Ramanuja brought back the age-old idea of one Supreme Being and revived the Bhakti cult. From this point onwards Bhakti went on to acquire vast influence.

There were some contemporaries of Ramanuja who also questioned the doctrine of monism as explained by Shankaracharya. One was Nimbarkar, said to have died around 1162, who propounded a theory that was a compromise between different tendencies, both monistic and pluralistic. Another great teacher was Madhav who was born around 1200 in the Udipi district of South Kanara. He also developed a similar doctrine of a God who was ‘Saguna Iswara’, a God who was full of all the good qualities and who could be reached through Bhakti. The release from rebirth for a person was to be achieved through knowledge and devotion.

While these reformers were conceptualising theories that were meant to be within the grasp of the common person, Hinduism continued to move in its own sedate pace, oblivious of the challenges that it was facing from a competing and robust religion. So far the spirit of compromise inherent in Brahmanism had overcome all opposition. Hinduism had the flexibility and power to adapt and assimilate other doctrines to its own philosophical and canonical body. Hinduism was an, ‘all-tolerant, -compliant, -comprehensive and –absorbing religion’. It had so far brought into its fold people of different faiths, races and creeds who had invaded the sub-continent from time to time. Its first and only failure to assimilate took place when it was faced with the Islamic faith that was gradually establishing itself in the region, because the Muslims were zealously and uncompromisingly devout to their faith.

Even though there was awareness that the new religion that had entered the region was not ready to be assimilated, Hinduism continued to be self-absorbed, and did not alter its position as a blend of two distinctly different tendencies—one, the monism of the elite intellectuals, and two, the deistic polytheism of the common person. Within this dual-fold, Brahmanism, caste, and Sanskrit were preserved and evolved. At the same time, Islam remained aloof, content in its own practice while making minor, but consequential inroads into the region.

The close proximity between Hinduism and Islam was bound to produce significant effects that would influence Indian thinkers from both the religions. However, in the initial years of interaction this influence was almost non-existent. Therefore, there is no trace of Islamic influence on Ramanuja’s philosophy or thought process, which remained quintessentially Hindu in its form. From the 14th century onwards it is seen that Islamic ideas had a conscious and sub-conscious effect on philosophical Hindu thought. This subtle shift in the situation can be seen in the teachings of Namadeva, Sant Kabir, Guru Nanak and their contemporaries.

It is at this stage that India witnessed the beginning of a national religious movement, initially in Maharashtra led by Namadeva. He declared that he needed neither temple nor mosque for his worship and a number of his contemporary saints echoed the same sentiment. The deep influence of Sufism that was spreading in North India is apparent in this development, as is the Hindu religious fervour of the Bhakti movement in Peninsular India. The progenitor of this reform movement was Ramananda.


Ramanuja had already initiated a religious revival in South India and Ramananda brought this movement to North India. The movement was a reaction to the increasing rigidity of orthodox Hinduism and attempted to cater for the demands of the heart against the pure intellectualism of Vedanta that had been prevalent for a few centuries.

There is uncertainty regarding Ramananda’s date of birth and even the date of his death. However, Kabir is confirmed to have been his disciple and therefore a contemporary. From this information it can be surmised with reasonable accuracy that Ramananda lived and taught in the first half of the 15th century. He was born into a Brahmin family in Prayag, was educated in all aspects of the religion, and travelled widely before settling down and spending most of his life in Varanasi. There is very limited written work attributed directly to Ramananda. However, his ideas can be collated from the writings of his immediate disciples who state categorically that the contents of their works are all Ramananda’s ideas and sayings.

In pursuing the concept of a God that was not nirguna like Vishnu, he substituted Rama as the object of worship. Rama was not nirguna, but an incarnation of God and the epitome of a Perfect Man. Ramananda taught the concept of Bhakti to all, making no distinction of caste and creed amongst his disciples. Although born and brought up in orthodox Brahmanism, he broke the rigid mould and created a sect with no distinctions of any kind, accepting disciples from all castes, from both sexes and even different religions. Some of his followers were Muslims. He insisted on absolute social equality, even for the study of the scriptures. This was a departure from earlier thinkers who had accepted the concept of caste as being part of the practice of Hinduism.

Ramananda rejected the caste system completely and started what later came to be referred to as the ‘religious renaissance’ in Medieval India. He had a dozen famous disciples, all of whom went on to be acknowledged as socio-religious reformers in their own right. They were: Kabir, Bhavananda, Atmananda, Sursura, Padmavati, Narhari, Raidas (also mentioned as Ravidas), Dhana, Pipa, Sain, Sukha and the wife of Sursura. [The fact that the name of the last mentioned lady is not mentioned in any chronicle is perhaps indicative of the lower status of women in society at that time.] Even though each one of these disciples went on to become renowned teachers, Kabir was the most famous.

Sant Kabir

The circumstances of Kabir’s birth is obscure and the date of his birth contentious. His birth is generally accepted to have been around 1425 and he died either in 1492 or 1518, both the estimates being considered probable.

Story of Kabir’s Birth

Tradition says that Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow, who cast him away at birth for fear of social ostracism. The child was picked up by a weaver named Niru who was a Muslim. Kabir was brought up by his foster parents with great affection and care and when he came of age, he took up his father’s profession of weaving. While doing his daily work as a weaver, Kabir found time to philosophise and moralise.

The story of being born to a Brahmin widow, is definitely ‘spicy’, but there may not be any truth to it.

It is generally accepted that Kabir was brought up as a Muslim, irrespective of the truth about his birth. However, he grew up and lived in the decidedly Hindu environment in Varanasi. Kabir did not receive any formal education and it is even doubtful whether he could read or write. Even so, he was inquisitive by nature. He became conversant with Hindu religious practices and also knew a great deal regarding the Islamic faith, the religion of his parents. Ramananda accepted Kabir as a disciple and initiated him into a deeper knowledge of Hindu philosophy.

Kabir became a professional weaver, following in the footsteps of his father. While weaving, he sang out his thoughts and ideas, never using pen and paper to record them. His communications were always oral. The songs he composed were mostly in broken language and incorrect grammar, which is consistent with his uneducated status. However, some of them were in perfect poetry and remain enigmatic because of the grace of their composition.

‘No one knew the mystery of that weaver

Who came into the world and spread the warp.

The earth and the sky are the two beams,

The sun and the moon are two filled shuttles,

Taking a thousand threads he spreads them lengthways;

Today he weaveth still, but hard to reach is the far-off end.’

‘The Bijak of Kabir’ by Ahmad Shah

As quoted in Ishwari Prasad,

History of Medieval India, p. 571

At the headquarters of the ‘Kabir Panthis’ in Varanasi, the group made up of his followers, there is a collection of 21 books attributed to the master, that has been written down by his immediate disciples. The language of the poems, discourses and sayings is simple and not that of a refined philosopher. In essence Kabir should be considered a mystic poet and social reformer, not a religious philosopher who had achieved intellectual ascendancy.

Kabir was a great social and religious reformer and all his thoughts and ideas are fully based on Hindu philosophy. He propagated the earlier concept of escaping from the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth through recourse to the practice of Bhakti. Kabir was opposed to all kinds of superstitions, blind faith in the scriptures, pilgrimages and idol worship. He hated rituals and ceremonies and fought against the caste system as well as all types of intolerance. Kabir’s approach was positive in that he wanted to unite Muslims and Hindus, which he felt was the optimum way to wipe out all distinctions of caste and religion. He propagated this since he was convinced that the essence of both religions was the same. He also attempted to expose the ignorance and bias of the Muslim ulema and the orthodox Hindu priest.

Kabir’s fundamental concept was that there was only one God, called by many different names. Kabir conceived God as a collection of attributes without any shape or form. Since this was the precept, Kabir did not worship any ‘deity’ and also did not proscribe any exuberant celebrations like those practised by some other sects. He avoided monism and placed God as the supreme object of love.

Kabir propagated the idea of an individual merging with the Whole, which was God. His concept of love for the divine was a combination of Vaishnava Bhakti and Muslim Sufi devotion; maintaining that Hindus and Muslims were pots of the same clay, striving through different routes to reach the same goal. He pointed out the futility of paying lip-service and homage to the great ideals of truth and religion without adhering to them in daily life.

Kabir preached a broad monistic pantheism that was cleverly couched in positive moral fervour. In this way of thinking, in order to achieve union with Him, there was no need to leave worldly life, which Kabir himself had not done. He lived the life of a normal house-holder, practising his profession and earning a living. The concept was that one should live in the world, without developing attachments to the worldly things that clutter daily life. Within this lifestyle he advocated adhering to a universal religion.

To achieve an amalgamation, he asked the Hindus to give up the external manifestations of the religion such as idol worship, ritualism, distinctions of caste, emphasis on scriptures and the belief in incarnations. Similarly he asked the Muslims to give up their arrogance and the blind faith bestowed on the ‘prophet and his book’. Kabir was the first socio-religious reformer to declare that both Hindus and Muslims were the children of the same and one Supreme Being. Kabir was an unusual person for his times—the story of his birth and subsequent life; his lack of education but becoming an unlettered philosopher; his way of life as an ascetic householder-saint who earned his living through work; all of which were distinctive and attracted people to him and his teachings.

Kabir’s radical teachings did not go uncontested by both the religions that had been targeted. The Hindus could not tolerate his preaching that their temples and Gods, the Vedas and the Shastra, the practice of caste and varna were all false. Similarly the Muslims could not subscribe to the theory that their religion was not superior to all other faiths but at the same level as others and that their fasts and pilgrimages had no intrinsic worth or merit. In a joint effort to silence him, around 1495, the ulema and priests together lodged a complaint against Kabir with the Sultan Sikandar Lodi in Delhi. Kabir now in his 60s, was summoned by the Sultan. However, Sikandar Lodi did not find anything blasphemous with the simple teachings of an unlettered weaver. Even so, Kabir was temporarily exiled to Maghar to appease the demands of the ulema and the priests.

Despite the concerted opposition to his teachings, Kabir’s movement was a living force in the 15th century and after. The lower caste Hindus considered him a saint and had a Christ-like devotion towards him, since he had attempted to save them from degradation. The others worshipped him for the simplicity of his teachings and for resuscitating the moribund Hindu society. There is no doubt that Kabir succeeded in his self-imposed mission and also inspired other thinkers, both contemporary and in later-days. His movement is alive to this day. After his death, his son Sant Kamal, influenced the further development of the movement.

Ramananda’s Other Disciples

The 12 more famous disciples of Ramananda have already been listed. Dhanna, Pipa, Sain and Raidas delivered the same message as Kabir, in much more humble ways. Some of their hymns and poems have been preserved in the Adigrantha, the holy book of the Sikhs. Dhanna was born in Dhuan in Tank province of Rajputana and was a simple farmer. He taught the concept of Bhakti to the villagers through his songs. Pipa was the Raja of Gagraungarh and had a saintly disposition. He became a disciple of Ramananda. He is the creator of ‘Pipaji ki Bani’ a poem/ballad that has been passed down the generations orally. The poem maintains that worship should be internal and that disciplined worship under a Guru’, a mentor, helps one attain God.

Sain was a barber by profession and sang hymns in both Hindi and Marathi. His message influenced both North and South India. Raidas belonged to Varanasi and was a leather-worker, belonging to a class of people who removed the carcasses of dead animals and were considered to be ‘untouchable’. He was one of the few lower caste reformists and was given the status of a sant or saint.

Guru Nanak

Nanak was a person with a mighty mind and created a reformist stir in the Punjab region. Unlike many of the other medieval socio-religious reformers, Nanak’s dates are accurately known—he was born on 26 November 1469, full moon day of Kartik in the Hindu calendar, in village Talwandi on the banks of the River Ravi in Gujranwala district of Punjab. He had basic knowledge of Persian and Hindi, but was not particularly inclined towards attaining any deep knowledge through traditional learning. In his younger days he attempted odd jobs such as agricultural work and shop keeping without much success. At the age of 18 he married a Khatri girl Sulakhin, and had two sons—Sri Chand and Lakshmi Chand. He was not particularly attached to the family or any of the jobs that he worked on. However, he had an innate thirst to know the Truth, a spiritual thirst that subsumed all else as he grew older.

At the age of 27, Nanak met Kabir during the last decade of the 15th century. At that time Kabir, already a famous teacher across North India by then, was more than 65 years old. There is no doubt that Nanak learned a lot from Kabir and in later years incorporated a number of lines from Kabir’s poetry into the Adigranth, the religious book of the Sikhs. When he became 30 years old, Nanak decided to leave the life of a householder and gave up home and family to become a sanyasi.

He set out to meet sadhus and saints, accompanied by Bhai Bala who was his companion from childhood and Bhai Mardana, a Muslim Rababi (or minstrel) who used to strum the harp while Nanak meditated. Nanak’s travels are not well documented, but it is known that he visited the important pilgrim centres in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Arabia and Iran. It is reported that he visited Mecca and Medina dressed in the garb of a Muslim Fakir. There are also a number of stories regarding the miracles he performed during his journeys, but they are not corroborated or verifiable. In 1504, after five years of wandering, he became the Guru of the Sikhs (Sikh is a colloquial version of the word ‘Shishya’ meaning disciple), and preached his message for the next 34 years.

During the time of his preaching he continued to travel within the Punjab region and the places that he visited became, in the course of time, pilgrimage centres. He died in 1538 at the age of 70 in his hometown. His tomb has since been swept away by the River Ravi. Nanak regarded himself as a prophet, stating that the message that he delivered was ‘received from His doorstep’. Nanak’s primary aim was to unify the Hindus and the Muslims. The reasons for this focus on Hindu-Muslim unity has to be analysed within the geo-political reality that prevailed in Punjab at that time. Geographically, Punjab had always borne the brunt of invasions from the north-west. Timur had inflicted terrible suffering on the people of Punjab and the region was in political turmoil throughout the 15th century. Punjab was also in the throes of untold misery as the internecine wars for control of the throne of Delhi was largely fought in its territory.

By the time Nanak established himself as a Guru, the pressure of Islam on the people of Punjab had increased to unbearable proportions. Along with the wars for control there was a continuous series of Hindu-Muslim clashes in the region. Nanak instinctively realised that in order to heal the wounds of the society, it was necessary to end religious conflict. He made this the mission of his life. Nanak’s biographies proclaim that the first words that he uttered after receiving revelation was, ‘There is no Hindu, and there is no Musalman’.

The main point of Nanak’s teaching was the unity of God. He conceived God as being nirguna, meaning without attributes and nirakar, being formless. God was ‘inaccessible, fathomless and exalted above all else.’ Nanak preached that if this Absolute Supreme was understood, then there would be no difference between His creatures and therefore no quarrel about His name. The ultimate aim of man must be to merge with the Light Divine for which he needed to remove delusion from his mind. This concept was uncannily similar to the fana of the Sufis and nirvana of the Buddhists. The merger with the Light Divine was achieved through the remembrance of His name (smarana) that had to be ardent and sincere, achieved through humility and right action.

There was a subtle difference in the manner of preaching between Nanak and Kabir. Nanak always attacked evil while never tiring of praising the good, whereas Kabir only attacked the evils of society, taking for granted that everyone knew the goodness of God. Nanak also advocated the need for a Guru to achieve self-realisation and his teachings contained the seeds of a definitive religion. His characteristic personal humility, serene way of life and forbearance attracted large number of followers and won their love and respect. With the passage of time his disciples, the Shishyas, formed themselves as Sikhs, becoming a full-fledged religion, in much the same pattern of evolution as that of Islam. The similarities between the two religions are uncanny—the religion of the Sikhs, Sikhism in later days, had a Prophet (Guru Nanak), a Book (Adigrantha, later to be called the Guru Granth Sahib), and a church Gurudwara, (literally meaning the door to the guru) for the Sangat, the gathering. Amritsar became the Mecca of the Sikhs during the time of Guru Ram Das. The Sikhs also paid a religious tax, similar to the Islamic Zakat.

Guru Nanak had learned a lot from Kabir, who was a disciple of Ramananda, who in turn belonged to the Ramanuja School of philosophy. It is not surprising that there is an unmistakable impress of the ideas of Ramanuja in Nanak’s teachings. Taking a leaf from Ramanuja’s concept, he proclaimed Bhakti to be the only way to salvation; he gave divine status to the Guru as a Prophet and abhorred divisions of caste and creed.


From the mid-14th century and through the whole of the 15th century, the entire North India was in religious ferment. While Kabir and Nanak influenced Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, Chaitanya and Vallabhacharya were providing leadership for religious reform in Bengal and Western Uttar Pradesh. Although both these teachers functioned in geographically separated areas, the two sects that developed out of their concepts were remarkably similar. Both adored Krishna as a child or young man and considered him a ‘saguna’ or anthropomorphic deity, not one that was nirguna. The concept emerged almost simultaneously in Bengal and Central India.

Vallabhacharya was born in Varanasi in 1479 and was the son of Lakshmana Bhatt, a Brahmin from Telangana. By the time he was 12 years old he had already been acknowledged as a preacher of Vaishnava Hinduism. It is also claimed that while he was in Vrindavan, a place intimately associated with Krishna, the Lord visited him personally. He proposed the concept of complete identification of both soul and body with the Supreme Spirit, preaching a monism that was called ‘Sudha Advaita’ or ‘pure non-duality’. In this concept, Bhakti was both the means and the end, with salvation being achieved through His Grace. The teacher on earth was divine in stature.

Vallabhacharya’s concept differed from that of Ramanuja in recognising the distinction between the soul and God. Other than this fundamental difference, he followed the teachings of the 12th century Guru. The intense devotion to Vishnu, which was exemplified in the concept of Vaishnavism, was fully realised in Vallabha’s faith. As a sect the group created by Vallabha attracted men from all castes, creeds and even some Muslims.


Bengal had for centuries been fertile ground for the worship of Krishna as the God of Love. In Bengal flourished Jayadeva, the author of Gita Govind in 12th century and also the famous authors Chandni Das (1417-78) and Vidyapati (1433-81).  Their passionate poetry paved the way for Chaitanya to espouse his concept of worship. At this time Bengal had already been conquered and was ruled by Muslim kings/sultans. However, there was peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims with almost no interference from the Muslim Sultan regarding the practice of an individual’s religion. While peaceful co-existence was the norm, Hinduism was languishing in the shadow of the worship of Chandi, which was concomitant with sacrifices and tantric rites of a debased and sensual nature. Hinduism also suffered from the harmful effects of the caste system and a narrow-minded elite that controlled the religion. The power of the Brahmin and their control over the religion was absolute.

Chaitanya was born in Nawadip in March 1486, to Jaganath Mishra and his wife Sachi Debi. His pet name was Nimai and he was renowned for his love of learning from early childhood. He married at the age of 18 and set up a school on the banks of the River Bhagirathi where he was also the senior teacher. A call from within made him give up the profession of teaching and he travelled to East Bengal and then to Gaya. In Gaya, Chaitanya met Iswar Puri who initiated him into the Bhakti cult. It was here that ‘Nimai’ was given the name Chaitanya, since his soul and intellect were saturated with the love for Krishna.

Chaitanya took ‘sanyas’, the act of being celibate and moving away from all worldly attachments,  when he was 25 and started on a round of travels. First he went to the shrine of Krishna, who is depicted in the form of Jaganath, in Puri and thereafter roamed all over India for the next six years. He visited Vrindavan in the north and Rameswaram in the south. During his travels he came in encountered Muslim holy men and Sufis and was impressed with the simple and democratic ideas that they propagated. He came back to Puri and spend the next 18 years there, teaching and preaching his concept of worship. He died at the early age of 48 in 1534.

Chaitanya’s primary concept is of Bhakti, or devotion. He believed in a Supreme Being, Brahma as in the case of Vedantists, who is possessed of attributes that was manifest in Sri Krishna. God was a personal being, full of love and grace, a state that in turn inspires love from devotees. Chaitanya’s Bhakti is exemplified and illustrated by the mutual love of Radha and Krishna and he was greatly influenced by the teachings of Ramanuja, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.

Chaitanya conceived of a Bhakt, devotee, passing through five successive stages in his evolution to achieving salvation. They were: Shanti, resigned contemplation; Dasya, service and servitude to Him; Sakhya, friendship that flows on to the fourth stage; Vatsalya, love like that of a child for its parents; and Madhurya, earnest and all-engrossing love such as that of a woman for her lover. Biographers of Chaitanya claim, and insist, that he had reached the fifth level and combined in himself the blend of the two aspects of God—God the lover and God the beloved, represented by Krishna and Radha.

Chaitanya’s teachings also have a number of commonalities with those of other saints like Ramanuja. He gave a prominent place to the Guru and his role in the evolution of the devotee; he preached against any and all distinctions made on the basis of caste and creed; his condemnation of Brahminical rituals was absolute; and he discouraged asceticism and renunciation. Although he himself was a practising sanyasi, a celibate, he dissuaded others from renouncing worldly duties. He was vociferous in attacking social evils and directly contributed to the rejuvenation of Hinduism in Bengal.


Through its long and chequered history, there has been no dearth of reformers within Hinduism. In the 15th century, starting with Ramnuja to Chaitanya, there is a long line up of some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the religion seen in any one period. The period from late 14th century till early 16th century was the ‘Age of Socio-religious Reformers’ for Hinduism. These reformers altered Hinduism and gave the people a relatively simplified religion. The simplification was provided through the following beliefs: that there was only one God, either Saguna or Nirguna; the concept that the soul was part of Him and therefore constantly strove to be near Him; communion with the Supreme Being was not possible through rituals, pilgrimages or by adhering to the letter of the scriptures; and that salvation lay in Bhakti.

While the reformers contributed greatly to the religious field, their contribution to the society was even greater. They revolutionised society, peacefully and at times through almost invisible movements. All the reformers travelled widely, met with people of all castes and religions, held cosmopolitan views and by their demeanour established the fact that they belonged to the sub-continent and not to any one province or region. The urge of ‘Indians’ to unite when facing a common enemy, exemplified during Timur’s invasion when Hindus and Muslims fought together against the invading army, influenced and even progressed with the teachings of these religious reformers. The saints appealed directly to the heart, not the head, mind or rationality. The doctrine of Bhakti that all of them embraced showed the futility of meaningless religious conflicts and expanded the concept that the essence of all religions were the same.

The greatest contribution of the reformers to the Hindu society was the social upliftment of the lower caste population. They also helped in the development of the language of the common people through teaching in the language used for everyday transactions. Persian and Sanskrit were cultivated by Islamic and Hindu institutes of repute and used by the educated elite of the society. Before the advent of the reformers, the language of the common man did not have any literature or religious significance worth mentioning. By the end of the 15th century, Hindi was definitely shaped by the sayings and teachings of saints such as Kabir, Raidas and others. The messages of the masters were always delivered in simple yet beautiful Hindi poetry and prose. Similarly, the Vaishnava poets, in Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra, enriched the local languages of their regions.

Undoubtedly, the saint-reformers contributed and uplifted religious thought, social reform and the development of language and literature. However, they could not unite the Hindus and Muslims into one nation, a feat that they repeatedly attempted without any tangible success. People of both the faiths listened to them and even worshipped them, but clung tenaciously to their own narrow religious beliefs. Further, only a minority of the population actually became the disciples of these masters. For every saint and his follower, there were more than double the number of fanatics in each religion. The division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan is a painful reminder of the fact that even after centuries of co-existence and association and the efforts of gifted socio-religious reformers, the people of India could not unite as one.

The failure of the masters to achieve socio-religious cohesion could be attributed to three factors.  First was that the Hindu sants (saints) and Muslim Sufi masters concentrated on targeting the lower class and the mostly uneducated people in order to uplift them socially. The privileged higher class, the educated upper class who were the opinion makers were not only unaffected but also suspicious of the reformers. The fact remained that the sants and the masters did not have universal appeal. Second, the reformers’ message lacked emphasis on improving the economic status of their followers, who were almost all living in or close to poverty. Attempting to achieve salvation and moral upliftment while living a life of penury is not easy for a common person and requires extraordinary piety and concentration that was not readily available. It is much easier to achieve social reform if it is combined with an assured and guaranteed economic upliftment. This did not happen in the case of the medieval Indian socio-religious reformation movement. A contributory factor was also that the reformers did not make any attempt to uplift the women from their low status in society. Therefore, even though some progress was being achieved in moving the society forward, women remained relegated to the back. The third factor was that once the great saints and masters left the scene, they were not replaced by equally powerful disciples. In the usual pattern, the calibre of following disciples were diluted. This situation led to their message being gradually either adapted or diluted to suit and individual’s proclivity towards religion, caste, creed and even colour.

Even so, the socio-religious reformers achieved remarkable success during their time. They were the first to raise the concept of Hindu-Muslim unity in many parts of the country. Perhaps more importantly, they were the first group who could be considered ‘Indian’ in a pan sub-continental manner. The reformers created awareness in the minds of men, which led to inquisitive questioning that led to revolutionising existing social values.












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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