Bhakti Movement and Sikhism

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Bhakti Movement

Bhakti movement in Medieval India is responsible for the many rites and rituals associated with the worship of God by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Indian subcontinent. For example, Kirtan at a Hindu Temple, Qawalli at a Dargah (by Muslims), and singing of Gurbani at a Gurdwara are all derived from the Bhakti movement of medieval India (800-1700). "The word bhakti is derived from Bhakta meaning to serve, honour, revere, love and adore. In the religious idiom, it is attachment or fervent devotion to God and is defined as "that particular affection which is generated by the knowledge of the attributes of the Adorable One." The concept is traceable to the Vedas where its intimations are audible in the hymns addressed to deities such as Varuna, Savitra and Usha. However, the word bhakti does not occur there. The word occurs for the first time in the Upanisads where it appears with the co-doctrines of grace and self surrender." ( Heritage of the Sikhs, Harbans Singh)

Bhakti movement spawned into several different movments all across North and South India. In North India, Bhakti movement is nonethless not differentiable by a Sufi movement of Shia Muslims of Chisti fame. People of Muslim faith adopted it as a Sufis while Hindus as Vaisanava Bhakti. Sufi saints of Chisti order produced first punjabi sufi saint named Baba Sheikh Farid Shakarganj, who paved the way for the punjabi nationalism as well as brought peace among Hindus and Muslims. " In the north the cult was essentially Vaisnava-based, but instead of being focussed on Visnu, it chose to focus itself on Vishnu's human incarnations, Rama and Krisna, the respective avatars or deities central to the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. For bhakti now Visnu's incarnations ( Rama and Krisna) were the direct objects of devotion. Adoration of the devotees was focussed on them in association with their respective consorts: Slta with Rama; and Rukmini, his wedded wife, or Radha, his Gopika companion, with Krisna. Images of these deities and their consorts installed in temples were worshipped. The path of bhakti was not directly accessible to the lower castes; for them the path of prapatti (unquestioned self-surrender) was prescribed. Singing of Bhajans and dancing formed an important part of this worship. The dancers were deva-dasis (female slaves of the deity) inside the temple, but nagar-badhus (public wives) outside. Apart frorn being overwhelmingly ritualistic, the worship tended to be intensely emotional." (Heritage of the Sikhs, Sardar Harbans Singh)

Sikhism and Bhakti Movement

Followers of Bhakti movement in twelveth and thirteenth Century included the saints such as Bhagat Namdev, and Saint Kabir das who insisted on the devotional singing of praises of lord through their own compositions. Since Bhakti movement was started before Guru Nanak, some writers (mostly "Hindu and Western writers"; see "Cole and Sambhi, A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism: Sikh Religion and Philosophy, Routledge, ISBN 978-0700710485, page 22) have implied that Sikhism as started by Guru Nanak was nothing more then a Bhakti movement of Punjab. This is misleading and against the basic Sikh virtues of equality of humans and worship of one God. There is no doubt that Sikh Gurus adopted the singing of devotional songs in praise of lord from Bhakti, and that many Sufi and Bhakti saints are revered and recognized by Guru Granth Sahib, but there are fundamental differences between Bhakti movement and Sikhism. Sikhism repudiates the fundamental basis of the Bhakti movement, which claims that god Vishnu incarnates by taking birth in a human form from time to time (sambhavami-yuge yuge), and has incarnated himself as Rama and Krishna. In sharp contrast to the Bhakti movement, the opening lines of the Sikh scripture declare that God is unborn and, therefore, can never incarnate (ajooni). Sikhism lays emphasis on equality of man and woman, character building and honest work ethic, as well as leading a good virtuous married life, which is Maya according to many Bhakti and Sufi saints. Thus, while Sikhs revere saints such as Bhagat Namdev, Bhagat Kabir and Sheikh Farid, but the ultimate Guru (or teacher) of a Sikh is Guru Granth Sahib, which includes about 10% of the verses of these Saints.

As a famous Sikh author says "Sikhism undoubtedly accepted some of the aspects of radicalized bhakti, and admitted some of its practices into its own ordained set. It did lay down spiritual love as the way to the deity, but the deity to be worshipped was neither Shiva nor Vishnu nor even any of their incarnations, nor any of the gods or goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It was the One and the Only God, the Lord of Universes who was at once transcendent (nirguna) and immanent (saguma). Although immanent in his Creation He was yet apart from it, being its Creator. Since He in he real in the world that He had created, the world could not be considered unreal or illusionary (mithya or maya). It was real and sacred ("the abode of the True One"). It is therefore blasphemous to renounce it in quest of God. "He that is immanent in the Universe resides also within yourself. Seek, and ye shall find" (ee, 695). Renunciation of the world as a spiritual pursuit thus stood totally rejected. Celebacy was no longer countenanced, either. Full participation in life in a spirit of 'detachment' was prescribed instead. "Of all the religious rules and observances grihasthya (the homestead) is supreme. It is from here that all else is blessed" (Guru Granth Sahib, 587). Guru is paramount in bhakti as well as in Sikhism ."

Another scholar, Kapur Singh states that " Those who see in the origin and contents of the Sikh movement anything of the historical Vaisnavism or the historical Bhakti movement of the Middle ages, which was based on this Vaisnavism or cognate propositions, show a complete lack of understanding of the real nature of Sikhism". The author adds "Among the principal features of this climate (Bhakti movement climate) are its anti-Brahmanical attitude, its preference for vernaculars over Sanskrit, its total surrender theory, such as Lokacarya's marjara doctrine, its stress on devotion through image-worship rather than through knowledge, and its own peculiar forms of ritualism, such as caste-marks" and that "the similarities of Sikhism with some of these features are not so intimate or fundamental as to suggest any direct or indirect borrowing". [1]

Life ideals The ideal that Bhakti laid down for man was to achieve personal release (moksha or mukti). In Sikhism the ideal was stated in these terms: “I long not for a kingdom or for mukti but only for the lotus feet of the Lord” (GG 534). In the Sikh faith the highest ideal is to be able cheerfully to accept the will of God (raza, bhana) and to live one’s life it its dynamic mould, to be ready to give oneself to carrying out what ought to happen. This concept of Divine Will (hukam) as well as the injunction to accept it cheerfully is peculiar to Sikhism. Also, whereas the ultimate aim of bhakti is for the individual to attain personal liberation, the Sikh ideal is well-being of all (sarbatt ka bhala),

Modes of Worship: The modes of worship in Bhakti cults included not only bhajan (adoration) and kirtan (singing praises of the deity), but also Yogic upasana (literally, to sit beside, to meditate), Vedic sacrifices, Brahmanical ritualism and Tantric practices. Of these, Sikhism retains only bhajan and kirtan and disclaims the rest. It categorically rejects sacrificial rites. The only sacrifice it approves of is self-sacrifice for the sake of righteousness. Sikhism strongly censures idol-worship. Instead, sabda (the Divine Word) is determined to be the focus of all adoration. However, as in bhakti, nam (Logos) is both the object and means of adoration of God

Thus, bhakti has been radically transformed and redefined in Sikhism. Sikhism is in fact much wider than bhakti both in its conceptual gamut as well as in practice. For the Bhakti cults, bhakti is the be-all and end-all of everything; for Sikhism two other crucially important ends are ethical living and spiritual liberation. The cultivation of moral qualities, in Sikhism, is the requisite precondition for bhakti. “Without morality bhakti is not practicable (GG, 4). Moral discipline is considered a vehicle for attaining nearness to God. “It is by our deeds that we become closer to God or become distant from Him” (GG, 6).

Bhagti with Shakti (fearlessness) in Sikhism: While the bhagats’ sole stress was on bhakti or loving devotion, the Gurus also wanted to inculcate along with love and faith the spirit of fearlessness and valour among the Sikhs. A Sikh was to “overcome all fear by cherishing the Fearless Lord” (GG, 293). “He must not terrorize anyone, nor must he submit to anyone’s fear” (GG, 1427). He was “to be subservient to none but the True Lord” (GG 473). He was not to be a quietist ascetic but a valiant saint ready to “battle in open field” (GG 931) to destroy the tyrants; In their scheme of ethical dynamism the Gurus gave priority to zeal for freedom. Sikhs were not only given nam (Logos) as the symbol of the Formless One (which they shared with the bhaktas) but were also given kirpan (sword) as the symbol of the Fearless One. Sikhism, thus addressed itself to dual ideals, the other-worldly (piri) as well as this-worldly (miri).

Further, from "History of Sikh Gurus Retold: 1606-1708 C.E" By Surjit Singh Gandhi, page 677: "Shakti in Sikhism is a part and parcel of Bhakti because the user of Shakti was required to work—even sacrifice, to see the will of God operating without any let and hindrance. In this sense Sikh Shakti is suffused with devotion to God because if it is not so, the Shakti (power) would turn out to be a power of a tyrant and not of God. A true Gurmukh or Gyani is the embodiment of Bhakti and Shakti. According to Bhatt Kalsar, all the Gurus right from Guru Nanak to Guru Arian Dev had lived the life of Raj Jogi. Guru Hargobind underscored this point by wearing two swords representing Miri (temporal) and Piri (spiritual) aspect of Guru's office, which were the same as Bhakti and Shakti. Guru Tegh Bahadur, therefore, besides remembrance of God received military training. After he was elevated to guruship, he travelled widely and in course of his travels conducted himself in the manner of a chief, fond of horse-riding, wearing arms with the Kalghi on his turban, followed by a large retinue, just as his warrior father used to do. According to Dr. Fauja Singh, "Bhakti was to be continued with Shakti to offer full view of the Guru's philosophy of life."

Equality, Selfless Service, Honest Livelihood: Since Fatherhood of God was the basic Sikh tenet, brotherhood of man ipso facto became its social corollary. No one was to be reckoned low or high –“Reckon the entire mankind as One” (Akal Ustati, 15.85) was the Guru’s precept. Most of the bhakti cults also decried inequality, and especially condemned caste-distinctions, giving the right of worship to the low caste. However, service continued to be a menial pursuit, and manual labour was looked upon as the job of the lowly. The Gurus went further than just proclaiming the equality of man. They established dignity of labour, by making social service (seva) as an important vehicle of spiritual advancement. “The hands and feet sans seva are condemnable; actions other than seva are fruitless” (Bhai Gurdas, Varan, XXVII. 10). Begging is taboo for the Sikhs. While bhaktas could live on alms and public charity, not so a Sikh. He is ordained to earn his living by the honest labour of his hands (kirt) and share his earnings with others. It rehearsed in the fifteenth century the ideology of fraternity, equality and liberty. Devotion was defined as a positive phenomenon. Full-faced participation in life was recommended. In the time and space setting, bhakti and Sikhism lie close to each other which has led some to describe Sikhism as an offshoot of bhakti.

Guru Nanak's Revelation: Like the bhaktas and the Sufis, Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, proclaimed the love of God and, through it, communion with Him as the primary aim of man. More like the former, he repudiated caste and ritualism, and in common with the latter, emphasized submission to God’s will as the ultimate means of realization. Agreeably to the atmosphere created by Bhakti and Sufism, he rejoiced in singing praises of the Almighty and indicated the way to reconciliation between the Hindus and the Muslims. He brought to these general tendencies the force and urgency of a deeply inspired and forward-looking faith. He added elements which were characteristically his own and which empowered current trends with wholly new possibilities of fulfilment. Life in all of its different aspects was the subject of Guru Nanak’s attention. Integral to his intuition was an awareness of the ills and errors of society and his concern to remedy these. This was in contrast to the attitude of escape implicit in Bhakti and Sufism. Guru Nanak did not admit, like many of their protagonists, the possibility of man ever attaining, in his mystical progress, equality with Divinity. He also did not share the Bhaktas’ belief in incarnation or the Sufis’ insistence on bodily mortification and frenzied singing and dancing to bring about spiritual illumination. The faith begins with the revelation brought to light by Guru Nanak. To understand Sikhism fully the study of the totality of its tenet and of what impact it made on history will be very vital. In this perspective, the precept he preached is definitively the starting-point of Sikhism and not bhakti or any other cult.


  • 1. Taran Singh, ed., Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought. Patiala, 1970
  • 2. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
  • 3. Schomer, Karine, and W. H. McLeod, eds., The Sants: Studies in Devotional Tradition of India. Delhi, 1987
  • 4. Ishar Singh, The Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1969
  • 5. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Varanasi, 1983
  • 6. Hira, Bhagat Singh, Gurmatt Vichardhara. Delhi. 1969
  • 7. Chaturvedi, Parshu Ram, Uttari Bharat Ki Sant Prampara. Allahabad, 1964
  • 8. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna : The Baisakhi Of Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Nanak Dev University, ISBN 81-7770-014-6. page 14
  • 9. Surjit Singh Gandhi, History of Sikh Gurus Retold: 1606-1708 C.E, page 677

Adapted from article by J. S. Neki

  1. ^ Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna : The Baisakhi Of Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Nanak Dev University, ISBN 81-7770-014-6. page 14