In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section "Bhakti Movement” Narratives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: English
  • General Overviews: Hindi and Bengali
  • Critical and Anthological Overviews
  • Forerunners for the Narrative
  • A Predecessor in Bengal
  • The Sufi Question
  • Gender
  • Class and Caste
  • Other Studies

Hinduism "Bhakti Movement” Narratives
John Stratton Hawley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0213


In many ways the measure of a religion is the history or tradition it is believed to encompass. Rituals, beliefs, representations of deity, and laws of behavior also matter deeply, but nothing replaces the sense that the religion in question builds on a history that is sufficiently coherent and persistent that it can be savored in the present day. The concept of the “bhakti movement” articulates one of the most important understandings of how Hindus stand together as a body. It shapes into a single historical pattern regions, languages, and eras that would otherwise be in danger of seeming fragmented and disparate. In its most widely shared form, it offers a story of how bhakti—the religion of song, communal sharing, common speech, and the heart—swept across the Indian subcontinent in time and space for a thousand years or so, beginning in the middle of the 1st millennium CE. This narrative holds that bhakti first made its appearance as a vernacular force in the Tamil-speaking south; it then spread gradually northward as bhakti songs and sentiments were shared from language to language and region to region; and it arrived finally in northern India in the 15th and 16th centuries, expressing itself in the words of widely revered poet-saints such as Kabīr, Tulsīdās, Mīrābāī, and Nānak. According to “standard” versions of this narrative, the western regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra were the most important intermediate zones of transmission, but Telugu contributions have been emphasized in more recent tellings, and it is widely acknowledged that the periphery of the bhakti movement extends to Bengal, Sindh, Assam, and Kashmir; and in the person of Chaitanya, Bengal and Orissa play more than peripheral roles in the overall story. A major problem that arises in telling this tale is how best to represent the relationship between Muslim, Jain, Sikh, and Dalit devotional practices and those that seem to belong more clearly to a Hindu idiom. This in turn points to the fundamental question of whether the bhakti movement is to be understood as a subset of Hindu religiosity and history or as something that transcends its boundaries. Such matters are actively being debated in the 21st century, both at the scholarly level and in less rarefied domains. To some people’s perception, at least, the stakes are high. If one disbands the notion of the bhakti movement, is one in danger of dismembering the idea of the Indian nation? Especially against the background of the political partition of the subcontinent in 1947, such debates cut deep.

General Overviews: English

General expositions of the bhakti movement narrative are, broadly speaking, of two sorts: although the line separating these two is not a firm one. In one set, which developed in the first half of the 20th century, the bhakti movement is treated as if it were a matter of simple historical fact. In the second, a post-independence phenomenon (see Critical and Anthological Overviews), questions begin to be raised about the straightforward factuality of the bhakti movement narrative. Early formulations of the bhakti movement idea in English came from both Britons and Indians, notably Grierson 1910, Farquhar 1920, Keay 1920, Prasad 1925, and Pal 1962. It can be argued, however (Hawley 2015), that the idea’s expressions in Hindi and Bengali respectively had a considerably deeper and more long-lasting effect (see General Overviews: Hindi and Bengali). Ranade 1961, a treatise written in English but deeply informed by Marathi performance and scholarship, is an earlier formulation deserving of special mention. Certain later formulations are as well, especially Raghavan 1966, a book based on two lectures broadcast throughout India over All India Radio in December 1964. Paying particular attention to the constraints imposed by the limits of our historical knowledge (manuscript work is especially featured), Hawley 2015 asks what can now be said about the all-India bhakti movement narrative. One obvious possibility—a path others have followed—is to disaggregate it into smaller, regionally coherent bhakti movements. Alternatively, one could jettison the “movement” metaphor altogether and think in terms of an India-wide “bhakti network” (pp. 295–312). A major question is always the role that the south played in setting the terms and tone for expressions of bhakti that emerged (or in any case were documented) only later in other regions of India. An influential statement focused on Krishna bhakti is Hardy 1983; an attempt at a comprehensive review is Nandakumar 2003.

  • Farquhar, J. N. An Outline of the Religious Literature of India. London: Oxford University Press, 1920.

    In this general review of Indian literature from the Vedas through the 18th century, the literary secretary of the YMCA in India makes use of the phrase “bhakti movement” in referring to developments in Maharashtra and Gujarat (pp. 234, 302).

  • Grierson, George A. “Bhakti-Mārga.” In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 2. Edited by James Hastings, 539–551. Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1910.

    In this widely circulated, cited, and debated essay Grierson, most famous for his work as chief editor of the Linguistic Survey of India, began by analyzing the non-historical idea of a bhakti “way” (mārga) in philosophical and theological terms, then turned to a historical framework. There he made central use of Nābhādās’s concept of the four sampradāys, bringing it over into English as “the four churches of the reformation.” This act of historical translation brought sharp reactions from certain Indian scholars.

  • Hardy, Friedhelm. Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    Adopting a broad distinction between what he calls “emotional” bhakti and bhakti in more intellective forms, Hardy explores the “Māyōn [Krishna] mysticism” of the Tamil Alvars and argues that communities in which their poetry was prized became the point of generation for the Bhāaavata Purāṇa, which was to have such a fundamental impact on the shaping of Krishna bhakti throughout the Indian subcontinent. Hardy does not address the issue of the bhakti movement as such.

  • Hawley, John Stratton. A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    In this general consideration of how the notion of the bhakti movement crystallized in the early 20th century, special consideration is given to the dialogue between Hindi and English sources (pp. 29–58). Hawley draws attention to the impact of Nābhādās’s four-sampradāy paradigm, whose elaboration and subsequent adoption by various sectarian communities under the pressure of political considerations in the late 17th and early 18th centuries he discusses in chapters 3–5.

  • Keay, F. E. A History of Hindi Literature. Calcutta: Association Press, 1920.

    Writing from Jabalpur in the YMCA orbit, Keay speaks of “the growth of the Vaishnava movement in North India,” suggesting it had a background elsewhere in India as well, and he makes special note of collections of “bhakti movement” poetry to be found in the Sikh Gurū Granth (pp. 19–21).

  • Nandakumar, Prema. “The Bhakti Movement in South India” and “The Bhakti Movement in North India.” In History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. Edited by R. Balasubramanian, 790–904. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2003.

    A helpful, informative overview of poetic expressions from many parts of India that Nandakumar sees as exemplifying aspects of the bhakti movement. Particularly interesting are her observations about moments in relatively later poems from northern parts of India that seem to echo motifs that can be traced to southern regions at an earlier date.

  • Pal, Bipin Chandra. Bengal Vaishnavism. Calcutta: Yugayatri Prakashak, 1962.

    Pal associates the “mass movement” initiated by Chaitanya in the early 16th century with the “new bhakti movement” precipitated by Keshub Chandra Sen in 19th-century Bengal (p. 505).

  • Prasad, Ishwari. History of Medieval India from 647 A.D. to the Mughal Conquest. Allahabad: Indian Press, 1925.

    This widely read textbook emerged from the influential history department of the University of Allahabad. Prasad speaks of Rāmānand, Chaitanya, Kabīr, and Nānak as exemplars of “the virility and vigor of the Hindu mind” and calls them “leaders of the Bhakti movement” that had roots in south India. Following the general pattern, Prasad regards Rāmānand as the primary agent of the bhakti movement’s south-to-north transition (pp. 575–576).

  • Raghavan, V. The Great Integrators: The Singer-Saints of India. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1966.

    An elaborate evocation of the bhakti movement on the part of one of the best-known Sanskritists of his generation. Raghavan locates the earliest roots of the bhakti movement in the Tamil country that was his home.

  • Ranade, M. G. Rise of the Maratha Power. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1961.

    A classic tome focused on the emergence of Marathi and the Marathas as a cultural and political force. Ranade, who was a judge in the Bombay High Court, understands “saints” such as Chaitanya, active elsewhere in India, to be united in this struggle for “the cultivation and growth of their mother tongue” (pp. 71–72).

  • Sen, Kshitimohan. Medieval Mysticism of India. Translated by Manomohan Ghosh. London: Luzac. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint, 1974.

    The Mookerji Lectures in an expanded form. In the first part of the book Sen draws out interactions and cross-influences between “orthodox thinkers” and the “liberal thinkers” to which they provide a contrast. This distinction runs roughly parallel to the saguṇa versus nirguṇa one that serves as the backbone of Ramchandra Shukla’s contemporary (1929) taxonomy of bhakti-period literary production in Hindi: except that Sen includes both Hindu and Muslim figures among his “orthodox thinkers.”

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