Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
The title of this chapter has been carefully chosen, after much deliberation. Bhakti as a religious concept is said to be present in rudimentary form even during the vedic period, while it is widely believed to have its origin in the Agamas and post-Agamic religious literature, culminating as BhaktiYoga in Bhagavadgita. Here we are concerned with its manifestation during a period of almost thousand years from the seventh century, originating in Tamil territory (Tamil Nadu) moving upwards to Kannada speaking territory (Karnataka) from there to Marathi (Maharashtra) and Gujarati (Gujarat) speaking territories. It also erupted in the north-eastern U.P., spread towards the eastern India (Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha) and downwards to the central parts of the country (Rajasthan, M.P). A religious concept developing into a religious ideology, modifying in major respects the earlier version of Bhakti, with mass appeal, attracting in significant numbers the middle and lower strata of society, cutting across all barriers of jati (caste), gender, occupation, social status, and even religion. This phenomenon has been described, debated, eulogized and critically assessed by scholars from different parts of the country over a period of several decades. It has been labelled as an "event", socio-religious, socio-political and social protest movement, etc. Some writers have gone so far as to call it a revolution'.* So some preliminary clarifications and observations seem to be necessary on the choice of the title, before proceeding further.
Bhakti as a concept refers to devotee’s love for God, a personal God who may be formless, Nirguna or Saguna, a supreme reality or power to whom he surrenders himself, a total surrender based on unconditional and intense love. This may take the form of marital love as in the case of Andal for Krishna, Meera Bai for Girdhar Gopal and Mahadeviakka for Chennamallikarjuna (Shiva). These instances, incidentally illustrate the Saguna form of Bhakti. In Saguna Bhakti, the God may be one of the two- Shiva or Vishnu in human form as Rama or Krishna. Sometimes one may notice the blend of both Nirguna and Saguna Bhakti as witnessed in Narasimh Mehta and Kabir, though in Kabir Nirguna Bhakti is dominant. Bhakti becomes an ideology when it attempts to convert the masses to the particular concept of Bhakti with prescribed rules of conduct and forms of worship. We notice this in the Warkari saints of Maharashtra and Veerashaiva saints of Karnataka. As a result sects emerge, forming their own community of fellow worshippers, providing mutual support, solidifying the bond of kinship among the followers. The emergence of sects may be a spontaneous process or a byproduct of the teachings of the leaders of the particular type of or form of devotion as in the case of Kabir and Warkari saints or a deliberately organised collective or group as in the case of Sikhs or Shivasharanas (Veerashaiva saints) of the medieval Karnataka.
The word "movement" is widely and popularly used to refer to the emergence of Bhakti ideology and the establishment of new sects or panths which separate themselves from the rest of the population, with a new identity of their own such as Kabir Panthi's, Dadu Panthi's and Veerashaivas for example. It is not quite appropriate to use the word, social movement or Bhakti movement, if the word is used in a strict sociological concept of social movement. Social movement, sociologically defined involves a goal or a cause to be achieved which is clearly specified as part of an ideology which has a strong emotional appeal to the masses who are the "target population", availability of charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Basaveshwara (Basawanna), and Chaitanya to name a few charismatic leaders. Social movement lasts for a few years or at the most a few decades. Recently in this country, Anna Hazare emerged as a charismatic leader in the movement against corruption and earlier, Jaya Prakash Narayan in another socio-political context. To sum up, a clearly defined cause or goal, an ideology with a strong emotional appeal and an organisation, whether already existing or specially created are the necessary components of social movement. This sociological definition may not be applicable to the several Bhakti "Movements" covering a span of seven to eight hundred years or almost thousand years. It is for this reason the title was chosen, avoiding the term "movement" using instead a simple descriptive word "spread", along with the words concept and ideology. But it may be unavoidable to use the term "movement" in the later part of this paper partly because it has been widely used by writers on "Bhakti" schools of various types in different parts of the country, and partly for linguistic convenience. In that case the words “Bhakti movements” the plural will be used.
Contribution of Bhakti Movements
Here an attempt is made to summarise the major contribution of Bhakti movements as a whole covering the period of almost a thousand years or slightly less. Bhakti purified the traditional vedic-brahmanical religion by eliminating the excessive, rigid ritualism as part of worship. It also democratized religion by making it a "right" of every individual to approach and worship god, without having to go to the temples, (entry was restricted to the non-Dwija castes) not requiring to use the services of a priest, not having to spend money on a variety of pooja materials- flowers, fruits, coconut, camphor, incense sticks, sandalwood, ghee etc, and pay the fee to the priest (Dakshina). In other words, worship of god could be done inexpensively and conveniently, convenient in terms of time and location (one's own house or the immediate neighbourhood), while engaging in one's occupation for livelihood. The Bhakti movements' emphasis on continuing in one's traditional occupation, with a sense of pride and duty to one's family and society at large is expressed in the much quoted Kannada word "Kayaka". In one of the vachanas Basava said "Kayaka is Kailas" i.e. work is worship. This aspect of Bhakti movements has been termed as the principle of life-affirmation as distinguished from the traditional dominant religious ideology of "Moksha", liberation from this worldly life, breaking the cycle of birth and rebirth. Albert Schweitzer stated that this dominant life-negating ideology of Hinduism was retrograde, devaluing the present life of people in this birth*.
The Bhakti poets, it may be noted, did not completely reject the religious theories of the dominant Brahmanical traditional religion. They accepted the basic idea of Karma theory, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and the liberation from this cycle as the ultimate goal. However, they modified these ideas significantly.
Kabir says: The doer is not the one who has gone and sold himself as a slave to his deeds…………………….
I am not going to a place called the hell
I am the agent of all my actions
Yet I am different from my deeds
The doer is different from his deed
(Tr. Dharwadker) (Emphasis mine)
Note the modification of the Karma theory in the above quotation from Kabir. Similarly, Chennabasavanna, a prominent Shivasharana theorist has said that one's actions will yield result in this birth itself. He counsels that “industry is superior to destiny, since the work undertaken by one gets transformed into destiny and bears fruit”. He avers that “one's self-effort can be either productive or destructive”.
While subscribing to the theory of Moksha as the most desirable and final goal of one's life, yet one should not reject the present life or be indifferent to it. Purandara Dasa has said:
Human life is precious. Don't spoil it you fools
One should swim across (the river of life) live and win
(Tr. N. R. Shastri)
It's hard to be born a human:
You won't be born another time.
The ripe fruit that falls to the ground
doesn't grow back on the branch
Kabir (Tr. Dharwadker)
Do not torture your body with thirst and hunger
Give it a hand when it stumbles and falls
To hell with all your vows and prayers
Just help others through life, there's no truer worship
Lal Ded (Tr. R. Hoskote)
The above quotations from Purandara Dasa, Kabir and Lal Ded convey their life-affirming message to the human beings.
Bhakti poets rejected the iniquitous social structure based on fourfold classification of society, the high and low classification of the population. Many references in the Bhakti poetry use the term "Kula" which is closer to the concept of social class or clan than jati (caste). The word ‘jati' is also used by Kabir and in the vachanas of Shivasharanas such as Basava.
BHAKTI MOVEMENTS- A GENDER PERSPECTIVE
The status of women since vedic times has been inferior to men. Women were not entitled to education. "The Hindu woman, religiously is a Sudra, not entitled to the Gayatri Mantra. Exceptions to the rule were there, the Brahmavadinis (like Maitrayi, Gargi etc). But their example need not suggest the ideal state of Indian womanhood in as much as the more vital ideals of motherhood and housewifery (sadyovadhu) were always competing” (Mukerji, 1946). Brahmavadinis who were very few, had to pursue their studies without marriage (Shoba, 2012). Bhakti poets, most of whom came from the lower strata of society treated woman as equal to man, without any gender discrimination. "Some of the mystic sects even permitted free selection of companions, separation and widow re-marriage" (Mukerji, 1946). We may note, however, that Shivasharanas were against divorce and remarriage, and did not consider female slaves as equal. In fact there are highly critical references to slaves in the vachanas of Basava (no 467, 468, 636). "Why does a slave need to decorate herself and look attractive? Why does she have to wear golden ornaments?" Bhakti movements produced some wellknown poets such as Andal, Lal Ded, Mira and Mahadeviakka. In addition to the above mentioned women saints, there were other women saints like Bahina Bai, Jana Bai and others from lower castes in Maharashtra, and there were about 27 women, mostly from lower castes among the Shivasharanas i.e. about 12 per cent of the total.
With the exception of Andal, the other three of the prominent four women Bhakti poets Lal Ded, Mira and Mahadeviakka were married and led a family life briefly which was unhappy. They left their marital homes, declared their love to a male god, even claimed that they were married to their male gods. Mira chose Girdhar Gopal (Krishna) and Andal also declared her love for Krishna. Mahadeviakka chose Shiva as her lover. Their love, described in their poems were highly erotic to the point that they were considered subversive. Here is an illustration:
He bartered my heart,
looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute
all of me.
I'm the woman of love
for my lord, white as jasmine.
All three women poets, Mira, Mahadeviakka, and Lal Ded, chose to defy conventional norms as applied to married, upper-caste women, wandered freely and all alone, demonstrating their love for the chosen male gods in various forms, especially through erotic love poems. This extreme defiance of women poets, of the conventional conduct of a woman has been described as highly subversive by many scholars (Ramanan 1996; Showalter 1996). To quote "Rising above the binary opposition of male female principle, she (Mira) has liberated herself from the constraints of sex ... " the twentieth century may recognize Mira as the first feminist born four centuries ahead of time, before the concept of feminism had come into existence”. (Showwalter quoted in Rao, Shanta S.1996). The above observation is valid for Mahadeviakka also.
Hoskote, however, disagrees with the view that Lal Ded was a feminist. He is also of the opinion that she was unlike the other Bhakti poets, because she was essentially a conventional Kashmiri Shivayogini and she chose the path of knowledge (Jnana yoga) unlike others who chose the path of devotion (Bhakti yoga). (Hoskote 2011).
Apart from the prominent four female Bhakti poets, some Shivasharana Bhakti saints also ridiculed the gender discrimination and advocated gender equality. They are quoted below:
"If a man loves a woman and marries her/ she is his property. If a woman loves a man and marries him/ then, whose property is he?"
Goggavva, the incense-stick worker. (Tr. Pathak)
If they see
Breasts and long hair coming
They call it woman
If beard and whiskers
They call it man.
But look, the self that hovers
In between is neither man
Jedara Dasimayya (Tr. Ramanujan)
A few lines from a poem by Kabir cited below seems to elevate the status of a woman.
In Rama's eyes
Everything is a woman
I can't do otherwise
Dharwadker, however comments that there is a symbolism here. Women refer to Maya. “In the final analysis this is a remarkable, but, unapologetically misogynistic poem. Its misogyny derives, for the most part, Kabir Panthi's valorisation of a male order of devotees, Sadhus, Avadhuts, Yogis, largely to the exclusion of women. (Dharwadker, 2003). He has also said before that poems attributed to Kabir are mainly the later additions by his disciples, and it is difficult to identify the original compositions of Kabir which may be very few, about thirty or slightly more. In that case, it is not clear what was the position of Kabir regarding gender equality.
The Haridasas of Karnataka, in their poems generally referred to women's duties, indicating the prevailing patriarchal values. In a selection of 206 Dasa poems translated into English by Mutalik, there are two poems that refer to the duties of women, one by Purandara Dasa (15 lines) and another by Jagannatha Dasa (72 lines). Illustratively a few lines are quoted below:
Daughter listen to my advice,
Lead a life of goodness with your husband
Behave with fear and respect
Towards father-in-law and mother-in-law
Earn the love of your husband by
Your mind devoted to him.
Purandara Dasa (Tr. Mutalik)
Announced thus Yama, such woman
Be caught and pushed into hell;
One getting up early salutes not her husband
Who does not wash her body
Who bathes naked and
Who abuses her sister-in-law, mother-in-law
And father-in-law, and bring her to hell
Jagannatha Dasa (Tr. Mutalik)
In contrast, there is only one poem of 15 lines by Vyasaraya with the title "How should a man be".
Man must be kind to God's' creation/ wash all sins and every word of his be God's name/ Should give up cupidity, anger and ego and the ‘I-hood’/ be in the company of the good and the peaceful.
It goes on in this vein referring to man's religious duties and good conduct, without once referring to his behaviour towards his wife, parents and children.
With the exception of Shivasharanas there is no evidence to indicate that the Bhakti saint-poets advocated gender equality. Perhaps, they practiced gender equality (Mukerji, 1946). So, no generalisation can be made that the Bhakti movements favoured gender equality. The only other Bhakti sect which treated women and men equally is Sikhism. Indicative of this is the fact that the proper names for Sikh men and women are the same without indicating gender. It is only the suffix after the name, such as Singh for men, Kaur for women which indicate the gender.
Bhakti Movements and Caste
There is a widespread view among many scholars who have studied the Bhakti movements that they were against the caste system. Recently a wellknown scholar Balagangadhar has made a statistical analysis of the entire 21,788 vachanas and came to the conclusion that the (Shivasharana) vachana movement was not against the caste system, because only 1 per cent or even less of the total number of vachanas are critical of the caste system. * His study has been criticised as vulgar empiricism.
Let us take a look at the Bhakti compositions of other wellknown poets like Kabir, Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa. In his widely quoted poem.
It is needless to ask of a saint the caste to which he belongs;
For the priest, the warrior, the tradesman, and all the thirty-six castes,
alike are seeking for God. It is but folly to ask what the caste of a saint may be;
The barber has sought God, the washerwoman, and the carpenter-
Even Raidas was a seeker after God.
(Translation: Rabindranath Tagore)
There are these two aphorisms in the Adigranth ( Guru Nanak)
Everybody ,O Kabir,
Makes my caste a laughing stock ;
But it devotes itself to the creator,
And I martyr myself to it’s cause
The great are gone in their greatness,
Every hair bristling with vanity
Ignorant of the true master
The four castes alike are untouchable
Out of 202 selected poems of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore and Vinay Dharwadker (a few poems occur in both) only three refer to castes critically. Dharwadker observes: “The condensed two part argument in the aphorism is that social status and rank are mere vanity and that, without an understanding of the true nature of God, all four principle caste-groups are no better than the caste-groups of untouchable they malign. The approach in the aphorism is exactly opposite of that in saint's caste” (i.e. it is needless to ask of a saint's caste, quoted in the beginning). Commenting on that poem, he says "this pada (poem) is unusual because, instead of denouncing the whole logic of caste, it embraces that rationale, but only to turn it against itself, by praising famous bhaktas belonging to the lowest castes and caste groups". (Dharwadker, 2003).
Now let us turn to the Haridasas of Karnataka. The two most prominent of them are Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa.
"Are there outcastes only outside the village? Is there no outcaste within?"
Purandara Dasas (Tr. B. Ramachandra Rao)
In his famous, widely quoted and sung poem Kanaka Dasa says::
They talk of Kula
Times without number
Pray, tell me
What is the Kula of men
Who have felt real bliss?
What is the caste of God Narayana? and Shiva?
What is the caste of Atman and of Jiva
Why talk of Kula when God has blessed you.
(Tr. N. R. Shastri)
Out of 132 selected and translated poems of Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa by Mutalik only three refer to caste critically i.e. 4.5 per cent.
Finally, let us see what were the views of Basava considered the most radical critic of caste system and caste-based inequality. There are a large number of vachanas in which Basava refers to castes critically in a variety of ways. One vachana (No. 345, Kalburgi 1993) sums up his view.
Do I say Siriyala a trader?
Do I say Machayya, a washerman?
Do I say Kakkayya an untouchable?
Do I say Chennayya a Cobbler?
If I say I am a Brahmin,
Lord Kudalasangama will be in splits of laughter. (Tr. Pathak)
Note that castes of trader, Sudra (washerman), and untouchables are referred without any disparagement. Note also the ridicule when referring to the Brahmhin caste. In a total of 1423 vachanas attributed to him, the word 'Kshatriya' appears only once without indication of criticism, a passing reference. The word Setty (trader) usually referring to Siriyala, appears about three times, again without critical tone. And in one wellknown vachana (No. 115, Kalburgi, 1993) Shiva is described as a clever trader (Mahadeva Setty), a positive, appreciative reference. It is obvious that Basava was really against Brahmanism in all its aspects, but not against other caste-groups (varna). This has been noted by a prominent scholar of Shivasharana movement (Murthy C, 1998). In conclusion it is obvious that the Bhakti movements and Bhakti saints did not attack the caste-system as a whole, but only the discriminatory low status of the Sudra and the untouchable castes. This has been the conclusion of another scholar about the Warkari saints of Maharashtra (Sardar quoted in Mirajkar, 1998).
Relevance of Bhakti Movements to Social Work
In the previous section, the Bhakti movements in India were discussed in some detail both in region-specific and all-India perspectives. In this section we discuss its relevance to modern social work practice. In a major essay written and published in 1994 in Kannada on this theme, the title given was “Roots of Social Welfare in Bhakti Panth.” The title was chosen by the organisers of the seminar. I have some doubts about the appropriateness of the title. So, here I have modified the title, choosing "relevance" in preference to the word "roots". The roots of social welfare and social work can be traced to the beginning of human civilisation in any country, including India: (cf. Ch.3 Part-1 of this book). An alternative title could have been "the contribution of Bhakti ideology and its social dimensions to modern social work practice". I have deliberately chosen the word "modern" in preference to "professional". Though there are considerable common elements implied in these words conceptually, but there is also some significant difference which is not elaborated here.
A major contribution of Bhakti saints is the value-system developed, by incorporating some from the earlier dominant Vedic-Brahmanical value system, and modifying even rejecting, some other values of the predecessor, “structure” or "establishment" as stated by Ramanujan. The values may be summarized briefly.
1. Equality and respect for all human beings irrespective of difference by caste (kula), creed, sect, gender, and even religion.
2. To be compassionate towards people who are in distress, mental, material, or physical.
3. To share one's earnings/ wealth with others in need i.e. to practice charity.
4. Emphasis on good character, purifying one's mind by controlling or eliminating a variety of temptations of sex, wealth and to be free from delusion (Maya); controlling feelings of anger and jealousy etc.
5. Emphasis on work ethic- work is worship. One should be proud of one's occupation and work hard and honestly ("Kayaka"). Sikhism was against begging even by mendicants. Nanak formulated the concept of "Grahasth Sanyasi" i.e. to practice detachment while remaining married, and a householder. Tukaram, a trader, Basaveshwara, a government official, Kabir, a weaver, Namdev, a tailor, continued to practice their occupations. There are a few exceptions like Meera, Mahadeviakka, Lal Ded, all women, who were married and led a family life briefly but later left marital home and wandered propagating Bhakti in a personal, at times intensely erotic form which was interpreted as a rebellion against gender-related prescription of duties and behaviour of a woman in a traditional patriarchal society.
6. Not to entertain pride or a sense of superiority while helping others. (Para peede upakara kare tohe Mana Abhimana Na Aanere) Narasimh Mehta. Don't feel proud when helping others in distress said Tukaram, Basava and Purandara Dasa.
The Concept of Social Welfare
There is no word in the Bhakti literature whether in Kannada or Hindi which is equivalent to the modern word 'society'. This is not surprising. Concepts and ideas have their origin in a certain climate-time, place and the context, a particular situation faced by a group or a sect. We superimpose our modern concepts when we look back on history, events, ideas and human actions. This happens all the time when we go back in time to look at a particular period in a specific geographical, political framework.
People as a 'collective' or community when referred to in the Bhakti literature, the words used are 'Kula' which is closer to the modern word 'class' at the macro-level and family or clan at the micro-level. The words 'ooru ' or 'loka' or 'loga' and 'nadu' are also used for the same purpose i.e., a "collectivity". Here are a few lines from the vachanas of Basava. 'Loka' (People) had become blank in their minds or lost their mind. "Why do you want to reform people (Loka)? You better reform yourself, your mind and body". Incidentally this vachana also emphasizes that a reformer has to reform himself before setting out to reform society.
'Ooru' is commonly used in all the south Indian languages and in Kannada it generally refers to a human settlement which may be as small as one village with a few houses, a large town or a city. There is a geographic connotation in the meaning of this word. The word "Loka" or "Loga" on the other hand refers to a very large collectivity which may include a region or kingdom or the entire human population. It has a demographic connotation. The idea of welfare is embedded in the concept of charity (Dana), which is discussed separately. Offer of cooked food or other forms of Dana to the beggars, the blind, religious mendicants, to the travellers etc is commonly mentioned in the religious literature and the Bhakti literature. Basava has repeatedly stressed the householders duty of giving alms to the visiting Jangamas (travelling Shivasharanas). He has used harsh words about a housewife who was indifferent to a Jangama seeking alms at her door. In addition to seeking alms, the Jangamas also seem to have provided mental solace to the hosts who were in mental stress, which may be similar to the cathartic and counselling forms of help. Building of water tanks, providing drinking water and rest houses to the travellers were other forms of charity mentioned in the vachanas of Shivasharanas and poems of Haridasas of Karnataka. All these could be considered as constituting the concept of welfare in the Bhakti literature.
From the beginning of human civilisation concern for the fellow human beings in distress and offer of help has been practiced. Charity was considered an obligation of a householder, especially of the twice-born castes. Even the low caste persons (Sudra) were enjoined to practice charity, especially offering food to the hungry. A variety of charitable acts (Dana) were detailed and described to be performed on specified occasions, as part of religious ritual which included offer of food, gift of gold, land and cows, mostly to the Brahmins. The travellers, the beggars, the blind were to receive charity in the form of food. Generally the low castes and untouchables were considered as undeserving of charity such as gift of gold, land and cows (Karantha,1968).
Charity was not the main objective of the Bhakti ideology. It was advocated in the context of the quality of compassion as part of the Bhakti ideology of humanism, concern for the oppressed and those in distress, material or mental. In one of his poems Kabir says that the householder should be generous-minded (Girahi chitta udar). Kanaka Dasa asks what is the use of wealth if one cannot enjoy it or share it with others (in need)? Purandara Dasa asks what is the use of living in a palace? Those who are hungry should be offered food. "Beg for a meal and share part of it with the needy". "Outcaste is he who never helps others even to a small extent" observed Purandara Dasa. "Is there anything in the world as worthy as the offering of food to others?" asks Kanaka Dasa; "whatever he may be, can he deny charity to others?", "what is the use of his life if he does not give to those who ask for help ?" “Merit lies in the service of others” "He who compassionates to all creatures god dwells in his house". Tukaram (Frazer and Marathe)
The point to note is that charity is referred occasionally and infrequently as part of the teaching of Bhakti ideology and it is considered as an essential good conduct of a true bhakta, but secondary to the main objective of devotion to god and pursuit of Nirwana or termination of the cycle of birth and rebirth. This is made clear in the following vachana of Allama:
Feed the Poor
Tell the truth
Make water places for the thirsty
And build tanks for town
You may then go to heaven after death,
But you will not get anywhere near
The truth of Lord
In a classification of Haridasa poems according to subject matter into seven categories, songs of social reform is listed as the sixth category and songs of religious reform as the seventh category. Charity, perhaps will be part of one or both the categories. (Narayan Prasad, 1996)
Who deserves charity? Generally all the Bhakti poets mention, the poor, the beggar and the blind as deserving charity. Purandara Dasa includes also the religious mendicants. As already stated Nanak was against giving alms, even to the religious mendicants. Basava in many of his vachanas repeatedly stresses that Shivasharanas should be offered food. He has also said that “compassionate is he who alleviates poverty”. He has strongly criticised those rich people when they drive away the poor and needy who came seeking alms.
“You can make them talk
If the serpent has stung them,
You can make them talk if
They are struck by an evil planet
You can’t make them talk if they are struck dumb by riches.
Yet when poverty the magician
Enters, they will speak at once
O lord of the meeting rivers
They will speak at once, meaning they will shout “go away”, “go away”. This vachana simultaneously conveys Basava’s contempt for the rich and his compassion for the poor. However, Basava and Chennabasava exhorted Shivasharanas to keep away from the ‘Bhavis’, the non-converts and they should not be included in sharing meals, thus indicating that the Bhavi does not deserve charity!. Disagreeing with this view, Allama has included "Bhavi" as deserving charity, thus displaying his admirable generosity towards all human beings, without discrimination on the basis of religious creed.
To conclude, for the Bhakti poets, charity came next to the devotion to god and as part of compassion towards the poor and the needy.
Among the major values stressed, practiced and propagated by the Bhakti poets was the idea of equality. All human beings are equal, irrespective of their birth and birth-related occupation, without any discrimination such as high and low, pure and impure. This was derived partly on the basis of the belief that god was indwelling in everyone and caste-based inequality was unacceptable. This belief led to the criticism of caste as prevalent in their time, not necessarily rejecting the caste-ridden social order or revolting against the high rank of the upper caste. It was at times couched in lyrical poetry tinged with sarcasm. Here is a quotation: "and this toddy tree you consider impure since the sacred writings have branded it that way, but see that writings are written on its leaves". Ravidas (tr.Sheela Devi). The author then raises the question: "whether Bhakti (of Ravidas's poetry) is a message of social protest. “Is the equality it celebrates fundamentally a social reality and therefore something revolutionary in its Indian context or is it only spiritual in which case it can coexist with Brahmanical Hinduism, even if it does not endorse it?". She further observes that Ravidas had "contempt for all who designate people belonging to other sectors of society than their own. He insists; “A family that has true followers of the lord is neither high caste nor low caste, lordly or poor. Ravidas's Bhakti then is not explicitly a call for its (Brahmanical Hinduism) reform. (Sheela Devi, 1996). Writing about Dadu Dayal, Nayak states that “Dadu tried to bring about changes in social and religious reform via the medium of religion itself. This was perhaps of the facts that religion dictated the system of society” (Nayak, 1996)
It is a widely held view among scholars who have studied the Bhakti literature that Bhakti saints were against the caste system based on the four-fold classification of society (Varnashrama Dharma). A careful study of the literature, however, reveals that this is partly true. The references to 'Kula'/caste are very few and the criticism is mainly against the birth-based, occupation-related categorization of people as high and low, and lack of respect to people who were engaged in low-ranking occupations, because of the nature of their work which was considered as dirty and impure. So these people should be kept away, at a distance avoiding even physical contact, especially the outcastes. The Bhakti saint poets, never questioned the basic features of the caste-system, such as, their occupation which was linked to their birth. They, on the contrary, stressed that one should accept the occupation assigned to them, take pride in it, work hard and honestly, and be content with what they earn. This is illustrated in the following lines
You are very well fed,
Don't devour any more
Someone might brain you
With a brick or stone
Basava, considered, the most radical of the Bhakti saints, does not criticise either Kshatriya or Vaishya castes whenever he has referred to these in his vachanas. On the contrary, he is neutral in the rarest of his reference to Kshatriya. Out of four or five references to the 'setty' caste, he makes a positive reference to the ‘setty' (trader) by describing Shiva as a clever trader, "Mahadeva setty". He makes numerous vituperative attacks on Brahmins, Veda, and Brahmanism in general. This has been noted by a wellknown scholar of Shivasharana movement. (Murthy .C, 1998). It is intriguing why Basava is so harsh on Brahmanism, considering that he was born a Brahmin and rejected his caste. A psycho-analytical study of Basava, as has been done about Gandhiji by Erik Erikson (Gandhi's Truth), by a scholar like Sudhir Kakkar might throw some light on this. Mirajkar has stated that out of twelve Warkari saints of Maharashtra, except one, no one else changed their caste-based occupation. The one who changed was a prostitute. Kabir continued to work as a weaver and Basava continued to serve King Bijjala as a treasury officer and later as a minister, a position that required considerable learning involving accountancy, book-keeping and study of official documents, which was possible only because he was born a Brahmin and thus, had the advantage of his caste. Only the women Bhakti saints can be considered an exception because they challenged patriarchy, gave up their marital bond and family life, went out in the open all alone, one of them even moving about naked, risking molestation and ogling male eyes. They were the real subversive heroines-an inspiring example to other male-dominated women.
Elsewhere in this essay there is a detailed discussion of the views of other Bhakti poets on the caste system. Here we may conclude that what the Bhakti saints advocated was broadly religious or spiritual equality. In a limited sense, we may call it 'social equality'. It certainly was not revolutionary as eulogised by some scholars (Mukerji,1946. Bhagwan,1998)
Bhakti poets advocated compassion as an essential and desirable quality that the devotee should cultivate. Here are some selected parts from the wellknown Bhakti poets:
Compassion is the divine Mantra of religion (Purandara Dasa)
True devotees of Vishnu are those who understand and feel for the suffering of others (Narasimh Mehta). Implicit in the above quotation is the quality of empathy. This is a famous vachana of Basava:
What is religion without loving kindness?
Kindness should be there towards all living beings.
Compassion is the root of religion
The saint poets have stressed the quality of humility and discouraged vanity or pride arising out of acts of charity. Tukaram urged people "to give up the feeling of doership in action". (Deshpande 1996). When you help others in distress you should not feel egotistic”. (Narasimh Mehta).
If you entertain in your mind the thought that you have done it (charity) the drum-beaters of Shiva will get after you.
One of the major tenets of Bhakti ideology is the respect for all human beings because god is in-dwelling in everyone. This finds expression in the following selected lines of some of the Bhakti poets;
The Lord is in me, the Lord is in you
as life is in every seed.
Oh, servant! put false pride away,
and seek for him within you.
The self that lives in you and others is Shiva
get the measure of Shiva.
Lal Ded (Tr.Hoskote)
By the same logic, if god is in everyone all human beings are equal irrespective of their birth, occupation, gender and riches. There cannot be any ranking as high and low or pure and impure.
Modern social work emphasizes the principle of acceptance. We should not reject people because of their deeds which may be undesirable or even criminal. A distinction is made between the person and his behavior. A similar message is conveyed in the following quotations:
Hari you are the mother
And I am your son
Why don’t you forgive me
When a father is angry and tries to discipline his children,
He scolds them for their misconduct,
And yet, he cares for them
It is quite revealing that each one of the three major Bhakti saints, have devoted an entire poem exclusively to stress the necessity of slanderers and vilifiers who play a positive role by helping to purify the mind of the devotee, and thus keep them on the right path leading to salvation. Here are a few lines from Kabir, Purandara Dasa and Basava:
People deride me
There’s so much calumny,
my heart's is purified,
Whoever maligns me
Is my friend-
My heart goes out
To every detractor.
The one who stops decrying me
Is my real critic.
Kabir (Tr. Dharwadker)
Vilifiers should be there, should be there in the world.
They eat away my accumulated sin.
When people praise me they collect all my merit
Purarandara Dasa (Tr. Mutalik)
Vilifiers I consider as my parents
Deriders are my blood-relatives.
Those who praise me are my hangmen
Basava. (Tr. Pathak)
What is the relevance of these poems for social work practice? Social workers also sometimes, especially while working in a community, come across people who oppose and criticize them, when they feel their interests are threatened. So, they should learn to take the hostility and critical remarks with equanimity, without loosing their cool and continue to work with persistence and perseverance for the welfare of the entire community.
Bhakti Movements: Myth and Reality
An emphatic statement has been made that “leaders of the Bhakti movement were invariably Brahmins and they wanted to maintain the Hindu social order in which Brahmin is claimed to be superior to all others (emphasis mine, Bhagwan, 1998). Let us look at the available evidence from the writings of scholars published in the same book (Marulasiddaiah, Ed. 1998). Kabir was a Muslim and also Dadu Dayal. Ravidas was a cobbler. Guru Nanak was a Khatri (Kshatriya). Shankar Dev of Assam was a Kayasth. Chaitanya was a Brahmin , Allama Prabhu was a Sudra, Basaveshwara was born a Brahmin but rejected it and “decasted himself” (the phrase is Bhagwan’s). Among the 12 Warkari saints of Maharashtra, only two were Brahmins and one of them Jnaneshwar was considered an outcaste (Mirajkar 1998). Tukaram was a Vaisya and Namdev a Sudra. There were 216 Shivasharanas (Veerashaiva) in Karnataka. Of these information is available about their caste origin only for 69 (based on occupation). Only 22 or 32.4 per cent were from the upper castes. Not more than 25 per cent could be Brahmins which included Basava and Chennabasava, 67 per cent were from lower castes and untouchables. It is not possible to guess clearly the caste origin of some of the occupations. In Tamil Nadu out of 12 Alwars only four were Brahmins. Among 63 Nayanmars only 16 were Brahmins. Out of a total of 75 Alwars and Nayanmars only 20 were Brahmins i.e., 27 per cent, 40 per cent were from the lower castes and untouchables (Manavalan, 1998). These facts speak loudly and clearly that Brahmins did not control the Bhakti movements as alleged by Bhagwan. The qualities of academic scholarship such as factual accuracy and objectivity are glaring omissions in this author’s assertions.
The same author is unable to hide, let alone control, his prejudices and emotions. Obviously he is a great admirer of Budha, Ambedkar and Basavanna. He states that Ambedkar was not aware of Basavanna’s teachings; otherwise he would have embraced Basavanna’s religion! We do not know whose loss and whose gain it is. He is strongly prejudiced against Gandhi. Here is a quotation: “It is true that Mahatma Gandhi worked for the uplift of Harijans (a term vehemently denounced these days) and ran a journal named after them. Many a time the Mahatma proclaimed that his desire was to be born a Harijan in the next birth, though he did not want to be born again as he expected to attain Moksha…. Note the contradiction in his statement. True to his calling Gandhi knew how to sell his ideas. Nearly half a century after Gandhi was assassinated and no one knows where and whether he is reborn a Harijan now” (Bhagwan, 1998).
Note the sarcastic tone and derogatory language used about Gandhiji. There is even a reference to Gandhiji’s caste (true to his calling). Gandhi was born a Vaisya. There is no need for further comment on the objectivity and restraint in the use of language while criticizing a great man revered not only in India, but all over the world. The author (Bhagwan) may be described as an “outsider Veerashaiva”-an intellectual convert to Veerashaivism*. There is a popular proverb in Urdu: when a Hindu converts to Islam, the price of meat goes up in the Market!
Chidananda Murthy’s long essay ‘Bhakti-A Protest Movement’ is a scholarly, objective, synoptic overview of the entire Bhakti movements. There is however, an observation which is debatable. “Bhaki movements are a form of protest against monarchy, in the sense, many of them were not prepared to accept a human being as their master” (Murthy C.1998). Unfortunately he does not cite any textual sources in support of this statement. However, he has given a few illustrations such as Nanak’s criticism of rulers and ruling classes, Basava’s statement that he served Bijjala just for a living etc. Only one instance, manikyavachanakara’s conduct can be considered as supporting his view. As the saying goes one swallow does not make a summer.
It is a strange logic that the criticism of rulers and ruling classes is indicative of opposition to monarchy. For the past two years or more in our country there is a widespread and strong criticism of legislators, parliamentarian’s and bureaucrats’ conduct on various counts. Does this mean we are opposed to democracy? There are only three instances in the entire Bhakti movements, which can be considered as indicative of political confrontation. Kabir was externed from Banaras by the Muslim ruler not because he was against monarchy, but because of the strong protest of orthodox upper-caste Hindus. Even then, the ruler Sirajuddin Lodi did not order that Kabir should be killed. He was lenient in ordering the externment of Kabir out of Banaras (Underhill, 1915). Two Sikh gurus, Arjun Dev and Teg Bahadur were killed by the Moghul rulers not because they were against monarchy. It was due to their religious teachings. Dharwadker attributes their martyrdom to the internecine quarrels among the Sikhs (Dharwadker, 2003).
Lastly about Basaveshwara’s position on monarchy. He was employed by King Bijjala as a high treasury official and later promoted as a minister when the post fell vacant. There are a few references to kings in some of the vachanas of Basava. In one it is stated that if a king is angry the persons who attracted his wrath should not live in his kingdom. In another it is said that king has an eye for wealth and the wealthy should be careful. In both of these vachanas, there is a practical advice to people so that they do not get into trouble with the king. As regards the view that Bhakti poets did not accept human being as kings and so they were against monarchy, let us study Basava’s vachanas on this. There are three vachanas in which there are references to King Bijjala by name and Basava’s relationship with him. In two of these Bijjala is referred to as “Parawadi”, of a different religious faith than that of Basava. In one he makes a direct reference to his employment by Bijjala and states: “what if I am a servant of king Bijjala, Lord Kudalasangama has accepted me as the son of the house” (V.No.1119, Kalburgi, 1993). Basaveshwara has urged repeatedly that a bhakta should match his word with his deed. In a very brief vachana (No.1224, Kalburgi) he puts this succinctly and beautifully in simple Kannada without using a single Sanskrit word, “speak the truth, act as you speak”. Taking this as a yardstick and applying it to Basava’s own conduct, we may deduce that he had no mental conflict in accepting Bijjala as his King. If he was opposed to monarchy, he would have resigned from Bijjala’s service. On the contrary he is promoted as a minister and he accepts it. Obviously, King Bijjala was also very satisfied with Basava’s loyalty and his efficiency in discharging his duties . Basava’s act matched his belief that Bijjala was his King and he was his servant.
Bhakti Movements and Social Development
Reviewing Bhakti movements in India focussed on social development it is stated rightly in conclusion that “Bhaktas neither developed strategies nor planned movements for social development. Their life tasks included work for harmony and just society”. However, a few sentences later it is stated that “working towards a just social order and integration was a living-experience wherein all participated, the goal was human development to its fullest for higher goals, with no discrimination on the grounds of caste, creed or gender which is contradictory (Gokarn, 1998). The available evidence from Bhakti literature does not support the latter part of the conclusion.
As discussed earlier, there was no concept of “society” or “social development” in the Bhakti literature. Even if we ignore this, the outcome of Bhakti movements, their impact on society as reviewed by reputed scholars like Underhill and Ramanujan do not lend support to the author’s views. Reviewing the developments among Kabir Panthis, Underhill says: “a hater of religious exclusivism and seeking above all things to initiate man into the liberty of children of God, his followers have honoured his memory by re-erecting in a new place the barriers he labored to caste down” (Underhill, 1915).
Similarly among Veerashaivas, new rituals, new castes and new hierarchy emerged such as wearing of Ishtalinga, washing of the feet of Jangamas and drinking of holy water (Padodaka). These were noticed in an anthropological field study of southern Mysore districts (MacCormack in A.K.Ramanujan, 1973). Marriage within the new castes like Jangamas and Banajigas were also mentioned. In his concluding observations Ramanujan notes the discriminatory attitude towards Bhavi’s, worldlings or non-converts. He says “the content of (vachana) is not without its overtones of zealotry” and further says that “social hierarchy by birth was replaced by a mystical hierarchy…….He concludes: “The Veerashaiva saints developed in their community, not a full scale communitas of equal beings but a three-part hierarchy based not on birth or occupation but on mystical achievements: The Guru, the Elders and the Novice“ (Ramanujan, 1973). Basaveshwara was uncharacteristically harsh on Bhavis (See vachana No.s 458,671,675 in Kalburgi, 1993) advising the Shivasharanas not to share meals or mix socially with them. Chennabasava was against widow remarriage and this is practiced even today as noted by MacCormack in his anthropological field study. Jangamas are to be recruited as red-robed viraktas only from the families not involved in widow remarriage or remarriage after divorce (cf.MacCormack op.cit)
Khushwant Singh has also observed the emergence of new castes among the Sikhs, the Bedis (Nanak’s caste), Jats (landowners ) and Sainis (low caste / untouchable converts) and ‘Roti’ and ‘Beti’ only to be among the same castes (Khushwant Singh,1973). Whatever may be the varying content of the many definitions of social development, two elements are considered as essential, ‘inclusive development’, a fashionable phrase these days to include the marginalized sections of the population who get left out of the process and fruits of development; and the principle of equality in all its aspects, social, political and economic. The words like ‘distributive justice’ and ‘redistributive justice’ are widely used to convey this idea (Pathak, 1987/1997). If we bear in mind the discriminatory practice of equality, and the emergence of new castes and rituals in place of old, it cannot be argued that the Bhakti movements contributed to social development. This is not to deny their contribution, limited though it may be, in promoting social equality, but not economic equality. Because, the Bhakti poets did not try to challenge the basis of economic inequality which was, perhaps, beyond their power and capacity as noted by Mirajkar and Sardar, and also Murthy (Mirajkar, 1998, Murthy, C.1998). It is a matter of concern that academics make assertive statements without proper study of original sources and take short-cuts, reading only a few books by other authors and relying entirely on them.*
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