Paradigms of Bhakti: the South Indian Poet-Saints

This sequel to my previous post is adapted from an essay written early in my postgraduate career.

as a popular spiritual movement emphasizing stories, songs, poetry, and emotional expressiveness in relation to the Divine, emerged in South India in the sixth century, in a cultural context which was enormously rich and complex. It slowly spread throughout the Indian subcontinent over the following ten centuries. The bhakti movement was never a monolithic entity, but rather richly diverse while at the same time exemplifying a common basic ethos.

    The rapid rise of devotional theism in the first several centuries of the common era helped lay the groundwork for the bhakti movement.* 

    It is interesting to note here that the two religious currents which came to dominate the entire sphere of Indian religion in the second millenium, i.e. Bhakti and Tantra, both appeared (textually, at least) at the same time; and both, it might be argued, derived from indigenous, popular, quasi-shamanic patterns of engaging the divine. For example, one of the earliest bhakti texts, the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai (composed in the sixth century in the Tamil language), presented motifs of devotion to the deity Murugan (aka Skanda) such as ‘possession’ by the deity, dancing, consumption of liquor, and quasi-shamanic figures—but it presented these in the ornate poetic language of a highly literate culture. We see a similar phenomenon in exegetical Tantrik texts of the Kaula streams. 

    The first flowering of South Indian bhakti was in the charismatic personages of the Tamil Ālvārs and Nāyanmārs in the seventh to ninth centuries, and the movement subsequently spread to Karṇātaka, where the Vīraśaivas exemplified similar themes. From a literary point of view, their work was revolutionary in that it introduced a style of devotional poetry that was intensely personal, emotive, and seemingly spontaneous. Perhaps the defining element of this poetry was that it eschewed poetic artifice in favor of frank emotional expression, much more closely linked to real human experience—including, for the first time, that of women—than the Sanskrit literature up to that time. Unlike the scriptural literature in Sanskrit, these poems were often about specific real people and situations, localized in time and space, and yet universal insofar as they echoed archetypal stages and experiences on the devotional religious path. 

   No longer was all Indian devotional poetry in the form of praise poems or hymns: these vernacular works did not shy away from the full range of human emotional expression, including frustration and despair as well as ecstasy and gratitude. One of the foremost of the early bhakti poets, Nammālvār, bravely wrote about both his awestruck wonder and his confusion about the nature of the Divine, as well as his longing for and despair of ever knowing God completely. For example:

 Lord, you confuse everyone.
    But make me understand:
       becoming oblivion, memory, heat, cold,
       all things wonderful and wonder itself,
       becoming every act of success, 
       every act of good and evil,
       and every consequence,
       becoming even the weariness of human lives,
    you stand there—
    and what misery you bring!  (7.8.6, Rāmānujan 1981)

    Having said all that, it is also true that these poets drew upon poetic conventions, motifs, and tropes of the past. This is another pan-Indian cultural pattern: nothing is ever lost, rather, the tradition in the main consists of innovation over the familiar. That is to say, the doctrines, rituals, and forms of expression of the past are inherited and for the most part retained by each new cultural era, but reinvented in a context that often transforms the valuation and signification of those forms. For example, in the poetry of the Ālvārs and the Vīraśaivas, secular/romantic poetic themes are applied to the devotee’s passionate relationship with his chosen deity. Two examples will have to suffice to substantiate this claim. First, from Nammālvār:

    They haven’t flowered yet, the fat konrai trees,
    nor hung out their garlands and golden circlets
    in their sensual canopy of leaves along the branches,
    dear girl, dear as the paradise of our lord
    who measured the earth girdled by the restless sea:
    they are waiting with buds for the return
    of your lover once twined in your arms. (Tiruviruttam 68)

Second, from the female poet-saint Akka Mahādevī (of Karṇātaka):

    O twittering birds, don’t you know? don’t you know?
    O swans on the lakeshore, don’t you know? don’t you know?
    O high-singing koils, don’t you know? don’t you know?
    O circling swooping bees, don’t you know? don’t you know?
    O peacocks in the caverns, don’t you know? don’t you know?
    Tell me if you know:
    Where is He, my Lord White as Jasmine?   (Rāmānujan 1973)

    The first poem consciously echoes conventions of secular Tamil poetry; specifically, the mullai landscape/genre is alluded to, that of the lover’s patient waiting for the beloved during or just before the monsoon. The reference to the Vedic myth of Viṣṇu as the vāmana (dwarf) who measured the world in three steps alerts us to the devotional context within which we should interpret the poem allegorically. The second poem utilizes the romantic theme of the lover asking the birds for the whereabouts of, or to take a message to, the beloved. Interestingly, this appropriation of secular love poetry to devotional works in South India closely parallels the same process in Sūfī works of a slightly later period, far to the West. There, too, the poetic conventions of lover and beloved and the stock characters and situations surrounding them are wholly reinvented and reinvested with religious signification. As with bhakti poetry, sometimes only context serves to distinguish them from actual secular love poetry. Fruitful comparative work could and should be done in this area.

    The bhakti movement also spread through Mahārāṣṭra, flourishing there in the thirteenth century, and finally appeared in Rājasthān and what is now Uttar Pradesh in the fifteenth century, where it was beautifully exemplified by the astonishing poetry of Mīrābāī and Kabīr. 

    But since I will soon be leading a spiritual pilgrimage around the holy land of Karṇātaka, let us turn our attention to the innovative poet-saints of that region, specifically the 12th century Vīraśaivas. The Vīraśaivas were even more radical and ground-breaking than their earlier Tamil counterparts, though more in a social and spiritual way than a literary one. Where the Tamil saints travelled like bards to specific fixed pilgrimage sites, temples and icons, the Vīraśaivas were iconoclastic and advocated freely wandering and carrying God close to one's heart, in the form of a small portable śiva-linga, and regarding one’s own body as the temple of God (see Rāmānujan 1973, p. 88). The Vīraśaivas also professed a kind of monotheism in which Śiva is the only true god, or the only god of any significance (see, e.g., Rāmānujan 1973, p. 28). These poet-saints were also radical in their consistent disavowal of the institution of caste (whereas the Ālvārs tended to dismiss the significance of caste in spiritual terms that applied to one’s individual experience, rather than to political realities). Finally, the Vīraśaivas usually composed in epigrammatic free verse, while for example Nammālvār used metre and set structures.

    A comparison of the life-stories of Nammālvār and the most revered Vīraśaiva, Allama Prabhu, will point up some of these differences while simultaneously illustrating central spiritual principles of each branch of the bhakti movement. Nammālvār was a child whose autistic tendencies distressed his parents, and one day they simply left him at the feet of Viṣṇu in a local temple. Moving under his own volition for the first time, he walked to a tamarind tree in the compound, and sat in meditation posture in a hollow of the trunk for an extended period—months or years, we are led to believe. Eventually, a pilgrim poet in the region followed a bright light in the southern sky to the site, whereupon discovering young Nammālvār in meditation, he begged him for spiritual instruction. Finally Nammālvār broke his lifelong silence with his first teaching, an enigmatic sentence open to several interpretations.** Without ever leaving the courtyard of the temple, it is said, Nammālvār composed his thousand hymns to Viṣṇu. (Rāmānujan 1981: xii) The elements of this story may perhaps be analyzed as follows. His early passivity could represent the act of surrender to the will of God, while his sitting for meditation for a prolonged period demonstrates that there must also be discipline. He sits within a tree, symbol of the natural world and sacred landscape, but the tree is situated in a temple courtyard, indicating the Ālvārs’ connection with religious institutions. His poetry recitation is alleged to be spontaneous, a claim seemingly belied by the structure of his thousand hymns, in which the final word of each poem becomes the first word of the next.

    Allama Prabhu, considered by his devotees an incarnation of Śiva, nevertheless carries a life story which initially appears less ‘spiritual’ than Nammālvār’s. A temple drummer in love with a beautiful temple dancer, he marries her but she dies very young. Distraught, he wanders, until, digging forlornly in the earth with his toe, he happens to uncover the golden cupola of a buried temple partly protruding from the earth. The cupola is poetically described as the ‘nipple on the breast of the Goddess of Freedom’ (!). He works to unearth the small shrine and enters it, finding a yogī rapt in meditation on the linga. The yogī, whose name Animisayya means ‘he whose eyes are always open’, gives Allama a small śiva-linga and immediately leaves his body. Allama, transformed, wanders in the Lord’s service thereafter. (Rāmānujan 1973: 143f)  This story too has many symbolic elements. The temple in this story is buried in the earth, a kind of cave containing the yogī who represents Śiva. The image evokes the old Upaniṣadic idea of the Divine dwelling in the Cave of the Heart. It can hardly be a coincidence that Allama always refers to Śiva as ‘Lord of Caves’ (guheśvara). This is also consistent with the Vīraśaiva rejection of external temples, and affirmation of the inner temple. The seemingly incongruous reference to the temple as the ‘breast of the Goddess’ serves perhaps to emphasize the Vīraśaiva’s attitude towards nature as an embodiment of the Divine (most clearly seen in Akka Mahādevī’s work). The yogin within the temple has been waiting for an indefinite amount of time to offer the gift of his inner state to another. The theme of waiting is commonplace in Vīraśaiva poetry, as it is in Ālvār poetry (see, e.g. Akka Mahādevī in Rāmānujan 1973: 122). The yogī is described as never blinking, because he is constantly looking at the manifestation of the Lord and for an opportunity to transmit his attainment to another. This he does with the gift of the śiva-linga to Allama, the ‘aniconic icon’ of Śaivism, symbolizing the pure presence of the Divine. (The Śiva-linga is worn by all Vīraśaivas—who are also known as Lingāyats—as a movable image independent of any fixed temple or particular locale.) This a moment of sudden awakening for Allama:

    Looking for your light, I went out:
    It was like the sudden dawn of a million million suns,
    A ganglion of lightnings for my wonder.
    O Lord of Caves, if you are light,
    There can be no metaphor.  (Rāmānujan 1973: 168)

Finally, we see in this story something of a process of ‘conversion’: the lovesick and despairing drummer, not obviously spiritual at this point, is transformed by his meeting with a saint and the revelation of Śiva’s grace. 

    Thus we have seen some of the fundamental elements of bhakti illustrated by these stories and poems, as well as some of the differences among the bhakti sub-cultures. The flowering of bhakti throughout the mediaeval era serves as one of the most beautiful examples in world culture of a poetic and spiritual movement with both a certain degree of cohesion and great diversity. Poetry in the Euro-American world would not catch up to the innovations of bhakti until the late eighteenth century (with the beginning of the Romantic period). The qualities of modern poetry that we take for granted, such as the intensely personal, autobiographical, and emotional expressiveness intended to evoke a similar state in the listener, is a poetic innovation that may have first occurred in a bhakti context of 1400 years ago.
        The bhakti movement, though it was eventually assimilated into the fold of Hindu orthodoxy, came to dominate Indian religion, causing the reinterpretation and revalorization of both ritual worship and mythological narratives. It both greatly strengthened the temple cults and emphasized modes of approach to the divine that all castes and classes could participate in. The most radical message of the bhakti movement was that if you have passionate devotion to God, nothing else matters, not even purity and pollution laws or proper ritual performance: pure love for the Divine by itself saves. This iconoclastic idea has surprisingly persisted in the Indian religious and social milieu, continuing to challenge and revitalize it, bringing hope to new generations of spiritual seekers.

Without duality – mind and mere bone,
For him who has merged his own Self with the Lord,
All actions are actions of linga alone.
With mind given rest from its usual toil,
For him who has merged his own Self with the Lord,
All thoughts of attainment his knowledge be spoil.
Himself into Self having joined with great yoke,
For him there's no duality, no unity broke,
O Lord of Caves!

— Allama Prabhu, Translated by R. Blake Michael


*This process of the rise of theism may perhaps be more accurately characterized as the growing coherence of oral, popular, and local ‘little’ traditions and their irruption into the literate, pan-Indian tradition. Indeed, one might argue that the entire history of Indian religion may be understood in terms of this pattern of indigenous or popular religious ideas seeping ‘upward’ to permeate the dominant Sanskritic/Brahminical tradition, which then reworks those ideas, systematizing, nuancing, and often esotericizing them. This pattern, perhaps, accounts for some of the immense richness and complexity of Hindu culture.

**It is said that the pilgrim asked Nammālvār this riddle: ‘If something small is born in something dead, what will it eat and where will it rest?’ Nammālvār’s response, his first sentence, was: ‘That it will eat and there it will rest.’ I interpret this to mean that when Awareness begins to awaken within the inert and perishable body-mind, it draws its sustenance from the energy flowing through that body-mind and rests blissfully in its center. However, the utterance is clearly intended to be mysterious.



Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads. Oxford: Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 1996.

Ramanujan, A.K. Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Viṣṇu by Nammālvār. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. Repub. by Penguin Books India, 1993.

Ramanujan, A.K. Speaking of Śiva. London: Penguin Books, 1973.