Perhaps we could posit a universal link between love and philosophy. The etymology of the English word “philosophy,” after all, testifies to this with its Latin and Greek origins—the root word philia meaning “love.”
But few philosophical traditions throughout history have embodied this concept of love for knowledge more deeply than the bhakti movement of India, whose name literally means “devotion” and whose central tenet reflects, rather than exclusive ritual or ceremonial observances, an intense personal connection to and love for a non-sectarian god.
Out of this philosophical tradition flourished poets such as Kabir, who in the late 14th and early 15th centuries composed works of a deeply emotional nature, such as the song beginning with the line “My body and my mind.”
My body and my mind are in depression
because you are not with me.
How much I love you and want you in my house!
When I hear people describe me as your bride
I look sideways ashamed,
because I know that far inside us
we have never met.
Then what is this love of mine?
I don’t really care about food,
I don’t really care about sleep
I am restless indoors and outdoors.
The bride wants her lover
as much as a thirsty man wants water.
And how will I find someone
who will take a message to the Guest from me?
How restless Kabir is all the time!
How much he wants to see the Guest!
In this poem, Kabir vividly imagines himself yearning for the love of God as passionately as a newly-married woman longs for her husband’s love and attention—the imagery suggests a radical redefinition of relationships between worshipper and divinity. “The essential meaning of bhakti as love,” which the work of Kabir intensely illustrates, is indeed “human love, love between persons” (Singh 78).
This very personal meaning of love or devotion encompassed by bhakti, then, lays the foundation for a more intimate relationship between God and man than traditionally experienced through ritual prayer or sacrifice, an intimacy hinted at in the metaphor of a bride and bridegroom—in their poetry, Kabir and other contemporaries thus “write with the passion of intoxicated lovers consumed by bliss” (Wolpert 101).
This imagery of marital union as the ideal relationship between the human and divine, notably, is one that would be used throughout history in many devotional religions, such as Christianity—notably in its mystical strains, such as the poetry of Theresa of Avila.
But while presaging the forms and imagery that would characterize future faiths, the bhakti movement at the same time drew on the ideas of other, particularly mystical, strains of contemporary religions.
Islamic Sufism shares a number of similarities with Hindu bhakti, one of them being the same emotional yearning for union with God. Wandering Sufi preachers, the “God-intoxicated” pirs, brought to the Indian subcontinent a “message of divine love to impoverished peasants” (Wolpert 122) during the 13th-century.
Finding particularly fertile ground in Bengal, Sufism—revitalizing Islam for many through a break with orthodoxy—“struck a responsive chord in the mass of Bengal’s population, especially among the lowest class of Hindu outcastes and former Buddhists, who were left without a priesthood to turn to for spiritual guidance” (Wolpert 121) after Buddhist monasticism’s recent virtual exile from India during its brutal persecution by Turkish invaders.
The disenfranchised and low-status people of India were similarly drawn to bhakti—a pattern particularly true of the sants, often transliterated as “saints,” the bhakta practitioners of bhakti who “flourished especially in the Hindi-speaking North between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries” (Heehs 357).
This group, to which the poet and sant Kabir belongs, was uniquely inclusive of both ideas and people on the periphery of the Hindu world:
The sant Ramanand, said to be Kabir’s teacher, welcomed disciples as diverse as “the Jat farmer Dhana, the outcaste cobbler Raidas,” and even “Padmavati, a woman” (Heehs 359).
Kabir himself is believed to have been the son of a Muslim weaver, a member of the artisan class—an unorthodox individual to be considered “saintlike” by any movement in the rigidly-stratified Brahmanical system of Indian Hinduism.
But the bhakti movement was almost inherently anti-establishment. The very concept of a direct, personal relationship between an individual believer and God seems to make the priestly class redundant—a problem almost identical to that which the Roman Catholic Church would face some centuries later during the rise of Protestantism.
Even early uses of the very word “bhakti” in the Bhagavad Gita, of perhaps the fifth century BCE but certainly well before the movement of Kabir’s time in the 14th and 15th centuries CE, stress accessibility of salvation:
“Those who revere me with devotion (bhakti), they are in me and I too am in them,” Krishna, revealing himself as Vishnu, declares, adding that: “Even if a very evil doer reveres me with single devotion, he must be regarded as righteous in spite of all… even those who may be of base origin, women, men of the artisan class, and serfs too” (Wolpert 82). This litany of the saved neatly tallies with the roster of Ramanand’s disciples.
This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ class at the University of Alabama. References can be found at the end of part 3–and please, please, please cite your/my sources if you’re going to use any of this. Because Turnitin will find you.
The Internet will avenge me.