The top six most popular spiritual leaders of India are:
1. Kabir 2. Vallabhacharya 3. Chaitanya 4. Namdev 5. Sankardev 6. Nanak.
Spiritual Leader # 1. Kabir:
The most significant figure among the religious reformers who followed the ways of Ramananda was Kabir. He was undoubtedly the greatest of the pupils of Ramananda. According to tradition he was the abandoned child of a Brahmin widow, but grew up as the foster-child of a Muslim weaver named Niru and his wife. He flourished perhaps in the end of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
He composed numerous verses in Hindi which are still familiar in Northern India. His compositions unmistakably show a mind of profound inner sensitiveness and daring utterances.” Kabir called himself “at once the child of Allah and Ram.” In fact he was the most cosmopolitan of all the bhagats that flourished during medieval India. The works of Kabir reveal such an approach to God that persons of any religious denomination can accept it and if pursued without bigotry, will be advantageous for salvation. Rules of caste, religious observances of the Hindus and the Muslims were considered by him as worthless. It was constant utterance of God s name that was needed for salvation.
It is supposed that Kabir’s cosmopolitanism was the result of the experience of his own life. He is said to have been a born Hindu, brought up as a Muslim, and weaver by profession. He worked at Benares. He lived in Hindu surroundings, associated himself with Muslim saints, was a disciple of Ramananda-all these diverse influences contributed to his cosmopolitanism.
It is supposed that Kabir lived when Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) was the Sultan of Delhi, and had occasion to meet Guru Nanak. His indebtedness to Ramananda was very great, yet it must be conceded that he was undoubtedly a great adherent of the Bhakti cult. While ancient philosophy had little influence on him, he drew inspiration from both Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His mystic love for Godhead was derived from Sufism His followers go by the name of Kabirpanthis.
Kabir’s conviction was that God is “omnipresent” for he would often say “Whichever way I look there is he contained.” Repetition of God’s name would lead to communion with God, was his firm conviction. Kabir’s conviction of Allah and Rama being one and same God gave him a clue to Hindu-Muslim unity in religion and society. Humanity, according to him, happen to be God s children, so the Hindu and the Turk have one path, and whether they are Pandits or Shaikhs their religion is the same. Strife between the Hindus and the Muslims was very much distressing to him. “Hindus call upon Rama, the Musalmans on Rahim yet both tight and kill each other, and none knows the truth.”
Kabir in his numerous dohas (small poems) emphasised that God is omnipresent He is everywhere, beside everybody. God need not be sought either in temples or in mosques, in Kaba or in Kailash, in rites and ceremonies or yogas, but if one is a devoted lover of God a true seeker of God he will see Him everywhere. “O Sadhu God is the breath of all breath”—Kabir would say.
Kabir’s teachings are closely akin to those of the Persian mystics like Jalal-ud-din Hafiz etc. whose doctrines were embraced by Abul Fazl and Akbar in the 16th century. Nanak, the founder of Sikhism got his spiritual inspiration from Kabir Theology of Kabir was meant to unite the Hindus and the Muhammadans in the worship of one God.
None of Ramananda’s followers except Kabir seemed to have been conscious of the evil consequences of strifes between the Hindus and Muslims and none of them with the sole exception of Kabir made any conscious effort to effect a socio- religious rapprochement between the two great Indian communities.
But unfortunately the seed to the message of unity of Hari and Allah was not evidently sown on a fertile soil and did not sprout.” Yet Kabir had done his best if the Hindus and the Muslims paid no heed to the practical utility and fundamental truth underlying all religions the fault lay with them.
Kabir was also a poetical genius besides his having been a religious teacher. His dohas, bhajans in simple Hindi appealed to the heart of the common people who understood his language easily. His poetry enriched the Hindi devotional literature Parts of his compositions were later included in Adi Granth by Sikh Guru Arjan.
Kabir did not nominate any successor and his son refused to accept the position of his father on the ground that his father (Kabir) was not in favour of sectarianism. In fact, he fought against sectarianism all his life. The result was that the followers of Kabir formed small groups or subsets under different religious leaders.
So there arose twelve groups of Kabirpanthis the two major divisions having their centres at Chhattisgarh in Madhya Pradesh and Benares in Uttar Pradesh. When Kabir died, the story goes, that both the Hindus and Muslims contended for his corpse, but when they raised the shroud that covered the dead body they were amazed to find that there was no dead body but some flowers—all that remained under the shroud in place of the corpse of Kabir. The Hindus took half of the flowers and cremated it at Varanasi and the Muslims who took the other half and buried it at Gorakhpur.
Spiritual Leader # 2. Vallabhacharya:
Another offshoot of Bhakti movement was the Krishna cult of Vallabhacharya a Telugu Brahmin born in 1479 in Varanasi while the family was on pilgrimage to the holy city. Even as a child he was looked upon as a prodigy. After his education was over he was on his travels. He arrived at the court of Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar where he defeated the Saivas in a public debate.
He then went to Mathura, Vrindaban and other places of pilgrimage and ultimately he settled at Varanasi. Vallabhacharya taught Suddha-advaita which recognised no distinction between Brahman and an individual soul and regarded Bhakti as the means for soul to escape the bondage due to worldly delusions.
Vallabhacharya emphasised the doctrine of self-control and renunciation yet it came to be known as pushti-marga under his successors who laid stress on the physical aspects of Krishna’s sports, hence the creed came to be known as “Epicureanism of the East.”
Spiritual Leader # 3. Chaitanya:
The greatest and the most popular Vaishnava saint was Chaitanya (1485-1533) who propagated a sublime variety of Bhakti cult. Chaitanya was born in Nadia in Bengal in 1485 in a Brahmana family that had migrated to Nabadwip, in Nadia, from Sylhet now in Bangladesh. His father was jagannath Misra, and mother Sachi Devi. He was known variously as Nemai, Gouranga, Gora, etc. Chaitanya displayed a wonderful literary acumen in his early life and his soul soon aspired to rise above the fetters of the world.
He showed a great love for Hari and would often take that name. He married at an early age but his first wife died not long after when he married Vishnupriya. But nothing could keep him away from his pursuit of emancipation from worldly life.
He had in the meantime acquired mastery over different branches of Sanskrit sastras and proved his scholarship in a number of dialectical controversies with eminent Sanskrit scholars. He toured all over East Bengal and visited his ancestral home at Sylhet. In 1508 while he had been to Gaya for performing the Sradha of his father who had died earlier, he met the famous Isvara Puri, disciple of Madhava Puri founder of the Madhava Sect in South India. He was initiated by Isvara Puri in dasakshara Krish-mantra.
It is said; on his way back to Bengal he had a vision of Lord Krishna in a village. This effected a total transformation of his mind and he gave up his occupation of running a tol and teaching scholars. He became deeply engrossed in the thought of Lord Krishna and began to sing the praise of Krishna in Sankirtan and while doing so, he in fits of ecstasy shed tears in profusion.
All this was taken at first as signs of mental imbalance by some people, but soon they came to realise the magnetic influence of his preachings and Vaishnavas of Nabadwip were attracted to him. People of all classes, Hindus and Muslims, high and low became his disciples. The Qazi took alarm at the great popularity of the movement and particularly as Chaitanya movement attracted even followers from the Muslim community.
He sought to suppress the movement with a strong hand. Hussain Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, on hearing all about the large number that congregated at the Sankirtan of Chaitanya remarked that a person who could draw so many people must have something very special about him. The Qazi was ordered not to oppress him or to put impediments to his Sankirtan.
In 1510 Chaitanya renounced the world and got initiated by Kesava Bharati at Katwa in West Bengal. Kesava Bharati christened him as Sri Krishna Chaitanya. Soon after his initiation he left Nabadwip and took residence at Puri where he converted and took Vasudeva Sarbhavauma, a great scholar in Vedanta and Nyaya as disciple of his Bhakti cult. Ramananda, the Governor of Rajahmundri also became his disciple.
Chaitanya proceeded through Rameswaram, Cape Comorin, and the states now called Kerala Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and returned to Rajahmundri. He is said to have also visited Dwarka, Pravasa and Saurashtra. On his return to Puri from Rajahmundri Prataprudra king of Orissa became his disciple.
In 1514 on his way to pilgrimage to Vrindaban Chaitanya passed through Bengal when he converted Rup and Sanatan—two ministers of Hussain Shah as well as their nephew Jiva. This led to the progress of Vaisnavism in Bengal. Two years later (1516) Chaitanya returned to Puri and lived his remaining life in monastic seclusion. It is common belief that Chaitanya disappeared in the temple of Jagannath and merged in the diety.
Chaitanya is regarded by his followers as an incarnation of Vishnu. The essence of Chaitanya’s Bhakti cult has been expressed by Krishnadas Kaviraj, the author of Chaitanya Charitamrita in the following sentence “if a creature adores Krishna and serves his Guru he is released from the meshes of illusion and attains to Krishna’s feet’.
Chaitanya was against priestly ritualism and preached faith in Hari. “He believed that through love and devotion and song and dance on ecstasy could be produced in which the personal of God would be realised.” Chaitanya’s influence on the common people was deep and wide.
Chaitanya did not leave his teachings or views in writing. His disciples Rup, Sanatan Jiva, Gopal Bhatta, Raghunath Das and others correctly explained and arranged the teachings and views of Chaitanya in their works. “Just as we know of Socrates and his teachings not from his own writings but through the writings of his disciples like Plato, so also we know of Chaitanya’s philosophy principally through the writings of his spiritual disciples.”
Chaitanya adhered to essentially orthodox philosophical traditions yet his religion had an immensely liberal character. He did not recognise any caste limit in following his Bhakti cult which according to him was the only way to salvation. Vaishnavism in Bengal was responsible for the removal of social disabilities of the lowest castes of the society by giving them equal footing with his other disciples.
The traditional monopoly of the Brahmanas in guiding the society was by admitting non-Brahmanas to the ministry of the Vaishnava congregation for spiritual guidance. Chaitanya and his followers had simplified the traditional socio-religious ceremonies like marriage, sradh, etc.
The liberal socio-religious trend that had developed as a result of the propagation of Bhakti cult by Chaitanya would have transformed the Bengali society. But the traditional orthodoxy that existed within the Vaishnavas themselves due to the incoming of converts of high caste Hindus like the Brahmanas, Vaidyas and Kayasthas, led to adherence to high social position by these people.
Thus the unorthodox system of a casteless unified Vaishnava sect could not fully develop. The general socio-religious laws and practices of the Hindu society continued to be followed by the Vaishnavas who came from the upper castes. The Vaishnavas of Bengal, in this way, were split into two sections one adhering to traditional Hindu laws and practices and the other following the liberal Vaishnava socio-religious laws and practices, the latter being gradually looked upon as lower than the former in social position.
Hindu orthodoxy also prevailed in the theological aspect of Vaishnavism. Image worship came in and there was a wide prevalence of image worship by the Vaishnavas. A very small section of the Vaishnavas could conceive of a spiritual body which was conceived to be the Supreme Diety.
Chaitanya did not leave any nominee nor any organised body for propagation of his cult. Nityananda, Advaitacharya who were his associates were also regarded by the Vaishnavas as incarnation of Vishnu in a limited way. The descendants of these associates of Chaitanya who are living in Navadvip and Santipur are regarded as the spiritual heads of the Vaishnavas of Bengal. Chaitanya’s life ended in 1533.
Spiritual Leader #4. Namdev:
In Maharashtra Bhakti cult was preached by Namadeva or Namdev. Namdev belonged to a family of tailors or calico-printers and flourished during the earlier half of the fifteenth century; He believed in the unity of Godhead and was against religious rituals and formal observances as well as idol worship. According to him salvation was attainable through love of God. The love of God must be like the love of the child for its mother, he would often say.
In Maharashtra worship of Vithoba took the form of Bhakti cult. Vithoba worship had three great leaders namely Jnanesvar, Namdev and Tukaram. They were the leaders of the Pandharpur movement, i.e. Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. Their influence on society and religion in Maharashtra was very great and also helped the development of Marathi literature, “modification of caste exclusiveness, sanctification of family life, elevation of the status of women, spread of humaneness and toleration, partial reconciliation with Islam, Subordination of ritual and learning to love and faith, and limitation to the excesses of polytheism” (Ranade).
People from lowest professions the tailors, carpenters, goldsmiths, potters and even slave girls and prostitutes were taken as followers of the sect. The Pandharpur movement was originally a regional one but gradually it spread to Northern India.
Spiritual Leader # 5. Sankardev:
Sankardev was born about 1487 in a Kayastha family of feudal chiefs of the Brahmaputra valley. He introduced Vaishnavism (Bhakti cult) in Kamrupa and Cooch Behar. According to his biographers, Sankardev did not find the atmosphere in Assam congenial under the Ahom King Svargodeo for the propagation of his Bhakti cult and he fled to the domains of Raja Nara Narayan of Cooch Behar who gave him fullest liberty to preach his religion.
Sankara studied sanskrit in his early life and led the life of a house-holder with his wife and children. It is said that the death of his wife turned him into a Yogi and became a devout Vaishnava and began to preach Bhakti cult.
Madhavadeva was the greatest of Sankardev’s disciples and accompanied him to Cooch Behar. Both Sankardev and Madhavadev attained much success in their mission of the propagation of Bhakti cult in Cooch Behar. Rulph Fitch who visited Nara Narayana’s Kingdom of Cooch Behar in the sixteenth century testifies to the influence of Vaishnavism on the people.
“There they be gentiles and they will kill nothing. They have hospitals for sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds and for all the living creatures.” The Bhakti movement of Sankardev and Madhavadev attracted some tribal people also. The rulers of Heramba principalities of Cooch Behar became disciples of Sankardev.
Madhavadev, the greatest disciple of Sankardev writes in his Nama-Ghosha that “Garos, Bhutias, Muslims take the name of Hari, it is a pity such Hari-nama is criticised by some of the learned.” Some Brahmanas also became the disciples of Sankardev. The sect founded by Sankardev and Madhavadev is known as Mahapurushias. Some European writers considered them to be followers of Chaitanya.
But although Sankardev propagated Bhakti cult like Chaitanya there were some fundamental differences between the two:
(i) Sankardev believed that God is formless, hence there was no question of image worship according to him. But the followers of Chaitanya consider it essential.
(ii) While salvation is the ultimate objective of the spiritual life the school of Sankardev, the followers of Chaitanya yearn for only loving servitude of Radha and Krishna eternally.
(iii) Sankardeva does not recognise Radha at all.
(iv) Bengal Vaishnavas recite Hare- Krishna but the Assam Vaishnavas recite Ram-Krishna.
Sankardev’s centres of religious propagation are satras or the refuge of the devotees and at the centre of satra lies the Nam Ghara where Gita or the Bhagavata is kept on a pedestal and holy name is recited. Sankaradev followed the Visishtadvaita philosophical system of Ramanuja, but as we have mentioned above he would not recognise the female counterpart of the Supreme Diety, such as Radha, Lakshmi or Sita. He emphasised Nishkama Bhakti, i.e. devotion with no yarning for getting any benefit. Sankardev denounced caste-system and preached in tongue of the people.
Spiritual Leader #6. Nanak:
Sikhism was founded by Nanak who was reviver of the monotheistic doctrine of the Upanishads. Born in a Khatri family of Talwandi in modern Nankana about thirty- five miles south-west of Lahore city in 1469, Nanak spent his whole life in preaching his ‘gospel of universal toleration based on all that was good in Hinduism and Islam. He was a religious preacher of saintly disposition.
Nanak received elementary lessons from his village teacher but his lack of interest in earning a living and his munificence without the thought of his own needs, made his parents somewhat unhappy. His religiosity revealed itself in his early life. He married and had two children, but nothing increased his attraction to the world.
In 1485 he got appointment as a store-keeper of the Government granary at Sultanpur which was the administrative centre of Jullundur Doab. But even this appointment did not divert his mind from spiritual pursuits and he spent the time other than what he was required to spend for official duties, in singing the praise of God. One morning he was found missing and it is said that he was taken to the presence of Supreme Being.
But shorn of the exaggeration of the traditional story, the fact remains that he had obtained the mystic-experience which was the fruit of his long spiritual pursuit. Three days later he returned to preach. “There is no Hindu, there is no Musalman” and when local Qazi took exception to this statement Nanak explained that a Musalman is one “who effaceth himself and make the truth and contentment his only creed.” The local Muslim Governor was pleased at this explanation.
Nanak now left Sultanpur and visited different parts of India and also the countries in West Asia. This travelling like an Udasi, i.e. recluse, continued till 1526 during the course of which he visited most of the present states of India, but also Ceylon, Mecca, Medina, Baghdad etc.
When Babur invaded India and North West India was in turmoil, Nanak was in Punjab and it is said that he once met Babur. From 1526 to 1539, the year of his demise Nanak settled in a village named Kartarpur in Sialkot, now in Pakistan preaching his own gospel. He nominated Angad as his successor, before his death.
Guru Nanak’s teachings are to be found in the hymns composed by him and included in the Adi Granth compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604. Japji one of the hymns contained in the Adi Granth is the sumtotal of Nanak’s spiritual realisation, as also an inimitable literary work. In Japji Nanak gives in a succinct way his conception of God. “There is one God. His name is Eternal Truth, He is the Maker of all things. He fears nothing and is in enmity with nothing. His Image is Timeless. He is not begotten, being of His own being.” Nanak teachings were based on the unity, of Godhead. Nanak did not believe in the appearance and reappearance of God on earth in human form.
Nanak’s ideal of religious pursuit is union with God. It is by raising the soul to the level of spiritual excellence which will free it from the cycle of birth and death, a level of perfection which will enable the individual soul (atma) to find dissolution in the Supreme Being (Paramatma).
Nanak rejected religious ceremonies and cautioned his followers against five evils namely: lust, anger, covetousness, pride and attachment. He was against formal observance of rituals, fasting, penance, prayers according to set schedule, pilgrimage, feeding people, putting religious marks on forehead, smearing the body with ashes.
He recommended modesty, civility, right conduct, devotion to truth, etc. He criticised worship of many gods and idolatry. According to him neither the Vedas nor the Quran but by deep devotion to God that can bring salvation. One has to be hungry for God, and that means Bhakti.
Nanak, however, believed in the Brahmanical doctrine of Karma. “As a man soweth, so shall he reap; as he earneth, so shall he eat.” In other words man determines his fate through deeds done by him. Rebirth can only be stopped by Gods’ blessings, attainable by men by meditating on the Nama.
Guru Nanak was a religious reformer but the contemporary political and social evils did not miss his sight. In his poem known as Babur-Vani Nanak referred to the sufferings of the men and women at the hand of Babur’s troops. He was not a social reformer in the accepted sense, but in his spiritual propaganda he did not make any distinction between high-caste or low-caste. He said that “There is no Hindu and no Musalman”, it was an accident that one was born in one family or in the other. Thus Nanak conceived of a human society based on universal brotherhood and which has nothing to do with castes. Honest labour and pursuit of truth were, according to Nanak the ways to find ‘release’.
It is worthwhile to discuss the influence of Hinduism and Islam on Nanak and his religious ideas While Nanak’s hymns reveal the influence of the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, particularly Chhandogya, Mandukya, Katha, Prasna and the Bhagavad Gita, he rejected the Brahmanical doctrine of incarnation of God, and caste-system which had its origin in the Vedas and developed in the times of the Puranas.
Nanak, however, uses expressions of the Hindu sashtras, such as yuga, guna, nad, maya, mukti, karma etc. as well as Brahmanical names such as Hari Krishna, Rama to denote the Supreme Being. It may therefore, be said that Nanak adopted Brahmanical ideas on selective basis.
The Sikh religion, according to Toynbee “is creation of an ex-Hindu religious enquirer who adopted monotheism and rejected caste under the influence of Islam.” The great Indian savant Radha-krishna is of the opinion that Nanak was greatly influenced by the monotheism of Islam and strove to bring the Hindus and Muslims together. Similar opinion has been expressed by Carpenter.
Yet it must be remarked that Nanak’s religion was not synthesis of Hindu and Islamic beliefs. It is also difficult to accept the view that Nanak’s monotheism was the result of the influence of Islam. In fact, it was drawn from the Upanishads. Again Nanak’s ideas about transmigration of soul, and deliverance from the cycle of birth and death as a result of the merger of atma with Paramatma constitute major points of difference between Nanak’s religion and Islam. Although Nanak had come into contact with the Sufis, Sufism had little influence on his religion.
Nanak was the founder of Sikhism and his religion remains essentially the same in fundamentals although annotations, supplementary additions have been made, but no modification has been made and to the Skihs it is inconceivable.