In this article we will discuss about the life of people during the sultanate period.
1. Different Sections:
Prior to the coming of the Muslims in India the Hindu society itself was divided into different sections. When the Muslims also settled here, additional sections were added to Indian society. Among them, foreign Muslims constituted the ruling class. It was the most respected and the privileged section of the society.
All high offices of the state were kept reserved for them; they received extensive jagirs in return for their services; and, they wielded great influence in society and administration. But foreign Muslims were also not united. They belonged to different nationalities such as the Persians, the Afghans, the Arabs, the Turks, the Abyssianians, etc.
The Turks claimed and maintained their superiority over all others up to the thirteenth century. When the Khaljis captured the power of the state, superior position of the Turks was broken up. Thereafter the changed political circumstances and inter-marriages between different sections of foreign Muslims brought them all on par with each other.
The next section was that of the Indian Muslims. They were those Hindus who were either converted to Islam themselves or were descendants of converted Muslims. The foreign Muslims despised Indian Muslims because most of them were converted to Islam from among low-caste Hindus.
The foreign Muslims regarded them neither of blue blood nor conquerors of this country. Therefore, Indian Muslims were not given equal status with foreign Muslims either in society or in administration.
During the entire period of the Sultanate only some Indian Muslims could get high offices of the state. Of course, there was some improvement in their status from the beginning of the fourteenth century, yet they could never claim equality with foreign Muslims.
The caste-system of the Hindus affected the Muslims also particularly Indian Muslims. They continued to maintain divisions among themselves on the basis of their previous castes. Thus, both the foreign and Indian Muslims were divided among themselves on the basis of their different nationalities and birth.
The Muslims were also divided on the basis of religious sect, education and professions. The Sunnis and the Shiahs differed from each other on the basis of religious sects while soldiers and scholars were divided among each other on the basis of their professions. Yet, there was another class, that is, the Ulema. They constituted the religious community among the Muslims and claimed superiority over all others.
The Ulema claimed to be the only interpreter of Islamic laws and therefore, wielded large influence not only among the Muslim populace but also in matters of administration except during the reign of Ala-ud-din Khalji, Mubarak Khalji and Muhammad Tughluq Traders, shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, etc. constituted the lowest cadre among the Muslims in the society.
The Hindus constituted the majority of the Indian society. The Hindus were divided among themselves on the basis of castes. The Hindus had strengthened further the bonds of their castes in order to safeguard themselves from the onslaughts of the Muslims. That resulted into formation of new sub-castes and further divisions among them.
Members of different sub-castes refused inter- dining and inter-marriages with each other and each sub-caste claimed superiority over others. Thus, the caste-system had become more rigid. Yet, some liberality had grown in one respect. While in the beginning of the Muslim invasions once a Hindu got himself converted to Islam, he was not allowed to come back to his old faith but afterwards there was some laxity in this.
Sultan Firuz Tughluq and Sikandar Lodi had to punish certain Brahmanas who encouraged Muslims to accept Hinduism. Harihara and Bukka, the founders of the Vijayanagara empire, were also taken back to Hindu-fold.
But the Hindus suffered from certain social evils such as untouchability, sacrifice of animals and even human beings, Sati, etc. However, the Hindus, in general, were religious-minded, simple and of noble character. But, during the entire period of the Sultanate, the Hindus were treated as second rate citizens of the state.
They were devoid of high offices of the state; they had to pay higher taxes as compared to the Muslims; and the Muslims were always after their beautiful women so that they had to be always on the alert to safeguard their honour. However, the services of the Hindus were essential in revenue department.
The same way, the Hindus mostly monopolised trade and agriculture. The Hindus were recruited in the army as well because of sheer necessity. Yet, the position of the Hindus remained weaker because of their own social evils and by the privileged position of the Muslims. Whatever they managed to safeguard was because of their number and their determination to resist onslaughts of the Muslims.
2. The Slave System:
The slave system was prevalent both among the Muslims and the Hindus and slaves were sold and purchased in open market. The slaves were treated well though their property and lives were the property of their masters.
The slaves of the Muslims were better off as compared to the slaves of the Hindus. The Sultans and nobles kept slaves in large numbers, provided education and gave them training and opportunity to rise in their lives so that many of them rose to positions of eminence in the state.
3. Position of Women:
The Hindu women enjoyed respect in their family, participated in religious ceremonies, were educated and many of them acquired scholarly fame as well. Yet, in general, their status had deteriorated in the society and they suffered from many social evils. Normally, monogamy was prevalent in the society but, among the rich, a man could keep many wives. The widows could not marry again.
They either became sati at the funeral pyre of their husbands or passed their lives as women-hermits. The Muslims were always prepared either to molest or to capture Hindu women which resulted in child-marriages and purdah system. It also adversely affected their education and movements in the society.
Therefore, education could be provided to them only at homes which could be afforded only by the rich. The birth of a daughter was regarded as a bad omen and that resulted in the practice of female-infanticide. However, the lower castes remained free from many of these social evils. There was no purdah system in them and their women were free to divorce and remarry. Even widow-marriages were permitted among them.
Devadasi system was another social evil which was prevalent among the Hindus. Beautiful unmarried girls were offered to images of gods in temples where they passed their lives as maidservants of gods. It was not only serious injustice to their lives but also resulted in corruption in temples. There were certain other changes which the Hindus accepted because of their contact with the Muslims.
The Hindus started to accept the converts back to the Hindu-fold. There were changes in their clothing’s, food-habits, social habits and certain customs as well. Besides, there was an important and favourable change concerning the position of Hindu women. Now they could be owners of certain type of property besides what was called Stri-Dhan (property of wife).
Muslim women also did not enjoy a respectable status in the society. Polygamy was widely prevalent among the Muslims. Every Muslim had a right to keep at least four wives while the rich among them kept hundreds or thousands as wives or slaves. Purdah system was strictly observed among Muslim women.
They were devoid of education because of this social custom. However, they were better placed in certain respects as compared to Hindu women. They could divorce their husbands, remarry and could claim their share in the property of their parents. There was no practice of sati among Muslim women.
Thus, it can be concluded that the position of women in India was much inferior to men during the period of the Sultanate and they suffered from many social evils and other handicaps. Primarily, the women were regarded as articles of pleasure.
4. Social Life:
The Hindus were divided into traditional four castes and many sub-castes. They had strengthened their caste-bonds further. However, according to Dr A.L. Srivastava, the Brahmanas gradually liberalised their attitude towards the Sudras and permitted them to listen to the recitation of the Puranas and engage themselves in trade of certain articles.
In general, while the Hindus were mostly vegetarians, the Muslims were non-vegetarians. Except war-like castes and the Sudras, the Hindus used wheat, rice, pulses, vegetables, milk and articles made of milk as their staple food. Among the Muslims, the Sufis or the people who were under their influence avoided meat-eating.
For the rest of them, meat was their desired food. Koran has prohibited the use of liquor to its followers. Yet, liquor and opium were consumed both by the Hindus and the Muslims. Even the efforts of Ala-ud-din to check consumption of liquor failed.
Life in cities was comfortable. Both the Hindus and the Muslims built good houses for themselves where all comforts of life were procured. However, there was no significant change in the life of villages. The common people lived in mud-houses, had limited desires and limited means to fulfill them. Both the Hindus and the Muslims observed the practice of entertaining their guests.
There was a marked progress in the use of clothing’s and ornaments. Both the Hindus and the Muslims affected each other in this field. All sorts of clothes made of silk, cotton and wool were used by the people and there was improvement in them.
Both the Hindus and the Muslims liked to use ornaments. All types of ornaments from head to toe were used by both males and females and were made not only of gold and silver but of pearls, diamonds and other precious stones as well.
The people engaged themselves in all sorts of entertainments. Different sports, hunting, duels among men, fighting among animals, Chaughan (horse-polo), etc. were their usual entertainments. Different fairs and religious festivals both among the Hindus and the Muslims also provided sources of pleasure and entertainment to the people. Holi, Diwali, Dashahra were the principal festivals of the Hindus while Id, Naurauj and Shabbe-rat were the important festivals of the Muslims.
The Hindus and the Muslims came in contact with each other by sheer necessity and, thus, influenced each other in many fields. The Ulema largely influenced the religious policy of Sultan and therefore, most of them were intolerant towards the majority of their subjects. Yet, the common people mixed and influenced each other irrespective of differences of their religious faith.
It brought about favourable changes in food, clothing’s and social life of the people. But there was deterioration in morals of the society. The Hindus were defeated politically and were degraded in the society. Therefore, they lost their self-respect, generosity and desire to grow. The Hindu society remained defensive and therefore, it tried to safeguard everything—right and wrong and, thus, lost the capacity to progress.
The Muslims, on their part, regarded themselves as victors and enjoyed many privileges from the state. They, therefore, developed arrogance and became careless towards their advancement. It resulted in deterioration of the society in general.
Neither the Hindus nor the Muslims remained free from this decline in their character, attitudes, morals and efforts. Of course, changes were there but this alone was not sufficient for the progress of society. Thus, the period of the Sultanate was not that of progress but of decline in the social field.
5. Improvement in Technology and its Impact on Society:
Primarily India had been an agricultural country. But it would be wrong to assume that India lacked industries. India had well-developed industries from ancient times and also enjoyed favourable foreign trade which had been the primary source of its prosperity. Only agriculture could not be a source of surplus production which could be utilised for the purpose of foreign trade.
In ancient India, cloth, ivory, sea-pearls, medicinal herbs etc. had good industrial production and India enjoyed brisk foreign trade in them. The condition, however, changed a little during the early medieval age which included the Rajput age as well.
During this period, India lost direct contact with foreign countries, due to the prevalence of feudalism, became more dependent on agriculture, fell backward in industrial progress and, thereby, suffered in foreign trade.
However, it has not been accepted that India had lost its prosperity during this age. Strong forts and beautiful palaces and temples were constructed during this age and wealth was accumulated in treasuries of rulers and temples which spread all over the country. Mahmud Ghaznavi looted so much wealth in his every attack on India which can not even be imagined.
Therefore, India was a rich country even during this age is a fact. Yet, modern scholars have expressed the opinion that India had, certainly, fell backward during this age concerning industrial progress and foreign trade. The caste- system among the Hindus was also responsible for this deterioration.
By that time, the caste-system had become too rigid and people of various professions like potter, tailor, cloth-weaver, carpenter, etc. which were responsible for production in different fields were placed among the Shudras who had no chance of improving their social status.
Besides, all these professions were hereditary and there was remote possibility of change in profession by an individual. That, certainly, discouraged improvement in professional skill which, in turn, adversely affected industrial progress.
Now, several modern historians have opined that conditions changed during the period of the Delhi Sultanate. They have maintained that technical progress was achieved during this period in several aspects which helped in growth of several industries resulting in growth of foreign trade as well. That finally affected social conditions as well.
In a way, the new changes helped in weakening the caste-system, and many lower castes tried to improve their social status and succeeded as well. During this period, revenue was the primary source of income of the state. Therefore, increase in cultivable-land was always in the interest of the ruling-class and that could be possible by increasing sources of irrigation. It could be possible during this age.
It is largely believed that Rahat which was utilised for getting water out of deep well for the purpose of irrigation came in use in India only after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. It resulted in the growth of cultivable-land. Thereby, many castes took up the profession of agriculture and tried to improve their social status accordingly.
For example, the jats in Punjab belonged to a caste whose profession was cattle-breeding. They now took up agriculture as their professions and, thereby, succeeded in improving their social status as well. The same way, the Charkha also came in use only during this age. It has been first referred to in Futuh-us-Salatin written by Isami. The Charkha helped in the production of coarse cloth.
It encouraged cotton production and, finally, in improving the social status of weavers. The same way, better means were found for improving silk cloth and production of carpets. Paper was also introduced in India during this very period which helped in spreading education as well as trade transactions in the form of written hundis, mutual correspondence and carrying out orders of the state to distant places.
Dr Irfan Habib has opined that Qutubnuma which helped in sea-voyages also came in use during this very age. It helped in increasing foreign trade. Another technical advancement was in the field of watches for calculating timings. Sultan Firoz Tughluq constructed a water-watch and one sun-clock in the city of Firozabad (Delhi).
Probably some other technical advances were also achieved during this age in several other fields as well but not much is known about them. This technical progress helped in improving economy. It helped in progress of several professions, beginning of some other professions, growth in the number of professional people, development of cities and progress in foreign trade.
That brought about changes in economic condition of the country and that, certainly, helped in bringing out changes in social conditions and religious outlook of the people. Sufis and Saints of Hindu Bhakti-movement preached social and religious equality. It was, certainly, the result of impact of changed economic condition brought forth by technical progress during this age.
6. Relations between the Hindus and the Muslims:
Historians have differed regarding the relations between the Hindus and the Muslims during the period of the Sultanate. One group among them does not regard it as the period of religious intolerance. These historians emphasise on the political motives of Sultans. They contend that the Hindus and the Muslims came in contact with each other and influenced each other in many fields.
This is a proof that the relations between the two were not of conflict but that of understanding which could not be possible if Sultans would have pursued a policy of religious persecution or that of intolerance. Probably, their contention is based on practical wisdom. In modern India, the religious tolerance has not only grown up but is absolutely necessary for the development of the country.
Therefore, the motive of their contention is correct that there is no wisdom in emphasising the religious intolerance of the past if any. Dr Rashid clearly accepts it.
He writes- “Thus, there were tendencies towards religious and social synthesis and linguistic assimilation which could not but pave the way for the evolution of a homogeneous nation. In these days of national integration one need not enter into the controversial questions. We should also avoid playing too much on the records of clash and conflicts, mutual jealousy and antagonism.”
The views of Dr Rashid and alike historians are perfectly practical and, probably, the correct one according to modern circumstances of India. But, there is another class of historians who clearly state that the period of the Sultanate was that of religious intolerance. According to them, the Hindus were an oppressed class. Therefore, there was no question of good understanding between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Dr A.L. Srivastava writes- “Besides unimpeachable contemporary evidence, we have unbroken tradition coming down from hundred of years that the Turkish rule was oppressive.”
Dr R.C, Mazumdar also contends:
“It is true that the Hindus occupied a large number of junior posts and towards the close of the period, occasionally a few high offices, in civil administration, and more rarely, in the army. But they had no political status and lived on suffrage in the land of their birth, which was regarded as, and publicly declared to be a Muslim state and country.”
Different historians have given various facts and arguments in favour and against of both the above views. Dr K.S. Lal has assigned three basic causes of this problem under discussion, namely, the nature of Indian conquest, bitterness between the conquerors and the conquered, and lastly, the nature of Muslim laws which were applied in a non-Islamic country.
These causes, described by Dr K.S. Lal, help us in finding out some solution to this problem. It can clearly be accepted that the Muslim rulers certainly took support of Islam in their conquest of India. Therefore, their political aim was closely linked with their religious aim. It, certainly, resulted in bitter relations between the Hindus and the Muslims particularly when there were wide differences between the religion, culture and the values of life between the two.
This is also a fact that Muslim rulers ruled over their Hindu subjects according to Islamic laws and, in no way, tried to shape their administration and judicial system on a secular basis. Therefore, the Hindus could not expect to get justice or equality from their Muslim masters. Besides, except Ala-ud-din Khalji, all Sultans accepted the influence of the Ulema in matters of the state.
In these circumstances, the Hindus neither could expect nor receive equality, justice and respectable behaviour from Sultans or the ruling class during this period. Therefore, the relations between the privileged, i.e., the Muslims and the non-privileged, the Hindus, could not be anything except that of enmity—open or covert.
However, this is acceptable that the common people whether the Muslims or the Hindus wished to lead a peaceful life and they had either no political and religious ambitions or, if at all they had, they were incapable to wield any influence over others. Therefore, the common people preferred to live in cooperation with their neighbours, be they the Hindus or the Muslims.
The very spirit of the common people forced the Hindus and the Muslims alike to live in harmony and influence each other in different fields of life. The religious preachers and saints of the Bhakti movement during this period and Sufi saints who believed and preached religious toleration belonged mostly to the class of the common people.
Thus, it can be reasonably accepted that the relations between the Hindus and the Muslims were mostly that of conflict, the primary responsibility of which rested with the ruling class and the Ulema. However, a small section of saints, philosophers and scholars emphasised the necessity of a life of harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.
The spirit of peaceful co-existence among the common people and realization of its necessity also directed them towards the way of co-existence. The elite of the society among the Hindus and the Muslims also came into mutual contact because of political necessity.
These circumstances forced the Hindus and the Muslims to tolerate each other and, thereby, those changes in society and religion could take place which are now given as proofs of mutual understanding between the Hindus and the Muslims. But, these changes were not of a serious nature.
The policy of religious intolerance of several Sultans and the privileged positions of the ruling class and the Ulema did not allow a happy synthesis between the culture and values of the Hindus and the Muslims and did not permit happy relations between the two. Besides, while the Hindus were tolerant in religious affairs but were fanatic concerning affairs of their society, the Muslims were intolerant in religious affairs while liberal in social affairs.
These contradictory values of life regarding religion and society between the Hindus and the Muslims also blocked the way to their mutual happy relations. It all resulted in relations of constant conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims during the period of the Sultanate. So, there is no logic in trying to hide this truth because the future cannot be built up better by hiding the truth but by accepting it, learning from mistakes of our predecessors and by not repeating them.
India was a rich country during that age. It was India’s fabulous wealth which tempted Mahmud of Ghazni to invade India many times and every time he got enormous booty from here. Even when Timur attacked India at the end of the fourteenth century, he got unimaginable wealth from only one of its corners. Malik Kafur, during the reign of All-ud-din Khalji, brought so much wealth in plunder from south India that the value of currency fell down in the north.
Besides, we find that there were many beautiful and prosperous cities and ports in every part of India. The Sultans of Delhi, provincial governors, the Hindu kings, rulers of independent provincial kingdoms, the nobility and the elite of the society possessed vast wealth and enjoyed all comforts of material life.
Many beautiful mosques, monuments, palaces, forts, and temples were built during this period. All this could not have been possible without economic prosperity of the country. All foreign travellers who visited India during this period described that the people used gold, silver, diamonds, pearls and other precious stones profusely in form of ornaments. Thus, there is no doubt that India remained rich throughout this period.
The basic cause of this economic prosperity of India was its fertile land, sufficient means of irrigation, both natural and man-made, and the labour of Indian peasants which resulted in good agricultural production. Primarily, India was an agricultural country.
Yet, India could never amass wealth in such a large quantity as we find there throughout the medieval period if it had depended for its prosperity only on agriculture. India was also an industrial and commercial country before the advent of machines.
The products of India enjoyed name and popularity in the markets of the South-East, West and Central Asia as well as in Europe. India carried on brisk and favourable trade with distant countries which was another primary reason of its enormous wealth. The agricultural production and the foreign trade of India remained good throughout the period of the Sultanate and India, thus, enjoyed prosperity during this period.
Cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, etc. were produced virtually in every part of India. Ordinarily, two crops were produced every year but at certain places, crops were produced even thrice a year. Rich crops, such as, wheat, cotton, rice, sugarcane, oilseeds, indigo, barley, maize, spices, cocoa-nuts, ginger, betel-leaf, betelnut, fruits of many varieties like mangoes, oranges, blackberries, etc. were produced in different parts of India.
Rice of Sarsuti, sugar of Kannauj, wheat and betel-leaf of Malwa, wheat of Gwalior, ginger and spices of Malabar, grapes and pomegranates of Daultabad, betelnuts of the South and large variety of oranges were famous and popular even outside India. Barbosa wrote that in the Bhamani-Sultanate, agriculture, animal husbandry and fruit- gardens were in a very advanced stage because of which cities and even villages enjoyed prosperity.
Tamil Nadu produced very good variety of rice and, in Gujarat, every article was available in abundance at cheap rates. Every foreign traveller who happened to visit the Vijayanagara empire praised the high economic standard and widely enjoyed prosperity of its people. Orissa was famous for its animal husbandry and fruit-gardens and all articles were so cheap there that no visitor desired to go back once he was there.
According to Barbosa, Bengal produced rice, sugarcane, cotton and ginger in abundance. The Ganga-Yamuna Doab remained always famous for its fertility and large scale production of agriculture. Thus, agriculture was in a most advanced and prosperous state in every part of India which was one of the primary reasons of its fabulous wealth.
Animal husbandry was also very popular and in an advanced stage in India at that time which added to the prosperity of the peasants. There were extensive pastures and forests in India. Thus, India possessed all natural resources which were fruitfully utilised by its people and that resulted in such a large quantity of production of every thing which was not only sufficient for the consumption of its people but also left a large surplus for foreign export.
Indian industries were also quite advanced in that period. Textile industry was the primary industry of India at that time. Silk, cotton and woollen clothes of different quality and varied colours were produced in large quantity. The clothes were studded with gold, silver, pearls, diamonds and other precious articles. Textiles of varied quality were primary items of export of India at this time.
Besides, sugar industry, paper industry, metal work, stone-cutting, pearl diving out of the sea, ivory and sandal-wood work etc. were other important industries of India. The Sultans of Delhi and other rulers of provincial dynasties had their own workshops (karkhanas) to manufacture different articles to furnish the needs of Sultans, nobles and other rich people. The traders and industrialists were organized into guilds which helped them in many ways and, thus, helped in the growth of trade and industry of the country.
India carried brisk trade—both internal and foreign. Different cities were trading centres of different articles and were well-connected with each other by roads. Ibn Batuta described Delhi as the foremost trading centre of the world. Daultabad was famous for its pearl-trade. Brass was imported at the port of Dabhol from where it was distributed all over India.
The port of Rander in Gujarat received all sorts of articles from China and Malacca islands from where they were sent to all parts of India. The Vijayanagara empire in the South was a great centre of trade.
Goa, Diu, Chaula, Calicut, Cochin and Quilon were the important ports on the western sea-coast of India while there were equally important ports on the eastern sea-coast as well as on the coast of the provinces of Bengal and Orissa.
India had trade relations with Iran, Arabia, European countries, Africa, China, Malaya, Afghanistan, Central Asia, etc. Cereals, cotton and silken cloth, opium, indigo, sea-pearls, sandal-wood, saffron, ginger, sugar, cocoa-nuts, etc. were the main items of Indian export while it imported, primarily, horses, salt, gold, silver, rose-water, coloured velvets, etc., from other countries.
One noticeable feature of Indian foreign trade was that prior to the coming of the Portuguese in India, the monopoly of bringing and taking goods to and from India was in the hands of Persian and Arab merchants except at Malabar coast.
The Indian traders limited their activities only up to the port. This was, of course, a major weakness of the Indian foreign trade. Yet, India enjoyed enormously favourable foreign trade which was also one of the primary causes of its wealth.
The period of the Delhi Sultanate was marked by some technical advancement also which affected favourably the economic life of the people. It is now largely believed that Rahat which is used for taking out water from deep wells for the purpose of irrigation was introduced in India during this period. It, certainly, helped in agricultural production.
Another innovation was the introduction of the Charkha which, according to Prof. Irfan Habib, was put to use in India sometimes between 12th to 14th century. It helped in increased production of coarse cloth. Besides, some new techniques were evolved in the production of carpets and the cultivation of silk-worms was also introduced in India during this very period.
It helped in the production of better carpets and silk-cloth in India. These technical advances, thus, helped in enriching India further. Many scholars believe that production of paper also started during the period of the Delhi Sultanate which affected favourably the Indian economy and education.
Growth of cities, widespread use of currency which was a proof of developed trade and availability of a large and varied type of labourers which was referred by Babur in his autobiography are some of the proofs of the developed Indian economy during the period of the Delhi Sultanate which was the result of technical advancement during that age.
Thus, affluent agricultural and industrial production and foreign trade had enriched India and it maintained its prosperity despite constant warfare of the Sultans of Delhi and rulers of provincial dynasties. Mostly, Sultans and provincial rulers contributed nothing directly towards the development of trade and industry. It was all because of private enterprise.
Therefore, the achievements of the Indians in this field were not only remarkable but also surprisingly successful. But the fruits of this prosperity were not enjoyed by all people on a just basis. The wealth of India was concentrated in the hands of a small minority consisting of Sultans, kings, nobles, traders and financiers.
Of course, the people were not devoid of necessities of life but they enjoyed no luxuries. Mostly, the common people survived on minimum necessities of existence. That is why whenever there were famines or other natural calamity, the people died in large numbers and the state provided charity and loans to the people.
The one primary feature of Indian culture is and always had been its extreme tolerance in religious affairs. The Hindus absorbed many new features according to the circumstances without destroying anything which once existed. In religion, particularly, once a cult was developed, no attempt was made to destroy it despite its nuisance value.
That is why, during the period of the Sultanate, we find all ancient religious sects in India. Vedic religion, Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism, Saivism, worshippers of Shakti as mother goddess, different Tantrik-sects etc. existed in India in different forms.
The Buddhist were in fairly large number when the Muslims began their attacks in India but gradually their number decreased and became negligible during the period of the Sultanate. Jainism was influential only in west India particularly in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Among the Hindus, the most popular sects were Vaishnavism and Saivism and their followers constituted the majority in India. Among the Muslims, besides minor sects, the Sunnis and the Shias constituted the majority. Thus, varied types of religious sects existed in India at that time. However, the novelties of this period were the progress of Sufism among the Muslims and the Bhakti movement among the Hindus.
Sufism is an old religious sect. It had penetrated into India prior to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. But once the rule of the Muslims was firmly entrenched in India, a large number of Sufi saints came to India and settled themselves in different parts of the country and Sufism gained popularity.
Once Sufism settled down in India, it was influenced by Indian environment and included within itself some Indian practices, ideas and philosophy, and, in turn, affected Indian religious thoughts as well. Love towards God, non-violence, Tapa (practice of self-discipline), keeping apart from the material comforts of life, etc. were common values accepted among the Hindus, the Buddhist and the Jainas in India.
Sufi saints were influenced by these virtues and they accepted them as their own. Besides, as they desired to convert the Hindus as well to their faith, they accepted many customs and practices which were popular among the Hindus. That also influenced Sufism indirectly.
Many ceremonies and other practices such as remembering God by singing and playing of musical instruments of sufi-saints, particularly of Chisti sect, were of Indian origin and were, certainly, because of Indian environment. Group singing and remembering God in that way by the Sufis was like the Kirtan of Chaitanya and his followers.
Love and liberalism were common to Sufism and Hinduism. Mystic discipline in both meant moral development of individual and the society as well so that these could rise above the barriers of caste, colour, creed, wealth, power and position. Like Hinduism, Sufism also aimed at the intellectual and emotional communion with God as well as service to humanity.
In turn, Sufism also influenced Hindu society and religion. The saints of Bhakti-cult like Kabir, Nanak, Dadu and Dayal were, certainly, influenced by Sufi-saints. Many among them were influenced by monotheism of Islam. Efforts were made by several of them to remove the barriers of caste. Probably the concept of Guru or the preceptor among the saints of Bhakti-cult was also influenced by the concept of Pir among the Sufis.
The philosophy of Sufism believes in one God and regards every individual and everything else as part of Him. The Sufi saints preached that ‘God is one’, ‘all is in God’, ‘nothing is beyond or outside Him’ and ‘one can find God by renouncing everything except loving devotion to God.’
The Sufis were devout Muslims who moved within the Shariat (laws of Islam) and believed it as the true way to attain salvation. However, they attached no importance to dogmatic formalism of Islam of the orthodox type but emphasised on the inner spirit of the Islam, that is, while the orthodox Muslims emphasised on external conduct, the Sufis emphasised on inner purity and love to God as means of searching God.
The Sufi saints led a simple or rather ascetic life and believed in renunciation of all worldly possessions and pleasures. They did not believe in image-worship of any form. They regarded God as kind and benevolent and therefore, they did not fear Him but loved Him. That is why they emphasised on loving every living-being and avoided meat-eating.
They regarded Desire as the primary enemy of human being and therefore, emphasised on giving it up. They believed in leading an ascetic life, devotion to God and remembering Him always. Music inspired them to remember God and therefore, they engaged themselves in music and dance with ecstasy while remembering God. They believed in Guru (Master) whom they called Pir.
They believed that none can approach near God without the assistance of a Guru. They observed Tauba (repentance over bad deeds), Vara (non-acceptance of what was not given freely), Juhud (kindness), Fakar (poverty), Sabr (tolerance), Tauba (repentance of obligation), Khauf (fear), Raj (Hope), Tawakhul (contentment) and Riza (surrender to God) in order to achieve Vasl (salvation). They however did not believe in Namaz (daily prayers), Rauzas (fasts) and pilgrimage to Haj.
Thus, the Sufi saints led their lives like Hindu ascetics (Sanyasins). However, they did not live in forests. They preferred to live in cities or near them. Primarily, they emphasised on love to God like those Hindu Saints who emphasised on Bhakti. The Sufis were divided into different sects, most important of them being the Suravardi sect and the Chisti sect.
The influence of Suravardi sect remained limited only to Sind, Punjab and Multan but the Chisti sect became popular all over India including Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and south India. Sufism became quite popular in India in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.
Gradually evolving cooperation between the Hindus and the Muslims during the later Muslim rule in India and the origin and development of Urdu language immensely helped in its popularity during this period. Many Sufi saints became quite popular even during the period of the Sultanate itself.
The most important among them were Shaikh Muin-ud-din Chisti, Baba Farid-ud-din, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud, Nizamuddin Auliya, Chirag-i-Dehlvi, Khwaja Shaikh Taki-ud-din, Muhammad Gaus of Gwalior and Malik Muhammad Jaysi.
Different Sufi Orders:
The Sufis were organised into several orders or Silsilahs. Abul Fazl mentioned fourteen such orders. Some of them became quite popular in India.
i. The Chisti Order:
Among Sufi orders, the most popular one in India was the Chisti order. It originated outside India and its founder saint was Khwaja Abdul Chisti. In India, it was introduced by Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti. Muinuddin Chisti was born in Persia.
He visited different places of Islamic learning in Central Asia and, finally, reached India in 1200 A.D. He settled himself at Ajmer and became very popular all over northern India. Both the Hindus and the Muslims paid homage to him.
After his death, he was buried at Ajmer itself. The Mughal emperor, Akbar paid homage at his Dargah and even, in modern times, his Dargah is visited by lakhs of devotees both the Hindus and the Muslims. Another famous Chisti saint was Shaikh Farid or Baba Farid.
He raised the Chisti order to the status of an all-India organization. However, the most famous Chisti saint was Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya who was the disciple of Baba Farid. He settled himself near Delhi. He had the chance of watching reigns of several Sultans of Delhi.
Some historians have blamed him of becoming a party to the murder of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughluq though the majority of historians have rejected the view. But, certainly, Sultan Muhammad Tughluq revered him. Yet Shaikh Nizamuddin kept himself away from the court of the Sultan. One of his disciples, Shaikh Burhanuddin Gharib settled himself at Daultabad in the Deccan and gathered a large number of followers around himself.
Another famous disciple of Shaikh Nizamuddin was Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Dehlvi who settled down at Delhi. He also earned all-India reputation. One of the disciples of Chiragh-i-Dehlvi, Khwaja Muhammad Gesudaraz settled down at Gulbarga in 1398 A.D. and got admiration of Sultan Ahmad Shah Bahmani.
One popular Chisti saint was Shaikh Salim Chisti who was revered by the Mughul emperor, Akbar. He died in the lifetime of Akbar and was buried at Fatehpur Sikri where a beautiful marble mausoleum was constructed on his grave.
The saints of Chisti order led a life of simplicity or rather, poverty. Their simple and pure lives were responsible for the popularity of Sufism in India. The Chisti order remained popular in India. The Chisti order remained popular in larger part of India both in the North and the South.
ii. The Suravardi Order:
The Suravardi order of the Sufis was established by Shaikh Shahabuddin Suravardi at Baghdad. Several of his disciples came to India and preached the philosophy of Sufism here. The Suravardi order of the Sufis became popular in the north-western part of India. The first popular saint of the Suravardi order was Shaikh Bahauddin Zakariya who settled down at Multan. He differed from Chisti saints in several respects.
He did not observe simplicity, led a comfortable life and received wealth and land from his rich disciples. He emphasized the external form of Islam and rejected the practice of bowing before Shaikhs and certain other ceremonies which the Chisti order had accepted from its Indian environment. He also did not believe in fasting, self-mortification, etc. with a view to purify souls.
Another Suravardi-Sufi Saint, Shaikh Sharfuddin Yahya Manairi propagated Sufi-doctrines in Bihar. He was a good scholar and compiled several books. He laid great stress on the service of humanity.
iii. Qadri Order:
The Qadri order of the Sufis was introduced in India by Shah Niamatullah and Makhdum Muhammad Jilani. They lived towards the middle of the 15th century. Shaikh Musa and Shaikh Abdul Qadir of Agra and Shaikh Daud Kirmani and Shaikh Abdul Mali Qadri of Lahore were also among the popular sufi Saints of Qadri order.
iv. The Naqshbandi Order:
The Naqshbandi order of the Sufis was introduced in India by Khwaja Baqi Billah in the 16th century. This Order emphasized on observance of the laws of Shariat and denounced all innovations which were added afterwards to Islamic doctrines. It decried several assumptions of other Sufi-orders.
It observed that the relation between man and God is that of slave and Master and not that of lover and beloved as was believed by other Sufis. Some other prominent saints of this order were Shaikh Abdul Latif, Shaikh Burhan, Shah Waliullah, etc. One more important saint of this order was Khwaja Mir Dard. He, however, was liberal in his views. He considered himself to be both a slave and a lover of God.
Thus, several Sufi-orders flourished in different parts of India all throughout the medieval period.
2. The Bhakti Movement:
The Bhakti movement in Hinduism was one remarkable feature of the medieval age. This movement remained influential for many centuries and has left deep impact on modern Hinduism. Different scholars have expressed different opinions regarding the sources of this movement.
Eminent European scholars like Weber and Grierson expressed that the idea of Bhakti as a means to attain salvation and the monotheistic doctrine of Hinduism have been borrowed by the Hindus from Christianity. But no modern scholar takes their view seriously now.
But now another idea has been substituted in its place, that is, the Islam influenced Hinduism directly or indirectly and that resulted in the Bhakti movement of the medieval age.
It has been contended that Ramananda, who formed the basis of this movement, had acquired knowledge of Islamic ideas and was inspired by them particularly by the principles of universal brotherhood and human equality of the Islam. There are other scholars who have even contended that the monotheistic doctrine of Sankaracharya was influenced by the Islam. But even this view is not acceptable to modern scholars.
It is not at all logical to accept that Sankaracharya or Ramananda were influenced by the Islam. Sankaracharya propounded his philosophy of monism on the basis of ancient Hindu Vedanta-philosophy while Ramananda and Ramanuja were followers of Vaishnavism who emphasised on Bhakti as a means to attain salvation and drew their inspiration for it from those ancient Hindu texts which denied idol-worship but emphasised on the unity of God.
It is also wrong that the principles of universal brotherhood and human equality of Islam influenced the saints of Bhakti movement. It was impossible in view of the fact that the Muslims discriminated against the Hindus in practice. It is also not logical that Sufism inspired the Bhakti movement. On the contrary, it was the Bhakti movement which influenced Sufism.
In fact, Bhakti movement was a movement within Hinduism itself.
According to Hinduism there are three ways to attain salvation:
(1) Gyan (Knowledge),
(2) Karma (Duty), and
(3) Bhakti (Devotion).
Different Hindu religious preachers and saints emphasised the one, the other or the third at different times. During medieval period, Hindu saints emphasised on Bhakti as a means to attain salvation and that resulted in the Bhakti movement.
The Hindus had their own philosophy of Bhakti since ancient times and therefore, had nothing to borrow either from Christianity or Islam. It would also be wrong to say that it was entirely a new movement within Hinduism.
The Bhagvata movement had its birth along with Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century B.C., but at that time this movement could not become strong. Buddhism, at that time, gained momentum and became widely popular in India.
Even the revival of Hinduism during the period of mighty Guptas, failed to check the influence of Buddhism. Thereafter, Hinduism failed to revive its intellectual or emotional appeal to the people for a long time. It was only during the 8th century A.D. that Sankaracharya revived the supremacy of Hinduism and its philosophy of monism on logical and intellectual plane.
The result was that Hinduism remained the most popular religion throughout the Rajput age. The warlike spirit of the Rajputs was also against the principles of Buddhism and therefore, they encouraged Hinduism. But, the spirit of romance and chivalry of the Rajputs and their polity based on feudalism was in no way favourable to any sort of intellectual movement.
Therefore, the philosophy of Gyan remained no more attractive and understandable to the common people. The Muslim invasions took place under such conditions of Hindu religion and Islam threw a strong challenge to Hindu society and more particularly to religion. The Hindus were devoid of their political, social and economic privileges because of the conquest of India by Islam.
Therefore, they found solace only in religion and for that chose the easiest means to attain salvation, that is, Bhakti. We find a similar movement in the 19th century when Hinduism was challenged by Christianity.
Of course, there is no parallel between the Bhakti movement and the social and religious movements led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand and Swami Vivekanand which were based on logic and could flourish on the western concept of democracy, equality and liberty. Yet, the reasons of both the movements were the same.
While in the 19th century, Hinduism fought against the challenge of Christianity and gave birth to different religious reform- movements, Hinduism fought against the onslaughts of Islam during medieval period and gave birth to the Bhakti movement. Probably, the preachers of this movement opposed the caste-system simply because of this reason.
They also did not emphasise on image-worship for the same reason and some of them, afterwards, preached that Hinduism and Islam were simply two ways to attain the same God. The Bhakti movement became popular during the medieval age because of the same reason, i.e., Hinduism had to face the challenge of Islam.
The saints of this movement emphasised on certain similar principles. None of those saints attached themselves to any social or religious sect and none attempted to start a new religion. Most of them had no blind faith in any religious-text and did not believe in any priestly ritual. They believed in one God who could be called by different names such as Ram, Krishna, Shiva or Allah.
They were against the caste system and image-worship and emphasised on Bhakti as the only means to attain salvation. They believed that as an individual loved his close relation, the same way one could love God provided he had a broader vision. In the last stage of devotion, a devotee’s love towards God was like the love of a lover towards his beloved where there was no place for any other person or article between the two.
They believed that God did not reside in temples but in the heart of every human being and the Truth lay in the person of every individual. These saints believed that a devotee should have direct communication with God through Bhakti.
However, it was necessary for the person who pursued Bhakti that his mind and body should be free from every desire and temptations of human life. Besides, a devotee needed the help of a Guru (Master) who could help and guide him to attain salvation though that could be achieved only by one’s own efforts.
These saints preached these ideas among the people by means of their teachings in simple language, poems or prayers. But, the most effective means of the propagation of their teachings was their personal dedicated lives to God. These saints preached their ideas not in Sanskrit but in regional languages of the people.
The centres of gatherings of the people where they preached were mostly temples, public places and village-assemblies. The efforts of these saints succeeded and Bhakti-cult became the most popular cult of the Hindus at that time and is still the most popular form of worship among the Hindus.
During the medieval period, different saints gave their message to the people at different times and different places. One among them was Ramanuja, who flourished in the early years of the twelfth century. Ramanuja was born at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. He believed in a Sagun God and regarded Bhakti as the only means to attain salvation.
He believed that the path of Karma (Duty) entangled a person into Maya (worldly possessions which, in fact, have no existence) and therefore, his salvation was not possible. The same way, the path of Gyan (Knowledge) could make a person only free from desires and worldly possessions and therefore, was incomplete. It was, therefore, by Bhakti (Devotion) alone that a person could attain salvation or go to heaven.
He allowed even Sudras to visit temples on fixed days within a year and assured them that they could also attain salvation through Bhakti to their Guru and God. Another Saint, Nimbakara also flourished in the twelfth century. He was a devotee of Radha-Krishna and regarded Krishna as an incarnation of God.
Another saint, Madhavacharya flourished in the thirteenth century. He believed in the philosophy of Dualism, i.e., God and Soul were different. He was a devotee of Laksmi-Narayana. He preached that a person should love only God and then he could attain salvation with the assistance of his Guru and his Bhakti towards God.
All the above-mentioned saints belonged to the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism. They were pioneers of the Bhakti movement but they could not popularise the movement very much. This task was left to Ramananda who flourished in the fourteenth century. Ramananda was a Brahmana by caste and was born at Allahabad. He studied at Banaras under his teacher, Raghavananda. He drew his ideas from the Ramanuja sect and made them quite popular in north India.
Ramananda influenced Vaishnavism and the Bhakti movement from three points of view. Firstly, he emphasised on the Bhakti of Rama-Sita. Secondly, he preached in Hindi which helped in the formation of Hindi literature. Thirdly, he gave equal status to both male and female of every caste.
Though he was a Brahamana, yet he welcomed people of all castes within his sect and dined with them without making any distinction of high or low birth. Thus, though he never preached against the caste-system, he denied it in actual practice. The same way, he gave the traditional Vaishnavism a new turn by his reforms and, thus, occupies a unique place in the history of religion in medieval India.
Ramananda had twelve famous disciples who further popularised the Bhakti movement and Vaishnavism in India. One of them was Dhanna who was a jat, another one Saindas was a barber, another one Raidas was a cobbler and another one Kabir was a weaver.
The preachings of Ramananda enhanced the status of lower castes and women in the society. He and his disciples made the Bhakti- cult popular among the masses. It would be quite correct to say that, in fact, the religious movement of medieval India began with Ramananda.
The most famous disciple of Ramananda was Kabir. He was a contemporary of Sultan Sikandar Lodi and rumours described that the Sultan attempted to get him killed several times but failed every time. Again, his birth is shrouded in mystery though hearsays described that he was born to a Brahamana widow who left him near a pond. He was picked up by the wife of a Muslim weaver.
Niru, who brought him up as his own child. Kabir became a disciple of Ramananda and mostly lived at Banaras. He was married and had a son and a daughter. He never left his family, continued his profession of weaving and thus, remained a householder-saint. Kabir believed that every man should earn money for his livelihood.
However he preached that a man should have only limited amount of money and should never be greedy of it. Thus, he conveyed the message that economic efforts were a must for the society and, therefore, never advised anybody to become a wandering saint. It appears from his teachings that he possessed knowledge of Hindu philosophy and was a devotee of Lord Rama. Kabir was against priestly rituals, the caste-system and differences of religions.
He tried to bring harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims. He used to say that ‘Kabir is the child of Allah and Rama.’ He made a sincere, though unsuccessful, attempt to remove the differences which separated the Hindus and the Muslims. He also said that ‘in the beginning there was no Turk nor Hindu—no race, nor caste.’
Kabir also emphasised on Bhakti as the only means to attain salvation. Kabir gave his teachings in the shape of small poems which have been collected in a book called the Bijaka, now the sacred book of the Kabir-panthis. He got his disciples both from among the Hindus and the Muslims.
The teachings of Kabir can be ascertained by some examples as given below:
1. Sanskrit is the water in a well, the language of the people is the flowing stream.
2. If by worshipping stones one can find God, I shall worship a mountain.
3. If salvation could be possible by bathing, frogs would have got it first.
4. If Hari could be obtained by remaining naked, dears would have obtained Him first.
5. Oh Qazi, give up the book, adore Rama.
6. A man cannot be a Pandit even after reading hundreds of books. A Pandit is one who understands the two and a half letters which form the word Prem (love).
7. Be truthful, be natural. Truth alone is natural. Seek this truth within your own heart and that can be recognised through love.
8. The differences between religions and Gods are that of only names. Gold is alike. It gets different names when it is converted into ornaments.
9. Forget the quarrel over names. Be devoted to God because that is the truth and the only way to attain salvation.
10. Those who fight because of religious differences are ignorant of truth.
Kabir started no new religious sect and his son also refused to do so. Yet, his followers started a new sect called the Kabir-Panthis. Both the Muslims and the Hindus became its members. It is said that when he died, his Hindu and Muslim followers quarrelled among themselves over the question of the disposal of his body.
While the Hindus wanted to burn it, the Muslims desired to bury it. But when the sheet covering the dead body was removed, nothing was found except a heap of flowers which was equally distributed between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Another saint who lived the life of a house-holder and tried to bring together the Hindus and the Muslims in a common fold of spiritual and social brotherhood was Nanak (1469-1538 A.D.). Nanak was born in a Khatri family at Talwandi (modern Nankana) situated about thirty-five miles to the south-west of Lahore.
He was married at an early age and had two sons. He was, however, not interested in agriculture or any other profession and mostly passed his life in travelling to distant places. It is said that he visited Ceylon in the South and Mecca and Madina in the West. He also gave his message in the form of small poems which have been collected in the form of a book called Adi-Grantha.
He also opposed priestly ritualism, blind faith in religious texts, theory of incarnation of God, the caste-system, outward religious practices and differences over religion. He believed in the unity of God and advised the Hindus and the Muslims to forget their differences. He preached universal toleration and personal love for God. He also had faith in Guru-Bhakti and himself regarded Kabir as his spiritual guide.
He was against image-worship. He believed in the principle of transmigration of soul and the theory of Karma. He believed in leading a simple, honest and virtuous life and emphasised on charity, kindness, generosity, truth and moral life.
He believed that an individual should obey his Guru, lead a moral life and constantly remember God in order to attain salvation. He, therefore, emphasised on the purity of character and conduct and a high ethical code rather than any dogma or creed of any sect.
He stressed on love (Bhakti) to Almighty God to attain salvation. He believed that every man would get results according to one’s activities (Karma) but salvation was possible only by the grace of God. Nanak did not believe that the world was false (Maya). On the contrary, he believed in its existence though regarded it only transitory. Therefore, he, like Kabir, also believed that a man should be economically self-dependent.
Some of his teachings were as follows:
1. Religion consisted not in ear-rings worn, or a shaven head or in the blowing of horns or bathing at places of pilgrimages or sitting in attitudes of contemplation but by abiding pure, amid the impurities of the world.
2. On meeting a true guru doubt dispelled and the wanderings of the mind restrained. Abide pure amid the impurities of the world, thus shalt thou find the way of religion.
3. The real temple was the house in which the Lord’s praises were ever sung and the Lord’s name continually repeated.
Thus, Nanak like other saints of Bhakti movement stressed on the purity of mind and conduct, faith in Guru and intense love and devotion (Bhakti) towards God to attain salvation. Nanak himself did not desire to create a separate sect. He simply had disciples who called themselves Sikhs. It was only afterwards that Sikhism developed into a separate religious sect because of political reasons.
Another saint who made this movement popular was Vallabhacharya (1479- 1531 A.D.). He was a worshipper of Krishna and therefore, an exponent of the Krishna cult. His father, Lakshman Bhatt was a Telugu Brahman who had settled himself at Banaras where Vallabhacharya was born.
His father died when he was only eleven years of age and his mother expired when he was only twelve. He was, however, a very talented child and completed the study of four Vedas, six Shastras and eighteen Puranas at an early age. After completing his education, he went back to his home-state, the Vijayanagara empire in the South.
There he defeated several scholars of Shavisim in religious discussions and found recognition at the court of King Krishnadev Raya. He became the pioneer of making Vaishnavism popular in the Vijayanagara empire. He was also a householder-saint. His wife was Mahalaksmi who gave birth to his several sons.
Vallabhacharya believed in separate identity of Atma and Pramatma and, technically, his philosophy has been called that of Shudha-dwaita. He believed in the worship of Lord Krishna in the form of Srinathji. He wrote many religious texts among which Subodhini and Siddhanta Rahasya became most popular. During later part of his life, he mostly lived either at Mathura or Banaras He regarded Krishna an incarnation of Brahma, Purshottam or Parmananda.
He believed that the only way to attain salvation was love and devotion (Bhakti) towards Krishna. Though he was highly literate and a scholar, yet he had an entirely emotional approach of love towards God. Therefore, he emphasised music, dance, compilation of poems, painting, etc. and, thus, helped in their progress. He also popularised the childhood activities of Krishna with Gopis (village women). His son, Vitthalnath further popularised the Krishna Bhakti cult.
The Mughal emperor, Akbar was pleased with Vitthalnath and assigned him the jagirs of Gokul and Jaitpura. The idol of Srinathji was transferred to Udaipur during the period of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. There it became popular as Lord Nathdwara. The Krishna-cult became quite popular in India because of the efforts of the father and the son though their disciples afterwards gave corrupt forms to the childhood activities of Krishna with Gopis in the 18th and the 19th century.
Another remarkable and popular saint of Bhakti movement was Chaitanya. His original name was Visambhara though afterwards he adopted Krishna- Chaitanya as his known name. Chaitanya was born at Nadia in West Bengal. He was married twice. However, a saint Isvarapuri gave him Krishna-mantra at the age of twenty-two and he became a wandering monk at the age of twenty- four.
He travelled all over India though passed most of his life-time at Puri in Orissa. Chaitanya was a very emotional devotee of Krishna. He used to utter the name of Krishna incessantly, sometimes laughed, sometimes wept and often fell into trances. He gave importance to Kirtan viz., recitation of the name of Krishna in groups and gatherings of the people in chorus to the accompaniment of loud instrumental music. He and his followers paraded the streets singing and dancing wildly in a mood of ecstasy.
Vrindaban was revived as a place of pilgrimage simply because of the efforts of his disciples. Chaitanya, probably, was deeply impressed by the devotional songs of poets Chandi Das and Jayadeva sung in love to Radha-Krishna. Chaitanya emphasised on love and Bhakti to God.
For him love was a spiritual awakening which alone could lead to salvation of an individual. Probably, he could understand that the love of Radha-Krishna could be misused by the people and therefore, advised men and women not to mix up with each other. He was not against religious-texts or image-worship but certainly disliked priestly rituals and mere outward observance of religious practices.
He adopted a middle course towards the caste-system. He was neither in favour of it nor against it. He believed that each person, irrespective of caste or religion, could engage himself in the worship of Krishna though was not in favour of allowing the Muslims and the Sudras in temples. However, image-worship was not important for him. He believed more in remembering God and singing in His praise. He preached that all people should tolerate and love each other.
Therefore, people of all castes and faiths were welcomed in his Kirtan assemblies. Chaitanya was not a social reformer and did not pay any attention towards social evils. However, he believed that every person was equal before God.
Chaitanya has been regarded as one of the greatest saints of medieval India. He popularised the Bhakti movement not only from the point of view of love and Bhakti towards God but also brought it to a spiritual plane while his Kirtan assemblies were accepted as popular forms of worship to God in Vaishnavism.
Chaitanya neither collected his teachings in form of a book nor established any religious sect. However, his disciples compiled his teachings after his death. The best source of knowing about the life and teachings of Chaitanya is Chaitanya-Charitama written by Kaviraja Krishnadas in the late 16th century.
Bhakti movement was popularised in Maharashtra by another preacher, Namadeva in the fifteenth century. He did not believe in casteism and accepted people of all castes and classes, including Muslim-converts to Hinduism as his disciples. He was, however, against image-worship and priestly-rituals.
Besides, saints and preachers mentioned above, there were other numerous saints who gave the message of Bhakti to the people all over the country. The Bhakti-cult continued to be popular even during the period of rule of the Mughals and we find a host of saints during that period like Janeswara, Tukaram, Janatirtha, Vidyadhiraj, Ravidas, Malukdas, Vidyapati, Mira Bai, Sur Das, Tulsi Das etc.
All these saints and many others gave their messages to the people from time to time which maintained the continuity of the popularity of Bhakti movement throughout the medieval period. The Bhakti-cult remained very popular for centuries in India and is the most popular form of worship among the Hindus even in present-day India.
Besides, it affected the whole of India from Punjab in the west to Bengal in the east and the Himalayas in the north to Cape Camorin in the south. The popularity of this movement can be compared only with the popularity of Buddhism at one time in India.
The only other social and religious movement in India occurred in the 19th century but its scope and long-term effect remained much less than the Bhakti movement. There were two primary causes which led to this movement of medieval period. One was the necessity of saving Hinduism from the attack of the Islam.
The second was the necessity of reform in Hindu society and religion. It can also be said that its primary cause, probably, was the first one which gave birth to the second cause as well. Yet, there remained one cause more.
Probably, the Hindus felt very much aggrieved because of the oppressive policies of foreign invaders and, as they could not find any political solution to it, they tried to find out an easy solution to attain God and, thus, a way out to find consolation in religion and that resulted in Bhakti movement.
There was no image-worship among the Hindus in the beginning. They introduced it afterwards. But the conquest of India by Islam put obstructions to image- worship by the Hindus and therefore, the Hindu saints of medieval India denied the necessity of image-worship to attain salvation.
Again, as Islam was gaining large scale converts because of the oppression of upper castes over lower castes of the Hindus, the Hindu saints tried to break up the barriers of casteism in order to safeguard the Hindu society.
Besides, as the Muslims tried to destroy not only Hindu temples but Hindu educational institutions and centres of learning as well, the Hindus not only lost command over Sanskrit language and, thereby, their store of ancestral knowledge but also the capacity to grow in intellect and knowledge. Therefore, they lost their capacity to pursue the path of knowledge (Gyan) while their faith in the path of Karma was already shaken because of their failure to check the Muslim conquest of India.
Under these circumstances they readily accepted the third course in religion, that is, Bhakti to attain salvation. The Hindu saints realised their fact and therefore, emphasised on Bhakti as the only means of salvation by an individual. Probably, these conclusions need the support of more historical facts. But, these certainly deserve consideration because these have been drawn from the underlying spirit of entire dependence on God in the Bhakti-cult.
The Hindus who were left politically defeated and down-trodden in society and religion, were probably, left with no alternative except to surrender themselves to the grace of God. The absence of determination to fight against the misfortunes of life in the Bhakti movement provides the logic to the above mentioned conclusions.
A comparison with the social and religious movement of the 19th century also points out in the same direction. The Hindus were enslaved in the nineteenth century by the British. But they could not be reduced to impotency in administration, politics and intellect.
On the contrary, they were progressing in all these fields because of their contact with western education and new ideas in politics and society. Therefore, the social and religious reformers of the nineteenth century did not suffer from the feeling of despondency but tried to bring about reforms in their society and religion by logic, intellect and organisation among their co-religionists.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the emphasis and acceptance of Bhakti-cult during the medieval period was the result of the feeling of despondency of the Hindus as the result of their being on defence in politics, society and religion.
The Bhakti movement tried to achieve two practical objects. The one that it tried to reform Hinduism. Therefore, it emphasised to neglect image-worship and the caste-system. The movement succeeded partially in this objective. But the success was neither permanent nor widely accepted. Hinduism failed to leave image-worship and casteism.
Much against the wishes of different saints, their disciples organised themselves into small distinct religious sects and, thereby, limited their power and resources. Therefore, each of these sects failed to bring about any permanent and widespread improvement in Hindu society and religion.
Among these new sects, Sikhism proved to be the strongest. But, its strength is not due to its spiritual strength but because of certain other reasons, politics being the most important among them.
Besides, it is surprising that Sikhism which primarily grew and developed in defence of Hindu religion organised itself into a separate religious sect. Yet, this movement had its importance. It kept not only the spirit of Hinduism alive but also strengthened it further.
The other objective of this movement was to harmonise the relations of the Hindus and the Muslims. The movement failed entirely to achieve this object. The movement achieved very little in this field in its own times while it had no permanent effect at all.
However, the movement had another important result. Different saints and preachers prepared poems and prayers and gave their messages to the people in different regional languages. This provided incentive to the growth of literatures in different regional languages like Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, etc.
Thus, though the Bhakti movement failed to achieve success in its primary objectives, yet was quite important in certain other respects and, therefore, has been regarded as one important feature of its age.
Islam prohibits encouragement to music and some early Sultans offered no patronage to it. Yet, some other Sultans like Balban, Jalal-ud-din Khalji, Ala-ud-din Khalji and Muhammad Tughluq patronized music and musicians at their respective courts. M.W. Mirza has written about Balban thus- “Balban was a great patron of music. He has spoken of Indian music in the highest terms and regarded it as superior to the music of any other country.”
Balban’s son Bughra Khan also loved music. He founded a society for musicians, dancers and actors. Jalal-ud-din Khalji patronized musicians and maintained a royal orchestra at his court. Ala-ud-din Khalji called Gopal Nayak, the famous musician from the South, to his court and patronized the famous poet and musician, Amir Khusrav.
Khusrav made judicious combination of the Persian and Indian melodies and has been considered responsible for introducing certain new ragas (melodies) like Iman, Zilf and Sazagari. He also introduced a new variety of music in Qawali. Ghiyasuddin Tughluq was, however, against music and banned it within his kingdom. But his son and successor, Muhammad Tughluq, again revived it and gave it due encouragement.
He held a number of musical meetings in which both Hindu and Muslim musicians participated. Firuz Tughluq was also interested in music and it has been said that when he ascended the throne, he arranged for musical recitals for twenty-one days for the entertainment of general public.
Music was patronized by different rulers of provincial kingdoms as well. The Sultans of Jaunpur were patrons of music and a text on music entitled Ghunyal-ul-Munyas was written in 1375 A.D. by a Muslim scholar under their patronage. Sultan Hussain Shah Sharqi was himself a great musician and contributed the melody, Khayal to the Indian music.
Besides, the Sangeet Sromani, a great work on music was compiled by several scholars under his patronage. The rulers of Gujarat and Malwa also patronized music. Sultan Baz Bahadur of Malwa was a great lover of music while his wife Rupmati was a great musician herself. Zain-ul-Abidin, Sultan of Kashmir was an accomplished musician and patronized musicians including Buddi Datta who wrote a treatise on music.
In Bihar, Chintamani became famous in music and was named Bihari Bulbul, while in Tirhut, Vidyapati was one of the most popular singers. One of Vidyapati’s song Kajri attained wide popularity. Raja Man Singh of Gwalior was a great musician himself and a patron of musicians. The musicians at his court introduced Rag Dhrupad in the Indian music. Several eminent musicians like Baksu and, probably, Baiju-Bavvra also received patronage from Raja Man Singh.
The rulers in South India also gave encouragement to music. Firuz Shah Bahmani and Mahmud Shah Bahmani were devoted to music. In Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Shah and his son were great patrons of music while, at Ahmadnagar, it was patronized by Chand Bibi who herself was a great musician. The rulers of Vijayanagara also patronized music and it flourished at their court.
Several saints of Bhakti-cult and Sufism also helped in the progress of music. In Bengal, Chaitanya composed devotional songs in praise of Lord Krishna and gave impetus to music by engaging in group music, e.g., Kirtana.
Chandi Das was another great poet of his age who sang songs of the love between Radha and Krishna. The same way, in Assam, the name of Shankar became famous who produced Barr songs. Sufi-saints also encouraged music by engaging themselves in collective singing.
Several famous texts on music were also produced during this period. Sarangdeva wrote the Sangita Ratnakara which has been described as an encyclopaedia of Indian music. It has dealt with various styles of music prevalent at that time in different parts of India and has enumerated fifteen types of melodies from which all other types of minor melodies have sprung.
Another great text produced during this period was the Ragatarangini written by Locana Kavi. In it, he has described twelve basic melodies of Indian music e.g., Bhairvi, Todi, Gauri, Karnata, Kedara, Yamana, Saranga, Megha-raga, Dhanasari, Purvi, Tukhari and Diyaka. Raja Man Singh of Gwalior also wrote a treatise on music entitled the Mana-Kutubala in which he dealt with important features of the Indian music prevailing in northern India.
Thus, we find that during the period of the Delhi Sultanate Indian music continued to flourish even when Islam forbade it. Therefore, it has been remarked that ‘music both of secular and spiritual character seems to have reached a high level of perfection during this period.’
It is also certain that the art of dance too must have continued to flourish along with music during the period of the Delhi Sultanate.
By the middle of the 20th century, it was believed that the art of painting was totally neglected during the period of the Delhi Sultanate. Of course, Mohammed Abdulla Chagtai, in the late 19th century, had tried to establish the fact that the art of painting existed during the period of the Delhi Sultanate and supported his view by giving references to Indo-Persian literature of that time. But the majority of the scholars did not accept his view. It was in 1947 A.D. that Hermann Goetz described in one of his articles published in The Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art that the art of painting existed during the period of the Delhi Sultanate. After that several other scholars also subscribed to his view. They have supported their view mostly on the basis of references given in various literary writings concerning paintings. Besides, some paintings on certain manuscripts and some frescoes of minor sizes too have been described as belonging to this period. Therefore, opinion has now veered towards this, fact that the art of painting did not die out during this period but existed at least in certain provincial kingdoms and, probably, under the patronage of some Sultans of Delhi as well. Yet, sufficient evidences are lacking to confirm this view. Therefore, efforts are being made in this direction.