Study Notes on Sufism and Bhakti Movement!


Sufi or Sufism is derived from Suf which means un-dyed garments of wool worn as a mark of personal penitence and poverty.

The Sufis originally drew their ideas from certain verses of the Quran and Hadith i.e. traditions of the prophet. Their difference with orthodox Muslims lay in the fact that while the latter interpreted the Quran and Hadith in a literal way, the Sufis gave a mystic interpretation to them.

Sufism flourished in Persia where from the Sufi saints had fled to Kabul due to Safavi persecution. It may be recalled that Akbar’s mother who was the daughter of a Persian scholar and was influenced by Sufism sowed the seeds of toleration in the mind of her son Akbar. His early life in Kabul also brought him in contact with Sufism.


Sufism believed in communion between man and God through loving devotion. It is somewhat akin to Bhakti cult. Sufism had its own practices and did not always conform to the rituals of orthodox Islam. For instance singing, dancing etc. not permitted by the Muslim Ulamas were considered by the Sufis as methods of reaching an ecstatic stage which would bring them nearer to God.

Although the Sufis accepted Muhammad as prophet and the authority of the Quran in course of time they drew diverse religious practices from different religions such as Gnostic Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Neo- Platonism and Indian philosophical system—the Vedanta and Yoga. Sufism had been likened to a stream that gathered volume by joining of tributaries from many lands.

Sufism found its way into India during the eleventh and twelfth centuries when many Sufi saints came to India particularly in Multan and Lahore of the Punjab. The most celebrated of these Sufi saints was Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti who came to Lahore from Ghazni in 1161 and settled in Ajmer under Prithviraj.

Muinuddin Chisti is the greatest Sufi and holds the highest position of honour in the history of Sufism. He died in either 1235 or 1236 at Ajmer where his tomb is still today a place of pilgrimage for many. Muinuddin Chisti founded the Chisti order of the Sufis in India. Shaikh Farid Shakarganj (1175-1265) belonged to the Chisti order of the Sufis, Shaikh Farid was one of the earliest contributors to Punjabi language and his writings are regarded as the earliest specimens of Punjabi.


Some of his contributions were incorporated in the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan and Shaikh Farid is known in Sikh tradition as Baba Farid. Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) settled near Delhi where his tomb is also a shrine and centre of devotion and proselytism.

Apart from the Chisti order another Sufi order that dminated the Muslim thought during the thirteenth and early years of the fourteenth centuries was Suhrawardy order founded by Shaikh Bahauddin Zakariya. In the fourteenth century, however, the influence of the Sufis declined due to anti-Sufi attitude of Muhammad bin Tughluq and Sunni orthodoxy of Firuz Tughluq which gave opportunity to the Ulamas to oppose the Sufi heterodoxy with greater vehemence.

The result was that greater emphasis was laid on religious ceremonies and rituals thus reducing religion into a mere formalism. The predominance of the Ulamas, Mullas, Pirs continued from the latter half of the fourteenth century to the first half of the sixteenth.

Besides the Chisti and Suhrawardy orders two more Sufi orders were founded, namely the Qadivis by Sayyid Ghaus Wala Pir and the Shattaris by Shaikh Abdul Shattari in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century Khwaja Baqi Billa founded the Naqsbandi order.


During the sixteenth and earlier part of the eighteenth the Sufi poets made great contribution to Punjabi literature. Sufi poetry appealed to the heart of the common people and became very popular among all classes of people of the Punjab. Spiritual urges are expressed in terms of simple objects familiar to common folk, such as the spinning wheel, the Persian wheel, the dancing Dervishes, Characters drawn from popular mythology Hindu as well as Muslim.

Among the Sufis of this period the names of Hafiz Barkhudar Vajid, Ali Haidar, Sultan Bahu, Shah Hussain and Bulhe Shah deserve mention. Sultan Bahu was a mystic dervish. He expressed himself in passionate poetry of devotion and renunciation. Shah Hussain was a fakir given to free way of life, loved by the people for his sincerity of passion and devotion, but reproved by the orthodox Muslims.

The song-lyrics practiced by Hussain and other Sufi poets is known as Kafi. Bulhe Shah was, however, the prince of the Sufi poets. Some sects were founded in the seventeenth century which emphasised the unity of religions between the Hindus and the Muslims. The name of Dadu (1544- 1603) stands foremost among the founders of such sects. Dadu founded the Parabrahma Sampradaya with a view to uniting different faiths in one bond of love and comradeship.

A Kshatriya of Malwa named Baba Lai gave seven interviews to Dara Shukoh in 1648 and their conversations are recorded in a Persian work named Nadu un Mikat which is an admixture of the Vedanta and Sufi doctrines. A few other sects apart from Parabrahma Sampradaya were those of Qalandar and Jangam. The followers of the latter were fakirs who like Hindu Sannyasis kept long matted hair and wandered about. Under Shah Jahan the renowned Sufi and author Muhibbullah Illahabadi wrote a commentary on Quarn from sufistic view point, entitled Maratib al-Arbaah.

Lastly, it may be pointed out that Sufis helped the spread of Islam in India by emphasising social equality of all men. Many of the Sufis were men of great learning; they were guides to good life. They are “thought of as forming a bridge of understanding with the Hindu Bhakti movement, with their emphasis on the inner life and the unity of all believers in one God.”

Bhakti Movement:

Bhakti is intense devotion’ to God conceived as personal, a Saviour worthy of trust and ready to be gracious, it is an important element of Vaishavism and Saivism as expounded in the Gita and Svetasvatara Upanishad. Followers of Bhakti cult preached the fundamental equality of all religions and the unity of Godhead, and held that dignity of man depended on his actions and not on his birth, protested against too much ritualism and formalities in matters of religion as also the domination of the priesthood. They emphasised simple devotion and faith as a means of salvation for one and all. Substance of Bhakti cult lies in loving devotion to the supreme Diety variously named Krishna, Vishnu, Narayana etc. and communion with Him.

Bhakti was propagated by Ramanuja in the eleventh century and during the period twelfth to fourteenth centuries it was propagated in South India by the Vaishnava teachers like Nimbarka, Lokacharya, Vedantadesika, Madhava Pillai etc. The Bhakti movement in the period between the sixth and the twelfth centuries was raised above caste restrictions in the Tamil country where the Alvars and Adiyars introduced this revolutionary social equality.

One of the preachers arose from the lower caste. Likewise, the Bhakti movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tended to raise the status of non-Brahmanas. Some of the non-Brahmanas became the spiritual preachers of the Brahmanas. During the Mughal period a considerable Bhakti literature grew up in Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Gujarati and Assamese languages.

With the establishment of the Turkish rule in North India, Islam came as a challenge to Hinduism and Hindu society. Bhakti cult met this challenge of Islam by introducing a liberal character in the society under Ramananda’s leadership. He is said to have been born in Mysore by some and at Allahabad by others and perhaps lived during the end of the fourteenth and early years of the fifteenth centuries.

Ramananda served as “the bridge between the Bhakti movement of the South and the North.” He preached in the language of the common people, i.e. Hindi. He rejected castes and admitted men of all classes as his disciples, among whom were a cobbler, a barber and a Muhammadan weaver, namely Kabir. Ramananda was a worshipper of Rama and his followers are still numerous in the Gangetic plain.

Mira Bai, a Rajput princess renounced the palace life of Chitor and became a disciple of the follower of Ramananda. Ramananda’s doctrines were embodied by her in Hindi and Gujarati devotional verses of high quality. Some of Ramananda’s hymns have been included in the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan.

Ramananda is supposed to have been connected with the great Vaishnava Ramanuja. But Ramananda substituted Ram and Sita for Vishnu and Lakshmi of Ramanuja sect as objects of devotion. Ramananda propagated his Bhakti cult in Hindi and not in Sanskrit as did Ramanuja sect, and thus his appeal to common people was great as they understood his language.

Ramananda raised his movement above caste prejudices, unlike Ramanuja sect, allowing people of all castes high or low to eat and drink together, thus get emancipated from the restrictions of caste prejudices. The followers of Ramananda were therefore, known as Abhadhuts, i.e. emancipated.

Ramananda considered formalities of worship as immaterial and superfluous, for, “supreme reward” would come to the devotee by incessant taking of the name of God. One, who loves God, is loved by God Himself. “Whoever adores God is God’s own” he would say, hence there was no question of any one’s identification by his caste or birth.

The liberal idea propagated by Ramananda appears to have been to an extent due to the impact of Islam. This was most likely for he lived during the period of Muslim rule in India. But his liberalism in matters of castes and inter-dining was regarded as a great threat to Hindu orthodoxy. But despite a section of orthodox Hindus, who would like to cling to traditional class restrictions in social behaviours, the need for acceptance of the challenge of Islam and socio-religious adjustment was felt by a liberal section of the Hindus and as such Ramananda’s movement was welcomed by them. Ramananda did not leave any organised sect behind him and this was the reason why while his influence had flowed into different channels it lost its momentum in its original form.