How Islam Shaped the Bhakti Movement
Excerpts from a riveting retelling of the history of India from prehistoric times to the present day
One of the most moving expressions [of religious eclecticism and tolerance in the Bhakti movement] came from Kabir who proclaimed: ‘I am not Hindu nor Muslim/ Allah Ram is the breath of my body!’ This form of devotion and its literary expression continued in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and spread to all parts of the subcontinent. In Maharashtra, the Brahmin mystic Eknath (c. 1533–99) initiated kirtan or group singing in Marathi and made it into an elevated form of worship. He often ate with untouchables, and in his eyes, a Brahmin and a member of the lowest castes were equal. Tukaram (1598–1650) was the son of a grocer and he became the greatest Bhakti poet in Marathi. He gave away all he possessed or earned to the needy. He was a devotee of Krishna and composed hymns in his praise. Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha kingdom, held Tukaram in high esteem but the latter never sought political patronage. Another Marathi poet and saint, Ramdas (1608–81), exerted influence on Shivaji. Ramdas was the son of a Nasik Brahmin, but he became a committed ascetic and wandered from place to place singing the praise of Rama.
In Bengal, the influence of Chaitanya was seen in the songs and beliefs of the Bauls who were both Hindus and Muslims—the latter drew upon the Sufi tradition and the former from the Vaishnavites. Bauls believe (they are still around in Bengal and Bangladesh) that the body is the microcosm of the cosmos, and that divinity resides in the heart of every individual and so there is no need to look for god outside.
[The] Bhakti movement in various parts of India [had] certain common features. Even though most Bhakti saints and poets were devotees of Hindu gods, they did not adhere to Brahminical orthodoxy. For one, most of them rejected the caste system and advocated social equality. Also, barring a few exceptions, most of the saints focused their piety on one god, Krishna. (It should be mentioned that in Kashmir there were forms of Bhakti worship that focused on Shiva). In all these features—anti-caste, equality, and one god, i.e., monotheism—the direct or indirect influence of Islam is undeniable. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the Bhakti movement was engendered by the close interaction between Islam and forms of worship that existed in India before the arrival of Islam. One strand of Islamic thought and practice that had a profound influence on the emergence of new forms of piety in India was Sufism. The ideas and practices of the wandering Sufis and the interaction of Sufism with aspects of existing religious practices in the thirteenth century and subsequent centuries produced profound mystical ideas. There is a great deal of overlap and convergence between the Bhakti mystical traditions and Sufism.
One aspect of the coming of Islam that has generated an enormous amount controversy and emotion is the view that Muslims carried out forcible conversions of non-Muslim peoples in India. That there was conversion is undeniable and obvious. Without conversions India could not have had a Muslim population. The problem lies with the word ‘forcible’. There is no evidence to believe that all Muslims or Muslim rulers were Islamic zealots who went around proselytizing. The very fact that Muslim rulers employed large numbers of non-Muslims and even appointed them to very high positions is testimony that they were not all proselytizing zealots. There were many reasons why individuals and groups converted to Islam. One was the perception among certain sections of the population that by converting to the religion of the rulers they stood a better chance of getting employment and protection. There was also the attraction of the message of Islam based as it was on equality of all human beings. Those who were at the lowest rungs of the caste system and were thus victims of it were attracted by this message of equality and converted to Islam in the expectation of a better life. In certain parts of India, there was a noticeable propensity among the lower castes to embrace Islam. In certain cases, more complex processes were at work. These can be illustrated through the research of [Richard M.] Eaton [on] what happened in Bengal and how it came to have a large Muslim population.
Bengal, as is well-known, is criss-crossed by powerful rivers that have sustained the economy and the society of the region. The course of these rivers was always changing; as one channel silted up a river found another course. In the 1570s, for example, the Ganga had bifurcated near present-day Malda into two channels—one flowing southward towards what is now Kolkata and the other flowing eastward towards Dacca (present-day Dhaka). Within a hundred years, the eastern channel had become far more important. This development in the riverine system had the inevitable consequence of pushing eastward the centre of civilization and culture of Bengal. One outcome of this eastward shift was that in this fertile terrain pioneering groups began to clear forests to bring virgin land under the plough for more wet rice cultivation, the agricultural staple in Bengal. Rice production increased to unprecedented levels and rice was being exported to ports around the Bay of Bengal and even Southeast Asia. Around the same time, Mughal power, headquartered in Dacca was establishing itself in Bengal. Also, European trading companies were becoming active in the trading world of Bengal and connecting the latter to the world economy. These changes—riverine, political, and economic—coincided geographically and chronologically with the first recorded presence of a Bengali Muslim peasantry.
Foreign travellers noted in the late sixteenth century that in places near Chittagong in the south-east of present-day Bangladesh and near Narayanganj the people in the villages were nearly all Muslims. In Noakhali too (in the eastern corner of Bangladesh) there were Muslim communities. What is worthy of note is that in the eastern delta, before the advent of Mughal rule, the population of the area was not an integral part of the Hindu social and religious order. The implication of this is that when Islam arrived in this region there was no transition from Hinduism to Islam. The people of this area— fishermen, hunters, slash-and-burn agriculturists—worshipped various local and forest deities like Manasa and Chandi. These people took to Islam. In contrast, in the western delta where the Hindu socio-religious order was more strongly entrenched, Islam did not penetrate to any noticeable extent even though Islam as the religion of the rulers had been present in the western delta from the fourteenth century.
The arrival of Islam in India brought a new momentum. One part of it was violent conquests that brought with them a new political discourse that was accepted and used even by non-Muslim rulers. The other part was less perceptible and more enduring, fashioning as it did new forms of piety, aesthetic sensibilities, and even the extension and organisation of agriculture. Through these influences, Islam became an integral part of the plurality of Indian history and culture.