Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.


I’ve never really got what the big deal about poetry is. I have friends on facebook and google+ who share bits and pieces of poetry that they like, and shag about it. And most of the time I never get why it’s so hifunda. Yes, I do like some poetry. Like I think Vikram Seth’s The Frog and The Nightingale (which appeared in our 10th standard textbook) is an absolute classic. I can still recite the few stanzas of The Highwayman which I had mugged up for an elocution competition in school. I don’t however, get “modern poetry”, the kind without any rhyme or rhythm. And so, faced with a deluge of such literature, I have been trying to figure out what the big deal about poetry is.

Think about the ancient classics and texts. Think about the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey. All of them written in verse. Think about the hundreds of thousands of Vedic schools spread all across India, some of them functional even today, where students did nothing but just mug up to recite the Vedas. Think about the ancient Indian oral tradition, which has managed to preserve the Vedas and our epics in something close to their original forms even today. Can you imagine mugging up all the words of a modern classic, and remembering it well enough to deliver verbatim to your students? I guess you can’t, and you don’t need to, for we have the luxury of writing, and written records. But what in those days in ancient India, where there was no paper? How have such long and magnificent texts survived our oral tradition across centuries? The answer is poetry.

Poetry is a concept that dates back to the times when there was no writing. It was a means to make it easy for someone to memorize a piece of text. By introducing concepts such as rhyme and rhythm, of allegories and metaphors, the poets would make it easy for the transmitters to remember the poems. I’m told (for I haven’t read them firsthand) that the Vedas also have several built-in checksums, to enable easy rememberance, in case a part of a verse gets lost in memory. By this insight, poetry is basically a means to render text in a format that makes it easy for you to remember stuff. That, truly, is the sheer beauty of poetry. An ancient concept designed to transmit, across generations. A concept that was essentially rendered redundant with the coming of writing, because of which it had to reinvent itself. And I’m not sure how successful that reinvention of the form has been (though given the number of people who claim to love poetry, I must say the reinvention has been rather successful).

Now, think of your school textbooks, any subject. And think about how many lines from the prose you can remember verbatim. Exactly as it was in the text. I would guess the answer would be something close to zero, which is the answer in my case. And now think about the poetry you read back in school, and how much of that you can remember. I would assume the number is rather higher. I may not remember complete poems, but I remember at least stanzas from several of the poems I studied back then. For example, I can recite verbatim several of the dohas written by Kabir and Abdurrahim Khankhana, which were part of our school syllabus as far back as when I was in 7th standard. Now think about it – how is it that I can remember entire lines, written in a language I was hardly comfortable with back then, in a dialect I hardly understood, almost twenty years later? It is down to sheer poetry! The rhymes and rhythms and allegories and puns which all make it so easy to remember!

So what is poetry? It is essentially a form of writing which is easy for the reader to memorize, and remember ages later in order to transmit. So what is good poetry? It is a piece of writing, written in a form that sticks in the reader’s head, which possesses him, to the extent that he remembers the words in their entirety, and not just the essence. The thing with great prose is that it enables the reader to easily grasp the idea it is trying to convey. With poetry, it is not just the idea that is to be conveyed, it’s also the expression. And how good a poem is depends on how successful it is in making the expression stick in the reader’s head.

In general, I must admit, I still don’t get ‘free verse’. I think it’s just prose written with lines broken in random places that the “poet” fancies. While they might have some nice puns or allegories, in most cases it is impossible to remember the exact words, for there is little that ties sentences, that creates checksums, that enables readers to remember the expressions. I still like simple good old poetry, though, but few people write that any more. I’ll leave you with a stanza from one of my favourite poems which I still remember:

Once upon a time a frog
croaked away in bingle bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn