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Protestantism and religious movements in India

A peek into the history to understand the religious currents in India that tried to reshape the spiritual landscape of the subcontinent

Protestantism and religious movements in India

In the first part of this essay last Sunday, we discussed the conditions in which religious reformers challenged the Roman Catholic Church and new waves of reformed theology emerged across Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. We also highlighted some of the differences between Europe and India that precipitated diverse trajectories of religious movements. Here we will look at the religious currents in India that tried to reshape the spiritual landscape of the sub-continent. One of the teachings of Protestantism was that good works cannot save a person — only God can — and that the individual is made right with God through faith in what God has done.

If we look at India, Bhakti in Hinduism, is a movement emphasising intense emotional attachment with god. Just like Protestantism, there are various strands of the Bhakti movement and it is not possible to consider it a monolith, but the path of bhakti, or bhakti-marga, is superior to the two other religious approaches, the path of knowledge (jnana or giana) and the path of ritual and good works (karma). Lutherans and Reformed Protestants believe that good works play no role in salvation. If we equate good works with karma we find a striking similarity in the two approaches.

Can Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak be equated with the Protestants in any way? Did they protest? Yes, they did. Their first protest was against the caste system.

The earliest Bhakti had emerged in South India between 7th to 10th centuries in poems composed in Tamil to the gods Vishnu and Shiva. Perhaps the first intellectual basis for the practice of Bhakti (devotional worship) was provided by Ramanuja who was born exactly 1000 years ago in 1017. He preceded the Protestant movement of Europe by 500 years. He was a south Indian Brahman theologian who disseminated his doctrine of devotion to the god Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi. He developed the teaching that the worship of a personal god and the soul’s union with him is an essential part of the doctrines of Upanishads (commentaries on the Vedas).

Bhakti soon spread to North India and from the 11th century onward, Muslim ideas of surrender to God may have influenced Hindu ideas of bhakti, culminating in poet-saints such as Kabeer (1440 – 1518) who introduced Sufi (mystical) elements from Islam. Interestingly, Kabeer died just one year after Martin Luther is reported to have published his 95-Theses in 1517. Just like in Europe, from Wycliffe to Knox there is a period of intense religious activity for at least 300 years, in India we notice from the 12th to 16th centuries, religious leaders such as Ramananda, Kabeer, Tulsi Das, and Surdas in north India, Chaitanya in Bengal, Nanak in Punjab, and Tukaram in the south.

Though each of the major divinities of Hinduism — Vishnu, Shiva, and the various forms of goddesses — had distinct devotional traditions, most of the names mentioned here belonged to the Vishnu-Bhakti tradition based on Vishnu’s avatars (incarnations), particularly Krishna and Rama.

Read also: From spiritual to temporal power

In Europe, Protestantism was against the Catholic hierarchy, and here in India the Bhakti movement was in opposition to the Brahmin domination. Both hierarchies claimed that any violation of their religious diktats was disobedience to god. The Bhakti movement also challenged this narrative and tried to link the common people with god directly and without any help from religion-mongers.

Most of the poetry emanating from the Bhakti movement mocks the Brahmanism and its ostentatious display of religious piety that was almost at par with the arrogance of Catholicism. This is not to say that the Bhakti movement was an entirely Hindu religious movement, some prominent figures of the movement such as Kabeer and Nanak, even tried to eliminate the distinction between Hinduism and Islam. When Protestant leaders were promoting their vernacular translations of the Bible as opposed to the Latin preferred by the Catholic Church, the Bhakti writers moved away from Sanskrit and used local languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Punjabi.

One of the greatest poets of that period is Kabeer and for Urdu readers there are at least three good books available in Urdu about him. Kabeer Sahab is an excellent book by Pundit Manohar Lal Zitshi (1876 – 1944). It was first published in 1930 by Maktabae Jamia in Delhi and is available on Rekhta website. The same book was reprinted in Lahore by Book Home in 2007, mentioning Zitshi as the writer. Another Urdu book on Kabeer was published by Fiction House in 2008. Shakil ur Rahman is given as the writer but since no introduction of the writer is given, one can’t say how much of the book is plagiarized. Perhaps, the best and brief introduction to Bhakti in Urdu is in Prem Vani compiled by Sardar Jafri and published by Aaj Books in 2001. Prem Vani is a book about Meera Bai (1498 – 1564); its introduction was written by Dr Safdar Aah Sitapuri in 1971. Another book available in Urdu is the biography of Tulsi Das written by Bhagwan Das. It was translated into Urdu by Pritam Das Balaach and published by Fiction House in 2013.

With Kabeer, another dominating personality of the 15th-century India is Ramananda (1400 – 1470), a north Indian Brahman priest who, according to some traditions, was the fifth in the lineage of Ramanuja. Then comes the great Baba Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) who certainly was one of the greatest religious innovators of all times. Just like Kabeer and Ramananda, Nanak travelled far and wide teaching people the message of god who is close to everyone and not to a select few, as the Brahmans and the Catholic priests would have us believe.

Guru Nanak was the only leader of that time who was able to so beautifully synthesize the ideas of the Bhakti movement into a strong, unified, and long-lasting entity. His unique spiritual, social, and political platform drew heavily from the Bhakti message of equality, fraternal love, goodness, and virtue. While the Protestants put more stress on faith, and less on goodness and virtue, Guru Nanak was more interested in these qualities. Unity of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice, honest conduct and livelihood in and out of household are some of the features of Nanak’s teaching that put him head and shoulders above any of the protestant leaders.

One difference between the Bhakti and the Protestant leaders is that thanks to the invention of the printing press in Europe, the lives and deeds of the Protestants are very well documented. Whereas in India, mostly due to the oral tradition, the lives of Bhakti leaders — from Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak to Chaitanya, Surdas, and Vallabhacharya — are shrouded in a lot of miracles and myths. While most of the life events and writings of the Protestant leaders are authentic and reliable, the same cannot be said about the Bhakti leaders whose life events and spans appear to be highly exaggerated and intermingled.

Can Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak be equated with the Protestants in any way? Did they protest? Yes, they did. Their first protest was against the caste system and Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak had no regard for a religious hierarchy; just like the Protestants had no respect for the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Second, Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak preferred vernacular Hindi or Punjabi over the sacred languages of Arabic and Sanskrit; in the same fashion as Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther had done with the Bible by translating it from Latin into English, Czech, and German.

Another similarity between the Protestants and the Bhaktis was their effort to make religion accessible to the masses and, by doing this, both challenged the established authority of the Catholic priests and the Brahmans respectively. For this purpose, the Protestants used the new-fangled printing press but this facility was not available to the Bhaktis who composed enchanting verses of thought-provoking poetry that appealed to the masses. Most Bhaktis and Protestants asserted that austerity and penances through asceticism are meaningless, and people should have faith and direct access to god without most rituals and sacraments.

Both the movements propagated the idea that religious mechanics were less important than faith, and the rituals were useless unless an individual does not reflect and introspect on the nature of his relation with god. Most Protestants and Bhaktis stated that rote reading of a sacred text without understanding was of no benefit. If people fail to understand what the text is trying to communicate, the text becomes useless, no matter how sacred it is supposed to be. Both movements revived and refocused their religions to a personalised and direct devotional form of worship and that’s where their relative liberalism lies.

The last two decades of the 15th century in India saw the births of four major religious figures from 1480 to 1500. Chaitanya in Bengal, Surdas in Brij near Mathura, Vallabh Acharya in Chhattisgarh, Meera Bai in Rajasthan; that’s how eastern, northern, middle, and western India, all had at least one major religious personality born during those decades. Chaitanya was a Hindu mystic whose worship to Lord Krishna had song and dance routines. He was highly religious and indifferent to all worldly affairs. He promoted a congregational worship called Kirtana, consisting of the choral singing of hymns and the names of god.

Chaitanya movement was intensely emotional and flourished from the 16th century mainly in Bengal and Odisha (Orissa). Unlike the Bhakti movement of Kabeer and Nanak, Chaitanya movement had a fervent devotion to the god Krishna. The legends of Krishna and Radha were supposed to symbolise mutual love between god and the human soul. The Bhakti of Chaitanya was not the Bhakti of Kabeer and Nanak that challenged the established religious order; but it was conceived as complete self-surrender to the divine will as an embodiment of Krishna and the repetition of his name with sounding of drums and cymbals and swaying of the body.

Surdas was also a devotional poet known for lyrics devoted to Krishna in Brijbhasha. Surdas is reported to have taken inspiration from Vallabhacharya who himself was a devotee to Krishna. The same applies to Meerabai who becomes too attached to an idol of Krishna. She wrote hundreds of songs expressing her love and devotion to Krishna, and initiated a mode of singing those songs. Her life has been presented in at least three Indian movies, Meera played by Subbalakshmi with Tamil and Hindi versions directed by the American director, Ellis Duncan in 1945 and 1947 respectively; and Meera (1979) by Gulzar, starring Hema Malini and Vinod Khanna.

So, we see that the Bhakti of Kabeer, Ramananda, and Nanak was different from the Bhakti of Chaitanya, Surdas, Vallabhacharya, and Meerabai. The former had some similarities with the Protestants, but the latter hardly had any. In the last part of this essay, we will have a look at some of the Muslim religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, and try to compare and contrast them with some of the strands of Protestantism.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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