Basvanna to Sankardev - Poet Saints of India

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 2 December 2018

From ancient times, India saw a steady stream of social reformers. These included persons like Buddha and Mahavir in the pre-Christian times. Starting from 6th century CE for more than a thousand years, India saw a number of social, religious and literary illuminists, who often wore the saffron cloth of the renunciation, and wandered around composing and singing songs of divine love, spreading messages of human dignity and equality. These reformers are often called the Poet-Saints and their movement is known as Bhakti-movement (Bhakti=Devotion).

Giant statue of Basvanna in Basvan Kalyan, Bidar district

This post focuses on two such poet-saints – Basvanna in Karnataka and Srimanta Sankerdev in Assam, and their profound and lasting impact on the society.

The Religious Belief Systems in India

Like other ancient religions in the world, what is today called Hinduism, did not divide people into “believers” and non-believers”. These terms were introduced by Abrahamic religions in the middle-east, which insisted that their prophet was the only true messenger of God and only their religious path was the right way to worship.

In Hinduism, there have been and there continue to be different streams of beliefs, that sometimes separate from each other, sometimes ran parallel and are sometimes mingled. They all accept that they are flowing from the same source. On one hand, the Vedic streams of Hinduism are associated with the sacred fires of Yagna and see God as Onkar, the infinite formless consciousness that permeates all the universe. Then there are Puranic streams, with their multiplicity of gods, especially the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva along with their respective consorts, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati.

The different poet-saints of the Bhakti movement, were followers of these different streams of Hinduism. Many of them were followers of Shiva or Krishna. However, some of them also sang of the formless infinite God. Today some persons consider the followers of some poet-saints, such as those of Guru Nanak, Ravi Das and Kabir, as specific and separate religions. In my opinion, such considerations are influenced by the Western thinking, which is reductionist (looks at bits and pieces composing something) and prefers to categorize on the basis of differences. At other times, these considerations focusing on differences are linked to political and cultural struggles of these groups. However, personally I consider them as the multiple streams of Hinduism.

Bhakti Movement and Poet Saints

The earliest recognised poet-saints of the Bhakti Movement composed and sang their prayers in Tamil language in the 6th - 7th centuries. These were the devotees of Shiva, the Nayanars. They challenged the caste system and asked for a world of love and selflessness. Then there were Alvars, devotees of Krishna, starting from the 8th century.

The names and compositions of around 80 Tamil poet-saints (including both Nayanars and Alvars) are known. From Tamil areas, over the centuries this movement spread to the rest of India.

Appar Tirunavukkarasar Nayanar statue, National Museum, Delhi

Then for almost thousand years, different parts of India saw these wandering mistrals, singing about casteless societies and divine love. Most of them wrote their songs in common local languages and many of them came from the so-called “lower castes” and humble backgrounds. They sang about divinity, promoted equality and at the same time, initiated a literary and cultural renaissance.

There were many women among them including Karaikkal Ammiyar, Tilakavatiyar, Andal and Madhurakavi Alvar in Tamil, Akka Mahadevi in Kannada, Gangasati in Gujarati and Meerabai in Rajasthani, who gave a message about the dignity and equality of women.

In north-west India, the Bhakti movement coincided with the arrival of different Muslim dynasties. It influenced them as well, giving rise to some Muslim poet-saints who followed the Bhakti tradition (Ras Khan and Rahim Das). It also influenced the wider Muslim community, especially through its interactions with the Sufi traditions.

A chronological-geographic analysis of the most well-known poet saints after 1000 CE shows the following names:

  • 12th – 13th century: Basvanna, Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi in Kannada; and Jaidev in Odishi
  • 13th – 14th century: Namdev, Gyaneshwar in Marathi; Gangasati and Narsi Bhagat in Gujarati; and Ramananda in Hindi
  • 14th – 15th century: Bhagat Pipa in Rajasthani; Guru Nanak in Punjabi; Purandhar in Kannada; Ravi Das and Kabir Das in Hindi
  • 15th – 16th century: Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengali; Shrimanta Shankerdev in Assamese; Vallabhacharya in Telugu and Hindi; and Meera Bai in Rajasthani.
  • 16th – 17th century: Kanakdas in Kannada; Eknath and Tukaram in Marathi; and, Ras Khan and Rahim (Abdul Rahim) in Hindi
  • 17th – 18th century: Vijay Das in Kannada; and Ram Prasad Sen in Bengali.

Hindi language in the above list includes its regional variants such as Braj bhasha, Khari boli, Avadhi and Maithili. I want to talk about the legacies and continuing impact of two of these poet-saints with whom I am more familiar: Basvanna and Shrimanta Shankerdev.

Basavanna or Basveshwara

12th century Kannada poet-saint Basava, commonly called Basavanna or Basavanneshwara, composed songs known as Vachanas, filled with devotion for Shiva, which also called against caste and gender discrimination. He was a minister in the Kalachuri dynasty of Kalyani. His followers are known as Lingayat or Virashaiva.

Along with other Kannada poet-saints including Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi, he established a prayer and discussion centre called Anubhava Mantapa, where both men and women of different castes were welcome to participate in philosophical and religious discussions.

Anubhava Mantapa of Basvanna in Basvan Kalyan, Bidar district

His teachings are still followed by a large number of persons in Karnataka. His statues are common in the villages along with those of Ambedkar. In Basvan Kalyan in Bidar district of Karnataka, where the Anubhava Mantapa is located, a shrine of Basavanna has been built with his giant statue (in the image near the top).

Statue of Basvanna on a city road, Karnataka

Srimanta Sankardev

The 15th century poet-saint from Assam wrote his devotional poems to Krishna in Assamese, Sanskrit and Braj bhasha (a dialect of Hindi) and had a tremendous impact among the Assamese people. Like Anubhava Mantapa in Karnataka, Sankardev (Shankerdev) is associated with religious and philosophical centres called Sattras. Apart from his devotional poems, he popularized traditions of Sattriya music, dance and theatre (the banner image at the top shows Sattriya singers from Majuli, Assam). He also promoted simple living, gender equality and casteless society.

His impact on Assamese society continues to be very important. Different Sattras are spread all over the state, the most important being those in Majuli island.

A Sattra in Guwahati, Assam

Millions of his followers believe in simple life and prayers. For example, they have simple marriage ceremonies without exchange of money or costly gifts. For the prayers, they have Namghars, where the followers meet regularly, sing kirtans in front of book Bhagawat Purana (image below).

Prayers in a Namghar, Guwahati, Assam

Conclusions

The singing and wandering poet-saints of India, over a period of about a thousand years, campaigned for gender equality and casteless society, though in vastly different ways.

Many of them were devotees of Shiva, a god associated detachment, destruction and rebirth, and characterized by the ashes of cemeteries, snakes and a rag-tag group of followers including those who drink alcohol and use ganja or other drugs. Some devotional poems to Shiva also include bhoot-pichash (ghosts and demons) among his followers.

Others were devotees of Krishna, a god associated with the sermon of Bhagvad Geeta and also with the escapades of a naughty cowherd’s boy, known for his love for Radha.

I think that by choosing Shiva and Krishna as their personal gods, the poet-saints were moving away from the more rule and obedience-based ideals of the Indian society, and promoting a more just and inclusive social system. They were also asking for more humane figures of gods, that were more accessible to people compared to the formless and infinite god of Vedas.

Shiva and Krishna sculpture, Kalakshetra Guwahati, Assam

They did not manage to banish the gender and caste-based discriminations all over India, though as the above examples from Karnataka and Assam show, they did have an impact on millions of people. Their influence was not limited to the different streams of Hinduism, but had an impact of different syncretic traditions of India including the Muslim Sufis.

Today we live in a different world. Though the Baul singers of Bengal and Assam can be seen as a part of the on-going tradition of poet-saints, they are more community-based, their names are not so well-known and their social impact is much smaller. However, in future the rise of the YouTube culture may spring surprises with new poet-saints who are recognised in different regions and can spread the message of an equal, just and inclusive society - at least, I hope so!

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com