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Ethical Implications Of The Bhakti Movement

( Originally Published 1922 )



IT is necessary now to turn back and to give some attention to certain currents of thought which we have so far to a large extent ignored. During the four or five centuries preceding the Christian era the idea of incarnation was taking shape, resulting in the recognition of Vishnu with his various incarnations as objects of worship on the same footing as Brahma. The great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, show us this movement in progress, and later, from the fifth or sixth century A. D., there began to appear those writings known as Puranas, which drew their materials largely from the epics, and which were sectarian works, composed with the object of exalting their special divinities. This development was, to some extent at least, the outcome of the influence of Buddhism on Hinduism. In order to maintain itself in the presence of Buddhism as the religion of the people, Hinduism had to modify itself, and among the other changes which took place in it elements drawn from aboriginal cults found a place in it. Of great importance also from the religious point of view is Sakti worship, the worship of the Sakti, or energy, of the god, conceived as his consort, which was a special development of Saivite sectarianism. The Tantras are the manuals of this movement.

These remarkable developments are of the greatest importance for the student of the history of religion ; but, for the student of the history of ethics, their details have no special significance. They might furnish materials for an interesting chapter on the history of Indian morals, but all that is of interest to the ethical thinker as distinct from the psychologist may be gathered up in the statement that in many of its expressions this sectarian religion is non-moral ; and that in some cases, as in Tantric worship especially, it has immoral implications.

But there is one very important line of development which we cannot dismiss in this summary way. This is what may be called the bhakti movement. The term bhakti is derived from the Sanskrit root bhaj, which in one of its uses means to adore . It therefore means ` adoration , and in its more distinctive use, `adoration of, or loving devotion to, God. The term itself has a long history, and the idea a history much longer still. But for this we must leave the reader to the guidance of writers on the history of Hindu religion. It will be sufficient to state that the first great definite presentations of bhakti in literature are found in the Mahabharata, in the Bhagavadgita, and in what is known as the Narayaniya Section. Sir R. G. Bhandarkar in his Vaisnavism, Saivism, and Minor Religious Systems, has traced the process by which the religion of the Bhagavadgita, with its worship of Vasudeva, Krishna, developed and was modified, other cults and other philosophical conceptions mingling with or influencing it. On the mythological side the tales of the adventures of the boy Krishna with the cowherdesses had great influence on the direction of the religious movement, and in particular Radha, the mistress of Krishna, came to be an important object of worship. Later Rama came to be exalted and worshipped as God, and the whole history of later bhakti is connected with the various forms that the worship of Krishna and Radha, and of Rama, sometimes in association with Sit-d, took. On the philosophical side the most important fact is the new interpretation of the ancient philosophical texts given by Ramanuja, who in the eleventh century provided an intellectual foundation for bhakti, which the monistic philosophy had done so much to undermine. It was this influence which was most powerful in what has been called the Hindu Reformation, and in the ` Four Churches of the Reformation we have evidence of the new strength and vitality which had been imparted to the spirit of bhakti. These Churches are known respectively as (1) the Sri-sampradaya of Ramanuja, (2) the Brahma-sampradaya of Madhva, (3) the Rudra-sampradaya of Vishnuswamin, and (4) the Sanakadi-sampradaya of Nimbarka. These Churches are based on different theological foundations. The first held a qualified monism—visishtadvaita, the second a dualism on the lines of the Samkhya-Yoga, the third a pure monism—suddhadvaita, and the fourth a philosophy which is a curious blend of monism and pluralism. Yet all agree on certain points. They hold to the belief in God as in some way personal. They also agree in holding that the soul is essentially personal and possessed of inalienable individuality. It is also immortal, finding its true being not in absorption in the Supreme, but in a relation with him of inextinguishable love. All agree accordingly in rejecting the doctrine of Maya.

Sir R. G. Bhandarkar has well summarized what is to be said regarding the relations of the various Vaishnava systems to each other in the following paragraph :

The points of contact between these various Vaishnava systems are that their spiritual elements are essentially derived from the Bhagavadgita, that Vasudeva as the name of the Supreme Being stands in the background of all, and that spiritual monism and world-illusion are denounced by them equally. The differences arise from the varied importance that they attach to the different spiritual doctrines; the prominence that they give to one or other of the three elements that were mingled with Vasudevism ; the metaphysical theory that they set up; and the ceremonial that they impose upon their followers. The Bhagavadgita was supplemented in later times by the Pancaratra Samhitas and the Puranas such as the Vishnu and the Bhagavata, and other later works of that description. These occasionally elucidated some of the essential doctrines, laid down the ceremonial, and brought together a vast mass of legendary matter to magnify the importance of their special teachings and render them attractive.

In studying the history of Bhakti in modern times we are faced by a strange jungle of sects and subsects related to each other in the general way that has just been indicated. Ethically the worship which some of them follow issues in a pure morality, while that of others issues in the wildest licentiousness. On the whole the most attractive forms of bhakti are those associated with Rama, and it is in connexion with some of the forms of the worship of Radha that some of the worst excesses have appeared. The Bhagavadgita and the works of Ramanuja, widely separated in time, are the great expressions of bhakti in its most reflective manifestations. They breathe a spirit that is lofty and puke ; they represent a devotion that is emotional but restrained, and a morality that is weak on the active and social side, but that contains elements in it of great worth. These have already been discussed, and it is unnecessary to return to them now, but we shall see the strength of their influence in much of the bhakti of later times.

But in the religious movement following the Reformation we see the powerful operation of influences of a different kind. Through the Puranas there were made current stories regarding the boyhood of Krishna which served to set him in a light utterly different from that in which he is seen in the Bhagavadgita. The documents which were most influential in this way were the Harivamsa and the Bhagavata Purana, and the latter in particular was powerful in determining the lines which certain forms of later Vaishnavism took. Krishna is related to have spent his youth among herdsmen ; and tales are told of his many youthful pranks and of his sports with the Gopis, the wives and daughters of the herdsmen, and especially with Radha, who is not yet however mentioned by name. These tales became the basis of a worship of Krishna which expressed itself in highly emotional and ecstatic forms.

The Bhaktiratnavali, a work, dating from about A. D. 1400, which consists of extracts from the Bha-gavata Purana, shows how this influence wrought in one of its lines. It commends the bhakti-marga as the only way of deliverance.

Neither charity, nor asceticism, nor sacrifices, nor purificatory rites, nor penances and religious vows please him. He is pleased with pure devotion. Everything else is futile, mere mockery.

The Bhaktiratnavali is free from the impurer elements that are found in Krishna worship. The passages contained in it consist largely of exaggerated praise of the efficacy of a bhakti which expresses itself in a violently emotional attachment to the Lord. Singing his praise, bowing to him, and shampooing his feet are among the means by which the ecstatic union, in which is mans deliverance, may be attained. And extravagant language is used regarding the efficacy of calling upon him.

Even a murderer of a Brahman, of his own mother and teacher, and of a cow, even the eater of dogs carrion, even a low-born brat of a Südra mother and a Nishada (low-born pariah) father becomes purified by singing the praise of the lord.

In such teaching there is no room for ethics. Devotion furnishes a way, indeed the only way, of escape from the fruits of karma.

Just as gold, heated by fire, leaves off its dross and regains its own appearance, so is the human soul cleared of its karmic impurities by the application of devotion and attains to me (by regaining the purity that is mine).

But this purification does not constitute the foundation for a new and loftier ethical life. It does mean, however, and it is important that this should be recognized, a withdrawal of the bhakta from bondage to the world of sense. There are indeed passages which might seem to contradict this, but these hardly represent the most characteristic teaching of the work. The following, taken from the passages in which are set forth the causes that generate bhakti, reveals what it involves on the moral side :

May we have the company of saints. Their hearts are full of compassion towards all living beings and are free from passions and are endowed with sincerity, straightforwardness and other good qualities.

But in many modern sects we see the influence of the Bhagavata Purana leading to a devotion even more ecstatic, and bound up with practices morally evil. Nimbarka has been already mentioned as the founder of the Sanakadi-sampradaya. He flourished later than Ramanuja, and is said to have lived at Nimba, a village in the Bellary district. The philosophical basis of his system was similar to that of Ramanuja, but what is of more importance is the place that he gave to Radha in his religious teaching. He taught at Brindaban, and from there his influence spread widely over Northern India. In the same line of religious development are the sects of Vallabha and Chaitanya, who taught in Northern India and Bengal respectively during the sixteenth century.

We cannot here enter into a detailed discussion of the philosophical and religious doctrines of these teachers. In both an important place is given to the sports of Krishna, with consequences unfavourable to the highest morality. Sir R. G. Bhandarkar says regarding the sect of Vallabhacharya :

The spirit of this system ... seems to be sportive enjoyment and it cannot but be expected to influence the ordinary life of its followers. Moral rigidity culminating in indifference to worldly enjoyments and self-abnegation does not appear to be a characteristic of this school.

This is certainly a very moderate statement. For Vallabha teaches that the highest fruit of bhakti is admission to the eternal sports of Krishna. Some apologists have sought to defend his teaching from the charge of immorality which this ideal seems to justify, on the ground that the erotic language used does not, if properly understood, supply any incitement to immoral conduct ; and it has been maintained that the language of exalted devotion tends to take similar forms in the highest and purest religious expression. This may be so, but the fact remains that in the Vallabha sect the love that has been offered to God has been described in figures that have such predominantly sexual implications that the worship of Krishna has in certain quarters been accompanied by licentious practices. Proof of this was given in the Bombay High Court in 1862, in the notorious case of the Maharajas of Bombay.

Chaitanya followed and inculcated a worship of an even more emotional and ecstatic kind, the object of which was Krishna similarly conceived. But he held personally to a more ascetic type of morality, and in particular to stricter views regarding the relations of the sexes. He taught that the individual soul is at first distinct from the Supreme Soul, but through love becomes full of the Supreme Soul, loses all sense of individuality, and becomes absorbed in Him.

When love attains to the highest pitch, it constitutes itself into Radha, who is the most loveable of all and full of all qualities.

In the later history of the sect of Chaitanya, partly through the influence of his own teaching and partly through that of Tantric worship, we find the more erotic side becoming prominent, and his followers indulged in practices which he himself condemned.

It would be unfair to pass from the ethical side of the teaching of Chaitanya without reference to another aspect of his teaching and practice. His gospel of salvation through devotion was addressed to all sorts and conditions of men and women. He preached the doctrine of the brotherhood of men, and in theory recognized no distinction of caste, though he himself followed its social rules. To this day groups of his followers live the monastic life, admitting into their fellowship men and women of all castes.

What may be called Radhaism reached its most degraded expression in the practice of a sect known as the Sakhibhavas, a small sect, the members of which seek in ways that are too disgusting for description to attain to the position of companions of Radha.

In the doctrines of these sects there is comparatively little positive moral teaching. From the ethical point of view their interest lies rather in the implications which a non-moral doctrine of God may have when it is connected with legendary elements such as were introduced when Radha was placed in such a relationship to the Supreme object of worship. The most immoral consequences were reached as interest came to be increasingly centred in Radha, and the worshipper sought to have reproduced in himself the experience of the God which she possessed.

We pass from these to other Vaishnavite sects in which we see the operation of much healthier influences. The influence of Ramananda, a religious teacher, born probably about the beginning of the fifteenth century, had great strength and persistence. He sought through the use of the vernacular to bring religion down to the common people, and the message which he preached was addressed to all irrespective of caste. All that was needful was devotion. But, perhaps, most important of all was the new content which devotion received when turned, as it was by him, from Krishna and Radha to Rama and Sita, the worship of whom was free from the impure ad-mixtures which had come to characterize the devotion of several of the other sects.

Ramananda was in the direct line of succession from Ramanuja, but his influence was far less philosophical than personal. He gathered around him disciples from various castes, even from among the outcastes. One of them was a woman, and the greatest of all, Kabir, is said to have been a Mohammedan.

In Kabir we have one of the loftiest and purest influences in the whole history of Indian religion. He was a thinker, though not of the first order, and he lays down a definite theory of the origin and nature of the Universe. The Supreme Soul and the individual soul he holds to be essentially distinct from each other, for God created individual souls not from His own substance but from a subtle entity distinct from Him. These individuals are of one blood and are one life .1 Distinctions of caste have, therefore, no justification. The precept of the Upanishads, thou art that, means not that there is no distinction between individual souls and the Supreme Soul, but that the individual soul is one with the subtle element from which all individual souls were developed. He condemns the various forms of religious practice which he believes to be the outcome of false views of God. Rites and ceremonies serve only to generate pride in the heart of the worshipper. and fail to lead him to God.

The soul is to the mind as a monkey is to a showman. Making it dance in a variety of ways, it (mind) finally retains it in its own hands.

It is a vain endeavour through which men seek to realize their oneness with God.

In this world all have passed away considering themselves to be Rama, but no one actually became Rama.

The root of all trouble lies in egotism or self-pride, and release from it can come only through devotion going forth to meet the grace of Rama. He is the source of all that is good, and without him nothing is good.

If you endeavour to acquire one thing (God), every other thing will come to you ; but if you endeavour to acquire every other thing, that one thing will be lost.

We have in all this a remarkably clear perception of the inwardness of true religion, and of the determinative character of the relationship of the individual to God in the whole range of experience. There is but little appreciation of the great positive tasks that confront men in a world where they are thrown together in such varied relations, but there is a very clear apprehension of the fact that in the highest human activity freedom from egotism and self-seeking is of fundamental importance. And if there be but little in the way of a social philosophy, it is much that there should be a repudiation of those arbitrary distinctions that in India have kept man apart from man. In all Indian literature we have no clearer expressions of the unreality of these distinctions than in the writings of Kabir.

It is but folly to ask what the caste of a saint may be ;

The barber has sought God, the washer-woman, and the carpenter. Even Raids was a seeker after God.

The Rishi Swapacha was a tanner by caste.

Hindus and Moslems alike have achieved that End, where remains no mark of distinction.

We shall not attempt to give any account of the numerous other leaders who inculcated the worship of Rama, or of the sects which they founded. But mention should be made of Tulasidas, the author of the Hindi Ramayana, which has so deeply influenced the minds of the common people of Northern India since the time of its appearance in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The details of his philosophical teaching need not detain us. It is sufficient to draw attention to the strongly ethical character of his religious teaching. The supreme fruit of devotion to Rama is deliverance from sin and purification of the heart. And sin is conceived not in the external and ritualistic manner in which we have so frequently seen it regarded, but as spiritual impurity which separates the soul from God. Such sins are covetousness, infatuation, intoxication, and lust. The grace of Rama, which is found through bhakti, destroys sin and confers the power of distinguishing good and evil. The deliverance which he gives does not express itself in transcendence of good and evil, but it becomes possible to the soul in which dwell forgiveness, devotion, knowledge, and compassion.

In the Maratha country there has been in process for many centuries a Vaishnavite movement which has deeply influenced the life particularly of the common people. It is associated with Krishna, known as Vithoba, and his consort Rukmini.

Round these a great wealth of legend has gathered. The sports of Krishna find a place in their legendary lore, but it is a place far less determinative than in the religion of the sects of Vallabha or Chaitanya. The most outstanding leaders in this movement were Namdev and Tukaram. Both belonged to the lower orders of Hindu society, the former being a tailor (born 1270), and the latter a shop-keeper (born 16o8). In both there was the same ardent devotion to Vithoba, and the same sense that his worship expresses itself in purity of life. Namdev shows the same contempt as the later Northern poets for pilgrimages and all the other external means through which deliverance was so commonly sought, as well as for austerities and meditation.

Your mind is full of vices. What is the use of the pilgrimages you make ? What is the use of austere practices, if there is no repentance ? The sins resulting from a mental act cannot be effaced by the highest holy place.

The way of deliverance is through devotion to God accompanied by that purity of conduct, which it in turn reinforces. It is especially in absence of pride, self-surrender, and humility that this purity of heart expresses itself.

Firmly grasp the truth which is Narayana. Purity of conduct should not be abandoned ; one should not be afraid of the censure of people and thus accomplish ones own purpose. Surrender yourself to your loving friend (God), giving up all ostentation and pride.

The two, desire and anger, he has thrown out, and cherishes in his heart (lit. house) quietude and forgiveness.

In Tukaram there was an even more tender religious strain. His mind was absorbed in devotion to God, and he forsook all, giving himself to the singing of his praises. He was not a systematic thinker, and there is considerable confusion in his thought. At times he gives utterance to expressions which, taken by themselves, would, give ground for regarding him as a monist of the school of Sankaracharya. But elsewhere he attacks this philosophy as inconsistent with his doctrine of bhakti. We must regard him as a religious guide, not as an exponent of a philosophy, and one cannot fail to be impressed by his presentation of the spiritual character of true devotion. It is only the pure in heart who can see God.

When the auspicious juncture of Simhastha comes, it brings fortune only to barbers and priests. There are crores of sins in the heart, but externally a man shaves the hair on the head and the beard. What has been shaved of has disappeared. Tell me what else has changed. The vicious habits are not changed, which might be regarded as a mark of the destruction of sins ; says Tuka, without devotion and faith everything else is useless trouble.

A single passage will serve to show how he conceives the character of the saint :

Such are the saints who meet us on this path that the fetter of the world is broken at the sight of them ; they are ever filled with the joy of true mind and true being : we shall honour them as hallowed sources of liberation. Faith is their all-sufficing principle : nothing breaks their repose : they crush the spirit of infidelity. By their mercy to all creatures they destroy the root of hatred : they treat all as brothers—friend, foe, or child of their own. Purify your mind, body, and speech : beholding his form everywhere, salute it. Be humble with your whole heart, renouncing all presumptuous pride. Be not greedy of gain, nor scrupulous about honour: desire and love are false. One who knows all, yet keeps as still as though he knew nothing, such a one the saints come suddenly to visit. Be truly faithful, and toil not after wealth, then the saints will ever visit you. Thus says Tuka,, sick of pride of learning.

We have chosen but a few of the most outstanding representatives of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement, and have touched but lightly on their teaching and spirit. But what has been said will perhaps be sufficient to give some indication of the variety of ways in which the spirit of devotion has been related to ethical life and thought. The one feature common to all is the belief in the bhakti-marga, as opposed to the karma-marga and the jnana-marga, as the way of deliverance. This way has been found compatible with an elaborate ritualism, as among the Vallabhas, and with an almost complete absence of ritualism, as in Tukaram, with idolatry as in Tukaram, and with repudiation of idolatry, as in Kabir. It has also been associated with much variety of ethical teaching. We have, at the one pole, a devotion which is non-moral, leading in certain of its expressions to immoral conduct. At the other pole, we have a devotion which is inseparably connected with purity of moral character. These differences are to be traced directly to differences in the character of the legendary material which has gathered round the various cults. But this legendary material is, again, the instrument for the expression of certain ideas regarding God, which have the most profound significance for life. For when we speak of the ideas regarding God which have entered into the philosophical thought or the religious practice of men, whether these ideas have been presented abstractly or in legendary or mythological garb, we are dealing with ideas that have been formed of the nature of the Universe within which we live and act. The legends regarding the sports of Krishna are the expression of a view of the Universe that fails to see moral ideals in their true position in it. In saying this we must not be supposed to be using the term moral in the restricted sense which the eroticism of the tales might suggest. The case has far wider implications than that. The question is, partly, whether the Universe is rationally constituted, or whether the element of caprice can enter into it. It is a larger question than that, for the Universe might conceivably be law-ordered and yet not be morally constituted in the strict sense ; but this is one of the implications of the question. Looked at simply from this point of view, the tales of Krishna are the expression in popular form of an irrational view of the Universe, which does not make provision for an ordered morality. On the other hand, if we turn to the stuff of which the Universe is constituted, as distinct from its form, we find in it elements that are equally inconsistent with a satisfactory morality. At the heart of it there is a place for licence, deceit, and trickery, and all this has its inevitable reflection in the lives of those who place their confidence in it.

This is the rationale of what in the language of religion would be expressed in somewhat different terms. If the end of religion be the attainment of some sort of relationship with God, whatever the nature of that relationship may be, it is a matter of supreme importance how God is conceived. If God be pictured as holy, just, and righteous, we have the ground for one kind of life in His worshippers. If He be pictured as moved by the passions and weaknesses of mortals, we have the ground for another. The moral consequences are greatest when it is a relation of fellowship with Him that is sought. The ideals that govern human life will be drawn from the conception that is held of the life of God Himself, and the relation formed with Him will be determined in its nature by what is believed to be His character and attitude to men.

All this is very relevant to the case of certain of the forms of Vaishnavism which we have considered. The same principles might be applied to the case of many Saivite cults, into which the sexual element enters even more strongly, especially of the Saktas, into whose worship there enter practices of the most debasing kind. But this part of the subject need not be further developed. It is sufficient to have drawn attention to a line of popular religion that has tended to the degrading of morality, and to have indicated in a general way the root of the evil.

The more worthy ethical teaching of religious leaders like Kabir, Tulasidas, Namdev, and Tukaram is the outcome of loftier conceptions of God and of the nature of the relationship of the individual with Him. His character is not in all cases fully ethicized, and the immoral legendary element has not been entirely excluded. But a far purer conception has been formed of the nature of His love and of the manner of the operation of His grace. But the blight of passivism remains. God has been thought of in a way that has served to dissolve the artificial divisions that a false philosophy erected or defended between man and man or between class and class. We are brought even, as in Tukărăm, to the thought of the brotherhood of man. But this thought failed to furnish the motive for an active, strenuous social morality. It did little more than move men to abstain from injury. It was realized that the infliction of injury on living beings was incompatible with the nature of God, and that pride and selfishness were incompatible with a life of devotion to Him, but it was not fully realized that God might have purposes which could be served by active endeavour for the good of others, or that there was a self-assertiveness which was not selfish and a sense of the worth of personality which was not pride, or that there was possible an activity in the world which was not worldly. This is a line of argument which it is possible, of course, to press too strongly. The fountains of human sympathy have never- been so dry that men have completely failed to serve each other, and there have not been lacking injunctions to such service. But the weakness which has been indicated besets much even of what is best in the ethical teaching of the great exponents of bhakti.



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