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CBSE Notes | Class 12 | History | Chapter 4 - Bhakti - Sufi Traditions

The chapter introduces students to Bhakti & Sufi traditions, the chapter also talks about the early tradition of bhakti in Tamil Nadu and various other regions. it also enlists the difference & conflicts between cults and traditions of Hinduism. It also highlights the teachings of Kabir, Guru Nanak, Mirabai & about Kanqas & Silsilas.

Introduction to Bhakti & Sufi Traditions

What are the sources to understand Bhakti and Sufi Traditions?

Writers and sages throughout this era utilised a variety of written sources, including compositions attributed to poets and saints. Most of these were in local dialects.

Often, these compositions were set to music and compiled by devotees or disciples after the musician or composer had died.

Hagiographies of biographies of saints written by the faithful are also referred to as hagiographies or biographies of saints. Although these could not be considered literal truths, they provide an impression of how these devotees thought about the realities of how these paths broke women and men.

India is a Mosiac of Religious Beliefs and Practices

Integration of Various Cults

There were two processes at work to integrate different cults;

  • One was the process of disseminating Brahmanical ideas. This is exemplified by the composition, compilation and preservation of Puranic texts in simple Sanskrit verse, explicitly meant to be accessible to women and Shudras.

  • There was a second process at work that of the Brahmana accepting & reworking the beliefs and practices of Shudras.

  • In fact, many beliefs and practices were shaped through a continuous dialogue between “great” Sanskritic Puranic traditions and “little” traditions throughout the land.

One of the most striking examples of this is in Puri, Orrisa, where Jagannatha, Lord of the World, a form of Vishnu, was identified as the main deity.

Goddess cults are also showing signs of integration. Goddess worship was evidently widespread, often in the form of a stone-coloured with red and yellow mud.

Local deities were frequently incorporated into the Puranic framework by giving them the identity of a wife of the main male deities – Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, or Parvati, the wife of Shiva, and Saraswati, the wife of Brahma, in some cases.

Difference & Conflicts between cults and traditions of Hinduism

  • Tantric Practices

  • Puranic Traditions

  • Vedic Traditions

Tantric practitioners frequently disregard the authority of the Vedas. Devotees often project their chosen deity, Vishnu or Shiva, as the supreme being.

Agni, Indra, and Soma are the main deities in Vedic mythology.

Tantric practises were common in many parts of the subcontinent; they were open to both men and women, and practitioners often ignored caste and class distinctions within the ritual context.

Such forms of worship frequently included the singing and chanting of devotional compositions. The Vaishnava and Shaiva sections were particularly affected. Other practises were frequently condemned by those who valued the Vedic tradition. They followed sacrifices or chanted mantras with precision.

This tradition included Alvars and Naynars.

Only men, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas were allowed to participate in Vedic practises. They followed Vedic traditions, which included chanting long Vedic hymns and performing elaborate sacrifices.

Early Tradition of Bhakti in Tamil Nadu

The Bhakti tradition is often classified into two broad categories: Saguna & Nirguna.

  • The Saguna bhakti tradition focuses on the worship of specific deities such as Shiva, Vishnu & his avatars (In-carnations) and forms of the goddess or Devi. In anthropomorphic forms.

  • Nirguna bhakti on the other hand was the worship of an abstract (Non-living objects) form of god.

The Alvars: Some of the earliest bhakti movements (c. sixth century) were led by the Alvars (literally, those who are “immersed” in devotion to Vishnu) and Nayanars (literally, leaders who were devotees of Shiva).

They travelled from place to place singing hymns in Tamil in praise of their gods. During their travels the Alvars and Nayanars identified certain shrines as abodes of their chosen deities. Very often large temples were later built at these sacred places. These developed as centres of pilgrimage.

Attitude towards Caste

  • Alvars & Naynars initiated a movement against the caste system & Dominance of Brahmanas.

  • Many Bhakts joined from different social backgrounds like cultivators and even those who were considered untouchables.

  • They claimed that their compositions were as important as Vedas. The composition of Alvars, the Nalayira-Divyaprabandham was described as Tamil Veda.

  • Tevram was the composition of Nayanars.

Women Devotees

  • This was the most striking feature of these traditions, which is the presence of women. The composition of Andal, The women Alvar were widely sung and to be sung till date.

  • Andal saw herself as a beloved of Vishnu, in her verses she was expressed for her deity. Karaikkal Ammiyar, a devotee of Shiva adopted a path of extreme asceticism in order to attain her goal. Her compositions were preserved with the Nayanar Traditions.

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Alvars & Nayanars

Relation with the State

Cholas, Pallavas & pandayas ruled South India. Buddhism & Jainism had been prevalent in this region for several centuries.

Alvars and Nayanars opposed Buddhism and Jainism through their hymns. This hostility was due to competition between religious traditions for royal patronage. Chola rulers supported Brahmanical and bhakti traditions, making land grants and constructing temples for Vishnu and Shiva. 

The most magnificent Shiva temples like Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, were constructed under the patronage of Chola rulers.

In this period some of the most spectacular representations of Shiva in bronze sculpture were produced.

Rulers tried to win the support of Alvars & Nayanars.

The Chola kings often attempted to claim divine support proclaim their own power and status by building splendid temples that were adorned with stone and metal sculpture to recreate the vision of these popular saints who sand in the language of the people.

These Kings also introduced the singing of Tamil Shaiva Hymns In the temple under the royal Patronage, taking the initiative to organise them into a text (Tevaram). 

Prantaka I, the Chola ruler had consecrated metal images of Bhakti Saints- Appar, Sambandar & Sundarar in a shiva temple. These were carried in processions during the festival of these saints.

The Virashaiva Tradition in Karnataka

This tradition was led by Brahman named Basavana; he was a Jain and a minister in the court of a Chalukya king.

The followers of Basavana were known as Virashaivas (Heroes of Shiva) or Lingayats(Wearers of Linga). They worship Shiva in his manifestation as a Linga, and men usually wear a small linga in a silver case on a loop strung over the left shoulder.  

Those who were revered include the Jangama (wandering monks).

Lingayats do not practice Cremation instead they bury their dead, as they believe the devotee will be united with Shiva after death. 

The also challenged the idea of Caste and pollution attributed to certain groups by Brahmanas. The theory of rebirth was also questioned by Lingayats. This won them, followers, amongst those who were neglected by the Brahmans.

The practice of post-puberty marriages and re-marriage of widows were encouraged. The understanding of Virashaivas traditions is derived from Vachanas, composed in Kannada.

Religious Ferment in North-India

In north India deities such as Vishnu and Shiva were worshipped in temples, often built with the support of rulers. Historians have not found evidence of anything resembling the compositions of the Alvars and Nayanars.

Several Rajput states emerged in North India. In most of these states, Brahmans were the dominant actors & were performing a range of secular and ritual functions.

Little attempts have been made to change the Brahmanical position, like Naths, Jogis & Siddhas.

Many of them came from artisanal groups, including weavers, who had long-distance trade and central Asia and West Asia.

Many of the new religious leaders questioned the authority of the Vedas & expressed themselves.

The religious leaders were not in the support to win the support of the rulers. The arrival of Turks and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate undermined the power of many states and Brahmans who were associated with these kingdoms.

New strands in fabric Islamic Traditions

Arab merchants, for instance, frequented ports along the western coast in the first millennium CE. From the seventh century, with the advent of Islam, these regions became part of what is often termed the Islamic world.

In 711 an Arab general named Muhammad Qasim conquered Sind, which became part of the Caliph’s domain.

Turks & Afghans established the Delhi sultanate. This continued the establishment of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century.

Muslim rulers were to be guided by the ulama. These were the theologians who were well versed in Islamic laws.

Rulers rules according to the sharia. It is the law governing the Muslim community based on the Quran and the hadiths.

The Popular Practice of Islam

Islam permeated far and wide, through the subcontinent among different, amongst different social strata- peasants, warriors, artisans, warriors, merchants etc.

All those who adopted Islam accepted, the five pillars of faith. There is one God, Allah, and Prophet Muhammad is his messenger (shahada).

  • Offering prayers five times a day (namaz/salat ) 

  • Giving alms (zakat)

  • Fasting during the month of Ramzan (sawm)

  • Performing the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).

The Khojahs, a branch of the Ismailis (a Shi‘a sect), composed devotional poems in devotional poems in Punjabi, Multani, Sindhi, Kachchi, Hindi and Gujarati, sung in special ragas during daily prayer meetings.

Arab Muslim traders who settled along the Malabar coast (Kerala) adopted the local language, Malayalam.

They also adopted local customs such as matriliny and matrilocal residence.

Some of the architectural features of mosques are universal – such as their orientation towards Mecca, evident in the placement of the mihrab (prayer niche) and the minbar (pulpit).

However, there are several features that show variations – such as roofs and building materials.

Different names of the Muslim community

Historians pointed out that the terms Musalman or Muslim were virtually never used in India up to 14th Century; instead, they were occasionally identified in terms of the region from which they came.

Turkish rulers were designated as Turushka. Tajika were people from Tajikistan and Parashika were people from Persia.

The terms used for other peoples were applied to the new migrants. For instance, the Turks and Afghans were referred to as Shakas and Yavanas.

Mlechchha was a more general term for these migrant communities, indicating that they did not observe the norms of caste society and spoke languages that were not derived from Sanskrit.

The Growth of Sufism

In the early centuries of Islam, a group of religious-minded people called Sufis turned to asceticism and mysticism in protest against the growing materialism of the Caliphate.

They were critical of the dogmatic definitions and scholastic methods of interpreting the Qur’an and sunna by Ulemas.

They emphasised seeking salvation through intense devotion and love for God by following the commands of Ph. Muhammad.

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Khanqas & Silsilas

The Sufi began to organise around the hospice or khanqah (Persian) controlled by a teaching master known as a sheikh. He enrolled disciples (murids) and appointed a successor (khalifa).

He established rules for spiritual conduct and interaction between inmates as well as between laypersons and the master.

Silsila means a chain, signifying a continuous link between master and disciple, stretching as an unbroken spiritual genealogy from Allah > Ph Muhammad > Sufis > Devotees.

It was through this channel that spiritual power and blessings were transmitted to devotees.

Ziyarat: when the sheikh died, he was buried in a tomb shrine called Dargha. This became the centre of devotion for his followers.

This encouraged the practice of pilgrimage or ziyarat to his grave, particularly on his death anniversary or urs (or marriage, signifying the union of his soul with God). This was because people believed that in death saints were united with God

Be-sharia & Ba-sharia Sufi

Sufis, who left the khanqah and took to mendicancy and observed celibacy. They ignored rituals and observed extreme forms of asceticism were called Be- Shariya.

They were known as Qalandars, Madaris, Malang, Haidari's,

Sufis who live in kanqhas by following normal sharia practices were called Ba- Sharia.

The Chishtis Tradition

The khanqah was the centre of social life. It comprised several small rooms and a big hall ( jama’at khana) where the inmates and visitors lived and prayed.

The inmates included family members of the Sheikh, his attendants and disciples. The Sheikh lived in a small room on the roof of the hall where he met visitors in the morning and evening.

A veranda surrounded the courtyard, and a boundary wall ran around the complex.

There was an open kitchen (langar), run on futuh (unasked-for charity).

From morning till late night people from all walks of life – soldiers, slaves, singers, merchants, poets, travellers, rich and poor, Hindu jogis (yogi) and qalandars – came seeking discipleship, amulets for healing.

The attempts to assimilate local traditions were the practices that were adopted include Bowing before the sheikh, offering water to visitors, shaving the heads of initiates etc.

Several spiritual successors were appointed by Sheikh Nizamuddin and deputed them to set up hospices in various parts of the subcontinent. As a result, the teachings, practices and organisation of the Chishtis as well as the fame of the Shaikh spread rapidly.


Pilgrimage, called ziyarat, to tombs of Sufi saints is prevalent all over the Muslim world. This practice is an occasion for seeking the Sufi's spiritual grace (Barakat).

The people of various creeds, classes and social backgrounds have expressed their devotion to the dargahs of the five great Chishti saints.

Amongst these, the most revered shrine is that of Khwaja Muinuddin, popularly known as “Gharib Nawaz”

The earliest textual references to Khwaja Muinuddin’s dargah date to the fourteenth century. It was evidently popular because of the austerity and piety of its Shaikh, the greatness of its spiritual successors, and the patronage of royal visitors.

Muhammad bin tughlaq was the first Sultan to visit the shrine, but the earliest construction to house the tomb was founded in the late fifteenth century by Sultan Ghiyasuddin Khalji of Malwa.

Since the shrine was located on the trade route linking Delhi and Gujarat, it attracted a lot of travellers. He went there fourteen times, sometimes two or three times a year, to seek blessings for new conquests, fulfilment of vows, and the birth of sons.

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The use of music and dance including mystical chants performed by specially trained musicians or qawwals to evoke divine ecstasy.

The Sufis remember God either by reciting the zikr (the Divine Names) or evoking His Presence through sama or performance of mystical music called Qawalli.

Amir Khusrau the great poet, musician and disciple of Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia, gave a unique form to the chistisama by introducing the qaul, a hymn sung at the opening or closing of qawwali.

This was followed by Sufi poetry in Persian, Hindavi or Urdu, and sometimes using words from all of these languages.

Qawwals (those who sing these songs) at the shrine of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya always start their recital with the qaul. Today qawwali is performed in shrines all over the subcontinent.

Languages & Communication

In Delhi, those associated with the Chishti silsila conversed in Hindavi, the language of the people. Other Sufis such as Baba Farid composed verses in the local languages.

Baba Farid composed verses in the local language, which were incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib

Others composed long poems or masnavis to express ideas of divine love using human love as an allegory.

For example, the prem-akhyan (love story) Padmavat composed by Malik Muhammad Jayasi revolved around the romance of Padmini and Ratansen, the king of Chittor

In and around Bijapur, Karnataka a different genre of poetry was composed. These were short poems in Dakhani (Urdu) attributed to Chishti Sufis who lived in the region during the seventeenth & Eighteen centuries.

These were sung by women while performing household chores. Other compositions were in the form of lurinama or lullabies and shadinama or wedding songs.

The Sufi of this region was inspired by pre-existing Bhakti Tradition of the Kannada vanchas of the lingayats and the Marathi abhangs of the sants of Pandharpur.

Sufi and Their Relations with the State

The Sufi accepted the Unsolicited grants and donations from the political elites. The Sultans in turn set up charitable trusts (auqaf) as endowments for hospices and granted tax-free land (inam).

They accepted donations in cash and kind. They preferred to use these fully on immediate requirements such as food, clothes, living quarters etc. This enhanced the moral authority of sheikhs, which attracted people from all walks of life.

Their piety and scholarship and people’s belief in the miraculous power made Sufi popular among the masses.

Kings did not simply need to demonstrate their association with Sufis; they also required legitimation from them. When the Turks set up the Delhi Sultanate, they resisted the insistence of the ulama on imposing shari‘a as state

The Sultans then sought out the Sufis – who derived their authority directly from God – and did not depend on jurists to interpret the shari‘a.

It was believed that the auliya could intercede with God in order to improve the material and spiritual conditions of ordinary human beings.

This explains why kings often wanted their tombs to be in the vicinity of Sufi shrines and hospices.

The instances of conflicts between Sultans & Sufis were there. To assert their authority, both expected that certain rituals be performed such as prostration and kissing of the feet. Occasionally the Sufi shaikh was addressed with high-sounding titles. Like Sultan-Ul-masheikh.

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Teachings of Kabir

He was born as a Hindu but was raised by a poor Muslim family, belonging to the community of weavers or Julahas.

He was initiated into Bhakti by a guru, Ramananda. Kabir was one of the most outstanding examples of a poet-saint who emerged in North India.

Verses ascribed to Kabir have been compiled in three distinct but overlapping traditions.

  • The Kabir Bijak is preserved by the Kabirpanth (the path or sect of Kabir) in Varanasi and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh.

  • The Kabir Granthavali is associated with the Dadupanth in Rajasthan, many of his compositions are found in the Adi Granth Sahib.

Kabir’s poems have survived in several languages and dialects; and some are composed in the special language of nirguna poets, the sant bhasha.

Ulatbansi, are written in a form in which everyday meanings are inverted. Kabir's mystical experiences are many to describe the ultimate reality. These include Islam: he described the ultimate reality as Allah, Kudha, Pir and Hazrat.

The terms from Vedantic tradition were also used by Kabir, like alakh (the unseen), nirakar (formless), Brahman, Atman, etc. Other terms with mystical connotations such as shabda (sound) or shunya (emptiness) were drawn from yogic traditions.

Scholars have tried to analyse the language, style and content to establish which verses could be Kabir’s

However, the verses attributed to Kabir use the words guru and satguru but do not mention the name of any specific preceptor.

Historians have pointed out that it is very difficult to establish that Ramananda and Kabir were contemporaries, without assigning improbably long lives to either or both.

Life & Teachings of Baba Guru Nanak

Baba Guru Nanak was born in a Hindu merchant family in a village called Nankana Sahib near river Ravi. (now in Pakistan).

  • He trained to be an accountant and studied Persian.

  • He was married at a young age but he spent most of his time among Sufi and bhakti and travelled widely.

  • His messages were spelt out in the hymns and teachings.

  • He advocated a form of nirguna bhakti and firmly repudiated the external practices of the religions he saw around him.

  • He rejected sacrifices, ritual baths, image worship, austerities and the scriptures of both Hindus and Muslims.

For Baba Guru Nanak; The Absolute or “rab” had no gender or form. He proposed a simple way to connect to the Divine by remembering and repeating the Divine Name, expressing his ideas through hymns called “Shabad” in Punjabi, the language of the region.

Baba Guru Nanak would sing these compositions in various ragas while his attendant Mardana played the rabab.

He organised his followers into a community and set up some rules for congregational worship (Sangat) involving Corrective recitation.

He appointed one of his disciples, Angad, to succeed him as the Guru, and this practice was followed for nearly 200 years.

He did not wish to establish a new religion, but after his death, his followers consolidated their own practices and distinguished themselves from both Hindus and Muslims.

The fifth Guru Arjan compiled Baba Guru Nanak’s hymns along with those of his four successors and other religious poets like Baba Farid, Ravidas (Raidas)and Kabir in the Adi Granth Sahib.

These hymns were called Gurbani and were composed in various languages. The tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, included the compositions of the ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and this scripture was called the Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Gobind Singh also laid the foundation of the Khalsa Panth (army of the pure) and defined its five symbols:

  • Uncut hair

  • A dagger

  • A pair of shorts

  • A comb

  • A steel bangle.

Under him, the community got consolidated as a socio-religious and military force.

Mirabai: The devotee Princess

Mirabai is the best-known woman poet within the Bhakti tradition. Biographies have been reconstructed primarily from the bhajans attributed to her, which were transmitted orally for centuries.

Mirabai was the Rajput princess of Marwar, who was married against her wishes to a prince of Mewar in Rajasthan.

She defied her husband and did not submit to the traditional role of wife and mother, instead of recognising Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, as her lover.

Her in-laws tried to poison her, but she escaped from the palace to live as a wandering singer composing songs that are characterised by intense expressions of emotion.

According to some traditions, her preceptor was Raidas, a leatherworker. This would indicate her defiance of the norms of caste society.

After rejecting the comforts of her husband’s palace, she is supposed to have donned the white robes of a widow or the saffron robe of the renounce. 

Mirabai did not attract a sect or group of followers, she has been recognised as a source of inspiration for centuries. Her songs continue to be sung by women and men, especially those who are poor and considered “low caste” in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Varieties of sources to reconstruct the history of Sufi tradition

  • A wide range of texts was produced in and around Sufi Kanqhas.

  • These included manuals dealing with Sufi thought & practices.

  • Malfuzator conversation of Sufi saints, they were compiled over several centuries.

  • Maktubat or written collection of letters by Sufi masters addressed to their disciples.

  • Tazkirasor biographical accounts of saints.

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