The Bhakti movement in Indian history represents a movement that popularized devotional surrender to a personally conceived supreme God. Its origins are traced to the Brahamanical and Buddhist traditions of ancient India. It was in south India that it grew from a religious tradition into a popular movement based on religious equality and broad based social participation. The movement led by popular saints reached its climax in the 10 century A.D. In its attempt to embrace the concept of bhakti the movement in different regions drew from diverse traditions and assumed different forms in different parts of the sub continent.
The Bhakti movement in India, by and large, was marked by
(i) the rejection of the then existing ritual hierarchy and Brahmanical superiority
(ii) The use of vernacular in preference to Sanskrit (the language of the elite); and
(iii) the emergence of the low-caste non-literate’ persons like Rameja Dasar, Pillai Uranga, Villi Dasar and Kanak Dasar in the south and Kabir,Raidas, and Dadu in the north as great spiritual leaders. There was large scale participation of peasantry, artisans, and other lower classes as well as of ritually inferior but economically powerful groups like merchants and craftsmen in these devotional movements.
The leader of the bhakti movement focusing on the Lord as Rama was Ramananda. Very little is known about him, but he is believed to have lived in the first half of the 15th century. He taught that Lord Rama is the supreme Lord, and that salvation could be attained only through love for and devotion to him, and through the repetition of his sacred name.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was an ascetic Hindu monk and social reformer in 16th century Bengal. A great proponent of loving devotion for God, bhakti yoga, Chaitanya worshiped the Lord in the form of Krishna.
Sri Ramanuja Acharya was an Indian philosopher and is recognized as the most important saint of Sri Vaishnavism. Ramananda brought to North India what Ramanuja did in South India. He raised his voice against the increasing formalism of the orthodox cult and founded a new school of Vaishnavism based on the gospel of love and devotion. His most outstanding contribution is the abolition of distinctions of caste among his followers.
Followers of Bhakti movement in 12th and 13th Century included saints such as Bhagat Namdev, and Saint Kabir Das, who insisted on the devotional singing of praises of lord through their own compositions.
Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and founder of the Sikhism, too was a Nirguna Bhakti Saint and social reformer. He was opposed to all distinctions of caste as well as the religious rivalries and rituals. He preached the unity of God and condemned formalism and ritualism of both Islam and Hinduism. Guru Nanak’s gospel was for all men. He proclaimed their equality in all respects.