The Rise of Vaisnava Devotion in North India

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The Rise of Vaisnava Devotion in North India

by Patton E. Burchett
(Burchett, Patton E. "On the origins of a Mughal Bhakti sensibility." Routledge Handbook of South Asian Religions (2020): 151)

On the origins of a Mughal Bhakti sensibility

The predominant form of Hindu religiosity in North India today is Vaiṣṇava devotionalism ( bhakti ), but until very recently, the historical rise of this Vaisnava bhakti has not been adequately explained. Earlier accounts of the growth of bhakti communities in North India in the Mughal period have largely struggled to properly situate Vaisnava devotionalism’s rise in relation to the previously dominant form of Hindu worship, ritual, and religio- political ideology; the early modern presence of Islam (particularly Sufi sm) and Persianate culture; and the larger social, political, and economic contexts of Sultanate and Mughal India. In a succinct and abbreviated form, this chapter aims to fi ll these gaps and to provide an appropriately nuanced explanatory account of Vaiṣṇava bhakti’s rather dramatic rise to predominance in North India in the early modern period.

According to popular understandings, while the Bhagavadgītā (c. fi rst century CE) fi rst brings bhakti into prominence on the Hindu religious landscape at a conceptual, philosophical, and scriptural level, it is in the vernacular language and traditions of Tamil South India, circa sixth century CE, that bhakti—as the grassroots, embodied, emotional, participatory devotional religiosity with which most associate the term—really fi rst emerges. From this point, as A.K. Ramanujan put it, “like a lit fuse, the passion of bhakti . . . spread from region to region, from century to century” ( Ramanujan 1973 : 40). As the long- running and widespread trope goes, the revolutionary “movement” ( āndolan ) of bhakti took form in the mother tongue of each region as it gradually swept—as if a “wave” of contagious religious emotion and egalitarian social sentiment—from the Tamil country in the south, circa sixth century, to the Gangetic plains of the north into the sixteenth century. John Stratton Hawley’s A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement ( 2015 ) has masterfully shown this notion of a single, pan- Indian “bhakti movement” to be “temporally late, geographically limited, and constructed according to specifi c political motivations” ( Ben- Herut et al. 2019 : 3). Recent scholarship has sought to replace “the bhakti movement” narrative and its mistaken historiographical common- sense with a focus on a plurality of bhakti movements developing in multiple, historically specifi c regional settings but also varying within each region according to the socioeconomic contexts of class and caste. 1 In that spirit, here I focus on the specifi c qualitative texture of early modern North Indian bhakti and the historically particular cultural and sociopolitical conditions that brought it forth.

Bhakti as normative Hindu religion:
questioning a common assumption

Hawley’s work ( 2015 ), alongside Krishna Sharma’s important earlier book Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective: A Study in the History of Ideas ( 1987 ), clearly demonstrate that “the bhakti movement” narrative is a very particular way of remembering the past not geared to “historical accuracy” but to the agendas of specifi c social groups, namely those of early mod-ern North Indian Vaiṣṇavas, colonial- era Western Orientalist (Protestant Christian) Indologists, and modern- day Indian (Hindu) nationalists. In addition to positing an illusory continuity and coherence to the historical development of bhakti, this narrative has posited a very particular conception of bhakti—as an embodied, emotional, song- and poetry- fi lled tradition of partici-patory devotion to a personal God—as the normative and dominant Hindu religious form of the Common Era in South Asia. Despite the historiographical prominence most scholars have given this particular conceptualization of bhakti—as a sort of contagious, grassroots emotional devotion—it is, in fact, but one of many in the various time periods, regions, and religious communities of the Indian subcontinent. In other words, bhakti’s meanings—the practices that constitute it, its experiential texture/quality, and its role in the overall religious life—are not stable, consistent, or universal; rather, they are shifting and embedded in context- specifi c dis-courses, embodied practices, and institutions. With this in mind, it is worth considering David Gordon White’s provocative claim that, contrary to typical scholarly representations, bhakti is not India’s perennial “mainstream” religion but the religion of India’s urban society—brahmin intellectuals, aristocrats, and merchant classes. Bhakti’s historiographical prominence, White maintains, has little to do with historical reality and much to do with the revisionist historical vision of modern Hindu reformers (educated urban elites) and the mass of scholars unwittingly following their lead ( 2003 : 2–3). 2 In this chapter, as I trace the remarkable growth of bhakti communities, symbols, and sensibilities into a position of social power and infl uence in early modern North India, I also want to evaluate White’s claim and to question bhakti’s position in the overall arc of Indian religious history.

The prelude to Bhakti’s rise:
worship in medieval North India

According to White, when one examines the sectarian theistic traditions of the medieval Hindu world, bhakti, “the watchword of scriptural reinventions of Hinduism,” White states, ‘is con-spicuously absent from worship practice.” 3 In fact, bhakti is certainly not absent from medieval Hindu worship; however, when we delve into the religious history of India’s early medieval period (c. 600–1200), we fi nd that it was not bhakti but rather the thought, ritual practice, and institutional presence of the tantric traditions that were predominant in the life of South Asians. While tantra fi rst arose as an esoteric tradition for initiated elites seeking liberation ( mokṣa ) and/or extraordinary powers ( siddhi ), it later became deeply involved with royal power and with India’s public temple cult, making tantric ritual, institutions, and ideals of sacred power a fun-damental part of mainstream Indian social, religious, and political life.

Scholarship has tended to emphasize the esoteric and transgressive dimensions of the tantric tradition, but here I want to briefl y focus attention on the underappreciated medieval Indian reality of “mainstream tantra.” Most of the religious communities of early medieval India—whether Śaiva, Buddhist, Vaiṣṇava, or Jain—participated mutually in a distinctly tantric reli-gious and political culture “most of whose structuring assumptions were the same and in which a variety of ritual forms were shared and developed across traditions” ( Wedemeyer 2013 : 31). Despite their key diff erences, all of these communities came to share a parallel repertoire of tantric rituals for initiation, installation ( pratiṣṭhā ), and regular worship, while also sharing patronage relationships in which virtually the same powers and protections were off ered to the same royal clients ( Sanderson 2006 : 6). While a small minority of advanced tantric practition-ers did engage (probably infrequently) in transgressive sexual and mortuary rituals, their story is but one small piece of a tantric tradition that includes, more importantly, the preeminent religious communities of the medieval period—Saiva Siddhānta, Vaiṣṇava Pañcarātra, and Bud-dhist Vajrayāna—and their pervasive institutional networks, which played a key role in the larger sociopolitical order.

From the seventh century, rulers increasingly looked to tantric rituals and gurus for empow-erment and legitimation and sponsored the institutional growth of tantric communities. By the tenth century, temples (many administered by tantric monastic orders) and maṭha s (many housing professional tantric ascetics) had become vital economic, political, and religious hubs in the institutional network of medieval society. 5 These sites embodied, expressed, and widely disseminated tantric ideology and ritual; they were the institutions that sustained mainstream tantra and its vital role in the medieval religio- political order.

Bhakti was certainly not absent from worship in the mainstream medieval tantric communi-ties of South Asia; however, they generally understood bhakti not as passionate, emotional love so much as faith, reverence, and service. Furthermore, in all of these traditions, bhakti’s value was regularly subordinated to ritual actions, techniques of self- empowerment, and/or the quest for liberating knowledge ( jñāna ). Even when popular medieval devotion did take on a more emotional and/or soteriologically central character (e.g. the Tamil Ālvārs and Nāyanārs), by roughly the tenth/eleventh century, this bhakti seems to have generally occurred within the frame of—or in necessary interaction with—fundamentally tantric principles, institutions, and ritual prescriptions. Even as we say this, it is imperative to point out that tantra’s rise to promi-nence in early medieval India was inseparable from the growth of popular traditions of worship and devotion. As Alexis Sanderson has remarked, the tantric Śaiva ( mantra- mārga ) traditions that dominated this period “were successful in no small measure because Śaiva devotion had become the dominant religious idiom in the population at large.” The rich and powerful of early medi-eval India were increasingly aligning themselves with tantric Śaiva initiatory lineages, in signifi -cant part, because doing so was “particularly e cacious in the eyes of a predominantly Śaiva population, not only among the brahmins but among all social strata, down to and including the lowest” ( Sanderson 2013 : 224). In other words, it seems that tantric Śaivism achieved its great success largely because it “hooked onto” and was “parasitic” upon a pre- existing, temple- based tradition of lay Śaiva bhakti ( Sanderson 2015 ).

We can gain some understanding of this co- existing tradition of lay Śaiva devotion through its literature, the Śiva- dharma corpus. 6 The earliest texts of the lay Śaiva tradition seem to be the circa sixth–seventh century Śivadharma ( Śivadharmaśāstra ) and Śivadharmottara , likely composed in North India, but widely known throughout medieval India ( De Simini 2016a : 22, 2016b : 236). The easy and aff ordable lay Śaiva religion prescribed in these texts was open to śūdra s, untouchables ( cāṇḍāla ), and foreigners ( mleccha ). As the research of Florinda de Simini on the Śivadharma and Śivadharmottara illustrates, the devotional religiosity extolled in the Śivadharma tradition centres not on the cultivation of emotion but on faith in the spiritual authority of Śaiva scriptures and professional ascetics and on practices of ritual worship and gift- giving ( dāna ), in particular, off erings of material support to the community of initiated Śaiva ācārya s and yogis ( De Simini 2016a : 46, 66). Overall, the most common topics in these two earliest Śivadharma texts seem to be (a) instructions for and praise of the ritual worship of the liṅga (a sphere of worship practice that would be adopted and adapted as the core of the tantric Śaiva ritual rep-ertoire); (b) praise of (and merits accrued by) constructing and maintaining a Śaiva temple; and (c) rules, fruits, and proper recipients of dāna (Ibid, 58). The window that Śivadharma texts give us onto early medieval lay Śaivism suggests that, in fact, popular devotion was lived out most centrally in performing rituals of worship to Śiva in the aniconic form of the liṅga ) and off ering material support to (patronizing) the larger Śaiva community.

The role and conception bhakti found in preeminent medieval tantric communities, together with the practice and character of devotion seen in medieval lay Śaiva scriptures, powerfully suggest that certain commonplace scholarly assumptions about bhakti—that is, that it is of the nature of passionate, emotional love and that it constitutes “normative” Hindu religion in the Common Era—are inaccurate and in need of serious reconsideration. In reference to our cen-tral topic of concern, this is to say that when Vaiṣṇava bhakti became dominant in North India in the early modern period, this was something quite new, and furthermore, the Sufi - infl ected emotional, aesthetic, and ethical character of this bhakti (to be discussed subsequently) was also something quite distinctive.

With the spread of Persianate Turkish power across North India from the twelfth century, the relationship between ruler and tāntrika rapidly declines, with political authority no longer rely-ing upon tantric ritual and institutions as it had been, and this brings about a signifi cant change in the religious landscape. As White writes ( 2011 : 577):

The rise and fall of Hindu Tantra as a religious “mainstream” is directly linked to the rise and fall of its royal patrons. In north and central India, Hindu Tantra thrived as the royal cultus under the Kalacuri, Somavamshi, Chandella, Calukya, and other dynastic lines, until their lands fell into the hands of Muslim rulers in the 12th century. . . . For so long as [the] relationship between kings and tantric specialists remained in force, Tantra persisted as a sanctioned religious force in India, with the ceremonial life of the kingdom being conducted in a tantric mode. When that relationship was dissolved, as Hindu kings were overthrown or reduced to vassal status by Muslim [Persianate Turkish] rulers (or, from the 16th cent. forward, increasingly opted for a devotional religious style), Tantra disappeared.

It is not that all tantric religiosity vanishes at this time, but that tantra as a mainstream, pub-lic tradition—held together as such by royal patronage and participation in an overarching politico- religious ideology and institutional culture—largely disappears. While tantric religios-ity in North India would live on, it would do so primarily (a) in more private, secretive contexts among Hindu royal families now subordinate to Sultanate and Mughal rulers; (b) among par-ticular (less institutionalized, non- brahmanical) lineages of tantric practitioners, like the Nāth yogis; and (c) as ritual procedures and techniques detached from tantric religiosity per se but persisting in new (non- tantric) contexts (e.g., Vedāntic, bhakti , and yogic frameworks). Overall, as we enter the Delhi Sultanate period, tantric paradigms of thought and behaviour increasingly fi nd themselves marginalized and subordinated to Hindu religious practices and perspectives more congenial to the new social environment and its increasingly prevalent Islamicate world-views. This is the setting for Vaiṣṇava devotionalism’s remarkable emergence in North India.

Sultanate India:
setting the stage for North India’s bhakti poet- saints

The story of Vaiṣṇava bhakti’s rise to predominance in North India begins in the Delhi Sultan-ate (1206–1526). 7 The military conquest of India by Persianate Turks in the early thirteenth century ended an era in which tantric religio- political paradigms and institutions had been an important feature of the subcontinent for centuries. This shift in the sociopolitical order resulted in new patterns of circulation, encounter, and exchange that would, in time, create the conditions for the growth of new bhakti sensibilities, communities, and forms of literature. 8 The Sultanate period was a time of cultural translation, a complex, dynamic, and extended encoun-ter of Persianate- Islamicate and Sanskritic- Indic cultures that led to several momentous changes in north and central India: the decline of mainstream, royally patronized institutional forms of tantra; the spread of Persian courtly and literary culture; the expansion of popular Sufi sm; and, relatedly, the growth of a trans- religious North Indian culture of vernacular literary composi-tion and performance. All of these Sultanate- era developments paved the way for the emergence of the bhakti poet- saints of North India.

Shortly after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the early thirteenth century, Mon-gol invasions devastated Iran and Central Asia, leading to a massive infl ux of elite Persianized migrants into India. In this context, Persian cosmopolitan culture and its distinctive ethics, aesthetics, and political practices gradually took root in northern India and, later, the Deccan, overlapping and interacting with the pre- existing Sanskrit cosmopolis. The ideals of the Persian cosmopolis—just like those of Sanskritic culture—were not imposed but gradually assimilated and, over time, increasingly emulated ( Eaton and Wagoner 2014 : 26).

As the Persianized Turks and Afghans of the Sultanate subjugated local Indian populations, a slow process of cultural and linguistic assimilation began, exemplifi ed in the Sultanate elites’ “adaptation of local literary and artistic forms to express new poetic and religious agendas within a complex multilingualism of religious and symbolic vocabularies” ( Behl 2012a : 16). By the end of the thirteenth century, a signifi cant part of the Sultanate aristocracy was Indian born and raised. Most would have been native speakers of Hindavī, the general vernacular spoken language of North India. The Tughlaq dynasty (1320–1414) is known to have culti-vated Hindavī verse, patronizing its musical and recitative performance, and the very fi rst work of Hindavī literature—a Sufi romance ( premākhyān )—the Cāndāyan , was composed in 1379 at a Tughlaq provincial court in Avadh. The Tughlaqs were also the fi rst to make tentative attempts to bring Hindus into the Sultanate’s central ruling apparatus. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, then, we see the beginnings of signifi cant cultural exchange and hybridity—a simultaneous Indianization of Persianate traditions and a Persianization of aspects of Indian culture 9 —a trend that would eventually result, in the fi fteenth century, in the blos-soming of a shared vernacular culture.

While the expansion of Persianate courtly and literary culture represents a key dimension of the broader cultural change occurring in Sultanate India, related to this expansion, and just as important as it, was the spread of Sufi sm. The form and style of Islam that fl ooded into India from Central Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was one largely defi ned by Sufi sm, and more specifi cally, by a new brand of Sufi sm centred on popular devotion to the Sufi saint. The practices and symbols of this mass- based, saint- centred form of Sufi sm were far more important in moulding Indian worldviews than the texts and traditions of doctrinal Islam. As Richard Eaton has shown, for most Indians, who would have been illiterate or non- Arabic speakers, the Quran was not a particularly compelling source of sacred authority; rather, it was Sufi s—their words and actions—that served as the representatives, the embodiments of Islam ( Eaton 2003 : 263). As Sultanate power spread outward from Delhi, Sufi s played a key role in extending settlement and cultivation, with provincial communities often centred on the estab-lishment of Sufi hospices ( khānqāh s) and tomb shrines ( dargāh s) ( Digby 2004 : 302–305). The rituals conducted at these local Sufi institutions “made Islam accessible to non- lettered masses, providing them with vivid and concrete manifestations of the divine order, and integrating them into its ritualized drama both as participants and as sponsors” (Eaton 2003: 264). Centred around the charisma of Sufi saints, the shrines and hospices associated with South Asia’s diff er-ent Sufi orders gradually spread across the subcontinent and together functioned to incorporate local cultural systems into a larger Indo- Persian, Islamicate culture that would have a clear impact on developing bhakti sensibilities.

By the mid- fourteenth century, the Tughlaq conquests had reached their limits and the Delhi Sultanate was forced to face the challenges of scale, with the sultans often at major pains to prevent the rise of local bases of power. In the latter half of the fourteenth century, Delhi’s authority began to decline, with regional governors becoming wealthier and more autono-mous. Already tottering, the Tughlaq dynasty received a crushing blow with Timur’s invasion and sacking of Delhi in 1398, which signifi cantly altered India’s political and cultural land-scape. 10 With the capital city’s authority destroyed, regional governors took the opportunity to strike out on their own and, in the fi fteenth century, Delhi became just one of many regional power centres as a series of independent sultanates arose in Bengal in the east, Jaunpur in the mid- Gangetic region (between Delhi and Bengal), Gujarat in the west, Malwa in central India, and the Deccan, along with the emergence of several Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan. 11 In all of these regional kingdoms, new artistic ventures, literary styles, and cross- religious collabora-tions fl ourished. Regional rulers patronized new forms of poetry and arts at their courts as part of the project of establishing political legitimacy. At the same time, the overall decentralization of power across North India meant the increased prominence of rural gentry, local warlords, and merchants who provided local resources to regional rulers and who (like those rulers) also sought to assert their status and authority by patronizing poets, scholars, and performers ( Sreenivasan 2014 : 243–247). In this environment, there was widespread demand for literary specialists (many of whom were Sufi s), who utilized prestigious Persian and Sanskrit conven-tions while adapting their works—in style, narrative content, and theme—to the distinctive concerns of their patrons to produce sophisticated new vernacular literary works. 12 While the fi fteenth and early sixteenth century have been characterized as “the twilight of the Delhi Sultanate,” in fact, as Francesca Orsini notes, this was “a period of considerable regional politi-cal, cultural and religious dynamism” and “the beginning of the widespread vernacular literary production in north India” ( 2012 : 227). Indeed, the rise of bhakti in North India was tied to the development in the late (post- Timur) Sultanate of this new vernacular literary and performative culture, in which Sufi s played a key role.

Orsini explains that in the fi fteenth century, circulation and trade across North India was “easy and intense” and that “while north India was not a homogenous region in political terms, it seems to have been a fairly well- connected cultural and linguistic region” (Ibid., 228–229). North India’s “high” 13 languages at this time were Arabic, Sanskrit, and, most especially, Persian, which spread through sultanate administration, madrasa education, and Sufi religious culture, eventually being taken up even among Hindu elites and artisanal classes ( Orsini and Sheikh 2014 : 14–15). Operating alongside these languages was the generally intelligible “common tongue” of Hindavī. A composite indigenous North Indian language, Hindavī, or bhākhā (bhāṣā) , was a generic spoken vernacular (a sort of proto- Brajbhāṣā) that could be written in multiple scripts (Persian, Kaithī, Devanāgarī, etc.). Locally produced compositions in Hindavī—primarily stories ( kathā s), songs, and poetic couplets ( dohā s)—“could travel and be understood over the whole of North India” and were performed in regional and subregional courts, Sufi khānqāh s, and in the “open, ‘Bhakti public sphere’ of towns and villages” (Ibid., 14–16). Thus, in the fi fteenth and early sixteenth centuries, North Indian society was a multilingual and multicultural one in which the growth of vernacular Hindavī literary forms was happening in conjunction with the spread of Persian language and literature ( Orsini 2014a : 404).

It was in this diverse and interactive socioreligious context, in the fi fteenth and early six-teenth centuries, with its emerging vernacular literary- performative culture, that the age of the great bhakti saints of North India began with fi gures such as Kabīr, the iconoclastic weaver from Benares, whose fi erce rhetoric criticized Muslims and Hindus alike for not truly loving God but getting lost in egoistic concerns, ritual obligations, and doctrinal details; Raidās, the “untouch-able” leatherworker, also from Benares, who was a model of humility in his devotion to a formless, transcendent nirguṇ (“without attributes”) God that cherished the troubled and lowly as much as anyone; Narasī Mehtā, the poor but ever- generous Brahmin Vaiṣṇava devotee from Gujarat; Pīpā, the Rajasthani king who abdicated his throne to serve God and the community of bhakta s; Nānak, the great Punjabi nirguṇ bhakta who founded the Sikh community; Sūrdās, the artful (and reputedly blind) poet and Kṛṣṇa devotee of Braj; and Mīrābāī, the Rajasthani princess and passionate devotee of Kṛṣṇa. The exact dates for most of these important bhakti fi g-ures are disputed, but the key point is that these poet- saints—who all composed in the vernacu-lar—all seem to have fl ourished in the culturally dynamic period stretching from the fi fteenth through the mid- sixteenth century (i.e., post- Timur and pre- Akbar). Furthermore, this list of saints demonstrates the social and geographic reach of the emerging bhakti movement in that they came from all social backgrounds (from Brahmin to “untouchable”) and from places across the breadth of North India (from Gujarat, Panjab, and Rajasthan to Braj and Benares). During Akbar’s reign and throughout the seventeenth century, important bhakti poets and community leaders would continue to emerge and fl ourish, including fi gures such as Tulsīdās, the Brahmin devotee of Rām and author of the famous vernacular Hindavī rendition of the Rām story, the Rāmcaritmānas , and Dādū, the nirguṇ devotee who started a bhakti community in Rajasthan known for its prolifi c literary production.

The growth of bhakti in early modern North India was, in signifi cant part, a literary and institutional phenomenon and was therefore closely linked to the rise of Hindavī (and by the end of the sixteenth century, specifi cally Brajbhāṣā) as a vernacular language of artistic sophis-tication, culture, and status, a development in which Sufi s played a major part. Behl has shown that in late Sultanate India and throughout the Mughal period, Hindavī compositions were popular “among groups of cultivated listeners in courts, Sufi hospices ( kh ānaqāh s), and other spaces where poetry was sung or recited” ( 2012a : 286). Indeed, in North India, it was actually Sufi s who inaugurated the literary use of vernacular languages. By the fi fteenth century, most Indian Sufi s would undoubtedly have spoken Indian dialects as their mother tongue; thus, it should come as no surprise that Sufi s in North India appreciated and composed poetry in their own vernacular of Hindavī. 14 Orsini explains that, for North Indian Sufi s,

Arabic was the scriptural language, Persian was the textual language of exposition and poetry, and Hindavi was comfortably the local language of Islam and a parallel poetic language to that of Persian. . . . [W]hereas the textual world of North Indian Sufi sm appears to have been overwhelmingly Persian, its oral and oral- literary world must have been more substantially Hindavi. ( 2014b : 223)

While India’s traditional Sanskrit- based literary culture did not encourage the use of ver-naculars for literary purposes, Sufi s were not enculturated into (and thus not bound by) the codes of Sanskritic tradition and were therefore well situated to lead the way in transforming the spoken idiom of Hindavī into a courtly language and a literary tradition. In this regard, it is particularly important to discuss the new and uniquely Indian genre of the premākhyān , or Sufi romance.

The Indian Sufi romances were composed in Hindav ī , generally followed the conventions of the Persian masnav ī (a long romantic, martial, or didactic poem written in rhyming couplets), incorporated the Indian aesthetic theory of rasa , and utilized regional Indian narratives and imagery. This Muslim- penned genre actually constitutes “the fi rst substantial body of devo-tional and narrative literature in pre- modern Hindi” ( Behl 2007 : 321). The major premākhyān s are Maul ā n ā D ā ’ ū d’s C ā nd ā yan (1379), Qutban’s Mirig ā vat ī (1503), J ā yas ī ’s Padm ā vat (1540), and Manjhan’s Madhum ā lat ī (1545). As Aditya Behl has shown so masterfully, these Hindavī Sufi romances took Persian concepts and poetic forms along with Islamic models of piety and re- presented them “in Indian dress,” using local Indian aesthetics, imagery, religious practices, and narratives to communicate Sufi cosmology, metaphysics, and devotional sensibilities ( 2012a : 16–22, 328–329). The cultural and literary impact of this vernacular Indian Sufi literature—particularly upon North India’s burgeoning bhakti tradition—was signifi cant. Indeed, one of the signature literary achievements of the bhakti movement and arguably the most popular religious text in North India today, Tulsidās’ Rāmcaritmānas , composed in Hindavī (Avadhi) in 1575, adopted and adapted the language, narrative technique, and meter of the premākhyān s, thereby bringing a Sufi tradition of expression “into the center of north Indian Vaiṣṇava devo-tionalism” ( Digby 2004 : 351).

The premākhyān s participated in a “double system of circulation and performance” in which, on one hand, they were performed orally in the courts of nobles and rulers, at Sufi shrines and hospices, in bazaars, and privately in the homes of the a uent, and, on the other hand, they were also “circulated across great distances in manuscript form and became the object of artistic virtuosity and courtly connoisseurship” ( Williams 2014 : 88). These Sufi romances were crucial in making a place for Hindavī as a language of written literature, fi t for performance at court, and relatedly in making a place for Hindavī manuscripts as material forms of status and power in the Indo- Persian aesthetic and political culture of the day. While bhakti compositions initially circulated almost entirely through oral channels, around the late sixteenth century—following the lead of the Sufi s—bhakti communities began to produce thousands of hand- written manu-scripts of vernacular bhakti literature that would circulate throughout North India, connecting bhakta s far and wide to each other as well as to the halls of Mughal and Rajput power.

Mughal India:
the growth of Vaisnava bhakti institutions and communities

While North India’s bhakti movement began in the specifi c social and cultural conditions of the later Sultanate, it was during the Mughal period that bhakti became a major institutional and literary phenomenon in North India. In this section, I explore the Mughal- Rajput sociopoliti-cal context that allowed bhakti institutions and literature to fl ourish in early modern North India, focusing in particular on the reign of the third Mughal emperor, Jalāl ud- Dīn Muham-mad Akbar (r. 1556–1605), or “Akbar the Great.” The religious policies, political alliances, and administrative structures developed during Akbar’s rule were crucial in facilitating the successful growth of Vaiṣṇava bhakti traditions.

As Christian Novetzke notes, scholars have too often treated bhakti “as if it existed in a hermetic theological and literary sphere . . . bypassing the ways bhakti is embedded in fi elds of power” ( 2019 : 122). With this in mind, in this section, we stay attuned to the crucial political and economic context and interests that shaped the development of bhakti, and religion more generally, in Mughal India. Important here is the research of Irfan Habib, who, among oth-ers, suggests that the institution of a new land revenue system in the Sultanate period helped to establish an economy in which (in certain key areas) agrarian exploitation—the systematic appropriation of agricultural surplus by the ruling class—fuelled urban growth and, correspond-ingly, an expansion in craft production and commerce. In the Mughal period, the basic char-acter of this economy seems to have continued and to have reached an even more developed form ( Habib 1963 , 2002 : 370–385). 15 The growth of merchant and urban artisan classes and the dispossession and disempowerment of (at least certain segments of) the peasantry that occurred in the Sultanate and Mughal periods were likely related to the rise of both devotional com-munities and soldiering (warrior ascetic) groups that we see in North India from the fi fteenth century, if in ways that are not yet fully understood.16

Vasudha Dalmia and Munis Faruqui identify three other interrelated historical- material phenomena that had particularly signifi cant eff ects upon religious life in the Mughal Empire ( Dalmia and Faruqui 2014 : xii–xiv). First, the gradual absorption of northern India’s post- 1398 regional kingdoms within a single imperial state—the consolidation of Mughal authority from Kabul to Bengal, Kashmir to the northern Deccan—created a political context that no ambitious religious group could ignore. Second, a network of roads and related facilities (step- wells, roadside hostels, etc.) were built in the late fi fteenth and early sixteenth centuries, greatly improving communications and the ease of travel, facilitating commerce and the expansion of economic networks. Third, the growing wealth of India from late fi fteenth century—an increase in gold and silver coming into India from its many exports (cotton and silk textiles, spices, manufactured goods, agricultural products)—spurred great economic development. In the seventeenth century, the Mughal empire possessed greater wealth and manpower than all other early modern Islamicate empires, including those of the Safavids, Uzbeks, and Ottomans ( Moin 2014 : 263). As Dalmia and Faruqi state, “This wealth not only enhanced the military and administrative capacities of the Mughal Empire,” it also provided resources that would lead to “widespread temple and mosque construction, the expansion of old pilgrimage sites, rising numbers of Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, as well as increasing religiously oriented textual pro-duction” ( Dalmia and Faruqui 2014 : xiv.) We really begin to see the eff ects of these historical developments—political consolidation, improved transportation and communication, and ris-ing wealth—on India’s religious landscape in the reign of Akbar, and these conditions would persist through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century.

Under Akbar, the Mughal Empire became the largest and most bureaucratically sophisticated political entity that India had ever seen. Akbar and his allies constructed “a new corporate and inclusivist ideology of service to emperor and state” that successfully drew together a disparate range of ethnic groups in the leadership and administration of the Mughal empire ( O’Hanlon 2007 : 889). The Rajputs—a politically powerful, ethnically diverse, and geographically wide-spread Hindu status group often associated with warriorhood 17 —played an especially vital role in these political and administrative innovations. The Rajputs were also crucial in the forma-tion of a joint Mughal- Rajput court culture whose cosmopolitan codes and symbols of virtue, deportment, and aesthetic sophistication contributed to, and were intertwined with, the rise of Vaisnava bhakti.

A cornerstone of Akbar’s new imperial ideology was the celebrated ecumenical policy of ṣuḥl- i kull in which all were to be treated equally and respectfully; that is, non- Muslims were o cially accorded the same rights as Muslims. Akbar’s adoption of this open- minded, tolerant perspective as the basis for his imperial religious policy was one key factor—among others such as, especially, his alliance with Hindu Rajputs—that helped to produce a sociopolitical environ-ment in which bhakti communities and their institutions would fl ourish in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as tantric religiosity emerged in and refl ected a certain medieval feudal political environment, as Ronald Davidson (2002 ) has demonstrated, bhakti’s success-ful growth in early modern North India also had to do with a resonance between Mughal imperial ideology, with its “patrimonial- bureaucratic” political structure, and the ideology of Va iṣṇava devotion. The new Mughal dynastic ideology of the latter sixteenth century “glorifi ed Akbar as the living embodiment of the Empire itself, and focus for the direct personal devo-tion of the imperial nobility” ( O’Hanlon 2007 : 889). While the regional sultanates had been structured by horizontal ties (of both marriage and military give- and- take), things changed with the Mughals—especially under Akbar—as they successfully “open[ed] up a hierarchical chasm between themselves and those whom they ‘commanded’,” in which the emperor was “the single source of political legitimacy and authority” ( Alam and Subrahmanyam 1998 : 21; Richards 1995: 56). There are fascinating similarities between the devotion, loyalty, and ser-vice that Mughal o cials gave to the emperor and that off ered by Vaiṣṇava bhakta s to God. As Kumkum Chatterjee has stated, “the intensely personal, unquestioning bhakti that underlay the phenomenon of Vaisnava devotionalism in northern India during this period, constituted a par-allel, at least at the conceptual level, with the cult of devoted imperial service and devotion” to the Mughal emperor ( Chatterjee 2009 : 157–158). She notes, for instance, the striking parallels between the Mughals’ royal ceremonies (such as the custom in which the emperor appeared on the palace balcony to give his darśan or “viewing” to gathered subjects) and the daily rituals of bhakti temples (such as the awakening of the deity and its ceremonial darśan by devotees at spe-cifi c times in the day). The new Mughal system succeeded because it synced with and helped to transform the values of high- status warrior- aristocrats like the Rajputs, assisting in a “shift from personal, lineage, or sectarian pride—that of the ‘free’ warrior chief—to a more impersonal, imperial pride—that of the ‘slave’ warrior- administrator” ( Richards 1998 : 129) who understood service to the emperor or his subordinates as no diff erent from service to God (or from service to a local ruler or ṭhākur ). In this context, it is not surprising that Akbar came to be regularly associated with Viṣṇu (especially Rām) and even described by Hindu contemporaries as one of his avatār s ( Truschke 2016 : 39–40, 204–205).

From the early Mughal period onward, local Hindu rulers across North India increasingly came to ally themselves with Vaiṣṇava bhakti communities and their institutional forms and symbols while often moving away from those of tantric Śaivism and Śāktism. As Catherine Asher and Cynthia Talbot have written, “Although elite Hindus in previous centuries had primarily focused on Śiva as the object of their worship . . . the situation changed from c . 1500 onward, after a wave of devotion toward Vishnu became more widespread” ( Asher and Talbot 2006 : 108). William Pinch similarly states that, “the major Rajput clans underwent what might be deemed a kind of ‘conversion’ process, from Śaiva and Śakta cult a liations in the early 1500s to more ‘orthoprax’ Krishna and Rama devotion by 1800, and . . . this occurred in tandem with participation in the overarching framework of the Mughal impe-rium” ( Pinch 2009 ).

There is plentiful evidence for this broad shift toward Vaiṣṇava bhakti. Samira Sheikh has discussed the rise of devotional Vaiṣṇavism in Gujarat in the fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries in association with a decline in Śaivism, which had been dominant there for centuries ( Sheikh 2010 : 130–175). Orsini and Sheikh have noted how, in the fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries, “Rajput groups formerly associated with goddess or Shiva worship began to link up their gene-alogies with Krishna” ( Orsini and Sheikh 2014 : 42–43). Popular oral traditions from Rajasthan, Panjab, and the Kullu Valley (western Himalayas) each relate the defeat of tantric Nāth yogis and the subsequent conversion (corroborated in historical records) of the local ruler and populace to Vaiṣṇava devotional sensibilities in the early modern period ( Burchett 2019 : 131–137). Char-lotte Vaudeville has demonstrated that Śaivism and Śāktism dominated Braj prior to its takeover by Vaiṣṇava (Kṛṣṇa) bhakti in the sixteenth century ( Vaudeville 1976 : 204–208). In a study of Rāmāyaṇa - related pilgrimage sites that became popular in the early modern period, Diana Eck has shown how early modern Vaiṣṇava bhakti movements in North India took over, and were superimposed upon, what had long been Śaiva religious territory ( Eck 1991 ). Heidi Pauwels has drawn attention to the deliberation move by the Bundelā rulers of Orchha (Madhya Pradesh) from Śākta- centred religious practice to that of Vaiṣṇava bhakti in the sixteenth century ( Pau-wels 2009 ). In Panjab, Kathleen Erndl has discussed evidence for the predominance of Śāktism prior to the emergence of devotional Vaiṣṇavism there in the seventeenth century ( Erndl 1993 : 43). Pika Ghosh’s work on Bengal has documented the rise of new, devotional types of temple construction in association with the rise of Vaiṣṇava bhakti there in the seventeenth and eight-eenth centuries and its challenge to the brahmanical tantric institutions and goddess cults of Bengal ( Ghosh 2005 ).

The evidence for a general historical shift from tantric Śaiva- Śākta religiosity to devotional Va iṣṇavism in early modern North India is clear and abundant; however, there are some impor-tant caveats. This was a shift , not an erasure. Tantric Śaivism and Śāktism in no way disappeared; rather, generally speaking, their role—especially their public presence—diminished and often became subordinate to the ideologies, institutions, and symbols of devotional Vaiṣṇavism. 18Furthermore, this shift toward Vaiṣṇava bhakti was not a universal fact but an incomplete and uneven process, occurring at diff erent times and fashions in diff erent locations, and varying in impact among diff erent social strata. Very generally, the early modern shift to institutionalized forms of saguṇ (“with attributes”) Rām- or Krṣṇa- focused devotional Vaiṣṇavism seems to have occurred especially among North India’s rulers, aristocracy, brahmans, and merchant class and to have been less widespread among peasant and pastoral castes. In some areas, such as the West-ern Himalayas, while saguṇ Va iṣṇava bhakti was taken up by the ruling class, it does not seem to have held much appeal or to have spread widely among the broader populace ( Moran 2013 : 22–24). Even in Braj (the Vrindavan- Mathura area), the beating heart of early modern North India’s rising Kṛṣṇa devotional movement, the region’s indigenous peasant and pastoralist inhab-itants tended to be excluded from or marginalized within the major Kṛṣṇa bhakti sampradāy s and to maintain earlier traditions revolving around the worship of goddesses and nature and/or the pragmatic services and occult powers off ered by locally renowned charismatic ascetics ( Vaudeville 1976 : 204–213, 1980 : 12, 15, n. 36; Rana 2006 : 127–128, 131–134). Indeed, the Braj region’s dominant peasant caste, the Jāṭs, seem to have held an “intense hostility” toward, and to have been in active conflict with, the rapidly growing brahmanical Vaiṣṇava (Gauḍīya and Vallabhite) establishments based in the area ( Rana 2006 : 125). 19 None of this is to say that the spread of bhakti in early modern North India was only an upper- caste aff air or one that served simply “to endear the dominant to the subordinate and thereby justify servitude” ( Guha 1997 : 47–50). 20 In fact, bhakti’s growth occurred at all social levels and, as Kumkum Sangari (1990 ) has brilliantly shown, it involved the empowering of low- castes and women and the subversion of traditional structures of dominance even as it often perpetuated the inequities of status quo caste, class, and gender relations. 21

The growth of Vaiṣṇava bhakti, then, was certainly a popular phenomenon; nevertheless, in making sense of the various dimensions of bhakti ’s rise in early modern North India, the trend among Rajputs and other political elites of taking up the symbols and allying with the institutions of saguṇ devotional Vaiṣṇavism (often to the detriment of previous Śaiva- Śākta loyalties) is particularly important because of the new patronage, prestige, and public visibil-ity it aff orded to Vaiṣṇava bhakti. Importantly, these Hindu rulers would not typically have considered the matter an either/or choice between tantric Śaiva- Śākta religion and Vaiṣṇava bhakti. Since the power and appeal of sacrifi ce- demanding clan goddesses and the reputations of charismatic tantric yogis were typically quite localized in nature, rulers often continued to give them a measure of local support that was meant to complement the cosmopolitanism of Vaiṣṇava bhakti, which increasingly came to serve as the more public face of Hindu kingdoms, able to link rulers into a larger empire- wide network of shared values and symbols of authority, purity, and virtue. Mahesh Sharma’s work, for example, shows how rulers of the western Himalayan kingdom of Chambā in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attained “consent- to- rule” from subjects in their core area by appropriating and supporting local symbols and sacred centres linked to goddesses and Nāth yogis, while simultaneously legitimating their authority and fostering “an association with the subcontinental cosmos” by pub-licly adopting and formally associating themselves with devotional Vaisnavism ( Sharma 2009 : 72–76, 135–137). Even the Kacchvāhās, the fi rst and most infl uential clan of Rajputs to ally with Akbar, who were major patrons of bhakti and great devotees of Govindadev (Kṛṣṇa) and Sītā- Rām, also continued to place themselves under the protection of their tutelary goddess Jamvai- mātā and the guardian of the royal territory, the tantric goddess Śilā- devī. As Jason Schwartz (2012 ) has suggested, it seems likely that Śākta Tantra was present behind the scenesat several major sites where Vaiṣṇava bhakti was being publicly trumpeted in Mughal India, including the Kacchvāhā court. Thus, it seems that some Hindu rulers in Mughal India supported locally esteemed tantric cults of worship or sought out tantric (Śākta) empowerment in private, esoteric settings at the same time that they openly espoused Vaiṣṇava bhakti and publicly displayed its cosmopolitan symbols. 22

The Mughals directly patronized the growth of Vaiṣṇava bhakti, most often through tax- free land grants which served to secure the political loyalty of Vaiṣṇava bhakti institutions in strate-gic locations, such as the key region of Braj. State support of bhakti communities (in the form of charitable grants to Vaiṣṇava community leaders and institution- builders) may have been designed to create a class of infl uential Hindus who would act as apologists and propagandists for the Mughal regime, but it also suggests a Mughal appeal to the larger quotidian populace of devotees supported by the very Vaiṣṇava temples and maṭha s being patronized, a way for the state to cultivate positive relations with a growing bhakti public that clearly had a certain politi-cal power and utility. 23

In general, as Audrey Truschke has stressed, “the Mughals cultivated a notably multilingual and multicultural courtly environment that included royal support of Hindi, Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit” ( Truschke 2015 : 252). In Akbar’s India, power derived in large part from aes-thetic practice, with political infl uence often exerted and/or acquired through literary, intel-lectual, and cultural endeavours. Corinne Lefevre has remarked upon the enormous political signifi cance and prestige associated with cultural and literary- artistic activities in Mughal India, not just at the imperial court, but also among subimperial nobles and non- state actors ( Lefe-vre 2014 : 79). With regard to the rise of bhakti, particularly noteworthy is Mughal support of Brajbhāṣā and the self- assertive literary activity in Brajbhāṣā we see at subimperial Mughal courts and in devotional communities of the period. The trailblazing work of Allison Busch has shown how Brajbhāṣā “functioned as a zone of sociolinguistic contact, a medium that the Persian- using Mughals and the Sanskrit- profi cient Hindu literati had in common” ( Busch 2014 : 194). As she explains, the vernacular of Brajbhāṣā “had the innate ability to foster the partici-pation of multiple groups and linkages between them. In contrast to Sanskrit and Persian, . . . Brajbhasha was readily intelligible to most North Indians from Gujarat to Bengal and . . . was a marvellously adaptable linguistic resource because writers could manipulate registers to suit diverse literary contexts and patrons” (Ibid., 194–195). Beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, there would be an unprecedented explosion of Brajbhāṣā literary activity, much of it driven by emerging bhakti communities who, in the Mughal cultural environment, increas-ingly sought patronage and power—and forged their sectarian identities—through their literary practices and products.

A Mughal bhakti case study:
the Rāmānandīs of Galtā

A brief examination of the Rāmānandī bhakti community of Galtā, near modern- day Jaipur, and a few of its infl uential members, is instructive for fl eshing out some of the broader inter-twined political, literary, and religious trends we have been discussing. Particularly important is Agradās, a disciple of Kṛṣṇadās Payahāri (head of the initial Galtā community) and supposed founder of the Rām- rasik sect, 24 who fl ourished in the latter half of the sixteenth century and is the fi rst Rāmānandī to have produced any signifi cant body of written literature. Agradās wrote at a time when Brajbhāṣā was already well established in bhakti religious circles and was on the rise as a sophisticated literary idiom, rapidly gaining importance in courtly contexts. Agra wrote in Rajasthan, within the orbit of the Kacchvāhā rulers of Amer, who were taking the lead role in establishing “a transregional Rajput courtly culture that was evolving in dialogue with the Mughal imperial system” (Busch 2011: 46), and was signifi cantly informed by the values, images, and narratives of Vaiṣṇava bhakti. This developing cosmopolitan court culture engen-dered a new interest among Rajput rulers in literacy and books, which manifested in the second half of the sixteenth century in an explosion of written texts (that increasingly supplemented oral practices) and the fi rst development of libraries (Busch 2011: 173).

Agradās found himself in the midst of all these trends and the new patronage conditions to which they gave rise. By producing written texts, especially ones that interfaced with the increasingly popular Kṛṣṇaite- infl uenced śṛṅgāra literary culture, it was possible for bhakti poets to plug into the petty noble circuit and perhaps make even bigger court connections that would bring the benefi ts of both prestige and patronage to themselves and their communities. 25 Agradās wrote at a time when Brajbhāṣā literary production and the Vaiṣṇava devotion with which it was so often associated were increasingly becoming part of Rajput kingly self- presentation, a self- fashioning designed to display the Rajput rulers’ worthiness, prestige, sophistication, and power to: (a) the Mughals, who, crucially, could participate fi rsthand in the “cultural repertory” of Brajbhāṣā, unlike with the far more inaccessible realm of Sanskrit (Busch 2011: 163); (b) rival Rajput houses; and (c) their own local subjects. Agradās composed polished vernacular works on Vaiṣṇava themes according to time- honoured Sanskrit aesthetic conventions and thus made the Rāmānandī sampradāy into an active participant in an emerging cosmopolitan Mughal- Rajput literary culture. His literary project provided the Rāmānandīs a level of dignity, distinc-tion, and deportment that was vital in their competition with other religious communities for the support and patronage of those with wealth, sophistication, and power.

While earlier (as well as many contemporaneous) Rāmānandīs seem to have operated within an ascetic, yogic, and Sant devotional culture not much concerned with either brahmanical propriety or the composition of literature, Agradās spearheaded an eff ort to secure respectability and legitimacy for the Rāmānandīs among other sectarian Hindu communities by producing vernacular devotional literature that engaged Sanskritic traditions and interfaced with the devel-oping Mughal- Rajput court culture. With the Rajputs’ rise to political power within the system of Mughal rule developed under Akbar, paralleled by the intertwined ascent of rasik aesthetics and Vaiṣṇava bhakti, religious communities found themselves in a new patronage milieu, and in works such as his Dhyān- mañjarī , Kuṇḍaliyā , Prahlād- caritra , and Nām- pratāp , Agradās took the lead in adapting and representing his own community in light of these developments, all the while promoting the saving power of bhakti and praising the great bhaktas.

Agradās’s disciple Nābhādās, in accord with Agra’s directives, continued this project. At the beginning of his widely infl uential hagiography, the Bhaktamāl (c. 1600), Nābhādās explains that it was Agradās who ordered him to compose his famous work in praise of the devotees of God. In the fourth dohā , he states, “Guru Agradev gave the order: ‘Sing the glory of the bhakta s. There is no other way to cross the ocean of existence.’ ” 26 Agradās himself com-posed several Brajbhāṣā works creatively retelling stories (all found in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa ) about exemplary bhakta s—namely his Nām- Pratāp , Prahlād- caritra , and Dhruv- carit —in order to praise the power of Vaiṣṇava devotion. Nābhādās’s Bhaktamāl appears to have been a work directly inspired by and dedicated to Agradās’s conviction that divine favour, even liberation, can be attained by singing the praises of the great bhakta s, cherishing their memory, and fol-lowing their model. Agradās’s grand- disciple Anantadās (a disciple of Agra’s disciple Vinod) also continued this literary project of praising the great bhakta s and popularizing the power of their devotion through compositions in Brajbhāṣā. While technically he was Agradās’s “grand- disciple,” Anantadās was a contemporary of Nābhādās and thus was likely not any more distant from Agra than was Nābhā. Anantadās composed a number of parcāī s—separate hagiographical works in praise of individual bhakta s, namely Nāmdev, Pīpā, Kabīr, Raidās, Trilochan, Sen, Dhanā, and Aṅgad—that constitute, along with Nābhā’s Bhaktamāl , some of our earliest and most signifi cant textual sources for understanding bhakti in early modern North India.

In their respective works, both Nābhādās and Anantadās boldly claimed fi ve widely renowned Sants—Kabīr, Raidās, Sen, Dhanā, and Pīpā—as disciples of Rāmānand and thus members of their own sampradāy . Whether this assertion was justifi ed, in publicly laying claim to these highly popular Sants, who were from diff erent regions and castes (though generally from the lower classes), the Rāmānandīs raised themselves up as the preeminent representative of a bhakti transcending the boundaries of geography and social (caste) location. In the case of the Bhaktamāl , at the same time that Nābhādās claimed these heterodox, low- caste bhakta s, he also explicitly linked his community to one of the loftiest symbols of Vaiṣṇava orthodoxy, the south Indian brahmin ācārya Rāmānuja and his Śrī sampradāy . 27 By claiming themselves as one (arguably the most prestigious one) of the four great Vaiṣṇava sectarian communities, the cār sampradāy , Agradās and Nābhādās sought to give their socially inclusive Rāmānandī com-munity, which consisted of many members from the poorest echelons of Indian society, an enhanced social status that would allow them to compete more eff ectively for both patronage and followers. In many respects, the Rāmānandīs had more in common with the nirguṇ follow-ers of Nānak (the Sikhs) and Dādū (both of whom are left out of Nābhā’s otherwise inclusive “garland of devotees”) than they did with the other three members of “the cār sampradāy ,” the sectarian communities of Caitanya (the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas), Vallabha (the Puṣṭi Mārg), and Nimbārka. These three saguṇ sampradāy s were distinct from the Rāmānandīs but quite similar to each other, in that they all focused rather exclusively on worship of Kṛṣṇa, had clear brah-manical roots, and generally held a greater concern with caste practices and orthodox social/religious propriety.

In seeking to occupy a sort of middle ground among Mughal India’s burgeoning sectarian bhakti communities (in terms of theology, social ideology, and literary output), the Rāmānandīs off er us an especially informative picture of Mughal India’s religious marketplace and the spec-trum of bhakti within it. Agradās and Nābhādās were faced with the challenge of appealing to both low- caste rural communities and the political and intellectual urban elite. They sought to maintain and assert their community’s Sant (socially liberal and ascetically tinged) values even as they provided the Rāmānandīs with orthodox brahminical respectability and opportuni-ties for elite patronage. In their literary works, these Rāmānandīs made a number of shrewd strategic moves as they laid claim to the most popular heterodox ( nirguṇ ) Sants (as disciples of Rāmānand), while simultaneously associating themselves with the burgeoning orthodox ( saguṇ) Kṛṣṇaite communities of Braj who seemed increasingly to be the favourite benefi ciaries of Mughal and Rajput patronage.

 The Mughal bhakti public and its sensibility

In terms of bhakti’s social demographics in Mughal India, the popular Kṛṣṇa- focused sectarian communities of Vallabha (Puṣṭi Mārg) and Caitanya (Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava) tended to have a more orthodox, brahmanical orientation appealing to urban aristocrats and merchant classes, whereas lower- caste (peasant, pastoralist, artisan) groups more often participated in nirguṇ- oriented bhakticommunities (e.g., the Sikhs, Dādū- panth 28 ) or less brahmanical, if still saguṇ- friendly, Vaiṣṇava sects (e.g., the Rāmānandīs). 29 This being said, one certainly did not need to be formally asso-ciated with an institutionalized sectarian bhakti community (whether saguṇ or nirguṇ ) in order to be a part of the expanding bhakti public of early modern North India. At the popular level, it could just as easily mean una liated participation in a spreading, trans- sectarian, colloquial Va iṣṇava bhakti ethos, sensibility, and practice—most especially the singing and remembrance of the divine Name. Hawley argues that in late Sultanate and Mughal India, despite diff erences (even confl icts) of perspective within it (e.g., Kabīr versus Tulsīdās), there was a common, non- sectarian “vulgate Vaiṣṇavism” that was both broad and strong in its shared use—singing, recitation, and meditative remembrance—of specifi cally Vaiṣṇava names of God, such as Rām and Hari ( Hawley 2016 : 10, 14–15). 30 In addition to their faith in the divine Name, bhakta s of this era, regardless of their social (caste- class) and theological diff erences, also shared a general ethical, aesthetic, and emotional sensibility, one that resonated with Sufi values and perspectives while diverging from certain tantric religious attitudes and approaches.

Francoise Mallison has discussed how in late Sultanate India, to be a Vaiṣṇava often meant, fi rst and foremost, to follow a certain code of ethics, namely compassion; humility; tolerance; control of passions; not lying, stealing, or committing adultery; and helping to relieve the suff ering and misery of others ( 2000 : 292). These basic ethical ideals are closely mirrored in the teachings of South Asian Sufi s like the great thirteenth- fourteenth century Chishti sheikh Nizām al- Din Awliyā’, as seen in the Fawā’id al- Fu’ād ( Morals for the Heart ). 31 In addition to shar-ing core moral principles and striving to uphold analogous ethical virtues, the bhaktas and Sufi s of early modern North India also valued the cultivation of similar emotions. Indeed, the experi-ence of the Divine, in both Sufi sm and bhakti at this time, was closely linked to the experience of emotion, an emotion that could be evoked through participation in and aesthetic response to poetic verse, song, and music. In particular, Indian Sufi s and bhakta s in Sultanate and Mughal India both celebrated the erotic sentiment and the emotion of love—a passionate love that “exceeds all bounds [and] draws the self outside of itself ” ( Behl 2012b : 34) (‘ ishq / prema ). Both also gave special emphasis to impassioned human longing for the absent beloved ( viraha / fi r ā q ) as a metaphor for—and a vehicle to the experience of—pure love for the Divine. A comparative study of early modern North Indian religious literature reveals that, in general, Sufi s and bhakta s alike valorized humble, selfl ess love and emphasized passionate longing for an absent Beloved while criticizing hubris, envy, hatred, and greed. Moreover, they used similar aesthetic styles to express and evoke the emotions and ethical ideals they valued. As I have argued elsewhere, this was a shared devotional (ethical- emotional- aesthetic) sensibility positioned in pointed con-tradistinction to the tantric religious sensibility represented by Śāktas and, even more so, the ubiquitous early modern fi gure of the Nāth yogi ( Burchett 2019 ).

Beginning in the late Sultanate period, we see the advent of an expansive bhakti public—a broad, imagined bhakti community—in North India united by similar aesthetic tastes, a com-mon moral sense, and shared norms of emotional value and expression. Later, from the mid- sixteenth century, an array of more tightly bounded bhakti sects ( sampradāy s and panth s)—from the Rāmānandīs, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, Puṣṭi Mārgis (Vallabhites), and Nimbarkis to the Dādu Panth, Nirañjanis, and Sikhs—and their institutions also emerges. While these bhakti sectarian communities diff ered from one another in specifi c doctrines and practices, expressed sometimes- contrasting social ideologies, and competed with each other for support, all looked outward toward the larger social sphere of early modern North India’s bhakti public, a trans- sectarian community of belonging and participation limited only by the constraints of bhakti’s circulation in performance and text. Through the movement of manuscripts, itinerant ascetics, and travel-ling singers and scholars, bhakti’s metrical verses spread across North India, sung, recited, and heard in public settings in which they conveyed bhakti ideas and values and rendered them as a distinctive sensibility—as facts of the body, not just the mind 32 —while fostering a consciousness of belonging to a trans- local bhakti community. Sectarian devotional communities—patronized especially by rulers, wealthy land- owners, and merchants—provided institutional nodes crucial for the production and spread of bhakti teachings and manuscripts; yet bhakti songs and stories themselves (embodying and expressing the ethos and sensibility I speak of) circulated and were performed not only within these institutional settings but in the vast spaces between and all around them as well.

In summary, while higher castes and more politically and economically powerful classes were absolutely critical in the growth of Vaiṣṇava bhakti, it would be quite inaccurate to understand bhakti in White’s terms, as the religion of the urban elite. It is true, as we have seen, that bhakti’s success in North India did not come primarily as a grassroots movement of the common people. Rather, bhakti’s rise depended upon Rajput and Mughal patronage, was enmeshed in courtly literary cultures, and often fl ourished in economies that encouraged commerce and urbaniza-tion while exploiting peasant agricultural labour. Nevertheless, we have also seen that the bhakti public of Mughal India was an expansive and inclusive one in which Indians from all social strata actively participated. It was undoubtedly both popular and elite, or perhaps, to use the language of Christian Novetzke, it was quotidian , “the space where elite and nonelite meet” ( 2016 : 9). Quotidian as it was, the Mughal bhakti public should not be seen as some sort of triumph of Hinduism’s normative religious mainstream. The emotional, aesthetic, and ethical sensibility that characterized the Mughal bhakti public was not something perennial that had been lying in wait to be released by the forces of vernacularization. This bhakti sensibility, like those found in earlier eras and in other regional cultures of India, was a distinctive product of historically specifi c forces and actors. Vaiṣṇava bhakti has endured from Mughal times as the predominant Hindu religious form in modern North India, but as the foregoing context- focused analysis would suggest, it would be all too naïve to assume that its specifi c early modern meanings and sensibilities have also endured.


  1. See Hawley (2015: 328) and, for instance, eds., Gil Ben- Herut, Jon Keune, and Anne E. Monius, Regional Communities of Devotion in South Asia: Insiders, Outsiders, and Interlopers (2019); eds. John Strat-ton Hawley, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Swapna Sharma, Bhakti and Power: Debating India’s Religion of the Heart (2019); Patton E. Burchett, A Genealogy of Devotion: Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga, and Sufi sm in North India (2019). Also see David Lorenzen (2004: 208) who, well prior to this spate of research, discussed the historical development of bhakti in terms of a plurality of bhakti movements, each associated with diff erent regions, languages, social ideologies, and theologies, for example, Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, nirguṇ , and so on.
  2. In another essay, White states that, in fact, “the Hindu ‘mainstream’ has always consisted of the wor-ship of local and ancestral deities: devotion to the high gods of the bhakti tradition has historically been limited to an elite minority” (2006 : 23).
  3. From syllabus course description of David Gordon White’s RS 206J Seminar in Indic Religious Stud-ies, “Worship Without Devotion: History of South Asian Polytheism” (University of California- Santa Barbara, Department of Religious Studies, Spring 2018).
  4. For the fully developed argument of this position (fl eshing out much of what is all too briefl y men-tioned in this section), see Burchett 2019: 29–63.
  5. Medieval kings primarily allied themselves with Saiddhāntika Śaiva tantric communities and institu-tions, which subsumed and preserved the Brahmanical social order; however, the broad shift of tantra (from esoteric, private contexts) into mainstream, public settings also involved elements of the hetero-dox non- Saiddhāntika tantric traditions, particularly in rituals conducted to assistant and protect the king and state against enemies and calamities; see Sanderson 2009.
  6. The Śivadharma corpus, which has not yet been critically edited, consists of the ́Sivadharma, Śivadharmottara , Śivadharmasaṃgraha , Umāmaheshvarasaṃvāda , Uttarottaramahāsaṃvāda , Śivopaniṣad , Vṛṣasārasaṃgraha , Dharmaputrikā , and Lalitavistara . The fi rst two texts (the Śivadharma and Śivadharmottara ) of this corpus are broadly attested and were clearly composed against a Pāśupata (Śaiva Atimārga) back-ground, but the full corpus is attested only in Nepal, with the later texts of the corpus refl ecting the concerns of other (non- Pāśupata) communities. Florinda De Simini, personal email communication, 6/9/2018.
  7. The “Delhi Sultanate” is typically understood to have lasted from 1206 to 1526 CE under the leader-ship of fi ve major dynasties: the Mamluks (1210–90), the Khaljis (1290–1320), the Tughlaqs (1320–1414), the Sayyids (1414–51), and the Lodis (1451–1526). The periodization is somewhat misleading, however, in that the Sultanate was a centralized, trans- regional power only until the late fourteenth century, when—toward the end of Tughlaq rule—multiple remote areas began to break away and form independent sultanates, and some local Hindu Rajput dynasties in the north recovered power.
  8. Cf. Finbarr Flood 2009: 5.
  9. Emblematic of this process is the great Persianate Indian poet and musician Amīr Khusrau Dihlavī (1253–1325), patronized by both Khalji and Tughlaq sultans. Born of an Indian mother, he proudly modeled a distinctly Indic tradition of Persian poetry, was a disciple of the Chishti Shaikh Nizām al- Dīn Awliyā’, and is famous for his infl uence on Indian musical traditions, credited with begetting the South Asian Sufi musical form of qawwālī .
  10. As Samira Sheikh has argued—drawing on Simon Digby’s important essay “Before Timur Came” (2004 )—contrary to its common scholarly portrayal, Timur’s invasion was more of a “tipping point” than a “transformative cataclysm.” The decentralization, increased mobility, extension of trade routes, sprouting of new towns, and linguistic experimentation usually associated with the (post- Timur) fi f-teenth century was already well underway in the (pre- Timur) second half of the fourteenth century but were given a great deal of further impetus by the devastation (and population dispersal) caused in Delhi by Timur’s invasion. Sheikh 2017: 35–36.
  11. In fact, the Bahmani sultanate in the Deccan had declared independence from the Tughlaqs in 1349, beginning the fracturing and decline of the Tughlaq dynasty into multiple smaller regional sultanates.
  12. Ramya Sreenivasan (2014: 243–247) has demonstrated that some of the earliest literary works in (local forms of) the North Indian vernacular of Hindavī—Dā’ūd’s Cāndāyan (c. 1379), Nārāyaṇdās’s Chitāī- carita (c. 1526), and Jāyasī’s Padmāvat (c. 1540)—were patronized by and addressed specifi cally to the particular political concerns of rural gentry and local warlords in the hinterland. Also see Behl 2012a: 48.
  13. Orsini (2014a: 407) quite rightly suggests that in understanding the use of language in Sultanate and Mughal India, we should not think “purely in terms of High and Low but rather in terms of a con-tinuum, something that makes us more aware of the importance of recognizing registers both within High and Low: ‘ornate Persian’ versus ‘simple Persian’; ‘Persian- near’ or ‘Persian- far’ and ‘Sanskrit- near’ versus ‘Sanskrit- far’ vernaculars.”
  14. See Ernst 1992: 166–167; Orsini 2014a: 409, 415.
  15. Habib’s basic argument has been disputed, and there is no doubt he considerably over- emphasized the centralization, uniformity, and pervasiveness of the “Mughal agrarian system” (see Alam and Sub-rahmanyam 1998: 12–16; Asher and Talbot 2006: 270–272), but a general conclusion that many (though not all) peasant populations were impoverished and disempowered by exploitative agrarian revenue policies is attested by the reports of European travelers to Mughal India and, in my view, seems sound. For a useful analysis, qualifi cation, and complication of Habib’s original argument (1963 ), attending to diff erences in types of peasantry (those in khalisa lands versus those in jagir lands) and types of villages ( zamindari versus raiyati villages) and to the impact and extent of the monetization of the Mughal economy, yet confi rming how the Mughal agrarian system (and its revenue demands) fur-thered urbanization and commerce while depriving many peasants of the vast majority of the agrarian surplus they produced, see Raychaudhuri 1998 [1965].
  16. For a summary (and critique) of Habib’s speculations on how the Sultanate- Mughal economic system aff ected the development of bhakti in North India, see Krishna Sharma 1987: 31–34.
  17. The term “Rajput” is a status title/category to which a variety of local groups, of diff ering ethnicity but often with warrior backgrounds, assimilated themselves over time. While entry of clans into the Rajput status group seems to have been relatively open at fi rst (circa eleventh–twelfth century), over time, genealogical purity was increasingly stressed, and by the seventeenth century, Rajputs had essen-tially become a caste. See Tambs- Lyche 1997: 86–87; Kolff 1990: 71–116.
  18. As the work of Rachel McDermott (2001) on Bengali goddess traditions and Ann and Daniel Gold (1984) on the Nāths in Rajasthan attests, in some cases, tantric Śaivism and Śāktism were not sup-planted or demoted and actually maintained a central place but often in modifi ed, “devotionalized” forms refl ecting the rise and infl uence of bhakti attitudes and approaches.
  19. Rana argues: “Vaishnavism in the Braj country was primarily the religious universe of high- caste Hindus. It could even be termed an o cial religion, for it was closely aligned to the Mughal empire and the Amber state during the seventeenth century. Its patrons and practitioners lived off the surplus product of the peasants, who largely belonged to the lower castes. These peasants and the peers of their caste had their own views on religion” (131–132).
  20. Following a Marxist line of interpretation seemingly originating with D.D. Kosambi, Guha says the bhakti mode of religion is “an ideology of subordination par excellence ” that has been used throughout Indian history as a means to “spiritualiz[e] the eff orts and frustrations experienced by the lower classes in the labor they provided to the elite” and thus make submission appear “appear self- induced, volun-tary, and collaborative.”
  21. David Lorenzen has also written eloquently on this paradoxical bhakti sociology in which bhakti can support (especially in its saguṇī forms) or challenge/subvert (especially in its nirguṇī forms) traditional hierarchical varṇāśramadharma ideology. Lorenzen 1995b: 189–192. Relatedly, Krishna Sharma (1987: 29–34) shows how the Marxist historical approach to bhakti can be and has been used to present bhakti in completely contradictory fashions, as either “a corollary of the feudal order” (justifying servitude) or as “a revolt of the lower classes,” depending on the orientation of the particular scholar. Tyler Williams (2019: 200) puts the matter this way, “The power of bhakti . . . lies not in its ability to produce libera-tion or submission but in its ability to restructure relationships of liberty and submission,” sovereignty and submission (italics mine).
  22. Cf. White 2003: 147–150. Also, see Tambs- Lyche 1997: 96–170.
  23. Cf. Novetzke 2016: 97–101. Novetzke discusses Yadava patronage of the Vitthal temple in Pandharpur, Maharashtra (c. 1189–1317 CE) as an indication of the political state acknowledging the bhakti public as a political force and seeing the value in supporting the quotidian world of bhakti.
  24. Rāmrasik bhakti seems to have fi rst emerged in response to and in dialogue with the earlier rasik tra-dition of Kṛṣṇa devotion, which the Gauḍīya Vaishnava Gosvāmīs of Vrindavan developed in the fi rst half of the sixteenth century. Agradās’s best known composition is the Dhyān- mañjarī , a late- sixteenth- century Brajbhāṣā text that appears to be the earliest Rām- rasik meditation manual, a genre of texts off ering detailed descriptions of Rām, Sītā, and the beautiful city of Saket with which the initiated Rām- rasik could conduct elaborate visualizations of the intimate life (characterized by the quality of mādhurya , or erotic sweetness) of Rām and Sītā, typically taking on the role of either a female compan-ion ( sakhī ) or maidservant ( mañjarī ) of Sītā or a male companion ( sakhā ) of Rām in order to participate in their divine līlā .
  25. Tyler Williams, personal email communication, November 24, 2011.
  26. Dohā 4. śrī guru agradev ājñā daī bhaktan kau jasu gāy/bhavsāgar ke taran kau nāhin ān upāy//4
  27. On the topic of why and how early modern North Indian bhakti communities (which had little to do with the south) claimed links to south Indian Vaishnavism, see Hawley 2015: 99–147.
  28. In its fi rst century of existence, the Dādū- panth comprised Hindus, Muslims, and castes ranging from brahman to artisan to Jāṭ (Horstmann 2017: 2).
  29. Lorenzen (1995a: 21) has argued that North India’s nirguṇ bhakti communities tended to originate among artisan and other lower- middle- class groups and then spread among peasants in the countryside and that their nirguṇ devotion should be seen as “an ideological and religious contestation to saguṇbhakti (at the same time that it appropriates many of the latter’s basic beliefs and practices).”
  30. Hawley (2005: 285–300) fi rst coined and elaborated the term “vulgate Vaiṣṇavism.” The loose or “vulgate” Vaiṣṇavism of nirguṇ bhakti traditions is illustrated by (among other things) their regular use of the word “Vaishnava” as a synonym for bhakta and their active, fond remembering of the stories of ideal bhakta s (e.g., Dhruva, Prahlad), all drawn from Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas, especially the Bhāgavatapurāṇā(Lath 1999: 102–103).  e rise of Vaiṣṇava devotion169
  31. See Lawrence 1992. The Fawā’id al- Fu’ād was composed by Nizām al- Din Awliyā’s disciple, the poet Amīr Ḥasan Sijzī Dihlawī, and inaugurated the new genre of the malfūzāt , the recorded conversations and teachings of the Sufi master.
  32. Cf. Lee 2015: 42–80.

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