The Bhakti movement in Medieval India was responsible for many rites and rituals associated with the worship of God by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of the Indian subcontinent.
For example, Kirtan at a Hindu Temple, Qawali at a Dargah (Muslims), and singing of Gurbani at a Gurdwara were derived from this movement.
The Movement was in vogue between 800-1700.
“The word Bhakti is derived from Bhakta meaning to serve, honour, revere, love and adore. In the religious idiom, it is attachment or fervent devotion to God and is defined as “that particular affection which is generated by the knowledge of the attributes of the Adorable One.”
The concept is traceable to the Vedas where its intimations are audible in the hymns addressed to deities such as Varuna, Savitra and Usha.
However, the word Bhakti does not occur there.
It occurs for the first time in the Upanishads where it appears with the co-doctrines of grace and self surrender.” (Heritage of the Sikhs by Harbans Singh)
The Bhakti movement spawned into several different movements across North and South India.
In the North, it was not differentiable by a Sufi movement of Shia Muslims of Chisti fame. People of Muslim faith adopted it as Sufis, while Hindus adopted it as Vaishanava Bhakti.
Sufi saints of Chisti order produced the first Punjabi Sufi saint named Baba Sheikh Farid Shakarganj, who paved the way for the Punjabi nationalism as well as brought peace among Hindus and Muslims.
“In the North, the cult was essentially Vaishnava-based, but instead of being focused on Vishnu, it chose to focus itself on Vishnu’s human incarnations, Rama and Krishna, the respective avatars central to the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Rama and Krishna have been the direct objects of devotion.
Adoration of the devotees was focused on them in association with their respective consorts Sita (with Rama); and Rukmani, his wedded wife, or Radha, his Gopika companion, with Krishna.
Images of these deities and their consorts installed in temples are worshipped.
The path of Bhakti was not directly accessible to the lower castes; for them, the path of ‘Prapatti’ (unquestioned self-surrender) was prescribed.
Singing of Bhajans and dancing formed an important part of this worship.
The dancers were devadasis (female slaves of the deity) inside the Temple, but ‘Nagar Badhus’ (public wives) outside.
Apart from being overwhelmingly ritualistic, the worship tended to be intensely emotional. (Heritage of the Sikhs, Sardar Harbans Singh)
Followers of the Bhakti movement in the 12th and 13th centuries included saints such as Bhagat Namdev and Saint Kabir Das who insisted on the devotional singing of praises of the Lord through their own compositions.
Since the Bhakti movement began before Guru Nanak, many historians have implied that Sikhism started by him was nothing more than a Bhakti movement of Punjab.
This is wrong and is against the basic Sikh virtues of equality of humans and worship of one God.
There is no doubt that Sikh Gurus adopted the singing of devotional songs in praise of the Lord from Bhakti but there is a huge difference between Bhakti, Sufism and Sikhism.
Although Sufi and Bhakti saints are revered and recognised by the Guru Granth Sahib, they do not form the main basis of Sikhism.
Sikhism emphasises on equality of male and female, good work ethic and as well as leading a good virtuous married life, which is ‘Maya’ according to many Bhakti and Sufi saints.
Thus, although Sikhs revere saints such as Bhagat Namdev, Bhagat Kabir and Sheikh Farid, the ultimate Guru (or teacher) of a Sikh is Guru Granth Sahib, which include about 10% of the verses of these Saints.
As a famous Sikh author says, “Sikhism undoubtedly accepted some of the aspects of radicalised Bhakti, and admitted some of its practices into its own ordained set.
“It did lay down spiritual love as the way to the deity, but the deity to be worshipped was neither Shiva nor Vishnu; not their incarnations; not any of the Gods or Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.
“It was the One and the Only God, the Lord of Universe, who was at once transcendent (Nirguna) and immanent (Sarguna).
“Although immanent in his Creation He was yet apart from it, being its Creator. Since He is real in the world that He had created, the world could not be considered unreal or illusionary (mithya or maya).
“The Guru is paramount in Bhakti as well as in Sikhism.”