Chapter-13 Bhakti in South India


In this chapter, Doniger introduces Bhakti in many different forms and with a focus in South India. The chapter starts off by mentioning how until the development of the intertextual tradition centered in North India could be traced one by one but now it starts to evaporate with the growing trade between north and south and it is now hard to trace the original roots. In order to know the general idea of Bhakti Doniger mentions that we need to go back to when there was a combination of North and South cultural forms. During the 1000 BCE when the trade was thriving with China, Persia, Rome where the Chola (one of the three great South Indian Kingdom) was in power. This is when the Bhakti was also spreading and becoming the “riptide that cut across the still-powerful current of Vedic sacrifice”. It began among Tamil-literate people and then reached non-literate people.

She talks about how Tamil literary language develops from traditions different from those of Sanskrit. She also mentions about how Brahmins who settled in the South gradually introduced Sanskrit and also learned Tamil words and Tamil rituals and deities. This introduces the two-way process of Tamil forms of religious moved into Sanskrit and went north. Then, she mentions the two themes of Tamil poems emotion of love “inner” (akam) and the world of politics and war “outer”(puram) worlds where Bhakti poets took these themes involving Sanskrit poetry called  “love in separation”(viraha).  There are a few meaning of Bhakti that Doniger mentions “the supreme devotion to a god”, “a folk and oral phenomenon”. The connection between Tamil and Sanskrit words for Bhakti is mentioned how the Tamil uses the term “patti” which is a Sanskrit term. The comparison of Sanskrit author and Bhakti poet is also mentioned about how Bhakti poets reveal their own lives and how the voices of the saint are heard in the poem, unlike Sanskrit authors.

The rest of the chapters she talks about the temples and the violence of South Indian Bhakti. The debate between Shaivas and Vaishnavas and the violence that was created because of the heated tension. She also talks about other religions such as Buddhism, Jaina, Christianity, Islam and how they came to India and connecting it with Bhakti.   bhakti-movement


I found how Doniger mentions about the two way meaning several times in the chapter. The first with the Tamil and Sanskrit forms of religion moving into each other, the second Bhakti images filtered back into other traditions, including Sanskrit traditions, the third the analysis of the Great Frieze at Mamallapuram, the argument of whether he is Arjuna or the sage of Bhagiratha and also reference to both Shiva and Vishnu. She calls this shlesha (embrace). which means two different stories at once like the rabbit/man in the moon. The other thing that was really interesting is the point when she mentions about the Compantar and the impaled Jainas she contradicts herself by saying “there is no evidence that any of this actually happened, other than the story, and that story is told”. Isn’t it the same for almost everything? Like how these are truths that have been told for so long and nobody knows if it is true or not but this is the Hindus believe.

Temple is a sacred place but in this chapter, it was seen more of a rivalry and violent act. Kings would make temples for the sake of competitions and invade other temples and monasteries for the wealth and to protect their territories. What makes me think about it, is that Kings are seen as gods and they are the one destroying temples. Does temple has a sacred meaning behind it then when there was dispute created by it?

Similarly, Bhakti also had two themes going on the non-violence where one is devoted to a god and it also improved the conditions of women and the lower caste. It made a threat to Brahmin as the guru was not necessarily a Brahmin and it showed how one did not have to be a Brahmin to be superior. However, there was another side to the physical violence that resulted from the god to the worshippers. This strong devotion can sometimes be seen as violent when God would test how devoted one is to an extent they would kill their own children. The chapter talks about both side of the stories and the trend of two-sided- process, two-sided analogy is seen throughout. There is both a good and bad side to one story.



  1. After reading the chapter what do you think is the meaning of Bhakti? Does the chapter help you explain it well?
  2. Why do you think Doniger mentions the two meaning of a particular thing “Shlesha” a lot in this particular text?
  3. How would you describe the relationship with  Shaivas/Vaishnavas and Hindus especially the heated tension between Brahmins?

15 thoughts on “Chapter-13 Bhakti in South India

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  1. To answer your third question, I think that the relationship between the devotees of Shiva and Vishnu and Hindus is dialectical; that is to say that, under the big structure of Hinduism or hinduisms, they are mutually influencing and influenced by each other.
    From the side of devotees of Shiva and Vishnu, according to Doniger, there are four main groups who are benefited from the development of bhakti: kings, women, lower castes, and outcastes. Reasons for each of the four groups to embrace and foster the ideas of bhakti are different, probably even divergent among the individuals in a same group; but one common theme can be found is that they develop the ideas of bhakti since their interests, whether individual or group’s, are suppressed by other groups. Concerning the kings, for example, they promote the practices of bhakti since their power of ruling the state is undermined by the priest class (Doniger 350). Therefore, reformations are necessary, especially when they have the power to do them, for the kings, and the practices of bhakti is the fruit of the dialectical relationship since they would not be developed by some Kshatriyas if they were not suppressed by Brahmins.
    Similarly, Brahmins’ reactions are the result of the dialectical relationship. With their power being challenged, Brahmins, according to Doniger, have two reactions: first one is that some of them reform the reformation and inject Brahmins’ influence into the bhakti system (Doniger 360), while the second reaction is just being tolerant and affirms the successful reformation (Doniger 360). And, being influenced by the result of Brahmins’ action, some of the leaders of the practitioners of bhakti reach reconciliations with Brahmins by accepting their social status (Doniger 360), while other may have different reaction towards Brahmins’ reaction.
    In short, Doniger’s quote from a poet in the eleventh century, which says “‘different deities coexisted in peace like wild beasts forgetting their natural animosity in the vicinity of a holy hermitage’ (Doniger 362)”, delivers a representative example of the dialectical relationship that, in some places, inclusive atmospheres are formed for people from different groups to deal with the tension in a relatively peaceful way due to their mutual influences.

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  2. In answering your first question, and from looking at the chapter and the glossary of the book, bhakti is “passionate devotion to a god who returns that love.” (698) Before reading this chapter, I saw bhakti as just devotion or the act of worship. After reading this chapter, I can now see that there is an emphasis on the gods that you are worshiping and not just the worshiping itself. One area of this chapter that I thought was the most helpful in understanding this is on page 362. At the end of the section “Brahmins,” Doniger describes bhakti as “terrible suffering at the hands of a god,” “punishing the god,” and “the positive emotion of ecstasy, the rapture of being so close to the god.” This was the section that really cemented a more full definition behind the term bhakti. Overall, I think the chapter explains what bhakti means well but I also found that it does not just focus on this one word in particular and there was a lot of other information included int his chapter about the history at the time in South India. All of this other information made the chapter a lot less clear than it could have been if it was more focused. There was a lot to sift through, but I think i understood the meaning of bhakti from reading it.

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  3. To respond to question 2 on why Doniger mentions the double meaning particularly a lot in this chapter because, from my understanding of the text of course, this period in particular is where double meanings arise much more commonly. The previous “texts” (Vedas, Upanishads, etc.) have been rather firm, particularly in how everything can be interpreted. The epics shuffled this up a bit, where there are many different versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but for the most part they’re constrained to Hinduism and nearby things. The rise of Bhakati ran concurrent to a huge rise in trade for India with the rest of the world. Because of this there was a lot of exchange of religion and also gave way for Bhakti’s meaning to change and develop into different sectors. Personally I think it’s like the telephone game/parampara and because of this there’s kind of different branches in Bhakti as well. This was further accented by the political tensions and sometimes quick/abrupt changes of who’s in power.

    What I find even more interesting in this chapter in particular, is how only in this chapter does Doniger brings up the “sanskrit figure of speech called a shlesha (“embrace”), a literary expression that refers to two different stories at once, like the rabbit/man in the moon” (347). Like, why does she decide to introduce the term here as opposed to literally any other part in the book? If it’s because she wanted to use it on some artifact she could have brought up the term at the beginning of the book with the rabbit/moon story and the linga. Furthermore she doesn’t give any further explanation of the term or why she used it here over anything else. What’s additionally weird is why didn’t she bring the term up earlier if it means exactly what she’s trying to show in this book? Because knowing that there’s a Sanskrit term that refers to two different stories at once in which there’s no direct definition in English only goes to push that there’s culture of a persisting continuity and different meanings in Hinduism and wider India. Which surely would affect the way people think and could give a stronger understanding of Hinduism for us as students. It also makes me curious on if there’s a direct (or more direct) translation of the term in any Indian language that could push the ideal of different meanings further?

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  4. Dear Binita: With regard to Question #3, I assume you are asking us to comment generally on the relationship between the Bhakti movement and the Brahmins’ priestly religion (Doniger covers this topic on pages 359-361). Doniger points out that some Bhakti sects of South India entertained the idea that non-Brahmins were superior to Brahmins, insofar as Brahmins played no essential role in a devotee’s personal relationship to a deity and the Guru of the sect was not necessarily a Brahmin (359). However, Doniger writes also that the Bhakti sects never formed a movement bent on abolishing or discrediting the caste system: even the story of one Shaivite saint, Nantanar the Pariah, concedes that this devotee was “made a Brahmin” through his devotion so as to be allowed to enter temples, and this story at its face legitimizes caste distinctions (360). I think Doniger is at least on to something in suggesting that Bhakti sects constituted a mental space for underprivileged people to function happily within a society dominated by Brahmin interests. A cynic toward religion might say that Bhakti appears but “a way to cope” for the powerless, but I will note merely that Bhakti seems to entail a model of salvation or transcendent happiness which does not include any hopes of individual amelioration or messianic change within this life.

    Question #3 could alternatively be asking us about the Shaiva/Vaishnava divide, or more broadly, the phenomenon of sectarian diversity (including, at times, sectarian conflict). I was impressed by how this chapter points out that the Bhakti sects exercised significant rivalry or ill-will over questions of religious truth or affiliation. Witness, for instance, the (possibly legendary) story of how the Shaivite saint Campantar bested the Jaina community in a contest over which religion was the truer, then presided over the mass impalement of eight thousand Jainas (364). It is perhaps a cold comfort to consider (as Doniger does) that this terrible story may be just a literary account and not a genuine historical event. For I at once remembered that certain skeptical or humanist thinkers in nineteenth-century Europe (such as Arthur Schopenhauer in his “Religion: A Dialogue”) considered the religions of India to be intrinsically tolerant, and maintained that religious persecution was solely a phenomenon of monotheistic creeds (such as Christianity and Islam) that hold there is only one God and therefore only one way to reach Him. Doniger’s chapter suggests that thinkers like Schopenhauer were writing out of some degree of ignorance toward the entire history of Indian thought, and perhaps looking to India with rose-colored glasses and vested interests.

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  5. In response to your first question, and Lexi’s response, I’d have to agree that there was a lot of interjecting and tangent-like rambling in parts of the chapter that made it difficult to understand what bhakti really is. I think Doniger did a great job of telling what was going on at the time of bhakti and how other religions related to it, yet at the same time, it didnt help me to understand what bhakti actually is. The chapter was dense with names and terms used, which in turn made it harder to keep things straight. For instance, I’m not quite sure of the hierarchy, or what each group’s role was between the Brahmins, Tamils, Cankams, etc. I guess as of right now, the only thing I truly understand concerning bhakti is the idea of Darshan, or “seeing,” “by which favor passed from one to the other of each of the parties linked by the gaze.” (351)


  6. In response to the third question, I find interesting the side of bhakti that is not purely positive devotion – It also includes negative emotions toward the gods, such as anger and hurt. Doniger points this out at various points throughout the chapter, starting right at the beginning on page 338 with the excerpt “Can’t We Find Some Other God?” and her description of Shiva as an abandoning female parent. She also alludes to this on page 362 when she writes, “that too is bhakti: terrible suffering at the hands of a god” and later, “That too is bhakti: punishing the god.” This stage of the relationship between humans and gods (which was the third alliance) seems very human. The willingness to accuse and the wish to punish a god is not something I had previously associated with bhakti (although we did see some of that in the poetry we read on Thursday). Therefore the chapter added depth to my definition of bhakti, from “devotion” as unconditional praise to perhaps a “devotion” that includes holding the god responsible. I think that devotion is still a fitting word, because one can be devoted to another human and still have the capacity to be angry at them – in fact this is a very genuine way of being devoted. On page 348 Doniger describes the structures of temples, which were organized in concentric circles. The center presented the deity in their almost “nirguna” form, and with each circle the god gained more qualities, becoming closer to “saguna.” This distinction between nirguna and saguna catches my attention when thinking about the human-deity relationship of bhakti, because again to me this relationship appears very human, so it makes sense that there would be a desire to understand a god in a more human way. These two things appear to go hand in hand.


  7. In response to question number 2, I’ve found that Doniger tends to incorporate various themes throughout the book, one of them being the “dual vision” of sorts that she mentions in the prologue, referring to the rabbit/man on the moon scenario. Her usage of “shlesha” and its’ reference to a dual meaning seems to fit in nicely with the theme she presented at the beginning of the book. Theoretically, the usage of a “dual vision” or a “subjective interpretation” should help the reader understand the concept from a more holistic and well-rounded perspective than just one point-of-view. In the case of shlesha, I found that this theory holds up in the sense that it helped me understand the narrow concept, as well as how that applied to the larger concepts at hand.

    On page 347, Doniger states that a shlesha (embrace) is a “figure of speech”, and a “literary expression” that refers to two different stories at one, much like the man or rabbit in the moon, as I mentioned previously. In this particular context, Doniger is referring to the ambiguity of which character is being represented on a sacred frieze, with some scholars arguing that it is Arjuna and others arguing that it is Bhagiratha, both of which are present in the Mahabharata. Doniger, using the dual vision framework or “shlesha”, asserts that it may be both at the same time.

    Unfortunately, Doniger sort of just leaves that proposal there, with no substantiative evidence. I still found the concept interesting and it reminded me to continue looking at these art pieces/temple artifacts/texts through the lens of a dual vision, and to more importantly, keep an open mind and approach everything objectively. My best guess is that this is what Doniger’s primary intention was in introducing this concept and applying it this late in the book.


  8. 1. Like many of Doniger’s chapters, the concept of Bhakti is explained anecdotally and historically rather than in a straightforward manner. This, however, is a better way of getting at the concept, as a straightforward explanation would ignore the fact that an idea is the sum of its nuances. After reading about some of those nuances, I would say that Bhakti is the manifestation of worship on a more human-scale. What I mean by this is that while the Brahmin’s in North India had prescribed a very specific method of Vedic worship, relyant on paradoxes and sacrifices, non-Brahmins in South India replaced these with the concept of devotion, which worshiped more personal incarnations of gods as lovers, midwives, and even animals. Through this devotion, gods also played a more personal role in the life of the devotee, with Bhakti poetry communing directly with the gods in the same way as a wife would commune with her husband.
    2. In The Hindus, the theme of “shlesha” comes up quite often because many things take a two-fold nature. Patterns emerge that have multiple meanings or even characters. One example of this would be the confusion between, or mention of both, Vishnu and Shiva at the Frieze at Mallapuram. In the Hindu cosmology, simultaneity is possible, and therefore celebrated.
    3. Much like the above tensions, the tension between Shaivas/ Vaishnavas and Brahmins recognizes that there are different forms of practice within the same cosmology, but that adherents of different practices do not necessarily recognize this.


  9. With regards to the first question and going off of some of what Lexi said, I think that this chapter definitely changed my perception of what Bhakti is. I initially thought of it as a kind of thought/term that encompasses any kind of devotion to a particular deity. According to Doniger’s chapter, this definition is correct but it still doesn’t encapsulate the whole meaning or even Bhakti’s influence overtime on Hinduism. The depth of how Bhakti influenced some aspects of social class, politics, and religious division dynamics had gone somewhat overlooked prior to this chapter. Furthermore, Xiangyuesun’s comment mentions some of the implications of Bhakti on devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, and the kings relationships with Brahmins, quite clearly. Additionally, I agree with Copcam’s observation/question of how/why Doniger waited to introduce the term “Shleesha”, when Doniger could have done so at several other points in the book. I am still a little unsure as to why Doniger did this.


  10. Agreeing with what others have said in response to question one, I think Doniger’s round about chapter did in fact give me a deeper understanding of Bhakti. While, from the title, I expected her definition and discussion to be very straightforward, I was actually please this time by the background about the time, place, and languages that helped form the word “bhakti.” Like Doniger says on page 339, “to understand the origins of bhakti, we need to have atleast a general idea of the world in which bhakti was created.” Knowing all the factors that play into how the meaning of a word develops can lead you to a deeper understanding of what it truly means in the mind of the people that use this word.
    I also liked that right off the bat Doniger claims that bhakti “is more a general religious lifestyle or movement than a specific sect” (338). Like Lexi, I had read the glossary definition before starting to read this chapter and in my mind had created a very narrow, concrete understanding of the word. This initial claim by Doniger immediately disregarded my understanding and prepared me to learn about bhakti in a more open, flexible way.


  11. Response to number 2: It seems like the concept is introduced here because it might have come about in this period. In introducing this term here, Doniger seems to imply that before all the trading and exchange of ideas, the protagonists did not really know what was going on in other parts of India philosophically. If they did, they probably would’ve come up with a term then and Doniger would’ve introduced it earlier (she calls this book an alternative history). We need to remember that the prologue is not how the main body of the book flows. Doniger seems to be aware of this and cautions against hindsight relations with the occasional “hindsight alert!” pasted next to ideas that might be misconstrued as being the sources for other future ideas. In this case, she could’ve clarified the difference between the prologue and the main text, but she seems to be shifting this responsibility onto the reader.


  12. In response to your first question, I have to say that my definition of bhakti is still somewhat unclear. In fact, I think this chapter contributed to my uncertainty on the subject. In class, we described bhakti as a sort of intermediary between moksha and dharma. We also learned that bhakti means “devotion,” and that the poetry we read in class on Thursday was a form of bhakti. Prior to this class, I knew that bhakti chai was something I had ordered at Brewed Awakenings, but I’m still pondering how a Jewish girl in Appleton drinking a delicious beverage has anything to do with bhakti.

    From the reading, one of the most important aspects of bhakti that I gathered was that it is an accessible form of religious practice that can take many forms. Doniger brings up examples of bhakti poetry and also mentions forms of bhakti in the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and the Gita. She also shares that, “…bhakti is also a folk and oral phenomenon” (344). What impressed me was the idea that bhakti introduced usage of the first person in poems, which demonstrates that people were beginning to take more of an active, thinking role in their practice of Hinduism. Bhakti also shifted views of women in what I would like to think of as a more positive direction. Although it enforced stereotypes, like the idea, “…of a woman who defied conventional society in order to pursue her religious calling,” I feel like this is a much stronger way to portray women than previously done in texts like the Ramayana (353).

    Although I was able to gather an idea of what bhakti is, I don’t feel like I can pinpoint exactly what makes something bhakti. The concept is extremely broad, but I suppose that Doniger’s long, indirect explanation showcases the very nature of bhakti’s definition. Thus, the bhakti chai I have consumed may in fact be a form of bhakti under such an inclusive concept; I just need some experience with understanding what truly makes something bhakti.


    1. “What impressed me was the idea that bhakti introduced usage of the first person in poems, which demonstrates that people were beginning to take more of an active, thinking role in their practice of Hinduism.”

      This is really cool to think about!!!!!!^^^^^^^^^^^^


  13. I like Chris’ definition of Bhakti, being that it is “worship on a more human-scale.” I was initially more confused by Doniger’s explanation of Bhakti than I was when we first went over it in class. So, to answer the first question, I don’t think the chapter did a very good job of explaining it well. Again, it is important to remember that Doniger stated herself in the introduction to this book that it is important to read primary texts along with this book. Doniger’s idea that Bhakti is “more a general religious lifestyle” than a traditional and more rigorous approach to worship. If we look at Bhakti as the culmination of dharma and moksha, then I think it boils down simply to an act of devotion. For some reason, I keep returning to this image of a cyclical relationship between practitioners of Hinduism and Hindu gods as my primary understanding of how these systems of religious practice work. By that I mean that I envision people worshipping with the idea that they will get something in return (good fortune, possibly reaching moksha if they focus their energy in that direction, etc.). I think this relates to “darshan” in a strong way. “Darshan,” which means “to see” and “to be seen,” seems like a cyclical or at least mutual relationship between the practitioner and the god. As talked about in class, if one were to walk into a temple, the goal would be “darshan.” To see the god, and to be seen by the god. I think that darshan, bhakti, dharma, and moksha can all be intertwined in many different ways. No matter which is focused on more, there is something to be said about devoting one’s entire life to these elements of larger Hindu tradition. It is also really neat to think about the time period, and the fact that this period of time that we are focusing on — although it is a very large period of time — started to influence modern thought in a lot of ways.


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