The greatest gem to emerge from the reservoir of devotional music of India is the bhajana traditions. More than any other music genre, bhajana music and traditions have permeated every part of Indian society. However, defining bhajana only as a type of music or as a set of rituals would not make us comprehend even remotely the significance behind the revival of the bhakti/bhajana movement in Tamil Nadu and its later adoption by the whole of India.
Like other religious and social rituals followed in India, the bhajana rituals can be understood only when we view them within the context of the Hindu way of life and history. Every ritual that a Hindu performs in his/her daily life has evolved from religious and social contexts. For example, when an individual prostrates before another, it is not a simple physical act of greeting the other. It is an expression of humility, respect to an elder or a learned person, and a subliminal seeking of wisdom. In the same vein, the bhajana ritual is not merely group singing but a symbol of greater meaning that makes sense only when viewed within the realm of social, political and philosophical contexts.
Bhaj means adore or worship; during the bhajan, a worshipper expresses his/her love or adoration for the deity through singing and dancing. The belief is that by showing unflinching love to God, the devotee eventually becomes one with God. The most significant aspect of a bhajan is that the expression of bhakti is performed as a member of a congregation. Traditionally, among Hindu religions, there is no congregational worship similar to Christianity or Islam. As Swami Vivekananda said, “Our temples are not churches or mosques. They are not places of public worship, for, properly speaking, there is no such thing as public worship in India.” Thus, bhajana ritual was a significant deviation from the traditional practices of Hinduism in that it was a concerted effort at uniting people.
To participate in a bhajan, one need not be a person of high caste, belong to a specific religious sect, or have high social status. The only requirement is to perform Nama Sangeerthana - to musically recite the numerous names of the Lord. The Nama Sangeerthana concept requires that the worshiper be disciplined enough to concentrate on the multiple names of a God. The devotee’s intense focus on God eventually moves the devotee from multiplicity and differentiation to unity and oneness.
As Dr Mahadevan said, “By focusing on the name of the Lord, one can rid oneself of obsession with the name-and-form world.” These bhajana principles of brotherhood, relinquishing differences, and striving towards unity were later re-emphasised by Saint Tyagaraja in his compositions. According to Tyagaraja, there should be no divisions in a true votary of a religion; ‘Bedharahita Vedanthamu’, ‘Matha Bedhamuleka’ and ‘Dhaiva Bedhamuleka’ – there should be no quarrel over deities or denominations. No other ritual in Hindu tradition parallels bhajana in propagating this concept.
The bhajana rituals also communicate other great philosophical values and truths. A cursory glance may show bhajanas to be merely story telling through music and dance. For example, a Radha Kalyanam is nothing more than the story of Radha, a Gopika, seeking the love of a married Krishna. Krishna’s absence makes Radha miserable and she finally unites with her beloved Krishna. To a skeptic, the story of Radha being in love with a married man (God) would appear immoral and unpalatable. But a deeper examination of the story reveals that the Radha-Krishna relationship is a symbol of a high philosophical concept; the human soul yearning to unite with the supreme soul or a Jeevatma wanting to unite with the Paramatma.
Similarly, Sita Kalyanam is not the enacting of a marriage ritual but the story of Sita, a woman who showed compassion, grace and fortitude in the midst of terrible misery. Sita is the symbol of the female side of every human being – showing compassion and forgiveness even to those that caused distress. In the story of Sita, Hanuman is the quintessential devotee – one who serves without expectations or rewards and a model that the ordinary individual must emulate.
The bhajana traditions also provide great insight into the evolution of India’s classical music traditions. Indian classical music composers have traditionally used their compositions and music as a means to communicate great values. In this sense, the bhajana compositions and music are no different. But, the bhajana traditions extended this concept even further by displaying, both physically and dramatically, the acting out of philosophical values that are integral to Hindu culture. The rituals demonstrate how simple music could be used to not only convey moral and ethical values but also to bring a community together. For example, during the bhajana rituals, people from all walks of life join together for one purpose only – to recite the names of a chosen deity. The purpose of this mass demonstration of faith is to unite the community behind a common objective – bhakti or devotion. In this sense, the bhajana music and rituals were simple and yet very powerful social and political vehicles.
One of the most significant and often unrecognised contributions of the bhajana movement is revealed only when we look at the movement’s antecedents through the prism of social and political history. The bhajana movement and the revival of the bhakthi traditions started in Tamil Nadu as a weapon against the influence of other religions. For hundreds of years, the secular Hindus tolerated and even participated in the growth of other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. But the limit to tolerance eroded when these religions began to convert the Hindus and later, through rising political power, began to dominate the Hindus.
The friction was exacerbated further because of the teachings of Buddhism. Buddhism was an agnostic religion that did not believe in the existence of a universal soul. It propagated asceticism over karma or gnana. These concepts were antagonistic to Hindu philosophies and tended to confront and undermine the Hindu traditions. A fitting response was required to preserve the time-tested beliefs and values of Hindus.
The saint-composers from Tamil Nadu (the Nayanmars and the Alwars) revived the concepts of bhajana - Nama Sangeerthanam and bhakti - and offered them as counter forces to restrain the influence of other religions. Soon the bhajana movement began to spread strongly through Andhra, Karnataka, and the rest of India, leading to a weakening of Buddhist and Jain influences.
It would be an exaggeration to state that the bhajana movement was the cause of the demise of Buddhism or Jainism in India. The Islamic invaders, who were angered by the godless Buddhist religion, played a negative but significant role in the demise of Buddhism by massacring people of Buddhist faith. But, the bhajana rituals contributed in a more positive way to the reawakening of Hindu beliefs and the bringing together of the communities. With the rise of the bhajana movement, many of the converts to Buddhism and Jainism, including powerful kings, came back to the Hindu faith.
Significant credit must be given to the Nayanmars and the Alwars for energising the bhajana movement. The Nayanmars and Alwars composed many devotional songs aimed at uniting the people. Later day composers such as Purandaradasa, Annamacharya and Tyagaraja Swami also followed this tradition by using musical compositions as a unifying force.
But a greater reason for the popularity of the bhajana movement was that the poet-scholars1 composed devotional songs in vernacular or local languages rather than relying on Sanskrit, a language that was alien and incomprehensible to most. Additionally, the poet-scholars came from all walks of life, lower to upper castes, kings to paupers. The familiarity of the lyrics and the ability to relate to the poets as one of us helped the ordinary individual to participate in the congregation without any reservation or constraints. The bhajana movement became so popular that it continues even today with the same enthusiasm, long after the near exit of Buddhism and Jainism from the Indian soil.
As the symbols and development of the bhajana movement show, many important aspects of Indian music, heritage and culture can only be understood when viewed from historical, social or political contexts. Unlike complex classical music or temple rituals where the individual has a limited role, bhajanas made music, rituals and religious worship and rituals accessible to everyone. Every strata of society can join the singing of bhajans and participate in the rituals.
This congregational approach to music, religion and rituals energised the people to whom spiritual perspectives were very important. It also helped integrate a society ridden by divisions and made it withstand the onslaught of other religions. At the same time, the congregational rituals preserved the personal relationship an individual has with his or her chosen deity.