BHAKTI AND SIKHISM, The word bhakti is derived from Skt. bhaj, 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 Varuṇa, Savitra and Ūshā. However, the word bhakti does not occur there. The word occurs for the first time in the Upanisads where it appears with the co-doctrines of grace and self-surrender (prapatti) (e. g. Śvetāśvatar, I, V. 23). The Bhagavadgītā attempts to expound bhakti in a systematic manner and puts bhakti mārga in juxtaposition with karma mārga and jñāna mārga as one of the three means of attaining liberation. The Nārdīya Sūtra, however, decrees that "bhakti is superior even to karma, jñāna and yoga.

        Bhakti took strong roots in South India where generations of Ālvār (Vaiṣṇavite) and Nāyanār (Śaivite) saints had sung their devotional lyrics and founded their respective schools of bhakti between AD 200-900. It came to north India much later. "The Dravid country is the birthplace of bhakti school; bhakti became young in Karnataka, it grew old in Mahārāshṭra and Gujrāṭ, but when it arrived in Vrindāvana, it became young again. " Munshī Rām Sharmā : Bhakti kā Vikās. p. 353.

        In the north, the cult was essentially Vaiṣṇava-based, but instead of being focussed on Viṣṇu, it chose to focus itself on Viṣṇu's human incarnations, Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, the respective avatārs or deities central to the two epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. For bhakti now Viṣṇu's incarnations (Rāma and Kṛṣṇa) were the direct objects of devotion. Adoration of the devotees was focussed on them in association with their respective consorts : Sītā with Rāma; and Rukminī, his wedded wife, or Rādhā, his Gopikā companion, with Kṛṣṇa. Images of these deities and their consorts installed in temples were worshipped. The path of bhakti was not directly accessible to the lower castes : for them the path of prapatti (unquestioned self-sur-render) was prescribed. Singing of bhajans and dancing formed an important part of this worship. The dancers were deva-dāsīs (female slaves of the deity) inside the temple, but nagar-badhūs (public wives) outside. Apart from being overwhelmingly ritualistic, the worship tended to be intensely emotional, frenzied and even erotic.

        An important influence in north Indian bhakti was Rāmānand whose many disciples including Kabīr, Ravidās, Pīpā, Sadhanā and Saiṇu radicalized the Bhakti movement. Kabīr, out of them, was the most eloquent and outspoken. Besides bhakti, other influences which shaped him were Sufism and Buddhism. He repudiated avatārvād, social ideology of caste, ritualistic formalism and idol-worship, all of which were integral parts of traditional Vaiṣṇavite bhakti. Kabīr even questioned the authority of the Vedas and Purāṇas.

        Sikhism undoubtedly accepted some of the aspects of radicalized 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 Śiva nor Viṣṇu nor even any of their incarnations, nor any of the gods or goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It was the One and the Only God, the Lord of Universes who was at once transcendent (nirguṇa) and immanent (saguṇa). Although immanent in His Creation He was yet apart from it, being its Creator. Since He inhered in the world that He had created, the world could not be considered unreal or illusory (mithyā ormāyā). It was real and sacred ("the abode of the True One"). It is therefore blasphemous to renounce it in quest of God. "He that is immanent in the Universe resides also within yourself. Seek, and ye shall find" (GG, 695). Renunciation of the world as a spiritual pursuit thus stood totally rejected. Celibacy was no longer countenanced, either. Full participation in life in a spirit of 'detachment' was prescribed instead. "Of all the religious rules and observances grihasthya (the homestead) is supreme. It is from here that all else is blessed" (GG, 587). Gurū is paramount in bhakti as well as in Sikhism.

        The ideal that Bhakti laid down for man was to achieve personal release (moksha or mukti). In Sikhism the ideal was stated in these terms : "I long not for a kingdom or for mukti but only for the lotus feet of the Lord" (GG, 534). In the Sikh faith the highest ideal is to be able cheerfully to accept the will of God (razā, bhāṇā) and live one's life in its dynamic mould, to be ready to give oneself to carrying out what ought to happen. This concept of Divine Will (hukam) as well as the injunction to accept it cheerfully is peculiar to Sikhism. Also, whereas the ultimate aim of bhakti is for the individual to attain personal liberation, the Sikh ideal is well-being of all (sarbatt kā bhalā).

        The modes of worship in Bhakti cults included not only bhajan (adoration) and kīrtan (singing the praises of the deity), but also Yogic upāsanā (literally, to sit beside, to meditate), Vedic sacrifices, Brāhmaṇical ritualism and Tāntric practices. Of these, Sikhism retains only bhajan and kīrtan and disclaims the rest. It categorically rejects sacrificial rites. The only sacrifice it approves of is self-sacrifice for the sake of righteousness. Sikhism strongly censures idol worship. Instead, śabda (the Divine Word) is determined to be the focus of all adoration. However, as in bhakti, nām (Logos) is both the object and means of adoration of God.

        Thus, bhakti has been radically transformed and redefined in Sikhism. Sikhism is in fact much wider than bhakti both in its conceptual gamut as well as in practice. For the Bhakti cults, bhakti is the be-all and end-all of everything; for Sikhism two other crucially important ends are ethical living and spiritual liberation. The cultivation of moral qualities, in Sikhism, is the requisite precondition for bhakti. "Without morality bhakti is not practicable" (GG, 4). Moral discipline is considered a vehicle for attaining nearness to God. "It is by our deeds that we become closer to God or become distant from Him" (GG, 6).

        While the bhagats' sole stress was on bhakti or loving devotion, the Gurūs also wanted to inculcate along with love and faith the spirit of fearlessness and valour among the Sikhs. A Sikh was to "overcome all fear by cherishing the Fearless Lord" (GG, 293). "He must not terrorize anyone, nor must he submit to anyone's fear" (GG, 1427). He was "to be subservient to none but the True Lord" (GG, 473). He was not to be a quietist ascetic but a valiant saint ready to "battle in open field" (GG, 931) to destroy the tyrants. In their scheme of ethical dynamism the Gurūs gave priority to zeal for freedom.

        Sikhs were not only given nām (Logos) as the symbol of the Formless One (which they shared with the bhaktas) but were also given kirpān (sword) as the symbol of the Fearless One. Sikhism, thus addressed itself to dual ideals, the other worldly (pīrī) as well as this-worldly (mīrī).

        Since Fatherhood of God was the basic Sikh tenet, brotherhood of man ipso facto became its social corollary. No one was to be reckoned low or high -"Reckon the entire mankind as One" (Akāl Ustati, 15. 85) was the Gurū's precept. Most of the bhakti cults also decried inequality, and especially condemned caste distinctions, giving the right of worship to the low caste. However, service continued to be a menial pursuit, and manual labour was looked upon as the job of the lowly. The Gurūs went further than just proclaiming the equality of man. They established dignity of labour, by making social service (sevā) as an important vehicle of spiritual advancement. "The hands and feet sans sevā are condemnable; actions other than sevā are fruitless" (Bhāī Gurdās, Vārāṅ, XXVII, 10). Begging is taboo for the Sikhs. While bhaktas could live on alms and public charity, not so a Sikh. He is ordained to earn his living by the honest labour of his hands (kirt) and share his earnings with others. It rehearsed in the fifteenth century the ideology of fraternity, equality and liberty. Devotion was defined as a positive phenomenon. Full faced participation in life was recommended. In the time and space setting, bhakti and Sikhism lie close to each other which has led some to describe Sikhism as an offshoot of bhakti.

        Like the bhaktas and the Sūfīs, Gurū Nānak, founder of Sikhism, proclaimed the love of God and, through it, communion with Him as the primary aim of man. More like the former, he repudiated caste and the importance of ritualism, and, in common with the latter, emphasized submission to God's will as the ultimate means to realization. Agreeably to the atmosphere created by Bhakti and Sufism, he rejoiced in singing praises of the Almighty and indicated the way to reconciliation between the Hindus and the Muslims. He brought to these general tendencies the force and urgency of a deeply inspired and forward looking faith. He added elements which were characteristically his own and which empowered current trends with wholly new possibilities of fulfilment. Life in all of its different aspects was the subject of Gurū Nānak's attention. Integral to his intuition was an awareness of the ills and errors of society and his concern to remedy these. This was in contrast to the attitude of escape implicit in Bhakti and Sufism. Gurū Nānak did not admit, like many of their protagonists, the possibility of man ever attaining, in his mystical progress, equality with Divinity. He also did not share the Bhaktas' belief in incarnation or the Sufis' insistence on bodily mortification and frenzied singing and dancing to bring about spiritual illumination. The faith begins with the revelation brought to light by Gurū Nānak. To understand Sikhism fully the study of the totality of its tenet and of what impact it made on history will be very vital. In this perspective, the precept he preached is definitively the starting-point of Sikhism and not bhaktī or any other cult.


  1. Taran Singh, ed. , Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought. Patiala, 1970
  2. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
  3. Schomer, Karine, and W. H. Mcleod, eds. , The Sants : Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Delhi, 1987
  4. Ishar Singh, The Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1969
  5. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Varanasi, 1983
  6. Hīrā, Bhagat Siṅgh, Gurmatt Vichārdhārā. Delhi, 1969
  7. Chaturvedī, Parshu Rām, Uttarī Bhārat Kī Sant-Pramparā. Allahabad, 1964

Jaswant Siṅgh Nekī