The Bhakti Saints

Bhakti initially flourished in South India through the great Vaishnava saints known as the twelve Alvars (6th–9th centuries). Shaivism also has its bhakti traditions and during roughly the same period 63 Nayanars (bhakti poets) wrote songs that now form the twelve books of the Tirumurai. Shortly after, and especially from 1500 CE onwards, a great devotional renaissance swept through the entire sub-continent. The bhakti saints largely rejected the hereditary caste system and its emphasis on prescribed ritual, stressing instead the need for morality, purity of heart and an attitude of selfless service. They expressed their sentiments through song, poetry and music, often attracting thousands of followers. Their preference for the spirit of the law rather than its letter enabled many followers of apparently lower birth to participate. These include a number of famous women saints. The considerable influence of the bhakti saints continues up to the present time.

Kabir (1440–1518)

He is famous for his songs and poems used by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims alike. His followers are called the Kabir Panthis.

Surdas (1479–1584)

Born blind, he became renowned for his beautiful songs glorifying Krishna. He was a follower of Vallabha.

Vallabha (1481–1533)

A brahmana from Telegu, he founded the Pushti-Marg (path of nourishment), which affirms the role of grace in reaching salvation. He taught that sannyasa is not possible in the current age. There are a good number of his Gujarati followers in the UK.

Chaitanya and his followers displayed symptoms of ecstasy as they sang and danced in praise of Krishna.

Chaitanya (1486–1534)

Founder of Bengali Vaishnavism, whose followers express devotion through singing and dancing. He was later considered a dualavatar of Radha and Krishna. His influence still extends through various groups including the Hare Krishna movement.

Tulsidas (1511–1637)

He wrote the popular version of the Ramayana known as the Rama Carita Manas perhaps the most popular book of North India.

Mirabhai (1547–1614)

Possibly the most famous woman saint within Hinduism (see Famous Hindu Women). She was a Rajasthani princess who considered Krishna her real husband and was consequently persecuted by her own family. Her songs and poems are still recited by Krishna devotees.

Tukarama (1608–1649)

A saint from Western India who worshipped the famous deity of Vishnu known as Vitthala (or Vitobha) in Pandhapur, Maharastra. He was part of an important Vaishnava tradition known as Dasa Kuta and which is still influential today. Other poet saints such as Namdev (1270–1350) also came in this line.

Common Misunderstanding

The bhakti traditions are for emotional and sentimental people and place little emphasis on philosophy

Not true. Many bhakti traditions, for example those connected with Chaitanya (above) and Vallabha, have developed highly sophisticated theologies, emphasising both knowledge and devotion. Devotion without wisdom is considered of a lower order.


“My dear Lord, when will my eyes be beautified by filling with tears that constantly glide down as I chant your holy name? When will my voice falter and all the hairs on my body stand erect in transcendental happiness as I chant your holy name?”