Challenges Faced by Hinduism During Muslim and British Periods

Categories : Spirituality

The second major challenge to Hinduism was posed by Muslim invasions which began with the seventeen times loot and plunder of temples by Mahmud of Ghazni (998 CE to 1030 CE). He was interested mainly in looting and demolishing temples. Temples were places where a concentration of wealth existed in the form of idols made from solid gold and heavily decorated with gems and jewels. He plundered and burnt the temples of Mathura in 1014 attacked Somnath in 1025 and went away with a large booty killing 50,000 Hindu defenders. This happened in the 11th Century CE but Muslim rule began with Md. Ghori (1173-1206) who was the real founder of the Islamic empire in India.

During the period from 1206 CE – 1526 CE (the Sultanate period). Hinduism suffered heavily. Hundreds of temples were demolished mainly in North India and thousands were forcibly converted to Islam. Many might have willingly changed faith for land grants and awards of official titles. The same condition continued up to the Mughal period (1526 CE to 1857 CE) during which the solitary Hindu Kingdom existed between 1336 CE to 1672 CE known as Vijayanagar whose headquarters lay in Kishkinda lands which belonged to Bali / Sugriva and Hanuman. During the Mughal rule, Hinduism suffered heavily under the reigns of Babar and Aurangzeb. In this environment, no political support directly existed for Hinduism for 600 years plus one hundred more years up to 1947 when British rule existed. However, Hindu Kings continued supporting in British India. The only method available for keeping Hinduism in a sustained state was to make its foundations wider and involve the masses for its propagation and support. The first step towards this goal was the establishment of Vishnu as the omnipresent omniscient Sagun form of almighty. This was done by conceptualizing the Dashavatar of Vishnu.

The Vaman (dwarf) avatar had a reference in Rig Vedic Brahmanas. The Matsya (fish) and Varah (Boar) avatars were also described by Brahmanas. References to Kurma (Tortoise), Krishna, Ram, Parashuram and Kalki are available in Mahabharat. Narsingh (Man-lion) and Buddha avatars have been described in Vishnu Purana. In the Bhagavat Purana, 18 incarnations of Vishnu have been enumerated in which Ved Vyas has also been treated as an avatar of Vishnu. A clear message was given to the masses that the almighty incarnates himself repeatedly for the preservation of dharma and destruction of adharma.

Mahabharat, Bhagavat Purana and Harivansa were composed to establish Krishna as an able avatar of Vishnu who taught lessons of Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga and Gyan yoga. His childhood days are found covered in Harivansa. The Bhagwat Puran began being composed in Tamil lands and Brahma Vaivarta Purana was probably composed in Bengal which relates to the three. The first translation of Bhagavat Purana was done in Tamil. There exist more than 30 translations of slightly differing versions in Bengali.

The only path available was the Bhakti Marga and only this Marga was able to sustain Hinduism in a stronger position throughout 700 years during which non-Hindu rule continued to exist. A region-wise survey has been given below because the importance of regions has been propounded in Bhagavat Purana itself (verses 48-49, Chapter I). This narration is by Bhakti in response to a question posed by Dev Rishi Narad.

I (Bhakti) was born in Dravida (South India) and grew up in Karnataka. I lived here and there in Maharashtra and became weak and old in Gujarat. There, during the terrible kali Age. I was shattered by heretics and I became weak and old along with my sons. But after reaching Vrindavan, I became young and beautiful again”.

Tamil lands:

The wandering saints Alvars (Vaishnavites) and Nayanars (Shaivites) were at the forefront in the Tamil area for spreading bhakti to the masses. They came mostly from the lower classes and rejected all the rituals recommended by Buddhist and Jain religions. They did not support the supremacy of Brahmins either.

Another stalwart was Ramanujacharya who proposed the doctrine of Vishistha Advaita (qualified monism) and established Vishnu as a personal God and it was helpful in spreading Vaishnavism. He also wrote commentaries on Gita.

Tamil Purana were written in Tamil in this area. In fact, Tamils have a large body of religious literature available on Gods and saints. Composition of Bhagavat Purana began in Tamil area and its translation in regional language was done in Tamil. This area also helped in the growth of important religious sects we find in Karnataka. A large quantity of Sangam religious literature exists singing the praise of Tirumal (Vishnu).


Madhavacharya (1238 CE to 1317 CE) was a leading philosopher of 13th century who proposed the doctrine of dualism (Dwaita) of Jivatma and Paramatma. According to him Brahma and universe are two equally real entities who are not related in any way. The God of dualism is Vishnu who has created the universe and the universe stands separate from God and has an inferior position. He also founded the Brahma Sampradaya in Karnataka.

The second big contribution to Bhakti was the rise of Virshaiva movement popularly known as Lingayat. This sect was founded by Basava. The followers of this sampradaya rejected the Supremacy of Vedas and Brahmins and all the old rituals. They rejected all worship and wore a small replica of Shiva linga around their neck and kept moving from one place to another singing songs for Shiva. They called themselves moving temples. A large number of Lingayat Mathas exist in Karnataka and they are politically considered very powerful. People belonging to this sect belong to lower castes and enjoy a very powerful base till today.


Several stalwarts of the Bhakti movement were from Maharashtra. Many of them were related to Pandharpur movement.

Sant Gyaneshwar (1275 CE to 1296 CE): He was the first Maratha to translate Bhagavat Gita into Marathi which was named Gyaneshwari. He also wrote Amritanubhava based on the philosophy of Upanishads. He was a critic of caste distinctions and believed that only way to attain God was through Bhakti.

Namdeva (1270 CE to 1350 CE): He belonged to the 14th Century. He was related to Varkari tradition (one of the Vaishnava devotional traditions). He is considered one of the five gurus of Dadupantha traditions (others being Dadu, Kabir, Ravidas and Hardas – His followers mostly came from low castes and included Kanhopatra (a dancing girl), Sena (a barber), Savata (a gardener), chokhamela (an untouchable), Janabai (a maid), Gora (a potter), Narhari (a goldsmith) and Jnaneshvar (a brahmin). He belonged to a low caste family of Pandharpur tailors and was a great devotee of Vithobha (Krishna of Pandharpur).

Sant Eknath (1533 CE to 1599 CE): He was a great Marathi poet of Varkari Sampradaya and Vaishnavism. He was a brahmin but he made Kirtan (group singing) in Marathi into the highest form of worship. He also wrote a commentary on Ramayana which is known as Bhavarth Ramayana having some special features. He made no distinction between a brahmin and a mahar.

Tukaram (1598 CE to 1650 CE): He was the greatest Bhakti poet in the Marathi language and was the son of a grocer. He wrote hymns in order to arouse devotion to Krishna. He was highly respected by Maratha ruler Shivaji. However, he did not attend his court. He composed poems for Vithal or Vithoba an incarnation of Vishnu.


The area of Gujarat formed the borderland with North-West India. It constantly faced attacks from Greeks, Scythians (Sakas), Parthians, Kushans and Huns and continued to be ruled by some of them. The rulers were non-Indians and Non-Hindus due to which Bhakti called them “Heretics” in Bhagavat Purana.

However, Narsingh Mehta (1414 CE to 1481 CE) wrote songs in Gujarati depicting the love between Radha and Krishna.

He also composed the song Vaishnava Jan Ko ……………popularized by Mahatma Gandhi.


Bengal was influenced by the impact of Bhagavat Purana, the Sahajiya Buddhist tradition and the Nath Panthi traditions. The main poets were Chandidas, Jayadeva and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In addition, the Bowl movement helped in spreading Hinduism.

Jayadeva (1179 CE to 1209 CE): In about 1199 Jayadeva wrote Gita Govinda. He was the court poet of Bengali King Lakshman Sen. Hymns composed by him reflecting love between Radha and Krishna became very popular and formed part of songs sung by women during marriages.

Chandidas: Wrote songs in memory of love between Radha and Krishna. Most of the composers identified themselves with Radha and Gopis.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 CE to 1533 CE): Chaitanya was the biggest saint who popularized Krishna cult in Bengal. He considered himself the incarnation of Radha and popularized Sankirtan / Kirtan (group devotional songs) accompanied by ecstatic dancing, on the music of drums, cymbals. Singing sessions spilled over to streets and market with chants of “Hari Hari Krishna Krishna”.

He did not believe in the hierarchy of caste and preached universal brotherhood.

Bowls: Bowls are special wandering saints of Bengal who sing devotional songs with the help of one stringed fiddle (ektara). They originated in the Nadiya district of Bengal and spread all over the state. They are divided into two groups. Hindu bowles sing Vaishnava songs composed by themselves and Muslim bowls sing Sufi songs which may or may not be their own compositions. Bowls are regarded as the “Men of the heart”. (The man of the house is dwelling in the house-in vain have you become mad by searching for him outside – thus wrote a bowl).

North India:

The entire north Indian territory suffered heavily during Muslim rule where largest number of temples were demolished and desecrated. Forced conversions to Islam was also largest which gets reflected in very high percentage of Muslim population in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal.

Religious movements got divided into two parts in this belt.

  • The orthodox school represented by Tulsidas, Ramanand, Nathapanthis, Surdas etc.
  • The liberal school represented by Guru Nanak and Kabir.

Tulsidas (1532 CE to 1623 CE): He was the leader of Vaishanavaite devotion in Uttar Pradesh. His Ram Charita Manas written in Avadhi language became a Bible for the Hindus. It gave rise to staging of Ramlila on a large scale which popularized Hinduism immensely.

Ramanand (1400 CE to 1476 CE): He was born in Allahabad and taught at Benaras and Agra. He travelled widely and was a link between North and South India. He founded his own sect known as Ramanandis and popularized bhakti for Ram Sita and Hanuman. He also wrote Adhyatma Ramayana in Sanskrit.

He was completely against caste (Let no one ask a man’s caste or with whom he eats, if a man is devoted to Hari, he becomes Hari’s own). His close followers included Raidas (a cobbler), Kabir (a weaver), Sena (a barber), Sadhana (a butcher), Dhanna (a farmer), Narharai (a goldsmith) and Pipa (a Rajput Prince).

Kabir: He was a famous disciple of Ramanand belonging to 15th Century CE. He criticized Hindus for idol worship and also ridiculed Muslims for practice of Ajaan before prayer. He was a believer in Ram and Rahim and belonged to Nirgun method of devotion.

His hymns known as ‘Sabad’ have been included in Guru Granth Sahib also. His followers are known as Kabir Panthis.

Guru Nanak (1469 CE to 1539 CE): He was a Nirgun Bhakti Saint who was the first Guru and founder of Sikhism (the fourth religion originating in India preceded by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism). He opposed all sorts of distinctions including caste distinctions. His teachings are found recorded in Guru Grantha Sahib which forms the main religious book of Sikhism, containing the ‘Sabads’ of the Guru.

Surdas (1483 CE to 1531 CE): He was a disciple of Vallabhacharya and spread Krishna Bhakti. His splendid composition Sur Sagar is next only to Ram Charita Manas.

Vallabhacharya (1479 CE to 1531 CE): He was born at Benaras to a Telugu Brahmin family. He propagated love for Sri Krishna whom he fondly called Shrinath. His composition Madhurashtakam is a high-class musical devotional song addressed to Sri Krishna.

Vallabhacharya also founded the doctrine of Shudha Advaita (pure monism) in which he holds that the entire universe is manifestation of Brahma but Universe is not Maya. The universe exists as an aspect of Brahma like the two sides of a coin.

Radha Ballabhi Sect was founded by Harivansa in about 1585 CE which was spreading Krishna cult in North India.

Mirabai (1503 CE to 1573 CE): She was the daughter in law of Rana Sanga in Rajasthan and composed highly devotional songs in praise of Krishna whom she adored as her husband.

The Sant Samaj in North India got divided into several Panths. The Nath panthis belong to the panth of Guru Gorakha Nath to which Yogi Adityanath belongs. All the Panthis congregate for “Shahi Snan” during Kumbh Mela.

Here we conclude the survey of Bhakti movement in India during Muslim and British rules. The policy of divide and rule was responsible for creation of Pakistan. However, In India Hinduism thrives in a much stronger state today.

“Vasudeva Sutam Devam Kansha Chanur Mardanam

Devaki Parmanandam Krishnam Vande Jagat Gurum”

Meaning: O God, you are the son of Vasudeva and you have destroyed the ego of Kansha and Chanur, you the extreme happiness for Devaki, we bow to you, the Guru of the Jagat (world).


  • Bhagavat Purana
  • Vishnu Purana
  • Harivansha
  • The Hindus, An Alternative History – Wendy Doniger
  • Ancient and Medieval India – Poonam Dalal Dahiya
  • The Wonder that was India II – S.A.A. Rizvi