Progress of Devotional Worship to Personal God

Categories : Spirituality

Although the Bhagwat Gita spoke about Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Gnana yoga, the public at large was not aware of it. All the knowledge remained confined to the priestly class (Brahmans) and the ruling class (mainly Rajputs). The involvement of the common man was lacking. After the construction of temples for the worship of personal gods, a gradual change became possible, opening the doors for mass participation.

In North India, the Aryans had expanded into the entire Ganga Sindhu plain. The area became known as Aryavarta. However, the birth of Gautam Buddha and Mahabir took place in Bihar part of the Aryavarta in the 6th century BCE. Buddhism and Jainism began engulfing Aryavarta gradually. It also went south of Vindhyas and spread rapidly up to Tamil lands and Karnataka. Chandragupta Maurya went to Karnataka to end his life through the Jain method of continuous fasting. He did it near a hill which is known today as Chandragiri.

Earlier, Aryan expansion towards the south had not become possible because of the Vindhyachal Mountains. Rishi Agastya crossed the Vindhyachal and moved into the Dravidian area for its Aryanization. He reached Tamil lands and remained stationed there and perhaps never returned to Aryavarta again. Many people in Tamil Nadu belong to Agastya Gotra because of their long association with Rishi Agastya.

In Bhagwat Purana, it has been clearly mentioned that Bhakti was born in Tamil lands and grew up in Karnataka. It remained for a long time in Maharashtra and became gradually old by the time it reached Gujarat.

In Tamil Nadu, a group of Shaivite Nayannars (about 63 in number) and Vaishnavite Alvars (about 12 in number) were born between the 7th to 9th centuries C.E. and were the first torchbearers to the Bhakti movement. All the saints came from low castes and sang their songs of intense devotion to their respective gods Shiva and Vishnu. Many of them were contemporary to Adi Shankaracharya. Both the groups rejected the austerities preached by Buddha and Jain Dharma and both emphasized that the only way of attaining salvation was through love and devotion to God. They had no faith in rituals. They composed their devotional songs in Tamil. Their Bhakti cult developed during the rules of Pandayas, Pallavas and Cholas. Since they were non-brahmins and belonged to low castes (many of them women) their cult was open to all castes. This group became instrumental in spreading bhakti to personal gods in the lower rungs of society as well which became the main turning point.

The impassioned devotionalism of Alvars and Nayanars affected the whole religious outlook of the Tamil area. Even Adi Shankaracharya who believed in strict monism was affected by this outburst of devotion to Sagun Brahma and he also composed devotional verses in Sanskrit. Alvars and Nayanars who composed verses in Tamil are available in book forms and both of the saintly groups are worshipped in Tamil Nadu temples even today. Some examples are given below in English Translation.

Shaiva Manikkavasagar (Nayanar)

  • “By whom the King of Gods knows but in part, the Gods of Gods,

The triple Lord, who makes, preserves and ends

the lovely universe, The Primal Form,

the Ancient of Days, the Lord of Parvati……

came in his grace and took me for his own,

so now I bow to none and revere him alone.

I am among the servants of his servants,

And I shall bathe in joy, and dance and sing.”

  • “Into my vile body of flesh

you came, as though it were a temple of gold,

and soothed me wholly and saved me,

O Lord of Grace, O Gem Most Pure.

Sorrow and birth and death and illusion

you took from me and set me free.

O Bliss! O Light! I have taken refuge in you,

and never can I be parted from you.”

Shaiva Sivanansiddhiyar (Naayanar) approached thorough-going monotheistic bhakti to Shiva alone:

  • “We worship some god – our parents for instance –

but they do not reward us, even when they seem to show us their grace,

for all these gods are under the command of the Almighty,

  • “If Shiva alone rewards us, loving him is the highest virtue,

and the worship of other gods is of little use.

Dharma is his will; he has no desires

Except to do good – so be firm in his worship.”

Shaiva Apparsvami (Nayanar):

“You are father, you are mother,

you are elder brother,

you are all kinsmen,

you are a fair woman and abundant riches.

You are family, friends and home,

fount of pure wisdom and press onward.

You are gold, you are jewel, you are pearl-

You are lord, Rider on the Bull, you are bliss.”

Ramanuja – 1017-1137 CE

Ramanujacharya was a 12th-century Bhakti poet who was born about 200 years after Adi Shankaracharya. He was the next biggest theologian after Shankar. He supported Shankar on Advaita but did not support his mayavad. He held the view that both the Brahma and the manifested world are real. Shankar said that only the Brahma is true and the manifested world is Maya.

Ramanuja was of the view that Brahma is like the sea and the waves of the sea are like manifestations of the world. Both are real but not separate from each other. One is the product of the other. Monism is still present but in a slightly qualified form. Therefore, the doctrine of Ramanuj is called Vishistha Advaita (qualified monism).

Ramanuja born in a Brahmin family in the Tamil area was taught in the great temple of Srirangam. He wrote lengthy commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Bhagwat Gita and Upanishads. He defined Brahma as an entirely personal God represented by Vishnu (or any of his avatars). He was of the view that Vishnu has all the qualities worthy of a personal God like omniscience, omnipotence and all-pervasiveness. He has created the world out of his love for humans and he controls the world at every step. He was a firm supporter of prabatti marga (path of complete surrender to God). He invited the downtrodden towards Vaishnavism.

Thus, the search for a personal God ultimately succeeded. But followers got divided into several sects like Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta etc. However, the notion of a personal God existed in all sects. The devotee was free to worship his chosen God through panchopachar method and talk to him, pray to him, narrate his woes to him, ask forgiveness from him and pray for guidance in times of difficulties.

The readers are free to decide whether the views of Ramanuja tally with this mantra of Isa Upanishad.

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते

 पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते

शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Puurnnam-Udacyate |

Puurnnasya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate ||

Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||


Om All this is full, all that is full from fullness, fullness comes. When fullness is taken from fullness fullness still remains. Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!

Brahma is both transcendent and immanent. The birth or the creation of the universe does not in any manner affect the integrity of Brahman.

Ramanuja believed that as man seeks the God, the God also tries to seek the best of humans. He gives the example from the following shloka of Bhagwat Gita (18th Verse of Chapter 7).

उदारा: सर्व एवैते ज्ञानी त्वात्मैव मे मतम् |

आस्थित: हि युक्तात्मा मामेवानुत्तमां गतिम् || 18||

udārāḥ sarva evaite jñānī tvātmaiva me matam

āsthitaḥ sa hi yuktātmā mām evānuttamāṁ gatim


All these devotees are undoubtedly magnanimous souls, but he who is situated in knowledge of Me I consider to be just like My own self. Being engaged in My transcendental service, he is sure to attain Me, the highest and most perfect goal.


  • Bhagwat Gita
  • Isa Upanishad
  • The Wonder that was India, A.L. Basham.
  • Ancient and Medieval India, Poonam Dalal Dahiya
  • Bhagwat Purana