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The Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India

The Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India

by Richard Maxwell Eaton

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The Sufis were heirs to a tradition of Islamic mysticism, and they have generally been viewed as standing more or less apart from the social order. Professor Eaton contends to the contrary that the Sufis were an integral part of their society, and that an understanding of their interaction with it is essential to an understanding of the Sufis themselves.



The Sufis were heirs to a tradition of Islamic mysticism, and they have generally been viewed as standing more or less apart from the social order. Professor Eaton contends to the contrary that the Sufis were an integral part of their society, and that an understanding of their interaction with it is essential to an understanding of the Sufis themselves.

In investigating the Sufis of Bijapur in South India, (he author identifies three fundamental questions. What was the relationship, he asks, between the Sufis and Bijapur's 'ulama, the upholders of Islamic orthodoxy? Second, how did the Sufis relate to the Bijapur court? Finally, how did they interact with the non-Muslim population surrounding them, and how did they translate highly developed mystical traditions into terms meaningful to that population? In answering these questions, the author advances our knowledge of an important but little-studied city-state in medieval India.

Originally published in 1978.

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Sufis of Bijapur 1300-1700

Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India

By Richard Maxwell Eaton


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03110-1



Maharashtra and Karnataka, 1100-1300

Except for its wooded northwestern region where knotted, twisted hills rise to the Western Ghats, the Bijapur plateau is uniformly flat and barren. Three principal rivers, all rising in the Western Ghats and flowing to the east, drain this plateau — in the north the Bhima, in the center the Krishna, and in the south the Tungabhadra — and along their shallow valleys deep black soils permit extensive cultivation. The black soils support the cultivation of cotton, a cash crop that provided the Kingdom of Bijapur with its export textile industry. The main food crop produced is juwar, or millet, as rice and wheat are seldom grown in the area. All agriculture on the Bijapur plateau, however, depends upon a short and capricious summer monsoon, resulting in a most precarious, dry climate. Situated in the "rain shadow" of the Western Ghats whose towering spurs trap most of the rain carried by the southwestern monsoon, the Bijapur plateau averages only 20 to 25 inches of rainfall yearly, and is notorious as one of the most drought-prone regions of India.

The cultural geography of the Bijapur plateau might best be described with reference to what modern geographers have called "core" or "nuclear" areas. These areas, such as coastal Andhra, coastal Tamilnadu, deltaic Bengal or the Delhi Doab, generally exhibit highly developed and relatively stable cultural patterns. These include a fairly persistent political tradition, a nexus of trading routes and commercial markets, a considerable measure of social stratification based on a surplus agricultural base, and perhaps most crucial, a high degree of linguistic unity between all strata of the society. Between such core areas can be found what Bernard Cohn has called "shatter zones," or "the traditional regions through which large numbers of people passed either in military or peaceful invasion. In these areas, which in effect connect the nuclear regions, there is no persistent political tradition. Socially and culturally the area tends to be more of a mosaic than a relative unitary kind of social structure."

With respect to its political heritage, its linguistic distribution, and its religious history over the past seven hundred years, the Bijapur plateau can be designated a shatter zone. From about the thirteenth century two distinct core areas formed on both the northern and southern extremities of the plateau. On the northern edge, from the Bhima River north to the upper Godavari basin, there arose the nucleus of the Marathi-speaking core region now known as Maharashtra. Similarly, from the Tungabhadra River on the southern edge of the plateau south to the Kaveri River, Kannada-speaking peoples formed the nucleus of what is now called Karnataka. Thus the center of the Bijapur plateau, especially the upper Krishna region including Bijapur city itself, straddled a cultural fault zone between Maharashtra and Karnataka, its inhabitants being fully integrated into neither Marathi nor Kannada culture, but only partially into one or the other.

From the year 973 to 1190 a single Hindu state, the Western Chalukya Empire, had sprawled over the entire western half of the Deccan plateau from the upper Godavari basin down to the upper Kaveri region, thus linking Maharashtra politically with Karnataka. But in the late twelfth century this empire broke up, representing one of the early cases of an Indian political entity crumbling before the forces of linguistic regionalism. For in 1190 a Marathi-speaking family, the Yadava dynasty, delivered a coup d'état to the rapidly dissolving Chalukya power by declaring full authority over the northern, Marathi-speaking portion of the empire, and by establishing its capital in the nucleus of what was becoming the Marathi core region, i.e., in Devagiri in the upper Godavari basin. Coinciding with this political development was the rise of vernacular Marathi, which provides us with an early example of the union of language and politics. The earliest known Marathi record (1187) appeared almost simultaneously with the founding of the Yadava dynasty (1190). Moreover, as soon as they had achieved independence from the Chalukyas, the Marathi-speaking Yadavas established their mother tongue as the official language of their dominion. It was during the thirteenth century, too, that this area, specifically the upper Godavari region around Devagiri, produced the earliest poets to employ the Marathi vernacular as a vehicle for expression. Poets such as Jnanadeva (fl. 1290) and Namdev (fl. 1400) are widely acclaimed as among the finest writers in the history of Marathi literature. It is possible to conclude, then, that the widespread popularity of vernacular Marathi poetry and the official acceptance of that language by the government must have gone far in integrating Marathi-speaking peoples living outside the upper Godavari core region into the entity now known as Maharashtra.

Shortly after the Yadava dynasty proclaimed its rule in the North, a Kannada kingdom under the Hoysala dynasty likewise established its rule over the southern, or Kannada-speaking, portion of the former Chalukya Empire. Thus were formed two regional kingdoms in the western Deccan, each claiming sway over, but not extending beyond, a given linguistic area. In this way linguistic frontiers between Maharashtra and Karnataka were given, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, political reenforcement. Since the breakup of the Chalukyas, writes the French 'anthropologist G. A. Deleury, "unity was never achieved again, Maharashtra and Karnataka being destined to undergo their evolutions separately."

Further distinguishing these two cultural regions was the rise of regional bhakti movements, or popular devotional cults, which swept over the Bijapur plateau in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The rise of bhakti cults, which first appeared around the sixth century in the Tamil country and from there spread throughout much of the subcontinent, represents a crucial phase in the evolution of Hinduism. Often voicing popular opposition to the impersonal and ritualistic aspect of what has been called "the haughty Vedant creed" monopolized by the priestly Brahmin caste, bhakti devotional cults fostered the growth of an intense theism marked by a fervid devotion to a personal god. The goal of the bhakta (devotee), "to attain and enjoy for all time the blissful company of a personal god," contrasts sharply with the Vedic aim of merging in the unconsciousness of Brahman, or the Absolute.

The ardent theism of bhakti cults usually found expression in popular devotional hymns. One such collection of popular hymns, and one of the most influential devotional texts used by various bhakti sects since the ninth century, was the Bhagavata Purana. Composed around A.D. 850 in the Tamil country, this text reflects a nearly complete break with traditional religious ceremonies based on the Vedas, an absence of any qualification of birth or status for participation in devotional worship, and an identification of the wealthy and learned supporters of the status quo as the prime opponents of bhakti. The intensely fervent bhakti of the Bhagavata Purana focused on the deity Krishna, whose devotees served him "by gazing at the images of Krishna, singing his praises, remembering him in meditation, keeping company with his devotees, touching their bodies, serving them lovingly, hearing them tell the mighty deeds of Krishna, and talking with them about his glory and his love." The object of the bhakta's adoration did not always focus on Krishna, as it did in the Bhagavata Purana, though certainly the some twenty incarnations of Vishnu, including especially Krishna and Rama, provided the most popular objects of bhakti worship.

Through their use of vernacular languages, as opposed to Sanskrit, bhakti movements in Maharashtra and Karnataka played important roles in both defining and distinguishing the Marathi and Kannada cultural traditions. One of the factors that had historically given the Brahmin community and Brahminical teachings their pan-Indian character was their common use of Sanskrit as the medium of religious intercourse. Bhakti movements, on the other hand, tended not to cut across linguistic lines precisely because of their capacity to reach non-Brahmin commoners in the vernacular idiom of particular linguistic regions. Far from integrating peoples of different cultural traditions, or core areas, bhakti movements tended to be regional phenomena that reinforced peoples' identity with particular regions.

The bhakti cult that grew up among the Marathi people, the cult of Vithoba, was one of those devotional sects in which the deity worshipped, Vithoba, represented a form of Vishnu. This Vaisnavite cult, to this day an important force in Maharashtrian cultural life, grew around a temple to Vithoba on the banks of the Bhima River at Pandharpur. First mentioned in a 1249 grant made in its favor, the temple became, in Professor A. S. Altekar's words, "the most famous centre of popular worship in the Deccan towards the end of the thirteenth century." An explanation for this popularity might be found in the social context in which the cult grew, a society in which caste rigidity and Brahmin supremacy had apparently become highly advanced. For in thirteenth-century Maharashtra both the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas had been brought down to the level of Sudras, and it was at this time that untouchability took on its present form and character. Drawing its followers mainly from among lower class Maharashtrians, the Vithoba cult, argues Deleury, "can be considered as a reaction against the overwhelming domination of the Brahmin community and their esoteric language, Sanskrit."

In the earliest period of the cult's known history pilgrims to Pandharpur were not exclusively Maharashtrians, as many Kannadiga pilgrims also joined in Vithoba bhakti. This changed, however, at the end of the thirteenth century when the poet Jnanadeva (d. 1296), perhaps the greatest poet-saint of Marathi bhakti, migrated from the Maharashtrian heartland of the upper Godavari region to Pandharpur, thus linking the temple cult there with the cultural movement of the North. Deleury has described the poet's coming to Pandharpur as the greatest event in the history of the Vithoba movement, adding: "By working in Marathi, he brought within reach of the common people the understanding of their Sanskrit heritage, and also made it possible for them to realize their national culture which had been taking shape at the [Yadava] court of Devagiri." It was Jnanadeva who first translated the devotional work Bhagavad Gita to vernacular Marathi. Indeed it is chiefly to the poet-saints who sang of Vithoba, especially Jnanadeva and Namdev, that early Marathi literature owes its development. What is perhaps more important, the replacement of Sanskrit by the vernacular speech for devotional purposes brought language and religion together, no doubt strengthening a sense of unity among the masses of Vithoba bhaktas.

South of Pandharpur, in the Kannada-speaking region of the Bijapur plateau, there arose another bhakti cult which, though differing from the Vithoba cult in significant respects, resembled the latter in its capacity to integrate many non-Brahmin peoples of its own linguistic area. This was the Lingayat movement, also known as Virasaivism. Although there is some controversy over the antiquity and ultimate origin of Lingayat bhakti, scholars are agreed that it received its greatest momentum in the late twelfth century at the Chalukya capital of Kalyani. A reformer named Basava (ca. 1169) is credited with having initiated and expanded the revolutionary ideals of Lingayat bhakti amidst the collapsing social and political order of the Western Chalukya Empire. In his teachings, Basava rejected the caste system, Brahmin supremacy, Brahminical rituals (sacrifices, pilgrimages, fasts, etc.), polytheism, and even the authority of the Vedic texts. In their place was substituted the Lingayat creed, open to all persons, which accorded absolute devotion to Siva. Lingayat bhakti was therefore Saivite, while most other bhakti movements, such as the Vithoba cult, were Vaisnavite. The most distinguishing feature of Lingayat bhakti was that, unlike Marathi bhakti, the deity's form was not represented in any temple image, but in the emblem or linga (hence the sect's name) invested upon the follower on initiation into the sect and carried by him, usually around the neck, at all times. The linga was the moving deity, the abode of Siva. It was also a social leveller, enabling the wearer, theoretically at least, to achieve social equality with other Lingayats despite the rank of the caste from which he converted. As in the case of the Vithoba cult at Pandharpur, the movement was propagated mainly by poets who devised vernacular literary forms to reach the commoners. In Marathi bhakti this was the abhang, a short lyrical utterance expressing religious longing; in Lingayat bhakti it was the vachana, a type of popular Kannada verse that commended the Lingayat creed and, requiring no learning to understand, flooded the Kannada-speaking countryside. Owing to the vernacular nature of its early propagation, Lingayat bhakti was an almost exclusively Kannada phenomenon.

Despite the egalitarian and anti-Brahminical fervor that characterized Lingayat bhakti when it expanded in the twelfth century, social distinctions gradually crept into the movement.

Older converts began placing newer converts on a lower social scale than themselves, while great privileges were accorded a priestly class within the Lingayat community, the Jangams, who had asserted for themselves the right to define Lingayat "orthodoxy" in terms of certain rites and ceremonies in which they officiated. In short, the bhakti aspect of personal devotion to the god Siva steadily gave way to the hierarchal and exclusive qualities of the very type that Lingayat bhakti had set out to oppose, and in the process Lingayats passed from a sect to a caste.

The point at which this change occurred is difficult to determine. Although some authorities have placed it at the end of the seventeenth century, the change would seem to represent a more prolonged process. While it is true that the Jangams had probably not become a closed and privileged caste until around the seventeenth century, there were other social institutions among the Lingayats that had achieved definite shape before that time. One such institution was the math, or the local monastery to which all linga wearers were affiliated, which formed a basic unit of Lingayat bhakti since the twelfth century. Headed usually by a pious Lingayat guru, or teacher, the village math formed the center of the sect in terms of spiritual guidance, distribution of food to the hungry, and Lingayat education. It was to these maths that local poets who disseminated Lingayat teachings in their vernacular poems (vachanas), were attached. Linked together by affiliation with one of the five original monasteries, the local Lingayat math thus extended deep into many aspects of village life in Karnataka.

An equally important early Lingayat institution was the guru in his all-important capacity as mediator between a Lingayat devotee and the god Siva. At a very early time, it had become axiomatic among Lingayats that each follower must belong to a math and must have a guru. This guru, furthermore, was to be accorded limitless reverence by the devotee. He was held in greater esteem not only than one's natural father, but also than the deity Siva, because, as one writer put it, "it is he who leads the soul to unity with Siva." The guru also linked the devotee to the math, or monastery. As head of the math, the guru had absolute authority in all matters concerning the institution, including that of succession to its leadership. In recent centuries the rights of the guru have become hereditary, just as the larger class of Jangams from which gurus come has developed into a closed caste that neither dines nor marries with non-Jangam Lingayats. But the broad and integrative social roles of the village math as well as the immense spiritual and social importance of the guru certainly predated the seventeenth century, and were ongoing traditions when Sufis first came to Bijapur.


Excerpted from Sufis of Bijapur 1300-1700 by Richard Maxwell Eaton. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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