India is counted among oldest civilizations in the world, and Hinduism is arguably the oldest religion in the world. Hinduism is often referred to by scholars as ‘Santana Dharma’ or ‘Eternal Tradition’; this is because Hinduism is more of a way of life, an extension of Indian traditions and beliefs, and philosophies, and less of a religion.
Hinduism has no founder but is known for numerous ascetics, sages, and saints who stand out for their theories and reflections that now form the crux of religion in India. This article aims to explore the lives and teachings of ten Indian saints who have an outstanding contribution to religion and philosophy in India. Read further to know more.
Ramanuja is among the most illustrious of Indian saints and is counted among the earliest of the Bhakti Movement. Also known as Ramanujarcharya, this great saint and theologian lived between 1017 to 1137 CE, and his philosophies have an undeniable impact on the Bhakti Movement. This great saint has contributed significantly to the Shri Vaishnavism tradition within Hinduism.
His theologies and views continue to hold significance in the Vaishnavism Tradition as we know it today. Ramanuja was a devotee of Lord Vishnu and firmly believed in the concept of belief and devotion to a personal God as a means to attain salvation, or in other words, for the Atman (soul) to find its identity with the Brahman (ultimate reality).
Modern-day scholars in religious studies and acclaimed Indologists herald Ramanuja as the ‘founding interpreter of Shri Vaishnavite scripture,’ the most influential thinker of the Bhakti Movement, and a theologian who promoted Bhakti on an intellectual foundation.
Historians specializing in Hindu Mysticism believe that Nimbarka lived in the 12th or 13th century, and even today, he is one of the greatest devotees of Radha Krishna. Nimbarka believed and preached that the physical body was a trap of nature or Prakriti.
The way to escape the cycle of rebirth and attain spiritual liberation was by complete surrender and devotion to Radha Krishna, according to Nimbarka. Nimbarka is the founder of Dualistic Monism and is the author of the Vedanta Parijata-saurabha. His disciplic tradition goes on to this day and is known as the Nimbarka Sampradaya, with followers in Rajasthan, Vrindavan, and Mathura.
Alongside Sankaracharya and Ramanuja, Madhavacharya is counted among the primary philosophers of the Vedanta System. Born in Karnataka, in 1238 CE, Madhvacharya travelled all over the country, including Goa, Dwarka, Varanasi, Kanyakumari, and even Bengal, debating and teaching Hindu theology and philosophy and gathering knowledge from Hindu centres of learning.
This great saint laid the foundation for Udupi’s famous Krishna Mutt, a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna that exists to this day. He taught that the Atman (Soul) depended on the Brahman (Ultimate Reality) but wasn’t identical. He is also well-known as the poet, attributed with writing the Anuvyakhyana, commentary on the Brahma Sutras, in poetry form.
Madhvacharya is also credited with the establishment of eight monasteries in Udupi, now known as the Madhva Mathas or the Udupi Astha Matha. The monks that lean and reside in these monasteries are sannyasis and follow a tradition of learning established by this saint, known as the Paryaya system. As such, Madhvacharya’s influence is significant even today.
Said to live between 1479 and 1531 CE, Vallabha or Vallabhacharya was a Telegu philosopher whose teachings on Shuddha Advaita or Pure Non-Dualism is revered within the Pushti sect of Vaishnavism even today. In fact, he is the founder of this Hindu sect that is known for its single-minded devotion to Lord Krishna.
Furthermore, the Pushti sect is also known as the Vallabha Sampradaya or the Spiritual Tradition of Vallabha. This fact indicates the importance of Vallabha to a section of followers of the Hindu way of life and devout worshippers of Lord Krishna. Vallabha can is widely credited for making spirituality accessible to all.
He preached against beliefs that limited spiritual enlightenment to sages and ascetics and stressed that even the common man, the average householder could attain salvation through single-minded devotion to Shri Krishna. This philosophy was accepted widely by the Hindus of the time, in regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. Vallabhacharya travelled all over the country teaching and preaching, which explains the reverence for him all over modern India.
Ramananda was, without a doubt, an enlightened individual; he is a revolutionary of his times. He took the devotion of Lord Rama to the masses and paid little heed to the social limitations that seem to plague us even today. Ramananda made disciples out of people of every caste and creed.
Kabir, a 15th-century spiritual poet and saint, whose verses appear in the Guru Granth Sahib, was a disciple of Ramananda. This fact sheds light on Ramananda’s appeal that transcends the boundaries of religion.
Furthermore, Ramananda insisted on teaching and preaching in the vernacular language. Sanskrit was and continues to be the language of scholars. However, Ramananda believed he could promote the devotion of Lord Rama widely by teaching and preaching in the language of the masses, and he indeed achieved his objectives.
Today, Ramananda is credited as the founder of the Ramananda Sampradaya, a tradition of monastic life, counted as the largest community of Sannyasis in modern India.
While Hindu scholars of earlier times were mostly men, not all saints were men – this is because Bhakti and devotion truly transcend gender, and Mirabai or Meera was a prime example of this fact. Born into a Royal Rajput family in Rajasthan, in 1502 CE, Mirabai was less interested in the luxuries of her status and more interested in the devotion of Lord Krishna from her earliest years.
In popular art, Mirabai is often depicted playing the Ektara with her eyes shut in devotion to Lord Krishna, and this was true for her life as well. Mirabai is credited for writing hundreds of Bhajans (devotional songs) in praise of Lord Krishna, that are sung to this day by Krishna Devotees.
Her contribution to the Bhakti Movement is undeniable. Mirabai’s devotion transcends religious limitations; her poetry is included in the Prem Amod Pothi, a Sikh sacred text attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, and she is regarded as one among 16 Bhakti saints by the Sikhs.
On a visit to the Ganges riverfront in Varanasi, there is a good chance that you will find yourself on the Tulsi Ghat, named after the Hindu poet and saint, Tulsidas. However, this not the extent of this great saint’s contribution to Hinduism.
He is widely known as the author of the Ramcharitramanas; the Ramayana retold in the Awadhi language. Furthermore, if you have watched and enjoyed popular Ramlila plays anywhere in the country, you can thank Tulsidas for starting this sacred artistic tradition.
Tulsidas is also known for establishing the Sankatmochan Temple in Varanasi, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Tulsidas’s contribution to the worship and devotion of Lord Rama is apparent to this day, especially in the holy city of Varanasi, where he lived most of his life.
Surdas saw the beauty of Lord Krishna with his inner eyes and dedicated his life to the worship of the Lord. This blind 16th-century poet and singer is widely known for writing beautiful lyrics devoted to Lord Krishna.
Surdas is known to be a follower of Vallabhacharya’s teachings. He is designated as the greatest of the eight poets of the Vallabh Sampradaya, also known as the Asthachap (eight seals). This name is derived from the signatures at the end of each composition.
Much like Ramananda, Surdas wrote his pieces in the standard Hindi dialect, Braj Bhasha. However, his writings elevated Braj Bhasha to the status of a literary language. Like other great saints, Surdas’s compositions made their way into the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred text.
Kabir enjoys recognition as Ramananda’s most prominent disciples, and for a good reason. Kabir was a product of Ramananda’s acceptance of all castes and creeds into the fold of devotion to Lord Rama, and Kabir continued with this tradition.
Kabir was born a Muslim, but his primary spiritual influences came from the teachings of Ramananda. Like Ramananda, Kabir put more emphasis on the worship and devotion of Lord Rama. Kabir even went a step further to denounce the practice of mindless rites, the caste system, and the class system.
However, Kabir propagated personal change, as opposed to social change. Contemporary followers of Kabir are known as the Kabir Panthis, who follow the Kabir Panth – a collection of Kabir’s teachings.
Born in Navadwip in West Bengal, Chaitanya was a Hindu saint of latter times (1486 – 1533) to whom we can credit the chanting of the ‘Hare Krishna Hare Rama’ mantra that has now made its way across the globe. In reverence, Chaitanya is often referred to by his followers as Mahaprabhu or Great Lord.
He is said to be Krishna in the mood of Radha, by his followers, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. He is known to solidify the Bhakti movement in Bengal. His kirtans (devotional songs) are sung even today by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, in praise of Lord Krishna.
In conclusion, it is important to note that the persons mentioned above, are revered as saints today, because of their contribution to our understanding of God and spirituality. These persons are responsible for adding to the spiritual wealth of India and the Hindu tradition, and as such, they are respected and followed all across the country.