Religion and Philosophy in Medieval India


  • Islam was founded by Prophet Muhammad.
  • two major sects that arose within Islam – the Sunnis and Shias
  • Sunnis, there are four principal schools of Islamic Law,
    • These are based upon the Quran and Hadis (traditions of the Prophet’s saying and doings).
    • Of these the Hanafi school of the eighth century was adopted by the eastern Turks, who later came to India
    • orthodox Sunnism- rationalist philosophy or Mutazilas professed strict monotheism
    • God is just and has nothing to do with man’s evil actions.
    • Men are endowed with free will and are responsible for their own actions.
    • Mutazilas were opposed by the Ashari School
  • Ashari school
    • Founded by Abul Hasan Ashari (873-935 AD)
    • Believes that God knows, sees and speaks.
    • Quran is eternal and uncreated.
    • Greatest exponent Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), credited with having reconciled orthodoxy with mysticism.
    • Al-Ghazali attacked all non-orthodox Sunni schools.
    • Sufis owed their allegiance to the Quran as much as the Ulemas did
    • Influence of the ideas of Ghazali was greater because of the new educational system provided for setting up of seminaries of higher learning (called madrasas)
    • scholars were known as ulema played an important role in the politics of medieval India.
  • The Sufis
    • Mystics, pious men who were shocked at the degeneration in political and religious life
    • opposed the vulgar display of wealth in public life and the readiness of the ulema to serve “ungodly” rulers
    • free thought and liberal ideas
    • against formal worship, rigidity and fanaticism in religion.
    • interpreted religion as ‘love of god’ and service of humanity
    • divided into different silsilahs (orders) with each silsilah having its own pir (guide) called Khwaja or Sheikh
    • pir and his disciples lived in a khanqah (hospice)
    • owed their allegiance to the Quran as much as the ulema did
    • Al-Hujwari known as Data Ganj Baksh (Distributor of Unlimited Treasure)
    • fundamental and moral principles, teachings and orders, system of fasting, prayers and practice of living in khanqahs had already been fixeds
    • Abul Fazl while writing in the Ain-i-Akbari speaks of fourteen silsilahs of the Sufis divided into two types:
      • Ba-shara were those orders that followed the Islamic Law (Sharia) and its directives such as namaz and roza. Chief amongst these were the Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdawsi, Qadiri and Naqshbandi silsilahs.
      • Be-shara silsilahs were not bound by the Sharia. The Qalandars belonged to this group.

The Chishti Silsilah

  • Order was founded in a village called Khwaja Chishti (near Herat)
  • Founded by Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti
  • Ajmer the main centre
  • Serving mankind was the best form of devotion and therefore he worked amongst the downtrodden.
  • Disciples: Sheikh Hamiduddin of Nagaur and Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki
  • Sultan Iltutmish dedicated the Qutub Minar to Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki
  • Sheikh Fariduddin of Ajodhan (Pattan in Pakistan) popularised the Chishti silsilah in modern Haryana and Punjab
  • Baba Farid respected by both Hindus and Muslims. His verses, written in Punjabi, are quoted in the Adi Granth
    • His most famous disciple Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) was responsible for making Delhi an important centre of the Chishti silsilah
    • He saw the reign of seven sultans
    • His followers were the noted writer Amir Khusrau
  • Sheikh Nasiruddin Mahmud, popularly known as Nasiruddin Chirag-i-Dilli (The Lamp of Delhi).

The Suhrawardi Silsilah

  • founded by Sheikh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi
  • established in India by Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya (1182-1262)
  • Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya openly took Iltutmisht’s side in his struggle against Qabacha and received from him the title Shaikhul Islam (Leader of Islam)
  • maintained close contacts with the state
  • accepted gifts, jagirs and even government posts in the ecclersiastical department
  • firmly established in Punjab and Sind
  • others silsilahs are the Firdawsi Silsilah, Shattari Silsilah, Qadiri Silsilah, Naqshbandi Silsilah

Importance of Sufi Movement

  • infused a new liberal outlook within Islam
  • laid the foundation for more liberal movements of the fifteenth century
  • believed in the concept of Wahdat-ul-Wajud(Unity of Being) which was promoted by Ibn-i-Arabi (l165-1240)
  • much exchange of ideas between the Sufis and Indian yogis. In fact, the hatha-yoga treatise Amrita Kunda was translated into Arabic and Persian
  • Notable contribution: service to the poorer and downtrodden sections of society
  • Nizamuddin Auliya was famous for distributing gifts amongst the needy irrespective of religion or caste.
  • encouraged equality and brotherhood
  • attacked by the orthodoxy- denounced the ulema
  • contributed greatly to the growth of a rich regional literature- chose to write in local languages
  • Baba Farid recommended the use of Punjabi
  • Shaikh Hamiduddin, before him, wrote in Hindawi.
  • Syed Gesu Daraz was the first writer of Deccani Hindi
  • Also, in Bengali
  • Amir Khusrau (l 252-1325) the follower of Nizamuddin Auliya created a new style called sabaq-i-hindi


  • development took place in Tamil Nadu between the seventh and twelfth centuries
  • Nayanars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu)
  • Bhakti saints composed their verses in local languages
  • also translated Sanskrit works
  • Jnanadeva writing in Marathi, Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas in Hindi, Shankaradeva popularising Assamese, Chaitanya and Chandidas spreading their message in Bengali, Mirabai in Hindi and Rajasthani.
  • Devotional poetry was composed in Kashmiri, Telugu, Kannad, Oriya, Malayalam, Maithili and Gujarati.
  • believed that salvation can be achieved by all
  • no distinction of caste, creed or religion before God
    • Ramananda, whose disciples included Hindus and Muslims His disciple, Kabir, was a weaver.
    • Guru Nanak was a village accountant’s son. Namdev was a tailor
  • stressed equality, disregarded the caste system and attacked institutionalized religion
  • did not confine themselves to purely religious ideas. They advocated social reforms too
  • opposed sati and female infanticide
  • Women were encouraged to join kirtans.
    • Mirabai and Lalla (of Kashmir)
  • Non-sectarian Bhakti saints
    • Kabir and Guru Nanak
    • ideas were drawn from both Hindu and Islamic traditions
    • aimed at bridging the gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims
  • Kabir
    • believed that the way to God was through personally experienced bhakti or devotion
    • Creator is One
    • Sikhs incorporate his songs in the Adi Granth
    • beliefs and ideas were reflected in the dohas (Sakhi)
    • emphasised simplicity in religion and said that bhakti was the easiest way to attain God
    • refused to accept any prevalent religious belief without prior reasoning
    • advocated performance of action rather than renunciation of duty
    • belief in the unity of God led both Hindus and
      Muslims to become his disciples
    • ideas were not restricted to religion
  • Guru Nanak
    • exponent of the Nankana school
    • objective was to remove the existing corruption and degrading practices in society.
    • establishment of an egalitarian social order.
    • a social reformer as he was a religious teacher
    • improvement in the status of women
    • Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs

The Vaishnavite Movement

  • sakar form of God
  • centered around the worship of Rama and Krishna
  • main exponents were Surdas, Mirabai, Tulsidas and Chaitanya
  • medium of poetry, song, dance and kirtans
  • Surdas (1483-1563)
    • disciple of the famous teacher, Vallabhachara
    • blind poet
    • Krishna
  • The love for Krishna was also expressed through the songs of Mirabai (l 503-73)
  • Spread in the east through the efforts of Chaitanya (1484-1533). The devotion for Krishna was expressed through Sankirtans (hymn session by devotees)
  • Ramananda (1400-1470): famous of the Rama bhaktas was Tulsidas (l 532-1623) who wrote the Ramacharitmanas


  • Bhakti movement was a socio-religious movement that opposed religious bigotry and social rigidities.
  • emphasised good character and pure thinking
  • Kabir and Nanak stressed upon the reordering of society along egalitarian lines
  • Kabir and Nanak had no intention of founding new religions but following their deaths, their supporters grouped together as Kabir panthis and Sikhs respectively
  • Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs grew into a formidable political force in the politics of North India.
  • The Sufi theory of Wahdat-al-Wujud (Unity of Being) was remarkably similar to that in the Hindu Upanishads.
  • we find Sufi poets such as Malik Muhamniad Jaisi
    composing works in Hindi
  • The use of terms such as Krishna, Radha, Gopi, Jamuna,
    Ganga etc. became so common in such literature that an eminent Sufi, Mir Abdul Wahid wrote a treatise Haqaiq-i-Hïndi to explain their Islamic equivalents.

Philosophy in Medieval India

  • Vishistadvaita of Ramanujacharya
    • modified monism
    • ultimate reality is Brahman (God) and matter and soul are his qualities
  • Sivadvaita of Srikanthacharya
    • Shiva exists in this world as well as beyond it.
  • Dvaita of Madhavacharya
    • stands in opposition to non-dualism and monism of Shankaracharya
    • world is not an illusion (maya) but a reality full of differences
  • Dvaitadvaita of Nimbaraka
    • dualistic monism
    • God transformed himself into world and soul
    • This world and soul are different from God (Brahman)
  • Suddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya
    • Vallabhacharya wrote commentaries on Vedanta Sutra and Bhagavad Gita
    • God and soul are not distinct, but one
    • Philosophy came to be known as Pushtimarga (the path of grace) and the school was called Rudrasampradaya

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