In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg and sparked the Protestant Reformation.
At the same time thousands of miles away in South Asia a phenomenon known as bhakti was coming to its conclusion – one that slowly transformed the Hindu faith over several centuries.
Just as the Reformation swapped Latin for the vernacular and Catholic hierarchies for a more direct connection between God and His worshippers – so bhakti—’devotion’ loosely translated—rejected Sanskrit (the ancient language of the social and political elite) for regional tongues and the didactic wisdom of the Brahmins for the evangelical fervor of ordinary people.
Unlike Luther’s plans for reform bhakti was not a conscious deliberate movement with a coherent body of thought or doctrine but a radical spirit and style of worship that some liken to the Great Awakening in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America – and what one historian has described as ‘intensely emotional – participatory – demotic and demonstrative … a glorious disease of the collective heart’.
The most notable symptom of this disease was the great profusion of songs and poems created by adherents across India and Pakistan.
The bhakti canon is vast and glorious.
One of its greatest figures is a woman remembered as Mira Bai – whose songs have endured half a millennium and whose singular significance in Indian society has only increased since the nation’s independence seventy years ago.