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Exploring Ravidas

Understanding the Meeting Point of Faiths and Resistance

Daljit Ami
Introduction
Fig.01
Ravidas was a prominent figure in the bhakti movement and a renowned poet of the nirgun bhakti tradition that valued the worship of a formless God (Fig. 01). He lived near Banaras (also known as Varanasi or Kashi), already a major centre of spiritual learning in the 14th and 15th centuries. Belonging as he did to one of the lowest castes of Hindu society, the Chamar or tanner, the spiritual status he attained was profoundly troubling for orthodox Hindus of his time. His ancestral profession was the making and mending of shoes. Members of the Chamar caste were considered physically and ritually impure on account of their occupational contact with carcasses, and were deemed to be ‘untouchables’ in medieval Hindu society which operated according to normative values determined according to one's place in the caste hierarchy. The reading of Sanskrit scriptures was prohibited to lower castes, and direct access to the deities of the upper castes was restricted. In such an environment, Ravidas chose to defy the priestly caste, and to worship a formless God who could be envisioned without the mediation of human intermediaries.

In his poetry, Ravidas questioned caste hegemony and valued labour of all sorts, as well as a life of simplicity and morality. He imagined an egalitarian society where there would be no discrimination or exploitation. He called such a society Begumpura, "land without sorrow." Through his poetry he questioned established norms and hierarchies. He also initiated conversations with upper caste Hindus on questions related to caste, social justice, love and forms of worship. T
hough he was vehemently opposed by many for doing so, his perseverance and arguments initiated a process of pluralisation that has come into our times.
 
Ravidas absorbed positive influences of contemporary sects. He acknowledged Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva in his poetry as manifestations of God, but rejected celibacy, asceticism, penance, austerity, rituals, pilgrimage, idol worship and the authority of texts considered sacred. He was vocal against the varna (caste) system. He formed his distinct identity so his disciples came to be known Ravidas-panthis. He chose the middle path between radical separation and assimilation.
 
In exploring Ravidas, we must take note of other bhakti movement poets. Kabir was another well-known poet in the bhakti movement who also belonged to the nirgun bhakti tradition. Ravidas and Kabir were disciples of Ramanand. Both of them were lower caste men who challenged upper caste hegemonies. Disciples of Kabir are known as Kabir-panthis. Mira Bai was another prominent bhakti poet of the Vaishnava sagun tradition which proposed that the divine could best be approached through embodied form. She, however, accepted Ravidas as her preceptor-guru. The interaction of Mira Bai and Ravidas provided a platform for dialogue between nirgun and sagun bhakti traditions.
 
When Nanak Dev, the first guru of Sikhs, visited Banaras he collected Ravidas' poetry and brought it back with him to the Punjab. When the fifth Sikh guru Arjan Dev compiled in 1604 the Adi Granth, the key religious scripture of the Sikhs, he incorporated 41 verses of Bhakt Ravidas. This text came to be known as Guru Granth Sahib after it was conferred the authority of an immortal guru in succession to the tenth Sikh guru Gobind Singh. Ravidas’ poetic appeal and the incorporation of his verses in the Guru Granth Sahib has established him as a thinker-poet whose reach cuts across caste, religious, and regional lines.

The poetry of Ravidas has stood the test of time, and in recent years, he has emerged as a symbol of Dalit assertion. His poetry is invoked for both religious as well as political truths. He is known as Bhakt Ravidas, Saint Ravidas as well as Guru Ravidas, and his following is quite diverse among the disenfranchised classes and castes of northern India. Neo-Buddhists have also sought connections between the Buddha and Ravidas, and point to similarities in their philosophies.  The followers of the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar also emphasise the affinities between the two men.

Sikh Chamars are known as Ravidasis. Mainstream Sikhs refer to Ravidas as Bhakt Ravidas, whereas Ravidasis call him Guru Ravidas.  In turning to his anti-caste poetry, his followers have further strengthened Ravidas's reputation as a man who spoke out against social hierarchies. Despite the change of material conditions and social circumstances, complete equality is still elusive for those at the bottom. Ravidas is a source of inspiration for many who want to pursue the agenda of social equality. Many deras have been established in his name. A dera is a hallowed site where followers, in some cases members of a particular community, come to worship and participate in social gatherings. Many dera heads are socially and politically influential. The architecture of Ravidas deras is quite distinctive, and is to be distinguished from institutions such as the gurudwara where Sikhs congregate, and from Hindu temples of worship.

Men and women from lower castes, regardless of specific sectarian beliefs, worship Ravidas at these places. The most prominent dera is Sach Khand Ballan in Jalandhar district of Punjab.  This dera has been patronised by many wealthy and non-resident Indians. Their patronage is visible in the gigantic building erected in Ravidas’ honor. Even the Seer Govardhanpur Ravidas temple in Banaras has been constructed under the patronage of such deras (Fig. 02). A gold statue of Ravidas has been installed in the sanctum sanctorum. The domes of the building housing the statue are plated as well with pure gold.

Fig.02

Ravidas' followers have brought a variety of beliefs to bear upon their veneration of him. Correspondingly his visual representations also vary. Contemporary images of Ravidas —on calendars and posters, in printed books, and on the internet—reflect the syncretism and diversity of his followers in their plural designs, content, and style.

 

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