Ravidas: 'Flowering above the World of Birth'

 

Gail Omvedt

 (An excerpt from the book 'Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste')

While Nandanar has become well-known only in Tamil Nadu and has had no recorded influence on other bhakti sants, the Chamar or leatherworker, Ravidas, who lived in the 15th century, is one of the most famous of sants in north India and has influenced many others. Many of his songs survive in some form or the other. There are countless stories about him and he is widely known as one of the greatest of saguna devotees, i.e., devotees of God 'with form', who take Shiva or Ram or Krishna or one of the many incarnations of Vishnu as their personal deity.

Ravidas is associated with the other great north Indian sant, Kabir, in a story where a great debate between them is represented as a saguna versus nirguna (without qualities) devotion debate. He is also linked to the Rajput princess Mirabai, most famous of the women devotees, who took him as her guru. His compositions are included in the Adi Granth, the scriptures of the Sikh community (Hawley and Juergensmeier 1988: 9–23).

His many songs show both humility and devotion: 'I am a peddlar for Ram; I traffic in his easy ecstasy. I've loaded myself with the wealth of Ram's name while the world is loaded down with poison' (ibid.: 29). They also show the aspiration to go beyond caste, though the translated poems, available from 'authenticated' collections, lack the bitter condemnation of Brahmanism and caste that can be found in Kabir and Tukaram.

A family that has a true follower of the Lord

is neither high caste nor low caste, lordly or poor.

The world will know it by its fragrance.

Priests or merchants, labourers or warriors,

halfbreeds, outcastes, and those who tend cremation fires –

their hearts are all the same.

He who becomes pure through love of the Lord

exalts himself and his family as well...

no one equals someone so pure and devoted –

not priests, not heroes, not parasolled kings.

As the lotus leaf floats above the water, Ravidas says,

so he flowers above the world of his birth (Adi Granth #38).

The dominant tradition traces the north Indian bhakti tradition to Ramananda, a Brahman who moved to Varanasi from the south around the 14th century and gathered together a circle of devotees, becoming the guru of many famous sants, including both Ravidas and the weaver Kabir. In contrast to the self-questioning fostered by Buddhism, Brahmanism had always insisted that it was necessary to approach god or cosmological questions with the help of a guru. It was the guru who gave a mantra, a verse or word or phrase, that the seeker would repeat as a kind of self-hypnosis; and it was the guru who taught the 'secrets' of the tradition. The guru, ideally, would be a Brahman—like Ramananda. Making a Brahman a guru, and imposing the guru tradition on the bhakti movement, has been an important aspect of the 'brahmanising' process that it underwent.

As in the case of Nandanar, the documentation of the north Indian bhakti movement was done centuries later by literate high-caste men. An early account was written by Nabhadas around 1600, the most influential commentary on which was by Priyadas in 1712. These not only make Ramanand into Ravidas' main guru, but 'Brahmanise' Ravidas himself, analogous to the way that Nandanar's devotion was made acceptable through his being purified by fire and shown as being 'truly' a Brahman. In the case of Ravidas, he is said to have been a Brahman in his previous life, but because he offered Ramanand some food that had been given by a merchant who had dealings with Chamars, he was reborn as a Chamar after he died. This itself indicates the degree of purity–pollution behaviour observed even by Brahman ascetics; but worse if anything is the story that as a baby Ravidas would not accept the milk of his Chamar mother, but only of a Brahman woman (Hawley and Juergensmeier 1988: 15–16)!

Radical Dalits today question the Brahmanical interpretation of Ravidas. They claim that his guru was Sardanand, and emphasize his ability to defeat Brahmans time and again in debates. The Adi-Dharma, a radical anti-Hindu sect founded in the 10th century in the Punjab, takes Ravidas as a non-Hindu, anti-caste and a founder of practically an independent religion. Indeed, such 'vanis' as the following are impressive, if not substantiated as 'original':

Ravidas says not to honour (do puja to) Brahmans, who are without merit;

honour instead the feet of Candalas who are full of merit...

Dependency is evil, the dependent are miserable—

Ravidas considers dependency the lowest of all (Shalvan Patrika, 25 June 2001).

The dominant account can be disputed on good grounds: Ravidas himself never mentions Ramanand, who seems to have lived a full century before Ravidas. The sants mentioned in Ravidas' own poetry—those he considered his 'family'—include the Maharashtrian tailor Namdev and the weaver Kabir (Hawley and Juergensmeier 1988: 9–23).

Ravidas is depicted as having high-caste disciples. Among these are two Rajput women, Mirabai and Queen Jhali, who is said to have met Ravidas on a trip to Banaras. According to the story, she accepted Ravidas as a guru, against the strong advice of her Brahman advisors, and when she prepared a feast to honour him, the Brahmans declined to eat from the same vessels or sit in the same row with him—but they found that a Ravidas had miraculously materialised at the side of every Brahman. When they challenged his right to be there, 'he peeled back the skin from his chest and revealed a golden sacred thread that lay within, clear evidence of his inner brahmanhood' (Ibid.: 14–15).

In the end, Ravidas' bhajans reflect both a sense of poverty and caste humiliation and a desire to find a utopia without suffering, taxes or property; one that is, above all, a Begumpura or 'Queen City' of companionship:

The regal realm with the sorrowless name

they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,

no taxes or cares, none owns property there,

no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.

Oh my brother, I've come to take it as my own,

my distant home, where everything is right...

They do this or that, they walk where they wish,

they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.

Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,

those who walk beside me are my friends

(Adi Granth #3).

~

 

References

Ravidas, 1988, in Hawley, John Straughton, and Mark Juergensmeier,1988, Songs of the Saints of India, Oxford University Press.

~~~

 

You will find the Scribd version of the book 'Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste' here.

 

 

 

Other Related Articles

Why Kashmir?
Friday, 17 March 2017
  Shinzani Jain Why should an Indian, any Indian – student, journalist, activist, lawyer, academician, politician, worker, feminist, communist or an ordinary citizen – care about Kashmir?... Read More...
सत्य, सत्याग्रह, शूद्र, दलित और भारतीय नैतिकता
Saturday, 28 January 2017
  संजय जोठे (Sanjay Jothe) सामाजिक राजनीतिक आन्दोलनों में एक लंबे समय से "आत्मपीड़क... Read More...
In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities
Thursday, 01 December 2016
  Nidhin Shobhana In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities (with special reference to Jawaharlal Nehru University) Setting up the Stage The 'idea' of a... Read More...
Wherever Caste exists in the World, Ambedkar and Marx will remain Irreconcilable
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
  Dr Manisha Bangar NVP BAMCEF In India, and wherever in the world Caste exists, Ambedkar and Marx will remain Irreconcilable. Starting from the happenings in Hyderabad Central University in... Read More...
Poverty and Malnutrition in Odisha: Who is responsible?
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
  Bansidhar Deep Indira Gandhi used the "Garibi Hatao" rhetoric to defend her contempt for constitutional morality, while the present BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government uses the rhetoric of... Read More...

Recent Popular Articles

Caste Attacks on Buddhists in Nashik
Wednesday, 12 October 2016
  Amar Khade  On Sunday, 9th October 2016, rumour spread across social media like Whatsapp that a 14 year old Dalit boy molested a minor girl in Talegaon (Nashik district, Maharashtra). It... Read More...
Caste Attacks on Buddhists in Nashik (Part 2)
Friday, 14 October 2016
  Amar Khade What actually happened in Talegaon? According to reliable sources, this is what happened: around 8.30 to 9 pm on 8th October 2016, after finishing his dinner, the alleged... Read More...
Najeeb Ahmad missing: JNU bosses & police silent despite protests
Tuesday, 18 October 2016
  Hisham Ul Wahab P The ongoing protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University campus demanding a fast probe into the disappearance and return of Najeeb Ahmad, a muslim student of School of... Read More...
Why Kashmir?
Friday, 17 March 2017
  Shinzani Jain Why should an Indian, any Indian – student, journalist, activist, lawyer, academician, politician, worker, feminist, communist or an ordinary citizen – care about Kashmir?... Read More...

Recent Articles in Hindi

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

  संजय जोठे  इस देश में भेदभाव और शोषण से भरी परम्पराओं का विरोध करने वाले अनेक विचारक और क्रांतिकारी हुए हैं जिनके बारे में हमें बार-बार पढ़ना और समझना चाहिए. दुर्भाग्य से इस देश के शोषक वर्गों के षड्यंत्र के कारण इन क्रांतिकारियों का जीवन परिचय और समग्र कर्तृत्व छुपाकर रखा जाता है. हमारी अनेकों पीढियां इसी षड्यंत्र में जीती आयीं हैं. किसी देश के उद्भट विचारकों और क्रान्तिकारियों को इस...

Read more

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

(कृष्ण की लोक लुभावन छवि का पुनर्पाठ!)मानुषी आखिर ये मिथकीय कहानियां किस तरह की परवरिश और शिक्षा देती हैं, जहां पुरुषों को सारे अधिकार हैं, चाहे वह स्त्री को अपमानित करे या दंडित, उसे स्त्री पलट कर कुछ नहीं कहती। फिर आज हम रोना रोते हैं कि हमारे बच्चे इतने हिंसक और कुंठित क्यों हो रहे हैं। सारा दोष हम इंटरनेट और टेलीविजन को देकर मुक्त होना चाहते हैं। जबकि स्त्री...

Read more

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

संजय जोठे धर्म जो काम शास्त्र लिखकर करता है वही काम राष्ट्र अब फ़िल्में और विडिओ गेम्स बनाकर बनाकर करते हैं. इसी के साथ सुविधाभोगी पीढ़ी को मौत से बचाने के लिए टेक्नालाजी पर भयानक खर्च भी करना पड़ता है ताकि दूर बैठकर ही देशों का सफाया किया जा सके, और यही असल में उस तथाकथित “स्पेस रिसर्च” और “अक्षय ऊर्जा की खोज” की मूल प्रेरणा है, यूं तो सबको...

Read more