Social Revolutioner – Ravidass

Ravidas created the social revolution by reviving sama samaja. For the first time ever, marginalized people marched through the streets with their head held high in upper-caste areas. For the first time, these marginalized people sang devotional songs that created the cultural revolution. Unlike Kabir, he did not stop with mere ideological awakening. Instead he led a social revolution that briefly allowed the rose of Seva humanism to bloom once more in Kashi. The power of this spiritual and ideological revolution has never been equalled in history.

The movement of Ravidass Deras reflects the fast changing socio-cultural scene of Punjab where the once powerful and revolutionary Sikh religion is failing to meet the needs of the oppressed who discovered the right remedy to cure their wounded psyche in the Ballan experiment. The secret of the success of this movement lies in the strategy of the saints of Ballan to sells Dr Ambedkar’s socio-cultural revolution packed in an ingenious religious capsule.

Guru Ravidass, one of the famous untouchable saint- poets of the 15th-16th century, is by far the most revered among the scheduled castes,.

Guru Ravidass is known as a leading star of the Bhakti movement. He was a cobbler, saint, poet, philosopher and social reformer. Together with Namdev and Kabir, Ravidas is one of the few Bhaktas to cross language barriers and become important in several parts of India.  He is regarded as a messiah of the downtrodden.

Ravidass was born in Chamar caste, also known as Kutbandhla, one of the Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh. Chamars are known by their profession of leather and tanning. They were oppressed and their touch and sight were considered polluting by the upper castes. Ravidass revolted against this inhuman system of untouchability. He adopted Bhakti as a mode of expression for his revolt. His Bhakti-based method of revolt was very novel and daring. It was novel because of its emphasis on compassion for all. The principle of compassion for all reflected the egalitarian traits of his social philosophy and struggle. His concept of the absolute faith in the formless God showed the apathy of the elites of his times towards the plights of the downtrodden for whose emancipation he had to seek refuge in no one else but God. His method was daring in the sense that he choose to imitate the Brahmins in order to symbolize his revolt which was not only highly objectionable but was equally deadly for a Shudra of his times. He challenged the tyranny of Brahmins and defied them by wearing Dhoti (cloth wrapped around the waist), Janeue (sacred thread) and Tilak (sacred red mark on forehead) that were forbidden for the untouchables. He continued with his hereditary occupation of making/mending shoes. He, probably, tried to show that while adopting the prohibited dress and symbols of the upper castes, the lower castes could still keep their identity intact. Thus Ravidass provided an alternative model for the emancipation of the Dalits much (six centuries) before the articulation of the concept of sanskritization. What made the image of Ravidass a catalyst in the emergence of Dalit consciousness was his being a Shudra and at the same time a saint of very high repute.

The process of sanskritization facilitated the ambitious lower castes to improve ‘its position in the local caste hierarchy’ by pretending to look like the higher castes that enjoy ‘great prestige’ in the hierarchically organized Brahminical social order. Since the caste is given and cannot be changed, the lower castes were left with no option but to imitate the culture of the upper castes. What made the emancipation project of Ravidass different from that of the sanskritization was his emphasis on acquiring social respect without crossing over the caste boundaries.

He did not want to pretend to appear like an upper caste to ride the bandwagon of social prestige. On the contrary, he exhibited his protest against the social oppression by putting on the prohibited dress and symbols of the upper castes. By imitating the appearance of the upper castes he did not want the lower castes to abandon their caste to climb up the ladder of the caste hierarchy as in the process of sanskritization. The lower castes need not to be assimilated into the fold of higher castes. They had to, rather, assert for their human rights by challenging the caste hierarchy while being firm in their very caste group. He wanted to dismantle the norm of varnashram dharma (fourfold division of Hindu society based on graded rank system in caste hierarchy) by showing that lower castes were not beyond the pale of spiritual knowledge on the one hand and on the other that Brahmins were in fact hollow figures pumped up with false pride and hypocrisy. In fact, he used caste to cut the steel frame of caste based social order – the only way of Dalit emancipation. 

The Bhakti approach of Ravidass was a non-violent struggle for the emancipation and empowerment of the Shudras. Though he combined humility with Bhakti, his concept of formless God reflected an altogether different picture. Ravidass’s God was not humble at all in the typical sense of the term. He was graceful.  He was not indifferent to the downtrodden. 

His low caste but high spiritual status posed a challenge to the Brahminical structures of domination.  The Brahmins attempted to undermine his low caste profile by appropriating him in the Hindu fold.  They concocted stories to project him as a Brahmin in his previous life. 

Dalit activists and academics condemned the process of Brahminisation of Ravidass. They ridiculed the so-called Brahminical narratives and interpretations about Ravidass and also refused to accept Ramanand as his Guru. Ravidass never mentioned the name of Ramanand in his most authentic bani recorded in Adi Granth.  Instead he mentioned the names of saint Jaidev, saint Namdev and saint Kabir. 

He called his ideal state as Begumpura (free from sorrows). In his ideal state no one would be discriminated against on the basis of caste and religion and everyone would be free from the burden of taxes and worries of food. His ideal state would be free from the graded system of caste hierarchy. Though Begumpura was an ideal state as visualized by Ravidass, it was not a mere figment of his mind. 

The egalitarian social philosophy of Ravidass expressed in the mode of poetry became the manifesto of the Dalit consciousness in Punjab. The establishment of a large number of Ravidass Deras by the Dalits in Punjab and in other parts of India over the last few years is a case in point. Ravidass became very popular among the Punjabi Dalit diasporas as well, who have also constructed Ravidass shrines in order to assert their separate caste identity. 

The number of Ravidass Deras has been multiplying very fast. It has taken the form of a sort of a socio-cultural movement for the emancipation of the Dalits. Led by the saints of Dera Sach Khand Ballan, this movement is silently sweeping the Punjab countryside offering a new hope to the untouchable, particularly the Chamars. It has generated a sense of confidence in them and provided them an opportunity to exhibit their hitherto eclipsed Dalit identity. The movement of Ravidass Deras reflects the fast changing socio-cultural scene of Punjab where the once powerful and revolutionary Sikh religion is failing to meet the needs of the oppressed who discovered the right remedy to cure their wounded psyche in the Ballan experiment. The secret of the success of this movement lies in the strategy of the saints of Ballan to sells Dr Ambedkar’s socio-cultural revolution packed in an ingenious religious capsule. Ravidass Deras are, perhaps, the only religious centers where religious and political figures (Ravidass and Ambedkar) are blended and projected publicly. These Deras thrive on the elements of social protest expressed in the poetry of Ravidass and the teachings of Ambedkar.  These Deras, in fact, have been functioning as missions to sensitize the Dalits and to facilitate their empowerment. In order to look different from the shrines of Hindu and Sikh religions, and to distinctly project their separate religious identity, Ravidass Deras have formulated their own religious symbols, ceremonies, prayers, rituals and messages of social protest against the oppressive structures of caste domination in the agrarian society of Punjab.

One Response to Social Revolutioner – Ravidass

  1. SHANKER KUMAR on March, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    INDEED, SANT RAVIDAS HAS DONE GREAT WORK FOR MULNIVASI BAHUJANS. HIS BHAKTI MOVEMENT WAS FOR THE EMPOWERMENT OF SC/ST & OBCs. LET US FOLLOW THEIR PATH TO FREED OUR SOCIETY FROM THE CLUTCHES OF BRAHMINISM.

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