Guru Ravidas
Indian devotees garlands an idol of Guru Ravidas on the eve of his 641th Birth Anniversary at a temple in Amritsar on January 30, 2018 | Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images
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Guru Ravidas, born a ‘social impure’ chamar, spoke to practising Hindus about the purity of the conscience.

ThePrint is publishing articles on Dalit issues as part of Dalit History Month.

By his own admission, with pride though, Ravidas was born a chamar. He was India’s first-ever Dalit victor in known history.

Sikhism’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, embraced 41 hymns of Guru Ravidas, at a time when a Dalit’s mere shadow was considered polluting; when Dalits were not allowed access to main pathways, not even expected to be fairly clothed.

Born in the late 14th century (1399 according to one account), Ravidas scored multiple victories. With one line — “Man changa to kathoti mein Ganga” (Kathoti is large wooden implement that can hold liquids, and legend goes that in the vicinity of Kashi, every bit of water — be it a well, pond, or river — is equal to the holy Ganga. If the conscience is pure, the water in the kathoti is like the Ganga itself) — the nonconformist philosopher tore the basics of Sanatan Dharma apart.

Until then, casteist Hinduism had gone unchallenged for not granting the primacy of space to the purity of the conscience.

Man changa to kathoti mein Ganga also mirrored the social conditions of Kashi in the 14th and the 15th centuries. Dalits were not granted holy dips in the Ganga. With this one line, Ravidas, born a ‘social impure’, spoke to the practising Hindus about the purity of the conscience.

Young Ravidas left his parents, who were engaged in the business of raw leather, and migrated to Kashi. There, he took up trading as a profession, and marketed shoes made by fellow Dalits, including those made by his relatives.

Followers of Ravidas have not been able to decode the role money played in his life.

The guru wore his wealth on his body, dressed lavishly, and was a philanthropist. He gifted free shoes to struggling sadhus, and lent money as well. He could travel more widely than any of his contemporaries — Kabir for instance — because he generated revenue from his business. He was probably the only saint in Kashi who neither sought nor accepted patronage from kings; that’s the reason Ravidas continued with his business his entire life. He enjoyed financial freedom and did not live on alms.

But his insistence on a direct conversation with God elevated him to the status of a guru. He began bypassing institutions and rituals.

When Jhalan Bai, queen of Chittorgarh, was on a pilgrimage to Kashi, she heard of the guru and wished to visit him.

“But, he is a chamar,” pointed out the Brahmins accompanying her.

“So what?” the queen responded to her advisors. “A guru is a guru.”

The queen reached the guru’s place, where he was in deep contemplation. The queen was amazed with his prowess, since he wasn’t disturbed by the loud music that accompanied her arrival.

When he opened his eyes and began speaking, she begged him to accept her as a disciple. It was nothing less than a mutiny: A Thakur queen as the disciple of an untouchable guru, which was also true of the equation between Meera Bai and him. He gifted her a musical instrument too.

When Jhalan Bai wanted to gift gold to her new guru, he politely refused. Instead, folklore has it that he offered her a gold ring. The queen was left spellbound. During her entire Kashi sojourn, the pandits would fleece her for conducting rituals.

Traumatised, the pandits approached the king of Kashi, and challenged Ravidas. “What is Ravidas before us?,” they asked. The king ordered for a Shastaarth, a team of five representative Brahmins, to confront and counter Ravidas in a public event. But the guru attracted the maximum applause. Many theories do the rounds on what was debated. Apparently, the pandits focussed on rituals, but the guru talked of the spiritual.

The king took the guru on his royal chariot, and made a round of the city. It is the first-ever recorded victory of a Dalit; the Guru Granth Sahib embraces that victory with pride.

Guru Ravidas has one of the largest followings among all the bhakti-era gurus. Even today, he is a household name in Punjab and many parts of north India.

Chandra Bhan Prasad is a Dalit ideologue and entrepreneur.

Read more from ThePrint’s Dalit History Month archives.

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