Composed by Guru Ravidas, 40 poems set to 16 ragas are a part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Many verses written by him are available outside of it, and imbued with the idea of god and nirgun (formless) darshan. His bani (poetic compositions), a powerful voice against untouchability, caste and social injustice, has long been a source of ratiocination for the downtrodden to drive social change. In his attempt to sensitise people though his verses, Ravidas held caste discrimination as a mental disease at the root of all social strife. He also held forth the idea of one god as the creator of the universe.

Jaat-paat ke pher mah urjhai rahe sabh log/ Mannukhta ku khat hai Ravidas jat ka rog (Everyone is trapped in the caste-system/ Ravidas, humanity is being eaten up by the disease called caste) and; Ravidas ek Braham ka hoye rahyo sagal pasaar/ Ek mati sab ghat sirjai eike sab kou sarjanhar (All are made from the same clay, by the same creator).

In fact, Guru Ravidas, along with his contemporaries, launched a campaign using satsangs for a more equal society. Kabir and other saint-poets joined him. He gave a voice to the voiceless and made weavers, cobblers, barbers, butchers, washermen and others from the artisan community part of this wave. Sant Ravidas used language that avoided hyperbole and was easily understood by the common folk. This is the reason his poetry became a weapon in the fight for equality. His people-friendly verses like Man changa tan kathoti vich Ganga (If the mind is pure, then Ganga flows in the small earthen pot) is part of lexicon.

As he took his writings to the far corners of a multi-religious country, Guru Ravidas told people to see Ram and Rahim, Krishna and Karim as one. He put forth his views about Hindu-Muslim unity.

Mandir Masjid duo ek hai, eh ma antar nahi/ Ravidas Ram-Rehman ka jhagra koyi nahi (The temple and the mosque are one. There is no difference between the two. Ravidas says that there is no dispute between Ram and Rehman.)
Six centuries ago, Guru Ravidas held in his heart a pious desire to create a society where no one faced discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, social and economic status; where people would pay no taxes and enjoy the freedom to freely migrate to the places of their choice. He envisioned a society with people living in harmony without any sort of discrimination. He named this ideal society “Begampur (a place with no pain)”. A shabad gives a detailed description of this in Guru Granth Sahib:

The regal real with the sorrowless name:
They call it Begumpura, a place with no pain/ No taxes or cares, nor own 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/ That imperial kingdom is rich and secure/ Where none are third or second—all are one/ Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there/ Dwell in satisfaction and in wealth/ They do this or that; they walk where they wish/ They stroll through fabled places unchallenged/ Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free/ Those who walk beside me are my friends. (Hawley and Juergensmeyer, 32.)

Guru Ravidas praised work done by hand and gave it a special place in his writings. Colouring leather, shoemaking tools, his caste are mentioned with pride. In his poems, he presented his vision for a world with a democratic and socialistic set-up.

Aisa chahun raaj main, jahan miley sabhan ko ann/ Chote-barai sabh sum basai, Ravidas rahai parsan (I want a regime where everybody has food/ Ravidas will be happy to see a country where there is no discrimination between lower and upper classes).

Considering this, many Sikh scholars call Bhagat Bani within Guru Granth Sahib a Dalit text. In their opinion, Guru Nanak Dev changed the entire Bhakti tradition into a formidable wave. Sikh scholar Jaswant Singh Zafar in his book Bhagat Satguru Hamara has argued that Guru Arjan Dev, who compiled Guru Granth Sahib, considered Ravidas Bani a source of inspiration. He, like Guru Ramdas, praised his writings in his Bani, which is recorded in pages 1,207 and 835 of the Guru Granth Sahib.

It is also important to reflect on the reality of how the Ravidas community rediscovered this radical saint and how it once again attained a social revival. It goes back to June 11 or 12 in 1926 when Gadar Party revolutionary Mangu Ram established ‘Adi Dharam Mandal’ in his village Muggowal in Hoshiarpur district. A packed house declared Ravidas, Kabir, Namdev and Rishi Balmiki as their Adi Guru. Under Mangu Ram’s leadership as president, a picture of Guru Ravidas was brought from Banaras in 1934. Its copies were distributed among 36 lower castes (Adi Dharmi community). For these castes that were then considered untouchables (now Scheduled Castes) it felt like a new lease of life. In undivided Punjab, and even after Partition, there were several temples and gurdwaras where these castes were not allowed to enter. This forced the Adi Dharmis to set up their own places of worship. As of now, Dalits have 10,000 temples or gurdwaras across 12,500 villages of Punjab. In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, these religious institutions are called Adi Dwaras where the Adi Prakash Granth — which has 1,248 pages — is kept for worship. Different historical places linked to Guru Ravidas have been identified and commemorative structures built there by those managing Adi Dharam’s affairs. Among these, Guru Ravidas Janam Sthan Mandir, in Kashi, Uttar Pradesh, is the most prominent. It is believed that Guru Ravidas was born near this city in the 14th century.

Guru Ravidas’s social consciousness is enunciated best through his lines Maati ka putra kaise nachta hai/ Dekhe, dekhe, sune, bole, daurio phirat hai (How does the puppet of clay dance. He looks and listens, hears and speaks, and runs around).

This verse carries a deep meaning. While it warns an individual against being unjust, it also inspires him to do good. In another verse — Satsangati mil rahiye madho jaise madhup makhira (Always stick together in prayer like honey bees) — he asks the Dalits to band together like bees in a hive. And if someone points a figure at you, then fight back as one to protect yourself.

Madhopuri is a Punjabi poet and
director, Punjabi Sahit Sabha
Translated from Punjabi by
Saurabh Kapoor

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