Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tales of Time and the New Year

          The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali, 1931
In a letter of deeply personal reflections addressed to all my intimate friends to mark the New Year, penned on December 21, 1995 from Panama - the country of the miracle of a canal joining the two mighty oceans - I had said, “It is difficult to exactly pinpoint when the concept of the ‘calendar time’ pierced into my consciousness... I think it began with my entry into the elementary school… the Gregorian Calendar, perhaps, started making some sense when I was in my third grade… I, however, distinctly remember that it was in the fourth grade-perhaps, in October 1952 - that I had experienced the delight of solving the sum of the exact age of Mahatma Gandhi - 78 years, 3 months and 28 days!”

The phenomenon of the calendar year and the related run of the events-personal, in India and in the world - have, therefore, been long since an occasion on my part for an intense introspection-a sort of stock-taking conversation with the soul! Around the end of every calendar year, the most pervasive - and extraordinary - feeling has often been, ‘how quickly-and so stealthily - the Time seems to pass…’ The latest example of this perception pertains to my persistent efforts for more than one and a half year to convince all those who should be interested and his innumerable admirers that the birth centenary of former Maharaja Yadvindra Singh of Patiala - born on January 7, 2013 - deserves to be celebrated for his immense services to Punjab and the nation. The tragically-bitter reality could be well understood: If the Congress Party led by Captain Amarinder Singh had come to power in the Punjab, there would have been hundreds of historians and bards around to tell tales of the tall Maharaja!

In this context, the words of an upright Governor, NV Gadgil - he had ceased to be the Governor of his own accord when he said so - at the convocation of the Punjab University in March 1963 - still ring fresh in my ears, “They (politicians) have made wisdom a by-product of power…” Time, of course, would always be on Atlanta’s heels - my own slipping this year into the venerable group of seniors in the range of the three score plus ten came as a mixed pleasant surprise to me too!

As the count down to the year 2013 C.E. started in earnest, the ‘calendar-cognoscenti’ and ‘Time-Watchers’ had got themselves hooked to the ‘end of the bak’tun, the 5,125-year old ancient calendar of the Maya’. The media and the internet dooms-day-dreamers scattered some fear - and much more fun - that the end of the world is nigh - before the North Pole reached its position furthest from the sun on Friday, 21st December! I was strikingly reminded of 4th of February, 1962 when we - as undergraduate students in the DAV, College, Jalandhar - were witness to an amusing hysteria among many faithful Hindus in Bharat prophesying that a rare constellation of planets was all set to decimate this world, in the Mahaa Pralaya predicted in the scriptures of Jyotish Vidya!

Kaalchakra - Wheel of Time - has indeed been a serious subject for the Indian thinkers ‘who evolved, not a linear, but a cyclic theory of time made up of yugas, manvantras, and Kalpas. They were convinced that the universe is without beginning and without end - going on recurrent phases of manifestation and dissolution. According to Vishnu Purana, each yuga-Krita, Treta, Dvaapra and Kali represents a progressive decline in virtue morality, happiness and longevity…The four Yugas constitute the Mahaayuga of 4,320,000 earthly years. Further, one thousand Mahaayugas or 4,320,000,000 earthly years make a Kalpa, a day of Brahma! At the close of this day of Brahma, a collapse of the universe takes place…’At the end of (Brahama’s) night, he awakes and creates anew’!

The most fascinatingly instructive interpreter of time during the times of my generation-ranked already in the line of Newton, Einstein and Carl Sagan in the modern epoch- has been the uniquely gifted genius Stephen Hawking, born on January, 1942. The mathematician-Physicist Prof. Hawking’s, ‘A Brief (made Briefer in 2005) History of Time’ has rightfully been acclaimed as one of the most popular books of our time- particularly for ‘non-scientists’ seriously interested in scientific thinking about cosmology . Speaking-using the specially designed speech generating devices- about life of intelligent creatures on other planets, he says,” To my mathematical mind, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like… I think human race has no future if it does not go into space”

Apart from the ‘fear and fun’ dimension of the Maya calendar which is now behind us, like the 2K terror, another aspect of similar nature about the newly born year pertains to the ‘unlucky’ number 13. The eagerly awaited prestigious annual number of The Economist, ’The World in 2013’ warns against ‘globalization of superstition’. In one if the lead articles, John Grimond explains that while,” Twenty-thirteen: for most people, another year…nothing special... the United Nations says it will be the International Year of Water Co-operation and also the International Year of Quinoa (a plant with edible seeds)” To cater to the hunger of the numerologists, Grimond dishes out that 2013 will be the first year since 1987 to have all digits different from one another.

John Grimond further points out that 20 and 13 add up to 33which numerologists– crackpots too-consider a “highly charged master number”, full of meaning. He, however, concedes that for triskaidekaphobiacs- meaning, those afraid of 13-‘the prospect of 2013 is not so much interesting as terrifying.’ Referring to the roots of the fear of 13 in the Christian and Persian historic traditions, the article also points out that ancient Egyptians, Greeks and modern Jews had myths that 13 brings good luck. It is quite clear that both the traditions share complete absence of reason behind their convictions.

While musing over the mysteries of the history of measuring the ‘immeasurable’ Time, I am transported to my years in Iran. In 1976, the Iranians awoke one morning to be in the new ‘Gahshumar-ye-Irani’ i.e. the Iranian Calendar System suddenly proclaimed Shahanshahi- Imperial’ replacing suddenly the centuries old Islamic 1355 to 2535, marking the birth of ancient emperor Cyrus as the first day instead of the migration of prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina. And within less 1000 days of the change of Calendar, the Shahanshahi Iran had been swept into dustbin of history by the Islamic Revolution of unprecedented global implications. I vividly remember my stroll two decades later in the balcony of a much meager bungalow in the Contadora Island in Panama-His imperial Majesty Aryamehr Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was destined to spend there a few of his last months of life –perhaps, conversing with the waves of the Pacific Ocean! The dethroned and hotly hounded by determined enemies, the once Mighty Monarch might have been wondering over the tyranny of Time-and also over tens of thousands of tyrannical deeds of the SAVAK, his dreaded secret police.

It is much gratifying to know that India has been spared any serious controversies of the Calendar kind. The calendar Reform Committee presided over by the noted astro-physicist Meghnad saha attempted to reconcile traditional practices of various ‘desi’ calendars with modern astronomical concepts. A solar month was defined as the interval required for the Sun’s apparent longitude to increase by 30 degree, corresponding to the passage of the Sun through a Zodiacal sign (rashi).The officially introduced at Chaitra 1, 1879 Saka Era on March 22, 1957 calendar has remained confined, in practice, to be legally indicated in the official documents of the Government of India. In the preface to the report of the Calendar Reforms Committee, PM Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “ Now that we have attained independence , it is only desirable that there should be a certain uniformity in the calendar for our civic, social and other purposes and this should be done in a scientific approach to this subject.” The periodic reports in media point out that Sikhism, India’s most dynamic faith, is still to put a final seal on its calendar related issues involving dates of various festivities.

Reckoning and reconciling my own calendar issues, I may interestingly state that my date of birth is only an approximate entry by a very wise school teacher. I do remember the first ever news I had listened to on Akash Vaani. It was over a ham radio set in my village contrived by a wireless technician on vacation from army that I could listen amid disturbing noise, "Ceylon ke Pradhan Mantri Senanayke ki ghorhe se gir kar mrityu ho gayee hai…” The google search has now confirmed PM Stephen Senanayke had “suffered a stroke and fell down whilst riding the police mare ’Chitra’…on the morning of 22 March 1952…” I also vividly recall the excitement and a deep sense of accomplishment when as a student of eighth grade, in October 1956, I was selected to speak on 'All India Radio' school broadcast programme. On the children Day function in School on 14th November, I was awarded Rs. 7 and Annas eight paid by the AIR for my two and half minutes speech - Rs. 3 per minute appeared indeed a kingly-mind-boggling-sum! Time, I must be telling myself, is indeed money!!

While meditating over Time - past, present and future - many, many poetic expressions criss-cross my mind: Time as the invisible but ultimate arbiter of human destiny and Time as a unit of every breath and each beat of the pulse! Time - the eternal traveler; time, the ever present; ever the same; and also never the same!! Cheer, a very happy New Year!!!

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Art of Living like a Lighthouse

 This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, December 2012

It had been an inexplicable psychological complex with me for a long time whenever I had to undertake a journey from Ahmedgarh, the town of my rented tiny home during my schooling from 1951 to 1959 and my periodic stay up to 1971.Travelling towards Malerkotla, 15 Km in the south, seemed to denote as if I am taking steps towards darkness; while going towards Ludhiana, 20 km towards North, looked like pursuing the Light- in the right direction of the Pole Star and towards some dream destination! I may confess that even when I was a daily commuting student of the Intermediate classes in the Government College, Malerkotla (1959-61), this indefinable impression had somehow got even further reinforced. When in March 1960, I could afford to buy some books of my general interest from the then famous Lyall Book Depot, Ludhiana, I had penned in the inside cover of one of my most consulted books, 'English Idioms and How to Use Them' by William McMordie,“O God, I need thy Light to illuminate this dark life!”

It is, therefore, with a soulful pride that more than 52 years after praying for the guidance by the Divine Light, I am essaying to express my deeply felt thoughts about the resplendent and illuminating personality of Professor Dr S. Tarsem of Malerkotla. He has indeed been for me a personification of a unique human lighthouse in an area of darkness pointed out in the opening paragraph. Dr Tarsem has become an incarnation and a metaphor for super human determination and titanic courage in his epic struggle against the relentless infirmity of visual impairment. He has triumphantly emerged an Olympian hero as the foremost poet, critic and an extraordinary scholar-teacher of Punjabi with an encyclopedic range of knowledge of the world of literature. He intuitively reminds me of the great classical poet-scholar John Milton whose celebrated poem, 'On His Blindness' lights up  thousands of 'lamps' of memories among mine and Dr Tarsem's contemporaries when we studied it in our text book of B.A. titled 'Living Lyre', also mentioned by  Tarsem in his much celebrated a autobiography, 'Dhritrashtra'.

It was September 1984. I was on leave in India from Romania. Punjab was a picture of an uneasy calm and scary confusion in the wake of military action in the Golden Temple, Amritsar. I paid a visit to Govt. College Malerkotla to meet some lecturer friends who had been my colleagues during my own most enjoyable spell as a young lecturer. It was Prof. C.P. Singh of the Dept. of Physics who conjured up an instantaneous poetical session in the lawn near the main entrance. Prof. Tarsem and Prof, Jagdish Mohan Sharma delighted us by reciting their select poetry of Punjabi and Urdu respectively. The next day, I requested an old student friend of mine to record their fine verses for me in my tape recorder. A bond of lasing personal and literary friendship with Dr Tarsem was firmed up soon when he respond-ed, vide his loving letter dated Feb.7,1985, in his touching poetic prose, to my letter of Dec. 25,1984 from Romania. He also forwarded to me his book of stories titled, 'Paatiya Duddh - the Split (spoiled) Milk'. Some of the stories in the collection indeed impressed me for their fresh themes, genuineness of characters and the use of the typically authentic diction of our area of Malwa.  Most interestingly, I handed over the recorded cassette of 1984, still in good audio quality, to Dr Tarsem during my long cherished meeting with him at his home in Malerkotla in November 2011 after more than 27 years! He told me that Prof Jagdish Mohan had died many years back and that the cassette might, perhaps, be the only one containing his highly popular satirical poems in his own voice!!

Looking back and reflecting  over the many years of our affectionate interaction while I continued to move on to the various countries, I must say that Dr Tarsem has been one of my few friends who was always meticulous in responding to my letters and keep me informed about the goings on in the realm of Punjabi literature. It was a particular delight and instruction for me to receive when I was posted to Pakistan (1992-94), his two collections of poetry titled Kirmchi Harf Kaale Hashie and Soohi Mehk Siah Mausam. A number of Ghazals and poems had subtle poetic allusions to the extremist violence and communal fire raging in Punjab and how they were treacherously stoked from across the border. He had dared to challenge the tyrannical forces of darkness. He had skillfully employed the symbols of bombs and explosives, curfew and censure, gun and bullet when the body and soul of his beloved Punjab was being torn apart by those who had proclaimed themselves to be the custodians of the inheritance of the legendary land of five rivers. I may quote Tarsem's lines:

Jis samein ton soch ikk, aaee kiton barood kha,
agg khani tik ke ouh, behndi nahin hai, dosto!

Ever since mind was poisoned with a deadly fire,
Destruction does not seem to stop, friends!

The poem titled, 'Suneha (message), Page 67 of Soohi Mehak siah Mausam' was indeed the most insightful:

Tusin bhole ho, barhe hi bhole ho; tuhanun pata hi nahin lagan ditta ke kadon Washington te Islamabad da computer tuhadi khoprhi 'ch tika ditta giya; te tusin saare Girjhan di joon vich pai gaye, sappan di joon…hanere di joon pai gaye!

It was a touchingly nostalgic experience for me to receive from him, in 1997, when I was in Panama, an anthology titled, 'Aapne Aapne Khambh (Wings of Their Own)' containing the Ghazals by 23 poets of the ilaqa of Malerkotla. The names of Shankar Mubarakpuri (Ambrin uddiie te haase Chhirhkiye /Dharti Phulkari Bana Ke challie); Ram Lal Premi (Ethe tan vasde Sikh jan Hindu jan Musalman / Kitthon milange lok hun Nanak de naal de); ex-MP Bhan Singh Bhaura (Hanjuan sang morhda han viaz apne ishak da / peerh saari umar di lekha chukavan vaaste) and Naaz Bharati (Ai meri ham nafas; zindagi hai kashmakash) transported me to my dream-like days of the school and the circle of the intimate friends of my dervesh Comrade Chacha Shankra Nand Ji. The Sahit Sabhas, local literary associations, were indeed at the best of their creativity and dedication during those 'distant' days! The meticulously researched introduction of the book by Dr Tarsem had introduced me to the promising scholar-critic in him.

And then finally I returned as a pensioner of Bharat Sarkar in 2004 after a long innings of 'lying' abroad in the service of the nation. After completing the process of settling down in my new little nest on the bank of legendary Yamuna, I set out seriously to pursue in the sun-set years, 'what I always longed to do but could not do' i.e. to indulge full time, in a disciplined manner, in the pursuit of 'Three R's - reading, reflecting and writing'. Dr Tarsem has been quick to emerge again in my distinct category of those friends who fit into my scheme of things - ham umar, ham safar, ham khyal, ham khwab - same age, same pilgrimage, same thinking, and same dreams. He had been quick to introduce me to the Quarterly, Nazaria - Point of View - the vehicle of high quality literary expressions published under his watchful and benign guidance. All the special issues of Nazaria, I may mention among those on Lal Singh 'Dil'. Prof. Mohan Singh, Faiz, Hasan Manto, must be ranked among the collectors issues for their excellence of literary standard. They invite comparison with similar journals published by institutions with far more resources at their disposal. I have indeed been overwhelmingly impressed by his prolific literary output since his retirement: it is surely an inspiration for me, 'the Niagara of creativity often springs up and rushes forward when you become your own boss, 24x7!' We have further discovered that we, quite surprisingly, have several common inspirational individuals from my uniquely knowledgeable school guru Ashni Kumar, to the teachers'- teacher Prof. Pritam Singh and the poet-philosopher futurologist Krishan Ashant. I was simply amazed by his deeply insightful portrait of Prof. Pritam Singh in Nazaria and he was delighted to publish my review article on Ashant's swan song anthology of poetry, 'Beete nuun Aawaazan - Calling up the Past' and even couple of my personal recent letters to him.

The first public event of our  literary togetherness was destined to take place in Chandigarh in Oct 2011 when I attended the session of discussion on his recently published monumental book of 496 pages titled, 'Punjabi Ghazal Shastar'. I must admit that having long been a student of the traditional craft, modern practice and the huge popularity  of Ghazal in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi - not to mention English Sonnet - I was genuinely impressed by this detailed compendium of research and critical appraisal of an important genre of oriental poetry. To read the book was a personal voyage of discovery in the evolution of the art of one of the most enduring forms of poetry, particularly in the background of my having lived in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where I was privileged to listen to the finest lyricists of the south Asian countries. I had also been fortunate to enjoy an intimate friendship with one of the most respected poet and literary historian, Shri Ali Jawad Zaidi. I am confident that the importance of this scholarly work will be appropriately recognized sooner than later by the relevant institutions in India and Pakistan.

Nourishing an ambition - with the usually attendant dreams and night mares- of penning my autography, I have studied Tarsem's two volumes of autobiography, Katchi Mitti Pakka Rang (152 pages) and Dhritrashtar (308 pages), with a much deeper empathy and extra attention. Katchi Mitti first published in 1990 and as a revised edition in 2002,  covers the period of the first fifteen and a half years of Tarsem's life. The book captivates the reader with its lyrical and restrained prose style, wit, humor and pathos. The details of childhood and early youth of author's life in a semi-rural area of Malwa region are dramatically unfolded. The chapter,  'Sarbala Banan da Sawad - The Taste of being the Best Man of the Groom'- gives a hilarious account of the pleasures and perils of the marriage as they were solemnized in the romantic era in Punjab when there were no proper roads and the engines of vehicles were also quite moody in functioning. The second volume of the autobiography, 'Dhritrashtra', published in 2009, is dedicated to the loving memory of author's devoted life partner who had passed away, at 49, on the night of the Karuva Chauth, on October 8, 1998. The 40 chapters of this work of Tarsem's mature vintage might be considered highly valuable socio-cultural documents and an authentic running commentary on the cross currents of the happenings in Punjab that shaped the author's life during the five decades since 1958. The book has  indeed been of fascinating interest for someone like me who had spent his life during the most of this period in far off lands but had also remained emotionally attached to so many of those very places and people mirrored prominently in this book.

While reaching the mile stone of three scores plus ten years of his life, Dr S. Tarsem can surely look back and forth with legitimate pride and satisfaction over his constant struggle and regular success. The versatility of his literary output, his global circle of admirers, his gigantic capacity for sustained hard work and his nerves of steel in the face of any challenges make him much taller and more farsighted among all those who are luckier to know him and work with him. The title, 'Dhritrashtar' for his autobiography has itself an interesting background  when he had to contest –and he win- an election against his  much admired friend, late Gursharan Bhaji for the post of President of Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha.  He has not hesitated to tell the truth about the evolving characters of his close relations and the sweet-sour realities of family life. He has described, without any streak of anger and hatred, how he and his family were subjected to serious threats to their lives and a few narrow escapes during the dark period of extremism in Punjab. The 21 year long career in Govt. College, Malerkotla, in the words of Charles Dickens, had its moments of, 'the best of time and the worst of time' for Dr Tarsem. The chapter titled, 'Wasiat - The Will, Page 301' tells how Tarsem has categorically instructed that after his passing away, his mortal remains must be donated to the Dayanand Medical College, Ludhiana, “for transplant  of any organ for the needy patients and the remains of his body should be utilized by the students for their education…I hope that my sons and inheritors would not entertain any doubt or fear in doing so…I shall not frighten any one assuming the form of a ghost-in reality, there are no ghosts…they exist only in the imagination of the sick minds…”

Dr Tarsem's intense and never ending struggle in all his life and his shining success indeed make an inspiring saga for all. The blind and visually impaired people have contributed immensely not only in the realm of music and literature of the world, from Homer to Milton to Surdas, but in ever increasing new area of human endeavors in the recent past. Dr Tarsem has been in the forefront in the forums for fighting for the rights of the blind. He has dwelt on his dream-plan to build 'Home for the Old and the Blind' in his Autobiography. The modern medical technologies have certainly scored notable successes in treating the scourge of sightlessness but India has the dubious distinction of having 15 million, with 26 percent being children out of the total of 37 million blind in the world. The national program by the Govt. of India to control blindness expects to reach its blindness elimination target of 0.3 percent by 2015, five years before the WHO deadline of 2020. The shortage of ophthalmologists and optometrists is appalling, just one eye surgeon for 100,000 people! We need many more determined soldiers of Tarsem's caliber and commitment to wage war against blindness in India in terms of cure and care.

I salute my soul mate friend, Dr S. Tarsem, on his stepping into in the club of senior citizens of seventy plus. I pray for his health and happiness and a more vigorous output of creativity and scholarship! I look forward to my next engagement of enlightened discussion on life and literature with him in Malerkotla, a city whose reputation for me appears to have been much redeemed by his lighthouse persona, his learning, his social commitment and above all his genuine fondness for friends, including me. It is another matter that the shadow of the dark and feudal values of the PEPSU, I apologize, if I hurt someone by saying so, seems to have lengthened to cover the entire Punjab -and to my dismay- Punjab has been more 'PEPSU-fied' than the vice versa during the last four decades. It requires a moral courage to make a clean breast that the further truncation of Punjab was a game of petty politics by the pigmy politicians and had nothing to do with the cause of development Punjabi and the heritage of Punjabiat. I, however, have full faith in the optimistic note in Tarsems's lines:

Koee tarshul vande,
Jan koee kirpaan lishkaae
Magar mein kol apne,
dostee di dhal rakhanga.

They may distribute tridents
or sharpen swords
I shall strongly hold my
shield of friendship

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Sunday, December 02, 2012

Shri Guru Ravi Dass - Poet and Prophet of Emancipation

The article was published in the bi-annual, Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, Volume XXXI Number-2 July-December 2012, Guru Nanak Foundation, New Delhi

          Painting by Rajni Kashyap
The elevation - in a geometric progression - of the spiritually inspirational stature of Shri Ravi Dass Ji (Circa 1450-1520) from an initial Bhakata - a devotee/worshipper - in his contemporary and earlier Hindu Brahmanical religious discourses to a Sant - a spiritualist par excellence - in the later medieval period and to an emancipator - Guru / the liberator-teacher - in the more recent epoch of democratically determined ethos indeed represents an arduously marathon and excruciatingly revealing pilgrimage of India's challenging tryst with her complex - Varna Ashram / caste system singed - religious and spiritual identity. The defining departure and the path breaking turning point for the ‘revolutionary re-envisioning’ of Ravi Dass Ji - a spiritual and moral colossus yet an incarnation of humility to the extent of even self-denigration - was, however, the inclusion of his select sublime verses - 40+1 in 16 celebrated classical ragas measures of melodies - in the Adi Granth, compiled in 1604 AD by Shri Guru Arjan Dev ji (1563-1606 AD), the uniquely scholarly and divinely farsighted fifth master who was the first to embrace martyrdom on the altar of the ‘freedom of faith and conscience’ in the evolution of the most distinct tradition of making the supreme sacrifice of in the Sikh faith. The rest, as they say, is the history and the ‘tryst with the societal and spiritual destiny’ of independent India.

When introspecting back and forth over the centuries after the decline of Buddhism and the consolidation of the Muslim rule over Delhi and the territories much beyond it in all directions, we find that that the saints of the Bhakti and the Sufi traditions had surged forward to guide the masses amidst the confusion and conflict of moribund Hinduism and aggressive Islam. The spiritual horizons of the entire north-western Bharat were indeed brightened as never before by the several saint–gurus, most of them with the lowly and humble origins according to the so called ‘divinely sanctioned Brahamanical scriptures’. The spiritually most polluted region of Awadh with Benares emerging as the capital of Brahmin ‘Thugs’ plying their nefarious trades by exploiting the names God and the dark deserts of orthodoxy of the kingdoms of Rajputana were indeed dazzled by the songs of light and beauty attributed to the true messengers of humanity, particularly Kabir (C. 1398-1518?) and Ravi Dass. The wandering folk singers were quick to carry far and wide the heart touching Vaani - the verses - of the two inspired masters with abode in Benares, like gentle breezes carry, on their invisible wings, the fragrance to the dark and desolate corners.

The inspiration for a just and egalitarian social order in the heart and mind moving poetical narratives of the various eminent saint-poets would seem to have culminated in the concept of Begumpura - The Sorrow-less City - a very earthly abode proclaimed by Ravi Dass Ji. He was loud and clear to announce his project to make God a public wealth, available to all through purity of heart and the simple means of love: “The Lord is no one’s property; to love does the divine monarch yield.” The entire environment of the various places of worship in India becomes full of Divine fragrance when the accomplished musicians sing the Ravi Dass Vaani like the soul stirring song in Sri Raag, “Tohi mohi, mohi tohi; antar kaisa… You and I, I and You - how are we different? Only in the sense that gold differs from the bracelet, and water differs from the wave. If I did not sin, O Eternal Lord, You could not be called Purifier of sin… ” (SGGS P.93 TR. Nirmal Dass). Ravi Dass made a frontal attack on the empty rituals and discriminatory practices which had polluted Hinduism, “Though a man bathe in the pools of all sixty-eight shrines; though a man worship the twelve Lingams; though he dig public wells and create ponds of fresh water - but if he reviles others - all his good deeds shall be utterly wasted….” (SGSS P.875 Tr N. Dass). He indeed struck a strongly original note in his epoch emerging as a practical social-reformer-crusader, addressing, as if, our own time today. No surprise that the people belonging to the toiling and devoted community of Ravi Dass - the oppressively persecuted and systematically marginalized - in the entire Northern India, in the vast and valiant historical Punjab in particular, were to find an eternal fountain of solace, strength and salvation in the dynamic faith based on equality and fraternity formally launched by Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji in AD 1699.

It has been interestingly a combination of several factors - above all the parameters of democratic polity - that the last five decades have witnessed an era of diligent and dedicated research and scholarship to explore more and more original sources and references relating to the non-Brahamanical discourses on spirituality like the Bhakti and Sufi movements. Interestingly, the life and works of Guru Ravi Dass have been subjects of many new learned treatises following the rigors of modern research methodologies and the over all inclusive approach. The universities of the northern states of India would seem to have been vying with each other to establish chairs to promote special studies on the works of low born saint poets.

There has been a phenomenal resurgence of resourceful Ravi Dass Deras and they have been very energetic in availing of all the modern popular means of mass media like the audio / videos of the exquisite Vaani sung by distinguished artists apart from bringing out attractive editions in various languages, including in English, for the strong diaspora community, of all the verse attributed to the saint-liberator who had roared about and even celebrated his so called ‘lower class station of caste’. The internet facility with dedicated websites, publications and all the other attendant means have been systematically pressed into service to promote the ideals contained in the verses of the ‘divine teacher.’ The birth day of Guru Ravi Dass - now a closed holiday in several states of India - is celebrated with huge fan fare festivities in the Ravi Dass temples with special gathering in the recently consecrated magnificent Seer Govardhan Temple, the pristine place in the periphery of modern in Varanasi.

It is indeed quite interesting and purposeful to examine the various available accounts - unauthentic and unreliable as per the prevailing practice in the medieval times - to elucidate upon the life of Guru Ravi Dass. What can be inferred with certainty is the humble - low caste - birth of Ravi Dass in the vicinity area of present Varanasi and that he followed the family occupation of tanning hides and shoe making. There are several references in the verses by Ravi Dass himself and also by the fourth Guru Ramdas (1531-1581 AD) and the fifth Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606) indicating his caste as Chamar and occupation of maker of shoes and disposer of carcasses of animals. The verses of other saint poets and later commentators further reveal this reality and also suggest the period of his life. Bhai Gurdas (1551-1629 AD) in his verse compositions called Vaar - ballad - contain important insightful references to Ravi Dass. Among the earlier Punjabi sources, mention may also be made of the Janam Sakhi of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji by Sodhi Manohar Dass Miharban (1581-1640) - son of Prithi Chand and nephew of Guru Arjan - mentioning how Mardana would sing Pads of the Bhagats, including Ravi Dass, to Nanak. Pothiprembodh (C. 1693 AD) contains accounts of lives of sixteen saints including Ravi Dass.

Among the early Hindi sources of references on Ravi Dass, the Ramanadian tradition refers to Hariram Vyas of Orcha (C. 1560 AD), the celebrated Bhaktamal of Nabhadas (C. 1600 AD) and the Bhaktirasbodhini by Priyadas (C. 1712 AD). Furthest the Raidas Parchian (C. 1588 AD), The Raidas Kabir Goshti by Sain (C. 1600 AD ?), The Bhaktnamavali by Dhruvdas (C. 1538-1623 AD), The Vaani Dadu (C. 1554-1603 AD), the Sarvangi (SAR) by a prominent Dadu disciple Rajab (C. 1567-1689 AD), the Vani of Sundardas (C. 1596-1689 AD) another Dadu disciple, Garibdas-Dadu’s son-have all paid tributes to Ravi Dass in their works. The single most fact about Ravi Dass - Raidas to locals in Benares - which is totally undisputed - is that he was a Chamar - ‘an untouchable caste, whose vocations included the hauling away of the carcasses of dead cattle, skinning and tanning their hides and making leather objects as shoes etc.’

The verses of Ravi Dass contain respectful references to Namdev (C. 1270-1350 AD), Kabir (circa 1398-1518 AD), Trilochan (b. C. 1267), Sadhna (?) and Sen (b. C. 1290 AD) indicating his spiritual fraternity with them. Acharya Prithvi Singh Azad, himself a Ravidasia scholar with background Arya Samaj, has even opined that a meeting took place between Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Ravi Dass Ji around 1555 Bikrami - 1498 AD. There are ample references to Princess Meera Bai (C. 1503-1556 AD) paying homage to Ravi Dass Ji as her Guru. There are ample references that Ramanand (C. 1400-1476 AD) was the spiritual mentor of Shri Ravi Dass. HW McLeod and other Western scholars clearly reject this suggestion that 'it would be early enough to be his disciple’. It is also mentioned that Sikandar Lodhi (C. 1489-1517 AD) was the ruler in Delhi during the life of Ravi Dass. There are six different sets of dates - between 1376 to 1444 AD - all contested by scholars - to be the year of birth of Shri Ravi Dass. Most recently of all, in 1984, Dr Jasbir Singh Saabar, in his painstakingly researched book, has concluded that Ravi Dass would have been born around AD 1376 to 1414 and that he might have died around AD 1517. There are many references and accounts of passing away of Ravi Dass Ji in a very ripe old age, even suggesting at the age of 120 years. It is safe to assume - for our frame of reference and analysis - that Ravi Dass ji’s earthly sojourn was during 15th/16th centuries. According to the two meticulous scholars - WM Callewaert and PG Fridlander, 'his floruit was at some time between C. 1450-1520 AD’. To quote them further, "…common core to the hagiography of Raidas has been embedded within a Brahmanical contextualization…about (his) rebirth and final revelation of his Brahman status… they allow even high caste devotees to accept Raidas into their own pantheons of saints… the story of Raidas’s essentially ‘Brahman’ nature must have been accepted in the Dadupanth by the early seventeenth century.” They add further, “In contrast to this, the life story of Ravidas in Punjabi Pothipremabodh does not allow such Brahmanical contextualization, containing no references to Ramanand or Ravidas’s ‘Brahmin’ origins. Instead, the Sikhs contextualized the figure of Ravidas by assimilating him into the company of Bhagats who were the precursors of Nanak.”

Apart from the authentically revered Vani in the Adi Granth, the traditional centers of Ravidas scholarships as well as the modern universities have identified eleven credible manuscript sources for the Vani of the saint poet including the Fatehpur manuscripts (AD 1582; 5 pads) representing a nonsectarian tradition and the ten Dadu Panthi tradition - Panchvani - and other sources available in Rajasthan and Punjab. In sum, the songs - Pads - of Ravidas had begun, perhaps during his life time and certainly soon after, to spread beyond Benares. By the mid-sixteenth century distinct oral recessions of his Vaani had developed in Rajasthan and the Punjab. The popular Poets and musicians recited his verses, adding songs or lines of their own or even changing the lines according their own inclinations and genius. It must be appreciated that the verses of Ravi Dass were primarily intended to be sung at gatherings of pious devotees and could be considered as ‘texts’ in the sense as far as the oral performances could be texts- ‘Each Pad being a glimpse into Raidas’s thoughts, experiences, and beliefs.’ 

Adopting the criteria that the Pad appearing in at least 7 out of the 10 select Rajasthani manuscripts or in any other Rajasthani manuscript as well as the Adi Granth should be graded genuine has resulted in 72 Pads, leaving out 39 others occurring in different sources. It is important to note how these Pads composed in several genres invoke the typical ideas as per the ‘inherent rhetoric’ of the genre: in case of Ravi Dass, scholars have noticed ‘Warnings - Chitavani’; ‘Entreaty - Vinaya/Binati’; ‘Love-in Separation - Virah’; ’Destruction of illusion/Error - Bharam Vidhashan'; 'Glory of Name / God - Bhajan Pratap'; ‘Union with Pure - Sadh Milap'; ‘Devotion - Bhakti'; ’Recognition of Beloved - Pia Pehchan’ and ‘Enlightening Experience - Anubhuti’. The Sant tradition - Nirguni Prampra - identifying God as ‘ineffable, without shape or form, and immanent in creation’ is sought to be distinguished from the Sagun Bhaktas who ‘conceived of God as having incarnated, in the form of Avatars.’ To quote HW McLeod, "the Sants were monotheists, but the God whom they addressed and with whom they sought union was in no sense to be understood in anthropomorphic terms. His manifestation was by His immanence in His creation and, in particular, by His indwelling within human soul.”

We are indeed witness in the 21st century to the new era interpretations, interrogations and re-envisioning of the religious and spiritual inheritance of the civilization of India. The broad vision traditions of the movements like the Bhakti and the Sufism are certainly more in tune with the spirit and ethos of the globalization. Guru Ravi Dass has been increasingly visualized and identified with the recovery of the truest dimensions of piety and spirituality; he emerges as the spokesperson of the underprivileged and oppressed - no wonder to Ravi Dass 'God is up lifter of the lowly, purifier of the defiled and deliverer of the poor.' The Vani of Ravi Dass represents his quest for emancipation in a society based on human dignity and freedom. What could be more eloquently clear than the ringing verse of Guru Ravi Dass in Raga Gauri - SGGS Page 345:-

Begampur (Sorrow-less City) is the name of that place,
Without suffering or distress,
Without anxiety, taxes or property,
Without fear of failure or fear of loss.
I have found a good home in my own land,
O my brother, there is ever lasting well- being there.
Its everlasting sovereignty is firm and stable
There none is third or second, all are one.
Flourishing and ever famous,
The wealthy dwell in that town.
They wander around wherever they please,
They stroll through palaces unchallenged,
Say, Ravidas the liberated Chamar,
Whoever is my fellow citizen, is my friend.

In the context of the above quoted masterly composition of the ‘Indian Socialist Manifesto’ by Guru Ravi Dass in the medieval times, it would come as no surprise that Dr BR Ambedkar - the titanic scholar, a rare constitutionalist and the presiding deity over India’s march to modern social renaissance - “inscribed (On Jan.1, 1948) to the memory of Nandnar, Ravi Dass and Chokhamela - the three renowned saints who were born among the untouchables and who by their piety and virtue won the esteem of all” - his magnum ovum, 'The Untouchables, who were they and why they became Untouchables?’