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
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?’