What distinguishes Ravidasa from other Bhakti saints is not only his birth in the lowest caste, but also the fact that he unleashed a frontal attack on the caste-based system of social exclusion and untouchability by using non-violent methods.

G uru Ravidasa is probably the first crusader after Gautam Buddha who adopted peaceful means to revolt against the age old Brahamanical caste system. Guru Ravidasa, also known as Raidasa, Rohidasa, Ruidasa, Ramadasa, Raedasa, Rohitasa, Rahdesa, Rav Das and Rab Das, was the most influential Bhakti saint in northern India. He was born in village Seer Goverdhanpur near Varanasi in a well-to-do chamar (Kutbandhla) family, engaged in the leather and tanning business, on 30 January 1399. His parents, Mata Kalsi and father Santokh Das, wanted him to join the family business. However, with his inherent craving for spirituality, he left home with his wife Lona in search of God. He set up a small wayside shop to mend shoes for his living.

Like most other saints of the Bhakti tradition, Ravidasa too articulated his teachings in the form of hymns (Bani) in his regional language. Excerpts of Ravidas’s Bani are found in Adi Granth of Sikhs, and Panchvani of the Dadu Panthis. Adi Guru Granth Sahib contains forty hymns and one couplet of Ravidasa.

Ravidasa rejected dualism (dvaitvaad) and argued for monism. According to him, man and God are not two distinct entities but one. Human soul is a minuscule part of the Absolute. The relationship between them is like the relation between an ornament and Gold; water and wave. He holds that the lover and the beloved are one and says, “You are me, and I am You—what is the difference between us?” By using this analogy, he explains the complex Vedantic thesis: “Aham brahmasmi tat tvam asi (I am Brahman, so are you.”

 Ravidasa preached the essential unity of different forms of God, and believed in the omnipresence and omnipotence of only one God. He practised and advocated bhakti of the formless—nirguna God. According to him, reciting the name of Hari (God)—naama jap—is the most effective way of realising the oneness of God and the presence of the divine in everyone and everything. Though a leather-worker belonging to the lowest caste, Ravidasa was elevated to the status of saint through singing incessantly praises of the Lord (kirtan). People of all the four castes bowed at his feet. He says, “It is my occupation to dress and cut leather; each day, I carry the carcasses out of the city. Now, the important Brahmins of the city bow down before me.”

Ravidasa advised his followers not to indulge in slandering, being jealous of others, telling lies, spreading rumors, and harming fellow beings either in word or in deed. He preached love and devotion through his Bani. His hymns have a universal appeal. His preaching and practice persuaded his followers to give up all forms of religious ritualism like taking bath in holy rivers like Ganges, visiting sacred shrines, keeping fasts, and idol worship. Condemning the ritual of taking a holy bath, in one of his verses he says, “Outwardly, he washes with water, but deep within, his heart is tarnished by all sorts of vices. So how can he become pure? His method of purification is like that of an elephant, covering himself with dust right after his bath!”.

Initially, Ravidasa faced many problems in the then prevalent Brahmanical social structure. However, his ability to resolve spiritual doubts of those who held discussions with him in simple language and his authentic lifestyle won him many disciples, including those who belonged to the higher castes. Rajput queen Mirabai regarded him as her guru. She said, “Guru Milyaa Ravidasa Ji…” Among other notable followers were Rani Jhali of Chittor, Prince Veer Singh Dev Vaghela of Rewa and the Prince of Kashi.

As a protest against the insulting and discriminatory behaviour meted out to him and his Dalit followers, Ravidasa dressed like the upper caste Brahmins. He put a tilak on his forehead, wore a janeu (sacred thread) and clad himself in a dhoti. All these were prohibited for the lower castes. Though dressed like an upper caste, he openly declared his caste and continued with his profession of mending shoes. By this act he proved that the lower castes while adopting the dress code and symbols of the upper castes, could still keep their identity intact.

He was painfully aware of the humiliation suffered by the members of his caste. That is why besides adoration, boundless love and longing for formless God, his hymns are also about the “hope for a better world and a fight against exploiters, power-holders and oppression going on under the name of religion”. Though his Bani is full of humility and devotion, yet it is replete with reformatory zeal and concern for the downtrodden. For the improvement of the condition of the oppressed and exploited, he did not expect any help from anyone else. So, he advocated selfhelp for eliminating sufferings of fellow Dalits and their upliftment. They themselves have to struggle peacefully for their human right and civic liberties.

 In the ideal state of his dreams, there would be no discrimination on the basis of caste and religion; there would be no graded system of hierarchy; there would be no untouchability; everyone would be free from the burden of taxes and worries of food. In his Bani he envisages an ideal society: “In such a society there will be equality and freedom for all. It will be a city without sorrow and fear./There is no second or third status;/all are equal there”. Everyone in the ideal state would engage in kirat (manual work). To such a state he gives the name Begumpura—city free from sorrows. Incidentally, this was also Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of bread labour. In such a state, as Rabindranath Tagore says, “Mind is without fear and the head is held high.”

 What distinguishes Ravidasa from other Bhakti saints is not only his birth in the lowest caste, but also the fact that he unleashed a frontal attack on the caste-based system of social exclusion and untouchability by using the unique non-violent method of Bhakti to contest the oppressive structures of social domination. To re-establish the dignity and fraternity of the Dalits he wanted to dismantle the age old varnashram vyavastha (four-fold division of society based on graded rank system in caste hierarchy) by showing that lower castes were not beyond the pale of spiritual knowledge, and that Brahmins were in fact “hollow figures pumped up with false pride and hypocrisy”.

To do so Ravidasa adopted a unique method. Instead of “bluntly snubbing the arrogance of higher castes, he undertook to raise the dignity of his own caste and profession, so that the higher castes could come to realise the shallowness of their self-imposed superiority”. This method synthesised the paths of radical separation and assimilation.

 To condemn the division of mankind on the basis of caste, he argued that if God created all human beings and resided in all of them, and if the same God pervaded the entire humanity, then it is foolish to divide the society on the basis of caste. In one of his hymns he said, “Whoever is my fellow citizen, is my friend.” Even the notion of God conceived by Ravidasa is not humble at all in the typical sense of the term, He is graceful; He is not indifferent to the downtrodden; He elevates and purifies the so-called untouchables. The God of Ravidasa is rather bold who is not afraid of anyone.

The writer is former Professor of Philosophy, Delhi University, Delhi.