Today’s Dalit History post focuses on Guru Ravidass. He represents one of many Dalit saints within our liberatory spiritual traditions who challenge Hinduism and its painful notions of pollution. These thinkers fearlessly explored the existential questions posed by caste apartheid with their counter vision of justice, freedom, and one’s true place in the universe.
Guru Ravidass was one such towering figure. A Chamar saint, poet, and philosopher, he called himself a ‘tanner now set free’. He was the first to envision an Indian utopia in his song “Begumpura”—a modern casteless, classless, tax-free city without sorrow. This vision was in stark contrast to the dystopia of the Brahmanical Kali Yuga.
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Emerging from the Bhakti tradition he employed loving devotion as a method of social protest against Untouchability. The path he chose was free from religious rituals and sectarian formalities. It emphasized the dignity of labour and compassion for all. It reflected the democratic and egalitarian traits of his social philosophy. He dared challenging the tyranny of the Brahmin spiritual hegemony by wearing dhoti (cloth wrapped around the waist), the janeue (sacred thread), and tilak (sacred red mark on forehead).
His poetry became one of the main vehicles of his social protest. Written in the vernacular of the common man, he hoped to “provide for a better world and a fight against exploiters, power-holders and oppression going on under the name of religion”.
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His spiritual teachings became a catalyst that helped concretize the Dalit cultural space in Punjab as his followers have grown beyond India to the world. The followers of his path, represent a range with some devotees counting themselves as Ravidassi Sikhs, while the vast majority now consider themselves a separate religion from Hinduism and Sikhism. One of the key defining characteristics of Ravidassias is that they must believe that Ravidass is a guru (saint) whereas the Sikhs consider him a merely bhagat (holy person). Ravidassias also have compiled their own holy book of Ravidass’ teachings, the Amritbani Guru Ravidass Ji, and many Ravidassia temples now use this book in place of the Guru Granth Sahib.
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