This article by Shoaib Daniyal (“Why are angry Dalits recalling a Delhi sultan to protest the demolition of a bhakti saint’s temple?”) states that followers of Ravidas “claim that the plot on which the shrine stood was gifted to the sect by Sikandar Lodi six centuries ago”.
I would like to assert that the Dalit “claim” has excellent historical foundations and that it is not just a wild assertion. There is an unbroken anti-caste chain from Buddha to Natha Siddhas, Bhaktas, Nanak, Kabir, Satnamis, the Sikhs and BR Ambedkar. At their very core, if interpreted correctly, the lessons of the hagiographical tales of Ravidas and Kabir (and of course Nanak) are capable of withstanding historical scrutiny.
The Ravidasi movement did not take off only in the 19th century. Ravidas had a pan-North Indian presence for many centuries and had its roots going all the way to the time of Buddha. It is just that Dalit history remains to be written.
The article states quotes Peter Friedlander, one of the very best scholars of Ravidas’s hymns. But I believe that Friedlander’s viewpoint as reported is only part of the truth. His statements need to be interpreted in the light of Indian history. It is true that Ravidas Ramayana was compiled in about 1900, but the tradition of Ravidas goes much further back than that.
“At the same time as Ravidās verses were circulating in the Punjab, they were also part of the oral traditions current in Rajasthan, and there are many references to Ravidās in Sant works from the 17th century onward. Prominent among these are Dādūpanthī sources. Dādū Dayāl (1544-1603 CE).
A second major early source on Ravidās’ life is from a Rajasthani collection of lives of Bhakti saints by Anantdās called the Bhaktaratanāvalī. This work was possibly composed in 1588 CE, but the oldest manuscripts of it date from 1636 CE and 1665 CE, and D. Lorenzen has suggested that possibly no one single original fixed text may have existed (Lorenzen, 1991).”
There are many hymns of Guru Ravidas incorporated in the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Saheb Ji. On top of that we have the evidence of the Panchvani collection of Rajasthan (quoted in Friedlander’s own magnum opus The Life and Times of Ravidas) which includes the vani of anti-caste Guru Gorakh Nath circa 1000 CE. There is a saying Punjabi “There is no Guru greater than Gorakh Nath.” Notably, Guru Gorakh Nath (Singh Mohan) whose influence was pan-Indian, had his roots in Buddhist Natha Siddha tradition.
These facts alone should be sufficient to demonstrate the widespread popularity of Ravidas over a very long period of time, in almost all northern Indian states.
The Sadh Satnamis
Peter Friedlander’s article has a gap between the times of Ravidas and the 19th century. So what happened in between those times? Friedlander is a scholar of religious studies, especially Buddhism, but he has no background in history. An answer of a sort can be provided in the history of the Sadh Satnamis who had nearly toppled the Emperor Aurengzeb in 1672 with their supernatural fighting abilities, similar to those of the Sikhs. The Satnamis had very nearly walked into Delhi.
Another notable fact is the large section of Untouchable and low-caste Sikhs in Sikh Banda Singh Bahadur’s army in the 18th century that had taken out the roots of the Mughal empire in the Punjab, leading to the foundations of the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. Banda had stated on the coins issued in the name of Nanak that he had established Satyayug or Utopia (Begumpura of Ravidas?). Under Banda’s rule, any Dalit could rise the position of his ability.
The Khalsa (founded in 1699) had their Adi Granth, the Satnamis coming before the Khalsa had their Adi Updesh and Pothi. Both contained the teachings of Ravi Das, Kabir and Nanak, which are very similar.
The Sadh sect was founded in 1644 by Uday Das who was the disciple of Rai Das (an alternative name of Ravi Das) and Birbhan, a disciple of Uday Das. Hence, the teachings of Uday Das would be practically the same as the teaching of Kabir. Some scholars have made the Satnamis as a branch of Kabirpanthis, but in all probability, it was both Kabir and Ravidas who can be taken as the roots of the Satnami religion. This issue is left for the future historians to resolve and the question may never be answered, as there is close similarity between the teaching of Ravidas and Kabir, and also that of Nanak, but Kabir and Ravidas were older than Nanak. No reasonable historian, bar a Brahmanical tainted one, would have any objection to accepting Ravidas as the one, if not the most important Guru of the Satnami movement.
To me, it is very clear, that the tradition and lesson-based hagiographical tales of Ravidas have solid historical foundation. Not only the Ravidas movement did not die out, it flourished under the Satnamis in the 17th century and then in the 19th century. What can be said is that the movement had a chequered history.
Lodhi’s land grant
Is there any evidence that Sultan Sikandar Lodhi may have donated the land in Tuglaqabad to Guru Ravidas? There is more than circumstantial evidence to this effect.
Our starting point is a painting kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London England. It also appears on the cover of Karine Schomer and WH McLeod’s The Saints – Studies in a Devotional Tradition in India. It shows a group of saints and yogis, below a group of dancing Sufis. Ravidas appears to be shown on the left hand side of the painting. Many saints and yogis are clearly recognisable in the painting which also have their names inscribed. It is quite clear that the painter has drawn upon the earlier representation of these holy men.
The book has commentary by Elinor Gadon on this painting, which points to the fact that Dara Shikoh was executed for apostasy by his brother the Emperor Aurengzeb. Dara Shikoh who commissioned the painting in question, represented the liberal block of the Moghuls whilst Aurengzeb represented the right-wing orthodoxy. However, Aurengzeb and his ancestors had no objections to having Hindu generals in their service. Such power blocks, sometimes under the guise of religion had always existed in Indian history, especially in turbulent times.
Sikandar Lodhi, who was also beset by factional oppositions, needed stability after conquest. His stick and carrot approach is reflected in the hagiographical tales of both Ravidas and Kabir. Both Ravidas and Kabir are thrown into jail for upsetting the Brahmins but after discussion with them, he is “converted”. Tradition, hagiographical details and history coincide here very neatly.
To me, there is no other theory that can come anywhere near opposing my viewpoint. In this, rightly so, I have dismissed the “show me where it is written” school of history as this legalistic argument is not the way actually history, which is a multi-disciplinary approach, is studied, as frequently history is written by the victors. In India, such an approach would give us history as seen by Hindutva elements, if caste/class bias is not allowed for.
My theory is the only one which can withstand Ocam’s razor test. It is the only theory which offers the neatest and the simplest explanation which allows for all known facts, historical and otherwise.