Why is Sant Ravidas, the medieval Bhakti poet, not part of today’s secular, progressive maze of religious syncretism? From the drawing rooms of Delhi and Punjab to tiny huts in Uttar Pradesh, if you saw a picture of him anywhere, you can be sure that the place belonged to someone from his community – the chamars, or tanners. But the same is not true of other saints, be it Kabir, Buddha, Nanak or Valmiki.

Why is it that the saint who propounded the concept of Beghumpura (a city without sorrow) and dreamt of a utopian world without discrimination and inequality in 15th-16th century CE, hundreds of years before Karl Marx, continue to remain an icon only of an erstwhile untouchable community? This question was posed by many Ravidassia during my field work spanning at least half a decade researching the Ravidassia movement in Punjab and Varanasi.

A T-shirt shop at the annual fair near Seer Govardhanpur, Varanasi, on Ravidas Jayanti. Photo credit: Santosh K Singh

Ironically, in his time, Ravidas’ philosophy and songs were popular across class, caste and community. The Rajput princess Mirabai, for instance, was one of his disciples. Unlike his contemporary Kabir, Ravidas was non-combative, gentle and non-judgemental and had the magnanimity to take everybody with him. In spite of his proximity to princely states, Ravidas continued to emphasise the sacredness of work or kirat. By doing so, he was inverting the prevalent caste hierarchy of occupation that favoured mental over manual labour. In his verses one finds persistent critique of caste hierarchy.

Ravidas demonstrated, and was recognised for, his exceptional spiritual, cognitive superiority. Yet, to drive the message and to critique the prevalent dehumanised logic of caste, he insisted on practising the vocation of his community, the chamars, who were leather tanners. His tremendous pride in his caste identity and its associated work was meant to dismiss the abhorrent notion of any work being hierarchised as inferior or superior. This spirit of self-assertion is alive in his followers even today – the Ravidassia of Punjab proclaim themselves as “putt chamar di”, or sons of chamars, and their craze for the Danger Chamar songs of Ginni Mahi reflects similar sentiments.

Contemporary India sadly treats Ravidas as belonging exclusively to the chamars. Calendars in our houses tell the story of our regressive evolution as a society and expose all our secular-syncretic pretensions, especially inbuilt exclusionary practices in overtly inclusive syncretic facade.

A Ravidassia at the mela near Varanasi. Photo credit: Santosh K Singh

Given that Ravidas belonged to a profession that was considered most polluting and hence the lowliest in a caste-based society, even among the other so-called untouchable caste groups, does the exclusion of Ravidas in our time reflect the conscious or unconscious adherence to that hierarchy of occupation? That, as a society, we cannot stretch our liberal, progressive arms to the other end of the pyramid – to the most relegated?

Unanswered questions

While Valmiki’s association with Ramayana to some extent depollutes his caste position, Kabir has been massively propagated and appropriated by the left-liberal progressive academic groups and institutions because his uncompromising position against orthodoxy and obscurantism suited them. Ravidas and his philosophy, in contrast, was not so much about binaries and belligerence. Instead, he espoused sahaj bhao, or principle of equanimity and forgiveness, to impress people not with his high philosophy but with an earthy, persuasive gentleness.

Ravidas was as critical to caste and its associated ritual craft, and his commitment to a formless, abstract power was as unrelenting as his other contemporary Bhakti sants. But perhaps his generous invocation of the words like “Ram” and “Hari” in his bani (teachings) and verses – to refer to that formless entity – probably got misunderstood in the prevailing atmosphere of philosophical discourses that demanded a neat clarity of boundary (whether sagun or nirgun) in a definitionally fuzzy terrain.

Shri Guru Ravidas Janam Asthan Mandir stands at the birthplace of Ravidas in Varanasi. The temple was built by Dera Sachkhand Ballan, Jalandhar, with contributions from the affluent Ravidassia diaspora abroad. Photo credit: Santosh K Singh.

Ravidas was probably ahead of his time and contemporaries in that he dared to dwell in the liminal space, at the cusp, recognising the porosity of sacred geography. It is not just that in Haryana the Ravidassia are considered inferior by, say, the Valmikis but there is almost negligible presence of Ravidas in the educational curriculum on India’s Bhakti poets.

Meeting ground

However, the Ravidassia of Punjab, carrying placards depicting Baba Sahib Ambedkar’s messages and pictures, and singing songs in praise of both saints, travel to Seer Govardhanpur in Varanasi, the birth place of Ravidas, to celebrate his birth anniversary or jayanti annually. Thousands of followers descend not just from all the states of India but also from Europe, US and UK. They exchange addresses, mobile numbers and promise to remain in touch through Facebook and WhatsApp. Young women from Badaun in Uttar Pradesh and from Barauni in Bihar buy calendars and framed pictures of Ambedkar and Ravidas to carry back home.

A shop outisde the Ravidas Janamsthan Mandir. Photo credit: Santosh K Singh.

Hindi and Punjabi translations of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste do as brisk a business as the jalebis on the neighbouring shop. This vernacularisation of Ambedkar’s thoughts and ideas happen at a scale and reach on this occasion that no institution will possibly be able to imagine, let alone claim to match. This transformative pilgrimage is when, metaphorically speaking, Ambedkar meets Sant Ravidas on the ghats of Varanasi, to break the silence of history, to create a pilgrimage of the subalterns, to commemorate and pronounce the exclusivity of its Sant, and to own his legacy.

If the followers of Ravidas are the most vocal vanguard of Ambedkar’s ideology and politics today, it is because this group in particular has not just received, carried and nurtured a sense of historical victimhood through centuries but also simultaneously cultivated a strong sense of agency through sheer industriousness, weaving an identity of its own around the spiritual legacy of its sant.

Santosh Kumar Singh is associate professor of sociology at Ambedkar University, Delhi.