A photo exhibition in Allahabad focuses on the cultural sects that emerged as a challenge against the inequalities in the Brahmanical social order

Dalits have been influenced by religious sects popular among them to such an extent that these cultural narratives are produced and used for strengthening their struggle against social inequality. These sects emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries and brought marginalised and Dalit communities under their fold by talking about social injustice faced by them under Brahmanical norms. This took the form of a widespread social movement known as the Bhakti movement and the period when it occurred came to be known as the Bhakti period. These Bhakti poets/saints preached notions of egalitarianism and social justice, and they disseminated their ideas through folksongs, poems, moral stories, bhajans, panth kirtan and guru vanis. With a focus on this theme, a photo exhibition ‘Lokpriya Panth Evam Dalit Jeevan,’ was held at the G. B Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, on the daily life and cultural expression of Dalits.  It is based on the study by the institute's Dalit Resource Centre for its project ‘Cultural Resources and Forging a Democratic Order: Marginalised Groups in Northern India.’ The project focuses on how Dalits use their cultural resources to create inclusion against caste-based exclusion and how their oral traditions facilitate marginalised sections, especially women, to initiate a political and social struggle.

Among these, Kabir Panth is a religious movement based on the teachings of poet-saint Kabir, who openly criticised all sects and gave a new dimension to Indian philosophy.  It is believed that the original Kabir Panthi tradition was established at a monastery in Varanasi called Kabirchaura. The Census of India, 1881 recognised it as a distinct religion. Its followers are spread over north and central India.

Ravidassia was started by an Indian saint of the 14-15th century, Guru Ravidas (Raidas), whose devotional songs and verses made a lasting impact upon the Bhakti movement. A shoemaker, his birthday is celebrated every year at the Ksheer Govardhanpur village temple in Varanasi in January. Foreign and Indian devotees flock to the place in large numbers. Satnaam Panth preaches that truth is God and there is only one God, which is Nirgun (formless) and Anant (infinite). It propagates dietary and ethical-restraint for its followers and challenges the Brahmanical social order while treating all humans as equals. It was founded by an illiterate Chamar from Chhattisgarh, Guru Ghasidas.

Mahima Dharma originated in Odisha in the second half of the 19th century, born out of Buddhism and Hinduism. It was founded by Guru Mahima Gosain. It is a popular ascetic movement, which considers the void or shunya, as the divine principle opposing idol worship. It is considered the last protest of saints against the established Hindu religious order. Shivnarayani Panth was founded by a Kshatriya, Swami Shiv Narayan. He founded a large nirgun Bhakti sect of around 300,000 members spread over eastern and western Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal and Bengal. Shiv Narayanis are a ‘textual community’ as the 15 books which Swami Narayan wrote play a prominent role in teaching, ritual and symbolism of the sect. The most important book, the Guru Anyas (variant of nyas: deposit, trust, endowment) is also called Guru Granth Sahib like the holy book of the Sikhs. Most of the members were illiterate, which made oral transmission of its teachings important. Literacy, though much desired, never replaced oral teaching, allowing flexibility and contextual adaptability of the interpretation of the text.