Hindi Belt Authors

Seeking a city without sorrow

Compassionate soul: An idol of Guru Ravidas  

Recent events involving the demolition of a temple dedicated to the medieval poet-saint Raidas and the ensuing political controversy have focused attention on a great voice of social protest that has largely been ignored by identifying it with a particular Dalit caste and forgetting its universal appeal.

Not much is authentically known about Raidas or Ravidas who was held in such high by his contemporaries and successors that when the fifth Sikh guru Arjan Dev compiled the Adi Granth, revered by the Sikhs as the living guru, he included 40 of Raidas’s sayings (baanis) along with those of Kabir, Sheikh Farid, Namdev and other saint poets. The text of these 40 baanis is considered to be most authoritative as there are differences of opinion among scholars about the text of his other sayings. It is widely accepted that Raidas lived in the 15th and the early 16th centuries and died at the ripe old age of 120.

A postage stamp issued in 1971 to honour the poet-saint

A postage stamp issued in 1971 to honour the poet-saint  

Mutual respect

It is said that both Kabir and Raidas were disciples of Ramananda and had great respect for each other. Like Kabir, Raidas too was born in or near Banaras and he too used the tools of his profession to create metaphors for expressing spiritual experiences as well as his social message. Born in a Dalit family (in a community that worked with skins and leather), he was obviously unlettered as education was the privilege of only high castes.

A spiritually evolved person, Raidas never felt shy or embarrassed because of his low caste status and proudly declared: “Jaake kutumb ke dhedh sam dhor dhovant phirahi ajahu banarasi aaspaasa” (I hail from the neighbourhood of Banaras and my clan carries dead cattle), “Kahe Raidas khalaas chamaara” (says Raidas who is a pure chamar)

Whether it is historically true or not but it is widely believed, on the basis of a few lines from the famous woman saint poet Meera, that Raidas was her guru. “Guru milia Raidasji man, deeneen gyaan ki gutaki” and “Satguru sant mile Raidasa, deeneen surat sahdaani” are the lines in which Meera unequivocally declares that she received spiritual knowledge from her guru Raidas.

Vaishnava saint Nabhadas too pays his tribute to him because Raidas made him lose pride in his high caste status (varnashram-abhiman). Like other saint poets who raised their voice of socio-religious protest in medieval India, Raidas too opposed meaningless rituals. Using kathauti (a wooden bowl in which leather workers keep water), he launched a broadside against the practice of bathing in the Ganga to wash off sins.

His most famous saying is “Man changa to kathauti mein Ganga” (If your heart is pure, then Ganga resides in your kathauti), thereby meaning that what is needed is to cleanse the heart to wash off one’s sins, not a bath in the holy waters of Ganga. Little wonder that Kabir made his appreciation known for Raidas, declaring “Santan mein Raidas” (Raidas is the saint of saints).

Dream city

As Gail Omvedt has underlined in her book “Seeking Begumpura : The social vision of Anticaste Intellectuals,” if Kabir dreamt of his utopia calling it Amarpur (City of Immortality) and sang of Premnagar, the city of love, Raidas imagined his own version of it and named it Begumpura (City without Sorrow). It would be a city where there were no taxes or toil, “ where he could wander freely with his friends – something a Dalit could never do in actual Banaras”.

In the poetry of these radical voices of social protest in a medieval socio-political milieu, there is strong urge to remove hostility and inequality between castes and religions. They are not hoping for an obliteration of their existence but a re-working of the exploitative and unequal relationship that were binding them together. As the caste system was inextricably tied to the way material production was organised in medieval times, it was obviously a Utopia that could be aspired for but not achieved. Yet, the saint poets gave voice to the oppressed castes, using a religious and spiritual vocabulary and arousing a sense of self-confidence and human identity among the oppressed and depressed caste, nowadays known as the Dalits or the subalterns.

It is believed that initially Raidas was a worshipper of Sagun (God with attributes and form) but later, under the influence of senior saints like Kabir, he moved towards the worship of Nirgun (God without form or attributes). His famous song “Prabhuji tum chandan ham paani” (O God, you are like sandalwood and I am like water) is still sung with great love and devotion by professional as well as non-professional, high-brow as well as low-brow, singers.

Multiple claimants

Attempts have been made to appropriate him by the Brahmins who tried to depict him as a brahmin in his previous birth.

Surprisingly, even a section of dalits claimed Kshatriya status by manufacturing mythological histories in the first half of the 20th century. Between 1910-16, U. B. S. Raghuvanshi wrote “Shree Chanvar Purana” and published it from Kanpur, using Raidas and his appearance at the court of Lord Vishnu as a device to prove a kshatriya status. This was an anti-thesis of Raidas’s message as he aimed at equality among castes and abolition of caste-based pride or shame. One hopes that the present-day dalit leaders will pay heed to his teachings.

The writer is a senior literary critic

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Printable version | Oct 12, 2021 9:58:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/seeking-a-city-without-sorrow/article29398696.ece

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