Social Perspective of Bhagat Ravidasbani
Dr. Amarjit Singh Kang
Before discussing the social perspective of Bhagat Ravidasbani, I want to make it clear that in medieval Punjabi tradition ‘this-worldly concern’ and ‘other-worldly concern’ were considered complementary to each other; not only complementary but the mystery of the other world was considered the medium of finding the truth. That is why in the Bani of medieval times, this earth is a dharamsaal – a place to practice righteousness, the field of action. It is very difficult or very rare for one to be born a human being. In fact the centre point of the entire Bani and its teachings is the field of action, the earth. The need to move from the earth to beyond has been stressed again and again. The earth, as defined by all the writers of Bani, and its social perspective have come to the fore. This social perspective is so meaningful that students of Gurbani are aware of the fact that Banikars have sought to make them realize their social obligations and inspired them to build such a social set up wherein they have to attain salvation. This inspiration is also indicative of the fact that if man cannot free himself of his surroundings, he cannot become entitled to the highest state, salvation. It is for this reason that the Banikars have given them a new context in the social sense. It is worth noting that the concepts discernible in the Bani are free of the bondage of birth, caste, gender bias and sectarian considerations. The Banikars sought to build an ideal society free of these bonds. In the free environment of such a social order man has to tread the path to liberation. These new human concepts had freed man of his inferiority complex.
These lines of Bhagat Ravidasbani describe man’s psyche which has become free of the bondage of birth, caste, sect, etc:
Nagar jana meri jati bikhyat chamarang.
Riday Ram Gobind gun sarang. 1 rahau.
Sursari salal krit baruni re sant jan karat nahi panang.
Sura apvitra nat avar jal re
Sursrimilat nahi hoye anang.1
Tar tari apvitra kar maniai rey
Jaise kaagra karat bicharang.
Bhagat bhagaut likhiai tih ooparai pujiai kar namaskarang.2
Meri jati kutbandhla dhor dhovanta Banarsi aas pasa.
Ab bipra pardhan tihi krahi dandaut
Terai Naam sarnaiye Ravidas dasa. 3.1. (p.1293)
O town-dwellers it is well known that I belong to the caste of Chamars.
But I do bear Gobind’s name ever in my mind.
The saints do not drink wine even if it is made using the waters of the holy Ganges.
Just as dirty waters flow into the Ganges (becomes pure),
those reciting His true Name also get purified.
The tree of Tar or paper may be impure but
when God’s Name is written thereon it gets purified and becomes an object of worship.
Of low caste as I am, I carry the hides of animals in the vicinity of Benaras.
But as I recite His Name, even the Brahmins have begun to bow before me in reverence, sayeth Ravidas.
Considering the cogent way of elucidation, it is clearly seen that this hymn describes a contented soul, having high morale and happiness, rising above considerations of birth, caste, sect and faith and its institutional character. The person saying these words has not only risen above inferiority complex attached to low castes and gained self-confidence, knowledge and effective communication skills, he is also establishing an example for others to emulate. It is also worthy of note that if an individual does not get free of parochial thinking, he cannot attain spiritual heights. The discourse contained in this hymn is relevant to this world and the other at the same time. Its ‘otherworldly’ context is quite apparent but what is worthy of consideration in this worldly context is that it presents a model of such a person who takes birth in a low caste but attains a position of greatness. In the supreme state, all considerations of caste, section, class, etc. become irrelevant. This hymn inspires one to rise above narrow thinking in terms of caste and creed. This inspiration determines the path towards the field of action. Ravidasbani certainly inspires one to feel proud of his actions and takes him beyond bondage. From this position, one has to know one’s origin. In support of this, we would like to quote the following hymn of Bhagat Ravidas:
Begampura Sehar kau nao
Dookh andoh nahi tih thao.
Na tasvis khiraj na maal.
Khauf na khata na taras zawal.1.
Ab mohe khoob watan geh paiyee.
Oohaan khair sada merai bhai.1. rahau
Qayam dayam sada patishahi.
Dom and som eik so aahi.
Abadan sada mashoor.
Oohaan ghani baseh mamoor.2.
Tio tio sail kareh jeh bhavai.
Mehram mahal na ko atkawai.
Keh Ravidas khalas chamara.
Jo ham sehri so meet harama. 3.2. (SGGS, 345)
Though the Begampura mentioned in this hymn is an imaginary but ideal place, it has all the social concerns present therein. The layout of the town, though imaginary, is very wisely conceived. One wonders while reading this hymn that a noble soul fully absorbed in God has built a model which has become an object of search and basic attainment of man. It is worthy of note that this model is not the outcome of a specially acquired knowledge; it is only spiritual. It is wonderful that a person is attracted to this role model, when he is engaged in the struggle for the purpose wherein human existence can imbibe humanism. The entire journey of man is to establish a social set up in which he can live in freedom, and be able to give a new meaning to his existence. This model coming out of the spirit of a saint appears to be valuable in the social context. It is a society which is classless, where the existence of everyone is recognized; there is no fear of losing anything owned by anyone; such a town is indicative of a place where everyone co-exists with others at an equal level. There is perfect freedom of movement. The town conceived in this hymn is exactly that ideal one for the attainment of which man has been struggling for ages. The only difference is that the Bhagat’s vision is of spiritual nature and that of the present day man is of social concern. Hope and ultimate meaning connote the same thing. This hymn certainly presents an ideal model of society. This hymn would continue to be accepted as offering right direction so long as man is not able to turn his dream into a reality. It is quite significant that the saint poet has shown the ‘other-worldly’ concern vis-à-vis ‘this worldly’ situation providing an impetus to human concerns. The direction shown in this way highlights the social perspective.
In the medieval thought process of Bani, repeated emphasis is made on action which has a direct bearing on human activity and this activity lends meaning to social concerns. A society which gives due importance to performance, would certainly become an ideal society. The historical facts testify that the Banikars had experienced the ultimate truth while doing their daily work. It is thus clear that experienced saints recognized the social existence of man. Good deeds, good practice are part of the social context. Inspiring people to do good deeds has awakened the feeling of dignity of labour. In Ravidasbani work has been regarded as worship. Receiving the blessing of God while doing his work, Bhagat Ravidas has expressed this truth in his Bani:
Ja ke kutumb ke dhedh sabh dhor dhovant phirahe
Ajhu Benarsi aas paasa.
Aachar sahit bipra krahe dandaut
Tin tanai Ravidas dasan dasa. (SGGS, 1293)
The menials of whose family carried the dead animals
Around the town of Benaras
Even the Brahmins respectfully lie prostrate before them
Sayeth Ravidas, the servant of servants.
The change that takes place in man’s intellect and body by working has been mentioned again and again. This action oriented disposition awakens the spirit of knowledge. Through action and knowledge alone does it become possible to build an ideal society.
Under the social context of Ravidasbani what is of historical importance is that the negative aspect of the conduct of the high caste people has been totally rejected. By rejecting the high caste people for their unconstructive outlook, the existence of people at large has been accepted. Opposition to the high caste section of society in Ravidasbani in a way establishes new social values. In this Bani the language of the high caste people, culture and its way of worship has been rejected wherein the existence of man is not recognized. Man’s identity is determined by his actions, according to Ravidasbani. The following lines vouchsafe for the view that Ravidas has bitterly criticized the attitude of high caste people and guided the people towards new social values.
Bed padhayee pandit banyo, gaanth panhi tau chamar.
Ravis manukh eikj hayee, naam dharai hayee char.
One becomes a pandit by reciting the Vedas and a cobbler by making shoes.
Ravdidas says that the same man is given different names.
Pandey kaisi pooj rachi hey
Sat bolai soyee satvadi
Jhoothi baat badi rey.
Toon jo kehat hau sau hi karta
Yakon manikh karai rey.
Tarin sakat sahi je ya main
To apan kyon na tarai rey.
Anhi bharosai sab jag booda
Sun pandi ke baat rey.
What sort of worship have you ordained, O priest?
If a person speaks the truth, he becomes truthful.
And if he tells a lie, he is an evil one.
I do as you want me to
What else can one do?
If you have the power to
Help others swim across
Why can’t you yourself swim?
The world is getting drowned
Putting faith in you;
In your sermons.
Countless references of this type can be found in Ravidasbani, proving the point that the way Bhagat Ravidas guided the people and gave birth to the concept of a new man. This new man’s God, as he imagined Him, decides the fate of a man on the basis of his actions. This new man has built a new society. We would like here to reject the view which says that Ravidas’s opposition to the high caste people arose out of his personal grudge. This notion is totally wrong, because the vehement opposition of high castes is found in Gurbani also. The Guru Banikars did not come from a lower strata of society viewed from the class angle but their protest is sharper than that of Ravidasbani. Therefore it would be wrong to assume that the opposition to the high caste people in Ravidasbani or in the hymns of other saints was the result of their personal protests. As a matter of fact, much earlier than the writing of Gurbani, saint poets had begun to oppose the spiritual tradition which was bound by the limits of birth, castes, creed, etc. Therefore the concept of a new man is discerned in the Bhagatbani. New human concepts have created new discourse. From the new behaviour in this world is sought to be experienced the mystery of the other world.
It is evident that the perspective in Ravidasbani can become a model in the social sense even today, which has been forgotten as a basic truth. Actually if we seriously think of our heritage, a discourse thereon can easily save us from a calamitous situation. Ravidas’s valuable views can even today show the right path to those who want to build such a society in which one’s existence can be linked to the new truth. The need of the hour is that Gurbani and Bhagatbani should be interpreted in the same contexts in which Bani was written. The entire tradition of Bani is down to earth which lays the foundation of a society wherein pervades the Almighty but His vast expanse is connected with human ground. Certainly this is Banikars’ achievement which is worthy of our respect.