Avatar, Nirgun and Sagun
Not just being represented by a stone idol, can God actually reside in an idol made out of stone? Does God incarnate himself to this earth? If he does so why does he come to this earth? What is an Avatar? What do terms sagun and nirgun mean and what relevance these terms have for Dalits in the twenty first century?
We start with what is nirgun and sagun.
Gun or guna means properties and the prefix nir modifies to mean without properties, whilst sagun means all properties. The former is how the Sikh Gurus, other Gurus and Sants believed God to be. These include Nanak, Kabir, Ravidas and Namdev. Saguni saints included Tulsi Das, Surdas and Mira Bai, the latter being a disciple of Ravidas! It is claimed that the wall between the nirguni and saguni saints was not that high in places and that there were instances when they met. In spiritualism, not subjected to scientific testing, no doubt common ground could be found somewhere if one looked hard enough, especially when it came to devotion to God.
It is one of the issues which has been raised by some Ravidassias in UK and elsewhere. They claim that both nirgun and sagun ways are equally valid to get to God.The following is taken from a Ravidassia website blog:
Argument 14: Since guruji prohibit murti puja, why should we worship guruji's picture...?
• First of all our temples have guru Ravidass ji's picture in the main hall
• Murti pooja is prohibited on philosophical basis because when people start thinking that murti is god and commit crimes before it then ask for forgiveness, they assume that they are forgiven and then commit further crimes.
• In other words, when murti becomes god, it is cause of trouble
• We don't consider Guru Ravidass Ji's picture as god but as a mark of reverence and a reminder of our guru.
• When we install Guru Ravidass Ji's picture in the palki we are assigning a proper respectful place to our guru so that congregation can pay their respects.
• This is not murti pooja. We don't engage in any rituals around the picture.
• The concept of sagun and nirgun is centuries old and both paths have equally led to salvation. Moorti pooja was deemed to be undesirable because people started committing crimes and moorti didn't do anything because it has no life.
Whilst we can not claim any expertise in this field we can not let it go without comment as this innocuous little advise could prove to be deadly to all the Ravidassis and to Dalits in general.
So what is behind this debate now which was all the rage amongst the India's holymen in medieval times and which only finds place amongst the specialist scholars in mostly top universities of the world.
Hindu Brahmins believe that by mantra and other rituals they can breath a god into an idol. Not just any idol can have god in it, only those which have been consecrated. This is the Hindu belief system. Good luck to them. No one can criticise anyone for their belief system.
When Dalits are being asked to worship an idol of Guru Ravidas Ji, what is being asked is that sagun worhsip or bhakti is a valid mean to god.
Logically if God has no properties and he/she/it (for this is how Nirguni gurus often describe God) then God is also beyond time and space and as such not subjects to the effects of time and space including properties of materials. How the universe was created, we will leave it to the scientists and philosophers for gurus can not tell us about the properties of matter which must be infinite. God could create a universe with infinite wonders but it did not affect his status of being property-less. But here is the major contradiction (and we claim that contradictions are everywhere) in the nirguni philosophy. God is at once beyond time and space, but at the same time he is to be found in people's hearts. Once he creates the universe by his hukum or command he has nothing much more to do with human beings (although nothing happens without his will) except that devotees can call upon God to help him or her in the time of his or her need! In feudal Indian society where the weight of the whole system created unbearable burden n progressive holymen, and to motivate people it was necessary to make them believe that even God, especially God was on their side. Therefore Bhakti or devotion to God could be socially and politically highly subversive, especially as Brahmins had claimed from time immemorial that they controlled gods by their rituals.
Since contradictions are everywhere medieval saints were not immune to it either. They split into the two above groups. The debate however was not just about God. We know that nirguni philosophy was in most cases overtly subversive. When the demon king Hiranakashyp oppresses his own son with the help of the father's demon family members and ministers and the son Prahalad calls upon Vishnu who is then incarnated as the Man Lion avatar, who kills and father and delivers his disciple, one could read this this story as a straightforward as a Hindu myth of Vishnu's incarnation in the best saguni tradition i.e. God taking avatar in order to come to this earth, This however would be a mistake as the story can also be read as the demons being the 'high castes' of the society and Prahald being one of the meek, dispossessed and oppressed being identified with the 'low castes'. Hence the story could be told in the best saguni tradition but by Nirguni Sikhs, but in order to subvert the status quo.
Why did the progressive saints insisted on a nirguni god when they themselves also sometimes used saguni tradition such as that of Prhalad above? The answer to this question is not simple. A saguni supreme Hindu God Vishnu come to this earth as an avatar in order to defend the caste system. This could never be accepted by the friends of the 'lower' castes such as Kabir, Ravidas and Nanak amongst others.
If God came to this earth as an incarnation or an Avatar then it was only because he was going to defend the dharma including the varnashramdharma or the caste system. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, the supreme God claimed that he had created the caste sytem. A nirguni God, being without any properties had no such need to defend the caste system. If anything such a God was the slave of the devotee as proved by numerous hegiographical tales of the Bhaktas and Gurus. Saguni upheld the status quo. Nirguni subverted it. The two did not meet and there was a tall wall between the two although they did not hesitate to steal each other's clothes in the form of mythical tales.
There are other differences between the nirguni and saguni scholars. Saguni saint Tulsi Das had written " A drum, a vagrant, low caste and women are best if beaten," He also advises his followers to "honour a Brahmin, even if the Brahmin was without merit." A sudra or low caste could not be honoured even if he was leaned and wise." Without a surprise Guru Ravidas challenged this in opposite wording. " Do no honour a Brahmin if he is withour merit, honour instead a Chandal, if he has merit." This is in in line with Maharishi Vlamiki's Yogavishista which asks people to accept the word of a child even if found to be true and reject the word of God Brahma himself if found to be lacking.
Mirabai, a disciple of Guru Ravidas was of saguni tradition and no doubt given time would have ended up as a nirguni. It is perhaps because of this that only one of her hymn made it to the sacred book of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
When some Ravidassi asks us to follow either method, we can only assume that either he or she has nor read Guru Ravidas or that they know very well the implications of their advise, but they would like all followers of Guru Ravidas to follow the Hindu way of life.
SAP-History Monograph- 6 Conflict and Assimilation in Medieval North Indian Bhakti :An Alternative Approach - Rameshwar Prasad Bahuguna