Ravidas the First Utopian

In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote his most famous and controversial work, Utopia, a novel in which a fictional traveller, Raphael Hythloday (whose first name is an allusion to the archangel Raphael, who was the purveyor of truth). (From Wikipaedia)

But the credit for being the first Utopian Socialist in the world must go to Shri Guru Ravidas Ji (floruit 1450-1520).

In the film The Blade Runner, the Android when asked "what is special about you" replies "I exist therefore I am". This philosophical retort puts the slave worker android at once on par with human being for this answer would be good enough to pass the Turing test.

Dalits were considered beasts of burden or  tetrapodons; having human shapes but not human. The heavy disabilities that they were subjected to would have made their existence worse than those of animals in many cases. As no one owned a Dalit, it meant that no one lost anything if a Dalit died. The slaves would cost money to replace whilst the untouchables was nominally free, although begar or unpaid labour survived well into the 20th century and even in the 21st century there a record number of bonded labourers or semi slaves in India.

How was it then possible for person such as Guru Ravidas to come up with the concept of Utopia? In the past a semi slave 'untouchable' who had nothing could never dream of such thoughts. Non-Brahmin movements of the past century in India and that of Ambedkar's movement all based on groups who had relatively speaking made some progress on the economic front, could dare to dream of such things. Joti Rao  Phule himself a contractor was influenced by the Rights of Man and Ambedkar by the caste free (although not racism free) society of America. Guru Ravidas Utopia must be seen as the continuation of the Buddhist Sangha ideal via the Sidhas triggered by the economic progress that some urban dalits had made by switching to commodity production. For example Kabir who is very closely related to Guru Ravidas was a weaver. In 20th century Mangoo Ram's Adi Dharam movement was made possible by the economic progress that the Panjabi Ravidasis had made by being involved in the large scale production of boots and other leather goods which they supplied to the British military in India.

To be fair the concept of man becoming Godlike was not that uncommon. Shakespeare could compare man to angel when man performed exceptionally good deeds. Al Mansoor was however crucified for saying Anal Haq (i.e. I am God).  It was left to Guru Ravidas to say 'Soham' or 'Thou are That' but not in the Upnishadic sense. His real message was for this world and not for another worldly plane as Sankra had asserted previously.

In his famous 'Begum Pua Shehr Ka Noun' Guru Ravidas describes a Utopian city called Begumpura (literally a city without sorrow) which had no taxes nor sorrow. In his hymn Tohi Mohi Mohi Tohi Antar Kaisa Guru Ravidas Ji does not recognise any difference between man and God and thereby between man and man. Thus he stakes his claim as the central hub between the Buddhists cum Natha-Siddhas, Bhaktas and the Sikh Gurus, all of whom were very strongly anti-caste and anti-Vedas.  Ambedkar himself dedicated one of his books The Untouchables to Guru Ravidas Ji. Shri Guru Ravidas Ji was also a Sant, the correct meaning of which is not a saint but a 'seeker after truth'.

The Satnamis who traced their roots to Guru Ravidas Ji were similar in their outlook and behaviour to the Sikhs. The Satnamis rose up against the Emperor Aurangzeb, defeated many Rajas and Amirs who were sent to fight them and put up such a fight that the contemporrary chroniclers described their battles as another Mahabharta. In the end they were valliantly defeated and in revenge Aurangzeb would not spare even Satnami women and children. It was left to Banda Bahadur, who after the death of the Tenth Master Guru Gobind Singh, became the leader of the Sikh army, to avenge the demise of the Satnamis. Banda Bahadur who also had numerous Dalits in his army also eliminated the feudal zamindari system and the caste system in his domain in the Punjab. This was the only time in the written history of India when the caste system was eliminated.

Utopia may have been crushed but the idea lives on.

Main Source: The Life and Works of Raidas by Winnand M. Callewaert and Peter G. Friedlander - Manohar New Delhi 1992.

Image by V&A

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Race, Racism and Caste

It has been claimed e.g. in Dalit Voice journal that Dalits (Untouchables) are the Blacks of India. There is an element of truth in this, but this is not the whole truth.

Race has been discredited as a scientific concept and physical features  were only one factor in the evolution of the caste system. Caste has many components out of which skin colour is but one and it can be misleading one at times, as black Brahmins and fair skinned untouchables do exist and not in small numbers either. Generally speaking most people from the same area in India tend to have similar physical features. Taking race as the major factor in the evolution of the caste system fails to answer the question of why racism in Africa and Aryanisation/Brahminisation in India should have led to two different types of social systems although the exploitative nature of the two was the same. Africa had also produced its own version of the caste system although not on the same scale as in India. Exclusively focusing on 'race' also leads to the denial of class as a factor in caste formation. The common feature between racism and casteism is that the first one is the product of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and the second one being the product of internal colonisation of India.

These 2 theoretical conceptual issues came up in practice in Durban South Africa in 2001 at WCAR when as a tactical measure, the Indian Government claimed that caste could not be equated to race. This was countered by Dalit activists by raising the slogan "Caste is Racism and Worse".

For differences between caste and race see video by Prof Rachel McDermott of Harvard.

See the blog on caste and race and on Indian Government sponsored anthropologists. See also Tehelka news item on WCAR controversy and the Rafto Prize, and Dag Erik Berg's academic paper on WCAR .

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Ramayana of Valmiki

Ramayana of Valmiki

This article originally appeared in the UK Valmiki community’s monthly newsletter named The Service [Editor Mohan Lal alias Gardash Bharti] in the early 1980’s under the title “Bhagwan Valmik Ji – Our Pathfinder.” The original article was subsequently published on http://www.bhagwanvalmiki.com; but unfortunately the publication contained a number of spelling and other errors. It has also been felt that this article needed to be updated in the light of latest discoveries in India history. The late Julia Leslie in her magnum opus Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions – the Case of Valmik1; based entirely on Hindu theological texts, surprisingly come to very similar conclusions as this article, which was written a couple of decades before her work. We are grateful to Mr Mohan Lal for permission to edit and publish this article. [Editor]

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