The Legacy of Sant Ravidas and the Dalit Struggle

Aditi Narayani Paswan

With his unwavering faith in a formless god and inspired by his ancestors’ leatherworking skills, Ravidas created an inclusive form of Bhakti which helped shape Dalit consciousness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at Varanasi commemorating the 647th birth anniversary of Sant Ravidas,emphasised the creation of an egalitarian society — one driven by ideals of social justice. A society where people from the margins are marching towards the epicentre with great hope for creating a community free from social evils, a society made up by liberated souls.

With the unveiling of the statue of Sant Ravidas, Modi talked about how the ills of the caste system are destroying humanity. This transported me to the words of Sant Ravidas, “Jaat-paat ke pher mahi urjhi rahi sab log/ Mannushta ku khat hai, Ravidas jat kar rog” (Everyone is trapped in the caste system/ Ravidas, humanity is being eaten up by the disease called caste).

In his speech, he said that the BJP government has been instrumental in revitalising the teachings of Sant Ravidas as they embody a movement to reclaim history, give voice to underrepresented groups, and change the way politics is framed. The BJP has been successful in transforming the social and cultural reality of the country.

The current political dispensation’s policies have been centred around the empowerment of marginalised people. With this approach, the BJP government is attempting to harmonise some facets of its governance model with that of Begumpura, the city without sorrow envisioned by the poet-saint, through the prioritisation of social justice, equality, and development.

PM Modi, with the motto “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayaas”, has not only worked to empower those who have endured centuries of social and economic marginalisation but has also called for a people-centric movement to bring an end to evil of caste in Indian society. Modi’s resolve to bring this vision to life has strong undertones of the Ravidasiya concepts of breaking caste hegemony. This can be seen with the consecration of Ram Lalla which was led by PM Modi, who comes from the OBCs, and which included Kashi’s Dom Raja, Anil Chaudhary, a Dalit, along with 14 other yajman from across India.

Ravidas’s ideas of Begumpura and his approach to religion through bhakti have long been a source of inspiration for Dalits. We have found solace in his words, hopes of a tomorrow where marginalisation does not taint our lives. We are now transcending the aspirations of a Begumpura, moving towards Ram Rajya, a society based in equality, justice, peace, harmony, and the eradication of caste- and religion-based divisions. Sant “Raidass” or “Ravidas” led us to the enlightened world from the darkness of discrimination, breaking the parochial barriers of caste and creed.

By donning attire forbidden for certain caste communities, Ravidas challenged the caste hegemony. He used to adorn himself with the tilak (sacred red marks made on the forehead), and janeu (sacred thread). He wrapped cloth around his waist, whilst working in his inherited profession leather (chamra), which was considered “polluted”, and did not give up on the religion he was born into. His struggle was against oppressive ideology, structures, and institutions rather than a particular caste.

Based on his unwavering faith in the nirakara (formless) God and inspired by the leatherworking skills of his ancestors, he created an inclusive form of Bhakti. This can be understood as a symbol of resilience and peaceful defiance. His poetry had a mass appeal because of the lucidity and coherence in his language, eschewing exaggeration.

His poetry goes beyond aesthetics — it was a mode of expression reflective of a resilient journey, created in a complex matrix of dynamic psychological, socio-cultural, political, and economic factors; it bears the imprint of the time and space in which it developed. Using clothing and poetry, Ravidas pierced through the divisive politics of caste and played a significant role in forming Dalit consciousness. With his wisdom and articulation, he pushed for samarasta or “inclusive coexistence”.

Ravidas can be seen as a precursor to Ambedkar in his beliefs. Ambedkar, in his paper ‘Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’, speaks boldly of the “Dalit Identity” — an identity that should be owned, not hidden. Attached to the idea of “Harijan” was the notion of pity; it was as if only redemption at the hands of the upper castes would grant them a life of dignity.

Ambedkar defied this perception. His words have inspired younger generations of Dalits in Punjab to create pop songs that underline their “chamar” identity, thus linking themselves to both the traditions of Ravidas and Ambedkar. Dalit identities are now seen as symbols of grace, resilience and pride, and not merely reflective of a history of discrimination and subjugation.

Often shut out of mainstream religious and social places, the Dalit community has found comfort and strength in the teachings of figures like Sant Ravidas. The building of a temple dedicated to him represents a symbolic reclamation of areas that have long been linked to the wealthy and privileged segments of society. As our nation matures and progresses towards completely decolonising our consciousness, we are reminded of the preaching of Ravidas who spoke about taking pride in one’s heritage and occupation — to not shy away from the identity that fate has ordained.

If we truly wish to pay homage to Sant Ravidas, let’s work on our everyday language. We must refrain from using caste names as derogatory terms, as these names now reflect our transforming identity — from being a community asking for pity, to being a community which owns its identity and takes pride in its heritage.

Aditi Narayani Paswan is assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi.

The article was first published in Indian Express as From Sant Ravidas’s poetry to pop songs today, a reclamation of Dalit identity on February 25, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

Read more at IMPRI:

Diversifying India’s Economy: Breaking Away from Agricultural Dependence

Understanding the Security threats of Europe

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.