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by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: April 07, 2006
Guru Ravidas: The Cobbler-Saint of Kashi (c 1530 CE)
India has had a deeply developed caste system for centuries. Artificial social differences between humans has existed in the country as of higher and lower castes. But people at large, believed that certain persons who led a pure and virtuous life and constantly engaged in the supreme effort of realization of God were above the caste and creed. These were venerated as saints and highly respected. Temples were built in the memory of holy men who belonged to so called "untouchable" castes. Tiruppani Alvar in Tamilnadu, Chokha Mela in Maharashtra, Madara Dhulayya in Karnataka were examples of such saints. Guru Ravidas, who lived near Kashi in middle of 15th century was another such saint who has left behind a great legacy. Kashi is as holy for Hindus as it is for Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
Ravidas (a.k.a. Raidas) was born in the village of Sear Goverdhanpur, very close to the Holy city of Kashi or Varanasi, in the cobbler community. Only the name of mother of Ravidas is known to us; it was Kalasi.
From early childhood, Ravidas developed spiritual tendencies while attending to his family vocation of repairing shoes. To drive his attention to worldly affairs he was married early. But it did not help. His wife was a pious and God-fearing woman who turned out to be a right partner in Ravidas' quest for self-realization. They spent meager savings of their humble profession in serving holy men and in contemplation.
Ravidas composed and sang songs in praise of the Supreme. He did not worship any one deity. He believed in one and only omniscient and omnipresent God.
Slowly, news about this self taught seer began to spread. People started thronging the humble abode of the guru seeking solace and advice. Conservative Brahmins of Kashi could not stand the popularity of this "untouchable saint". A complaint was made to the king that here was a person working against age old norms of social order (varnashrama dharma). A cobbler was not supposed to talk of God or do work of advising or teaching. It was only the Brahmins who were to do that job!
The ruler arranged for an assembly of learned men. Ravidas was also invited. No one present had reached the height of spiritual knowledge of Guru Ravidas. He was felicitated publicly. A procession was arranged to felicitate the guru (shobhayatra) in which the king himself participated. One legend describes Ravidas as saint Mirabai's guru. There is her composition dedicated to Ravidas:
Sadguru sant mile Ravidas
-- "I got a guru in the form of sant Ravidas, there by obtaining life's fulfillment."
Fame and honors did not affect Ravidas. He firmly believed and taught that a person is honored not by his caste (jati) but by his action (karam or karma). Every person had right to worship God and read holy texts.
There was pressure on Ravidas to convert to Islam. Muslim rule was prevalent and this guru had numerous Muslim disciples as well. But Guru Ravidas did not believe in outside rituals of any religion. He had worked out his own way for salvation.
Not many compositions of Ravidas are available. But forty one of his compositions find place in Guru Granth Saheb (a.k.a. Adi Granth), the sacred book of Sikhs, along with those other famous Hindu saints of India, and have survived. In the village of Sear Goverdhanpur, his birthplace, a spacious temple is built with a large choultry in memory of this great Guru. Devotees from all castes flock to pay respects to the saint who rose to such great heights even in oppressive medieval ages.
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