Have you ever wondered what activism would have looked like 600 years ago? What if society stopped you from entering places of worship, listening to prayers or even associating with anyone outside your community? Introduced by the ancient Manu Simriti scriptures, the biased caste system served the “upper” classes well, but the so-called “low” caste Shoodras were shunned to the outer regions of society, forced to take on the most menial and degrading jobs. The Chamar community was seen as the lowest of the low.
Guru Ravidas was born in Kansi, on the banks of the Ganges. During his lifetime, he went against the norms of society, becoming a ray of hope for the Shoodras. His family was in the business of making products from animal skins. Disowned by his parents, Ravidas started his own shoe-making business, with the endless support of his steadfast wife. He regularly donated his earnings to the poor, including free shoes to passing Sadhus.
Despite starting life in abject poverty, Ravidas soon blessed with enough money to build a Mandir. All castes were welcome, and it became a safe haven for people who had been shunned from Kansi’s shrines, which were policed by the Brahmins. Ravidas’s Mandir was seen as a challenge to their ancient traditions.
Pilgrims visiting the sacred Ganges soon came to know of Ravidas. They flocked to meet him, from the Queen of Chittorgarh to the famous Krishna Bhagat, Mira Bai. His following increased further when he went to the mountainous region of Khurali (where Khuralgarh Sahib now stands). Ravidas’s increasing popularity and donations helped his institution grow, stoking the fire of jealousy that was already burning within Kansi’s Brahmin elite.
Ravidas was invited to the court of the Nawab, who wanted to resolve the disagreements. He also wanted to see whether Ravidas’s rumoured magical powers were real, by giving him a series of tests. One after another, Ravidas showed him what he wanted to see. Locals and onlookers, including the enraged Brahmins, watched in shock, stunned that a poor Chamar had achieved such a high spiritual level.
The ongoing dispute between Ravidas and the Brahmins was settled once and for all in the final test. The Nawab requested the true spiritual master to call the marble statues which lined the Ganges towards each other. The corrupt Brahmins exhausted all of their black magic, falling to defeat. Ravidas won over the Nawab and silenced the Brahmins, who fled in shame.
Guru Ravidas laid the foundation in the fight for caste equality. His legacy remains an illuminating example of what can be achieved when we treat all living beings as the light of God.