A case in point is the incident in Vienna, Austria last month where two priests of the Guru Ravi Das sect were fired upon. Within hours riots broke out in the Jalandhar city in Punjab. The media, both print and electronic variously, and mistakenly, termed it as a clash between two rival Sikh sects, an attack on a Sikh guru or a Sikh priest and Sikh gurudwara without realizing that the Ravi Dasi gurus and gurudwaras are not Sikh institutions. It also showed how much the media is tied to religious categories and is so little aware not only of a minority religion but also of contemporary ‘low’ caste movements and sects.
In an article in the recent issue of EPW, Surinder Jodhka provides an informative take on the Ravi Dasi movement in the Punjab. It makes the following key points:
- The Ravi Dasi cult in the Punjab has been an independent movement outside Sikh and Hindu religions
- It has evolved during the 20th century in parallel with Mangoo Ram’s initiation of the ad dharmi movement, though is not synonymous with it
- The Ravi Dasis revere the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Ravi Das (1450- 1520) met with Guru Nanak at least three times and he included 40 hymns and a couplet written by Guru Ravi Das in the collection of key contemporary writings later incorporated into the Adi Granth
- His hymns envisage a casteless and classless society and he is more radical than contemporary Bhakti saints. This particularly comes out in his hymn on Begumpura
- The Chamars in the Punjab by and large sponsor the Ravi Das deras and about 250 gurudwaras in the state. Kanshi Ram himself came from this sub- caste
- Migration to Western countries during the 20th century and increasing ease of communication in last two decades has strengthened bonds between local and diaspora. According to Jodhka, a lot of funding for the deras has been from this diaspora
There is a small extract from a very fine hymn by Guru Ravi Das that appears in the article. It describes the ideal society Begumpura (“a city without sorrows”) envisaged by Guru Ravi Das:
The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, nor own property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture.
Oh my brother, I have come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second – all are one;
Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there
dwell in satisfaction and in wealth.
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled places unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.
By and large it is a very informative article that stands in contrast with the media’s incorrect reporting of the recent riots in the wake of the Vienna firing.