The Ravidassia Community in Britain
Contributed by Opinderjit Kaur Takhar
On entering a Ravidassia place of worship for the first time, a student may not necessarily notice that it is any different from a Sikh Gurdwara. It has the palki housing the Guru Granth Sahib with a Granthi (one learned in the language of the Scripture) showing it the respect of the eternal Guru. However, on closer observation, students will notice that there are a number of points of departure from that of a Gurdwara. Portraits of the fifteenth century lower caste Sant, Ravidass (referred to as Guru Ravidass by his followers) adorn the walls and the palki in the Ravidassia place of worship (see Takhar 2005: 89-123). This brings in an element of confusion for the students. In Takhar and Jacob’s experience, it is this element of confusion that probes students into further enquiry and thus highlights the complexities of clear-cut religious boundaries (see Takhar and Jacobs 2011). Current issues within the Ravidassia community are geared towards separating their identity from the Sikhs and declaring a distinct identity as the Ravidassia Dharm, which is neither Sikh and neither Hindu (see Takhar 2012). However, the confusion further embeds itself with regard to those followers of Guru Ravidass whom are content with being labelled as ‘Ravidassia Sikhs’ or ‘Dalit Sikhs’. Is it actually possible to regard both the Guru Granth Sahib and Bhagat Ravidass as one’s Guru? Current dialogue amongst Ravidassias is proposing to follow in the footsteps of their communities elsewhere in Europe and India whereby copies of the Guru Granth Sahib have been removed from places of worship and have been replaced by Amritbani Shri Guru Ravidass. This has not taken place in the UK as yet and could be an indicator of retaliation from those Ravidassias who are intent on being defined as Sikhs. The 2011 UK Census was used as a rallying tool for promoting a distinct identity amongst Ravidassias who were encouraged to record their religion as ‘other’ from Sikhs and Hindus.
Attempting to categorize religious faiths into neatly boxed categories thus raises a number of issues when teaching students about religious communities which may be associated with multiple religious identities. This topic has been discussed in length by Ballard (1999) and Oberoi (1994). It is a good idea for students to familiarize themselves with both works after they have visited a Ravidassia place of worship.
The Ravidassia places of worship in the UK currently house the Guru Granth Sahib since it contains forty-one hymns composed by Ravidass. These are regarded as the most authentic of his works. Ravidass belonged to the caste of cobblers, the Chamars. His community of followers are almost exclusively also from this Dalit caste. It is often regarded as derogatory to use the term Chamar since it has connotations of untouchability due to the occupation of working with animal hides. Hence the term Dalit, meaning oppressed and crushed is preferred by Ravidassias as a true reflection of their treatment in Indian society based on Manusmriti (or The Laws of Manu). Many former Chamars converted to Sikhism in their masses in the hope of achieving equal status with fellow Sikhs as the result of the teachings about caste equality by the Sikh Gurus. However, the Ravidassias strongly argue that the stigma of untouchability remained with them despite their adoption of the Sikh way of life which aimed to seek caste equality on both a practical and spiritual level. Discussing the role of caste amongst Sikhs is a sensitive issue; many Sikhs will out-rightly reject the suggestion that caste has survived amongst Sikhs. So why the current tensions between Sikhs and Ravidassias? In an apparently caste-free society, where and why the label as a Dalit-Sikh? Surely this contradicts the very essence of the egalitarian hermeneutics of Sikh religious philosophy?…
Examine the photograph below which is from the Guru Ravidass Temple, Dudley Road, Wolverhampton:
You may have noticed that Guru Ravidass occupies a prominent position at this place of worship due to the two large representations on the wall behind the palki. In what ways does the photograph highlight the identity of the Ravidassias as not strictly Sikh? What features on the other hand are indicative of a Sikh identity, or at least a Sikh character of the place of worship? It may help to look at the photograph below taken at the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Sedgeley Street, Wolverhampton:
From the two photographs above, what particular emphasis is being placed on a separate identity for the followers of Guru Ravidass? What factors do you think initially led the governing body of Sikhs, the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) in believing that the Guru Granth Sahib was being disrespected (beadbi) in Ravidassia places of worship? Important to note however, is that after visiting Ravidassia Sabhas the SGPC were convinced that it was being given the respect it deserves.
The Constitution of India defines a Sikh as the follower of a sect within Hinduism. Sikhs practice endogamy, that is, they marry within their caste. What does this suggest about the often quoted reference to Sikhism being a caste-free faith? Is there are a contradiction then, bearing in mind Guru Nanak’s teaching that:
Worthless is caste and worthless an exalted name, For all mankind there is but a single refuge. (AG 83).
What does this tell you about Sikh practice when compared to Sikh religious philosophy? What does your analysis suggest about the relationship between Sikhs and Hindus. You may want to read the following article about ‘Indian couple who lost their law firm jobs due to ‘forbidden love’ at centre of first caste discrimination tribunal’ from The Guardian before formulating your ideas.
As you begin to assess identity formation amongst the Punjabi Dalit caste of Chamars, bear in mind the Sikh Gurus’ aspirations towards obliterating caste-based discrimination. See Takhar 2011 in Understanding Sikhism here.
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