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Amarjit Singh

In an article by Shoaib Daniyal, published in under the title Why are angry Dalits recalling a Delhi sultan to protest the demolition of a bhakti saint’s temple? It is stated

“They claim that the plot on which the shrine stood was gifted to the sect by Sikandar Lodi six centuries ago”.

I would like to put in a proclamation that Dalit “Claim” has excellent historical foundations and that it is not just a wild claim. There is an unbroken anti-caste philosophical chain from Buddha to Natha Siddhas, Bhaktas, Nanak, Kabir, Satnamis, Sikhs and Ambedkar. At their very core, if interpreted correctly, the lessons of the hagiographical tales of Ravidas and Kabir (and of course Nanak) are capable of withstanding historical scrutiny. Ravidasi movement did not take off just in the 19th century. Ravidas had a pan North Indian presence for many centuries and had his roots going all the way to the time of Buddha. It is just that Dalit history remains to be written.

Ravidas as portrayed in the painting commissioned by Dara Shikoh

The article states quoting one of the very best scholars of Ravidas’s hymns, namely Dr Peter Friedlander:
Friedlander recognises the tale as being part of the Ravidas Ramayana, a modern hagiography of Ravidas’ life, first written down about 1900, but based on older oral traditions. According to one version of the text, a holy man complained to Sikandar Lodi about Ravidas in an attempt to prevent the saint from practising his faith. This eventually led to Ravidas being jailed. Soon however, Ravidas harnessed his powers and miraculously escaped from prison. Suitably impressed – and chastened by the limits of his temporal power in the face of the saint’s spiritual merit – the sultan becomes a devotee of Ravidas.
In spite of its power today, the Ravidasi sect is not very old. “It’s clear that there were Ravidasis in the medieval age, but they weren’t very organised,” said Peter Friedlander, one of the foremost researchers of the Ravidasi sect. “It’s only in the late 19th century that people start creating histories of the Ravidasi community, really.”

The Ravidasi identity became political in the 20th century and was used to press Dalit rights alongside other streams such as the Ambedkarite movement. “In the 1950s, for example, there was a big movement by the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh to assert their right to occupy public space,” said Friedlander. “And the way they did it is to publicly celebrate Ravidas Jayanti”, the birth anniversary of Ravidas.

I believe that in the above article Dr Peter Friedlaner’s viewpoint as reported is only part of the truth as seen by the reporter Shoaib Daniyal. I am hoping in the following few paragraphs to put the record straight.

Panel on the painting commissioned by Dara Shikoh, showing Ravidas on he left hand side. Kabir and Namdev amongst others can be clearly identified

Dr. Peter Friedlander’s statements need to be interpreted in the light of Indian history. It is true that Ravidas Ramayana was compiled in about 1900, but the tradition of Ravidas goes much further back than that. In one of his own articles Peter Friedlander says:

“At the same time as Ravidās verses were circulating in the Punjab, they were also part of the oral traditions current in→Rajasthan, and there are many references to Ravidās in→Sant works from the 17th century onward. Prominent among these are Dādūpanthī sources.→ Dādū Dayāl (1544–1603 CE).
A second major early source on Ravidās’ life is from a Rajasthani collection of lives of Bhakti saints by Anantdās called the Bhaktaratanāvalī. This work was possibly composed in 1588 CE, but the oldest manuscripts of it date from 1636 CE and 1665 CE, and D. Lorenzen has suggested that possibly no one single original fixed text may have existed (Lorenzen, 1991).”

And of course, there are many hymns of Guru Ravidas incorporated in the holy book of the Sikhs, Shri Guru Granth Saheb Ji. On top of that we have the evidence of the Panchvani collection of Rajasthan (quoted in Dr Friedlander’s own magnum opus The Life and Times of Ravidas) which also includes the vani of anti-caste Guru Gorakh Nath circa 1000CE. There is a Punjabi saying,”There is no Guru greater than Gorakh Nath”. Notably Guru Gorakh Nath [Singh Mohan] whose influence was pan-Indian, had his roots in Buddhist Natha Siddha tradition.

These facts alone should be sufficient to demonstrate the widespread popularity of Guru Ravidas over a very long period of time, in almost all northern Indian states which not only persists to the present day but has ideas such as that of Begumpura (Utopia) and Soham (Man is Divine) are being seen as the guiding light of the 21st century Dalit struggle. One scholar of Dalit studies has stated that whether Ravidas or Dr Ambedkar is taken as the starting point of Dalit struggle the end results are the same. But I digress.

Peter Friedlander’s article has a gap between the times of Ravidas and the 19th century. So, what happened in between those times? Dr Peter Friedlander is of course a scholar of religious studies especially Buddhism, but he has no background in history. An answer of a sort can be provided in the history of the Sadh Satnamis who had nearly toppled the Emperor Aurengzeb in 1672 with their supernatural fighting abilities, similar to those of the Sikhs. The Satnami’s had very nearly walked into Delhi. Another notable fact is the large section of Untouchable and low-caste Sikhs in Sikh Banda Singh Bahadur’s army in the 18th century which had taken out the roots of the Moghul empire in the Punjab, leading to the foundations of the Sikh Kingdom of Ranjit Singh. Banda had stated on the coins issued in the name of Nanak that the kettle was there to feed the poor and the sword to defend the meek. He had also mentioned in one of his hukumnamas that he had established Satyayuga or Utopia (Begumpura of Ravidas?). Under Banda’s rule any Dalit could rise to the position of his true merit and ability.

Directive of Banda Singh Bahadur 12 December 1710 – “We have brought in (have distributed) Satya Yug (The Age of Truth)”. Satya Yug is the original Indic Golden Age or Utopia.Part of the seal at the top in Persian language commonly taken as “Victory to the kettle (to feed the poor) and the sword (to defend the meek).”

The Khalsa (founded in 1699) had their Adi Granth (Ancient Book) the Satnamis coming before the Khalsa had their Adi Updesh (Ancient Teachings) [Allison, p44] and Pothi. Both contained the teachings of Ravi Das, Kabir and Nanak which are very similar. Describing the seat of worship [William Henry Tarant in Allison, p39] of 1816 century Ferrukhabad Sadhs:

“In the same compound is a marble slab, a memorial to a departed Sadh, one of whose name was Nanak. Nanak was one of the founders of the Sikh religion, elements of which, as we shall later see, are to be found in the Sadh religion.”

The Sadh sect was founded in 1644 [Allison, p31-42 -1657 according to Habib] by Uday Das who was the disciple of Rai Das (an alternative name of Ravi Das) and Birbhan a disciple of Uday Das. Hence teaching given Uday Das, would be practically the same as the teaching of Kabir [Allison, p42]. Some scholars [Singh Abha, 1988] have made the Satnamis as a branch of Kabirpanthis, but in all probability, it was both Kabir and Ravidas [Allision, p42] who can be taken as the roots of the Satnami religion. This issue is left for the future historians to resolve and the question may never be answered, as there is close similarity between the teaching of Ravidas and Kabir, and also that of Nanak, but Kabir and Ravidas were older than Nanak. As Abha Singh herself observes the Satnamis were one of the many similar intertwined movements of their times. No reasonable historian, bar a Brahmanical tainted one would have any objection to accepting Ravidas as the one, if not the most important Guru of the Satnami movement.

There is no single source of information on the Satnamis and their descendants the Sadhs as they like to call themselves. Most of the sources are either Moghul court chroniclers [Grewal and Habib, Elliot], Christian missionaries [Allison, Fusch], Moghul historians of the 20th century [Jadunath Sarkar], 20th century anthropologists [Dube – tainted], or secondary sources on Moghul Indian history [Habib, 2011, Singh Abha, 1988, Elliot, 2006] and Satnami Sadh manuscript in the Royal Asiatic Society London, England – the author has a copy of this manuscript.

A folio from the Pothi Gyan Bodh Sadh Satnami

Read in isolation from the socio-political situation of that era no single source gives us a complete picture of the Satnamis. Fiction wise, a historical novel on the Satnamis titled Fear of Lions by Amita Kanekar was published in June 2019 by Hachette India. Readers who may not be inclined to look into all these references may be interested in an old website [ search Satnami] which on the banner heading has the group painting reproduced. Interestingly there is a Satnami admonishment against accepting any gifts from kings, but this is only a warning against turncoats who do it for nefarious reasons.

To me, at least, it is very clear, that the tradition and lesson based hagiographical tales of Ravidas have good solid historical foundation. Not only the Ravidas movement did not die out, it flourished under the Satnamis in the 17th century, under Banda Singh Bahadur in the 18th century and then in the 19th Century. What can be said is that the movement had a chequered history.

Is there any evidence that Sultan Sikandar Lodhi may have donated the land in Tuglaqabad to Guru Ravidas? There is more than circumstantial evidence to this effect.

Our starting point is a painting mentioned above and kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London England. A copy of this painting was also in the collection of the last Czar of Russia. This painting reproduced as a front piece in the book The Saints. The painting shows a group of Saints and Yogis, below a group of dancing Sufis and what appears to be a true likeness of Guru Ravidas is shown on the left hand side of the painting. Many saints and yogis are clearly recognisable in the painting which also have their names inscribed. It is quite clear that the painter has drawn upon the earlier representation of these holymen. Such accurate representations would be best found in the libraries and collection of the Indian Royal families. The book has commentary by Gadon [p415-421] on this painting which points to the fact that Dara Shikoh was executed for apostacy by his brother the Emperor Aurangzeb. Dara Shikoh who commissioned the painting in question, represented the liberal block of the Moghuls whilst Aurangzeb represented the right-wing orthodoxy. However, Aurangzeb and his ancestors had no objections to having Hindu generals in their service. Such power blocks, sometimes under the guise of religion had always existed in Indian history [Lorenzen, 189] especially in turbulent time. The Brahmins were given land grants in Gupta period to build temples and to spread Saivite Tantra which was anti-Buddhist. Pre-British Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab donated land to various religious institutions in order to bring stability to his kingdom. Such land grants followed the previous Moghul pattern. Notably, Akbar the Great, initially a great fighter against the “infidels”, after winning, would turn liberal in order to bring stability to his domain by marrying into Rajput families and attempting to create a syncretic religion. Sikandar Lodhi who was also beset by factional oppositions needed stability after conquest and his stick and carrot approach is reflected in the hagiographical tales of both Ravidas and Kabir. Both Ravidas and Kabir are thrown into jail for upsetting the Brahmins but after discussion with them, he is ‘converted’. Tradition, hagiographical details and history coincide here very neatly.

To me there is no other theory which can come anywhere near opposing my viewpoint. In this, rightly so, I have dismissed the “show me where it is written” school of history as this legalistic argument is not the way actually history, which is a multi-disciplinary approach, is studied, as frequently history is written by the victors. In India such an approach would give us history as seen by Hindutva elements, if caste/class bias is not allowed for.

As a negative example, in some instances, even some land grant copper plates given to Brahmins were found to be forgeries.

Juneja in a paper [p111], asks’Can a notion of ‘Utopia’ be recovered within a pre-modern, non- European cultural setting that of the Mughal court? Juneja tries to recover the concept of Utopia from the pre-modern Moghul documents and paintings roughly contemporary with or previous to the painting commissioned by Dara Shikoh mentioned in this article. In her quest she discovers intense diplomatic and military rivalry between the Safavid and Mughal empires [p123]. According to Juneja for the Mughal rulers:

“Utopia was a ‘civilising’ of nature through the laying down of formal gardens, orchards … canonised as acts of piety.”

For example The Taj Mahal and its adjacent gardens were meant to be based on Paradise. She also discovers [p129-131] that although diversity is acknowledged in these documents but so is the Mughal philosopher’s idealisation of Utopia where Emperor’s justice to mediate the tension between different social groups is found to be critical. Mughal elite Utopia goes further than that [p131]

“Mughal Emperors often paraded living animals to stage symbolic settings. In an allegorical painting showing Jahangir shooting at the personification of poverty, the Emperor stands at a globe incorporating the animals of the realm and under his rule the earth rests on the back of a fish from which emerges the slender figure of Manu, the Lawgiver and the author of Manavadharmashastra, the most influential test that provided a normative framework of the Hindu society.”

Here we are left in no doubt about the upper caste Muslim and upper caste Hindu concept of Utopia resting on a feudal kingdom based on Manu Smiriti. Its opposite [p130] is also described in the following terms:

“Tusi (1201-1274) classified civil society into the ideal city or state (al-madinat, al-fazilah) and its opposite possibilities – the misguided, the ignorant or the evil-doing society.”

What may we ask are the opposite possibilities of the idealised Mughal Utopia, this misguided, the ignorant and this evil-doing society?

This is nothing more than Ravidas’s Utopia or Begumpura which Danial calls a ‘Persian Pun’ (Queen City in Persian but also Be-gum Pura – A City Without Sorrow) by Ravidas. It is a pun by the nature of its double meaning but it is more than just a pun. It is a direct challenge to the famous Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi also known as Al-Tusi, and to the Muslim and Hindu elite of the period [Alam, 105-128] who would justify the caste system using Tusi’s concept of an ideal social class/caste based society.

“By the time the Mughal empire was established, the power in the countryside was mostly in the hands of the large and small “Hindu” family and kin groups. The groups had emerged as a consolidated great Rajput caste, spread over a very large part of northern India, incorporating the various erstwhile ruling elements and the newly brahmanized tribal/pastoral chiefs. They enjoyed claims over the surplus produced by the peasants and were masters of their respective territories. The Mughals referred to them as zamindâr, a generic term the first reference to which comes from the fourteenth century. Caste-cohesion and caste affinity among them had encouraged conditions in which members of a sub-caste lived close to each other in a cluster of villages, known in Mughal India as pargana. Caste, zamindâri and pargana boundary often coexisted. That these “Hindu” countryside lords were an important constituent of the Mughal state was not an ordinary achievement,but was not unprecedented.

The policy of their absorption into the Muslim state power was not begun by the Mughals. Since Toghloq time (14th century) Hindus began to figure in state service. Sekandar (Eskandar) Lodi, generally remembered for his bigotry, encouraged the Hindus to learn Persian to take up high positions in the state; and the Sur sultan Sher Khan’s rise to power depended considerably on his ability to integrate the Rajputs into his army. By the time of the early Mughals (Babur and Homayun) Hindu presence in the Muslim state was so pronounced that it began to threaten some sections of the Muslim notables (shorafâ’)”

When Guru Nanak and Kabir criticised both Muslim Mullah and Hindu Brahmins, their criticism was really aimed at upper castes of both communities.

So, when Lorenzen talks about different power blocks in the society at the time of Ravidas, he is absolutely right. Ravidas, Kabir and Nanak belonged to the alternative anti-caste Dalit Bahujan power block of their days with their own concept of Utopia. Sikandar Lodhi at the time could not rule without the tacit permission of this anti-caste power block in a shifting power alliance scenario. That is the reason why Ravidas’s hymn on Begumpura was incorporated into the holy book of the Sikhs. The hymn is considered very important in Sikh faith as well as a core hymn in the vani of Guru Ravidas by the believers of Guru Ravidas.

I believe that my theory is the only one which can withstand Ocam’s razor test. It is the only theory which offers the neatest and the simplest explanation which allows for all known relevant facts, historical and otherwise.

1. Muzaffar Alam, « State Building under the Mughals: Religion, Culture and Politics », Cahiers d’Asie centrale, 3/4 | 1997, 105-128 Accessed 15 August 2019.
2. Allison G W, The Sadhs, Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi, 2005.
3. Callewaert Winand M and Friedlander Peter G, The Life and Works of Raidas, Manohar, New Delhi, 1992.
4. Dalitica – search Satnami.
5. Elliot Henry M, The History of India – as told by its own historians, Vol VII, Elibron Classic, 2006.
6. Friedlander Peter,
6. Grewal J S, Sikh Ideology and Social Order, Manohar, New Delhi, 2007.
7. Grewal J S and Habib Irfan, Sikh History from Persian Sources, Tulika, New Delhi 2011.
8. Fuchs Stephen, Rebellious Prophets, Asia Publishing House, London, 1908.
9. Fuchs Stephen, Godmen on the Warpath – A Study of Messianic Movements in India, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1992
10. Habib Irfan, Essays in Indian History – Towards a Marxist Perspective, Tulika, New Delhi, 2000.
11. Habib Irfan, The Agrarian System of Moghul India 1556-1707, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.
12. Hastings (ed), James, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, T&T Clark Edinburgh, and Charles Scribner’s Sons in the United States, 1910.
13. Juneja Monica in On the Margins of Utopia One more look at the Mughal Painting in Exploring Medieval India Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries [Ed Meena Bhargava] – Culture , Gender, Regional Patterns, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2010.
14. Lorenzen David in Bhakti Religion in North India, State University of New York, 1995.
15. Omvedt Gail, Seeking Begumpura, Navayana, New Delhi, 2011 24 September 2012 Last accessed 01 January 2017
15. Elinor W Gadon in Schomer Karine and McLeod W. H. [eds], The Saints – Studies in a Devotional Tradition in India, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, India, 1987
16. Singh Abha, Ph D Thesis – Chapter 12, Aligarh Muslim University, 1988. last accessed 03 February 2017
17. Singh Ganda, Life of Banda Bahadur – based on Contemporary and Original Records, Publication Bureau, Punjab University Patiala, 1999.
18. Singh Mohan, Gorakhnath And Mediaeval Hindu Mysticism, Publisher Unknown, Lahore, Undivided India/Pakistan, 1937.

Author – Amarjit Singh aka Dalit Shukra

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