Imagine being born into a world where everything has been decided for you.
Where you must drink in a different water well or having to stay after class to clean the whole classroom, just because you belong to a different social order. For generations, the Indian caste system dictated and influenced almost every aspect of Hindu religious, political and social lives. This paper is going to examine the religious origins of caste and the unexpected case of Ravidas.
Caste hierarchy is maintained by Ravidas not having to change the social system and accepted his outcaste status and all prejudices.The caste system or ‘varna’ in the Sanskrit language, originates back to The Rig Veda, one of the four vital sacred text collections that constitute the Vedas. The Rig Veda is an ancient text that contains sacred hymns of more than a thousand chants to Aryan gods. (Molly 80). It is also considered as one of the most important out of the four collections because it contains an account of the origins of the universe. The universe is said to have emerged by sacrificing a cosmic being with supernatural powers named Purusha, to create all life. In the Rig Veda, it is mentioned, “When they divided Purusha the first person, a superbeing, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called? His mouth became the brahman priest; his two arms were made into the rajanya warrior-noble; his two thighs the vaishyas merchants; from his two feet the shudra peasant was born.
” (Molloy 88). The caste system divides people into four castes -Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. At the top of the social order are the Brahmins. The Brahmins are made up of priests who conduct Vedic rituals. Following the Brahmins are the Kshatriyas. The Kshatriyas take on all forms of public service. This includes warriors, rulers, and administrators who serve the country, while the mercantile and business people in society are categorized under the Vaishyas.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Shudras, which consists of laborers and service providers who traditionally serve the higher class. Outside of this Hindu caste system were the Dalits or the untouchables. Dalits worked as laborers like the Shudras, but they were more exposed to unsanitary working conditions. This includes cleaning up after dead animals, tanning animal hides and dealing with both human and animal waste. For these reasons, the Dalits experienced discrimination and hate from upper caste.
The story of Ravidas’s life is both unusual and controversial. According to the article, “A Dalit Poet-Saint: Ravidas” by J.S. Hawley, Ravidas lived in Hinduism’s oldest city, Benares. He was a shoemaker, a member of the camar subcaste, that constantly worked with dead animal skins to produce leather products. Daily contact with the hides of dead animals was deemed to be polluting and impure so people like Ravidas were considered “untouchables” in the society.
He was brave and instead of feeling ashamed of his so-called “lower status”, he openly accepted his occupation as a shoemaker. This was a radical act at a time when the caste system did not allow people of his Dalit community to walk with their heads high. Often people who were treated as untouchables tried to hide their caste to avoid being shamed. While working, Ravidas wrote poems and sang hymns that drew attention to the suffering of the marginalized. He became a renowned poet and thus encourage people to question the caste system. He could successfully take on issues previously reserved by the Brahmin class of the caste system. Breaking old barriers, Ravidas could start a conversation among members of the whole society.
Ravidas was also a prominent figure in the bhakti movement. With bhakti or sometimes called loving devotion, caste and gender issues became more democratic. This meant that a member of any caste could be acknowledged as holy and be respected by all. Belonging as he did to one of the lowest castes of Hindu society, the spiritual status he attained as being recognized as a bhakti poet-saint was greatly troubling for traditional Hindus of his time.