What if you lived in a world where people were segregated by “caste” and forced to stay within the boundaries of their social status? What if you were not allowed to enter places of worship, listen to prayers or even talk to people 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 Shudras were shunned to the outer regions of society. They were forced to take on the most menial and degrading jobs. Among these, the Chamar community was seen as the lowest of the low.
Guru Ravidas was born into a Chamar family in Kanshi, India, in the 15th Century. During his lifetime, he went against the norms of society, becoming a ray of hope for the Shudras. His family was in the business of making products from animal skin. Disowned by his parents because of his spiritual inclination, Guru Ravidas started his own shoe-making business, with the endless support of his steadfast wife. He regularly donated his earnings to the poor and gave free shoes to passing Sadhus (renunciates).
Despite starting life in abject poverty, Guru Ravidas soon earned enough money to build a Mandir. All castes were welcome. It became a safe haven for people who had been shunned from Kanshi’s shrines, which were policed by the “high-caste” Brahmins. Guru Ravidas’s Mandir was seen as a challenge to their ancient traditions. He became the hero of society, the saviour of the Shudras and the challenger of the elite.
Pilgrims visiting the sacred Ganges soon came to hear of the great Guru Ravidas. They flocked to meet him, from the Queen of Chittorgarh to the famous Krishna Bhagat, Mira Bai. All wanted to listen to his spiritual teachings and receive his blessings. His following increased further when he travelled to the mountainous region of Khurali. His increasing popularity helped his institution to grow, stoking the fire of jealousy that was already burning within Kanshi’s Brahmin elite.
Guru Ravidas was invited to the court of the Nawab, who wanted to resolve the disagreements between the two groups. He also wanted to see whether Guru Ravidas’s rumoured magical powers were real, by giving him a series of tests. One after another, Guru 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 Guru Ravidas and the Brahmins was settled once and for all in the final test. The Nawab declared that the true spiritual master should call the marble statues, which lined the Ganges, towards each other. The corrupt Brahmins exhausted their black magic, falling to defeat. Guru Ravidas won the challenge and silenced the Brahmins, who fled in shame. Thus, Guru Ravidas successfully 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.