Raidas Saheb and the idea of Begumpura

A city which is casteless, classless and does not have untouchability. Nobody is taxed and nobody owns wealth. There is no injustice, no worries, no terror and no torture. That was Raidas’ Begumpura. With this city of his dreams, he laid the foundation of socialism in the 15th century

India’s non-Vedic and materialistic line of thinking has been fundamentally egalitarian. Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu has termed it as the original socialism of India.[1] We find this concept of socialism in Raidas’ much-discussed verse, Begumpura Shahar (Begumpura City):

Begumpura sahar ko nau, dukhu-andohu nahi tihi thau.

Naa taswees khiraju na malu, khaufun khata na tarsu juwalu.

Ab mohi khoob batan geh pai, uhaan khairi sada mere bhai.

Kaimu-daimu sada patisaahi, dom na som ek so aahi.

Abadanu sada masehur, unha gani basehi mamur.

Tiu tiu sail karhijiu bhaive, mahram mahal na ko atkawai.

Keh ‘ravidas’ khalaas chmara, jo hum sahari su mitu hamara.[2]

(The regal realm with the sorrowless name
they call it Begumpura city, a place with no pain,
no taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right …
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.)

(gururavidasstemplesacramento.com/begampura.html)

This verse is an extract taken from Amritwani Satguru Ravidas Maharaj ji compiled by Sant Surinder Das of Dera Sacchakhand Ballan, Jalandhar. The real name is “Raidas”, not “Ravidas”. This change occurred during the compilation of Guru Granth Saheb. In this regard, Jigyasu has observed: “It is not ascertainable through whom and how the 40 verses composed by Sant Raidas ji were included in Guru Granth Saheb. This issue is worth pondering because the change of name from ‘Raidas’ to ‘Ravidas’ is the brahmanization of the leading saint, which promotes sun-worship among Raidas’ followers.[3] In other compilations, this verse has certain variations (as it was passed on orally) but still bears Raidas’ imprint. The following line appears in the beginning of Jigyasu’s compilation: ‘Ab hum khoob vatan ghar paya, ooncha khair sadaa man bhaaya.’[4]

In his quest for liberation from the condition of his times, Raidas had visualized a sorrowless society known as Begumpura or Begumpur. Raidas tells us through the verse that his ideal society is Begumpura, which is casteless, classless and does not have untouchability. Nobody is taxed and nobody owns wealth. There is no injustice, no worries, no terror and no torture. Raidas tells his disciples, “Brothers, I have found a home – in other words, the system – which may not be achievable in near future, but everything is just and fair in it. Everybody is treated as equal rather than second- or third-rate subjects. That kingdom is always thriving. People move about freely according to their will, practise any profession that suits them and, there is no restriction on the basis of caste, religion or skin colour. In that system, the feudal lords don’t come in the way of anybody’s progress. Raidas Chamar declares that whosoever identifies himself with the idea of Begumpura is his friend.”

Begumpura can be compared with Utopia, the work of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) based on socialist imagination. Renewing the tradition of Plato, the text went on to become a source of inspiration for the creation of imaginary socialist worlds after the 16th century. Utopia is an imaginary island, which is described by the protagonist, Portuguese traveller Raphael Hythlode. He criticizes the systemic shortcomings prevalent in the feudal society of England and Western Europe and admires the idealistic socialist system of the island Utopia.[5]

More’s “Utopia” became so popular that it became synonymous with idealism. More concluded that every government is a conspiracy of the wealthy class, which works for the rich on the pretext of working in public interest.[6] Based on imagined socialism, Utopia was written in two volumes. Begumpura was merely a verse of a few lines. The people of Begumpura are free from sorrow, just as the people of the island of “Utopia”. If Utopia was a reaction to the feudal system of England, then Begumpura was born of the ruthless political system of the Sultanate era. Begumpura is free from worry and anxiety. It shows that during the Sultanate era a common man was subjected to endless worries, and the lurking fear that anybody could be picked up for an alleged crime. Begumpura does not pay taxes, the Sultanate rule does. The most obnoxious tax was the Jizya tax, which was imposed on the non-Muslims. According to F. E. Keay,[7] the Jizya had struck terror among non-Muslims, especially the poorer and less educated Hindus, so much so that they couldn’t resist the temptation to become Muslims.

They found it hard to resist the temptation of converting to Islam. Needless to say, many poor Hindus became better off after they embraced Islam.[8] In Begumpura, nobody owns wealth. No one is second-grade or third-grade citizen. Everyone has equal status in Begumpura. Nobody owns wealth. Everyone has equal status. A great many zamindars, jagirdars and landlords lived during the Sultanate period. There, the Muslims, Hindus and the Shudras were regarded as first-grade, second-grade and third-grade citizens, respectively. Begumpura is always blessed with intellectuals. Having met their basic needs, the people lead a life of contentment. This indicates deprivation and poverty during the Sultanate period, when people were unable to fulfil their basic needs despite toiling hard. The people of Begumpura are free citizens – they can go anywhere without being stopped by the authorities. This shows the restrictive practice of untouchability, due to which many Hindu places, wells, ponds and sarais were prohibited to Dalits.

Following are the conclusions of Begumpura Shahar; (1) It is wrong to own wealth, (2) it is undesirable to pay tax, (3) being a second-grade or third-grade citizen is undesirable, (4) presence of both riches and poverty are undesirable, and (5) untouchability is bad. We cannot look at these conclusions from the perspective of Marx’s sociological theory. Even though the opposition to private ownership is in accordance with Marx’s philosophy, Begumpura city is a dream ahead of its times from the view point of an egalitarian society. This is also revolutionary in the context of Dalit thinking. It shows that far from being a mere poet Raidas was sociologist. It is worth mentioning that the idea of Begumpura is not found in any Hindu saint of the Bhakti age.

There were two main reasons for this; one, being rich or poor was regarded as the outcome of his previous life, and two, they were not poor. The Brahmin was universally venerated and received huge wealth as gifts. The Kshatriya was the landowner, and the Vaishya was in business. Therefore, they owned personal wealth. This private property was the reason for the prosperity of a few and poverty of many. Poverty is multi-dimensional concept, which may have social, economic and political elements. Total poverty, extreme poverty, or paucity means being deprived of necessary resources to meet basic needs like food, clothing and housing. Shudra and Atishudras were unable to meet their basic needs even after labouring hard. The caste system had produced immense prosperity on one hand, and enormous deprivation on the other hand. Kabir has vividly described it: on one side was a crumbling straw mat, and on the other side an opulent, ornate bed and garlands of pearls.[9] This description is similar to what St Basil had said about depravity of the wealthy: they adorn their high-bred horses as brides, but deprive their poor brethren of clothes to cover their bodies; they have a retinue of cooks, bakers, servants, hunters, sculptors, painters and people who provide all kinds of entertainment; They are owners of camels, bulls, sheep and pigs; they adorn their walls with flowers, but keep their poor friends naked.[10]

Raidas

We get an idea of the misery of Untouchables in the 15th century from the autobiographies of Dalit writers of the 20th century, which have touching descriptions of their impoverished life. If that was the case after Independence, we get a sense of how oppressive the life of a Dalit would have been five centuries ago. Raidas belonged to the Chamar caste; his family worked as cleaners of carcasses of cattle in and around Benaras.[11]Born into such a family, poverty came to Raidas naturally. Raidas himself wrote that people sneered at his poverty.[12] Dr Ambedkar has observed: To be poor is bad but not so bad as to be an Untouchable. The poor can be proud. The Untouchable cannot be. The low can rise above his status. An Untouchable cannot.[13] Raidas was destitute, untouchable and lowly to boot. There would be one piece of garment only, which would be left in tatters due to repeated washing. After mending the torn portion, the piece would last a short while and soon another portion would come apart. He lacked the wherewithal to buy a new piece.[14]But an Untouchable experiences social ignominy alongside poverty. The impurity of Untouchable does not affect a few – its impurity is felt by the Universe.[15] The Untouchable defiles whatever he touches. They make it impure. Their touch defiles the gods in temple. Their physical contact defiles the roads, food and drinks. Even the holy water of Ganga becomes impure with their touch. Brahmins would refuse to drink Ganga water from the utensil of an Untouchable.[16] It was crime to be born into a family of Untouchables.[17] It was a crime that had no pardon. The laws of untouchability became applicable as soon as a child was born into it. Dr Ambedkar called it the Hindu Code, the violation of which was regarded as criminal. Dr Ambedkar has listed 15 rules in the Hindu Code, the violation of which was regarded as a crime. The principal among them are (1) to reside in colony separated from that of the savarnas, (2) to reside in the south, (3) to avoid one’s shadow being cast on the savarnas, (4) to avoid accumulation of wealth by way of money, land or cattle, (5) to keep one’s home roofless, (6) not to wear clean clothes, shoes, watch or gold jewellery, (7) not to give children names implying superiority, (8) not to sit on the chair in the presence of a Hindu, (9) not to ride a horse or be carried in a palanquin, and (10) not to take out processions, including a marriage procession.[18] The entire colony of the Untouchables would be punished for violation of these codes. Bonded labour had become their destiny, which has been described well by Premchand in his short story Sadgati. Anybody (savarna or the upper castes) could get hold of an Untouchable, have him work for him and let him go without paying him.[19] Raidas noted that the bonded labourers were so terrified of the upper castes, who could force a chamar to repair their shoes even if he had never learnt that trade.[20]

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar

During the period of Raidas two centres of power existed – political power and religious power. Even religious authority was divided into two parts – Hindu religious authority, controlled by the Brahmins, and the Islamic authority, managed by the Qazis and Mullahs. Both enjoyed the power of intervention in political matters. The political authority did not interfere in religious and social matters of both the religions. Both the Brahmins and Mullahs believed that poverty and riches were god’s provision. According to the Hindu belief, poverty and wealth are the result of the deeds in the previous life. It spreads the message that the material world is a myth and god is truth, and regards worldly sorrows as maya (illusion). Holding on to this belief, even today, the poor are contented with the scraps they get to eat and are thankful to god. Islam, too, does not regard the material word as the real world. It says the other world is the real world. It treats any struggle against the present-day sorrows as “bigad” or mischief, which Allah frowns upon.[21] The Quran says, “Try to secure a safe place for you in the heaven through whatever Allah has bestowed. Do not create mischief in this world. Allah does not like such followers.”[22] Here, bigad means class struggle. Hence, while the varna system of Hindu religion precludes caste struggle, Islam prevents class struggle. Both religious power centres are thus opposed to socialism.

 Nevertheless, Islam has enough of fraternity to discourage untouchability. Rich and poor alike stand side by side in Masjid and Islam commands its followers to treat the poor, orphans and weak well. But the Hindu religion lacked even this much generosity. That is why to get respect and equality, innumerable people from untouchable castes converted to Islam. The Brahmins launched the Bhakti movement during the medieval period to stall the conversion. This aimed at prevention of conversion of Shudras by granting them the status of Vaishnavites (on paper). But neither the conversion of this variety nor the equality within the precincts of Masjid could resolve the issue of poverty and deprivation. It failed to bring about any change in the social or economic status of the Shudras and the Atishudras. When the leaders of Bhakti movement chanted “Har ka bhaje so har ka hoi” (Those who worshipped god belonged to him), they ignored the reality of class and caste differentiation, the reality of the rich and the poor and of untouchability. It was their misconception to say that god has created everybody equal. Society had the rich and poor along with those who were high-born and low-born, who were unequal. The world created by god also included exploiters who were religious hypocrites and yet enjoyed respect in religious as well as political circles. Under such circumstances, the feeble and the Untouchables had no recourse to justice against the exploitation. Slavery existed and slaves were bought and sold. Tareekh-i-Firuz Shahi has it that during the Sultanate age (1206-1526) there were slave markets across the country, and the rates of slaves were fixed by Khilji himself.[23]

There were no words to describe the plight of the farmers.[24] Farmers were forced to work the fields without being compensated; they were abused and thrown into dungeons and tortured.[25] Kabir has described a village, where a Thakur takes the wrong measurement of land, Patwari does not keep the land record updated, and together they thrash the farmer. Dewan refuses to hear the famer’s woes and orders him to be bound and arrested. Five farmers flee the village.[26]

Kabir

Composed against this background, Raidas’ Begumpura is an expression of revolt. Compared to his verses on nirgunwad (worship of formless god), this is not a work that dwells on spiritual feeling. It reveals the feudal system of contemporary society. The way Utopia is written leaves one unsure of the extent to which the thoughts of the main character and narrator Raphael are reflective of the views of Thomas More.[27] But this is not an issue with Begumpura. The ideas expressed in the verse bears a direct relation to Raidas’ line of thinking. In Begumpura, he lays the foundation of a system, the foundation of socialism. It is unique coincidence that both More and Raidas were contemporaries. More died in 1535 and Raidas in 1520. They conceptualized an idealistic socialism for the first time in the history of socialist thinking.   

Begumpura ends with “Jo hum sahri su mitu hamara”. This is an endearing line with a far-reaching message. Most certainly, it was not possible in the 15th century for the Shudras and Atishudras to rise in institutional revolt. But in nirgunwad, which contained the philosophy of an egalitarian society, seeds of institutional revolt had been sown. In the 17th century, the seeds of Begumpura sprouted in the form of the armed band of Satnamis.[28] In Punjab, the followers of Raidas set up a political party, the Begumpura Lok Party, and fielded six of their candidates.[29] Dr Ambedkar, inspired by the socialist ideas of Raidas’ Begumpura, considered him his guru.

Translation: Parmanad Baiga; copy-editing: Anil

 

[1] Jati Todo, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan, Luckhnow, 1st ed 1964, p 39.

[2] Amritwani Satguru Ravidas Maharaj Ji, (satik), Sant Surinderdas Babaji, Shri Guru Ravidas Janm Asthan Public Charitable Trust, Varanasi, p 4.

[3] Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu Granthwali, vol 2, comp Kanwal Bharti, The Marginalised, Delhi, 2017, p 168.

[4] ibid, verse 33, p 237.

[5] Samajwadi Chintan ka Itihas, vol 2, Krishnakant Mishra, Granth Shilpi, Delhi, 1st ed 2002, p 38.

[6] ibid, p 43.

[7] Kabir and His Followers, F.E. Keay, 1931, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, Republished 1995, p 2.

[8] ibid, p 6.

[9] Ekani me muktahaal moti, ekani vyadhi lagai.

 Ekani dina paat patambar, Ekani sej niwara.

 Ekani dino gari goodari, Ekani sej pyara.

— Kabir Granthwali, Shyamsundar Das, Naagari Pracharini Sabha, Varanasi, 14th ed, samwat 2034, pad 105, p 93.

[10] Krishnakant Mishra, p 33.

[11] Meri Jati kutubagadhal dhori dhowanta nitahi banarasi aaspaasa (8.7)

– ‘Adi Amritwani Shri Guru Ravidas Ji’, Research Forum, All India Adi Dharm Mission, Delhi.

[12] Daarid dekhi sab koi hanse, aise dasa hamari (7.8), ibid.

[13] ‘Away from the Hindus’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol 5, p 412,

[14] Maila maila keta ek dhou, aave aave neend kaha lo siun.

Jyon jyon jode tyon tyon phate, jhute se banij jarai uti gayo haate. (7.9).

– Adi Amritwani, above.

[15] Jaaki chhoot jagat ko lage, verse 93, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu Granthwali, p 256)

[16] Paande boojhi piyahu tum paani, verse 111, Kabir Bani, Ali Sardar Jafari, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2012, p 97.

[17] Hum apraadhi neech ghar janmai kutumb lok kare haansi re. (5.13), ibid.

[18] ‘Outside the Fold’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol 5, p 21-22.

[19]Ki beggar na bhada paya, Kabir Granthwali, verse 110, p 94.

[20] Chamarta ganthe na jaanai, log gathawen panhi (5.12), ibid.

[21] Man has been enjoined to seek with, the wealth which God has bestowed upon him, the home of the hereafter and not to neglect his portion in this world, nor create mischief in the land but do good to others as God has been to him.

— Dr Muhammad Muslehuddin, Economics and Islam, Markazi Maktaba Islami, Delhi, 1st edition, 1982, p 43.

[22] Quron Majid (28/77), trans Muhammad Farrokh Khan, Maktba Al-Hasnaat, Delhi, ed 1993, p 353.

[23] Ziyauddin Barani, Tareekh-i- Firuz Shahi, p 314, (Om P. Gupta’s ‘Kabir aur Samkaaleen Itihas’, Swaraj Prakshan, New Delhi, 1st ed 2011, p 168, footnote 8)

[24] Kahe Kabir yeh akath katha hai, kehata kahi na Jaai. (verse 14, Kabir Granthawali, above).

[25] Om P. Gupta’s Kabir aur Samkaaleen Itihas, p 74.

[26] Ab na basun ihi gaanyi gusaai,

 gaanyi ku thakurku khet nepe,kaith kharach na pare.

 Jori jewari kheti pasaare, sab mili mokon mare ho ram.

 Buro dewan daadi nahi laage,ek baandhe ek mare horam.

Paanch kisanabhaji gaye hain, jiv dhar bandhya paari ho ram.

(verse 222, Kabir Granthawali),

[27] Krishnakant, p 38.

[28] The story of the Satnami rebellion of 1672 starts with Guru Raidas (1373-1475) who dreamt of and sang about a Utopian city named Begumpura, literally a city without sorrow, which had no exploitation or tribute. The movement of the Untouchables led by Ravidas did not die with him. His pupil, Udho Das or Udhav Das, kept the anti-caste tradition alive from where it was passed on to Birbhan (1543-1658). By then, the followers were known as the Sadhus or the Sadhs. Since belief in one god (whom they called Sat Nam, ie true name) was one of the fundamental tenets of their faith they were also called Satnamis. Unitarianism, or belief in one god, was the central tenet of the followers of Kabir, Nanak and Raidas and indeed, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the hymns of these three. The sect’s supposed founder Birbhan was an inhabitant of Brijhisar, near Narnaul and Delhi, in the east Punjab. (http://www.anticaste.org/micropedia-dalitica-from-s-to-z/satnamichamars.html)

[29] 29 Indianexpress.com. 6 February 2012.


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