Guru Ghasidas: A thinker in the mould of Raidas and Kabir

Just as imaginary tales were woven to prove that Kabir and Raidas were Brahmins, Dr Hiralal Shukla used a myth to show that Guru Ghasidas had descended from a Brahmin family, writes Kanwal Bharti  

Guru Ghasidas (18 December 1756 – 1836)* 

Guru Ghasidas drew on the ideological tradition of the Satnami sect, which, in turn, was rooted in the “Begumpur” ideology of Raidas – an ideology that envisages a classless and caste-less egalitarian society.

Raidas writes:

Ab hum khoob vatan ghar paya, ooncha kher sada man bhaya

Begumpura shahar ko nau, dukhu-andohu nahin tihi thau

Na tasvees khiraju na malu, khaufun khata na tarsu juvalu

Aavadaan raham oujood, jahan gani aap basai mabood

Kaem, kaem sada patisahi, dom na soma ek sa aahi

Joyee sail kare soyee buave, haram mahal tako atkave

Kah Ravidas khalas chamara, jo ham sahri su mitu hamara[1]

Chandrika Prasad “Jigyasu” has interpreted the verse thus: “Now, I have got a very good home in my country. I like this great place very much. This city is called Begumpur, ie a city without sorrows. There is no worry or anxiety here and no tax to be paid. There is no fear, no crime, no deprivation, no degradation. This city is always lively and is home to mercy and compassion. Here, everyone is equal and there is no discrimination – there is no second or third class of people. Those who face problems due to Haram Mahal (meaning the Sultan’s harem) like to visit this city. Pure chamar Raidas says those who live in the city are our friends.”[2]

Raidas’ disciple Udhodas carried this tradition forward. Birbhan, who founded the Satnam Panth in the 16th century, also followed in the same tradition. The followers of this sect are called Sadhu or Sadh, which was the name given by Kabir and Raidas to their disciples. They believed in a shapeless and attribute-less god, which they called Satpurush or Satnam. The word “Satnam” finds place in the following verse of Raidas:

Jyoti-niranjan-sarva-vyapt-ra-rankar-byadhi-haran,
Achal-abinasi-satyapurush-nirvikar-swaroop, soham-satyanaam’[3]

The word “Satnam” is found in another famous verse of Raidas:

Ab kaise chhote satnam rat lagi

Prabhuji tum chandan hum pani

Jaki ang-ang baas samani[4]

Birbhan was a resident of Brijsar near Narnaul, in east Punjab. He has written a text, which Satnamis consider their scripture. It is as important for them as the Guru Granth Sahib is for the Sikhs.

A painting of Guru Ghasidas

It is said that after a Satnami rebellion was crushed, the surviving members of the sect escaped to today’s Chhattisgarh and made it their home. It was in today’s Chhattisgarh that Guru Ghasidas (1756-1850) was born. He revived the Satnam sect and turned it into a mass movement. According to the District Gazetteer, Raipur District (1909), Guru Ghasidas was born on 18 December 1756 (Magh Purnima, Monday) in Giradu village of Baloda Bazar tehsil into an agricultural-worker family[5].

Had Ghasidas written his autobiography, it would have been a first in Dalit Literature – the story of an agricultural slave. However, his pain is manifest in a Panthi song of the Satnamis:

Satyadhari banke aaye, jag ma mahan

Tain haldhar kisan, kheti khaar narwa banayee ke

Upjayein tain har dhaan,

Narva jhorki dogri pehri

Jangal jhadi paaye has

Laghan bhukan khoon pasina

Mehnat paar banaye has

Tare satya he mahan, jag dehe annadaan

Dharti ke sewa le bajayee ke

Ahru bichhru saanp seru, kanti khuti gadi ke

Ghaam pyas pani jhakkar, hawa duka sahi ke

Tor mehnat he mahan, gun gaavte jahaan

Maati chikhla ma sanaye ke

Anna ke bairee katko haavay, tiddi maho jaan

Lota batik jammo dharage, hovathan halkaan

Aaye dhan ma badi chadge, waah re kisan

Tor dil hai mahan, tain dani ke daan[6]

Hiralal Shukla’s view is that “Ghasidas’ followers initially linked themselves to Raidas’ tradition. According to [James F.K.] Hewitt, Satnamis used to call themselves Raidas but they do not know anything about Raidas. Perhaps, it was then that Ghasidas renewed the sermons of Raidas. As Raidas had never visited Chhattisgarh, it is very difficult to accept that Satnamis were influenced by him.”[7]

A postage stamp issued by the Government of India on 1 September 1987 to commemorate Guru Ghasidas

It would be wrong to presume that since Raidas had never been to Chhattisgarh, he could not have had any influence on Guru Ghasidas. Kabir also had not visited many places. Gautam Buddha confined himself to Bihar and the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh but his thoughts spread not only to all parts of India but outside the subcontinent, too. Disciples spread the thoughts of their gurus and thoughts spread like perfume. Ravidas was also influenced by Dharmadas, a disciple of Kabir. There is no basic difference between the ideologies of Kabir and Raidas. Both were the sants of the Nirgun stream. They did not believe in sagun stream of Vedanta, varna system, incarnations and of the other world. Shukla says, “Basically, all the sants were Vedantis but they did not insist that the supreme being was sagun (having attributes).”[8] This is not correct. Those who say that the Vedantic god is nirgun, forget that the theory of “Karmavaad” (ie a person’s fate is linked to his deeds), according to which rebirth takes place, is the product of Vedanta. Hence, a person who believes in Vedanta cannot but believe in sagunvaad. A follower of Vedanta believes in fatalism, which considers the world and its sorrows an illusion. So, all sants were not Vedantis. Only the Brahmin sants of the Vaishnav stream were Vedantis while no Shudra sant had anything to do with Vedanta. That was because the Shudras were not entitled to knowledge of the Vedas.

On the basis of an analysis of the Panthi songs, Shukla reached the conclusion that “Ghasidas’ ideology was based on Vaishnavism, Kabir, Raidas, Jagjivandas, Tantrik Yog, Nath Yog and Baigavaad”[9]. But it would be improper to determine the faith of a saint on the basis of his songs. The writings attributed to Ghasidas may not be his. His disciples were from all varnas and the possibility of some of them writing verses and then attributing them to their guru cannot be ruled out. Many things were attributed to Kabir, Raidas and even Buddha. Just as it is difficult to locate Buddha in Triptikas, so it is difficult to locate Ghasidas in the Panthi songs.

Guru Ghasidas had laid down seven rules for his disciples – abstaining from liquor, meat and “red vegetables”, idol worship; refraining from using cows for tilling land and taking food to the fields in the afternoon; and worshipping a sagun god[10]. Among these rules, the ban on taking food to the fields in the afternoon deserves some attention. Women used to take food to the fields and upper-caste used to misbehave with Dalit women. Shukla also writes at one place that the Dalit women became victims of the lust of the feudals and had accepted it as their destiny[11]. Ghasidas probably made this rule to protect the women. The Dalit castes were weak and helpless and worked the fields of the upper castes. They were dependent on the upper castes for their survival.

There has been no critical appreciation of Ghasidas in Hindi or in any other language. Indian historians have completely ignored the Satnami movement. From Jadunath Sarkar to Satish Chandra, the historians have spared only a few lines for it. That too only because the Satnamis – who included members of the chamar, bhangi, sunar, sutar and other artisan castes[12] – had mounted an armed revolt against Aurangzeb. This was an incident that the historians couldn’t ignore. Hiralal Shukla is the only academician to have worked on Ghasidas. His work was published under the title Guru Ghasidas: Sangharsh, Samanvay Aur Siddhant by the Madhya Pradesh Hindi Granth Academy. I would like to compare his work with Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s Kabir. Both the authors were Brahmins and both took great pains to justify their constructs. Both have used Vaishanavism as the basis of their constructs.

Dwivedi has linked Kabir to the Vaishnav stream by declaring that he was a disciple of Ramanand. Shukla has done the same by linking Ghasidas to the Vedanti stream. He writes, “Ghasidas’ tradition was a blend of three mutually opposed movements – Vaishnav worship, hathyog and baigatatva”[13]. At another place, he writes, “If we dwell on Amritvani and Panthi songs we can identify the following features of Ghasidas’ nirgun oral tradition:

Exploring truth on the basis of direct personal experience

Advocating the importance of sadguru

Unity with the perfect being

Insistence on reciting the name

Futility of idol worship and outwardly pomp

Protecting the progeny of the cow

Surya Namaskar[14]

Of these, protecting the progeny of cow and Surya Namaskar are not parts of Ghasidas’ ideology because they are hypocrisies of sagun bhakti of the Brahmins and nirgun philosophy does not approve of them. The tradition of Kabir and Raidas does have compassion for animals but has no place for the ritualistic Surya Namaskar. Ghasidas could never have said anything that would negate monotheism and back polytheism. Only a study of Panthi songs cannot be used to determine what Ghasidas believed in. The aesthetics needed for this purpose can only come from Dalit ideology. The aesthetics that Shukla has used to examine the personality of Ghasidas is based on Vedic ideology.

Shukla raises these questions: Who were the ancestors of Ghasidas? Was he a lowly artisan? Was he a descendant of Raidas? Was he a Satnami of the Narnaul branch of Satnamis in Punjab, who had launched a powerful movement against Aurangzeb? All these questions need to be dealt with.

But while grappling with these questions, he makes a legend the basis for declaring that Ghasidas was a Brahmin:

“Ghasidas was probably aware of the following belief and was determined to regain his lost status. His ancestor was the youngest of four Brahmin brothers. One day, all the four brothers went to a river to take bath and saw that a cow was drowning. They sent the youngest brother to rescue the cow but before he could reach her, the cow had drowned. He lifted the dead cow out of the river. His three brothers then expelled him from Brahmanism”[15].

He further says that this symbolic legend also finds mention in the Vedas[16]. But the story nowhere says that the youngest brother was a lowly artisan or that he was stripped of his Aryan identity. “Till the time of Gautam Buddha, the ancestors of Ghasidas were considered Aryans. Later, he was described as a lowly artisan and the chroniclers included him in a low caste.”[17]

Just as imaginary tales were woven to prove that Kabir and Raidas were Brahmins, Shukla used a myth to show that Guru Ghasidas was descended from a Brahmin family. Shukla does not negate the hypocrisy that a cow is your mother till she is alive but the moment she dies, even touching her pollutes you and the person touching her also becomes an Untouchable. These tales have been crafted by the Brahmins to explain the origin of the chamars. Professor Shyam Lal in his book Bharat Mein Acchoot Andolan has analyzed these tales[18]. This legend also finds mention in the census of Marwar state, conducted in 1891: “There were seven brothers in a Brahmin family. One day, their cow died and its body lay in the courtyard till the evening. As no one was ready to carry the carcass away, the elder brothers decided that the job should be assigned to the youngest one. The youngest brother agreed and dragged the carcass and dumped it in a forest. When he came back, the other brothers refuse to accept him as part of their family and began maintaining a distance from him. They told him that he would have to start doing the work of a chamar.” William Crooke also mentions a similar story, the only difference being that the number of brothers is five instead of seven[19]. These stories declare that the ancestors of chamars were Brahmins and that their wisdom and knowledge is by virtue of them being the descendants of Brahmins.

This is meant to support the theory that an Untouchable person cannot be an original thinker or a saint unless he is either a disciple or the descendant of a Brahmin. As Ghasidas’ ancestors were Brahmins, his knowledge and wisdom were gifts of Brahmins to him. At the end, Shukla concludes that Ghasidas’ consciousness was Brahmin consciousness. His very clever analysis goes like this:

“Due to Guru Ghasidas’ thoughts about Hindutva, many such people joined the Satnam sect, who, would not have done so given their caste loyalties and who were either turning to Christianity or Islam. Ignoring the stiff opposition of the savarna Hindus, Ghasidas categorically postulated that no man or woman could be a Brahmin by birth. Being born to Brahmin parents will be considered a coincidence unless that person proves his Brahmin consciousness through his thoughts, actions and words. According to him, the true test of Hindu social structure is Brahmin consciousness and not being born to Brahmin parents. So, even if a person is born to Shudra parents but he has Brahmin consciousness, then he is no less than a savarna Brahmin. According to him, the easiest and the best way to build Brahmin consciousness is to meditate under the direction of a guru. The person who mentally dwells on ‘sat’ is a Satnami and is a Brahmin in the true sense of the word.[20]

That is not all. Shukla even declares Ghasidas a ritualistic Hindu:

“Guru Ghasidas gave pride of place to non-violence in his moral norms. He restored the Hindu rituals, which were free from any kind of violence. They include Surya Namaskar, Chauka, Arti, Ramti, Satlok, etc. These rituals helped the ignored castes re-associate themselves with the wider religion. The guru re-introduced rituals to those who had been cut off from them. Instead of animals, he ensured that coconuts are ‘sacrificed’ in the yagnas. This turned the people towards non-violence. People developed respect for life and started believing in monotheism and also that every living being has a soul. Long ago, Shankaracharya had promoted a similar sentiment”[21].

How do coconut, Arti and Chauka fit in with monotheism? Hiralal Shukla’s construct does not add to the beauty of Ghasidas’ personality. Rather, his construct distorts it. This distortion is aimed at giving a brahmanical colour to Ghasidas and this is a sponsored exercise.

  • The date of the death of Guru Ghasidas is not available

Translated by Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil

[1] Sant Raidas: Ek Vishleshan, Kanwal Bharti, Second Edition, 2000, Bodhisatva Prakashan, Rampur, Appendix (B) – collection of poems, verse 33, p 125

[2] Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu Granthavali, Volume 2, Ed Kanwal Bharti, The Marginalised, Delhi 2017, pp 175-176

[3] Aadi Amrit Vani Shri Guru Ravidas ji published by All India Aadi Dharma Mission. This verse is printed in every volume of the book. The book begins with the words “Soham-Satyanam”. Its year of publication is not mentioned in the book. It has been published from Shri Guru Ravidas Dharmasthan, Savan Park, Delhi-52

[4] Sant Raidas, op cit verse 87, p 142

[5] Hiralal Shukla, Guru Ghasidas: Sangharsh, Samanvay Aur Siddhant, Siddhartha Books, Shahdara, Delhi, 2009, p 72-73

[6] Ibid, p 243-244

[7] Ibid, p 56

[8] Ibid, p 54

[9] Ibid, p 57

[10] Ibid, p 235

[11] Ibid, p 76

[12] Jadunath Sarkar, A Short History of Aurangzeb, M.C. Sarkar and Sons Ltd Calcutta, 1930, pp 161-162

[13] Guru Ghasidas, op cit, p 53

[14] Ibid, p 210

[15] Ibid, p 66-67

[16] Ibid. The author has not given the source of this information.

[17] Ibid

[18] Prof Shyam Lal, Bharat Mein Acchoot Andolan, Translation: Kanwal Bharti, Swaraj Prakashan, New Delhi, 2011, p 20

[19] W. Crooke, Tribes and Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, Volume II, 1896, Government Printing Press India, Calcutta, p 170

[20] Guru Ghasidas, op cit, p 218

[21] Ibid p 219


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