In California, members of an understated minority religious community are coming out into the open to advocate making the state the first in the nation to ban caste bias.
They are the Ravidassia, followers of Ravidass, a 14th century Indian guru who preached equality of castes and classes. There are about 20,000 community members in California, most of them in the Central Valley.
Guru Ravidass belonged to the lowest rung of the caste system previously considered untouchable and also known as Dalit, which means “broken” in Hindi. Today, many Ravidassia members share that caste identity, but are hesitant to make it widely known, fearing the repercussions of being exposed to the wider community as “lower caste”.
Members of the Fresno Ravidassia community say publicly defending anti-caste bias legislation is worth the risk, noting that fighting for equality is part of their history and spiritual DNA.
The faith itself arose in response to the social exclusion of members of the lowest caste, including persistent obstacles to land ownership, said Ronki Ram, a professor of political science at Punjab University in Chandigarh, India. Caste-based discrimination was outlawed in India in 1947.
WHO WAS THE GURU RAVIDASS?
Ravidass was an Indian guru, mystic, and poet who was one of the most renowned figures in the North Indian bhakti movement, which placed love and devotion to God above all else and preached against the caste system. Ravidass was born in the 14th century in a village near Varnasi, India, into a family of shoemakers and tanners who belonged to the then untouchable caste of leather workers known as “chamars”. The Guru Granth Sahib, which is the sacred text of Sikhism, has 40 Ravidass verses or shabads.
TEMPLES OF RAVIDASSIA
A Ravidassia place of worship is called a sabha, dera, gurdwara, or gurughar, which could be translated as temple. Adherents cover their heads and remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall or place of worship. In California Ravidassia temples, the Guru Granth Sahib is the focal point of the prayer room. Temples serve a post-worship meal as do Sikh gurdwaras as well, which is known as langar. Ravidassia temples often display idols and/or images of Guru Ravidass in the prayer halls.
THE RAVIDASSIAN IDENTITY
Professor Ronki Ram says Ravidassia’s identity is hard to pin down because “you can’t compartmentalise it”.
“More recently, they have been trying to carve out a separate identity for themselves,” he said. “But they also follow Sikh traditions.”
Many male members of Ravidassia wear long hair in a turban and wear items of Sikh faith such as the kada or bracelet, kangha or wooden comb, and kirpan, the sheathed single-edged knife. Many men and women in the community also have Sikh surnames: Singh and Kaur.
Ram points out that Ravidass idols and images, however, can only be seen in a Ravidass temple. Additionally, the community celebrates their guru’s birthday, which typically falls in February. Many Ravidass temples also celebrate the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, the Indian Dalit rights icon whose given name was Bhimrao.
The faith also has followers who are Hindus and those who are from different parts of India. Members of the Ravidassia community in California are largely of Punjabi descent.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE COMMUNITY WITH SIKHISM
The Ravidassia community’s relationship with Sikhism is “flexible and nuanced,” said Sasha Sabherwal, an assistant professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Northeastern University.
“It’s not an either/or relationship,” he said. “It’s a much more complex idea of what their faith means to them. Some (Ravidassia temples) can be autonomous spaces. But, in many cases, it blends in or overlaps rather than being a complete standalone thing. There is still a commitment to this larger Sikh project.”
Sabherwal said the path to unity may lie in making “significant structural changes.”
“The problem is that caste is often not even recognized as a problem,” he said.