Guru Ravidass was born in a village near Varanasi, India in 1376 CE*. His father was a leather merchant, a profession limited to people labelled as “untouchable” by the elite classes of the caste system, and as a result, Guru Ravidass was often denied access to holy places. Nonetheless he rose to a position of great honour through a life of simplicity and piety. He was never ashamed of his lineage or family background, telling those who flaunted what they believed to be their superior caste that spiritual greatness was a matter of devotion rather than a question of birth.
Although he worked in the family trade, he spent most of his time in meditation on the banks of the Ganges. He composed many hymns (shabads) which can be found in several sacred collections. Many were included in the Guru Granth Sahib**, an indication that he was an inspiration for Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. He advocated the use of the mantra “Ram naam jap” (i.e. recitation of the name of God) and asserted that God was everywhere. Ravidas and his contemporary, the poet Kabir, were associated with the bhakti movement of deep spiritual devotion; they fought against hypocrisy and religious intolerance, and both are revered as ‘Guru’ by Ravidassians.
Guru Ravidass’ teachings particularly attracted others of the strata of society designated as shudhra (the servant caste). His followers became known as ad-dharm, i.e. “those of the original (ad) religion (dharma)”—in other words not belonging to the Hindu, Muslim, or Christian communities.
Ravidassia communities in India and around the world honour the anniversary of his birth with a three-day akhand path in which the Guru Granth Sahib is read continuously from beginning to end. The Nishan Sahib, or temple flag, is changed, and the flag-pole cleaned, and there is a procession of Guru Ravidas’ image along with the holy book. Langar—the offering of food to anyone irrespective of colour, race or creed—is also a part of the observances on this day.
Samvat 1433 by the Indian calendar.
**The Guru Granth Sahib, often called the Sikh holy book, is also held as sacred by the Ravidassians.