A is also for Avatar

Avatar, Nirgun and Sagun

Not just being represented by a stone idol,  can God actually reside in an idol made out of stone? Does God incarnate himself to this earth? If he does so why does he come to this earth? What is an Avatar? What do terms sagun and nirgun mean and what relevance these terms have for Dalits in the twenty first century?

We start with what is nirgun and sagun.

Gun or guna means properties and the prefix nir modifies to mean without properties, whilst sagun means all properties. The former is how the Sikh Gurus, other Gurus and Sants believed God to be. These include Nanak, Kabir, Ravidas and Namdev. Saguni saints included Tulsi Das, Surdas and Mira Bai, the latter being a disciple of Ravidas! It is claimed that the wall between the nirguni and saguni saints was not that high in places and that there were instances when they met. In spiritualism, not subjected to scientific testing,  no doubt common ground could be found somewhere if one looked hard enough, especially when it came to devotion to God.

It is one of the issues which has been raised by some Ravidassias in UK and elsewhere. They claim that both nirgun and sagun ways are equally valid to get to God.The following is taken from a Ravidassia website blog:

Argument 14: Since guruji prohibit murti puja, why should we worship guruji's picture...?


• First of all our temples have guru Ravidass ji's picture in the main hall
• Murti pooja is prohibited on philosophical basis because when people start thinking that murti is god and commit crimes before it then ask for forgiveness, they assume that they are forgiven and then commit further crimes.
• In other words, when murti becomes god, it is cause of trouble
• We don't consider Guru Ravidass Ji's picture as god but as a mark of reverence and a reminder of our guru.
• When we install Guru Ravidass Ji's picture in the palki we are assigning a proper respectful place to our guru so that congregation can pay their respects.
• This is not murti pooja. We don't engage in any rituals around the picture.
• The concept of sagun and nirgun is centuries old and both paths have equally led to salvation. Moorti pooja was deemed to be undesirable because people started committing crimes and moorti didn't do anything because it has no life.

Whilst we can not claim any expertise in this field we can not let it go without comment as this innocuous little advise could prove to be deadly to all  the Ravidassis and to Dalits in general.

So what is behind this debate now which was all the rage amongst the India's holymen in medieval times and which only finds place amongst the specialist scholars in mostly top universities of the world.

Hindu Brahmins believe that by mantra and other rituals they can breath a god into an idol. Not just any idol can have god in it, only those which have been consecrated. This is the Hindu belief system. Good luck to them. No one can criticise anyone for their belief system.

When Dalits are being asked to worship an idol of Guru Ravidas Ji, what is being asked is that sagun worhsip or bhakti is a valid mean to god.

Logically if God has no properties and he/she/it (for this is how Nirguni gurus often describe God) then God is also beyond time and space and as such not subjects to the effects of time and space including properties of materials. How the universe was created, we will leave it to the scientists and philosophers for gurus can not tell us about the properties of matter which must be infinite. God could create a universe with infinite wonders but it did not affect his status of being property-less. But here is the major contradiction (and we claim that contradictions are everywhere) in the nirguni philosophy. God is at once beyond time and space, but at the same time he is to be found in people's hearts. Once he creates the universe by his hukum or command he has nothing much more to do with human beings (although nothing happens without his will) except that devotees can call upon God to help him or her in the time of his or her need! In feudal Indian society where the weight of the whole system created unbearable burden n progressive holymen, and to motivate people it was necessary to make them believe that even God, especially God was on their side. Therefore Bhakti or devotion to God could be socially and politically highly subversive, especially as Brahmins had claimed from time immemorial that they controlled gods by their rituals.

Since contradictions are everywhere medieval saints were not immune to it either. They split into the two above groups. The debate however was not just about God. We know that nirguni philosophy was in most cases overtly subversive. When the demon king Hiranakashyp oppresses his own son with the help of the father's demon family members and ministers and the son Prahalad calls upon Vishnu who is then incarnated as the Man Lion avatar, who kills and father and delivers his disciple, one could read this this story as a straightforward as a Hindu myth of Vishnu's incarnation in the best saguni tradition i.e. God taking avatar in order to come to this earth, This however would be a mistake as the story can also be read as the demons being the 'high castes' of the society and Prahald being one of the meek, dispossessed and oppressed being identified with the 'low castes'.  Hence the story could be told in the best saguni tradition but by Nirguni Sikhs, but in order to subvert the status quo.

Why did the progressive saints insisted on a nirguni god when they themselves also sometimes used saguni tradition such as that of Prhalad above? The answer to this question is not simple. A saguni supreme Hindu God Vishnu come to this earth as an avatar in order to defend the caste system. This could never be accepted by the friends of the 'lower' castes such as Kabir, Ravidas and Nanak amongst others.

If God came to this earth as an incarnation or an Avatar then it was only because he was going to defend the dharma including the varnashramdharma or the caste system. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, the supreme God claimed that he had created the caste sytem. A nirguni God, being without any properties had no such need to defend the caste system. If anything such a God was the slave of the devotee as proved by numerous hegiographical tales of the Bhaktas and Gurus. Saguni upheld the status quo. Nirguni subverted it. The two did not meet and there was a tall wall between the two although they did not hesitate to steal each other's clothes in the form of mythical tales.

There are other differences between the nirguni and saguni scholars. Saguni saint Tulsi Das had written " A drum, a vagrant, low caste and women are best if beaten," He also advises his followers to "honour a Brahmin, even if the Brahmin was without merit." A sudra or low caste could not be honoured even if he was leaned and wise." Without a surprise Guru Ravidas challenged this in opposite wording. " Do no honour a Brahmin if he is withour merit, honour instead a Chandal, if he has merit." This is in in line with Maharishi Vlamiki's Yogavishista which asks people to accept the word of a child even if found to be true and reject the word of God Brahma himself if found to be lacking.

Mirabai, a disciple of Guru Ravidas was of saguni tradition and no doubt given time would have ended up as a nirguni. It is perhaps because of this that only one of her hymn made it to the sacred book of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

When some Ravidassi asks us to follow either method, we can only assume that either he or she has nor read Guru Ravidas or that they know very well the implications of their advise, but they would like all followers of Guru Ravidas to follow the Hindu way of life.

Internet Source:

SAP-History Monograph- 6 Conflict and Assimilation in Medieval North Indian Bhakti :An Alternative Approach - Rameshwar Prasad Bahuguna

O - is for our history - Part 1


You are a Ravidasi or a Valmiki, or an Indian Buddhist, or an Indian Christian. Your parents may have even described themselves hesitantly as Hindus when asked by the white people as the white people do not understand various Indic tradtions. But some of you do not feel 100% sure about your personal identity. Everyone from South Asia seem to be so sure and so proud of his or hers roots and identity, but like the character in Jackie Chan’s film in “Who Am I? you seem to be in a state of amnesia although you feel at times that your roots are noble. At other times you may feel like the character Neo in the Matrix who has something of greatness in him but he has first to be reborn before he can find his true identity which is hidden from him as he is kept isolated and fed on liquefied waste. It does actually feel like it at times. You may have been subjected to casteist baiting in the school playground or outside or in the pub. It may even be the place of work but you feel powerless to act. Your baiters may even have been the supposedly caste free Sikhs. Welcome to the real world!

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W is for Who am I?


Who are you really? Why is it that your Mum an Dad find it very difficult to explain to you the simple facts of your very own identity? They seem to know their own identity very well and they do not seem to have any problem with it.  You can not really blame your parents for their failure to teach you to understand your identity. In order to explain everything to you they will require you to spend a few years in India. They will also need to be experts in some dozen of so subjects all of which come under the umbrella called Indology.  As you are probably already aware, caste system is not as straight forward as racism. With caste system things are much more complex.

With racism, at one time, black people could define their identity on the basis of skin colour alone  or shared oppression. To their oppressors skin colour was sufficient justification for exploitation in colonial times and remain so till today. The concept of race had no scientific basis but pseudo sciences were created to justify racism.  We now today that the DNA of a  Scandinavian person is nearer to a Black South African than it is to an Italian.

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S is for Soham


Soham, meaning 'Thou are That' was adopted by the Ravidasia Adi Dharam movement of the early 1920s in the Panjab to indicate their equality with other groups in the Panjab. Report of the Ad Dharam Mandal 1926-1931 pages 11 1.d and 14 para 15 respectively read:
"Our sacred word is Soham".
"We are not Hindus. We strongly request the government not to list as such. Our faith is not Hindu but Ad Dharam. We are not part of Hinduism and Hindus are not part of us".
Source: Religion as Social Vision by Mark Jurgensmeyer, University of California Press 1982 pages 299-301.
In the 1970's and 1980's, the word Soham was very popular amongst the Ravidasis both within Indian and overseas.  Even Dalits in the pay of upper castes were describing Guru Ravidas as the first socialist in India and writing essays on the meaning of the word Soham. Posters were produced with a burning torch logo with the letters making up the word put on the edges of a circle. Everyone knew what the word Soham stood for (for the very young please refer to the end of this article for an explanation of the word Soham).

The last 10-15 years have seen a dramatic change. Word has it that a decision was taken (when, where and by whom?) to register the word Hari as the logo for the Ravidasi community.  Quietly the word Hari crept in without it being noticed. We are told by some Ravdasias that this is what Ravidasi community should be following without questions. We are not told why the word Soham has been quietly dropped or why its use has been minimised. We are not told why we should be using the word Hari.

There are a number of Ravidasis who would wish to challenge it but they do not wish to upset anyone or create disturbance. Could not that matter be left at peace?

On the surface, it appears that this is purely nit picking. After all, almost all Sikh Gurus, Dalit Gurus and others have used the word Hari for God used by the Hindus to describe their God. This word  Hari has been used widely in the anti-caste scriptures.

There are a number of problems with this explanation. We may also point out that the sacred book of the Sikhs also use the word Allah to describe God. The most frequently used word for God iin spoken Panjabi is Rab and Rab is an Arabic word for God. But the Sikhs have not opted for these names for God originating with their ex prosecutors.

In medieval times both high caste Muslims and the high caste Hindus had formed an alliance to keep the plebs down. This alliance frequently manifested itself in the fatwas of the Muslim Mullahs and the complaints of the Hindu Brahmins to the higher ups that the anti-caste Gurus were preaching against Islam, or against God himself, in the case of Hindu Brahmins.  Guru Ravidas was highly philosophical in his attack on the Hindu caste system. Kabir and Nanak observed no such niceties. They attacked caste and the Mullah Brahmin alliance more directly. Neither Hindu nor Muslim but human was their battle cry. Kabir was so direct in his attacks that at least one world famous author of the Bhakti movement has described Kabir as atheist at times!

On their parts Brahmins and Mullahs did not stay still but did their best to persecute the anti-caste Gurus. For example Guru Namdev was thrown in front of a drunk elephant  on the orders of the local ruler but he survived.

The teaching of the anti-caste Gurus was highly subversive. By Hari they did not mean Rama the hero of Ramayana and the defender of the caste system but the ultimate reality of Godhead. In their story telling the young boy Parhlad worhipping Hari and for doing that, suffering from the hands of his demon father Hirnakshayap, was an allusion to the suffering of the poor, the meek and the oppressed of the day. The Gurus had to make use of these mythological symbolism to preach their message. Anti-caste Gurus were forced to use the names of Ram and Rahim in their scriptures to mean God. That was the need of the day then. So why use Hari as a symbol for the community now? Why have some people gone to all that trouble to oppose Soham and bring in Hari?

Unless you are trying to give the hymns of anti-caste Gurus a Brahminic character which was never intended in the first place.
The clue lies in the USA where the upper castes in the VHP  tried to have the school textbooks in California changed to portray Hinduism in more liberal colours by taking out the references to the oppressive aspects of Hinduism. They upper caste Hindus were opposed very strongly, including by the more liberal Hindus and the VHP and their allies met with failure. They learnt their lessons well and applied these to the UK. By keeping low profile and working behind the scenes they succeeded in UK. They also played party politics with Dalits in the Panjab and these politics were imported into the UK. Again by keeping a very low profile they succeeded again in getting some misguided Dalit self styled 'leader' to register 'Hari' as a symbol for Ravidasis.

Dalits in the Diaspora need to be aware of these historical issues in order to bring some rational discussion to these controversies.

Anyone who would like to defend the change from Soham to Hari is welcome to send his or her argument to us on dalitorg@dalit.org.uk and we will print it on this website.
An explanation of the word Soham: Soham is made up of two words 'So' and 'ham' the meaning of which is 'I am It'. At the time of Upnishads it had a meaning of 'Thou are that' meaning that you are Brahaman. or that you are part of the ultimate reality.  It has been interpreted to mean the basic unity of man and the cosmos but only if you were an upper caste. Upnishads were secret doctrine which were only available to the two upper castes, the Brahmin priests and the warriors and frequently it were the warrior caste which taught this philosophy to the Brahmins. In medieval times the great Sankracharaya taught that everything was Brahman or ultimate reality but (wait for it), at philosophical level ONLY. The different castes stayed different on the earthly plane. Guru Ravidas turned this upside down by saying 'Tohi Mohi Mohi Tohi antar kaisa' meaning that there was no difference between man and God and thereby between Man and Man.