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

House of Lords Recognises Caste Discrimination

UK House of Lords adopts measure against caste discrimination


Following intensive lobbying by the National Secular Society (NSS, an IHEU member organization), the UK’s House of Lords on 2 March 2010 adopted an amendment to the new UK Equality Bill, paving the way for caste discrimination to be made illegal. Lobbying by the NSS was given a new focus by the first international conference on untouchability hosted by the IHEU and held in London last summer.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society commented: "This victory is historic; the UK is the first Western country to pass such legislation. I hope it will encourage other states where caste discrimination is practised to do likewise, or – in the case of India – enforce the legislation it already has."

Since speaking at the London conference last June, both Lord Avebury and Keith Porteous Wood have been working hard to bring this amendment about. Initially, the prospect of success seemed remote, as neither the Government nor the Equality and Human Rights Commission were supportive. Lord Avebury and Wood brought together powerful speakers for the parliamentary debate on the Equality Bill, some of whom spoke from personal experience of caste. This clearly persuaded the Government to reconsider. They also encouraged anti-caste groups to work together and pool information, often for the first time, and sought out lawyers knowledgeable in this specialised area.

The Government convened a meeting of around 50 members of anti-caste groups who gave moving accounts of the discrimination they had suffered. At the next parliamentary stage the Government accepted an amendment, of which Lord Avebury was a co-signatory, enabling caste to be added to the Bill. The Equality Bill has not quite finished its passage through Parliament, but it is almost certain that the amendment will survive unopposed.

The Government has commissioned a survey into caste discrimination which will report in summer or autumn 2010. It is anticipated that, following this, the anti-caste discrimination measure will be activated.

Also active in bringing about this success have been NSS Honorary Associates Dr Evan Harris, Lord Desai (who also spoke at the London Conference) and Lady Flather. We thank them all.

The victory was reported by the BBC at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8546661.stm

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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Dalits and the Emanicipatory Sikh religion


Presented at UPenn Dec 3-5, 2008 Conference Dalit Challenges to Academic Knowledge: The Great Paradoxes


Dalits and the Emancipatory Sikh Religion


Raj Kumar Hans

M. S. University of Baroda


Hinduism has always been hostile to Sikhism, whose Gurus successfully attacked the principle of caste, which is the foundation on which the fabric of Brahminical religion has been reared. The activities of Hinduism have, therefore, been constantly directed to the undermining of Sikhism... Hinduism has strangled Buddhism, once a formidable rival to it, and it made serious inroads on the domains of Sikhism.

A. E. Barstow (1928)[1]

The ‘Dalit history’ approach, a particularly germane form of social history ‘from below’, seeks to bring caste conflict out in the open by making it a central theme in the writing of Sikh history. It thus provides a rather different, potentially stimulating, and realistic lens through which to take a closer look at Sikh history as a whole.

John C. B. Webster[2]


Today’s Untouchables are stronger than they have ever been. The progress they have made over the last century is quite remarkable. Many of the discriminations that once affected them have been seriously attenuated. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, the great majority remain poor, powerless, and indeed without a voice.

Robert Diliege[3]

Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of Punjab population that happens to be largest propor­tion in the country, when compared with other provinces, but they occupy the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.34 per cent of the cultivated area). Mazhbis and Ramdasias, the two dalit castes among the Sikhs, particularly the Mazhbis, remain the most deprived. Evidence of untouchability against dalit Sikhs is well established. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called ‘thhattis’ or ‘chamarlees’, located on the western side and away from the main body of the villages. All the Sikh organisations from Sikh temples to the political party are under the control of the Jatt Sikhs. The Jatt Sikhs refuse to consider them equals even after death, by disallowing cremation of their dead in the main cremation ground of the village. Over the years such harsh caste attitude has forced the dalits to es­tablish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds.[4] This seems to be the biggest paradox of Sikhism which theoretically and theologically has been characterized as ‘emancipatory’[5] and even sociologically as ‘revolutionary’[6]. In its true egalitarian spirit, Sikhism had succeeded in integrating the lowliest of the low, the former untouchables, the dalits, into its fold. From dalits’ perspective the evolution of Sikhism can be seen in two phases: a) from seventeenth century to Ranjit Singh’s rule, when dalits played remarkable role in Sikh political struggles and religious movements; b) post-Ranjit Singh phase, when Brahmanical values and attitudes resurfaced with caste and untouchability afflicting the Sikh body politic in such a way that there was danger of its re-absorption into Hinduism. Though dominant literary tradition has denied the significance of ‘caste’ and ‘untouchability’ in Sikhism, it has also ignored and neglected the dalit contribution to the flourishing of Sikhism in the first phase. The rise in consciousness in the twentieth century has enabled the Dalits to raise questions on the dominant historigraphical praxis by attempting to recover the lost ground. The paper would first look at the modern moment, the rise in the dalit consciousness as manifest in Dalit creative writings. In seeking an answer to as to what made the powerful Sikh movement drift the paper would look at the ‘brahmanisation’ of Sikhism in the nineteenth century with ominous implications for dalits as well as for Sikhism.


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Outlaw Caste Discrimination in UK - the Legal Case - by Annapurna Waughray

 The Hindu Council, The Hindu Forum and in the past the British Government, all claimed that an anti-caste discrimination legislation is unwarranted. Their reasoning is based on highly spurious and non-scholarly foundations.

In a paper titled 'Caste Discrimination: A Twenty-First Century Challenge for UK Discrimination Law?' published in the February 2009 edition of the Modern Law Review, Annapurna Waughray, an international lawyer, argues for the case of anti-caste legislation to be included in the UK legislation on various grounds, the legal argument being that not to do so would contravene the international law and agreements.