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Community beyond boundaries

By Gail Omvedt

The Indian subcontinent has been characterised by a duality and a contest between two traditions, one that was by and large a tradition of equality, love and social justice, and the other which was primarily that of hierarchy and caste domination

‘He knows no ‘we’, he knows no ‘other’
No practice of following caste and clan’

This verse, attributed to the bhakti poet Namdev in the 13th century, is a proclamation of universalism that is sadly lacking in the India of today (1). It differs radically from the false universalism proclaimed by the brahmanic Vedantic tradition of atma = brahman, which could easily be consistent with the actual fragmented hierarchy of caste (2).  It is, instead, representative of another tradition in India, not a counter-tradition or a ‘heterodoxy’ as scholars have called it, but a major tradition of the subcontinent which we know of first from early Buddhism and similar shramana sects, but which may well date back to the Indus civilisation. This, India’s great tradition, was challenged by the tradition springing back to the Vedas (dating from at most the 15th century BCE) and clearly formulated in the brahmanic teachings which come to us in clear form about the time of the rise of Buddhism, around the middle of the first millennium BCE.  

The Indian subcontinent has been characterised by a duality and a contest between two traditions, one that was by and large a tradition of equality, love and social justice, and the other which was primarily that of hierarchy and caste domination. In the most ancient times, this contest was embodied in the brahmana-shramana conflict (though Christianity and Judaism also made their entries into India very early and both contributed in ways unknown and still debated to the overall ‘Indic’ culture). The shramanas included those following the teachings of what are now known as Buddhism and Jainism as well as early Indian materialism and many other ways of seeking liberation. The brahmanas was a social category that was in the process of defining itself as birth-based and thus exclusive. 

The equalitarian and love-based teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism (3) entered the country very early -- what effect they had on further developments is still unknown and is coming to be hotly debated -- and following the triumph of brahmanism around the 5th-6th centuries, the Islamic stream also made its presence felt with great power, interacting with these other streams and even merging into the Indic culture in complex ways. Then, in the ‘medieval’ or ‘early modern’ period, the primary conflict was seen between what we now call ‘bhakti’ and brahmanism, while from the colonial period it was seen in the conflict between a ‘non-brahmanic’ tradition including Phule, Iyothee Thass, Ambedkar and Periyar, among others, as well as women intellectuals and activists such as Pandita Ramabai. I have touched on major points in this long period in my recent book Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anti-Caste Intellectuals (4). Here, I will simply briefly discuss the aspect of universality in this tradition, in the Bhakti movement, and then turn to what appears as the most important issue today, ‘religion’.

Buddhism not only proclaimed universality but practised it in the Buddhist Sangha, in which all were equal. Within the society outside the Sangha, though full equality could not be practised, what was projected was a society of equal opportunity, that is to say something like a ‘modern’ class society as contrasted with the feudal/slave society of varnashrama dharma. In this, it was the major force contesting brahmanism and can be called hegemonic for nearly a millennium. However, by the middle of the first millennium of the common era, the brahmanic tradition had triumphed and gained the support of most kings in enforcing varnashrama dharma and the superiority of Brahmans. Following this, most of the earlier traditions of equality were lost to historical memory until British colonial rule (5).

But we do have enough historical material on the Bhakti movement, at least from the 12th century onwards, to know the kind of equality and universalism that was practised.

The earliest we have clear information on was the Veerasaiva (Lingayat) movement in the 12th century Karnataka kingdom of Kalyana which was famous for refusing caste distinctions and seeking to create a community beyond boundaries. A verse from one of its major early leaders, Allama, simply describes the “six errors” as varnashramajati, kula, gotra, nama, simeyamba, or “caste, age, colour, clan, family, name and region” (6). That this was meant very concretely is shown in the early history of Veerasaivism: not only had Basava himself rejected the sacred thread, not only were women admitted on equality with men in all ‘religious’ affairs, but, in addition, a marriage was arranged between the son of a dalit member and the daughter of a Brahman. Due to this major ‘sin’, the two parents were brutally executed, in spite of Basava being a minister in the kingdom, and the Veerasaivas were suppressed and driven out of the kingdom. It is clear from this that where brahmanism held power, the sin of varnasamkara (intercaste marriage, especially in its ‘worst’ form, the pratiloma marriage) was punishable by death. 

Following Namdev, we can trace a line of great equalitarian, anti-caste sants, including Kabir, Ravidas, Mira, Dadu and others. Of these, Kabir may be most famous for his denial of the reality of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Turk’, and for his severe castigation of the way such identities led to murderous warfare:

Hindu kahe mohi raam piyaara, turk kahe rahimaan,
Aapas me dou lari lari muye, maram na kaahu jaana 

The Hindu says Ram’s the beloved, the Turk says Rahiman --
They die fighting one another, no one knows the truth. 

Jete aurat mard upaane so sab rup tumhaaraa
ham pongaraa allah raam kaa, so guru pir hamaaraa 

Every man and woman born are forms of you, so says Kabir,
I’m Ram and Allah’s foolish baby, he’s my guru and my pir

Finally, let us look at Tuka, in the 17th century, at a very beautiful song which begins:

I have neither home nor habit,
I wander naturally;
I have power over none
and no stability.
My eyes and feet are called my own
I’ve also set them free --
now I’m blind and lame, but none’s
a foreigner to me. (#424)

“None’s a foreigner to me” was a proclamation of the universalism which characterised the Bhakti movement throughout.    

Tuka, Namdev and others were also very explicit in defining their community of bhaktas to include men and women, people of all castes and religions, even people of ‘polluted’ professions. What we might call an early declaration of ‘human rights’ from Tuka is worth quoting in full:

O listen now to me,
the sign that makes you free:
keep the lord of Pandhari
in your heart always.
Then how can we be bound
when we speak and sing Narayan?
who understands the world
will reach this shore (refrain).
He’ll end darkness and slavery,
Illusion’s bonds will broken be;  
Everyone will be powerful and prosperous.
Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaishya, Shudra,
and Chandals also have rights;
little children, male and female,
and even prostitutes.
Says Tuka, through experience
we have torn down every fence.
Many divine joys immense
are taken by the devotees. (#1142)

This very explicitly includes all the varnas, the avarnas, children, women, and ‘despised’ professions (the reference is to Kanhoptra, the famous sex worker who was a varkari). 

The universality the Bhakti movement proclaimed was beyond practically any division we can think of today. Most of the time the universality proclaimed was in terms of caste divisions, as the major exploitative divisions that the bhaktas experienced. Gender divisions, however, also came in, as is clear in the song above and in the Veerasaivas’ readiness to allow women’s equality with men in what would have been equivalent to ‘priests’. And, as ‘religious’ divisions became known these were also consistently opposed. Guru Nanak claimed that he was “neither Hindu nor Muslim”, as did the Sufi saint Bulle Shah, as did Kabir (though here it is unclear from the existing texts exactly when the texts describing the murderous conflicts of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Turk’ are from) (7). In fact, while all the bhaktas are described today as ‘Hindus’ and the ‘Bhakti movement’ is contrasted with the ‘Sufi’ tradition when describing India’s plural traditions, the radical (8) bhaktas refused a ‘religious’ identification. However, only two of the movements of the long centuries, Sikhism and Veerasaivism, could in the end constitute themselves with an identity other than ‘Hindu’ (9). 

‘Religion’, finally, is itself a complex social reality. To go back to ancient times, in India as in most of the world thousands of years ago, there were many deities and many ways of recognising and following what was considered the divine. The process by which these streams began to define themselves as ‘religion’ and get posed against one another in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ was in every case a complicated one. In India, while the major distinction in the ancient period was shramana/brahmana, neither term was strictly speaking ‘religious’ as we would define it today. The words now translated as ‘religion’ had a different meaning -- dhamma as ‘teaching’, dharma as ‘sacred duty’; while the two traditions represented very different ways of looking at the world, neither was what we might call a ‘religion’ today. Buddhism in particular had no rituals or rites to identify ‘lay’ followers of Buddha; there was only a differentiated group of world-renouncers that collectively became known as the Sangha.

When brahmanism became hegemonic and kings everywhere on the subcontinent began enforcing its social order of varnashrama dharma, it was still not known as a ‘religion’. Some scholars have argued that ‘Saivism’ and ‘Vaisnavism’ could be characterised as separate religions, yet there were also radically different forms of these. Caste was the major way of differentiating ‘we’ and ‘others’. Some sense of ‘religious’ distinctions apparently emerged with the coming of Islam, partly because it was backed by powerful rulers (though spread through Sufis who themselves did not recognise distinctions), partly because its orthodox observances were clearly visible and prescribed for all members of the world Muslim community. What happened in the colonial period was not the ‘creation’ of any of the religious-cultural traditions, but their establishment as ‘religions’, or distinct social categories. Members of the brahman and other ‘twice-born’ elites began to define ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘religion’ that included belief in the Vedas, bhakti, and numerous popular deities, in a word all that was not clearly ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ or in some ways originating in a ‘foreign’ country. Today we see even more extremely an insistence that Rama is the primary symbol of ‘Hinduism’.

The resistance to this process of solidifying ‘religions’ has nothing to do with the difference that is often argued between ‘Semitic’ or ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ religious-cultural traditions, and continues today. This is why the entire concept of ‘conversion’ is erroneous. Many of the early ‘converts’ to ‘Christianity’ refused to identify it as a distinct religion or themselves as somehow ‘foreign’ or ‘non-Indian’, or even ‘non-Hindu’. Pandita Ramabai is one famous example: she fought all her life with the Church authorities (10) and refused to recognise separate denominations within Christianity or draw a clear line between herself and ‘non-Christian’ Indians. Again, Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism continues to be characterised by so many as dharmantar or ‘conversion’, what it meant to him and his followers; as for the earlier ‘Sakya Buddhism’ of the Tamil dalit Iyothee Thass was rather entering into a faith, or returning to a faith that had originally been theirs. Again, so many of those called ‘Christians’ even today do not identify themselves as members of a separate religion, but simply as ‘followers of Christ’. In fact, the boundaries between all the different ‘religions’ have been porous and remain porous even today.

Faith or spirituality in the millennial traditions of India is not to be identified with caste, country or community. Those who seek to define it so, especially those who define it in terms of ‘nation’, as Hindutva politics/ideology does now, are perhaps the most ‘un-Indian’ of all political or ‘religious’ groups in the country today, and draw their inspiration not from what most people think of as ‘Hinduism’ but from the inequalitarian hegemonic, narrow teachings of brahmanism.  

(Gail Omvedt is a scholar, sociologist and human rights activist who has been involved in dalit and anti-caste movements. She is the author of several books including Dalits and the Democratic Revolution and Dalit Visions: The Anticaste Movement and Indian Cultural Identity. She is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla)


  1. In fact, it is given to us as an accusation of brahmans. See the collection of songs and poems attributed to Nama and his cohort; see Namdev, 1999, Sant Namdevance Abhangagaatha (the abhangs and songs of Sant Namdev), Satara: Rashtriya Samiti, my translation  
  2. See for instance the teachings of the sage Yajnyavalkya to his wife Maitreyi, given in the Bhradaranyaka Upanishad (4.5.6), where the constant theme that “x is loved not for itself but for the Self in it” (the translation I use is from the Penguin edition and is by Valerie Roebuck) 
  3. This, perhaps the oldest monotheistic religion, began in direct conflict with something like the Vedic tradition, with Zoroastrian daevasdevas, and ahura = asura; it is clear that the demon of one was the divine being of the other  
  4. Published by Navayana, 2008; see their website to order it 
  5. No Buddhist manuscript has been recovered from India itself; all we have available today are from Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Korea, etc
  6. See Schouten, J P, 1995, Revolution of the Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Virasaivism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, p 54 
  7. There have been many scholarly interpretations of the difficulties of assigning dates to bhakti texts; for a discussion see Seeking Begumpura and Vinay Dharwadkar’s introduction to his translations in Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs, New Delhi: Penguin  
  8. I define “radical” in Seeking Begumpura, chapter 2 
  9. Though the VHP claims them as Hindu, members of these paths to the divine deny this 
  10. An excellent study of the differences between “Church Christianity”, “Biblical Christianity” and “Mystical Christianity” is found in Linda Woodhead’s Christianity: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2004 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009