Raidas, a cobbler of Benares belonging to the Shudra caste, was a great devotee and saint of the 15th century a.d. He was one of the glorious band of disciples of Rama- nanda, who was fourth in spiritual succession from Shri Ramanuja Acharya. Ramananda, who lived probably at the end of the 14th century and in the first half of the 15th century, was authorised by his own teacher, Swami Raghvananda, to found his own sect. He taught that the observance of caste was unnecessary for one who sought God’s protection and tried to serve him, that the external forms of worship were superfluous and that the highest goal could be reached simply by repeating the Lord’s name.
The most renowned of Raidas’ fellow disciples was Kabir, who was born in Benares in 1398. Others were Saina the court barber, Dhanna Jat the cultivator (born in 1415), King Pipa of Gagaraungarh (born in 1425), Anantananda, Sureshvarananda, Sukhananda and Bhavananda. Ramananda was once asked to attend a service in worship of Yishnu.
His refusal, expressed in a poem, gives an idea of his teachings:
“Whither shall I go, Sir?
I am happy at home.
My heart will not go with me;
It has become a cripple.
One day I did have an inclination to go;
I ground sandal, took distilled aloe wood and many perfumes,
And was proceeding to worship God in a temple,
When my spiritual guide showed me God in my heart.
Wherever I go, I find only water or stones.
But thou, O God, art equally contained in everything.
The Vedas and the Puranas—all have I seen and searched.
Go thou thither, if God be not here.
O true guru, I am a sacrifice unto thee,
Who hast cut away all my perplexities and doubts.
Ramananda’s Lord is the all-pervading God:
The guru’s word cuts away millions of sins.”
In his previous birth Raidas was said to have been a Brahmin disciple of Ramananda. Once, when serving Ramananda, he brought him some food which had been tainted by contact with a cobbler. When Ramananda learnt this, he was enraged and said that his pupil would be born a cobbler in his next birth. Shortly after that the boy died, and was reborn to the cobbler Raghu and his wife Dhurbiniya. As a baby he remembered his past birth and refused his mother’s milk till Ramananda, who had sought out his former pupil, made him take it. Ramananda named him Ravidas or Raidas, the servant of the sun.
When Raidas grew up, he devoted all the time he had to serving holy men and spent his money on them. His father, who had become rich, disapproved of this, and turned Raidas and his wife out of his house without a penny, but he allowed them to live in a comer of his courtyard. There Raidas erected a roof of thatch, under which he lived, practising his cobbler’s trade and worshipping an image of Rama made of hide. All the sadhus who came he provided with shoes free; and whatever he saved he spent on the sadhus and on offerings for worship. When he was criticised for worshipping an image of hide, Raidas replied that the temple drum was made of hide, that the sacred cow of the Hindus possessed a hide and that God dwells in all animals which have hides.
Once a sadhu, pitying his poverty, gave him an alchemist’s stone and showed him how to turn his cobbler’s awl into gold. Raidas first refused it, saying that all his wealth consisted in the name of God, but when the sadhu insisted, he allowed him to put it in the thatch of his roof. On this occasion Raidas wrote:
“God’s name is the great wealth of God’s saints;
Day by day it increases and in no way decreases.
Nothing can steal it either by day or night;
Its possessor sleeps secure in his home.
O God, what need of a stone has he who possesses this wealth?”
Thirteen months later the sadhu returned and found the stone where he had left it untouched. He then took it down from the thatch, satisfied that Raidas had no desire for earthly wealth.
Some time later Raidas found five gold coins in a small wicker basket used for worship. He was so alarmed that he refused to go to worship that day, and began to fear even devotion to God lest it might bring him riches. But God came to him in a vision and said: “Although thou desirest nothing, yet accept the wealth I give thee now.” With this money and more that came to him in the same way, Raidas built a dharma-shala or rest-house for holy men, a two-storied house for himself and his wife on the site of his thatched hut and a magnificently ornamented temple with a canopy, fringes, wall lights and a chandelier, for which he engaged a Brahmin priest.
This brought Raidas into conflict with the orthodox pandits. They complained to the King of Benares that a Shudra was usurping the functions of a Brahmin. The King summoned Raidas and the pandits to his court, but impressed by Raidas’ sincerity and spirituality showed him great respect and let him go free. Raidas again came into conflict with the pandits when Jhali, Queen of Chittor, hearing of Raidas’ greatness during a pilgrimage to Benares, made him her guru.
The pandits said that the Queen had lost her reason and complained of her to her husband, the King of Chittor. He sent for Raidas and listened to the Brahmins, who stressed the importance of caste rules. Raidas rejoined: “What is dear to God is devotion; He pays no heed to caste.” A long discussion followed, and they finally resolved on an appeal to the Lord: whomsoever the image of the Lord should approach would be deemed to be in the right. The pandits intoned the Vedas and recited mantrams till nightfall, but the image did not stir.
When Raidas’ turn came, he simply appealed to the Lord with passionate love and humility, and the tradition goes that the image straightway left its throne and sat on Raidas’ lap.
Many other miraculous stories are told of Raidas, how the pandits who rejected the Queen of Chittor’s feast saw Raidas sitting with each pair of them, how the rich man who felt disgust at water sanctified by the cobblers’ worship became leprous and was only cured by Raidas’ compassion, and how the Ganges herself raised her waves to receive the gift of betel nut which Raidas had asked a Brahmin to offer for him, but which the Brahmin had been reluctant to make.
All these stories have the same burden, that the true Brahmin is he who meditates on God. But Raidas’ poems, contained in the Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs, contain also metaphysical and devotional teachings. Like Kabir, with whom he is said to have had many discussions, Raidas belonged to the nirguna school of the sant tradition, which held that the ultimate reality is the one qualityless God. Both God and the soul are light, their only difference is that the soul is encumbered with a body.
The inner offering of a pure heart far surpasses the external oblation, and the two most effective practices for realisation are the incessant remembrance of the Lord’s name and association with and service of the saints.
It was said of Raidas that his conversation and poetry were like suns to dispel the darkness of doubt and infidelity. Numerous disciples gathered round him, including the Princess Mirabai and many Brahmins. Raidas lived to extreme old age. His sect, the Raidasis, spread rapidly, and even now numbers millions in Gujarat.