The ‘Untouchables’ In Europe – 10 Years After the Murder of Their Saint
RAVIDASS – Once Part of the Sikh Community – Now a New Religion.
Who they are and what they believe.
Essay in Remembrance of the Saint Ramanand Ji, murdered on 24 May 2009 in the Ravidassia Temple, Vienna by fanatical extremists.
- The attack continues to strain the relationship between the Sikh community and the members of Ravidassia.
- Ravidassias fear further attacks.
- Sikhs also face prejudices.
On 24 May 2009 at about 13.00, the worship service in the fully occupied Ravidassia prayer hall in the Vienna-Fünfhaus was disrupted by a shootout. Six Sikhs in blue-yellow turbans attacked the preacher with a pistol and two knives. Onlookers overcame the attackers, and in the process over a dozen people were injured and one of the preachers, Saint Ramanand (57), was killed. A second guru, Saint Niranjan Dass (68), sustained severe gunshot injuries but survived the attack.
The six perpetrators were identified as Sikh extremists, thought to have traveled from Spain.
The result of this incident was a far-reaching escalation of the conflict between the two groups as seen in bloody riots and curfews in Punjab, the home of most Sikhs and Ravidassias.
Background of the Conflict:
The background of this incident can be found in the very foundation of both religions. Although a distinct separation was triggered only in 2009 by this incident, there has long been a smoldering conflict between the Sikhs and the Ravidassias.
Sikhism was established in the fifteenth century in India as a reform movement of Hinduism with elements of Islam. The last guru, Gobind (1666- 1708) did not nominate a successor because he saw the danger of a potential split in the community. Rather, he designated the holy book, containing the teachings of the ten founding fathers, as the next guru. Since that time, the honor of central guru has been assigned to the holy book Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
The Ravidassia community also sees itself as a reform movement. Before the incident, they were still counted with the Sikhs, because the believers also honored the Guru Granth Sahib.
But Ravidassia has for long considered itself to be an independent movement and has been critical of the subtle caste consciousness and discrimination of lower castes still to be found amongst the Sikhs, according to Some Dev, the then president of the Ravidassia community in Vienna.
But the real background to the incident has still not been clarified. Indologists assume that the historical roots of the conflict are to be found in India. The Ravidassias think that the lower castes of the members pose a problem for the Sikhs. The Sikhs, in turn, perceive the holy book as being treated as “no good” by the Ravidassia…
Gursharan Singh reported that more respect was paid to both of the saints, who had traveled from India, than to the holy book. Since the book is attributed the status of a guru by the Sikhs, this is seen as a provocation in a form that has already caused disturbances in Spain and Great Britain.
Clear Division after the Assassination
The Ravidassia religion is a splitting-off from the Sikhs. Basically, it is a religion of the new millennium, established by disciples of the teachings of Ravidass and triggered by the murder of their respected saint, Ramanand in Vienna (2009). Following the harrowing bloody event, the movement declared itself as a new religion, clearly distancing themselves from the Sikhs. Ravidassia also compiled a new holy book, Amritbani Guru Ravidass Ji. This holy scripture is based completely on the writings and teachings of Ravidass and includes 240 hymns.
Thus a Ravidassia declaration from 2009, (Question of Dalit Identity in Punjab) states: ‘We as Ravidassia, have another tradition. We are not Sikhs. We bestow our greatest respect to the ten gurus and Guru Granth Sahib, but guru Ravidass Ji is our highest authority…“.
After the incident, the disposition towards the Sikhs was not good. Singh reported that Sikhs were “rudely addressed” on public transport. “This incident has greatly damaged the Sikh’s reputation.” Another Sikh described the atmosphere amongst the community as being very unsettled.
In contrast, since the incident, a strong fear of ‚terrorists‘ and further attacks prevail in the Ravidassia community. The relationship to the Sikh communities has been damaged by the episode, reports Dev.
The Ravidassia community with its prayer hall in the Vienna Fünfhaus has about 450 members in Vienna, according to an estimate by Narinder Pal Chopra, the new president of the Ravidassia in Austria. Thus, there are enough members to apply for the status of an “Confessional Community (at this time, nine religious groups have this status). P. Chopra, an IT expert, and web designer stated in an interview with FOREF, that an application had already been made to the Ministry of Culture. Sikhism is also still not a recognized religion in Austria and this brings certain disadvantages. The Sikhs are thus denied additional privileges enjoyed by recognized religious communities (at this time 17). Estimates of the numbers vary considerably, but it is thought that there are about 17,000 Sikhs in Vienna, including family members and children.
Continuing Discrimination through the Caste System
Although castes, since India’s independence and the consequent establishment of the constitution, have been gradually abolished when seen from a purely legal point of view, in reality, unfortunately, little has changed. The ancient system has deep religious and cultural roots. Most badly affected are the Dalits (‘untouchables’), of whom there are still 166 (!) million in India. Furthermore, numerous Hindus have converted to Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism in order to escape the discrimination and stigma of the class system.
The Untouchables: “God’s Children” or Oppressed?
About 16.6 percent of the population of India, according to a 2011 census, are classified as scheduled castes (or ‚untouchable‘) and for the most part, live in poverty. In the caste hierarchy, the border to the lowest caste is especially stressed. “Untouchables” must often live in separate conditions, in settlements outside the villages. They are often prevented from entering temples or using wells, even although such discrimination is illegal in India.
Already in the 1930s, two great Indians, Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar, used various methods to fight the caste system. Although Gandhi rendered outstanding services for Indian independence (1947) with his non-violent struggle, Dr. Ambedkar drew up India’s constitution, thus opening the way to overcome the caste system.
Ambedkar saw the “untouchables” contrary to the caste of the Hindus and demanded their release from this system. He fought the social discrimination resulting from the categorization of Hindu society (caste system).
Gandhi, on the other hand, wanted to reform the caste system and to cleanse the negative overgrowth of ‚untouchability‘. From this way of thinking comes the term Harijan, also influenced by Gandhi, which says that people outside the caste system are God’s children. Many ‘untouchables’ self-confidently describe themselves as Dalits (oppressed), because they see the term Harijan as paternalistic. They do not accept their appointed lower position.
Unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar did not come from the elite, but rather from the lowest class of society, the Dalits. Less well known is his membership of the Ravidassia group. Shortly before his death in 1956, he converted to Buddhism. In this way, he signalized his deep rejection of the caste system and this, in turn, unleashed a wave of mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of Dalits.
In a survey carried out by History TV and CNN in July 2012, as to who was the greatest Indian after Gandhi, B. R. Ambedkar received the most votes.
Perspectives for the Future and the Hope of the Ravidassia Community
Guru Ramanand’s visit to Vienna was part of a tour of Europe, to offer hope and confidence to the much-tried disciples of his community. Unfortunately, this was his last journey. He saw it as his main mission to help the underprivileged and to overcome injustice in the class system.
Nobody had more accurately formulated the hope and dreams of peace of Ravidassias than its martyr. His words bring back memories of those of Dr. Martin Luther King in his prophetic mountain-top sermon „I have a dream“ delivered shortly before his assassination – words which even today move many people to tears.
Guru Ravidass Ji: „My dream is of a system, where everyone has enough to eat, and where there are equal rights for all. No-one should die of hunger. Ravidass will be happy when we can see a country where there is no discrimination between lower and higher castes!’’
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