At a time when a powerful and earnest movement for obtaining justice towards the so-called 'untouchables' is going on in the country, it will doubtlessly be of interest to recall the name of one who, himself a cobbler, had preached four centuries ago in no uncertain words the equality of men before God. This was Saint Raidas. Namdev, Sadana, Sena, Kabir, Raidas, Kamal, Dadu, Nabhadas, Krishnadas-there is a long list of saints who, having sprung from the lower grades of society, rose to occupy a spiritual eminence therein and whose poems, such as have been preserved and handed down to us, contribute to the undying glory of the Hindi language and the Hindu religion. Next perhaps to Kabir, Raidas is the most venerated among these saints.
There is little doubt that Raidas was a cobbler by caste. The fact of his humble origin has been frequently and almost painfully reiterated in his songs. Raidas made his living by making shoes and as a cobbler he appears to have given both honest and efficient service to his customers. A considerable portion of his earnings was offered to Sadhus and holy men and he seems to have slowly risen in the estimation of his fellow citizens.
Numerous are the anecdotes and miracles related about Raidas. One of these is that a Sadhu once appeared to him and presented him with a piece of paras stone, the very touch of which is said to transmute iron into gold. The Sadhu even demonstrated such a transformation. Raidas would not at first accept this gift and later asked the Sadhu to slip the stone into the thatch of his cottage. When thirteen months later the Sadhu came to see Raidas again, he enquired as to what use the latter had made of the stone. Raidas told the Sadhu that he would find the stone where he had left it in the thatch. Raidas certainly lived a contented life and depended upon his own labours for his livelihood. Later on as his fame for devotion went round and he gave more and more of his time to spiritual discourses, he seems to have been induced to accept the offerings of his disciples for the satisfaction of his bare needs and, as he further advanced in age, to have given up his profession entirely. Out of the money entrusted to him by his disciples, he is said to have built a home for pilgrims and also a temple. Raidas gained the increasing veneration of his fellow citizens but a prejudice against his low caste seems to have persisted in the minds of men throughout. Raidas himself stoutly refused to accept that his low caste mattered in the eye of God and he continued to mention the names of earlier saints whose sainthood had been acknowledged in spite of their low origin.
Raidas was a pilgrim of the Bhakti-Marga or the path of devotion. To him this world is full of sorrow and suffering. The very thought of having been born caused him pain. He believed in the cycle of births and rebirths and craved for release from it. He believed that such an end can only be achieved by the mercy of God and such mercy can be had through prayer and devotion to the Supreme Being. Almost the same ideas occur in his songs again and again, He says:
This sea of existence is an endless torture, - O Govinda! One can see no end therein. Far, far is my home, and difficult to reach: - Wilt Thou not give me Assurance? Devotion to Thee is a ladder for the Saints: - Wilt Thou not help me to climb? It is a boat of iron, laden with stones; - And I am without good deeds or emotions. The desires are like waves, and infatuation Death, - Yet my mind is after the flesh. O Lord of the humble, listen to my prayer. - Why does Thou delay? Raidas is a slave at the feet of the Saints. - Give me protection now.
Time and again is Raidas moved by the falsehood and the transience of life as it appears to thoughtless people. "Why sleepeth?" he cries out passionately, "Wake thou, O mad man. This false life thou knoweth as true. "
High palace, hall and kitchens- - and then not one hour to live! This body is like a matted shutter made of grass: - When the grass has been burnt up, to dust it comes. Brother, kindred, family, and companions-all say: - "Take him out quickly! " The women of the house, who embraced thee in life, - run away crying, "Ghost! " Says Raidas: Everyone is plundered in this world. - I have escaped saying only the Name of Rama.
Raidas's faith in the power of prayer is infinite. It is by various names that he invokes his Lord. Rama, Govinda, Hari, Murari, Mukunda-whatever name he invokes, it is always the Nirguna or the attributeless Lord that is meant. He calls upon all and sundry to join with him repeating the Name of the Lord.
Repeat, ye people, the Name of Mukunda, of Mukunda. Without Mukunda the body wearieth. Mukunda is the giver of redemption; Mukunda is our father and mother. Living repeat the Name of Mukunda. Dying repeat the Name of Mukunda. His servant is ever in bliss.
But the devotion, which Raidasa calls upon people to offer to the Lord, is not of the ceremonial kind. Of its futility he seems to be too well aware. The devotion, which he asks the people to offer, must result in the effacement of the self.
Such is devotion, listen, O Brother: - When devotion is attained pride departs. What avails the dancing and the singing? - What avails the performance of the penances? What avails the washing of the feet - If the essence is not recognised?
What avails the shaving of the head, - What the performance of pilgrimage and fasting? Master and slave, devotee and servant- - these relationships avail not, - - if the Great Essence is not recognised.
Says Raidas: Devotion to Thee is a distant object- - he who finds it is greatly fortunate. Abandon the pride, and efface the self, - for thou art like an ant, and eateth the pickings.
The formal offerings to the Deity are of little worth, unless the mind be bent in devotion. How beautiful does Raidas express himself on this point!
What shall I offer Thee for worship, O Rama? - Fruits and flowers are rare, I find not. The milk in the cow's udder is defiled by the calf tasting. - The 'Bhramara' hath contaminated the flower, - - and the fish the water. The serpent entwines the sandal tree: - Poison and nectar are to be found side by side. In the mind is the worship: In the mind, the incense: - In the mind I attend on Thy natural Form. I know not Thy worship or oblation. - Says Raidas: What shall be my fate?
Songs of great beauty and devotion could easily be multiplied. One more, however, should suffice.
How can I forsake now the utterance of Thy Name? Thou art, O Lord, as the sandal-wood, and I am like water: Thine odour permeates every particle of my body. O Lord, Thou art like a dense forest, - while I am like a peacock. I fix my gaze on Thee, even as the Chakora - fixes its gaze on the moon. O Lord, Thou art like a Lamp, and I am like a wick, - which burns out of its flame day and night. Thou art, O Lord, like a pearl, - and I am just a thread that strings it. We mix together as gold mixes with borax. Thou art the Master, O Lord, I am Thy servant. Such is the devotion which Raidas offers Thee.
And such was Raidas, who spent his life in earnest devotion to his Lord, and may be said to have died in the faith embodied in the well-known lines:
Who cares, what one's caste or calling may be? He who prays unto Hari, is by Hari claimed as His own.