A Ghulum Attending to a Customer

India (Delhi), Mughal, 1825


A ghulum, or bath attendant of the Shudra caste, attending to a customer in a Mughal inspired bath- house. The ghulum is providing snehana and svedana, two Ayurvedic procedures, to his customer. Snehana includes external oil massage that nourishes the nervous system, while svedana is the applying of hot steam to flush out the toxins from the body.

Often Hinduism is presented as a construct of upper-caste Brahmins in our academic and popular discourse whereas nothing can be far from truth. Hinduism in its construct and popular practice remains a spiritual-system of the masses and people now called Dalits/Shudras have been the prominent upholder and proponents of the Dharma. Veda Vyas himself was son of a fisherwoman and Rishi Parashar. It is Veda Vyas who systematised the four Vedas, wrote Mahabharat, which contains one of the holiest texts of Hindus – Gita. Besides these, 18 Puranas and Brahma Sutras are also attributed to him. It will be no exaggeration to say that Veda Vyas is the strongest pillar of the classical Hinduism. Rishi Valmiki, a Dalit saint, wrote Ramayana, the text which captured the imagination of people not only in India but around the world. Not only him but Kamban who wrote Kamban Ramayana in Tamil was also a Shudra. And without Ramayana and Ram Bhakti, there can be no conception of Hinduism. Rishi Matang was the son a Shudra mother with a Vaishya father. He is one the highly revered figure in Hinduism who was visited by Ram and Sita. His ashram was a refugee of the unfortunate and hopeless. Son of Veda Vyas and a shudra maid, Vidur, was a authority on Dharma whose teachings on Niti & Dharma are preserved in Viduraprajāgara in Mahabharat. In Mahabharata itself, Dharmaraj Yudhistir would often visit Sage Kapinjalada, who was born a Chandala, for guidance. Thiruvalluvar , Tamil poet-saint, who wrote Thiru-Kural was a lower caste weaver. Hindu history is full of saints belonging to the lower strata of the society and it was by them that the vitality of Hinduism was restored from time to time. Bhakti movement is an important case in the point. Bhakti movement was a popular reaction against the dry logic of atheists and Buddhists, which began in the South India. It was also the result of the discontent against social and caste hierarchies and later as a defence mechanism against forces of Islamic Imperialism. Bhakti movement threw up several Dalit saints whose contribution to the enrichment and shaping of Hinduism is immense. Saint Chokhamela, a Mahar,is a prominent 14th century figure in Marathi bhakti movement. He was the disciple of Sant Namdeo, himself a Shudra, and an ardent devotee of Vitthala. He wrote several famous Abhangas which are devotional poetry dedicated to the Vitthala. Kanhopatra was a female devotee of Vitthla. She was born in a brothel and was a courtesan & dancing girl before devoting herself to the worship of Vitthala. Like Chokhamela, she too belonged to the Varkari sect of Hinduism. She is the only women-saint of Varkari sect who is not associated with any male-figure and had no guru or belonged to any parampara. She attained sainthood purely on the basis of her devotion. Her abhangas are popular even today and the devotees worship the tree at her Samadhi in Pandharpur. Sant Nirmala was a Dalit Hindu women saint who was the sister of Chokhamela. She was entirely devoted to the Vitthala and wrote devotional poetry, which describes injustice of the prevalent social system. Her husband Sant Banka is a renowned figure in Hinduism whose poetry praises Vitthala in happiness and peace. Sant Soyarabai was wife of the Chokhamela and an important Bhakti saint. She produced a large devotional literature although only few of is survives today. Her poetry exudes intense devotion and advocacy of social reforms. Sant Janabai, in 13th century, was a Dalit Hindu woman Saint who is placed among most renowned saints of Vrakari sect like Dnyāneshwar, Tukaram etc. She is famous for her high-quality abhangas and almost 300 abhangas are attributed to her. In 12th century, a remarkable socio-religious movement emerged in Karnataka in the form of Sharana movement, which challenged social hierarchy and advocated utmost devotion to Shiva. It produced a whole literally tradition known as Vachana Sahitya, which spans several centuries. Vachana is a form of Kannada devotional poetry, which narrates personal spiritual experiences. The movement emerged from the below with Madara Chennaiah considered to be founder of the Vachana Sahitya. Like him most of the poets of came form castes lower in social hierarchy like Revanasiddha (a shepherd), Marulasiddha (an untouchable), Madivala Machideva (a washerman), Madara Dhoolaiah (a cobbler), Medara Ketaiah (a basket-maker) etc. They expressed their devotion by deploying the imagery of their trade & profession which were often considered to be inferior or impure like leather making etc. The movement transformed the social and spiritual landscaper of the Kannada society. Later, its legacy was carried forward by the Virashaiva Shaivaite denomination founded by Basava in the 12th century. The story of Manteswamy is immortalised in the popular oral Kannada epic Manteswamy Kavya. It talks about spiritual victory of a lowly person over those socially superior to him but insincere in their devotion. The epic is episodic and highly symbolic. Each episode represents a stage in evolution of civilisation and how ultimately technology has to be liberated from its hereditary practitioners i.e. caste system for the further progress of mankind. Another Kannada oral epic Male Madeshvara gives account of Madeshvara, a tribal hero who is considered to be an avatar of Shiva. Epic narrates the plight and struggle of the underprivileged for social upliftment and creation of an egalitarian society. It records how hill tribes of southern Karnataka were brought into the fold of the Hindu Dharma. The people coming from these families today are the hereditary ‘Archaks’ of the Mahadeshwara temple. Guru Ghasi Das (1756–1850CE) was born in low-caste family in Raipur, Chattisgarh.dalit saints pic He preached Satnami sect of Hinduism to the masses and established Satnami communities in Chattisgarh. His work resulted in social and religious upliftment of the several Dalit & outcaste communities in the state. In 18th century, Balarama Hadi, founded the Balahadi/Balarami sect in Nadia region of Bengal. He belonged to the Hadi (scavenger) caste. In his lifetime itself, he was considered as an avatar of Ram. Dharma he preached was for the householders and gained tremendous following among Dalit communities like Hadi, Dom, Bagdi, Muchi, Bede, Namashudra and even among Muslims. It rejected castes or any other social hierarchy and advocated path of devotion and ascetic to attain liberation. In 19th century, Sri Sri Harichand Thakur founded the Matua-Mahasangha, which is a reformative Hindu movement popular among the outcaste Namshudra community of Bengal. He is considered to be an avatar of Krishna. The movement rejected social hierarchy and advocated simple devotion and social harmony. It can be noticed that major feature of the teachings of these saints is creation of an egalitarian society, sagun bhakti & devotion to a personal benevolent deity and living a moral and ethical life. They are also rooted into the daily life of the people and have been the strength of the popular Hinduism over ages to reinvigorating it from time to time. -Abhinav Prakash Research Scholar, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi