Ravidas and the Ganga: Appropriation or Contestation?

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The centrality of the river Ganga (Ganges) to Indian civilisation can be seen in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India after independence, who in his last will and testament said of the river: "The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing and ever the same Ganga (Nehru's will of 21 June 1954, quoted in Ghose 1993, 342). In this chapter I will explore the relationship between the river Ganga, the goddess Ganga, the legends related to the medieval poet-saint Ravidas and examine how the terms "appropriation" and "contestation" might be related to exploring such relationships. I shall begin by showing that veneration of sacred rivers is one of the most ancient aspects of spiritual traditions found around the world. In India there has been a tradition of reverence for the sacred rivers as goddesses since an early period. The Ganges, or Ganga, is the foremost river of India: its deity, Mother Ganga, holds a special place in the spiritual life of the majority of the inhabitants of India. I then explore stories about the goddess Ganga found in Hindu, Buddhist and enthnographic literature about Chamar Communities. I argue that the veneration of the goddess was, and is, an aspect of the cultures associated with the Chamar communities of India. This leads to a study of how the Goddess appears in stories about Ravidas, who has for more than 500 years been regarded as the foremost religious leader of the former untouchable leather-working communities of North India. I argue that Chamar communities' cultures have always involved the worship of the goddess, and Ravidas' relationship to the Goddess Ganga should be seen as part of the process by which Chamar followers of Ravidas engaged in contestation over their rights to play a role in public and sacred spaces. I conclude that the relationship between Ravidas and his followers and the goddess Ganga is not an expression of appropriation but a manifestation of contestation within the public sphere.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationConceiving the Goddess: Transformation and Appropriation in Indic Religions
    Editors Jayant Bhalchandra Bapat and Ian Mabbett
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    PublisherMonash University Publishing
    ISBN (Print)9781925377309
    Publication statusPublished - 2016


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