The Medieval Age witnessed a change in the political and spiritual life of India. Turko-Afghans had acquired political control over northern India and the Sufis of the Chisthi Silsila like Moinuddin Chisthi, Nizamuddin Aulia, Qutbuddin Bhakhtiyar Kaki, Baba Farid and others established themselves in the Ajmer-Delhi region. They spearheaded the Islamic movement to convert northern India to their faith. By proclaiming the universality of Islam, these Sufi clerics sought to present an alternative to the deprived sections of the Hindu society. They could not, however, make much headway because of the hauteur of the Muslim ruling class. The divisions among the Muslim elites were in no way different from the caste system which they boasted did not exist in the Muslim society. At the lowest rung of the Muslim society were the Hindu converts to Islam; some like Malik Kafur rose in the hierarchy by dint of sheer merit. They were the exceptions. Hindu converts were mostly slaves, as the Sultans used to enslave Hindus to increase the population of Muslims.
The Islamic thrust led to a counter-movement from the Hindus, which provided hope to the masses. It came in the form of the Bhakti movement and Swami Ramananda was its leading light in northern India; it had its origin in the South pioneered by Ramanujacharya. According to one version, Ramananda originally belonged to the South, and he migrated to the North and propagated Ram-bhakti; previously the people were worshippers of Krishna only. Thus the Bhakti sampradaya came on the scene at an opportune time in the North. The teachings of Ramananda and his numerous followers in subsequent days provided the Hindu masses, who were denied the privileges by the upper castes even in matters of faith, an opening on the religious front. Ramananda had a galaxy of disciples that included Brahmins like Anantananda and Sukhananda, despite the fact he turned his face against Brahmin orthodoxy. More about this later.
The political events provided an ideal atmosphere for Ramananda’s ministry. Muslim atrocities were at their height at that time. It is said he succeeded in curbing their severity through his mystical powers. He was suited for the task from his birth.
It is generally accepted that Ramananda (1299-1410 CE) was born at Prayaga (present-day Allahabad) in an orthodox Kanyakubja Brahmin family. His father was Punyasadana, Bhurikarma or Devala, and mother was Sushila. He had a unique childhood. The family Purohit, Varanasi Awasthi, advised the parents to pay special attention to the child. They were cautioned not to take him out of the house till he was three years old. He should always be given milk and should never be allowed to see his image in a mirror. All these precautions were taken and when Ramadatta (Ramananda’s childhood name), was four, the annaprasana ceremony was held, in which he was given solid food. The child took a liking for payas (rice porridge) compared to the other dishes placed before him and that continued to be his food for the rest of his life.
Ramanada had the usual training of a boy born in an orthodox Brahmin family. When he was eight, he was invested with the sacred thread. By that time he had acquired considerable knowledge through listening to his scholarly father reciting the Vedas, other shastras and the epics. The boy had remarkable grasping and retentive power, which his proud father noticed. So, even at such a young age, he showed promise of his future brilliance. In no time, he became such a master that few could match him in discussions and debates.
After receiving initial training at home, he went to Varanasi for higher studies. There he first learnt under a Smarta teacher. The search for a guru led him to Raghavananda, a Vaishnava teacher of the Ramanuja sampradaya, who administered diksha and named him Ramananda. By age 12, Ramananda became a profound scholar. As was the practice in those days, his parents thought of marriage. The boy had decided on brahmacharya and he spurned the idea of marriage. After taking diksha, he settled down for tapasya in a hut in Panchaganga Ghat, Varanasi, following popular demand. He began to attract large crowds and his fame spread far and wide. Not only ordinary devotees, but scholars belonging to different faiths, like Buddhism, Jainism and Islam, would flock to him to have their doubts cleared. He had been equipped for a mystic role from his childhood.
After initiation, Ramananda served his guru for a number of years. Then he decided to go on tirth-yatra. Till then, Ramananda led the life of an orthodox Vaishnava. That pilgrimage proved to be a turning point in his life and he rebelled against prevailing customs. Differences arose between Ramananda and his guru over food. It was the custom at that time for anyone going on pilgrimage to be particular from whom one was accepting food; it was one way of ensuring the food was prepared by a Brahmin. But sometimes it became a little difficult. Ramananda could not satisfy his guru on that score. After discussing the matter, it was decided that the disciple should atone for any lapse through prayaschitta. This was galling to a man who began his career under a guru who thought highly of him; Ramananda would have none of it. He was expelled from the sect. It did not take long for him to cross the Rubicon.
Ramananda says: “Let no one ask a man’s caste or with whom he eats. If a man is devoted to Hari, he becomes Hari’s own.’’
Following the break with his guru, Ramananda democratized religion by propagating devotion to Ram and Sita. His philosophy was very simple. He did not believe in the supremacy of Brahmins and encouraged free dining among his followers irrespective of their previous caste labels. Ramanujacharya too, had great concern for the downtrodden. He left other methods to them for their moksha. Ramananda on the other hand made no such distinction. He raised the vernacular tongue to the status of Sanskrit and promoted the growth of language.
Ramananda evolved a sect that subordinated the importance of rites and ceremonies and of pilgrimages and fasts, and of learning and contemplation, to the higher excellence of worship by means of unalloyed faith. He preached no esoteric doctrine reserved only for the privileged few. The list of his prominent followers testifies to this. The most important twelve followers of the saint were Ravidas, the cobbler; Kabir, the weaver; Dhanna, the Jat peasant; Sena, the barber and Pipa, the Rajput, as well as Bhavanand, Sukhananda, Asananda, Surasuranada, Paramananda, Mahananda and Sri Ananda. Ramananda had a wider vision of spiritual life. He made no distinction of caste and creed, and even accepted Muslim devotees as his disciples. He also did not make any distinction or discrimination even between males and female. It is recorded that “Ramananda is the teacher who placed the sexes on equality by calling two women to be his disciples”. Among his top disciples were Padmavati and Surasari, who attained high spiritual powers. His disciples, too, initiated women, among whom were members of royal families like Jhali, the Queen of Chitor, and the famous Mirabai.
Ramananda exhorted his disciples to acquire only realized knowledge, as bookish knowledge was useless. “The way of faith is higher than the way of knowledge,” he declared. This is stated in the holy scriptures. What is new was that it came from one who was versed in bookish knowledge, but had given it up as a matter of principle.
One of what is said to be the saint’s composition is included in the Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs, but it is missing from the collection brought out by his disciples.
The saint’s exit from the world was as mystical as it could be. On the eve of Ramnavami he gathered his disciples around him and told them he was going to Ayodhya, and ordered them not to accompany him. Then he entered his hut and that was the last time the world saw him.