Ramananda, who flourished in the first half of the fifteenth century, was the first great Bhakti saint of North India. He opened the door of bhakti to all without any distinction of birth, caste, creed or sex. He was a worshipper of Rama and believed in two great principles, namely, (a) perfect love for God and (b) human brotherhood.
Ramananda adopted Hindi as the medium of his discourses and his message directly reached the common people. In his teachings the caste rigours were greatly softened and even Shudras were considered equal in the eyes of God.
Ramanada did away with the insular social behaviour of the Hindus by throwing his spiritual door wide open for members of all castes. Religion now became a question of faith, emotion and devotion. As a result of his teaching, a member of the despised classes could reach his God without an intermediary.
His unique contribution to Indian spiritual life was the spirit of synthesis observed in his teaching. He accepted all that was true and of permanent value in our spiritual heritage – the philosophy of meditation (yoga and knowledge from the North and the absolute surrender (prapatti) of the Bhakti cult from the South – and rejected all that was untrue, ephemeral, or rigidly sectarian. There is a popular verse to this effect: ‘Bhakti arose first in the Dravida land Ramananda brought it to the North; and Kabir spread it to the seven continents and nine divisions of the world.
Ramananda borrowed ideas from various religious schools, vitalized them with the love and devotion of his heart, and founded a new path of spiritual realization. We do not come across many of his sayings, but the radiant personality of his disciples-the men he created-constituted his living message. His one song is incorporated in the Granth Sahib.
Though Ramananda used the popular name of Rama, his God was the one God of love and mercy without any imperfection-not the eternal Brahman of the Vedanta, but the beloved, the friend, and the lord of one’s heart.
When Ramananda perceived that there is only one God who is the origin of all, all the distinctions of caste and creed vanished for him, and he saw humanity as one large family, and all men as brothers.
One man is higher than another, not through his birth, but only through his love and sympathy. So he started preaching to all without any reserve, and his fundamental teaching was the gospel of love and devotion. He also gave up the use of Sanskrit and started preaching in the language of the people, thus laying the foundation of modem vernacular literatures.
It is said that his first twelve followers were: Ravidasa the cobbler, Kabir the weaver, Dhann the Jat peasant, Sena the barber, Pipa the Rajput, Bhavananda, Sukhanda, Asananda, Surasurananda, Parmananda, Mahananda, and Sri Ananda. But some of them were not personally initiated by him; they were drawn to his ideas long after his demise.
Ravidasa (Raidas): (Fifteenth Century) He was one of the most famous disciples of Ramananda. He was a cobbler by birth, but his religious life was as exalted and pure as it was deep. There are over thirty hymns of Ravidasa collected in the Granth Sahib of the Sikhs. Kabir also has expressed more than once his deep reverence for him.
Ravidasa was the worshipper of the one infinite God, who is above and beyond all religious sects and without beginning or end. He preached that the Lord resides within the hearts of his devotees, and cannot be accessed through the performance of any rites and ceremonies. Only one who has felt the pangs of divine love will find Him, and the highest expression of religion in life is the service of man.