Guru Ravidass, who was active in the 15th century CE, was a North Indian Guru mystic of the bhakti movement, a monotheistic reform movement in which equality and rejection of caste hierarchy were major themes. His devotional songs and verses made a lasting impact upon the bhakti movement.
In one of his poems entitled, “Begumpura” he writes:
The regal realm with the sorrowless name
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
no taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right…
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends
Gail Omvedt in, Seeking Begumpura, writes “this poem was an expression, in the early modern age, of a utopia, perhaps the first one in Indian literature. In some ways it seems to stand alone, yet it was a harbinger – the kind of social vision that would underlie all the later struggles and theorising of anti-caste intellectuals. Begumpura meaning “land without sorrow” was, for Ravidas, an imagined or idealised city, without geographical location, without a history; where there is no suffering or fear and, most importantly, a place where all are equal; it was to be a later task to build it in space and time.”
Visualising a future is not an exercise in fantasy or wishful thinking. But neither is it easy. It requires that we step out of the realities that confront us day-in and day-out and look at ourselves, our lives, our communities and our world. It is a difficult thing to do because we are a product of this reality and to look at ourselves or a future, we need to create a space outside the many institutions that control our lives.
Chandralekha, dancer, artist and feminist, proposes that “we need dreams. By dreams, I don’t mean the chronic nightmares that we are familiar with… But a leap, a quantum jump, a flight into a future…we will need a fantasy that can cut across the oppressive reality of a system that has no visible exit, a system which is enclosed upon itself”. Significant changes in the world, in regimes and structures have been made possible by such dreams and visions of individuals, and a few names stand out –Aung San Suu Ky, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, or Ambedkar – who dreamed outside the box and led their communities towards an alternate society.
Few statements of vision in the Hebrew Bible have caught as much attention as the text in Isaiah 65: 17-25 written in the post exilic times, in which we find explicit mention of a new heaven and a new earth. It showcases an idealised world order in which all social, economic and political ills will be abolished and all will enjoy the fullness of life.
According to theologian Walter Brueggemann, it is a world order encompassing all human beings as all other creatures in the universe. There is nothing here that is private, spiritual, romantic or other worldly. The vision is social, historical, political, economic, ecological and this worldly. The dream of God and the hope of Israel are for the establishment of a new social order, which will embody peace, justice, freedom, equity and wellbeing, or shalom. The vision defies the way the world is, and sets the watching, listening community into a dangerous, alternative life, an alternative not even visible as long as we stay where we are and maintain status quo.
When we hear the recital of the prophet, we are invited into a land of possibility; we are authorised to re-construe our own lives out beyond the close definitions we have too long maintained.
It is an invitation that calls upon us to overcome any feelings of despondency, hopelessness, to use it to fight against possible fatigue and cynicism. It aims to offer a community in touch with its own identity and its purpose in the world to live into and out of the freedom evoked in this counter-construal.
It is essential that we seize this vision that is ‘oppositional in stance’ in yearning, because it is the good news that will overcome our fear, our doubt that imagines there is no new thing that can possibly enter our world.
This is a world that is desperately sought after by many today. By us – by those living and feeling the impacts of war, violence, global warming, climate change, ill health, capitalist greed, individualism, hatred, selfishness, and cultural fear.
The deep cultural fear that characterises our particular context has been evoked by the sea-change in population in this country, and the resultant flow of new ideas. For many there is aversion to the foreigner, disgust of the stranger.
Recent statements by some politicians and media personalities have enhanced our awareness of how deeply rooted those fears are and, therefore, how much more intensely we must struggle to overcome them. These statements are fuelling more deep seated fears. What is required is imagination, courage, and long range visioning that honour cultural difference and identity of the other.
Isaiah 65 provides an oppositional stance that may be enacted in many ways and need not always be one of direct confrontation.
It could begin with a determined refusal to accept the mandates and limits set by other and more dominant acts of imagination; a decision to proceed according to this construal of reality. Where there is no vision, the people might not perish but they will simply be governed in a fabricated world.
Call it the ‘Reign of God’, ‘New Jerusalem’ or ‘Begumpura’, may we hold on to this vision, may it inspire us to continue the struggle for its realisation; may we journey towards it with optimism and energy armed with the love, the determination and the courage instilled by faith.