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On Sects & Denominations in Sikhi by I.J. Singh

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by IJSingh, Sep 29, 2015.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Recently a gurduara in North America ran into a problem. It wanted to sponsor a religious worker from India. There may be ways to circumvent the law but they were told that it required the beneficiary and the petitioner to certify that both belong to the same religious denomination or sect of the religion for at least two preceding years.

    So far so good until the petitioner claimed that Sikhi has no denominations or sects. Mind you, I have heard the same passionately framed formulation from many dedicated Sikhs and scholars of Sikhi over the years.

    What constitutes a denomination or a sect in a religion and does Sikhi have any? That’s the question. Is it true that Sikhi has no sects?

    First let’s define some terms. In practice many, if not most, critical concepts in the study of most, if not all, religions lack precise definitions.

    Religion then becomes the belief system, whatever it is, of the writer or the reader. Convention further mandates that a given system or “religion” be in place for a certain indeterminate length of time measured in span of centuries or at least several decades at the minimum to be seen as an independent faith or religion.

    The humorist Leo Pfeiffer summed it thus: “If you believe in it, it is a religion or “the” religion; if you do not care for it one way or the other about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.” Cults are fearsome entities that remind us of Manson and Jim Jones. The word “cult” is a derogatory term, and it remains difficult or impossible to redeem it of its evil connotations since the 1930’s. In Sikhi it reminds us of the slew of “Babaas and Deraas” that increasingly continue to dot the countryside of Punjab in India.

    In my view any system, whether of civil government or religion, in time, spawns contrary and differing interpretations and modifications in models and practices. If it stays within the larger framework of “the religion” it becomes a sect or a denomination; if it sunders all connection with the parental fold it morphs into a new religion.

    History tells us that many Jews accepted the Jewish born, Jesus, as the promised Messiah, though many more Jews did not accept him as such and still await one. This gave birth to a movement “Jews for Jesus” that was fairly substantial 2000 years ago but regressed with time. It still exists but is now minuscule.

    But those that accepted Jesus as the Messiah have become a worldwide, powerful presence – Christianity -- that is now so large and so clearly and separately defined from its parent religion of Judaism that no one would label it a sect, denomination or reform movement within Judaism. It would be asinine to do so.

    Christianity is now an unquestionably separate religion from Judaism with clear differences in belief, practices, religious rites, creed or statement of faith, worship services, formal or informal code of doctrine and discipline, as well as its ecclesiastical structure and governance.

    Sikhism, though the fifth largest faith of mankind, is a relatively small religion of about 25 million worldwide and is also one of the youngest, having started only a little over 500 years ago.

    There is no doubt that the core beliefs of Sikhi are unique and dramatically different from Hinduism and Islam that were and continue to be its largest and most influential neighbors in India. I would say that in India Sikhism exists as a drop in the sea of Indian (largely Hindu) mythology and worldview. Yet it is eye-opening to see how Sikhi’s worldview and social practices that were so mixed with Hindu cultural practices have evolved so clearly into a vision that is entirely separate from that of its neighboring faiths. More importantly, I would assert that this evolutionary process continues unabated even today.

    Denominations and cults are, to my mind, inevitable with time. I point out that Christianity today boasts of over 250 denominations – although I have also read of the number being larger than a thousand.

    Sikhi, too, has not escaped the process. Our “Deraas and Babaas” are often evidence of cults that remain within the larger framework of Sikh practices, doctrines and beliefs.

    There are also a few, less than a handful of reform movements in Sikhism that might merit the handle of denominations. Pre-eminent among them are the Namdharis, started by Baba Balak Singh in the early 19th century. His premise was a major disagreement and fundamental split with the larger mainstream of Sikh doctrine on whether the line of Gurus in human form ended with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 or not. The larger body of Sikhs believes that it did, Namdharees believe that the line of living Gurus in human form continues unbroken even today.

    Nevertheless, even the Naamdharees have a significant and continuing contribution to Sikh sacred music. They attend the same places of worship (gurduaras) as the mainstream Sikhs do, and observe the same requirements of the faith except the one noted above. Intermarriages between the two factions are common. The teachings, doctrines and observances remain the same with the one significant exception noted.

    In the light of the above it is easy to posit that Naamdharees are not a different religion. One could argue that they are a distinct denomination or sect but, significantly, it is not so easy to make a convincing case for that proposition either.

    Similar situation holds as far as Radhaswamis or Ravidasis are concerned.

    I remember when Yogi Bhajan’s movement took hold in North America beginning in the early 1970’s. All of a sudden there were a large number of converts to Sikhism, largely White Americans of North-West European ancestry. They spoke little Punjabi and had only a rudimentary perception of and connection to Punjabi Sikhs -- their language, music, cuisine or culture. Many were survivors of the wild and tumultuous 1960’s.

    I remember when Punjabi Sikhs would taunt these “Yogi” converts with the challenge: “Are you Sikhs of the Guru or of Yogi Bhajan? Now a generation later, good sense has prevailed -- the divide has been largely spanned and these converts are no longer seen as aliens from outer space; they are welcomed and increasingly well integrated into the wider world of Sikhi. They, too, are bound by the same ways, teachings and traditions of Sikhi as any other Sikhs. Yet, they show departures in some practices, notably their insistent practices of yoga and vegetarianism.

    Perhaps we are still at the stage where we do not see any visible sects or denominations within Sikhi. As I stated at the start of this essay, for immigration and sponsorship purposes the question that remains is only whether a Sikh has been a Sikh for at least two years.

    At this time this matter is not so difficult to answer. Sikhi is not an actively proselytizing faith, although it welcomes converts who wish to join us. But we do not spend time, energy or resources diminishing other faiths in order to convince them of the errors of their ways.

    For immigration sponsorship of religious workers apparently all that we need is for a person to submit a sworn and attested affidavit as to his Sikh status – by birth or by conversion, supported by statement of when and where the conversion occurred.

    Now a post script: Keep in mind that I started with the immigration lawyers coming back with the requirement that both the candidate and the sponsors belong to the same denomination of Sikhi. They named four different branches of Sikhism -- Orthodox, Udasi, Keshadhari and Sahajdhari -- and wanted to specify the commonality of denomination for both the sponsors and the candidates.

    I am not sure where the lawyers for the Immigration Service got this classification. To me it surely is a false dichotomy. All so called “Orthodox” Sikhs, by definition are Keshadhari; Udasis may or may not be. I am not sure that Udasis are in the mainstream of modern Sikhism. I am not even they sure that they form a distinct sect of Sikhi. Keshadhari here means those who maintain long unshorn hair; this term does not necessarily insist on any other requirements of the faith.

    All religions have followers where some individuals are more observant (orthodox) than others. In some, like the Jews, the division becomes more formal and one could label them denominations or sects. (I am not sure if Jews would accept my reasoning in this matter.) Such differences do not constitute denominations in most religions, including the Sikhs. In Christianity the split between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants shows a fundamental doctrinal divide; thus the separate identities of these two denominations (sects) are etched in stone. Over time, Christianity has spawned many more.

    I would divide Sikhs into three categories (not officially recognized denominations): 1. Amritdharis, 2. Keshadhari but non-Amritdharis, and 3. Sehajdharis. But these are not separate denominations or sects. Both 1 and 2 are Keshadhari since they have long unshorn hair. Sehajdharis, for whatever reasons, are not long-haired Sikhs. They may have been raised that way or may have cut their hair for whatever reason that suited them. Nevertheless there is no separate denomination or sect of either. All avow the same edicts, traditions, doctrines and practices. All of them attend the same places of worship and live by the same rituals and traditions. The same institutional structure governs them.

    So where do we end up? Are there denominations or sects in Sikhi or not?
     
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  3. Original

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    Sir

    If leading scholars like you start chipping at the very core foundation of Sikhism with inconsistent propositions, what of the ordinary Sikh and the future of its institutions ? Surely, the Immigration Authorities ought to be challenged and told of the incongruity of their unfounded claims. The proposal must be refuted on the basis that Sikhism promotes the unity of humankind and not the segregation of its constituents into sects and denominations.

    Regards
     
  4. Ishna

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    I applaud IJ Singh Ji for actually writing about this taboo topic. I've never quite understood why Sikhs want to keep this a secret.

    Yours is a great ideal, Original Ji, 'one Sikhi', but the reality is that there are denominations.
    • SGPC "mainstream" Sikhi
    • Damdami Taksal Sikhi
    • Akhand Kirtani Jatha Sikhi
    • 3HO
    There may be others, I don't know. But each of these groups have their own traditions and Rehat Maryadas.

    And on a personal level, the distinction between Sikhs is more of a measure of where one's at with their commitment to the way of life, rather than sects.
    • Amritdhari
    • Keshdhari
    • Sehajdari
     
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  5. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Please keep in mind that I am not a scholar of Sikhi merely a Sikh whose is curious about who we are, what we are and why we are the way we are.The reality is that there have been historically factions within Sikhi, some more powerful than others. I am just taking note of some and then drawing some parallels with other religions that exist around us. The purpose is not to promote factions, cults or divisions within the faith but to take note of what exists around us. Silence in such matters does not cure the problem. Such matters, when aired out in the marketplace of conversation and exchanges may be the only treatment.

    I really do appreciate your comment very much.

    I.J. Singh
     
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  6. Original

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    I applaud IJ Singh Ji

    I do too ! The question is, is he not someone, who as an amritdhari Sikh, obliged to protect n preserve the ideals of his belief ? In my humble opinion, he is ?

    Ishna said:
    taboo topic

    ...more of a cultural perception, I would say ! As a distinct social group [Indians, North], we tend to preserve n promote virtuous ideals. Take for example, perseverence, this is something that is grounded into our social networking from the grassroot level. It is quite common for a Sikh nuclear family to go through difficult patches at home without the neighbours knowing. The idea is to persevere, hope n pray for situations to get better without advertising, whereas, the same in the western world is treated like, 'problem shared is problem halved'. So yes, I feel its more of a social-cultural orientation rather than political [taboo].

    Ishna said:
    I've never quite understood why Sikhs want to keep this a secret.

    ..I don't think [I'm only speculating] Sikhs in general are that way inclined for it goes against the grain of their system of belief n virtue. There are no secrets in the house of Nanak, yes, stand-alone agendas maybe ! Again, a matter of perception, in my view.

    Ishna said:
    Yours is a great ideal, Original Ji, 'one Sikhi', but the reality is that there are denominations.

    ...thank you ! I'm not aware, but do these sub-divisions have legal status of their own and are separate and independent of Sikh Faith?

    The rationale behind the letter to IJS was to counter in the first instance the proposals made by the Immigration Authorities [IA], on the presumption of the "oneness" of Sikh Faith as opposed to sects n denominations. And, thereafter the burden is on IA to prove the existence of such separate entities otherwise. Historically speaking, it was to this end that young Nanak travelled far n wide preaching his new doctrine of reconciliation between the two faiths [Islam n Hinduism] and stressing the importance of a true monotheism [Ikonkar] God. In that regard, I feel us obliged to preserve n protect the founding principles under which Sikhism was born. And, indeed, it would appear ironic in the fact that a faith designed to bring humankind together should itself start splitting willy nilly.

    The dominant form of law-making is legislation, meaning, any such society regulated by a complex adminstrative machinery, the adminstrators [IA Personnel] have a sphere of power within which, in the interest of certainity and efficiency, they operate freely [discretion]. It is to this end that we want to appeal to render all Sikhs as of one genus. The correct test would be to show that, "all Sikhs believe in SGGSJ" [1st premise, general] and then establish, "Ishna Kaur believes in SGGSJ" [2nd premise, particular], it follows therefore, that Ishna Kaur is a Sikh. Of course and since the burden is on IA, let them prove sects n denominations, keeping-in-check, their criterion and formula in determining the same as valid, correct and legitmately executed.


    Apologies for formatting n submitting incorrectly !
     
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  7. Original

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    Sir

    I'm sorry for addressing you as a "scholar", definitely an understatement, for you are above n beyond such mere status of conventional recognition. You are a "Gur Sikh" of which there is no comparision. And, it is not merely knowledge of subject matter that denotes one a scholar but the understanding and application thereof, especially when expressed as elegantly as you do through the power of writing. It was in regard that I thought, who better than you, to rebutt the Immigration Authorities. Whatever the case maybe, evolution will only advance what it favours to be right n proper for the better of humankind. So, whether sects n denominations are for real or not a Gur Sikh waves it, thus, "tera bhanna meetha laga"

    Goodnight n Godbless
     
  8. Ishna

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    Dear @Original Ji

    Not that I am aware, as that would make them separate religions. As far as I understand it, they are denominations within Sikhi. Much like how the Catholic Church has off-shoot churches that are still 'in communion' with them, or the Protestants have so many different denominations, or all the different denominations within Hindu Dharma.

    Is it a problem for Sikhi to have denominations within the body of itself?

    I say that SGPC, Damdami Taksal (DT), Akhand Kirtani Jatha (AKJ) and 3HO are denominations because they each have their own Rehat Maryada, their own traditions, katha and sakhis they hold dear. If you put a garden-variety SGPC amritdhari woman next to an AKJ amritdhari, you will most likely be able to see differences straight away. I'd compare an amritdhari DT to AKJ, but does the DT even give khande di pahul to women? Or only the lesser amrit I've seen described, you know, since no women stepped up and gave their head to Guru Gobind Singh on that fateful Vaisakhi in 1699?

    AKJ don't allow non-amritdhari Sikhs into their langar kitchens. 3HO bring in so much Yogi Bhajan stuff they almost fall out of the Sikh religious basket entirely!

    How else could these distinct groups within Sikhi be described, if they are not denominations?
     
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  9. Original

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    ...oops ! let us be a little careful with how we frame a picture. A philosopher's job is to investgate through careful critical examination in evaluating the information to hand. The task assigned to Ishna by our dear and learned friend IJS is, "So where do we end up? Are there denominations or sects in Sikhi or not? You may first want to start with your own definitions [see IJS above] and not necessarily rely on other faiths for comparisons coz a philospher gives birth to the correct and true insight. Accordingly, you would look up denomination and then with all the evidence before you, try n formulate in general, systematic, coherent and consistent a picture, of what you have come to know through rational thinking, bearing in mind of course, that a philosopher looks for the eternal, true and the permanence in things and situations.

    As a Philospher, you would want to hold on to the real and the true ideals that were once evident of the religion, upon which you have called to deliberate. Again, you may first want to define what is real n true. Consider the following:

    "....on a full moon night, a young monk caused many barrels of oil to be placed in an open courtyard so that the reflection of the moon could be clearly seen in their oily surfaces. Said, the young monk, "the moon in the oil barrels is a truthful reflection and you may believe them to be as many moons as the barrels if you don't look up to the moon above for that is a single reality".

    Another way of looking at is, for example, table, chairs, furniture in general are true for they exist independently, but are really products of "wood".

    I will let you construct a good model answer for IJS - remember, a philosopher is not interested in the changing attitudes n practices of the times, [that'd be a sociologist's job] but rather with the real n the true Sikh.
     
  10. Original

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    Dear Ishna Ji

    Forgive me for the presentation, I get stuck with posting what I write, might need bailing out here n there - sorry !


    Is it a problem for Sikhi to have denominations within the body of itself?

    ...is there a difference between a shadow and the object that's casting the shadow ?...again, as a philosopher you want to be careful with the truth [satnam], for, on the one hand you've got "change" and on the other "permanence" - what and how much should be subjected in each case is what you will decide, bearing in mind of course, philosophers are trustees and not beneficiaries, that is to say, Gur Ghar trusted us with something to keep intact, but at the same time gave us the freedom to attend to the "necessary" re-evaluations in line with evolutionary dictates for the comfort of the beneficiaries [humans].

    Ishna said:

    I say that SGPC, Damdami Taksal (DT), Akhand Kirtani Jatha (AKJ) and 3HO are denominations because they each have their own Rehat Maryada, their own traditions, katha and sakhis they hold dear. If you put a garden-variety SGPC amritdhari woman next to an AKJ amritdhari, you will most likely be able to see differences straight away. I'd compare an amritdhari DT to AKJ, but does the DT even give khande di pahul to women? Or only the lesser amrit I've seen described, you know, since no women stepped up and gave their head to Guru Gobind Singh on that fateful Vaisakhi in 1699?

    AKJ don't allow non-amritdhari Sikhs into their langar kitchens. 3HO bring in so much Yogi Bhajan stuff they almost fall out of the Sikh religious basket entirely!

    Thank you ! For me it's education, I don't know in depth.
    Ishna said:
    How else could these distinct groups within Sikhi be described, if they are not denominations?

    ...by whose standards, definitions, yard-stick are we measuring them to be denominations? I'm of the opinion that if all leading practitioners of these so called sects n denominations were to be brought to account for the true name [satnam] they'd all bow to SGGSJ.
     
  11. Ishna

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    Dear Original Ji

    Perhaps I've given you the wrong impression of myself. I am nowhere near smart enough to be a philosopher myself. I leave that up to wiser people. As a Sikh, I am a student of the Guru, who I regard as the great philosopher (among other things). I hope that clears it up.

    Also, I'm not university educated, and I admit that I lack the proper skills of debate and expression of critical thinking skills. Please forgive me.

    If "denomination" is not the right word, then I come back to you with "what is the correct term to describe the different groups within Sikhi?" Or do you not perceive any distinct groups?

    Sure, they all bow to Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. They all have langar. They all prepare karah prashad. But, as I mentioned, they have different codes of conduct and some different traditions. Different nitnem. In the case of AKJs, a different Kakkar (keski is their kakkar instead of kesh, but they still keep their hair). In some cases, different kurehits (no meat at all vs no halal meat).

    I'm not sure, @IJSingh Ji was getting at this in particular, or was more concerned with the difference between amritdhari, keshdhari and sehajdhari. In terms of the Immigration Service, I think they've got their perspective upside down. Or I'm just not understanding the complexity and subtlety around the different kinds of Sikhs in the world.

    It would make a fascinating chart, actually.
     
  12. Original

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    ...as a social group, we're all one, in this case, Sikh, with a shared sense of universal morality. Our belief, value, culture and environmental constitution deem us to be a particular social group on grounds rooted in our evolutionary descent, but yes, from what you n IJS have highlighted, there would appear to be factions. Now these factions or quasi-denominations may, prima-facie, appear to be in existence, they are nevertheless, factors for Immigration Authorities to prove as having some form of legal status. And, it is in that regard that I've suggested an immediate rebuttal.

    The vantage point from where I'm coming is that "all" Sikhs fall under the one heading - Sikh. Why is it that the IAS should deem them otherwise and if so [whether legal, policy or procedural reasons], what criterion, formula and the grounds in general were used to come to that conclusion ?

    Moving away from it all and looking at it philosophically, isn't the entire creation divided and sub-divided. For example, take the two different categories, living things n non living things. Further divide them into specific class, that is, plants n creatures, and further divide them into, animals and humans and so forth. But the point in question with which we are preoccupied is where do these sub-divisions within a system of belief end ? What of its originality if we allow sub divisions to water down founding principles n practices ?

    You don't need to be degree educated, you need to be Ishna who is religiously ordained and passionately involved with her dharm [Sikh, meaning righteousness]. If anyone, you are the future of Sikhism and I take lot of pride in that.

    Good day !
     
  13. whiteflash

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    From my perspective, 3HO is not a denomination of Sikhism, but rather a yogic lifestyle. I believe you can follow Yogi Bhajan's teachings and not be a Sikh. That is the beauty of Bhajan.
    --Whiteflash
     
  14. linzer

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    Sure You can pratice the "yogic lifestye" of 3HO and not be a Sikh but If you practice sikhi as a yogi that makes you part of a sect.
     
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