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At A Crossroads, Granthis And Gurdwaras


Sep 24, 2004
At a Crossroads: Granthis & Gurdwaras



A granthi at a gurdwara was caught in a vortex – a psychologically downward spiral of loneliness, depression, alcohol abuse and hopelessness – so severe that he recently committed suicide.

The issues surrounding gurdwara granthis - their recruitment, selection and appointment, as well as on-the-job working conditions - are rife with matters of both management and human concern. The challenge is to find a solution so that the community gets its money’s worth and the granthis find fulfillment and satisfaction in their employment.

Unquestionably, a granthi’s job is very different from other jobs that we engage in to put food on the table, and that only adds to the challenge. But that, too, is a necessity that can’t be swept aside.

No one has formally surveyed gurdwaras in the diaspora about their practices and expectations regarding a granthi. But based on experience and anecdotal evidence, a minuscule minority, if at all, has in place a written, legally sound and enforceable contract between the granthi and the gurdwara.

In fact, perhaps at only one gurdwara, in Columbus Ohio, is one being negotiated. And perhaps one more in North America has a written contract and job description specifying expectations of employee and employer, conditions of employment, issues of remuneration, vacation, and related issues between the granthi and gurdwara management.

These are standard provisions for any kind of employment anywhere.

Keep in mind that granthis are not clergy (priests) and have no inherent ecclesiastical authority. But we seem to be creating a class that approximates priesthood, for which there is no provision in Sikhi. Let not granthis morph into the new Brahmins despite clear Sikh teachings that admits no middleman between God or Guru and the Sikh.

With that said, the logical question is: Do we need granthis in the first place?

Ideally, a gurdwara, that is, a training ground for a Sikh, should be self-managed by volunteers from the sangat. This is how individual Sikhs connect to the fundamentals of their faith as well as hone their skills of collaboration with each other for a bigger cause. That is how true kinship and communities develop.

But we must also recognize that granthis are an organizational necessity in today’s world. How, then, to define their role?

Are granthis mere employees, a class of people who function as caretakers of gurdwaras and the Granth? Or are they, in fact, as we would like to see them, curators or scholars of the Guru Granth, a teacher of the Sikh worldview, playing a larger role than one who serves the whims of the gurdwara management committee, and remains at their beck-and-call.

Let’s examine briefly the current relational dynamic between granthi, sangat and management committee.

Granthis in most North American gurdwaras are overwhelmingly Punjab-based, that is, they come directly from Punjab. Many, but not all, are reasonably well schooled in the Guru Granth and related Sikh literature, and adept in Indian mythological lore as well with varying degrees of competence in Punjabi and Gurmukhi, and on occasion, a few other Indic languages and traditions.

Such qualifications and skills are probably sufficient to serve the newly arriving immigrant community of Punjabi origin. And indeed granthis fulfill an emotional and cultural need for large segments of the sangat.

But being largely Punjab-based, granthis also bring cultural baggage that does not always resonate with sections of the sangat. We have surging populations of young Sikh men and women either born or largely reared outside Punjab and India. Their primary culture is less Punjabi/Indian and more American/Canadian/British/Australian – or any of a variety of additional possibilities.

The mélange of languages that the youth command may have widely varying levels of Punjabi intermixed with the local argot where they live. Significant and overwhelming parts of their lives are spent outside the Punjabi cultural ambit. Interfaith issues impact them on a daily basis, at work or at play.

This reality tells us that we need granthis who are equally adept in Western societies, their values, the Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as the language and culture of the countries in which we have created our presence.

We need to evolve a new professional approach to the matter that is sorely lacking at this time.

Management committees, on the other hand, bring their own cultural and feudal baggage rooted in Indian norms. This is best reflected in current hiring practices and the master-servant model that prevails once a granthi is hired. When management committees appoint a granthi, chances are that there is no job description. If there is one, it might describe the role of a person who is a scholar on Sikhi, and somewhat knowledgeable about the faiths of our neighbors.

The first requirement is often partially met, the second almost never.

The reality is that granthis are reduced to survival wages and their role can at best be described as gofers at the mercy of management committees - hardly ever as mentors and scholars in their (chosen?) profession of granthi.

What exactly, then, should the elements of a social and employment contract with the granthi be - given the constraints under which gurdwaras operate and the marginally adequate background that many granthis bring?

In appointing granthis, the main provisions that need and deserve our close scrutiny are:

1. A written agreement formally accepted by both employer and employee.
2. Educational qualifications and professional experience as well as language skills of the country where posted.
3. Duration of employment.
4. Probationary period.
5. Remuneration – weekly, monthly, yearly or some other time span.
6. Periodic adjustments as per changes in the Consumer Price Index.
7. Payments and Deductions for Income Tax or other payroll taxes, as per local laws.
8. Number of hours: fixed/flexible daily/weekly services as prescribed or feasible (when they may or may not exceed 40 hours).
9. Entitlements on death of employee or severance package at termination of employment.
10. Eligibility for return airfare to country of origin.
11. Annual recreation leave including weekly off periods.
12. Policy on paid vacation and sick leave.
13. Education of children under 18 years of age.
14. Boarding and lodging – residential accommodation including utilities.
15. Medical and dental expenses.
16. Additional income from Akhand Paath, Ardaas, functions and specially sponsored programs held within or outside of the gurdwara premises.
17. A sabbatical every seventh year.

These issues are largely self-evident. Most of us are familiar with how the world of independent contractors and employer-employee relationships works. And, of course, laws and conventions exist in every nation and even in the smallest levels of communities to guide us. That’s where the controlling legal authority would rest.

At a minimum, such an agreement establishes equality in the eyes of the law and will help educate management committees to shed some of their cultural mindset. It also ensures that an equitable contract will meet the basic needs of a granthi.

Before we examine possible solutions, it would be important to understand the extent and substance of the problems in the diaspora. A recommended first step in this direction would be to gather granthi data. This could be done by surveying the more than 200 gurdwaras that exist just in North America today. The survey could gather data about numbers, qualifications, skills, current roles, and employment agreements. Requirements from a granthi’s perspective could also be gathered.

A well-defined employment agreement would then be the next logical step in establishing a clear and equal relationship in the nexus of the management, sangat and granthi.

The other requirement – a granthi as a scholar who is equally versed in the mores of the West – is a long-term issue that would require more sustained planning.

The question really is how do we go about balancing the granthis’ worldly material needs and desired spiritual leadership with our needs as a community and as individual Sikhs in finding our way in and around the teachings, traditions and history of Sikhi.

There are a couple of steps that we can pursue, and they must run in tandem.

An obvious suggestion would be to develop an academy to train granthis with an expanded curriculum for our needs of today and tomorrow. But that will take time and resources. Yet, the process should have started yesterday.

In the meantime, while we await the new breed of granthis, we have no choice but to continue with the granthis that we have but supplement them with part-time associate granthis who can span the cultural and linguistic divide comfortably.

Where are we going to find such people? This is not so easy but it is definitively not impossible.

Our community has many Sikhs who migrated here 30 to 40 years ago. Their numbers then were negligible and gurdwaras were sp{censored}. Faced with the challenge of having to explain their faith, they self-learned the fundamentals of Sikhi and how to interact with non-Sikhs in the wider world.

Hiring this group of people, or requesting them to come in and work, as associate granthis, would be a step in the right direction. Some of them are retired. This will increase their availability and give them a new lease on life. It will solidify the community.

Gurdwaras need to develop functioning libraries and useful literature. In much of North America, continuing education courses in language arts and other skills are freely available. Granthi contracts should require a granthi to take a certain number of courses and help in the building of a library. A part of the granthi’s job should be scholarly writing, which a granthi must do to remain the curator of the Guru Granth. Also, as a representative of the Sikh viewpoint, a granthi should develop the skills to participate in interfaith forums.

We should encourage and help granthis to form an association where they can communicate and socialize. They need to develop a life outside the four walls of the gurdwara. A granthi is not a gopher and we can’t pay or treat him as if he is. A granthi is the way for us to better connect with Sikhi. The existing unreal, almost toxic relationship between granthis and gurdwaras has to change.

Our widespread communities should take these recommendations seriously and add caveats, conditions and requirements as needed to formulate professional, serviceable and useful policies.

The relational dynamics between the granthi, management and sangat need to be clearly understood and augmented. Without a strong tripod of these three, any gurdwara will at best remain wobbly and dysfunctional.
July 5, 2012

Gurmit Singh of Australia and Ravinder Singh of Ohio also contributed to this article.

I. J. Singh and Ravinder Singh are closely affiliated with the activities of the Sikh Research Institute and recommend exploration of its “Granthi Training Initiative.”

The author, Inder Jit Singh, is an anatomy professor at New York University. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, The Sikh Review, and is the author of four books: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias; The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress; Being and Becoming a Sikh; and The World According to Sikhi. He can be reached at ijsingh99@gmail.com.


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May 9, 2006
I admit I haven't read the whole article, but I wondered from reading the first paragraph, so you think granthis are bored? From my experience, the whole gurdwara regime is pretty standard and repetative. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that, but maybe if they were given more freedom to be creative and change things up a bit they'd be happier and mentally healthier?


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Ishna ji

I hear you and think this is another example of how we either do not know what we are and how to be what we are, or want to be 1,000 things in 1,000 ways. And we become angered it seems when others want something else but something just as complicated.

You notice that this OP article was in part motivated by another article about a granthi who committed suicide. I could not find the story on a Google search.

But here is another interesting thing to illustrate my earlier point. IJ Singh published a similar article at SikhChic. The comments to follow were passionate, and not always positive. You may find them very interesting.

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Jan 29, 2011
Vancouver, Canada
Many Granthis managing Gurudwaras alone in remote areas don't have any paid leaves. They are not allowed to leave the Gurudwara with gates closed. It is said that even if one person returns without Darshan, word will spread and it will affect 'revenue stream'. It is indeed sad that we want a Gurudwara in our community and in the long run we use such terms to talk about our place of worship.
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