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Controversial Defining Authority In Sikhism

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by spnadmin, Feb 26, 2016.

  1. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    admin note: The role and authority of Akaal Takht has always been of historical interest to me, as a question of spiritual and temporal authority in Sikhism. We have no clergy, no intermediaries. The Sikh Rehat Maryada charges every Sikh to take Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji as spiritual authority, and to defer to gurmatta, or to sangat as temporal guru on matters affecting the quom at large. Why then do so many web sites refer to Akaal Takht as the "highest spiritual body" or the "apex body?"


    The term Akaal Takht means something quite different. Its history reveals wave after wave of controversy. When I found this article it occurred to me that other members, including those New to Sikhism, wonder about authority in Sikhi and might find this informative. It addresses themes such as the continuing attraction of human gurus and the "sant syndrome" of modern times, the institution of panj pyare, the Akal Takht itself, the unique position of Sikhs in the diaspora in relation to Akaal Takht. The author also weighs the impact of the Singh Sabha movement and the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 as challenges to the centralization of authority and power.

    Information in this article concludes with 1995. Our plan at SPN is to follow up with sequels from other scholarly works on the question of authority in Sikhism.

    Source: DISKUS Vol.3 No.2 (1995) pp.43-58

    Problems of Defining Authority in Sikhism

    Dr. Sewa Singh Kalsi
    Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies
    University of Leeds
    Leeds LS2 9JT

    The paper explores the locus of authority in Sikhism. Areas covered include the authority of the human gurus, the transfer of guruship and the position of Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), disputes over authority in the post-Khalsa period and the Sarbat Khalsa, Sikh authority under British rule, the Singh Sabha movement, the Punjabi Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 and the formation of the SGPC, the Sants, and especially among diaspora Sikhs the roles of sangat, caste, panj-pyarey.

    According to the normative view, Sikhism may be described as a guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) oriented tradition which was evolved and developed by ten human Gurus over a period of two hundred and thirty-nine years. At his death in 1708, the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, is believed to have transferred his personal authority to the Adi Granth (Sikh scripture) and the Khalsa Panth. This paper aims to examine the development of authority in Sikhism with a view to understanding the process of change from the role and status of the human Gurus to that of the doctrine of the Guru Granth Sahib and Guru Panth as a living Guru. It intends also to locate answers to these issues by examining various sources of authority which emerged within the Sikh tradition over a period of five hundred years, i.e. human Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib, the sangat, the Khalsa Panth, panj-pyarey (five initiated Sikhs) and the British Raj. The paper further endeavours to analyse the complexity of the nature of authority as perceived and experienced by the Sikh generation born and brought up in diaspora.

    Sikhism is an integral part of the Indic cultural tradition, originating in the Punjab in the 15th century. Its founder, Nanak Dev, was born in 1469 in the village named Talwandi near Lahore. He was popularly known as Guru Nanak. At the outset it is vital to look at the etymology of the term 'Sikhism' for understanding the origin of authority in the Sikh tradition. The term 'Sikhism' has been applied to the Sikh tradition by British administrators and Western scholars whereas the people of Punjab use the terms 'Sikhi', 'Sikh dharm' or 'guru-mat'. Sikhi means the Sikh way of life, comprising both belief and practice. 'Sikh dharm' denotes the religious, social and moral code of discipline of the Sikhs, and 'Guru-mat' literally the mind or the intention of the Guru or the teachings of the Guru.

    Now we are confronted with two most significant terms at the heart of Sikhism, i.e. Guru and Sikh. Reflection on the origin of these terms is essential for understanding the historical link of the Sikh tradition with the centuries-old Indian institution of guru-shishya. The terms 'guru' and 'shishya' originated in Sanskrit: 'gu' means darkness and 'ru' means light; a guru is one who dispels darkness and enlightens his/her pupils. Likewise, the word Sikh has its origin in the Sanskrit term 'shishya' meaning a disciple, a learner or a student. According to S.S. Kohli, the guru-shishya tradition is very old in India and goes back to the Upanishadic period (Kohli, 1990).

    The institution of guruship is fundamental for understanding the Indic religious and cultural tradition. In traditional India, the guru performed various functions connected with rites of passage. He was a vidya guru (one who imparted secular and religious knowledge); craft guru, who was responsible for teaching technical skills; kul guru (family guru, called prohit) who officiated in various rites of passage in the family; and raj guru (royal teacher) who was entrusted to advise the king and officiated in the crowning ceremony called tilak. According to The Method of Enlightening the Disciple:

    "The guru is one who is endowed with the power of furnishing arguments pro and con, of understanding questions and remembering them, one who possesses tranquillity, self-control, compassion and a desire to help others, who is versed in the scriptures and unattached to enjoyments both seen and unseen, who has renounced the means to all kind of actions, is a knower of Brahman and established in it and who is devoid of shortcomings such as ostentation, pride, deceit, cunning, jugglery, falsehood, egotism and attachment." (Quoted in Survey of Hinduism by K.L. Klostermaier, 1989:193)

    The role and the status of a guru is intimately linked with the doctrine of varnashramadharma which is fundamental for understanding Hinduism. The ashramas (four stages of human life) begin with brahmchariya ashrama (studentship) when a Hindu boy is entrusted to his guru for studies before he embarks on the second ashrama, that is the householder. It can be argued that at the heart of the Indic tradition lies the institution of the guru who is revered as a deity by his disciples. Lord Buddha, Mahavira, and Shankara for example were great gurus of their disciples and traditions. Likewise, the Indian craftsmen worship Lord Vishvakarma who is regarded as their craft deity. The notion of be-gura (without a guru) highlights the importance of the institution of guruship in Indic culture. The Punjabi term 'be-gura' is regarded as most abusive. It is applied to someone who has no moral principles and lacks the guidance of a guru; it is also used for those craftsmen who perform shoddy workmanship. It also implies the state of awagaun (cycle of life and death) for the be-gura, as mukti or moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death) can only be achieved by the grace of guru.

    Authority under the Sikh Gurus

    The fundamental institutions of the Sikh tradition bear the seal of human Gurus who displayed extraordinary creative power and self-sacrifice for the development of Sikhism in India. For example, Guru Nanak established the institution of guruship by appointing one of his disciples as his successor at a ceremony which followed the traditional Indian model. Guru Nanak placed five coins before Lehna and touched his feet; this was symbolic of the transfer of his personal authority to his disciple who was declared by him as Guru Angad (His own limb). This tradition was followed by virtually all Gurus except Guru Hargobind, Guru Teg Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh.

    It was the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev who compiled the Sikh scripture (Adi Granth) and built the Harmandir Sahib (central place of worship of the Sikhs) in 1603/4. It was he who installed the Adi Granth in the Harmandir Sahib. Guru Arjan Dev was accused by the Moghal emperor Jehangir of using derogatory language against Islam and was tortured to death. As a matter of fact, the Adi Granth contains the compositions of Muslim and Hindu saints alongside the writings of the Sikh Gurus. According to Sikh tradition, one of the important factors in the introduction of the concept of miri-piri (temporal and spiritual authority) <1> in Sikhism by the sixth Guru, Hargobind, was the martyrdom of his father, Guru Arjun Dev.

    It is important to examine the difficulties and confusion which emerged concerning the transfer of guruship after the death of the eighth Guru, Hari Krishen. He became Guru at the age of five. The Moghal emperor Aurangzeb was not happy about this appointment and summoned the young Guru to Delhi, where he died stricken with small-pox at the age of eight. It is believed that before his death Guru Hari Krishen declared: "My successor is at the village of Bakala". It is a mystery that the Guru did not name his successor, who was his grandfather's half-brother. According to Sikh tradition twenty-two claimants declared their right to the guruship and set up their headquarters at the village of Bakala.

    The episode of 'Guru ladho rey' (I've found the Guru) is significant for our discussion concerning the solution of the transfer of guruship to the ninth Guru, Teg Bahadur. According to the tradition one devout Sikh, Makhan Shah Lubana, found the true Guru at Bakala. After examining the credentials of false claimants he met Guru Teg Bahadur and made the declaration: 'Guru ladho rey'. The people of Bakala were pleased to meet their true Guru who had been living at their village for a long time. The pronouncement of 'Guru ladho rey' has an historical significance for understanding the continuity of the line of human gurus and the issue of authority in Sikhism. In this case, it can be argued that a devout Sikh, Makhan Shah, was endowed with the authority to nominate the successor to the eighth Guru, Hari Krishen. Although the Adi Granth (Sikh scripture) and the doctrine of 'bani guru - guru hai bani' (Word is guru and Guru is Word) were available to the Sikhs, the dispute concerning the transfer of guruship was not resolved by taking guidance from the Adi Granth. It suggests that the concept of bani guru - guru hai bani had not emerged as the predominant institution within the Sikh tradition by that time.

    After having been declared the rightful successor to the guruship, Guru Teg Bahadur proceeded to pay his homage to the Harmandir Sahib. He was not allowed to enter the Golden Temple by the custodians, who happened to be his close relatives; they refused to acknowledge his authority as the legitimate successor to the eighth Guru. Guru Teg Bahadur did not assert his authority as Guru to enter the temple. Instead he established his headquarters at anand Pur. The sociological significance of this episode lies in the fact that the issue of authority within the Sikh tradition remained extremely confused during that period.

    Guru Teg Bahadur had the attributes of a visionary leader and a true Guru. As the ninth Guru he made an invaluable contribution to the development of Sikh tradition during the most trying period of state oppression against the Hindus. He was publicly beheaded in Delhi for pleading the right of worship for everyone according to his/her faith, and refused to convert to Islam. He was succeeded by his nine year old son, the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. Guru Gobind Singh introduced some fundamental innovations within the Sikh tradition which had a far reaching impact on the future development of Sikhism. These included the founding of the Khalsa and khandey di pauhal (a new style initiation ceremony). He also introduced a new code of discipline for the initiated Sikhs and gave them a corporate name of 'Singh' and 'Kaur'. He created the first nucleus of initiated Sikhs popularly known as panj pyarey (the five beloved ones) who afterwards initiated the Guru into the newly formed Khalsa brotherhood and gave him the name of 'Singh'. By so doing the Guru implicitly merged his authority with the Khalsa Panth; it can be argued that the founding of the Khalsa was the beginning of the doctrine of Guru Panth.

    Now we will reflect on the significance of the absence of the ninth Guru, Teg Bahadur, from the Harmandir Sahib which is regarded as the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs. After the incident of 22nd November 1664 when Guru Teg Bahadur was refused permission to enter the Golden Temple, he did not put his foot in Amritsar. Not only that, but his son the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, also paid no visit to the Harmandir Sahib during his life-time. Harmandir Sahib remained under the control of the descendants of Prithi Chand, elder brother of the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev. As a matter of fact they used their control of the Harmandir Sahib to claim their right to the guruship and operated as a parallel centre to that of Anand Pur where the ninth and tenth Gurus established their headquarters. According to Madanjit Kaur (1983), the Harmandir Sahib remained under the complete control of Sodhi Harji, grandson of Prithi Chand, for fifty-seven years. It is evident that the issue of authority continued to pose serious problems for the Sikh community and the Sikh Gurus for a long period. No wonder the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, abolished the institution of masands (guru's nominees). It had been established by the third Guru and flourished under successive Gurus till it became highly corrupt. It was the human Guru who used his authority to disband one of the important institutions set up by his predecessors.

    Authority in the post-Khalsa period.

    According to the Sikh tradition, Guru Gobind Singh died at Nander in 1708. Before his death he is believed to have transferred his authority to the Adi Granth and the Khalsa brotherhood. Shortly before his death he also nominated Banda Singh Bahadur to lead the Sikhs in the Punjab against the Moghal rulers. Banda Singh Bahadur was a great military genius; within two years with the support and loyalty of the Punjabi Sikh peasantry he established Sikh rule in the Punjab. Some Sikh scholars claim that he was revered by his followers like a guru and this created disunity and confusion among the Sikhs, which resulted in the emergence of two factions within the ranks of Banda's followers; Tat Khalsa and Bandai Khalsa. Bandais were those Sikhs who refused to accept the authority of the Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru of the Sikhs and revered Banda Singh Bahadur as their eleventh Guru (Madanjit Kaur, 1983:33). Commenting on the rivalry between the Tat Khalsa and the Bandai Khalsa, Madanjit Kaur writes:

    "The atmosphere was highly charged and both the rival groups seemed ready to come to blows. But the situation was saved and a settlement was reached through the intervention of Bhai Mani Singh. The dispute was settled by casting lots. Two pieces of paper with the slogans of the factions inscribed thereon, were floated in the Holy Tank at a place known as Har Ki Pauri. The slip containing the slogan of Tat Khalsa (Fateh Wahguru ji ki) kept floating while the other sank down. So, the decision was given in favour of the Tat Khalsa." (1983:36-37)

    Analysis of the manner of settling the dispute between two contending factions, only a few years after the death of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, clearly demonstrates that the doctrine of the Guru Granth as a living Guru had not emerged as the final source of authority within the Panth. In fact, the dispute was settled by casting lots through the intervention of Bhai Mani Singh, the nominee of Guru Gobind Singh.

    After the death of Banda Bahadur twelve misls (armed bands) of Sikhs emerged in the Punjab. The leaders of these misls evolved a new institution called the Sarbat Khalsa (literally, the whole Khalsa Panth) to resolve their differences. In practice it was composed of the leaders of all the misls gathered at the Akal Takhat, who would approve resolutions called gurmata (guru's intention) in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. It seems to be the first indication of the beginning of the doctrine of Guru Panth in Sikhism. In 1799, after Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured Lahore and laid down the foundation of the Sikh rule in the Punjab he liquidated all the Sikh misls and brought them under his control, disbanding the institution of the Sarbat Khalsa and taking all decisions personally. In 1805 he captured the city of Amritsar, took over the control of the Harmandir Sahib and appointed his own administrators to manage the Temple affairs. As Sikh ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh exercised both political and religious authority. This implies that the institution of the Sarbat Khalsa did not last long and was killed in the embryo by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who exercised de facto authority over Sikh affairs.

    Authority in Sikhism under British rule.

    In the 1850's, two important sects emerged within the Sikh movement; the Nirankaris and the Namdharis. Despite other differences they strongly believed in the authority of the living guru. Most importantly, the Namdhari Sikhs dispute the incidence of the death of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, at Nander. They claim that he survived to live one hundred and forty-eight years, operating under the name of Ajapal Singh. According to Namdhari tradition, Guru Gobind Singh transferred guruship to Baba Balak Singh of Huzro who appointed Guru Ram Singh as his successor. Ganda Singh says that:

    "Ram Singh preached the faith of Gurus Nanak - Gobind Singh and brought back large number of lukewarm people to the Sikh faith with rejuvenated enthusiasm. With the zeal of new converts, thousands of people gathered around him and attended his congregations both at his village and at the fairs and religious centres visited by him." (1984: xi).

    For our discussion the emergence of the Namdhari and Nirankari movements raises another issue of authority in Sikhism; it suggests that the status of the human Guru remained predominant within the Sikh tradition. The leaders of these two movements did not interfere with the control of the Harmandir Sahib; they established their headquarters at their own villages. Their decision can be compared with the actions of the ninth and tenth Gurus who also established their headquarters away from Amritsar. It suggests that the human gurus had the ultimate authority in Sikhism; they could establish their headquarters wherever they wished. Moreover, the control of the Golden Temple was not regarded by them as a necessary pre-requisite for legitimising their authority.

    After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, the Harmandir Sahib came under the control of the British authorities. The Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar had complete authority over the management of the Golden Temple; he formulated the rules and regulations and appointed a committee of loyal Sikh Sardars (chiefs) to carry on the day-to-day management of the Temple. As a matter of fact authority over all Sikh affairs passed into the hands of the British administrators who controlled the Sikh community with the support of Sikh collaborators. In the absence of the human Guru, there was virtually no central authority in Sikhism apart from the British Government.

    The Role of the Singh Sabha Movement

    In 1872, the Namdhari leader Guru Ram Singh was exiled to Burma by the British government. The Namdhari movement was brutally suppressed by the British; sixty-eight Namdhari Sikh activists were blown by the guns without any trial. In this climate a new organisation called Singh Sabha was formed by loyal Sikhs in 1873 to propagate the teachings of the Sikh Gurus amongst the people of the Punjab, particularly emphasising the significance of the Khalsa Brotherhood. The Singh Sabha leadership vehemently rejected the notion of the continuity of the line of human Gurus after the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. They made an exceptional contribution towards promoting the doctrine of the Panth Khalsa and the Guru Granth Sahib and also challenged the traditional leadership of the two main Sikh gurdwaras, the Harmandir Sahib and Nankana Sahib Gurdwara. They began to re-define Sikh rites of passage, promoting a distinct Sikh identity by distancing themselves from the traditional Sikh universe.

    One of the unique features of the organisational structure of the Singh Sabha was the British model of organising social and welfare associations. The Singh Sabha had a constitution based on democratic principles, i.e. it provided a proper membership criterion, a membership fee and the election of office bearers. One could argue that the democratic structure of the Singh Sabha went a long way towards acknowledging, at least in theory, the authority of the sangat (Sikh congregation) in Sikhism.

    In the 1920s, the Sikhs under the leadership of the Akali Dal (political party of the Sikhs) launched a mass movement for the control of major historical gurdwaras then under the control of hereditary Mahants (custodians) who traced their ancestry to the Sikh Gurus. Attached to these gurdwaras was a lot of land which had been donated by Sikh royalty and others. Moreover, these shrines were a major recipient of income donated by Sikh pilgrims. The Sikh leaders argued that the gurdwaras and their income belonged to the Sikh community and therefore should be controlled and managed by the Sikh community as such. Initially, the British Government supported the claim of the hereditary Mahants who were political allies of the British, but as a result of prolonged agitation the government agreed to the demands of the agitators and passed a piece of legislation called the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, in 1925.

    The significance of the control of historical gurdwaras for the British administration is evident from the following report sent by the Lt. Governor of Punjab to the Viceroy of India on August 8, 1881. He wrote:

    "I think it would be politically dangerous to allow the arrangement of Sikh temples fall into the hands of a committee emancipated from government control, and I trust your Excellency will assist to pass such orders in the case as will enable to continue the system which has worked out successfully for more than thirty years.
    (Quoted in Law of Religious Institutions: Sikh Gurdwaras. Kashmir Singh, 1989:60)

    Commenting on the above-mentioned report, Kashmir Singh writes that "The British Government regarded and used the Sikh shrines as a powerful channel for an indirect control of the Sikhs" (1989:60). It is evident that the real authority in Sikh affairs was exercised by the British Government through the Mahants.

    The Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925

    The Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925 (PSG) brought a new dimension to the issue of authority in Sikhism. In the absence of the human Guru, the Sikhs had been struggling to agree on an appropriate authority. Although, at least in theory, the doctrine of the Adi Granth as the Guru had been in vogue since the death of the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, it did not resolve the fundamental question of central authority in Sikhism which had once been exercised by the ten human Gurus.

    Let us examine some of the salient features of the PSG Act in order to understand the nature of authority in Sikhism in the twentieth century. Apart from its impact on Sikh affairs, the Act made an extraordinary contribution to the introduction of the principle of universal suffrage in India. It enfranchised all adult Sikhs for the purpose of electing their 'Religious Parliament' called the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC; Supreme Management Committee of the Gurdwaras).

    According to the PSG Act, the SGPC is composed of 160 members, of whom 140 members are elected by Sikh voters while 20 are co-opted by the elected and ex-officio members. Another interesting feature of the structure of the SGPC is that out of 140 seats, twenty are reserved for scheduled caste (low caste) Sikhs. It implies that the presence and practice of caste was legally authorised and accepted by the Sikh community. The most significant aspect of the Act was its definition of a Sikh person for preparing voting lists. It says a person shall be deemed a Sikh for registration as a voter if he makes the following declaration in a Government prescribed proforma:

    "I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the Ten Gurus and that I have no other religion."
    (Section 2 [9])

    The definition of a Sikh as provided in the Act raises some fundamental questions concerning the identity of a Sikh person. Firstly, it does not exclude Sahejdhari (those who do not wear outward symbols) Sikhs from participating in the election of the SGPC. It suggests that the Sikh leadership in the 1920s was more liberal than now and that they accepted the definition provided in the Adi Granth: 'He who calls himself a Sikh of the True Guru should get up in the early hours of the morning and remember the Name of the Lord ... Nanak begs for the dust of the feet of that Gursikh who not only contemplates himself but also makes others contemplate the name of the Lord'. (Adi Granth, 305-6). Secondly, it does exclude those Sikhs who believe in the living Guru, i.e. the Namdhari Sikhs, Nirankari Sikhs and Radhasoami Sikhs. As a matter of fact, the Act reflects the political and religious ideology of the Singh Sabha Movement, which had endeavoured to reform and re-define Sikh tradition since its inception in 1873.

    Another interesting feature of the definition of a Sikh in this Act is the inclusion of the declaration that 'I have no other religion'. This definition, which still applies today, implicitly rejects the teachings of Sikh Gurus. For example Mardana, the lifelong companion and first Sikh of Guru Nanak was a Muslim minstrel. This part of the definition clearly indicates the impact of Western and Judeo-Christian tradition as opposed to the traditional Indic culture which is based on the principle of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. It is interesting to note that the PSG Act was passed by the Punjab Legislative Assembly which was composed of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim legislators including members nominated by the British Government. The Bill became an Act on 29th July 1925, when it obtained the formal assent of the Governor General of India. It may be argued that the central body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) constituted under the PSG Act, 1925 was originally created by non-Sikhs (Muslims, Hindus and Christian administrators).

    The PSG Act exposed another dilemma faced by the Sikh community in the 1920s. The Act was applicable only within the British empire; Sikhs living in the Sikh Princely States were excluded from taking part in the election of their central body, the SGPC. On the other hand Sikh rulers were empowered to nominate their representatives for the SGPC. It shows that authority concerning Sikh affairs in the Sikh States was still exercised by the Sikh rulers. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the SGPC was not universal; it was restricted to the historical Gurdwaras located in the British Punjab only.

    Some interesting remarks on the PSG Act

    In the final stages of the agitation for the control of gurdwaras both parties made some remarks which proved to be of historic significance. For example Malcolm Hailey, then Lt. Governor of Punjab, made the following remarks: "Why delay the bill and let the Government get the blame. Give it to them, and also their Gurdwaras. They will then quarrel among themselves" (Kashmir Singh, 1989:148). Reflecting on the remarks of Mr. Hailey, Kashmir Singh wrote in 1989 that "The remarks of Hailey proved to be prophetic and the Akalis [Sikh leaders] behaved exactly in the manner anticipated by him after the passing of the Act" (1989:148-149).

    Other sources of authority

    The Sant syndrome

    The role of Sants (holymen) in the development of the Sikh tradition in the post-Guru period has been remarkably significant. The status of a 'Sant' was highly praised by the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev, in his celebrated hymn 'sukhmani Sahib'. A Sant is an individual (almost always a male) who develops a reputation for piety or pedagogical skill and thereby attracts an informal following of disciples (McLeod, 1992:102). A Sant is regarded as a holy person by the Sikhs and is believed to have been endowed with divine power by God. Most Sants claim to have been commissioned by Guru Nanak to preach his mission. Some of them have established deras (religious headquarters) which are regularly visited by the disciples for their darshan (glimpse). The Sant-oriented gurdwaras are another source of authority; the words of a Sant are perceived as sacred utterance by his disciples.

    Within the Sikh community in the twentieth century a number of Sants emerged who became deeply involved in Sikh political affairs. Some of them held high office in the Akali Dal (political party of the Sikhs). For example, in the 1960's Sant Fateh Singh took over the leadership of the Akali Dal from the veteran Sikh leader Master Tara Singh and went on a hunger strike for the attainment of Punjabi Suba (Punjabi speaking state). He introduced the ritual of self-immolation in the Sikh tradition and got constructed an agan-kund (brick structure for burning alive) in the vicinity of the Golden Temple complex. The concept of suicide was alien to the teachings of the Gurus, who regarded human life as the gift of God and condemned killing. Sant Fateh Singh was advocating suicide to achieve political objectives by exercising his authority as the supreme leader of the Sikhs. The government of India saved the situation by accepting some demands of the Sikhs. Ironically, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal who in 1980 became leader of the Akali Dal was assassinated by Sikh militants for entering into negotiations with the central government after the military action on the Golden Temple complex by the Indian army in 1984.

    Another charismatic Sant, Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwaley, emerged in the 1980s as a powerful religious/political leader within the Sikh community. He took over control of the Golden Temple complex by force and fought a pitched battle with the Indian army in 1984. He attracted a large number of young Sikhs who volunteered to sacrifice their lives for the mission of Sant Jarnail Singh, and was the leader of the Khalistan movement in the Punjab. Although Sant Jarnail Singh was killed during the army action, his followers believe that the Sant is alive and well and that he will appear in public one day. He is revered as a martyr, and photographs showing him battling with the Indian army are hung in many gurdwaras in the U.K.

    Another important source of authority is the Jathedar (head) <2> of the Akal Takhat. He is perceived to have inherited his authority from the historical figure of Bhai Mani Singh (1644-1734). According to Sikh tradition, Bhai Mani Singh was appointed as Jathedar of the Akal Takhat by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 (Madanjit Kaur, 1983:197). Theoretically, the Jathedar of the Akal Takhat is regarded as an independent person who is responsible for the exposition of religious matters. Ironically, he is appointed by the SGPC like all other Jathedars of four Takhats and in practice he is controlled by the ruling faction of the SGPC. At present there are three main contenders for this office. After the army action on the Golden Temple complex in 1984, a section of the militant Sikhs called a meeting of the so-called Sarbat Khalsa and appointed Jasbir Singh Rodey as Jathedar of the Akal Takhat, rejecting the claim of the official Jathedar who had been appointed by the SGPC. In 1982 a Sikh militant named Ranjit Singh, who is serving life imprisonment for killing the Nirankari leader Baba Gurbachan Singh, was appointed Jathedar of the Akal Takhat by the SGPC while in prison. The present Jathedar is called Acting Jathedar by the SGPC; he is the nominee of the SGPC.

    There has been a lot of factionalism within the Akali leadership in the past ten years. The Akali Dal split into many factions, each accusing others of being agents of the central government. Eventually, the president of the SGPC entrusted the current Acting Jathedar of the Akal Takhat with the task of uniting all Akali factions in order to form a united Akali Dal. He gladly agreed to the suggestion, and using his authority summoned leaders of all factions to appear before him at the Akal Takhat. Many prominent Sikh leaders challenged the authority of the Jathedar to undertake this mission. They argued that the Jathedar of the Akali Dal is the spiritual leader of all Sikhs, therefore he should not involve himself with the party politics of various factions of the Akali party. He was accused of being a puppet of the President of the SGPC who has a reputation of supporting some groups within the Akali Party. This episode demonstrates the problem of identifying the central authority in Sikhism.

    Authority in the Sikh diaspora

    Sikhs began to emigrate overseas in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Wherever they went they established their gurdwaras for religious and social purposes. Mainly they migrated to countries within the British empire, i.e. Canada, Australia, East Africa and the U.K. An overwhelming majority of the pioneer Sikh migrants belonged to the Jat Sikh caste group (agriculturists). The dominant group of Sikh migrants to East Africa however were skilled craftsmen popularly known as Ramgarhias (carpenters, blacksmiths and bricklayers). The organisational structure of their gurdwaras is based on the British model of organising social and welfare associations. All gurdwaras have duly approved constitutions for electing the management committee. These gurdwaras are totally independent from outside interference; they are controlled by the local sangats (congregations) through their elected representatives.

    Although most pioneer Sikh migrants removed their outward symbols in order to gain employment and avoid racial discrimination, their commitment to the Sikh tradition was undiminished. This is evident from their dedication in establishing gurdwaras. In Canada, many Sikh migrants used to go to the gurdwaras without covering their heads, as in the churches (Bains and Johnston, 1995). In the 1950's and 60's a large number of Sikhs from the Punjab migrated to Canada. They were mainly kesdhari (with outward symbols) Sikhs, who strongly questioned the behaviour of pioneer Sikh migrants. There has been a number of serious disputes between the mona (clean-shaven) and kesdhari Sikhs concerning the control of earlier gurdwaras, in most cases both parties going to the courts for adjudication.

    Although the institution of sangat is highly respected in Sikhism, in practice it has no real authority. Moreover, it is a very vague structural entity. Who constitutes the sangat is most problematic to define. During the normal congregation, everyone present is supposed to be part and parcel of the sangat and theoretically empowered to take any decisions. In practice, they do not have any such authority. All gurdwaras in the UK and Canada, like other community-based gurdwaras, are managed by committees which are elected annually by the approved membership according to the constitution. Different factions of Sikhs make every effort to control the gurdwaras through these annual elections. In the case of disagreement, use of physical force is frequently employed; the local police are invited to intervene in the fights and disputes are taken to the courts. Usually, such disputes and fights take place in the main congregation hall where the Guru Granth Sahib is installed. It may be argued that the real authority lies in the capacity of a faction to muster large number of voters at the annual elections and the backing of a hard core of supporters.

    In the 1970s a new strategy was evolved by the kesdhari Sikhs to gain control of the gurdwaras. For example, the original constitutions did not make any distinction between amritdhari (ritually initiated), kesdhari and mona Sikhs; all were eligible to become members of the management committee. Firstly, the constitutions were amended to exclude mona Sikhs from holding important positions on the management committee. At present, most constitutions in UK explicitly state that only amritdhari Sikhs are eligible for membership of the management committee. Ironically, mona (clean-shaven) Sikhs are eligible to become members and exercise their right of vote for amritdhari and kesdhari candidates.

    In certain cases, when it became difficult to hold annual elections due to the danger of physical violence amongst various factions, the board of trustees adopted another novel method, called parchian paa lao (election by picking slips, like a raffle). Interested candidates were asked for nominations; a parchi (slip) was prepared with the candidate's name and put in a box which was placed in front of the Guru Granth Sahib. A child was invited to draw slips corresponding to the number of candidates eligible for the management committee. In this case, it is rather problematic to identify the source of authority. No wonder a losing faction would challenge the election and the situation remain confused and unresolved.

    At present a number of Sant-orientated gurdwaras have emerged in Britain; they are managed by the trusted followers of the Sants who are the de facto heads of these institutions. For example, Sant Puran Singh Karichowaley came from East Africa and established a number of gurdwaras popularly known as Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwaras. These gurdwaras are managed by the appointees of the Sant. Before his death in June 1993, Sant Puran Singh nominated his successor. His funeral was attended by more than ten thousand people who walked behind his body which was carried in an open carriage. The funeral procession was led by panj-pyarey in their traditional dress; they carried nishan sahib (Sikh flags) in their hands. The ritual of carrying nishan sahib is particularly observed when the Guru Granth Sahib is taken out in a procession at the time of gurpurbs (anniversaries of Sikh Gurus). The sociological significance of the role of panj-pyarey in the funeral procession of Sant Puran Singh highlights the significance of the status of Sants in Sikhism.

    Caste and authority in Sikhism

    The presence and practice of caste among the Sikhs raises another problem in ascertaining the source of authority in Sikhism. Although the Sikh Gurus rejected the doctrine of varnashramadharma, the Sikhs continued practising the caste system. It is clearly manifested in the system of arranged marriages based upon the rules of caste endogamy, Jat Sikhs marrying Jat Sikhs and Ramgarhia Sikhs marrying Ramgarhia Sikhs. In Britain, a number of disputes in the gurdwaras originated between various caste groups striving for control of the management committee. Consequently some caste groups, depending upon their numerical and financial power, opted for establishing their own caste gurdwaras, i.e. Ramgarhia Sikh Gurdwara, Bhatra Sikh Sangat Gurdwara and Ravidas Bhawan/Gurdwara.

    The nature of worship at the caste-based gurdwaras is a photocopy of other gurdwaras. For example, they celebrate the main Sikh festivals and strictly observe the rituals of akhand-path and sahej-path. Ironically, they also celebrate the festival of Baisakhi, which is associated with the founding of the Khalsa, as enthusiastically as other gurdwaras. It is important to note that the tradition of the founding of the Khalsa rejects the notion of caste while promoting the concept of a casteless Sikh brotherhood. An outside observer is easily misled and confused by the religious services held at the caste-based gurdwaras. In fact, the fundamental difference lies in the constitution of caste-based gurdwaras, e.g. only Ramgarhia Sikhs are eligible to become members of Ramgarhia gurdwaras, though other Sikhs are not debarred from attending the service. This shows that the decision-making mechanism of caste-based gurdwaras is totally under the control of respective caste groups and participation in the caste-based gurdwaras naturally promotes caste loyalty and the caste consciousness which apparently contradicts the teachings of the Gurus.

    The panj-pyarey

    Another source of authority in Sikhism is the institution of panj-pyarey (first five initiated Sikhs). This has its origin in the tradition of the founding of the Khalsa by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699. The institution of panj-pyarey holds a unique status within the Sikh Panth. The panj-pyarey were the first amritdhari Sikhs, who are believed to have received Guru's authority by virtue of the act of offering their lives to the tenth Guru to create the Khalsa brotherhood. The significance of the institution of panj-pyarey is evident from the way it is respected within the Sikh tradition. For example, after the culmination of the service, karah-parshad (blessed food) is first served to five amritdhari Sikhs ritually representing the panj-pyarey.

    Occasionally, the panj-pyarey are asked to resolve disputes among members of the management committee. As there is no prescribed method of selection of the panj-pyarey, sometimes their verdict is not accepted by everyone and the process of resolving differences through the intervention of panj-pyarey is frustrated. Recently, at the opening ceremony of a purpose-built Gurdwara in London, the officials of the Gurdwara appointed five male panj-pyarey and five female panj-pyarey to perform the opening ceremony and lead the sangat to the main congregation hall. A serious controversy developed over the appointment of female panj-pyarey. Many orthodox Sikhs questioned the appointment of female panj-pyarey and their eligibility to perform the conventional role of panj-pyarey. In the absence of a universally accepted central authority in Sikhism the issue remained unresolved, thus creating more confusion.


    I have shown that the Sikh tradition is basically guru-sikh oriented, in which the ten human gurus had a unique role and status. All fundamental institutions of the Sikhs were created by human gurus, e.g. gur-gaddi (guruship), Adi Granth, Harmandir Sahib, Akal Takhat, the Khalsa, amrit, sangat and the panj-pyarey. Moreover, the act of terminating the line of human gurus is also attributed to one of the ten human Gurus, Gobind Singh. In the absence of the authority of the human Gurus, the Sikh Panth developed innovative institutions for resolving religious and intra-community disputes, namely the Sarbat Khalsa and gurmata. Ironically, it was the Sikh ruler of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who disbanded the institution of Sarbat Khalsa and usurped the control of the Harmandir Sahib. Similarly, the British administrators took over the control of the Harmandir Sahib after the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and they exercised virtually complete authority in Sikh affairs. The role of the British Government in preserving and promoting the distinctive Khalsa identity during the post-guru period is exceptional. For example, the British army approved the following regulation concerning the sanctity of the outward symbols of Sikh soldiers. The regulation states:

    "The paol, or religious pledges of Sikh fraternity, should on no account be interfered with. The Sikh should be permitted to wear his beard, and the hair of his head gathered up, as enjoined by his religion. Any invasion, however slight, of these obligations would be construed into a desire to subvert his faith, lead to evil consequences, and naturally inspire general distrust and alarm. Even those, who have assumed the outward conventional characteristics of Sikhs should not be permitted after entering the British army, to drop them."
    (Khushwant Singh, 1966:112-13)

    I have demonstrated that the British government played a key role in creating the institution of SGPC (supreme body of the Sikhs) and was instrumental in enfranchising the Sikh community by enacting the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925. Moreover, the institution of sangat began to observe the principle of universal suffrage for electing the management committees of the gurdwaras. I have further argued that the Sikh Sants are filling the void created by the absence of human gurus. Jogi Harbhajan Singh, founder of the 3HO (Happy, Holy and Healthy) Movement in the USA. and Canada provides a unique example of the role of Sants in Sikhism. He is the only Sikh religious leader who has attracted a large number of non-Punjabi American whites to the Sikh fold. He describes himself as "Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Sikh Dharma in Western Hemisphere and the spiritual guide to some three thousand young American and Canadian Sikh converts belonging to the Healthy, Happy and Holy Organisation (3HO)" (Dusenbery, 1989:90-91).

    The presence and practice of caste is clearly evident from the establishment of caste-based gurdwaras in the Sikh diaspora. It has been discussed in order to highlight the continuing problematic nature of the notion of authority in Sikhism.



    1. Miri-piri: Doctrine of temporal and spiritual authority introduced by the 6th Guru, Hargobind. He built the Akal Takhat for discussing social and political affairs of the Sikhs and trained his followers in military skills to defend the Sikh community.

    2. Jathedar: Literally, leader of a group or military detachment. Jathedar is the title given to the appointed head of one of the takhats (thrones) such as the Akal Takhat. He is a paid official appointed by the SGPC.


    Bains, T.S. and Johnston, H. (1995) The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

    Cole, W.O. (1982) The Guru in Sikhism. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

    Dusenbery, V.A. (1989) 'Of Singh Sabhas, Siri Singh Sahibs and Sikh Scholars: Sikh Discourse from North America in the 1970s' in N.G. Barrier and V.A. Dusenbery (eds.) The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and the Experience Beyond Punjab. Delhi: Chanakya Publications.

    Kohli, S.S. (1990) Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib. New Delhi: National Bookshop.

    Klostermaier, K.K. (1989) A Survey of Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York.

    Kalsi, S.S. (1992) The Evolution of a Sikh Community in Britain. Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds.

    Kalsi, S.S. (1993) 'Sacred Symbols in British Sikhism' DISKUS Vol.2, No.2 (1994)

    Kaur, M. (1983) The Golden Temple: Past and Present. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University.

    McLeod, W.H. (1989) Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Singh, Harbans. (1973) 'Origins of the Singh Sabha', in Ganda Singh (ed.) The Singh Sabha and other Socio-Religious Movements in the Punjab: 1850-1925. Patiala: Publication Bureau Punjabi University.

    Singh, Kashmir. (1989) Law of Religious Institutions - Sikh Gurdwaras. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University.

    Singh, Khushwant. (1966) A History of the Sikhs. Vol.2, 1839-1964. London: Oxford University Press.

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    #1 spnadmin, Feb 26, 2016
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  3. sukhsingh

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    Writer SPNer Contributor

    Aug 14, 2012
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    Very interesting article. I think it it provides a strong framework to which to explore the very relevant area.
  4. RD1

    RD1 Canada
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    Sep 26, 2016
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    Certainly very interesting! As young as Sikhism is, it have been subject to so much influence from different people and groups since Guru Gobind Singh died, that it is difficult to tell if the mainstream way Sikhism is practiced today is how the Gurus "meant" for it to be practiced.
  5. Original

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    Writer SPNer

    Jan 10, 2011
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    Happy New Year Everyone & a very good evening !

    Dr Kalsi presents a reasonable case for the want of clarification regarding authority in Sikhism. Authority in Sikhism is clearly defined but not followed. There is a structure, a hierarchy if you like with Akal Thakt [AT] at the apex. Moreover, canons of construction provides clear guidelines in interpreting ancient scriptures giving effect, meaning and the intent of the Sovereign in carrying out its wishes. That is to say, Akal, meaning God and Takht, meaning, throne, giving effect as it were to the 'rule of law' as an absolute command of the Sovereign [Aakal Purakh]. For the want of definition as to "the rule of law" exercising absolute power and authority it is Akal Thakt. How that power and authority is sourced and delegated is structured through various conventional, religious and political organisations of a legislative nature. One which springs to mind is the PSG Act 1925.

    However, the sad thing in all this is not the "authority" but the implementation and the enforcement agencies slacking big time to carry out the wishes of the Sovereign [AP]. What is needed is not debate and discussion but "activism".

    Goodnight !
    #4 Original, Jan 2, 2017
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2017
  6. sukhsingh

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    Aug 14, 2012
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    Who and how should enforce? I don't believe in enforcement
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