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Does Sikhism Need A Renaissance?


Jun 1, 2004
Does Sikhism Need A Renaissance?
Dr. Dharam Singh*

Sikhism originated with Guru Nanak’s mystical experiences and their expression in the form of hymns now found included in the Sikh Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, along with those of some of his spiritual successors and some holy men from both the Hindu and the Muslim traditions. These hymns of Guru Nanak (1469-1530) contain all the essential concepts and doctrines of the Sikh faith. The nine spiritual successors who followed him were, as held very strongly in the Sikh tradition, one in spirit though different in body.1 These metaphysical concepts and doctrines as articulated by Guru Nanak also serve as the vis-a-tergo of the Sikh social and political thought. The later Gurus, through their word and deed, explained and explicated what Guru Nanak had earlier touched upon.2 This explanation and interpretation by the Gurus themselves was true to the spirit of the original and it also helped the novice easily comprehend the otherwise complex metaphysical issues. Consequently, these newly articulated doctrines got entrenched in the minds of the followers, which helped in the establishment of a separate and distinct religious and social organisation outside of the existing Hindu and Muslim social orders.

The Watershed: The creation of the Khalsa-Panth on the Vaisakhi day of AD 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the last spiritual-preceptor in the line of ten person-Gurus, was the ideal social structure based on the values derived from the concepts and doctrine of Guru Nanak. The individual Khalsa, who was a spiritually realized self, was also the Sikh ideal of man. In fact, the creation of the Khalsa-Panth is taken in Sikhism as the fulfillment of Guru Nanak’s mission.

The spiritual oneness of the Gurus notwithstanding, the passage towards this fulfillment was not smooth. Hindrances of all sorts were created by many, including by some members of the Gurus’ families. The first such example is that of Guru Nanak’s elder son, Sri Chand, whose followers, the Udasis, formed a group outside of the Sikh mainstream until Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) made a sort of rapprochement with them. Till then the job of preaching Sikh tenets in far flung areas was assigned to the manjidars, melis and masands. During the pontificate of Guru Arjun the signs of susceptibility to corruption among them had become apparent. Guru Hargobind, it seems, had made up his mind to replace them with the Udasis as missionaries of Sikh faith.3 It was with this background that Guru Hargobind acceded to Sri Chand’s request and gave over his son, Baba Gurditta, to him with the object of making him leader of the Udasi tradition after Sri Chand’s death. He also started giving eminence to Udasis vis-a-vis the masands in the matters of preaching Sikh tenets, thereby bringing the former closer to the Sikh mainstream.

Strife Within: The sons of Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das are also said to have made mild protests, but they neither made their protest public nor founded any schismatic group of their own. However, the protest by Prithi Chand, eldest so of Guru Ram Das and an elder brother of Guru Arjun, was the most vocal and fraudulent. He opposed Guru Arjun’s succession, declared himself the successor, sought imperial help to keep his shop warm, successfully bribed several masands, composed (also encouraged his son and successor to compose) verses passing them as those of Guru Nanak’s successors and even tried to kill Guru Arjun’s young son and later successor, Guru Hargobind. His followers, known in the Sikh tradition as minas (lit. the mean and the lowly), were later on ostracised and the Sikhs forbidden to have any relations with them.4 These minas in league with the masands retained control of the Harimandir, the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs until Guru Gobind Singh sent Bhai Mani Singh to regain control of the shrine. Earlier Guru Tegh Bahadur was not allowed to enter the place while his predecessors, Guru Har Rai and Guru Har Krishan, did not visit it. Inspite of this opposition and an attempt to adulterate the tenets, the spirit of the Sikh faith retained its true character because the Gurus were personally present on the scene to remove any misgivings.

The period immediately following the passing away of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 is marked by severe trials and tribulations. Banda Singh Bahadur was, no doubt, able to shake the Mughal empire for a brief while, but after his martyrdom in 1716 set in the most severe oppression and persecution of the Sikhs. Prices were fixed on their heads and the rulers did whatever they could to exterminate the community. The Sikhs generally remained true to their religion and their Gurus during these trying times. Persecution seemed to have strengthened their bond with the Gurus and with one another. History stands witness that they preferred laying down their heads to compromising with their values and identity.

Political Ascendancy
: The weakening of the Mughal empire provided an opportunity to the Sikhs to gain political ascendancy. The misls came into being and virtually the entire Punjab was ruled over by the Sikhs. Consequently, people got much sought respite from foreign invasions and the resultant molestation. The establishment of Sikh confederacies provided an era of comparative peace and prosperity, but power soon showed its sinister face, and the Sikh ruling class also acquired all the vices common to any ruler. Luxury coupled with authority led to moral decline. Brahmanism also raised its head and many Brahmanical practices infiltrated the Sikh way of life. Idols were placed in the gurdwaras and cases of molestation of women devotees were also reported. The Sikh leaders were so deeply involved - first in their fight to defend their faith and then in acquiring more lands - that they were left with no time to look after their religious affairs. However, they made huge donations in the form of landed property to historical shrines.

A positive aftermath of this development was that these shrines could now look after their needs : running of langar and such other philanthropic activities became quite easy. However, the negative aspect completely overshadowed the positive one. The caretakers of such shrines became more attached to the income from such properties and made their religious duty subservient to looking after and maintaining such properties. Soon they started misappropriating these funds for personal motive and became oblivious of all altruistic activities which are central to the Sikh doctrine. This inspired them to manipulate things to keep the control of the shrines within the family lineage. The true spirit of Sikhism became absent in Sikh shrines and their custodians bereft of all Sikh virtues.

Early Renaissance: The latter half of the 19th century was a period of renaissance in the history of Sikhism. Several "reformatory" movements, such as Nirankaris, Namdharis and Singh Sabha, got underway. The first two were inspired by individual holy men who desired to set right the trend towards dilution of Sikh doctrine and practice. They tried and succeeded in rectifying certain religious and social aberrations that had set in. Since they were individual endeavours, they soon faded out. However, both these movements became symbolic of an expression of the Sikh impulse to rid themselves of the base adulterations and accretions which had been draining away its energy. They also aimed at rediscovering the sources of their original inspiration. On the other hand, the Singh Sabha movement arose out of a common awareness of the danger to the very existence of the Sikhs as a separate religious community. Unlike the preceding movements which had only sectarian appeal, the Singh Sabha movement had a mass appeal and base. It aimed at influencing and reorienting the Sikh outlook and spirit.5 The stimulus provided by it did help in shaping the Sikh attitude and aspirations for the coming many years. But its influence as well as of the preceding movements - has since waned and the community is once again passing through the similar trauma of losing its distinct identity.

Current Scenario: In the present circumstances, we find Sikhism under attack both from within and without, making the well-meaning Sikhs apprehensive of a real danger to their distinct religious and social identity. The threat from outside is apparently from the sectarian jealousy of some fundamentalist Hindu organizations. As it is, India is a Hindu-majority nation. Hinduism which happens to be an amalgam of various mutually contradictory doctrines and practices has a reputation of absorbing unto itself any new religious belief originating in India. It has a pantheon of various gods and goddesses and their numerous incarnations. It claims even the founders of Buddhism and Jainism as incarnations of the Hindu God, Visnu.

As long as the Muslim rule lasted in India, the Hindus refrained from seeking any confrontation with the Sikhs since the latter had taken up cudgels against the Muslim rulers’ politics of religious intolerance and socio-political injustice. The acquisition of political authority in this region by the Sikhs made the leaders neglect their religious duty leading to the dilution of doctrine and practices. After the British took over, and the Hindu majority felt relatively safe from any further Muslim onslaughts, there came a perceptible change in the Hindu attitude towards Sikhs. They took up the argument now that the Sikhs, with the unshorn hair and beard, were only an armed wing of the Hindus! After independence in 1947, this attitude has further strengthened since now the majority community were in a commanding position: the Hindu-dominated Congress adopted the British constitution and the ideal of adult franchise so as a perpetuate itself as rulers of India. The Muslim demand for a separate Muslim-majority state was indeed a reaction to this Hindu attitude.

Majoritarian Arrogance: In the latter half of the 19th century, the Hindus in Punjab, especially their Arya Samaj faction, became vocal in their claim that Sikhism has only been a reformatory movement within Hinduism. A Sikh member of the Arya Samaj, Jagat Singh, published "Sat Prakash" wherein he unsuccessfully tried to make out that Sikhs are Hindus. Thereafter Lala Thakur Das and Bawa Narain Singh published a booklet Sikh Hindu Hain (Sikhs are Hindus). Although Bhai Kahn Singh gave a befitting and very convincing reply by publishing Ham Hindu Nahin (1899), but this attitude has persisted and, with the formation of BJP-led government at the Centre, has further strengthened.

History stands witness that the Jews did not recognize Christians as a distinct religious community for quite long. Similarly, the Hindus refuse to accept Sikhs, majority of whose forefathers were once Hindus before they accepted the discipleship of Guru Nanak, as a separate religious community. Christianity is a distinct religion and has been accepted as such despite the Jewish denial. Sikhism is also a distinct religion and has been accepted as such all over the world despite the unfounded Hindu argument. The RSS, a militant wing of the Hindus, has now taken two more steps. First, they have taken Guru Gobind Singh as one of the national heroes, along with Rana Pratap and Sivaji. Our objection to it is two-fold. One, the spiritually-elevated person of Guru Gobind Singh’s stature should not be equated with any political and sectarian leader because he is much, much above them. Second, limiting Guru Gobind Singh as only the "national" hero amounts to doing injustice to the universal aspect of his personality.

Distortions: Recently, the RSS and such other organizations have started distorting the meaning of the Dasam Granth verses. Notwithstanding the question of its authorship, the Dasam Granth which has ideological affinity with the Guru Granth Sahib is the only premier Sikh source that explains the Puranic and mythical allusions in the Guru Granth Sahib and also tries to create a new myth. Naturally, some of the compositions in it have the Puranic base. However, it in no way implies the acceptance, rather it is a reinterpretation of the Puranic myths. The latent message in most of such compositions is a historical person, rather it is the symbol of the power of Goodness and its fight against evil to enthuse and inspire people against the prevalent socio-political oppression and injustice, suggesting that any man or woman can perform Chandi-like deeds. The invention of Kharag Singh’s character in the "Krishnavatar" is unique in so far as it is the harbinger of the creation of Khalsa. The moral lesson implied in the "Charitropakhayan" was perhaps meant to transform the people into Kharag Singhs. Unfortunately, the Sikhs have forgotten the Sikhs principle of objective analysis to discover the truth. Only the truth can lead to truth-realization, destroying all disputations.6

Gurdwara Reform - and Politics: The community perceives a threat to the pristine glory of the Guru’s tenets as well as to the Sikh identity from inside as well. This threat has been both at the institutional and the individual level. The degeneration that has crept in the Sikh religious and social organizations was, for the first time, encountered by the movement seeking reform in the management of their shrines. The struggle to liberate the gurdwaras from erstwhile corrupt custodians resulted in the formation, in 1925, of SGPC. Although the formation of SGPC was a very positive development, yet it soon lost sight of its objective for mainly two reasons. One, it started functioning by taking control of properties from the mahants and unfortunately has since failed to go beyond that. The SGPC still fails to comprehend Gurdwara as a social and religious institution, rather takes it only as a "property". Second, the Akali Dal originally "functioned under the control of SGPC , designed as it was to coordinate the activities of local and regional units of Akali workers who already existed at the birth of the SGPC, and to mobilize and provide volunteers to the Committee as, when and where required."7

The Gurdwaras Act 1925, under which the SGPC came into being, restricted the SGPC’s field of action to purely religious. Akali Dal was its political wing to politically educate and organize the electorate. However, gradually the Akali Dal by virtue of its political strength came to control the SGPC. The result was the domination of religions affairs by unscrupulous and unprincipled politics. It is this mess in which the SGPC finds itself at present. The political domination has reached such an extent as one can see a large face of the SGPC president protruding from the walls of all gurdwara offices instead of the paintings of the shrine itself or of the Gurus as was the earlier practice.

Decline in Character: At the personal level, many Sikhs have lost any sense of heroism. They were wedded to truth, but now they live falsehood : hypocrisy is the bane of their life. They have discarded spiritual and moral values for the sake of material gains. Selfish and sectarian interests have taken precedence over communal interests. The Sikhs by and large have stooped low, and this fact is reflected in the Sikh youth discarding the Sikh symbols. No doubt, the media is also largely responsible in leading the youth astray, but once again it is the community’s fault if it has failed to create stakes in the visual and print media. The Sikh youth seems to have lost moorings in its cultural ethos, thus becoming bereft of not only the external identity but also the inner values. The Khalsa rahit is only on the paper, and we can see leaders as well as common man flouting the prescribed code with impunity. Of course, this trend towards degeneration is universal and no community or tradition is immune to it, but it is no consolation to the Sikhs, rather it should be taken as a very alarming signal for the future of Sikhism.

The SGPC seems to have given its implicit approval to many Brahaminical practices, e.g., the installation ceremony of the Scripture is being made to look like Brahaminical idol-worship; arti, with earthen lamps and burning fragrance in a tray, is offered in many shrines; institution of langar, which is central to the Sikh doctrine of ethnic equality, has been diluted by allowing "special" langar for the VIPs; the place and authority of the Guru-Panth has been given to a paid employee of the SGPC who can excommunicate anybody at his whim; the growing trend to offer ardas to the Guru - rather than to Akalpurakh - (in the presence of the Guru); installation of the portraits of SGPC president in gurdwara offices; mockery of the Khalsa code while filling the voters’ form for SGPC election; and excessive emphasis on bana at the cost of bani. The emergence of innumerable sants, with all affluence in company, and proclamation of a separate rahit by each of them is also a dangerous signal. In fact, after Hinduism, Sikhism is the only faith wherein anybody can declare himself a sant: no training, no spiritually lofty status and no approval is required. On the other hand, religions like Christianity, Jainism and Buddhism have a specific procedure to go through before anybody, howsoever pious, is allowed to use this epithet. Casteism has not only come to stay, but has been gaining strength with each passing day: a person belonging only to a particular caste - the most unskilled and tribal in temperament - can aspire for a top slot in the Sikh ecclesiastical and political hierarchy.

Conclusion: Thus we find that during the period immediately following the Gurus, the Sikhs remained true to Gurmat and they preferred making supreme sacrifices to compromising with the Guru’s teachings. With the acquisition of political authority, however, political manoeuvering replaced spiritual sustenance. Luxury and lasciviousness took the place of austerity, and the socio-political fabric got completely devoid of religion and its concomitant moral values. The custodians of Sikh shrines had stooped low: they misappropriated the gurdwara funds, corrupted the pristine Sikh religious practices and even indulged in moral corruption. The effect of the renaissance movements which got underway to cleanse Sikhism of adulterations and accretions and rejuvenate its pristine doctrines and practices has all but gone. The formation of SGPC provided a constitutional remedy to rejuvenate Sikhism, but it has failed to fulfill the needs and aspirations of the community.

The message of this warning is not to recall what Khushwant Singh had said in 1950’s. Sikhism and Sikhs will not become extinct, rather they are sure to survive the ordeal. However, it is high time that the community realizes the need for another renaissance and some genuinely concerned individuals come forward to revive the pristine glory of the Sikh faith. Institutions like SGPC must either own their responsibility or they will have to quit - sooner than later.

1. Guru Granth Sahib, 966.
2. Taran Singh, Gurbani dian Viakhia Pranalia (Patiala, 1988),1.
3. Prithipal Singh Kapur & Dharam Singh, The Khalsa (Patiala, 1999), 119
4. Minas formed an independent group antagonistic to Sikh faith. Almost all the rahitnamas (code of Sikh conduct) and other contemporary literature contain references forbidding Sikhs from having any relation with them. For example, see "Rehitnama Bhai Prehlad Singh" in Piara Singh Padam, Rahitnama (Amritsar, 1989). 65.
5. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vol. IV, (Patiala, 1998), 205.
6. Guru Granth Sahib, 1255.
7. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vol. I, (Patiala, 1998), 117.

* Head, Department of Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala-147002


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Cleverness is not wisdom
May 2, 2010
Not sure about Renaissance but raising awareness and understanding is always a good thing...especially when in general there tends to be a positive view of Sikhs already probably down to their proud military heritage and fighting bravely alongside their fellow countrymen

So no harm in taking advantage of and building on existing goodwill
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