• Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

How Sikhs Got Their Rehat Maryada


Apr 3, 2005
How Sikhs Got Their Rehat Maryada by I.J. SINGH - Humans are social animals and, in time, their way of life evolves into a codified set of traditions and laws - a code of conduct. For Sikhs, this code of conduct - Rehat Maryada - evolved slowly over several centuries from the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, who started the process of delineating Sikhism as an entity independent of the beliefs and practices of other faiths, to Guru Gobind Singh, who formally established the institution of the Khalsain 1699.
A religion, in its final analysis, is a way of life that makes possible the formation, survival and growth of human societies. A society collectively determines what constitutes right conduct or what deserves censure, and also in what forms such disapproval is expressed.
We all know the message of the Sikh Gurus was simple yet universal; it empowered the powerless. What, then, is the Sikh Rehat Maryada - the Sikh code of conduct? What does it say? How and when did it evolve into a written document?
A Sikh, and even a non-Sikh who wants to understand his Sikh neighbors, cannot but be curious about these matters. It is a riveting tale, and this essay derives much of its historical information from a 2005 book by the London-based Giani Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan.
It is not entirely unexpected or odd that the formalization of the Sikh way of life into a written structure approved by the Sikh community and its representatives took another two centuries after the canon was sealed and the Khalsa discipline established.
History tells us that agreement on major issues of Christian doctrine and dogma, for example, did not occur until several centuries after Jesus. Living religions evolve, and their practices achieve clarity only over time, sometimes not until centuries later. Some matters that appear settled at one time may continue to vex believers and may be revisited and re-explored years later.
Honest differences in interpretation are also the products of time; for instance, Christianity now comes to us with a plethora of sects and denominations. In fact, no major religion is without schisms, and Sikhism is no exception - though the latter, to date, it has fared better than all others, probably because of its youth and its inter-faith credo.
During the two centuries of the Gurus, Sikh belief and practices evolved and matured. The subsequent two hundred years left the Sikhs little peace or leisure to formulate their way of life into a coherent whole. In that time, Sikhs knew a scant fifty years of peace when the Misls prospered and Ranjit Singh ruled over northwest India.
But his rule, beneficent as it was, also attracted many Hindus and Muslims into the Sikh fold, some not from conviction of belief but in deference to perceived needs of political expediency.
These converts of convenience never abandoned their earlier beliefs and practices but brought them along to intermix with Sikh traditions. Not unexpectedly, many contradictory practices, often drawn from the large religious traditions of Hinduism and Islam that surrounded Sikhs, a small minority, wormed their way into the Sikh way of life.
Not that there was total absence of written records on the Sikh code of conduct, but none were directly recorded at the behest of Guru Gobind Singh. Most were recollections of Sikhs of that time and were intermixed with biases and practices stemming from their own familial or cultural origins.
Sikhs wrested control of their historical gurdwaras only in 1925-26 after a titanic struggle that shook the British Empire to its core; one of the results of this struggle was the formation of a Sikh elective parliamentary forum, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), whose charge was to manage the historical gurdwaras of Punjab and resolve issues that affected Sikh community life.
In the Indian cultural context, where written historical record was never much valued and the impact of Western education was perhaps less than two generations old, the next step was quick but equally significant.
On March 15, 1927, a general meeting of the SGPC at the Akaal Takht appointed a 29-member subcommittee, convened by the Jathedar Akaal Takht, Bhai Teja Singh, to explore Sikh teachings, traditions, history and practice, and prepare a draft of a code of Sikh conduct and conventions.
It is important to note that the list of members was a veritable and venerable Who's Who of the Sikhs of that time. In the Indian tradition of careless historical record keeping, the names of only 26 members are available; 3 are listed as jathedars of takhts, without any names. Who were these three individuals?
Two years later, in April 1931, a preliminary draft of the code was distributed to the Sikhs and their opinions solicited. The subcommittee reconvened on October 4-5, 1931, January 3, 1932, and again on January 31 of the same year. Inexplicably, the number of attendees declined to 13; an additional 4 members appeared at some meetings. (How were they appointed or invited?)
On March 1, 1932, 4 members were dropped from the subcommittee, and an additional 8 members appointed to it. (Of the 4 ousted from the committee, Giani Sunder Singh died, Babu Teja Singh was excommunicated and an edict issued to deny Bhai Lal Singh the right to offer prayers at the Akaal Takht. What happened to the fourth, Bhai Mya Singh, is not stated.) Of the 8 new members, 5 are named; three are listed only by their titles. How were these 8 appointed?
Agreement on the draft remained elusive. On May 9, 1932, only 10 members attended the meeting; at the September 26, 1932 meeting, only 9 members were present. (Was this a quorum?) On December 30, 1933, a conclave of the wide spectrum of the Sikh nation, somewhat akin to Sarbat Khalsa, was convened at the Akaal Takht. The president of the SGPC, Partap Singh Shankar, presided; 170 Sikh representatives attended it, but only 9 were members of the subcommittee originally appointed for the purpose.
After two full days of heated discussion, agreement eluded them, and the issue was tabled indefinitely. A 50-member subcommittee (48 members were named and 2 were anonymous) of the SGPC that included representation from Stockton (California), Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia, with opinions from 21 additional correspondents, approved a draft code of conduct on August 1, 1936; the SGPC ratified it on October 12, 1936.
This code was implemented while suggestions and critique continued to pour in.
The general body of the SGPC approved the document on February 3, 1945, and an 8-member subcommittee met on July 7, 1945 to fine-tune the code of conduct.
In drafting the Sikh code of conduct, the scholars drew upon the teachings in Guru Granth, as well as the unbroken oral tradition and practice. They also examined various historical documents to ferret out the common thread in them.
These documents were Guru Granth, the writings of Guru Gobind Singh, the poetical works of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal, the available Janamsakhis, Bhagat Mala (Bhagataavli, Bhagat Rachnaavli), Sarabloh, Rehatnama Bhai Chaupa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Prehlad Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Desa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Daya Singh, Gur Sobha, Prem (Param) Sumarag, Sau Sakhi, Mahima Parkash, Gur Bilas, Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Sri Guru Panth Parkash, Gurmat Parkash (Bhag Sanskaar) and the many Hukumnamey of the Gurus that are available.
Clearly, many of these sources and documents are, at least in part, apocryphal, yet they provide rare historical information on Sikh doctrine and practice. The task of the subcommittee was daunting indeed - how to sift the wheat from the chaff? How best to capture the common thread that runs through much of Sikh history while discarding what was obviously an accretion and even contradictory to the common body and continuity of doctrine and teaching?
Starting with the definition of a Sikh, in the main body of his book on Sikh Rehat Maryada, Gulshan explores briefly but methodically each line of the code and every requirement of a Sikh in his or her personal and congregational existence.
Sikhism arose and flourished in the sub-continental culture. Sikh teachings, therefore, are cast in the language and perspective that is largely Hindu. Now that Sikhism is a universal religion, we need to re-examine, even reinterpret the language in the context of our present reality.
For instance, the language in the Rehat Maryada may appear sexist in places. I point to the admonition that a Sikh father should marry his daughter to a Sikh man, while the other side of the coin - marrying his son to a Sikh woman - is not even mentioned. The Sikh Anand Kaaraj (wedding rite), as widely practiced all over the world, shows the groom leading the bride in four circumambulations of Guru Granth. The former is a cultural idiosyncrasy in favor of the male; the latter may be an idea borrowed from the Hindu practice of the bride and groom circling the fire.
Such attitudes and practices might be in tune with the Punjabi-Indian culture of the last century but are contradictory to the spirit of the Sikh message of gender equality.
Must the Sikhs sit on the floor to partake of the community meal (langar) that has been a tradition since the times of Guru Nanak, or can they sit on chairs at tables? In the early days of the code, it was recognized that local conditions might mandate tables and chairs, but in the past decade this dispensation was withdrawn.
Our gurdwaras, built to reflect the cultural and economic realities of India of a certain time, often lack access to the handicapped. Such access is not only a human need; it is provided for in the law, yet, the law is often flouted.
For example, an iconic figure in preaching Sikhism, Professor Darshan Singh, was for several months barred from performing in some Canadian gurdwaras. Why? Because following knee replacement surgery, he could not sit cross-legged on the floor. Such issues need to be revisited.
Also, the most cursory reading of Sikh history and of Guru Granth would convince even a skeptic that the Sikh scripture and practices have been enviably tolerant and accepting of a diverse global reality and the distant beat of the different drummer to which the world's billions march. Matters of interfaith relations need clearer definition and exploration from the Sikh perspective, now that we exist in a multifaith world.
Then, of course, one burning issue remains and that is a codification of how the takht jathedars are to be appointed. What qualifications, tenure and authority are prerequisites to that office, and how is the entire system of conflict resolution to work?
Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh bequeathed to us an ecclesiastical model of justice, but we seem to have slipped our moorings, and the Sikh Rehat Maryada does not adequately address this issue.
Where is the reading of Guru Granth to be concluded: at the reading of Mundavni, or Raag Maala? When the Rehat Maryada was drafted, dissenting opinions were strong, and some issues that could not be resolved were deferred. I refer readers interested in this controversy to Giani Gurdit Singh's 2003 book, Mundavni.
It is time to revisit these issues that have divided the Sikhs so long.
With several million Sikhs in the diaspora, such matters are of critical import and not just of academic interest and curiosity.
At least some of the participants to the drafting of the code may still be alive and their recollections or papers available. Some of the contradictions or mysteries surrounding the proceedings can and should be resolved. Considerable evidence has probably been degraded or lost already, but every attention should be directed to capturing whatever it might still be possible to capture. To neglect or lose our national history by our own carelessness would be unforgivable.
Much as constitutions of countries are not written in stone, nor are they whimsically, lightly or arbitrarily amended; similarly, the Sikh Rehat Maryada needs a constitutional convention and exploration.
Ultimately, that is the meaning of participatory self-governance.
With minor caveats, Giani Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan, in his 2005 book Darpan Sikh Rehat Maryada, does an excellent job of explaining in detail, with scriptural and historical references, the Sikh Rehat Maryada. He successfully strips it of its mystery and frees Sikhs of the fear that many have of a document they have never read and not understood. Readers will find the code surprisingly consistent and largely free of contradictions.
The Sikh Rehat Maryada is a liberal document that needs to be interpreted liberally.

sikhchic.com | The Art and Culture of the Diaspora | Article Detail

[This article first appeared as a chapter in The World According to Sikhi by I.J. Singh. 2006, Pages 57-62. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.]
Last edited by a moderator:


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

This is a fascinating article and I hope that we forum members refer to it often when we discuss the rehat.

📌 For all latest updates, follow the Official Sikh Philosophy Network Whatsapp Channel: