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Hard Talk The Bhagat Maal Debacle

Dr Karminder Singh

Sep 3, 2009
Reveiw of The Bhagat Maal by Nabha Dass

The Sikh Scripture – Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji (SGGS) contains the Bani of 15 bhagats. A total of 725 saloks and shabds; including three full banis2 written by the bhagats were retrieved by Guru Nanak in person from them.3 These were all included in the Pothee Sahib by Guru Arjun and maintained in the SGGS by Guru Gobind Singh upon bestowing of Gurgadee to the SGGS in 1708.

All three independent acts – retrieval of the bhagat bani, their inclusion into Pothee Sahib and their retention in the SGGS – fortify the single principle that the spiritual philosophy of the 15 bhagats was completely in line with that of our Gurus. From their initial retrieval to eventual inclusion in the SGGS, all 725 saloks and shabds of the bhagats underwent bench-marking three times at the hands of three separate Gurus. Such scrutiny for spiritual alignment is perhaps avant-garde on its own accord.

An examination of the bani of the bhagats reveals that they were revolutionary spiritual seekers. Amongst the many facets of their ground shattering and innovative spirituality, four aspects stand out as stark reality of what the bhagats stood for: (i) the damning denunciation and rejection of the then existing clergy, (ii) the total refutation of all clergy sanctioned ritual, (iii) repudiation of the clergy sanctioned idol worship, and (iv) the wholesome rejection of the primary institution of the clergy – the mandir, dehora, maseet and temple as the “pathway to spirituality”.

In any case, the institution of the clergy was out of bounds by dogma to all but three of the bhagats – on account of their ‘low’ caste. The mandir’s doors were secured shut to the castes of weaver, cobbler, tailor and other shudras. The doors did not open for those bhagats who were not shurdras either – the mandirs were shut to them as well – as pay back for their stinging criticism of the custodians of these places as frauds and pretentious beings.

Bhagat Kabir establishes the centrality of what the bhagats collectively stood for; through his verse on page 1158 of the SGGS:

ਹਮਰਾ ਝਗਰਾ ਰਹਾ ਨ ਕੋਊ ॥ ਪੰਡਿਤ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਛਾਡੇ ਦੋਊ ॥ ੧ ॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

Hamra Jhugra Rha Na Kou. Pandit Mullah Chadey Dou.

Meaning: My Spiritual Journey is Unimpeded. I have discarded both the Pandit and Mullah clergy.

The inference is clear. Abiding by the dictates of the clergy of the two main religions of the day – the Pandit and Mullah was as recipe for a spirituality that was conflictual (Jhugra). Such a spirituality was in conflict because the dictates of the clergy were in contrast to genuine goals of spirituality.

Kabir says again on page 1159.

ਪੰਡਿਤ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਜੋ ਲਿਖਿ ਦੀਆ ॥ ਛਾਡਿ ਚਲੇ ਹਮ ਕਛੂ ਨ ਲੀਆ ॥ ੩ ॥

Pandit Mullah Jo Likh Diya. Chad Chaley Hum Kachu Na Liya.

Meaning: All that the Pandit and Mullah Have Prescribed, I Accept None; Walking the Path of Spirituality – I Discard It All.

The vocabulary of Kabir is in absolutes – Jo refers to “everything and anything”. Kachu means “None” in the absolute sense. All of the clergy stuff is discarded in totality.

The stand enunciated by Kabir passes the benchmark of Guru Nanak’s own assessment that held the clergy responsible for the devastation of mankind’s spirituality. Guru Nanak’s verse to this effect can be found on page 662 of the SGGS as follows:

ਕਾਦੀ ਕੂੜੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਮਲੁ ਖਾਇ ॥ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਨਾਵੈ ਜੀਆ ਘਾਇ ॥ ਜੋਗੀ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਨ ਜਾਣੈ ਅੰਧੁ ॥ ਤੀਨੇ ਓਜਾੜੇ ਕਾ ਬੰਧੁ ॥ ੨ ॥

Kadi Koo Bol Mul Khayey. Brahmin Navey Jeeya Ghayey. Jogi Jugat Na Janey Andh. Tiney Ujarey Ka Bundh.

Meaning: The clergy of the Muslim faith was corrupt, the Brahmin was murderous and the Jogi unenlightened. These three (clergy) had become the root cause for the spiritual wreckage and desolation that mankind had come to endure.

Bhagat Namdev repudiates the institution of the clergy through his verses that are contained on page 875 of the SGGS as follows:

ਹਿੰਦੂ ਪੂਜੈ ਦੇਹੁਰਾ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ਮਸੀਤਿ ॥ ਨਾਮੇ ਸੋਈ ਸੇਵਿਆ ਜਹ ਦੇਹੁਰਾ ਨ ਮਸੀਤਿ ॥

Hindu Pujey Dehora Musalman Maseet. Namey Soee Seyvia Jeh Dehora Na Maseet.

Meaning. The Hindu Seeks Him through the Worship at the Dehora and the Musalman in the Maseet. Namdev Realizes One Who Is Realized Neither in The Dehora Na Maseet.

The inference is clear. Namdev Seeks the One who is Found Neither in the Dehora nor Maseet.

Kabir rejects the staple clergy act of idol worship in his verse on page 1160 of the SGGS.

ਨ ਪਾਥਰੁ ਬੋਲੈ ਨਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਦੇਇ ॥ ਫੋਕਟ ਕਰਮ ਨਿਹਫਲ ਹੈ ਸੇਵ ॥ ੨ ॥

Na Pathar Boley Na Kich Dey. Fokat Karm Nehful Hai Sev.

Meaning: The Act is Worthless and the Worship of an Idol is Fruitless.

Namdev similarly frames his critique within the parameters of irony as exemplified by this verse on page 525 of the SGGS.

ਏਕੈ ਪਾਥਰ ਕੀਜੈ ਭਾਉ ॥ ਦੂਜੈ ਪਾਥਰ ਧਰੀਐ ਪਾਉ ॥ ਜੇ ਓਹੁ ਦੇਉ ਤ ਓਹੁ ਭੀ ਦੇਵਾ ॥ ਕਹਿ ਨਾਮਦੇਉ ਹਮ ਹਰਿ ਕੀ ਸੇਵਾ ॥

Ekey Pathar Keejey Bhao. Dujey Pathjar Dhareay Pao. Je Oh Deh Ta Oh Bhee Deva. Keh Namdev Hum Har Kee Sev.

Meaning: Some Stones Are Worshipped and Some Stepped On. If Some Are Gods, then the Others Must Be Gods as well.

The irony is stark indeed.

Protecting the Sanctity of Bhagat Bani.

The decision of the Sikh Gurus in providing space to the bhagat bani within the SGGS served two primary objectives.

First, it gave unprecedented eminence to the spiritual principles and stands of the 15 bhagats. The collective prominence provide to the bhagats by the SGGS as the spiritual text and Guru of the Sikhs could not have been attained by the bhagats on their own accord.

Second, and more importantly, the SGGS provided sacrosanctity to the writings of the bhagats. Its inclusion in the SGGS accorded bhagat bani inviolability against adulteration and corruption of any kind – in particular by the clergy and their institutions that bore the brunt of the bhagats’ critique.

The 725 shabds and saloks that got incorporated in the SGGS were safe and indeed remained safe from any sort of contamination4- primarily because the Gurus were aware of the clergy propensity to corrupt any system of belief that stood in opposition to it. The contamination did not occur because the Gurus themselves undertook the task of protecting the sacrosanctity of the SGGS – laying down their life when it came to the crux of it.5

The Clergy Retaliates

The emerging eminence and prominence of bhagat bani as provided by our Gurus also caught the attention of the the Bippar / Bhramanwaad clergy who were clearly affected by it. The Bippar thus set in motion his scheme to dilute the critique, sully the revolutionary spirit and muddle the legacy of the bhagats. The Bippar could not alter the writings of the bhagats so he set about creating fake written narratives of the lives of the bhagats.

Thus was born the narrative called the Bhagat Maal. It was authored by Nabha Dass, a self-styled Snatn theologian based in the Punjabi village of Pathankot at Gurdaspur sometime in the 1600s.

For the specific purposes of the 15 bhagats that were seated by our Gurus on the spiritual throne that was the SGGS; the task of dethroning them and putting them back squarely at the feet of the bippar clergy was left to the Nirmlas – the Benares based brahmins who had entered Punjab in the mid-1700s and who under the guise of Sikhi garb ruled over Sikh institutions, psyche and literature for some 250 years.

The Nirmlas could NOT alter the divine bani of the bhagats as contained in the SGGS so they resorted to writing a distorted “history” of the bhagats’ lives. The fake “history” contradicts everything the bhagats say in their own writings so those Sikhs who read both are bound to be confused.

The Bhagat Maal pertaining to the 15 SGGS bhagats was first composed by Nirmla Surat Singh. The Nirmlas knew that authentic Sikhs would not accept Bhagat Maal. To achieve believability as well as to keep their hand hidden, it was published under the name of Bhai Mani Singh.6 Surat Singh also wrote Bhagat Ratnawlee – a book containing details about the 15 bhagats in the SGGS.

Other Nirmlas translated the Nabha Bhagat Maal into Punjabi and added lots of their own stories. The first translation of the original in Brij Bhasa was undertaken by Swami Priya Daas in the late 1800s. Nirmala Keerat Singh undertook a poetic translation of the same during the same period. Nirmala Pandit Narain Singh translated it into prose Punjabi in 1935. 7 Narain Singh also authored Bhagat Bani Sateek in 1920.

Corrupting the Legacy of the Bhagats

It is no coincidence that the focus of the Bhagat Maal corresponds to diluting, corrupting and diminishing the four cardinal spiritual principles that the revolutionary bhagats stood for.

If the bhagats undertook a damning denunciation of the existing clergy, the Bhagat Maal potrays the bhagats as relying on the clergy for their enlightenment. If the bhagats enunciated a total rejection of all clergy sanctioned ritual, the Bhagat Maal shows the bhagats as having reached God through ritual. If the bhagats repudiated the clergy sanctioned idol worship, the Bhagat Maal potrays bhagats worshipping idols; albeit with full faith and love. (Bhagat Dhanna extricating God out of a stone is case in point). And if the bhagats announced their wholesome rejection of the primary institution of the clergy – the mandir, dehora, maseet and temple as the “pathway to spirituality” the Bhagat Maal narrates stories of bhagats praying at mandirs. (The fake story of bhagat Namdev ji going to a mandir to pray, being ejected by the Brahmins there, and causing the mandir to spin around miraculously to face the bhagats is case in point).

The primary objective of Bhagat Maal is to corrupt the legacy of the bhagats. Its method is to embroil the bhagats in brahminwaad and portray them part and parcel of the bippar clergy.

But what about the bani of the bhagats in the SGGS? Don’t their 725 shabds and saloks expose the Bhagat Maal for what it actually is – a fake narrative?

The Nirmlas have attempted to take care of that. Given that Sikhs are by and large unable to understand Gurbani on their own – hence relying on teekas and translations, the Nirmala authors of Bhagat Maal have incorporated the bani of the bhagats into their fake stories. To do this they have obviously twisted and distorted the meanings to fit their self-serving narratives.

In Pandit Narain Singh’s Bhagat Maal for instance, there are six sakhis pertaining to Bhagat Dhanna ji who has three shabds in the SGGS. The sakhis are as follows:
  1. God appearing from a stone that Dhanna worshipped – given to him by a Brahmin named Tirlochan (Bhagat Tarlochan who has one shabd in the SGGS).8 This makes bhagat Tirlochan as an idol worshipper as well. It also establishes that Dhanna had to rely on a Brahmin clergy for his spiritual needs.

  2. God undertaking tasks for Dhanna (in return for being fed by Dhanna, God decided to pay Dhanna back by taking care of his cows). 9

  3. Accepting Ramanand as Guru. (Dhanna goes to Kanshi to adopt Ramanand as Guru. Upon his return home, God undertook all of Dhanna’s menial tasks on a daily basis).10

  4. Reaping without sowing (Dhanna fed his wheat grain seeds to a Brahmin instead of sowing them. Afraid that his mother would admonish him, Dhanna ploughed an empty plot for months, and wheat grew aplenty anyway).11 The sakhi “establishes” that donations to a Brahmin bears miraculous results.

  5. God’s Darshan to Tirlochan. The Brahmin who had given him the stone was envious that Dhanna had been served by God. So he begged Dhanna for the same. Dhanna took him to the fields where God was tending to his cows and said “look over there, that’s God with a flute in his hand, smiling at us). 12 The sakhi “establishes” that the God of Dhanna was actually the God of the bippar clergy.
The Nirmla author quotes verses from bhagat Dhanna’s bani to “support” his fake narrative. Equally fake is the translation and interpretation of bhagat Dhanna’s shabd in the SGGS ji.

I have endeavored to illustrate my observations above by attempting to provide an authentic Gurbani based understanding of one shabd of bhagat Dhanna ji as contained on page 487 of the SGGS ji. My translation and commentary can be found in the succeeding article titled Gurbani Shabd Vichar – Asa Bani Bhagat Dhanne Ki.


1 Bhagats Kabir, Ravidas, Farid, Ramanand, Beni, Namdev, SaDhanna, Bhikhan, Parmanand, Sain, Dhanna, Pipa, Surdas, Jaidev, and Trilochan.

2 Bavan Akhree, Pandran Thithee, Sat Vaar are Bhagat Kabir ji’s compositions.

3 All Bhagats were contemporaries of Guru Nanak with the exception of Fareed whose compositions were retrieved by Guru Nanak from his followers in his Ashram.

4 The same cannot be said about the voluminous writings of the bhagats that remained outside the SGGS. The Beejuk Granth said to contain the writings of Kabir is believed to have been shaped to fit the belief systems of the Vaishnavites whereby Kabir is shown to be a follower of the Vedic dictates. Kabir panthis worship the idol of Kabir, wear sacred thread and adorn themselves in sandalwood paste – the very things that the Kabir of the SGGS critiqued with so much passion.

5 The torture and execution of the Guru Arjun was in large part over the Guru’s refusal to accept the inclusion – into the Pothee Sahib – compositions that were against Sikhi tenets. This execution and the keeping of the bani in the personal and exclusive possession by the Gurus beginning with Guru Nanak was clear proof of the Gurus conviction towards the sanctity and authenticity of the bani.

6 Ghost authorship seems to be the norm in a wide variety of the early Sikhi related texts that they wrote. Other examples are the Gurbilas Patshahi 6, a host of Janam Sakhis, Rehetnamas composed under the names of prominent Sikhs who were contemporaries of Guru Gobind Singh, the Bachitar Natak, etc. All in all, the Nirmlas are believed to have either authored or conspired to author some 35 “classical texts.” The impact of corruption and adulteration on such a massive scale is beyond measure.

7 Pandit Narain Singh, Sri Granth Guru Bhagal Maal Vaartik Sateek, Lahore: Dwarka Printing Press, 1938

8 Pandit Narain Singh, Sri Granth Guru Bhagal Maal Vaartik Sateek, p. 67

9 Ibid, p. 68

10 Ibid, p.69

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid, p. 70

(Note: This piece first appeared as the Editorial for The Sikh Bulletin Vol 2/2019.)
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