The Five Kakkaars Or, How To Spin A Controversy Out Of Thin Air


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

An established and respected scholar on religion, with an excellent track record of writings on Sikh teachings and practices, Professor Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh of Colby College in Maine, U.S.A., has recently attracted criticism - fireworks! - on the Internet.

Presumably, it is for something she said in a recent lecture in India, to the effect that the five articles of faith of Sikhism ultimately stem from gurbani.

To readers who tend to take such statements literally, this statement has been interpreted as meaning that the five kakkaars can be traced to actual directives in the Guru Granth.

Of course, such edicts aren’t there.

The report of exactly what she said comes to us second-hand. Since the critics have, not surprisingly, failed to find the specific evidence they’ve set out to find in the Guru Granth, they have jumped to the conclusion that the good professor is here making an entirely unwarranted leap of faith through an exercise of shoddy scholarship.

One critic even went so far as to damn all academicians of Sikhism everywhere, with the summary judgment that all such “professors” are cut from the same cloth and disconnected from the real message of Guru Nanak.

That the fur would fly on such a matter is not entirely unexpected; after all, this is a question that has divided teachers and followers of Sikhi alike for as long as Sikhi has been around, but none quite so vigorously as recently in the diaspora. The question cuts to the heart of Sikhi.

There are many staunch defenders of the faith and its requirements, including these five articles of faith, who assert that one cannot be a Sikh without them.

Then, there are just as many who insist that these requirements, if that’s what they were, existed for a different time and place. They usually connect their codification in the Sikh maryada to the needs of a movement involving a necessary war against the tyrants of the time - something akin to an army’s need of a uniform. The world has changed, they say, and such symbols hold no meaning or relevance today.

And between these two positions are the majority of Sikhs who see being a Sikh as a life-long journey of seeking and learning, and becoming a Khalsa as a choice involving taking on the full discipline of the faith when personally ready to do so.

My biases on this issue are a matter of record, even though readers may differ on exactly what they mean. I am not going to delve into clarifications today. I intend to present to you a factoid or two and related questions to dissect and debate.

History is clear that at the dramatic conclave on Vaisakhi 1699, around 80,000 Sikhs came to Anandpur in response to the call from Guru Gobind Singh. This is where the Guru initiated the first five Sikhs into the Order of the Khalsa. The codification of the five kakkaars, including the unshorn hair, stem from that event.

About 20,000 Sikhs, including the Guru himself, became Khalsa over the next few days. From this modest beginning, a new nation was founded.

However, there is no evidence, direct or implied, that the Guru berated the recalcitrant 60,000 that they were no longer his Sikhs and should thereafter get out of his face!

The fundamental question is: What was the need for the Guru to institute a new order of the Khalsa within the Sikh faith?

Some suggest that this was the need of the time and the Khalsa army was needed for the battles that lay ahead.

It is this presumption that I want to question today.

By 1699, the year of the first Khalsa Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh had already fought most of his battles with the Mughals and Hindu tyrants who plagued the region. Sikhs were already both battle-ready and battle-tested.

Guru Gobind Singh fought very few battles after 1699. The few that he did were fought with the larger Sikh army beside him, not by the Khalsa alone. Thus, even after he founded the Khalsa, his army consisted of - in addition to the Khalsa members - un-’baptized’ Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. It was this larger army that fought at the side of Banda Bahadur and, later, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Where then was the need to create a special army of the Khalsa?

To me, that fact alone would reject the suggestion that the Khalsa was primarily founded to serve as an army.

Why do I say that? Simple … because it was not needed. That explanation just doesn’t hold water.

The alternative, the real raison d’etre, would have to be something else.

Could it be that Guru Gobind Singh saw the development of the Khalsa as a logical progression of the spiritual movement that started with Guru Nanak and the community had now come to a level of mature fruition?

Are we missing that in this debate?

Could it be that those reading Nikky Kaur’s remarks may have tripped over their literal meaning, and missed out on her analysis that the spiritual core of the Khalsa is but a continuation of the ideals laid out by the preceding nine Nanaks, as enshrined in the Guru Granth.

Sure, even a tooth-comb will not uncover references to a karra or kesh, to a kanga, kirpan or kacchhera in the Guru Granth.

Perhaps what Nikky Kaur is telling us is that the idea of each Khalsa codification lies in the very pages of our scripture. Her words as reported, incomplete as they may be, deserve thoughtful analysis.

Nikky Kaur's thinking is obviously laid out in her writings. Wouldn’t it be better to probe her major works, including The Feminist Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (1993) and The Birth of the Khalsa (2005), before villifying her words or dismissing her scholarship?

Traipsing through them may help clear up some of the confusion, I would think.

One caveat: I’m afraid none of her writings are light, Friday evening, fire-side reading! They demand careful reading and considerable contemplation.

In the meantime, attacking scholars willy-nilly will not get us anywhere useful.

admin note: See also the related discussion here at SPN where this article has also been posted.


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