Sri Akal Takht Sahib
Keynote Address by Dr Kharak Singh
“Akal Takht is the primary seat of Sikh religious authority and central altar for Sikh political assembly. Through hukamnamas, edicts or writs, it may issue decretals providing guidance or clarifications on any point of Sikh doctrine or practice referred to it, may lay under penance personages charged with violation of religious discipline or with activity prejudicial to Sikh interests or solidarity and may place on record its appreciation of outstanding service rendered by individuals espousing the cause of Sikhism or of the Sikhs.”1
This great institution was created in 1609 by Guru Hargobind formally to proclaim Sikh faith’s common concern for the spiritual and the worldly or the synthesis of miri and piri.2
Akal Takht has a rich and inspiring history. In fact, history of the Sikhs revolves around the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht. It was used for the accession ceremonies of Guru Hargobind who adopted royal style and conducted secular affairs of the community. He is believed to have issued the first hukamnama to far-flung sangats, announcing the creation of the Akal Takht and asking them to include in their offerings thenceforth gifts of weapons and horses.3
“The Akal Takht alongwith the Harimandir constitutes the capital of Sikhism. Meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa or general assembly representative of the entire Panth are traditionally summoned at Akal Takht and it is only there that cases connected with serious religious offences committed by prominent Sikhs are heard and decided. Hukamnamas or decrees issued by the Akal Takht are universally applicable to all Sikhs and all institutions.4
In 1635 Guru Hargobind shifted to Kiratpur, and custody of the Akal Takht passed into the hands of Minas, and remained with them, until in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh sent Bhai Mani Singh to take over. The eighteenth century witnessed the worst repression of Sikhs at the hands of the Mughal and Pathan rulers, which continued upto 1765. During this period, the Guru had to quit Anandpur Sahib, fighting numerous battles with the Mughal forces and the Hill Chiefs, in which the four Sahibzadas and Mata Gujri became martyrs, besides thousands of devoted Sikhs. The Guru himself was assassinated at Nanded at the hands of a hired assassin in 1706.
Sri Akal Takht and the Golden Temple were occupied and desecrated by the Mughal forces. It was a crime to be a Sikh. The government followed a policy of complete genocide of Sikhs, and the orders were ‘to kill Sikhs, wherever seen’. The Sikhs had to quit their hearths and houses and move to desert areas of Rajasthan and hilly areas of Punjab. The two ghallugharas in which approximately 50,000 Sikhs died, the numerous martyrs whom we remember in our congregational ardas every day, the daring deed of Bhai Mehtab Singh and Sukha Singh who beheaded Massa Ranghar for desecration of the Darbar Sahib, the valiant fight of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh and his 30 associates defending the sacred premises of Darbar Sahib and the Akal Takht against the hordes of invaders to the last man, as well as the martyrdom of Baba Dip Singh belong to this period. Abdali demolished Darbar Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum, as well as the Akal Takht and desecrated the sarovar.
The Sikh struggle continued against heavy odds, and as a result after 1765, the whole of the Punjab came under the sway of the Sikhs who had organized themselves into misls. The Darbar Sahib and the Akal Takht were rebuilt in 1774 and the Akal Takht resumed its role. The misl chiefs would organize Sarbat Khalsa at the Akal Takht on the occasion of Diwali and Baisakhi every year to pass resolutions or gurmattas outlining policies and strategies, which were accepted by all Sikhs as binding on them. “For instance, through a gurmata (Guru’s counsel) the Sarbatt Khalsa at the Akal Takht resolved on 14 October, 1745, to reorganize their scattered fighting force into 25 jathas or bands of about 100 warriors each. By another gurmata on Baisakhi, 29 March 1748, the Sarbatt Khalsa meeting again at Akal Takht formed the Dal Khalsa or the army of the Khalsa consisting of 11 misls. On Divali, 7 November 1760, the Sarbatt Khalsa resolved to attack and occupy Lahore (till then Sikhs had not occupied any territory, their only possession being the small fortress of Ram Rauni or Ramgarh they had built at Amritsar in 1746). Akal Takht was again the venue of the Sarbatt Khalsa on Baisakhi day, 10 April 1763, when by a gurmatta it was decided to go out to the help of a Brahmin who had brought the complaint that his wife had been forcibly abducted by the Afghan chief of Kasur.5
The Akal Takht as well as the institution of Sarbat Khalsa suffered a setback during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who felt little need for these institutions after 1805 when Sarbat Khalsa was summoned to consider Jaswant Rao Holkar’s request for assistance against the British. The religious authority of the Takht was, however, never questioned. The Maharaja never challenged it, and even demonstrated the state’s subservience to it, when he himself appeared in response to its summons, and accepted the tankhah or punishment for moral misdemeanor imposed on him by its custodian, Akali Phoola Singh.
With British occupation of the Punjab, the control of gurdwaras passed on to Mahants, and the Akal Takht was put under the charge of a sabrah, so that these institutions were used only to promote the interests of the Government, and seldom in the interest of the Panth. The honouring of General Dyer, who perpetrated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 is a glaring example. Eventually, the Sikhs launched the Gurdwara Reform Agitation and as a result of the sacrifices made by the Akalis, the Gurdwaras were liberated, and the SGPC was constituted to manage the gurdwaras as well as the Akal Takht, in 1925. The situation has not changed since then. As a result the Takht has been reduced to the position of one of the scores of gurdwaras under the SGPC, and the authority of the Jathedar who is appointed by the political party in power, and works at the pleasure of its president, has suffered a setback. This brief historical account makes it clear that fortunes of the Panth are linked with Sri Akal Takht. When it is in competent and sincere hand, the panth flourishes, as during the Guru period, and later in the 18th century. When, however, its control passes into wrong hands, decline sets in.
The Akal Takht in the present set-up cannot perform the functions originally envisaged by Guru Hargobind. It was supposed to be the headquarters of the ‘state within a state’ created by Guru Arjun Dev ji. Now that the Sikhs have spread to almost every country of the world, the need to perform this function and to look after the interests of the community is far greater and more pressing.
In order to restore the pristine glory and intrinsic authority of the Akal Takht radical reforms are necessary. There are, however, some basic assumptions that must be understood.
1. Authority : Akal Takht derives its authority from Guru Hargobind who created it. The authority, temporal as well as spiritual, remained with him and his successors, during their life time. They did not delegate this authority to any individual. Under the doctrine of Guru Granth-Guru Panth, the authority now vests in the Guru Panth in attendance upon the Guru Granth Sahib.
2. Jathedar : The position of Jathedar (or Whatever designation may be given to him) is indispensable to look after the Takht, to run the administration, to receive complaints, suggestions, arrange discussion to facilitate decision, to announce the decisions, and ensure their implementation. He should be the spokesman of the Akal Takht Sahib. He should not, however, be confused with the Akal Takht or the Panth which is the ultimate decision making body.
3. The Akal Takhts rules over the hearts of the people, and thrives on their devotion and commitment to the Guru. The decisions of the Akal Takht are binding on all Sikhs, and should not be criticized on one pretext or the other. Those who do not respect or obey its decisions, have no place in the Panth. At the same time it must be remembered that only such decisions can command respect and attract implementation without trouble, as are made by the Panth (not-individuals), after thorough consideration, following a proper procedure, and are in the interest of the Panth as a whole.
The Present Position
While the need for an effective and powerful Akal Takht, the central authority of the Sikhs, was never greater, the prevailing state of affairs is extremely disturbing. The Akal Takht is ill-equipped to cope with mounting complex problems like apostasy, challenges to Sikh identity, enquiries relating to gurmat, problems of Sikh diaspora, pressures from vested interests, etc. As a result, some vital issues facing the Panth, are often neglected, while decisions on others are implemented more in their breach then compliance. There have been frequent demonstrations at the Akal Takht – a thing unheard of in the past. Without going into further details, it appears that under the present set-up and the present situation, it is difficult for the Akal Takht to keep the Panth together, much less to provide the guidance and lead expected from it.
As pointed out earlier, the situation demands radical reforms. It is heartening that the Institute of Sikh Studies has taken the initiative to draw the attention of the Panth to this crisis-like situation. The response to the call from scholars and well-wisher of the Panth has been very encouraging. I do not want to anticipate the outcome of the deliberation. I hope, however that the problems will be discussed in depth, and I am confident that deliberations will yield recommendation of far-reaching consequences on which will depend the future of the Panth. Some basic realities, which need to be constantly borne in mind, may be reiterated as below:
i. The Akal Takht is the seat of spiritual as well as temporal authority for the Panth or the global Sikh community.
ii. The authority vested in the Gurus in their lifetime. Now it vests in the Panth under the doctrine of Guru Granth-Guru Panth. As a corollary, control of any one particular party or individual is unacceptable.
iii. To exercise its authority, constitution of a board of 11 or more eminent members, well-versed in gurmat, and committed to the Sikh ideals, and above party politics drawn from global Sikh community may be considered.
iv. The position of Jathedar (or whatever designation may be given to him) is indispensable. He should be the spokesman of the Akal Takht, look after its day-to-day functions, and ensure implementation of its decisions.
v. All decisions should be made by the Board according to procedures laid down in a transparent manner, and implemented scrupulously.
vi. All pending academic issues like the Dasam Granth which have caused or are likely to cause divisions in the Panth, should be resolved at academic level without further delay.
vii. Relationship between the Akal Takht and the other four Takhts needs to be defined.
viii. The institution of Panj Piaras is closely related with the Akal Takht. Its role and constitution also needs to be defined.
ix. The Akal Takht needs to be adequately equipped physically as well as otherwise to discharge its functions efficiently. This should include a separate secretariat, besides advisory councils to provide the required technical support in the areas of religion, education, economic, international and legal affairs, besides, public relations. This should be forthcoming from the International Sikh Confederation, recently formed, which is committed to consolidation of the Akal Takht, and is open to all well-wishers of the Panth with its advisory councils in all major disciplines. It is in a unique position to render the required assistance to the Akal Takht.
x. All political parties and other Sikh organizations should renew their allegiance to the Akal Takht, offer full cooperation and assure compliance of its decisions.
In the end I offer my best wishes to the organizers of the seminar and the participants of the seminar. I hope the IOSS will come out with a document of practical recommendations, based on these deliberations.
1 Encyclopeadia of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala, Vol I, p 66.
2 Ibid., p 56.
3 Ibid., p 57
4 Encyclopedia of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala, p 57
5 Ibid, p 57