Sri Akal Takhat and Emile Durkheim's Definition of Religion
Dr N Muthu Mohan
Akal Takht is the embodiment of the Sikh principle of Miripiri, the unity of the Spiritual and the Temporal. By formulating the dialectics of spirituality and temporality, Sikhism has opened a fresh page in the history of religions. Sikhism adheres not to the isolation or separateness of the realms either of spirituality or temporality, but allows a perpetual interaction between the extremes constructed by the previous course of religious history. It is here one finds Sikhism challenging the definition of Religion offered by the European sociologist Emile Durkheim that religion is the classification of the sacred and the profane in their distinctness. The present paper studies the institution of Akal Takht and its enduring significance in redefining the relation between the so-called sacred and the profane.
Akal Takht and the Principle of Miripiri
There is perfect unity among Guru Nanak’s founding philosophy of Sikhism, Guru Hargobind’s articulation of miripiri and Guru Gobind’s creation of Khalsa. Guru Nanak criticized the political despotism and war of the then rulers, casteism inculcated by Brahmanism and Hinduism, inhuman ritualism of Bhakti culture and egoism of the mystics. Being intensely critical and creative, the Guru laid the foundations of an ethical and social religiosity. Guru Gobind abolished the institutional priesthood in Sikhism for ever and handed over the religion of the Guru to his tested followers. And Guru Hargobind established the institution of Akal Takht as the two swords he willingly adorned on his body eternalizing the principle of unity of spirituality and earthliness. The three great episodes we have described stand united to denote the dialectics of miri and piri, internal and external, immanent and transcendent, material and ideal, subjective and objective, the spiritual and the temporal. This is an entirely new path opened in the history of religions in India as well as elsewhere. It is a new path not only in religion, but also a new way of life in social history. It contains the germs of the birth of a new civilization stretching its possibilities even to the present 21st century. The dialectics of the opposites enumerated above holds in itself immense opportunities to Sikhism to wage any amount of meaningful dialogues with the most recent (postmodern) and most sophisticated philosophies of 21st century.
Dr. Shamsher Singh reminds the literal meaning of the term Takht as the royal throne, a sovereign chair of state, the place of exaltation, a seat from where the state-law is promulgated and enforced.1 However, to this secular meaning of the term Takht stands prefixed the term Akal to indicate the unity of secular sovereignty with the blessings of God. The secular concerns of the Sikhs are united with the divine concerns. The secular searches of the Sikhs are inspired by divine motives. The social commitments of the Sikhs are inalienably united with religious piety. Dr. Shamsher Singh quotes Pritam Singh Gill, “ Guru Hargobind, thus inaugurated a new policy for the uplift of the most downtrodden people. He gave up the policy of passive resistance advocated by rishis, bhaktas and bodhis. It was felt that it is no use preaching spirituality at the cost of respectable life, a community must be able to protect itself, spirituality leading to national degradation is of no use; one must be able to lead a life of dignity. Guru Hargobind was the first Guru who restored to arms to redress the grievances of the slave community, he proved that fighting for self defense was an essential ingredient of practical religion.”2
An entire gamut of newly constructed terms came into existence in the Sikh parlor. Terms such as Miripiri, Sant-sipahi, Bhakti-sakti, Sacha Padsha, Sacha achar, Sachiar etc appeared in the Sikh language. They were unknown in the earlier languages of Indian subcontinent. They were not merely new entries into a language but they came to become the new categories of thought that consequently determined the fate of a people. The Sikhs of the last 400 years think of themselves and their attitude to reality only through these terms. Religion and society, God and world, prayer and practice, meditation and activity go together in Sikhism. In Sikh understanding, no one part of these pairs exists aloof, separated from the other. The two sides in separation are merely convenient ways of expression or the habit of the old languages. In Sikh way of living they do not part, they do not separate one from the other. A Sikh lives and ought to live holistically.
I do not think that the two are anyhow absolutely one. They do not form any advaitic unity. The principle of miripiri is not a mere statement informing the oneness of reality. The two although do not thoroughly separate, they however mean two different directions or two different possibilities. It might be possible to ‘live’ a purely spiritual life as well as a purely temporal life. People do live so. The pure opposites produce ruptures in between. They represent different although abstract possibilities. The Gurus suggest to negotiate between the two at every critical juncture of life and find the appropriate ways of synthesizing. The problems of temporal life are viewed at the light of the spiritual and answers are sought with the guidance of the spiritual, and come down to address the problems. Spirituality is informed by the temporality and vice versa. It is a wide dialectical realm where spirituality and temporality mutually penetrate.
Akal Takht in the History of the Sikhs
Akal Takht is not merely representing a principle and it has a full history behind it from the date of its installation. Hari Ram Gupta describes the initial unity of the two realms in the following words. “Hari Mandir was the seat of the Guru’s spiritual authority and Akal Takht the seat of his temporal authority. There he administered justice like a king in a court, accepted presents of arms and horses and awarded honors and punishments. He watched wrestling matches and shooting exercises with arrows and matchlocks… To the symbols of sainthood was added the paraphernalia of sovereignty including the umbrella and crest. With meditation and preaching were included riding, wrestling and hunting… The Guru created a government of his own like that of the Moghals. All his disciples formed a separate and independent entity, and had nothing to do with the agencies of the government of the day.”3 History helped to bring out the potentialities that were immanent in Sikh philosophy. The most difficult circumstances in the history of the Sikhs played the role of catalysts to exemplify the initial Sikh philosophical tenets.
The idea of Akal Takht was further strengthened when the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa organization in the year 1699. By establishing the Khalsa, the Guru entrusted the religion of the Gurus to their followers and formulated the type of leadership the Guru envisaged for the future Sikhism. The community of the Sikhs was made the biggest and the ultimate carrier of the Sikh ideals. Akal Takht organically combined with the Panthic leadership and responsibilities in the founding of the Khalsa. The community is the agency to carry out and fulfill the ideals enshrined in Akal Takht.
There were indeed ups and downs in the history of Akal Takht and the Sikh Panth. It could not be otherwise if we take into account the terrible conditions that were challenging the Sikhs all along in their short but tumultuous history. The Akal Takht has stood behind the Sikhs as the moral authority, hope and ideal. It inspired, corrected, attracted, consoled and energized the Sikhs in the most turbulent circumstances. We read about the moral authority of the Akal Takht, for example, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was humbled down before the Takht.4 In the recent history, Akal Takht played a prominent role in the Singh Sabha Movement and Akali Movement.5 It is important because the Singh Sabha and Akali Movements struck a fresh note in the history of the Sikhs namely Sikhism articulated and reconstructed its enormous democratic potentials during the movements. The Akali Movement and the formation of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee at the Akal Takht remain the beginning of the modern history of the Sikhs. The colossal energy revealed by the Sikhs either in the freedom movement, or in the armed forces or in the agricultural fields of Punjab during the 20th century somehow takes its inspiration from the Akali Movement and its mobilization of a people. The philosophy of Akal Takht rightly understood and inherited by an entire people play a decisive role in this. As Marx put it, an idea becomes a material force when it engulfs an entire people.
Akal Takht and Emile Durkheim’s Definition of Religion
Akal Takht embodying the unity of spirituality and temporality and the unity of theory and history challenges the definition of religion worked out by the western sociologists and philosophers of religion. Emile Durkheim is a reputed sociologist of religion and his definition of religion is mostly an accepted and remarkable one all along during the 20th century among scholars of religion. He defines religion in the following way. “All known religious belief, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all things, real and ideal, of which men (sic) think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred. This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred and the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought.”6
If we enter into analyzing the modes of religious thought that were existing in Indian subcontinent previous to Sikhism, many religious traits indeed fit to this definition of religion. Take the example of the Vedic thought as the core of Hinduism, it indeed divides the world into two distinct and separate realms namely Paramartika and Vyavakarika where the Brahman and Atman belong to the previous and the Maya is the characteristic feature of the latter. Further, the Vedic mode of thinking extrapolates the opposition of sacred and profane into absolute opposites of sacred and polluted by which it introduces theoretical and practical untouchability. The binary of Brahman/Maya is the theoretical mode of varna and caste system in Indian context. The binary of Brahman/Maya is also the theoretical mode of patriarchal values of male dominance in Indian history. The binary of Brahman/Maya serves as the theoretical mode for so many other social and cultural divisions constructed during the course of development of Indian history.
Durkheim continues to write that religion introduces a few categories of thought namely heterogeneity, hierarchy and distinctness among the things of the world and made the binary of sacred and profane absolute. “ In all the history of human thought there exists no other example of two categories of things so profoundly differentiated or so radically opposed to one another. It is absolute.”7 The Vedic thought introduced categories such as heterogeneity and hierarchy into not only the world of things but, above all, into the world of people and absolutized the binary of Brahman and untouchable. One can witness the binary of sacred and polluted operating in the cosmology, ontology, epistemology, ethics and social philosophy of Vedic way of thinking. It is in this sense, Durkheim’s definition of religion that it is a classificatory system that divides the world into sacred and profane becomes a powerful tool of interpretation of religion, particularly in Indian context.
However, we enter into debate with Emile Durkheim when he makes all religion and all religious history reduced to his single definition of religion as the binary of sacred/profane. In the ancient world itself there were resistances to the dualism of sacred and profane. Buddhism with its middle path (Madhya marga) opposed the construction of binaries in the pattern of sacred and profane. It proposed to enter into the middle realm and undergo the process of negotiation. It was not for any separate and abstract category or state of living but stood for confluences of realms.
The Sikh philosophy of Miripiri is an exemplary standpoint that is categorically against the division of world and people into sacred and profane. Sikhism knew very well that there were such two categories and the previous religions tended to divide the world of things and people on the basis of such a pattern. Sikhism is a conscious resistance to such attempt and is aimed to work out an alternative. Durkheim says, “ The two worlds are not only conceived of as separate, but as even hostile and jealous rivals of each other. Since men cannot fully belong to one except on condition of leaving the other completely, they are exhorted to withdraw themselves completely from the profane world, in order to lead an exclusively religious life. Hence comes the monasticism which is artificially organized outside of and apart from the natural environment in which the ordinary men leads the life of this world, in a different one, closed to the first, and nearly its contrary.”8 In this otherwise rich portion of the discussion of the theme is contained the logic how monasticism had come into existence in the history of religions. One can assume that Durkheim had Christianity in his mind mostly when he discussed the history of monasticism. However, the Sikh Gurus mostly had the experience of the Indian religions and Islam, the historical period is not the 20th century, and they were able to brilliantly go beyond the time-worn dichotomy and formulate a fresh definition of philosophy.
The Sikh Gurus did not believe that “men cannot fully belong to one (realm) except on condition of leaving the other completely”. What is the usage of words such as “fully” or “completely” above all? Do they not tell us that it is a categorical, absolute and purely theoretical standpoint? Where do such pure realms really exist? The human life on earth, according to the Sikh Gurus, is that which makes a holistic one. As we have shown in the case of Vedic thought, the heterogeneity, dichotomy and hierarchy are the root sources of slavery, colonialism and injustice. Such a state of affairs scandalized the idea of religion itself and that was witnessed by the Guru.
“The Quadi speaks falsehood and eats filth
The Brahmin, guilty of much cruelty,
Makes a show of ritual bathings;
The Yogi, blind and misguided,
Knows not the true practice;
All three are at one in bringing harm to the people” -
Guru Granth Sahib, p 662
The socio-political situation too was thoroughly corrupted.
“Avarice is the king
Evil-doing his minister,
Falsehood is his revenue factor
Lust is the councilor always consulted
The subjects are purblind and thoughtless
Who foolishly obey this evil rulers” -
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 468-69
The crisis was holistic. When the temporal realm goes corrupted one cannot claim that the spiritual realm is saved. It would be cynical to claim so. The spiritual values are to be produced to attend the temporal realm. They must penetrate the earthly life and inspire us in our struggles for justice. The spiritual is the realm where truth and justice are again and again sought to be formulated at every critical historical stage and infused in its most general terms into the historical plane. It is not completely excluded that the temporal realm often suggests certain modifications in the process of concretization even to the spiritually worked out ideals. Without the real play of dialectics of the spiritual and the temporal, the holistic life cannot be taken care of. The Sikh principle of miripiri means this dialectics and it unites the spiritual and temporal interests of the Sikhs.
Sikhism does not “exhort its followers to withdraw themselves, not even in a small dose, from the profane world, because it does not presuppose that there is such an exclusively religious life”, to paraphrase Durkheim’s words. Sikhism is a genius philosophical spark that peeps out of the medieval dichotomic paradigm. This has to be deeply recognized. Why do you refuse to accept it? The heart of the Guru was wide open to the sufferings of the humanity that was sorrounding him and the temporal pains (not necessarily of his own) compelled the Guru to evaluate the true and the false of the days’ of his time and finally go for searching the truly true that would be suggested at the spiritual realm. By articulating the suggestions the Guru got from the spiritual realm and transforming them into real, the Guru comes to the decision that truthful living is higher than truth itself.
In a sense, every Sikh is expected to go through this process of temporal to spiritual and again spiritual to temporal, if he/she really wants to understand the message of the Gurus. This is an intense dialectics that is represented by the combined reality of Akal Takht and the Sikh Panth. We do have temporal interests. Often we are insulted and humiliated. We suffer. We reach the spiritual sphere advocated by the Gurus and listen to the voice emerging out of it. It responds to our temporal problems. Committed we act to realize it. It is a New religion that was not defined by Emile Durkheim.
1. Dr. Shamsher Singh, Akal Takht: Symbol of Sikh Sovereignity, The Sikh Review June 1985 p. 21
2. Ibid p. 23
3. Hari Ram Gupta, History of the Sikhs, Vol.1, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1994. P. 157-158.
4. Surinder Singh Johar, The Heritage of Amritsar, Sundeep Prakashan, Delhi, 1978. P. 76
5. Sangat Singh, The Sikhs in History, Uncommon Books, ND, 1996. Pp. 139, 163.
6. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, The Free Press, Newyork, 1965. P. 52.
7. Ibid. P.53.
8. Ibid. P.55