The Sikh Civil Society – Akal Takht
One of the basic reasons for the theoretical clarification of the concept of civil society necessarily lies in the practical order, namely the crisis in the socio-political realm. This leads the people to think about greater autonomy, responsibility and involvement in conducting their daily life. Therefore, the concept of ‘civil society’ consists of all philosophical reflection on the question of the best possible political and social order. Nevertheless, “it is a conception of a self-reliant public space genuinely independent relatively to the state power and in which individuals in the diversity of interests, aspirations and particular goals can coexists harmoniously and live that coexistence not as a loss of identity, but as a basis for mutual enrichment.”1 The notion of civil society provides individual rights, powers, opportunities, dignity and self-respect. In the case of India, the concept of civil society consists of traditional realities, legacies of Vedic, Buddhist and Islamic institutions and practices. Fundamentally, the Indian civil society was dominated by the Vedic socio-political and religious notion of Varna Dharma and Karma theory. Meanwhile, the Mughal Emperor who had deviated from the essence of religion, practiced fanaticism and forcibly imposed their faith on others. The significance of Sikh civil society is that it deconstructs the notion of Varna Dharma and ritualism of Vedic society. This paper is an attempt to study the nature of the Sikh civil society developed by the Sikh Gurus during the 15th century A.D.
The Sikh Civil Society
The Sikh civil society comes under the care of two institutions - Dharamsala and Akal Takht. Dharamsala deals with the socio-religious matters of the civil society. Meanwhile, Akal Takht deals with the political issues of the civil society. Guru Nanak used the term Dharamsala to illustrate the ideal pattern of civil society, which mainly concerns with the socio-religious matters. The life of Guru Nanak evidences endless meetings with village people and religious saints. This is popularly known as Udasi Yatras. In this travel, the Guru established a number of Dharamsalas in various places with the intention to create an ideal civil society apart from the existing pattern of social life.
The term “Dharamsala or Dharamsal comes from Sanskrit. Dharamsala literally means court of justice, tribunal, charitable asylum, religious asylums, stands in Punjabi for a place of worship or the village hospice. Dharamsala as a Sikh institution is the precursor to Gurdwara. According to Janam Sakhis accounts of the life of Guru Nanak, the Guru wherever he went, encouraged his followers to build or set apart a place where they should meet regularly to sing praises of the Lord and to discuss matters of common concern. These places come to be called Dharamsalas and the congregations assembling therein become Sangats.”2
It is stated that from “The time of Guru Nanak up to the time of Guru Arjan (the Gurdwara) was named ‘Dharamsala’. Guru Arjan christened the religious temple constructed in Amritsar as ‘Harimander’ and during the time of Guru Hargobind ‘Dharamsala’ came to be known as Gurdwara.”3
In the beginning, Dharamsala functioned as a socio-religious institution. This is the site, where Guru Nanak used to give educative discourses, and bless the devotees during the congregational meetings. In the teachings of Guru Nanak, we can see his concern about the political problems. However, he did not establish an institution to look after the political issues. Meanwhile, the Sikh scholar Gurdip Kaur ‘Brar’ observes that there are many political terms, which are frequently mentioned in the hymns of Guru Nanak. “This may be inferred from the occurrence, in these verses, of such phrases as Sultan, Patshah, Shah-I-alam, Takhat, Taj, Hukam, Amr, Pathani-aml, Wazir, Divan, Naib, Lashkar, Umera, Khan, Maluk, Shiqdar, Quazi, Chaudhari, Muqaddam, Raiiyat for instance. And there are references to the court and palaces, royal canopy, elephants, armour, cavalry, trumpets, treasury, coins, mint, salary (Wajh) taxes and even to revenue-free land.”4 According to Guru Nanak, “Spiritual journey cannot even be stated by a politically oppressed person. Victims of Babar’s invasion, for instance, are in no position to serve God…the Guru is emphatic that no religious activity under such circumstances is possible at all. …the obligation to perceive evil and to engage it in battle with a view to eradicating it, is solely that of a man of God. The Guru is not averse to the use of force for the purpose and advocates active armed resistance; he deplores the lack of any preparation of the Lodhi rulers to repel the sinning hordes of the invader Babar.”5 The significant factor of Guru Nanak in the notion of civil society is that an individual cannot tread the spiritual path alone for salvation. He must consider social and political organizations within the context of spirituality for realization.
In the Sikh history, the plan to develop a political institution or the seat of power (Takht) came into existence after the martyrdom of Guru Arjun. One of the main reasons for the assassination of Guru Arjun is that the Mughal Emperor Jehangir wants to curb the socio-political potentials of the Sikh society. Guru Hargobind Sahib laid down the foundation stone of the building of Akal Takhat Sahib (in 1607). Sikh saint Baba Buddha and Sikh intellectual Bhai Gurdas completed the rest of the structure. “The word Akal, a negative of kal(time), is the equivalent of timeless, beyond time, everlasting, and Takht, in Persian, that of royal throne or chair of state. Akal Takht would thus mean “timeless or everlasting throne” or throne of the Timeless One, i.e. God. In the Sikh system, God is postulated as Formless (Nirankar), yet to proclaim His sovereignty over His creation, He is sometimes referred to as Sultan, Patshah, Sacha Patshah, or the True King; His seat is referred to as Sachcha Takht. The True Throne, sitting on which he dispenses Sachcha Niao, true justice (cc 84, 1087). It also became common for Sikhs, at least by the time of Guru Arjan (1563-1606), to refer to the Guru as Sachcha Patshah and to his Gaddi or spiritual seat as Takht and the congregation he led as Darbar or court.”6 In the evenings this was a place for singing of heroic ballads by the “dhadis”(ballad singers), in order to infuse the spirit of “Charhdi Kala” (the Sikh concept of rapture) among the Sikhs. It is here that Guru Hargobind Sahib used to hold his Court and receive ambassadors, emissaries, diplomats and other dignitaries. Thus, Akal Takht became the supreme decision making body. Even the Guru bound himself by the commandments of the community.
Akal Takht is an important institution involving in the political matters of the civil society. “On the original plot of land of the Akal Takhat, there only existed a high mound of earth across a wide open space, where Guru Hargobind as a child used to play. The Guru’s original Takhat is said to have been a simple platform, 3.5 metres high, on which the Guru would sit like a king at court, surrounded by insignia of royalty such as the parasol and the flywhisk, and perform kingly tasks of receiving petitions and administrating justice.”7 The main reason to build a platform of 3.5 meters high is to protest the order of Mughal Emperor Jahangir that “He warned the people that nobody can build his personal pedestal of a height of more than two feet.”8 A building subsequently raised over the Takht was called Akal Bunga (house) so that the Takht is now officially known as Takht Sri Akal Bunga although its popular name Akal Takht is more in common use. Through constructing this institution, the activities of the Sikhs are organized. Thus, Sikhs have become a separate political community.
It is possible to say that Dharamsala and Akal Takht are the socio-religious and political institutions of the metaphysical doctrine of Double Sovereignty ‘Miri Piri.’ and also the social philosophy of Sant-Siphai. The Sikh concept of Miri-Piri is not the unity of the two domains but it is “oneness” of the two. Both, Miri and Piri, don’t stand apart from one another but they resonate each other. Meaning thereby that a man of Miri is obliged to impart Dharma (righteousness) and a man of Piri must not be a silent observer to tyranny, injustice and in-humanism. Therefore, the concept of Miri Piri in Sikhism discusses the role of man in religious associations and state affairs. That means, the Guru’s vision went far beyond the individual. The Gurus envisaged a society of God-men living as householders with a sense of responsibility in their religious, social and political functions. The person who understands the real meaning of Miri Piri and who enables himself/herself to practice it becomes a person of multidimensional vision.
The institution of Akal Takht is not only apprehensive with inequality but is also concerned with strategies and tactics involved in acquiring physical power or coercive power in a broad sense. “The Guru made Akal Takht the center of organizational and military activities. Sikhs from different part of the country would come to Akal Takht to present arms and horses to the Guru. Akal Takht became the center for military exercises. According to Kavi Sohan, immediately on becoming the Guru, Guru Har Gobind asked his devotees to come to Akal Takht and make offerings of arms…. The soldiers in the army of the Guru were not paid salaries…and also an important feature of the army was that people from different classes, specially those who had been harassed and persecuted by the Mughal army, were the members of this army. Kavi Sohan says that calico printers, water drawers, barbers, all came there and stood there asking the Guru to protect them.”9 In the Vedic tradition, the idea of civil society is based on the notion of Varna Dharma in which, the various functions like intellectual, religious, political, military, commercial and menial were being carried on by different castes. The various groups of the society thus separated from each other. The idea of Varna distributes the source of power in society at different places; those who have the highest status- Brahmins and Kshatriyas enjoyed the political and economic power and those who produce wealth (Vaisyas) were denied both highest prestige and political control. Meanwhile, the so-called Sudras were required by the ‘sacred law’ to be the servants of higher castes. The so-called Sudras are not permitted even to study or to take weapons for self-defense. Again, it is the duty of the state to preserve the sacred law of Varna Dharma. On the contrary, the Akal Takht not only broke away from the caste society, but also succeeded to a remarkable level in giving an egalitarian socio-political direction to its own policy. Sikh Gurus assert that it is the responsibility of an organization or state to instill an open, tolerant view of values among all citizens.
The Sikh Gurus observed that military training was a legitimate means for resolving political contradictions. “Giani Gian Singh writes: In pursuance of the Hukamnama, Guruji addressed to the Sangat gathered before the Akal Takht: He had decided to form an army to fight the tyranny of the rulers of the day. He asked them to be fully armed because religion could not be saved without resorting to arms and that was must for the survival of their religion.”10 The Sikh scholar Shamsher Singh observes that the Guru Nanak supported the idea of martyrdom for righteous causes. Guru Nanak says, “It is the privilege and right of the true men to fight for and die for righteousness.”11 The history of Sikhs after creation of the Akal Takht is the story of an unending series of martyrs and saint-soldiers, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of justice and resistance to oppression and exploitation. Thus, Akal Takht became the place to protect human values, conscience, thought, right to association and also encouraged the so-called lower castes to fight for equal opportunity to compete for any position in society.
Rattan Singh Bhangu observed that most of the activities of the Khalsa was decided in the premises of Akal Takht. According to him “Twice in a year, on Baisakhi and Dewali, Sikhs would congregate in large numbers at Akal Takht and would adopt political resolution. He says that they would sit at Harimander and listen to discourses and meditate on the words of the Guru at Akal Takht. They would congregate, hold assemblies and pass resolutions. The entire congregation then became a court, deliberations were held how to eliminate the enemies and protect the Sikhs.”12 Again, “the role of Akal Takht as a court is very important. Akal Takht has been playing the role of a court in setting internal difference among the Sikhs. Justice was delivered to those who had been the victims of plunder. The false ones were punished and the honest and the truthful acquitted.”13 “Guru Hargobind, thus inaugurated a new policy for the uplift of the most down trodden people. He gave up the policy of passive resistance advocated by Rishis, Bhaktas and Bodhies. 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 resorted to arms to redress the grievances of the slave community, he proved that fighting for self defense was an essential ingredient of practical religion. He was not opposed to another religion. He was the first national hero of the people of Punjab since 1000.A.D.”14 Guru Hargobind posits that individuals have certain rights, to live like humans that no one can take away from them, such as the preservation of life, liberty, and dignity. He promoted the civic virtue of egalitarianism, self-esteem, toleration for the beliefs and actions of others.
In conclusion, we could very well say that the concept of civil society framed by Sikh Gurus has been aimed at for the free development and growth of humans with self-esteem and dignity.
1 William A. Barbieri (ed) Civil Society: Who belongs?, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, Washington DC, P-92
2 Harbans Singh (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vol. 1, Punjabi University, Patiala, p-571
3 Harminder Kaur, Institution of Sikh Gurdwara: Evolution and its Role – a dissertation submitted to Punjabi University, Patiala in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for the Degree of Master of Literature in History, p-19
4 Gurdip Kaur ‘Brar’, Guru Nanak’s Philosophy of Politics, Mahant Bhai Tirath Singh Sevapanthi, Punjab, p-13
5 Kharak Singh(ed), Sikhism: Its philosophy and history, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, PP-166,167
6 Taken from the website Akal Takht .com
7 Taken from the website sikhiwiki.org
8 Article- Akal Takht :Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty, Shamsher Singh, Journal –The Sikh Review, Vol-XXXIII, June-1985, p-21
9 Article –Sikh Institutions Akal Takht, Jaspal Singh, Journal- Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, vol.-XIV July December 1995, p-77
10 Article- Akal Takht :Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty, Shamsher Singh, Journal –The Sikh Review, Vol-XXXIII, June-1985, p-22
11 Article- Akal Takht :Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty, Shamsher Singh, Journal –The Sikh Review, Vol-XXXIII, June-1985, P-24
12 Article –Sikh institutions Akal Takht, Jaspal Singh, Journal- Studies in Sikhism and comparative religion, vol.-XIV July December 1995, p-78
13 Article –Sikh institutions Akal Takht, Jaspal Singh, Journal- Studies in Sikhism and comparative religion, vol.-XIV July December 1995, p-78
14 Article- Akal Takht :Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty, Shamsher Singh, Journal –The Sikh Review, Vol-XXXIII, June-1985, PP-23,24