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Sri Akal Takht Sahib and Institutional Dilemmas

Pritam Singh Kohli

The institutional element in a religion has been almost invisible in the writings of the philosophical theologians and philosophers of religion. The tendency has been to identify “real religion” with faith, loving communities and rich theological tradition while “institutions” are construed as cold, impersonal and empty structures that are marginal to real religion and quite often, destructive of “real religion” A somewhat extreme is that institutional religion is a graveyard of its founder.

The Sikh religious institutions have received inadequate attention for scholarly study from various perspectives of social sciences. Most of the literature on Sri Akal Takht Sahib is of descriptive nature dealing with its earlier history and whatever happened to it or from it during the Punjab crisis without examining the institutional issues from perspectives of social sciences. Credit goes to the enlightened and dedicated multi-disciplinary expertise and leadership of the I.O.S.S for not only bringing out the features of institutional failures but also taking effective steps for organizing new institutions like the International Sikh Confederation.

Any community that wants to preserve the insights of its charismatic personalities or the founder of its faith, has no option but to institutionalize itself and codify its tradition. The institutional dimensions of a religion, though essential for the preservation and transmission of its traditions, create their own paradoxes and dilemmas. From a sociological perspective, Weber’s “Charisma and Routinization of Charisma” and Thomas O’Dea’s “Dilemmas of the Institutionalization of religion” describe how religion produces both positive and negative effects in people’s lives. As psychologist William James noted, when individuals are closets to charisma, the initial sacred experience of the founders or prophets, they, in turn, experience positive effects in their own lives. But over time that original experience often wanes and becomes routine, and individuals tend to adhere only to the law, the structure, the ritual, and the myth and produce fruit that is sour and, in some cases, negative. Communities cannot endure beyond the leader’s death or loss of charisma unless the charisma is routinized into an organizational structure which gives others official authority. Understanding this continuum from the experience of charisma to the institutionalization of religion provides a framework for the topic under discussion.

Types of Institutional Religious Authority:

Two types have been indicated.
i. Rational Institutional Authority based on “legal patterns of normative rules and the rights of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands”

ii. Traditional Institutional Authority “resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority under them”

The main purpose of these authorities is to replicate a pattern of practices and beliefs laid down by the charismatic figure. The institutional patterns of authority and power are quite varied and complex in various religious traditions

Nature of Authority of Sri Akal Takht Sahib
1. There are two distinct aspects of Sri Akal Takht Sahib: One Divine as revealed by Guru Hargobind Ji and the other human concerned with management of it. It is crucial to distinguish between Sri Akal Takht as a divinely revealed institution and the incumbent Jathedar as an individual charged with the responsibility of taking care of the Takht. Similarly its Hukamnamas determined by the expressed collective will of the community under the guidance of Guru Shabad as per Sikh tradition must be distinguished from the controversial role, acts of omissions and of commission and utterances of some of the Jathedars which have resulted in adversely affecting the pristine glory of Sri Akal Takht. Jathedar’s authority is determined and limited by the provisions of the Gurdwara Act 1925 and the rules made there under and has to be exercised in accordance with the Sikh doctrine and as wielded earlier in the Sikh history. While Akal Takht Sahib as divinely revealed entity transcends any scope for socio- scientific analysis, the manner in which the Jathedar has discharged his function needs careful scrutiny. It is only through their manner of functioning that we can assess the extent to which the objectives for which Sri Akal Takht Sahib was revealed are being realized. Further religious Institutions play a constitutive role in the development of a person’ religious life, in a person’s conversion to a tradition and the loss of a faith or the exiting of the tradition.

2. The Root Cause of the Problem: The details of the manner of functioning of some of the Jathedars that have adversely affected the pristine glory of Sri Akal Takht Sahib are well known and need not be described here. The focus is on the root causes responsible for the current situation.

a. Inter-linkages amongst the SGPC, Akali Dal and Sri Akal Takht Sahib: Akali Dal nominated candidates get elected to SGPC and then determine the choice of Jathedar of Akal Takht who functions in most of the cases as per advice of the SGPC Chief who in turn is guided by the Akali Dal Chief. Further, because of factions within Akali Dal, no faction of Akali Dal was able to reassert a stable authority over the functioning of the principal Sikh shrines for a number of years due to the developments resulting from the Punjab crisis. This gave new space to some of the senior functionaries of the historical shrines to take on the mantle of supreme religio-political authority in a way that has no precedent in the Sikh tradition. The impact was the marginilization of Sri Akal Takht, which was further facilitated on account of lack of provisions in the Gurdwara Act, 1925 as regards the role, functions and the manner of functioning of the Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib.

b. Inadequacies of the organizational set up to serve Sri Akal Takht: The Hukamnamas issued from Sri Akal Takht Sahib have been of the nature of punishment for violation of any aspect of the Sikh tradition. Very little attention has been paid to the issuing of any proclamation or declaration, which could serve as guidance for the community for coping with the contemporary challenges and the futuristic concerns. The basic reason appears to be the lack of organizational, expertise and financial resources. The overall management of the Takht is with the SGPC but either directly or through Sri Akal Takht, its intervention in resolving specific controversies and factional differences in the management of local community level gurdwaras and affairs has been minimal.

c. The inability and lack of resolve on the part of Jathedar, Sri Akal Takht all by himself in giving clear-cut directions and decisions on controversial issues referred to him are best epitomized in the court proceedings of dispute relating to the Fairfax Gurdwara, Virginia, USA. These issues relate to Identity of a Sikh, the validity of Panj Pyarey as an external investigating authority or of Akal Takht in unsorting issues and resolving conflicts, Rahit Maryada as a standard for conduct, the rights of Sangat versus the authority of the registered society or trust in the management of the local Gurdwara .The court could exercise jurisdiction only if the Gurdwara was “congregational and not ‘hierarchical/connectional” like Catholic Church. The local community was divided on all these issues, which had adverse impact on the unity within the Sikh community. These are very complex issues, which have remained unresolved for decades.

d. The details of other unresolved controversies adversely affecting the unity and dynamism of the Panth and the basic reasons for the inability or unwillingness of the existing political and religious leadership have been dealt with a deeper insight in the issues of IOSS journal and need not be repeated here.

e. The Institutional Paradoxes/Dilemmas of SGPC as a Religious Institution:

i. The SGPC as an apex body was originally conceived as a federating institution but subsequently, as a result of amendments of Gurdwara Act, 1925, abolished local committee of Golden Temple and took over its direct management. Even the Gurdwaras with a meager annual income of Rs.25,000 were transferred to its direct control. In addition to the access to financial resources, it acquired the authority for cadre recruitments.

ii. SGPC assumed the authority of Sikh “Church” and started issuing theological and non-religious directions. It is considered as an authoritarian agency that brooks no dissent or objection.

iii. SGPC along with the Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib do exhibit the features of the five dilemmas of the religious institutions as conceived by Thomas O’Dea. These are:

- The dilemma of mixed motivations
- The symbolic dilemma
- The dilemma of administrative order
- The dilemma of delimitation
- The dilemma of power.

The Way Out
Apex Body as an Advisory Council as proposed by the IOSS: This is the time to set up such a body which could evolve a consensus on the various controversies, help in building up pressure for implementing desired reform programmes by individual Sikh institutions in a coordinated manner. Some of the important issues like the All India Gurdwara Act have been pending for decades. The proposed provisions relating to Central Religious Body and the role, functions and manner of their functioning as per Draft Bill need careful examination for a consensus whether such a body with limited representation and limited role will be an effective body. There is an overlap between the functions of the Central Body and those of the Jathedars collectively. Though the institution of Takht Jathedars is declared as supreme authority of the Panth yet the Central Body will consider certain matters on reference to them by the collectivity of the Jathedars.

An alternative point of view is against submitting the Sikh religious institutional system to governmental control on various scores. The chances for an early legislation like All India Gurdwara Act do not appear to be bright. The proposed provisions do not deal with the issues raised by the Sikh Diaspora. It appears necessary that IOSS sets up a multi-disciplinary committee to make an in-depth study and suggest an effective institutional set for Sri Akal Takht Sahib either within the purview of a central legislation or totally independent of it or combining the features of both. Because of Miri-Piri concept and the inter-linkages amongst principal Sikh religious institutions, scheme, if any drawn up in isolation for Akal Takht Sahib alone, will need very careful scrutiny from various perspectives.

The lack of consensus within the Panth on the most crucial pending issues provides justification to governmental agencies to delay decisions. IOSS with its well-proven creditability in creating consensus on controversial matters will add another plume in its already profusely decorated Dastaar for creating an effective pressure group for generating consensus on the Sikh religious institutional issues and reform. The Sikh sangat’s current orientation is mainly that of a worshipper and of indifference to the urgent need for institutional reforms. Nothing short of launching of an effective movement based on the consensus on the reform issues will lead to any improvement in the current situation.



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