Factional Fight Among Sikh Seminaries
– An Unhealthy Trend –
Inderjit Singh Jaijee
On Feb 17, 2020, The Times of India published a full page article headlined Test for Akal Takht which went into the dispute between Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale and Harnam Singh Dhumma who heads a faction of the Damdami Taksal. The piece made sad reading for those who have the welfare of the Sikh panth at heart but it did prompt thoughtful readers to mull over the challenges to the Sikh faith in today's world.
If we date the process of formation of the Sikh religion to the birth of Guru Nanak then that process has been underway for 551 years; if we date the beginning of the process from the first compilation of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib then it is 416 years and if we take the establishment of the Khalsa as the beginning then the process has been underway for only 321 years. Whether we say 551 years or 416 years 321, five centuries or less is a short time in the evolution of a religious faith.
Moreover, the past centuries, and particularly the past 50 years, have seen science and society evolve at great speed. Today's elders, looking back, are staggered by the multitude of far-reaching changes that have occurred in just their own lifetimes.
If the Sikh religion is confronted with the challenge of remaining relevant and spiritually sustaining in today's world, the same goes for Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
A feature of the Sikh religion that should help it to face today's world is the absence of an established clergy. Every Sikh is at liberty to read the Sri Guru Granth Sahib himself and understand it according to his own light. In fact, beyond the act of reading the scripture, when it comes to conducting the rituals of the faith such as marriage, funeral, christening or confirmation, any Sikh can perform these ceremonies. This makes Sikhism a highly liberal and egalitarian faith.
Religious history provides many valuable lessons in what to avoid: Christianity experienced long periods of inquisition and wars between competing sects. Islam split into two major hostile camps of Sunni and Shia with numerous smaller splinter groups. Seemingly unbridgeable gulfs exist even in Buddhism – Hinayana, Mahayana, Theravada.
As a proportion of the world's population, persons who identify as Sikhs are relatively few. They would be wise to stick together – which means Sikhs need to forever conscious of the words of Guru Nanak:
ਸਭਨਾ ਜੀਆ ਕਾ ਇਕੁ ਦਾਤਾ ਸੋ ਮੈ ਵਿਸਰਿ ਨ ਜਾਈ ॥
There is only the One, the Giver of all souls. May I never forget Him!
Individuals, each marked by the limitations of the human mind, may differ in their ideas about God but the Reality is One and Unchanging.
We can talk about religious beliefs as abstractions, but religious believers are individuals existing in a complex world where economic and political issues are very real indeed. In the struggle to win sufficient number votes to gain political power, no tactic is shunned. If the voters are susceptible to manipulation on the basis of religion then hopeful candidates will megaphone the scriptures and out-saint the saints. Indeed, "saints" make excellent political tools. A single saint may be enough to lead an entire religious community in one direction or another. When one saint is powerful but uncooperative, it is standard practice to prop up a competing saint to neutralise the first. This is no revelation: around the world, and certainly in Punjab among the Sikhs, people have seen every sort of political game played beneath the cloak of religion. There is no now new trick left in the bag.
What are we seeing now? Damdami Taksal Jathedar Harnam Singh Dhumma* disagrees with Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale over interpretation of some verses of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the significance of some events of Sikh history. As mentioned earlier, liberty to read and understand the scriptures for oneself is a tenet of the Sikh faith; neither Dhumma nor Dhadrianwale is entitled to dictate meanings to anyone else. By focusing on the differing views of these two men, Sikhs are nudged to take side with one man or the other – in other words to divide the Sikhs. If Sikhs are divided among themselves who is going to benefit?
Focusing on disputes over interpretation also diverts attention from issues that should be of much greater concern to the Sikhs and Sikhism. For instance, nothing is more divisive and therefore weakening than the concept of caste. Guru Gobind Singh rejected it
ਮਾਨਸ ਕੀ ਜਾਤ ਸਭੈ eਕੈ ਪਾਹਿਚਾਨਬੇ
And yet Sikhs have yet to rid themselves of the caste system/ heirarchy.
In terms of gender, the Gurus were far ahead of their time. In Sikh institutions one should find both men and women playing responsible roles. But let's take a quick look at the composition of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee. It reveals: out of 191 members, 170 are elected and 15 are co-opted; in addition there are six ex officio members (jathedars of the five takhts and head granthi of the Harmandar Sahib), bringing the total number of members to 191. Out of the 170 elected members, 120 are from general constituencies and there are 50 reserved constituencies: 20 for Scheduled Caste persons and 30 for women. All reserved constituencies are double constituencies electing one woman and one SC candidate along with a male or from a general category. If Sikhs were to act on the directives of the Guru's, there would be no need for reserved constituencies for either SC persons or for women. In any case, the constituency pattern is the creation of the government, which framed the SGPC Act in 1925.
So, matters of Sikh practice, as well as reforms that would strengthen the Sikh faith, are ignored and matters of scripture, which Sikhism leaves to the individuals to ponder over, are magnified. The Gurus constantly contrasted the virtue and humility of the Gurmukh to the egotism and ignorance of the manmukh. When disputes arise, why not ask all sides to re-read all those passages from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib that deal with these two qualities of mind and measure themselves accordingly. Many disputes would be calmed and cooled at the very outset.
* Damdami Taksal leadership: Damdami Taksal chief Baba Thakur Singh died in 2004. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's eldest son (Bhai Ishar Singh) and nephew (Bhai Jasbir Singh Rode) were strong contenders for headship. The Indian government did not want either of them. Initially, Giani Ram Singh (Sangrawa) was elevated to be the chief, but he opposed by some groups within the Taksal. Three competing factions emerged; their leaders were Baba Ram Singh, Bhai Amrik Singh Ajnala, and Baba Harnam Singh Dhumma. Scrutiny of Dhumma's past raises doubts about his integrity. It is claimed by Baba Dhumma's critics that he is a cats-paw of the Indian Intelligence Agency and close to the Rashtria Sikh Sangat. Dhumma was a "parachute" entry – arriving in Amritsar from Fresno, California, where he presided over his own gurdwara.
If Harnam Singh Dhumma is bent on hammering differences in matters of interpretation and recitation style, he has ample experience in it, since he has contributed to the splintering of his own, already small organization. Why should such a person, with a factional vested interested, be allowed to determine the other's mode of recitation and interpretation of holistic Sikh scripture and violate the basic Sikh tenet of reading reciting and interpreting the Sikh text according to his own light and experience?
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2020, All