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The Sikh Panth

The Sikh Panth was not meant to be just another religious sect for emphasizing a particular religious dogma or a method of salvation. It was meant to be an instrument or vehicle for giving practical shape to Guru Nanak’s prophetic unitary view of life. To put it pithily, it was to pursue the twin purpose of the transformation of man and the transformation of society. Not only these two objectives were interlinked, these were rather the two sides of the same coin. We will trace in broad outline the main trends of the development of the Panth.

1. Transformation of Man
Linked to Transformation of Society
Guru Nanak wanted men to be transformed into angels. “Who changed men into angels in no time.”1 Apart from its religious import, this transformation of men (i.e., changing their motivation from self-centredness to God-centredness) was a prerequisite for building the society based on God-oriented values he had in mind. One of the constantly recurring themes in the hymns of Guru Granth Sahib urges men not to be self-centred (manmukh) but to become God-oriented (gurmukh). And it needs no elaboration on our part to prove that self-centredness of man (his self-interest and propensity for aggression) is the root-cause of social discriminations and social conflicts. But, in deciding how far the transformation of man was linked practically to the transformation of society, one cannot depend entirely upon the hymns. These indicate the ultimate ethical principles on which life is to be organized, but how far it was organized on these lines can be determined only with the help of historical evidence.

2. Sangat, Gurdwaras, and Congregational Worship
The organization of sangats, gurdwaras, and congregational worship were important steps for building the Sikh Panth. Sangats were local religious congregations composed of Sikhs who were drawn to the Guru’s ideals and mission, and included proselytes from all castes, inclusive of untouchables.2 Dharamsalas, later came to be called gurdwaras, were the centres where the sangats met regularly or occasionally for the purpose of congregational worship or discussing their social problems. “In India, the religious caste taboo rendered difficult the rise, or limited the importance, of any soteriological congregational religion in quasi-urban settlements, as well as in the country.”3 So, congregational worship has a social significance of its own. It served to integrate emotionally the Sikh proselytes from heterogeneous castes within the sangat, as loyalty to higher values helps men rise above their narrow loyalties. “All social functioning which serves in any way to integrate the group may be regarded as expressions of loyalty to higher values and thus take on a semi-religious meaning. From here it is natural to engage in acts of worship as the deepest and most effective way of strengthening the existing bonds… In the case of religion, individual relations are secondary; communion with the naman is primary and is basic in achieving religious integration.”4 As religious sanction was a primary factor in consolidating the caste system, religious integration on anti-caste basis within the sangats made a major contribution to strengthening the anti-caste character of the Sikh Panth, as the sangats were the organizational units of which the Panth was made of.5

Congregational worship, which consisted mainly of singing Guru’s hymns, also served to emphasize the inculcation of those ultimate values which Nam embodies and which the hymns stress. Of these, the important ones which have a direct bearing on the social process are those relating to Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, human equality, disinterested service to others, merging of the individual in the sangat, and devotion to the Guru.

3. Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man
The Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man is a cardinal principle of the Sikh faith. “There is One Father, and we are His children.”6 “A new type of grouping appears which, though current throughout the history of civilization, has not always been adequately recognized. The feeling of solidarity developing in these new units is to a certain extent revolutionary. The consciousness of this solidarity will vary; it will increase and decrease with the development of the new unit. The new form of grouping is characterized by the concept of relationship of spiritual fatherhood and spiritual brotherhood. The new community will differ from the natural groups not only in the type of organization, in rites and in beliefs, but primarily in a new spirit of unity. We have found that it is not so much organic growth which makes for the emergence of the spirit as it is a definite break with the past and with the ties of nature which characterize its rise. The more pronounced this break, the more definitely can we call the new cult a specifically religious group. Symbol of the break which is consciously experienced even at the level of primitive culture are such concepts as regeneration, rebirth, conversion, and certain corresponding rites. Those who undergo this experience, collectively or, more frequently, individually, are stimulated to join in close company. The intimacy of the new religious experience makes for intimacy of the new fellowship. At first it may consist merely in the exchange of the new knowledge between a few; later, of more followers and companions; then may grow into a lasting association, binding itself to the pursuit of a definite way of life and welding its members into a strongly knit community. The various differences which prevailed in the old world, now left behind, are meant to be extinguished. They are implicitly or explicitly repudiated, though with the growth of the new community they may reappear.”7

This passage reflects, in a way, the growth of the Sikh Panth. Certain individuals or groups are attracted by the Guru’s message of Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man (and by other components of the Sikh ideology also which we need not stress here). They are stimulated by this ideology to meet together in the sangats and a sense of spiritual fellowship develops among them. This new spirit of unity leads to a definite break with the past, and this break becomes very pronounced in the case of Sikhs because the Guru’s message is diametrically opposed to the caste ideology and the surrounding caste society. The intimacy of the new religious experience makes for intimacy of the new fellowship. The solidarity of the new fellowship and break with the past combine to grow into a lasting association, binding itself to the pursuit of a definite new way of life and welding its members into a strongly knit community. Originally, the sangats were like tiny specks dispersed in the matrix of the caste society. These far-flung sangats were painstakingly and gradually organized over a long period into the Sikh Panth by the Gurus themselves.

4. Break with the Past
As Wach has put it, it is not so much organic growth which makes for the emergence of the new spirit (which leads to the formation of a new religious community), as it is a definite break with the past. We need not apportion the contribution of these two factors, as both of them were working to the same end. What matters is the magnitude of the separation achieved from the caste society and its social consequences. This question has already been discussed at some length.8 In a nutshell, the separation of the Sikh Panth from the caste society was accomplished by repudiating the four pillars of caste-status, scriptural sanction, Hindu Dharma, and the concept of pollution on which the ideological structure of the caste system rested; and by destroying of the caste organization by eliminating its linchpin, i.e., the Brahmin caste; by building the Sikh Panth as a separate society from the Hindu society; and by founding a new socio-political order. A measure of the break of the Sikh movement with the past is provided by the fact that of all the anti-caste movements of Indian origin, the Sikh Panth is the only one which has survived, as a distinct separate entity, the assimilative power of Hinduism.9

5. Equality and Fraternity
Brotherhood presupposes equality and fraternization; but since ‘equality’ proved to be a strong revolutionary motivative force even where ‘fraternization’ had not struck roots, we consider ‘equality’ as a potent revolutionary force on its own. In the French Revolution, the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ became common at the same time, but ‘fraternity’ was “only to join them later and never acquired their popularity”.10 “Fraternity was never practised and the peoples have never cared much for liberty.”11

The quality of and the extent to which the spirit of equality prevailed in the Sikh society has also been discussed in an earlier work.12 But here we have to reproduce in some detail the salient items in order to impress the point we want to in this regard. The idea of human equality was inherent in the Sikh faith and in the Sikh movement so long as it retained its pristine purity. Guru Nanak bowed at the feet of Angad when he annointed him as his successor Guru, and the same custom was adhered to by the later Gurus.13 Bhai Gurdas repeatedly makes it clear that there was no status gap between the Guru and the Sikh who had imbibed his spirit (Gur Chela, Chela Guru).14 Guru Hargobind, out of reverence for Baba Bhudha, a devout Sikh, touched his feet.15 The Sikhs addressed each other as brother (Bhai), thus showing a perfect level of equality among them. In all the available letters written by the Gurus, the Sikhs have been addressed as brothers (Bhai).16 It was in continuation of this tradition that Guru Gobind Singh requested with clasped hands ‘the Beloved Ones’ to initiate him.17 This shows that he regarded them not only his equals, but made them symbolically his Guru. This was the utmost limit to which a religious head could conceive or practice human equality. Bhangu records : “If any Sikh got or brought any eatables, it was never used alone; it was partaken by all the Sikhs… All eatables were shared by all members of the Khalsa… Singhs addressed each other with great love.”18 “Guru’s Sikh was the brother of each Sikh.”19

The prevalence of this spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization among the Sikhs is confirmed by evidence from non-Sikh historical sources. Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din, the author of Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi (1722-23), was a contemporary of Banda. He writes that low-caste Hindus, termed khas-o-khashak-i-hamid-i-jahanni wajud (i.e., the dregs of the society of the hellish Hindus) swelled the ranks of Banda; and everyone in his army would address the other as the adopted son of the oppressed Guru (Guru Gobind Singh), and would publicise themselves with the title of sahibzada (“Yaki rab targhib-i-digran pisar-i-khanda-i-guru-i-maqhur gufta b’ laqub-i-shahzadgi mashur kardah”).20 A contemporary historian of Aurangzeb writes, “If a stranger knocks at their door (i.e., the door of Sikhs) at midnight and utters the name of Nanak, though he may be a thief, robber, or wretch, he is considered as friend and brother, and is properly looked after.”21 Mir Ghulam Hussain Khan writes (1783 AD ) about the Khalsa Panth : “When a person is once admitted into that fraternity, they make no scruple of associating with him, of whatever tribe, clan, or race he may have been hitherto; nor do they betray any of those scruples and prejudices so deeply rooted in the Hindu mind.”22 Commenting on the last part of the statement, the editor says, “This alludes to the touching or eating with persons of impure castes, in regard to which the Hindus are so tenacious.”23 The author of Haqiqat also writes about the same time that the Sikhs were told : “Whoever might join you from whichever tribe, don’t have any prejudice against him and without any superstition eat together with him. Now this is their custom.”24 Here we have very good independent testimony from two sources that up to 1783, at least, the Sikhs drawn from all castes dined freely with each other. The Haqiqat clearly states that Khatris, Jats, carpenters, blacksmiths and, grain grocers all joined the Khalsa25 and “now this is their custom”.

The significance of the spirit of equality, brotherhood, and fraternization achieved by the Sikh movement can be realised only if it is contrasted with the caste background in which the change was brought about. Bougle observes : “The spirit of caste unites these three tendencies, repulsion, hierarchy, and hereditary specialization… We say that a society is characterized by such a system if it is divided into a large number of mutually opposed groups which are hereditary, specialised and hierarchically arranged — if, on principle, it tolerates neither the parvenu, nor miscegenation, nor a change of profession.”26 “From the social and political point of view, caste is division, hatred, jealousy and distrust between neighbours.”27 Nesafield also comes to the conclusion that the caste system leads to a degree of social disunion to which no parallel can be found in human history. All authorities on caste are agreed that mutual repulsion and disunity, besides inequality and hierarchism, are the in-built constituents of the caste system.

We have quoted here in some detail, as we need solid ground for impressing an important point. Purely secular movements have succeeded remarkably in propagating and establishing political liberty, but have not effectuated social equality to the extent done by Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism. It is true that political liberty helps the process of social egalitarianism, but whatever social equality there is in the West, it is more the heritage of Christian faith than that of political freedom. We do not hear much about fraternization either in secular movements.

The degree of social equality and fraternization achieved by the Sikh movement during its revolutionary phase was indeed remarkable. Not only the Sikhs regarded each other as brothers (Bhai), the Gurus, also, in their letters to the Sikhs (Hukamname), addressed them in the same manner. This feature of the movement is so prominent that it has come to the notice of Toynbee, who writes : “Like all converts to Islam, all converts to Sikhism became one another’s brothers and peers in virtue of their having all alike given their allegiance to one Lord, whom they had been taught to worship as the sole true Living Lord.”28

Except the Islamic society, whose record in this respect is praiseworthy, the Sikh revolutionary movement compares favourably with other similar movements. Considering the caste milieu in which it had to work, its achievements are all the more remarkable. In the case of Islam too it was lucky that it was born and had its teething troubles in a society which was very near the level of primitive communism.29 The abolition of slavery by the American Revolution was no mean achievement, but the Blacks are prohibited, or at least prevented, from using the same public amenities as are available to white men.30 This social gulf between Black and White citizens of the U.S.A. has remained despite the enlightening and liberalizing influences of Christianity, the Western culture and the capitalist economy. In the U.S.A., it is only the colour and racial prejudices against the Blacks that had to be overcome. The Sikh movement had to surmount the stigmas of the caste ideology, which, it was postulated, even god Indra himself was helpless to erase, as in the case of the story of Matanga in the Epic.

The revolutionary France did not have to face, within France, the like of the racial problem met in the U.S.A., or the like of the knotty social problem which the caste society posed in India. Slavery in French colonies was maintained by the Constituents and was abolished by the Jacobins only in 1794,31 to be restored again afterwards. The French Revolution did not envisage female liberation. “Women who attempted to find a place in the sansculotte ranks, which went beyond rhetorical expressions of solidarity, or the traditional roles of women in giving a special fervour to public demonstrations and attending to the warrior’s repose at other times, received short shrift. They were for a time to be seen at some club and section meetings, but did not lead them. The sanscullote by no means envisaged the total overturning of the social order attributed to him by the most alarmed of the reactionaries.”32 In fact, the French Revolution was more of a political revolution rather than a social revolution. The slogan of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ had great inspirational value, but the content of ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’ was determined by class interests even at the height of the revolutionary period. “The Declaration of Rights is remarkable in that it neatly balances a statement of universal principles and human rights with an evident concern for the interests of the bourgeoisie… Equality is presented in largely political terms… no mention is made of slavery and slave trade… The Declaration then, for all its nobility of language and its proclamation of universal principles, is essentially a manifesto of the revolutionary bourgeoisie and its clerical and liberal-aristocratic allies.”33 As the French Revolution, even at its height, was dominated by class interests, there was little of that emotional integration which the Sikh revolutionaries acquired through their long training in the Sikh ideology and through their relentless struggle for its fulfilment. When the sanscullotes, who usually led the vanguard in mass demonstrations or insurrections, could not concede equality of status to their own womenfolk, how could they be expected to fraternize with the lower strata of journeymen, wage-earners, house-servants, and the unemployed ?

In this background, certain observations of Wach become very pertinent. “The emphasis is here not necessarily upon particular features of this ideal communion of brethren, such as mutual assistance or a readiness for self-sacrifice, matyrdom, etc., as all this might occur to an even greater degree in ‘secular’ life. The important note is struck by the formulation of the concrete values and standards for which the group stands and which are determined by their basic religious experiences. ‘Love of Christ’, ‘giving in the immitation of the Buddha’, and ‘obedience to the will of Allah’ are examples of attitudes characteristic of the ideal community in the Christian, Buddhist, and Mohammedan concepts, respectively… Why should religion be credited with so decisive a role as we attribute to it in defining it as the paramount force of social integration ? Are there no other means to achieve this end ? Why should a secular society not find ways and means to integrate itself effectively and lastingly ? Perhaps it is only a terminological misunderstanding which prevents agreement among supposedly conflicting views. We like to think that the desired agreement among scholars of society could be reached on the basis of the formula that perfect integration of a society never has been nor can be achieved without a religious basis.”34 Of course, Wach does not identify here religion with ideas, rites, or institutions; but conceives it “as that profound source from which all human existence is nourished and upon which it depends in all its aspects : man’s communion with God”.35

We may entirely agree with Wach’s viewpoint, but we need not stake the claim that perfect integration of society cannot be achieved without a religious basis. It is enough for our purpose that historically, so far, it has never been. The explanation for this phenomenon advanced by Wach is more convincing. “Religious experience, being fundamental, constitutes the basis of communion of a most intimate character, boring deep into the beds of impulses, emotions, and thoughts which are common to all men. The subjective religion has at all times proved potent enough to unite and integrate people who are otherwise widely separated by differences of descent, profession, wealth, or rank : A study of the social status of those who followed the prophets, teachers, and founders of religion will reveal the surprising social heterogeneity of the motley groups who became one when united in a common religious experience.”36
It should now be clear how the Khatris came to bow before the Jats in the Sikh Panth;37 how the untouchables (whose very presence was supposed to pollute the air in the caste society) became equal participants in the sangats;38 and how the Rangrettas fraternized as equals in the Khalsa.39 This phenomenon was the product of a religious experience and not of environmental factors. Because, secular movements, as seen, have not produced such a qualitative fraternization among such disparate and inimical elements; and, broadly speaking, the same environment impinged on the other infructuous Indian anti-caste movements as well. And, this phenomenon has no ordinary historical significance; because, without social cohesion, neither the egalitarian Sikh Panth would have come into being, nor the Jats (peasants), Ramgarhias (artisans), and Ahluwalias (near outcastes) would have become political rulers.

6. Pollution and Commensality
The notions about pollution, of which the taboo on commensality is just one aspect, played the biggest role in extending the caste system and in projecting it in day-to-day operation. Hutton writes : “Indeed, it seems possible that caste endogamy is more or less incidental to the taboo on taking food cooked by a person of, at any rate a lower if not of any other caste, and in view of the writer this taboo is probably the keystone of the whole system.”40 Of the offences of which a caste Panchayat took congnizance “the offences against the commensal taboos… are undoubtedly the most important, for the transgression by one member of the caste if unknown and unpunished may effect the whole caste with pollution through his commensality with the rest”.41 “If the member of a low caste, merely looks at the meal of a Brahmin, it ritually defiles the Brahmin”42 and “a stranger’s shadow, or even the glance of a man of low caste, falling on the cooking pot may necessitate throwing away the contents”.43 “A separate lower caste (the Kallars) has arisen in Bengal among people who had infracted the ritual and dietry laws during the famine of 1866, and in consequence been excommunicated.”44 The Sudras were considered to be impure by their very birth and the inherent impurity in them could not be shaken off by any means whatsoever, as illustrated by the story of Matanga given in the Epic. The mere touch of the outcastes polluted a person of the higher castes, and their very presence defiled the air.

Guru Nanak identified himself with the lowest of low castes;45 and took a concrete step for abolishing the notion of pollution by starting the institution of langar (i.e., community dining), where all dined together irrespective of any considerations of caste or creed. There was no place in Guru Angad’s congregation for any one who observed caste.46 Sikhs drawn from all castes were treated as equals.47 Only those who were not afraid of Vedic and caste injunctions came to his congregation, others did not.48 At the langar (free kitchen), all dined at the same platform and partook the same food.49 Guru Amar Das went a step further — no one who had not partaken food at his langar could see him.50 In langar, there were/are no distinctions of caste. Lines of noble Gurbhais (disciples of the same Guru) partook food sitting together at the same place.51 Guru Gobind Singh himself partook amrit, prepared at the initiation ceremony by the five Beloved ones, of whom four were Sudras. Koer Singh, a near contemporary of the Guru, records that the Guru made the four castes into a single one, and made the Sudras, the Vaishs, the Khatris, and the Brahmins take meals at the same place.52 All members of the Khalsa Dal, including the Rangrettas (proselytes from the outcastes) dined together.53 We have already referred to the independent testimony of Ghulam Hussain Khan (1783) and Haqiqat (1783), which clearly shows that, even in the post-revolutionary period, when elements of caste had started making inroads into the Sikh society, Sikh proselytes from all castes dined freely with each other, at least upto 1783.

This outline of historical evidence establishes three facts :
(a) That the Sikh Gurus continued to take concrete, practical, organisational steps for abolishing the caste restrictions connected with the notion of pollution and commensalism, which, according to Hutton, is the keystone of the caste system. “It is one of the constitutive principles of the castes that there should be at least ritually inviolable barriers against complete commensalism among different castes.”54

(b) In doing so, they separated the Sikh Panth from the caste society, or obliged the caste society to separate itself from the Panth. Those who observed caste would not join the Gurus’ congregation, and Brahmins and Khatris desisted, by and large, from joining the Khalsa.55 The institution of langar destroyed one of the constitutive principles of the caste system among the Sikhs.

(c) Commensality was a great factor in cementing cohesion among Sikh proselytes from disperate and inimical castes in the Sikh Panth. “Furthermore, highly privileged castes must be shielded from the glances of ‘unclean’ strangers during cultic repasts or even everyday meals. Conversely, the provision of commensality is frequently a method of producing religious fellowship, which may, on occasion, lead to political and ethnic alliances. Thus, the first great turning point in the history of Christianity was the communal feast arranged at Antioch between Peter and uncircumcised proselytes, to which Paul, in his polemic against Peter, attributed such decisive importance.”56

7. “Sewa” (Social Service)
The Indian religious tradition laid almost exclusive emphasis on meditational, ascetic or Yogic practices as the means of attaining salvation or spiritual bliss. Social service was rarely made an obligatory part of religious practice. All moral life remained confined within the framework of the caste system, because complete allegiance to the social structure was a part of one’s religious obligations. Only Mahayana Buddhism made social service a part of its religion, but it had been hunted out from the land long before Guru Nanak. In this background, people could be led on only step by step to accepting new moral and religious codes. The first step was to make them conscious of their social obligations.

The Sikh Gurus made social service (sewa) a prerequisite to spiritual development. “Without service there cannot be any Bhagti.”57 “Without service one never reaps the fruits, service is a noble deed.”58 “Nobody has reached God without service; otherwise one ever wanders in confusion.”59 Social service is an essential component of the Sikh way of life even after the highest spiritual attainment. “Spontaneous service of others is in the very nature of the Brahmgyani.”60 “Service should be regarded as the highest form of Bhagti.”61 Service of fellow beings became such a cardinal feature of the Sikh movement that its importance is invariably stressed in the Sikh tradition and all the sources of its history.62 After his world tours, Guru Nanak himself took to the cultivation of land.63 The produce from it went to the common kitchen which served the needy and all those who came to visit him. Guru Amardas had given standing instructions that if anybody was in suffering, he should immediately be informed so that he could be of help to him.64 Guru Arjan established a leper asylum at Tarn Taran, and Guru Gobind Singh refused to accept water from the hands of a person who had not served anybody else earlier.65 Paro was offered Guruship, but he respectfully declined and requested that instead he might be granted the boon of love for the service of man.66 Ladha humiliated himself by blackening his face in order to help another person to get out of trouble. “The Guru praised Ladha in the open assembly and said that Ladha had won him over by his selfless service. Pilgrimages, sacrificial ritual and asceticism do not equal selfless service and Naam.”67

The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh society insisted on disinterested service of others. “He who performs disinterested service meets God.”68 In the Sikh terminology, the term sewa itself meant only selfless service.

In the Christian world, social service was mainly directed toward the care of sick. In the famine-ridden India, the primary concern of the common-man was getting two meals a day. It is in these circumstances that in the Sikh Panth, great stress came to be laid on feeding the poor, for which purpose the establishment of langars became a continuing tradition of the Sikh society. Another direction which social service took was service of the sangats in the gurdwaras. And as the gurdwaras became the focal points of the Sikh Panth, they became the centres for mobilizing the Sikh potential of social service for any cause, social or political, the Panth stood for. This holds good up to the present-day.

9. Supremacy of Ideals and Values
While repudiating claims of others to exclusive religious authority, the Sikh Gurus did not advance any such claim in their own behalf. Guru Nanak calls himself “lowest of the low”.69 Guru Ram Das describes himself to be the “meanest of the whole creation”70 and Guru Gobind Singh regards himself as “the slave of the Supreme Being”71. Of the ten Sikh Gurus, the hymns of six have been recorded in Guru Granth Sahib. In not a single line do they indicate any claim to exclusive religious authority.

The single greatest step that the Sikh Gurus took to establish the supremacy of ideals and values was to detach ideology from the person of the ideologue. In the first place, the very concept of Guru in Sikhism was not anthropomorphic. To a pointed question of the yogis as to who was his Guru, Guru Nanak’s categoric reply was, “God (Word, the Immanent God) is my Guru and the mind attuned to Him is the disciple.”72 The same ideological line was followed by the later Gurus. “Guru (God) is Omnipotent and Unfathomable.”73 “Regard the Eternal God as my Guru.”74 Secondly, the eternal spirit, the doctrine, the tenet, or the principle was made supreme over and above the person of the teacher, the Guru, or the prophet. When Guru Nanak nominated Angad as his successor, he (Nanak) laid his head at the feet of Angad as a mark of homage.75 It is significant that Guru Nanak did not bow before Lehna (i.e., the disciple who was not yet perfect), but bowed before Angad, the same person who had become the head and represented the spirit of the mission. As soon as the same spirit was enshrined in both, the distinction between the Guru and the disciple was obliterated. Satta and Balwand, in their hymns recorded in Guru Granth Sahib, and Bhai Gurdas in his Vars, have made this point absolutely clear, “The light was the same, the system was the same, the only change was a change of bodies.”76 “Nanak blended his light with his (Angad’s light), (and in this way) Satguru Nanak transformed his form.”77 Not only the distinction between one Guru and the other Guru disappeared, but the distinction between the Guru and all those Sikhs who had imbibed in toto the Guru’s spirit also disappeared. Guru Hargobind touched the feet of Baba Budha to pay him homage.78 And by conferring Guruship on Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh emphasised two points. First, that the Guruship was not embodied in any person but in the principle and the spirit the person enshrined; and secondly, that it was the ideology that mattered and not its source. Thirdly, the Gurus, like other prophets, tried “to supplant the traditional ritualistic religious grace of the ecclesiastical type by organizing life on the basis of Ultimate ethical principles”.79 Fourthly, “the far-reaching conception that the true religious mood is to be judged by its fruits, by its faithful demonstration,”80 was enforced. “Our deeds alone bear witness into our life.”81 “According to their deeds, some are near and some far from God.”82 “It is the deeds (the way the life is led) that is dear to me, and not the person of the Sikh.”83 The pages of Sikh history bear witness throughout how this axiom was insisted upon.

10. Separate Identity and Universality
The way the Sikh Gurus established and maintained the separate identity of the Sikh Panth, and, at the same time retained its universal spirit, is a very good illustration of how they stuck to their ultimate values while institutionalizing them for practical purposes. Mere ideological distinctiveness was not enough. The greatest social hurdle in the way of humanism was the inequitous caste system. It could not be reformed from within. For, social inequality and hierarchism were in-built in its very constitution and mechanism. The anti-caste movements could survive only if these divorced themselves from the caste society. Buddhism organized a monastic society outside the caste ranks, but it left its laity to remain in the caste fold. The result was that when Brahminism reasserted itself, the lay followers of Buddhism imperceptibly moved into their caste moorings, leaving the order of monks high and dry in its isolation. Kabir was far more vocal than Basava, but the Lingayats established a far more distinct identity than the Kabirpanthis; because their deviations (e.g., widow-remarriage, burying the dead and admission of all castes) from the caste usages were very radical. Later, the Lingayats tried to tone down their radicalism. But, in spite of this, they are, perhaps, more an appendage of the orthodox society than its integral part, because even the toned down Lingayatism is not wholly adjustable in the caste order.84 Chaitanya, who was more radical with regard to caste restrictions than the Maharashtra Bhagtas, had both low caste Hindus and Mussalmans as his disciples. In the Kartabhai sect, which branched out of the Chaitanya School, there is no distinction between Hindus, Mussalmans, and Christians. A Mussalman has more than once risen to the rank of a teacher. The members of the sect eat together once or twice in a year.85 But, the main body of the followers of Chaitanyas reverted to the caste society; and even its Kartabhai section, like the Lingayats, does not assert a distinct identity apart from the caste society. The creed of Kabir attained the stage of only a mata (religious path), although of all the denouncers of caste considerations he was the most unequivocal and vocal. The Kabirpanth remained a loose combination of those who were attracted by Kabir’s religious appeal, or were attracted by some other considerations (e.g., Julahas (weavers), who constituted a majority of the Kabirpathis, were attracted to Kabir because he was a Julaha).86

These instances leave no doubt that anti-caste movements, like those of Kabir and other Bhagtas, whose departure from the caste ideology had been confined only to the ideological plane, remained still-born in the field of social achievement. And, those like the Lingayats and the followers of Chaitanya, who, under the influence of a teacher, did adopt certain anti-caste usages, but either they did not want to break away completely from the caste society or did not pursue their aim consistently enough, remained tagged to the caste order in one form or the other. The Buddhist monks alone could escape being swallowed by the caste society, because they had made a complete break with the caste order, both ideologically and organizationally. Accordingly, in the medieval period, the chances of success of any anti-caste movement were in direct proportion to the separate identity it established outside the caste society, both at the ideological and the organizational levels. And the foremost prerequisite for this purpose was a clear perception of this aim, a determined will and a consistent effort to pursue it.

The separate identity of the Sikh Panth and the Sikh movement is such a patent fact of history that it is hardly questioned. This by itself is a clear indication of the fact that the Sikh Gurus had a definite aim of giving their message a distinct and new organizational form. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why the Sikh movement should not have met the same fate as that of Lingayats and the followers of Kabir and Chaitanya. The Sikh Gurus realised, which the others did not, that in order to give battle to the caste order, it was imperative to build a social system and organize people outside the caste-society. This process of establishing a separate society (the Sikh Panth) started with Guru Nanak himself.

Along with establishing a separate identity of the Sikh Panth, the Gurus also maintained within it a universal spirit. The Sikh tradition is replete with instances showing the cosmopolitan spirit of the Sikh Gurus. “The Hindus reject the Muslims and the Muslims reject the Hindus. God has ordained me (Nanak) to act upon the four Katebs. The merit does not lie in reading or hearing them, but lies in living them in life.”87 Guru Amardas sent Prema to a Muslim saint for getting cured,88 and made Alayar, a Muslim, one of his priests, who drew no distinction between Hindus and Muhammadens.89 Guru Arjan incorporated in Guru Granth the hymns of two Muslim saints, Farid and Bhikhan, thus giving them equal status with the hymns of the Gurus. He got the foundation stone of the premier Sikh temple laid by the famous Sufi saint, Mian Mir. Guru Hargobind, who was the first to raise the standard of armed revolt against the Mughals and fought six battles against them, built on his own, a mosque when he founded the new township of Hargobindpur.90 It was Guru Gobind Singh who created the Khalsa to wage a relentless sturggle against the religious and political tyranny of the Mughal empire, but his hymns leave no doubt about his universal approach : “What is a Hindu or Muslim to him, from whose heart doubt departeth.”91 In a period when Muslim sentiment against the Sikhs had crystallised, many a noble spirit among the Muslims recognized the non-sectarian character of the Guru’s mission. Buddhu Shah was a known Muslim divine. He himself, his brother, his four sons, and seven hundred disciples fought for the Guru. During the struggle, two of his sons died fighting,92 and he himself was tortured to death by Osman Khan for having sided with the Guru.93 Saiyed Beg, one of Aurangzeb’s Generals, who was in command of five thousand men, changed his mind at a critical moment in the course of the battle and “threw in his lot with the Sikhs, and contributed all his wealth towards their struggle against the Muhammadens…”94 Later, Saiyed Beg died fighting for the Guru in another action.95 Another General, Saiyed Khan, sent by Emperor Aurangzeb to subdue the Guru, also left the imperial forces and voluntarily submitted himself to the Guru.96 By far the best instance of the cosmopolitan spirit of the movement is the story of Kanahiya who, during the critical battle at Anandpur, used to offer water and assistance with absolute impartiality to the wounded, both among the Sikhs and the enemy forces. When questioned, Kanahiya quoted the Guru’s own instructions that one should look on all men with an equal eye. The Guru complimented him for displaying the true spirit of a Sikh.97 The author of Haqiqat attested to it in 1783 (i.e., after the Sikhs had passed through the severest persecution at the hands of the Muslim rulers) that, “In his (Nanak’s) religion there is very little prejudice against the Muslims, nay, they have practically no prejudice against any nation.”98

It is important to understand that this cosmopolitan Sikh tradition could not be born either out of Muslim exclusiveness, or the caste ideology. Only the Radical Bhagtas shared this outlook, but they never ventured in the social or organizational field. Bhagtamala, the only earlier record of their lives, does not mention the shaping of any such tradition. Therefore, the very existence and persistence of this tradition is a strong indication of the universal character of the Sikh movement.

The really important point to be noted is that for the practice of their universal humanism, the Sikh Gurus established the forum of the Sikh Panth. Their universalism had distinct social aims. This was their major difference with the Radical Bhagtas who never tried to institutionalize their ideology. The Sikh Gurus were deeply committed to achieving practical social good. It was the inner compulsion both of their religion and universalism that prompted them to create a new path and a Panth so as to give practical shape to a programme that directly militated on the one hand, against the caste ideology and, on the other, against the Shariat of the ruling Islam in India. Just as in the case of the doctrine of ahimsa, they did not make a fetish of universalism so as to allow it to be used as a cover for inaction and for ignoring their avowed social goals. The Gurus never wanted the Hindus to remain as Hindus in a manner which left the caste system and its anti-humanism intact. Similarly, they did not want the Muslims to remain as Muslims in a manner which led to Shariatic exclusiveness and, its corollary, the religious dictation of non-Muslims. All that Guru Nanak wanted was that Hindus should be Hindus of his concept, and the Muslims to be Muslims of his concept. His hymns leave no doubt on this issue. For, these clearly commend the acceptance of values and virtues instead of the formalism and ritualism of the old religions. “Make kindness thy mosque, sincerity thy prayer carpet; What is just and lawful thy Quran. Modesty thy circumcision; civility thy fasting; so shall thou be a Musalman.”99 “A Musalman is he who cleaneth his impurity.”100 “(A Muslim) dwells on the Shariat. But, they alone are perfect who surrender their self to see God.”101 “He who instructeth all the four castes in the Lord’s Wisdom, Nanak, such a Pandit I salute for ever.”102 “Yoga is neither in the patched coat, nor in the Yogi’s staff, nor in besmearing oneself with ashes… If one looketh upon all the creation alike, he is acclaimed as a true Yogi.”103 This meant pure and simple humanism and the abolition of all those insitutions which were unjust or aggressive. The creation of parallel institutions to replace the anti-humanistic ones, e.g., the caste society and the tyrannical state, was an indispensable prerequisite. It was for this purpose that the Sikh Gurus organized the Sikh Panth. But, they scrupulously maintained the spirit of humanism and universality in that organization. The universalism of the Sikh Gurus was not of that hue which is self-satisfied in remaining in an amorphous state and does not aspire to institutionalize for a humanitarian purpose. At the same time, the Sikh Panth was not created just to add another sect. It was established to serve an egalitarian cause.

11. Devotion to the Guru
Devotion to religious preceptors is common to all religions. It is a double-edged weapon. When harnessed to serve a noble purpose, it works wonders; otherwise it could lead to aberrations as well. Devotion to Prophet Muhammed contributed a good deal in arousing the zeal which carried his message of human equality to far-flung countries, but it also assumed the form of religious exclusiveness and Shariatic bigotry which frustrated the fulfilment of this lofty ideal. In India too, the institution of Guru came to be seriously abused. But the Sikh Gurus steered clear of these dangers by impersonalising the concept of Guru, by placing principles above personalities, and by diverting religious devotion to serve social and political ends. As a final step to abolish the personality cult among the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh abolished altogether the institution of a Guru in person and conferred Guruship on Granth Sahib, the enshrined principles.

The problem of leading men to serve humanistic causes in a society, whose very basis was hierachical, was in itself very tough to tackle. It was further compounded by the narrowing down and segmentation of social loyalties. In a country, where every human acitvity was conceived and postulated in religious terms, devotion to a religious head, dedicated to a progressive cause, could be the means, perhaps the only means, to raise people above their divisive values and loyalties and yoke them to achieving social goals. This is what precisely happened in the Sikh movement. Devotion towards the Sikh Gurus supplanted hierarchical values and narrow individual, caste, and class loyalties. It speaks volumes about the deep commitment of the Gurus to their revolutionary mission that they delinked the devotion directed towards their personalities, and channelized it towards revolutionary objectives. In the battle at Chamkaur, when most of the besieged Sikhs had died and there was no hope left of holding the mud fortress for long, the survivors forced Guru Gobind Singh to leave the place in order to reorganise the movement. Sant Singh dressed himself like the Guru and remained behind in order to deceive the enemy and gain time for the Guru’s escape. Finally, when overpowered, “he went on uttering ‘Khalsa’, ‘Khalsa’, and had no other desire. Sant Singh expired with Waheguru (God’s name) on his lips”.104 The point we want to emphasise is that the devotion to the Guru was transformed into devotion to the revolutionary cause.

“Everywhere the disciple-master relationship is classified among those involving reverence…. The obligation of obedience to the Guru… took precedence over loyalty to family…”105

“The group which the man of God attracts about him may appear as a loosely connected association or as a closely knit unit, bound together by a common religious experience whose nature is revealed and interpreted by the founder. A growing sense of solidarity both binds the members together and differentiates from any other form of social organization.”106 “The statement of Jesus that those who ‘do the Will of God’ are truly his brothers, sisters and mothers, and his blood relations (Mark 3, 31 ff ; Matt, 12, 17 ff., Luke 8, 18 ff) is paralleled by the Buddha’s “For some persons even father and mother are no hinderances”107. “He is disciple, friend, relative or brother, who follows Guru’s (God’s) Will,”108 and “serve Guru’s Sikhs and regard them as their mother, brother, and friend.”109

However, religious fellowship may appear either as a loose association (as in the case of Kabirpanth) or as a closely knit unit (as in the case of the Sikh Panth). The successive Gurus organized for that prupose, over a long period, sangats, manji system, central centres of worship, and a sanctified scripture of their own, in a deliberate and systematic manner. What made the difference was that the Sikh Gurus channelized the religious devotion of their followers towards achieving social and political objectives on a long-term basis (about 200 years). We do not find evidence of this having happened, at least on such a scale, in other anti-caste Indian movements.

12. A State Within A State
Dr Gokal Chand writes : “As a matter of fact the Sikhs had made a great advance under the pontificate of Guru Arjan. A state, peaceful and unobtrusive, had been slowly evolved, and with the Guru at its head as Sachcha Padshah, the Sikhs ‘had already become accustomed to a form of self government within the Empire’110. Their power and prestige had increased, and they were fast becoming a factor in the political life of the province.”111

Toynbee also holds the same view, “There seems to have been an intermediate stage in the evolution of the Sikh military machine out of the Sikh fraternity which had been founded by Nanak about a hundred years before Hargobind’s time. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century of the Christian era the Sikh community seems to have assumed a form which was already political though it was not yet warlike.”112
How far the Sikhs had actually become “a state within a state” is not the question before us. What is relevant to our purpose is whether or not they took to that path ? Jahangir’s own autobiography points to an affirmative answer :

“At Govindwall situated on the River Beas there lived a Hindu named Arjan in the garb of saints and holy men. He had attracted many Hindus and even some ignorant and low class Mussalmans and ensnared them to follow the practices of his cult. He had been loudly blowing the trumpet of his saintliness and spiritual leadership. He was known as ‘Guru’ and people from all sides resorted to him and made declarations of faith in him. I had been wishing for long time either to abolish this emporium of falsehood or convert him to Islam till Khusrau happened to pass this way. The foolish Prince thought of attaching himself to his cortege. He repaired to the Guru’s residence and had an interview with him. The Guru discussed some old cases with him and with his finger put on the forehead of the Prince a saffron mark which is called ‘Tilak’ by the Hindus and is considered an auspicious omen.”113

Some points are clear enough and some can be inferred from the above statement. Guru Arjan converted some Mussalmans to his faith, and it irked Jehangir. According to the Shariat law such a conversion invited death penalty. The confrontation between the Sikh movement and the Muhammedan power bent upon enforcing the Shariat was, therefore, inevitable. It was a clash between two opposed ideologies. It was not a question of mere conversion from one sect to another. Nor was it merely because the state happened to be a Muhammedan state. It was rather an irony of fate that the followers of the two religions, which were so close to each other, at least in their social approach, were to be locked in an unavoidable collision. Had there been a Hindu state at that time, and had it tried to impose caste regulations on the Sikh movement, the conflict between that Hindu state and the Sikh movement would have been as inevitable as it became in the present case. The basic principle of creating a free society was involved. The Sikh Gurus could not remain indifferent when religious freedom was denied.

Secondly, Khusrau visited the Guru as a rebel and was blessed by him. This blessing could have been sought only for his success in his rebellion and not for a religious purpose; because Khusrau was a Muslim and by showing his religious allegiance to a non-Muslim he would have jeopardized his claim to the throne of a Muslim state. In any case, both these instances mean a deliberate confrontation with the state.

13. Comment
Some scholars see a dichotomy within the movement of the Guru period itself. They think that the taking up of arms, for howsoever a righteous cause, is incompatible with the marg (path) of Nam Simran (meditation) as they perceive it. The demarcation between “flight from the world” and “worldly asceticism” is very distinct, but there are many variations within the latter category. But, these scholars do not clarify their perception of Nam Simran. Where do they draw the line in the lives of the first five Gurus and on what basis ? Is the condemnation of kings and administration by Guru Nanak (“Raje sinh, mukadam kute”), or being called sacha padshah (True king) and holding regal darbars (courts) by Guru Arjan, in tune with Nam Simran or not ? If it is, it all began with Guru Nanak and Guru Arjan, and not with Guru Hargobind. If it is not, then Sikhism was different from such a Nam Simran marg from the very beginning.



1. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 462.
2. Bhai Gurdas : Var 11.
3. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 97.
4. Wach, pp. 107-8.
5. There are numerous references to Sikh Dharmsalas in the Janamsakhis; and Bhai Gurdas : Var 11, Pauri 26, 27 mentions some important sangats even in far flung places outside Punjab, such as Kabul, Kashmir, Delhi and Agra.
6. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 611.
7. Wach, pp. 110-111.
8. Author : Perspectives on Sikh Studies, pp. 14-60.
9. Max Weber : Religions of India, pp. 18-20.
10. Roberts, J.M. : The French Revolution, p. 76.
11. Le Bon, Gustove : The Psychology of Revolution, p. 165.
12. Author : The Sikh Revolution, pp. 122-125.
13. Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, p. 38.
14. Bhai Gurdas : Var 3, Pauri 11; Var 11, Pauri 8, 9, 16; Var 13, Pauri 1; Var 15, Pauri 16.
15. Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, pp. 130, 341, 349, 350.
16. Dr Fauja Singh (Ed) : Hukamnamas;
Dr Ganda Singh (Ed) : Hukamname.
17. Koer Singh : Gurbilas Patshahi Das, p. 131;
Macauliffe, V, p. 96.
18. Bhangu, Ratan Singh : Prachin Panth Parkash, pp. 261, 436.
19. Ibid., p. 86.
20. Cited by Gurbax Singh : Punjab History Conference, (December 15-16, 1973), Proceedings, pp. 55-56.
21. Sujan Rai Bhandari : Khulasat-ut-Twarikh, (trans. in Punjabi by Ranjit Singh Gill), p. 81.
22. The Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, trans. by John Briggs, p. 73.
23. Ibid., foot-note.
24. Haqiqat : Indian Historical Quarterly, March 1942 Sup., p. 5.
25. Ibid., p. 6.
26. Celestin Bougle : Essays on the Caste System, (trans. by D.F. Peacock), p. 9.
27. Ibid., p. 10;
Cf. Sherring : Hindu Tribes and Castes, iii, pp. 218, 235.
28. Toynbee, A.J. : A Study of History, Vol. viii, p. 591.
29. Nizami, Khalid Ahmad : Some Aspects of Religions and Politics in India during the Thirteenth Century, p. 15.
30. Hutton, p. 136.
31. Rude, p. 119.
32. Ibid., p. 57.
33. Rude, pp. 107-8.
34. Wach, pp. 382-383.
35. Ibid., p. 383.
36. Wach, p. 234.
40. Hutton, J.H. : Caste in India, p. 71.
41. Max Weber : The Religions of India, p. 36.
42. Hutton, p. 72.
43. Ghurye, G.S. : Caste and Race in India, p. 7.
44. Max Weber : The Religions of India, p. 36.
45. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 15.
46. Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 37.
47. Ibid.
48. Mehma Parkash, p. 15.
49. Ibid., p. 102.
50. Ibid.
51. Ibid.
52. Koer Singh : Gurbilas Patshahi Das, p. 136.
53. Bhangu Rattan Singh : Prachin Panth Parkash, pp. 202, 216, 436.
54. Max Weber : The Religions of India, p. 36.
55. Sri Gur Sobha, p. 33.
56. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 41.
57. Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 285.
58. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 992.
59. Ibid. p. 1011.
60. Ibid., p. 273.
61. Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 286.
62. To refer to only one source, see Mehma Parkash, ii, pp. 51, 114-17, 135-36, 159, 180, 188, 190, 196, 254, 285-8, 290, 292-93, 316-17, 320, 346, 500, 509, 512, 521, 524, 560-62, 566, 573, 575, 579-80, 667-78, 710.
63. Janamsakhi Meharbanwali, p. 518;
Parchian Sewa Das, p. 60.
64. Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 237.
65. Macauliffe, Vol. v, p. 123.
66. Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 290.
67. Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, p. 68.
68. Guru Granth Sahib, pp. 286-87.
69. Ibid., p. 15.
70. Ibid., p. 1295.
71. Macauliffe, v, p. 300.
72. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 943.
73. Ibid., pp. 1125, 262.
74. Chaupai, Patshahi Das.
75. Janamsakhi Walaitwali, Sakhi Guriayee Guru Angad.
76. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 966.
77. Bhai Gurdas : Var 1, Pauri, 45.
78. Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, p. 341.
79. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 78.
80. Ibid, p. 273.
81. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1383.
82. Ibid., p. 8.
84. Tara Chand : Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, p. 117.
85. Ibid., pp. 219-20.
86. Rose, H.A. : A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Provinces, vol. ii, p. 419.
87. Mehma Parkash, i, p. 217.
88. Ibid., ii, p. 246.
89. Macauliffe, ii, p. 77.
90. Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, pp. 337, 340.
91. Macauliffe, v, p. 308.
92. Ibid., v, pp. 33, 37, 38, 42.
93. Ganda Singh : The Punjab Past and Present, October, 1975, p. 446.
94. Macauliffe, v, pp. 153-54.
95. Ibid., p. 162.
96. Ibid., p. 163.
97. Ibid., pp. 173-74;
Koer Singh : Gurbilas Patshahi Das, pp. 189-90.
98. Indian Historical Quarterly, March 1942 Sup., p. 3;
Rose, i, p. 688.
99. Macauliffe, i, p. 38.
100. Ibid., p. 339.
101. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 465.
102. Ibid., p. 274.
103. Ibid., p. 730.
104. Sri Gur Sobha, p. 83.
105. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion.
106. Wach, pp. 134-135.
107. Ibid., p. 135.
108. Guru Granth Sahib, Ramkali Mahalla 3, Anand.
109. Bhai Gurdas : Var 5, Pauri 2.
110. Mohsin Fani : Dabistan, quoted by Dr Gokal Chand Narang : Transformation of Sikhism, p. 45.
111. Ibid.
112. Toynbee, Arnold J. : A Study of History, v, p. 665.
113. Tozak Jehangiri (Persian), p. 35, quoted by Narang, pp. 47-48.



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