The lnstitute Of Sikh Studies (IOSS) organised a seminar on the November 15-16 , 2003 on the theme ‘Guru Granth – Guru Panth’. This twin doctrine was selected for discussion, because it has played a very crucial role in the past history of the Panth, and is not only relevant today, but is indispensable for dealing with the critical situation through which the Panth is passing and to meet the numerous challenges facing it.
While the holy Granth Sahib was anointed the Guru Eternal of the Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh, he also delegated his authority to the Corporate body of his Sikhs or the Panth to take decisions on all Panthic affairs. Bhai Kahn Singh explains this twin doctrine as follows:
“Khalsa is the body of the Guru, and the bani (Guru Granth Sahib) his soul. The Panth conducting its spiritual and temporal affairs in the spirit of the bani also assumes the form of the Guru. Independent of the bani, however, the Khalsa is not entitled to this status”.*
Kwlsw gurU kI dyh hY Aqy bwxI (gurU gRµQ swihb) Awqmw hY, bwxI dy AwDwr ivhwr prmwrQ is`D krn vwlw pµQ pUrx gurU rUp hY [ bwxI qo' svqµqr ho ky Kwlsw gur pdvI dw AiDkwrI nhIN hY [
Followed strictly, this doctrine assumes strict observance of the teachings of the Gurus, and entrusts leadership of the Panth to the best brains or the noblest Sikhs selected by the Panth. The Gurus, particularly the Tenth Lord, had been training the Sikhs to assume this responsibility, which was earlier discharged by the Gurus themselves in their lifetime. Sikhs were thus expected to create a supreme Panthic body for this purpose. Due to historical reasons, however, this could not be done, since immediately after the demise of Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhs underwent a prolonged phase of persecution and virtually faced extinction. The doctrine, however, stood the Panth in good stead whenever invoked. Examples are the decisions of the ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ during the early period and those of the representatives of the misls during the misl period, which led to the dominance of the Khalsa in the Sikh homeland in northern India, where they were being hounded out earlier.
With the advent of Ranjit Singh with his imperial ambitions, the decision was given a go by, which eventually caused the fall of his empire. The lesson is clear : The Panth flourished when the doctrine of Guru Granth - Guru Panth was followed, and suffered when it was ignored.
Unfortunately, no serious effort has been made to give a practical shape to the doctrine upto this day. Consequently, while problems have continued to accumulate, no solution is in sight. These problems have to be settled at Panthic level, but we have no agency which represents the entire Panth, and whose decision would be acceptable to and binding on all sections of the Panth.
The Present Situation
The Panth is passing through a critical period, and faces numerous problems. Although the Shiromani Akali Dal (B) is a partner in the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, the glow of freedom the Sikhs have struggled for, is nowhere visible. The infamous Blue Star Operation and the repression that followed continue to cast their painful shadows on the Sikh psyche. The Panth is divided into several political parties as well as religious sects.
There is no unanimity on the long-term political goals of the Sikhs. While some sections demand a sovereign independent state, others prefer autonomy within the Indian Union. The SAD has favoured the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 subsequently modified in 1978. The Hindu majority, however, considers it secessionist, and is in no mood to concede the demand.
There are challenges to Sikh identity, and concerted efforts are afoot to treat the Sikhs as a sect of Hindus. The Rashtriya Sikh Sangat wing of the BJP is busily engaged in confusing the Sikhs on this issue.
Then there is the problem of apostasy, particularly among the Sikh youth. Under the influence of the West and the TV culture, alarmingly large numbers of Sikhs have dropped the most visible and essential requirement of Sikhism – the unshorn hair.
The Sikhs outside Punjab as well as Sikh diaspora outside India have their own peculiar problems. Besides, there are millions of tribal Sikhs like Vanjaras, Sikligars, Lobanas, Tharus, etc., known as Nanakpanthis, who are living in utter neglect and abject poverty in several states of India, notably Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, etc. They have received no attention from the Panth, and are vulnerable to influence of missionaries of other faiths.
To the list of problems must be added the recent controversies over Dasam Granth, All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act, Sikh Personal Law, seating arrangements in langar, the authority of the Takht jathedars, etc.
Little organised effort has been made by the Sikh leadership to carry the message of the Gurus in its pristine form. Clever individuals taking advantage of this situation, have established their deras where they preach their own cult in the garb of Sikh religion among the credulous Sikh masses not only in India, but also abroad. This leads to erosion of Sikh values, and weakens the Panth. Each dera is a potential Schism and a challenge to mainstream Sikhism.
We are convinced that the only way to deal with and to get out of the present dismal situation is the creation of an apex body or a central supreme authority of the Sikhs . The IOSS has expressed this opinion earlier also. In order, however, to give a concrete shape to the idea and to invite a detailed discussion and to solicit considered views, this theme was selected for the Annual Seminar of the Institute held in November 2003.
The announcement received an enthusiastic response. As many as sixteen top scholars of the Panth presented their papers before a distinguished audience, over 300 strong. In the Keynote Address, Dr Kharak Singh explained the rationale behind the doctrine of Guru Granth - Guru Panth and its theological and historical background. He drew the attention of the audience to the current situation of the Panth marked by controversies, Schisms, mounting number of deras, internal dissensions and external attacks, neglect of Sikh diaspora as well as weaker sections, rapidly spreading apostasy, etc. What is more worrisome is the fact that while deras have become more active in preaching their cults and dividing the Panth, there is hardly any organised effort on the part of mainstream Sikhs to meet the challenge. None of the existing organisations or institutions of the Panth feels responsible or competent to deal with the situation in its totality . He pleaded that it could be handled only through an apex body of the Panth representing all sections of the Sikhs living in all parts of the globe, and having competence as well as authority to make and enforce decisions. This body would function as the Guru Panth, and guide the Sikhs on the advice of technical advisory committees on religious affairs, education, health, economic affairs, diaspora, etc., manned by top scholars in respective areas. The authority of Sri Akal Takht would prove to be a great blessing in carrying out the programmes of this body.
The Keynote Address suggested that the SGPC being the most representative body of the Sikhs, should take the required initiative for creation of an Apex Body. It was also made clear that the proposed Guru Panth would not replace any of the existing institutions which would continue to function as hithertofore. The new Body would determine the direction in which the Panth should move, and ensure coordination among various organisations of the Panth.
The idea was endorsed by practically all speakers and participants. It was felt that the step was already overdue, and brooks no further delay. In fact, it is mandatory in view of the doctrine of Guru Granth – Guru Panth.
Dealing with historical perspective, Dr Kirpal Singh, the well known historian, said that the doctrine of Guru Panth and Guru Granth was inherent in the teachings of Guru Nanak. For, according to Bhai Gurdas, he had said, “Without gurbani and sangat, there was no other refuge.” He explained that Gurbani implies Guru Granth, while sangat refers to Panth.
Dr Muthu Mohan identified three stages in the process of achieving the Sikh ideals, namely :
1. The making of the gurmukh
2. The making of the sangat
3. The making of the Khalsa
He also drew attention to two aspects regarding the importance of Guru Panth as comparative moments in the context of the known histories of the world religions :
1. The Gurus did not stop by proposing religious and normative values addressed to the individual. Addressing the individual and transforming the individual psyche is a tested method in the history of religions. This was the usual way followed during the medieval period. However, Sikhism goes beyond this routine.
2. Another religious routine in vogue in the medieval period was instituting the order of priesthood to carry out the religious message. The Sikh Gurus did not use this option either. They entrusted this responsibility to their Sikhs. Both these facts underline the significance the Gurus attached to the Guru Panth. Maybe, Guru Panth is not a finished concept, but it is a Long March towards perfection, not in an idealistic sense, but in terms of going through the real problems the Panth encounters at every historical juncture.
On the making of the Khalsa he says :
“The sangat develops into the Khalsa, that is the history of Sikhism during the Guru-period. This has a remarkable significance in the history of Sikhism. In order to understand the true meaning of the making of the Khalsa, one has to compare the Khalsa with the institutions of priesthood, on the one hand, as well as with the institution of monkhood, on the other hand. In Indian context, we know that the priesthood is typically associated with the Brahminic ideology and later with the temple culture, and the monkhood is mostly associated with the Buddhists and the Tantric Siddhas. Historically, the institution of priesthood had proved to be reactionary and bureaucratic whereas the institution of monkhood had miserably failed in its mission of following the middle path and slipped into thorough asceticism.
“Sikhism strikes a new path. With the historical experience of the decadence of priesthood (masands) from within and without (Brahmin purohitas), Sikhism steps into organizing the new mode of collectivity. The Gurus decide to empower the people, a mode although difficult, but truly democratic.”
Sardar Gurdev Singh reproduces an anthology of the homage paid by eminent non-Sikh scholars about the Guru Granth Sahib, and brings out the values preached in Guru Granth Sahib, that characterise the Panth. He suggests a programme of action on the part of the Panth, which lays emphasis on education of people, activities aimed at healthy understanding and useful cooperation among people of different religions, and active role in organising inter-faith seminars and conclaves. And, to perform these functions, he believes that formation of a global association or an apex body of the Sikhs is essential.
Harjinder Singh deplored that many a Sikh these days worship Guru Granth Sahib as an idol. He stresses that ‘it is the teachings that are to be venerated, and this is done by practising these teachings.’ He refers to existence of jathebandis, taksals and deras, and pointed out that these days if you stand for the one jatha, the Guru’s jatha, and try to follow the simple teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, you will find yourself in a minority. And for this he blamed the Sikh intellectuals. For, we do not speak out and hence are not heard. He criticised the present-day working of the gurdwaras and the election system which produced leaders of ‘kursi golak type’. He mentioned some development which would bring about a UK Sarbat Khalsa. He expects similar development elsewhere, which will ultimately lead to the creation of a similar body to handle the affairs of the global Sikh community.
Dr Birendra Kaur built a strong case for the need to create an apex body of the Panth, and felt that there was no other way to deal with the endless chain of problems facing the community today, or likely to arise in the future. She saw no difficulty in listing the roles to be assigned to this body. The real challenge is how to create it. It is not easy to find suitable persons to be entrusted with the required reponsibility and authority. She discussed merits as well as limitations of the methods of selection and election, and recognised the problem involved in securing a consensus in the Panth.
She strongly pleaded, however, that a beginning must be made and the Panth must resume the responsibility that devolves on it under the doctrine of Guru Granth – Guru Panth. The existing representative bodies like the SGPC and the DSGMC etc could be the foundation for building a structure to represent the entire global Sikh community by adding suitable number of nominated members. She further envisaged setting up of separate departments to deal with different subjects / needs of the Panth. She concluded :
“The Apex Body should take birth now, in or in spite of the present scenario; it will grow / evolve with time. Let us make a beginning, and pray for Waheguru’s blessings on His Panth. Unless we stand united, through a single common organisation of the Panth, how can we share the Guru’s message with the rest of humanity ?”
Sardar Gajinder Singh extensively referred to events in Guru Gobind Singh’s life history to show that the Panth was instructed by the Guru to look for spiritual guidance from Guru Granth only, and to collectively act as Guru Panth where each participant should rise to the high standard of knowledge of Gurus’ message. He also stressed the need for honesty, sincerity and selfless service of the community to restore the glory of the Guru Panth.
Dr Gurmeet Singh stated that there was no ambiguity about the Granth Sahib being the Guru. For the Guru Panth, however, he preferred to use the expression ‘Guru in Panth’. His argument is that Guru has to be perfect, which no human being can be, and that the Sikh belief refuses to recognise any personal Guru after Guru Gobind Singh. He defines Panth as an assembly of those Sikh holy men who are committed to the code of conduct, and have attuned themselves to the Will of God. He then proceeds to examine what should be the role and form of the proposed body, and suggests a modified form of Sarbat Khalsa to suit the present conditions, and creation of necessary infrastructure. He thinks that initially for a period of 5 years, only specialised institutes of studies be created to carry out research on Sikh affairs in the disciplines of Constitutional Studies, International Relations, Military Studies, Planning, World Religion, Sikh Psyche, Modern Sikh History, Sikh Economy, Sikh Heritage, Sikh Migration, Sikh Martial Arts and Environmental Studies. He stressed that the first step for establishing the ‘Guru in Panth’ should be finding out individual Sikh brains attuned to the will of the Gurus who should comprise the inner circle to work out strategies for future struggle.
Brig Hardit Singh recalled that during the Guru-period both the spiritual and temporal powers were vested in the Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, however, bifurcated the authority, vesting Piri in Guru Granth Sahib, and Miri in the Guru Panth, with the proviso that the Guru Granth, being divine light, is supreme. He argued that this concept implies an International Sikh Apex Body under the aegis of Sri Akal Takht to consider current affairs and to take timely action to deal with the situation.
Gen Jaswant Singh highlighted the need for special attention to the status of women and the weaker sections of Sikhs among the tasks to be undertaken by the proposed apex body. He deplored the prevailing trafficking in women and widespread evil of female foeticide, which should be stopped through education and stern institutional measures. For weaker sections like the Vanjaras, Sikligars, Lobanas, etc., he suggested a number of measures to improve their economic conditions.
Dr Sarjit Singh, quoting extensively from the Guru Granth Sahib, showed that it contained the divine message revealed through our Gurus. He regretted that somehow, Sikhs have failed to communicate with the people around them, who speak different languages and are incapable of learning Punjabi. On the Guru Panth, he said that the relationship between the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth became fully effective with the maturity of the Khalsa, and its ability to understand and obey the commands of Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth, however, remains supreme and in control of all matters related to Sikhism. “The moment we move away from this proposition, the Panth may appear to be a jumble of arrogant and obnoxious persons who will tamper with anything called Sikhism with impurity.”
Dr Harnam Singh Shan, quoting Bhai Nand Lal, Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Santokh Singh, Bhai Prehlad Singh, etc, showed that the Khalsa Panth enjoyed the Guru’s authority in making and carrying out Panthic decisions taken strictly in accordance with the teachings enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Prof Prabhjot Kaur, and Dr Sarabjot Kaur endorsed this view and stressed that the Panth could flourish only if it remained subservient to Guru Granth Sahib.
Kartar Singh Goshti argued that formalisation of the Guru Panth is the only solution to the problems Sikhs face today. He suggested that SGPC should convene a meeting of representatives of leading Panthic organisations, and select a panchayan of 5-10 members, which could be entrusted with this task.
The Participants took active part in discussions and expressed full support to the proposal for Guru Panth. The Seminar concluded with the unanimous adoption of the resolution reproduced below :
“This gathering of Sikhs has noted with great concern that the Panth is passing through a crisis marked by disunity, challenges to Sikh identity and established institutions like the Akal Takht Sahib and SGPC, spate of apostasy, existence of schisms old and new, and unnecessary controversies created to divide and weaken the Panth.
“In order to deal with these problems, to carry the divine message of the Gurus worldwide and to lead the Panth to its destined glory in the service of mankind, it is imperative to invoke the Gurus’ doctrine of Guru Granth - Guru Panth, which gives this responsibility to take decisions in the light of teachings of the Gurus with complete faith in sabad as Guru.
“This gathering feels that in the situation that prevails today, it is necessary to have a central body of the Sikhs with global representation whose deliberations will guide and assist the entire Sikh community.
“The Sikhs are fortunate in having Sri Akal Takht as the Supreme seat of authority and the SGPC as an elected body of the Sikhs representing Sikh majority areas. These institutions cannot be ignored, and should rather be strengthened. Any attempt to denigrate these institutions is condemned.
“This gathering, therefore, calls upon the SGPC to take the required initiative for creating an Apex Body, which includes representatives of all major Panthic organisations and Sikhs from across the world, with itself as nucleus under the patronage of Akal Takht Sahib.
“This gathering also appeals to all Sikh organisations to cooperate in the discharge of this historic responsibility for the glory of the Panth and to achieve the goals of sarbat da bhala.”
In the end, I wish to record my gratitude for generous help rendered by Dr Gurbakhsh Singh, Dr Birendra Kaur and Sardar Inderjeet Singh, in the compilation of this report including valuable advice on its format and content, besides proofreading. Mr Jaswant who typed the manuscript also deserves sincere thanks.
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