THE CONCEPT OF GURU GRANTH – GURU PANTH IN SIKHISM
After the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), Sikh affairs including its leadership, except for a short period in the 18th century, had been generally in disarray due to non-implementation of the Guru’s directions regarding the concept of Guru Granth and Guru Panth.
During the last century two other unprecedented developments have further confounded the crisis. One is the appointment of Takht jathedars and the second is the election of gurdwaras, and Sikh institutions, governing bodies by votes along political lines. Guru Gobind Singh had not appointed anybody as his successor nor created any authoritative post such as a jathedar. The term jathedar does not even exist in the Gurdwara Act of 1925 following which Takht jathedars were appointed by the SGPC. This is a violation of Sikh ethos, as there is no tradition or history behind these appointments.
Election by votes breeds factionalism, nepotism and corruption. The Sikh conception of collective leadership is based on Guru Nanak’s dictum panch parwan, panch pardhan which implies that only devoted and approved persons should form the presidium. It is also related to the old Indian tradition of ‘Panchayat Raj’ and the Gurus appointing their advisors with the consensus of the sangat. Guru Gobind Singh brought this aspect into focus when in 1699, he selected panj pyaras at the point of his sword stressing the importance of self-sacrificing and devoted persons. Election by votes is thus against the tenet of Sikhism.
Concept of Guru Granth - Guru Panth
Guru Nanak’s and his nine successor Gurus’ mission was worship of one Formless God and eradiction of priestly class together with their rites, rituals and caste system. The other main mission was to produce ‘an ideal group of persons’, who are saintly at heart as well as soldiers in action, ready to fight injustice and oppression even at the cost of their lives. The Gurus also practised and demonstrated the important concept of sangat and pangat, bhagti-shakti, and miri-piri which in due course crystallized into the concept of Guru Granth – Guru Panth. It took the Gurus 230 years to accomplish this task of producing ‘an ideal group of persons’. Guru Gobind Singh called them the Khalsa, when in 1699, five devoted Sikhs offered their heads to become the first panj pyaras. Thereafter, the Guru asked them to initiate him as well to become a member of the Khalsa brotherhood. By this action, the Guru merged himself in the Khalsa, and bestowed Guruship on the Panth by taking amrit from its five representatives. This is a unique feature in the world history, whereby a prophet places himself as not only equal, but also lower than his followers. He demonstrated this subordination by quitting the Chamkaur Garhi at their bidding and paying a fine imposed by them for bowing to Pir-Dadu’s grave. He further explained the role of panj-pyaras when he detailed five devoted Sikhs to accompany Baba Banda Singh Bahadur as his advisors on his expedition to Punjab to establish rule of law by ousting the tyrant Moghuls.
During the reign of the Gurus (from 1469 to 1708), both the spiritual and temporal powers were vested in the Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh bifurcated this power into two and vested piri with Guru Granth and miri with the Guru Panth with the proviso that Guru Granth, being the Divine Light, is supreme. The role of Guru Granth is eternal, inalienable, clear, and distinct. The conduct of temporal affairs, being dependent on the prevailing political, economic and social situation, are changeable, and as such miri was entrusted to Guru Panth. Only those Panthic decisions which are taken in the presence of Guru Granth and are in the spirit of gurbani, bear the stamp of gurmatta or hukamnama.
By terminating personal Guruship and instituting the concept of panj pyaras, the Guru entrusted care of the Panth to the collective leadership of Guru Granth - Guru Panth. The advantage of collective leadership is that the power remains in the hands of the Panth and not in any individual. An individual can be corrupted by power, pelf, and wealth, but not the collective body approved by the Panth.
The concept of collective leadership was most successfully used by the Misl sardars during the 18th century. They constituted an apex body called Sarbat Khalsa, under the umbrella of the Akal Takht Sahib, which was attended by all the Misl sardars. From amongst the assembly, five devoted and respected Sikhs were chosen to form a presidium of panj pyaras to control and coordinate all the Panthic and general public affairs. This experiment was such a success that the Misl sardars’ jurisdiction extended over a major portion of rural Punjab. The Khalsa army under Sardar Baghel Singh even held Delhi for six months. Where the 30,000 strong Khalsa army camped is still called Tees Hazari. In spite of extreme hardships and tribulations suffered by the Sikhs, the 18th century is the most glorious period of the Sikh history.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on assuming sole power over the Sikh empire abolished the institution of the Sarbat Khalsa along with the concept of panj pyaras, but remained subservient to the sovereignty of the Akal Takht Sahib. These steps created dissension during his life and his empire collapsed soon after his death. The Khalsa army made a desperate effort to revive the collective leadership by panj pyaras but it was too late. The present plight of the Sikhs is also due to the problem of individual leadership. There are half a dozen Akali parties, besides a mushroom growth of sant deras with their own brand of Sikhism.
The Akal Takht Sahib
Closely connected to the concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth is the distinguished institution of the Akal Takht constructed by Guru Hargobind Sahib in 1608. Here the Guru sat in state with all regalia wearing two swords representing the spiritual and the temporal power. Apart from infusing martial spirit amongst the Sikhs, he discussed all the religious, political, social, and economic problems facing the community and humanity at large. He also issued edicts to the Sikh sangat for implementation. The Guru moved to Kiratpur Sahib in 1634. As none of the successor Gurus stayed in Amritsar thereafter, the Takht sovereignty remained with them wherever they were. In 1708, it reverted to its original edifice in Amritsar, along with the conceptual spirit of Guru Granth-Guru Panth. The Akal Takht then became the hub of the Sikhs' world and centre of resistance against injustice and oppression. It is the only Takht that existed during the Gurus' period and, as such, is supreme.
Sikhism was created as a nirmal panth (distinct and pure). It is different from other religions in its identity, in its ideology, in its doctrine of Guru Granth - Guru Panth and in its institutions of the Akal Takht and panj pyaras. Guru Granth and Guru Panth are the two supporting pillars of Sikhism which reinforce cohesion, cooperation and collective leadership. Whilst we are somewhat alive to the spiritual values and teachings of Guru Granth, only a lip service is being paid to the concept of Guru Panth. As a result Sikhism is not radiating its true spirit. It gives an impression that the Sikhs, leadership and politics revolve around the priest, jathedars and the code of conduct (reht maryada) and that Sikhism is a fundamentalist and medieval religion, which is far from the truth.
The institution of panj pyaras is ingrained in Sikhism which Guru Gobind Singh brought into focus in 1699. It is meant to restrain individual urge for pelf and power. Presently, panj pyaras are being used for amrit sanchar and ceremonial purposes only. The panel of panj pyaras which deliberates on Sikh affairs from the Akal Takht are not approved by the Panth, but are the priests nominated by the SGPC which is a statutory body with its jurisdiction confined to a small area in north India. Panj pyaras are important and can play an active part in Sikhism, but the potential is not being fully used.
The concept of Guru Granth-Guru Panth entails constituting an International Sikh Apex Body suitably named such as Sarbat Khalsa under the aegis of Akal Takht, which could meet from time to time to consider current Sikh affairs and take timely action to deal with the situation through the panj pyaras.
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