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The Need For An Apex Institution

Dr Kharak Singh*

The paper lists major Sikh institutions and points out that the basic institutions gifted by the Gurus are very sound and have played cardinal role in the growth and independence of the Panth. Some recent organisations, however, have fallen short of expectations.

Section II draws attention to current problems and attributes the inadequacy of their performance to the absence of a Central authority for taking decisions at the Panthic level. In Section II constitution of an apex body is proposed to identify and pursue common goals, invoking the doctrine of Guru Panth under the spiritual guidance of Guru Granth. It has been emphasized that the proposed apex body will not replace any of the existing organisations. The latter will in fact, benefit from the former and become more effective’

I. Existing Institutions
The theme Institutional Failure amongst the Sikhs assumes :

a) that Sikhs face certain problems and challenges.

b) that Sikhs have created certain institutions to deal with problems and to lead the Panth along its destined course in history, and

c) that the institutions have not delivered the desired results.

The organisers of the seminar, therefore, expect the intellectual community among Sikhs to have a close look at the present situation, to identify the problems that block the progress of the Sikh movement and to suggest ways to deal with current problems as well as future challenges.

Institution Defined
An institution is defined as ‘a significant practice, relationship or organisation in a society or culture. It also includes something or someone firmly associated with a place or a thing.’1

According to another definition it is ‘that which is instituted or established; precept or principle; foundation; established order, or system of principles or rules, etc.’2 Sociologists recognise four basic social institutions — the family, the school, the church and the state, as pillars of a society. Similarly, every religious denomination has its own well-established and recognised institutions.

Basic Institutions of Sikhs
It is difficult to prepare an exhaustive list of Sikh institutions. The Guru Nanak Dev University organised a seminar on the subject some time back and identified six basic institutions, viz., Guru, Sangat, Langar / Pangat, Dharamsal, Bani / Shabad and Daan. An institution is created to fulfil a purpose, which in the present case is to promote the divine message of monotheism, fatherhood of God, universal brotherhood of mankind, equality, justice and other requisites of personal and corporate life that make a gurmukh or the ideal Sikh, or a perfect human being. These institutions were the gift of Guru Nanak, and it was through them that his message acquired a visible form and became a way of life. But for these, the Sikhs would perhaps have been lost among followers of earlier Radical Bhagats with no distinct identity.

Before taking up other Sikh institutions which developed in the later part of the Sikh history, it seems necessary to briefly refer to these basic institutions :

Among Sikhs, Guru is no ordinary teacher in the sense commonly used in earlier Indian literature. It has a meaning far more profound. Guru Arjun defined the true Guru as follows :

“He is true guru who has realised the Supreme Being. In his company does the disciple find liberation, by chanting Divine laudation.”3

Guru is thus brahmgyani or the God-enlightened at one with the Supreme Being Himself.4 From this it should be apparent that Guru in Sikhism is equivalent to prophet in other religions.

On the importance of guru, Guru Angad says :
“Should a hundred moons rise
and a thousand suns —
With all this illumination, without the,
Guru’s guidance all remain pitch dark.”5

Sikhs are enjoined a total commitment and complete surrender to Guru. Says Guru Arjun :

“The disciple that in the Master’s home,
to receive guidance, takes abode,
Should, with his heart, the Master’s
guidance accept.
He should never--- show off his ego;
On the Name Divine ever with his heart,
should he meditate.
The disciple that himself to the Master,
should have sold,
Fulfilled shall all his objectives be.”6

However, due to clever misinterpretation of the emphasis laid on the need for, and the abundant praise showered on guru, numerous deras have sprung up under some clever persons posing as sadhs and sants and virtually enjoying the privileges of gurus by misleading people. And unfortunately, while these deras and schismatic sects are well organised, there is hardly any organised effort to promote the cause of mainstream Sikh thought.

Guru Nanak organised a chain of sangats in his life time. Sangat is an association of equals engaged in noble pursuits, and bound by the common love for the Guru. A gathering of thugs cannot be called sangat. It is only a gathering of holy men where Divine Name is cherished that deserves this title.7 While association with pious persons, leads to moral and spiritual elevation, bad company leads to degradation. Kabir illustrates the difference :

“The sandalwood plant even though surrounded by dhak and idleweed is good.
These too living close to sandalwood turn the same.”8
“In foul company am I ruined,
As banana plant near ber (jujube),
As shakes the ber, is the plantain pierced,
Look not towards reprobates.”9

The institution of sangat has far-reaching social implications. It inculcates the feeling of brotherhood, promotes equality and provides opportunity for sewa, which is highly prized among Sikhs. It has played a vital role in history as a forum for discussion of common concerns, and planning as well as execution of programmes of social uplift. It seems that Guru Nanak had created a network of sangats spread over vast areas during his lifetime. This network was expanded by his successors, and it continued to function effectively during the Guru period. This is testified by the large number of extant hukumnamas addressed to various sangats by the Gurus.

Sikh diaspora can now be seen in almost every country of the world. Following the lead given by Guru Nanak they have organised sangats wherever they have settled. These sangats are the units that constitute the Sikh community or the Panth. During the Guru period, these units looked to the Guru for direction. For performing this function now, it is necessary to create a central representative body drawn from the constituent sangats, to look after the affairs of the Panth.

Dharamsal literally means a place for practice of dharma or righteousness. Guru Nanak refers to the Earth as dharamsal,10 implying that life in this world offers an opportunity to elevate one’s soul through noble deeds. Guru Nanak enjoined upon all sangats to erect or set apart a place where they could hold congregations regularly for recitation and contemplation of bani. It was also a meeting place for discussion of their problems and matters of common concern.

These dharamsals were expected to provide accommodation and food to wayfarers, and were precursors to the present-day Gurdwara. The term Gurdwara came into vogue after Guru Granth Sahib began to be installed in the dharamsal. In the course of time, a number of activities have been added to the Gurdwara. Langar is an essential feature. A school, dispensary, sports, library, etc., are increasingly becoming parts of Gurdwara complex. Mostly, the social functions, marriages, etc., are also organised in the Gurdwaras. In fact, a Gurdwara is the pivot of the life of Sikh community. The institution has tremendous potentialities for spreading the Word of the Guru worldwide and for a better future for the Sikh Panth.

Langar / Pangat
It is a unique Sikh institution which has never failed to impress non-Sikhs. It represents some basic postulates of Sikhism like equality. It emphasizes the need for good food for a normal life which includes bhagti. It recognises the right of everybody to a square meal. Through this institution, the Guru anticipated the present ‘World Food Programme’, and the ‘Freedom from Hunger’ campaign. Langar inculcates the habit of sharing with others. It provides an opportunity for sewa. History records that highly placed Sikh Sardars like Ala Singh and Jassa Singh as well as their ladies took pride in doing manual work in langar. In langar all participants eat together without discrimination based on caste or social status. In fact, it was a carefully considered device against the prevailing caste barriers. Guru Amar Das was so particular about this, that he would not grant audience to anybody reluctant to partake of langar with others. The message of this institution is belief in equality, brotherhood, collective effort and concern for others, particularly those in need. Stress should be on the spirit of service and the feeling of fraternity, rather than seating arrangements in langar.

Daan means sharing in Sikhism, and not charity in the usual sense which induces pride. The Gurus preached against accumulation of wealth, and institutionalised Daan in the form of Daswandh or tithe (1/10th) which belongs to the Guru and is meant for collective needs of the community. While Daan is compulsory for all Sikhs, the Guru has stressed that it should be used sensibly and judiciously.11 The present karseva movement, which in practice means demolition of old historic monuments and construction of huge marble structures in their place involving expenditure of billions of rupees, needs to be reviewed in this light. We must pause to think whether we can utilise our limited financial resources for a better purpose. Propagation of the message of the Guru and education and health programmes certainly have a better claim.

Other Basic Institutions
Among the later institutions created during the Guru period or soon thereafter, mention may be made of the following :

a) Sri Akal Takht : Established by Guru Hargobind, it represents Sikh sovereignty and allegiance to the Timeless Lord. It symbolises miri-piri, and sanctifies struggle against injustice. It is the refuge of the weak and the defenceless. All the major Sikh battles and struggles were fought from here. It is the highest seat of authority among Sikhs, and will continue to be so always.

b) Amrit : Amrit is not a mere ritual or initiation ceremony. It is a commitment to a way of life or a discipline to achieve the Sikh ideal of saint-soldier. It is incumbent upon all Sikhs to be amritdharis. Guru Gobind Singh left no doubt about it when he himself besought this gift from the Panj Piyaras.

c) Panj Piyaré : Five gursikhs have the authority of the Guru to initiate new Sikhs through amrit ceremony, and when selected by a sangat or the Panth, represent the collective will of the sangat or the Panth, respectively. The institution emphasizes the collective will, and rejects dictatorial authority to any individual.

d) Sarbat Khalsa & Gurmatta : Sarbat Khalsa emerged as a powerful institution during the 18th century, particularly the Misl period. Representatives of all the misls or Sikh confederacies used to meet on Diwali and Vaisakhi at Sri Akal Takht, and decisions taken concerning the Panth, were considered Guru’s decisions or gurmattas, and were binding on all Sikhs.

Recent Institutions
a) Singh Sabha : Started by stalwarts like Giani Dit Singh, Prof Gurmukh Singh and Sardar Jawahar Singh towards the end of the 19th century, the Singh Sabhas waged successfully a relentless struggle against incursions into the Sikh religion by missionaries of other faiths, and frustrated their evil designs.

b) Chief Khalsa Diwan : Side by side with the Singh Sabha, Chief Khalsa Diwan was organised as a political wing to represent the Sikh community. Controlled by moderates and pro-government elements, the Diwan tried to look after the Sikh interests, avoiding confrontation with the government.

c) Sikh Educational Conference : Although started by the Chief Khalsa Diwan as one of its activities, it became instrumental in setting up a large number of Khalsa Schools and Colleges, which in turn, acquired the status of an institution in themselves. The progress of the Sikh community in the field of education and allied areas, is largely due to this institution.

d) Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee : As a result of the awakening brought about by the Singh Sabhas, Sikhs became acutely aware of the corruption and un-Sikh practices followed in the Gurdwaras, by the pujaris enjoying patronage of the government. To bring about the reforms called for, the first Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee was organised in 1920 at Amritsar. The government declared it unlawful and arrested the leaders. Sikhs had to launch a prolonged struggle involving heavy sacrifices. As a result, the government had to yield the Gurdwara Act in 1925 under which the SGPC became a statutory body for control of Gurdwaras.

e) Shiromani Akali Dal : This was created by the SGPC in 1921 largely to look after the Sikh struggle as its political wing. In the course of time, the Dal has outgrown its parent and is now controlling the SGPC itself, besides dominating the Sikh politics.

The basic Sikh institutions are sound, and have played a pivotal role in the growth of and development of the Sikh Panth. The recent organisations, too, have a creditable record but appear inadequate to meet the demands of the situation created by the problems like the ones listed in the following section.

II. Current Problems
The Panth faces numerous problems. The more important among these are:
a) Lack of Unity : The Sikhs are divided politically. One Akali Dal was expected to look after political interests of the Panth. New Akali Dals, however, continue to mushroom. Often Sikhs join other so-called secular parties with no commitment to Sikh interests. As a result, even the dominant Akali Dal has to lean on the support of non-Sikh parties (currently BJP) to stay in power. Further, its doors have been opened to non-Sikhs so that the party is now more keen to present a secular image than representing the Sikhs alone.

b) Confusion over Political Goals : There is no unanimity on this issue. While some sections demand a sovereign independent state, others prefer autonomy within the Indian Union. Majority of Sikhs however, appear to favour the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 as subsequently modified in 1978.

c) Apostasy : This problem has assumed serious proportions particularly among the Sikh youth. Under the influence of the West and the T.V. culture, a large number of Sikhs have dropped the most visible and essential requirement of the Sikh discipline — the unshorn hair.

d) Challenge to Sikh Identity : Concerted efforts are afoot to treat Sikhs as a sect of Hindus. The R.S.S. is busily engaged in promoting this confusion. Subtle distortions are being made in Sikh history to achieve this object.

e) Problems of Sikh Diaspora : Sikhs migrated to other countries in the last century in large numbers, so that there are sizeable Sikh communities in all major countries of the world, where they face threats to their culture and faith. They are engaged in this battle in their own way, without any support from the parent community in Punjab. The latest symptom of this problem is the confusion with Arabs or Afghans because of turban and flowing beard.

f) Backward Sikh Tribes : There are millions of tribal Sikhs like Vanjaras, Sikligars, Lobanas, Tharus, etc. Known as Nanakpanthis, who are living in abject poverty and utter neglect in several states of India, notably Madhya Pardesh.

g) Sikh Psyche : Although the Shiromani Akali Dal (B) runs the government in Punjab in a coalition with the BJP, and is also 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.

h) Controversies : Recent examples of controversies that divide the Panth are Nanakshahi Calendar, seating arrangements in langar, Dasam Granth, Maryada followed in major Sikh shrines, etc. Since no decisions are taken, the attending bitterness and frustration linger on.

i) Deras : 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.

III. The Need for an Apex Institution
The above problems are indeed formidable, but by no means insurmountable. However, these can be solved only if we know who is to deal with a particular problem, and how. In order that an agency or institution can solve a problem, it must have the competence to make a sound judgement / decision and the authority required to enforce it. And since most of the decisions would affect the entire Panth, the decision makers should represent the global Sikh community.

Let us see if any of the existing Sikh institutions fulfils these requirements. The basic institutions listed earlier in this paper have played an extremely important role in the growth and development of the Panth, and are indispensable. Their relevance, for the present purpose of dealing with current problems, however, is limited. Here we can consider only the Sikh institutions in the sense of an organisation.

In times of crisis we frequently turn to Sri Akal Takht. It is regarded, as indeed it is, a panacea for all ills. It, however, lacks the organisational structure and technical support to perform its functions. Also, while the authority of Akal Takht is accepted by all without question, there is no such unanimity on the absolute authority of its Jathedar. In fact, we do not have enough evidence in history to show that this position was at all created or approved of by the Guru. Also, the spirit of Sikh thought does not provide for any dictatorial authority to an individual, however, highly placed he be. This could be abused by an unscrupulous incumbent as was done by Arur Singh in honouring General O’Dwyer who had ordered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.

The SGPC is the second alternative. This is often called the Parliament of the Sikhs, and is no doubt the most representative body of the Panth. This too, however, is not the ideal choice. Sikhs abroad and even the Indian Sikhs outside Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh, are not represented on it. Its mode of election does not attract men of the required religious calibre among Sikhs. Further, the fact that SGPC elections are fought by political parties, the goal becomes political authority or hegemony of a group, and not efficient management of Gurdwaras or serving the Panthic interests. In view of this and also because of the existence of other bodies like the Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Management Committee, the claim of SGPC as the sole representative of the Sikhs is difficult to sustain.

With regard to the ‘council of high priests’ as the central decision-making body of the Panth, nobody is clear as to who are the members of this council. Is it the Jathedars of the five takhts ? History does not support this tradition. In fact, until a few years back, there used to be only four takhts. And the two takhts (Patna Sahib and Hazoor Sahib) had no jathedars. They had their high priests who were not under the control of the SGPC and seldom attended the meetings of the council. According to tradition, high priests of these two takhts are not supposed to leave their headquarters, and the best they can do is to depute their nominees with the approval of their respective managements. While we consider this alternative, we should also not forget that there are no qualifications prescribed for the high priests, nor are there any satisfactory procedures for their appointment. Not infrequently, their appointments result from political convenience or compulsions of the party in power.
The other existing organisations also do not offer much hope. The Chief Khalsa Diwan appears to have virtually withdrawn from activity. The Sikh Education Conference is practically defunct. The World Sikh Council envisaged in the Vishav Sikh Sammelan of 1995 has been struggling unsuccessfully to make a start.

It will be seen that at the moment there is no agency to represent the Sikh Panth and to take decisions in its behalf, which are acceptable to all. During the Gurus times, the Sikhs looked to the Guru for guidance, direction and decisions. When the Guruship was vested in Guru Granth Sahib, it was stipulated that the Guru Panth or a representative body of Sikhs would take decisions in its behalf. According to the contemporary Gursobha, Guru Gobind Singh said, “I have bestowed the physical (or secular) Guruship on the Khalsa” ... ...and “The True Guru is the infinite Word, whose contemplation enables one to bear the unbearable.”12 This was the intention of Guru Gobind Singh when he nominated five pyaras to go with Banda Singh Bahadur on his expedition to the Punjab. However, in the post-Banda Singh period when Sikhs had to face repression and exile, this institution could not be formalised. The concept was revived during the misl period when the heads of various misls used to meet at Akal Takht on Vaisakhi and Diwali to discuss their problems and a common agenda for the Panth. Their unanimous decisions used to be called gurmattas and were accepted by all as decisions of the Guru. This practice was discontinued by Maharaja Ranjit Singh for his own reasons, and has remained redundant ever since.

This vacuum is responsible for the prevailing confusion and uncertainty. While there are too many persons / agencies to claim leadership, there is none enjoying the authority of the Panth.

It is clear that for a solution of the present as well as future problems, we have to fill this vacuum. An agency has to be created that can represent and speak on behalf of the Panth. The SGPC being the biggest, and comparatively the most representative body, should take an initiative in this direction. With the cooperation of the DSGMC and other major organizations of Sikhs like the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Damdami Taksal, etc., it (SGPC) should convene a meeting of their representatives to discuss this issue. Sikhs abroad should be adequately represented on it. An Apex Body should be formed, and procedures for its functioning should be clearly laid down. The role of takhts and their jathedars should be defined, as also their qualifications, tenure, mode of recruitment, privileges, etc. This Apex Body should be assisted by Advisory Committees consisting of eminent Sikhs and experts from different disciplines, for advice on religious and other technical matters. No decision should be made without reference to these Committees. It should not be forgotten that only sound decisions taken in the interest of the Panth will attract compliance. On the other hand, decisions taken in haste, based on personal prejudices, and without adequate thought to possible consequences, are more likely to be defied. Unfortunately, some of the decisions taken by leaders during the recent past, belong to the latter category, have caused divisions in the Panth and immense damage to its prestigious institutions.

It is hoped that the SGPC will take the initiative on the above lines. If the proposed Apex Body of the Panth can be set up, it may be the most auspicious start not only for the 21st century, but also for the 3rd millennium, and the trauma suffered by the community in recent years will not have gone in vain.

The list of problems mentioned above is by no means exhaustive. New problems will continue to arise. But once we have an agency or a body fully representative of the Panth to deal with them, there is nothing to worry about.

Some Specific Functions of the Apex Body
This apex body which will acquire the status of Guru Panth in due course, and will decide its own functions. However, inter alia, it must perform the following specific functions :

1. Appointment of Jathedar, Sri Akal Takht on the recommendation of the SGPC.
2. To take decisions on religious as well as secular issues affecting the entire Sikh Panth.
3. To ensure co-ordination and co-operation among the various Sikh organisations.
4. To initiate programmes for international co-operation and Sarbat da bhala or welfare of humanity.
5. To provide guidelines for celebration of shatabadis and other special occasions at global level.
6. To organise a Think Tank and constitute Expert Committees for Religious Affairs, Political Affairs, Social Welfare, Economic Affairs, Education and Sports, etc, to involve the Sikh intelligentsia in planning and building a bright future for the Sikh Panth in the service of humanity.
7. Any other functions considered necessary to promote the message of the Gurus globally.

The Role of Existing Organisations
The proposed apex body of the Sikhs is not intended to replace any of the existing institutions. Rather, it will provide them with the support and the Panthic authority they need to discharge their functions. The SGPC and DSGMC will continue to manage the Gurdwaras under their charge, as heretofore. In fact, the authority of the SGPC should be extended to other Gurdwaras also throughout India, through suitable legislation. The Shiromani Akali Dal should continue to look after political interests of the Sikhs in India. The World Sikh Council should be reorganised and enabled to secure a respectable position for Sikhs among the international community. The Chief Khalsa Diwan, and some other organisations like the Sikh Education Society, should be entrusted with the responsibility of providing quality education to the Sikh youth. The Institute of Sikh Studies and Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle should be strengthened and encouraged to take up research work, translation of Gurbani, and production of suitable material for dissemination of information on Sikh religion, culture and history. The Damdami Taksal as well as Nihangs will continue to play their traditional role assigned to them in history.

In the end, it needs to be emphasized that none of the existing institutions will become superfluous with the institution of the proposed apex body.



1. Merriam Webster Dictionary.
2. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary
3. Guru Granth Sahib p.286
siq purKu ijin jwinAw siqguru iqs kw nwau ]
iqs kY sMig isKu auDrY nwnk hir gun gwau ]

4. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 273
nwnk bRhm igAwnI Awip prmysur ]
5. ibid., p. 463
jy sau cMdw augvih sUrj cVih hjwr ]
eyqy cwnx hoidAW gur ibnu Gor AMDwr ]

6. ibid., p. 286
gur kY igRih syvku jo rhY ] gur kI AwigAw mn mih shY ]
Awps kau kir kCu n jnwvY ] hir hir nwmu irdY sd iDAwvY ]
mnu bycY siqgur kY pwis ] iqsu syvk ky kwrj rwis ]

7. ibid., p. 72
sqsMgiq kYsI jwxIAY ] ijQY eyko nwmu vKwxIAY ]
8. ibid., p. 1365
kbIr cMdn kw ibrvw Blw byiV@E Fwk plws ]
Eie BI cMdnu hoie rhy bsy ju cMdn pwis ]

9. ibid., p. 1369
kbIr mwrI mrau kusMg kI kyly inkit ju byir ]
auh JUlY auh cIrIAY swkq sMgu n hyir ]

10. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 7
rwqI ruqI iQqI vwr ] pvx pwxI AgnI pwqwl ]
iqsu ivic DrqI Qwip rKI Drm swl ]

11. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1245
AklI swihbu syvIAY AklI pweIAY mwnu ]
AklI piV@ kY buJIAY AklI kIcY dwnu ]

12. Gopal Singh : A History of the Sikh People, Allied Publishers, p. 324.





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