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Guru Granth – Guru Panth
Doctrine & Experience
(Part II)

Nirmal Singh

(Contd from previous Issue)

Guru Granth Sahib in the Contemporary Setting
Looking at the practice in the contemporary setting suggests some comments. Over time the eternal Guru has been deified to the extent that a set of pretty rigid rituals needs to be followed to keep and maintain the Granth. This has encouraged deeper display of respect for the Granth but may also have distanced the devotees somewhat from its essence due to unintended restrictions to access and more so by the idolatrous tendencies that seem to have crept in, much questioned by the Sikhs but adhered to nonetheless.

The other developments include the growth of scholarly interest to test Bani in the light of scientific developments, rational thought, textual analysis and the like. This has had an encouraging influence in promoting research on the message that the Gurus delivered but has at the same time created a range of controversies that detract from the sublime. There is an increasingly vociferous lobby that questions the transmitted tradition in the light of Bani to defend personal choices, especially regarding the 5 Kakkars observances. Another issue that one hears some times is that the Guru is Gurbani and not all Bani included in the Granth – in other words lower gradation of compositions by those other than the Gurus.

A likely problem that keeps resurfacing relates to the Dasam Granth. Even though Takhts at Nanded and Patna accept Guru Granth Sahib as the living Guru, both places do parallel installation of Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth. The Dasam Granth lobby is pretty active but may not be able to impact the centrality of Guru Granth as the focal point in Sikh religious life. This is so because Sikhi as internalized by Sikhs is already attenuated by compositions from the Dasam Granth, writings of Bhai Gurdas and Nand Lal, tradition and history and their understandings of the Guru’s message are not entirely confined by what is written in Guru Granth Sahib.

Sikh tradition places emphasis on the way the Bani is pronounced. The Gurmukhi letters also seem to be best suited for enabling phonetic fidelity of the words. The total linguistic effect is thus a component of the ras of Gurbani and the language of Bani has an effect in addition to and distinct from the inspirational in its meaning.

At the same time an issue that is beginning to be articulated especially in the Diaspora is that the lay Sikhs no more are able to grasp the meaning, let alone the essence of Gurbani. Many of the Western scholars have dwelled on the issue. Cole is of the view that there is no theological reason why a translation cannot be used for study as also the ‘focal point of worship and life’.1 McLeod feels that understanding of the functional role and likely future developments relating to Guru Granth Sahib are important to be able to pronounce on the subject.2 Dusenbery says ‘Insofar as the words of the Adi Granth as originally produced by the Guru and subsequently recited or sung in Sikh worship are simultaneously considered to have efficacious material properties as well as spiritual message for both reciter and hearer, changing the sound vehicle changes the substantive properties of the text.’3

There is merit in these questions and we will have to find answers to them going forward because it is now increasingly realized that language difficulties are possibly contributing to growing alienation among the youth to attending Gurdwara services. One area of major disagreement is the strong opinion among Sikhs that any translation will necessarily be a pseudonym for one interpretation – consensus on the acceptable interpretation will not be easy. The translations available on the web are being put to use increasingly by Sikhs but it is doubtful if they would accept these as substitutes for the original.

There is one aspect about Guru Granth Sahib that makes it unlikely that Sikhs may ever accept the status of Guruhood being accorded to its translated version. Guru Granth Sahib is set to music and the essence of Bani is best received through its musical rendering. That is why the Gurus made kirtan central to Sikh worship. A translated text cannot replicate this effect, more so if the language of choice does is not able to lend itself to the rigor inherent in the ragas prescribed by all the contributing Gurus in Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Panth
This was the tricky part but it is noteworthy that early Sikhs showed tremendous maturity to find practical means to turn this concept into a working model. The institution of panj pyaras that goes to the heart of this concept had been received with enthusiasm by Sikhs and the administration of khande ka pahul to around 80,000 Sikhs, in a couple of days following the Baisakhi of 1699 can only be credited to the multiplier effect of increasing groups of five initiated Sikhs playing the Guru and taking on initiation of those willing to join the order of Khalsa.

Guru Panth from the beginning was understood to be the collective will of the Khalsa.4 It was an understanding that made sense at the time for several reasons. Firstly most of the followers of the Gurus were Khalsa Sikhs in the early decades of the 18th century.5 Khalsa Sikhs also were in the forefront of Sikh struggle; steadfast in their faith in spite of severe persecution that they faced and the other sections of Sikh society depended upon them for their security and protection.

The fact that Sikhs were able to evolve a model and put into practice the Guru’s edict of the guru panth and guru granth so quickly can possibly be credited as much to the compulsions of their circumstances that brooked no delay as also their grasp of some of the concepts that the Gurus had preached and the methods they had used. We will dwell on some of these as we go forward.

We have earlier mentioned about the direct Khalsa-Guru relation paradigm instituted by Guru Gobind Singh when he discarded the order of masands. My sense is that the choice of the word Khalsa for Sikhs initiated through the khande ka pahul should have more to it than a mere description of the method of making their daswand payments and we will try to explore it a little further.

The literal meaning of the word Khalsa is clean, pure or sacred. Kabir has used the word Khalsay in Raag Sorath and it has been literally translated in popular translated texts on the web. I am quoting the entire shabad to facilitate interpreting the word in its context rather than accept its literal translation that does not seem to be in sync with the thought being addressed by Kabir.

Kabir says: Listening to the teachings of the Vedas and the Puraanas, I wanted to perform religious rituals. [But seeing] that even the wise had been ensnared by death, I arose and left the Pandits in my disappointment at the failure of this mode of worship. [I reminded myself] that O mind, the only task that you were given was to meditate on your Lord King but you have failed to do it. [I thought of] those who go to the forests, practice Yoga, perfrom deep, austere meditation and live on roots and the fruits they gather. They, the musicians, Vedic scholars, chanters of one word and the men of silence, all are destined to die. [So why is it] that devotional worship does not enter your heart and you continue to give it up even as you pamper and adorn your body. You sit and play music, but you are still a hypocrite; what do you expect to receive from the Lord? Death has befallen all in this world including doubting religious scholars – only the humble people who have loving devotional worship for God became Khalsay.6

Clearly the only reference to the word Khalsay in Guru Granth Sahib carries the connotation of spiritually evolved persons who have transcended death. This falls in the genre of gurmukh, bhagat, sant, brahm giani and the like who have achieved nirbhaypad, seen akin to the Guru and God. The above sense associated with the word Khalsa is supported by another verse attributed to Guru Gobind Singh - One who has grasped the Lord’s sublime essence, is the dev [god] Khalsa; there is not a shred of secret separating God, him and me.7 This is similar to verses that abound lauding the brahm giani, sant, bhagat, gurmukh and gursikh in Guru Granth Sahib.

All this points to a few conclusions. Khalsa were created by khande ka pahul. Khalsa were abundant. Khalsa were seen as highly evolved spiritual persons. This Khalsa was given the Guru status.

Letters sent by the Gurus were called hukamnamas. The term has also been extended to letters written by certain important personages from the Guru families and in the post Guru period to the letters written by Banda Bahadur and the edicts issued from the Akal Takht and the other four Takhts or seats of Sikh religious authority.

One of the earliest hukamnamas discovered is from Guru Hargobind addressing several sangats in Bihar. Gurus Tegh Bahadur and Gobind Singh continued to use the practice. The earlier hukamnamas bore no date; from AD 1691 onwards they were usually dated. All the hukamnamas were written in Gurmukhi characters.

Miri Piri
The word miri comes from the Arabic amir which literaly signifies temporal power. Piri, derived from Persian pir stands for spiritual authority. Even though credited to Guru Hargobind the concept was a direct recognition of the thought inherent in the teachings of Guru Nanak that challenged the householder to take cognizance of the apathetic attitudes of the ordinary people in the face of moral and ethical decline in the society, pervasive injustices and inequities and religious hypocricy amid corrupt and oppressive state structures and carve out a path of righteous living in the midst of it all. A term raj jog, similar in meaning to miri piri, had been used in Guru Granth Sahib for the fourth Guru and by Bhai Gurdas for the fourth as well as the sixth Guru. The term miri piri has not been used in the Sikh scriptural literature and seems to have come down through received tradition.

The concept reduced to its simplest means that miri & piri cannot be separated in life. A devotee has to live an earnest and prayerful life while contending with the day to day problems of the real world. His action choices in the secular arena must be informed by his spiritual beliefs and moral codes. This basic principle has influenced Sikh religious and social thought reflecting on their values and institutional structures.

The doctrine of Miri and Piri was a recognition of the God given dignity and autonomy of all individuals or groups relative to the society and their societal transactions. It was not intended to be a theocratic system, for Sikhs do not have a religious law nor an entrenched order of the clergy. They wanted to have the feel of such freedom and did not grudge the others to live according to their own persuasion. It is therefore no wonder that in practice the Sikhs when they ruled under Banda Bahadur and later under the Misls and Maharaja Ranjit Singh respected religious freedom of all faiths.

Akal Takht
Post the execution of Guru Arjun, Guru Hargobind constructed the Akal Takht, throne of the Timeless, in front of the Harmandar and developed the practice of holding open court there to listen to and advise/adjudicate on the problems brought by the devotees – seen by Sikhs as institutionalization of the concept of miri-piri. Akal Takht therefore in a way symbolizes an early Sikh recognition of the need for a place and a forum for deliberating on the worldly problems from the prism of their beliefs.

Guru Hargobind himself was the Custodian of Akal Takht. When imprisoned, the Guru asked Bhai Gurdas to be the caretaker. Amritsar was under the control of the descendants of Pirthi Chand after Guru Hargobind left there in 1635 till the death of Harji in 1696. In 1698, for a brief period, Guru Gobind Singh appointed Bhai Mani Singh as Granthi of Darbar Sahib and Akal Takht. Mata Sundari again assigned Bhai Mani Singh to Amritsar in 1721 but post his martyrdom in June 1734, there was no one to take care of the shrines at Amritsar. Later, Budha Dal took over the charge of the shrines.8

During the turbulent 18th century the Sikhs revived the custom of meeting at the time of Baisakhi and Divali – the venue selected for these meets was Akal Takht. Such collective assemblies came to be known as Sarbat Khalsa where Sikhs discussed matters of policy and strategy and adopted resolutions in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib called gurmattas.

This was the beginning of the twain leadership of Guru Granth-Guru Panth in action. For it to have started at Akal Takht is significant from historical standpoint even though there is little evidence to conclude that the Akal Takht institution as we know it today existed then or that any one connected with Akal Takht had a continuing role in convening these assemblies.

In course of time the role of Akal Takht in Sikh religious life has increased and it is now looked upon as the highest seat of Sikh religious authority. Sikhs recognize four other Takhts or seats of religious authority though Akal Takht is accepted as supreme among the five. The also recognizes Akal Takht as the appellate authority to resolve local disputes at the congregational level.

All the takhts can issue hukamnamas – though most of the hukamnamas have been issued from the Akal Takht going back in time to the present. Hukamnamas by Akal Takht are taken to be applicable to Sikhs globally and have covered subjects including commending seva by some prominent Sikhs, sanctions imposed for egregious dereliction from Sikh ethos, to settle religious and political disputations. The procedure followed presently is that the Jathedar Akal Takht summons the Dharmic Salahkar Committee of the SGPC to consider the matter and they make recommendation to the Jathedar.9

The Akal Takht decisions have been issued as gurmattas. The tradition of such gurmattas can be traced back and examples include:

– Installation of electricity was approved per a gurmatta at Akal Takht in 1896?
– Takht Hazoor Sahib passed a gurmatta in 1913 that a Gursikh must carry kirpan of at least one-foot length blade.
– The initial SGPC was formed after a gurmatta was passed at Akal Takht in 1920
– In 1924 Akal Takht passed a gurmatta eulogizing the services of Dr Saifuddin Kichlu.
– Akal Takht passed a gurmatta in 1978 excommunicating Sant Nirankaris.10
– The recent media reports regarding the Sacha Sauda incident refer to gurmattas adopted at Akal Takht.11

Sarbat Khalsa
The custom of Sikhs getting together for a conclave twice a year on Baisakhi and Diwali at Goindwal started by Guru Amardas was revived by the Khalsa in the 18th century when under severe persecutory pressures, they decided to meet collectively at Amritsar in the vicinity of Akal Takht. These gatherings came to be known as Sarbat Khalsa – entirety of the Khalsa. There is evidence that gatherings at Sarbat Khalsa did not exclude non Khalsa Sikhs. At the same time the entirety of community it represented was that immediately in need of coming together and any claim of its being representive of all Sikh sangats would be misplaced.

The leaders of the community convened the Sarbat Khalsa meets to discuss matters of common concern to the community and were held in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib, giving the meetings the sanctity associated with a religious assembly. Even though held in the vicinity of Akal Takht there is no evidence to infer that a person charged with the care of Akal Takht was considered the authority to convene such assemblies or guide their deliberations. Originally all Sikhs participated in the meets. Later as Misls became stronger their Chiefs became the interlocuters for their Misl and Sikhs could share their concerns and views with their Misl chief. This worked because membership of a Misl was a voluntary choice.

The collective deliberations allowed for open discussion and resolutions were adopted by consensus. No resolution was taken up for consideration at Sarbat Khalsa unless a solemn assurance was given by the leaders present that they were positively one in the Guru. If any had intra-group doubts or reservations they would retire and rejoin after clearing up the misunderstandings.

These assemblies had no political jurisdiction or military control over individual chiefs.12 Their attendance was not compulsory either. For internal problems or in an emergent case the chiefs transacted business locally by inviting concerned Sikhs or important persons of the Misl. The model therefore was replicated at the regional or local levels.

Sikhs put this institution to very effective use to develop consensus on very difficult and vexing issues and obtain unwavering commitment from all Sikhs to its implementation. In fact Sikhs accepted such resolutions as the express vow made to the Guru that carried the weight of religious sanction.13 Although no means to enforce the gurmatta existed yet there was never an occasion when such a decision was flouted.

Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmatta Experience
As noted earlier, in 1721 Mata Sundari sent Bhai Mani Singh to Amritsar as caretaker of Harmander. Sikhs continued to gather at the two festival occasions for a collective meet, called Sarbat Khalsa under the stewardship of Bhai Mani Singh and adopted gurmattas.14

Mata Sundari is said to have advised Sikhs to refer all matters relating to Sikh polity to Akal Takht.15 After the martyrdom of Bhai Mani Singh in 1734, it is not clear as to who convened the meets but the leaders of Misls reached decision by consensus and the gurmattas adopted were in some cases issued from Akal Takht as hukamnama of Sarbat Khalsa or of Akal Takht and in others acted upon as approved gurmattas.

At the Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi 1733 Zakarya Khan the new Governor of Lahore sent a conciliatory offer of a jagir of three villages. Sikhs decided to accept the offer and Kapur Singh was nominated the jagirdar with the title of Nawab. Sikhs reorganized their jathas in autonomous units but with commitment to come together as dal khalsa when needed. The budhha dal [veterans] force at Amritsar was under Kapur Singh and taruna dal, the youthful under several group leaders.

At the Sarbat Khalsa on Diwali in 1745 Sikhs reorganized the small bands into 25 units of cavalry with Kapur Singh as commander. In a fracas brother of Lakhpat Rai who was an important official at Lahore, was killed. This resulted in retaliatory rounding up and killing of Sikhs. Imperial troops drove Sikhs northwards where 700 were killed and those arrested taken to Lahore and killed at Shahid Ganj. This episode of June 1746 is known as chhota ghalughara – smaller holocaust in Sikh history.

After Abdali’s first invasion in 1747-48 Sikhs harried them all the way back to Indus and at the Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi 1748 they merged their jathas to form Dal Khalsa under the command of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. The Dal Khalsa force was divided into 11 misls, with autonomy in their own areas but commitment to obey the supreme commander in matters that affected the entire community.

With battle between Abdali and Marathas looming, the Sikhs decided at Sarbat Khalsa of Diwali 1760 to enter Lahore. Later when after the battle of Panipat, Abdali was returning with huge loot and thousands of prisoners Jassa Singh Ahluwalia raided the Afghans and rescued over two thousand young women and made arrangements to return them to their homes.16

At the Sarbat Khalsa on Diwali 1761 Sikhs resolved to capture Lahore and chastise those who supported Abdali. Lahore welcomed Sikhs, Ahluwalia was hailed as sultan-i-qaum and Sikhs minted a new currency with the same inscription as Banda had used 50 years earlier.

Abdali returned in 1762 and relentlessly pursued Sikhs and most of 30,000 men, women and children surrounded in the pursuit were killed. This catastrophe is termed by Sikhs as vadda galughara.

At Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi 1765 Sikhs decided to retake Lahore and captured the city on April 16th. They forbade all plunder and Lehna Singh was appointed subedar who won confidence of both Hindu and Muslim population.

Rattan Singh Bhangu and Giani Gian Singh have referred to many gurmattas – some said to have been passed by the Dal Khalsa at meets at places near Kasur, Sialkot and Sirhind. Account of several Sarbat Khalsa meets and gurmatas relating to various episodes in Sikh history, e.g., constructing a fort at Amirtsar [1747], approving rakhi system [1753, 58] etc has been located.

An undated Rajput kharita reported that the Sikhs whose power was on the rise would be holding a grand assembly in the month of Vaisakh [a Sarbat Khalsa type meet] to decide their future course of action concerning Rajputana and to avoid their incursion Jaipur must send them a payment of Rs.1 Lakh.17

After 1765, when the Sikhs assumed sovereignty of parts of the province, the meetings of these councils became less frequent but they continued to be held occasionally till 1805.

By the 1780’s Sikh groups were negotiating political deals in the name of Sarbat Khalsa as a political entity – the treaty signed on January 25, 1787 by Maharaja of Jaipur was with Sarbat Khalsa ji and says ‘That there exists acknowledged friendship between Sarbat Khalsa Ji and Maharaja Dhiraj Partap Singh Bahadur. It has been agreed upon by both the parties that the friends and foes of one party will be treated as friends and foes of the other. Sarbat Khalsa Ji will act according to the wishes of the Maharaja and the Maharaja will act according to the Sarbat Khalsa Ji.’18 Sikh leaders had also proposed similar treaty to Maharaja Bijay Singh of Jodhpur in 1788.19

On Baisakhi of 1801 Sahib Singh Bedi proclaimed Ranjit Singh as Maharaja of Punjab. Ranjit Singh did not wear emblem of royalty or sit on a throne. Like those preceding him he struck new coins and named the currency Nanakshahi. His government was known as Sarkar Khalsaji and he was addressed as Singh Sahib. He set up sharia courts for Muslims and for others, common law courts of their caste or community. All his subjects enjoyed Miri Piri!

In 1806 the English pushed Marathas and Rohillas and Jaswant Rao Holkar came to Punjab to get Ranjit Singh’s support against the British. The Maharaja summoned Sarbat Khalsa at Akal Takht to take a collective decision. The Sarbat Khalsa approved a gurmatta giving them sanctuary, which placed the Maharaja in a difficult spot because the English threatened to pursue the fugitives into Sikh territories. He created an advisory council and on their advice decided to enter into a treaty with the English that Marathas will remove their army thirty miles + out of Amritsar in return for the English removing encampments from Beas and promise of friendship as long as Sikhs did not entertain those inimical to the English. This saved the fight but the Maharaja was summoned by Akali Phoola Singh, then caretaker of Akal Takht and admonished for ignoring the gurmatta.20

This was the last time when the Maharaja sought the advice of Sarbat Khalsa. After that he started taking his decisions by consulting ministers and advisors that made the practice of Sikhs guiding their leaders in political matters by adopting gurmattas in Sarbat Khalsa to a virtual end.

(To Be Continued........)



1 Cole, The Settlement of Sikhs in the UK, p. 421
2 The Sikh Scripture: some Issues in Juergensmeyer and Barrier, p. 104
3 Dusenbery, Sikhs at Large, Oxford, 2008, p. 75
4 Rahit Nama Bhai Prahlad Singh enjoins Sikhs to accept the Khalsa as the physical manifestation of the Guru and those Sikhs eager to meet the Guru should search for his light in the Khalsa - guru khalsa maniye pargat guru ki deh, jo sikh milbho chahae khoj inhau nein lai.
5 The khalsa was created by administering khande ka pahul and in all ten directions you could see none other than the khalsa - Kahnde ki pahul dayi karanhar prabh soi Kiyo dason dis khalsa tan bin avar na koi – Sainapat, Gursobha, Verse 149
6 baedh puraan sabhai math sun kai karee karam kee aasaa kaal grasath sabh log siaanae out(h) pa(n)ddith pai chalae niraasaa man rae sariou n eaekai kaajaa bhajiou n raghupath raajaa ban kha(n)dd jaae jog thap keeno ka(n)dh mool chun khaaeiaa naadhee baedhee sabadhee monee jam kae pattai likhaaeiaa bhagath naaradhee ridhai n aaee kaashh kooshh than dheenaa raag raaganee ddi(n)bh hoe bait(h)aa oun har pehi kiaa leenaa pariou kaal sabhai jag oopar maahi likhae bhram giaanee kahu kabeer jan bheae khaalasae praem bhagath jih jaanee - Sorath Kabir, p. 654
7 Atam Ras Jeh Janhi So Hai Khalsa Dev, Prabh Meh Mo Meh Taas Meh, Ranchakl Nahin Bhev - Sarbh Loh Granth
8 H S Dilgeer
9 W H McLeod, Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, Oxford, 2002, p. 107
10 See K S Duggal, Akal Takht, UBSPD, 1995, pp. 37-8, 42
11 The following dispatches will corroborate this:
In a jolt to Jathedar, Akal Takht, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, Takht Hazoor Sahib today decided, in principle, to reject the Gurmatta passed by the Sikh clergy at Akal Takht on June 6 — Jathedar, Patna Sahib, Giani Iqbal Singh had already rejected the religious resolutions passed at a meeting of Sikh high priests at Akal Takht secretariat. Talking to The Tribune from Abchal Nagar (Maharashtra) , Giani Kulwant Singh, Jathedar, Takht Hazoor Sahib, said any decision without the presence of the representatives of all five Takhts had no value. [Varinder Walia writing in Tribune, Jun 8, 2008] Instead of taking a clear stand, the Sikh clerics chose the middle path while discussing the apology tendered by Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on May 29 last year at a meeting at Akal Takht secretariat — by adopting a Gurmatta that neither rejected nor accepted the apology tendered by the Dera chief for hurting Sikh sentiments at Salabatpura in Bathinda district on May 13, 2007. [Walia in Tribune, Jun 25, 2008]
12 Per Grewal, the individual Chiefs were completely autonomous and their internal administration and their external relations were not the subject of Gurmattas. Ibid, p. 327
13 J S Grewal says ‘It was largely through the institution of Gurmatta that the Khalsa established themselves as rulers.’ – Lectures on History, Society and Culture of the Punjab, Patiala, 2007, p. 326
14 K S Duggal, The Akal Takht, UBSP New Delhi, 1995, p. 22. Duggal also credits Bhai Mani Singh with concretization of the concept of sarbat khalsa. He also says Bhai Mani Singh’s resolving the chasm that had arisen between Bandai Sikhs and Dal Khalsa in 1723 was the first success of a sarbat khalsa. See p. 30.
15 Ibid, p. 23
16 James Browne, History of the Origin and Progress of the Sikhs, London, 1778, II, p. 22
17 Dhillon Ibid. No. 56
18 Gopal Narayan Bahura and Chandarmani Singh, Catalogue of Historical Documents in Kapad Dwara Jaipur, p. 46. Its facsimile appears at No. 54 at the end of above work [quoted by Dhillon]
19 Bisheshwar Nath Rue, “A Treaty Proposed by Sikh Leaders to Maharaja Bijay Singh of Jodhpur,” Journal of Indian History, Vol. XXVI, Part I, April 1948, serial No. 76, The University of Travancore, Trivandrum, 1948, pp. 65 [quoted by Dhillon]
20 Duggal, ibid, p. 32


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