The first Gurdwara was verily established when the adolescent Nanak fed the famished Sadhus and engaged them in Divine dialogue to define Truth which became his lifelong pursuit. The place is famous as Sacha Sauda, near Nankana Sahib (presently in Pakistan). Guru Nanak had a unique concept of a place of worship, different from the existing temples, maths and mosques where prayers were held, one’s own religion and its prejudices were praised and others criticized and downgraded. He sought to develop ‘Dharamsals’ where one felt having reached the destination, in total relaxation, appreciating variety of view points, in search of truth, since all paths led to One only; where same food was served to all, irrespective of caste and creed, with quarters for rest and repose and a sense of sanctuary. When he emancipated Sajjan, the thug, his lodgings were converted into true sangat with the continued facilities of boarding and lodging and the temple and the mosque, but with a chastened Bhai Sajjan, to serve travelers and supplicants their needs, both sacred and secular. Guru Nanak established sangats wherever he went, to impart instructions to the ‘directionless masses’, (andhi ryot, gyan vihoni) who were ruthlessly exploited by the priestly classes, so-called celibates, the yogis, the pseudo-saints as well as the unfeeling, coercive civil administration. There was blind faith in idol worship, cults like Sakhi Sarwar, the Gugapir worshippers, of miracle hunters, worship of the tombs of the long dead, of magic, spirits and ancestors, and any roadside tree or stone! After all, those stories of the Puranas conceived by the Rishis could not be pure speculation and imagination. Hence, the common man believed it had to have some basis, some truth in all that tome of magic and miracles! If not now, people lived this life in order to reap fruits hereafter, brain-washed about certainty of another life after death. Perhaps the metaphors used by the ancient sages were too complicated for the commoners to decipher, who had in any case been debarred from ‘thinking and minding,’ leaving it all to the Brahmins.
That was the problem with the sages of ancient time and the ignorant masses. It was the age of childish expectations about what could happen if the upai, solution was not done and what one would like to happen. World to them was like the old tales from the Puranas, with gods mingling with humans, often behaving worse than charlatans; miracles galore and within easy reach, with ready solutions, and the simple folks believing and lapping it all up as true, wishing it to happen in their lives too. Guru Nanak created Gurdwaras as the ‘gates to enlightenment’, to arouse a massive wave to impart truth to the superstitious and ignorant creatures, in order to practically live in virtue, upgraded into divine beings.
That was the charter. The Guru made strenuous efforts, went on foot to all corners of the subcontinent and beyond, with clarion call to one and all to bring Kingdom of Heaven on this earth by changing the society of self-seekers, fakes and quacks, transforming individual from a self-centered, boorish stance to the serene, selfless and highly motivated individual. He had a vision to convert each and every habitat into a dharmsal, (ghar ghar hovey dharamsal vich kirtan nava niroa).
The sangats were self contained and self sustained; priesthood as a profession became redundant. The experiment to install manjis and masands as representatives of the Gurus in far off sangats collapsed in the life times of the Gurus itself and was abolished by Guru Gobind Singh. The concept of direct approach of all Sikhs to the Guru brought in the Khalsa concept- the steadfast and Guru’s own. The Gurdwara became a sacred and secular seat of the entire community where everyone was assured equal treatment, service and security, even those who belonged to other faiths.
In due course, Gurdwaras have evolved of five types: Commemorative, bearing historical background; Singh Sabha gurdwaras managed by sangat; Sant deras which have become autonomous with their own rules; Smadhis, mock-up of Sufi mazars and Yogi dhunis (strictly forbidden in Sikh tradition) and local mushrooming of uncontrolled dharamsals managed by enterprising members of the community. The last genre of gurdwaras, the sant deras and samadhs are facsimiles of the banned masand culture and need to be curbed or tightly controlled by some central authority; perhaps a vibrant Akal Takht should assume charge to bring about some discipline and regulation as a positive role to guide the congregations spread world over.
The main problem is the lack of direction of the sangats who trustingly start following anyone who appears in the garb of a sant-baba This is usually the case with all other faiths too, but the rules set by the Gurus are so fresh and systematic that controlling waywardness is easily possible with timely action. The grip of sant deras and smadhis has already tightened and people craving for miracles unquestionably throng there, totally abandoning the Sikh values inculcated by the strenuous efforts of the Gurus for more than two hundred and thirty years. It must be taken up as a serious challenge by persuading sant-babas and the pseudo-masands to come into mainstream of proper Sikh principles. The task is gigantic but so was the dismantling of almost three hundred years old mahant system. Of course, a similar exercise will have to be undertaken, or, alternatively the propagation by the Akal Takht and Singh Sabhas made so strong as to impart knowledge to the masses to withstand and thwart the dera culture from its roots. The dera culture thrives on ignorance and false hopes of magic and miracle, contrary to the divine message of the Gurus, what they struggled to eliminate. The malady is not a recent phenomenon; it was there all along, its roots in the ancient faiths, and ran parallel to the Gurus’ long campaign to weed it out. Guru Gobind Singh had to do a head-count to distinguish the genuine faithful from the fence-sitters and fake elements. The Dera culture also thrives due to passivity of the Akal Takht and Singh Sabhas who lack missionary zeal and avoid confrontation to rampant money making, non-Sikh observances of the pseudo-sants.
There is no doubt that the degradation of Sikh values has been wrought by the dharamsals owned and administered by babas, on terms of their own rules and religious codes. The custom has been extended to enterprising investors who pool money to purchase property and convert the place as a gurdwara with no controls. The generous sangat pays homage lavishly which soon becomes the bone of contention. The managements of these private dharamsals, almost without exception, are only concerned with the ‘intake’, and like the disgraced masands, view the entire venture as a step to collect tithes, power and popularity. Just like the discarded masands and manjis, they control the finances with accountability to none. Private Gurdwaras have become large scale fiefdoms of the adventurous and clever manipulators. There should be created responsible Singh Sabhas consisting of members having sufficient background of Gurmat and sense of service in every town, representative committees to decide welfare projects to derive maximum benefit of the sangat’s hard-earned offerings and donations. The masses, particularly in the economically backward India are poor and sans facilities, in the fields of education, medical and legal assistance. Old destitute and widows having no ‘home’, with a civil administration without vision and sense of responsibility can only pin their hopes on the gurdwaras to help them out. The private gurdwara funds are misused, filtered and diverted to unsubstantial usages. There is no control and no check to stop this colossal wastage. These privately run Gurdwaras could play a positive role, immensely helpful in educating the sangats on Sikh way of life rather than alluring them with popular tunes of musical concerts!
Sikh Gurdwaras are no more voluntary sangats, as the overambitious and unscrupulous persons eventually wrest control like all other secular and religious institutions, with priests under their control. The congregation has no role on its upkeep and management. This has resulted in a new crop of masands, more vicious and dodgy, difficult to dislodge, who call the shots. Instead of spiritual instruction and harmony, the warring factions, with an eye on the cash box donations, make it a matter of measuring strength with each other and spend the precious Guru-ki-golak unscrupulously on useless building projects and on long drawn court cases to the loss of prestige and honor of the Panth and the Sangat.
With the myopic vision and lack of spiritual outlook, the local dharmsalas’ managements often cannot see beyond the daily set routine. Their managers are resentful of any expense on essential facilities and service to the community, the priest’s honour, treating him as a petty, disposable employee without any discretions and opinion on matters concerning the gurdwara. Such institutions function more or less like cooperatives or partnership firms so that membership to the management is restricted up to the investors. They are keen on money spinning activities like Kirtan Durbars where the sangat is numerous and the donations are plenty. There is hardly any propagation of the Sikh dynamics and significance. The Gurdwaras, originally, were sanctuaries for the travelers, the needy and helpless, the sick and destitute. The sangat fully responded to appeals for finding suitors for the young, rescuing victims of tyranny, adopting the destitute, funding the enterprises, medical and educational activities and, not the least, to punish the wayward and bring under discipline those who side step the regulation. No society can prosper without observing rules; the Sikh Reht Maryada should be enjoined upon compulsorily by one and all. No sant dera or individual should be allowed to renegade. The need of the hour is to regulate Sikh sangats. The neo-masand culture needs to be abolished. That is only possible with the management and control of these private dharmsals securely vested in the sangat so that the Guru-ki-golak is used for community’s welfare programs.
The Sikh Gurus had from the very beginning infused power and strength to the Sangats; the representatives, called masands were volunteers to render service (seva) and honestly render accounts. They were never envisaged as leaders to dictate terms. Sangats were so strong that their verdict carried more weight than the Gurus’. (Guru bees biswe, Sangat Ikis biswe!) The Fifth Guru Arjan Dev declined the matrimonial offer of Chandu’s daughter for his son Hargobind on disapproval of the Sangat. He spurned compromise which became one of the causes of his suffering agonizing tortures and ultimate martyrdom. Guru Gobind Singh institutionalised Sangat for ever as the Guru Khalsa. The Masands found deficient in their functions were sacked and abolished. It is a matter of serious concern that crafty persons have reappeared as managers (masands). With the power hungry secular electoral system adopted by the Sikh sangat, the vices of the mundane organism have deeply dented the Sikh lofty principles.
When the sangat becomes mute and powerless, the clever manipulators can create chaos and havoc. It is not only with these dharamsalas; even the regulated Gurdwaras have become power blocks and any party in control may pilfer funds, which are enormous, into misadventures. A specimen case was the recent golden ‘palki’ worth millions donated by a scheduled Gurdwara Management Committee, without proper planning so that the expensive golden palki could not be utilized and became a costly liability. It shows paucity of vision and total lack of priorities in drawing plans of more essential requirements and pending matters. And while the poor and destitute are suffering rigors, priority should have been given to the establishment of old persons’ homes, hospitals, and the ’84 riot cases seeking rehabilitation programs, definitely more urgent. Persons describing it as an act of devotion have strangely used the ‘guru-ki-Golak’ to publicise their affection and dedication.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All