Nanakpanthi literally means the follower of the panth or way/faith of Guru Nanak. Natively known as Nanakpanth while known world-wide as Sikhism, Nanakpanth is an open frontier that references strongly to an early Sikh community, and which cannot be cordoned by the modern signifiers, Sikhism and Hinduism. The word was used by eighteenth and nineteenth century writers in a restricted sense to indicate that special group among the Sikhs which follows the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successors but does not strictly adhere to the injunctions of Guru Gobind Singh, especially about keeping the hair unshorn. Perhaps, the term Nanakpanthi was used for the first time for Sikhs in Mobid Zulfiqar Ardistani’s Dabistan-i-Mazahib, a seventeenth century work on comparative religion, which has a chapter entitled Nanakpanthian describing the Sikhs, their Gurus and their beliefs. Other names or titles used for this sect are Nanakshahi and Sahajdhari.
The Nanakpanthis revere Guru Nanak, and have faith in the Guru Granth Sahib, but generally not in the ‘ceremonial and social observances’ inculcated by Guru Gobind Singh. Those Sikhs, who did not accept the changes brought about by Guru Gobind Singh (i.e. the Khalsa) began thereafter to be addressed as Sahij Dhari (those who take time to change or those who take it easy or slow adopters) Sikhs as opposed to the Singh/Kesh Dhari/Amrit Dhari/Khalsa Sikhs. The authors of A Short History of the Sikhs (p. 110) maintain that the term sahajdhari came in to use during the period of repression or persecution of Sikhs – 1716-1753; until then, the word for clean-shaven Sikh was khulasa as distinct from the khalsa. (Pg 121- Khushwant Singh – Volume 1). Later the British called them the Sikhs of Nanak and the Sikhs of Gobind.
Nanakpanthis are scattered in small numbers through-out India, especially in states such as Assam, Bihar, Tripura, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtara, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana. They came into the Nanakpanthi/Sikh fold either due to the preaching of Udasi saints or they happened to settle in the respective areas migrating from Punjab. At places Udasis themselves came to be called Nanakpanthis. But in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the common designation used is Sahajdhari
The message of Nanak is universal and spiritual; it has the same relevance today, as it had when Guru Nanak walked this earth. Wherever he went, he is remembered and revered there even today. Though Guru Nanak is believed to be the Guru of the Sikhs, there are millions of others who love and believe in him, and worship him. Among Hindus, Muslims and other religions there are ‘Nanakpanthies’ by hundreds and thousands. A study has shown that at present the following of Guru Nanak is 140 million in the world. The followers of Nanak comprise of Sikhs, Sindhis, Nanakpanthis, Nirankaris, Radhaswamis, Udasis, Gulabdasis, suthrashahis, Jagiasis, Sikligars, Banjaras, Satnamis, Joharis, Tharus, Karmapa, Nyingmapa, Khwesh, Sibi, Bundu tribes, Ahmedias (a Muslim sect) etc. They are the followers of Nanak spread all over India. Followers of Yogi Harbhajan Singh in USA and Europe (white Sikhs) are also devoted Sikhs. Some of the rural population of Pakistani Punjab also believes in Guru Nanak. All the above mentioned groups may not stand the strict definition of a Sikh; but nevertheless they are followers of Nanak and hence called Nanakpanthies.
Guru Nanak has such a large following because his religion was humanism and his teachings were simple, cogent and logical and they appealed to one and all; he never laid restrictions of dos and don’ts and taught people to be good human beings; he taught the unity of God and equality of mankind; he preached that the path to right living was by serving and helping other people and his guiding principles were Kirat Karna, Naam Japna, te Vand Chakna (Work, Worship and Charity).
A brief description of each of the major sects that believes in and follows the teachings of Guru Nanak follows:
The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word sishya, meaning learner, disciple or pupil. The Punjabi form of the word was Sikh and came to be used for the disciples or followers of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and his nine successors. More description of the Sikhs is not warranted because the Sikhs and their religion is generally well known all over the world.
The word Udasi is derived from the Sanskrit word udasin (those who renounce the world). Udasi is an ascetical sect founded by Sri Chand (1494-1629), the elder son of Guru Nanak. Baba Sri Chand lived for well over a century; he travelled the length and breadth of India with his disciples and had many followers. He knew Sanskrit and studied many Sanskrit texts, lived the life of an ascetic, practising austerities and yoga. The Udasis do not subscribe to Sikh rites and their religious practices are different from the Sikhs. They however read the Guru Granth Sahib in their monasteries, all over the country and revere Guru Nanak like other Sikhs. A Mahant belonged to the Udasi sect and was the superior or principal priest of a monastery. In spite of all their differences with the Udasis, the Sikhs must not forget that Baba Sri Chand, the founder of the sect, was the elder son of Guru Nanak and it was the Udasis who looked after the Sikh Gurdwaras when the Sikhs were on the run or fighting the Mughuls and Afghans. Also, it was the Udasis saints who spread the word of Guru Nanak in various parts of the country.
Jagiasi, also Jagiasu or Jijnasu is a religious sect cognate with the Udasi section of the Nanakpanthis of Sindh. The word jagiasa is derived from Sanskrit jijnasa (desire to know), jagiasi denoting one desirous of knowledge, of spiritual insight. The members of the sect are mostly sahajdharis. The Jagiasis recite hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib which they venerate as much as any devout Sikh and, like Sikhs, reject idolatry. But they perform several Hindu rituals as well as they do not undergo Sikh baptismal ceremony. Following the example of the founder of the sect, Baba Sri Chand, the elder son of Guru Nanak, the Udiasis do not marry. The Jagiasis on the other hand follow the example of the younger son of Guru Nanak, Lakhmi Chand, who was a householder, and take to family life. The sect flourished especially during the days of Baba Gurupat, known to be a descendant of Guru Nanak. He established many Jagiasi tikanas or seats in Sindh. His last will, dated 29 July 1857, bears the signatures of many a Sindhi, Jagiasi and Udasi saints.
By far, the Vanjaras are the most important group because their contribution and sacrifices/martyrdoms for the Sikh cause are the maximum. Due to their trading activity (Vanj), while roaming, they were called Vanjaras. Maximum people who took Khalsa baptism in 1699 were Vanjaras. Lubanas are a sub-caste of the Vanjaras. Names like Bhai Mani Singh (Sikh scholar), Makhan Shah Vanjara/Lubana (located Guru Tegh Bahadur and authenticated the ninth Sikh pontification of Sikhism, Lakhi Shah Vanjaras (cremated the body of Guru Teg Bahadur), Baj Singh (general of Banda Bahadur) and many others are house hold names among the Sikhs. According to research done by Dr. Harbhajan Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala, the Vanjara have 20,000 Tandas (settlements) in India. Their population is 5 crores spread in 22 states of India but mainly in Madhya Pardesh (47 Lacs), maharashrta (62 Lacs), Andhra Pardesh (71 lacs), Karnataka (67 lacs), Uttar Pardesh (58 lacs), Orissa (33 lacs), Bihar (35 lacs) and Rajasthan (32 lacs).
The word Sikligar is derived from the Persian - saqi/sakli, lit., polishing, furnishing, making bright (a sword), the term saqlgar means a polisher of swords. Once their more common name was Gaddi-lohars (Gypsy blacksmiths); the term Sikligar was bestowed on them by Guru Gobind Singh after beholding the shine on their weapons and their master craftsmanship. And after recognizing their valour, he bestowed them with his favourites titles. Earlier, the Sikhs became militant under Guru Hargobind and felt the need for weapons, that is the first time the Sikligars came to their notice, in the real sense.
Sikligars are a Sikh tribe numbering around 50 million, now settled in scattered settlements all over India found in strength in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnatka, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana. Their dedication and commitment to the Sikh faith is tremendous. With the change in times, today, the Sikligars are nomadic iron/blacksmiths, roaming from place to place with their wares. They have remained a neglected tribe, living in utter penury and come under the scheduled caste/tribe category. Despite their poor economic condition and with no help coming from any quarter, they still are a proud and honest tribe and remain in high spirits with a positive outlook on life.
The Nirankari sect was founded by Dyal Das (d.1855), a bullion merchant of Peshawar. He taught that God was formless – nirankar (hence the futility of pilgrimages, and worshipping idols or “saints”). The chief contribution of the Nirankaris was to standardise rituals connected with births, marriages and deaths based on the Guru Granth. The Nirankaris claim that they were the first to introduce the Anand marriage (Anand Marriage Act was passed in 1909).
The Radha Soami sect was founded by a Hindu banker, Shiv Dyal (1818-1878), of Agra. He was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Adi Granth, and propounded a doctrine which contained elements of both Hinduism and Sikhism. On his death, the Radha Soamis split in two: the main centre was at Agra (broken into various factions and more of commercial than religious importance); a branch started by a Sikh disciple, Jaimal Singh (1839-1913), was on the bank of river Beas, not far from Amritsar. The Beas Radha Soamis soon became independent of the Agra centre and had a succession of gurus (all Sikhs) of their own. The Radha Soamis only accept the teachings of the first five Sikh Gurus and they have no kirtan.Although the Radha Soamis owe much to Sikhism, it would be wrong to describe them as a sub-sect of Sikhism. The Radha Soamis stand apart as a non-denominational group born of the impact of Sikhism (minus the Khalsa tradition) on Hinduism. The only justification of treating them along with other Sikh religious movements is their close resemblance to the sahajdharis.
The Sewa Panthi tradition flourished in southwest Punjab for nearly 12 generations until 1947. This sect (variously known as Sewa Panthis, Sewa Dassiey, and Addan Shahis), is best symbolized by Bhai Ghanniyya who, though himself a Sikh, aided wounded Sikh and Muslim soldiers alike during the Tenth Sikh Guru’s wars with the Moghuls. Sewa Panthis wore distinctive white robes. This sect thrived in Thar region (Sind Sagar Doab) in what is now Pakistan, near Punjab’s boarder with Sind and Baluchistan.
They introduced a new dimension to the sub continental religious philosophies. They believed that sewa (helping the needy) was the highest form of spiritual meditation - higher than singing hymns or reciting holy books. The creation of Pakistan dealt a devastating blow to the Sewa Panthis and they never got truly transplanted in the new “East” Punjab. They are almost extinct today and it has been an irreparable loss to humanity. An extremely valuable asset was lost for posterity.
Nirmala, derived from the Sanskrit nirmala meaning spotless, unsullied, pure, bright, etc. is the name of a sect of Sikhs engaged in religious study and preaching. Guru Gobind wanted his followers not only to acquire skills in warfare but also to cultivate letters. Guru Gobind once asked one of the scholars employed by him, Pandit Raghunath, to teach Sanskrit to the Sikhs. He refused, saying that Sanskrit was deva bhasa (language of the gods) and could not be taught to Sudras (low castes). The Guru sent five of his Sikhs, namely Karam Singh, Vir Singh, Ganda Singh, Saina Singh and Ram Singh, dressed as upper-class students, to Varanasi, the centre of Hindu learning. These Sikhs worked diligently for several years and returned to Anandpur as accomplished scholars of classical Indian theology and plilosophy. In view of their piety and sophisticated manner, they and their students came to be known as Nirmalas, and were later recognised as a separate sect. The sect has several sub-sects each with its own deras (camps/habitation) and following.
The Nirmalas believe in the ten Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib. They generally do not take the Khalsa baptism, don ochre coloured garments, mostly practise celibacy and are devoted to scriptural and philosophical studies. By tradition they are inclined towards classical Hindu philosophy especially Vedanta. Their contribution towards the preaching of Sikh doctrine and production of philosophical literature in Sanskrit, Braj, Hindi and Punjabi is considerable.
Dhirmaliyas, Ramraiyas, Minas and Gulab Raiyas
These four sects were founded by the sons and relatives of the sixth and seventh Gurus when they were disgruntled because they did not become gurus. Dhirmaliyas, followers of Dhir Mall (1627-1677), elder son of Baba Gurditta, elder brother of Guru Har Rai (seventh Guru) and a grandson of Guru Hargobind (sixth Guru). Dhir Mall never parted with the original copy of the Adi Granth prepared under the directions of Guru Arjan popularly known as the Kartarpuri Bir. Ramraiyas, followers of Ram Rai (1646-1687), the eldest son of Guru Har Rai and elder brother of Guru Harkrishan; Minas, followers of Prithi Chand (1558-1618), the eldest son of Ram Rai; Gulab Raiyas, followers of Gulab Rai, son of Dip Chand, grandson of Suraj Mall and great grandson of Guru Hargobind.
The Sindhis were greatly influenced by Guru Nanak’s teachings when he passed through Sindh (Shikarpur) and expounded his beautifully simple philosophy to the Sindhis of that area. Later the message of Guru Nanak was spread by Udasi saints and Sindhis themselves. Today, large fractions of the Sindhi Hindus consider themselves not simply as Sikhs, but more precisely as Nanakpanthis, both in Pakistan and in India. They generally do not support beards or wear a turban (i.e. are Sahajdhari) unlike Amritdhari Sikhs (who keep hair and wear turbans). Even in the 1881 and 1891 Indian census, the Sindhi Hindu community could not decide to collectively identify itself as Hindu or Sikh. In the later 1911 Census Report, Shahpur District (now in Pakistan Punjab) reported that 12,539 Hindus (being 20 percent of the total Hindu population) identified as Nanakpanthis along with 9,016 Sikhs (being 22 percent of the total Sikh population). From early times the Nanakpanthi community extended far beyond Punjab and Sindh. Maghar, a town in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has a high proportion of Nanakpanthis. Nanakpanthis of Sindh (now in Pakistan) are scattered all over the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The word satnami is derived from satnam, literally the True Name, a term used in some religious traditions including Sikhism to denote the Supreme Being. Literally a Satnami is one who believes in and worships only the True Being. The term has been adopted by at least three religious bodies as a title for their religious sects. These sects are: The Sadhs, a unitarian sect of northern India, founded in 1543 by Birbhan. This sect is said to be an offshoot of the Raidasis and probably it was this sect that was responsible for the revolt against Aurangzeb in 1672. The next sect calling itself Satnami was founded by Jagjivan Das (b. 1682) of Sardaha in the Barabanki district of Bihar (the sect is said to be a branch of the Kabir panthi faith). Another sect called Satnami, founded in between 1820-1830, by Ghasi Ram, a chamar (cobbler) by caste is found in Chhatisgarh area and is believed to be a later offshoot of the Raidasis. The Satnamis profess to adore the True Name (one God) alone, but they have many other beliefs as well. These Satnamis who are spread over the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bengal and some other states became followers of Guru Nanak during his peregrinations to these areas. The family of Mr. Ajit Jogi, an ex chief minister of Chhattisgarh state is among the descendants of Satnamis.
There are some Nanakpanthis in Assam (a village near Dhubri who are descendants of Sikh migrants from Tarn Taran in the Punjab); Badgola, about seventy miles from Shillong, has Sikh families and so do the villages of Chhappar, Lanka Station and Lamdig, Tripura and West Bengal. The Nanakpanthis in Tripura, who comprise about 150 families, are said to be the descendants of the seventy Sikh soldiers brought here by Raja Ratan Rai from the Punjab when he went to visit Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur with presents, including the famous Prasadi elephant.
Guru Nanak followers from Karmapa - Nyingmapa sects number around one lakh. In their Gomphas, these Lamas have established statues of Buddha and other Lamas and they also have large sized statues of Guru Nanak as both these sects worship Guru Nanak till date. They have been regular visitors to Sri Harimandar Sahib and they call it the place of Nanak Lama, but lately they have stopped coming in large numbers as they say that the sewadars there have been treating them very badly. They are devoted Nanakpanthis who follow Guru Nanak’s ideals to the core and have the verses of Guru Nanak translated in Tibetan.
Johari and Tharu Tribes
The word tharu is derived from sthavir meaning follower of Theravada Buddhism. The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Terai region in southern Nepal and northern India. In the Indian Terai, they live in Uttrakhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar states. The Government of India recognizes them as a scheduled tribe. Tharu people are closely linked to the natural environment. Bhotias are people, comprising various tribes living in the area of Bhot. Most of these semi-nomadic pastoral groups are however brought under one anthropological term – Bhotias (their area of habitation) or Shauka (name of the largest tribe). Johari is a tribe clubbed under Bhotias since their habitat is in the area of Bhot. They are of presumed Tibetan heritage that live along the Indo-Tibetan border in the upper reaches of the Great Himalayas. They follow Hinduism and Buddhism. The Johari and Tharu Tribes became followers of Guru Nanak when he visited the Terai region. The largest centre of Nanakpanthis in Uttar Pradesh is Nanak Mata, in Pilibhit district, which is a pilgrim centre for Nanakpanthis of Nanital, Pilibhit, Gorakhpur and other neighbouring districts. A Sikh mission at Hapur, established by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), preaches Sikh tenets among Nanakpanthis in these parts.
Khwesh, Sibi and Bundu tribes
Ruqun-ud-Deen was a Qazi of the famous Mecca mosque during Guru Nanak’s visit to Mecca. Ruqun-ud-Deen became a devout follower of Guru Nanak and was put to death on the orders of Amir of Mecca because he had become the disciple of an infidel. Ruqun-ud-Deen can thus be considered as the first martyr of Sikhism. Ruqun-ud-Deen’s two tribes Sibi and Budhu migrated immediately from Mecca to Tirah area of Afghanistan where they are now permanently settled and have faith in reciting Japuji Sahib till date. Another tribe - The Khwesh tribe that had also turned devotees of Guru Nanak was ordered to leave the country.
Due to paucity of space many Nanakpanthi sects/groups/tribes have been left out. These include Satkartari, Gangushahi, Suthreshahi, Ramdasia/ Raidasis/Ravdasis, Bandai, Niranjamas, Mahima shahi, Singhji, Nankshai, Bihari Brandavani Hiradasi, Gahir Gambhiri Sikhs, Sahijdhari, Handalis or Niranjanis founded by Handal (1573-1646); Gulabdasias (an epicurean sect) founded by one Pritam Das; Kabirpanthis, Ahmedias (a Muslim sect), Punjabi Muslims, the white and black Sikhs of America, Canada and Europe, the erstwhile royal families of Jaipur, Purnia (Bihar) and Kuchesar etc. Dr Rajandra Prasad the first President of India, General Ayub Khan the President of Pakistan and many other renowned personalities were/are Nanakpanthi.
After Partition, the Sikh legacy was protected in pockets. Outwardly they don’t appear Sikhs but across Sindh, Balochistan and all the way up to Afghanistan, and India and many parts of the world Nanakpanthis have kept the faith. They might bear Hindu or other names but their belief system is Sikh. This community is of utmost value and needs to be protected. With people from diverse ethnicities being influenced by Guru Nanak and many embracing Sikhism, is testimony enough that Guru Nanak’s message of equality and love resonates worldwide.
1. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism – Harbans Singh (Editor-in Chief)
2. Article ‘Qazi Ruqun-ud-Deen’ - Col. (Dr) Dalvinder Singh Grewal
3. Article ‘Lama, Vanjara and Sikligar Sikhs - Col. Dalvinder Singh Grewal
4. Sikhism: Glimpses and Glances – Bhupender Singh
5. Guru Nanak’s Journey to the Middle East – Translated from Arabic by Inderjit Singh Jhajj
6. Miracles of Guru Nanak – Compiled by Pritpaul Singh
7. Internet (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)