FROM RITUAL TO COUNTER RITUAL: A Critical analysis
A. Oberoi’s Assumptions
The very first paragraph of Oberoi’s above mentioned paper makes it clear to a reader that it is full of many incorrect and anti-Sikh statements. The author tells that the Sikhs were (are) hardly different from the Hindus, at least till 1897 when Kahn Singh denied it. This is the fallacious base on which the author has attempted to build a wrong thesis.
He states, “In 1897 when Kahn Singh Nabha, the erudite Sikh scholar, proclaimed through a vernacular tract that Ham Hindu Nahin (We are not Hindus), he brought almost four centuries of Sikh traditions to an end. Until then the Sikhs had shown little collective interest in distinguishing themselves from the Hindus. Sikh notions of time, space, corporeality, holiness, kinship, social distinctions, purity pollution, and commensality were hardly different from those of the Hindus. Also the two shared the same territory, language, rites de passage, dietary taboos, festivals, ritual personal and key theological doctrines”.
B. Observafions of some scholars
Before showing the statement of Oberoi to be totally propagandist, because of its being based on incorrect assumptions, let us first quote the observations of some modern scholars and mystics about Sikhism:
Drothy Field: Pure Sikhism is far above dependence on Hindu rituals and is capable of a distinct position as a world religion so long as Sikhs maintain their distinctiveness………. A reading of the Granth suggests that Sikhism should be regarded as a new and separate world religion rather than a reformed sect of Hinduism.
Arnold Toynbee: In this coming religious debate, the Sikh religion and its scriptures, the Adi Granth, will have something special of value to say to the rest of the world.
Pearl S. Buck: They (Sikh scripture) speak to person of nay religion or of none. They speak for the human heart and the searching mind.
H.L. Bradshaw: Sikhs must cease to think of their faith as just another good religion and must begin to think in terms of Sikhism being the religion for this new age…….it completely supplants and fulfils all the former dispensations of older religions Guru Granth Sahib of all the world religious scriptures, alone states that there are innumerable worlds and universes other than our own.
W.O.Cole: In his 1985 key note lecture in India on the Mission and message of Guru Nanak Dev: Sikhism is the only religion which welcomes each and everyone to its langar without any discrimination of caste, creed, colour, or sex.
Remember the tenets of Guru Nanak, his concepts of oneness of God and Universal Brotherhood of man. If any community holds the key to national integration of India, it is the Sikhs all the way.
Swami Nitya Nand: In his book Guru Gian: I constantly meditate on Waheguru revealed by Nanak. I practised Yoga Asnas under the guidance of Yogis and did that for many years. The bliss and peace, which I enjoy now, was never obtained earlier.
C. Analysis of the Assumptions
Oberoi considered many Sikh notions and ideas to be hardly different from those of Hindus. Actually, the Hindu & the Sikh notions on various aspects of life are quite different. Gurbani references can be quoted to prove that not only they are different, but in some cases they are also opposed to each other, leaving no ground for Oberoi’s thesis.
1. Time and Space:
(a) Hindus believe in the cycle of four yugas. Satyug is the period of truthfulness and highest morality. The light of truth decreased through the Treta and Dwapar Yugas. The Kalyug is the period of dominance of evil over good. Gurmat denies both these concepts, the division of time in yugas and the decrease of morality in time. It says that Time is continuous, its beginning or end is not known to any religious leader or prophet. The system of grouping time in yugas is arbitrary in the same way as the invention of the 7-day week and the naming of the days. There is no sanctity about this dicision of time. To quote Guru Nanak:
‘What the hour and occasion,
What the date and day,
What the season and month
When the creation began?
Had Brahmins found the answer,
In their scriptures would they have recorded it;
Nor have the Kazis known from Koranic record.
The yogi knows not the date and day, season or month;
The creator who made the universe,
alone knows the answer1 .”
(b) Hindus believe some days and activities to be holy and auspicious for worship; others are considered unholy and inauspicious i.e. for purchasing new things, visiting relatives, engagements or marriage ceremonies, etc. For them the full moon, the new moon, the beginning of a solar month, etc., are, important and significant in relation to religious or temporal activities. Sikhism rejects such notions as superstition. Says the Guru:
“Observing dates and days from duality arises.
Without the holy Preceptor’s guidance all is pitch dark.
Worship of dates and days is the way of deluded ignorant
persons . 2 “
“All months, days and moments to such are auspicious,
As the Lord’s grace have obtained. 3 “
(c) According to Hindu belief the universe consists of three divisions: Dharti (Earth), Patal (Nether region) and Akash (Upper region). Gurmat tells us that there are innumerable levels or regions and suns. To quote Guru Nanak:
“Of the nether worlds and heavens has He created millions.
Men have given up the count in despair.
His Infinity no one may measure or state,
Men’s lives are spent in the effort,
Saith Nanak. Know that He is supreme, all-knowing4 .”
(a) Hindus believe in the holiness of certain places, rivers animals and species of trees. Gurmat says that the only thing holy or sacred is Naam, the Lord’s Name or the people who love it.
Where the holy place their feet,
that is equivalent to the sixty-eight pilgrim-spots.
Where the Name is uttered, is Paradise5 .”
(b) Hindus believe in the holiness of idols and their worship. According to Gurbani it is God’s Name, the Word (Gian) which is holy, and not any idol. Worship of idols is strictly prohibited in Sikhism:
“Those that call a stone their God,
Wasted is their devotion.
Those that fall at the feet of stone-idols, Wasted is their endeavour6 .”
3. Purity and Pollution
(a) Hindus believe in the sacredness and importance of ritualism. Pollution can be removed by washing with the Ganga-jal, water from the river Ganges. For example, Mr. Jagjivan Ram, a low-caste but a distinguised person and Number Two in the Ministry of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, unveiled the statue, of a high-caste Hindu. The upper-caste Hindus protested that the touch of a low-caste Jagjivan Ram had polluted the statue. To remove its pollution it was washed with Ganga-jal ceremoniously. The Gurus reject the whole concept of pollution and purity.
“Should man observe purifying rituals day and night,
His impurity of mind would still not be shed 7 .”
In Gurmat, considering anybody a low-caste, is itself polluted
thinking, since God resides in every heart:
“Break no heart - know, each being is a priceless jewel. Each heart is a jewel; evil it is to break any;
Shouldst thou seek to find the Beloved, break no one’s hearts. 8 “
One wonders how any writer can ignore all this and state that Hindus and Sikhs have no different philosophy regarding purity and pollution.
(b) Hindus consider Brahmins to be the holiest persons, and the Sudras to be polluted, Guru Nanak strongly protested against this and founded the institutions of Sangat and Pangat, to remove this wrong Hindu thought from the minds of people. Guru Nanak refers to this as follows:
“In man’s mind foul thinking is the drummer woman,
Hard-heartedness the she-butcher,
slandering of others the scavenger-woman,
By the low-caste wrath is he deluded;
What good is the line of ritual purity in the kitchen,
With these untouchables sitting by his side9 ?”
4. Territory and’Language
According to Oberoi, if the people share the same language and territory, they have the same faith. Because the Hindus and the Sikhs shared the same territory and language in the Punjab, he wants us to believe that “they were not different.” But why does the author exclude Muslims who were also there, shared the same language and the same territory? Even today Muslims are living in the Punjab (Malerkotla) and speaking the same language and sharing the same land. Are they, too, no different from Hindus?
5. Dietary Taboos
This is another unique thesis presented by Oberoi. He says that if dietary taboos are the same, people have the same faith. In other words, if people have different food habits, they belong to different faiths. It is obviously difficult to accept this argument. It is common knowledge that Christians in Africa and India, have food habits and taboos, completely different from those of Christians in Europe.
In fact, Guru Nanak totally rejected the food philosophy and
taboos of Hindus:
(a) To the vegetarian Hindus who consider themselves
superior for not eating meat, Guru Nanak says:
“Over the fetish of flesh dispute blind fools,
Of enlightenment and contemplation ignorant.
What is flesh, What vegetation?
What to sin leads10 ?”
(b) Eating beef is a taboo with Hindus. Guru Nanak, however,
prescribed a different taboo for his Sikhs saying:
“To grab what is another’s, is evil. “
As pig’s flesh to the Muslim and Cow’s flesh to the Hindu.11 “
(c) Fasting is an important ritual for Hindu women, and is
supposed to have great religious value. Among Sikhs, however, it has no significance:
‘Those discarding food, practise hypocrisy.
Such are neither like married women, nor widows. By the discarding of food,
no one attains union with the Lord12 .”
Public festivals are celebrated by a community in a locality. They are not always tied to a religion. In some cases a festival and a religious day fall on the same day, creating a misunderstanding to an outside observer, that people celebrating a particular festival, belong to the same faith.
The Bani in the Guru Granth Sahib repeatedly reminds us that rituals have no value. It is the moral deeds of a person which God accepts. Below are a few examples of how Gurmat rejects Hindu rituals (considered to be Sikh rituals by Oberoi). Cremation of a dead body: For Hindus it is a religious ceremony during which certain rituals have to be performed, just before death, before cremation and after cremation. Gurmat tells us that all these rituals are futile, which neither benefit nor harm the soul.
“Should any apply sandalwood paste to a corpse,
What gain out of it shall he get?
Should the corpse in filth he thrown about,
What would it then lose13 ?”
And then there is the Hindu belief that the fruit of actions or rituals performed by a Brahmin, after the death of a person, reaches his soul. Guru Nanak’s comment on this is very revealing:
“Should a burglar rob some house,
and out of his booty offer charity in his manes’ name;
In the hereafter shall the offering be recognised?
And the manes be branded as thieves;
And judgement shall be that mediator’s hands
be chopped off.
Saith Nanak; In the hereafter is received reward for
what man from his own earning offers14 .”
Marriages among Sikhs can be performed on any convenient day, whereas among Hindus an auspicious date and time have to be worked out by a Brahmin.
In conclusion we can say that rites-de-passage of Sikhs are different from those of Hindus. Even if outwardly they might appear to be similar, the Sikh philosophy is independent of Hindu thought.
8. Key Theological Doctrines
Oberoi has not mentioned even a single key concept which is common.
(a) Concept of God: Hindus believe in Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh) and other gods including Dharam Raj, Indra, Sun, Moon, etc. They also believe in many Avtars (God incarnates in human form), and address them as Bhagwan(God), e.g., Bhagwan Ram, Bhagwan Krishna, etc., Gurmat rejects this entire philosophy lock, stock and barrel. The Guru says:
“Burnt be the mouth that asserts, the Lord takes birth.
He is neither born nor dies; neither enters birth nor departs. All pervasive is Nanak’s Lord15 .”
Not the three gods mentioned above (as believed by Hindus),
but God Himself is the Creator, the Operator, and the Destroyer of the universe:
“His self He created, and manifested His Name.
Then the second object, expanse of the universe He made;
Settled on His cushion, in joy He beheld it.
Thou solely the Bestower and Creator;
in Thy pleasure dost grant boons and show grace.
All to Thee is known; by Thy command dost confer life
and take it back;
Seated on Thy cushion, creation dost Thou behold in joy16 .”
The Guru says that neither Dharam Raj nor any other gods have any authority, power or competence. The poor fellows just consider themselves lucky, if they got a chance to stand outside His door to sing the virtues of the Lord. It means that they are of no significance. There are innumerable Brahmas, Krishnas, etc., created by God.
(b) Hindus believe that after death, our souls will be judged in the court of Dharam Raj, and sent into heaven or hell. Gurbani denies the existence of any Dharam Raj, or any place designated as heaven or hell. Gurmat says that when one remembers God, he is in heaven. And if he forgets God, he is in hell.17
(c) Caste System: Hindu caste system is the steel net of Brahminism to keep all people, rich and poor, under the control of Brahmins. To deliver people from this bondage Gurmat broke this frame and destroyed all its dividing walls created by Brahmanism, into caste groups. Guru Granth says:
Of me father are we all children;
Thou my Preceptor18 .”
“If thou dost claim to be a Brahmin by thy birth
from a Brahmin woman,
Wpy was thy birth not from a different source19 ?”
“Thou ignorant fool, entertain not the pride of caste;
By such pride manifold evils arise20 .”
(d) Brahminism is not willing to accept women as human beings equal to men nor are they fit to perform any religious rites. A son who may have to be adopted, and not a real daughter, can perform the prescribed rituals after death of her parents. This philosphy gives an inferior status to women. Guru Nanak decried this discrimination, and asked:”How can you denigrate a woman, who gives birth to kings?”
D. The Second Aspect
Oberoi has made a few wrong assumptions to build his thesis: “The pluralistic framework of Sikh faith in the nineteenth century allowed its adherents to belong to anyone of the following traditions: Udasi, Nirmala, Suthreshahi, Khalsa, Sangatshahi, Jitmali, Bakhatmali, Mihanshahi, Sahajdhari, Kuka, and Sarwaria. Many of these Sikhs shaved their heads freely smoked tobacco and hashish, and were not particular about maintaining the five external symbols of the faith……..There simply was no single source
of authority within the Sikh tradition and thus several competing defintions of what constituted a “Sikh” were possible. For this reason it is fundamentally futile to seek to define what was the essence of the Sikh faith in the nineteenth century. Sikh personhood and practice for much of the nineteenth century implied a series of changing relationships and subjective moods”.
“However, in the late nineteenth century a growing body of Sikhs took active part in a systematic campaign to redefine their faith and purge it of what they saw as Hindu accretions and a Brahmanical stranglehold over their ritual.”
In his childhood Guru Nanak Dev befriended a low caste poor Muslim whom he called Bhai (Brother) Mardana. Both travelled and lived together all their lives. Many Muslims loved Nanak as their Pir. The folk song “Nanak Shah Fakir; Hindu Ka Guru, Musalman Ka Pir” is there to describe his popularity with the Hindus and Muslims alike. Mian Mir, a Muslim, laid the foundation of the Golden Temple. Paindey Khan, a leader of the defending forces of the Guru, was a Muslim. At the time of Guru Amar Das, one of the preachers was Muslim-born Allah Yar Khan.
Many Muslims smoke and shave their heads. Many Hindus do the same. To conclude from this that Sikhs also shave their beards and smoke freely, is dearly illogical and perverse.
Gurmat says that “The Lord is no one’s property21 “. What Guru Nanak preached, was meant, not just for Sikhs who would accept him as their Guru, but for everyone, whether a Hindu, a Muslim, a Yogi, a Nath or a Sidh. In other words Gurmat is not the property of Sikhs alone, but, like modem science, it is for everyone who wishes to avail oneself of it. In case, some people, other than Sikhs, believe in the teachings of Guru Nanak, without leaving some of their old beliefs, and practise a mixture of rituals, neither the Sikhs have the right to force these people to give up their old rituals, nor have such persons themselves or any scholar the right to claim that they are the representatives of the Sikhs, and that whatever they practise, is approved by Gurmat.
If some Udasis or anyother group had some association with the Gurus, or even had relations with them, while continuing to follow non-Sikh rituals, it is wrong to list them among Sikhs of the Gurus. To be called a Sikh one has to follow Sikh practices, as described by the Gurus and also give up non-Sikh rituals. The Sikhs have their own Scripture and way of life, which cannot be confused with those of Hindus.
To explain the above a parallel example can be given from the West. We know some Christians do not eat meat (many more of them are giving it up). From this, one cannot conclude that Christians are vegetarian by faith. Similarly, from persons who
keep long hair (Many Hindu Yogis do even today), worship idols,
it is wrong to conclude that Sikhs believe in idolatry. Nor can existence of aberrations like adultery and use of drugs among
Christians mean that the Bible, The Guide for a Christian, approves of them or the faults are a Christian practice.
Because of his wrong assumptions, Oberoi makes factual mistakes as well. For example, he writes:
“In 1915 Arur Singh, a manager of the Golden Temple, in a highly controversial move, ordered the removal of all Hindu idols that
had been lodged in the precincts of the holy shrine for several
It may be stated that this decision was taken by Mr. King, the
then Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, and not by Arur Singh.
The latter did only what the British Government wanted him to do.
(Arur Singh, even blessed General Dyer for his “bravery” for the
mass murder of people in Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919). Actually it was the Sikhs who convinced Mr. King by quoting the authority
of hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib, that idol worship was against
Sikhism. After full satisfaction on this point, Mr. King ordered the removal of idols from the premises of the Golden Temple.
By describing the order as “controversial” the author takes the
stand that idol worship is approved by Gurmat, and that the
objection to the removal of idols was justified. This shows complete
ignorance of the author regarding Sikhism and Gurbani. Such
value judgements by the author without citing the authority or
knowledge of Guru Granth Sahib, is just preposterous.
To leave no doubt about his unjustified thesis that Sikhs had gone astray from the “original” Sikh faith, he states:
“However, in the late nineteenth century, a growing body of Sikhs
took active part in a systematic campaign to redefine their faith and
purge it of what they saw as Hindu accretions and a Brahmanical stranglehold over their rituals.”
Such ignorance of the Guru Granth can be displayed only at
a platform where the listeners are as ignorant of the doctrines in the Granth Sahib, as the author himself.
It is agreed that the Sikh faith has been defined to make it
independent of Hindu rituals and their philosophy; but Oberoi
holds wrong people responsible for it. It was Guru Nanak, and not Bhai Kahan Singh or the “growing body of Sikhs”, who defined it. Further it is defined in the Guru Granth and the lives of the Gurus.
The Guru refused to put on a Janju or to accept Hindu mythology
and philosophy. He loved everyone equally including Muslims
and the so-called low castes and untouchables detested by the Brahminical order. Further, the Gurus did not accept Brahma,
Vishnu and Mahesh, the three highest gods of Hindus, the
existence of Hindu Amrit, besides numerous other Hindu doctrines and practices.
The whole discussion boils down to the fact that Oberoi’s
thesis has no basis. He appears to be completely innocent of the
knowledge and existence of Gurbani, which clearly and
emphatically rejects the Hindu philosophy, the rituals and their
religious values. After accepting Gurbani as the base of Sikh faith,
one has no choice, but to agree that the Gurus founded a faith
independent of the then existing faiths. And Bhai Kahan Singh did
nothing more than invoking its authority.
“It is my thesis that the absence of any malice between Sikhs and Hindus was the result of an elaborate cultural code in which members of the two traditions adhered to the same rules or social organisation and rites de passage.”
The statement reveals another meaningless assertion of the
author. For, it assumes that followers of different cultures must
have malice, and that people having the same culture and rites de passage must have no malice. We find both these assumptions to be wrong all over the world. During the Sikh rule the Sikhs
displayed no malice even against Muslims, some of whom had persecuted them. During their struggle with the Muslims, the
behaviour of the Sikhs with their adversaries was exemplary.
Oberoi’s thesis falls when tested to evaluate the Muslim and Sikh relations. Sikhs did not ill-treat Muslims or nursed ill-will or malice against Muslim residents of Punjab, even when they were being hounded and murdered by Muslim rulers. Here is what a Muslim writes about Sikhs of the 18th century:
“In no case would they slay a coward...nor plunder the wealth or ornaments of a woman... no adultery…..no thief at all nor is there any house-breaker born among them.”
Concluding Remarks :
The following may help reveal the facts in true perspective:
The faith, later called Sikhism, was founded by Guru Nanak, and
the people were educated for two centuries how to live according
to that faith and obtain peace in their life. The core of the direction consists of:
-God is the Creator of all mankind, therefore we are equal.
-To love God we should love people (His children).
-Worship of idols or graves and practice of other hollow rituals have no value.
-Dividing human beings into low or high castes is a sin.
-Considering any religion, community or sect as superior or inferior is against the law of God.
-There is no place like heaven or hell, and there is no person like Dharam Raj to judge our actions. God Himself decides everything in the universe.
The complete rejection of Brahminism and their philsophy by the Gurus themselves (not started by Bhai Kahn Singh, as mistakenly assumed by the author) made people revolt against the hegemony of the Brahmins. Gurus used very strong words to expose these religious and political blood-suckers of society:
“The Muslim judge utters falsehood and eats filth;
The Brahmin guilty of slaughter of humanity,
makes show of pious bathing;
The yogi, blind of insight, knows not the true praxis. The devices of all three ruin mankind22 .”
“Rulers are turned beasts of prey, their officers,hounds;
None do they allow in peace to rest.
The subordinates wound the people with their claws:
You dogs, lick on the blood and marrow of the poor.
Know... All such wilI be disgraced and branded as false23 .”
After the annexation of Punjab, Mahants who were patronised by the Britishers started following the directions of the Brahmins, and introduced many anti-Sikh practices in the Gurdwaras to increase their income and visitors or pilgrims of those Hindu converts to Sikhism who became Sikhs during Sikh Rule and again reverted to Hinduism after annexation of Punjab. Safe from protests of the Sikhs, these stooges of the Government gave up the practice and teachings of Sikh principles of service and sacrifice. They started living an immoral and anti-Sikh life. Women who went to the Gurdwaras, were often molested, cases of even
rape are on record. Because of Brahmincal influence, the Sikh
converts from the so-called low castes, were not respected as Sikh
pilgrims, but were treated as in Hindu temples untouchables and
insulted. They had nobody to fear, the British being at their back.
There was much more than that. This gave birth to the Gurdwara
movement. The stand of the British government was that Mahants
had the sole right over the properties of the Gurdwaras and the
practice of rituals there. The Sikhs had to struggle against this,
putting everything at stake, even their lives. They had to pay a
heavy price for this, and suffer hundreds of deaths, thousands of
permanent injuries, confiscation of their real estates and their
properties, loss of their pensions, medals, and payment of fines,
etc. It is this struggle, regarding which the author writes in a
derogatory tone, that” a growing body of Sikhs to redefine their
faith and purge it of what they saw as Hindu accretions.” The truth
is that the Sikhs had to make unparalleled sacrifices to re-establish
Sikh practices in the Gurdwaras, and stop wrong practices
introduced by the greedy, licentious and vicious Mahants.
Oberoi’s paper is a classic case of how ignorance of the
Scripture of the Sikhs and three hundred years of the history of their struggle, sacrifices and martyrdoms, makes for poor study,
and no amount of verbose assertions can be a substitute of patient
and serious academic work. It reminds us of the story of Plato’s
men in the cave. Religions are not defined or redefined by class
room lectures or sheltered writers. Could there be thousands of
Christian martyers for centuries on end, without a Christ on the
Cross and the Christian gospels? And, could there be a resurgent
Christian Church and Society, without the sufferings and sacrifices
of the early Christions in the first centuries of the Christian era?
Sikhism has been defined by the spiritual experience of the Gurus recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib and their lives and martydoms
spread over two hundred years. It was this definition that enabled
the Sikhs to rise again despite the repeated orders of the Mughul
Administrations that no Sikh should remains alive in its domain
and the fixation of an ample reward for every Sikh killed. Religions are defined by the Spiritual experiences of the Prophets, and that
definition is brought home to a people by the blood of sufferings
and martydoms. Such definitions once made, can be invoked but not redefined or altered. We wonder if ignorance of Sikh Scripture or religious history, as in the case of Oberoi, can ever lead to any worthwhile academic understanding of it or its sociological developments.
1 Adl Granth : “Japu Ji”
2 Ibid: Page 843
3 Ibid : “Bara Maha”, Majh M-5; page 136
4 Ibid: “Japu Ji”
5 Ibid: Ramkali M-5; page 890
6 Ibid: Page 1160
7 Ibid: Page 265
8 Ibid: Page 1384
9 Ibid:Page 91
10 Ibid: Page 1289
11 Ibid: Page 141
12 Ibid: Page 873
13 Ibid: Page 1160
14 Ibid: Asa di Var; M -1; page 472
15 Ibid: Page 1136
16 Ibid: Asa di Var, M-I; page 463
17 Ibid: Page 749
18 Ibid: Page 611
19 Ibid: Page 324
20 Ibid: Page 1128
21 Ibid: Page 658
22 Ibid: Page 622
23 Ibid: Page 1288
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