Gurdwara – Concept and Practices
Gurdwara is a place of Sikh worship, symbol of Sikh religion, Sikh community life and a nursery of Sikh beliefs and Sikh faith. it is a pivot and visible symbol of basic fundamental Sikh doctrines, Sikh philosophy, Sikh ideology. Sikh value system and Sikh religious and societal ethos, Gurdwara, both in terms of its concept and visible manifest form, is the original as well as permanent, structure in which the sacred Sikh scripture Siri Guru Granth Sahib’s volume of text remains installed on a raised platform in its Sanctorum Sanctorum, where devout Sikhs congregate every morning and evening, listen to and participate in the recitation and choral singing of Sikh sacred verses (Gurbani), meditate, and listen to the choral singing of verses to the accompaniment of musical string and percussion instruments and listen to teachings of Sikh Gurus being preached from the Gurdwara pulpoit. Gurdwara, with its distinct Sikh architectural design with its four doors opening in four directions symbolic of its universal appeal, its saffron flag on a flagpost in front (called Nishan Sahib), its community kitchen (Langar) and night shelter (Sarai) is the foundational institution of Sikh religion. In Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha’s words, “Gurdwara is the educational centre for the learner, a guide/ path finder for the divine seeker, a clinic for the sick, a provider of victuals for the hungry, a protector of the female honour and a shelter for the pilgrim.” (Mahankosh) In short, Gurdwara fulfills all the basic human physical, psychological and spiritual needs of those who enter its holy precincts.
Since congregation (sangat) is an integral part of Gurdwara, congregational assembly of the devout exerts a salutary effect on each devout Sikh sitting in the Gurdwara. Sitting among the congregation, he forgets, for the time being, all his human and worldly fears, anxieties, tensions and sense of pride, and experiences a rare sense of peace and spiritual fulfillment. An indescribable mood of complete self-surrender and humility overtakes him. Gurdwara’s congregational ambience created through the recitation and choral singing of sacred verses (Kirtan) provides an ecstatic thrill to his heart, mind and soul. He is transported to a world of spiritual bliss. It is because of this commulative salutary impact, that congregational gathering sitting crossed legged on the floor infront of and in the presence of the eternal Guru (Guru Granth Sahib) is of utmost importance. It status has been considered even higher than that of the Guru: “Guru veeh Bisway, Sangat Ikee Bisway”, so runs the Sikh edict. At the Gurdwara management level also, the Gurdwara Administrators are kept under leash by cautioning them against pandering to any individualistic and arrogant proclivities. This moral pressure contributes to the efficient management of Gurdwara. Therefore, congregational assembly (Sangat) has been a great contributory factor in the evolution of the Gurdwara institution. Infact, the Gurdwara as an institution has evolved out of this original congregational entity (sangat) since the earliest period of Sikh religion. Wherever, Guru Nanak stayed during his long iteniraries/ travels (Udassis) and wherever the people thronged and assembled to listen to his gospel, a congregational entity called Sangat came into being and their congregational location came to be known as Dharamsal. That is why Dharamsal is the earliest model and prototype of Gurdwara institution. Bhai Lalo’s residence (Where Guru Nanak Stayed during his first travel at Emnabad (Now in Pakistan) is believed to be the first Dharamsal. During Guru Angad Dev’s pontification (Guruship), a bigger Dharamsal materialized at Khadoor Sahib (District Taran Tarn/ Amritsar). It progressed into a bigger and larger dioceses/ congregations called Manjis due to the increase in their numbers during Guru Arjan Dev’s Guruship. The fifth Guru appointed devout, talented disciples as the diocese incharges and named them Masands. Finally, with the construction of Sri Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar and installation of the earliest volume of the sacred Sikh scripture in its sanctum sanctorum by Guru Arjan Dev, this most important Sikh institution came to be known as Gurdwara during Guru Hargobind’s Guruship. Since then, Gurdwara has been the nucleus of all the Sikh religious concerns and practices.
If we endeavour to evaluate the concept and institution of Gurdwara since the earliest beginnings to its status in modern times in the life of Sikh community spread all over the globe, we find that barring a few Gurdwaras owned and controlled by individual Sikh (Saints/Sant Babas), odd Sikh sects and local Sikh trusts in states like Bihar and Maharashtra in India, majority of the mainstream Singh Sabha Gurdwaras are adhering to the original and basic Gurdwara concept and are following a uniform practice of daily prayer regimen and code of conduct (Rahit Maryada) prepared and finally approved by the representative body of eminent Sikh scholars under the seal of Sri Akal Takht Sahib in 1945. This uniform following of a standard practice in Gurdwaras all over the globe speaks volumes for the uniformity, comprehensiveness and permanence of Gurdwara’s conceptual and institutional strength and systemic structure. It is likely to endure in future as well.
As far as Gurdwara practices are concerned, these have undergone several changes with the passage of time and some serious distortions have also crept into their observance. It would be beneficial to analyse and evaluate some of these practices associated with Gurdwara such as Gurdwara preaching (Parchar) Gurdwara management (Prabandh), use of Gurudwara funds (Golak) and a few other institutional variations.
Gurdwara preaching (Parchar): The highest aim and the most important task of Gurdwara is the proper, effective preaching of the Sikh gospel and teachings of Gurbani and the Sikh Gurus. Gurdwara has been performing this duty since its institutional beginning and is still doing it. Preaching and propagation of Sikh gospel (Gurmat) exegesis has a long historical tradition in Sikh religion. Beginning with the Sikh Gurus themselves, it has been carried on by Bhai Gurdas, Baba Buddha ji, Bhai Mani Singh, Baba Deep Singh, Sikh saints of Nirmala sect and several amateur and professional Sikh preachers in the modern times. Although every Gurdwara is still performing this duty to some extent, these has been a noticeable downslide in its quality, content and standard which is incompatible with the temper of modern age. It is primarily due to the lack of preachers well-versed in Sikh theology, Sikh philosophy and Sikh history as well as the absence of recognized religious educational training institutions for imparting a holistic education consisting of the correct composite spiritual and ideological information about Sikhism. Another discrepancy which is peculiar to the modern age, is the apparently visible lack of rapport and coordination between the traditional Sikh preachers’ mode of preaching and modern sensibility of approximately half of the modern day targeted Sikh audience which belongs to the comparatively younger age group between eighteen to forty years. The sensibility of this age group of Sikh audience is educated, enlightened having a scientific rational temperament and it is comparatively ignorant of its rich spiritual and religious heritage. As a result, with the majority of Sikh preachers, including those of SGPC, being traditional, having an archaic, outdated mode of preaching, faith-based unsubstantiated sermonizing preaching style and vernacular medium, this significant section of modern society either does not sit in the congregation and listen to this discourse with patience and concentration, or fails to respond adequately to it. As a result, this traditional prachar fails to have any impact on their modern sensibility. This section of Sikh society prefers to be addressed and educated in their religious heritage in a modern hybrid Punjab-English lingo through the web based modes of communication and a dialogue and discussion style of religious discourse. This gap in communication needs to be plugged in order to integrate this vital section of Sikh society. It is as much a crisis of faith as a crisis of communication. The Gurdwara Sikh preachers need to be well-educated, well-versed in Sikh metaphysics, theology, philosophy, history and ideology, having a command over the expression and public eloquence, need to be multilingual and impressive speakers. It would be highly appropriate if suitable Sikh candidates with well-qualified, graduate and Post graduate and even doctoral degrees in religious studies from the departments of religious Sikh studies from the two major Universities of Punjab or any other SGPC training Institute are appointed as Sikh preachers in a cadre-based Gurdwara Service, at least in SGPC and similar trust-funded Gurdwaras. Sikh preaching needs to be incentivized with the raising of a career-oriented service of Sikh preachers. They need to be equipped with a package of well-documented standardized reading material about Sikh religion and its essential components of Sikh theology, philosophy, ideology and history, prepared by a panel of an established Sikh scholars or a primary Sikh organization like the SGPC. Periodic refresher courses must be made obligatory for a in service Sikh preachers. The Gurdwara managements must provide respectable emoluments, adequate accommodation and other perks and allowances to these well-qualified and well-trained preachers. The bulk of Gurdwara funds needs to be allocated and spent on impressive and effective Sikh preaching. Some of the meaningless practices such as construction of stereotyped, themeless Gurdwara buildings inlaid with marble and gold, excessive fancy, ostentatious, tourist-resorts like furnishings instead of need based-congregational halls and destruction the ancient heritage shrines need to be curbed. Gurdwara funds, thus saved, should be spent on strengthening and rejuvenating the Sikh preaching in order to save the younger Sikh generation from receding fast into apostasy and getting alienated from their Sikh heritage. The Sikh children and youth need to be inspired and motivated to adopt Sikh way life and Sikh identity through the conduct of motivational workshops where spiritual, moral and ethical values of Sikh religion through illustrations from the lives of Sikh Gurus and ancient and modern stalwarts are conveyed and communicated along with the updating of their general knowledge. Gurbani based personality development programmes and discourse need to be made an integral part of Sikh and Gurdwara preaching. Impressive Gurdwara preaching appealing to the modern Sikh sensibility is the bedrock on which a formidable enduring superstructure of Sikh religious society and way of life can be raised. It needs to be given a top priority and its implemention should be the main target of Gurdwara managements. We, the Sikhs, can learn a lot from the commitment and missionary zeal of the Hindu Rashtraya Swamyam Sewak Sangh (RSS) preachers and the Christian missionaries and the immense contribution of these religious cadres towards the propagation of their respective religions. To sum up, Gurdwara preaching (Parchar) at present is the weakest link in the propagation of Sikh religion which needs to strengthened on a priority basis.
Although Gurdwara management has a fairly long history, yet the system of Gurdwara management adopted during the second decade of the twentieth century is the biggest landmark in this respect. This model of Gurdwara management based on the democratic election of Sikh representatives and constitution of the supreme managing body called the SGPC after getting a legislative Act passed in this respect was adopted by the Sikhs in 1925. It was ushered in after making innumerable, unprecedented sacrifices during the historical Gurdwara Reforms Movement and after liberating the Sikh shrines from the hereditary corrupt, degenerated, deeply entrenched priests called the Mahants. Efforts had also been continuously made to streamline the Gurdwara Management from time to time by making several amendments in the original Gurdwara Reforms Act. These efforts succeeded to a large extent as all the important Sikh shrines located in the Joint Punjab State came under the control of the SGPC. It resulted in the observance of a uniform observance and practice of various Gurdwara practices. Magnificent buildings of Gurdwaras have been built, boarding and lodging facilities for the Sikh pilgrims have been provided on a massive scale and SGPC has contributed significantly to the Sikh educational, social and cultural institutions and activities. In short, there has been a tremendous increase and expansion in the various gurdwara practices. SGPC has emerged as the distinct and uniquely representative Sikh organizational institution euphemistically called the parliament of the Sikhs. Since a period of one hundred years is the reasonable and legitimate unit of time to assess and evaluate the performance of any institution, it is necessary to analyse and evaluate the performance and accomplishments of this century-old primier Sikh Institution. To begin with, let us first of all evaluate the basic governance model of the democratic electoral system of electing this representative Sikh body. This system of democratic governance of the State has been widely acknowledged as the best model of governance all over the world, out of the several systems of governance adopted and tried by the mankind so far, barring a few theocratic and totalitarian regimes in a few countries of West Asia, Russia and China. Nor has any other better system of governance than the democratic system has emerged so far. Majority of the European, American and carribian and Asian States are being governed democratically, with minor variations and a struggle for a similar model of governance is going on in the remaining states. But some distortions similar to those inbuilt in the political democratic system seem to have crept into management and governance of Sikh Gurudwaras. The environment in the 1920s when the Gurdwara Reforms Act came into existence were highly tense and surcharged due to the excesses and corruption of entrenched Mahants in the Sikh Gurdwaras. Considering the representative democratic governance to be the best available system of governance, the Sikhs could not distinguish between the political management and governance of a state and the management of religious shrines. They also failed to anticipate the possibility of inevitable entry of all the inbuilt ills and evils of a political, democratic system in the similar election system of management of a purely religious body like the SGPC. Contrary to this kind of lack of perception among the Sikhs, two non-Sikh representatives, one a Muslim and the other a British Christian in the then Punjab Legislative Assembly which passed the first Gurdwara Reforms Act in 1925, were more far-sighted and suspicious about the adoption of the political democratic model of management of Sikh shrines by the Sikhs and the enduring success of this model. They had expressed their observations and reservations there and then on the floor of the legislative assembly. For instance the concerned minister, Sir Fazal-i-Hussain, who had tabled this Gurdwara Reform Bill in the assembly, had observed that the Sikhs by getting this bill passed have committed such a blunder, the adverse consequence of which they would be bearing for such a long time that they (the Sikhs) could not imagine at that time. Similarly, Lord Malcolm Hailley the then Governor of Punjab and Chairman of Punjab legislative Assembly had remarked as if prophetically, “As the Sikhs implement and practice the provisions of this Act, they will experience the raps on their knuckles similar to those suffered by a moving camel around whose neck a heavy metal bell has been loosely hung.” If we look at these two remarks made by two non-Sikh farsighted personages in the light of the present state of affairs in the democratically elected Sikh superme body of the Sikhs SGPC, the glaring distortions and systemic defects in the present day management of Sikh Gurdwaras becomes easily evident. The striking illustrative simile of a heavy metal bell hurting and bleeding the knees of a moving Camel clearly brings out the highly irksome, repulsive malfunctioning of this supreme Sikh managing body. It is deeply hurting the collective Sikh psyche and their religious sensibility. Today, we find that all the evils existing in the modern Indian political elections have also crept into the Gurdwara elections which have vitiated the management of sacred Sikh shrines and institutions. Majority of the present day elected Sikh representatives of this religious body neither have the selfless commitment of their old veteran Sikh representatives nor have the guts to express their views independently and impressively.
SGPC, despite being an elected and representative body of the Sikh community, is completely under the control of the political party in power in Punjab at present which determines and monitors all its activities. It has been left with no independence and autonomy of its own. It is a fact that a successful representation in SGPC is considered a rehearsal and a launching pad for becoming eligible for an entry to the State legislative assembly. According to the Sikh doctrine of Miri-Piri (Temporal And Spiritual power), the former is mandated to seek guidance in governance from the latter, and the latter is mandated to check the former from going astray and indulge in any immoral, anti-Sikh activity, so that the mainstream of Sikh spiritual religious, social and cultural life continues to flow uncontaminated. But at present the Miri (those in possession of temporal power) has completely eclipsed the Piri (those representing spiritual, religious and moral power) and has thoroughly vitiated and contaminated the mainstream of Sikh religious, social and cultural life. Narrow, individualistic, arrogant, feudal brand of politics has completely taken the SGPC in its vicious grip. The Sikh community must take a serious note of this turning the valuable centuries old doctrine of Piri guiding Miri over its head. Serious concerted efforts need to be made to rid this primary Sikh institution from the vicious octopus like grip of this degenerated brand of present day politics. Selfless, self-sacrificing candidates like the veteran Baba Kharak Singh, committed to the welfare of the Sikh Panth, must be elected to the SGPC. So far as the system of democratic electoral system itself is concerned, it is still relevant and better than all other systems of management at present. It is not sensible to throw the baby with the bathwater. The urgent need is to plug the holes in the system and make Gurdwara elections free from corruption by creating awareness among the Sikhs voters and the participating candidates by making them conscious of their moral responsibility. A public moral pressure needs to be built on those involved in Gurdwara elections. A strong public opinion against corrupt practices and its exercise alone can cleanse this otherwise sound system of Gurdwara Management. Educated, enlightened, concerned Sikh intellectuals, scholars, preachers and devout Sikh opinion makers can built such a strong public opinion in this regard. They must not shirk this responsibility. Incidentally, even those controlling the present Gurdwara Management through remote control seem to have themselves lost faith in it, since they have recently appointed a superannuated corporate banker to a top slot in the SGPC at a whopping monthly salary to be paid from the Gurdwara funds (Golak). With this appointment, they have created a paralle power centre in the Gurdwara Management and completely eroded the whatever little-left credibility of the elected representatives and this supreme Sikh institution. As a result, the Gurdwara management at present is neither fully democratic nor fully corporate. Entire Sikh Panth must rise to the occasion and restore the carefully adopted democratic system of Gurdwara Governance but with a qualitative tag rather than a quantitative herd led by a short sighted shephered.
Gurdwara Funds (Gurdwara Golak)
Gurdwara funds, being the wealth under trust, needs proper utilization in tandem with the social needs of the Sikh Community. Guru’s golak has always been used judiciously for the contemporary emerging needs of the community since Gurus’ times. Like some other religious communities, the Sikhs too have been changing their priorities to meet the emerging challenges. A section of Sikh scholars, enlightened intellectuals and some sensitive Sikhs settled in the West have pointed out some similarities between the Jews and the Sikhs because of their similar history of persecutions and sufferings. As is evident, the Jews exercise a significant control over the levers of modern world economy and international affairs at present. The single most factor responsible for the survival, progress of the jewish community and their command over global economy is their determined collective effort to educate and empower their younger generations. Quality education and job-oriented skilled manpower are the best tools to make a nation strong and powerful. Following the jewish model, the Sikhs must allocate a significant percentage of Gurdwara funds towards the proper education of deserving and needy Sikh children. An enormous amount of money is offered at Sikh Gurdwaras daily by the devout Sikhs. This money must be utilized to meet the urgent social needs of Sikh society. Every Sikh Gurdwara, according to its size and volume of offerings, must spend at least ten percent of its golak funds to provide for the education of needy Sikh children. It would be still better if a common Sikh Education Fund (SEF) like the Jewish Education Fund (JEF) is created for this purpose. Till then, every Gurdwara, as per its financial assets, must allocate some share of its funds for this purpose. Sikh community, with its inbuilt generous and philanthropic disposition despite being a minority, can make its presence felt among the comity of nations by educating and empowering its youth with modern skills. The Sikh credo Rag Karega Khalsa (the Khalsa shall rule) recited at the end of the daily Sikh prayer can only be realized by making every Sikh child educated and skilled. The institution of Gurdwara can contribute significantly to this cause. All Gurdwara Managements must fix their priorities and make imparting of educatin a part of their welfare priorities. The SGPC is making a valuable contribution to this cause and is running a number of educational institutions including engineering and medical colleges. It is a praiseworthy task. Still more needs to done and the existing SGPC institutions must strive for the accreditation of their institutions to make them institutes of excellence. Both of these endeavours must be given a topmost priority.
Derawad & Caste Based Gurdwaras
No other agency or organization under the garb of Sikhism is doing so much harm to the Gurdwara concept and Gurdwara practices, as many of these privately controlled deras (monasteries) under Sikh names and some caste-based Gurdwaras are causing today in Punjab and other neighbouring states of India. One survey puts the number of Deras in Punjab equal to the total number of villages in the State. These deras are violating the fundamental Sikh doctrines of Sikhism in their sermonizing discourses as well as practices. Barring a few, many of their practices are oriented to promote a personality cult about their presiding Babas and their semi-Brahminical directives and instructions. All the movable and immoveable assets and properties of these Deras running into crores made out of the humble offerings of devout Sikh followers belong to private ownership of these Dera-Heads and passed on to their families’ ‘Legal heirs’. Although some of these Deras have also launched some public welfare schools and hospitals as well, but their fees and charges are not lower than those of private educational and medical institutions. The poor deserving, needy students are hardly given any concession in these schools. These institutions are completely profit-oriented. Similarly, their daily discourses, parvachans are laced with vedic, puranic fables and legends which cloud and eclipse the intrinsic gurbani message around which their discourse is built. Their kirtan singing is primarily composed of self-composed vernacular doggerels and they sing these verses in folk song lingo with an odd line of Gurbani thrown in here and there. Some of these Babas instruct their credulous and gullible followers to repeat a particular Gurbani verse for a fixed number of times for solving a particular problem which, very often, is economic, physical or psychic which needs a rational, medical or psychiatric solution or treatment rather than a sham placebo dosage. To sum up, the rising trend towards proliferating Derawad which thrives on promotion of personality cult, the apotheosization of mythology, gods and goddesses, and saints of splinter Sikh sects is a gross violation of the Sikh edict: Pooja Akal ki, Parcha Shabad ka, Deedar Khalse ka. (worship of the timeless Divine, consultation/ engagement with the Shabad and company of the Khalsa). The burgeoning Derawad is leading to immuerable schisms and divisions in the Sikh Panth. The Political patronage of some of these Deras due to present day vote bank politics is further strengthening these Dearas and dividing the Sikh society into sectarian segments. The Sikhs and SGPC must make concerted efforts to check this menance. Similarly, the Gurdwaras in the name of castes are diluting the basic tenets of Sikh religion and its universal appeal for the welfare of whole mankind irrespective of people’s caste, creed and ethnic roots. This distortion in the institutional concept of Gurdwara has been born out of a lack of adequate representation to these communities in mainstream Gurdwara managements. Separate Gurdwaras built and run by the backward (Dalit) sections of Sikh society like the Ravidas Bhawans, Ramgharia Bhawans and Lubana Bhawans etc are symptomatic of this schism in the Sikh society. Day is not too far, when there will be Sahjdhari Gurdwaras as well. These caste and community based Gurdwaras reflect divisive tendencies (Bipran ki Reet) among the Sikhs and are denting the basic concept and universal message and image of the Gurdwara institution and narrowing down its global humanistic appeal. Unnecessary, carnival like Sikh processions organized with vested political motives, frequent celebrations of centenary and half-centennial anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus and Sikh martyrs motivated by publicity for the ruling political elite at a huge cost to the Gurdwara Golak – are neither productive from any religious perspective nor serve any other meaningful purpose. The Sikh community must set it house in order. It must revise and reset its priorities and shed the flab. The sooner it is done, the better.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2015, All