The Caste System and the Sikhs in the
Period of Ideological Ascendancy
The more lasting, hence more important, achievement of the Sikh movement was that it broke away completely not only from the caste, as such, but also from the caste system and the caste society. In this chapter we would discuss this problem in detail.
1. The Caste Ideology
The Sikh Gurus directly condemned caste and caste ideology. Guru Nanak called caste ideology as perverse. "According to the Hindus, foul is the ablution of the Chandal, and vain are his religious ceremonies and decorations. False is the wisdom of the perverse; their acts produce strife." "The Vedas have given currency to the myths that make men reflect upon (human values of) good and evil; ...such are the illusions created in man." Further, he aligned himself with the lowliest of the low castes. "There are lower castes among the low castes and some absolutely low. Nanak seeketh their company. What hath he to do with the high ones ?" The fundamental hypothesis of the caste is that "Men were not-as for classical confucianism-in principle equal, but for ever unequal." They were so by birth, and were as unlike as man and animal." The Guru declared: "Call everyone exalted; let no one appear to thee low;" "O whom shall we call good or evil, when all creatures belong to Thee."
Moreover, the Sikh Gurus, attacked the pillars, referred to earlier, on which the caste ideology rested.
(i) Caste-Status: The motivative power behind the caste system was the upholding of the caste-status of the Brahmin and other high castes. The Guru preached: "O unwise, be not proud of thy caste. For, a myriad error flow out of this pride."
Bhai Gurdas writes that Guru Nanak "made the Dharma perfect by blending the four castes into one. To treat the king and the pauper on equal footing, and while greeting to touch the feet of the other (i.e. regard oneself humble as compared to others) was made the rule of conduct." Thus Guru Nanak did away with not only caste-status consciousness but also with the status-consciousness gap between the rich and the poor. For, far from observing pollution and untouchability, everyone actually touched the feet of everyone else while greeting him. Again, "The four castes were made into one, and castes (Varn) and out-castes (Avarn) regarded as noble. The twelve sects were obliterated and the noble glorious Panth (created)." Here the abolition of caste and sects is linked with the creation of the Sikh Panth. In order to emphasize its significance, Bhai Gurdas repeatedly mentions this achievement. The language used by him (its grammatical construction) makes it clear that he was not repeating a precept enunciated by the Guru in his hymns, but a precept actually practised in the Sikh Panth.
Writing about Guru Gobind Singh, Dr. Narang says: 'Of the five who offered their heads, one was a Khatri, all the rest being so-called Sudras. But the Guru called them Panj Pyaras, or the Beloved Five, and baptised them after the manner he had introduced for initiation into his brotherhood. He enjoined the same duties upon them, gave them the same privileges, and as a token of newly acquired brotherhood all of them dined together.
"The Guru's views of democratic equality were much more advanced than the mere equality among his followers could satisfy. In his system, there was no place even for the privileges of the chief or the leader."
(ii) Scriptural Sanction: By repudiating the Brahmanical scriptures, Sikhism and the Sikh Panth cut itself away from this perennial source and sanction of caste ideology. "The drum of the Vedas loudly resoundeth for many a faction. Remember God's Name, Nanak; there is none but Him." "Since I have embraced Thy feet I have paid regard to none besides. The Purans of Ram (the God of the Hindus) and Quran of Rahim (the God of the Musalmans) express various opinions, but I
accept none of them. The Smritis, the Shastras, and the Vedas all expound many different doctrines, but I accept none of them."
Since Guru Arjan established Guru Granth as the Sikh scripture, the Sikhs have never owned any other.
(iii) Hindu Dharma: The concept of Hindu Dharma covered a wide range of beliefs. On the one hand it was linked to Hindu theology, religious beliefs and usages, and on the other hand, to the caste ideology-the Varna Ashrama Dharma. In fact, it became, in practice, the chief vehicle for providing religious sanction to the caste ideology and the caste system. The Sikh Gurus condemned the caste end of this Dharma. Their break from the other end of Hindu Dharma, i.e. Hinduism, is equally clear. It has not been possible to define precisely what Hinduism is. Crooke sums up : "Hinduism thus provides a characteristic example of the primitive unorganized polytheism, and example probably unique among the races of the modern world.
"This is due to the fact that all such action (attempt at organisation) is essentially opposed to its spirit and tradition.........
"The links that bind together this chaotic mass of rituals and dogmas are, first, the great acceptance of the Veda, representing under this term the ancient writings and traditions of the people, as the final rule of belief and conduct; secondly, the recognition of the santity of the Brahmin Levite caste as the custodians of this knowledge and the only competent performers of sacrifice and other ritual observances, though the respect paid to them varies in different parts of the country; thirdly, the veneration for sacred places; fourthly, the adoption of Sanskrit as the one sacred language; fifthly, general veneration for the cow."
The Sikh Gurus repudiated the authority of the orthodox scriptures and tradition, ridiculed the sanctity of the Brahmin Levite class, condemned the veneration for sacred places, and deliberately used the vernacular for the expression of their ideology. Although the Sikh society has continued to abstain from eating beef, Sikhism has not shared that religious veneration that Hinduism has for the cow. Panchagaya (mixture of cow's excretions), for example, is sufficient to obtain the remission of any sin whatever, even when the sin has been committed deliberately." But Guru Nanak says, "……The cow-dung will not save thee." When the Hindu hill Rajas offered, through their purohit to take a vow by their sacred cow as a token of their guarantee for abiding by their undertaking, Guru Gobind Singh is reported to have replied. "Leave aside this cow, it is only a dumb animal." Again, when the Sikhs under Banda Bahadur were beseiged in the village of Gurdas Nangal, and were reduced to extreme conditions: "The Sikhs were not strict observers of caste, they slaughtered oxen and animals and, not having any firewood, ate flesh raw." These warriors are remembered as heroes of Sikh history, whereas partaking of beef, under whatever circumstances, would have reduced a Hindu permanently to the status of an untouchable.
Thus, the Sikhs without doubt cut off all those links, which according to Crooke, bind one to Hinduism. Besides, this, the Sikh Gurus completely rejected the sectarian Hindu gods and goddesses, Avtaras, ritualism and ceremonialism, idol and temple worship, pilgrimage and fasts, Sanskrit scholasticism, etc. If all these concepts and institutions were substracted from Hinduism, no essential residue is left which Hinduism can call all its own.
The main plank of Sikhism is uncompromising monotheism and the methodology of Name as the sole meais of achieving His Grace and God realization. Excepting these two fundamentals, Sikhism is not wedded to any particular dogma or philosophy. All other beliefs and practices attributable to Sikhism are only subsidiary or contributory. The belief in one universal God is shared by the mystics the world over. There is nothing peculiarly sectarian (i.e. Hindu or Muslim) about it. If anything, this concept of one universal God, and the passionate devotion towards Him as a means of mystic realization, came to be emphasized much earlier in Christianity and Islam than in India. And the emotional heights that this devotional approach reached among the Muslim saints is hardly to be matched elsewhere. Therefore, Sikhism, in these respects atleast, can be said to be nearer Christianity and Islam than Hinduism.
The point we want to make clear is that by cutting itself away from Hinduism, Sikhism delinked itself from that aspect of Hindu Dharma also which was, in day to day action, the main vehicle for providing religious sanction to the Varna Ashrama Dharma. "In contrast to the orthodox sects, the heresy of the theophratries consists in the fact that they tear the individual away from his ritualistic duties, hence from the duties of the caste of his birth, and thus ignore or destroy his dharma…… Dharma, that is ritualistic duty, is the central criterion of Hinduism." Rather, the Sikh Gurus issued their own new version of Dharma, which was, atleast as far as caste was concerned, the antithesis of the Hindu Dharma. Guru Nanak "made the Dharma perfect by blending the four castes into one, whereas, in Hinduism, severence from the duties of the caste into which an individual was born led to the abrogation of his Dharma.
(iv) Pollution: The last important element of caste ideology we need take note of is the theory of pollution. The notions of pollution, of which restrictions on commensalism were a part, were the most wide-spread expression of social exclusiveness inherent in the caste system. It is indisputable fact that the taboo on food and drink was its most widely practised feature, which invited severe penalties. Of the offences of which a caste Panchayat took cognizance, the 'Offences against the commensal taboos, which prevent members of the caste from eating, drinking, or smoking with members of another caste, or atleast of other castes regarded by the prohibiting caste as lower in social status than themselves, are undoubtedly the most important; for the transgression by one member of the caste if unknown and unpunished may affect the whole caste with pollution through his commensality with the rest.' 'If the member of a low caste merely looks at the meal of a Brahmin, it ritually defiles the Brahmin, and 'a stranger's shadow, or even the glance of a man of low caste, falling on the cooking pot may necessitate throwing away the contents.' There are Indian proverbs that 'three Kanaujias require no less than thirteen hearths', and that 'Bisnoi mounted on a camel followed by a score more will immediately throwaway his food if a man of another caste happens to touch the last animal. These proverbs may partly be exaggerations, but these do illustrate the extent to which the taboos on food had taken hold of the Indian life.
All the transgressions of the taboos on food and drink were always punished, because, as noted above, not to punish these affected the whole caste with pollution. In some cases the consequences were quite serious and permanent. 'A separate lower caste (the Kallars) has arisen in Bengal among people who had infracted the ritual and dietary laws during the famine of 1866, and in consequence been excommunicated.'
Underlying the taboos on foods and drinks was the general notion of pollution which was very wide in its sphere of application. Because, it was supposed to be incurred not only by partaking of food and drinks under certain conditions, but by the mere bodily contact with persons of 'certain low castes, whose traditional occupation, whether actually followed or not, or whose mode of life places them outside the pale of Hindu society.' Sweeper castes (from which Rangretas came) were one of these. "According to Barbosa, a Nayar woman touched by a Pulayan is outcaste for life and thinks only of leaving her home for fear of polluting her family. This is, of course, an extreme case. 'Castes lower than a Brahmin are generally speaking less easily defiled, but the principle is the same, and contact with castes or outcastes of this category used to entail early steps to remove the pollution.'
The Sikh Guru's stand on this issue is clear from their hymns given below:
If the ideas of impurity be admitted, there is impurity in everything.
There are worms in cow-dung and in wood;
There is no grain of corn without life.
In the first place, there is life in water by which everything is made green.
How shall we avoid impurity? It falleth on our kitchens.
Saith Nanak, impurity is not thus washed away; it is washed away by divine knowledge......
All impurity consisteth in superstition and attachment to worldly things… The eating and drinking which God sent as sustenance are pure.
"They eat he-goats killed with unspeakable words,
And allow no one to enter their cooking squares.
Having smeared a space they draw lines around it,
And sit within, false that they are,
Saying, 'Touch not ! O touch not I.
'Or this food of ours will be defiled.'
But their bodies are defiled; what they do is defiled;
Their hearts are false while they perform ablutions after their meals."
There was no place in Guru Angad's congregation for any of one who observed caste. Members belonging to castes were treated as equal. Only those who were not afraid of Vedic and caste injunctions came to his congregations; others did not. At the Langar (free Kitchen) all ate at the same platform and took the same food. Guru Amar Das went a step further. No one who had not partaken food at his Langar could see him. In his Langar there were no distinctions of caste. Lines of noble Gurbhais (disciples of the same Guru) partook food sitting together at the same place." Guru Gobind Singh himself drank Amrit, prepared at the baptism ceremony by the five Beloved ones, of whom four were Sudras. Koer Singh, a near contemporary of the Guru, records that the Guru 'has made the four castes into a single one, and made the Sudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahman take meals at the same place." All the members of the Khalsa Dal, who were drawn from all castes including the Rangretas dined together.
The second great pillar of the caste system was the Brahmin caste. The position of the Brahmins in this system is one of the fundamental institutions of Hinduism. It is one of the Brahmins who were the ideologues of the caste system, and the Dharma was the exclusive product of the Brahmins. 'Dharma, that is, ritualIstic duty, is the central criterion of Hinduism,' and the Brahmins were the grand-masters of the ceremonies. Even otherwise, the Brahmins were the kingpin of the caste system. The 'whole system turns on the prestige of the Brahmin.' The 'central position of the Brahmins in Hinduism rests primarily upon the fact that social rank is determined with reference to Brahmins.' The Brahmin reception or rejection of water and food is the measure of the status of any given caste in a given place.'
It has been noted that the Brahmins and Khatris, who did not want to forego their privileged caste status, remained aloof when the Khalsa, with complete equality of castes, was created. In the census of 1881, of the total number of Brahmins only about 7000 were Sikhs. The denial of superiority claimed by the higher castes, which distinguished the teaching of Guru Gobind Singh, was not acceptable to the Brahmins. For this reason the number of Sikh Brahmins was very low, even though the Brahmins were the third most numerous caste in the Punjab, outnumbering all but Jats and Rajputs. The proportion of Brahmins in the population 'steadily changes with the prevailing religion…… it gradually decreases from East to West, being markedly smaller in the central and Sikh districts.' These facts are very significant. 'The Brahmins have no territorial organisations. They accompany their clients in their migrations.' Therefore, the insignificant number of Brahmins in the Sikh population corroborates the well-known fact that the Sikhs have no priestly class, much less a hereditary Levite caste having vested interests in maintaining a hierarchical structure in the Sikh society.
By eliminating the influence of Brahmins in the Panth, the Sikh society eliminated the kingpin of the caste system from within its ranks. Max Weber has made a clear distinction between Hindu caste and non-Hindu castes. 'There are also castes among the Mohammadans of India, taken over from the Hindus. And castes are also found among the Buddhists. Even the Indian Christians have not quite been able to withhold themselves from practical recognition of the castes. These non-Hindu castes have lacked the tremendous emphasis that the Hindu doctrine of salvation placed upon the caste, as we shall see later, and they have lacked a further characteristic, namely, the determination of the social rank of the caste by the social distance from other Hindu castes, and therewith, ultimately, from the Brahmin. This is decisive for the connection between Hindu castes and the Brahmin; however intensely a Hindu caste may reject him as a priest, as a doctrinal and ritual authority, and in every other respect, the objective situation remains inescapable; in the last analysis, a rank position is determined by the nature of its positive or negative relation to the Brahmin.'
The elimination of the Brahmin Levite Caste, or for that matter of any other hereditary Levite class, from the Sikh ranks made a major contribution in eroding the caste system among them. Because, it is the Brahmins who, in addition to being the ideologues and the vital coordinating link, provided that purpose and direction which are so essential in the formation and holding together of any system.
3. Separate Society
Break from the caste ideology and getting rid of the Brahmin Levite caste were no doubt vital steps forward for undermining the caste system. But these were by themselves not enough. The greatest hurdle was the social framework of the caste system, i.e. the caste society. For, social exclusiveness, inequality and hierarchism were in-built in its very constitution and mechanism. The anti-caste movements could survive only if these divorced themselves from the caste society. Buddhism organized a monastic society outside the caste ranks, but it left its laity to remain in the caste fold. The result was that, when Brahmanism reasserted itself, the lay followers of Buddhism imperceptibly moved into their caste moorings, leaving the order of monks high and dry, in its isolation. Kabir was far more vocal than Baswa, but the Lingayats established a far more separate identity than the Kabir-panthies; because their deviations (e.g. widow-remarriage, burying the dead and admission of all castes) from the caste usages were very radical. Later, the Lingayats tried to tone down their own radicalism. But, inspite of this, they are, perhaps, more an appendage of the orthodox society than its integral part; because even the toned down Lingayatism is not wholly adjustable in the caste order. Chaitanaya, who was more radical with regard to caste restrictions than the Maharashtra Bhaktas, had both low caste Hindus and Mussalmans as his disciples. In the Kartabha sect, which branched out of the Chaitanya School, there is no distinction between Hindus, Mussalmans and Christians. A Mussalman has more than once risen to the rank of a teacher. The members of the sect eat together once or twice in a year. But, "The goal of Chaitanya was lost when his c4urch passed under the control of Brahman Goswamis." The main body of the followers of Chaitanyas reverted to the caste system; and even its Kartabha section, like the Lingayats, does not assert a distinct entity apart from the caste society. The creed of Kabir attained the stage of only a Mata (religious path), although of all the denouncers of caste injunctions he was the most vocal. The Kabir-panth remained a loose combination of those who were attracted by Kabir's religious appeal, by some other considerations (e.g. Julahas (weavers), who constituted a majority of the Kabir panthies, might have been attracted to Kabir because he was a Julaha).
These instances leave no doubt that anti-caste movements like those of Kabir and other Bhaktas, whose departure from the caste ideology had been confined only to the ideological plane, remained still-born in the field of social achievement. And, those like the Lingayats and the followers of Chaitanya, who, under the influence of a teacher, did adopt certain anticaste usages, but either they did not want to breakaway acompletely from the caste society or did not pursue their aim consistently enough, remained tagged to the caste order in one form or the other. The Buddhist monks alone could escape being swallowed by the caste society because they had made a complete break with the caste order both ideologically and organisationally.
Max Weber writes, 'Once established, the assimilative power of Hinduism is so great that it tends even to integrate social forms considered beyond its religious borders. The religious movements of expressly anti-Brahmanical and anti-caste character, that is contrary to one of the fundamentals of Hinduism, have been in all essentials returned to the caste order.
"The process is not hard to explain. When a principled anti-caste sect recruits former members of various Hindu castes and tears them from the context of their former ritualistic duties, the caste responds by excommunicating all the sect's proselytes. Unless the sect is able to abolish the caste system altogether, instead of simply tearing away some of its members, it becomes, from the standpoint of the caste system, a quasi-guest folk, a kind of confessional guest community in an ambiguous position in the prevailing Hindu Order.'
As pointed out by Max Weber, there were only two alternatives before the anti-caste movements: either to abolish the caste system or be engulfed by it. As the abolition of the caste system at one stroke could happen only through a miracle, the only practical way was to form a society outside the caste system and use it as a base for this system from outside. This lesson of Indian history is very important. The contaminative power of the caste system was so great that it did not spare Indian Muslims and Christians, whom the caste society would not readmit even if they wished it. Then, how could those anti-caste elements or movements escape, whom the caste society was prepared to assimilate and who did not resist assimilation? The Lingayats and the Chatanayites, with all their radical anti-caste innovations, remained as mere sects of Hinduism as mere appendages of the caste society. Of all the anti-caste movements of Indian origin, only the Buddhists and the Sikhs succeeded in establishing a separate identity from the caste society, and both did it by founding a separate church and a separate social organisation. In other words, the chances of success of any anti-caste movement were in direct proportion to the separate identity it established outside the caste society, not only at the ideological level but also at the organizational level. And the foremost prerequisite for this purpose was a clear perception of this aim, a determined will and a consistent effort to pursue it.
The process of founding a separate society (the Sikh Panth) started with Guru Nanak himself. He began his career as a teacher of men with the significant utterance, "There is no Hindu, no Mussalman." He was asked: "There is one path of the Hindus, and the other of that of Mussalmans, which path do you follow?" He replied, "I follow God's path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussalman." Guru Nanak's reply clearly
indicates his complete break with his Hindu past. Further, Guru Nanak took clear organisational steps in shaping a Sikh society on separate ideological lines. He established Dharmsalas in far-flung places inside the country and outside it. These Dharmsalas became the centres where his followers could meet together, practise the Dharma of his concept, and spread his message to others. In addition, he appointed select persons (Manjis) for the purpose of furthering his mission. In his life-time, his followers came to be known as Nanak-panthies, and they had their own separate way of saluting each other (Sat Kartar). The greatest single organisational step that Guru Nanak took was to select, by a system of tests, a worthy successor whom he instructed to lead and continue his mission.
Guru Nanak's successors consistently worked to establish the separate identity of the Sikh Church and the Sikh Panth. They consolidated and extended the institutions of Dharmsala (religious centres), Sangat (congregation of Sikhs), Langar (common kitchen) and Manjis (seats of preaching) all started by Guru Nanak. In addition, Guru Angad invented the Gurmukhi script and Guru Arjan compiled the Sikh scripture. With a distinct organization, separate religious centres, a separate script and a scripture of their own, the Sikhs become an entirely separate church and a new society-the Sikh Panth. The main theme of the Vars of Bhai Gurdas, a contemporary of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, emphasizes the distinct character of Sikh religion, culture and society as contrasted to other religions and sects. He links, as already seen, the creation of the Panth with the abolition of castes and sects. Mohsin Fani, another contemporary of Guru Hargobind, also testifies that the "Sikhs do not read the Mantras (i.e. Vedic or other scriptural hymns) of the Hindu, they do not venerate their temples or idols, nor do they esteem their Avtars. They have no regard for the Sanskrit language which, according to the Hindus, is the speech of the angels."
There were Muslim converts to the Sikh faith but their number was very limited. If nothing else, the fear of death penalty for apostasy prescribed by the Shariat, and which the Muslim rulers of the land were ever ready to impose, was alone enough to prevent their large scale conversions. The Sikh Panth had, therefore, to draw its recruitment almost entirely from the Hindu society. This was also not an easy task. As we have seen how difficult it was to wean away people from their caste moorings and lead them to an egalitarian path. It had to be slow and gradual process, but the successive Gurus stuck to it without deviation until Guru Gobind Singh decided that the movement had reached a stage when it was necessary to create the Khalsa.
The creation of the Khalsa was the acme of the Sikh movement. The Sikhs were militarized not only to fight religious and political oppressions, but also to capture political power for an egalitarian cause. In fact, the capture of political power became, as will be seen, the chief instrument for demolishing the hold of the caste system among the Sikhs. However, what is immediately relevant to our subject is the fact that the Khalsa made a clean break with the caste society. Of the five Beloved ones, who became the nucleus of the Khalsa, there were three Sudras and one Jat-at that time on the borderline of Vaisyas and Sudras. For joining the Khalsa ranks, baptism (Amrit) ceremony was made obligatory (Guru Gobind Singh himself undergoing that), and when baptised one had to take five vows. These were: (1) Dharm Nash, i.e. to severe connection with all previous religions, Dharma, customs, etc.; (ii) Karam Nash, i.e. to consider oneself absolved of all past misdeeds, which cut at the roots of the Brahmanical Karma theory: (iii) Kul Nash, i.e. severence of all ties with lineage, which destroyed the fundamental basis of caste, i.e., distinctions based on birth; (iv) Sharm Nash, i.e. obliteration of stigmas attached to occupation, which destroyed the functional basis of caste; (v) Bharm Nash, i.e. discarding ritualism taboos and notions of pollution, etc. which cut across barriers raised between castes by these factors and which were so essential a feature of the caste system.
At the time of baptism (Amrit) ceremony, the Guru enjoined on all who had joined the Khalsa that they should 'consider their previous castes erased and deem themselves as brothers, i.e. members of one family.' The newswriter of the period sent to the Emperor a copy of the Guru's address to his Sikhs on that occasion. It is dated the first of Baisakh 1756 (A.D. 1699), and runs as follows: 'Let all embrace one creed and obliterate differences of religion. Let the four Hindu castes who have different rules for their guidance abandon them all, adopt the one form of adoration and become brothers. Let no one deem himself superior to others…… Let men of the four castes receive my baptism, eat out of one dish, and feel no disgust or contempt for one another.' These mayor may not be the exact words of the Guru's address, but their substance is corroborated by the near-contemporary Koer Singh (1751). He records that the Guru said: 'Many a Vaish (Vaishya), Sudar (Shudra) and Jat have I incorporated in the Panth; and that the Guru 'has made the four castes into a single one, and made the Shudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahmin take meals at the same place.' According to the same authority, it was a current topic among the people that the Guru Had 'blended the four castes into one", had rejected both the Hindu and Muslim religions and created a new noble Khalsa, where in Sudra, Vaishya, Khatri and Brahmin eat together. Again, the Hindu hill rajas complained to Aurangzeb : "He has founded his own Panth; (has) rejected the Hindu and Muslim faiths and other customs of the land; the four castes are made into one and are known by the one name of Khalsa." What is even more significant is that the creation of the Khalsa was associated with the tearing and throwing away of Janeo, the sacred symbol of the twice-born Hindus. The contemporary author of Gur Sobha is generally very brief in his comments about historical events, but he, too, records that Brahmins and Khatries remained aloof at the time of the creation of the Khalsa because it involved discarding their ancestral rituals.
The later Sikh literature of the 18th century, written by different hands and at different times, though differing on points of detail, is agreed on the main issue that the Khalsa broke away from the Caste ideology and the caste society. Rehetnamas contain mostly precepts, but these do record the Sikh tradition indicating Sikh culture and the Sikh way of life. "I will weld the four Varnas (castes) into one." "Those who acknowledge Brahmins, their offsprings go to hell." "The Sikh, who wears Janeo…… goes to hell." "He who shows regard to other religions (Panthan), is a heretic and not a Sikh of the Guru." "He who abides by the six Darshnas, he drags along with him his whole family into hell." "Let your whole concern be with the Khalsa, other gods (Devs) are false." "If any baptized Sikh puts on Janeo; he will be cast into hell." "(A Sikh) should severe connection with Mussalmans and Hindus (Musalman Hindu ki aan mete)", "(A Sikh) should not acknowledge (kan na kara), Brahma and Muhammed, he should obey the words of his own Guru," Chaupa Singh, a contemporary, specifically mentions at three places that Guru Gobind Singh initiated the pahul (baptism) ceremony in order to create a separate Panth. "Khalsa is one…… who does not acknowledge Musalman (Turk) and Hindu." Kesar Singh Chibber (1769) writes that the Guru created a new Third Panth (Khalsa Panth) by breaking with both Hindus and Mussalmans. Sukha Singh (1797) states the same fact more explicitly: "Sudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahmin all ate together. The religion of Vedas was rejected…… All the religions of Hindus were discarded and one pure 'Khalsa' was established." One Gurdas Singh wrote about the same time: "Ved, Puran, six shastras and Kuran were eliminated;…… Both the sects (Hindus and Muslims) were engrossed in superstition; the third religion of Khalsa became supreme."
Testimony from non-Sikh sources substantiates the evidence given above from Sikh sources. Mir Ghulam Hussain Khan writes (1783) thus about the Khalsa-Panth : "They form a particular society, which distinguishes itself by wearing blue garments, and going armed at all times. When a person is once admitted into that fraternity, they make no scruples of associating with him, of whatever tribe, clan, or race he may have been hitherto, nor do they betray any of these scruples and prejudices so deeply rooted in the Hindu mind." The author of Haqiqat (1783) also writes about the same time that the Sikhs were told: "Whoever might join you from whichever tribe, don't have any prejudice against him and without any superstition eat together with him. Now this is their custom." Irvine relies on contemporary Mohammadan historians to state that, "In the parganas occupiedby the Sikhs, the reversal of previous customs was striking and complete." Khafi Khan writes, "These infidels (the Khalsa) had set up a new rule, and had fordidden the shaving of the hair of the head and brard. Many of the ill-disposed low-caste Hindus joined themselves to them and placing their lives at the disposal of these evil-minded people, they found their own advantage in professing belief and obedience……"
The evidence given above from Sikh and non-Sikh sources demonstrates that the separation of the Khalsa from the caste society was not a mere accident, an expediency, or a temporary brain-wave of a leader. It was a regular movement which continued in full vigour, at least during its revolutionary phase. The separate identity of the Khalsa continued to be emphasized even during the period of ideological decline. Bhangu (1841) writes: "All ate together from one vessel; no discrimination was left; the four varnas and the four ashrams; Janeo and tikka (Hindu insignias) were given Up." "They (the Khalsa) do not go near Ganga & Jamuna; bathe in their own tank (i.e. at Amritsar); do not worship Ram or Krishna." One of the reasons why the Tat Khalsa departed from Banda Bahadur was that he attempted to introduce Hindu usages in the Khalsa. All this belies the proposition that the separate identity of the Khalsa was a creation of the Singh Sabha movement under British influence in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.
4. A new socio-political order
The Khalsa not only broke away from the caste society, but also succeeded to a remarkable degree in giving an egalitarian socio-political orientation to its own. This was, in fact, an acid test and a proof of its separate identity from the caste society as well as its raison d' etre.
(i) Plebeian Base: The Sikh movement had not only an egalitarian political mission but it had also a plebeian base. It was necessary that the down-trodden castes and classes should be both the architects and masters of their own destiny. When Guru Hargobind declared his intention of arming the Panth, 'Calico-printers, water-carriers, and carpenters; Barbers, all came to his place." Bhikhan Khan had a very poor opinion about the army of Guru Gobind Singh :
"Subject people have come together, rustic Jats, oil-pressers, barbers, Bhati, Lubana, Leather-dressers. Many Banias, Aroras, Bhats; Sudras, Calico-printers, Jats, carpenters, twelve castes and Sanat (low castes) are joined; these are trained in the use of arrows. They include Kalals and goldsmiths, who do not know how to wield a spear.'
Bhangu has referred to the plebeian and low-caste composition of the Khalsa at several places. When the Tarana Dal wing of the Khalsa Dal was reorganized into five divisions, one of the divisions was under the command of Bir Singh Rangreta. This division continued to participate in the campaigns of the Khalsa right up to the time to the conquest of Malerkotla. In the great battle with Abdali, called Wada Ghalughara, because the largest number of Sikhs in a single battle were killed here, it is specially mentioned that Ramdasias (cobblers) and Rangretas took a prominent part.
The plebeian composition of the Khalsa is corroborated also by evidence from non-Sikh sources. Banda's forces were recruited chiefly from the lower caste Hindus, and scavengers, leather-dressers and such like persons were very numerous among them. The low-caste people who swelled Banda's ranks are termed by a contemporary Muslim historian, as the dregs of the society of the hellish Hindus. Another contemporary Muslim writer says that Banda brought into the forefront the unemployed and worthless people who had hitherto been hidden by the curtain of insignificance. Khafi Khan says that, "Many of the ill-disposed low-caste Hindus joined themselves to them (Khalsa), ……" The author of Haqiqat clearly states that Khatries, Jats, carpenters, blacksmiths and grain grocers all joined the Khalsa.'
(ii) The spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization: More than the form or its composition, it is the spirit which prevails within a movement which reflects its real character. The idea of equality was inherent in the system of the Gurus and the Sikh movement so long it retained its pristine purity. After he had appointed Angad as his successor, Guru Nanak
bowed at his feet in salutation. The same custom was followed by the later Gurus. The Sikhs, who had imbibed the spirit of the Gurus, were regarded as equals of the Guru. The collective wisdom of the congregation of Sikhs was of higher value than that of the Guru alone (Guru weeh visve, sangat iki visve). Bhai Gurdas repeatedly makes it clear that there was no status gap between the Guru and a Sikh (Gur chela, chela Guru) . Guru Angad was very much displeased with the minstrels (Rababis) who refused to comply with a request from Bhai Budha. The Guru said: 'Regard the Guru's Sikh as myself; have no doubt about this.' Guru Hargobind, out of reverence for Bhai Budha, a devout Sikh, touched his feet. He told Bhai Bidhichand that there was no difference between him and the Guru. The Sikhs addressed each other as 'brother' (Bhai), thus showing a perfect level of equality among them. In all the available letters written by the Gurus to the Sikhs, they have been addressed as brothers (Bhai). It was in continuation of this tradition that Guru Gobind Singh requested with clasped hands the Beloved Ones to baptise him. This shows that he regarded them not only as his equal but made them as his Guru. This was the utmost limit to which a religious head could conceive of or practise human equality.
The spirit of brotherhood and fraternization is even more difficult to inculcate than the spirit of equality. This new spirit was a natural sequence of the Sikh doctrines and approach. What is important is the emphasis laid on this spirit of brotherhood and fraternization in the Sikh literature and more particularly the extent to which this spirit was practised in the Sikh movement.
As there was no difference between the Guru and the Sikh; the devotion to the Guru was easily channelized into the service of the Sikhs. 'God-orientated service is the service of the Guru's Sikhs, who should be regarded as one's dearest kith and kin.' The Guru's Sikhs should serve the other Sikhs.' One of Guru Gobind Singh's own hymns is:
"To serve them (The Khalsa) pleaseth my heart; no other service is dear to my soul.
All the wealth of my house with my soul and body is for them. "
The codes of Sikh conduct (Rehatnamas) continue to record this tradition. 'He who shirks a poor man is an absolute defaulter. ' 'Serve a Sikh and a pauper'. 'If some among a group of Sikhs sleep on cots and the poor Sikhs sleep on the floor and are not shown due courtesy, the former Sikhs are at fault, 'The essence of Sikhism is service, love and devotion…… (The Sikh) should be regarded as the image of the Guru and served as such.'
Bhalla records that these precepts were actually followed in the Sikh Panth. 'The Sikhs served each other, regarding every Sikh as the Guru's image.' Bhangu writes: 'No body bore malice to anyone; the Singhs (Sikhs who had been baptized) vied with each other in rendering service to others.' 'If any Sikh got or brought any eatable, it was never used alone, it was partaken by all the Sikhs. Nothing was hidden from the other Sikhs. All eatables were shared by all members of the Khalsa; if there was nothing to eat, they would say 'The Langar is in trance (Mastana)', 'One would offer food to others first and then eat oneself. Singhs would be addressed with great love.' 'Guru's Sikh was the brother of each Sikh. During the days of struggle with the Mughals, one Niranjania reported to the Mughal governor against the Sikhs: 'They (non-combatants) would themselves go hungry and naked, but would not bear the misery of the Singhs; they themselves would ward off cold by sitting near fire, but would send clothes to the Singhs; they would grind corn with their own hands and send it to the Singhs; they would twist ropes and send its proceeds to the Singhs. They, who for their living would go to far off places, send their earnings to the Singhs. "All members of the Khalsa Dal 'were issued clothes from a common store. Without concealing anything, they would pool all their earnings at one place. If anyone found or brought any valuables, these were deposited in the treasury as common property.
The prevalence of this spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization among the Sikhs, is confirmed by evidence from the non-Sikh Sources. Ghulam Mohyy-ud-Din, the author of Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi (1722-23), was a contemporary of Banda. He writes that low caste Hindu, termed khas-o-khashaki-hanud-i-jahanmi wajud (i.e. the dregs of the society of the hellish
Hindus) swelled the ranks of Banda, and everyone in his army 'would address the other as the adopted son of the oppressed Guru (Guru Gobind Singh) and would publicise themselves with the title of sahibzada ("Yaki ra b targhib-i-digran-pisar-i-khanda-i-guru-imaghur gufta b laqub-i-shahzadgi mashur kardah"). Khushwaqt Rai, a contemporary historian of Aurangzeb, writes, 'if a stranger knocks at their door (i.e. the door of Sikhs) at midnight and utters the name of Nanak, though he may be a theif, robber or wretch, he is considered a friend and brother, and is properly looked after."
The significance of the spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization achieved by the Sikh movement can be realized only' if it is contrasted with the caste background in which the change was brought about. BougIe observes: 'The spirit of caste unites these three tendencies; repulsion, the hierarchy and hereditary specialization…… we say that a Society is characterized by such a system if it is divided into a large number of mutually opposed groups which are hereditary specialised and hierarchically arranged; if, on principle, it tolerates neither the parvenu, nor miscegenation, nor a change of profession.' 'From the social and political point of view, caste is division, hatred, jealousy and distrust between neighbours'. Nesfield also comes to the conclusion that the caste system leads to a degree of social disunion to which no parallel can be found in human history. All authorities on caste are agreed that mutual repulsion and disunity, besides inequality and hierarchism, are the inbuilt constituents of the caste system.
(iii) Abolition of Caste Priorities and Prejudices: The Chuhras are the 'out-caste par-excellence of the Punjab, whose name is popularly supposed to be a corruption of Sudra.' As such, they were about the most despised caste in the Punjab; mere bodily contact with whom defiled a person of a higher caste. On conversion to Sikhism, persons from this caste were given the honorific title of Rangreta in order to raise them in public estimation, much in the same way as depressed classes are nowadays called Harijans. A rhyme 'Rangreta, Guru ka beta', meaning 'Rangreta is the son of the Guru', current in the Punjab,
is an indication of the status to which the Sikh movement sought to raise them. We have seen how Rangretas (whose touch, had they remained in the caste society, defiled not only the person but also the food he carried) were coequal members of the Khalsa Dal, where they dined and fraternized, without discrimination, with other Dal members drawn from Brahmins, Khatris, Jats and others. When the Taruna Dal (the Youth wing of the Khalsa Dal) was reorganized into five divisions, one of these was under the leadership of Bir Singh, Rangreta. It was bestowed a standard flag (Jhanda) from the Akal Takht in the same manner as was done in the case of the other four divisions. It was thus given an equal status with them. When Ala Singh defeated the army of Malerkotla with the help of the Khalsa Dal and offered horses to honour the Dal, the first to receive the honour, as selected by the Dal, was Bir Singh, Rangreta.
We have taken the case of Rangretas because it is very much illustrative, they being the lowest caste from which Sikhs were recruited. But, it is the Jats, who form the majority in the present day Panth and who have benefitted most in the elevation of their social status by joining the Sikh ranks. It is mainly because they were able to retain, unlike the Rangretas, the gains that accrued to them. The present day social status of the Sikh Jats is taken so much for granted that it is seldom that their past prior to their joining the Sikh movement, is recalled. 'In A.D. 836, an Arab governor summoned them to appear and pay jizya each to be accompained by a dog a mark of humiliation prescribed also under the previous Brahman regime.' 'Alberuni (C. 1030), whose direct experience of India was confined to the Lahore area, took the Jats to be 'Cattle-owners, low Shudra people.' The author of the Dabistani-Mazahib (C. 1655) in his account of Sikhism describes the Jats as 'the lowest caste of the Vaishyas.' In contrast to this position, 'under the Sikhs the Rajput was over-shadowed by the Jat, who resented his assumption of superiority and his refusal to join him on equal terms in the ranks of the Khalsa, deliberately persecuted him wherever and whenever he had the power, and preferred his title of Jat Sikh to that of the proudest Rajput.' That this was all due to the Sikh movement becomes clear if the status of Sikh Jats of the Sikh tract is compared with that of other non-Sikh Jats
who are his immediate neighbours. About the non-Sikh Jats in the eastern submontane tract, Ibbetson writes in his census report (1881): "In character and position there is nothing to distinguish the tribes I am about to notice, save that they have never enjoyed the political importance which distinguished the Sikh Jats under the Khalsa …… In the Sikh tract, the political position of the Jat was so high that he had no wish to be called Rajimt; under the hills the status of the Rajput is so superior that the Jat has no hope of being called Rajput. Similarly, although the Jats of the south-eastern districts of the Punjab differ in little save religion from the great Sikh Jat tribes of the Malwa', they remained subservient to the Rajputs upto a recent period of the British Raj. There, 'In the old days of Rajput ascendancy, the Rajputs would not allow Jats to cover their heads with a turban', and 'even to this day Rajputs will not allow inferior castes to wear red clothes or ample lion cloths in their villages.' In the predominantly Muhammadan Western Punjab, the Jat is 'naturally looked upon as of inferior race, and the position he occupies is very different from that which he holds in the centre and east of the Punjab.
We are not giving these quotations in order to approve of the' air of superiority assumed by the Sikh Jats, because the Sikh movement aimed at levelling up of the social status of all kinds, and not at substituting the status-superiority of one caste or class for that of another. However, these instances do show how far the movement succeeded in breaking the order of social precedence established by the caste society and in permanently raising the social status of a social group which now forms the majority in the Sikh Panth.
(iv) Political Power: The Sikh movement not only raised the social status of the people drawn into the Panth from the lower castes, but also shared political power with them during its revolutionary phase. Irvine writes, on the basis of contemporary Muslim historians, that" in all the parganas occupied by the Sikhs, the reversal of previous customs was complete. A low scavenger or leather-dresser, the lowest of low in Indian estimation, had only to leave home and join the Guru (Banda), when in a short space of time he would return to his birth-place as its ruler, with his order of appointment in his hand. As soon as he set foot within the boundaries, the well-born and wealthy went out to greet him and escort him home. Arrived there, they stood before him with joined palms, awaiting his orders." "All power was now usurped by the Sikhs, and one Bir Singh, a man of poor origin,... was appointed Subedar or governor of Sirhind." In the Missal period ordinary peasants, shepherds (Tara Singh Gheba) , village menials (Jassa Singh Ramgarhia) and distillers, (Jassa Singh Kalal), whom the caste society despised, became the leaders. There was not one else from castes higher than these. The common peasantry of the land suddenly attained political power." "…the whole. country of the Punjab…is in the possession of this community (the Khalsa) and most of their exalted leaders are of low origin, such as carpenters, animal skin-treaters and Jats." Waris Shah, the author of 'Hir & Ranjha', describes the state of affairs in the Punjab of this period:
"Men of menial birth flourish and the peasants are in great prosperity.
The Jats have become masters of our country, everywhere there is a new Government."
All the members of the Khalsa, irrespective of their caste or class, came to be called, as they are even now, Sardars (overlords). This is not to approve of this development, or the feudal nature of the Missal political system, because these were departures from the Sikh ideal of human equality. The point to be noted here is how the Sikh revolution raised the social and political status, not of individuals, but of a large section of the commoners en bloc.
This capture of political by the commoners had a great impact, within the Sikh Panth, in removing some social barriers raised by the caste society. It was the taste of political power which made the Sikh Jat feel prouder than the Rajput and the Rangretas as equals to the Sikh Jats. The Rangretas had all along been equal members of the Khalsa Dal in every respect, but at the time of Missal formation they joined the Missal of Nishanias, which Missal did not carve out a territorial rule of its own. Had the Rangretas also opted for political power on their own, it is quite on the cards that their social status within the Sikh Panth might have been different from what it is. In other words, the Rangretas were not pushed out of the Khalsa 'brotherhood; only they did not avail of the opportunity to capture political power for themselves, which was necessary to maintain their newly acquired social prestige and position in the post revolutionary period. At any rate, it becomes quite clear that political power was a big factor for levelling up caste barriers. Therefore, the mission of capturing political power by the Khalsa (Raj karega Khalsa) was as much an egalitarian social mission as it was a political one. It was not for nothing that the caste ideology and the caste society has been at great pains to exclude the commoners from political power. The egalitarian political and military orientation of the Khalsa should be viewed in this perspective. Those who disapprove of the militarization of the Sikh movement on religious grounds miss this point. The social status of the lower castes could not be changed without their attaining political power, and that religion was not worth its name which did not strive to change the caste system.
Earlier, we presented evidence to show that the Khalsa cut itself from the caste system by severing connections with the caste ideology, Brahmins and the caste society. This conclusion is further substantiated by the positive evidence given here regarding the socio-political egalitarian character of the Khalsa polity. None of its salient features (i.e. its plebian composition; its spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization; the reversal of caste priorities; and capture of political power by the commoners) could even be conceived, much less realised, while remaining within the caste system or the caste society.
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