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  Gur Panth Parkash
Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh





The anti-caste achievements of the Sikh movement during its revolutionary period of the Gurus and the Khalsa Dal stand out in bold relief. No Indian movement, other than the Sikh revolution, made the Khatries, Aroras, Jats, artisans, village menials and the outcastes (Chamars and sweepers), forget their caste hierarchy and merge on equal terms into a genuine brotherhood of the Khalsa; or shared political power with 'the lowest of low in Indian estimation', as was done under Banda; or enabled the Jat (on the border line of Vaisyas and Sudras) to regard his social status as higher than that of the Brahmin and the Rajput; or raised Jats, shepherds, artisans (carpenters) and the despised caste of Kalals to be the rulers of the land. These achievements compare favourably even on the world map, if it is kept in view that the social stigma attached to the outcastes in the Indian society was far worse than that from which the Negroes in the U.S.A. or the slaves elsewhere suffered.

As regards the post-revolutionary period, any assessment of the problem of caste vis-a-vis the Sikhs would remain lopsided unless a few pertinent considerations are taken into account.

It is a part of the dynamics of ideological mass upsurges that they have never lasted long; and, after reaching ideological peaks, they have always tended to revert back to the human level they started from. As their own shadows, revolutions have invariably been followed by counter-revolutions. It is due to the limitations of human nature and environmental hurdles that the transformation of human society in terms of its idealistic goals has been extremely slow, despite all the religious and other progressive movements that have taken place. In fact, the progress is so imperceptible that many sceptics doubt whether there has been any transformation of human nature at all. Social exclusiveness and other distinctions have reasserted themselves again and again, in one form or the other, and the establishment of a classless society, or a society free from the taint of social distinctions and discriminations, remains a distant dream.

In the above context, we draw attention to three points. If humanity is to ever progress towards its humanistic goals, there is no other alternative but to continue to strive towards them even though inching forward imperceptibly. Hence, it is the overall contribution, even if small, which a revolutionary movement makes towards human progress that matters more than its shortcomings, or than what it fails to fulfil. The social discriminations against the Negroes prevailing at present in the U.S.A. should not blind us to the enobling spirit of Christianity that inspired the opening of a new chapter in the social and political liberation of the Negroes there and the slaves elsewhere. Similarly, the institution of slaves survived in the Muslim world, but one must not on that account ignore one of the greatest egalitarian, social revolutions brought about by Islam in the history of the world. And, in the Indian caste context, it is no mean permanent achievement of the Sikh Revolution that the Sikh Panth remains cut-off from the most reactionary and rigid social system known to mankind. Here we have to recall again that there is a vital difference between the reactionary social force of unorganized castes or caste-like elements as such, and the potent power these become when they get woven into a system like the Indian caste system. Money economy was introduced centuries ago, but the dimensions, the range, the grip and the momentum it assumed, when it got mobilized into the modern capitalist system, could not even be imagined earlier.

Secondly, the revolutionary movements do leave behind, sometimes atleast, some residue of progress even in their post-revolutionary periods. But this residuary progress, being impalpable, due to the limitations of human nature and environmental factors, is measurable only in relative terms and not by absolute standards. We have found in our study that even the present-day Sikhs do not own the Hindu scriptures (which sanctify caste and the Levite Brahmin caste (which is the kingpin of the caste system). Whereas the Hindu temples and Moths are the strong holds of the caste ideology and practices, there are no religious commensal or any other social distinctions at the Panthic level. There is also no social hierarcy between Khatri Sikhs, Arora Sikhs, Jat Sikhs and Ramgarhia Sikhs. At the village level, too, the Sikhs drawn from artisan, menials and outcaste categories are decidedly well-placed socially when compared to their brethren in the corresponding Hindu social categories. Considering the slow progress man has made in shedding his prejudices, these contrasts are quite significant.

Thirdly, revolutionary movements are a perennial source of inspiration for generations to come. This legacy of theirs is invaluable for human progress, as it has, time and again, given birth to progressive revivalist movements in the societies which owned such revolutions. We noted that the number of Sikhs swelled from 2,000 guerillas to 200,000 in 1811, to 1,853,426 in 1881 and to 4,335,771 in 1931. Obviously, this phenomenal increase was due to the large number of proselytes from the caste society. As this overwhelming proselytization took place during the post-revolutionary period, when mundane consideration had come to have an upper hand over the ideological pull, the caste prejudices and discriminations brought along from the caste society were retained by these proselytes more firmly. It was this spill-over of caste elements that the revivalist Singh Sabha movement had to contend with. And, the Singh Sabha movement could succeed, to the extent it did, in ladling off the castescum from the Sikh because it was inspired by the Sikh ideology as well as helped by the Sikh tradition that the Sikh Panth had a distinct identity of its own, separate from the caste society. The main thrust of this movement, as is well known, was ham Hindu nahin, i.e. we (Sikhs) are not Hindus. Whatever relative contrast in caste prejudices and distinctions between Sikh social categories and the corresponding Hindu caste categories we noted was due mainly to the revival brought about by the Singh Sabha movement. Because, the other anti-caste forces (the influences generated by the capitalist system and the Western culture) undermining caste were, and are, equally operative in both the cases. Rather, the Hindu regions of Haryana and Meerut division came under the influences of these forces earlier than the Sikh areas because of their prior conquest by the British.

The history of caste in India is crystal clear. In order to clinch the argument, we take the liberty of quoting Max Weber again. He writes; "Once established, the assimilative power of Hinduism is so great that it tends even to integrate social forms considered beyond its religious boarders. 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."

When Indian Christians and Indian Muslims, who are beyond the religious borders of Hinduism, could not escape their caste predilections, evidently, no anti-caste movement, which remained socially nearer the caste society, could escape integration into the caste order. In fact, the nearer it was to the caste society, the more readily it was absorbed.

To quote Max Weber again, "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 contest of their former ritualistic duties, the caste responds by ex-communicating all the sect's proselytes. Unless the sect is able to abolish the caste system altogether, instead of simply tearing some of its members, it becomes, from the standpoint of the caste system, a quasi-guest community in an ambiguous position in the prevailing Hindu order." In other words, as the total abolition of the caste system could happen only through a miracle, the only alternative to integration in the caste order for the anti-caste movements was to break-away, as completely as possible, from the caste society.

Basawa, Chaitanya, Kabir and other radical Bhaktas, somehow, did not pay heed to this lesson of history that mere ideological break was not enough. To escape integration into the caste system, it was equally necessary, to break away from the caste society as well. As explained by Max Weber, the consequence was that their radicalism and their followers were easily, but irrecoverably, sucked in by the assimilative process of the caste system. The Sikh Gurus, on the other hand, broke away completely from the caste system, both ideologically and organisationally, by creating the Sikh Panth outside the caste society. It was this traditional heritage that inspired and nourished the anti-caste Sikh revival under the Singh Sabha movement. That heritage the followers of radical Bhaktas did not possess.




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