Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Reviving the Sarbut Khalsa Tradition

(Gurmukh Singh, London, United Kingdom)

(Article published by "Sikhchic" and The Sikh Review (August 2012) 

The decision making tradition of Sarbat Khalsa was evolved during the first half of the 18th Century. It is likely to be revived and further developed through seminars like those arranged by the Sikh Research Institute and supported by the Sikh Council UK over the weekend of June 16 and 17, 2012.  The main event on Sunday 17 June, will be at The Oxford Union, University of Oxford.

The background is the need to promote the decision making process within umbrella Sikh organisations like the Sikh Council UK, by learning from the model of Sarbat Khalsa evolved during the first half of the 18th Century. This is only possible by understanding what the concept means in this day and age. For example, which decisions need to be taken by consensus and which can be taken by the senior office holders of Sikh institutions and organisations, on their own.

Are there historical examples when Sarbat Khalsa did not deliver a consensus based decision? Are there some current examples when the consensus based approach would have been helpful? Some possible examples are: the Nanakshahi Calendar issue, the Shaheedi memorial at Darbar Sahib, and the case of Balwant Singh Rajoana.

Akal Takhat Sahib invited organisations and individuals to give views and many organisations in the diaspora, including the Sikh Council UK, did that in writing. However, it was never made clear how consensus was reached. Similarly people are now being invited to comment on the Anand Marriage Act without being clear about how the information will be used.

My interim response (below) to some similar queries following a short column article in UK's Panjab Times weekly, is based on a study of the 18th Century trials and tribulations of the Khalsa Panth, also remembered in the daily Sikh supplication (Ardaas).

Sarbut Khalsa is an expression of Panthic solidarity. That is so even when there are internal disagreements. In the 18th Century Khalsa freedom struggle, despite internal disagreement about whether or not to invade the well fortified city of Kasur, (triggered by the appeal of a Brahmin whose wife was in the Nawab’s captivity) the overriding concern was for Panthic unity and it ensured final victory. (The campaign is well described in Sardar Ratan Singh Bhangu’s Sri Guru Panth Prakash under the heading “Saakhi Prithmai Kasur Maarnai ki” in the year 1760 CE).

To my mind, Sarbat Khalsa is not, in itself, the decision making mechanism but an important end product of the consultation process. Things have become much more complicated in the 21st Century, but we also have the tools and skills to do research and base discussions and decisions on that research. Success or failure would depend on the quality of the research (equivalent to field intelligence in the 18th Century freedom struggle) and the spirit of working together for the ascendancy of the Khalsa Panth (Panth di chardhi kalla).

Great Khalsa personalities like Nawab Kapur Singh, played an important catalytic role in the Sarbut Khalsa tradition without detracting from the grassroots (Sangat) consensus aspect in decision making. Their own "authority" for decision making on their own as leaders or “office holders”, was residual. It grew in proportion to the respect and trust they won over a period of time.

These great leaders of leaders, were also talent spotters and promoted leadership qualities in those around them. Jassa Singh Ahluwallia was a stable boy at Darbar Sahib and was spotted by Nawab Kapur Singh. At some point in Sikh history, this “stable boy” in the service of the Khalsa warriors, sat on the throne of Hindostan. Other sardars grew in stature during this period through what can only be described as "team-working" by equals; very independent minded Khalsa personalities. The very mention of the names of those like Sardar Baghel Singh sent a shiver down the spines of hardened Mugal warriors and rulers.

In the modern context, we can draw lessons from the Khalsa field strategy of 18th Century. Consensus is achieved through factual information gathering on a topic or campaign (field intelligence). Draft proposal is based on that information. Consultation and drafting changes are made and final approval is given by Sangat representatives. Success or failure depends on the quality of the intelligence gathered. If the first draft "proposal" is not refused at the outset, then there is a good chance of the proposal or plan of action being adopted in due course, following discussion.

A draft proposal in today’s world, pre-supposes a research panels of Sikh scholars in diverse fields and policy experts. Regrettably, Sikh institutions, including successive Akal Takht jathedars, have failed in this respect. For that reason, we are where we are today.

Taking decisions on the basis of a Jaikara  i.e. a Sikh religious slogan started by some one in a loud voice "Bolay so nihaal" and responded to in unison by those gathered "Sat Sri Akal",  is a sure recipe for failure. A Jaikara interrupting a katha or Sangat presentation, should be regarded as an insult to (i.e. be-adbi of) the Sangat and the Guru. A Jaikaras should only be allowed towards the conclusion of proceedings, following the Ardaas.

Today, organisations are started by dedicated community activists with a desire to do something for the community. To start with, these activists are content to call themselves “nishkam sevadars”. Regrettably, in the Sikh community, the desire to lead has a tendency to become permanent due to personal ambition. In fact, such is this desire to lead and remain in control that the original aims of organisations to remain part of the Khalsa Panth by working towards Panth di Chardhi Kalla, are forgotten.

Also, with one person assuming almost dictatorial role, it means that those with ability and diverse skills are kept away. The single “leader” surrounds himself with sycophantic poodles! Without genuine team-working of equals, an organisation becomes entirely dependent on one person. Such organisations are starved of fresh ideas and the complementary skills needed in today’s world. They have no continuity and run into the sands when the singleton “leader” is no longer active, or passes away.

The approach of organisations started and “owned” by permanent leaders, is “top down”. That is not the Khalsa way. All gurudoms, deras and sant sampardais automatically fall into this category because they have one "spiritual" head whose command is the law for the followers (chelas). Of course, there is need for men and women with outstanding abilities and skills; but the Khalsa way is the Sangat (congregational) way  i.e. grassroots or “down-upwards” in the Sarbat Khalsa tradition, perfected during the most challenging period in Sikh history. The foundation for this approach had been laid during the person-Guru period (1469 to 1708) and perfected by Guru Gobind Singh.

Organisations have specific aims and objectives. One individual or organisation cannot possibly cover all aspects of a community’s needs. That means that at national and global levels, there will always be a need for co-ordinating umbrella organisations. Every Sikh organisation, including gurdwaras, the centres of Sikh community life and holders of Sangat’s funds, must accept that need for national and international level representation of Sikh issue and concerns. More so the organisations founded and led by individuals, who, otherwise, would have done much for the community in different fields.

All that we study in management and decision making theories today, was actually practised - maybe due to collective instinct for survival - by 18th century Khalsa leadership, which, kept Panthic solidarity in the forefront.

This topic needs much thought and development in future seminars like those organised by the Sikh Research Institute.

Gurmukh Singh
Copy right: Gurmukh Singh UK
This article may be published or quoted from, with acknowledgement.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Professing Non-Sikh Faith But Married in Gurdwara: Sacred or Sham Marriages?

“Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by Anand Karaj ceremony." [The Sikh Reht Maryada Article XVIII item (k)]

(Note: "Sikh view" short articles on this blogspot are in response to briefing queries from organisations and students of Sikh tradition. A holistic view of Sikh Scriptures and mainstream Sikh Reht Maryada is taken. Nevertheless, these articles can only be regarded as one view of Sikh teachings. Discussion about the interpretation of Gurbani and Sikh Reht Maryada through publications and cyber forums is important; more so in view of the lack of research and consistent direction from central Sikh institutions like Akal Takh Sahib and the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.)

The question is, why insist on a religious wedding when a couple cannot agree on one religio-cultural path in married life. In such unions, religion takes low priority or has no place at all. Why not accept that reality from the outset? Why go through one or even two marriage ceremonies at respective places of worship to please parents and religio-social circles on both sides?

With few exceptions, marriages at religious places involving two religious backgrounds, seem to lack the solemn and sacred commitment which needs to be given jointly at the same time and place. Such an interfaith marriage ceremony remains incomplete, even when two religious ceremonies have taken place at the respective places of worship of the two families involved.

I have no intention of defending the sacred cows of any religion. By all means, let religious do’s, don’ts and dogmas, be dumped when no longer felt relevant to own lives. But why go through the falsehood of such weddings at places of worship when religion hardly seems to matter?

Religion must remain relevant to changes in human society by continually re-interpreting its ideology, while guiding the individual towards the ideal physical and spiritual state of harmony, to be able to achieve the goal of this life. Subject to such re-interpretation, any religious ideal is a guiding constant, which must not be abandoned, due simply to secular or social pressures, trends, fashions and fads. The guidance of Guru Granth Sahib is spiritual as well as temporal. That (miri-piri) guidance has given rise to a religious system and a code of conduct over a period of time.

Sikh religion has own guiding principles in married life (gresti or dam-pati jeevan) which are explained during an Anand Karaj – the Sikh ceremony showing the path to a blissful union of two bodies following one Guiding Light.  Gender equality is preached -even if lagging behind in practise! – by stressing “one spiritual light in two human bodies” (ek jyot doay moorti) and respective complementary husband-wife roles in married life. Dharam nibhauna – to do one’s duty towards each other (and other family relationships) is explained. To come to One Guru Granth Sahib, the Word Guru only, and none other, is stressed; and any form of superstition, ritualism and un-Sikh practices, condemned. Service of creation while remaining immersed in Creator awareness (sewa and simran), honest work and sharing with those in need, are shown as the pillars of Sikhi. And so on, life guidance (sikhia) relevant to Anand Karaj ceremony is given.

If only one of the two sitting before Guru Granth Sahib in the presence of the holy congregation (Saadh Sangat), is listening to and accepting this sikhia, then it becomes a form of disrespect to both – Guru Granth Sahib and the Sangat ! It is for that reason that I refuse to attend such sham weddings at gurdwaras. Often, the couple sit before Guru Granth Sahib, giggling and chatting to each other. Depending on pre-wedding briefing and professionalism of the marriage celebrant, non-Sikh parents and party may or may not understand what is going on, or show due respect to the Guru at such weddings. Some sit as indifferent observers at the back of the gurdwara hall, even with legs stretched towards Guru Granth Sahib.

Other religious paths have own guiding principles, which may or may not clash with the Sikh way of life of a householder.

The alternative of a civil marriage is there. If they are so compelled by their residual faith in religion, both sides can visit each other’s places of worship. A prayer can be offered to seek the blessing of the Deity. Also, anyone can organise a langar in a gurdwara for whatever reason.

However, if a religious ceremony is felt to be absolutely necessary, then the couple should have been able to resolve this first matrimonial challenge before the wedding and be able to adopt one religious path for themselves and, in due course, for their children.
There is a vast increase in such “mixed” marriages with parents’ partial or full consent. I am assured that many of such marriages work out very well. On the other hand I am aware that many same-religion marriages are failing. To mix up such arguments with the ceremony of Anand Karaj in Gurdwaras, is to miss the point. The same goes for the argument that Guru Granth Sahib is for all humanity and that the gurdwara is open to all regardless of religion or social background. Anand Karaj is a Khalsa Panth approved religious ceremony for the Sikhs who have total belief in Guru Granth Sahib as the only temporal and spiritual Guide.

If a couple from different religious backgrounds is unable to comply with the Sikh Reht Maryada then the couple and the respective parents should not insist on a Sikh Anand Karaj ceremony. However, the doors of the Gurdwaras are open to all. Anyone can say prayers (Ardaas) and arrange or do langar sewa. Anyone can invite own community to a gurdwara and benefit by listening to the universal egalitarian Message of Guru Granth Sahib, even if their own religion restricts them from complying with that Message fully.

There are many communities like the so called “sehajdhari Sikhs”, the Sindhi Sikh community or just Nanak Naam leva Sikhs like the sikligar/wanjara Sikhs. They do not follow any other religion. Their traditional right to Anand Karaj ceremony can be discussed elsewhere, in that context.

The message of Gurbani is universal and the Sikh institution of the gurdwara is inclusive. However, over the centuries a corporate dimension of Sikh ideology and identity has emerged to defend the faith and the faithful. Great sacrifices have been called for and made. Compromising the corporate aspects of Sikh religion is a slippery slope leading to the loss of ideological independence, and visible identity of the religion.
The family unit is central to the preservation of the ideology and identity of an established world religion like Sikhi(sm).

It is for that reason that the great Gursikh scholars who drafted the Sikh Reht Maryada did not approve marriages before Guru Granth Sahib, when one partner is not fully committed to the Sikh faith.

Gurmukh Singh
Sikh Education Welfare & Advancement (SEWA) network
Copy right: Gurmukh Singh UK
This article may be published or quoted from, with acknowledgement.