Concepts in sikhism

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SAHAJ (J. S. Neki), in Sikh vocabulary, refers to a state of mental and spiritual equipoise without the least intrusion of ego; unshaken natural and effortless serenity attained through spiritual discipline. Ego (aham or haumai) develops out of the undifferentiated primordial being as a result of the socio-cultural conditioning factors that generate as a result of a process of individuation. Ego is thus a mere psychic substantive, a myth that not only begins to shroud the primordial nature of the human soul, but also is responsible for all kinds of emotional and volitional disturbances. When this ego is quelled, and one resides once again in the innate, undisturbed, effortless state of the soul, sahaj is said to have been attained. Although called a state (avastha), in fact it transcends all states, for it is a return to the soul as it was before any ‘states’ differentiated or derived from it.

The word sahaj is derived from Sanskrit twin roots: saha, together, and ja, born. Thus, it means born together (with oneself), hence innate. It signifies innate nature, or one’s natural spontaneous self shorn of all external conditioning influences that cramp the soul. Sahaj is, thus, renascent freedom or liberation of the soul.

The term has a long history. The basic concept came from the leftist Tantric cults in whose vocabulary sahaj signified a protest against the formalism of orthodox religion. They decried the bondage of artificial conventions and affirmed the non-transgression of the natural. Sahaj was, thus, the basic tenet of the Indian antinomianism. The Sahajyana Buddhists, Natha Yogis, and Sahajiya Saivites, all in their own time and in their specific way, emphasized the cultivation of sahaj, but they were all in a sense Tantric in outlook, for the raison d’etre of these schools with the solitary exception of the Nathapanthis was to be found in particular sexoyogic practices as a part of religious sadhna. However, the followers of these sects, in fact, seem to have stretched their antinomian protest to its utmost limit and held that the most meritorious acts are such natural ones as eating and drinking which sustain life, sexual intercourse which propagates it, and the natural functions which give it ease. In actual practice, it really amounted to a total surrender to carnal appetites. As a result of this, these cults went into disrepute and the original concept of' sahaj became besmirched with questionable ethical connotations. Its reintroduction into the Indian mystic lore by the preceptors of the Sikh faith signified a new turn in the history of this term, for they invested it with a new breadth of meaning and mystical import coupled with sublime ethical and aesthetic connotations that conduced to the elevation of the soul.

The Sikh concept of sahaj shared with that of the sects mentioned (a) rejection of external formalities, (b) rejection of priestly authority, and in a positive way, (c) recognition of the guru as essential for spiritual growth and advancement, and (d) recognition of the Ultimate Reality as an experience of unruffled equipoise and ineffable bliss. However, it differed from them not only in its rejection at once of sexoyogic practices (of Sahajayanis) as well as in the derogation of women (of Nathapanthis), but even in the breadth of conceptualization. For the Gurus, man’s original nature was of the nature of light or intuitive knowledge “man tun joti sarupu hai apana mulu pachhanu” (GG, 441). A reattainment of this natural self, with its attendant peace and equipoise is sahaj. In this state, life is unaffected by any artificiality or put-up appearances for they are but the defences of the empirical ego (haumai) and that, in sahaj, is conquered. Then with a basic dispositional spontaneity, love goodness and compassion blossom forth from the being. This widened concept of sahaj signifies a transcendent state—one beyond the ordinary modes of being (gunas), beyond the habitual levels of consciousness and beyond the illusion of duality or maya.

To appreciate fully the breadth of meaning of the Sikh concept of sahaj, it may be looked at from various aspects. In its cognitive aspect, it can be seen as a state of illumination, one of heightened consciousness, mystical awareness (sahaj rahas) or intuitive knowledge. In this state the duality of subject and object (which results from a process of individuation and ego-formation) vanishes: Since all feelings of duality basically develop around the subject-object dichotomy, with the dissolution of the latter, these disappear, distances vanish and reality comes to be perceived with the impact of immediacy. In its cognitive aspect, sahaj is a state of freedom wherein everything happens with natural ease (sahaj subhai). Spontaneity is the ground of every kind of behaviour—vegetative, emotive and moral. On the emotive or aesthetic planes, it signifies the discovery of the great harmony within as well as without. In sahaj, as it were, an inner door (dasam dvar) of aesthetic perception opens up and one directly perceives the rhythmicity of one’s being weave an ‘unstruck melody’ (anhat nad) which is accompanied by a pervading feeling of unconditioned bliss (sahaj anand).

A deeper significance of existence seems to emerge in sahaj. When one becomes oriented to it, emotional turbulence ceases. Pleasures and pains pass like ripples over the surface while the mighty deep underneath remains unruffled. Then, it appears, one dons pleasures and pains just as one changes one’s garments “sukhu dukhu dui dari kapare pahirahi jai manukh”(GG, 149). This is how sahaj epitomizes mental equipoise in which all turbulence of emotions is calmed. While the egocentrics abide in doubt and carry anxieties in their heart which permit them to sleep, the wise wake and sleep in sahaj— “manmukhi bharamai sahasa hovai antari chinta nid na sovai giani jagahi savahi subhai nanak nami ratia bali jau” (GG, 646). Peace being the hallmark of this state, all running about and all feverish pursuits cease. Wandering itself is worn out for now a new dignity in life is found.

Sahaj has been called a state of freedom. It betokens freedom from desire (trsna), from conflict (dvandva) and from illusion (maya). One is liberated from the cramping influence of social compulsions, yet one does not become a fugitive from social responsibility. On the contrary, since one is also cured simultaneously of the equally cramping compulsion of egoism, one no longer lives for oneself. One lives more for others. In sahaj one is also liberated from the servility of carnal needs. In this state neither drowsiness, nor hunger remains; and one ever abides in the Divine Bliss of Hari Nam (God’s Name). Pleasure and sorrow occur not where the all-pervading self shineth forth—“gurmukhi antari sahaju hai manu charia dasavai akasi tithai ungh na bhukh hai hari amrit namu sukh vasu nanak dukhu sukhu viapat nahijithai atam ram pragasu” (GG, 1414).

Sahaj also spells an awareness of the great vital harmony (sahajdhuni) within as one gets attuned to the inner rhythm of Being. One also simultaneously discovers self-same harmony and mystical rhythmicity pervading the entire gamut of the mighty cosmos. The intensity of this experience is a great aesthetic wonderment. It is a creative joy of the highest order—sheer ‘joy’ in contradistinction to ‘enjoyment’ of the sense objects. It is; therefore, not ephemeral like the latter, but is an abiding state of undiminishing bliss. Although illumination, spontaneity, freedom, equipoise, and harmony may be described as the chief characteristics of sahaj, there are several other subtle characteristics of this state alluded to at several places in the Guru Granth Sahib as, for example, in the following passage:

One who abideth in sahaj

Looketh alike on friend and foe.

What he heareth is essence true;

And in his seeing is meditation.

He sleepeth in calm, he riseth in peace

From ‘being’ to ‘becoming’ with natural ease.

Sad or glad, he abideth in sahaj;

Effortless his silence; spontaneous his utterance.

In poise he eateth, in poise he loveth.

In sahaj he findeth distances bridged.

(GG, 236)

It is thus the supremest spiritual state. How can, then, this state be attained? Actions, however meritorious, do not bring it about. In fact, sahaj does not sprout so long as one abideth in maya—“maia vichi sahaju na upajai maia dujai bhai” (GG, 68). To become detached from the world of maia (maya), one does not need actions, but gian (jnana), which comes from the grace of the Guru. Says Guru Amar Das: “O brother! there can be no sahaj without the Guru’s benevolence. Sahaj sprouts from the Word, whereby one meets the Lord—the true One—“bhai re gur binu sahaju na hoi. . . .” (GG, 68). From the true Word emanates the sahajdhuni (the tune of sahaj) and the mind gets absorbed in Truth—“sachai sabadi sahaj dhuni upajai mani sachai liv lai” (GG, l 234). And then the very music of sahaj that is being played at His door, also becomes the brandmark of the seeker—“tere duarai dhuni sahaj ki mathai mere dagai” (GG, 970).


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar,1959

2. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan. Amritsar, 1962

3. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Nirnai. Lahore,1932

4. Taran Singh, Sahaj te Anandu. Amritsar, n.d

5. Talib, Gurbachan Singh, Guru Nanak: His Personality and Vision. Jalandhar, 1969

6. Harbans Singh, ed., Perspectives on Guru Nanak. Patiala, 1975

7. Diwana, Mohan Singh, Guru Nanak Dev and Sahaj. Jalandhar, 1973

8. Ray, Niharranjan, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society. Delhi, 1970

9. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1981

J. S. N.
SAHAJDHARI (Kirpal Singh, B. Harbans Lal), a gradualist among Sikhs. Like other Sikhs, the Sahajdharis believe in the Ten Gurus and in the Guru Granth Sahib, though they exempt themselves from the obligation of keeping their hair unshorn. Receiving the rites of Khalsa baptism one day and maintaining long uncut hair and beard remain, nevertheless, the ultimate ideal which they must realize in their lifetime or see it realized by their offspring. Some Sahajdhari parents place themselves under a vow to rear their first-born son as a full Sikh. The Sahajdharis, as a rule, are not given the Sikh surname of ‘Singh’. The term sahajdharis is a compound of two words —sahaj and dhari. The word sahaj (in Sanskrit, sahaja) implies poise, unhurriedness and the word dhari stands for adopting or accepting a creed or form. This term came into use after Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa in 1699 A D., introducing the khande di pahul, i.e. baptism by the double-edged sword. Those who took khande di pahul received the title of the ‘Khalsa’, and those who for one reason or another could not came to be known as Sahajdharis, i.e. Sikhs who would have themselves baptized as Khalsa at some later stage. It was, in the first instance, not possible to have baptism administered all at once by the rites established by Guru Gobind Singh to Sikhs in far-flung sangats. Another impediment was the conflict which broke out between the Sikhs and the ruling authority soon after. However, Sahajdharis have been part of the larger Sikh body since the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Two of them in his own day—Bhai Nand Lal and Bhai Kanhaiya —enjoyed great esteem. Bhai Nand Lal, a great Persian scholar and poet, maintained at Anandpur a langar or refectory open to visitors all the twenty-four hours. Bhai Kanhaiya won the Guru’s admiration and is remembered in the Sikh tradition to this day for the devotion with which he served the wounded in battle, making no distinction between friend and foe. In the early part of the eighteenth century when Sikhs suffered fierce persecution and when to be a Kesadhari, that is to bear kesa or long hair, was to invite sure death, the Sahajdharis looked after their places of worship and protected the households and the kith and kin of those driven to seek safety in hill and jungle. Some even defied the persecutors and courted martyrdom as did the teenaged Haqiqat Rai, who was beheaded in public for his refusal to disown his Sikh belief and accept Islam. A leading Sahajdhari Sikh of that time was Kaura Mall, a minister to the Mughal governor of Lahore, Mu’in ul-Mulk (1748-53), who helped the Sikhs in diverse ways in those days of severe trial. He had so endeared himself to them that they called him Mittha (‘sweet’, in Punjabi) Mall instead of Kaura (which, in Punjabi, means ‘bitter’) Mall. Sikh tradition also recalls another Sahajdhari, Des Raj, of this period who was entrusted by the Khalsa with the task of having reconstructed the Harimandar, demolished by the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, in 1762. Dina Nath was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s finance minister. Bhai Vasti Ram, a learned man well versed in Sikh scripture, enjoyed considerable influence at the court.

Sahajdharis have continued to participate in Sikh life right up to modern times and have associated themselves with Sikh institutions and organizations such as the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Chief Khalsa Diwan, Shiromani Akali Dal, and the All-India Sikh Students Federation. The Singh Sabhas used to have seats on their executive committees reserved for the Sahajdharis. Among their own societies, confined prior to the migrations of 1947, mainly to north-western India, were the Sahajdhari Committee of Multan, Guru Nanak Sahajdhari Diwan of Panja Sahib and Sri Guru Nanak Sahajdhari Jatha of Campbellpore. The Sahajdhari Diwan of Panja Sahib attained the status of their central forum. They as well had their annual conference which met for its first session on 13 April 1929 under the chairmanship of Sir Jogendra Singh who passed on the office to the famous Sikh scholar and savant, Bhai Kahn Singh. A Sahajdharis’ meeting formed part of the annual proceedings of the Sikh Educational Conference.

The Sahajdharis share with the main body of the Sikhs all of their religious and social customs and ceremonies and join their congregations in the gurdwaras. The population in the Punjab of Sahajdhari Sikhs (another name used is Sikh Nanakpanthis) according to 1891 Census was 397,000 (20% of the total Sikh population); according to 1901 Census, 297,000 (13% of the total Sikhs); according to 1911 Census, 451,000 (14.9% of the total Sikhs); according to 1921 Census, 229,000 (7% of the total Sikhs); according to 1931 Census, 282,000 (6.5% of the total Sikhs). Outside of the Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province and Sindh had considerable Sahajdhari populations. Consequent upon the partition of India in 1947, Sahajdharis became widely dispersed in the country. Their India-wide forum was the Sarab Hind (All-India) Sahajdharis Conference which rotated from town to town for its annual sessions. Three of its presidents—Mahant Karam Chand, Bhai Sant Ram and Bhai Ram Lal Rahi—eventually took the vows of Khalsa baptism, receiving respectively the names Gur Darshan Singh, Sant Ram Singh and Ram Lal Singh Rahi.

Kr. S., H. L.

SANGAT (K. Jagjit Singh), Punjabi form of the Sanskrit term sangti, means company, fellowship, association. In Sikh vocabulary, the word has a special connotation. It stands for the body of men and women met religiously, especially in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. Two other expressions carrying the same connotation and in equally common use are sadh sangat (fellowship of the seekers of truth). The word sangat has been in use since the time of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). In his days and those of his nine successors, sangat referred to the Sikh brotherhood established in or belonging to a particular locality. The term is used in this sense in the Janam Sakhis, i.e. traditional life-stories of Guru Nanak, and in the hukamnamas, i.e. edicts issued by the Gurus to their followers in different parts of the country. In the hukamnamas there are references, for instance, to Sarbatt Sangat Banaras Ki, i.e. the entire Sikh community of Banaras (Varanasi), Patna ki Sangat, i.e. the Sikhs of Patna, Dhaul ki Sangat, the Sikhs of Dhaul. In common current usage, the word signifies an assembly of the devotees. Such a gathering may be in a gurdwara, in a private residence or in any other place, but in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. The purpose is religious prayer, instruction or ceremony. The sangat may collectively chant the sacred hymns, or, as it more often happens, there may be a group of musicians to perform kirtan. At sangat there may be recitals of the holy writ with or without exposition, lectures on religious or theological topics, or narration of events from Sikh history. Social and political matters of interest for the community may as well be discussed.

In Sikh faith highest merit is assigned to meeting of the followers in sangat. This is considered essential for the spiritual edification and progress of an individual. It is a means of religious and ethical training. Worship and prayer in sangat count for more than isolated religious practice. The holy fellowship is morally elevating. Here the seeker learns to make himself useful to others by engaging in acts of seva, or self-giving service, so highly prized in Sikhism. The seva can take the form of looking after the assembly’s shoes for all must enter the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib barefoot; preparing and serving food in Guru ka Langar; and relieving the rigour of a hot summer day by swinging over the heads of the devotees large hand-fans. It is in the company of pious men that true religious discipline ripens. Those intent on spiritual advantage must seek it.

Though sangat has freedom to discuss secular matters affecting the community, it is its spiritual core which imparts to it the status and authority it commands in the Sikh system. As Guru Nanak says, “satsangat is where the Divine Name alone is cherished” (GG, 72). This is where virtues are learnt. “Satsangat is the Guru’s own school where one practises godlike qualities” (GG, 1316). Attendance at sangat wins one nearness to God and release from the circuit of birth and death. “Sitting among sangat one should recite God’s praise and thereby swim across the impassable ocean of existence” (GG, 95). As satsangat is obtained through the Guru’s grace, the Name blossoms forth in the heart (GG, 67-68). “Amid sangat abides the Lord God” (GG, 94). “God resides in the sangat. He who comprehends the Guru’s word realizes this truth (GG, 1314). “Deprived of sangat, one’s self remains begrimed” (GG, 96). “Without sangat ego will not be dispelled” (GG, 1098). Says Guru Arjan in Sukhmani, “Highest among all works is joining the sangat and thereby conquering the evil propensities of the mind” (GG, 266). Again, “As one lost in a thick jungle rediscovers one’s path, so will one be enlightened in the company of the holy” (GG, 282).

Sangat, fellowship of the holy, is thus applauded as a means of moral and spiritual uplift; it is as well a social unit which inculcates values of brotherhood, equality and seva. Sangats sprang up in the wake of Guru Nanak’s extensive travels. Group of disciples formed in different places and met together in sangat to recite his hymns.

As an institution, sangat had, with its concomitants dharamsal, where the devotees gathered in the name of Akal, the Timeless Lord, to pray and sing Guru Nanak’s hymns, and Guru ka Langar, community refectory, where all sat together to partake of a common repast without distinction of caste or status—symbolized the new way of life emerging from Guru Nanak’s teachings. At the end of his udasis or travels, Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur, a habitation he had himself founded on the right bank of the River Ravi. There a community of disciples grew around him. It was not a monastic order, but a fellowship of ordinary men engaged in ordinary occupation of life. A key element in this process of restructuring of religious and social life was the spirit of seva. Corporal works of charity and mutual help were undertaken voluntarily and zealously and considered a peculiarly pious duty. To quote Bhai Gurdas: “dharamsal kartarpur sadhsangati sach khandu vasaia”, Varan, XXIV. 11, i.e. in establishing dharamsal at Kartapur, with its sangat or society of the holy, Guru Nanak brought the heaven on earth.

These sangats played an important role in the evolution of the Sikh community. The social implications of the institutions were far-reaching. It united the Sikhs in a particular locality or region into a brotherhood or fraternity. A member of the sangat, i.e. every Sikh was known as bhai, lit. brother, signifying one of holy living. The sangat brought together men not only in spiritual pursuit but also in worldly affairs, forging community of purpose as well as of action based on mutual equality and brotherhood. Though sangats were spread over widely separated localities, they formed a single entity owning loyalty to the word of Guru Nanak. Sangats were thus the Sikh community in formation.

In these sangats the disciples mixed together without considerations of birth, profession or worldly position. Bhai Gurdas, his Var XI, mentions the names of the leading Sikhs of the time of Guru Nanak and his five spiritual successors. In the first 12 stanzas are described the characteristics of a gursikh, or follower of the Guru. In the succeeding stanzas occur the names of some of the prominent Sikhs, in many cases with caste, class or profession of the individual. In some instances, even places they came from are mentioned. In these stanzas, Bhai Gurdas thus provides interesting clues to the composition, socially, of early Sikhism and its spread, geographically. Out of the 19 disciples of Guru Nanak mentioned by Bhai Gurdas, two were Muslims—Mardana, a mirasi, or bard, from his own village, and Daulat Khan Lodi, an Afghan noble. Bura, celebrated as Bhai Buddha, who was contemporary with the first six Gurus, was a Jatt of Randhava subcaste. So was Ajitta, of Pakkhoke Randhava, in present-day Gurdaspur district. Phirna was a Khaihra Jatt; Malo and Manga were musicians; and Bhagirath, formerly a worshipper of the goddess Kali, was the chaudhari, i.e. revenue official of Malsihan, in Lahore district Of the several Khatri disciples, Mula was of Kir subcaste, Pritha and Kheda were Soinis, Prithi Mall was a Sahigal, Bhagta was Ohri, Japu a Vansi, and Sihan and Gajjan cousins were Uppals. The Sikh sangat was thus the melting-pot for the high and the low, the twice-born and the outcaste. It was a new fraternity emerging as the participants’ response of discipleship to the Guru.

Sangats were knit into an organized system by Guru Amar Das who established manjis or preaching districts, each comprising a number of sangats. Guru Arjan appointed masands, community leaders, to look after sangats in different regions. Sangat was the precursor to the Khalsa manifested by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. That was the highest point in the evolution of the casteless Sikh commonwealth originating in the institution of sangat.


1. Kohli, Surindar Singh, Outlines of Sikh Thought. Delhi, 1966

2. McLeod, W. H., The Evolution of the Sikh Community. Delhi, 1975

3. Ray, Niharranjan, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society. Patiala, 1970

4. Cunningham, Joseph Davey, A History of the Sikhs. London, 1849

K. J. S.

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