SIKHISM AND CASTE SYSTEM (Jagjit Singh Chandigarh). A total rejection of the caste system is a typical feature of the Sikh tradition. Sikhism in fact originated as a voice of protest against the many prevalent ills of contemporary Indian society. The caste system was the most damaging and debilitating of them. It completely negated the humanitarian and egalitarian principles, fundamental to the Sikh creed. Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, and his nine spiritual successors strongly attacked the system. The advent of Sikhism in the midst of caste rigidities and superstitions was truly a radical beginning.
Caste, lexically defined as “a hereditary social group comprising persons of the same ethnic stock, social rank, occupation and more or less distinctive mores” is a characteristic common to all societies the world over, and hardly shows anything more than social differentiations that have developed in varying degrees of discrimination or exclusiveness. In the Punjab, for instance, caste (jat or zat) signifies only an ethnic group gotra (family, line, sept or class) just like the MacDonalds, Montagues, Montmorencies, etc, in England, It is only when it develops into a system with its rigid stratification and permanent division of social status based on birth alone, as it did in India, that caste becomes a curse.
A system is qualitatively different from a casual or unintentional assortment of factors or forces. It is what distinguishes philosophy, religion or science from an unintegrated mass of doctrines and tenets. It is what distinguishes an army from a rabble, as it involves organization, arrangement, method and considered principles of procedure. Above all, a system presumes a direction, a plan, a purpose, an objective towards the fulfilment of which the functioning of the different parts of the system is oriented, coordinated and harmonized. Moreover, a system has its own cumulative power, thrust, momentum not easy to stem, and grip, hold and shackle almost impossible to unfetter. The caste system that developed in India over the millennia possessed all these ingredients and characteristics. And more, it was given the garb of religion, the Varnasrma Dharma, signifying divine origin or sanction for it.
That social distinctions existed, as in other primitive societies, in pre-Aryan India is evidenced by the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization, but whether these were characterized by permanent divisions based on birth we do not know. The caste system in the Hindu society as generally understood definitely developed after the advent of the Aryans. Whether a four-fold division into occupational groups was historical necessity for the invaders is irrelevant here. The fact is that among the sacerdotal groups, the Brahmans, came to possess real power in matters social as well as religious and became, besides being the sole interpreters of religious texts, exclusive authors and arbiters of the social code. They divided society into castes and sub-castes meticulously arranged in a hierarchical social pyramid in which the social grade of each group and individual was fixed permanently by birth. Each layer in the pyramid was superior in caste status (virtually in social status) to all the layers below it, and lower in caste status to all the others above it, irrespective of their political power and economic position. Even the Brahmans at the top of the pyramid and the untouchables at its bottom were graded among their own ranks. The privileges, disabilities, obligations, and duties, i.e. practically all aspects of social behaviour, of each sub-caste by fixed rules and codes were formulated by Brahmans particularly by Manu who claimed direct descent from Brahma, the creator of universe. These sub-castes were, by and large, endogamous groups, and they worked sedulously to isolate themselves from each other in other social matters too. Mutual exclusiveness was caused predominantly not by social, but by ritualistic factors. Such factors as personal endowments, wealth, political power, colour and racial prejudices, and even taboos, which determined the hierarchical set-ups in other societies, were not the final determinants in the Indian caste system, though these did contribute to its development. Although individuals, groups and sub-castes were in the grip of a continuously downward process, there was practically no upward social mobility.
Caste system of the Varnasrama had its own intricacies. Its constituents were interdependent and interlocked, both horizontally and vertically, in a self-perpetuating social fabric. Within the sub-caste, each constituent of the system (hereditary functionalism, social and ritualistic taboos, pollution, religion, etc.) tied its own caste-knot around the individual.
The fundamental assumption of the caste ideology is that men are not equal, but are forever unequal. Permanent human inequality is the officially declared Brahmanical ideology, and this forms the basis of the Hindu social order. God Himself is the author of this inequality. The Veda was declared by Manu to be the direct revelation of God, and it is a Rig Vedic hymn, Purusa Sukta, which forms the source for the caste ideology. It says that God created Brahmans from His head, Ksatriyas from His arms, Vaisyas from His legs and Sudras from His feet. Even the Dharma Sastra of Manu is said to be the inspired word of the Vedas, almost of equal authority with them. Manu did not rest content with establishing the divine authority of the Vedas. His object thereby was to sanctify the caste system and the position of the Brahmans. He declared that the teaching of a Brahman is authoritative for ‘man’ because the Veda is the foundation for that (Manu, XI. 85).
The process of the creation of a sovereign, autonomous society, the Sikh Panth, had started in the day of Guru Nanak himself. He had begun his career as a teacher of men with the significant utterance, “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman,” and took clear-cut practical steps towards moulding a society of Sikhs (literally disciples) on independent ideological lines. He specifically condemned caste and caste ideology as perverse, and rejected the authority of the Vedas and supremacy of the Brahmans. On caste, he said:
Meaningless is caste and meaningless (caste) names,
The same shadow protects all beings (GG, 83)
What can caste do?
Truthfulness is the criterion (GG, 142).
Discern the light; do not enquire (one’s) caste;
There is no caste in the hereafter (GG, 349)
Do not enquire about (one’s) caste and birth
Preach the True Sastra
Caste and honour are determined by deeds (GG, 1330).
About high and low caste, he declared:
There are lower castes among the low castes,
And some are absolutely low:
Nanak seeketh their company,
What hath he to do with the high ones? (GG, 15)
Reading of Vedas he described as a mundane function which Brahmans perform (GG, 791). Elsewhere he says,
Vedas talk about virtue and sin
Or about heaven and hell, nothing else;
But the soul know that
As one soweth, so one reapeth (GG, 1243).
And he castigated Brahmans as “immersed in doubt, they never find the goal, although they call themselves teachers, savants and priests” (GG, 905); and “The Pandit cannot reach (the goal) simply by studying; involved in the duel of sin and virtue he only quenches Death’s hunger,” (GG, 1012). Other Gurus who succeeded Guru Nanak also spoke and preached in the same vein.
By contradicting Hinduism, Sikhism also delinked itself from that aspect of Hindu dharma which was, in day-to-day action, the main vehicle for providing religious sanction to the varnasrama dharma. The Gurus issued their own new version of dharma, which was, at least as far as caste was concerned, completely at variance with the Hindu mores. They made the Dharma perfect and universal by blending the four castes into one. Underlying the taboos on food and drink and the ostracization of the Sudra castes was the notion of pollution which was supposed to be incurred not only by partaking of food or drinks under certain conditions, but by the mere bodily contact with persons of certain low castes whose traditional occupation, whether actually followed or not, rendered them untouchable. This hymn by Guru Nanak speaks clearly:
If idea 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 can impurity be avoided?
It enters our very kitchens.
Impurity is not washed away thus, O Nanak;
It is washed by divine knowledge. . .
All impurity supposedly contagious
Consists in superstition. . .
Those who have, through the Guru, understood
Suffer no contamination (GG. 472).
Besides denying the authority of the Vedas and Sastras, the Guru took some practical steps to impart an egalitarian thrust to the nascent Sikh community. The twin institutions of sangat (company of the holy) and pangat (commensality), where no discrimination on the basis of caste, birth or social status was observed, went a long way in inculcating in the Sikhs the spirit of equality, brotherhood and humanitarianism. The creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh was the acme of the Sikh movement. The Khalsa made a clear break with the caste society. Of the five original initiates, the first batch of entrants to the Khalsa Brotherhood, there were three from the so-called Sudra castes, and one Jat, a caste then on the borderline of Vaisyas and Sudras. For initiation into the Khalsa ranks, ritual (amrit or khande di pahul) was made obligatory (Guru Gobind Singh himself had to undergo), and during the ceremony the neophytes had to take five vows, viz. dharm nash, i.e. to sever connection with one’s previous religious belief, karam nash, i.e. to free oneself from former rites, rituals, customs, etc.; kul nash, i.e. severance of all ties with lineage and birth, the fundamental basis of caste society; shram nash, i.e. obliteration of stigmas attached to trade or occupation, which gave the convert a sense of self-respect and dignity of labour; and bharm nash, i.e. discarding superstition, taboos and notion of pollution. The later Sikh literature of the 18th century (the Rahitnamas, specifically of varied authorship and composed at different times carrying the different emphases) is agreed on the point that the Khalsa broke away categorically from the caste ideology and caste society. Testimony from contemporary non-Sikh sources substantiates this fact and historical evidence supports it. Guru Gobind Singh assigned the overall military command to a former Bairagi assisted by a council of five, selected irrespective of their former castes. Later, of the five divisions of Sikh guerrillas, one was captained by a convert from the so-called untouchable scavenger caste while another was headed by a former Ksatriya. Still later, when with further expansion of the Sikh army, the Dal Khalsa, it was divided into eleven misls, one was commanded by a low-caste warrior. Likewise, the overall command vested with one not born to the caste.
Sikhism mounted a frontal attack on citadel of caste and the individual pillars on which it was based. It must, however, be admitted that caste could not be totally uprooted, so strongly was it entrenched in the Indian soil, although it must be emphasized at the same time that the Sikhs never accepted either the religious validity of the caste system or that of its constituent pillars, its authors, interpreters and upholders, the Brahmans. The Sikhs have never owed allegiance to any scripture but Guru Granth Sahib, and it completely and categorically repudiates caste distinctions, ritualism and the Brahmanical ideology of pollution. Nor, since the time of the creation of the Khalsa, Brahmans have ever become a point of reference in the Sikh society in regard to social status or hierarchy, or for that matter for any purpose whatsoever. There has been no sacerdotal class or caste among the Sikhs, and stress on work ethics has amalgamated the other three castes into a single working class.
Guru Nanak says, “Do not ever bow at the feet of those who claim to be gurus and spiritual guides but go begging at others’ doors for subsistence. He has recognized the (true) path, O Nanak! Who earns his living through hard labour and gives something to help others” (GG, 1245). Whatever traces of caste are still discernible among the Sikhs constitute a lingering and fast-dying aberration and not the rule. It must be borne in mind that there is vital distinction between caste and caste system—caste in the ordinary lexical sense and the term caste in the Brahmanical sense. Jatts and Khatris among the Sikhs are in reality occupational classes and not castes as under the Varnasrama Dharma. They do not constitute an hierarchy, because hierarchy presupposes demarcation of higher and lower grades, which are absent from the Sikh society. Distinctions wherever noticed are not ethnic but economic. Jatt Sikhs traditionally forming the peasantry, by and large, continue to stick to land and constitute bulk of the rural segment of population, while Khatri and Arora Sikhs being traditionally engaged in trade and commerce are largely located in urban areas. There is however no bar to occupational mobility.
The only case where some vestiges of the caste system still remain is that of social discrimination against Mazhabi Sikhs (converts from scavenging caste) and Ramdasia Sikhs (formerly Chamars engaged in leather work and weavers). They too have never been treated as untouchable and there has been no commensal or social discrimination against those among them who have taken the pahul (the rites) of the Khalsa. Also, there has been no discrimination against anyone while attending religious gatherings or dining in Guru ka Langar, i.e. community kitchen. The existence of remaining prejudices may be explained by several factors. First, it is a part of the dynamics of ideological mass upsurges that their initial momentum has always tended to taper off as time goes by. After reaching ideological peaks, they have invariably reached a plateau and then slided somewhat back towards the levels they started from. It is due to the limitation of human nature and environmental hurdles that the transformation of human society in terms of its idealistic goals has been extremely slow, despite all religious and other progressive movements that have taken place. Revolutionary movements do leave behind more or less degrees of progress, but the critics usually tend to compare them with absolute standard instead of measuring the achievements in relative terms. It is always easier to point out shortcomings than to appreciate gains. The initial success of the revolutionary Sikh movement, it must be appreciated, attracted to its fold a large number of converts, mostly from the Hindu caste society.
During the tribulations and turmoils of the eighteenth century, the core elements of the Khalsa were deeply involved in a life-and death struggle against the tyranny of the oppressive Indian State and depredations of rapacious invaders, leaving the religious leadership in the hands of Udasis and Nirmala priestly classes whose religious and educational background was more akin to traditional Brahmanism than to orthodox Sikhism. The influence of these classes resulted in diluting the essentially anti-caste teaching of Sikh Gurus so much so that the nineteenth-century Nirankari and Namdhari movements professing to re-establish the purity of Sikh mores ended in gurudom and sectarian exclusiveness.
Intra-caste endogamy is practised only by some Khatri and Arora caste groups. In most cases, and invariably in the case of Jatt Sikhs, marriage is exogamous in relation to sub-caste, though endogamous in relation to class. In India, marriages are not based on pre-marital love, as in the West, and divorce is most difficult to obtain, if not practically impossible, because it carries with it social stigma. Joint family system has been and is still, commonly, the universal mode of life. A girl after marriage has to undergo a tremendous change in family relationships as well as in social environment, and has to make far reaching adjustments in her own behaviour and way of life. Such adjustments become easy if the change from parental home to the in-laws’ is minimal, that is if the life-style of the two families is identical or similar. This is easily achieved if the marriage is arranged within the same occupational class which is what caste means among the Sikhs. An alternative custom of marrying within the family, introduced in India by the Semitic tradition, has not been acceptable to Indian culture, which considers marriage between cousins as incestuous. Hence the vogue of treating marriage within zat (caste or class) as endogamous, but in relation to gotra (sub-caste, sept or clan) as exogamous.
1. Banerjee, A. C., Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh. Patiala, 1978
2. Barth, A., Religions of India. Delhi, 1963
3. Blunt, E. H. H., The Caste Systems of Northern India
4. Crooke, W., The North-Western Provinces of India: Their History, Ethnology andAdministration, 1994
5. Daljeet Singh, Sikhism. Chandigarh, 1979
6. Ghurye, G .S., Caste and Race in India. 1986
7. Hutton, J. H., Caste in India. 1980
8. Ibbetson, Sir Denzil, Punjab Castes. Patiala, 1970
9. Ketkar, S. V., History of Caste System in India. 1979
10. Marenco, E. K., The Transformation of Sikh Society. Portland, Oregon, 1974
11. Weber, Max, The Religions of India, 1960
12. Narang, G. C., Transformation of Sikhism. Delhi, 1956
13. Prinsep, H. T., Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab and Political Life ofMaharaja Ranjit Singh. Calcutta, 1834
16. Major Gurmukh Singh, “Professor McLeod on Sikh and Sikhism” in Dharam Singh (ed.) Sikhism and Socialism. Delhi, 1994
J. S. C.
SINGH (Ganda Singh), from Sanskrit sinha for lion, is an essential component of the name for a Sikh male. Every Sikh male name must end with ‘Singh’. Historically, this was so ordained by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi day, 30 March 1699, when he inaugurated the Khalsa, introducing a new form of initiatory rites, khande di pahul. The five Sikhs who from among the assembly had on that day offered their heads one after the other responding to the Guru’s successive calls were the first Sikhs who were administered by him the vows of the Khalsa. They were to adopt the five prescribed emblems, including kesa or unshorn hair and share a common end-name ‘Singh’ in token of having joined the self-abnegating, martial and casteless fellowship of the Khalsa. After initiation, Daya Ram had become Daya Singh, Dharam Das Dharam Singh, Muhkam Chand Muhkam Singh, Himmat Rai Himmat Singh and Sahib Chand Sahib Singh. Guru Gobind Singh, who had himself initiated at the hands of these five, received the name of Gobind Singh.
Every male Sikh has since carried ‘Singh’ as part of his name. This was a way of inculcating among the Sikhs a spirit of brotherhood as well as of valour. Wearing the distinctive symbols and clad and armed like a soldier with a flowing beard and a neatly tied turban on his head, a Singh had been set high ideals to live up to. As subsequent events proved, Singhs became a strong cohesive force admired even by their enemies for their qualities of courage and chivalry. For example, Qazi Nur Muhammad, who came in Ahmad Shah Durrani’s train during his seventh invasion of India (1764-65), in his poetic account of the campaign in Persian, refers to, the Singhs in rude and imprecatory language, but cannot at the same time help proclaim their many virtues. In section XLI of his poem, he says: “Singh is a title (a form of address for them). It is not just to call them ‘dogs’ (his contumelious term for Singhs). If you do not know the Hindustani language, (I shall tell you that) the word Singh means a lion. Truly, they are like lions in battle and, in times of peace, they surpass Hatim (in generosity). . . Leaving aside their mode of fighting, hear ye another point in which they excel all other fighting people. In no case would they slay a coward, nor would they put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the ornaments of a woman. . . They do not make friends with adulterers and housebreakers.”
As a rule, all Sikhs other than Sahajdharis are named Singhs even before the formal initiation through khande di pahul takes place. While ‘Sikh’ is a spiritual appellation, ‘Singh’ has socio-political overtones in addition. In practice all Singhs are Sikhs with the discipline enjoined upon them by Guru Gobind Singh added. In sentiment, however, they are closer to the community as a whole and more active socially and politically. Their special status is recognized legally as well. Under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971, while all adult Sikhs are eligible to be registered as voters for election to the respective Gurdwara Parbandhak Committees, only amritdhari Sikhs, i.e. Singhs, are qualified for the membership of these statutory bodies. Similarly Sikh rahit maryada or code of conduct published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee makes a distinction between shakhsirahini or individual conduct and panthic rahini or corporate conduct. While the former applies to all Sikhs, the Singhs must conduct themselves, in addition, according to the panthic rahini.
SIROPA (Major Gurmukh Singh), a term adopted from Persian sar-o-pa (head and foot) or sarapa (head to foot) meaning an honorary dress, is used in Sikh vocabulary for a garment, scarf or a length of cloth bestowed on someone as a mark of honour. It is equivalent of khill’at or robe of honour with the difference that while a khill’at is awarded by a political superior and comprises a whole set of garments with or without arms, a siropa is bestowed by a religious or social figure or institution and may comprise a whole dress or, as is usually the case, a single garment or a length of cloth as a mark of recognition of piety or as an acknowledgement of unswerving devotion to a moral or philanthropic purpose.
The use of the term may be traced to certain hymns of the Gurus where the exact words used are kapra (garment or cloth), patola (scarf) and sirpau (saropa, dress of honour), and they signify the bestowal of honour as well as protection of honour. For example, Guru Nanak sang, sachi sifat salah kapra paia—I received by His grace the garment signalling me to sing His praise (GG, 150). And Guru Arjan said, prem patola taisahi dita dhakan ku pati meri—O Lord, thou hast invested me with the scarf of love to save my honour (GG, 52O). In another hymn he sang, suni pukar samarth suami bandhankati savare/pahiri sirpau sevak jan mele nanak pragat pahare—Responding to my humble plaint the all-powerful Lord has cut asunder all of our shackles. Upon his servants he has conferred robes of honour (GG, 31). Yet in another place: bhagat jana kalugara odhi nagan na hoi/ sakat sirpau resmi pahirat pati khoi—devotees of God are not naked even in torn rag. One who is attached to maya loses his honour clad even in his silk robes (GG, 811).
Siropa should be distinguished from the bestowal of a turban or gown by a saint upon a disciple as a mark of initiation or confirmation in an order or of succession to its headship. Siropa among the Sikhs is a symbol of honour or benediction. The practice can be traced back at least as far as Guru Angad who bestowed upon (Guru) Amar Das a scarf every year. The latter treated these scarfs as sacred gifts and carried them tied on his head one above the other.
The siropa is now a gift bestowed by sangat on behalf of the Guru Granth Sahib upon someone who deserves the honour by virtue of his or her dedication. It is almost invariably in the form of a length of cloth, two to two-and-a-half metres, usually dyed in saffron colour, accompanied by prasad, the consecrated food which could be in the form of karah prasad, sugar crystal or bubbles, or dry fruit. Siropa is the highest award that a Sikh may receive in sangat. It is the most precious gift of the Guru made through the sangat. The present practice of giving a siropa to anyone who makes an offering of or exceeding a certain value or who happens to be socially or politically important is, strictly speaking, an aberration. Siropa is earned through high merit and dedication.
1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959
M. G. S.
SRI GURU GRANTH SAHIB (Taran Singh) (Guru = spiritual teacher; Granth = book or volume; Sahib, an honorific signifying master or lord) is the name by which the holy book of the Sikhs is commonly known. It is a voluminous anthology of the sacred verse by six of the ten Gurus whose compositions it carries and of some of the contemporary saints and men of devotion. The book is treated by the followers as Word incarnate, the embodiment and presence manifest or the spirit of the ten historical Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh). The anthology was prepared by Guru Arjan (1563-1606), Nanak V. It was in the beginning referred to as pothi, pothisahib, the revered book. It was treated with great veneration. The Guru himself described the pothi “as God’s own repository” (GG, 1226). It was also called the Granth Sahib. The prefix “Guru” came to be applied as Guru Gobind Singh ended, before his passing, the line of personal Gurus. “Granth Sahib” was designated as “Guru Granth Sahib.” The Guru had declared the Word to be the same as Guru (GG, 943). Guru Amar Das, Nanak III, had announced that for the sake of liberation, contemplation of the Word was more efficacious than even the sight of the Guru (GG, 594). Over the years, the holy book has received the honours due to the living Gurus. No Sikh assembly can properly speaking be so named unless the holy book be present in it. The holy volume in wraps or without wraps, which is but a rare occurrence, wherever located commands the reverence that was shown the living Gurus. The Holy Book is the centre of all Sikh usage and ceremony.
The Guru Granth Sahib—some of the variations on the title being Adi Granth, Sri Adi Granth or Adi Sri Guru Granth Sahib—is today the living Guru for the Sikhs. The basic Word in the expressions listed is granth which means a book, Sahib and Sri being honorifics, guru indicating its status as successor in the Guruship and adi, literally, original, first or primary, distinguishing it from the other sacred book of the Sikhs, the Dasam Granth, the book of the tenth Master, which contains the compositions of the Tenth (Dasam) Guru. A simpler form with a clear rural voice is Darbar Sahib, the holy court. The contributors to the Guru Granth Sahib came from a variety of class and creedal background—there were among them Hindus as also Muslims, “low” castes as also “high” castes.
There were as many different contributors as there were rhymes and rhythms. The entire text was cast in verse patterns of a wide variety. There were 31 different measures used. They were all set in padas (verses), astpadis (8- stanza hymns) and chhants (lyrics usually of 4 stanzas each) and longer compositions such as vars in the order of the succession of the authors. In the 1430-page recension which is now the standard form and which carries the statutory approval of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in the present-day Sikh complex the sequence of contents is: the liturgical part (1-13), Siri Raga (14-93), Majh (94-150), Gauri (151-346), Asa (347-488), Gujari (489-526), Devagandhari (527-536), Bihagara (537-556), Vadahansa (557-594), Sorathi (595-659), Dhanasari (660-695), Jaitsari (696-710), Todi (711-718), Bairai (719-720), Tilang (721-727), Suhi (728-794), Bilaval (795-858), Gaund (859-875), Ramkali (876-974), Nat Narain (975-983), Mali Gaura (984-988), Maru (989-1106), Tukhari (1107-1117), Kedara (1118-1124), Bhairau (1125-1167), Basant (1168-1196), Sarang (1197-1253), Malar (1254-1293), Kanara (1294-1318), Kalian (1319-1326), Prabhati (1327-1351), Jaijavanti (1352-1353), Salok Sahaskriti (1353-1360), Gatha, Phuneh and Chaubole (1360-1364), Salok Kabir (1364-1377), Salok Farid (1377-1384), Savaiyye (1385-1409), additional salok (1410-1429), Mundavani, and Ragmala (1429-1430).
Even before the time of Guru Arjan, pothis or books, in Gurmukhi characters existed containing the holy utterances of the Gurus. A line in Bhai Gurdas, var l.32, suggests that Guru Nanak during his travels carried under his arm a book, evidently comprising his own compositions. According to the Puratan Janam Sakhi he handed over such a manuscript to Guru Angad as he passed on the spiritual office to him. Two of the collections of hymns or pothis prior to the Guru Granth Sahib are still extant. They are in the possession of the descendants of Guru Amar Das. One of the families in the line used to live in Patiala and has only recently migrated to Pinjore, in the Sivaliks, and the pothi it has inherited is on view for the devotees in their home on the morning of the full-moon day every month. A collateral family which is in possession of the second pothi lives in the village of Darapur, in Hoshiarpur district of the Punjab.
The bani, or word revealed, was held in great veneration by the Sikhs even before the Holy Volume was compiled. It was equated with the Guru himself. “The bani is the Guru and the Guru bani,” says Guru Ram Das in Raga Nat Narain (GG, 982). The bani echoed the Divine Truth; it was the voice of God—“the Lord’s own word,” as said Guru Nanak in the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Amar Das (GG, 515):
vahu, vahu, bani nirankar hai
tis jevad avar na koe
Hail, hail, the word of the Guru, which is the Lord Formless Himself;
There is none other, nothing else to be reckoned equal to it.
The compilation of the Holy Book, a momentous event in Sikh history, is generally described in the briefest terms. The Sacred Volume was prepared by Guru Arjan (1563-1606) and the first copy was calligraphed by Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636) at his dictation—this is all we learn from most of the sources. What amount of planning, minute attention to detail and diligent and meticulous work it involved is slurred over. An old text which gives some detailed information is the Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi. Written in 1718, this, in fact, is the oldest source. Although it does not go into the technical and literary minutiae, it broadly describes the process from the beginning of the transcription of the Holy Volume to its installation in the newly-built Harimandar at Amritsar.
Why Guru Arjan undertook the task is variously explained. One commonly accepted assumption is that the codification of the Gurus’ compositions into an authorized volume was begun by him with a view to preserving them from garbling by schismatic groups and others. According to the Mahima Prakash (1776), he set to work with the announcement: “As the Panth (Community) has been revealed unto the world, so there must be the Granth (Book), too.” By accumulating the canon, Guru Arjan wished to affix the seal on the sacred Word. It was also to be the perennial fountain of inspiration and the means of self-perpetuation for the community.
Guru Arjan called Bhai Gurdas to his presence and expressed to him the wish that the sacred verse be collected. Messages were sent to the disciples to gather and transmit to him the hymns of his predecessors.
Baba Mohan, son of Guru Amar Das, Nanak III, had manuscript collections of the Gurus’ hymns inherited from his father. Bhai Gurdas travelled to Goindval to bring these pothis, but the owner refused to see him. Bhai Buddha, one of the oldest and most revered Sikhs from Guru Nanak’s days, was similarly turned away from the door. Then Guru Arjan went himself. He sat in the street below Mohan’s attic serenading him on his tambura. Mohan was disarmed to hear the hymn. He came downstairs with the pothis and presented these to the Guru. As says the Gurbilas, the pothis were placed on a palanquin bedecked with precious stones. The Sikhs carried it on their shoulders and Guru Arjan walked behind barefoot. He refused to ride his horse, saying that the pothis were the very spirit, the very light of the four Gurus—his predecessors.
The cavalcade broke journey at Khadur Sahib to make obeisance at shrines sacred to Guru Angad. Two kos from Amritsar, it was received by Hargobind, Guru Arjan’s young son, accompanied by a large number of Sikhs. He bowed at his father’s feet and showered petals in front of the pothis. Guru Arjan, Hargobind, Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Buddha now bore the palanquin on their shoulders and marched towards Amritsar led by musicians, with flutes and drums. Reaching Amritsar, Guru Arjan first went to the Harimandar to offer karah prasad in gratefulness.
To quote the Gurbilas again, an attractive spot in the thick of a forest on the outskirts of Amritsar was marked out by Guru Arjan. So dense was the foliage that not even a moonbeam could pry into it. It was like Panchbati itself, peaceful and picturesque. A tent was hoisted in this idyllic setting. Here Guru Arjan and Bhai Gurdas started work on the sacred volume.
The making of the Granth was no easy task. It involved sustained labour and a rigorous intellectual discipline. Selections had to be made from a vast amount of material. Besides the compositions of the four preceding Gurus and of Guru Arjan who himself was a poet with a rare spiritual insight, there were songs and hymns by saints, both Hindu and Muslim. What was genuine had to be sifted from what was counterfeit. Then the selected material had to be assigned to appropriate musical measures and transcribed in a minutely laid out order.
Guru Arjan carried out the work with extraordinary exactness. He arranged the hymns in thirty different ragas, or musical patterns. A precise method was followed in setting down the compositions. First came sabdas by the Gurus in the order of their succession. Then came astpadis, chhants, vars, and other poetic forms in a set order. The compositions of the Gurus in each raga were followed by those of the Bhaktas in the same format. Gurmukhi was the script used for the transcription.
According to Bhai Gurdas’ testimony, the text had been transcribed by Bhadon vadi Ekam 1661/1 August 1604. At the head of the index he recorded: “Sammat 1661 miti bhadonvadi ekam pothi likhi pahuche, i.e. on Bhadon vadi Ekam 1661 he had reached this spot where the index was to begin after completing the writing of the book.” The index, giving the opening words of each sabda or hymn and pagination, is itself a marvel of scholarly fastidiousness. A genius, unique in spiritual intuition and not unconcerned with methodological design, had created a scripture with an exalted mystical tone and a high degree of organization. It was large in size—nearly 7,000 hymns, comprising compositions of the first five Sikh Gurus and fifteen Bhaktas and Sufis from different parts of India, including Shaikh Farid, Kabir and Ravidas. The Sacred Volume consisted of 974 leaves, or 1948 pages, 12”x 8”, with several blank ones at the end of a raga where there were not sabdas enough to fill the section assigned to it. The site of these marvellous labours is now marked by a shrine called Ramsar.
The completion of the Granth Sahib was, says the Gurbilas, celebrated with much jubilation. In thanksgiving, karah prasad was prepared in huge quantities. Sikhs came in large numbers to see the Holy Book. They were rejoiced in their hearts by a sight of it and bowed before it to pay homage. Among the visitors was Bhai Banno who had led a group of Sikhs from Mangat, in western Punjab. Guru Arjan, who knew him as a devoted Sikh, instructed him to go to Lahore and have the Book bound. Banno sought the Guru’s permission to be allowed to take the Granth Sahib first to Mangat for the Sikhs there to see it. The Guru allowed this, but enjoined him not to tarry at Mangat, or at any other place, more than a night.
As Banno left Amritsar with his sacred charge, it occurred to him to have a second copy transcribed. The first copy, he argued, would remain with the Guru. There must be an additional one for the sangat. The Guru’s direction was that he should not stay longer than one night at a place, but he had said nothing about the time to be spent on the journey. So he proceeded with his plans and sent a Sikh to purchase paper. He proposed to his companions that they should travel by easy marches of five miles a day. The time thus saved was utilized in transcribing the holy text. Sikhs wrote with love and devotion and nobody shirked his duty whether it was day or night. By the time they reached Lahore, the second copy was ready. But Banno had added to it some apocryphal texts. He had both volumes bound and returned to Amritsar as fast as he could.
At Amritsar, he was received with due ceremony, though Guru Arjan was not a little surprised to see two volumes instead of one. Bhai Banno spoke truthfully: “Lord, there is nothing that is hidden from you. This second copy I have had made for the sake of the sangat.” But the Guru accepted only the volume written in Bhai Gurdas hand. He enjoined the Sikhs to own the Granth equal with the Guru and make no distinction between the two. “He who would wish to see the Guru, let him see the Granth. He who would seek the Guru’s word, let him read the Granth with love and attention.”
Guru Arjan asked the Sikhs where the Granth Sahib be installed. Bhai Buddha spoke, “You are omniscient, Master: But there is no place more suitable than the Harimandar.” The Guru was happy to hear these words, “like one who had sighted the new moon.” He then recited the praise of the Harimandar: “There is nothing like it in all the three worlds. Harimandar is like the ship—the means for the people to cross over the worldly ocean triumphantly. A new joy pervades here every day. A sight of it annuls all sins.”
It was decided to spend the night at Ramsar and return to Amritsar the next morning. The Granth Sahib rested on a seat under the canopy, whereas the Guru and the Sikhs slept on the ground.
A disciple had to be chosen to take charge of the Granth Sahib. As says the Gurbilas, Guru Arjan lay awake through the night reflecting on the question. His choice finally fell on Bhai Buddha whose devotion was universally applauded. As they awoke, the Guru and his Sikhs made ablutions in Ramsar. The former thereupon practised his wonted meditation. At dawn, the entire sangat marched towards Harimandar. Bhai Buddha carried the Holy Book on his head and Guru Arjan walked behind swinging the fly-whisk over it. Musicians sang sabdas. Thus they reached the Harimandar. The Granth Sahib was ceremonially installed in the centre of the inner sanctuary. The date was Bhadon sudi 1, 1661 Bk/16 August l604. Bhai Buddha opened it with reverence to obtain from it the divine command, as Guru Arjan stood in attendance behind. The following hymn was read as God’s own pronouncement for the occasion:
He Himself has aided his saints in their task,
He Himself has come to see their task accomplished.
Blessed is the earth, blessed the tank;
Blessed is the tank with amrit, nectar, filled.
Nectar everfloweth the tank: He has had the task completed;
Eternal is the Perfect Being,
His praises Vedas and Puranas sing.
The Creator has bestowed on me the nine treasures, and all the charisms.
No lack do I suffer now.
Enjoying His largesse, bliss have I attained,
Ever-expanding is the Lord’s bounty.
Guru Arjan directed that during daytime the Holy Book should remain in the Harimandar and by night, after the Sohila was read, it should be taken to the room he had built for himself in Guru-ka-Mahal. As evening advanced by two watches, Bhai Buddha recited the Sohila and made the concluding ardas or supplication. The Granth Sahib was closed and wrapped in silks. Bhai Buddha held it on his head and marched towards the chamber indicated by Guru Arjan. The Guru led the sangat singing hymns. The Granth Sahib was placed on the appointed seat, and the Guru slept on the ground by its side. Daily in the small hours of the morning as the stars twinkle in the pool below, the Holy Book is taken out in state to the Harimandar and brought by night to rest—now, in a room at the Akal Takht. The practice continues to this day. But the volume is not the same. That original copy was taken to Kartarput when Guru Arjan’s successor, Guru Hargobind, left Amritsar in 1634. There it passed into the possession of his grandson, Dhir Mall. It has since remained in that family.
In the Sikh system, the word Guru is used only for the ten prophet-preceptors, Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, and for none other. Now this office of Guru is fulfilled by the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sacred Book, which was so apotheosized by the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, before he passed away in 1708. No living person, however holy or revered, can have the title or status of Guru. For Sikhs, Guru is the holy teacher, the prophet under direct commission from God—the Ten who have been and the Guru Granth Sahib which is their continuing visible manifestation.
Guru Gobind Singh manifested the Khalsa in 1699. In 1708, he supplied another Permanent—and final—feature in the evolution of the Sikh faith when he installed the Holy Scripture as Guru. This is how the BhattVahiTalaudaParganah Jind describes the event:
Guru Gobind Singh mahal dasman beta Guru Tegh Bahadur ka pota Guru Hargobind ji ka parpota Guru Arjan ji ka bans Guru Ram Das ji ki Surajbansi Gosal gotra Sodhi Khatri basi Anandpur parganah Kahlur muqam Nander tat Godavari des dakkhan sammat satran sai painsath kartik mas ki chauth shukla pakkhe budhvar ke dihun Bhai Daya Singh se bachan hoya Sri Granth Sahib lai ao bachan pai Daya Singh Sri Granth Sahib lai aye guru ji ne panch paise narial age bheta rakha matha teka sarbatt sangat se kaha mera hukam hai meri jagah Sri Granthji ko janana jo sikh janega tis ki ghal thaen paegi guru tis ki bahuri karega sat kar manana.
Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master, son of Guru Tegh Bahadur, grandson of Guru Hargobind, great-grandson of Guru Arjan, of the family of Guru Ram Das, Surajbansi Gosal clan, Sodhi Khatri, resident of Anandpur, parganah Kahlur, now at Nanded, on the Godavari bank in the Deccan, asked Bhai Daya Singh, on Wednesday, shukla chauth of the month of Kartik, 1765 Bk (6 October I708), to fetch the Sri Granth Sahib. The Guru placed before it five pice and a coconut and bowed his head before it. He said to the sangat, “It is my commandment: Own Sri Granthji in my place. He who so acknowledges it will obtain his reward. The Guru will rescue him. Know this as the truth.
According to Giani Garja Singh, who discovered this entry, the author was Narbud Singh Bhatt, who was with Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded at that time.
Bhatt Vahis are a new source of information discovered by Giani Garja Singh (I904-77), a dogged searcher for materials on Sikh history. The Bhatts were hereditary panegyrists, genealogists or family bards. (A group of them were introduced to Guru Arjan by Bhatt Bhikkha, who himself had become a disciple in the time of Guru Amar Das. According to Bhai Gurdas, Var XI. 21, and Bhai Mani Singh Sikhan di BhagatMala, he had earlier visited Guru Arjan with the sangat of Sultanpur Lodhi.) Those of them who came into the Sikh fold composed hymns in honour of the Gurus which were entered in the Guru Granth Sahib by Guru Arjan.
These Bhatts also recorded events of the lives of the Gurus and of the members of their families in their scrolls called vahis. Some of these vahis are preserved to this day in the families, especially at the village of Karsindhu, in Jind district of Haryana. The script in which they are written is called bhataksri—a kind of family code like lande and mahajani. The only known scholar to have worked with these materials was Giani Garja Singh.
Apart from this new testimony culled by Giani Garja Singh from the Bhatt Vahis, another contemporary document which authenticates the fact of Guru Granth Sahib having been invested with the final authority is a letter issued by reference of Guru Gobind Singh’s wife, Mata Sundariji. To quote from the original, which is now in the possession of Bhai Chet Singh, of the village of Bhai Rupa, in present-day Bathinda district, to whose ancestors it was addressed:
Ik Oankar Wahguru ji ki fateh, Sri Akalpurkh ji ka Khalsa yak rang jina dithia Wahguru ji chit avai. Bhai Sahib Dan Singhji Bhai Duni Singh ji Bhai Jagat Singhji Bhai Gurbakhsh Singh ji Ugar Singhji Bhai Ram Singhji sarbatt Khalsa Wahguru Akalpurkhji ka pase likhtam gulam Khalsa ji ka Kahn Singh Nival Singh Mul Singhji Sujan Singh Gaja Singh Maha Singh Sarbatt Khalsa Wahguru Akalpurkh ka Wahguru ji ki fateh vachani khusha karna ji Wahguru Akalpurkhji har dam chit avai sukh hoe Khalsa ji ka bol bala hoi ardas tusadi marfat Bhai Dulcha Singh ke hath pahuti parhkai Khalsa ji bahut khushwaqat hoya tusadi bab Khalsa ji dayal hoya hai hath jore kai jo rakhya hove.“Jo janu harika sevako hari tiske kami.” Guru Guru japna Wahguru ang sang hai fajal karkai rakhia hovegi Khalsaji Bhai Kahn Singhji kau Mata Sahibji ne gumastgiri Amritsar ji ki mukarar kiti hai Khalsa ji ne gurmata karke Harimandar ate bagh di murammat imarat ka kam shuru kita hai sri Mata Sahib ji ne likha hai ki Wahguru Akalpurkh ji ki nagari hai langar jarur karna. . . Khalsa Sri Wahguru ji ka suchet bibek budh chahie jo sivai Akalpurkh duje nojanai nahi Dasam Patshahian tak jamai paidhe yarvin barvin Banda Chaubanda Ajita vagaire te aitkad lei avana hatiya hai. Hor hatiya Guru japan nal dur hosan, par ih hatiya gunah bakshiaiga nahi jo manmukh ke jame upar aitkad karenge, ‘Mukh mohi pheriai mukh mohi juttha hoi.’ Khalsaji tusan sivai Akal duje no manana nahi. Sabad dasvin patshaji tak khojna, “Sabad khoji ihu gharu lahai Nanak ta ka dasu. “Guru ka nivas sabad vich hai. “Guru mahi ap samoi sabad vartaiya.” “Jian andar jiu sabad hai jit sahu milava hoi.” Wahguru ji ki fateh. Bhai Mehar Singh tahlia Bhai Bule ka pattar ke khasmane vich rahina Guru nal gandh paisi.
Ik Oankar Wahiguru ki Fateh.
The Khalsa, of the timeless Himself, immersed in the One, and whose sight brings Wahiguru to mind. Addressed to Bhai Sahib Dan Singhji, Bhai Duni Singhji, Bhai Jagat Singhji, Bhai Gurbakhsh Singhji, Ugar Singhji, Bhai Ram Singhji, the entire Khalsa of Wahiguru, the Timeless One. From the slaves of the Khalsaji, Kahn Singhji, Nival Singh, Mul Singhji, Sujan Singh, Gaja Singh, Maha Singh Wahiguruji ki Fateh to the entire Khalsa. May you be rejoiced in constant remembrance of the Timeless Wahiguru. May prosperity prevail; may supremacy belong to the Khalsa. Having received your missive through Bhai Dulcha Singh, Khalsaji is highly pleased. Khalsaji happily prays with folded hands for your security. “He who to Lord surrenders himself, his affairs the Lord will set to rights.” Repeat always the name of Guru. Wahiguru is by your side. He will extend to you His grace and protection. Khalsaji, Mata Sahibji has appointed Bhai Kahn Singhji to the superintendence of Amritsarji. The Khalsaji, through a gurmata, has taken in hand the construction and repair of the Harimandar and the garden. Sri Mata Sahibji has written that langar must be run in that place which is the abode of God Himself. . . . Wahiguru’s Khalsa must always be alert, possessed of discriminating wisdom. The Khalsa must believe in none other than the Timeless One. There have been only Ten Masters in human form; to believe in the eleventh and twelfth, Banda Singh Bahadur, Ajita [Ajit Singh, adopted son of Mata Sundariji] etc. is a mortal sin. Every other sin can be had cancelled by repeating the Guru’s name, but this sin of believing in human forms will not be remitted. “The faces turned away from the Guru are faces perverted.” Khalsaji, you must believe in none other except the Timeless One. Go only to the Ten Gurus in search of the Word. “Nanak is the slave of him who by seeking the Lord’s Name obtains his goal.” The Guru resides in sabda. “The Lord hath merged His own Self in the Guru through whom He has revealed His word.” “The Word is the life of all life, for, through it, one experiences God.” Victory to the Lord, Bhai Mehar Singh, the messenger, son of Bhai Bula: keep the letter secure in your custody. You will gain the Guru’s favour.
From this letter it is clear how the Sikhs after Guru Gobind Singh believed that the Guruship had passed to the sabda, i.e. the Word as contained in the Guru Granth Sahib. None in the human form after the ten Gurus was to be acknowledged by the Sikhs as Guru. Those who, like some of Banda Singh’s or Ajit Singh’s followers, called their leaders Gurus were committing a mortal sin. All other sins, says the letter, could be had forgiven by repeating the Guru’s name, but not the sin of believing in a living Guru after the Ten Masters of the Sikh faith.
Several other old Sikh documents also attest the fact of succession having been passed on by Guru Gobind Singh to the Guru Granth Sahib. For instance, the Rahitnama by Bhai Nand Lal, one of Guru Gobind Singh’s disciples remembered to this day for his elegant Persian poetry in honour of the Gurus. In his Rahitnama, or code of conduct, Bhai Nand Lal, who was at Nanded in the camp of Emperor Bahadur Shah as one of his ministers at the time of Guru Gobind Singh’s passing away, thus records his last words in his Punjabi verse:
He who would wish to see the Guru,
Let him come and see the Granth.
He who would wish to speak with him,
Let him read and reflect upon what says the Granth.
He who would wish to hear his word,
He should with all his heart read the Granth, or listen to the Granth being read.
Another of Guru Gobind Singh’s disciples and associates, Bhai Prahlad Singh, records in his Rahitnama, the Guru’s commandment:
By the word of the Timeless One,
Has the Khalsa been manifested.
This is my commandment for all of my Sikhs:
You will acknowledge Granth as the Guru.
In Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (author Kuir Singh; the year of writing 1751), Guru Gobind Singh is quoted as saying:
This is no more the age for a personal Guru to be anointed
Another authority that may relevantly be quoted is Devaraja Sharma’s Nanakacandrodayamahakavyam, an old Sanskrit manuscript which has recently been published by Sanskrit University, Varanasi. It records Guru Gobind Singh’s proclamation that the Scripture would be the Guru after him. “While the Master lay on his deathbed, Nand Lal (?) came forward and asked the following question: ‘Who shall be the object of our discourses?’ The Master replied, “The Granth, which itself is the doctrine of the Guru, shall be your teacher. This is what you should see; this is what you should honour; this is what should be the object of your discourses.”
This point has been laboured somewhat lengthily for the reason that cavil is sometimes raised. Certain cults among Sikhs still owning personal Gurus ask for authentic evidence to the effect that Guru Gobind Singh had named Sri Guru Granth Sahib his successor. No archival testimony can be presented, unless the Bhatt Vahi entry be included in that category. But evidence bequeathed through tradition—written as well as oral—supports this fact. This is what has come down through Sikh memory. Had there been the 11th Guru, the name could not have been effaced from the pages of history. Guru Gobind Singh brought to an end the line of personal Gurus and declared the Holy Word Guru after him.
Along with the Guru Granth Sahib, the Khalsa was now the person visible of the Guru. The word khalsa is derived from the Arabic khalis, meaning pure or pious. Guru Gobind Singh used the term in its symbolic and technical sense. In official terminology, Khalsa in Mughal days meant lands or territory directly under the king. Crown-land was known as Khalsa land. As says a contemporary poet, Bhai Gurdas II, Guru Gobind Singh converted the sangat into Khalsa. Sikhs were the Guru’s Khalsa, i.e. directly his own, without any intermediary or local sangat leaders. On that point, we have the evidence of Sri Gur Sobha by Sainapat, a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Gobind Singh’s own hukamnamas. To quote from the former:
A day preceding the event, i.e. passing of Guru Gobind Singh
The Sikhs gathered together
And began to ask:
“What body will the lord now take?”
The Guru at that moment spoke:
“In the Khalsa will you see me;
“With the Khalsa is my sole concern;
“My physical form have I bestowed upon the Khalsa.”
Guru Gobind Singh, in his hukamnama issued on Phagun 4, 1756 Bk/ 1 February 1700, to the sangat of Pattan Farid, modern Pakpattan, refers to the sangat as ‘his own Khalsa.” Hukamnamas are letters written by the Gurus to sangats in different parts of the country. Some of them have been traced in recent years and two collections were published in 1967—one by Dr Ganda Singh (Punjabi University, Patiala) and the second by Shamsher Singh Ashok (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar). Most of the hukamnamas are common to both anthologies. These hukamnamas are another valuable source of information on the lives of the Gurus and on the Sikh communities forming in farflung places.
That Sri Guru Granth Sahib is Guru Eternal for it has been the understanding and conviction of the Sikh community since the passing of Guru Gobind Singh. In their hard, exilic days soon afterwards when they were outlawed and had to seek the safety of the hills and jungles, the Sikhs’ most precious possession which they cherished and defended at the cost of their lives was Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Holy Book was their sole religious reference, and they acknowledged none other. To quote the Prachin PanthPrakash: “Thou Guru Granth art the true Presence. Impart to the Sikh sangat the true counsel.” This is how the Sikhs address Sri Guru Granth Sahib as they assemble at the Akal Takht to seek its guidance before launching an attack on the Pathan citadel of Kasur. In the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who established sovereignty in the name of the Khalsa, personal piety and court ceremonial centred upon the Guru Granth Sahib. As contemporary records testify, Ranjit Singh began his day by making obeisance to Sri Guru Granth Sahib. On festive occasions, he made pilgrimage to Amritsar to bow before Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the Harimandar. For the Sikhs in general Guru Granth Sahib was the only focus of religious attachment.
None other existed otherwise, either in human form or symbolically. In all Sikh literature after Guru Gobind Singh, the Holy Book is uniformly referred to as Guru Granth.
The personal Guruship was ended by Guru Gobind Singh himself. Succession passed to the Guru Granth Sahib in perpetuity. This was a most significant development in the history of the panth.
The finality of the Holy Book was a fact rich in religious and social implications. The Guru Granth became Guru and received divine honours. It was acknowledged the medium of the revelation descended through the Gurus. It was for the Sikhs the perpetual authority, spiritual as well as historical. They lived their religion in response to it. Through it, they were able to observe their faith more fully, more vividly. It was central to all that subsequently happened in Sikh life. It was the source of their verbal tradition and it shaped their intellectual and cultural environment. It moulded the Sikh concept of life. From it the community's ideals, institutions and rituals derived their meaning. Its role in guaranteeing the community integration and permanence and in determining the course of its history has been crucial.
The Word enshrined in the Holy Book was always revered by the Gurus as well as by their disciples as of Divine origin. The Guru was the revealer of the Word. One day the Word was to take the place of the Guru. The line of personal Gurus could not have continued forever. The inevitable came to pass when Guru Gobind Singh declared Sri Guru Granth Sahib to be his successor. It was only through the Word that the Guruship could be made everlasting. This object Guru Gobind Singh intuitively secured when he pronounced Granth Sahib to be Guru after him. The Granth Sahib was henceforth—for all time to come—the Guru for the Sikhs.
Since the day Guru Gobind Singh vested succession in it, the Guru Granth has commanded the same honour and reverence as would be due to the Guru himself. It is the focal point of Sikh devotion. The object of veneration in Sikh gurdwaras is Sri Guru Granth Sahib; gurdwara is in fact that place of worship wherein Sri Guru Granth Sahib is seated. No images or idols are permitted inside gurdwara. The Holy Volume is opened ceremonially in the early hours of the morning after ardas or supplication. It must be enthroned, draped in silk or other pieces of clean linen, on a high seat on a pedestal, under a canopy. The congregation takes place in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, with the officiant, who could be anyone from among those present, sitting in attendance, with a chavar or whisk in his hand which he keeps swinging over it in veneration. The singing of hymns by a group of musicians will go on. All the time devotees have been coming and bowing low before the Holy Book to pay homage and taking their seats on the ground in front. The officiant or any other learned person who will take his seat behind Sri Guru Granth Sahib will read out a hymn and expound it for the audience. At the end of the service, the audience will stand up in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, with hands folded in front in reverence and one of them leading the ardas or prayer. At the end of the evening service the Holy Book will be closed, again after a short prayer, and put to rest for the night. Sri Guru Granth Sahib is similarly kept in some Sikh homes, where a separate room is set apart for it. It is opened in the morning and put to rest in the evening in the same style and manner. Before starting the day’s work men and women will go into the room where Sri Guru Granth Sahib has been ceremonially installed, say a prayer in front of it and open the book at random and read the first hymn which meets the eye to obtain what is called vak or the day’s lesson or order (hukam). Breviaries contain stipulated banis from Sri Guru Granth Sahib which constitute the daily offices and prayers of a Sikh.
A very beautiful custom is that of akhand path or uninterrupted recital of Sri Guru Granth Sahib from beginning to end in a single service. Such a recital must be completed within 48 hours. The entire Guru Granth Sahib, 1430 pages, is read through in a continuous ceremony. This reading must go on day and night, without a moment’s intermission. The relay of reciters who take turns at saying Scripture must ensure that no break occurs. As they change place at given intervals, one picks the line from his predecessor’s lips and continues. When and how the custom of reciting the canon in its entirety in one continuous service began is not known. Conjecture traces it to the turbulent days of the eighteenth century when persecution had scattered the Sikhs to far-off places. In those uncertain times, the practice of accomplishing a reading of the Holy Book by continuous recital is believed to have originated.
Important days on the Sikh calendar are marked by akhand paths in gurdwaras. Celebrations and ceremonies in Sikh families centre upon akhand paths. The homes are filled with holiness for those two days and nights as Sri Guru Granth Sahib, installed with due ceremony in a room especially cleaned out for the occasion, is being recited. Apart from lending the air sanctity, such readings make available to listeners the entire text. The listeners come as they wish and depart at their will. Thus they keep picking up snatches of the bani from different portions at different times. Without such ceremonial recitals, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a very large volume, would remain generally inaccessible to the laity except for banis which are recited by Sikhs as their daily prayers. In bereavement, families derive comfort from these paths. Obsequies in fact conclude with a completed reading of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and prayers are offered in its presence at the end for the departed soul.
There are variations on akhand path as well. A common one is the saptahikpath wherein the recital of the text is taken in parts and completed within one week. A sahaj or slow-reading path may continue for a longer time, even for months. In ati akhand path, the entire text will be read out by a single individual without any interruption for whatsoever purpose. For these paths the Holy Book is recited or intoned, not merely read. This brings out tellingly the poetic quality of the bani and its power to move or grip the listener. But it must be heard in silence, sitting on the floor in front of it in a reverent posture.
The bani of Sri Guru Granth Sahib is all in the spiritual key. It is poetry of pure devotion, lyrical rather than philosophical, moral rather than cerebral. It prescribes no social code, yet Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the basis of Sikh practice as well as of Sikh devotion. It is the living source of authority, the ultimate guide to the spiritual and moral path pointed by the Gurus. Whatever is in harmony with its tenor will be acceptable; whatever not rejectible. Guidance is sought from it on doctrine, on the tenets of the faith.
The Sikh Panth as a whole will resort to Sri Guru Granth Sahib as will the individual in moments of perplexity or crisis. Whether or not to attack Kasur, the Pathan stronghold, to have the abducted wife of a helpless Brahman who had come to the Akal Takht to appeal to the Sikhs for help, was the question before them in the year 1763. Finally, as records the Prachin Panth Prakash, it was decided to obtain the counsel of the Guru Granth Sahib. Instance comes to mind also of the early days of the Gurdwara movement aiming to reform the ritual in Sikh places of worship. On 12 October 1920, a meeting of Sikh backward castes, sponsored by the faculty and students of the Khalsa College at Amritsar, was held in the Jallianvala Bagh. The following morning some of them were taken to the Golden Temple, but the granthis in control refused to accept karah prasad or sacrament they had brought as an offering and to say the ardas on their behalf. There was an outburst of protest against this discrimination towards the so-called low-caste Sikhs, totally contrary to the Sikh teaching. A compromise was at last reached and it was decided that the Guru’s direction be sought.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib was, as is the custom, opened at random and the first verse on the page to be read was:
He receives the lowly into grace,
And puts them in the path of righteous service.
The Guru’s verdict was clearly in favour of those whom the granthis had refused to accept as full members of the panth. This was triumph for reformist Sikhs. The karah prasad brought was accepted and distributed among the sangat.
Singly or in groups, in their homes or in congregations in their places of worship, Sikhs conclude their morning and evening prayer, or prayer said at any other time as part of personal piety or of a ceremony, with a supplication called ardas. Ardas is followed by the recitation of these verses:
Agya bhai Akal ki tabhi chalayo Panth,
Sabh sikkhan kau hukam hai Guru manio Granth.
Guru Granth ji manio pragat Guran ki dehi.
Jo Prabhu ko milibo chahai khoj sabad main lehi.
By the command of the Timeless Creator was the Panth promulgated;
All Sikhs are hereby charged to own the Granth as their Guru.
Know the Guru Granth to be the person visible of the Gurus.