Founder of the Nirankari Sect (1783-1855)
Founder of the Nirankari sect of the Sikhs, was born at Peshawar on Baisakh sudi 15, 1840 Bk / 17 May 1783. He was the only son of Ram Sahai, a banker, and his wife Ladikki, daughter of Bhai Vasakha Singh of Rohtas. He lost his father while he was still an infant. He learnt Gurmukhi from his mother and Persian and Pushto at a maktab (elementary school kept by a Muslim maulawi).
His mother, a devout Sikh, nurtured him in the best traditions of the faith and took him out daily to make obeisance at the local Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh. After the death of his mother in 1802, Dayal migrated to Rawalpindi where he opened a grocer’s shop and also started preaching a message of simple living, commonly addressing congregations at Gurdwara Peshaurian and Gurdwara Bhai Ram Singh. A recurring theme he developed was criticism of the rituals and practices which, rejected by the Gurus, were creeping into Sikh society.
His main target was worship of the images against which he launched a vigorous campaign. He re-emphasized the Sikh belief in Nirankar, the Formless One. From this the movement which grew out of the protest he voiced with such sincere concern came to be known as Nirankari.
For solemnizing his own marriage in 1808 (bride: Mul Devi, daughter of Charan Das Kapur of Bhera), Dayal, refusing to invite the traditional Brahman priest, had Lava and Anand hymns recited from the Guru Granth Sahib. This is cited as the first instance of a wedding performed by anand ceremony in the modern period of Sikh history. The simple anand form of marrying rite became a cardinal point in the Nirankari scheme of religious and social reform. Baba Dayal was averse to ostentation and cavilled at the rich style of the Sikh aristocracy of the day. He enjoined honest living, respect for parents and abstinence from liquor and drugs. Idolatrous worship and extravagant religious ceremonial were his principal rejections.
Although Baba Dayal’s preaching was confined to the northwestern corner of the Punjab, its intimations spread to distant parts. It is said that the reigning Sikh monarch in Lahore, Ranjit Singh, once visited him in Rawalpindi in 1820. From across the Sikh frontier came emissaries of the American Presbytarian Mission at Ludhiana "to ascertain the true nature of the movement." It struck the Mission that by overruling image worship and Brahmanical ritual the reformer of Rawalpindi was preparing ground favourable to the reception of the Gospel. Observations of the emissaries were published in the Annual Report of the Lodiana [Ludhiana] Mission for 1953. This is how the Report described the sect forming around Baba Dayal’s teaching:
On investigation… it was found that the whole movement was the result of the efforts of an individual to establish a new panth (religious sect) of which he should be the instructor and guide. The sect has been in existence eight or nine years, but during the Sikh reign, fear kept them quiet; since the extension of the Company’s Government over the country, they have become more bold, and with the assistance of our religious publications to furnish them with arguments against idolatry, they have attacked the faith of the Hindus most fiercely. They professedly reject idolatry, and all reverence and respect for whatever is held sacred by Sikhs or Hindus, except Nanak and his Granth…. The Hindus complain that they even give abuse to the cow. This climax of impiety could not be endured, and it was followed by some street disturbances, which brought the parties into the civil courts.. They are called Nirankaris, from their belief in God, as a spirit without bodily form. The next great fundamental principle of their religion is that salvation is to be obtained by meditation on God. They regard Nanak as their saviour, in as much as he taught them the way of salvation. Of their peculiar practices only two things are learned. First, they assemble every morning for worship, which consists of bowing the head to the ground before the Granth, making offerings, and in hearing the Granth read by one of their numbers, and explained also if their leader be present. Secondly, they do not burn their dead, because that would assimilate them to the Hindus; nor bury them, because that would make them too much like Christians and Musulmans, but throw them into the river.
For what were understood as his heterodox views, Baba Dayal was debarred from Gurdwara Peshaurian . He thereupon acquired, on 3 November 1851, a plot of land and erected a small room, thus laying the foundation of the Nirankari Darbar which became the central religious seat of the new sect.
Baba Dayal died on 30 January 1855, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Darbara Singh (1814-70).