LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
THE ESTABLISHING OF A WORLD RELIGION
When Guru Gobind Singh died in 1708 Sikhism did not die with him. Instead, it grew to almost twenty million adherents and is considered one of the major world religions today. Just how this guru bhakti movement in the northern region of India was able to survive and prosper is the subject of this chapter. We will examine several historical events that occurred from the time of Gobind Singh that can help explain Sikhism’s success.
First of all, let us consider the genius of Gobind Singh himself. When a guru dies there is a chance that the group will peter out, particularly if he/she does not appoint a successor since disciples may turn to other living teachers of different lineages or traditions for guidance. But Gobind Singh prevented this when he assigned the guruship to the group’s religious writings, the Guru Granth Sahib. It was now to be revered as the living guru, the direct manifestation of God. And, since a book can not physically die, assuming there are enough copies available in case one gets destroyed, it offered permanent stability to the group and constant spiritual direction.
Undoubtedly, the Guru Granth Sahib served as an inspiration during the politically troublesome years following Gobind Singh’s death. With the Mughals still in power in the region, Sikh resistance continued to grow. One Sikh military commander, Banda Bahudur, sought to finally end Mughal control. However, his efforts were shattered when he was captured and executed for failing to convert to Islam.
Eventually, the Mughal Empire disintegrated when confronted with aggressive Afghan invaders. Ahmed Shah Abdali from Afghanistan claimed control of the Punjab and tragically was an antagonist to the Sikhs. When Sikhs attacked his troops in resistance, he retaliated by raiding Amritsar, blowing up the Golden Temple, and filling the sacred pool surrounding it with carcasses of slaughtered cattle. (Note: The next attack on the Golden Temple occurred in 1984 by the order of Indira Gandhi).
However, the Afghans did not succeed in establishing permanent dominance in the Punjab, for they were militarily challenged by other invaders (such as the Marathas). What resulted from all this warfare was the weakening of the central powers, creating a political vacuum in the Punjab that the Sikhs could come in and fill. Sikh warrior bands, called misls, were set up in a loose confederation to take over. Yet, factionalism occurred when the misls turned on each other. Fortunately, this was put to an end when one Sikh misl under the leadership of Ranjit Singh took control in 1799 and united them. As chieftain in the Punjab Ranjit Singh modernized the army with discipline and artillery and in 1801 he was hailed Maharaj. This began the Sikh Raj era that lasted almost 50 years.
|1499-1599 First Five Gurus; temple, langar and scriptures are established
|1599-1699 Last Five Gurus; this is a time of appeal to arms and of martyrs and heroes
|1699-1799 Khalsa is established
|1799-1849 Sikh Raj era begins with Ranjit Singh serving as Maharaj of the Punjab until he dies in 1839
|1880-1920 The Singh Sabha Movement institutes the orthodox position of the Sikhs
|1849-1947 British gain control in the Punjab
|1965 – today Many Sikhs now live in the diaspora in areas like Canada and the United States; there is a fight to make Khalistan, an independent Sikh state, a reality
After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 the Sikhs were still in a position of dominance. Fearful that the Sikhs were becoming too politically powerful, the British entered the Punjab in 1845, annexing it five years later. During this time two Anglo-Sikh wars transpired. With no central power after Ranjit Singh the British take over went fairly smooth. The improvements the British made (such as the building of roads, canals, hospitals, and schools as well as the rise of employment) actually won many Sikhs over to their administration. But not everyone in India appreciated the British. There was a great anti-British sentiment in this country in the 1850s, leading to sporadic acts of violence and culminating with the Mutiny of 1857. Instead of siding with their Indian brothers most Sikhs during this time supported the British and many even served in the British army.
Since they were viewed as a strong martial race Sikhs were recruited to the British army and allowed, even encouraged, to observe the Khalsa. In fact, the British insisted that Sikh soldiers wear the five ks and swear an oath of loyalty to the Guru Granth Sahib. The British vested interest was obvious: by supporting Sikhism they felt they were insuring excellent soldiery. Thus, the British helped crystallize Sikh identity as they promoted Khalsa standards in the military and the use of the title Singh. The advantage of being a Sikh helped keep Sikhs from lapsing into Hinduism and Khalsa Sikhism grew as a result.
Another major factor that led to the rise of Khalsa Sikhism was the establishment of the Singh Sabha in 1873. This society was organized to revive interest and preserve identity in the Sikh tradition. That Khalsa ideas expressed in the state administration of Ranjit Singh were beginning to wane made some fear that Sikhism was being absorbed into Hinduism and the phrase "Hum Hindu nahin" ("We are not Hindu) became popular at this time. This fear was legitimate since India is eighty percent Hindu and Hinduism has in the past absorbed rival faiths, such as Buddhism. (In Hinduism, the Buddha is viewed as an incarnation of Vishnu.) Sikhs also sought separation from Hindus because they were in competition for jobs and economic resources. In addition, many were nervous about the influence of Christian missionaries and schools on Sikhs, especially since four students at Amritsar converted to Christianity at this time.
By 1899 there were over 120 Singh Sabha organizations operative. The need to have a central organization to allow communication between educated Sikhs and to coordinate activities between the Singh Sabhas was apparent. In 1902 the Chief Khalsa Diwan was established to serve this role.
Overall, the Singh Sabha (later becoming the Tat Khalsa or true Khalsa and then the Chief Khalsa Diwan) institutionalized the view of Sikhism as a separate religion with distinct rituals and communal solidarity. It requested Sikhs to follow the ways of the Khalsa by wearing the five ks. Through journals, newspapers and conferences, it also clarified Sikh ideology and delineated the Singh Sabha view of Sikh history. In other words, this movement established Sikh orthodoxy. When British writers drew their information of Sikhism from the Singh Sabha they actually played a significant role in supporting the movement. Orthodoxy was presented as historical fact, reifying a particular perspective. For instance, Sikhism was thought of as a non-evolving religious tradition and the Khalsa approach was seen as the authentic form of Sikhism. As shown in Chapter Two, however, Sikhism indeed did go through many diverse stages, mainly in reaction to the socio-political environment. Moreover, to associate Sikhism solely with the Khalsa is to miss the rich tapestry that makes up the Sikh world. There are numerous Sikh groups besides the Khalsa that we will learn about in Chapter Four. Unfortunately, many of these historical inaccuracies are still perpetuated in textbooks.
Part of reviving Sikhism and strengthening the Khalsa included regaining control of the Sikh temples. During the Mughal period when persecution was strong non-Khalsa Sikhs were given leadership of the gurdwaras since they would not be easily identified as Sikh. When the British came in they gave these mahants full ownership. With great offense to orthodox Sikhs, many of the owners installed Hindu images to attract Hindus to the sites. The reason was a monetary one: the more visitors meant a larger income. In response to all of this, a resistance movement called the Akali Dal arose with the main objective to give the gurdwaras back to Khalsa Sikhs. Eventually, they won enough seats in the Punjab Legislature to give Sikhs a greater sense of political identity and, most importantly, to succeed in passing the Sikh Gurdwara Act in 1925 allowing Khalsa Sikhs temple ownership.
It was around the founding of the Akali Dal that the Sikh-British relationship took a turn for the worse. Facing numerous problems in the Punjab, such as plagues, famine and debt, Sikhs hoped to receive some aid from the British. The failure of the British to respond led to great resentment and a Sikh uprising. When a massacre in 1919 in Amristar occurred many Sikhs decided to take refuge elsewhere, especially in the US and Canada, where they hoped for a better life. But Sikh immigrants had to face another huddle: anti-Asian racial discrimination. They were referred to abroad as ragheads and treated as second class citizens. Frustrated and angry, Sikhs living in the US formed a political group known as the Ghadar Party. Their main objective was to liberate India from British control in order to regain a sense of dignity for Indians worldwide. Some scholars have suggested that the Ghadar Party was really formed out of frustration for how diaspora Sikhs were being treated and this frustration was transferred to the British in India. Their dream of sparking a revolution in the Punjab leading to a British retreat was not realized. It was not until the efforts of Gandhi in the 1940s that this became a reality.
While there was some racial discrimination in America towards Indians there was also a great deal of appreciation of Eastern ideas. Since the translation of Indian religious material by British scholars in the 19th century, Americans, including writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, have been interested in Eastern philosophy. This interest peaked in the 1890s when spiritual leaders, including Indian teachers, met for a conference in Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions. Swami Vivekananda of Vedanta made headlines with his ecumenical approach and ever since then Indian gurus and swamis have found an appreciative audience in America. When the doors to Eastern religions were officially open in the 1960s after L.B. Johnson revoked the Immigration Laws set back in the early 1900s, numerous Sikhs and other Indians made America their home. The religious canvas in America became colored with a variety of Eastern groups, some of whom were Sikh. Sikhism indeed had become a world religion with Sikh affiliations peppered throughout the Western world, particularly in the United States (100,000 Sikhs), Canada (300,000 Sikhs) and Great Britain (400,000 Sikhs). The enormous impact of Indian traditions on the American religious scene continues today. The New Age movement, which combines Theosophy, Transcendentalism, New Thought, Christian Science, and other Western philosophies with Eastern beliefs, is a case in point. (According to J. Gordon Melton about twenty to twenty five percent of Americans accept some form of New Age/Eastern ideology).
Thus, as we have seen, despite centuries of political turmoil, Sikhism has not only survived but it has grown into a major world religion. Though starting out as a small meditative group at Kartarpur and as a lineage in the Sant tradition, Sikhism is now thought of as its own distinct tradition and can boast of at least twenty million adherents (two million of which are found in Western countries), distinct religious scriptures, places of pilgrimage, and idiosyncratic codes of behavior. The many gurdwaras sprinkled throughout the world are a sign that this vibrant religion is in no way limited to the Punjab but is flowering out to the world at large. The political and religious impact of Sikhism will certainly continue to be noticed.
Important Dates from Gobind Singh to Modern Day
|1708 Gobind Singh dies and the Guru Granth Sahib is viewed as the successor
|1799 Ranjit Singh (Maharaj of the Punjab) secures Northern India for the Sikhs
|1839 Ranjit Singh dies and the region is again vulnerable
|1849 The British annex the Punjab; also the British writer Cunningham publishes History of Sikhs
|1873 Singh Sabha Tat Khalsa is established
|1897 Singh Sabha announces "hum Hindu nahin" (meaning "we are not Hindu") out of frustration of being categorized as Hindu
|1903 Migration of diaspora Sikhs to Canada
|1905 Hindu idols are removed from the Golden Temple
Important Dates from Gobind Singh to Modern Day
|1909 British writer Maculiffe publishes The Sikhs
|1915 Ghadar Party is established
|1925 Sikh Gurdwara Act is implemented
|1947 India was declared an independent state. The partition of India into Pakistan and the rest of India occurred at this time.
|1968 Yogi Bhajan brings a new form of Sikhism, known as Healthy, Happy and Holy or 3HO, to America
|1984 Bhindranwale, a Sikh rebel storing weapons in the Golden Temple is his fight to establish Khalistan, is killed by the order of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; she was latter assassinated by her own bodyguards, Sikhs, in retaliation