The Sikh Nation
From Sanskrit patha, pathin, or pantham, means literally a way, passage or path and, figuratively, a way of life, religious creed or cult. In Sikh terminology, the word panth stands for the Sikh faith as well as for the Sikh people as a whole. It represents the invisible mystic body comprising all those who profess Sikhism as their faith and encompassing lesser bodies, religious as well as political, claiming to represent the whole of the Sikh population or any section of it. Panth for the Sikhs is the supreme earthly body having full claim on their allegiance. It transcends any of its components and functional agencies.
The use of the term panth as a system of religious belief and practice, synonymous with marga or religious path, is quite old. Several medieval cults used it as a suffix to the names of their preceptors, such as Gorkhpanth and Kabirpanth, their followers being called Gorakhpanthis and Kabirpanthis. Even the Sikhs were earlier known as Nanakpanthis. In the Guru Granth Sahib, panth is used both in its literal as well as in its figurative sense. In the former sense it frequently occurs in poetical images of a love-lorn soul with her gaze fixed on the path (panth) longing for the Divine Lover, God, or the Guru who would unite her with the Supreme Being. In the latter sense it is often combined with an adjective or noun as in mukti panth, path to liberation, uttam panth, the superior path, nirmal panth, unstained, pure faith, dharam panth, religious creed and hari ka panth, way to God. Bhatt Kirat, a bard whose verses were entered by Guru Arjan in the Guru Granth Sahib, identifies gur-sangat, holy assembly of the Sikhs as uttam panth (GG, 1406). Guru Nanak, too, had used gurmukhi panth, religion of the Guru-wards for those (the sangat) singing God’s praises (GG, 360). Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636) uses panth for the entire body of Sikhs when he, eulogizing Guru Nanak, records: "He vanquished the party of the Siddhas with his discourse and created his own separate panth" (Varan, 1.45).
Panth thus emerged as a comprehensive concept standing for the totality of the Sikh system. It represented both jot (spirit) and jugat (means or institutions) of the Sikhs. With their religious doctrines canonized in the Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, their separate identifiable institutions like sangat and pangat and their holy places like Goindval and Amritsar, Sikhs had by the beginning of the seventeenth century become a distinct entity. The execution of Guru Arjan in 1606 led to Guru Hargobind, Nanak VI, introducing the doctrine of mini and piri (worldly and spiritual leadership) combined in the person of the Guru. This doctrine meant the fusion of bhakti (religious devotion) and sakti (power). Ratan Singh Bhangu, the author of Prachin Panth Prakash, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, expounds it thus: "The Panth contains in itself the power of the Guru; the panth comprises devoted and disciplined worshippers of God."
A further dimension to the concept of Panth was brought about by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). He introduced the initiation by the double-edged sword and, to repeat a line from an old verse, transformed the sangat into Khalsa. The Panth was now identified with the Guru himself. "The Khalsa is my special image," he said, "I abide in the Khalsa. Khalsa is my life and soul." The Panth, now called Khalsa Panth, was the Guru Panth. Guru Gobind Singh at his death declared the Granth Sahib as Guru everlasing for the Sikhs. The line of living Gurus came to an end and the Guru Panth became its own leader under the guidance of the Guru Granth Sahib. The term Panth became more popular possibly for its assonance with Granth.
The achievements of the Sikhs under Banda Singh Bahadur and Dal Khalsa, the federated army of the Sikh misls, during the eighteenth century gave an expanded meaning and import to the term panth. Panth and Khalsa came to be used synonymously for the community as a whole as Guru Panth or Guru Khalsa and were even compounded as Khalsa Panth, Panth Khalsa or Guru Khalsa Panth. Sikh Army Panchayats of the early 1840’s issued orders under the seal of Khalsa Panth Jio. Some Punjabi poet-chroniclers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the same or similar terminology. Giani Gian Singh (1822-1921) calls his Panth Prakash a history of the Guru Khalsa. Thus Panth which ideologically stands for a marga representing the whole system of precept and practice laid down by the Gurus, signifies, on the institutional plane, the corporate body of the Sikh community. In the latter sense it identifies itself with the Guru Khalsa and claims sovereign authority over the affairs of the community.
In the earlier period of the emergence of Sikhs as a political force, the militant Khalsa under the leadership of Banda Singh Bahadur and the Dal Khalsa represented the interests of the Sarbatt Khalsa or Panth. With the establishment of Sikh power under Misl leaders and later under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the function of guarding the interests of the Panth passed on to the Sikh State which, however, left the matters of religious and theological nature in the hands of local priesthood without a central body vested with controlling or supervisory powers. The British period following the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 maintained the status quo, but gradually a new representative organization sprang up in the form of Khalsa Diwans of Lahore and Amritsar, and later the Chief Khalsa Diwan which, soon after its birth in 1902, replaced them. The functional mechanism of the Panth underwent a big change with the establishment of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1920. The latter, as a political party of the Sikhs, has since the middle of the 1920’s dominated Sikh affairs, both religious and secular.
Yet the Panth, according to Sikh belief, is a permanent reality, higher than any of its functional agencies which must justify their validity by serving the interest of the Panth as a whole or be replaced by the Guru Khalsa Panth assembling as Sarbatt Khalsa, the supreme repository of ultimate powers of miri and piri, i.e. secular and religious authority.