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RAHITNAME plural of rahitnama (rahit = conduct, stipulated conduct or way of life: name letters, writings, manuals) is a term used in Punjabi in reference to a genre of writings specifying approved way of life for a Sikh. These writings, enunciating conduct and behaviour in accordance with the principles of the Sikh religion contain instructions regarding personal and social behaviour, applicable especially to those who have been admitted to the Khalsa brotherhood through ceremonies by the double-edged sword. Sikhism laid as much stress on correct personal conduct as on the purity of mind. Guru Nanak for whom truth is synonymous with God recognizes the sovereignty of conduct (GG, 62). “His conduct will alone be pure who cherishes Him in his heart,” says Guru Nanak in another of his hymns (GG, 831). And “rahini, i.e. conduct moulded in accordance with shabad, is the truest conduct” (GG, 56). Rahit as right thinking and right action is also distinguished from rahit as outward formal appearance by Guru Arjan, Nanak V: “(The misguided one) acts differently from the rahit he proclaims; he pretends love (for God) without devotion in his heart; (but) the Omniscient Lord knows all and is not beguiled by external form” (GG, 169). Besides these general statements, more specific instructions for the moral guidance of a believer are found scattered throughout the Sikh scriptures.

The literature containing the rahit can broadly be divided into three categories— the textual source which includes Sikh scriptures, other approved Sikh canon, and hukamnamas; the traditional Sikh history including janam sakhis, gurbilases and Guru Gobind Singh’s own announcement not to have a personal successor and to pass on the guruship jointly and permanently to the granth (the Guru Granth Sahib) and the panth (Khalsa Brotherhood). The textual sources with such precepts as can be extrapolated from them are accepted as general constituents of the Sikh rahit. Among the sources of traditional Sikh history, the most important are the utterances traced directly to the Gurus, especially Guru Gobind Singh who laid down, at the time of the inauguration of the Khalsa in 1699, rules of conduct and introduced regulations to confer upon his followers a distinctive identity. However, these sources do not, strictly speaking, belong to the genre known as rahitnamas. Bhai Nand Lal and some other Sikhs contemporary or near-contemporary with Guru Gobind Singh compiled the first rahitnamas. The chief Khalsa Diwan’s Gurmat Prakash Bhag Sanskar (Amritsar, 1915), Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s Sikh Rahit Maryada (Amritsar, 1950) and the English translation Rahit Maryada: A Guide to the Sikh Way of Life (London, 1971) are the modern versions of rahitnamas.

The authorship and dates of composition of some of the latter-day rahitnamas are not above dispute: interpolations are not ruled out, either. Most of these works are ascribed to Sikhs closely connected with Guru Gobind Singh; they are in some instances described as dictated or authenticated by the Guru himself. However, these claims or that they belong to the 1 7th or early 18th century do not stand strict scrutiny.

Three of Bhai Nand Lal’s works fall in the category of rahitnamas. Rahitnama Bhai Nand Lal, in Sadhukari verse, is in the form of a dialogue between the poet and Guru Gobind Singh during which the latter expounds the rules of conduct laid down for a gursikh or true follower of the faith. The penultimate verse (22) of the Rahitnama indicates that this dialogue took place at Anandpur on 5 December 1695, i.e. before the creation of the Khalsa. That explains the absence from it of any reference to panj-kakari rahit, i.e. the five-symbol discipline of the Khalsa. In the text every Sikh is enjoined to rise early in the morning, take his bath and, having recited Japji and Jaap, to go to see the Guru among the sangat and to listen attentively to the holy word being expounded. He should attend the evening service comprising Rehras, Kirtan (or Kirtan Sohila) and discourse. In answer to Nand Lal's request to elaborate the phrase “Guru’s darshan” i.e. a sight of the Guru, the latter explains that the Guru has three aspects, first nirguna (without attributes or transcendent), the second sarguna (with attributes or qualities) and gursabda, (the Guru in form of shabad). The first (Vahiguru) is beyond sensory perception, but Guru in the second form can be seen manifested in the entire creation or more concretely in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture. “Whoever wishes to see me,” said Guru Gobind Singh, “should see Granthji and should listen attentively to and reflect upon the Guru’s word contained in it.” His third form, explained the Guru, is his Sikh. “A Gursikh who having totally banished his ego dedicates himself whole-heartedly to service and observes these rules truly represents me.”

In format, language and style, Bhai Nand Lal’s Tankhahnama, his second work, follows the same model as his Rahitnama, but in content it deals directly with rules and injunctions, especially those breach of which attracts a religious penalty, tankhah in Sikh terminology. Punishment prescribed in this Tankhahnama is neither corporeal nor pecuniary, but consists in Guru’s displeasure or imprecation. Who becomes liable to tankhah? He who ignores naam, daan and ishnana (glorification of God’s name, charity, holy bath); who joins not regularly the satsang or holy fellowship; who allows his mind to wander while sitting among the company of the holy; who expresses hatred for a poor member of the community; who does not bow to the sabda; who is selfish and greedy while distributing karah prasad or the holy communion; who puts on the rulers’ Turkish turban; who touches a sword with the toe; who distributes karah prasad or langar without being in full regalia; who dons red apparel; who uses tobacco-snuff; who looks lasciviously upon the womenfolk; who is easily enraged; who gives a daughter or sister in marriage for money; who wears not the sword; who deprives a helpless person of his money or belongings; who pays not the dasvandh or tithe; who bathes not in cold water; who eats supper without reciting the Rehras; who goes to sleep at night without reciting the Kirtan Sohila; who stands not by his word; who combs not his hair twice daily; who ties not his turban afresh every day; who brushes not the teeth regularly; who slanders others; who eats flesh of an animal slaughtered slowly in the Muslim way; who sings compositions other than those of the Gurus; who attends performances by dancing girls; who goes to his work without a prayer to the Guru; who breaks his fast without making an offering to the Guru; who commits adultery; who gives not alms to the deserving; who indulges in abuse; who gambles; who hears without protest calumny against the Guru; who earns his livelihood by cheating others; who eats without uttering the word Vahiguru; who visits a prostitute; who moves about with head uncovered; who heeds not the Guru’s word; and so on.

Although Tankhahnama refers to the Khalsa as an established order of devoutly religious warriors, it makes no reference to its five symbols or to the taboos. Besides religious and moral practices of a general nature, it alludes to rules of personal and social etiquette, even of personal hygiene. The last verse of Tankhahnama, which the Sikhs usually recite in unison after ardas, contains the well-familiar litany, Raj karega khalsa. .

Sakhi Rahit Ki, also ascribed to Bhai Nand Lal, is a summary in Punjabi prose of a dialogue between Bhai Nand Lal and Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru adjures his Khalsa to bow only before the Guru's word and shun Brahmanical beliefs, rites and rituals. Use of tobacco and trimming or shaving of hair are prohibited. So are adultery, thieving, backbiting and slander. Positive injunctions include early rising, daily ablutions, reciting nitnem, honest work, love of shabad and hospitality.

Rahitnama Bhai Prahilad Singh is a short poem comprising 38 couplets. It is anachronistically dated at Abchalnagar (Nanded) in 1695 when Guru Gobind Singh was still in Anandpur. Prahilad Singh, Prahilad Rai before his initiation as a Singh, was a scholarly Brahman who at the instance of Guru Gobind Singh rendered into bhakha vernacular 50 Upanisads which Prince Dara Shukoh had got translated into Persian. His Rahitnama forbids a Sikh to wear a cap or a janoy, the sacred thread of the caste Hindus. It forbids association with masands, with the heretic sect called Minas, with those who shave their heads or with those who practise female infanticide. Use of snuff is also forbidden. The Sikhs must shun idolatry and the worship of graves. They must have faith only in God, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the Guru - Khalsa.

Rahitnama Bhai Daya Singh presents in prose, to begin with, the rules of conduct as coming from the lips of Guru Gobind Singh himself; in this case the author is the first among the Panj Piare. The reference in it to Muktsar and Abchalnagar, injunction against the learning of Persian and Sanskrit and the mythical origin of the ceremony of amrit create doubts about its authorship. Besides the usual injunctions regarding the recitation of nitnem, the five symbols of the Khalsa, the K’s, naam simran, etc., and those prohibiting idolatry and Brahmanical practices, the distinctive features of this Rahitnama are: the description of how amrit is prepared and administered; proclamation that Khalsa is the incarnation of God; the names of the five Muktas; prescription of fine and corporeal punishment for certain religious offences, and procedure for the redemption of offenders; recognition of Granth-Panth as Guru; inclusion of Dhirmallias and Ram Raias among the fallen sects to be boycotted socially; and minutiae with regard to some minor prescriptions and prohibitions.

Rahitnama Hazuri, also called Rahitnama Bhai Chaupa Singh, is the most elaborate statement of rules of conduct for the Sikhs. Its authorship is traditionally ascribed to Bhai Chaupa Singh Chhibbar, who had been in attendance upon Guru Gobind Singh since his (the Guru’s) childhood. Kesar Singh Chhibbar describes briefly in his Bansavalinama how Guru Gobind Singh decided to have the rules of Khalsa conduct codified and recorded, and how the Guru responded, shortly before the siege of Anandpur and its evacuation, to the requests from his Sikhs by commanding Chaupa Singh to write a rahitnama. When Chaupa Singh humbly professed insufficient competence for so weighty a responsibility, he was reassured by the promise that the Guru himself would inspire and direct his words. Dutifully, he recorded a rahitnama a copy of which written in the hand of Sital Singh Bahrupia was taken to the Guru for his imprimatur. A second copy was then prepared by a Sud Sikh and this too was certified by the Guru. The work was, according to internal evidence, authenticated by Guru Gobind Singh on 7 Jeth 1757 Bk/5 May 1700. The Guru ordered, it further states, that more copies of it should be got similarly attested and no additions to it were to be made. The concluding portion of this Rahitnama containing dates 1759 Bk and 1763 Bk (AD 1702 and 1706) is apparently an addition by Chaupa Singh or by interpolators later. The extant text of the Rahitnama seems to be a composite work drawn from at least three different sources. It begins as a formal rahitnama presenting a regular series of injunctions, but then switches over to a narrative sequence. It subsequently returns to its formal presentation of the rahit abandoning it again for another extended narrative sequence.

Of the 1800 injunctions contained in the Rahitnama the main ones are: A Sikh should regularly say his nitnem, and be always alert in attending to his duty and earn his living by the labour of his hands; he should have no dealing with minas, masands, ramraias, the shaven ones, and with those who practise female infanticide; he should not drink liquor; he should never be parted from the five, viz. kachchh (shorts), kes (hair), kirpan (sword), bani and sangat, he should not use nor deal in tobacco and should not give his daughter in marriage to one who smokes; he should regularly set aside dasvandh or tithe, and he should not trade in pothis or manuscript copies of gurbani. A special feature of Rahitnama Hazuri is a section devoted to Sikh women. Some of the stipulations: they should not bathe naked; should ensure personal hygiene and cleanliness while cooking or serving; should not abuse a male; should cover their heads while in sangat; should learn to read Guru Granth Sahib but must not read it in public; they should not be baptized; should shun unclean songs and jokes; should be religious, modest and chaste; and so on.

The Rahitnama contains a classic catalogue of Sikh characteristics and virtues. In a free English rendering: Sikh faith is his who honours his kesh and preserves them to his very last breath; who recites the shabad; who finds his fulfilment in doing his duty; who reflects on the Guru's teaching; who is armed with the weapon of chastity; whose word is truth; who accepts the preordained law; who rejoices in feeding others; who believes in the sovereignty of the sword; who worships the Timeless One; who adores the weapons; who has a reputation for charity; who exudes fragrance of his Sikh faith; who earns repute by his readiness to serve others; who commands the sweetness of speech; who is true to his salt; who is modest in his appearance; whose grihastha is with his gentle wife of good breeding; who lives always in the Lord’s presence; who adores his family; who obeys the command of the Guru; who lives by the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib; who rejoices in the rites of the Khalsa; who remains awake singing the Lord’s praise; who dutifully washes his kes; who abjures wrong-doing; who is alert in his conduct; who is disciplined in his speech; whose rahit is truly in his heart rather than merely external; who holds his belief discerningly; who owns the Guru; who loves his fellow Sikhs; who serves his father and mother; who recites bani from memory; who has his mind in control; who attains authority though in service; who has love in his heart; who shares with others what he has; who annihilates his sins; whose dealings are marked by propriety; whose addiction is prasad, i.e. karah prasad (the Sikh sacrament); who is ready for a square fight; who acknowledges the power of the Word; who contributes to the advancement of dharma; who is desirous always of contemplating on His Name.

However, the extant texts of the Rahitnama are adulterated and contain injunctions which are in conflict with approved Sikh teaching. It grants, for example, a position of privilege to the Brahman and orders a contemptuous ostracizing of the Muslims. The presence of strong Puranic element and the influence of the Devi cult are some of the other possible corruptions in the extant texts.

Rahitnama Bhai Desa Singh is admittedly a late-18th-century work. It is in the form of a long poem of 146 couplets and short four-line stanzas. The poet states that he had lived in Bunga Maralivala at Amritsar where Sardar Jassa Singh (Ahluvalia) has also lived for a long time. From there, in old age, he visited Patna. During his travels after that, he once in a dream was ordered by Guru Gobind Singh to write down a code of conduct for the Sikhs. Bhai Desa Singh lays particular stress on the following points: a Sikh must receive the rites of the Khalsa by ceremony of the double-edged sword; should devote himself to bani and refrain from backbiting and slander; should use vahiguruji ki fateh as the form of salutation and greeting, should recite regularly ordered texts; should treat all women other than his wife as daughters or mothers; must maintain the five symbols of the Sikhs; must not flee the battlefield; should make pilgrimage to the Sikh holy places; should serve only the Khalsa or should engage in agriculture, trade or industry, but should not seek employment with the Turks nor indulge in theft or robbery; should be an intent listener at recitals of Guru Granth Sahib and at religious discourses; must not use tobacco and other intoxicants nor kuttha (flesh of animal slaughtered in the Muslim fashion); should eat jhatka (flesh of animal killed in the Sikh manner with a single blow), if at all; must learn reading and writing the Gurmukhi script; must beware of the five sins, viz. adultery, gambling, lying, stealing and liquor; should not criticize other religious faiths; should not live on offerings made at gurdwaras; even a Sikh minister should spend out of the offerings sparingly for his personal use and spend the major part for deg or Guru ka Langar and on maintenance of the gurdwara. According to Desa Singh, maintenance of unshorn hair (kesh) is obligatory for a Sikh. A common form of living is important, but equally important is rahit or stipulated moral living. He says, “rahit su kesan ko ati bhukhan/rahit bina sir kes bhi dukhan” (rahit is ornament for the hair; without rahit the hair of the head too is a fake (verses 82-83). The poet then proceeds to set down instructions regarding the preparation and serving of langar or community meal (90-123).


1. Padam, Piara Singh, Rahitname. Patiala, 1974

2. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

3. McLeod, W. H., Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester, 1984

Above adapted from article by Taran Singh of Global Sikh Studies