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Guru Nanak Believed that All Men Are Equal

The Sikh Gurus directly condemned caste and caste ideology. Guru Nanak called caste ideology perverse.

“According to the Hindus, foul is the ablution of the Chandal, and vain are his religious ceremonies and decorations. False is the wisdom of the perverse; their acts produce strife.” 161

The Vedas have given currency to the myths that make men reflect upon (human values of) good and evil; such are the illusions created in man.162 Further, he aligned himself with the lowliest of the low castes.

“There are lower castes among the low castes and some absolutely low. Nanak seeketh their company. What hath he to do with the high ones? 163

The fundamental hypothesis of caste is that “Men were not-as for classical confucianism-in principle equal, but for ever unequal.”164 “They were so by birth, and were as unlike as man and animal.”165 The Guru declared: “Call every one exalted; let no one appear to thee low;”166 “O whom shall we call good or evil, when all creatures belong to thee.”167 The Sikh Gurus also attacked the pillars, referred to earlier, on which the caste ideology rested.

Caste Status

The driving force behind the caste system was the upholding of the caste-status of the Brahmin and other high castes.

The Guru preached:

“O unwise, be not proud of thy caste. For, a myriad error flow out of this pride.”168

Bhai Gurdas writes that Guru Nanak “made the Dharma perfect by blending the four castes into one. To treat the King and the pauper on equal footing, and while greeting to touch the feet of the other (i.e. regard oneself humble as compared to others) was made the rule of conduct.169

Thus Guru Nanak did away with not only caste-status consciousness but also with the status-conscious-ness gap between the rich and the poor. For, far from observing pollution and untouchability, everyone actually touched the feet of everyone else while greeting him. Again, “The four castes were made into one, and castes (Varn) and out-castes (Avarn) regarded as noble. The tWelve sects were obliterated and the noble glorious Panth (created).”170 Here the abolition of caste and sects is linked with the creation of the Sikh Panth.

In order to emphasize its significance, Bhai Gurdas repeatedly171 mentions this achievement. The language used by him (its grammatical construction) makes it clear that he was not repeating a precept enunciated by the Guru in his hymns, but a precept actually practised in the Sikh Panth. Writing about Guru Gobind Singh, Dr. Narang says: ‘Of the five who offered their heads, one was a Khatri, all the rest being so-called Sudras.

But the Guru called them Panj Pyaras, or the Beloved Five, and baptised them after the manner he had introduced for initiation into his brotherhood. He enjoined the same duties upon them, gave them the same privileges, and as a token of newly acquired brotherhood, all of them dined together. “The Guru’s views of democratic equality were much more advanced than the mere equality among his followers could satisfy. In his system, there was no place even for the privileges of the chief or the leader. No leader, he believed, could be fit to lead unless he was elected or accepted by the followers. History shows that individuals or classes enjoying a religious or sacerdotal superiority have been only too loth to forego even a particle of their privileges. But the Guru, though regarded by his faithful followers as the greatest of prophets, was made of a different stuff, and had too much political insight to stand on an exclusive eminence apart from his followers.

Therefore, when he had initiated his first five disciples, his Beloved Five, he was initiated by them in turn, taking the same vows as they had done, and claiming no higher privileges than those he allowed them. Soon after he called a meeting of all his followers and announced his new doctrine to them.”172 The prevalence of this spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization among the Sikhs is confirmed by evidence from non-Sikh sources. Ghulam Mohyy-ud-Din, the author of Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi (1722- 23), was a contemporary of Banda.

He writes that low-caste Hindus, termed khas-okhashak-i-hanud-i-jahanmi wajud (i.e. the dregs of the society of the hellish Hindus) swelled the ranks of Banda, and everyone in his army ‘would address the other as the adopted son of the Oppressed Guru (Guru Gobind Singh) and would publicise themselves with the title of sahibzada (‘Yaki rab targihb-i-digran pisar-i-khanda-iguru- i-maqhur gufta b laqub-i-shahzadgi mashur kardah’).173 A contemporary historian of Aurangzeb writes, ‘If a stranger knocks at their door (i.e. the door of Sikhs) at midnight and utters the name of Nanak, though he may be a thief, robber or wretch, he is considered a friend and brother, and is properly looked after.’174

The significance of the spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization achieved by the Sikh movement can be realized only if it is contrasted with the caste background in which the change was brought about. Bougle observes: ‘The spirit of caste unites these three tendencies, repulsion, hierarchy and hereditary specialization. We say that a society is characterized by such a system if it is divided into a large number of mutually opposed groups which are hereditary specialised and hierarchically arranged-if, on principle, it tolerates neither the parvenu, nor miscegenation, nor a change of profession.175 From the social and political point of view, caste is division, hatred, jealousy and distrust between neighbour.’176 Nesafield also comes to the conclusion that the caste system leads to a degree of social disunion to which no parallel can be found in human history. All authorities on caste are agreed that mutual repulsion and disunity, besides inequality and hierarchism, are the inbuilt constituents of the caste system.

Scriptural Sanction

By repudiating the Brahmanical scriptures, Sikhism and the Sikh Panth cut itself away from this perennial source and sanction of caste ideology. “The drum of the Vedas loudly resoundeth for many a faction. Remember god, Name, Nanak; there is none but Him.”177 “Since I have embraced Thy feet I have paid regard to none besides.

The Purans of Ram (the God of the Hindus) and Quran of Rahim (the God of the Musalmans) express various opinions, but I accept none of them. The Smritis, the Shastras, and the Vedas all expound many different doctrines, but I accept none of them.”178 Since Guru Arjan established Guru Granth Sahib as the Sikh scripture, the Sikhs have never, not even during darkest hour, owned any other.

Hindu Dharma

The concept of Hindu Dharma covered a wide range. On the one hand it was linked to Hindu theology, religious beliefs and usages, and on the other hand, to the caste ideology-the Varna Ashrama Dharma. In fact, it became, in practice, the chief vehicle for providing religious sanction to the caste ideology and the caste system. The Sikh Gurus condemned, as seen, the caste end of this Dharma. Their break from the other end of Hindu Dharma, i.e. Hinduism, is equally clear. It has not been possible to define precisely what Hinduism is. Crooke sums up thus: “Hinduism thus provides a characteristic example of the primitive unorganised polytheism, an example probably unique among the -races of the modem world.

“This is due to the fact that all such action (attempt at organisation) is essentially opposed to its spirit and tradition..... “The links that bind together this chaotic mass of rituals and dogmas are, first, the great acceptance of the Veda, representing under this term the ancient writings and traditions of the people, as the final rule of belief and conduct; secondly, the recognition of the sanctity of the Brahmin levite-caste as the custodians of this knowledge and the only competent performers of sacrifice and other ritual observances, though the respect paid to them varies in different parts of the country; thirdly, the veneration for sacred places; fourthly, the adoption of Sanskrit as the one sacred language; fifthly general veneration for the cow. 179

The Sikh gurus repudiated the authority of the orthodox scriptures and tradition, ridiculed the sanctity of the Brahmin Levite class,180 condemned the veneration for sacred places,181 and deliberately used the vernacular for the expression of their ideology. Although the Sikh society has continued to abstain from eating beef, Sikhism has not shared that religious veneration that Hinduism has for the cow. The pancbagava (a mixture of cow’s excretions), for example, is sufficient to obtain the remission of any sin whatever, even when the sin has been committed deliberately.182 But, Guru Nanak says, “The cow-dung will not save thee.”183

When the hill Rajas offered, through their purobit (Brahmin priest), to take a vow by their sacred cow as a token of their guarantee for abiding by their undertaking, Guru Gobind Singh is reported to have replied: “Leave aside this cow, it is only a dumb animal.”184

Thus, the Sikhs without doubt cut off all those links, which according to Crooke, bind one to Hinduism. Besides this, the Sikh Guru completely rejected the sectarian Hindu gods and goddesses, Avtaras, ritualism and ceremonialism, idol and temple worship, pilgrimages and fasts, Sanskrit scholasticism, etc. If all these concepts and institutions were substracted from Hinduism, no essential residue is left which Hinduism can call all its own.

“The main plank of Sikhism is uncompromising monotheism and the methodology of Name as the sole means of achieving His Grace and God realization. Excepting these two fundamentals, Sikhism is not wedded to any particular dogma or philosophy. All other beliefs and practices attributable to Sikhism are only subsidiary or contributory. The belief in one universal God is shared by the mystics the world over. There is nothing peculiarly sectarian (i.e. Hindu or Muslim) about it.

If anything, this concept of one universal God, and the passionate devotion towards Him as a means of mystic realization, came to be emphasized much earlier in Christianity and Islam than in India. And the emotional heights that his devotional approach reached among the Muslim saints is hardly to be matched elsewhere. Therefore, Sikhism, in these respects atleast, can be said to be nearer Christianity and Islam than Hinduism.

The point we want to make clear is that by cutting itself away from Hinduism, Sikhism delinked itself from that aspect of Hindu Dharma also which was, in day to day action, the main vehicle for providing religious sanction to the Varna Ashrama Dharma. “In contrast to the orthodox sects, the heresy of the theophratries consists in the fact that they tear the individual away from his ritualistic duties, hence from the duties of the caste of his birth, and thus ignore or destroy his Dharma Dharma, that is ritualistic duty, is the central criterion of Hinduism.”186 Rather, the Sikh Gurus issued their own new version of Dharma, which was, atleast as far as caste was concerned, the antithesis of the Hindu Dharma. Guru Nanak “made the Dharma perfect by blending the four castes into one.”


Pollution

The last important element of caste ideology we need take note of is. the theory of pollution. The notions of pollution, of which restrictions on commensalism were a part, were the most widespread expression of social exclusiveness inherent in the caste system. It is an indisputable fact that the taboo on food and drink was its most widely practised feature which invited severe penalties. Of the offences of which a caste Panchayat took cognizance, the ‘Offences against the commensal taboos, which prevent members of another caste, or atleast of other castes regarded by the prohibiting caste as lower in social status than themselves, are undoubtedly the most important; for the transgression by one member of the caste if unknown and unpunished may affect the whole caste with pollution through his commensality with the rest. ‘187

If the member of a low caste merely looks at the meal of a Brahmin, it ritually defiles the Brahmin,188 and ‘a stranger’s shadow, or even the glance of a man of low caste, falling on the cooking pot may necessitate throwing away the contents.189 There are Indian proverbs that ‘three Kanaujias require no less than thirteen hearths190 and that a ‘Bisnoi mounted on a camel followed by a score more will immediately throwaway his food if a man of another caste happens to touch the last animal.191 These proverbs may partly be exaggerations, but these do illustrate the extent to which the taboos on food had taken hold of the Indian life.

All the transgressions of the taboos on food and drink were always punished, because, as noted above, not to punish these affected the whole caste with pollution. In some cases the consequences were quite serious and permanent. ‘A separate lower caste (the Kallars) has arisen in Bengal among people who had infracted the ritual and dietary laws during the famine of 1866, and in consequence been excommunicated. 192

Underlying the taboos on foods and drinks was the general notion of pollution which was very wide in its sphere of application. Because, it was supposed to be incurred not only by partaking of food and drinks under certain conditions, but by the mere bodily contact with persons of ‘certain low castes, whose traditional occupation, whether actually followed or not, or whose mode of life places them outside the pale of Hindu society.’193 Sweeper castes (from which Rangretas came) were one of these. “According to Barbosa, a Nayar woman touched by a Pulayan is outcaste for life and thinks only of leaving her home for fear of polluting her family.”194 This is, of course, an extreme case. ‘Castes lower than a Brahmin are generally speaking less easily defiled, but the principle is the same, and contact with castes or outcastes of this category used to entail early steps to remove the pollution.’195 The Sikh Gurus’ stand on this issue is clear from their hymns given below:

“If the ideas 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 shall we avoid impurity? It falleth on our kitchens. Saith Nanak, impurity is not thus washed away; it is washed away by divine knowledge..... All impurity consisteth in superstition and attachment to wordly things. The eating and drinking which god sent us for sustenance is pure.”196 “They eat he-goats killed with unspeakable words, And allow no one to enter their cooking squares. Having smeared a space they draw lines around it, And sit within, false that they are, Saying, ‘Touch not! O touch not I.’ ‘Or this food of ours will be defiled.’ But their bodies are defiled; what they do is defiled; Their hearts are false while they perform ablutions after their meals.”197

There was no place in Guru Angad’s congregation for anyone who observed caste.198 All the castes were treated as equals.199 Only those who were not afraid of Vedic and caste injunctions came to his congregations; others did not. 200 At the Langar (free kitchen) all ate at the same platform and took the same food.201 Guru Amar Das went a step further. No one who had not partaken food at his Langar could see him.202 In his Langar there were no distinctions of caste.

Lines of noble Gurbhais (disciples of the same Guru) partook food sitting together at the same place.203 Guru Gobind Singh himself drank Amrit, prepared at the baptism ceremony by the five Beloved ones, of whom four were Sudras. Koer Singh, a near contemporary, of the Guru, records that the Guru ‘has made the four castes into a single one, and made the Sudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahmin take meals at the same place.’204 All the members of the Khalsa Dal, who were drawn from all castes including the Rangrettas dined together. 205

Two Muhammadan historians (1783) independently attest to it that the Sikhs, drawn from all castes, ate together. “When a person is once admitted to their fraternity, they make no scruple of associating with him, of whatever tribe, clan or race, he may have been hitherto; nor do they betray any of those scruples and prejudices so deeply rooted in the Hindu mind. “206 Commenting on the last part of the statement, the editor (John Briggs) says, “This alludes to the touching or eating with persons of impure castes in regard to which Hindus are so tanacious. “207 The author of Haqiqat similarly writes: “The Sikhs were told: ‘whoever might join you from whichever tribe, don’t have any prejudice against him and without any superstition eat together with him.’ Now this is their custom.”208

BRAHMINS

The second great pillar of the caste system was the Brahmin caste. The position of the Brahmins in this system is one of the fundamental institutions of Hinduism. It is the Brahmins who were the ideologues of the caste system, and the Dharma was the exclusive product of the Brahmins. ‘Dharma, ‘that is, ritualistic duty, is the central criterion of Hinduism, ‘209 and the Brahmins were the grandmasters of the ceremonies. Even otherwise, the Brahmins were the kingpin of the caste system. The ‘whole system turns on the prestige of the Brahmin.210 The ‘central position of the Brahmins in Hinduism rests primarily upon the fact that social rank is determined with reference to Brahmins.211 The Brahmin reception or rejection of water and food is the measure of the status of any given caste in a given place.212

It has been noted that the Brahmins and Khatris, who did not want to forego their privileged caste status, remained aloof when the Khalsa, with complete equality of castes, was created. In the census of 1881, of the total number of Brahmins only about 7000 were Sikhs. The denial of superiority claimed by the higher castes, which distinguished the teaching of Guru Gobind Singh, was not acceptable to the Brahmins.213 For this reason the number of Sikh Brahmins was very low, even though the Brahmins were the third most numerous caste in the Punjab outnumbering all but Jats and Rajputs.214 The proportion of Brahmins in the population ‘steadily changes with the prevailing religion….it gradually decreases from east to west, being markedly smaller in the central and Sikh districts.215 These facts are very significant. ‘The Brahmins have no territorial organisation. They accompany their clients in their migrations. 216 Therefore, the insignificant number of Brahmins in the Sikh population corroborates the well known fact that the Sikhs have no priestly class, much less a hereditary Levite caste having vested interests in maintaining a hierarchical structure in the Sikh society.

By eliminating the influence of Brahmins in the Panth, the Sikh society eliminated the kingpin of the caste system from within its ranks. Max: Weber has made a clear distinction between Hindu castes and non- Hindu castes. ‘There are also castes among the Mohammedans of India, taken over from the Hindus. And castes are also found among the Buddhists. Even the Indian Christians have not quite been able to withhold themselves from practical recognition of the castes. These non-Hindu castes have lacked the tremendous emphasis that the Hindu doctrine of salvation placed upon the caste, as we shall see later, and they have lacked a further characteristic, namely, the determination of the social rank of the caste by the social distance from other Hindu castes, and therewith, ultimately, from the Brahmin. This is decisive for the connection between Hindu castes and the Brahmin; however intensely a Hindu caste may reject him as priest, as a doctrinal and ritual authority, and in every other respect, the objective situation remains inescapable; in the last analysis, a rank position is determined by the nature of its positive or negative relation to the Brahmin.217 The elimination of the Brahmin Levite Caste, or for that matter of any other hereditary Levite class, from the Sikh ranks made a major contribution in eroding the caste system among them.

Separate Society

The ideological break from the caste ideology and getting rid of the Brahmin Levite, caste were no doubt vital steps forward for undermining the caste system. But these were by themselves not enough. The greatest hurdle was the social framework of the caste system, i.e. the caste social exclusiveness, inequality and hierarchism were in-built in its very constitution and mechanism. The anti-caste movements could survive only if these divorced themselves from the caste society. Buddhism organized a monastic society outside the caste ranks, but it left its laity to remain in the caste fold. The result was that, when Brahmanism reasserted itself, the lay followers of Buddhism imperceptibly moved into their caste moorings, leaving the order of monks, high and dry, in its isolation.

Kabir was far more vocal than Basawa, but the Lingayats established a far more separate identity than the Kabir-panthies; because their deviation (e.g. widow-remarriage, burying the dead and admission of all castes) from the caste usages were very radical. Later, the Lingayats tried to tone down their radicalism. But, inspite of this, they are, perhaps, more an appendage of the orthodox society than its integral part; because even the toned down Lingayatism is not wholly adjustable in the caste order. 218 Chaitanaya, who was more radical with regard to caste restrictions than the Maharashtra Bhakatas, had both low caste Hindus and Musalmans as his disciples.

In the Kartabha sect, which branched out of the Chaitanya School, there is no distinction between Hindus, Musalmans and Christians. A Musalman has more than once risen to the rank of a teacher. The members of the sect eat together once or twice in a year. 219 But, “The goal of Chaitanya was lost when his church passed under the control of Brahmin Goswamis. “220 The main body of the followers of Chaitanyas reverted to the caste system; and even its, Kartabhai section, like the Lingayats, does not assert a distinct entity apart from the caste society. The creed ‘of Kabir attained the stage of only a Mata (religious path), although of all the denouncers of caste injunctions he was the most unequivocal and vocal.

The Kabir-panth remained a loose combination of those who were attracted by Kabir’s religious appeal, or were attracted by some other considerations (e.g. Julahas (weavers), who constituted a majority of the Kabir panthies, were attracted to Kabir because he was a Julaha).221 These instances leave no doubt that anti-caste movements, like those of Kabir and other Bhaktas, whose departure from the caste ideology had been confined only to the ideological plane, remained still-born in the field of social achievement. And, those like the Lingayats and the followers of Chaitanya, who, under the influence of a teacher, did adopt certain anticaste usages, but either they did not want to break away completely from the caste society or did not pursue their aim consistently enough, remained tagged to the caste-order in one form or the other.

The Buddhist monks alone could escape being swallowed by the caste society, because they had made a complete break with the caste order both ideologically and organizationally. Max Weber writes, “Once established, the assimilative power of Hinduism is so great that it tends even to integrate social forms considered beyond its religious borders. The religious movements of expressly anti-Brahmanical and anti-caste character, that is contrary to one of the fundamentals of Hinduism, have been in all essentials returned to the caste order.


The process is not hard to explain. When a principled anti-caste sect recruits former members of various Hindu castes and tears them from the context of their former ritualistic duties, the caste responds by excommunicating all the sect’s proselytes. Unless the sect is able to abolish the caste system altogether, instead of simply tearing away Some of its members, it becomes, from the standpoint of the caste system, a quasi-guest folk, a kind of confessional guest community in an ambiguous position in the prevailing Hindu Order. 222


As pointed out by Max Weber, there were only two alternatives before the anti-caste movements: either to abolish the caste system or to be engulfed by it. As the abolition of the caste system at one stroke could happen only through a miracle, the only practical way was to form a society outside the caste system and give it a battle from outside. This lesson of Indian history is very important. The contaminative power of the caste system was so great that it did not spare Indian Muslims and Christians,223 whom the caste society would not re-admit even if they wished it. Then, how could those anti-caste elements or movements escape, whom the caste society was prepared to assimilate and who did not resist assimilation?

The Lingayats and the Chatanayites, with all their radical anti-caste innovations, remained as mere sects of Hinduism and as mere appendages of the caste society. Of all the anti-caste movements of Indian origin, only the Buddhists and the Sikhs succeeded in establishing a separate identity from the caste society, and both did it by founding a separate church and a separate social organization. In other words, the chances of success of any anti-caste movement were in direct proportion to the separate identity it established outside the caste society, not only at the ideological level but also at the organizational level. And the foremost prerequisite for this purpose was a clear perception of this aim, a determined will and a consistent effort to pursue it.


The process of founding a separate society (the Sikh panth) started with Guru Nanak himself. He began his career as a teacher of men with the significant utterance. “There is no Hindu, no Musalman.” He was asked: “There is one path of the Hindus, and the other that of Musalmans, which path do you follow?” He replied, “I follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Musalman.”224 Guru Nanak’s reply clearly indicates his complete break with his Hindu past. Further, Guru Nanak took clear organizational steps in shaping a Sikh society on separate ideological lines. He established Dharamsalas in far-flung places inside the country and outside it.225

These Dharmsalas became the centres where his followers could meet together, practise the Dharam of his concept, and spread his message to others. In addition, he appointed select persons (Manjis) for the purpose of furthering his mission.226 In his lifetime, his followers came to be known as Nanak-panthies, and they had their own separate way of saluting each other (Sat Kartar).227 The greatest single organizational step that Guru Nanak took was to select, by a system of tests, a worthy successor whom he instructed to lead and continue his mission.

Guru Nanak’s successors consistently worked to establish the separate identity of the Sikh Church and the Sikh Panth. They consolidated and extended the institutions of Dharamsala (religious centres), Sangat (congregation of Sikhs), Langar (common kitchen) and Manjis (seats of preaching), all started by Guru Nanak. In addition, Guru Angad invented the Gurmukhi script and Guru Arjan compiled the Sikh scripture. With a distinct organization, separate religious centres, a separate script and a scripture of their own, the Sikhs became an entirely separate church and a new society-the Sikh Panth. The main theme of the Vars of Bhai Gurdas, a contemporary of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, emphasizes the distinct character of Sikh religion, culture and society as contrasted to other religions and sects. He links, as already seen, the creation of the Panth with the abolition of castes and sects. Mohsin Fani, another contemporary of Guru Hargobind, also testifies that the “Sikhs do not read the Mantras (i.e. Vedic or other scriptural hymns) of the Hindu, they do not venerate their temples or idols, nor do they esteem their Avtars. They have no regard for the Sanskrit language which, according to the Hindus, is the speech of the angels. ‘228

There were Muslim converts to the Sikh faith but their number was very limited. If nothing else, the fear of death penalty for apostasy prescribed by the Shariat, and which the Muslim rulers of the land were ever ready to impose, was alone enough to prevent their large scale conversions. The Sikh Panth had, therefore, to draw its recruitment almost entirely from the Hindu society. This was also not an easy task, as we have seen how difficult it was to wean away people from their caste moorings and lead them to an egalitarian path. It had to be a slow and gradual process, but the successive Gurus stuck to it without deviation until Guru Gobind Singh decided that the movement had reached a stage when it was necessary to create the Khalsa.

The creation of the Khalsa was the acme of the Sikh movement. The Sikhs were militarized not only to fight religious and political oppressions, but also to capture political power for an egalitarian cause. In fact, the capture of political power became, as will be seen, the chief instrument for demolishing the hold of the caste system among the Sikhs. However, what is immediately relevant to our subject is the fact that the Khalsa made a clean break with the caste society. Of the five Beloved ones, who became the nucleus of the Khalsa, there were three Sudras and one Jat - at that time on the borderline of Vaisyas and Sudras. For joining the Khalsa ranks, baptism (Amrit) ceremony was made obligatory (Guru Gobind Singh himself undergoing that), and when baptised one had to take five vows.229 These were:

  • (i) Dharm Nash, i.e. to sever connection with all previous religions, Dharma,

customs, etc.;

  • (ii) Karam Nash, i.e. to consider oneself absolved of all

past misdeeds, which cut at the roots of the Brahmanical Karma theory;

  • (iii) Kul Nash, i.e. severance of all ties with lineage, which

destroyed the fundamental basis of caste, i.e. obliteration of stigmas attached to occupation, which destroyed the functional basis of caste;

  • (iv) Bharm Nash, i.e. discarding ritualism, taboos and notions of

pollution, etc. which cut across barriers raised between castes by these factors and which were so essential features of the caste system. At the time of baptism (Amrit) ceremony, the Guru enjoined on all who had joined the Khalsa that they should consider their previous castes erased and deem themselves all brothers Le. of one family.’230


The newswriter of the period sent the Emperor a copy of the Guru’s address to his Sikhs on that occasion. It is dated the first of Baisakh 1756 (A.D. 1699), and runs as follows: ‘Let all embrace one creed and obliterate differences of religion. Let the four Hindu castes who have different rules for their guidance abandon them all, adopt the one form of adoration and become brothers. Let no one deem himself superior to others ……Let men of the four castes receive my baptism, eat out of one dish, and feel no disgust or contempt for one another. “231 These mayor may not be the exact words of the Guru’s address, but their substance is corroborated by the near-contemporary Koer Singh (1751).

He records that the Guru said: ‘Many a Vaish (Vaishya), Sudar (Shudra) and Jat have I incorporated in the Panth 232 and that the Guru ‘has made the four castes into a single one, and made the Sudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahmin take meals at the same place.233 According to the same authority, it was a current topic among the people that the Guru had ‘blended the four castes into’ one”, had rejected both the Hindu and Muslim religions and created a new noble Khalsa, wherein Sudra, Vaishya, Khatri and Brahmin eat together. 234 Again, the hill rajas complained to Aurangzeb: “He has founded his own panth; (has) rejected the Hindu and Muslim faiths and other customs of the land; the four castes are made into one and are known by the one name of Khalsa.”235 What it even more significant is that the creation of the Khalsa was associated with the tearing and throwing away of janeo, the sacred insignia of the twiceborn Hindus.236

The contemporary author of Gur Sobha is generally very brief in his comments about historical events, but he, too, records that Brahmins and Khatries remained aloof at the time of the creation of the Khalsa because it involved discarding their ancestral rituals.237 The later Sikh literature of the 18th century, written by different hands and at different times, though differing on points of detail, is agreed on the main issue that the Khalsa broke away from the caste ideology and the caste society.

Rahetnamas contain mostly precepts, but these do record the Sikh tradition indicating Sikh culture and the Sikh way of life. “I will weld the four Varnas (castes) into one.”238 “Those who acknowledge Brahmins, their off springs go to hell.”239 “The Sikh, who wears Janeo, goes to hell.”240 “He who shows regard to other religions (panthan), is a heretic and not a Sikh of the Guru.”241 “He who abides by the six Darshnas, he drags along with him his whole family into hell.”242 “Let your whole concern be with the Khalsa, other gods (Devs) are false.”243 “If any baptized Sikh puts on Janeo, he will be cast into hell.”244 “(A Sikh) should sever connection with Musalmans and Hindus (Musalman Hindu ki ann mete).”245 “(A Sikh) should not acknowledge (kan na kare), Brahma and Muhammad, he should obey the words of his own. Guru.246 Chaupa Singh, a contemporary, specifically mentions at three places that Guru Gobind Singh initiated the pahul (baptism) ceremony in order to create a separate Panth.247 “Khalsa is one who does not acknowledge Musalman (Turk) and Hindu.”248 Kesar Singh Chibber (1769) writes that the Guru created a new Third panth (Khalsa panth) by breaking with both Hindus and Musalmans.”249 Sukha Singh (1797) states the same fact more explicitly: “Sudra, Vaish, Khatri and Brahmin all ate together. The religion of Vedas was rejected All the religions of Hindus and Hindus, were discarded and one pure ‘Khalsa’ was established.’250 One Gurdas Singh wrote about the same time: “Ved, Puran, six shastras and Kuran were eliminated’ the both sects (Hindus and Muslims) were engrossed in superstition; the third religion of Khalsa became supreme.”251

We hope our reference again to some non-Sikh sources will bear repetition as these substantiate the testimony given above from Sikh sources. Mir Ghulam Hussain Khan (1783) writes thus about the Khalsa-Panth : “They form a particular society, which distinguishes itself by wearing blue garments, and going armed at all times. When a person is once admitted into that fraternity, they make no scruples of associating with him, of whatever tribe, clan, or race he may have been hitherto, nor do they betray any of those scruples and prejudices so deeply rooted in the Hindu mind.252

The author of Haqiqat (1783) also writes about the same time that the Sikhs were told: “Whoever might join you from whichever tribe, don’t have any prejudice against him and without any superstition eat together with him. Now this is their custom.”253 Irvine relies on contemporary Mohammedan historians to state that, “In the parganas occupied by the Sikhs, the reversal of previous custom was striking and complete. A low scavenger’or leather-dresser, the lowest of the low in Indian estimation, had only to leave home and join the Guru (Banda), where in a short space of time he would return to his birth place as its ruler, with his order of appointment in his hand.”254

This was no small achievement, as it will be seen what important role the capturing of political power by men drawn from lower castes played in throwing off their shackles of the caste society. Khafi Khan writes, “These infidels (the Khalsa) had set up a new rule, and had forbidden the shaving of the hair of the head and beard. Many of the ill-disposed lowcaste Hindus joined themselves to them, and placing their lives at the disposal of these evil-minded people, they found their own advantage in professing belief and obedience, and they were very active in persecuting and killing other castes of Hindus.”255 In other words, these men drawn from lowcastes, on joining the Khalsa, not only separated themselves from the caste society, but were active in persecuting their former oppressors, i.e. Hindus of higher castes.

The evidence given above from Sikh and non-Sikh sources demonstrates that the separation of the Khalsa from the caste society was not an accident, an expediency, or a temporary brain-wave of a leader. It was a regular movement which continued in full viguor, at least during its revolutionary phase. The separate identity of the Khalsa continued to be emphasized even in the period of ideological decline. Bhangu (1841) writes: “All ate together from one vessel: no discrimination was left regarding the four varnas and the four ashrams; Janeo and tikka (Hindu insignias) were given Up.”256 “They (the Khalsa) do not go near Ganga and Jamuna; bathe in their own tank (i.e. at Amritsar); call Jagannath tunda (one with a mutilated limb); do not worship Ram or Krishan).”257 One of the reasons why the Jat Khalsa departed from Banda was that he attempted to introduce Hindu usages in the Khalsa.258 All this belies the proposition that the separate identity of the Khalsa was a creation of the Singh Sabha movement under British influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A New Socio-Political Order

The Khalsa not only broke away from the caste society, but also succeeded to a remarkable degree in giving an egalitarian socio-political orientation of its own. This was, in fact, an acid test and a proof of its separate identity from the caste society as well as its raison d’ etre.

(i) Plebian Base

The Sikh movement had not only an egalitarian political mission but it had also a plebian base. It was necessary that the downtrodden castes and classes should be both the architects and masters of their own destiny. When Guru Hargobind declared his intention of arming the Panth, four hundred men volunteered their services. ‘Calico-printers, water-carriers, and carpenters; barbers, all came to (his) place.”259 When asked by the Raja what kind of army Guru Gobind Singh had, Bhikhan Khan replied: “Subject people have come together, rustic Jats, oil-pressers, barbers, Bhati, Lubana, Leather-dressers.”260 Bhangu has referred to the plebian composition of the Khalsa at several places.261 When the Tarana Dal wing of the Khalsa Dal was reorganized into five divisions, one of the divisions was under the command of Bir Singh Rangretta.262

This division continued to participate in the campaigns of the Khalsa right up to the time of the conquest of Malerkotla.263 In the great battle with Abadali, called Wada Ghalu Ghara because the largest number of Sikhs in a single battle were killed here, it is specially mentioned that Ramdasias (cobblers) and Rangrettas took a prominent part.264 The plebian composition of the Khalsa is corroborated also by evidence from non-Sikh sources. Banda’s forces were recruited chiefly from the lower caste Hindus, and scavengers, leather-dressers and such like persons were very numerous among them.265 The low-caste people who swelled Banda’s ranks are termed by a contemporary Muslim historian, as already quoted, as the dregs of the society of the hellish Hindus.266

Another contemporary Muslim writer says that Banda brought into the forefront unemployed worthless people who had hitherto been hidden by the curtain of insignificance.”267 Khafi Khan says that, “Many of the ill-disposed low-caste Hindus joined themselves to them (Khalsa)”268 The author of Haqiqat clearly states that Khatries, Jats, carpenters, blacksmiths and grain grocers all joined the Khalsa.269

(ii) The spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization

More than the form or its composition, it is the spirit which prevails within a movement which reflects its real character. The idea of equality was inherent in the system of the Gurus and the Sikh movement so long it retained its pristine purity. After he had anointed Angad as his successor, Guru Nanak bowed at his feet in salutation. The same custom was followed by the later Gurus.270 The Sikhs, who had imbibed the spirit of the Gurus, were regarded as equals of the Guru.

The collective wisdom of the congregation of Sikhs was of higher value than that of the Guru alone (Guru weeh visve, sangat iki visve). Bhai Gurdas repeatedly makes it clear that there was no status gap between the Guru and a Sikh (Gur chela, chela Guru).271 Guru Angad said: ‘Regard the Guru’s Sikh as myself; have no doubt about this. ‘272 Guru Hargobind, out of reverence for Bhai Buddha, a devout Sikh, touched his feet.273 He told Bhai Bidhichand that there was no difference between him and the Guru.274

The Sikhs addressed each other as ‘brother’ (Bhai), thus showing a perfect level of equality among them. In all the available letters written by the Gurus to the Sikhs, they have been addressed as brothers (Bhai).275 It was in continuation of this tradition that Guru Gobind Singh requested with clasped hands the Beloved Ones to baptize him.”276 This shows that he regarded them not only as his equal but made them as his Guru. This was the utmost limit to which a religious head could conceive of or practise human equality. The spirit of brotherhood and fraternization is even more difficult to inculcate than the spirit of equality.This new spirit was a natural sequence of the Sikh doctrines and approach. What is important is the emphasis laid on this spirit of brotherhood and fraternization in the Sikh literature, and more particularly the extent to which this spirit was practised in the Sikh movement.

As there was no difference between the Guru and the Sikh the devotion to the Guru was easily channelized into the service of the Sikhs. ‘Godorientated service is the service of the Guru’s Sikhs, who should be regarded as one’s dearest kith and kin.’277 ‘The Guru’s Sikhs should serve the other Sikhs.’278 One of Guru Gobind Singh’s own hymns is: “To serve them (The Khalsa) pleaseth my heart; no other service is dear to my soul.

All the wealth of my house with my soul and body is for them.”279 The codes of Sikh conduct (Rehatnamas) continue to record this tradition. ‘He who shirks a poor man is an absolute defaulter.’280 ‘Serve a Sikh and a pauper’.281 ‘If some among. a group of Sikhs sleep on cots and the poor Sikhs sleep on the floor and are not shown due courtesy, the former Sikhs are at fault.’282 The essence of Sikhism is service, love and devotion… (The Sikh) should be regarded as the image of the Guru and served as such.283

Bhalla records that these precepts were actually followed in the Sikh Panth. ‘The Sikhs served each other, regarding every Sikh as the Guru’s image.284 Bhangu writes: ‘No body bore malice to anyone; the Singhs (Sikhs who had been baptized) vied with each other in rendering service to others.’285 If any Sikh got or brought any eatable, it was never used alone, it was partaken by all the Sikhs. Nothing was hidden from the other Sikhs. All eatables were shared by all members of the Khalsa; if there was nothing to eat, they would say: ‘The Langar is in trance (Masat)’. ‘One would offer food to others first and then eat oneself. Singhs would be addressed with great love.’286

Guru’s Sikh was the brother of each Sikh.’287 During the days of struggle with the Mughals, one Niranjania reported to the Mughal governor against the Sikhs: ‘They (non-combatants) would themselves go hungry and naked, but would not bear the misery of the Singhs; they themselves would ward off cold by sitting near fire, but would send clothes to the Singhs; they would grind corn with their own hands and send it to the Singhs; they would twist ropes and send its proceeds to the Singhs. They, who for their living would go to far off places, send their earnings to the Singhs.288 “All members of the Khalsa Dal ‘were issued clothes from a common store.’ Without concealing anything, they would pool all their earnings at one place. If anyone found or brought any valuables, these were deposited in the treasury as common property.”289 The prevalence of this spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization among the Sikhs, as already noted, is confirmed by Ghulam Mohyyud- Oin, the author of Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi (1722-23) and Siyam Rai Bhandari a historian contemporary of Aurangzeb.

(iii) Leadership

The leadership of a movement has always an important bearing in determining the direction of the movement. The way the question of the leadership of the Khalsa was tackled is a demonstration that Guru Gobind Singh wanted to preserve the egalitarian character of the movement. We have already referred to the significance of the initiation (baptism) ceremony of the Guru at the hands of the Khalsa as pointed out by Gokal Chand Narang. The Guru set this example because he wanted to ensure that the leadership of the movement remained in the hands of the’ Khalsa who had an egalitarian mission. The Beloved five (of whom four were Sudras) were made the nucleus of the leadership of the Khalsa, and this was done when the Guru’s sons were alive.

The fact that the leadership of the movement devolved on the Khalsa Panth as a whole became an article of living faith with the Sikhs. In this connection, the episode of Banda’s nomination as leader and his subsequent parting of company with the Khalsa is very illustrative. The Khalsa agreed to follow Banda only on the condition that he would not aspire to sovereignty.290 The Guru instructed Banda to abide by the Khalsa and appointed select Sikhs as his advisers.291 After his military successes, Banda aspired to become Guru and a sovereign. The Tat Khalsa (the genuine Khalsa) parted company with him and his followers, because the Guru had given Banda : ‘Service and not sovereignty; The sovereignty had been given to the Panth by the Guru (Sacha Padshah) himself.’292 After Banda, Kapur Singh was elected as the leader of the Khalsa, who, on becoming the leader, did nothing without consulting the Khalsa.293 With the end of Kapur Singh’s era, the revolutionary spirit started waning. His successor was Jassa Singh ‘Kalal’ who was accepted leader by the Khalsa on the advice of Kapur Singh. Jassa Singh struck coin in his own name when the Khalsa conquered Lahore for the first time. This was so much against the spirit of collective leadership of the Khalsa, that a special convention was held, where it was decided to recall that coin from circulation.294 In its place, another coin struck in the name of the Guru was substituted.

Polier (1780) observed, ‘As for the Government of the Siques, it is properly an aristocracy, in which no pre-eminence is allowed except that which power and force naturally gives; otherwise all the chiefs, great and small, and even the poorest and most abject Siques, look on themselves as perfectly equal in all the public concerns and in the greatest Council or Goormatta of the nation, held annually either at Ambarsar, Lahore or some other place. Everything is decided by the plurality of votes taken indifferently from all who choose to be present at it.’295 Forster also gives a similar account. ‘An equality of rank is maintained in their civil society, which no class of men, however wealthy or powerful, is suffered to break down. At the periods when general council of the nation were convened, which consisted of the army at large, every member had the privilege of delivering his opinion, and the majority, it is said, decided on the subject in debate.296 This shows how strong the original spirit of equality and fraternization of the Sikh revolution must have been so that it could reveal its glimpses even in the post- Khalsa period.

(iv) Abolition of Caste Priorities and prejudices

The Chuhras are the ‘out-caste, par-excellence of the Punjab, whose name is popularly supposed to be corruption of Sudra.’297 As such, they were about the most despised caste in the Punjab; mere bodily contact with whom defiled a person of a higher caste. On conversion to Sikhism, persons from this caste were given the honorific title of Rangretta in order to raise them in public estimation, much in the same way as depressed classes are now-a-days called Harijans.

A rhyme, ‘Rangretta, Guru Ka Beta’, meaning ‘Rangretta is the son of the guru’, current in the Punjab 298 is an indication of the status to which the Sikh movement sought to raise them. We have seen how Rangrettas (whose touch, had they remained in the caste society, defiled not only the person but also the food he carried) were coequal members of the Khalsa Dal, where they dined and fraternized, without discrimination, with other Dal members drawn from Brahmins, Khatris, Jats and others. When the Taruna Dal (the Youth wing of the Khalsa Dal) was reorganized into five divisions, one of these was under the leadership of Bir Singh Rangretta.

It was bestowed a standard flag Jhanda) from the Akal Takht in the same manner as was done in the case of the other four divisions.299 It was thus given an equal status with them. When Ala Singh defeated the army of Malerkotla with the hdp of the Khalsa Dal and offered horses to honour the Dal, the first to receive the honour, as selected by the Dal, was Bir Singh Rangretta.300

We have taken the case of Rangrettas because it is very much illustrative, they being the lowest caste from which Sikhs were recruited. But, it is the Jats, who form the majority in the present day Panth and who have bene fitted most in the elevation of their social status by joining the Sikh ranks. It is mainly because they were able to retain, unlike the Rangrettas, the gains that accrued to them. The present day social status of the Sikh Jats is taken so much for granted that it is seldom that their past, prior to their joining the Sikh movement, is recalled. ‘In A.D. 836, an Arab governor summoned them to appear and pay jaziya, each to be accompanied by a dog, a mark of humiliation prescribed also under the previous Brahmin regime.301 ‘Albaruni (C. 1030), whose direct experience of India was confined to the Lahore area, took the Jats to be ‘Cattleowners, low Shudra people.’302 The author of the Dabistani- Mazahib (Ca. 1655) in his account of Sikhism describes the Jats as ‘the lowest caste of the Vaishyas.303 In contrast to this position, ‘under the Sikhs the Rajput was over-shadowed by the Jat, who resented his assumption of superiority and his refusal to join him on equal terms in the ranks of the Khalsa, deliberately persecuted him wherever and whenever he had the power, and preferred his title of Jat Sikh to that of the proudest Rajput.’304

That this was all due to the Sikh movement becomes clear if the status of Sikh Jats of the Sikh tract is compared with that of other Jats woo are his immediate neighbours. About the non-Sikh Jats in the eastern submontane tract, Ibbetson writes in his census report (1881): ‘In character and position there is nothing to distinguish the tribes I am about to notice, save that they have never enjoyed the political importance which distinguished the Sikh Jats under the Khalsa In the Sikh tract, the political position of the Jat was so high that he had no wish to be called Rajput; under the hills the status of the Rajput is so superior that the Jat has no hope of being called Rajput.305

Similarly, although the Jats of the southeastern districts of the Punjab differ ‘in little save religion from the great Sikh Jat tribes of the Malwa’,306 they remained subservient to the Rajputs upto a recent period of the British Raj. There, ‘In the old days of Rajput ascendency, the Rajputs would not allow Jats to cover their heads with a turban’, and ‘even to this day Rajputs will not allow inferior castes to wear red clothes or ample loin clothes in their village.’307 In the predominantly Muhammedan Western Punjab, the Jat is ‘naturally looked upon as of inferior race, and the position he occupies is very different from that which he holds in the centre and east of the Punjab. 308

We are not giving these quotations in order to approve of air of superiority assumed by the Sikh Jats; because the Sikh movement aimed at levelling up social status of all kinds and not at substituting the status-superiority of one caste or class for that of another. However, these instances do show how far the movement succeeded in breaking the order of social precedence established by the caste society and in permanently raising the social status of a social group which now forms the majority in the Sikh Panth.

(v) Political Power

We have seen how scavengers and leather-dressers were appointed local leaders by Banda. “All power was now usurped by the Sikhs, and one Bir Singh, a man of poor origin, was appointed Subedar or governor of Sirhind.”309

In the Missal period, ordinary peasants, shepherds (Tara Singh Gheba)310 village menials Oassa Singh Ramgarhia) and distillers, Oassa Singh Kala!), whom the caste society despised, became the leaders. There was not one else from castes higher than these. The common peasantry of the land suddenly attained political power. 311 “...the whole country of the Punjab is in the possession of this community (the Khalsa) and most of their exalted leaders are of low origin, such as carpenters, animal skin-treaters and Jats.”312 Waris Shah, the author of ‘Hir & Ranjha’, describes the state of affairs in the Punjab of this period. “Men of menial birth flourish and the peasants are in great prosperity. The Jats have become masters of our country. Everywhere there is a new Government.”313

All the members of the Khalsa, irrespective of their caste or class, came to be called, as they are even now. Sardars (over-lords). This is not to approve of this development or the feudal nature of the Missal political system, because these were departures from the Sikh ideal of human equality. The point to be noted here is how the Sikh revolution raised the social and political status, not of individuals, but of a large section of the commoners en bloc.

This capture of political status by the commoners had a great impact, within the Sikh Panth, in removing some Social barriers raised by the caste society. It was the taste of political power which made the Sikh Jat feel prouder than the Rajput and the Rangrettas as equals to the Sikh Jats. The Rangrettas had all along been equal members of the Khalsa Dal in every respect, but at the time of Missal formation they joined the Missal of Nishanias,314 which Missal did not carve out a territorial rule of its own. Had the Rangrettas also opted for political power on their own, it is quite on the cards that their social status within the Sikh Panth might have been different from what it is. In other words, the Rangrettas were not pushed out of the Khalsa brotherhood; only they did not avail of the opportunity to capture political power for themselves, which was necessary to maintain their newly acquired social prestige and position in the post-revolutionary period. At any rate, it becomes quite clear that political power was a big factor for levelling caste barriers.

Therefore, the mission of capturing political power by the Khalsa (Raj karega Kbalsa) was as much an egalitarian social mission as it was a political one. It was not for nothing that the caste ideology and the caste society had been at great pains to exclude the commoners from political power. The egalitarian political and military orientation of the Khalsa should be viewed in this perspective. Those who disapprove the militarization of the Sikh movement on religious grounds miss this point. The social status of the lower castes could not be changed without their attaining political power, and that religion was not worth its name which did not strive to change the caste system.

We presented evidence to show that the Khalsa cut itself from the caste system by severing connections with the caste ideology, Brahmins and the caste society. This conclusion is further substantiated by the positive evidence given in the present section regarding the sociopolitical egalitarian character of the Khalsa polity. None of its salient features (i.e. its Plebian composition; its spirit of equality, brotherhood and fraternization; its democratic and collective leadership: abolition of caste priorities; and capture of political power by the commoners) could even be conceived, much less realized, while remaining within the caste system or the caste society.


  • Above based on article by Professor Jagjit Singh, Author of the outstanding work on Sikh history, The Sikh Revolution, Ghadar Party Lehrand Sikh Inqlab(Punjabi).

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