Singh Sabha Movement
A New Movement With A Deep and Lasting Impact
The 20th century would see the bursting forth of a new movement called The Singh Sabha which would bring new life to the Sikhs and revive their Religion. The new movement had planted its roots even as the Nirankari and Namdhari movements of 19th Century, with their restricted scope and schismatic character, had began to lose 'steam' after failing to stir the Sikh people.
To quote Sardar Harbans Singh in his, The heritage of the Sikhs,
- "The Singh Sabha which followed them had a much deeper impact. It influenced the entire Sikh Community and reoriented its outlook and spirit. Since the days of the Gurus nothing so vital had transpired to fertilize the consciousness of the Sikhs. The Singh Sabha by leavening the intellectual and cultural processes brought a new dimension to the inner life of the community and enlarged its heritage. Starting in the seventies of the last century, it marked a turning-point in Sikh history. It touched Sikhism to its very roots, and made it a living force once again. The stimulus it provided has shaped the Sikhs' attitude and aspiration over the past one hundred years."
A Search for Sikh identity and Self-assertion
The reason behind the success of the Singh Sabha was the motivation to search for Sikh identity and Self-assertion that we are not just another sect of Hinduism. Earlier, Hindu philosophers had declared Sikhs as "another sect of Hinduism". 2500 years ago, the same thing was done to Budhism, when Budha was made "another reincarnation of Vishnu" by Brahmins, thus ending Budhism in India. Singh Sabha recognized this and started their campaign of awakenings for rural Khalsa, which was under the direct threat of Christian Missionaries, Muslim Maulalivis and Arya Samajis. Khalsa's moral force and dynamic vitality was rediscovered and Singh Sabha started to look upon its history and tradition with a clear and self-discerning eye.
Sikhs Win Control of their own Places of Worship
Everything that was against Gurus teaching was rejected. Rites and customs considered consistent with Sikh doctrine and tradition were established. For some, legal sanction was secured through government legislation. With this came the reorganization of Sikh Shrines. Later in 1920's Sikh Historic Shrines like Nankana Sahib, Punja Sahib, Golden Temple, TarnTaran Sahib, etc were freed from the hold of hereditary Mahants. These mahants were practicing rites and ritual inconsistent with Sikhism, Including not letting people of "lower caste" into Gurdwaras, publicly smoking, Idol worshipping of various Gods and Goddesses, and holding Shraddhs and other rituals not followed by the Sikh Gurus.
This period also witnessed the modern development and emergence of new cultural and political aspirations. Higher level of literacy were achieved by Sikhs. Famous Khalsa college at Amritsar and hundreds of Khalsa Schools were opened through out punjab. Many Sikhs ventured outside India at this period and settled at Malaysia, Canada, U.K, Africa and USA. In Punjab, the Sikhs sought to secure recognition for themselves:
English Predictions Prove Laughable
An English newspaper wrote,
- …"the Christian faith is making rapid progress and makes the prophecy that within the next twenty-five years, one-third of the Majha area will be Christian. The Malwa will follow suit. Just as we do not see any Buddhists in the country except in images, in the same fashion the Sikhs, who are now, here and there, visible in turbans and their other religious forms like wrist bangles and swords, will be seen only in pictures in museums. Their own sons and grandsons turning Christians and clad in coats and trousers and sporting toadstool-like caps will go to see them in the museums and say in their pidgin Punjabi:
- Look, that is the picture of a Sikh-the tribe that inhabited this country once upon a time. Efforts of those who wish to resist the onslaught of Christianity are feeble and will prove abortive like a leper without hands and feet trying to save a boy falling off a rooftop."
The writer's self-percieved Racial and Religious superiority is shown in his slur on the Punjabi lauguage as being inferior to certainly English and possibly even Hindi, as the Biggoted British would refer, as well, to pidgin English in China.
Quotes from The Heritage of the Sikhs
- From a Sikh newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar (Punjabi) of Lahore, May 25,1894, from the pen of its editor, Giani Ditt Singh,
- Reporting the observance of the first anniversary of the Lahore Singh Sabha in its issue for April 22, 1905, the Khalsa Advocate (English) referred to the occupant of a banga in the precincts of the Tarn Taran Gurdwara who had embraced Christianity and hung a cross on one of its walls to convert it into a Christian chapel.
- The Khalsa Akhbar, July 13, 1894, carried this letter in its correspondence columns:
- "In the village of Natta, Nabha state, a Sikh married off his daughter according to Sikh custom. Most of the population in the village, including Brahmanical Hindus and some Sikhs, became hostile. They did not let the marriage party stay in the dharamsala. The host, firm in his faith, had to put up the wedding guests in his own house."
- A student by the name of Bir Singh contributed a letter to the Khalsa Akhbar, February 12, 1897, saying:
- "Near the Dukhbhanjani beri tree in the Golden Temple precincts there is a room on the front wall of which is painted a picture. The picture depicts a goddess and Guru Gobind Singh. The goddess stands on golden sandals and she has many hands-ten or, perhaps, twenty. One of the hands is stretched out and in this she holds a khanda. Guru Gobind Singh stands barefoot in front of it with his hands folded."
- A letter in the Khalsa Akhbar, October 8, 1897, reported:
- "On Tuesday, Bhadon 31, the pujaris of the Tarn Taran Gurdwara held the shradha ceremony in honour of Guru Arjan. Those feasted were from outside the faith and they smoked."
- A correspondent' s letter in the Khalsa Samachar of Amritsar, edited by Bhai Vir Singh, June 25, 1902, said:
- "Around the village of Singhpur, Christians and Muhammadans are becoming very influential. The former have two churches here and the latter two mosques. In this area there is no dharamsala and the rural Khalsa is rather neglectful of its religious duty."
These newspaper quotations were taken from Heritage of the Sikhs, by Sardar Harbans Singh ji. They reveal the identity crisis that Sikhs faced at the dawn of new century.
Summing up the Situation Before the Singh Sabha
An editorial in the Khalsa Advocate (English), December 15, 1904, summed up the situation which existed before the emergence of the Singh Sabha thus:
- "…false gurus grew up in great abundance whose only business was to fleece their flock and pamper their own self-aggrandizement. Properly speaking, there was no Sikhism. Belief in the Gurus was gone. The idea of brotherhood in the Panth was discarded. The title of 'Bhai' so much honoured by Sikhs of old, fell into disuse and contempt. Sikhs grovelled in superstition and idolatry… …It (Sikhism) had thus lost all that was good and life-giving in the faith."
The Singh Sabha movement not only cleansed the Sikh institutions of the rituals and rites like casteism but also made sure that in the future, these rituals would not creep back in. Before the Singh Sabha, the situation was so bad that even Giani Ditt Singh, a very much honored literary giant of the Singh Sabha movement had to excuse himself from a Gurdwara when Karah Prashad was about to be served. His being of a susposed "low caste", the priests as well as educated devotees of the particular Gurdwara being adherants to the casteist rituals of the Hindus would demand his leaving. These rituals were, on the orders of Guru Nanak and his nine followers, long since prohibited in Sikhi.
As Sardar Harbans Singh ji says, " The decline had started in the very heyday of Sikh power. In the courtly splendor of the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sikh practice had been utterly subverted. The faith was weakened by the influx of large numbers of those who had adopted the Sikh form to gain material advantage, but whose allegiance to its principles and traditions was only tentative. In the words of a character in one of Sir Jogendra Singh's English novels, Rasili: "We failed because we did not obey the Guru. People established kingdoms and principalities and neglected their poor brethren. The result is what you see-the Khalsa has fallen." But the protagonist is aware of the massive reformation that was taking place. He says, "Sikhism is now casting off external influences and returning to the solid rock of its own pure faith and divine teachings."
In a general way, the Singh Sabha was an expression of the impulse of the Sikh community to rid itself of the base adulterations and accretions which were draining away its energy and to rediscover the sources of its original inspiration. Unlike other Indian reform movements of the period which were the creation of the elite, the Singh Sabha was a mass upsurge. Besides the awareness that Sikhism as commonly practiced was a corruption of what it originally was, two other motivating factors were at work: a reaction to what was happening in the neighborly religious traditions and defensiveness generated by Christian missionaries activities."
The Christian missionary activity had started in the Punjab with the influx of the English. Even while Ranjit Singh, the Sikh sovereign, reigned in Lahore, an American Presbyterian mission had been set up at Ludhiana, the north-western British outpost near the Sikh frontier. The factors for the choice of this area as "the best field of labour" were its "numerous and hardy population....a better climate than the lower provinces and....a ready access to the lower ranges of the Himalaya mountains in case of the failure of health." Another reason was the Sikh population "to whom our attention at first was specially directed," as says John C. Lowrie in his book, Travels in North India. With the end of Sikh rule in 1849, the Ludhiana Mission extended its work to Lahore. Two of its members, C.W. Forman and John Newton, were set apart for this duty and sent to the Punjab capital immediately. English and vernacular schools as well as welfare institutions like hospitals and orphanages followed. C.W. Forman turned out regularly for bazaar preaching.
John Lawrence, who was one of the triumvirate which ruled the Punjab after it was annexed to Britain, was a zealous patron of Christian proselytization. He contributed towards the Mission funds a sum of Rs. 500 annually out of his own pocket. Other English of fixers followed his example. It was his ambition to see the conquest of the Sikh dominions followed by large-scale conversions to Christianity.
Amritsar, headquarters of the Sikh faith, became another important seat of Church enterprise. In 1852, T.H. Fitzpatrick and Robert Clark, the first missionaries of the Church of England appointed to the Punjab, arrived in station. In the valedictory instruction given them, they had been told: "Though the Brahman religion still sways the minds of a large portion of the population of the Punjab, and the Mohammedan of another, the dominant religion and power for the last century has been the Sikh religion, a species of pure theism, formed in the first instance by a dissenting sect from Hinduism. A few helpful instances lead us to believe that the Sikhs may prove more accessible to scriptural truth than the Hindus and Mohammedans…"
Missionary Zeal of the Englishmen
The English missionaries were joined by Daud Singh who was the first Sikh of record ever to have embraced Christianity. He had been baptized in Kanpur by the Rev. W.H. Perkins, and was transferred to Amritsar as pastor in 1852. The Mission houses were built in the city by the Deputy Commissioner. Construction of the station church was started. In the wake of the Mission came a vernacular school, a high school, a school for girls and midwifery hospital. The evangelizing work was rewarded with the conversion of men like Shamaun, i.e. Simeon, a Sikh granthi (reader of the Holy Book or priest), formerly Kesar Singh of Sultanwind, Imad-ud-Din, a Muslim maulavi and Rulia Ram, a Hindu Khatri from Amritsar, who had attended the Mission School and passed the Calcutta entrance examination. Sub-stations of the Mission were opened in important towns of the Sikh tract of Majha such as Tarn Taran, Ajnala and Jandiala.
The Singh Sabha movement was, in a way, helped by the missionaries activities of the Mohammadens and the Christians. It grew, seemingly, out of nowhere to become the parent of the current SGPC and Akali party. The Singh Sabha Movement brought back the old ways of Khalsa and restored the pride and dignity of common urban rural Sikhs.