Gurmata

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GURMATA is a mata in the name of the Guru. i.e.: Resolution in the name of the Guru. It is a counsel or resolution adopted by the Sikhs at an assembly of theirs held in the name of the Guru concerning any religious, social or political issue. The convention grew in the turbulent eighteenth century to determine the consensus of the community on matters affecting its solidarity and survival. In those uncertain days, Sikhs assembled at the Akal Takhat at Amritsar on Baisakhi and Diwali days and took counsel together, in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, to plan a course of action in face of an immanent danger or in pursuit of a common objective. The final decision emerging from the deliberations was the gurmata. It represented the general will of the Khalsa and it carried the sanction of the Guru, the assembly having acted by the authority of the Guru Granth Sahib.


The genesis of the gurmata is traceable to the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh and the earliest instances in fact go back to his own time. While inaugurating the Khalsa in 1699, the Guru said that all members of the Panth, the Sikh commonwealth, were equal, he (the Guru) being one of them; all previous divisions of caste and status had been obliterated. Before he passed away in 1708, he declared that wherever Sikhs were gathered in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, there was the Guru himself present and that the counsel thus taken represented the combined will of the Khalsa.


There are at least two instances occurring in the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh when he let the 'general will' of the Khalsa prevail, perhaps against his own judgement. One such instance was the evacuation of Anandpur (1705). Sorely pressed for want of food and ammunition, the besieged Sikhs decided to accept the promises of safe conduct given by the besieging force in return for withdrawal from the Fort. The Guru was not convinced of the genuineness of the besiegers' word, yet he yielded to the will of the Khalsa expressed in council in his own presence. In the battle of Chamkaur, following the evacuation of Anandpur, most of the Sikhs in train as well as two of the Guru's sons fell fighting against the pursuing host. The few surviving Sikhs suggested to the Guru to leave the fortress, to which he was not agreeable. They then expressed their joint will in the name of the Khalsa calling upon the Guru to escape. This was a gurmata in its nascent form. The Guru had no option but to 'obey'.


Gurmata had emerged as a well-established democratic institution towards the middle of the eighteenth century. European travellers such as George Forster (A Journey from Bengal to England) and John Malcolm (Sketch of the [[Sikh[[s), both of whom visited the Punjab, the former in 1783 and the latter in 1805, have left vivid accounts of the functioning of the gurmata. According to these accounts, Sikhs gathered twice a year, on the occasions of Baisakhi and Diwali, at Akal Takhat to take stock of the political situation, to devise ways and means to meet the common danger, to choose men to lead them in battle, and so on. The procedure was democratic. All those who attended these assemblies of the Sarbatt Khalsa, the entire Sikh people, had an equal say in the deliberations. "All private animosities ceased" and everyone present "sacrificed his personal feeling at the shrine of general good." Everyone was actuated by "principles of pure patriotism" and considered nothing but "the interest of the religion and the commonwealth" to which he belonged.


After the gurmata was passed, everyone, irrespective of whether he had spoken for or against it when it was debated considered it his religious duty to abide by it. The assembly met in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth. Inaugural ardasa (supplication) was said by one of those present seeking the Guru's blessing, sacramental karahprasad was distributed and proposals were put forth for discussion. Ardas, continues John Malcolm, was again recited and all those present vowed, with the Guru Granth Sahib betwixt them, to lay aside all internal disputes and discords. "This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism" was utilized to reconcile all animosities. Proposals were then considered and an agreed gurmata evolved, the whole assembly raising shouts of sat sri akal together in token of acceptance.


To cite some of the historic gurmatas, Sikhs resolved by mutual counsel at a general assembly at Amritsar in 1726 to avenge the slaying of Bhai Tara Singh]] of Van and his companions and rise to obstruct the functioning of the government. They attacked treasuries and arsenals and chastised the officials who had been spying on them. When in 1733 an offer of a jagir and title of Nawab was received from the Mughal governor of Lahore, Sikhs by one voice chose Kapur Singh for the honour. Though there was no formal gurmata adopted, the consensus was arrived at in a divan in keeping with the same spirit and procedure. A Sikh conclave took place at Amritsar on Diwali (14 October) of 1745 to take stock of the situation following the death of the governor of Lahore, Zakariya Khan, who had launched large-scale persecution, and adopted a gurmata extending sanction to the 25 Sikh groups which had emerged and permitting them to carry out raids on Mughal strongholds. The assembly held on the Baisakhi day (30 March) of 1747 resolved by a gurmata passed to erect at Amritsar a fort which came to be known as Ram Rauni.


By a gurmata passed in 1748 (Baisakhi, 29 March), Sikhs decided to establish the Dal Khalsa, choosing Jassa Singh Ahluvalia as the leader and reducing the number of recognized jathas to 11 (the number having gone up to 65 by then) and providing for a record being kept at the Akal Takhat of the possessions of each group in a separate file (misl). A gurmata in 1753 formally endorsed the system of Rakhi introduced by the ruling Sikh clans. In 1765, a gurmata was passed proclaiming the supremacy of the Sarbatt Khalsa over individual leaders. Through another gurmata the same year, a coin was struck with the inscription, Deg o tegh o fateh o nusrat be dirang, yaft az Nanak Guru Gobind Singh (prosperity, power and unfailing victory received from Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh), and on the reverse, "Struck at Lahore, the seat of government, in the auspicious samvat 1822 (AD 1765).


To challenge Ahmad Shah Durrani returning from Sirhind to Lahore at the time of his seventh invasion of India (1764-65), the Sikhs made a gurmata. "All the Sikhs," records Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, "assembled in a divan. Sitting in one place, they adopted a gurmata that they must now confront the Shah and match arms with him. Every second day, they say, he comes and harasses us. Without fighting him now, we shall obtain no peace. He who survives will be spared this daily suffering; he who dies attains realms divine."


Conquests up to 1767 were made by the misls in the name of the Khalsa, but, with personal ambition and aggrandizement gaining the upper hand over the years, the sense of a corporate Sikh commonwealth gradually wore away. In the days of Sikh rule, the institution of gurmata fell into desuetude. The last semblance of a gurmata was an assembly of Sikh sardars called by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1805 to discuss the situation arising from the entry into Sikh dominions of the fugitive Maratha chief, Jasvant Rao Holkar, followed by British troops under Lord Lake. The word gurmata was resurrected after the lapse of Sikh sovereignty, especially with the rise of the Singh Sabha movement in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Gurmata then referred to any decision on a matter of religious or social import arrived at by common consent at a Sikh assembly in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. The Akali movement brought within its orbit political issues as well. The word gurmata is now in everyday use for a resolution adopted at a Sikh religious divan or political conference.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Bhangu, Ratan Singh, Prachin Panth Prahash. Amritsar, 1914

2. Bhagat Singh, Sikh Polity in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Delhi, 1978

3. Malcolm, John, Sketch of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

4. Forster, George, A Journey from Bengal to England. Patiala, 1970


Above adapted from article By K. S. Thapar