Caste and authority in Sikhism

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Caste and authority in Sikhism

The presence and practice of caste among the Sikhs raises another problem in ascertaining the source of authority in Sikhism. Although the Sikh Gurus rejected the doctrine of varnashramadharma, the Sikhs continued practising the caste system. It is clearly manifested in the system of arranged marriages based upon the rules of caste endogamy, Jat Sikhs marrying Jat Sikhs and Ramgarhia Sikhs marrying Ramgarhia Sikhs. In Britain, a number of disputes in the gurdwaras originated between various caste groups striving for control of the management committee. Consequently some caste groups, depending upon their numerical and financial power, opted for establishing their own caste gurdwaras, i.e. Ramgarhia Sikh Gurdwara, Bhatra Sikh Sangat Gurdwara and Ravidas Bhawan/Gurdwara.

The nature of worship at the caste-based gurdwaras is a photocopy of other gurdwaras. For example, they celebrate the main Sikh festivals and strictly observe the rituals of akhand-path and sahej-path. Ironically, they also celebrate the festival of Baisakhi, which is associated with the founding of the Khalsa, as enthusiastically as other gurdwaras. It is important to note that the tradition of the founding of the Khalsa rejects the notion of caste while promoting the concept of a casteless Sikh brotherhood. An outside observer is easily misled and confused by the religious services held at the caste-based gurdwaras. In fact, the fundamental difference lies in the constitution of caste-based gurdwaras, e.g. only Ramgarhia Sikhs are eligible to become members of Ramgarhia gurdwaras, though other Sikhs are not debarred from attending the service. This shows that the decision-making mechanism of caste-based gurdwaras is totally under the control of respective caste groups and participation in the caste-based gurdwaras naturally promotes caste loyalty and the caste consciousness which apparently contradicts the teachings of the Gurus.


By: Dr. Sewa Singh Kalsi Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies University of Leeds Leeds LS2 9JT UK