Deras & Sikhism
Deras versus Sikhism
- "Because following a baba is easy, there is no need to study or understand the scriptures, or the 'vaani' of gurus, all you have to do is hand over all your worries to the baba, and he takes care of everything.
- Unfortunately, people do not realise that this is not Sikhism. There is no place for miracle cures, rituals or godmen in our religion.
- Joginder Singh Vedanti, Jathedar Akal Takhat
- "Sikhs are breaking away from gurudwaras and coming to deras like mine for spiritual guidance because of their disillusionment with Sikhism. I am not against Sikhs cutting their hair. I believe a religion should be flexible and change with the times."
- Baba Kashmira Shah - A Dera head
- "This became a racket as many kar seva babas sprung up to take on contract work from the SGPC. They collected huge sums from the public and bought expensive cars for themselves, spending just a fraction of it on the project. Many of the deras are now being run by these very same kar seva babas who have assumed cult status as godmen of sorts."
- Dr. J. S. Ahluwalia, Director of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation
- "We are trying to bring such babas into our fold. But many are misusing the gurbani for their own commercial motives and we are directly in confrontation with them."
- Avtar Singh Makkar, SGPC President
Dera - The Basic problem
Dera - A Temple or shrine but in this article I am refering to a temple or shrine of Human Gurus.
Dera - The Politics
Dera - Not the way to reach god.
In punjab and other parts Deras are trying to encourage more people to follow so called human gurus. They are not leading people to follow the basic tenets of Sikhi. People who are followers of these deras are known as Dere Waley. It is a common term used nowdays in punjab. This term is used by mainstream Sikhs for those persons who, not following their religion's tenents, go to deras for the sake of naam and the Darshan of their spiritual leaders who they look upon as living gurus. Because of these deras people are losing touch with their religion. It is thought that dalits, the poor, the illiterate and politicians seeking the favor of the Deras' leaders are their main followers.
There are an estimated 9,000 deras in Punjab, each headed by a baba or a sant. Dera Sacha Sauda is among the largest, with 40 lakh followers. About 80 per cent of Punjab's population patronises these deras, which are believed to corner 90 per cent of religious donations in the state today. All political parties woo these deras as they can influence large numbers of voters. In the recent assembly poll, the Congress' 12 seats in Malwa are credited to Dera Sacha Sauda. The deras sprang up in the aftermath of militancy, and their spiritual heads amassed enormous wealth when they secured funds for the purpose of rebuilding gurdwaras. They make a special effort to woo lower-caste and illiterate Sikhs, projecting an inclusive image. Deras now pose a major threat and challenge to the Sikh religious establishment.
At Kahna Dhesian near Jalandhar, Punjab, all roads lead to a brightly painted gurudwara, every inch of its walls covered in hues of turquoise, red, yellow and green.
One baba even wrote his own granth, and asked his followers to burn the scriptures. Though it houses the mandatory Guru Granth Sahib, it lies in a neglected room in a corner of the quadrangle. Pride of place instead is given to a throne-like gaddi where even in the absence of the resident baba, the faithful bow their heads and touch the seat in reverence and obeisance. But this gurudwara, called the dera, and thousands such across the state, are raising the hackles of the Sikh community. The recent violent clashes across Punjab between followers of the influential Dera Sacha Sauda and various Sikh groups reflect the community's growing fears that the 'dera culture' poses the most serious threat yet to their 500-year-old religion.
"In a religion where shabad or the word of God (immortalised in the Guru Granth Sahib) is the guru, there is no place for a living guru or baba or sant," says Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, Sikh scholar and director of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation. "This is against the basic tenet of the faith which is steadily being eroded by a mushroom growth of deras in the last decade or so." Analysts estimate that there are about 9,000-odd deras in Punjab today, servicing its 12,329 villages. And, they are patronised by about 80 per cent of the population in Punjab. Prof H.S. Dilgeer, formerly with the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), points out that "around 90 per cent of the religious offerings are being cornered by deras nowadays". But what is worrying the Sikh religious establishment more is the distortion of the faith, the growing apostasy and the huge following that deras command.
Baba Kashmira Singh
Baba Kashmira Singh has Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim shrines atop his dera At Jalandhar, Baba Kashmira Singh runs the lucrative Jan Sewa Trust where apart from doling out spiritual advice he also runs a multi-speciality hospital. He preaches unity of all religions and has set up little shrines representative of Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam on his dera's rooftop. In 1999, the baba, himself a Sikh, was summoned to the Akal Takht, the supreme spiritual body of the Sikhs, to explain why he should not be excommunicated from the faith for his 'heretical' activities. Kashmira Singh, known for his proximity to the Congress, told Outlook, "Sikhs are breaking away from gurudwaras and coming to deras like mine for spiritual guidance because of their disillusionment with Sikhism.
I am not against Sikhs cutting their hair. I believe a religion should be flexible and change with the times." At Kirpal Sagar, a sprawling complex spread over 35 hectares in Rahon village of Nawanshahr district, the piece de resistance is a boat-shaped monument bearing different religious symbols situated in the centre of a rippling tank of water. Here the caretaker of the deceased baba's inheritance is Bibi Surinder Kaur who tells us that amrit in Punjab can only be found at two places. "One at the Golden Temple sarovar in Amritsar, and the other at our dera!" If this rankles the Sikh clergy, the allegedly blasphemous activities of some other deras is a source of frequent violence in the state.
Baba Piara Bhaniarewala
In 1998, Baba Piara Bhaniarewala provoked Sikhs by writing his own granth, which he called the Bhavsagar Samundar Granth, and encouraged followers to burn copies of Sikh scriptures. He was excommunicated from the faith by the Akal Takht, but the resultant violence at his dera near Ropar forced the government to provide him a hefty security cover. Notwithstanding the opposition, both the deras have grown in strength and influence.
Followers of the controversial Divya Jyoti Jagaran Sansthan at Noormahal run by Ashutosh Maharaj have had several serious run-ins with Sikh groups who object to the 'samagams' held by the dera all over Punjab, where besides projecting himself as a reincarnation of the Sikh gurus, Ashutosh is allegedly also critical of mainstream Sikhism.
Ashutosh is critical of mainstream Sikhism. In the rising din against deras, the Sikh clergy, represented by the five Sikh head priests as well as the SGPC, is being squarely blamed for "letting down the faithful". "Our religious leadership has submitted to politicians, and devotes more time to politicking than propagating the religion. Their grip over the people has loosened, and deras and babas have just stepped in to fill the gap," says Prof Darshan Singh, professor emeritus, Guru Nanak Studies, Punjab University. In 2005, around 100 Sikh organisations gathered at the Akal Takht to find ways to check the rising dera cult in Punjab. But due to lack of unanimity over the deras against which action was being contemplated, the campaign fizzled out.
Sikh clergy on the defensive
Faced with increasing criticism, the Sikh clergy is on the defensive. Recognising the deras as a "serious threat to Sikhism", Akal Takht jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti believes they are drawing people "because following a baba is easy. There is no need to study or understand the scriptures, or the 'vaani' of gurus. All you have to do is hand over all your worries to the baba, and he takes care of everything. Unfortunately, people do not realise that this is not Sikhism. There is no place for miracle cures, rituals or godmen in our religion." Says SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar, "We are trying to bring such babas into our fold. But many are misusing the gurbani for their own commercial motives and we are directly in confrontation with them."
The SGPC also claims to have held 'amrit chakho' camps in the last two years in which over a lakh Sikhs have been baptised. Alarmed over the growing number of 'apostates' in the faith, several Sikh missionary organisations too have stepped up their campaigns in rural Punjab, many of them sponsored by wealthy NRI Sikhs. But is it a losing battle? Already more than 80 per cent of Sikh men in rural Punjab do not sport 'kesh' or hair, the most visible symbol of Sikhism. Have deras then sounded the death-knell of Sikhism as we have known it?
Joginder Singh outspoken critic
"Sikhism is already a dying religion. The basic ethos is gone from it," notes Joginder Singh, editor of daily newspaper Spokesman, and an outspoken critic of the Sikh clergy, for which offence he has been excommunicated from the Sikh panth. Many believe that the sudden rise of deras in Punjab has much to do with the aftermath of militancy in Punjab when many gurudwaras were rebuilt through kar seva or voluntary effort. "This became a racket as many kar seva babas sprung up to take on contract work from the SGPC. They collected huge sums from the public and bought expensive cars for themselves, spending just a fraction of it on the project," says a disgusted Dr Ahluwalia. Many of the deras are now being run by these very kar seva babas who have assumed cult status as godmen of sorts. Their appeal also lies in their inclusive approach. With the caste system rearing its head in Punjab in recent years, its manifestation visible in separate gurudwaras for Dalits and other lower-caste Sikhs, the deras attract this segment with their egalitarianism. It's not surprising that most major deras draw the low castes, the illiterate and the gullible.
If Sikh scholars are alarmed by the growing influence and power of deras, it is because they have established close links with the political fraternity. In the recently concluded Punjab assembly elections, Dera Sacha Sauda came out openly in support of the Congress and constituted district-level political affairs wings. Much of the Congress' good showing in the Malwa belt of Punjab (where the dera has some 10 lakh followers) was to Sacha Sauda's credit, which managed to bring 12-odd seats into the Congress kitty. In return, the party reportedly promised to help out dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with a CBI enquiry he is facing in the murder of a follower and a journalist, who spilled the beans about sexual exploitation of the dera's woman inmates. Significantly, soon after the polls, the CBI officer enquiring into these allegations was transferred.
The Deras and Politics
Politicians of all hues patronise the deras. "It's a vicious circle," says SGPC member Dr Kiranjot Kaur. "Drawn by their following, politicians go to deras for votes, and their presence grants the dera legitimacy, adding to its following." So it is with Baba Kashmira Singh or Ashutosh Maharaj: they enjoy considerable clout with political parties and use it for their own commercial ends. Currently, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose Akali Dal got a drubbing in its Malwa stronghold thanks to Sacha Sauda, is wooing select deras in the state.
A few years ago, some prominent dera heads organised themselves into the Sant Samaj, an outfit comprising some 350 major deras. Since the SGPC is controlled by the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Sant Samaj became identified with the Congress. This spawned conspiracy theories which held that deras have been deliberately thrust upon Punjabis to dilute Sikhism. But Jathedar Vedanti feels it's unfair to "blame anyone else for what is our own failing". Next week the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee is organising a World Sikh Conclave on the theme, 'How to Save the Sikh Religion'. The battle to do so is already on, and will likely be long-drawn-out.