Mahant originally the keeper of custodian of a math (dera, shrine) or any other similar religious establishment. In Punjab during the period of very early Sikhism, its characteristic usage referred to the leaders of Nath deras. However, the term acquired a distinctive Sikh application during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, period during which many Sikh gurdwaras passed into the, hands of hereditary controllers. These men, who became virtual owners of their gurdwaras, were known as mahants. Many of them were not initiated Sikhs and as a class they incurred considerable hatred as self-seekers who exploited popular devotion for personal gain. They became the prime target of the Gurdwara Reform movement during the early decades of the twentieth century and were eventually expropriated by the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. As a result of the misbehaviour of the mahants, the term was sullied beyond redemption in Sikh eyes. The word is still used to designate the superiors of Udasi akharas, but its expulsion from orthodox Sikh usage seems plainly to be permanent.
- The above article is based on information from The Sikh Encyclopaedia.