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Udasi or Udasin is a religious, ascetic sect, sampradaya (tradition) which considers itself as denomination of Sikhism, and focuses on the teachings of its founder, Sri Chand (1494-1643), son of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder and the first guru of Sikhism. Its Time of origin is 1494 (birth of Baba Siri Chand Maharaj), established as an institution in early 1600s.
The word 'Udasi' is derived from the Sanskrit word which means "one who is indifferent to or disregardful of worldly attachments, a stoic, or a mendicant." In Sikh tradition, the term udasi has also been used for each of the four preaching tours of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji; in this sense, udasi meant a prolonged absence from home. Some scholars, including many Udasis, trace the origin of the sect back to the Puraṇic age, but, historically speaking, Baba Sri Chand was the founder.
The major sect of Udasin ascetics was originally not Shaiva -- nor even Hindu -- but belonged to the Sikh religion. It was founded in the sixteenth century by a son of Guru Nanak -- himself the founder of Sikhism -- called Shrichandra. The Udasin are therefore also known as Nanakputras, the 'sons of Nanak', and they revere the Grantha Saheb, the sacred book of the Sikhs. They were excommunicated by the successor of Guru Nanak and gradually turned to Hinduism.
Baba Sri Chand was a saintly person. It is said that his object in establishing the order of the Udasis was to propagate the teachings of his father, but the austerities or asceticism religious discipline and practices observed by this sect were not in line with Guru Nanak Sahib Ji's teachings and the Maryada (tradition) of the Sikhs. The Mantra, the sacred incantation or composition, attributed to the Udasi saint, Balu HaSria, records that Sri Chand received enlightenment from Guru Nanak, the perfect Guru, and that, after the passing away of the latter, he started his own sect. Sri Chand was a devoted Sikh and a saintly person. His object in establishing the order of the Udasis was to propagate the mission of his father. Baba Sri Chand stayed on amicable terms with the successors of Guru Nanak.
According to Kesar Siṅgh Chhibbar, he sent two turbans at the death of Guru Ram Das Ji in 1581, one for Prithi Chand, the eldest son of the fourth Guru, and another for Guru Arjan Dev Ji in recognition of his succession to the Guruship. Guru Amar Das Ji, took steps to keep the Udasi sect separate from Sikhism. There was a basic difference between the two sections. The Sikhs believed in family-life, while the Udasis believed in celibacy. The Udasis wanted to join Sikhism on their own terms to which the Guru did not agree.
In 1629, Sri Chand asked Guru Hargobind to spare one of his sons to join him in his religious preaching. The Guru gave him Baba Gurditta, his eldest son. Baba Gurditta, although married, was disposed to saintly living. Before his death, Baba Sri Chand admitted Baba Gurditta to the Udasi order and appointed him his successor. Baba Gurditta appointed four head preachers Almast, Phul, Goind (or Gonda) and Balu Husria. He gave them his own dress which became the peculiar Udasi garb and smouldering embers from Baba Sri Chand`s dhum (sadhu`s hearth) to be taken to their new monastic seats.
These Udasi sadhus set up from those embers a new dhuan each at his seat and thus came into existence the four dhunns or hearths which became the active centres of Udasi preaching. Each dhuari came to be known after the name of its principal preacher.
G.C. Narang observes in this connection: "The Sikhs were once for all separated from Udasis, and raised above asceticism, were free and fit to follow their course of national progress" (G.C. Narang: Transformation of Sikhism, p.33).
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J. D. Cunningham writes that Guru Amardaas Ji was "active in preaching and successful in obtaining converts. He found an attentive listener in the tolerant Akbar. He saved the infant church from early death by wholly separating the passive and recluse Udasis from the regular Sikhs" (J. D. Cunningham: A History of the Sikhs, p.45).
Besides the four dhuans, there emerged another set of Udasi seats called bakhshishan, which flourished during the time of Guru Har Rai, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh. A bakhshish (lit. bounty) was a missionary assignment conferred upon an individual by the Guru.
There were six prominent bakhshishan:
- Bhagat Bhagvanie (followers of Bhagat Bhagvan)
- SuthrashahJe ( followers of Suthrashah)
- Sangat Sahibie (followers of Sangat Sahib )
- Mihan Shahie or Mihan Dasie, so called after Mihan, the title conferred by Guru Tegh Bahadur on Ramdev
- Bakht Mallie ( followers of Bakht Mall)
- Jit Mallie (followers of Jit Mall).
The saints of bakhshishes travelled widely and established their deras, sangats, maths and akharas in distant places throughout India.
However, after Guru Hargobind had allowed his eldest son, Baba Gurditta, to join Baba Sri Chand's sect, the Udasis began to receive support and guidance from the Gurus. Guru Hargobind`s successors conferred bakhshishes upon Udasi sadhus. Several of the Udasi saints are remembered with esteem in the Sikh tradition. For instance, the famous Bhagat Bhagvan Bhai Pheru of the Sangat Sahibia order, who had served in the langar or community kitchen in the time of Guru Har Rai, and Ramdev (later known as Mihan Sahib), who was originally a mashki or watercarrier in the service of Guru Tegh Bahadur from whom he had received (in recognition of his devoted service) the title of Mihan (bestower of rain) as well as the dress and marks of an Udasi consisting of selhi (woollen cord), topi" (cap), chola (hermit's gown) and a nagara (drum).
Ramdev established his own order of the Udasis which came to be known as Mihan Dasie or Mihan Shahie.
Another notable Udasi sadhu was Mahant Kirpal who took part in the battle of Bhangani (1689) under Guru Gobind Singh. After the abolition of the order of the Masands by Guru Gobind Singh, the preaching of Guru Nanak`s word fell to the Udasis who also gradually took control of the Sikh places of worship. (Many Sikhs were Martyred in the early part of the 20th century when Sikh Sangats undertook regaining control of their Gurdwaras from men who had begun to consider the Gurdwaras and their attached lands as their personal property.)
The Udasin worship panchayatana, a combination of five deities, namely Shiva, Vishnu, the Sun, goddess Durga, and Ganesh. Moreover they worship their founder-Guru Shrichandra. Their philosophy is basically the monistic Vedanta as set forth by Shankara, and in other respects as well they closely resemble the Shaiva sannyasis. Like all Shaiva sannyasis, the Udasin usually wear red or black cloth, apply ashes, have long hair in jata, and so on, but differ in details such as their woollen knitted caps and a small silver crescent ring in their right ear. Furthermore, whenever they had to choose sides in fights with rivalling sects, they were on the side of the Shaivites.
Udasis & Sikh Shrines
Generally, the Udasis proved zealous preachers of Sikh teachings and carried its message to the far corners of the country and beyond. They especially rediscovered places which had been sited by the Guru Sahibs and which had fallen into obscurity with the passage of time. They established on such spots their ḝeras and saṅgats and preached from Gurbaṇi. Thus the Udasi centres popularized the teachings of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji not only in the Punjab but also in far off places.
The Udasis preached the message of Guru Nanak and revered and recited the bāṇī of the Gurūs, but they retained their separate identity. Baba Sri Chand did occasionally visit the Sikh Gurus who treated him with respect for being a saintly personage as well as for being a son of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji. But they extended no patronage to his sect or religious group. A notable Udasi sadhu in Sikh history is Mahant Kirpal who took part in the Battle of Bhangani (1689) under Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
After the abolition of the order of the Masands by Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the preaching of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s word fell to the Udasis who also gradually took control of the Sikh places of worship. When Guru Gobind Singh Ji evacuated the Fort of Sri Anandpur Sahib along with his Sikhs, an Udasi monk, Gurbakhsh Das, undertook the task to look after the local shrines such as Sis Ganj and Kesgaṛh Sahib. When after the death of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, one Gulaab Rai, an impostor proclaimed himself guru at Anandpur Sahib and tried to take possession of the shrines, Gurbakhsh Das thwarted his scheme. Gurbakhsh Das successors continued to look after the Anandpur Sahib shrines till their management was taken over in recent times by the Sikhs under the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
At Nanded, where Guru Gobind Singh passed away, Mahant Ishar Das Udasi performed the services at Darbar Guru Gobind Singh (Hazur Sahib) and managed the shrine from 1765 Bk/AD 1708 to 1782 Bk/AD 1725. He was succeeded by his disciple Gopal Das Udasi, who remained in charge of Darbar Hazur Sahib up to 1803 Bk/ AD 1746. Gopal Das was succeeded by his disciple Saran Das Udasi, who served the shrine for a long period of 30 years. After Saran Das the control of the Darbar passed into the hands of the Sikhs who had, by that time, come from the Punjab in considerable numbers and settled at Nanded. In 1768 Bk/AD 1711 an Udasi sadhu, SANT Gopal Das, popularly known as Goddar Faqir, was appointed granthi at the Harimandar at AMRITSAR by Bhai Mani Singh, sent to Amritsar as custodian of the shrine by Mata Sundari. Gopal Das was later replaced by another Udasi, Bhai Chahchal Singh, a pious and devoted Sikh. Udasis recruit their followers from all castes and professions.
During eighteenth century, the Udasis (not appearing as Khalsa Singhs) escaped the persecution of the Mughal rulers. Since they considered themselves as Sikhs, this naturally led them to look after the Sikh shrines in the absence of Khalsa Singhs and the Akalis/Nihangs (see separate entries). Here they performed a key role in keeping Sikh teaching alive. Anand Ghan, an Udasi scholar of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wrote commentaries on the Adi Granth from a largely Hindu-Vedantic perspective.
The Mahants (those in charge of the Gurdwaras) of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, frequently claimed an Udasi descent, though their life style had considerably changed.
When the Khalsa Singhs were involved in war against the Mughals, it was the Udasis that kept the Guru’s tradition alive by becoming custodians of the Gurdwaras.
Udasi & Sikhs
In their religious practices they differ from the Sikhs, though they revere Guru Nanak Sahib Ji and Guru Granth Sahib Ji like all other Sikhs. In their monasteries, Guru Granth Sahib Ji is the scripture that is read. However, after the SGPC was made, fewer deras keep Guru Granth Sahib installed there, fearing the Sikhs could take over the management of the deras. They do not subscribe to the Sikh rites. Their ardaas also varies. Ringing of bells (ghaṇṭī or ghaṛīĝl), blowing instruments (narsingha or siṅghī) form part of their religious service. They worship idols of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji and Baba Sri Chand, a practice strictly condemned by all the Sikh Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib Ji if preformed idly. Their salutations are Vaahguru (Glory of the God), Gajo Ji Vaahguru (Hail aloud the glorious Lord) or Alakh (Hail the Unknowable).
The Udasis engage in pancadevopasana, the worship of a combination of five deities or the five qualified facets of the Brahman, namely Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Durga, and Ganesh, and their philosophy is that of monistic or advaita Vedanta as popularised by Adi Sankaracarya. Amongst Udasis, some are celibate ascetics, others householders, some are jatadhari (dreadlocked) ash-covered Sadhus, and others have no distinctive appearance. Not only are they scholars of Sanskrit, their particularly adept in Ayurveda, the tradition Indian medicine.
The Udasis believe that after gaining matra one can attain param tattva (the highest truth) and achieve MUKTI (release). The term matra, lit. a measure or quantity, stands in prosody and grammar for the length of time required to pronounce a short vowel. But the term has acquired an extended meaning in the Udasi tradition, sigiiifying an incantation or sacred text. An Udasi matra is the sacred formula addressed to the disciples. as counsel and advice. There are a considerable number of these matras attributed to Guru Nanak, Baba Sri Chand, Baba Gurditta, Almast and Balu HaSria. But the matras attributed to Sri Chand have special significance for the Udasis and are highly cherished by them.
Some of the Udasis wear white while others prefer gerūĝ (ochre) or red-coloured garments. Those belonging to the Nangĝ sect remain naked, wearing nothing except a brass chain around their waist, which is contrary to the way of the Sikhs. Some wear matted hair and apply ashes over their body. Some wear cord worn around the head, neck and waist. They abstain from alcohol, but use bhang (hemp), charas and opium. They practise celibacy. Their beliefs, discipline and identity does not qualify Udasis to be Sikhs unless they become Amritdhari and embrace the Sikh faith.
Besides disseminating the word of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji, Udasi centres serve as seminaries of Sikh learning, which takes heavy influence from Brĝhmanism. Chelĝs, i.e. disciples, gather around the head of the monastery who instructs them in Sikh and old classical texts. The heads of these centres travelled with their pupils to places of pilgrimage and participated in debate and discourse.
The Udasi buṅgĝs or rest houses around the Harimandar Sĝhib were among the prominent centres of learning. Udasi cloister at Amritsar, Brahm Būṭĝ Akhĝṛĝ, ran a Gurmukhi school which attracted a considerable number of pupils. Some Udasi centres also imparted training in Indian system of medicine and physiology. One such seat was the buṅgĝ of Paṇḝit Saroop Daas Udasi who was a great scholar as well as an authority on Charaka Samhitĝ, the famous treatise on Ayurveda.
The heads of these centres travelled with their pupils to places of pilgrimage and participated in debate and discourse. The Udasi bungas or rest houses around the Harimandar were among the prominent centres of learning. Udasi cloister at Amritsar, Brahm Buta Akhara, ran a GURMUKHI school which attracted a considerable number of pupils. Some Udasi centres also imparted training in Indian system of medicine and physiology. One such seat was the BUNGA of Pandit Sarup Das Udasi who was a great scholar as well as an authority on Charaka Samhita, the famous treatise on Ayurveda.
In the troubled years of the eighteenth century when Sikhs suffered severe persecution, the Udasi sadhus took charge of their places of worship. Their control of the holy shrines lasted until the opening decades of the twentieth century when Sikhs through an enactment of the Punjab Legislative Council had the management centralized in the hands of a democratically elected board. The Udasis, however, have their own deras and monasteries spread all over the country. The most important of their centres in the North are Brahm Buta Akhara and Sangalanvala Akhara at Amritsar, Niranjania Akhara at PATIALA and the Panchaiti Akhara at Haridvar.
Acc 2 udasis:‘Guru Granth is such a great philosophy greater than all. He who has read Guru Granth Sahib sees in it come all the reading of Vedas. How is this?‘ Reading reading we load carts [With books]’ [quote from Adi Guru Granth] So how many Hindu religious texts are we to read? For this reason we preached to all that in this [Adi Guru Granth] are all philosophies. The thinking of all religions is in this. Ramayana is in it,‘Ram Ram keep near you’ [quote from Adi Guru Granth], This is written there. For this reason all the Shashters [Hindu spiritual texts] also come in it. That is why all our traditions [Sikh] acknowledge it [as Guru].’
‘Maharaj [Baba Sri Chand] preaching of Guru Granth that the Udasis have done in India all over. In all places, history shows, using Gutkas [small Sikh prayer books] we spread. We taught all to read Sikh scriptures. This is the gift of the holy men, the Udhasis. They [S.G.P.C. Akalis] cannot even in seven lifetimes preach as much as the Udhasis and Nirmalas have done and are still doing now. Even now, whenever we preach [to Hindus] we always without exception include teachings from [Adi] Guru Granth Sahib. We give examples [from Sikh history] of how you should follow the footsteps of the Gurus. Then your suffering shall be removed. Only then can your thinking and mind can come pure. That is if you desire Oh Brother, otherwise, it is up to you.’ by Baba Gobind Das,
Udasis during Banda Bahadur Regin
The central Sikh institution has since the time of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji been the Dharamsala. With the general persecution of Sikhs from the time of Banda Singh Bahadur until the latter part of the 18th century, the Dharamsalas or Gurdwaras had to be abandoned and the control fell into non-Khalsa hands. Udasis and Hindu devotees of the Gurus took control of the Gurdwaras and "began to act independent of Panth and Panthic ideology and reverted to old Hindu religious practices. "
Udasis "believed in the Vedas, the Puranas and the Shastras" and were even classified as a Hindu sect by Cunningham in his book History of the Sikhs. Sikh dharamsalas began to be operated in a fashion similar to Hindu temples with the treatment of Guru Granth Sahib Ji as an idol, the actual installation of Hindu idols and restrictions on lower castes in worship. Even the celebration of Gurpurabs was Hinduised with sharadhs being held in memory of the Gurus . When the Sikhs became rulers of the Punjab, the dharamsalas remained in the hands of non-Sikh Udasis and thus rather than promoting true Sikh ideals, dharamsalas promoted a Vedantic and Hinduised mutation of Sikhism.
The Singh Sabha Moves to Clear Sikh Gurdwara' of Hindu Practices. In the early 20th century, the Singh Sabha Movement began the task in freeing the Gurdwaras and dharmsalas, and undertook the important step in reviving the Sikh tradition.
No distinct restrictions on hair; some wore it long and matted, others short. The matted hair symbolises their renunciation of worldly life. To this extent many go around naked and smear ash on their bodies, again symbolising their death to the world of family relations business and caste.
Its adherents not only revere Sri Guru Granth Sahib, but have in their treasure-house of sacred texts, Sanskritic scriptures such as the Veda, the Shastras, the Puranas, the Itihasas viz. the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, etc., along with works associated with the Gurus. To Udasis, also known as Nanak-putras (sons of Nanak), Guru Nanak Dev Ji is none other than the avatar of Sri Vishnu, and Baba Sri Chand Ji of Bhagavan Shiva. While the purpose of both was to protect the sanatan or eternal Dharma (moral and cosmic Order), the particular mission of Baba Ji was to spread the message of his Guru and father, Nirankar-svarup (the form of the Formless) Jagadguru Nanak Dev Ji. Thus, in the spirit of their founder, the scholarly Udasis were the missionaries of Gurmat. .There were more than a dozen orders at the end of Sikh Rule in 1849. The number of establishments rose dramatically from the 1790s to the 1840s. They had more than 250 centres (akharas) spread across the Panjab and even beyond. In the 1891 Census 10,518 Hindus and 1,165 Sikhs returned themselves as 'Udasis'. (Census of India, 1891, Vol.XX and Vol.XXI, The Punjab and its Feudatories, by E.D. Maclagan, Part II and III, Calcutta, 1892, pp.826-9 and pp.572-3.) However, there are no official contemporary numbers, (see also the note at the end of the Explanatory Introduction).
There were four Udasi centres (akharas or dhuans) each controlling certain preaching areas. These were eastern India (with the main centre at Nanakmata), western Panjab and Kashmir, Malwa and Doaba.
Given some of the beliefs and practices above, one may wonder who the Udasis are and whether they are confused. There are three possibilities of explanation:
- either they do not know whether they follow ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Sikhism’, or
- they have taken parts of both, or
- it is in fact the world who is mistakenly confused by seeing things in black and white and it is the Udasis who, amongst other legitimate sampradayas going back to the Gurus, truly follow and understand the teachings of the Great Sovereign Masters. It is not they who have problems of identity, but everyone else.
Their reality depicts a diminishing truth, while the rest of the modernist world has been unknowingly duped into the duality of these two artificial and until recently, non-existent religious categories viz. ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Sikhism’ created by British Colonialists. This is not how it used to be. After all the suffix ism which is the crux of our problem of understanding the truth as it stood before the time of the Raj, conceptually and linguistically belongs to the Western world, and is alien to the traditional Indian mind. To understand the reality of religiosity before the intellectual impact of the British Raj in Panjab, and thus the world of the Udasis and other puratan (ancient) traditions, one must understand it from its own perspective, not from the foreign concepts and categories of western thought.
Brahmboota Akhara' (encampment/temple) is one of several located in and around Amritsar, Punjab, where Udasis (traditional pacifist Sikh missionaries) once resided in their masses, and propagated 'Dharam' (universal concept of righteousness) to all people regardless of colour, creed and socio-economic background.
The temple is situated behind 'Harimandir Sahib' (more commonly known as the Golden Temple). It derives its name from 'Brahmboota' (literally meaning 'root of wisdom/knowledge') from the tale of Srimaan 108 Mahant Pritam Das Ji Maharaj, who travelled by foot to 68 'Tirath' (centres of pilgrimage mentioned within both Hindu and Sikh sacred scriptures) throughout Indian subcontinent.
He carried with him a 'boota' (small plant) in a pitcher, which he watered using water at wells located at each of these 68 centres of worship. He then brought the 'boota' back to Amritsar, and planted it. The tree became known as 'Brahmboota', hence the name of the 'Akhara'.
Sadly, during the political unrest in the late 1970s, followers of various post-British Raj modern Sikh institutions such as the S.G.P.C cut down this tree. They also destroyed various sections of the 'Akhara' in order to remove the influence of the pacifist Udasi traditions deeming them to be too 'Hindu'.
This particular idol of Baba Sri Chand Ji Maharaj is considered to be one of the oldest in existance within the Udasi world.
- Randhir Singh, Bhai, Udasi Siklian di Vithiya. Amritsar, 1959
- Nara, Ishar Singh, ItihasBaba Sri ChandJI Sahib ate Udasin Sampardai. Amritsar, 1975
- Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion : Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. Oxford, 1909
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