Contemporary Sikhism

Beginning in 1873, the Singh Sabha movement began to emphasize the differences between the Sikh and Hindu traditions. For example, Kahn Singh Nabha (1861-1938), author of an important encyclopaedia of Sikh doctrine and history, wrote a famous pamphlet entitled “We are not Hindus” that helped to pave the way for the distinct Sikh identity that exists today. Despite such differences, however, continuities with the broader Hindu tradition do exist. Consider the similarities and differences between the two traditions with regard to each of the following topics:

I. External Forms of Sikh Practice

II. Caste
[W]hat we know about the Guru’s lives points to a strong critique of caste divisions and a public devaluing of caste in the Panth’s key institutions. The langar subverted brahminical rules about commensality, according to which only caste fellows could eat together and higher-caste individuals could not receive food cooked by members of lower castes. Not only did Guru Gobind Singh’s panj piare come from jatis of varied ranking on the scale of varna, and shed their caste-specific names, but the kahnde di pahul rite involved all candidates in drinking the amrit from the same iron bowl, and finishing the residue in reverse order. This was an unthinkable act according to the rules of purity and pollution that shored up the hierarchy of castes, since sharing a utensil which had been in contact with another person’s saliva would be particularly polluting.
     As we saw in Chapter 5, in their competition with Hindu reformists’ Arya Samaj, the activists of the Singh Sabha reached out to the lowest caste communities. In 1920, some new ‘untouchable’ converts came to the Harmandir Sahib with the intention of offering and, in their turn, receiving karah prashad. When higher-caste Sikhs protested, recourse was taken to the Guru Granth Sahib. The vak (a verse of Guru Amar Das) began as follows:
Upon the worthless God bestows grace, if they will serve the True Guru (AG 38)

The ‘untouchables’ had been vindicated by their Guru.
       However, Punjabis of the two most disadvantaged jatis continue to feel more comfortable gathering in their own places of worship ... [and most] Sikh families continue to check out the caste of any prospective son- or daughter-in-law. Love marriages crossing caste divides often result in a parental boycott of the errant son or daughter. Fieldwork in the 19902 among young British Sikh children who had never lived in India showed the persistence of stereotypes of other castes.
       Clearly it is over-simplistic to assume that Sikhs have overturned or escaped the caste-based structure of South Asian society. But, equally, it is misleading to represent contemporary Sikhs as having in this respect somehow betrayed their Gurus. Apart from Guru Har Krishan (who died as a boy and so did not marry), all the Gurus had Khatri wives and their sons and daughters were also married within caste. Caste operates horizontally, binding together caste fellows, as well as vertically, as a segregated hierarchy. The Gurus did not condemn, or break with, the convention of marrying (and marrying their children) within the jati. But it is hard to reconcile the Gurus’ affirmation of spiritual equality with the disowning of a child who has ‘married out’. For those who obey Guru Gobind Singh’s ideal for his Khalsa, the caste of individuals is irrelevant. (SAVSI, 118-20)

III. Gender

In Sikh apologetic, Guru Nanak is heralded as championing women and the following verses are often quoted:
Our birth is from a woman and in a woman we grow. We are engaged to and wed a woman. Woman is our friend and from woman comes the family. If one woman dies we seek another; without woman there can be no bond. Why call woman bad when she gives birth to rajas [rulers]? Women herself is born of a woman, and none comes into this world without her. Nanak, only the True One alone is independent of woman. (AG 473)
The lines hail woman primarily as instrumentally necessary for the continuity of humankind, and Guru Nanak also unequivocally challenged the prevalent Hindu view of childbirth as polluting:
If pollution attaches to birth, then pollution is everywhere.
Cow-dung [fuel] and firewood breed maggots;
Not one grain of corn is without life;
Water itself is a living substance, imparting life to all vegetation. (AG 472)
... Sikhs welcome unequivocally the image of the soul’s relationship with the divine in terms of the (female) beloved’s relationship with her bridegroom:
The Lord is my husband, I his wife. The Lord is immensely great, I am so small. (AG 483)
The stanzas by Guru Ram Das that are central to every Anand Karaj marriage express the movement of the individual soul towards God by analogy with the bride’s union with her lord. For the devout Sikh the message is clear and underlines the fact that the sex of the devotee is irrelevant to spiritual progress. At the same time, the conjugal image reinforces a subliminal acknowledgment of God as masculine, even while allowing men to affirm their own feminine aspect in their devotion.
Rahit-namas include both instruction to men on their behaviour to women and statements of how women should behave. For example, according to the late 18th-century Bhai Desa Singh rahit-nama, men should treat all women other than their own wives as if they were their daughters or their mothers. The Chaupa Singh rahit-nama makes it clear that women should learn to read the Guru Granth Sahib, but not do so in public. They should not receive initiation with amrit, and they must be devout and modest. But the more recent Sikh Rahit Maryada adopts a different approach, making it clear that Sikhi requires obedience to the same rules by both men and women. Sikh Rahit Maryada introduces its opening definition of a Sikh with the words ‘jo istari jan purush’ (‘whatever woman or man’) and subsequently states that women should not be veiled in the sangat, that they may sit in attendance on the Guru Granth Sahib, that they may be initiated and may also be members of the panj piare who administer initiation. ...
However, when non-Sikhs visit a gurdwara they are often favorably surprised to see a woman publicly reading from the scriptures and men distributing food in the langar, and they comment on the striking evidence of the equality of men and women. At the same time, in Sikh society, as in other societies, both men and women acquire and pass on a complex of spoken and unspoken norms about gender roles. Moreover, certain religious roles are almost always played by men. ... At the same time, more Sikh women than ever before have significant public roles. The humanitarian services of Dr. Inderjit Kaur, of the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society, provides one sterling example. Another is the original artistry of exquisite contemporary miniatures by the UK-based Sikh twin artists, Rabindra and Amrit Kaur Singh. (SAVSI, 107-16)

IV. Gurdwara vs. Temple

Normally a gurdwara serves as a meeting-house for the Sikhs and others who worship there, always having in addition to the room for public worship a langar (a dining-hall with attached kitchen). The sangat or divan (congregation) meets to sing gurbani (hymns from the sacred scripture) and then joins for a common meal in the langar.  Singing hymns occupies the greater part of the time spent in public worship, normally led by three ragis, who perform on harmoniums and tabla. ...
Sikhs believe that, because gurdwaras house the Guru Granth Sahib, they house the actual Guru. For this reason they deserve the profoundest respect, and this respect must focus particularly on the actual scripture, which manifests the eternal Guru. When the Guru Granth Sahib is transported from its resting-place for the night it must be carried only on the head of a Sikh, and likewise when it is returned to its abode. All who are present must reverently stand while the scripture is being transported.  In the main gurdwara it is laid on a lectern over which a clean cloth covering has been spread and that has cushions to support it while the bulky volume is opened. Above the lectern is a canopy and the unopened scripture is covered with a mantle. Thus installed, the scripture is then ritually opened. Every moment that it remains open it is attended by a granthi (‘reader’) or by some member of the sangat, armed with a chauri. At the conclusion of each day’s service the Guru Grant Sahib is reverently closed. (Sikhism, 138-9)

V. The Militant Panth

[The] ideal of militant bravery runs through Sikh history from the early seventeenth century and emerges with particular force from the founding of the Khalsa onwards. During the Singh Sabha period, it was a central theme of the Tat Khalsa, and as a result of their preaching it has remained at the heart of orthodox Sikhism. It is a fearlessness constant and unwavering, though death may be its end. From the death of Guru Arjan down to the present day, Sikh history is sprinkled with martyrs, sometimes receding in frequency but at other times (as the recent troubles with the government of India show) returning to bring both suffering and a splendid renown. For the individual they can mean pain and death, steadfastly endured. For the Khalsa they bring triumphant glory.
This martyr ideal lives on in the Panth and provides much inspiration to Sikhs. It is important to realize that it is not a passive ideal. Sikhs are taught, by the many stories of heroism they hear, that whenever evil returns weapons are to be used. Their use should never be simply for the benefit of the individual. Only in the interests of justice can swords be brandished or guns fired. Needless to say, there are many instances where it may be suspected personal gain is the real motive, but the ideal which the Panth upholds denies this absolutely. When circumstances demand a militant response, some Sikhs will answer the call directly, and all Sikhs should admire and assist their disinterested use of force to combat evil. For justice and the Panth, all Sikhs should be prepared to undergo suffering, even to the point of martyrdom. (Sikhism, 129)

Time magazine described Amritsar in November 1983: “These days it more closely resembles a city of death. Inside the temple compound, violent Sikh fanatics wield submachine guns, resisting arrest by government security forces. Outside, the security men keep a nervous vigil, all too aware that the bodies of murdered comrades often turn up in the warren of tiny streets around the shrine." (Wikipedia/Operation Blue Star)