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Sikhism Lecture 3. Sikhs and The Caste System. The Caste System. Sensitive issue in Sikhism Many out-rightly reject there is – but why? Hindu roots of Sikhism inescapable, of which caste very visible Purity/pollution aspect (in certain respects) not as dominant as in Hinduism

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sikhism lecture 3

Sikhism Lecture 3

Sikhs and

The Caste System

the caste system
The Caste System
  • Sensitive issue in Sikhism
  • Many out-rightly reject there is – but why?
  • Hindu roots of Sikhism inescapable, of which caste very visible
  • Purity/pollution aspect (in certain respects) not as dominant as in Hinduism
  • In order to understand the Sikh Guru’s position on caste – need to take a brief look at caste in the dominant religion of Hinduism, remember Guru Nanak was a dvija Hindu.
caste in hinduism
Caste in Hinduism
  • Many theories of origin, 2 of which are:
  • Racial theory
  • Aryans invaded India about 1500 BCE
  • Brought 3-fold structure with them – priest, warriors and agriculturists
  • When got to India, the indigenous peoples (Dravidians) became 4th class – “Shudras”
  • Indigenous were ‘darker’ “Dasyas” which means ‘dark skinned’
  • Aryans fairer – connotations even today
  • Divide between north and south India

2. The Hymn of the Primeval Man, Purusukta

  • Rig veda x.90
  • 4 classes of society from body of primeval man
  • Brahmins – mouth
  • Kshatriyas - arms
  • Vaishyas – thighs
  • Shudras – feet

No mention of Harijans – is this why “Outcastes?” – aboriginal tribes of India? Or result of mixed caste marriages?

  • Over time, an amalgamation of Aryan and indigenous cultures and traditions to form Caste System as is today
  • According to Hindu caste system, each individual has duties prescribed by one’s caste – varnashramadharma
  • Barrier between higher/lower


  • Laws of Manu – prescribed distances

Dvija – sacred thread, upanayam

  • Endogamous
  • Rules of eating together – commensality
  • Food very important – kachha and pakka

(remember here the importance of langar in a Sikh Gurdwara)

  • Exalted position of brahmins – rituals, sacrifices, ‘god-like’
  • Hierarchical system – Dumont’s “Homo Hierarchicus”
  • Occupations
  • Untouchables (reforms: Dalits, Harijans, Scheduled Classes = leather workers (chamar), sweepers (chuhra), barbers (nai), washers (dhaubi)
the sikh gurus and caste
The Sikh Gurus and Caste
  • Evidence from GGS – all Gurus spoke out against caste
  • Guru Nanak refused sacred thread
  • Openly associated and mingled with lower castes – would have been frowned upon in his period
  • Spoke out against elevated position of brahmins – his way was interiorized/personal
  • No need for brahmins
  • Emphasized eating together

In his following composition, Guru Nanak openly spoke of the worthlessness of caste:

Worthless is caste and worthless an exalted name,

For all mankind there is but a single refuge. (AG 83)

Guru Nanak’s message was also repeated by his successors, in the following hymn Guru Amar Das, the fourth guru, says:

When you die you do not carry your caste with you.

It is your deeds [and not your caste] which will determine your fate. (AG 363)


Guru Gobind Singh’s creation of the Khalsa

  • Langar/karahprasad
  • Bhagatbani
  • 4 doors at Harmandir
  • Theoretically equal in status – masses of lower castes converted to Sikhism in hope of equality
  • Term “mazhabi” – why? Patronizing? Stigma of untouchability remained
  • Did Gurus intend on eradicating? Or caste did not matter in qualifying for mukti?
  • All ten were khatris themselves, offspring married endogamously
  • Endogamy remained

Today – caste based gurdwaras

  • This is contradiction of the RehatMaryada:

“all are free to enter a Gurdwara without any consideration of caste or creed”.

  • Many lower caste converts not allowed to prepare langar or karahprasad – outright contradiction of Gurbani
  • Were mazhabis “forced” to have separate Gurdwaras – moves towards distinct identity?
  • Surnames increasingly used
  • Hindus have varna and jati, Sikhs jati only.
  • Although many jatis, 4 major ones – maybe hierarchical also:





  • Majority Panth is Jat
  • All are endogamous

Caste prejudice remained in Panth

  • Social stigma attached to untouchability
  • The Sikh faith did not give equality with all Sikhs – mazhabis
  • 2 castes – Valmikis and Ravidasis: My doctoral research on these – “Sikh Identity: an exploration of groups among Sikhs”
  • Both Ravidasis and Valmikis are caste-based groups – their identity very interesting
  • Scheduled classes, Gandhi’s (harijans) = patronizing.
  • They themselves prefer Dalit – the oppressed people
  • Term “untouchable” declared illegal in India under Article 17 of the Constitution of India
the ravidasis
The Ravidasis
  • Former chamars – leather workers
  • Bani (41 hymns) of Ravidas in GGS (bhagatbani)
  • Guru Ravidas lived 15th – 16th centuries
  • He also believed to be from the chamarzat
  • Converted to Sikh faith, working with leather considered by Hindus as highly polluting
  • Also called mazhabis
  • Did not achieve equality, hence sought equal status through distinct identity from both as followers of Guru Ravidas

Use GGS in worship but only 41 hymns

  • Some adamant on complete distinction
  • Others “within” Sikh faith – issues of identity
  • Not Gurdwara but Bhawan – large community in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Southall.
  • Keshdharis that present issues in identity
  • Some more Hindu than Sikh practices
  • Punjabi community – shared culture and traditions

Was Ravidas also an heir to the Northern Sant tradition – similarities in teachings:

  • Emphasis on Nam
  • No brahmanic rituals
  • No idols
  • bhakti
  • See his bani in GGS
  • Highlight in all Ravidasi centres is the birthday of Guru Ravidas
  • Only soemcelbrate and change nishan sahib on baisakhi
  • Emphasis on Ravidas, not Sikh Gurus

Issue of identity:

It is interesting to note a Ravid1s2 child’s description of her identity:

“I know what culture I am, Hindu, but it’s not as if we’re restricted to Hindu because we believe in Sikhism as well. It’s just one thing really.”

Jackson, R. and Nesbitt, E. (1993) Hindu Children in Britain, Staffordshire: Trentham Books,

p. 28.

the valmiki community
The Valmiki Community
  • Formerly the chuhras – sweepers
  • Take name from Valmiki – the author of the Hindu epic “Ramayana”
  • Similar fate to that of the Ravidasis
  • Also Punjabi community
  • Adamant that Guru Valmiki was also of the chuhrazat
  • Ramayana used during worship – Coventry has GGS alongside Ramayana – issue of identity
  • Sikh connection through BhaiJaita (also BhaiRangreta)
  • M10 – “Rangretia Guru KeBeti”

Although mass conversion – renamed mazhabis

  • Stigma of untouchability – faeces etc
  • Valmiki/Balmiki
  • Very little factual evidence on Valmiki, his followers believe he was indeed the author of the Ramayana and also gave refuge to Sita with her sons Luv and Kush
  • An indirect reference to Valmiki, is cited in the Guru Granth Sahib via a verse byRavidas, in which he refers to the caste of Valmiki:

“Why lookest thou not at Balmik? From what a low caste, what a high rank obtained he? Sublime is the Lord’s devotional service (AG 1124)

  • Valmikis works not in GGS

Places of worship – sabhas, not Gurdwaras since no GGS

  • Majority emphasize that neither Sikhs or Hindus – keshdharis raise issues in terms of identity
  • Art – Valmiki and scenes from Ramayana
  • Focus is Valmiki, no Sikh connection at all
  • Implications of Coventry ValmikiSabha
  • Not all chuhras are Valmikis, large numbers converted to Christianity and Buddhism (under Dr Ambedkar)
  • Valmiki metaphysics quite different to Sikh philosophy – again issues of identity
  • No Sikh celebrations (Coventry). Diwali (return of Valmikis characters Rama and Sita)

My research raised interesting debate about the identity of the Valmikis – are they Hindu, Sikh, neither, or both?

“Who says that Valmikis are different from Hindus and Sikhs? We would like to know. We see ourselves as Valmikis. Hindu and Sikh are extension (sic) to our perception as Valmikis. This is the reason why we find harmony amongst the members of our community irrespective of their religious beliefs”.

Panel of informants – Coventry ValmikiSabha


The Open University in England has produced a video about the Ravidasis, in which one speaker has voiced that, as a low-caste person, he was refused karahprasad in both India and Britain: thus by distributing karahprasad, the Ravidasis exclude no one from the sabha. Open University Video: ‘Man’s Religious Quest – The Ravidasias Birmingham’.

sects in sikhism the namdharis
Sects in Sikhism:THE NAMDHARIS
  • Not all Sikhs share the same beliefs and practices
  • Some do not attribute Guru status to AdiGranth, continue tradition of living Gurus – Namdharis
  • Namdhari: “one who has the Name of God imbued in the heart”
  • Punjabi community
  • Viewed as heretics by many
  • Indian Independence
  • Also known as ‘Kukas’ “to shriek” – in lament of Guru Ram Singh

Membership from number of castes – majority from ramgharia, then jats and aroras

  • Inter-caste marriages, especially between ramgharias and jats take place
  • Deny that Guru Gobind Singh uttered “Guru ManiyoGranth”,
  • M10 did not die at Nander in 1708 CE
  • Explicitly on par their Gurus with ten Sikh Gurus of mainstream Panth, therefore 11th, 12th Sikh Gurus, etc

M10 died in 1812, living his later life as Ajapal Singh – merely acting out his death: WHY?

  • Those who sought him would find him – there for “true” believers
  • Before his death in 1812 chose an arora – Balak Singh – 11th Guru, not AdiGranth
  • No hint or glimpse in Sikh literature to say “Guru ManiyoGranth”
  • Balak Singh interim Guru between M10 and M12, M10 reborn as M12
  • Important Guru of the Namdharis is the 12th – Guru Ram Singh – most important of all the Namdhari Gurus (contradiction of divine light/wholeness?)
  • Both Balak Singh and Ram Singh watched very closely by British authorities in India at the time

Guru Ram Singh – efforts towards Indian Independence, very active

  • Efforts towards bringing lapsed Panth back to Khalsa ideals – created SantKhalsa on April 1857 – authority as a Guru
  • Namdharis - majority are Khalsa members, very rare to see a sehajdhariNamdhari
  • Emphasis on the colour white
  • Horizontal turbans
  • Religious revival – not majority of Sikhs though
  • Introduced many reforms - simplicity
  • Simple marriages, no dowry, no jewels – white clothes
  • Mixed zat marriages
  • No expensive places of worship (remember GGs would not be focus in these)

Viewed as continued threat to British rule in India – exiled to Rangoon, Burma in March 1872

  • Kept contact through secret letters “hukamnamas” in order to continue religious revival and freedom struggle from Namdharis
  • According to records of British authorities he died in prison in 1885 – rejected by Namdharis
  • Will return, hence lamentation, “Kukas” – full account in Takhar “Sikh Identity”

Ram Singh’s younger brother Hari Singh took over as ‘deputy Guru’

  • not 13th, 14th, 15th Gurus for Namdharis, but - rather “deputy” Gurus, looking after until return of M12
  • NamdhariSakhis “prophecies” that Guru Ram Singh will live until 250 years old
  • Hari Singh’s, son Partap Singh became the next Guru (14th)
  • His son, Jagjit Singh became next Guru of Namdharis (15th) – current Guru
3ho happy holy healthy organization sikh dharma of the western hemisphere
3HO (Happy, Holy, Healthy Organization)Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere
  • Non-Punjabi following of the Sikh faith
  • Yogi Bhajan in America, Harbhajan Singh Puri, now deceased – strong following
  • Wife currently taken over
  • Emphasis on kundalini yoga – many see this as contradictory to teachings of Sikh Gurus
  • Emphasis on the Khalsa form and colour white
  • Not continuation of the Sikh Gurus, take GGS as Guru of the Panth – mostly translations used
  • Big following in New Mexico, America; Finchley, London; Germany and Switzerland.

Gora Sikhs adamantly affirm not members of a sect but are mainstream Sikhs, however, position given to Yogi Bhajan and certain practices result in them as being regarded outside of mainstream Panth by many Sikhs

  • Detailed look at practices – website of the ‘Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere’ and Takhar “Sikh Identity”
  • Majority have converted to Sikhism, rather than being born into the faith – as is case for majority of Punjabi Sikhs

Tension at times between Gora and Punjabi Sikhs, former accuse latter (sehajdharis) of not being ‘proper’ Sikhs – issues of Sikh identity pertinent here

“There is no gursikh unless he is a student of the Guru first. One is never a gursikh because he happened to be born in India. There is no student of the Guru who has the right to reverse or disregard the hukamof his Guru and still call himself a gursikh. You are truly losing sight of your very foundation stone, your very roots. You are sitting on the end of a branch and you are cutting it off of the tree. You have become more concerned with society, more concerned with your image as a social group, and you have totally forgotten that if you are not Sikhs of the Guru, then Sikh means nothing at all. You can be a Punjabi no matter what you do and no matter where you go, but you cannot call yourself a Sikh unless you are living as a Sikh. . . . Those Sikhs, (or rather those born into Sikh families) who have cared more for profit and more for Western convention and fashion, who have cared more for social acceptance and a life of ease – they are not Sikhs.”

PremkaKaur, ‘Rejoinder’ pp. 52-53.


Bhajan often been called the ‘Father of the Woodstock Nation’. At a time when drugs and alcohol were becoming increasingly popular in America, he introduced a way of life that aimed at fulfillment without intoxicants.

  • Initially beginning with the 3HO teachings, many students went further to find solidarity with the Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere under the leadership of Yogi Bhajan.
kundalini yoga
Kundalini Yoga
  • Bhajan expressed the prominence of kundalini yoga for the goraSikhs, as well as the students of the 3HO. He states:

“I would like to invoke in you that power that is already yours. It is called Kundalini. Mostly it is dormant, but it’s [sic] very existence creates the radiance to keep you alive. Kundalini will give you what riches and money cannot; it will give you happiness and satisfaction in your life”

‘Message from Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan’ –

white tantra
White Tantra
  • Bhajan also taught ‘White tantra’.
  • Aim ‘is to purify and uplift the being.’ It is in sharp contrast to the other two types of tantra namely, Black tantra and Red tantra: neither of these are taught by Bhajan. Black tantra is often depicted as ‘black magic’. Red tantra is associated with sexual energy.
  • practice of any tantric rituals is alien to Sikhism generally
  • Bhajan is popularly referred to by his students as the Mahan Tantric, ‘The Great Master of White Tantric Yoga.’
  • White tantra practiced in pairs at specific times that are known to the Mahan Tantric only.
  • Undertaken in the following manner:

“All the participants sit in rows, facing each other. The tantric energy travels in a zig-zag pattern up and down the rows. . . Although it is practiced with a partner, White Tantric Yoga is not a "sexual" yoga. On the contrary, it transmutes the sex energy from the lower chakras (energy centers) to the higher chakras.” Yogi Bhajan website.


Sikh Identity in the 19th Century

  • Problem of defining a Sikh as belonging to a sect of Hinduism is one which Sikhs faced throughout the development of their faith.
  • Even after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs were regarded in a sense as Hindus.
  • Constitution of India – “Sikhs are a type of Hindu”
  • The "threat" of Sikhs absorbing into Hinduism was recognized by the Singh Sabha- an extremely important movement with regard to the establishing of a distinct Sikh identity.

By 19th century, Panth had relapsed back into the Hindu way of life – brahmins consulted, superstition, rituals: all against gurbani.

  • Not until 1905 CE Hindu idols removed from grounds of the Golden Temple.
  • Not all Sikhs had adopted the Khalsa in 19th century – hence diversity was visible feature
  • 1st Singh Sabha established at Amritsar in 1873.
  • Early Singh Sabhas primarily geared towards laying down correct observances of gurbani - not much emphasis on Sikhs adopting the Khalsaform yet

For these earlier Singh Sabhas, both Khalsa initiates andsahajdhariswere Sikhs. There was no such notion at this time that only KhalsaSikhs were proper Sikhs.

  • Singh Sabha aimed at publishing literature that would unite all Sikhs in belief and practice, and end Sikh participation in the "enchanted universe". See Oberoi “The construction of Religious Boundaries” and Takhar “Sikh Identity”

At around 1902-1903, a number of the Sabhas had affiliated into a central organization known as the Chief KhalsaDiwan.

  • The Chief KhalsaDiwan, like the earlier Sabhas, tended to regard both Khalsaand sahajdharisas Sikhs.
  • It was at a later period, with the establishment of the orthodox Tat Khalsathat the insistence was placed on the identity of a Sikh as being a KhalsaSikh.
  • Tat Khalsa = "Pure Sikhs", therefore, the aspiration of the later Singh Sabhas who emphasized the Khalsaform. The Tat Khalsaemphasized that a Sikh is one who has undergone the initiation ceremony

The establishment of a branch of the Arya-Samaj at Lahore, Punjab, in the late nineteenth century posed a particular threat to the survival of Sikhism.

  • The assumption that Sikhs are to be regarded as Hindus was outrightly rejected by the Singh Sabha; see Nabha “We are Not Hindus” basic book of the Singh Sabha
  • Diversity in practices – eg no uniform marriage ceremony amongst Sikhs, majority married by vedi tradition
  • October 1909, the Anand Marriage Act was legalized – pheras around GGS. But took time to become established.
  • Namdharis, however, did not adopt this practice, they continue to take pherasaround the fire.
the rehat maryada
The RehatMaryada
  • The ideals of the Tat Khalsa (ie later Singh Sabhas) became the RehatMaryada.
  • The RM approved in 1945 – aim to guidelines on orthodoxy in the Panth.
  • To adopt the Khalsa form and lifestyle
  • Many Sikhs not recognize authority of the Tat Khalsa, therefore remained sahajdharis – diversity of the Panth.
  • Issue in terms of who is a Sikh
  • Tat Khalsa emphasis on GGS as basis for all Sikh religious practices, no Hindu rituals or life cycle rites to be practised by Sikhs
  • Were Sahajdharis regarded as Hindus? Many Hindu families had Khalsa members also – no distinct identity as such, no problem with this for them.

The RM holds authority for defining a Sikh

  • Before it was officially approved in 1945, Gurdwaras were overlooked by corrupt mahants – drugs, prostitution, anti-Sikh practices
  • Need for Gurdwara Act, eventually came about in 1925.
  • The struggle was led by the Akalis “immortal Sikh soldiers” from 1920 – 1945 (also known as Nihangs)
  • British government giving its support to the corrupt mahants residing in the Gurdwaras

British government had appointed its own managers, often mahants, to control main gurdwaras

  • Full support of Singh Sabha for Akalis – united towards Gurdwara reform
  • Central authority formed that would control religious affairs in community and Gurdwaras – SGPC.
  • SCPC based at Akal Takht to present day, authority, orthodox
  • Goal of SGPC was to remove Hindu idols from Golden Temple
  • Keys to the Golden Temple held by British officials

Struggle of Akalis wholly peaceful, eventually keys to Golden Temple handed over to the Akalis

  • Mahatma Gandhi’s delight in telegram sent to present of the SGPC:

“1st battle for India’s Independence won. Congratulations”

  • Sikh Gurdwaras Act enforced on 1st Nov 1925
  • See Takhar “Sikh Identity” for detailed look at Akali struggle and Gurdwara Reform
sikh orthodoxy
Sikh Orthodoxy?
  • RehatMaryada defines a true Sikh as one who does not cut the hair
  • See chapter 1 of the RehatMaryada –

  • Views sahajdharis as ‘slow adopters’, will one day see necessity of taking khalsa
  • For RM only Khalsa Sikhs are ‘true Sikhs’

According to the RehatMaryada, there are generally four types of Sikhs:

  • Amritdhari– this a Sikh who has taken initiation into the Khalsaand therefore obeys all the rules and regulations of the RehatMaryada. A “True” Sikh
  • Keshdhari – this is a Sikh who keeps his/her hair uncut.
  • Sahajdhari – ‘slow adopter’:an individual who having a Sikh background does not keep the hair, and does not obey the rules of the RehatMaryada.
  • Patit– an apostate: one who having had taken amrit, has broken the rules of the RehatMaryada.

Anxiety of Sikhs and the problem of Sikh identity

  • If reform is to take place, then where does it end?
  • Will it result in future generations having no association with the form of the khalsa? Will adaptation eventually result in the individual being labeled a Sikh but not knowing what it is?
  • Will future generations celebrate occasions such as Vaisakhiand Diwaliand not have any idea what is being celebrated?
  • Questions such as these present an inescapable paradox when discussing the issue of present Sikh identity. It is in matters such as these that support for the RehatMaryada is understandable in defining Sikhs and Sikhism.
  • The argument from the orthodox point of view is that Sikhism will disintegrate without rules and regulations.
  • But there is an alternative view: retaining an orthodox definition of the RehatMaryada may play its part in the confusion of identity because it could be argued that it is better to revise the Rehat to allow for Western influences and provide a wider definition of a Sikh rather than lose the religious orientation of future generations altogether.
  • The survival of the Sikh, indeed the khalsa tradition, is possible only through the younger generation, who must show a pride in their heritage.
  • Any questions from the 3 lectures so far?
  • Access the RehatMaryada from Read the 1st chapter on identity and critically assess how far you think a revised definition of a Sikh is needed?Do you regard orthodoxy as necessary, why?
  • Have a detailed look at the beliefs and practices of one of the sects/groups looked at today and assess what issue they present in terms of a uniform definition of Sikh identity as expressed in the RehatMaryada.
  • Critically evaluate Sikh attitudes towards caste in the Panth today.