Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Root Causes

Karminder Singh Dhillon | Opinion | 26 Jan 2016 | Asia Samachar | 


There is no denying that the dysfunctionality of our Gurdwaras is deeply entrenched and widespread.

There can also be no denying that the root causes are varied. Yet any discussion over the causes of the distortion and corruption of Gurdwara roles and functions must begin with those who (mis)manage our Gurdwaras – namely parbhandakhs.



Sikh intellectual Gurbachan Singh, Professor and Principal of Sikh Missionary College Punjab, writes – in his latest book – within the chapter titled The Mayhem in our Gurdwaras, that there existed a “stampede of anti-Gurmat stuff in our Gurdwaras” and that the blame lay squarely on those who managed them. He argues:

Parbandhaks are dishonest, have no integrity and are untrustworthy. They have no concerns whatsoever with Gurmat. Their only interest is to stick on to being Parbandhaks and collect money. This stampede of anti-Gurmat activities allows them to achieve both aims.”  – Gurbachan Singh Panwa, Jaggon Tervian, (Punjabi) Ludhiana: Doaba Graphics, pg 42-45

What the professor is saying is that such parbandhaks have allowed Gurdwara roles and functions to be corrupted so they can stay in control and hang on to their positions.  It is thus in the interest of corrupted parbandhaks for Gurdwaras to remain dysfunctional.

PART ONE: Roles and functions of a gurdwara

PART TWO: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Assessment.

PART THREE: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional: The Root Causes. 

Renowned Sikh parcharak Sant Singh Maskeen concurs. Distilling 40 years of extensive travel across the globe and dealing widely with parbandhaks, he opines in his book:

“Being self-serving, our parbandhaks are incapable of acting according to Gurmat…Their egocentric traits have turned Gurdwaras into businesses… They think of themselves as lords who rule over helpless granthis and ragis… they create and strive on conflicts within sangats. The have failed miserably, indeed…” – Sant Singh Maskeen, Desh Videsh Dey Gurduarian Da Parbhandkee Dhancha Atey Parcharak Shareni, (Punjabi), Amritsar: Singh Brothers. See Introduction, Pp 39, 41

Maskeen is essentially saying that for Gurdwaras to return to their Gurmat intended functions, these type of parbandhaks would have to be thrown out.



A majority of parbandhaks do not have the slightest clue regarding the Guru-intended roles and functions of a Gurdwara. A vast majority has not lifted the rumalla of the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) to read, let alone understand a single page of banee.

Why are such people parbandhaks of our Gurdwaras then? Have they no realisation that they are unqualified and unfit to be the managers of an institution they understand nothing about?

How do they get elected year after year, some hanging on to their posts life-long:   clamouring to remain in office at all costs? The sight of individuals in poor health and unable to climb the stairs of the Gurdwara but feverishly contesting for parbhandhak posts is not an uncommon one.

The sangat has a term for such parbandhakschaudhar. It is a term that combines a need to assert authority with arrogance and the urge to appear a bigwig despite not having the qualifications, skills or even knowledge required for the position.

The ragi and parcharak community – because they are in closer proximity with, and at the mercy of chaudhar type parbandhaks – have their own terms and narratives. Most of these narrations are unfit for publication and not for the faint hearted, but the following two milder versions are sufficient to make the point.

One version has it that those individuals who are unable to command and assert authority in their own homes are the ones that are driven by uncontrollable urges to become chaudhar type parbandhaks so that they can lord over helpless granthis, ragis and even the sangat.

To show his conviction, Maskeen has said such openly and repeatedly in his lectures – many of which are recorded and available in both audio and video.

The second version goes like this. Question: Gyani ji, what happened to all the enemies that were slain in battle at the hands of our Guru? Did they go to hell because they were the enemies of the panth, or to heaven because they died in the Guru’s presence?

Answer: Because they died in the Guru’s company they were reborn as Sikhs. But because they were enemies of the panth to begin with, they will become chaudhar parbandhaks.

My objective is neither to demean any one including the chaudhars, nor to establish the believability of such concocted narratives. But the narratives are a reflection of the deep-seated resentment amongst the two most important parties in our Gurdwaras – parbandhaks and parcharaks. Is it any wonder that our Gurdwaras are deeply dysfunctional?



How and why do dysfunctional parbandhaks get elected and remain in office?

One reason is perhaps that a good majority of them are of standing and status within their professions. It is thus not uncommon to see doctors, lawyers, engineers, civil servants, uniformed officers, businessmen – both serving and retired ones – being elected as pardhans and secretaries of Gurdwaras.

The Sikh community has a great deal of regard for professionals and wealthy people and thus vote them in with the belief that they are the best choice to lead the community spiritually.

What is blatantly overlooked is the fact that being a professional – albeit highly successful – and having an understanding of Gurmat, Gurbani and Maryada  are two STARKLY different things.

Gurbani and Gurmat are at the CORE of a Gurdwara’s roles and functions. Thus no matter how qualified a surgeon, or how reputable an engineer one is – he or she would be UNFIT  to be a Gurdwara parbandhak as much as a Gurmat-illiterate plumber, gardener or brick layer is.

Why is it so difficult for our community to get this?

We cannot deny that the Gurmat-illiterate professionals could be a better managers, administrators, organisers, directors, and supervisors than a Gurmat-illiterate blue collar person.

But ALL these are PERIPHERAL functions. When it comes to the CORE functions of the Gurdwara based on Gurmat and Gurbani both the professional and blue collar groups are equally clueless, and thus equally dysfunctional.

A focus on peripheral functions makes for misplaced priorities. This is why our “professional” parbabdhaks are obsessed with peripheral activities. They want to give the Gurdwara a new carpet, a new coat of paint, a new set of roof tiles, change the langgar hall floor tiles from 4 x 4 to 6 x 6 and change the washroom taps from copper to silver.

They spend large amounts of time and money on building extensions, renovating the wash rooms, and installing new sound and lighting systems.

They spend lots of effort on raising the Nishan Sahib from 20 feet to 30 feet, or from 30 to 40.  They add wash basins to the existing ones in the langgar hall. They tar the Gurdwara car park. They install neon lights around the Gurdwara. And start planning to add yet another floor to the Gurdwara.

Those with more money install domes of gold and silver. Those with even more are obsessed with building a new Gurdwara all together – bigger, taller and newer.

The more “educated and professional” parbandhaks organise blood donation drives, rally the sangats to provide material aid to victims of some earthquake somewhere, and conduct campaigns relating to recycling of waste products.

No attention is paid to the CORE roles and functions of the Gurdwara. These are peripheral activities that take place at the expense of core. That is what is wrong.

While in the process of undertaking the above mentioned peripheral “jobs” the biggest fear of parbandhaks is that they will be replaced by others who could perform better doing the same stuff. Some fear that their “projects” will be derailed if they are voted out.

Yet others fear that if they got replaced by others, they will be denied credit for undertaking these “projects.” Many start to think of the Gurdwara as their personal property.

So to cling on to office, they have no qualms about using all sorts of tactics – dividing the sangat into cliques, parties and groups; creating conflict; using gangsterism methods; denying membership to those who may oppose them; cronyism and downright cheating.

There isn’t a single Gurdwara that does not have a “multi-party” system. Each “party” wants to take over the Gurdwara and the results are fights, boycotts, showdowns, law suits, police shut downs of Gurdwaras and much more. One only needs to conduct a Google search for fights in Gurdwaras to see the extent of such ugliness.

One of the most ironical outcomes of conflict arising out of the multi-party system is the setting up of rival Gurdwaras.

There are approximately 130 Gurdwaras in Malaysia; with most towns having multiple Gurdwaras, some within a stone’s throw from another but sharing the same sangat. I dare say that a great number were built by parbhandak groups who were ejected in Gurdwara elections and then went on to build their own Gurdwaras nearby so that they could continue to be parbandhaks.

These are what one could call Gurdwaras that are conceived in rivalry and born out of conflict.

So the gold plated structures, sprawling marble-adorned complexes, modern architectural constructs and beautiful buildings that these “professional” Gurmat-illiterate and chaudhar parbandhaks have delivered have come at the cost of utter neglect of Gurmat based spirituality and the permanent inculcation of conflict, divisions, and despair amongst out sangats.

Virtually all the time, energy, effort and money of parbandhaks are exhausted in peripheral “projects” and in the resulting conflict, leaving them with virtually no interest in the CORE 7 functions aspired by our Gurus.

In their desire to remain in office, these chaudhar parbandhaks look for and employ granthis, ragis and parcharaks who themselves are NOT interested in Gurmat, but who, in their own self-serving interests, are ever willing to assist the parbandhaks in their manoeuvrings.

It is for this reason then, that this group of Sikhs – granthis, ragis and parcharaks – takes the second spot in any discussion regarding root causes of Gurdwara dysfunctionality.



In the Sikhi that was envisaged by Guru Nanak and the succeeding nine Sikh Gurus over some 240 years; there did not exist any class of Sikhs called granthis, ragis and parcharaks. Guru Nanak did not believe in the creation of a priestly class in Sikhi.

A healthy portion of his banee is a strident critique of the priestly class. Guru Nanak held the priestly classes primarily responsible for the corruption of all Indian spiritualties.

The Gurus wanted local communities to run their Gurdwaras, perform all ceremonies and undertake all the 7 roles and functions collectively and in turn according to the sewa bahvna of each. So if a Gurdwara catered for 20 families – these families would all do the kirtanardaskathahukumnama and all other activities by themselves.


What we have today is a “professional” priestly class – one that earns a living from spiritual activities. Virtually all kirtan in our Gurdwaras is done by professional ragis; katha or sermon is rendered by a professional kathakaar; and akhand path readings are undertaken by professional pathis.

By and large these “professionals” are disconnected from the sangats they serve and have no interest in the spiritual challenges facing their congregations or the Gurdwara. Their primary motive is to earn a living through their “professional” activities.

Up to 95 percent of Indian granthis, ragis and parcharaks have their roots in deras – the root places of Sikhi deviancy. They are either trained in deras or have permanent affiliations with deras. They thus sing, preach and discourse the deviant messages that they have learnt.

Their deviancy is the core reason for the spirituality of our Gurdwaras to be focussed largely on rituals instead of centring on the true messages of banee.

The local granthi’s answer to each and every spiritual problem of the Sikh family is for more Akhand Paaths or Shej Paths or other ritualistic banee reciting or chanting sessions which are anti-thesis to the principles of Gurmat.

The ragi’s mainstay is to transform kirtan from spiritual to commercial (kan rus) and presenting it as crowd-pulling entertainment that constitutes a show of musical skill and vocal artistry.

The kathakaar’s lifeblood lies in retelling of sakhis – a euphemism for un-authenticated, miracle based and unbelievable stories, plagiarised from the texts and belief systems discarded by our Gurus; but entertaining nevertheless.

By and large parbandhaks are content with such granthis, ragis and parcharaks. A parasitic relationship seems to exist. The granthis & ragis don’t rock the boat by pointing out the flaws and dysfunctionality of the parbhandaks and Gurdwaras. And the parbhandaks ensure such granthis and ragis of a sustained livelihood in their Gurdwaras.

The biggest loser is undeniably the sangat because the outcome of this unhealthy relationship is that the Gurdwara has become the source of much that is anti-Gurmat: rituals, superficial spirituality, commercialised singing and rote recitation and chanting.

Any discussion on the root causes of the dysfunctionality of our Gurdwaras cannot be thus complete without discussing the part played (or not played) by the sangat. After all, the decaying, broken-down, and crumbling state of affairs of our Gurdwaras could not have happened had the sangat not allowed it to come to that.



In general, the involvement of the Sangat in the Gurdwara can be described as passive and of reciprocal attendance.

We are passive in the sense that we accept just about anything that is dished out for us in the name of spirituality by our parbandhaks, granthis, ragis and parcharaks. Our attendance is reciprocal because by and large we fear that if we didn’t attend the functions, then others will not come to our functions.

In this regard then the dysfunctionality of the Gurdwara is not our real concern. Many in the sangat can be heard saying stuff to the effect: “We go to the Gurdwara to metha tek. All else is not our concern,” and taking false pride in saying so.

Others say “we are only interested in the Kirtan,” and do not appear concerned that large portions of what is sung as Kirtan in our Gurdwaras is not Kirtan as it is from outside of the Guru Granth Sahib. We don’t know that and don’t want to know it either.

A good deal of the sangat does not want to get involved in Gurdwara activities because we do not want to caught up in the ugly conflicts, contests and fights that can and do happen.

A majority of the sangat are unable to take issue with the anti-Gurmat and ritualistic practices of our granthis, ragis and parcharaks, and the anti-Sikhi acts and activities of our chaudhar type parbandhaks because we simply have no knowledge of banee, Gurmat and the Rehat Maryada. Or we don’t care.

The philosopher Plato was apt when he said: when wise men refuse to lead, they suffer fools as leaders. Within the dysfunctional Gurdwara, the sangat suffers Gurmat and Gurbani illiterate leaders.

In our slumber then, we the sangat have actively contributed towards Gurdwaras becoming dysfunctional. This article proportions a good deal of blame on chaudhar parbandhaks as well as granthis, ragis and parcharaks. But the ultimate responsibility falls with the sangat.

It is after all the the sangat that provides the pool from which our parbandhaks are created. Enlightened sangats would produce good parbandhaks. And if we as the sangat invest in learning how do to the kirtan, katha and ardas etc, we can wean ourselves from the Indian make-a-living type.



Sangats need to start holding their parbandhaks, granthis, ragis and parcharaks accountable for the dysfunctionality of our Gurdwaras. The sangat has three powerful weapons at its disposal – funds, attendance and choice.

Ask your parbandhaks why the 7 CORE functions of the Gurdwara are being neglected. And so long as the parbandhaks show no signs to making efforts in that direction, members of the sangat should withhold giving any funds to such parbandhaks.

It is naïve and irresponsible to think that we are giving our money to the Guru and that we do not have to be concerned how it is spent. The Guru does not exist within a dysfunctional Gurdwara setting. So the reality is that we, the sangat are funding the dysfunctionality of the Gurdwara.

And by continuing to donate blindly to the dysfunctional Gurdwara parbandhaks we are emboldening them and saying it’s OK to continue to be dysfunctional.

The sangat has a responsibility to free the community from the bedlam of building newer, bigger and taller Gurdwaras, from putting up gold domes and installing thicker carpets, newer air conditions, bigger tiles etc.

We can do this by withholding funds for such activities and channelling out daswandh to worthy causes, outside the Gurdwara system if necessary – even if only to send a message to our parbandhaks.

It is ONLY when we FREE ourselves from this unending egoistic quests of further beautifying dysfunctional Gurdwaras that our parbandhaks specifically and the community generally will get the TIME and OPPORTUNITY to think about the core functions of the Gurdwaras that they already have under their charge.

Sangats should also discard the habit of blindly offering shabad bhet to granthis, ragis and parcharaks who preach anti-Gurmat messages.

The habit of offering shabad bhet to them immediately (and blindly) after metha tek contributes to the problem. We need to be discerning. This can be done by sitting in the diwan and listening to messages first.

Ragis and parcharaks who sing from outside the GGS, tell half cooked sakhis, preach anti Gurmat stuff, demean women etc. should not be given any shabad bhet. They need to get the message that the sangat does not tolerate such, and that they should change their professions.

The sangat must exercise choice.  Vote out parbandhaks who are dysfunctional. Choose to not have dysfunctional Ragis and parcharaks perform at your jor-melas. Choose not to sit and listen to them. Choose to tell them off. Choose to censure them on social media of your choice.

Not attending anti-Gurmat functions is yet another weapon. Banee and mantar chanting sessions, Akhand Paths by so called professional pathis, celebrating occasions belonging to other faiths etc. only work because we attend passively.

Some of these suggestions may sound callous and cold hearted. But we need to admit that the dysfunctionality has come to a critical point. And near drastic measures are required.

If we let it slide further, our Gurdwaras will become centres of ALL that is anti-Sikhi. We may then have to keep our children away from the Gurdwara just to enable them to be Sikhs in the correct sense of the word.

It seems to me that our youth already know that. And that is perhaps why our Gurdwaras are already emptying out of generation Y and Z youth and hence become dysfunctional.


PART ONE: Roles and functions of a gurdwara

Part TWO: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Assessment.

Part THREE: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional: The Root Causes. 

Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston) writes on Gurbani and Gurmat issues in The Sikh Bulletin, USA. He also conducts Gurbani Katha in local Gurdwaras. He is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Samachar.



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