Excommunication and Sikhism: The case of Bhai Ranjit Singh Dhadriawala

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THEN: Khem Singh Bedi (2nd from right) played a key role in excommunicating Gurmukh Singh (left). NOW: Akal Takht acting jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh (left) and Harnam Singh Dhumma (2nd from left) are key players in moves against Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwala – Asia Samachar Gaphic
By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

The partial excommunication of the progressive young Sikh preacher Bhai Ranjit Singh by Sikh Jathedars (clerics controlling the key seats of institutional power) on August 25 has raised the real possibility of a major rupture in the Sikh Panth. Though excommunication of Sikh public figures — from preachers, politicians, to former Jathedars — by the Akaal Takht does occasionally happen, the case of Bhai Ranjit Singh is unique for 3 key reasons.

First, he is a very popular Sikh preacher with a huge following spanning the whole world and on the social media. Second, he is a staunch advocate of the official Akaal Takht Sikh Rehit Maryada (SRM) and implores congregations to take amrit and join the Khalsa Panth. And third, there is widespread feeling that the Jathedars, and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who employs them, are actually being controlled by a political elite heavily influenced by Parkash Singh Badal and his allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Though there are instances of individuals being banished during the Guru period — such as Guru Nanak shunning his son Sri Chand, Guru Arjan shunning his brother Prithi Chand and also Dhir Mal and Ram Rai being disowned by his father Guru Harrai Ji — by and large excommunication was very rare during the Guru period, whose strategy was always to avoid conflict but to engage in dialogue or ’samvaad’ as a way to win hearts and minds. Accordingly, it can be assumed that the concept of excommunication or ‘kharj‘ or ‘shake deyna‘ is one that is a product, not of Sikh philosophy as enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, but of the various power struggles that emerge within institutionalized Sikhism in the post Guru period.

All institutions, small and large, secular or religious, are prone to differing viewpoints and schools of thought. On the whole successful institutions are those that are able to tolerate a degree of flexibility and/or have well developed mechanisms for dispute resolution and arbitration. However, very occasionally fundamental differences can emerge resulting in divergences up to and including complete schisms. When this happens, more often than not, such conflicts are accompanied by some form of excommunication of the weaker faction by the more powerful incumbents. It can also lead to the emergence of new institutions, sects and religions, often led by the excommunicated person/s.

SEE ALSO: Akal Takht v Dhadrianwale: Who’s at fault?

Alleged doctrinal differences can also function to obscure other motives, namely, a toxic concoction of personal enmity and/or desire for power, money and influence. After all, give or take the odd truly enlightened soul, even religious preachers are human and therefore vulnerable to the allure of the ego. Given the blatant interference of the major political parties in Sikh Panthic affairs, it would be reasonable to assume that the current fallout between Bhai Ranjit Singh Dhadriawala and the SGPC-appointed Akaal Takht Acting Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh is not simply a matter of theological differences, but political patronage.

It is worth noting here that almost all of the groups aligned to the Sant Smajh (Society of Saints), led by Damdami Taksal (Mehta) head Baba Harnam Singh Dhumma, who have been pushing for Bhai Ranjit Singh to be excommunicated, explicitly reject the official Akaal Takht ‘Sikh Rehit Maryada’ or ‘Sikh Code of Conduct’. Hence, it is difficult to understand what yard stick is been used to claim Bhai Ranjit Singh is engaged in ‘anti-Panthic’ preaching! Indeed, a further irony is that Bhai Ranjit Singh has consistently declared his total allegiance to the very same Sikh Rehit Maryada.

Harnam Singh Dhumma (seated on the ground) with Parkash Singh Badal (seated on chair), with Sukhbir Singh Badal looking on – Photo: SikhSiyasat

It can be inferred from these contradictions that Bhai Ranjit Singh and his troubles are part of a much greater political game. It is even alleged that this could be linked to attempts by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement with close links to the ruling BJP to incorporate the Sikh Panth into the Hindutva project. There is strong circumstantial evidence that the Sant Smajh, both through the patronage of the Alkali Dal Party headed by Parksah Singh Badal as well as direct contacts through the Nirmala Sampardas, has in recent decades been building close ties to the BJP and RSS.

DIFFERENT STROKES

Putting aside the politics of the situation, as Bhai Ranjit Singh has openly acknowledged, over the past few years his own spiritual awakening has led him to reject what he terms the ‘pujari’ system, which he claims is characterized by reverence to so called ‘Sants/Brahmgianis’ (holy men) and pointless ritualistic practices. In its place, he now emphasizes the importance of logic, reason and practical spirituality. Interestingly, when Bhai Ranjit Singh was pushing the doctrine propagated by the Sant Smajh, he was hailed as a shining light of the Panth. As Ranjit Singh recounts, he was the ‘number 1 Baba’ and all the stages were open to him to preach a version of Sikhi based on centered on ritualism, mythology, miracles, and worship/pooja or men, objects and places.

But ever since he adopted a radically different approach based on practical and social spirituality and a repudiation of what he calls a ‘pujari God’, he has been cast as a Panth dokhi (enemy of the Panth) and Gurunindak (blasphemer). The result has been that, through threats and actual violence, for the past three years or so, across the world he was prevented from performing in Gurdwaras other that his base at Parmeshwar Diwar, near Patiala in Panjab.

For some years now his preaching was increasingly focused on contemporary challenges facing the people, such as relationships problems, health, drugs, oppression of women and girls, corruption at all levels, fake Godmen, environmental concerns, scientific knowledge and human development. It’s worth noting that wherever he would perform Kirtan and Katha, huge numbers of people, especially young people would turn-up to listen. Being undaunted by the restrictions being applied to him, he improvised by establishing his own online TV channel through which he had built up an impressive global audience and following.

Though until very recently there was no official ban on him, just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, following widely publicized protests led by Bhai Amrik Singh Ajnala, head of a faction of the Sikh seminary, Damdami Taksal, at a scheduled three-day diwan (religious discourse) at Gidrani village near Lehragaga in Sangrur district between 8-10 Feb 2020, Bhai Ranjit Singh took the decision to temporarily halt all public diwans. The context of the protests and justification provided by Amrik Singh Ajnala was a pending order by the Akaal Takht for Bhai Ranjit Singh to meet up with a panel of Sikh intellectuals to clarify allegations that he was preaching against official Sikh theology and traditions.

In his defence, Bhai Ranjit Singh’s has consistently argued that he has never spoken against Gurmat and that he was being subject to a vendetta for confronting the anti-gurmat practices and writings of the Sant Samajh and for focussing his preaching on practical Sikhi and logical reasoning and not myth. He has consistently claimed that his approach has been very successful in attracting youth towards Sikhi and that the real motive by what he refers to as ‘sampardai lana’ (traditional Sikh seminaries led and transmitted from one spiritual head or sant to another) is that they are worried about losing congregations.

FRESH TAKE

Looking at the border development of religious doctrines amongst most of the major world faiths, it becomes clear that Ranjit Singh’s interpretation of the nature of God and the divine is not actually that unique. It is unclear whether he has arrived at his position through self-realization, or through study of comparative religion. However, it is safe to suggest he has moved towards what is termed a panantheistic world view.

This is essentially a belief that God and the world are inseparable, namely that the ‘Kadar‘ or creator and the ‘Kudrat‘ or creation are one. It follows that to know God is to know and come to understand nature and the laws that govern this, namely the laws of nature. A key aspect of this approach is the rejection of a personal God that is separate from the self. In others words, to know God is to know oneself and in this regard, Bhai Ranjit Singh often quotes the lines, “Man thoo joath saroop hei, apna mool pehchaan” or “O mind you are the embodied light of the divine, recognize this and you will know your true origin”.

And so, from this perspective, Bhai Ranjit Singh has sought to reinterpret Sikh religious tradition, such as performing pilgrimages, ritual bathing, etc. In the process he has deemed them to have no relevance to Sikhism. In his weekly sermons he especially focusses on those Shabads in the Guru Granth Sahib that explicitly challenge the prevailing ritualistic practices of the Hindu pandits and Muslim mullahs.

Though there is clearly widespread popular appeal for Bhai Ranjit Singh’s self-proclaimed logical, scientific approach to Sikhi, for some he gone too far! His detractors, mostly those belonging to the Nirmala Samparai tradition, argue that in adopting an ultra-rationalist position, Ranjit Singh has ignored the critical importance of devotion (sharda) in Sikh teaching. They also argue that by undermining Sikh traditions and reverence towards buildings and places of worship, he is actually dismantling Sikhism as we know it and is turning it into more of a new age lifestyle, self and personal development tool. Their demand is that either Bhai Ranjit Singh appears before the Jathedars at the Akal Takht and repents for his sins or that he is excommunicated from Sikhism, and If he so desires, develop his own sect outside of the Panth.

In this regard, one can certainly see parallels with the formation of existing sects – most notably the Radhaswami, Nirankari, Darshan Dasi and Namdharis – that have come out of the Sikhs tradition, whether that is through formal excommunication or Panthic edicts. However, there is one significant difference. Though they base their teachings on gurbani, they have rejected the authority of the Guru Granth Sahib ji in preference for a living human Guruship. Contrast this against Bhai Ranjit Singh Dhadriawala rejection that title of Sant, defense of the Akaal Takht’s SRM and total acceptance of the supremacy of the Guru Granth Sahib as eternal and living Guru of the Sikhs.

PUSH OR PULL

Ever since the origins of the institutionalized religions, there have emerged conflicting viewpoints, between those who defend tradition and orthodox confessional faith and those who take a more progressive rational position. In this regard, Sikhs are no different from other major world faiths each of which has undergone many small and large schisms, most notably, Shia/Sunni in Islam, Catholic and Protestant in Christianity, Orthodox/Secular in Judaism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism in Hinduism.

IMAGE Life of Martin Luther and the Heroes of the Reformation (c. 1874) by H. Bruel c/o Wikimedia Commons

Whilst each faith group and factions within have their own unique issues, the general pattern resulting in divisions is between ultra-orthodox elements arguing for blind ritualistic dogmatic literal devotion to text and progressive elements arguing for a rational, critical interpretive orientation. Because of the historic control of religious shrines, ultra-orthodox religious cliques have tended to exercise more power, control on congregations, and hence financial and political clout. And their control has become self-serving, meaning that those seeking to challenge their hegemony have been accused of blasphemy resulting in excommunicated, ostracization, and even death!

During their own lives, though they had to endure considerable tests, both from within their own families and their wider political and priestly classes, the Gurus were able to protect development and protect the revolutionary teachings. There is no doubt that Guru Arjan’s reasons for compiling the Adi Granth in such a way that it would be impossible to tamper with it, were to avoid corruption of the message of Nanak. Similarly, Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and last Guru, to prevent any future corruption and dilution of the Guru’s teachings vested all spiritual authority for the Sikhs in eternal Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib ji.

Sikh reform movements in the late 19th Century, most notably the Khalsa Diwan societies and the Singh Sabha Movement, and ironically, the SGPC and Akali Dal in the early 20th century, made great sacrifices to regain control of the Panth from the Sanantanist and Nirmala holy men, who were in charge of the main historic Sikh holy shrines and were involved in all manner of anti-gurmat practices. Their aim was simple to restore Sikhism to its essence based on the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib and the Tat Gurmat tradition and belief system of the Khalsa. What has sometimes been termed the Sikh reformation or Sikh renaissance didn’t last long and, though some Nirmala’s sects, such as the Namdharis, went their separate ways, others, such as the Damdami Taksaal, Nanaksari and various Nihang groups, most notably the Budda Dal, managed to retain a powerful influence, especially in the five seats of power headed by the Akaal Takht.

Based on Sikh tradition, excommunication should be an absolute last resort and should happen in an unbiased basis where the alleged perpetrator has unequivocally been found guilty of preaching against Sikh ideals. If a boycott which has been placed barring the speaker is not respected, and all other efforts at rectification fail, the offending party may be called to appear at the Akal Takhat in Amritsar, India, before Panj Pyare, a court of five Amritdaris, for penance. If the perpetrator fails to appear, they may be excommunicated. Reinstatement is always an option.

Bhai Ranjit Singh’s refusal to appear before the Akal Takht or even the panel of scholars has drawn criticism from his opponents as well as those who were otherwise sympathetic to his point of view. They argue that by refusing to engage in dialogue, he is in effect justifying the argument that he is scared of defending the. Indefensible and that his offer to do a live TV debate is simply a divisionary tactic. They go further by arguing his somewhat arrogant approach towards the Akaal Takht Jathedar betrays both the weakness of his case but also that Bhai Ranjit Singh is engulfed in ego and self-importance.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

As it seems highly likely, unless there is a massive change of heart on either side, Bhai Ranjit Singh will sooner or later become excommunicated from the Panth. But he and his supporters should not despair. History may just be on their side. He should take strength from the excommunication of no other than Prof. Gurmukh Singh’s ex-communication.

Sikh Reformers: Bhai Gurmukh Singh (1849-1898) and Giani Dit Singh 1850-1901)

Though very different personalities, not unlike the current situation facing Bhai Ranjit Singh, the mistreatment of Prof. Gurmukh Singh during the back end of the 19th Century was a prime example of the abuse of illicit power by a bunch of self-serving religious leaders. Back then the Jathedars were led by Baba Khem Singh Bedi, who claimed direct lineage to Guru Nanak had was a staunch defender of Sanantan beliefs. With the political support of Rajah Bikram Singh of Faridkote, who too was a keen defender of the Nirmala Saints and has commissioned an exegesis of the Guru Granth Sahib popularly known as the Faridkot Teeka, Khem Singh was able to wield significant power.

At the time of his ex-communication, Prof. Gurmukh Singh, who was one of originators of the Singh Sabha Movement, was promoting actively pursuing his goal to found the first ever Khalsa College in Amritsar. For his efforts, rather than being praised, the Jathedars decided to not only excommunicate Prof. Gurmukh Singh, but also ordered the Sikh community not provide any financial support for his project to establish the Khalsa College. His crime was that he fought against the prevailing caste discrimination and arranged baptism for low castes. The edict to excommunicate Prof. Gurmukh Singh, which was passed in March 18, 1887, said that he had showed disrespect to Guru Granth Sahib Ji, and that no one should associate with him or help him. Sounds familiar!!

During this same period, another giant in Sikh history and a close friend of Prof. Gurmukh Singh’s, Giani Ditt Singh — historian par excellence, scholar, journalist, poet and author of over 70 books on Sikhism — was harassed by the Nirmala Jathedars led by Baba Khem Singh. Following Prof. Gurmukh Singh’s excommunication, Giani Ditt Singh responded by publishing excerpts from his book Svapan Natak, a thinly veiled satire ridiculing the so-called leaders, in the Khalsa Akhbar. This resulted in a lawsuit which, although eventually dismissed, cost the Khalsa Akhbar dearly in time and money resulting in the paper closing soon after in 1889.

It is worth recalling some of accusations leveled against Prof. Gurmukh Singh were mostly related to his rejection of the Nirmala ritualistic practices, including the practicing of untouchability and caste discrimination within the Gurdwaras and in the administration of ‘Khande di Pahul’ or the Khalsa initiation. Coupled with doctrinal differences there was personal enmity from Baba Khem Singh Bedi who was directly challenged by Prof Gurmukh Singh. To any reasonably informed student of Sikh theology it is clear the excommunication of Prof. Gurmukh Singh was a case of blatant abuse of illicit spiritual and temporal authority.

It is clear that something similar is taking place with Bhai Ranjit Singh and those who control the SGPC and Akaal Takht. However, other might argue that whereas Prof Gurmukh Singh was given no opportunity to engage in dialogue and defend his case, Bhai Ranjit Singh was and arguably still has a chance to defend himself. Though he argues the decision has already been taken, arguably, he has more to gain than to lose by appearing before the Akaal Takht appointed panel of experts.

Whatever his reasoning, refusal to not appear before the Akaal Talkht will no doubt fuel a narrative that Bhai Ranjit Singh has turned his back on the Panth. And so in this regard, for the historical record, if nothing else, it is important that he does appear to defend himself. Things have considerably changed from 1887 when Prof. Gurmukh Singh was excommunicated by the then Jathedars. Unlike then, when things were largely done in secrecy, today we have extensive media, which means every move and utterance is open to scrutiny. At the moment Bhai Ranjit Singhs is asking for a public televised debate whereas the Jathedars want a closed hearing. However, there is no reason why a compromise cannot be found whereby, following a private session, an open televised Q&A is held. In this way, we could resurrect the tradition of ‘samvaad’ or respectful dialogue, and perhaps justice, with a degree of impartiality and due process, can be seen to be done and out of this bad situation something good can come out.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

 

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Resolving disputes in Sikh community through mediation (Asia Samachar, 17 July 2020)

 

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