On sects and denominations in Sikhi

Denominations and cults are, to my mind, inevitable with time....Sikhi, too, has not escaped the process. Our “Deraas and Babaas” are often evidence of cults that remain within the larger framework of Sikh practices, doctrines and beliefs.

I.J. Singh | Opinion | 27 Sept 2015 | Asia Samachar |
A regular programme at Gurdwara Sahib Parliament in Kuala Lumpur - PHOTO ASIA SAMACHAR
For Illustration Only – A regular programme at Gurdwara Sahib Parliament in Kuala Lumpur – PHOTO ASIA SAMACHAR

By I.J. Singh

Recently a gurduara in North America ran into a problem. It wanted to sponsor a religious worker from India. There may be ways to circumvent the law but they were told that it required the beneficiary and the petitioner to certify that both belong to the same religious denomination or sect of the religion for at least two preceding years.

So far so good until the petitioner claimed that Sikhi has no denominations or sects. Mind you, I have heard the same passionately framed formulation from many dedicated Sikhs and scholars of Sikhi over the years.

What constitutes a denomination or a sect in a religion and does Sikhi have any? That’s the question. Is it true that Sikhi has no sects?

First, let’s define some terms. In practice many, if not most, critical concepts in the study of most, if not all, religions lack precise definitions.

Religion then becomes the belief system, whatever it is, of the writer or the reader. Convention further mandates that a given system or “religion” be in place for a certain indeterminate length of time measured in span of centuries or at least several decades at the minimum to be seen as an independent faith or religion.

The humorist Leo Pfeiffer summed it thus: “If you believe in it, it is a religion or “the” religion; if you do not care for it one way or the other about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.” Cults are fearsome entities that remind us of Manson and Jim Jones. The word “cult” is a derogatory term, and it remains difficult or impossible to redeem it of its evil connotations since the 1930’s. In Sikhi it reminds us of the slew of “Babaas and Deraas” that increasingly continue to dot the countryside of Punjab in India.

In my view any system, whether of civil government or religion, in time, spawns contrary and differing interpretations and modifications in models and practices. If it stays within the larger framework of “the religion” it becomes a sect or a denomination; if it sunders all connection with the parental fold it morphs into a new religion.

History tells us that many Jews accepted the Jewish born, Jesus, as the promised Messiah, though many more Jews did not accept him as such and still await one. This gave birth to a movement “Jews for Jesus” that was fairly substantial 2,000 years ago but regressed with time. It still exists but is now minuscule.

But those that accepted Jesus as the Messiah have become a worldwide, powerful presence – Christianity – that is now so large and so clearly and separately defined from its parent religion of Judaism that no one would label it a sect, denomination or reform movement within Judaism. It would be asinine to do so.

Christianity is now an unquestionably separate religion from Judaism with clear differences in belief, practices, religious rites, creed or statement of faith, worship services, formal or informal code of doctrine and discipline, as well as its ecclesiastical structure and governance.

Sikhism, though the fifth largest faith of mankind, is a relatively small religion of about 25 million worldwide and is also one of the youngest, having started only a little over 500 years ago.

There is no doubt that the core beliefs of Sikhi are unique and dramatically different from Hinduism and Islam that were and continue to be its largest and most influential neighbors in India. I would say that in India, Sikhism exists as a drop in the sea of Indian (largely Hindu) mythology and worldview. Yet it is eye-opening to see how Sikhi’s worldview and social practices that were so mixed with Hindu cultural practices have evolved so clearly into a vision that is entirely separate from that of its neighboring faiths. More importantly, I would assert that this evolutionary process continues unabated even today.


Denominations and cults are, to my mind, inevitable with time. I point out that Christianity today boasts of over 250 denominations – although I have also read of the number being larger than a thousand.

Sikhi, too, has not escaped the process. Our “Deraas and Babaas” are often evidence of cults that remain within the larger framework of Sikh practices, doctrines and beliefs.

There are also a few, less than a handful of reform movements in Sikhism, that might merit the handle of denominations. Pre-eminent among them are the Namdharis, started by Baba Balak Singh in the early 19th century. His premise was a major disagreement and fundamental split with the larger mainstream of Sikh doctrine on whether the line of Gurus in human form ended with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 or not. The larger body of Sikhs believes that it did, Namdharees believe that the line of living Gurus in human form continues unbroken even today.

Nevertheless, even the Naamdharees have a significant and continuing contribution to Sikh sacred music. They attend the same places of worship (gurduaras) as the mainstream Sikhs do, and observe the same requirements of the faith except the one noted above. Intermarriages between the two factions are common. The teachings, doctrines and observances remain the same with the one significant exception noted.

In the light of the above it is easy to posit that Naamdharees are not a different religion.  One could argue that they are a distinct denomination or sect but, significantly, it is not so easy to make a convincing case for that proposition either.

Similar situation holds as far as Radhaswamis or Ravidasis are concerned.

I remember when Yogi Bhajan’s movement took hold in North America beginning in the early 1970’s. All of a sudden there were a large number of converts to Sikhism, largely White Americans of North-West European ancestry. They spoke little Punjabi and had only a rudimentary perception of and connection to Punjabi Sikhs — their language, music, cuisine or culture. Many were survivors of the wild and tumultuous 1960’s.

I remember when Punjabi Sikhs would taunt these “Yogi” converts with the challenge: “Are you Sikhs of the Guru or of Yogi Bhajan?” Now a generation later, good sense has prevailed — the divide has been largely spanned and these converts are no longer seen as aliens from outer space; they are welcomed and increasingly well integrated into the wider world of Sikhi. They, too, are bound by the same ways, teachings and traditions of Sikhi as any other Sikhs. Yet, they show departures in some practices, notably their insistent practices of yoga and vegetarianism.

Perhaps we are still at the stage where we do not see any visible sects or denominations within Sikhi. As I stated at the start of this essay, for immigration and sponsorship purposes, the question that remains is only whether a Sikh has been a Sikh for at least two years.

At this time this matter is not so difficult to answer. Sikhi is not an actively proselytizing faith, although it welcomes converts who wish to join us. But we do not spend time, energy or resources diminishing other faiths in order to convince them of the errors of their ways.

For immigration sponsorship of religious workers apparently all that we need is for a person to submit a sworn and attested affidavit as to his Sikh status – by birth or by conversion, supported by statement of when and where the conversion occurred.


Now a post script: Keep in mind that I started with the immigration lawyers coming back with the requirement that both the candidate and the sponsors belong to the same denomination of Sikhi. They named four different branches of Sikhism — Orthodox, Udasi, Keshadhari and Sahajdhari — and wanted to specify the commonality of denomination for both the sponsors and the candidates.

I am not sure where the lawyers for the Immigration Service got this classification. To me it surely is a false dichotomy.  All so called “Orthodox” Sikhs, by definition are Keshadhari; Udasis may or may not be. I am not sure that Udasis are in the mainstream of modern Sikhism. I am not even they sure that they form a distinct sect of Sikhi. Keshadhari here means those who maintain long unshorn hair; this term does not necessarily insist on any other requirements of the faith.

All religions have followers where some individuals are more observant (orthodox) than others. In some, like the Jews, the division becomes more formal and one could label them denominations or sects. (I am not sure if Jews would accept my reasoning in this matter.) Such differences do not constitute denominations in most religions, including the Sikhs. In Christianity the split between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants shows a fundamental doctrinal divide; thus the separate identities of these two denominations (sects) are etched in stone. Over time, Christianity has spawned many more.

I would divide Sikhs into three categories (not officially recognized denominations): 1. Amritdharis, 2. Keshadhari but non-Amritdharis, and 3. Sehajdharis. But these are not separate denominations or sects. Both 1 and 2 are Keshadhari since they have long unshorn hair. Sehajdharis, for whatever reasons, are not long-haired Sikhs. They may have been raised that way or may have cut their hair for whatever reason that suited them.  Nevertheless there is no separate denomination or sect of either. All avow the same edicts, traditions, doctrines and practices. All of them attend the same places of worship and live by the same rituals and traditions. The same institutional structure governs them.

So where do we end up? Are there denominations or sects in Sikhi or not?


[I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. This article was dated 24 Set 2015. Email: ijsingh99@gmail.com]



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When ignorance is bliss… (Asia Samachar, 24 July 2015)

WORSHIP…Love of God: Greed or Mortal Dread (Asia Samachar, 8 July 2015)

Deras & Babas: Why So Many? (Asia Samachar, 24 Oct 2014)

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  1. Sikhism is not the fifth largest religion. Confucionism and Laoism are left out, from the count or inclusion, pushing Sikhism into the 5th place.It should be the 7th; based on hard facts, and it’s 30,000,000 followers.

    Sikhism does not believe in sects, but as said some have been ‘accommodated’ within it over period of time, as time evolved and circumstances created a climate, spiritually,as minority, as majority, economically or politically.

    Sikh sects from mainline Sikhism did not begin with the Namdharis and Balak Singh.

    They began with Sri Chand,one of Guru Nanak’s son the founder of the Udasi sect, around 16th century.

    The Minas appeared after, which owes its origin to Pirthi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ramdas, the 4th Guru, whose claim to succeed his father was based mainly on the primitive theory that sanctity descended in the physical sense.

    Orthodox Sikhs aver that Ramdas stigmatised Pirthi Chand as Mina (a nickname given by the Sikh Gurus to those who pretended to become Gurus, though unfit for the noble work as mina masandia) or ‘deceitful’, on account of his unfilial lack of obedience, and excluded him from the succession. Miharban, Pirthi Chands’s son, wrote a janam sakhi of Guru Nanak, wherein he eulogised his father.

    Another “sect” that emerged around this period was the Niranjaniye “sect”

    Handal Jat of the village Jandiala was born in Samvat 1630. He was married to Uttami daughter of Hamza Chahal and they had a son named Bidhi Chand.Bhai Handal was a devout Sikh of Guru Amardas (the 4th Guru). Guru Amardas blessed him with a ‘manji’ for his devotion and preaching of Sikhism and for carrying on with the tradition of langar. The name of his village was hence called ‘Guru ka Jandiala’ .
    All the time Handal used to pronounce the word ‘Niranjan-Niranjan’, because of it his followers were called ‘Niranjanias’. Handal died in Samvat 1705.Handal’s son ‘Bidhi Chand’ was a nefarious person and he corrupted the ‘Janam Sakhi’ of Guru Nanak by altering many sakhis. He is responsible for altering the date of birth of Guru Nanak from ‘Katak to Vasakh’.THis “sect” appears to have died out or assimilated into Sikhs or the current day Nirankaris, who came about in the 19th century with a baba Dyal.Nirankaris are not a sect of any religion.

    In the period of Guru Hargobind ji , a Suthra sect evolved, within Sikhs.But for a number of reasons this sect was also followed by Moslems and Hindus, and eventually died out among the 3 major religions.

    Another Sikh “sect” called Sanwal Shah, by a disciple whom Baba Nanak deputed in 1489 to preach his doctrine in the south-west Punjab.Until 1947, many were found in what is now far west Pakistan, i.e. Dera Ismail Khan, Multan, Dear Ghazi khan and Muzaffargarh, and even beyond the frontier.It appears they may have assimilated back into Islam.

    By Guru Tegh Bahadur’s time another Sikh “sect” by a personal follower, one Kanhaya Lal a Dhamman (Dhiman) Khatri of Sodhra in Gujranwala originated. Originally an officer in the service of the Mughals, he became a drawer of water to.the Guru’s On Guru’ Tegh Bahadur’s death Kanhaya Lal remained in Govind Singh’s service and was with him at the siege of Anandpur. One day he heard some one say: “0 heart, love God,” and accordingly in the battle that ensued he gave water to the wounded on either side, justifying his act by a Sikh text. From his personal service (sewa) or more probably from Sewa Ram, his first disciple, his followers are called Sewa-panthis: but in Amritsar they are known as Adan-Shahis, from Adan Shah, another disciple of Kanhaya’ Lal, and ‘ a rich banker who devoted his wealth and leisure to the propagation of their doctrines’. Their charity to travellers and persons in distress is proverbial. Kanhaya’ Lal is said to have been commissioned by Guru Govind Singh to preach Sikhism in the south-west and he founded his first dharamsala in the Thal or steppe of the Sind Sagar Doab. His followers are mainly Khatris and Aroras of that tract and the disciples are styled Nanak-Shahis, make ropes for a livelihood, refusing all alms and oblations. Some Sewapanthis are said to shave, others not. They are celibate and eat and share property together. Flesh, liquor and hemp are avoided. Their dress is white. Macauliffe describes them as an orthodox and honourable sect who live by honest labour.

    The word Sahajdhari was known before becoming prominent during the 1880’s as a definition of a Hindu or Muslim, or a non-sikh who had a inclination towards Sikhism but had not taken the step to become a full fledged Khalsa or Amritdhari.It was used to refer to the slow learners and adopters of the Sikh religion.The single biggest group that fell within this category were the Sindhis, who regarded themselves as Nanak panthis and were learning deeper meaning of the Khalsahood, with view to fully embrace the Sikh faith proper.It is not a word to be used towards those Sikhs born of fully kesadhari families, but for any what reason have not adopted the faith fully.

    These are patits.Even though some argue they have never taken amrit as yet, does not qualify them to be sahejdharis, as they more than often are static, with no intention of accepting the finer details the faith at any stage of their life.But feel using the term sahejdhari may somehow exempt their fallen grace from the religion, and legalise their actions within the religious principles of the faith.

    A definition of sahejdhari states

    A Sikh with a trimmed beard/cut hair

    Sahejdhari (literally “slow adopter” is a person who has chosen the path of Sikhism, but has not still become an Amritdhari (a Sikh initiated into the Khalsa). A sahejdhari believes in all the tenets of Sikhism and the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, but may or may not adorn the five symbols of the Sikh faith, as yet

    According to the Indian Government’s Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act (1971) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the word Sahejdhari refers to a person born into a non-Sikh family: a person born in a Sikh family or a baptized Sikh cannot claim to be a Sahejdhari Sikh by giving up the five articles of faith (such as trimming hair).

    Sahejdhari Sikhs PLAN to get initiated into proper Sikh faith sometime in their lives, and usually raise their children as full Sikhs.

    The legal ruling defines very clearly whoa proper Sahejdhari Sikh is; and not those who have fallen from the path.These are patits.

    I agree with the writer that these are not denominations or sects within Sikhism, nor Sikhsim recognises such sects.

    However, he writer goes on to say “Nevertheless there is no separate denomination or sect of either. All avow the same edicts, traditions, doctrines and practices. All of them attend the same places of worship and live by the same rituals and traditions. The same institutional structure governs them”.

    In reality, it is not so simple as has been made out to be.

    The ardas of a fallen from grace Sikh, is unacceptable at the Akal Takhat, nor allowed to conduct one.
    A mona Sikh cannot partake in the Akhand path, nor stir [bhog]the karah parshad in sangat
    He cannot wear the Kirpan, nor hold the office of a granthi
    A mona,along with sahejdhari cannot take part in the SGPC elections.
    Such Sikh cannot hold the office of the Akal takhat
    Such Sikh cannot carry out a number of tasks within the Sikh religion.

    A patit Sikh, unless comes to repent for his patit act, will never be tried by the Akal Takhat for any other transgression of the faith, until and unless he accepts the trimming of hair or beard as part of the same transgression[I refer to the case of Navjot Sidhu,when he uttered distorted tuks from Gurbani]The Akal Takhat made it clear he cannot be tried as he is a patit already.

    Akal Takhat only deals with fully initiated or fully kesadhari Sikh.

    Lastly, but not the least, such Sikh cannot use the recognised legal definition of Sikh,[13 at national level;and 21 at various state levels internationally] to defend his own personal rights as a Sikh.

    Thus, as Sikhs within the Sikh world,there is a dilemna when Sikhs of the many persuasions we have created are caught in the web of very intricate Gurbani interpretations,guidance and stipulations.

    Sikhism, guided by Jugo Jug Atal [ever living timelessly ] Guru Granth sahib, does not believe nor recognises sects ; however, it’s followers have created such make believe divisions based upon the personal greed,desires, and ego.
    My cents worth, to run the gauntlet of those who may have their own fanciful personal ideas; based outside Gurbani.