Sikhi beyond the Singh Sabha story

The idea that morality lies in following rules is called deontology. Therefore, someone could be as angry or arrogant as possible, but unless they break the rules, they are ok. It is hard to distinguish the karamakanda of Babamat from the Rahit fixation of the Singh Sabha - RANVIR SINGH

By Ranvir Singh | OPINION |

Sikhi is about panentheism not monotheism; Grace not human effort; virtue ethics through emotional and social intelligence not rules; spiritual-worldly transformation not the brainwashing of priests and kings; and a borderless Now, not idolisation of fictional lines and narratives. This has been obscured by Singh Sabha activists trying to influence a Christian audience and by Sant Babas writing for a Hindu one.

It has been just over 300 years since the Guru has been the Khalsa. This was set up in 1699 when Guru Gobind Rai bowed before the Khalsa asked to be initiated at their disciple. It was demonstrated when he obeyed their instruction and abandoned the Fort of Chamkaur. For the first 150 years the Khalsa needed to maintain its uniqueness as members of the Muslim and Hindu communities joined the new movement.

The extent of Muslim involvement can be gauged in many ways. The Persian writing Diwan-i-Goya is a response to the popular text Diwan-i-Hafez and is approved for recital in the gurdwara according to the Rahit Maryada or Code of Conduct. The mother of the Khalsa was the daughter of a Muslim holy man. Guru Gobind Singh was protected by Muslims who announced him as Uch ka Pir and, finally, the four taboos of the Khalsa are all related to customs common to Muslims — marriage to a Muslim lady, smoking of tobacco, eating halal meat and shaving or trimming of hair. These would have been boundary markers for Muslims joining the Khalsa.

Hindu influence was more subtle, from the introduction of the fictional Hindu character Bala as a balance to the historical Muslim best friend of Guru Nanak, Mardana; to Hindus looking after Sikh buildings during the period of persecution under the late Mughal Empire when there was a price on the head of every Sikh man, woman and child. Many of these Hindu practices were purged by the reformist Singh Sabha movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

For the next 100 years it strived to explain itself to Christians who directly ruled Punjab from 1849 to 1947. The Singh Sabha movement represented Sikhi in a way that the Christians ruling India could understand and be comfortable with. This Church of England Christianity had been influenced by Kant. Morality was reduced to following rules, religious experience and miracles were regarded as implausible and therefore interpreted as metaphor and scripture was interpreted to promote morality. The Singh Sabha orthodoxy has been the default for Sikhs as immigrant minorities in the West and broader diaspora. It retains a grip in India even while the independence of Sikhi from Hinduism has been challenged by Sant Babas sponsored by the Indian state as a return to the pre-Singh-Sabha Hinduised formula which may be termed Babamat to distinguish it from Gurmat, or way of the Guru. This is because the ultimate source of authority is not the Guru but the Baba whose lifestyle, interpretation and rules are binding for the disciples or chelas.

My agenda is not to decide that Muslim, Hindu or Christian lens is the right one to understanding Sikhi but to suggest that awareness of the glasses one is putting on will affect what is being seen. In particular, I suggest that Sikhi will always involve a dialogue between the Guru and Sikh and that this involves taking off one’s glasses to see what is actually there. It involves a dialogue among Sikhs to discuss what each person sees.

It is obvious that translations of Sikh scriptures are mistaken when they use ‘He’ when the male pronoun is not being used to describe WaheGuru. This was the term used for the male, monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it is not appropriate for the divine in Sikhi. There is no doubt that it is appropriate to speak about God as a personal God. The prevalence of the theme of God and the individual as lovers can only refer to a virtuous relationship. In this sense, there are times when the maleness of the divine is relevant.

Nevertheless, there is also a panentheistic vision of God. The creation exists within the Light of God, and God’s Light fills creation and, more crucially, inscribes each person (‘likhia naal’). It is the Being of God that inscribes the being-in-process of each person, whether they hear and align to the True Call of the Sabd or are shaped by the dialogues of the shifting world. This Energy consciousness — the soul/mind of the universe — obviously has links both with modern science and also animistic religions, including Taoism. This emphasis on the divine as energy is seen as Naam and as Guru.

Naam is the presence of the divine and justifies the reality of the world of phenomena. Unlike Hindus and Buddhists who seek to escape a world of appearances, a Sikh’s unity with the divine is based on an active relationship in our everyday world.

As experts in grammar point out the opening phrase is: ‘IkOankarSat.’ Reality Is 1, Unity of Being.

Naam is a separate word that appears by itself hundreds of times in the Guru Granth Sahib, separate from Sat. Nam is the presence of the divine that brings dead matter into consciousness, Life. Sat is matter itself, reality, being, what is. One could argue that Gurmat actually did not use a word for ‘God’. There are Names that describe the different Activities. The most common Name is probably ‘Nam’ translated as Numenon and ‘Sat’ translated as Reality. Sikhs do, indeed, believe that Reality is made alive by Presence. Guru Nanak sees One Reality. A sachiara seeks the truth of this one reality, and does not divide the One, although different methods, e.g. scientific methodology may be appropriate for different landscapes along the journey. The Sikh ideal is not the Khalsa; it is, as Jap Ji Sahib tells us, the sachiara = the real-i-ser, the truth-full.

Gurprasad. Grace. A part of the mission given to Nanak the Guru. Grace implies the spiritual experience of loving kindness from the Universe (panentheism) and from a Person (monotheism). This teaching distinguishes our beliefs from those of others. If Grace reaches out to all, then there can be no chosen people (Judaism), and no exclusive access to God for either Christians or Muslims. If there is a Person who loves then rejection of that Person is blindness, whether through recognising many to be devoted to (Hinduism) or none (Jainism and Buddhism).

The oneness of the divine and oneness of humanity is tied by the passionate thread of grace. This 1ness is the distinctive Sikh standpoint or basis.

There are no magical formulas or ethical showings to demonstrate to and calculate about an absent God, a stingy God. This is a God of love and joy, who wants us to love and joy — gurprasad transmuted, transforming into the negation of selfishness (which has no place in love; hence, humility or emptiness), and the affirmation of lovingkindness, meeta. God wants a loving character, as love is active, as God is active love, gurprasad. There is no debate about ‘Rahits’ as the purpose is the training and cultivation of goodness. Goodness is no guarantee of Grace; Love wanders where It Will. Its Will, Its Direction is goodness, so we can explore life together, rather than throwing it away in rejection of Love.

The Personhood of God makes us certain that we exist and this can make us authentic, a sachiara. The doubt of haumai is gone and we are not made by the changing dialogues of the world, but awakened to the Sabd within and throughout. Our answer to this Call is the making of ourself.

Reality is God and we cannot impose ourselves on it, yet we can choose it or deny It. Through ‘being Real’ we can inspire others to do likewise.

The Sabd is the Divine Itself inside of us. This Light is the Guru, the grace, that knows what is Real. It knows and we know, when we accept this knowing. This is one meaning of Guru and Sikh.

One thing we can know is the Perfection of God’s qualities or names. We intuit the Perfect and this reality is demonstration of its reality and our place in the matrix threaded on this bead of names.

The Perfect is the ontological basis — that is, the fundamental building block of what is. A leap is necessary for our selves, our history, our ego, is not the Real me. At times the Guru’s Call is clear — we should listen to the Soundless Voice and not to the voices that deny, rather than affirm, the Love of the divine that has set up the place of the self. It is our duty to make this a place of bliss, a Begumpura or Anandpur Sahib and not cut it off from the flow of the divine and turn it into a swamp where we will be hurt by the thorn of ego we carry with us.

We do not know merely in the mind; above all, we know in the senses, we feel it in our gut, we taste it in our mouths, some see with their eyes. This direct experience is more Real than our experiences when we are separated, for we are correspondingly unreal. We can certainly process these thoughts and experiences but while we can communicate them we will not be able to tie them in words.

This is because words are shared creations of our empirical selves, the egotistical self that ‘acts’. People who have known love, loss of a parent, whatever, share the reality of that experience with others who have had them. A religious experient will know another religious experient. This the simple meaning that only a brahm giani will know another brahm giani. Given that millions of people worldwide claim to have religious experiences those who have had them will recognise those who are faking it. They are pitiable like a young boy who has never kissed, boasting about it. We know when someone has not had an experience and there is not much to be said.

We can use common sense as the basis of our philosophy. I cannot carry on in my daily life as if I do not exist so I must assume that I do. I cannot carry on in my daily life as if the external world is not real so I must assume that it is. If my senses of the external world are connected to something real then when I have a religious experience I should assume it also is real. I can question it, just as I would question any other unusual experience, but not assume that it is impossible. Hence, there is a collection of testimony of religious experience in the Guru Granth Sahib from people from different religions and none over a period of around five hundred years from the 12th to 17th centuries over a span of thousands of miles in South Asia.

By denying the realm of spiritual experience and miracles Singh Sabha scholars were led to suggest that people could please God by following his moral law. This law (hukam) could be followed by joining the moral discipline of the Khalsa. The aim of preaching is to promote this moral law, mainly by making people feel guilty for not joining the Khalsa, or following its rule.

The idea that morality lies in following rules is called deontology. Therefore, someone could be as angry or arrogant as possible, but unless they break the rules, they are ok. It is hard to distinguish the karamakanda of Babamat from the Rahit fixation of the Singh Sabha.


Both focus on acts rather than being. I think Gurmat suggests virtue ethics. We know what a saint is without having to have a checklist. It is like the cow (God) in a calf. The qualities are, among others, calmness, respect for all, respect for themselves, courage, loving kindness, patience.

The theory of virtue ethics which Gurmat shares with Buddhism is that it is that what makes us good is having the right traits. (Buddhism derived modifications to the virtues as it wanted monks to be able to focus on escaping from the world while Gurmat focuses on the One Reality.) It is the concept of sehaj (spontaneous adjustment to the middle) that tells us that courage, for example, is neither aggression nor cowardice; it lies in between. The five thieves — pride, anger, lust, greed, attachment — are crushed and destroyed not by fighting them, but by accepting and owning these energies. Lust, for instance, is not overcome by monastic vows of celibacy but a loving marriage. Attachment is not overcome by abandoning your family, but as loving your family as you would love other people and want to be loved yourself, rather than taking them for granted and sucking away their energy.


How do we learn to be moral? First of course through the sangat of the family and then of the new family, the Khalsa. They provide us with examples and support when we fail. Crucially, it is not EXPLAINING the Sikh ethic to us, but TRAINING us in it. This is why the gurdwara of today was originally called dharamsala, the training ground of virtue.

Crucially, this training is in attentiveness to the Presence, the One Reality. Saintliness becomes a commitment to help those around us, not in the abstract; by choosing how to live, what to commit ourselves to, we become authentic, rich in colour and shape, and not the wraiths of the iron cage of rationality. Other people are inspired to holiness, not lectured with guilt trips. Some are inspired to justice, which is to say loving kindness in the moment, which is the wonderful plan that God has for us at all times.

It might be useful to pause and summarise the journey so far. If knowledge is innate (inside us) there is no need for priests or any other form of intermediary. Moreover, there are going to be limits to what we can say since language has been created for shared discussion about the world outside. As Kabir says, the religious experient is like a dumb person eating sweets. Our direct experience of Life means that it does not make sense to separate the world into ‘God’ and ‘science’ but to see the Sikh as trying to be authentic and truthful, a sachiara, in their life.

If God is with us then there is no need for rituals and acts to ‘show’ God. What is attractive to God is a godly character and not acting. Yet one very common ethical attitude is about ‘duty’ with the preaching emphasis on guilt. This made sense in a socio-political climate dominated by the British Army — obedience, lecturing, ordering. It makes sense in the context of Kantian deontology — right and wrong as fulfilling or not one’s duty in a godless world. It makes no sense given the content of the Guru Granth Sahib which is NOT about rules, and is about virtuous character.

If all things are in God, it becomes clearer why many Sikhs talk about God as ‘Nature’. It explains the kinship many Sikhs feel with indigenous traditions — is it the graphic ‘kar’, the creative spirit of the universe? It also underlines my point about the Unity of Being and it ties with the ‘new physics’. Adding Panentheism to the more familiar Monotheism description also emphasises the role of Grace.

After all, Gurprasad is the most significant of the attributes of God for Sikhs. Gurmat is the religion. Universal Grace distinguishes us from all other religions and explains why the tedious quarrels about Rahits are futile; Grace, not human effort, is decisive. There are no preconditions to the Love of God. The Guru Granth Sahib provides evidence for God based on the testimony of the direct experience of South Asian mystics from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries. Some of them are Gurus of the Sikhs; others are not.

In the Christian world the Singh Sabha authors were writing for, space and time are devoid of knowledge of God and so they need to be filled with human knowledge. However, for Sikhs God is a Presence in the world — this is God’s world. So a Sikh recognises no human limits or boundaries. This would explain why the Gurdwara is a Fort as much as a training school for virtue (dharamsal). It has a flag (Nishan Sahib), drum (ranjit nagara) and is the court of the Guru (diwan). Armed soldiers (knights of the Khalsa) inhabit the building and they consider themselves an army (Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj). The Khalsa is sovereign, under God.

Sikhs also have a different attitude to time. It is not rushing towards disaster, but is always fresh and optimistic as with God’s grace all things are possible. Hence, rather than pessimism about the future – the Rapture, Day of Judgement, or appearance of Kalki, a Sikh enjoys chardi kala, dynamic optimism, their spirits uplifted by grace beyond the selfish.

This would-be virtuous being forms friendships that can inspire and support for virtue is trained and practised. To fulfil this they may join a nation of friends, a free community across space and time. Inspirations come in many forms; hence, the Guru Arjun and Mian Mir can be friends without reducing one to the ‘religion’ of the other.

The Khalsa form completes the aspiring Sikh as weaving together their sense of the universe. It is the form that calls a Sikh to their destiny. Not merely an animal homo sapien, the knight of the Khalsa may be termed a ‘techno sapien’ with the kakkars not mere dress but ‘ang sang’, part of that authentic person, a sachiara.


Different veils may have coloured our views of Sikhi. As a result, Islamic and Buddhist influences and concerns, and Gurprasad have been underplayed. We are no longer under military occupation and are, therefore, able to discuss our beliefs on their own terms, without reference to the need for dialogue with the dominating worldview of occupying powers.

The task is not just, intellectually, to recover these glossed over elements. They are just not visible wearing a particular set of lens. It is to explore the implications and more; to live out these implications in our individual and community lives — a non-territorial republic of virtue.

There are some misunderstandings based on Singh Sabha theology. The Guru which relates to the inner voice, the Sabd within, becomes associated with ten bodies of the ten Gurus. Also, the Guru Granth-Panth, becomes Guru Granth only with the Guru Panth, the living body of the Guru, is reduced to obedience to ‘priests’, the creation of a Brahmin-Mullah figure, totally opposite to the Guru’s teachings. Sikh history is reduced from the school of Amritsar, a the history of a universal spiritual message, alone among the teachings of the world, proclaimed around the world, in different languages, to the history of a nation’s striving for, and decline from, political power.

The ethics of the Sikh proclaimed in gurbani — humbleness, courage, forgiveness, compassion, truthfulness are conspicuously absent from most Sikh groups. It is replaced by ritualistic debate on the length of the kachera, an obsession with turbans, length of nitnem, ardas and various other things not to be found in Gurbani. What is significant is behaviour in their everyday lives, treatment of family, business dealings not when they are wearing traditional clothing on “ritual duty”. Spiritual teachings about meditation, the afterlife and demonology are absented by the Singh Sabha in favour of an outdated rationalism. While rebirth can be read as the tossing and turning of the mind in some contexts, in others it is evidence of consciousness across life forms. What would a post Singh-Sabha Sikhi look like?

Since Sikh ethics are virtue ethics the gurdwara is about training and character building. The activities it provides such as the langar help shape a person’s values, attitudes and actions. The 5 thieves are emotions and what is being taught is emotional intelligence. If this idea, alone, is accepted then the domestic violence, alcohol abuse and other issues that affect society would be openly discussed.

No less a scholar than Kapur Singh rejected the idea of the kurehats of the Rahit Maryada as a moral issue; these are, he suggests, taboos. Sikhs and Baba-chelas argue about the Rahit when it is obvious that all the moral guidance needed is provided in the Guru Granth Sahib. This guidance is not about actions or duties or principles, but about what sort of person you are, and how attractive this makes you to God and how receptive to the presence of God.

It is important to focus on the link between emotional intelligence (awakened mind as disciple or chela) of spiritual intelligence (sabd, grace). This emotional intelligence is linked to spiritual intelligence and the spiritually alive, numinous world that Sikhs inhabit and that Puran Singh described so well. It is a world that is pantheistic, with spirits abounding in praise of God, and panentheistic in the sense that everything is bathed in the ocean of the light of God. No doubt, anyone wishing to further their spiritual practice should join the Khalsa, for discipline and clear doctrine are the basis for personal spiritual exploration. Another thing that is needed is a sangat and the Khalsa can provide that sangat.

Architecture. A sharing of feelings and experiences, emotional and spiritual, is the veechaar that Guru had in mind and this is reflected in the ‘circle time’ layout of traditional Gurdwaras where
the Guru — a testimonial of spiritual experiences from the twelfth to seventeenth century in South Asia — sits at their heart. Architecture reflects the belief system and the typical Singh Sabha system
reflects the lecturing style adopted by someone having a lectern at the front of the diwan/court, a self-appointed spokesperson for the Guru.

What is Is? What does it mean to be? How are we authentic? The question at the beginning of Gurbani — kiv sachiara hoe? How can we be authentic / real? Gurbani provides a sensuous description of spiritual experience — the Gurus simply reject the materialist argument that the world we can meaningfully discuss is the world of the five senses. Kapur Singh, again, recounts his experience with Wittgenstein on the limits of language. “If it is sayable, it is within the range of the word, If it is unsayable, it is outside the steady grasp of the mind, The real is where the sayable and the unsayable meet What the real truly is, is altogether beyond comprehension” (Guru
Granth Sahib: 340).

Interfaith superhighway. Gurbani explains why it is impossible to describe God. Although people can say something about their relationship with God there is a limit to what can be communicated
through language. Kabir writes: “Inexpressible is the story of Love It cannot be revealed by words, Like the dumb eating sweet-meat, Only smiles, the sweetness he cannot tell”. The implication of this
is that the maps of the different religions, including Sikhism, can be used or ignored; what is important is the personal experience of the actual territory of God. Guru Gobind Singh writes: “I salute That which is beyond religion.” Yet what Sikhism offers the world is an interfaith highway where Buddhist ‘sunnya’ joins Islamic ‘wujud’.

The gurdwara has a social role, providing wells or dispensaries as experience of the Divine within and within others, must drive a person to social action. It is a gateless gate, a meeting place. It has a flag, a drum and is a portal of God on Earth. It is an embassy of God and is, therefore, not subject to the laws of any land; hence, Guru Hargobind’s architecture of the Akal Takht.

Guru Nanak’s mission. This, then is the mission of Guru Nanak, a purpose given in a spiritual experience, of spreading the religion of the numinous, graceful presence of one God reaching out to all humanity and expressing itself in emotionally and spiritually intelligent relationships. Guru Nanak did not walk 30,000 miles for lack of a compass! He went at God’s command, as he himself testifies, and it is this mission that he continued in the House of the Guru, a House that, since 1699, comprises all the family members of the Khalsa.

Singh Sabha Sikhism was a presentation that was designed to positively engage with the British rulers. It served its purpose, and it may still be useful as a ‘simplification’ for those who wish to engage with them today. However, it is far from the lived truth of a Sikh life like that of a Randhir Singh and is a mere cartoon to the stunning vistas of Natural and authentic living in the vision of Puran Singh.

Ranvir Singh is a UK-based human rights activist and member of Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj.  This article was first published here.

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  1. This was an eye opening and also reassuring post; that there are more people in the world that understand the true message of Sikhi as I interpret it.

    I have found so much beauty and truth resonating from others opinions in this fashion. It has taken me a long time to understand (39 y o) the Mool Mantar, not only for its true meaning, but almost as importantly, it’s intention.

    Things like this should be taught to the youth first, providing them with a more accurate and informative explanation of what the Sikh religion is really about.

    Thank you.