Clash of Sikh Traditions: Can we create a win-win scenario?

There is a debate raging. On one side of the spectrum of opinion, we have 'Derahvaad' associated with Udassi-Nirmala samparda perspective who emphasise the importance of devotion and revelation. On the other side, we have the so-called 'Missionaries', who identify with the Singh Sabha Movement that emerged during the latter part of the 19th Century to challenge, what they felt at the time, was the dilution of Sikhi.


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |


Currently, a debate is raging amongst Sikh scholars belonging to various traditions about how to approach the understanding of Gurbani, specifically concerning the relevance of ‘reason’ or ‘tarak‘. On one side of the spectrum of opinion, we have ‘Derahvaad‘ associated with Udassi-Nirmala samparda perspective who emphasise the importance of devotion and revelation. For them, reason can be useful for practical tasks, but when it comes to the question of faith and metaphysical matters, beyond creating doubt, it has little value.

And on the other side, we have the so-called ‘Missionaries’, who identify with the Singh Sabha Movement that emerged during the latter part of the 19th Century to challenge, what they felt at the time, was the dilution of Sikhi. This was both from within, by the Udasis, Nirmala, and Seva Panthis, and from outside, the proselytising activities of Christian Missionaries and Hindu Reformists linked to the Brahmo and Arya Samaj. They argue that, as is evidenced in the first verse of Japji, Guru Nanak lays down a methodology based on reason and logic by unflinchingly questioning the four main religious practices of the time, namely, ritual cleansing, renunciation, ritual fasting, and knowledge accumulation, and then posing the questions, ‘how does one escape falsehood and imbibe truth in one’s life’.

In describing the two opposing positions, I need to acknowledge that for many, perhaps most Sikhs, there is no conflict and that the apparent division simply reflects the imprecise nature of belief more generally. Hence, it could be argued that the doctrinal divisions are confined to a relatively small number of scholars, writers, and kathavachiks (preachers), each of whom will have their specific agendas. That is probably true, but in an age of social media, whereas doctrinal discourses may have once been confined to a small number of professional philosophers and priests, there is no doubt that in an age of social media, these debates are taking place on a much broader canvas.

In this short article, I would like to do two things. First, to set out the basic differences between the two camps concerning specifically the method for interpreting Gurbani. And second, as my aim is not to declare a winner, through clarifying the different perspectives, explore the possibility of finding a harmonious way forward.


Deravaad is a term that refers to a tradition that emerged in the Panjab from before the Mogul period to describe the various religious institutions (Sampardas), associated with ‘Sufi Pirs’, ‘Naths Yogis’, and in the Sikh period, the ‘Udassis’ and later the ‘Nirmala Sants’. The word ‘Dera’ has Persian origins associated with a ‘camp’, ‘abode’, ‘monastery’, or ‘convent’. Deras accordingly emerged as a kind of cult based around a succession of spiritual leaders, and a place where he and his followers would meet to engage in all manner of ‘religious’ practices/rituals.

As noted above, Deras predate Sikhi and in some senses, it might be argued that the mission of Guru Nanak, realised through his teachings and actions, was to make a clean break from this tradition. This would be achieved by diminishing the reliance on ritualistic faith and focussing on a practical spirituality expressed through such things as ‘grist jeevan‘ or ‘social living’, ‘kirt karni‘ or earning one’s way in life. And regarding the concept of God or the divine creator, the emphasis was given to ‘Shabad Guru’, or formless supreme being, as opposed to worshipping deities or ‘buth pooja‘.

Despite the challenge presented by Guru Nanak, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the (Sikh/Khalsa) Panth and the (Guru) Granth, ‘Sikh’ Derahs have proliferated to this very day. There are complex internal and external socio-political reasons for this, but perhaps one of the more significant factors within the Sikh fold was the betrayal of Guru Nanak by his elder son, Sri Chand, who, in total contradiction of his father’s teachings established ascetic sect of Udasis. Oberoi (1994) notes that the Udasis considered engaging with society at large to be incompatible with personal salvation, which was to be achieved only through renouncing the world and espousing asceticism and a monastic traveler lifestyle. Along with the Nirmala’s, the Udasis established Derahs or Akharas, and to this day, along with performing various rituals associated with or adapted from Hinduism, also pay homage to the five Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya.

Deravaads staunchly claim to be Sikhs; indeed, they argue that it is they who are upholding the traditions and that the ‘modern-day Sikhs’ are corrupting Sikhi. But in terms of the distinctiveness of their approach to Sikhi is based on the belief that that the only way to understand Gurbani is through a Vedic lens; some even argue that the primary Sikh Text, the Guru Granth Sahib, is the 5th Veda. Any attempt, they argue, to understand Gurbani must be through knowledge of and reference to the Vedantic texts or ‘dharamshastras‘, such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras, and the Manusimrti.

As well as becoming knowledgeable of the Vendatic texts, on a practical level, the Nirmala scholars argue that the starting point for understanding Gurbani is through the emptying of the mind and this can only be done through various acts of devotion. These may constitute a mild form of hath Yoga that can take the form of physical suffering, such as sitting in one posture for many hours, walking barefooted, going hungry, ritual/perpetual cleaning of the body, bathing in ‘holy’ waters, and celibacy.

Another important aspect of the Nirmala perspective is ritual recitations of scriptures and a literal acceptance of the text. Significantly, for them, the act of reciting and devotion must be apriori to understanding the text. That is because it is only through the emptying of one’s mind which is trapped in ego and submitting to the Guru that one can reach an elevated state of spiritual consciousness for the Gurus message to be heard and then understood. Only through this state, where the ego desire is controlled, can realisation begin in earnest. The role of intermediaries, ‘Brahmgianis’, ‘Sants’, ‘Babas’ etc., is critical for it is through them that one can be mentored towards the right path.

Philosophically, the Dera/Sampardaee perspective expressively rejects the undue emphasis on reason by focussing on the metaphysical aspects of Sikhi. For them, Sikhi, defined principally as a spiritual path with the expressed aim of connecting one’s Soul or Atma with the Universal Soul or Paratma, can only be understood through ‘sharda‘ or devotion and not cold heartless logic. Accordingly from their perspective, those who challenge these basic assertions are pejoratively referred to as ‘nastik‘ (atheists/unbelievers) or ‘Guru-nindaks‘ (blasphemers).


The Singh Sabha in historic terms is a relatively modern movement that was established at Lahore, in pre-partition Panjab in 1879. It was primarily an intellectual movement, though because of the enmeshing of religion and politics in the region, it inspired political activism leading to the Gurdwara reform movement and the establishment of a distinctly Sikh political party, the Akali Party. Most critically, its leaders played a what Harjot Oberoi argues was the making of a distinct Sikh identity, whilst others argue they aimed to rediscover true and unique Sikh tradition that has been constantly under attack by Brahmanical forces from the times of Guru Nanak’s refusal of the jeneu/thread initiation ceremony that a ‘high caste’ Hindu like Nanak was expected to undergo.

The most important figure’s among the Singh Sabha scholars were Professor Gurmukh Singh, Giani Ditt Singh, and Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha. Singh Sabha’, literally means ‘Society of Singhs’ which immediately links it Panthic codes especially associated with the Tat Khalsa tradition. This was is in contrast to the Deravaads, who, tend to come to Sikhi through the teachings, beliefs, and practices, handed down respective Dera heads and specific writings consistent with these.

Through promoting literacy, but also heavily influenced by ideas emerging from the European Enlightenment, especially related to the forward march of reason and impact of scientific discovery, the is little doubt that the Singh Sabha movement was a product of modernity. And so, for example in their attempt to distance Sikhi from the polytheism of the Hindu’s and to challenge the Christian missionaries by playing them at their own game, one can see in some of the writings and translations of Gurbani in and the choice of words, such as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’, one can detect Abrahamic influences, whilst seeking to revive Sikh doctrine in its pristine purity.

In terms of debates about authentic textual sources, the Singh Sabha scholars tend to identify the Guru Granth Sahib as the primary only source of revelation for Sikhs. This is in contrast to the Sampardai Sikhs who give almost equal reverence to the other texts, most notably the ‘Dasam’ Granth’, who they claim was written by Guru Gobind Singh, Suraj Parkash written by Kavi Santok Singh, and the ‘Gurbilas Patshahi Chhevin‘ a biography of Guru Hargobind whose author is unknown.


In the current moment, in practical purposes, though there is a global network of Singh Sabha Gurdwaras across the World and perhaps the crowning glory of the movement, the Sikh Rehit Maryada, retains great importance, there is no doubt that Sampardaee thinking, both amongst Sikh masses, but also the youth and within intellectual circles, is experiencing something of a resurgence. Key protagonists for the Sampardaee angle are factions associated with the Damdami Taksaal Samparda, Nanaksar Samparda, and various Nihang Samparda’s. In terms of key parcharaks who broadly represent the Samparda tradition, foremost are Baba Santa Singh, Baba Takur Singh, Bhai Pinderpal Singh, Baba Harnam Singh Dhuma, the Late Sant Singh Maskeen, and amongst the diaspora, groups like Basics of Sikhi, Giani Sukhjeevan Singh, Jyoti Saroop Foundation, S. Gurcharanjit Singh Lamba and Baba Hari Singh, Randhawewale.

On the other side, though significantly divided on specific matters, are the various Gurmat Missionary Colleges, Akhand Kirtani Jatha, Parmeshwar Duar linked to Bhai Ranjit Singh Dhadriawala, Nirvair Khalsa, Khalsa News, and various individual parcharaks, most notably, Professor Sarabjit Singh Dhunda, Bhai Panthpreet Singh, Professor Darshan Singh, Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, Dr Karminder Singh Dhillon, Professor Gurtej Singh, and various social media outlets, such as Singh Naad TV and The Sikh Rennaisance Podcasts.

Though there have been some sporadic and serious violent incidents in Gurdwaras and around gurdwaras, much of the debate is peaceful and conducted through various electronic, and to a much lesser extent print media. One could despair at the vitriol and ruptures that can be are regularly witnessed through an almost constant stream of material through social media, but I want to suggest this would be a mistake.

However, it could be argued that given the essence of Sikhi is dialogue, what we are seeing amongst the various groups is a renewed interest in Sikhi on a global scale as never before seen before in our short history. Whilst sometimes challenging and being challenged, whatever one’s perspective, maybe troubling, that would only be the case if one lacks confidence in one’s perspective. If one is genuinely open to learning, then dialogue is perhaps the best method for developing oneself. Indeed, Guru Nanak in Asa Di Vaar talks about the importance of ‘Sikhi’ (methods of learning), ‘Sikhia’ (the practice of learning), ‘Gurvichar’ (the content of learning, namely reflecting on the divine formless universal teacher).

And so, the issue and challenge isn’t the fact that as Sikhs we have differing views about a whole lot of matters, ranging from the everyday practical challenges to deep ethical and philosophical challenges, but whether we can agree on a method of exchanging thoughts, ideas and learning. And in this regard, along with clear injunctions in Gurbani, we have the example set by Gurus to provide us with clear direction in that regard.

I am reminded of the concept of ‘dialectics’ or the ‘dialectical method’, which is associated with the Greek Philosopher, Socrates in ancient times and the European Enlightenment Philosopher, Hegel in the modern era. In essence, this represents a method for discovering the truth or at least progressing towards it through developing a point of view (thesis), critiquing it (anti-thesis), refining it (synthesis), and then continuing this process of refinement until one reaches an endpoint of the discover of pure knowledge. An important distinction to be made between dialogue and debate is that in dialogue both parties can potentially be victorious, why because the point is to build consensus, wherein in some senses teaches the other. However, in debate, often there can only be one winner and often arguments are made not based on reasoned evidence but emotion and trickery. wherein one side of the conversation teaches the other

One might argue, given we have Gurbani as the revealed truth, why do we need dialectics? The issue is, without dialogue how can one get to fully appreciate what the Gurus were seeking to communicate, not east given that Gurbani is written in poetic form, which means it is replete with metaphors, similes, and personification, different tenses etc. If we look at Gurbani, there are many examples, such as the Sikh Gosht, where the Guru is recalling precisely a form of dialectics. And in Raag Malaar (Guru Granth Sahib, p1254) Guru Nanak explicitly states that ‘The true seeker flourishes whilst the debater whithers away’. Just as a caveat later in the Shabad Guru Nanak reminds us to be aware of our limits, and the scale of the challenge for true understanding, since ‘the unknown cannot be known’ and nothing can be achieved without devotion for and blessing from the divine entity. Now given that Gurbani tells us that the divine being is part of our being, one might reflect that here one is directed towards self-reflection and meditation.


In this article, I have sought to practice what I am ‘preaching’, namely through honest dialogue, try to realise the possibility of reconciling different and seemingly opposing viewpoints. As a writer one always runs the danger of falling victim to one’s biases. And for a Sikh this would be a form of ego-centeredness, which, we know, though full of temporary satisfaction, is a path to suffering. To counteract this, for me, as a writer, the task is not just about providing a balanced argument. That is important, but arguably even more important is to expose oneself to self-critique and a willingness to change, adapt, refine and perhaps even abandon one position in the light of new insights.

Sikhi is a complete and complex philosophical system of thought that addresses many realms of human existence, both physical and metaphysical, or if you like the ‘sargun or seen realm and the ‘nirgun‘ or unseen realm. Though having its own unique spiritual, moral, ethical, and political beliefs, there is no doubt that Gurbani is replete with references to both Hindu/Vedic polytheism and Abrahamic/Katebic monotheism, but the question we have to ask is Sikhi different or simply a footnote to these ancient traditions? Failure to clearly articulate the originality of Sikhi has led to all kinds of attempts to variously position the message of Gurbani in terms of an evolution of the Sufi/Bhagti tradition, the Sanatan tradition, a hybrid between Islam and Hinduism, a movement towards secularism, a protestant movement, a rational and even a scientific philosophy!

Sikhi has clear historical roots and one cannot be surprised that the Guru utilised the prevailing discourse; how else could the Gurus have communicated their ideas? But significantly, over time, one can see distinct changes in the language, but the important thing is, whatever the origins, in some senses language, like the river water it is always free to flow and be reinterpreted. As the celebrated linguist, Noam Chomsky notes, “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involve the process of free creation.”

And so, as well as untilising the wide range of linguistic resources that were available to them during their lives, and in evolving the unique Gurmukhi script, the Gurus were able to articulate and develop a unique system of practical spirituality for fulfilling our naturally ordained lives as human beings. In other words, how do we apply a belief system we call Sikhee, practically in our lives? And when the Gurus revealed the bani, they were doing so consciously knowing they were addressing the whole of humanity, not just in their present moment but for all times and places. This means ultimately, Sikhi cannot be anything but universal, a philosophy that is capable of adapting and evolving. This is precisely what Guru Nanak is getting at when in Raag Dhanasari (Guru Granth Sahib, p6) “Sahib mera neet nava, sada sada dataar” or “my true ever-present timeless teacher is constantly showering me with blessings (creative insights) as if each day there is something new.” With some humility, we can realise experience the greatest blessing we can receive from the Guru, which is the gift of the human mind and potential for critical thinking, creativity, consensus, and caring.

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

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


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