The Nanakshahi Calendar Controversy: A case study in the politics of identity, patronage and change

The enterprise of standardising calendars has historically been marked by conflict, and the Sikh community's struggle in the adoption of the Nanakshahi calendar stands as a compelling case study. - GURNAM SINGH

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The Nanakshahi Calendar for 2024 published by Khalsa Diwan Malaysia

By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

As Sikhs across the world look forward to the celebration for their new year on 1 Chet (14th March), unfortunately, our attentions are once again drawn to the ongoing controversy surrounding the establishment of a unique Sikh calendar known as the Nanakshahi Calendar. Despite attempts to standardise key dates corresponding to the main Gurpurabs, we have the unedifying spectacle of Sikhs celebrating these on different dates. Embarrassment aside, this can cause all kinds of confusions, especially given that Sikhs generally organise their lives, including birthday celebrations, according to fixed dates corresponding to the standards of the widely adopted Gregorian calendar.

The enterprise of standardising calendars has historically been marked by conflict, and the Sikh community’s struggle in the adoption of the Nanakshahi calendar stands as a compelling case study. The Nanakshahi calendar is named after Guru Nanak Sahib, the founder of the Sikh Panth (path) and accordingly its Year 1 begins in 1469, which corresponds with the birth of the Guru.

According to Harinder Singh, Sikh Research Institute (SikhRi), there is a very precise reason why ‘shah’ was linked to ‘Nanak’ to come up the ‘Nanakshahi’. “Shah is a Persian word that means king; in Iran, it was used as a title for princes, lords, kings, and emperors. People from Sri Lanka to Saudi Arabia called “Nanak” their Shah for the Guru ruled their hearts. Guru is for those who adopted “Nanak” as their “Perfect-Guide,” and “Sahib” is for those who only take orders from their “Sovereign.” Thus, Nanakshah-i is anything that belongs to the Nanak, the Ruler. I prefer to term it ‘Era of Nanak the Sovereign.’

SEE ALSO: Nanakshahi: Questions and Answers on the Sikh calendar

Rooted in the complexities of personal, religious, cultural, and political dynamics, the competing claims associated with the establishment of the Nanakshahi Sikh Calendar offers a compelling insight into the politics of identity and patronage. The challenges faced in standardising calendars have historical echoes, both ideological/doctrinal and practical. One such example is the Gregorian calendar named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582. Replacing the Julian calendar, that had stood since 45 BC, its introduction was met with much resistance resulting in violence and riots across Europe.

While Sikhs to date have confined their disagreements to the realms of seminars, pamphlets, social media and occasional scuffles in Gurdwaras, the very real divisions underscore the sensitivity when established traditions and beliefs are challenged. The ongoing disputes, often articulated in doctrinal terms, exemplify the enduring nature of ideological conflicts, and as a result, the resolution of such transitions may span decades. Despite the conflicts, on a purely practical level, there can be little dispute that standardised calendars offer immense benefits in relation to communication, trade, and coordination, and perhaps because of this, today, we see an almost universal adoption of the Gregorian calendar.

NATION BUILDING

Calendar standardisation is not confined to religious sentiments but forms an integral part of the task of nation building. In Europe, the rise of nation-states from the 17th Century and the decline of feudalism is characterised by the establishment of centralized political structures and institutions. This resulted in an unprecedented reconfiguration of territories based on shared language, culture, and identity. Most critically, this period also witnessed the formation of distinct nation-states like England, France, and Spain, characterized both by defined borders, centralized authority, and a sense of national identity setting the stage for the modern nation-state system.

This consolidation of power through centralised administration and cultural unification was, in part, facilitated by a standardized calendar. Yet, challenges arose from local customs and religious conflicts, highlighting the intricate dynamics at play. The French Republican Calendar during the Revolution in 1789 and Japan’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873 underscores the role of calendar standardisation as a tool for political and cultural transformation. These instances illustrate both the ambitions and challenges associated with imposing a standardized timekeeping system.

Turning to the nation building ambitions of the Sikhs, we saw in 2003 the introduction of the Nanakshahi calendar, which was aimed specifically at reinforcing a distinct Sikh identity. Designed by Canada-based Sikh scholar Pal Singh Purewal, it departed from the prevailing Bikrami calendar. Also known as the Vikram Samvat or Indian lunar calendar, this calendar system widely used in South Asia. Named after legendary King Vikramaditya, who reigned during the first century BC. The calendar consists of 12 lunar months, each divided into two halves—Shukla Paksha (bright half) and Krishna Paksha (dark half). The Bikrami calendar usage becomes central in determining religious and social events, which in turn reunified the power of the Hindu Pandits who were tasked with determining the precise dates of historic events and religious festivals.

SANT SAMAJH

It is the tensions between those concerned with preserving tradition and those with a more progressive outlook seeking to adapt to change, the has resulted in the Nanakshahi calendar being marred by confusion and controversy. The Nanakshahi calendar faced amendments in 2010, following political alliances, particularly with the Sant Samajh (Society of Saints) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal). These changes, aimed at (re)aligning the Nanakshahi calendar with the Bikrami calendar, which unsurprisingly triggered confusion and discord within the Sikh community. The main criticism of the Sant Samajh was that the calendar created by Pal Singh Purewal deviates from the principles of ‘Gurbani’ and that its alleged hurried implementation meant that there was no consensus which is an important aspect of the Panthic decision making process.

Amendments made by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) after the intervention by the Sant Samajh included returning to the old system of fixing dates as per the Bikrami calendar. This decision was ratified by the then Jathedar of Akaal Takht, Giani Gurbachan Singh during the launch of the amended Nanakshahi calendar at the Akaal Takht on 9th March 2017. As reported in the Times of India, during a press conference at the Akaal Takht secretariat he said: “Majority of Sikh sects, including Nihangs, Nirmalays, Udhasis and Damdami Taksal, observe Sikh religious days according to the SGPC-published calendar.” In reference to supporters of the original or Mool Nanakshahi calendar based on the one prepared by author Pal Singh Purewal in 2003, the Jathedar said, “Sikh bodies shouldn’t blow their own trumpet and instead should unite under the aegis of the Akaal Takht.”

Though, mainly because of the ongoing influence (some say control) of the Sant Samajh on the Akaal Takht and SGPC, the revised Nanakshahi calendar retains ‘official’ status. But the controversy rumbles on with underlying tensions, primarily revolving around reconciling what might be characterised as religious versus secular traditions within the Panth, remain. From the pursuit of carving out a distinct national (quomi) identity, to the controversies and subsequent adaptations, the journey reflects the intricate interplay between tradition, identity, and the pressures of a changing world.

On 10 November 2015, a Sarbat Khalsa held at Chabba in Punjab attended by estimated 750,000 Sikhs, passed a resolution was passed recognising that “the Sikh nation must establish a unifying independent Sikh calendar.” How this is configured is for the Panth to decide completely free from external influences. That means addressing the needs of the global Sikh diaspora rather than being hostage to vote bank politics, or RSS / Hindutva sympathies.

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.

RELATED STORY:

Nanakshahi Calendar’s Architect – Pal Singh Purewal Reminisced (Asia Samachar, 2 Oct 2022)



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1 COMMENT

  1. Very well written.
    Since you mentioned about 9th March 2017 decision of sarkari Jathedar. It is important to mention that this decision was based on 2 member committee (Makkar & Dhumma). Both didn’t have any expertise in calendar science. Till date, No one has seen any report of this “Makkar Committee.”
    Very clearly, the decision was forced upon by higher ups at the directions of RSS.
    So, another important point is the intervention of RSS which was open with public statements.
    My take on the topic: https://www.sikhsaakhi.com/blog/21

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