In the popular Sikh mind the concepts of Gurmata and Sarbat Khalsa are inseparably intertwined, and with good reason. Together, they provide Sikhs with an enlightened instrument of management that depends on participatory self-governance, accountability and transparency in decision making. One could argue persuasively that, now, perhaps it has fallen on times that have earned it a bad repute but today I leave that detail to readers.
Sarbat Khalsa is convening of the Sarbat (Entire) Khalsa (Amridhari Sikhs). My two-word parenthetical definition of Khalsa as Amritdhari Sikhs is the commonly understood meaning of Khalsa. Keep in mind that not every Sikh is a Khalsa but every Khalsa is a Sikh. The word mataa is counsel or a resolution by a group on an actionable matter; the prefix gur indicates that the assembly resolving an issue is of Sikhs that are acting with awareness of and in the name of the Guru.
What makes the recommendation binding on all Sikhs and not easily open to caveats — with no opportunity to nitpick – is the manner in which Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 designated Guru Granth as the repository of all spiritual authority and the collective Khalsa, acting in that awareness, as the authority in temporal issues. The Khalsa then become the chosen or the select – few, as they are. This is not such a simple idea and I’ll return to it in this essay.
Does this mean that a pronouncement of the Sarbat Khalsa may be as binding on Sikhs as an edict of a Pope when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals from the Chair of Saint Peter would be for Roman Catholics? This would minimize the possibility to cavil unless opportunities for appeal are available.
I point out that no singular and absolute authority like the Pope exists now or ever should in Sikhi, be it concentrated in the Akaal Takht or anyone else. In fact, I would prefer the five chiefs (Jathedars) of the five seats (Takhts) of authority in Sikhi to operate together as a Rota of justices, somewhat like the bench of the Supreme Court of a civil society or a secular nation. But that is a related issue that I have discussed elsewhere and will sidestep today.
Sarbat Khalsa and its product, Gurmata, are best labeled Sikh institutions – possibly the final ones that the line of ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, evolved.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, established the first Sikh community in Kartarpur. Subsequent Gurus established additional communities across Punjab and other parts of India. Thus was the infrastructure of Punjab and Northwest Territory of the Indian subcontinent built. These far-flung autonomous communities were knit together by a common system of ethos, practices and institutions; Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmata remain at the core of such a worldview.
The sixth Guru, Hargobind, merged the life of interiority that most religions, including Sikhism espouse, as well as the demands of not a reclusive community but one that was to be socio-politically active in the larger framework and context of India and the world around the Sikhs.
Consolidating these external and internal lives of a people was the doctrine of Meeri-Peeri (Alt. Miri-Piri). This is apparent in the close proximity of the Harmander as the repository of Sikh spiritual heritage while at the Akaal Takhtmatters of temporal authority are explored, debated and decided. The essential imperative here was and remains that the Sikhs community would act on temporal issues in awareness of and guided by their spiritual heritage. This is indeed why the seat from which all temporal decisions flow, the Akaal Takht, is located in the shadow of the Harmander.
At that time in history, perennial invasions through the Khyber Pass had plagued India for centuries. Except for the majority of Europeans that came by sea, this is how the Aryans, Afghans, Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Mongol hordes, and many others hurtled into Punjab — to perish, return or to stay. This is not to deny that the over two centuries of Mughal rule had lent considerable stability to the area, even though rulers had turned increasingly intolerant of non-Muslims.
In time, it was the growing might of the Sikh community that was able to stop these yearly onslaughts and trespasses by developing a militarily formidable and economically strong independent territory. The Sikh institutions founded by the Gurus were instrumental in this development.
The Mughals were replaced by Sikh states and independent territories in the post-Guru period. In the 19 th century, Ranjit Singh who ruled with great sagacity was able to coalesce the regions into a dominant presence under his authority. But, as rulers do, he also undermined smaller Sikh principalities and the principles of self-governance that were established by the Gurus.
By the time of the fourth Guru, Ramdas, a practice had taken root that Sikhs from different communities near and far assembled twice a year on Vaisakhi (Alt. Baisakhi) and Divali. They would visit with the Guru and reinforce their communal ties. With growing sense of socio-political realities around them, these biennial conclaves became the occasions for Sikhs to compare notes, derive national policies and plan action.
These were then akin to Sarbat Sikh conclaves – the antecedents of the Sarbat Khalsa that evolved later – and crucial steps of a community towards the goal of self-governance.
Beginning with these informal twice yearly “Sikh national conventions” the formal practice of Gurmata and its genesis are traceable to the times and teachings of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Master. When he inaugurated the Khalsa in 1699, distinctions of caste and status were entirely obliterated; he pronounced them all equal and himself as subject to the same laws as everyone else.
Tradition records one instance where Guru Gobind Singh himself was judged and chastised for a possible infraction of the Khalsa code of conduct. There was another time when the will of the Khalsa likely prevailed over the Guru’s own opinion — at the evacuation of Anandpur in 1705.
History also tells us that in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh formally decreed Guru Granth as the spiritual authority, while temporal authority rested in the Khalsa community gathered in an awareness of Guru Granth. This seminal idea clearly comes through in Prahalad Singh’s Rehatnama: “Guru Khalsa maniyo pragat guraa(n) ki deh …” that the Khalsa is the embodiment of the Guru. In common usage these words have since been supplanted by those of Gyani Gian Singh in the 19 th century that proclaim, “Guru Granth ji maniyo pargat guraa(n) ki deh…” meaning that Guru Granth is the embodiment of the Guru. Doctrinally, both versions are equally true; the former for temporal existence, the latter for spiritual authority.
K. S. Thapar in the Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (1996) concludes that “Gurmata had emerged as a well established democratic institution towards the middle of the 18 th century” – that is within a couple of decades into the post-Guru period. Keep in mind that this “Sarbat” tradition was in fact a Sarbat “Sikh” tradition from the fourth Guru, to the tenth, Guru Gobind Singh. This tradition of a collective, in fact, predates the Khalsa by about two centuries.
In the post-Guru period, the issuance of a Gurmata thus became the modus operandi of the Sarbat Khalsa. We have to remember that in a Gurmata, the issue can be any – religious, social or political in nature. However, history does not provide many examples of doctrinal matters that were considered by a formally convened Sarbat Khalsa, except perhaps the final ratification of the Raehit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct); doctrinal matters of the Code underwent a long process akin to national conversation and approval in what would be the equivalent of a Sarbat Khalsa prior to its publication on February 3, 1945.
Both John Foster and John Malcolm give vivid accounts of their respective visits to Punjab in 1783 and 1805 and of the functioning of Sarbat Khalsa and construction of Gurmatas. Their accounts, however, depend on second-hand reporting; they may not have seen a functioning Sarbat Khalsa and the recording of a Gurmata. Nevertheless, their narratives appear entirely consistent with the unbroken tradition of Sikh teaching and practice.
Succinctly put by Malcolm the purpose of Sarbat Khalsa was, as they saw it, “To unite and act in one body, and on principle, was, with the first Sikhs, a law of necessity.” This remains equally true today.
The post-Guru period saw a war torn Punjab where Sikh survival hung in the balance and acting by Gurmata assured collaboration, strength and unity in action. Twice a year their conclave at the Akaal Takht was mandated. In these representative assemblies Sikhs acted to take stock of political matters, issues of strategy and tactics, how best to confront a common enemy and select the commanders who would best lead them.
Once a Gurmata was ratified and adopted following the congregational prayer (ardass), everyone, even those who had vigorously opposed it during discussion, resolved to carry it out without reservation. Thus was national consensus achieved.
It was in the immediately tumultuous post-Guru period that Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmata, as instruments of decision making, assumed formal structure. Many historical markers bear testimony to the centrality of this process in Sikh society.
In 1726 the Khalsa resolved to obstruct the despotic unresponsive government of the time. (This may have been one of the earliest, if not the first known instance of a “Sarbat Khalsa.”
In 1733 when the government appeared anxious to make peace with Sikhs and award them a land-grant, Sikhs debated the matter at a Sarbat Khalsa and with one voice deputed Kapur Singh, a caretaker of the stables, to be the recipient of the largesse along with the title of Nawab.
By 1745 the tide had turned and the local Governor launched a campaign to wipe Sikhs off the face of the earth. Once again, a Sikh conclave adopted a Gurmata to take up arms. In 1747, by Gurmata, Sikhs decided to erect a fort at Amritsar. A Gurmata appointed Jassa Singh Ahluwalia the Commander of Sikh forces and reduced the number of Sikhs groupings to be recognized in Sarbat Khalsa to 11 from 65; it also required that the records of the territories controlled by each group (misl) be maintained at the Akaal Takht.
Thus eleven misls came into being that later became twelve. The supremacy of the Dal Khalsa over all misls was established and, pursuant to a Gurmata, a coin minted at Lahore. Rattan Singh Bhangu (1914) reported a critical Gurmata passed to oppose Ahmed Shah Durrani on his seventh invasion of Punjab in 1764.
All those who attended a Sarbat Khalsa had an equal voice in the deliberations. Representatives to the Sarbat Khalsa left their weapons outside the hall where they met. Any personal differences — private animosities – were suspended for the duration of the deliberations and the action resulting there from.
There seems to be no documentation of non-amritdharis or women attending such a conclave. It is hard to say if such exclusionary practices stemmed from deliberate policy considerations or were merely reflective of the socio-cultural realities of the day. Since membership in misls was open only to amritdhari males, it is fair to assume that there was a similar restriction for the leadership of each misl, and for participants in Sarbat Khalsa.
Within a few years of their emergence, misls had become powerful and contentious; each wanted to expand its territory and influence at the expense of its neighbors. Ranjit Singh soon emerged as the most powerful misldar, and with the conquest of Lahore became the master of Punjab.
Naturally, in establishing his power, Ranjit Singh did not want competing centers of power around him, and systemically undermined the tradition of Sarbat Khalsa. The last time that Sarbat Khalsa met was in 1805 to consider the request of the Maratha leader Jaswant Rao Holkar for armed assistance against the British. Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmata then fell into disrepute.
The next Sarbat Khalsa met 120 years later in 1925 amidst the Sikh struggle to seize control of their own gurdwaras from British appointed managers. It was not an organized, systematic or complete representation of the worldwide presence of Sikhs, but it was a much needed resurrection of a wonderfully powerful idea – one of transparency, accountability and self-governance. It dwelt on all matters — social, cultural, political and rarely perhaps doctrinal as well. And it was effective.
The history of Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmatas in post-independence India has been troublesome, particularly since 1984. On April 29, 1986, the Sarbat Khalsa at the Akaal Takht was convened at the behest of the Indian and Punjab governments, but unexpectedly, it declared the territory of Punjab as Khalistan — an independent nation. It is because of this that the Indian state would not allow Sikhs to assemble again for a gathering of the same scope.
The mechanisms of convening the Sarbat Khalsa as a means of deriving a gurmata were designed for a different world where almost the entire Sikh population was circumscribed within Punjab, with smaller pockets in the rest of India.
Now, sizable Sikh communities exist all over the globe. Although originally intended for the entire Sikh collective (Panth), there is, at this time, absolutely no provision for representation of women or of any Sikhs from outside India in a Sarbat Khalsa, even though two to three million Sikhs live in the diaspora outside Punjab and India.
Clearly a more inclusive model is needed. There is also no reason why Regional Sarbat Khalsa” and Gurmata cannot be adapted for conflict resolution and managerial issues at the regional or local levels.
At this time, the independence and authority of the Sarbat Khalsa and the Akaal Takht has been effectively negated by the politics of Punjab and India. And in the diaspora we have not yet explored or discovered its virtues.
For further reading I would recommend to readers The Punjabi University’s Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, selected writings of Kapur Singh, Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, and Kahn Singh (Nabha). J. S. Neki (Sikh Review, March 2009) has suggested a thoughtful outline of how Sikhs worldwide could revive this nation building model of Sikh institutions.
I, too, have weighed in on these matters in the Sikh Review, as well as in my book The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim’s Progress. Some of my essays have made the rounds on Sikh sites on the Internet, and I have explored related topics in Webinars that can be accessed in the archives of the Sikh Research Institute.
There has been an enormously encouraging revival of interest in the topic. In April 2012, the Sikh Research Institute spearheaded two workshops on Sarbat Khalsa in Canada (Toronto and Vancouver); also, as reported by Gurmukh Singh, witness the effort of Sikhs in the U.K. to give new life to the Sarbat Khalsa that have generated wide interest on the Internet.
In writing this column today I have benefited from the counsel of Harpreet Singh (Harvard University) and Harinder Singh (SikhRI).
Dr I.J. Singh is a professor emeritus of anatomy at New York University; he also serves on the Board of Directors of the Sikh Research Institute. You can reach him at: email@example.com.