Thursday, March 30th, 2023 13:59:48

Is Modern-day Sikhism a Colonial Construct?

By Sanjeev Nayyar
Updated: December 24, 2019 3:42 pm

This article looks at practice and thoughts of Sikh tradition in the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras to provoke thought.


During the recent opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, I keenly observed how the Congress and Akalis were trying to show who is more Sikh.

As I saw this display of Sikh identity, thought of my childhood. The mandir at home had a largish picture of Guru Nanak. Ma’s grandmothers (born around 1870), on both sides, were Sikh. I remember Ma telling me stories how there was little distinction between going to a Shivalaya or Gurudwara. Dad’s name was Amrit and Chacha is Inder, names that are common amongst Sikhs.

I wondered about this growing distance between Punjabis. When I wrote a mini book on the Khalistan Movement realized how the British divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh. This article looks at Sikh faith, before and after the advent of British rule.

Let us start with the pre-colonial area.

Aravindan Neelakanda quoted Khushwant Singh’s ‘Hymns of Guru Nanak in Swarajyamag:

“The Sanskrit Brahman became Nanak’s Brahma and he invested Brahma with a dual role. Before Brahma created the cosmos, He

was parabrahma (supreme Brahma) in a state of deep trance and was above all qualities: nirguna. Brahma came out of His trance and created the world. Although He still remained nirankar (without form), He now became saguna.”

When I visited a Naamghar in Assam the concept of placing the holy book, Bhagawata on an asana, taking naam (chanting) and absence of idol reminded me of a contemporary Gurudwara.

Around 1515 and when Sankaradeva lived Guru Nanak visited Tibet via Tawang. Khushwant Singh said that Sikhism is distilled Vedanta whilst what Sankaradeva aimed for is realization of Brahma in Vedanta.

Was Nanak influenced by Sankaradeva’s teachings? Kriyacharya Jyoti, who is also closely connected with Punjab says,

“Just like no man is an island, no existing philosophy can say it was not influenced by the times it originated in. Many similarities strike in the first instance. Naam Japo (Repeat the Divine Name) being one of the three major directives to Sikhs. Next, belief in the one absolute Akal Purakh Absolute Brahman is amply explained in the Advait philosophy.”

Guru Nanak went to important Hindu places of pilgrimage like Ayodhya, Puri, Amarkantak, Omkareshwar, Rameshwaram, Pushkar, Burhanpur, Kashi etc.

12 kms from Amritsar is Ram Tirath, where Sita gave birth to Luv and Kush. According to, “The Bedis of Punjab (Guru Nanak a Bedi trace their descent from Kush and Sodhis (Guru Govind Singh was a Sodhi) from Luv.”

Guru Nanak was son of Kaluchand and Tripta Devi. When one searches for Nanak’s wife name online, her name Sulakhani appears. Actually it is a Punjabi word, in Roman English, for her actual name is Sulakshana Devi. Similarly, wife of fifth Guru was Ganga Devi and tenth Guru was Sundari.

Whilst translating the Adi Granth into English, Hindu nomenclature for the Divine is replaced with the Christian word God. In reality, Khushwant Singh said that of the 15,028 names of God that appear Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2,533 times, followed by Prabhu, Gopal Govind, and Parbhram etc.

Baba Sri Chand (1494-1629), son of Guru Nanak and founder of the Udasi order also handed over manuscripts to Guru Arjun for compilation of Adi Granth and his seat to Guruditta, son of the Sixth Guru Hargovind.

Udasis (murty-worshippers) have the Granth Sahib in their gurudwaras but do not exactly follow Sikh Rehat Maryada of SGPC. The question is, when was the Rehat Maryada created, by whom and why. Here is where the schism solidified and where the British hand may be found!

The 16th Generation descendant of Guru Nanak, Baba Vikramaditya Bedi does not sport the 5Ks (i.e. Kesh (long hair), Kangha (comb), Kirpan (sword), Kara (steel bracelet), Kachcha (knickers) because his great grand- father believed 5Ks were only for time of war. This is different from the dominant view today that 5Ks are essential to Sikhism, even though the 5ks are not sported by an increasing number of Sikhs. Are teachings of the Gurus so weak that a continuous assertion of Sikh identity is required?

It is made out that Sikhs suffered alone at the hands of the Mughals, not true. For example three Brahmins, Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Sati Das (Chhiber Brahmins) and Bhai Dyal Das (Maudgil Brahmin) sacrificed their lives, in the cause of Dharma, along with Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Also, when Guru Tegh Bahadur was prevented from entering the Hari Mandir by his Sodhi cousins he was invited by the Raja of Bilaspur (Himachal Pradesh) and founded the town of Chak Nanaki in 1665. It was the birthplace of Khalsa and known as Anandpur today.

In the Chandi Charitra, the tenth Guru says that in the past god had deputed Goddess Durga to destroy evil doers. That duty was now assigned to him hence he wanted her blessings. He also prayed to Shiva as this plaque at the Siachen War Memorial tells,

“Oh Lord Shiva, grant me this boon that, I never shy away from doing good deeds. I should never be frightened away from fighting for Justice, Dharma and Rightful Cause and I should be determined to emerge victorious from this battle. Every soldier to have a pure heart and mind and let not greed come near him. When the time comes for my soul to unite with yours I should die fighting in the battle field.”

Note that all the Gurus were Khatris (Punjabi word for Kshatriya) as against domination of Sikh religious affairs by Jaat Sikhs today.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated gold for the Kashi Vishwanath, Golden and Jwalamukhi temples. He wished that the Koh-i-Noor diamond be given Jagannath Temple Puri, horses to Golden Temple and wanted to bathe in the Holy Ganga at Haridwar in 1808. In 1831, when Shah Shuja of Kabul sought an alliance his demands included delivery of the gates of Somnath and ban on cow-slaughter throughout Afghanistan. The second Guru Angad, visited Jwalamukhi often where Adi Shakti is worshipped in the form of nine flames The name of Golden Temple is Hari Mandir. Hari is one of the names of Vishnu.

Since cow worship was dear, the first major expression of Indian anger against cow slaughter was given by the Kukas (Namdhari Sikhs) around 1870.

The Kartarpur gurudwara was renovated by Lala Sham Lal in 1911-1912.

From the above, note the intertwining of thought and practice between the two traditions. Clearly modern day distinctions did not exist.

Think about this – “Aurangzeb devastated the dominions of Shivaji, but could not destroy the Marathas who rose, sphinx-like, out of the ruins, to be a great power. The dominions of Ranjit Singh were destroyed within ten years of his death, never to rise again; a relic of his famous Sikh soldiery remained as the faithful minions of the British.” 1 How did Sikhs rise again? Read on.

The British divided Punjab by supporting an independent and exclusivist Sikh identity. So –

The British replaced Bengali soldiers by loyal Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. Only Sikhs who sported the five k’s or symbols of Sikhism, could join the army.

At a function in Patiala, Lord Lansdowne said,

“With this Singh Sabha movement the Government of India is in hearty sympathy. We appreciate the many qualities of the Sikh nation.” Tribune report dated October 23, 1890. A History of Sikhs, Volume II by Khushwant Singh.

1905: Idols were removed from the Golden Temple as a result of pressure applied by the Singh Sabha.

In 1902, the first Sikh political organization, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, was founded. It was a coordinating body for the Singh Sabhas.

W.H. Mcleod, author of Historical Dictionary of Sikhism wrote,

“For the Sikhs of the 18th century, the goddess Devi clearly had a considerable fascination. The goddess Durga who appears in three works in the Dasam Granth created a problem for the Tat Khalsa scholars who strongly affirmed monotheism. The question was settled by concluding that Bhagauti symbolises God as the Divine Sword.”

Although the Singh Sabha movement died out in the 1920’s, it awakened the Sikhs. They questioned why the job of a granthi (scripture reader) was done by members of the Udasi order (believed in idol worship, not followers of Khalsa) even though it was the practice since the Mughal times.

The Akalis (Jaat Sikhs) took control of the gurudwaras after throwing out the mahants. The success of these protests against Udasis produced two institutions that dominate Punjab today – the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Akali Dal.

The more radical elements organised a semi-military corps of volunteers known as the Akali Dal (army of immortals) to fight for SGPC causes. Its aim was to give expression to a revived sense of Sikh identity.

The Akalis entered into a dispute with the British for the control of Sikh gurudwaras. In 1925, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed. The Act’s definition of a Sikh leant strongly towards the exclusivist Khalsa view and is “one who believed in the ten gurus and the Granth Sahib and was not a patit (apostate). This last proviso was particularly odious to the Hindu members of the Legislative Council. 2

By virtue of its control over gurudwara affairs and revenue SGPC became an important body, a sort of parliament of the Sikhs.

Whilst Anand Karaj marriage, in some form, was started by the fourth Guru Ramdas asserting the Sikh identity required a different marriage form. W. H. Mcleod, wrote, “Anand Karaj was not performed until the middle of the 19th century although it is certain that at least the Anand Sahib (q.v.) portion was well established for a long time before that. The marriage ceremony was, however, essentially a Hindu one performed around a sacred fire.” With similar intent name of fifth Guru is written as ‘Arjan’ when his name is Arjun.

Assertion of Sikh identity required undermining the bravery of Punjabi Khatris (Hindus) and playing up the bravery of Sikhs for e.g. the first victory Punjabis had ever won against Afghans and Pathans in 1813 (conquest of Attock Fort) was under the operation of Dewan Mohkam Chand. They are hardly spoken about but another able warrior Hari Singh Nalwa is remembered. Similarly Hindu courtiers of Ranjit Singh like Bhawani Das (finance minister), Dina Nath (financial advisor) amongst others have not won accolades in public.

The symbol of Nishan Sahib (insignia of victory and honour) is a post Guru Govind Singhji development.4 Kriyacharya Jyoti says that the symbol Khanda was added to the Nishan sahib only around 1900’s. Earlier it only had the central double edged sword and the Chakkar/Chakra. Later the two swords of Miri and Piri signifying spiritual and temporal responsibilities were added. “Miri-Piri symbolises the amalgam of Shakti (power) and Bhakti (devotion).” 4

Re-assertion of Sikh identity was, post-independence, a vehicle to power used more effectively by the Akalis than the Congress. This concept of mixing of religion and politics was started by Guru Hargovind (1606 to 1644), who hung two swords by his side signifying Piri and Miri, one symbolised spiritual power and the temporal (political). Spiritual was represented by Hari Mandir and Temporal by Akal Takth.

Those who doubt whether modern day Sikhism is a colonial construct must read what Pashaura Singh of Department of Religious Studies, University of California wrote in

“As a consequence of the success of the Tat Khalsa reformers, Sikhs in the early 20th century came “to think, imagine and speak in terms of a universal community of believers united by uniform rites, symbols and scripture.”

“The Singh Sabha ideologues employed Protestant categories of Christian missionaries to redefine Sikh concepts. As such, modern Sikhism became a well-defined ‘system’ based on a unified tradition and the Tat Khalsa understanding of Sikh identity became the norm of orthodoxy. ”

“In a recent study, Arvind-Pal Mandair described the impact of colonial rule on the Sikh tradition as follows: “In the process of projecting themselves as a legitimate body in the public sphere governed by British law, the earlier principle of heteronomic sovereignty was overlain, and to some extent displaced, by modernist principle of autonomic sovereignty which was essential for converting the Panth into a nationalized community (or qaum) characterized by the notion of a people with its proper religion (Sikhism), their own language (Punjabi) and a geographical territory or homeland they could call their own (Punjab).”

What the SGPC has been trying to do since 1925 is promoting the concept of one book, community, language and religion in Punjab. This concept of unity, like Abrahamic religions, is alien to Indic faiths. Is modern day Sikhism indeed a colonial construct? You decide.

By Sanjeev Nayyar

(Author is a Chartered Accountant and founder) (


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