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Singh Sabha Movement

The Singh Sabha Movement was a Sikh movement begun in the late 19th century in reaction to the proselytizing activities of Arya Samajis and Christians. The movement's aims were the revival of the Sikh Gurus' teachings, the production of religious literature in the Punjabi language using the Gurmukhi script, and a campaign to increase literacy. Ironically, the activities of Arya Samajis (a hindu reform movement) and subsquent hindu customs and rituals have adopted many of the Sikh principes championed by the Singh Sabha movement.

The Singh Sabha Movement During the Renaissance

After great struggles with the Mughals and the invasions of the Durranis, and through other countless sacrifices, and infighting among the Sikh Misls the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to rule much of Punjab. Soon the new Maharaja also took control of Amritsar from the Bhangi Misl. With his many brilliant generals, such as Hari Singh Nalwa he expanded the Sikh Raj to the Khyber pass in the West and also gained control of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladak to the East. After years of oppression the people of the Sikh Raj, whether Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, all had the freedom to live and worship in their own way. In the nineteenth century, however, the British conquered India, but made a treaty with the Maharaja. After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh the Shere-e-Punjab (Lion of the Punjab), none of his heirs could keep the Kingdom from petty infighting, thus the English were soon able to conquer the divided Sikh nation. With the last heir of the Khalsa Raj, Maharaja Duleep Singh spirited off to England and his mother, Maharani Jind Kaur moved from the Punjab, degradation and the fading of Khalsa values soon ensued. Soon the Sikh Rehit Maryada was becoming diluted and compromised by the influence of Hinduism. And in England the young Maharaja, even joined the Church of England.

In 1873, the Singh Sabha Movement was established with the aim of achieving a moral, spiritual and educational reawakening of the Sikh people. The basic aim of the founders of the Singh Sabha Movement was to impart the knowledge of the glorious heritage of the Sikh faith and its traditions to the younger generations. The movement sought to inspire the young with high moral standards of conduct so that they could become the best models of the community. The leaders were determined to alert the Sikh people to the corruption of Sikh values and practices, and they set about correcting detrimental deviations that had crept into social customs and religious practices. Because the Hindus held such an overwhelming majority, and such an ancient tradition, it had become difficult for the Sikhs to remain above Hindu superstitious beliefs and practices.

When the British annexed the Punjab in 1849, they pushed through radical measures for the economic advancement of the area, concentrating on such things as improvements in communications and the extension of the canal system. They also encouraged education, giving aid to missionary schools set up in the province. A common British was that Sikhism was bound to 'merge back into Hinduism', for the British could perceive what they interpreted as abundant evidence of Khalsa decay. What this meant was that they were mistaking the more prominent kind of Sikhs for the whole of the Panth. It seemed obvious to them that there were plenty of signs of an indifferent observance of the Khalsa Rahit and many of them drew the conclusion that this must spell the end of Sikhism.

This, however, had always been the case. Around 1860 or 1870, at the time when these observations were being made, many of those who lived in the villages were very relaxed about questions of identity. Muslims might be easier to distinguish, but the difference between Hindu and Sikh was much more difficult to discern. Although this was somewhat simpler in urban areas, the villages were where a large majority of the Sikhs actually lived. It seemed that only in the Indian army were the Khalsa symbols adequately maintained, the British requiring all Sikh recruits to observe them scrupulously.

Some Sikhs shared this opinion held by the British. Sikhism, they reasoned, had been sufficiently protected under the Sikh Kingdom, but with the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 the Panth had slipped into a condition of indiscipline and negligence. Something must be done. A group of prominent Sikhs convened a meeting in Amritsar in 1873 and after a series of subsequent meetings decided to found a society called the Singh Sabha. The decision was a very important one.

There were two immediate reasons for the action. One was an incident involving the Namdhari sect of Sikhs in 1872, which threatened to damage relations between respectable Sikhs and the British. The other was the news that four Sikh students of the mission school in Amritsar had announced their intention of converting to Christianity. Both were clear indications of the Sikh decline in spirit and devotion, or so it seemed to the Sikhs who participated in these meetings. Among those who attended were members of the old Sikh elite (men such as Khem Singh Bedi, a direct descendant from Guru Nanak), together with affluent landowners, scholars and religious leaders. These were the founders of the new movement, an association, which gave expression to their distinctive ideals.

The Founders of the Singh Sabha

The Founders of the Singh Sabha

Bhai Gurmukh Singh (top), Giani Dit Singh (left)
and S. Jawaher Singh Kapur

The Founders of the Singh Sabha

S. Thakur Singh Sindhawalia (top), Kanwar Bikram Singh (left)
and Baba Khem Singh Bedi

The original founders of the Singh Sabha movement were Sanatan or 'traditional' Sikhs, believing that the Panth certainly consisted of the followers of the Gurus but regarding it as a part of wider Hindu society. For the Sanatan Sikhs there was abundant room for variety within the Panth. Those who were not Khalsa members and who did not regard the Rahit as mandatory were just as entitled to call them-selves Sikhs as the Khalsa variety. Notable amongst the early Singh Sabha leaders were Prof. Gurmukh Singh and Giani Dit Singh, both of them members of the Lahore section. Gurmukh Singh was a professor at Oriental College in Lahore and Dit Singh, who proved to be a particularly prolific writer, was a Sikh of outcaste origins. Their backgrounds and interests help to explain the objectives of the Singh Sabha movement and also the methods, which it employed. The dominant objective was the reconstitution of the Panth as the dedicated casteless society intended by the Gurus. The means to this end were to be preaching, education, social reform and literature

A meeting of some prominent Sikhs was held under the Presidentship of Sardar Thakur Singh, as a result of the deliberation of which an association called Sri Guru Singh Sabha came into being on October 1,1873 AD:

The Sanatan Sikhs, who were identified with the original Singh Sabha founded in Amritsar in I873, were opposed by a much more radical opinion centered on Lahore. The radicals were Sikhs of the Tat Khalsa, the 'True Khalsa'. For the Tat Khalsa it was impossible to be both a Hindu and a Sikh, as those of the Sanatan persuasion maintained. The only correct style for a Sikh was that of the Khalsa, and although they did not actually cast out the non-Khalsa variety, they explicitly adopted the view that these non-Khalsa Sikhs were on their way to becoming Sikhs in the full sense of the term. In other words, they were said to be aspiring to become members of the Khalsa. The term Sahaj-dhari, which had long been applied to those who refrained from accepting the Rahit, was reinterpreted to mean 'slow-adopting'. According to this new interpretation, they were Sahaj-dharis in the sense that they were 'slow' in adopting the Rahit, but eventually they would certainly reach this objective.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, these two groups vigorously contended for the interpretation of what it meant to be a Sikh. The Sanatan Sikhs maintained that variety was entirely permissible in the Panth and that the Panth merely marked out the Sikhs as a special group in Hindu society. In reply, the Tat Khalsa vigorously upheld the view that Sikhs emphatically were not Hindus. They also insistently asserted that the Khalsa mode was the one mode that all Sikhs either accepted or else made their ultimate objective. Ultimately victory went to the Tat Khalsa, and since the early years of the twentieth century Sikhs have been progressively learning three things.

First, Sikhs are not Hindus.
Secondly, Khalsa membership should be the objective of all Sikhs.
Thirdly, Khalsa membership requires obedience to the Rehat.

Primary Objectives of the Singh Sabha Movement

The Singh Sabha Movement concerned itself with four main areas:

1. Establishment of Sikh schools and colleges
2. Organization and management of Sikh Gurdwaras by the congregation
3. Re-establishment of the Khalsa codes of conduct and lifestyle, as taught by the Sikh Gurus
4. Promotion of the political rights of the individual

Through publications and newspapers in Punjabi and by going into the villages, the Singh Sabha Movement altered and inspired the Sikh people to the urgency of re-kindling the true Khalsa spirit before it was extinguished forever. The Singh Sabha Movement's accomplishments were many, but they did not come without the sacrifice of many lives along the way. Sikh schools were set up in villages and cities. Adults were taught Gurmukhi, to enable them to read the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and other Panjabi literature. The Chief Khalsa Diwan, made up of representatives of various Singh Sabha and Diwans (congregations) in the Panjab, was set up in 1883. The Khalsa College was built in Amritsar in 1892 and a Sikh established the Khalsa Tract Society to publish books, poems, newspapers and magazines. These publications inspired adherence to religious principles, mutual help and infinite capacity to bear unbearable suffering at the hands of adversaries, self-discipline and the desire to serve, help and guide others.

In order to educate and inspire the Sikh people to live according to the practices and heritage of the Khalsa, the Singh Sabha members devotedly went into the cities and villages and spoke to the masses of the people there. They openly preached against the Brahmanical practices of idol worship, caste prejudice and exclusive food and cooking practices. They condemned the use of liquor, intoxicating substances and tobacco, but by this time, different sects of Sikhs had formed, some setting up their own leaders as gurus. Before His death, Guru Gobind Singh had passed the Guruship to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, and placed his authority into the Panj Pyare in every gathering of Sikhs. He declared that after him, there would be no person as Guru. This fundamental principle was preached by the Singh Sabha on the platform and in the press. Bhai Vir Singh established the Khalsa Samachar, a reformist paper which exposed the pretenders of the various sects which had formed.

The Gurdwaras of Amritsar, Nankana Sahib and of many other places were controlled by corrupt hereditary mahants (priests), who allowed and even fostered sordid practices within the temples. They were supported and protected by the British Government. These priests would not accept Karah Prasaad offered by the 'untouchable' castes or by the Sikhs who mingled with them. The mahants allowed idol worship and other Hindu practices forbidden by the Gurus to occur in the Gurdwaras. The Singh Sabha leaders brought these practices to the public's awareness, and insisted upon a democratic management of the Sikh shrines and Gurdwaras by the Sikh congregation.

Thousands of devoted Sikhs were slaughtered as they demonstrated peacefully demanding change. Finally, however, mounting public pressure compelled the British administrators to give up protecting the corrupt managers. After much deliberation, the Gurdwara Act of 1925 was passed, giving control of the Sikh Gurdwaras and community funds to the Sangat along with the lands that had been granted to the individual gurdwaras for their support. Also, popular control of the Khalsa College in Amritsar was acquired. In 1950, it was written into the Indian constitution that a religious minority has a right to manage its own institutions. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandakh Committee or SGPC was given authority to oversee proper management and protocol in keeping the Gurdwaras pure as the House of the Guru.

Sikhs gained political rights after much struggle and sacrifice. The Sikh press exposed the British Government's discrimination against Sikhs in employment, in government and public offices. The Singh Sabha Movement fought for the right of Sikhs to use their mother tongue of Panjabi, written in the Gurmukhi script, in all aspects of their daily life. They fought for the right to live the Sikh Rehit Maryada which had been established by the Sikh Gurus. Long and difficult agitations finally brought the Sikhs their religious right to wear the Kirpan (sword) of any length.

From the SGPC have come specific definitions of a Sikh:

"Amritdhari Sikh" is one who has been baptized by the double-edged sword, who keeps the form and lives the life of Khalsa, as dictated by Guru Gobind Singh.
"Sehjdhari Sikh" is one who is preparing to become an Amritdhari Sikh.
"Patit" (lit. fallen) refers to a Sikh baptized by the double-edged sword, but one who has failed to live by one or more of the tenants of the Sikh Rehit Maryada.

Thus the Singh Sabha Movement kept Sikh Dharma from corruption and ignorance and from being absorbed into the evil cluthes of hinduism. As the Sikh genocide of 1984 shows, the fight continues to this very day. There are many organisations, including the Indian state, that are trying to corrupt and mislead Sikhs, their youth and the Sikh way of life.

Sikh Identity and Self-Assertion

The Nirankari and Namdhari movements had failed to stir Sikh people because of their restricted scope and schismatic character they acquired. To quote Sardar Harbans Singh in The heritage of the Sikhs "The Singh Sabha which followed them had a much deeper impact. It influenced the entire Sikh Community and reoriented its outlook and spirit. Since the days of the Gurus nothing so vital had transpired to fertilize the consciousness of the Sikhs. The Singh Sabha by leavening the intellectual and cultural processes brought a new dimension to the inner life of the community and enlarged its heritage. Starting in the seventies of the last century, it marked a turning-point in Sikh history . It touched Sikhism to its very roots, and made it a living force once again. The stimulus it provided has shaped the Sikhs' attitude and aspiration over the past one hundred years."

The reason behind the success of the Singh Sabha was the motivation to search for Sikh identity and Self-assertion that we are not just another sect of Hinduism. Earlier, Hindu philosophers had declared Sikhs as "another sect of Hinduism". 2500 years ago, same thing was done to Budhism, when Budha was made "another reincarnation of Vishnu" by Brahmins, thus ending Budhism in India. Singh Sabha recognized this and started their campaign of awakenings for rural Khalsa, which was under the direct threat of Christian Missionaries, Muslim Maulalivis and Arya Samajis. Khalsa's moral force and dynamic vitality was rediscovered and Singh Sabha started to look upon its history and tradition with clear and self-discerning eye. As it happened, however, the Arya Samaj Organisation and Swami Daya Nand, both passed into the hands of Punjabi hindus whose primary motivation was the hatred and opposition to Sikhism and became primarily a virulently anti-Sikh movement, something which still goes on today.

Everything that was against Gurus teaching was rejected. Rites and customs considered consistent with Sikh doctrine and tradition were established. For some, legal sanction was secured through government legislation. With this came the reorganization of Sikh Shrines. Later in 1920's Sikh Historic Shrines like Nankana Sahib, Punja Sahib, Golden Temple, Tarn Taran Sahib, etc were freed from the hold of hereditary Mahants. These mahants were practicing rites and ritual inconsistent with Sikhism, Including not letting people of "lower caste" into Gurdwaras, publicly smoking, Idol worshipping of various Gods and Goddesses, and holding Shraddhs and other rituals not followed by the Sikh Gurus.

New Cultural and Political Aspirations

This period also witnessed the modern development and emergence of new cultural and political aspirations. Higher level of literacy were achieved by Sikhs. Famous Khalsa college at Amritsar and hundreds of Khalsa Schools were opened through out punjab. Many Sikhs ventured outside India at this period and settled at Malaysia, Canada, U.K, Africa and USA. In Punjab, the Sikhs sought to secure recognition for themselves:

"An English newspaper writes that the Christian faith is making rapid progress and makes the prophecy that within the next twenty-five years, one-third of the Majha area will be Christian. The Malwa will follow suit. Just as we do not see any Buddhists in the country except in images, in the same fashion the Sikhs, who are now, here and there, visible in turbans and their other religious forms like wrist bangles and swords, will be seen only in pictures in museums. Their own sons and grandsons turning Christians and clad in coats and trousers and sporting toadstool-like caps will go to see them in the museums and say in their pidgin Punjabi: Look, that is the picture of a Sikh-the tribe that inhabited this country once upon a time.' Efforts of those who wish to resist the onslaught of Christianity are feeble and will prove abortive like a leper without hands and feet trying to save a boy falling off a rooftop."

This was a note which appeared in a Sikh newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar (Punjabi) of Lahore, May 25,1894, from the pen of its editor, Giani Ditt Singh (1853-1901). Reporting the observance of the first anniversary of the Lahore Singh Sabha in its issue for April 22, 1905, the Khalsa Advocate (English) referred to the occupant of a banga in the precincts of the Tarn Taran Gurdwara who had embraced Christianity and hung a cross on one of its walls to convert it into a Christian chapel.

The Khalsa Akhbar, July 13, 1894, carried this letter in its correspondence columns: "In the village of Natta, Nabha state, a Sikh married off his daughter according to Sikh custom Most of the population in the village, including Brahmanical Hindus and some Sikhs, became hostile. They did not let the marriage party stay in the dharamsala. The host, firm in his faith, had to put up the wedding guests in his own house."

A student by the name of Bir Singh contributed a letter to the Khalsa Akhbar, February 12, 1897, saying: "Near the Dukhbhanjani beri tree in the Golden Temple precinct there is a room on the front wall of which is painted a picture. The picture depicts a goddess and Guru Gobind Singh. The goddess stands on golden sandals and she has many hands-ten or, perhaps, twenty. One of the hands is stretched out and in this she holds a khanda. Guru Gobind Singh stands barefoot in front of it with his hands folded."

A letter in the Khalsa Akhbar, October 8, 1897, reported: "On Tuesday, Bhadon 31, the pujaris of the Tarn Taran Gurdwara held the shradha ceremony in honour of Guru Arjan. Those feasted were from outside the faith and they smoked."

A correspondent' s letter in the Khalsa Samachar of Amritsar, edited by Bhai Vir Singh, June 25, 1902, said: "Around the village of Singhpur, Christians and Muhammadans are becoming very influential. The former have two churches here and the latter two mosques. In this area there is no dharamsala and the rural Khalsa is rather neglectful of its religious duty." (These newspaper quotations were taken from Herigate of the Sikhs, by Sardar Harbans Singh Ji.)

These quotations reveal the identity crisis that Sikhism faced at the dawn of new century.

An editorial in the Khalsa Advocate (English), December 15, 1904, summed up the situation which existed before the emergence of the Singh Sabha thus:

"... false gurus grew up in great abundance whose only business was to fleece their flock and pamper their own self-aggrandizement. Properly speaking, there was no Sikhism. Belief in the Gurus was gone. The idea of brotherhood in the Panth was discarded. The title of 'Bhai' so much honoured by Sikhs of old, fell into disuse and contempt. Sikhs grovelled in superstition and idolatry... It [Sikhism] had thus lost all that was good and life-giving in the faith."

Future Proofing

Singh Sabha movement not only reformed the Sikh institutions of the rituals and rites like casteism but also made sure that in future, these rituals would not creep back in. Before Singh Sabha, the situation was so bad that even Giani Ditt Singh, a very much honored literary giant of Singh Sabha movement, had to withdraw from a gurdwara when Karah Prashad was served. Reason being that he was from a "low caste" and many priests as well as educated devotees were followers of anti-Sikhism casteism rituals.

As Sardar Harbans Singh ji said "The decline had started in the very heyday of Sikh power. In the courtly splendor of the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sikh practice had been utterly subverted. The faith was weakened by the influx of large numbers of those who had adopted the Sikh form to gain material advantage, but whose allegiance to its principles and traditions was only tentative.

In the words of a character in one of Sir Jogendra Singh's English novels, Rasili: "We failed because we did not obey the Guru. People established kingdoms and principalities and neglected their poor brethren. The result is what you see - the Khalsa has fallen. "But the protagonist is aware of the massive reformation that was taking place. He says, "Sikhism is now casting off external influences and returning to the solid rock of its own pure faith and divine teachings." In a general way, the Singh Sabha was an expression of the impulse of the Sikh community to rid itself of the base adulterations and accretions which were draining away its energy and to rediscover the sources of its original inspiration. Unlike other Indian reform movements of the period which were the creation of the elite, the Singh Sabha was a mass upsurge. Besides the awareness that Sikhism as commonly practiced was a corruption of what it originally was, two other motivating factors were at work: a reaction to what was happening in the neighborly religious traditions and defensiveness generated by Christian missionaries activities."

The Christian missionary activity had started in the Punjab with the influx of the English. Even while Ranjit Singh, the Sikh sovereign, reigned in Lahore, an American Presbyterian mission had been set up at Ludhiana, the north-western British outpost near the Sikh frontier. The factors for the choice of this area as "the best field of labour" were its "numerous and hardy population....a better climate than the lower provinces and....a ready access to the lower ranges of the Himalaya mountains in case of the failure of health." Another reason was the Sikh population "to whom our attention at first was specially directed," as says John C. Lowrie in his book Travels in North India. With the end of Sikh rule in 1849, the Ludhiana Mission extended its work to Lahore. Two of its members, C.W. Forman and John Newton, were set apart for this duty and sent to the Punjab capital immediately. English and vernacular schools as well as welfare institutions like hospitals and orphanages followed. C.W. Forman turned out regularly for bazaar preaching.

John Lawrence, who was one of the triumvirate which ruled the Punjab after it was annexed to Britain, was a zealous patron of Christian proselytization. He contributed towards the Mission funds a sum of Rs. 500 annually out of his own pocket. Other English of fixers followed his example. It was his ambition to see the conquest of the Sikh dominions followed by large-scale conversions to Christianity.

Amritsar, headquarters of the Sikh faith, became another important seat of Church enterprise. In 1852, T.H. Fitzpatrick and Robert Clark, the first missionaries of the Church of England appointed to the Punjab, arrived in station. In the valedictory instruction given them, they had been told: "Though the Brahman religion still sways the minds of a large portion of the population of the Punjab, and the Mohammedan of another, the dominant religion and power for the last century has been the Sikh religion, a species of pure theism, formed in the first instance by a dissenting sect from Hinduism. A few helpful instances lead us to believe that the Sikhs may prove more accessible to scriptural truth than the Hindus and Mohammedans...."

The English missionaries were joined by Daud Singh recorded to be the first Sikh ever to have embraced Christianity. He had been baptized in Kanpur by the Rev. W.H. Perkins, and was transferred to Amritsar as pastor in 1852. The Mission houses were built in the city by the Deputy Commissioner. Construction of the station church was started. In the wake of the Mission came a vernacular school, a high school, a school for girls and midwifery hospital. The evangelizing work was rewarded with the conversion of men like Shamaun, i.e. Simeon, a Sikh granthi (reader of the Holy Book or priest), formerly Kesar Singh of Sultanwind, Imad-ud-Din, a Muslim maulavi and Rulia Ram, a Hindu Khatri from Amritsar, who had attended the Mission School and passed the Calcutta entrance examination. Sub-stations of the Mission were opened in important towns of the Sikh tract of Majha such as Tarn Taran, Ajnala and Jandiala.

Singh Sabha movement was helped by the missionaries activities of Mohammadens and Christians. It grew out of nowhere to become a founding father of current SGPC and Akali party. Singh Sabha Movement brought back the old ways of Khalsa and restored the pride and dignity of common urban and rural Sikhs.

The Singh Sabha Movement remained vigorous for about half a century when under the impact of political upheaval in the rest of the country, the Sikh ethos were transformed into political yearnings. This change in Sikh attitude became reflected in the Akali Movement with the twin object of purifying Sikh practices and of ousting the foreign political power from India.




Guide To Discover Sikhism