Except for minor schismatic sects, the worldwide Sikh community accepts that in 1708 Guru Gobind Singh anointed the Adi Granth as the Guru Granth. Thus after ten generations of Gurus in human form – from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh — the mantle was passed to the written word.
Historically we rest our case for this on the 19th century dohera by Giani Gian Singh that is universally recited by Sikhs that goes “Sabh sikhan ko hukam hae Guru manyo Granth.” Yet, verses by Prehlad Singh that antedate Gian Singh’s writings speak of Guru Panth.
How do we reconcile the two? I would argue that the two are doctrinally consistent.
An intimately related question asks why Guru Gobind Singh did not nominate a successor Guru. Our tradition and history are clear that he did not. Yet, we also know the tradition of nominating a successor in human form started with Guru Nanak and continued until Guru Gobind Singh changed it.
We cannot second guess the Guru but it is our onus to mine our history and the continuity of the Guru’s message for meaning in that essential change instituted by Guru Gobind Singh.
I aim to connect the Guru’s reasoning to Sikhi as an experiment in nation building that holds lessons for today.
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History speaks of ten Gurus in human form who guided the Sikh faith and its development, starting with Guru Nanak in 1469 and culminating with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708.
And then, at the end of his life, tradition and history tell us Guru Gobind Singh decreed that the Word in the Guru Granth would henceforth be the spiritual Guru, while in matters temporal, authority would rest in the worldwide Sikh community acting together in awareness of and guided by their spiritual heritage.
Admittedly, there are exceptions like the Namdharis and Radhaswamis who have had a series of living Gurus; there exist other minor sects, as well, that look to a living Guru. But those are few, and largely but rightly viewed by most Sikhs as deviants from the Sikh path.
The question that I frame at this time lies at the heart of what Guru Granth means to us today: Despite the unbroken tradition that every one of the previous nine Gurus had followed, why did Guru Gobind Singh not nominate a Guru in human form to succeed himself?
I have heard respectable Sikh scholars and academicians assert – and most recently it was one who occupies an endowed chair of Sikh studies in North America – that it was because all four sons of the Guru had already been martyred; thus, there was just no suitable successor left.
I find such reasoning facile but false and unconvincing, even though Guruship did stay within one family for several generations. At the end of his earthly life, Guru Nanak nominated a follower, Bhai Lehna, to succeed as Guru Angad, bypassing his own two sons. Similarly, Guru Angad nominated a follower, Amardas, to the office, not either of his own two sons. Surely the sons of the Gurus were available and hungering for the office but not found able to the task.
Guru Gobind Singh, too, could have surely found a Sikh to become the next Guru. There was sufficient precedence to do so. Why didn’t he go that route?
We can’t really second-guess the Guru. So we are not likely to be able to settle the question, but let’s explore it; the process can only help us think along some uncharted corridors of our rich history.
Let’s step outside the box to examine the matter.
The fact that the Word is paramount, not the human form of any Guru, becomes obvious from the reverence accorded to the Word (Shabd) by generations of Sikhs and Gurus themselves, ever since Guru Arjan first compiled the Adi Granth, which formed the major corpus of the Guru Granth. Sikh lore tells us that once the Adi Granth was collated, henceforth Guru Arjan ensconced it on a raised platform or throne and treated it with the utmost reverence.
Among many that are possible, I offer you only two brief citations from Guru Granth in support of my contention. “Pothee parmesar ka thaan, sadh sung gaaveh gune Gobind pooran brahm gyan” (Guru Granth, p. 1226), meaning that God is encountered as the Word in the Adi Granth, the precursor to the Guru Granth. Again, the Guru Granth says “Banee guru guru hae banee vich banee amrit saray” (Guru Granth, p. 982) — The Word is the manifest spirit of the Guru; The Guru is immanent in the Word. In fact, one only needs to step methodically through the Sidh Gosht (Guru Granth, pp. 938-941), a dialogue between Guru Nanak and the Yogic scholars of the time, to marvel at Guru Nanak’s emphasis on the Word as the only way to liberation.
The Gurus lived during colorful and dangerous times; two Gurus were martyred, as were the four sons of the tenth Guru. Often, there were disagreements within the Gurus’ family and strong internecine rivalry, particularly when a successor Guru was to be anointed, yet there is only minimal and passing reference to any of this history, if at all, in the Guru Granth.
The Gurus received respect and reverence as the carriers and channels for the message. But their private lives remained private.
In contrast, for instance, the institution of Christianity is a manifestation of the flesh of Christ; this is clearly reiterated at every Communion, at every Mass. Something akin to this – personalization of the message — would find absolutely no place in Sikhi.
The emphasis, thus, is not meant to be on the person of any Guru — from Nanak to Gobind Singh — but on the Word in the Guru Granth. As I say this, I must also concede that humans have very human needs, and so Sikhs worldwide seem to have created iconography and icons of worship out of the Gurus who were iconoclasts to the core.
Let us cast a very quick look at the Indian subcontinent and what it was like when the Gurus trod the earth.
Indian society was internally divided by caste and subject to yearly invasions through the Khyber Pass and into Punjab. Many had used this gateway into India – from the Caucasians to Alexander the Great, the Mongols and Mughals – to stay, perish or return. The sea routes served trade, but attracted invaders late in history when the French, English, Portuguese and Dutch ventured forth.
It is the same path that continues to give America and NATO so much trouble these days.
The people of India, largely Hindu, were divided into a rigid hierarchy of the caste system. Low castes and women were disenfranchised beyond what we can imagine today. Islam was the politically dominant religion with its emphasis increasingly on conversion of the natives to Islam – willingly or otherwise. The person or property of a non-Muslim was not safe and he also paid regressive taxes just to exist. Over the centuries, the natives of India had become inured to being ruled either by the hierarchy of their own caste system or by invaders. Sikhi arose in the face of such turmoil.
I would summarize the times in one sentence as one where when the Indian found himself between a rock and a hard place; caught betwixt a caste-driven Hindu society on one side and politically dominant Islam on the other that demanded conversion or death.
In creating Sikhi, the Gurus embarked on a critical experiment — one of nation-building – a nation with a spiritual core, but without political borders. What do a people yearn for or want?
Some critical needs are: A meaningful and positive message to shape righteous living (ethical framework) and a life of dignity with economic hope; an ethical framework and a way to fashion lives; a system of participatory self-governance that promises transparency and accountability where citizens have a stake in their own lives, and an internally consistent model of conflict resolution, so that a sense of fairness and justice prevail.
I know all this sounds like a tall order. A paradigm shift of such scale takes generations.
So, the Sikh Gurus built institutions to address these fundamental needs of a just and progressive society. Nation building at such a massive scale is not done overnight; the process took ten generations of Gurus and over two hundred years to create an egalitarian society based on spiritual values.
And, during that time, ten Gurus from Nanak to Gobind Singh personally directed and nurtured the development of many model Sikh communities by founding several townships that became the infrastructure of Punjab and of the larger subcontinent.
I have addressed the development of Punjab’s infrastructure by the Gurus in some detail elsewhere but, in brief, I remind you that Guru Nanak founded and nurtured Kartarpur for many years. Many flocked to it. It became a prosperous community of farmers and traders who lived the Sikh way of life. Guru Angad who followed Guru Nanak founded a new township at Khadur; that did not diminish Kartarpur of its glory but now added another township with a spiritually directed community to the nascent economic infrastructure of the land. Similarly for Guru Amardas and Goindwal, and the later development of Taran Taran, Ramdaspur, Amritsar Kiratpur, Hargobindpur, and finally Anandpur, Kesgarh, and others during the Guru period.
This is not a detailed or complete listing. It merely points out the deliberate efforts of the Gurus to awaken a sleeping nation while giving it a plan and hope by examples. Yes, I know that gurduara lectures often dwell on internecine rivalries as the driving force why each Guru went his separate way to found a new township but I think that’s a misreading of history.
Think with me a moment. If the Gurus acted to sidestep familial disagreements there were only two options open to them. Either a departing Guru could ask the people in the town to stay there and make the best of it and that he was going elsewhere, or he could ask them to evacuate the town and come with him. The first case would be abandoning the Sikh community, the second alternative would leave the town desolate.
There is absolutely not an iota of evidence or even a suggestion that any Guru followed such an path. The impetus was development of the infrastructure of Punjab and the imperatives of nation building.
Two hundred years after Guru Nanak, the teachings had been collated in what was to become the Guru Granth – the repository of our entire spiritual heritage. The sapling of a nation planted by Guru Nanak had been nurtured over two centuries by exemplary gardeners – the ten Gurus. Solid self-reliant communities had been built. Institutions necessary to a free people were in place.
The institution of langar teaches equality and commitment to community service; gurduara, or dhramsaal as it was likely called then, existed as a community center where people learned to appreciate each other and work collectively towards the community’s goals; meeri and peeri were ideas joined at the hip so as to teach that our inner spiritual life is not to be sundered from our worldly lives; Akaal Takht provided a venue for community issues and gurmatta was the way to resolve them. Every Guru from the sixth to the tenth maintained a functioning battle-tested army to safeguard our interests. Don’t forget that the twice a year conclave of Sikhs at Vaisakhi and Divali, that Guru Amardas initiated, were like national conclaves – precursors of the Sarbat Khalsa.
How do we know that the experiment of nation building was successful? How does a gardener know that the sapling he planted sometime ago now no longer needs a supporting shaft or a scaffolding to hold it up? How does a parent know that a child is ready and the apron strings should be cut?
Guru Gobind Singh set out to test the Sikhs on these questions when he put the finishing touches on the experiment in 1699; he initiated the first five Sikhs and then asked these five to initiate him in turn. This act, to me, speaks of his clear intention to pass on the mantle of temporal power to his Khalsa, while Guru Granth retained all spiritual authority. This is exactly what he did nine years later in 1708. Thus he completed the structure and requirements of a system that guarantees self-governance.
By 1708, Sikhs and their community had reached a level of maturity; they were ready for self-governance. This fantastic model places the onus squarely where it belongs — on us — and places our spiritual underpinnings in the Guru Granth, making it unquestionably timeless and universal. It seems to me self-evident then that Guru Granth is the repository of all spiritual authority in Sikhi; temporal authority vests in the Guru Panth acting collectively.
In effect, Guru Gobind Singh divided the authority of the Guru into two integrated domains: spiritual and temporal. (“integrated” is the operative word here) This is binding doctrine and Sikhs reiterate it at every congregational prayer. “Guru Granth ji manyo pargatt guraa(n) ki deh” – Believe in the Granth – the embodiment of the Guru. These words were likely not uttered by the Guru but come from Giani Gian Singh in the 19th century. But he did not invent the idea; he merely placed the Guru’s central directive into verse that continues to capture the Sikh imagination.
There exist several versions of this dohera and one that antedates it by Bhai Prahlad Singh. It is one of the earliest Rahatnamas and goes: “Akaal Purkh ke hukum te pargat chalayo panth; sabh sikhan ko hukum hae Guru manyo Granth; Guru Khalsa manyo pargat guraa(n) ki deh…” There are variations of this as well. Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha) suggests that the bexact date of its composition remains in doubt.
I submit that this speaks of the dual responsibility – spiritual and temporal divided between the Guru Granth and the Sikhs acting with an awareness of their spiritual heritage. To my mind, both doheras are doctrinally consistent and correct.
I offer you several examples indicating that the development of collective responsibility had serially progressed.
Chandu, a functionary of the Mughal government wanted to cement his relationship to the house of the Guru via the kinship of marriage. Tradition suggests that the Sikhs with the guru were consulted. The marriage proposal was rejected. When the time came for he young Guru harkishan to nominate a successor he merely pointed to the village of Bakala but named no one. The Sikh community of the day rushed to Bakala and found 22 pretenders to the Guruship. The ultimate judgment here was then made by the Sikhs themselves. Two examples from the life of Guru Gobind Singh found in the early chronicles are instructive: Once when Guru Gobind Singh was traveling with a few Sikhs he saluted a Muslim grave site with his arrow. This is against the Khalsa Coode of Conduct. He was chastised by the Sikhs and happily paid a penalty. When in December 1705 Guru Gobind Singh abandoned the fort at Anandpur after a prolonged siege by the enemy, the decision was made not by the Guru but by the collective body of Sikhs in the fort. Finally, when Banda Singh Bahadur was deputed to proceed to Punjab, he was sent along with five Sikh counselors.
Our institutions were then complete. In 1708, many of the necessary institutions – even the Akaal Takht - were functional and had been so for a good many years; the youngest institutions, nine years old then, were those of the Khalsa and the Panj Pyarey.
There was thus no reason left for a Guru in human form to personally lead the Sikhs.
But then, you might want to argue, why does Guru Granth repeatedly remind us to look for enlightened souls (sants) who can guide us? Why does it tell us to find human mentors who can show us the way? Are the Gurus asking us to find living gurus to take the place of the ten from Guru Nanak to Gobind Singh?
In my view, the Gurus were not foisting any new holy men and gurus on us, or Guru Gobind Singh would have named a human successor. But because of the plethora of self-appointed mentors and guides, this is a question that vexes us no end these days.
I will happily engage this idea at another time.
Given our present state of disarray, some might take issue with my narrative and reasoning. They might wonder if Guru Gobind Singh really thought we were ready for self-governance. A corollary is what we have done or not done with the institutions that I enumerated in the three centuries since.
I leave the causes and the cure of our current malady and malaise to you, my dear readers.
I.J. SINGH came to the United States in 1960 on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He received a PhD in anatomical sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School (now Oregon Health Sciences University), and a DDS from Columbia University. He is a professor emeritus of anatomical sciences at New York University.
He serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the Sikh Review (Calcutta) as well as Nishaan (New Delhi), and writes a regular internet column on Sikhi
I.J. Singh is a frequent speaker and writer on the Sikh experience in the diaspora and interfaith issues, .and has authored four collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in North America.