Sikh Rehat Maryada*
by Dr. Gurbaksh Singh
[* Paper Presented at the Sikh Renaissance Conference at Los Angeles, June 30 – July 2, 1995]
Guru Nanak gave a new philosophy of life called Gurmat. He revealed the virtues of the Almighty Lord, Father of the whole humanity irrespective of the faith they follow. The mission of human life is to love and realize the all pervading Akal Purakh and not to bother about imagined heaven. To love God is being in heaven. To ignore Him and suffer from lust, ego, anger, greed is suffering in hell in this life. Worship of the Creator, not His creation or his idols, is the path introduced by the Guru.
Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 founded the Khalsa Panth commissioned to live and die for the above mission. He prescribed a code of conduct for the members and ordered them to wear 5 K’s uniform as their insignia. The Sikh nation was given their own rituals, ceremonies and esprit de corps. A member is required to join the faith by accepting Amrit from Panj Piarey and live a virtuous life for the welfare of humanity. They believes only in Guru Granth Sahib as the living Spirit of the Gurus and do not follow rituals of any other faith.
There are more than two dozen Rehat Namas describing the code of conduct suggested by Guru Gobind Singh for the members of the Khalsa Panth. They are written under the names of important persons, Bhai Nand Lal, Bhai Chaupa Singh, Bhai Desa Singh, etc. Some are considered more important than others. However, every Rehat Nama has something in it which does not agree with the teachings of gurbani. The scholars conclude that some ghost authors have added/deleted statements in the original writings to fit them with their personal thinking. We know the Guru issued these instructions orally. When the Amritdhari Sikhs, re-stated them to the new members, some changes in them were expected. This went on for a long time over distant places from person to person, hence the written forms by different persons became widely different.
During the 18th Century, because of the government repression, Sikhs moved to inaccessible places, leaving gurdwaras to be managed mostly by non-Amritdhari well-wishers of the Panth, Sehajdharis and Mahants. They looked like Hindus and followed many Hindu rituals in the gurdwara because of the majority influence and for economic reasons too. They wanted to attract Hindus to obtain offerings from them. Crude portraits (of course, all are imaginary) of Gurus were introduced during this period. Worship of Hindu idols was re-introduced by these caretakers of the Gurdwaras unobtrusively. In the early 20th century different Maryada was followed at almost every Gurdwara depending upon who was managing the place.
Gurdwara Reform Movement started in late 19th Century by the Singh Sabha who wanted the Mahants to practice what was dictated in Gurbani. Sikhs had to pay a heavy price and finally made the British Government to accept their demands. The Government agreed in 1905 to remove idols from the precincts of the Harmandar Sahib and prohibit their worship there. In 1909 the Anand Marriage Act was passed confirming that Sikhs are not a sect of Hindus. Earlier, Brahmans performed the Sikh marriage by making the couple go round the fire and reciting Hindu mantras.
In 1925, the British Indian government approved gurdwara Act in the Punjab Legislature which allows Sikhs to manage their gurdwaras according to their own principles.
Sikh Rehat Maryada
Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar, appointed a sub-committee for uniform formulation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada. The draft was circulated among the Sikhs all over the world. About a hundred Sikh sants, scholars and Sikh organisations sent their suggestions regarding the draft. It took its first acceptable form in 1936. It was discussed and re-discussed by the Sabhas, and Committees and finally approved by the Panth in February 1945. The document was drafted in Punjabi. For the benefit of the English speaking people, it has now been translated in English. It first defines a Sikh and the faith. It describes the personal daily life of a Sikh and his responsibilities as a member of the Khalsa Panth. The Sikh practices to be followed at birth, marriage, death and other occasions have been mentioned, Gurbani hymns prescribed for morning, evening and bed time recitation have been stated. Amrit Ceremony has been given in detail. The do’s and don’ts have also been mentioned in the booklet.
Main features state that every Sikh should accept Amrit and practice the Rehat regularly. In case of any omission or committing anti-Sikh act, a Sikh appears before the Panj Piarey for re-admission to the Panth and being placed on a good standing.
It is unfortunate that, with the passage of time, the Sikh Rehat Maryada, instead of becoming more and more popular among the Sikhs, has become less and less acceptable. The general indifference to follow a high value life by individuals is the basic cause. Of course, some Sikhs accuse the Sikh leadership who, they say, are more interested in their political advancement than preaching moral values among the masses. The ruling majority also is responsible for this. They declare religion and politics are two separate fields, but actually they have been fighting gurdwara elections and misusing their political power to take control of the gurdwaras.
Major share of distracting Sikhs from the Sikh Rehat goes to Sants. Most of the Sikhs are associated with one Sant or the other. The main reason is that they assume that the Sant will help them here and in the next world if they listen to him and obey him. The general feeling among such Sikhs is that offering money to the Sants and reciting hymns prescribed by him (not caring about the instructions given in the Sikh Maryada) is the path to the heaven!
Each Sant has introduced some practice which is specific to his group only. For example, it may include photo worship, hymns required to be recited daily, practice of Amrit ceremony, performing Anand Karaj (Marriage), Guru Granth recitation, dress code, etc. This resulted in the practice of many Rehat Maryadas, without defining anyone of them in writing, each differing from the approved and published Panthic Maryada. It was a surprise to the author that many Sikhs including some office bearers of the Gurdwara management’s in North America, did not even know about its existence.
Recently, because of political reasons and personal advancement, a group of Sants openly opposed this Panthic Maryada in their special gathering called for forming their own organization to stand in opposition to the Panth. They printed their own Rehat Maryada. A copy obtained by the author proves it to be a planned attempt to misguide the naive Sikhs and general public. The Sant Maryada has been printed under the same title and with the same material as the Panthic Maryada to make it appear genuine. The Sant Maryada contains changes made here and there to misguide or confuse the readers. No reference is made to the effect that it is a “Sant” Maryada and not a Panthic Maryada. Nothing is mentioned as to who approved it. Those who were a party to make these changes, themselves do not practice them. They continue to follow their own ‘dera’ Maryada.
The community believes that this had obviously been done at the instance of the ruling majority to weaken the unity of their political opponents. There is no dearth of self-styled Sants or naive “Sikhs”.
Major Sikh Ceremonies
Because of ignorance about the publication of the Maryada, and the general indifference shown by many leaders and preachers, one feels worried to see non-Sikh and anti-Sikh rituals smuggled into the Sikh Community.
Amrit Ceremony: Some of the Sikhs believe that it is not necessary to take Amrit to become a Sikh. They say one should recite gurbani, earn honestly, contribute for gurdwara funds and live a truthful life to be a good Sikh. Yes, this makes one a good person, a holy person but all this is not enough to be Sikh. Having been born in a faith one learns the beliefs and rituals of the faith. However, one becomes a member of the faith only after he or she joins the faith by undergoing the ceremony prescribed for the members of that faith; Janju for a Hindu, Sunnat for a Muslim, Amrit for a Sikh, Baptism for a Christian, etc.
Many people live a Sikh life but do not take Amrit. One common reason is the fear of committing a sin by not being able to practice what is required of a Sikh. The problem is only for the alcoholics because alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are prohibited for a Sikh.
Because of their desire to conform to the Western society, some Sikhs, both young and old, have removed their turbans. They say it is very difficult, and some feel it is not necessary, to keep turbans and uncut hair in the Western World. This is self-invented fear because we see Sikhs with turbans in every field. We find Sikh doctors, professors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, businessman, and army and police employees with turbans and uncut beard. One has only to make up one’s mind to give up drinking and retain a turban, otherwise nothing from outside prohibits them to appear like a Sikh and adopt the Sikh way of life. Happily, thousands have started keeping hair and wearing turbans. If this trend goes on we may, in the near future, find every Sikh a formal member of the Panth.
Rituals at Birth: Most of the Sikhs follow the Maryada of this ceremony. It consists of expressing thanks to the Almighty for favouring them with a child by visiting local Gurdwara, contributing some money and getting the child named in Sangat. Because of the British practice of using a third (caste) name, many Sikhs adopt the caste name and drop their real last name – Singh for a male and Kaur for a female. If needed additional identity for a Sikh is provided by a suffix which usually is the name of the village, locality or a pen-name. A prefix, Sardar, Giani, Professor or Bhai may also be used for this purpose. According to the Maryada a person loses one’s previous caste and religion, when they become Sikh. They are no more high or low castes, nor Hindu or Muslim. All Sikhs belong to one and the same community, the humanity.
Marriage: Being a required social ceremony, it is gone through by all Sikhs but without caring for the religious aspect of it. A couple is required to have embraced Sikh faith to be married according to the Anand Marriage Act enacted in 1909. Earlier, the Sikh marriage was not accepted under law. Post 1950, Sikhs are again covered under the Hindu Code Bill. At the time of the engagement/marriage, sometimes the boy is given a gold Karha in addition to other ornaments. Wearing it as an ornament cannot replace the iron Karha which is one of the five essential K’s to be worn by a Sikh.
The girls, before marriage, generally wear earrings; recently even nose-pin or nose-ring is worn by some. Wearing of ornaments which require piercing of nose or ear is not permitted. It was no surprise for the author to be challenged by a lady for his above statement made during the lecture. She did not believe that clause is included in the Rehat Maryada. Therefore the relevant clause had to be read in the conference to the embarrassment of the women, most of whom were wearing ear-rings, and some with nose-pins, too.
Death: The Sikhs follow the prevalent tradition of cremating the dead. The Maryada says the dead may be cremated, buried or thrown in water, it makes no difference to the soul. Like Hindus, some Sikhs, perform Varihna (ceremony performed before the end of the 12th month after death). Varah means year. They recite path (or Akhandpath) and give donations. In Maryada this is specifically prohibited for a Sikh.
Taking Asthian, the left over bones after cremation, for throwing in sacred water (river) is also prohibited in Sikh Maryada. Sikhs were misled, unfortunately, by the Sikh leaders themselves, when a centre was opened for this purpose at Kiratpur Sahib on the bank of river Satluj. Against the Maryada, they ceremoniously carry the urn containing the remains of the deceased to Kiratpur for immersion there. This fact is well advertised in the newspapers to gain some political mileage and obtain votes from the Sikhs.
To be united and strong we all should feel happy to follow the Panth Maryada. This will raise the image of the Sikh community in India and abroad. It will reduce internal bickering and grouping. Let us, the participants, decide today to respect this Maryada and follow it in letter and spirit.