The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

A thorough job on daunting rahitnamas
Surjit Hans

Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit
by W.H. McLeod. OUP. Pages 482. Rs 695.

Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa RahitIN the study of Sikhism Hew Mcleod has blazed trails that have been worked by other scholars. His 1968 Guru Nanak and Sikh Religion led to two substantial achievements.

That much could not be known biographically about Guru Nanak, led J.S. Grewal to approach the subject indirectly. He set out to find how Guru Nanak reacted to society, polity, and religions of his times to produce a classic.

Hew demarcated the orthodox, Mina, Handali (Bala) and Udasi sources of janamsakhis. Later Jagjit Singh, Manjit Singh and S.S. Sagar went beyond the hagiographical characterisation of the janamsakhi to discover the Janamsakhi literary genre which is (1) committed to a particular theology, (2) tradition, and (3) narrative imagination in consonance with its religious principles. I may share with the reader that, despite my disinclination for the Handali sect, Waddi Janamsakhi Guru Baba Handal is the greatest work of its kind.

Hew’s latest book deals with the history of Khalsa rahit. I knew something about the pre-British rahitnamas. That the Singh Sabha movement was able to mould an eclectic Sikh rahit into a unified Khalsa mode in about 70 years was a great achievement as such. Hew's demonstration of the process is equally so.


Budh Singh published Khalsa Dharm Shatak in 1876. Kahn Singh Nabha wrote Raj Dharm (1884), Ham Hindu Nahin (1898) and Mahan Kosh (1930), Gurmat Sudhakar, 1898 Hindi, 1901 Punjabi). By the efforts of Chief Khalsa Diwan Gurmat Parkash Bhag Sanskar was printed in 1915. Babu Teja Singh Bhasaur’s Khalsa Rahit Parkash was published in 1911. Jodh Singh’s Gurmati Niranay was published in 1932. Finally Sikh Rahit Maryada was brought out by the SGPC in 1950.

About his book The Early Sikh Tradition I wrote: "McLeod knows more about the janamsakhis of Guru Nanak more than anyone dead or living." This time it is the rahitnamas. He knows who has omitted what in whom. Piara Singh Padam quotes an extract from Granth Bhai Painda as if it were from Prachin biran bare. Bhai Vir Singh’s footnote on p. 5196 of Guru Partap Suraj Granth "differs markedly" from Santokh’s version of Sakhi eight of Sau Sakhi. None of Avtar Singh Vahiria’s works are listed in Ganda Singh’s two bibliographies. Kahn Singh Nabha was compelled to leave many of the (rahitnama) injunctions in Gurmat Sudhakar. Khalsa Rahit Parkash of Babu Teja Singh was largely a copy of the rahitnamas in Kahn Singh Nabha’s Gurmat Sudhakar. Sant Sing Maskeen quotes in support of five Ks two couplets from Nand Lal and Desa Singh; neither is there in the early versions of rahitnamas attributed to them. Two English translations of Sikh Rahit Maryada do not adhere strictly to the Punjabi text.

The traditional rahitnamas hardly agree on anything. Two agree on "not calling a Sikh by half his name," and two on "not wearing a janau." Spatially no two writers are seeing the same social reality, and none observes chronically what has been observed before. Sikhs as a "remarkable" social group do not exist. Rahitnamas are "expressives" of strictly "personal" choices.

I doubt if Tankhahnama can be dated 1718-19. Raj karega Khalsa aki rhe na koi/ Khwar hoi sabh milenge, bache sharn jo hoi. ‘Milna’ is a technical term for ceremonial surrender. The word is so used throughout Jassa Singh Banod by Ram Sukh Rao, Suraj Parkash by Bhai Santokh Singh, and Panth Parkash by Rattan Singh Bhangoo. Khwar hoi are enemies beseiged by the Sikhs, not the persecuted Sikhs. This is possible sometime after 1765.

A rahitnama protests against the social differentiation creeping into the Panth. "Never insult another Sikh by... pulling his turban, pulling the hair of his kesh, or grasping his beard. Never awaken a Sikh by kicking him. A Gursikh should not eat good food himself while serving inferior food to another. Never dismiss a Sikh servant. He who kills another Sikh will go to hell." Insistence on rahit would not paper over splits in the Panth just as flight into fundamentalism the world over does not cure social malaise.

The book is voluptuously produced with two black spots of misprints: Bhal (Bhai), p. XIV, and Pusian (Persian), p. 207, to avoid the evil eye.