Over time Sikhs sense that a sort of hierarchy has developed among them where the laity is stratified based on their rigor in certain observances. This stratification is rooted in the thought that order of Khalsa is the supreme form of an observant Sikh – following Guru Gobind Singh’s edict on Baisakhi of 1699; with Khalsa form being interpreted as the image of a Sikh with unshorn hair and other associated observances commonly referred to as five K’s. The broad layering seems to be viewed in the order –

  • Amritdharis – those who have partaken of and are observant of ritual initiation known as amrit and sport 5K’s
  • Sabat soorat kesdharis – those faithfully sporting unshorn hair and related Sikh observances but are not amritdharis and may not sport kirpan
  • Kesdharis – sport hair and related observances though not rigorously
  • Monas[1] – those who have shed their hair and related observances or their progeny who continue with the same practice
  • Sehjdharis – those belonging to families who believe in Sikhi and have been practicing Sikhs but have not historically sported unshorn hair and related 5k observances

There also are those who may be as close to Sikhi as to some form of other practices and beliefs, mostly Hindu but they are not the subject of our discussion because they do not claim to be Sikhs nor are they emotionally linked to the Sikh institutions or community life. Sects that have been excommunicated over time for non-observance also do not form part of our discussion.

Within the above broad stratification, several amritdharis assert that amrit initiation is obligatory to be called a Sikh and give an impression of thinking themselves as better Sikhs. Those who are kesdharis do not see amrit to be a compelling need but would want Sikhs not to cut their hair. Monas feel that notwithstanding their choice to not keep unshorn hair they are good Sikhs and do not like to be treated otherwise. Sehjdharis have mostly given up on hitching on to Sikhs and have been drifting into several fringe sects or blending back into the Hindu pantheon.

Overlapping this stratification is the feeling of relative superiority that Punjabi Sikhs may feel relative to their Bihari, Ouriya, Dakhani or their White [Gora] Sikh brethren. Within Punjabis runs also the caste hierarchy in another parallel set of layers where Khatris and Jats have been jostling for the top level unmindful of their attitude towards Mazhbi Sikhs, Sikligars and others who belong to the traditionally lower placed castes.

Significantly all these layers come together in the Gurdwara setting and even though in their relation to the Guru their devotion and intensity of belief may be equally strong one would discern divide along all interfaces for various reasons including an undercurrent of resentment and hostility that is hurting and dividing the community and making it weaker instead of stronger as was intended and realized in earlier times.

To understand the implications of the problem that we are about to discuss it would be helpful to briefly explain some of the core concepts that reflect on our subject and to recapitulate some of the developments that have taken place over time and influenced Sikh thinking and attitudes. We will limit ourselves for the purposes of this discussion to the visible Sikh identity associated primarily with amrit and sporting unshorn hair and the way it is impacting their communal life. Several words in traditional parlance have been used in the text. Those reflecting on the theme have been explained or translated for ease of understanding. Glossary of terms at the end should also be helpful.


Guru Nanak says that he alone may be called Guru, a Sikh and a physician, who knows the patient’s illness. He is not affected by actions, responsibilities and entanglements and remains detached amidst household attachments. He renounces lust, anger, ego, greed, attachment and maya. Deep within, he meditates on the reality of the Imperishable one and by Guru’s grace reaches Him.[2] He meditates on Naam, burns away his attachment to maya by the Guru’s shabad and restrains and controls his wandering mind. Only through grace is obtained the company of such a Sikh.[3]

Guru Amardas put it simply that he alone is a Sikh, a friend, a relative and a sibling, who walks in the way of the Guru’s will.[4]

Guru Ramdas said that one who calls himself a Sikh of the true Guru should rise early and meditate on the Lord’s Name. —- Gursikh who meditates on Har, Har, with every breath and every morsel of food becomes pleasing to the Guru —- That person, unto whom my Lord and Master is kind and compassionate – upon that Gursikh, the Guru’s teachings are bestowed. Servant Nanak begs for the dust of the feet of that Gursikh, who chants the Naam, and inspires others to chant it.[5]

Says Guru Arjun that the true Guru cherishes his Sikh, washes away any filth of evil in his intellect, and frees him of his bonds. The Sikh of the Guru abstains from evil deeds. The true Guru gives his Sikh the wealth of Naam. The Sikh of the Guru is very fortunate for the true Guru helps his life and hereafter stay organized. O Nanak, with the fullness of his heart, the true Guru mends his Sikh.[6]

Guru Gobind Singh says ‘the true Sikh remembers the ever-awakened Light and does not bring anyone else in the mind; he practices his vow with wholehearted affection and not even by oversight believes in graves and monuments.’[7] Another shabad often quoted says ‘such a man, in whose heart shines the full Divinely radiant light is a true a pure Khalsa. He the Khalsa meditates on the ever-radiant Light, day and night, and rejects all else but the one Lord from. He decorates himself with perfect love and faith, and believes not in fasts, tombs, crematoriums and hermit cells, even by mistake. He knows none except the one Lord in the performance of acts of pilgrimage, charities, compassion, austerities and self-control.’[8] In another shabad he says that Khalsa are Akal Purakh’s army, manifested per His will. So long the Khalsa retain their distintiveness I will extend all my strength and support to them but if they lose their way I will no more extend them that esteem.[9]

Another definition from the Rahitnama attributed to Bhai Dya Singh says, “A Sikh is known by his faith in the divine Word. The living code, Rahit, that he inwardly observes should proclaim his identity. Let him drink the amrit of the Divine name and put on the vestment of restraint. Never abandon the Rahit.”[10]

The way the Gurus saw their Sikhs is rooted in guru-disciple relationship and focusses on their core as spiritual beings. The depiction of Sikhs by the Gurus as well as description in the Rahitnama ascribed to Daya Singh is focused on interiority of the Sikh character. In our contemporary context using these descriptions as definitions is bound to present a lot of difficulties for the reason that even though what is said may sum up the essence of being a Sikh it does not seem to relate to Khande ka Pahul – the Sikh initiation ceremony – and external symbols including kes – unshorn hair – that have come to be associated with Sikh identity over the centuries. Additionally while it makes sense to define a faith by its precepts, it is not possible to use observance of precepts to define its followers due to difficulties in such an intrusive and likely contentious verification.


Literally amrit means immortal or that which is not subject to death and refers to the age-old concept of the human search for a potion that assures immortality. Guru Nanak put it very simply that amrit in Sikh thought is ‘God’s word’[11] – a description that is direct and clearly leads one to identify amrit with Gurbani. Guru Amar Das endorses the same view saying that amrit is the name of the True one – it cannot be described beyond that.[12] Guru Angad makes a categorical statement that puts any other interpretation at rest saying that ‘those blessed with the glorious greatness of Your name are imbued with Your love. O Nanak, there is [this] only amrit and none other at all. This nectar is obtained within the mind through Guru’s grace by those so pre destined.’[13]

Thus the divine Guru is the sacred shrine of pilgrimage, and the pool of divine nectar; bathing in the Guru’s wisdom, one experiences the Infinite.[14] This is the ultimate goal of a Sikh. Imbibing amrit brings peace within and leads the devotee to His court in robes of honor.[15] This is merger with the Divine – the concept of state of immortality in the Guru’s thought.


In Gurbani the word ‘patit’ has been translated as sinner. It is a generic description and if viewed with a sense of humility could apply to each one of us because we all are not above sin in our lives. Guru Nanak says for himself ‘I am a wicked sinner and a great hypocrite; You are the Immaculate and Formless Lord.’[16]

The Gurus have suggested several scenarios that could help absolve sins or a sinner could be saved. Inherently all these envisage recognition of own fallibility and inner urge and effort to change by living per the Guru’s precepts, company of the virtuous and singing praises of the Divine as the following verses would explain:

  • I was a great sinner, but I have been made pure, singing the Lord’s Glorious Praises.[17] 
  • I was a sinner, and I have been sanctified, taking to the Guru’s feet.[18]
  • Joining the saadh sangat, company of the virtuous, and meditating on the divine sinners become pure.[19]
  • Just as iron slag is transmuted into gold if touched by philosopher’s stone, joining the sangat purifies the sinner through the Guru’s teachings.[20]
  • Even sinful people conquer the realm of death, if they become the God’s humble servants, and are imbued with the Guru’s spiritual wisdom.[21]


In Gurbani hair is often seen as wondrous and beautiful, associated with the divine. This association is at two levels. Firstly God is also known as Kesav – the One with the hair. Next singing His praises Nanak specifically points to a vision of long hair when he says – Your eyes are so beautiful, and Your teeth are delightful. Your nose is so graceful, and Your hair is so long. Your body is so precious, cast in gold.[22]

I have looked everywhere in every country, but nothing equals even a hair of my Beloved.[23]

In their deep reverence and devotion for the Divine the Gurus often talk of serving God and the godly in various ways with their hair. Guru Nanak says – with my hair, I wash the feet of Your slave; this is my life’s purpose[24] and – with my hair, I dust the feet of the Guru.[25]

Hair were expected to be kept clean for both men and women. Clean, well kept hair were a sign of good upbringing. Guru Nanak deprecates the yogi practice of uncut matted and disheveled hair as hideous and dishonor to family and ancestry.[26]

Ritual shaving of hair or their wearing in braids or matted form is no sign of devotion. Guru Nanak says ‘Some shave their heads, some keep their hair in matted tangles; some keep it in braids, while some keep silent, filled with egotistical pride Their minds waver and wander in ten directions, without loving devotion and enlightenment of the soul. They abandon the Ambrosial Nectar, and drink the deadly poison, driven mad by maya. Past actions cannot be erased; without understanding the hukam they become beasts.’[27]

Truth is not found by shaving one’s head. The Guru says that one cannot connect with the truth by enduring suffering, life of comfort, wandering like fish in water or foreign lands, studying scriptures or shaving one’s head.[28] Only loving adoration of God helps. About ritualistic shaving of head to atone for misdeeds, witness – One does what the mind pleases. Kabeer why do you shave your head if you do not tame your mind?  It is useless and will not help.[29]

And don’t miss the turban – how handsome is your turban! And how sweet is your speech. What are Mughals doing in the city of Dwarika? My sovereign Lord dark-skinned Krishna, You alone are Lord of so many thousands of worlds.[30]

Gurus mention ‘nais’ – barbers – as part of the society and are praises for Sain who was a barber and attained merger with the Divine. Implicitly there is nothing morally, ethically or spiritually constraining in being a barber nor is their any suggested condemnation or implied lack of ability to connect with the divine of those who use barbers.

Gurbani cites using hair to reverentially fan or to sweep the feet of the righteous; every hair of those in prayer is deemed to be in tune with the divine and singing His praises; the approaching messenger of death grabs a sinner by hair. The use of metaphor suggests the practice of long hair among people.

The Gurus are unequivocal in decrying those ritualistically wearing matted hair, or those who ritualistically shave their heads or pluck their hair out – the message for them is that without internal transformation all such travails are of no avail. As against matted or unclean hair shaved heads are commended. There is no suggestion that those serving as barbers are engaged in an activity that may be in conflict with the divine dispensation.

With such contexts dominating the discourse surrounding hair in the Granth, it seems safe to conclude that hair are associated with the divine, recognized as personal adornment but the act of wearing hair is not ascribed any spiritual merit or prescribed for Sikhs. There is nothing in Gurbani that can be construed as derogatory or mocking of hair nor does one find any evidence that Gurus commend keeping of hair as a ritual observance. Writings of the tenth Guru, Bhai Gurdas or Bhai Nandlal do not present any view contrary to this understanding.


Amrit also has been associated with the process of initiation of a novice into the faith. It was a ritual potion administered to the devotee when the Guru accepted him/her into the order. It was intended as a seal of mutual acceptance of the spiritual relationship between the devotee and the Guru and a tacit agreement on the part of the devotee that living by guru’s teachings was his chosen path.

Tradition has it that in earlier stages this ritual initiation was done by the person of the Guru only through administering a few drops of water touched by the Guru’s toes to the novice. This ceremony referred to as charanamrit was later also permitted to be carried out by Masands who were spiritual leaders appointed by the Gurus in regions far and wide. There is no evidence to suggest that this ceremony was considered necessary as a right of passage for those born into the faith.[31]

It is said that martyrdom of two Gurus and continued attacks on Sikhs led Guru Gobind Singh to conclude that it was a need of the time for Sikhs to have a visible identity so that as a breed of saint soldiers spiritually inspired by their vows, they will feel compelled to stand steadfast in defence of righteousness because of expectations associated with their visible identity. This led to the Guru introducing the ceremony of khande ka pahul, or the initiation ceremony now popularly known as amrit dharan on the Baisakhi day in 1699.

The first five initiates were selected through a process akin to putting them through fire. In other words they had to be seen as men of great devotion, fortitude and sacrifice to be the first ones to be so blessed. They in turn administered the pahul to the Guru. This was in fact the way the process was demonstrated by the Guru to proceed when living Guru in person was not there – that is that an elect five with demonstrably impeccable credentials could initiate those considered ready for induction into the Khalsa order. It is believed that the Guru ordained that Sikhs must sport 5k’s as a part of this initiation.

This ceremony is said to have substituted the earlier charanamrit ceremony and differed from it in some important ways. Firstly the nectar was prepared while gurbani was recited and then the initiate was administered the nectar by five Sikh elects who represented the Guru. In this manner the nectar was seen blessed by Guru’s word and Guru’s presence in physical, human form was provided by the presence of Guru Granth Sahib and the elect five acting on behalf of the Guru. The next important difference was that this initiated the person into the order of the Khalsa with its specific vows and code of discipline.

Though the new initiation rite was obviously strongly commended by Guru Gobid Singh there is no conclusive evidence that the Guru asked all Sikhs to renew their initiation through this ritual.[32] Nor is their any suggestion that this ritual was made a right of passage for those born to Sikh families or the novices entering the faith. It seems to have been intended to become the standard procedure for a formalized initiation of those who had reached a level where as individuals they felt that they had imbibed the basic tenets of Sikhi and were willing and prepared to abide by the discipline of the Khalsa order.

In history the Khalsa carved a new path. In the immediate post-Guru period [18th century] they fought oppression and discrimination against very heavy odds. There is strong historical evidence that Khalsa bands took to the hills to avoid repression and to continue their resistance using guerrilla tactics. Sikhs with hair were literally hunted when ruling Mughals and Afghan invaders placed reward on their heads. Thus Khalsa continued to be rigorously tested and were never found to give up on their faith. On the other hand in the midst of such unfavorable circumstances the Khalsa numbers swelled and their principled conduct earned grudging respect of their foes for never molesting women, hurting the weak and the unarmed or ravaging property of the populace. Kes thus gained currency as an unerring symbol of the ethical in Sikh identity.

During the Sikh rule and later with the coming of the British the physical threat to Sikhs receded. However under the British, Punjab soon was in the throes of three-way struggle among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs for protecting their respective interests. The physical symbols of Sikh identity now became the principal way to define their separateness from Hindus who under the Arya Samaj movement were attempting to assimilate Sikhs into the Hindu fold. Sikhs enthusiastically supported the initiatives launched by Singh Sabha activists and the number of kesdharis continued to go up especially among the urban educated and business communities. The British also indirectly promoted the amritdhari Sikh identity by making it a pre requisite for recruitment into prestigious Sikh Regiments. This continued to draw rural Sikhs into amritdhari fold who on return from their tenure of duty invariably continued to observe their vows and even encouraged others to follow the tradition. There was one change that crept in now – the initiation increasingly came to be used to proclaim identity and for conversions. By late 19th century Khalsa and kesdhari numbers were on the rise. Sikhs felt relatively secure with this identity and continued to develop, grow and stay buoyant.

The next phase of change came when after the end of First World War Sikhs launched a movement for getting the control of historical Sikh shrines from hereditary priests. This struggle, led and supported by kesdhari Sikhs stayed totally non-violent in spite of brutal force used to curb it. This earned widespread respect and eventually led to the transfer of management of Gurdwaras to a Sikh body under 1925 Government of India Act. This act defined who is a Sikh to determine the electors, prescribed who could hold office under the act and also laid down procedure for election of the managing body. With amritdharis qualified to hold office the control of Sikh Gurdwaras passed into their hands exclusively. On the religious front the changes were generally positive. The Gurdwara managements looked more orderly and the liturgical services were cleansed of distortions introduced in earlier days. By 1945 under the aegis of SGPC, the apex Gurdwara management body, a consensus was reached to promulgate Sikh Rehat Maryada [SRM], Sikh code of conduct that also defined who is a Sikh. Later in 1971 an Act passed to create the managing body for Delhi historical Gurdwaras carried another definition of a Sikh. All the three definitions are germane to our subject and we will go into that discussion as we proceed.

A surmise that seems credible is that in history amrit and kes have been linked to identity of Sikhs as important markers. Repeated attempts at bringing clarity to definition of a Sikh during the 25 years preceding and following the division of India suggest that Sikh activism was strongly guided by their perception that:

  • Kes and amrit were critical observances relating to Sikh identity,
  • Purity of Sikh transmission was possible if their religious institutions promoted a uniform code of conduct and maryada for all Sikhs to follow and
  • Control of Sikh religious institutions in the hands of those with defined identity was central to survival and growth of Sikhi and Sikh political pursuits.

On the political front however the things did not go well. The real test of leadership came when the British decided to leave and the Akalis could not negotiate any arrangement that could have secured Sikh interests in the successor regimes. In retrospect it would appear that their failure was due not only to a lack of vision but also their inability to negotiate with or relate to the urbane and saavy British ruling elite and other political leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. During the partition of the country Sikhs became the biggest losers. They lost their holy sites. Their loss of valuable agricultural land was massive and being easily identifiable their loss of life in the riots was also heavy. The displaced Sikh population resettled wherever they could find shelter and opportunity. The migration of population did increase Sikh concentration in some parts of Punjab that led to demand for a Sikh majority state. Politics soon started to look like a profitable occupation and the Sikh leaders showed propensity to become easy prey to tempting emerging opportunities. This was the beginning of contemporary phase of Sikh story viewed by many as one of their serious decline from the Sikhs of yore.


Sikhs had long felt that in the emerging environment in the later part of 19th century they had to define their religious boundaries with a greater degree of clarity. This need became a necessity when in early 1920’s after a successful campaign for Gurdwara reforn, the Government had to introduce legislation to provide legal framework for implementation of the accord with Akalis. This gave rise to Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925 that had to contain a definition of who is a Sikh.

Subsequently in 1971 Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act was promulgated. This act also gave a definition of a Sikh. During formulation of these acts there were consultations with Sikh leadership and several detailed accounts of these deliberations are available. The list of voters was determined by how a Sikh was defined and the office holders by the relevant eligibility criteria.


The definition of a Sikh per the act is:

  • “Sikh” means a person who professes the Sikh religion or, in the case of a deceased person, who professed the Sikh religion or was known to be a Sikh during his lifetime. If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the [Provincial Government], may prescribe the following declaration: I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the Ten Gurus and that I have no other religion. (9)
  • “Amritdhari” Sikh means and includes every person who has taken khande-ka-amrit or khanda pahul prepared and administered according to the tenets of Sikh religion and rites, at the hands of five pyaras or `beloved ones’. (10)
  • “Patit” means a person who being a kesdhari Sikh trims or shaves his beard or kes or who after taking amrit commits any one or more of the transgressions. (11)

The act defined;

  • “Sikh” as a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus only and keeps unshorn hair (Kes). If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in the manner prescribed by rules the following declaration: – “I solemnly affirm that I am a Kesdhari Sikh, that I believe in and follow the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus only, and that I have no other religion.”
  • “Amritdhari Sikh” means and includes every Sikh who has taken Khande ka Amrit or Khanda Pahul, prepared and administered according to the tenets of Sikh religion and rites at the hands of five Pyaras or “beloved ones”.
  • “Patit” means a Sikh who trims or shaves his beard or hair (kes) or who after taking Amrit commits any one or more of the four Kurahits.

The definitions in both the acts suggest that Sikhs are not monolithic but have certain range if internal diversity. A closer examination also would show that progressively the stress on kes was amplified and being an observant kesdhari was made a requirement of a Sikh in the Delhi Gurdwaras Act. With the 1925 Act amended in October 2003 both the acts as presently in force extend voting rights to kesdharis and allow only amritdharis to seek to be elected to hold any office under the acts. 

Sikh Rehat Maryada 1945

The Sikh Rehat Maryada [SRM] approved in 1945 defines a Sikh as ‘any human being who faithfully believes in:
i. One Immortal Being,
ii. Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Sahib to Guru Gobind Singh Sahib,

iii. The Guru Granth Sahib,
iv. The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and

v. The baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru, and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion, is a Sikh.’ [CHAPTER 1 Article I SRM].

In our discussion that follows we will be looking at a variety of provisions in the SRM and the two Acts that reflect on our subject. Readers will find reference to full text of the SRM helpful for greater appreciation of issues. The text, both original in Punjabi and its English version, can be accessed at the website of the SGPC.


Definition of a Sikh

The SRM historically was promulgated in the middle of the period between the two acts [1945 – almost mid way between 25 & 71]. The elect group that drafted the SRM knew of the definition in the 1925 act but they chose to define a Sikh in a generic manner based on belief criterion, seemingly cognizant of existing internal Sikh diversity. It also seems that the faithful belief criteria of the SRM are intended to be a non-intrusive verification equivalent of affirmation in 1925 act or professing to be a Sikh of 1971 act.

The SRM having thus defined a Sikh starts using two labels – Sikhs and amritdhari Sikhs or the Khalsa in a manner that clearly sets them apart. One can only infer from this that the appellation Sikh in SRM covers amritdhari Sikhs and non-amritdhari Sikhs including kesdharis, sirgunm [a term used in the SRM for those who having been kesdharis chose to cut their hair], patits and those who may be sehjdharis [term not specifically mentioned in the SRM]. Unbaptised Sikhs are called be-amritye [Article XXIV, q, 2]. Patit Sikhs are translated as fallen Sikhs [Article V q, Article XXIV q 2].

The SRM specifies observance of 5 k’s for amritdhari Sikhs alone [Article XXIV]. For [plain] Sikhs the only reference to kes says that they shall not dishonor the kes of their children [Article XVI, i]. In other words children born to Sikh families must not suffer their hair being dishonored as a result of decision by the parents. The decision to keep or not to keep unshorn hair must be the individual’s with remedies for those who decide not to follow the tradition.


In both the Acts patit is defined as a person who being a kesdhari Sikh trims or shaves his beard or kes or who after taking amrit commits any one or more of the transgressions. In the SRM, unlike the two laws, the term has not been extended to include kesdhari Sikhs who dishonor their hair. For such Sikhs the SRM has used term ‘sirgunm’ in its Punjabi version explaining sirgunm as a Sikh who was kesdhari but has cut his hair [kesdhari ho kai jo kes kataa devai – p. 27, note *].  Patit Sikhs translated as fallen Sikhs suffer certain restrictions including that an ardas on their behalf cannot be offered at the takhats.

Amritdharis – Privileges & Responsibilities

The following privileges are limited to amritdharis alone per the SRM:

  • Only amritdhari Sikhs can enter the sacred spaces in the takhats [Article V, q] thus restricting liturgical functions like granthi, ardassia, ragi, kathakar, sevadar etc at these most sacred shrines to them.
  • The collective of amritdhari Sikhs only constitutes Guru Panth. The manner of its working have not been spelt out.
  • Appeals against local decisions are to be made to Akal Takhat. Akal Takhat also has a tradition of deliberative decisions jointly by heads of the five takhats – all amritdharis.
  • Gurmatta to introduce major directional changes can be approved only by Guru Panth representatives [please see the Punjabi version of SRM – the English translation is erroneous]

In addition to Gurmat Rehni, Article XVI amritdharis also are expected to live to a more stringent code as per Article XXIV. The requirement to sport 5 k’s is not listed in Article XVI that is applicable to all Sikhs but is prescribed in Article XXIV [section p, relating to 5 k’s] for amritdharis. It also seems that the code is harsher for amritdharis e.g. for failure to follow Sikh discipline [plain] Sikhs can seek pardon as prescribed in Article XXV and punishment intended is light like manual service as against amritdharis facing automatic boycott for the same default under Article XXIV q 7. Amritdharis also have to go through reinitiation if they dishonor the hair under Article XXIV [section p, four transgressions].

The Purpose & Fallout

The ostensible purpose of restrictive definition of Sikhs in the two acts was that by limiting voting rights to observant kesdhari and amritdhari Sikhs all non-kesdharis will be excluded from voters list and thus became a barrier to any likely attempt [by Hindus] to gain control of Sikh institutions under false pretenses. This along with the elective offices being restricted to amritdharis recognized a three-tier set up with amritdharis as elected officials, observant kesdharis as voters and those who did not sport hair as non-voting Sikhs – thus sanctioning two levels of disenfranchisement in apex Gurdwara management bodies – total for those who cut their hair and partial for observant kesdharis.

The SRM on the other hand created its own stratification. By restricting entry into the sacred space at the holiest Sikh shrines to amritdharis it placed them at the apex. This is reinforced by amritdharis alone constituting Guru Panth that has the authority for making decisions for any directional changes [Article XXIII]. The overall stratification per SRM seems to be amritdharis, be-amritye, sirgunm, non-Sikh devotees, patit Sikhs.

Variants of this model have been used in Gurdwaras in the Diaspora where those hired to provide liturgical services are invariably amritdharis. The management control is tried to be restricted to amritdharis or kesdharis arguing that a sabat soorat [complete uncut hair image] should be presented to the mainstream.

Thus we can see the deep contradictions that have arisen in an otherwise egalitarian Sikh societal ethos. The major Gurdwaras are managed, purse strings controlled and their staff including liturgical employees hired by a group of amritdharis. The apex decision making collective of five takhats is all amritdharis and the authority for making any directional change is also restricted to amritdharis collectively. This has given a tremendous clout to amritdharis to control corporate Sikh understanding of their faith and Sikh worldview. At the same time at least at this juncture of Sikh history the credibility, as perceived by most observers, of amritdhari leadership is at all time low.

This coupled with increase in the proportion of non-kesdharis has created new tensions in the Sikh laiety; sharpened by an increasingly assertive non-kesdhari profile and harder positions taken by lay amritdharis who often make an assertion that only amritdharis are Sikhs. Significantly such assertions are made by lay amritdharis and not by those who are engaged in providing liturgical services or are in religious leadership positions. However signs of the rising tension are real and the Sikhs may be headed for a contentious future unless a more inclusive way can be found. We will now try and look at some facets of this tension.


The experience of Sikhs in the last 60 years in free India has left them wondering about the caliber of their religious and political leadership to look after Sikh interests in the new environment. Fights over leadership of Sikh religious institutions are commonplace. At the same time confidence of the community has been gravely eroded in the leadership by numerous instances of mismanagement and even alleged corruption. Since leadership has been virtually an exclusive domain of amritdharis in both religious and political arenas, these developments have led to increasingly open questioning if being amritdhari could any more be accepted as a credential for being a good Sikh, for being trustworthy or to be the primary leadership resource for the community.

Another trigger is the widely shared perception that quality of awareness, understanding and knowledge of Sikhi of granthies, ragis and kathakars is at best inadequate. With an increasing segment of the congregation not familiar or fluent in Punjabi their ability to communicate with their audiences is severely constrained, especially in the Diaspora. In some cases they also have shown tendencies that are not seen as fitting with their exalted vocation. Being all amritdharis they are not seen, mostly by the youth, as role models or exemplars.

The dramatic spurt in the trend for Sikh youth to give up their hair especially in Punjab is another complicating factor. According to some estimates the incidence could be as high as 80% in some areas. At the same time in the Diaspora immigrant Sikhs also have experienced similar change. Several gave up on their hair to avoid discrimination in their adopted homelands; others may have done it because it made life that much easier to live with certain chores not needed any more. The change seems more visible among kids and youth.


A comment about the demographics – I do not see the 80:20 evident among the attendees at the Gurdwaras including on major festivals when most Sikhs do go to the Gurdwara. It is possible that the presence of amritdharis, many of whom may be providing liturgical services and others who may be Gurdwara functionaries, skews the visual impression. It is also possible that amritdharis and kesdharis are more regular in attending gurdwara services and the youth who are more likely turning monas are not that regular. In spite of these possible factors I apprehend that if amritdharis are 15 %, kesdharis could not be less than 30%. A 50/50 divide of those sporting hair and monas may more likely be credible.

The profile of monas is not the same as it used to be either. Till a few decades back, most of the monas were from rural areas – farmers, artisans, scavengers and the like – who went in and out of the kes observance tradition somewhat randomly. Significantly when they moved in and out of kes observance their behavior or attitude as members of sangat did not change. There also was a sprinkling of those who had faced strong opposition from within the families when they shed their hair. This section of monas usually kept a discretely low profile. Being a small number and surrounded by kesdhari proponents they stuck it out and there are hardly any anecdotes to vouch assertive posturing by them in those days. The mona Sikhs therefore though quite divided into two diverse sub sets were uniformly just seen and not heard.

The picture is changing and monas cannot now be ignored – to some extent in India but more so in the Diaspora. Of the two segments that we looked at, attitudes of the first are possibly staying nearly the same – low profile as members of the sangat but out periods getting longer than before. The other segment now is mostly young adults who see intra-community discriminatory practices as abhorent. Their numbers are rising, buttressed by accrual of progeny of those who had shed their hair earlier and as times goes by, by their own kids.

In this backdrop the contemporary Sikh discourse on the question of amrit and kes has changed in the manner of its argument. Baisakhi of 1699 is seen to have been a response to historical developments of the time and it is argued that there is no credible evidence that Guru Gobind Singh had made amrit or 5 k’s obligatory for all Sikhs. It is also argued that Guru Granth Sahib and writings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh neither sport kes nor do they sanctify any ritual amrit.  

Thus the internal debate about visible Sikh identity seems to be acquiring an increasingly sharper tone. We will try and grasp the various facets of this conversation as taking place in our midst. I will be drawing liberally from my own conversations on the subject with several protagonists on the Internet.


The proponents of amrit contend that it is mandatory for all Sikhs and the drift of their arguments runs something like this:

  • Since Guru Gobind Singh himself took amrit, how can Sikhs be exempt from this requirement?
  • Sikhi spread through example [of amritdharis in Sikh history and struggles] and not through spreading of message of bani.
  • Amrit is mandatory for Sikhs. In fact it is only initiation of Amrit that makes one to become Sikh. It is not a choice. 
  • Amrit give Sikhs the 5 k’s and their visible identity. Shedding of Sikh outward appearance will lead to their “assimilation” into Hinduism.
  • If an amritdhari and a mona Sikh are alike then why do we have amrit?
  • Birth in Sikh family does not make one a Sikh – amrit does.
  • Amrit brings nimarata [humility], sehj [equipoise], tranquility, abhyas of nitnem [practice of daily ritual prayers], nearness to guru and a discipline in life.
  • Patits can become Sikhs again throught amrit.

We will look at each one of these arguments in the light of SRM, Sikh experience and the way some of these assertions are received.

Doing What Guru Gobind Singh did

The first argument makes a strong case for Guru Gobind Singh is said to have beseeched the elect five to give him the gift of amrit after they had been administered of the same at his hands. There are several messages inherent in this action of the Guru. Firstly he by his example acknowledged the sublime spiritual status of the five demonstrated so vividly by their willingness to offer their lives in response to the Guru’s call. Next it emphasized the supremacy of the institution of the elect five among Sikhs. It also was a demonstration of how the baptismal ceremony had to be carried out without the involvement of the Guru’s person. Another strong suggestion seemed to be that the spiritual value of the baptismal transcended spiritual status of the recepient if even the Guru was not above seeking this divine blessing.

The tradition has it that Sikhs at the time did ask if amrit was mandatory and his response was to say it not to be so. It is also said that a very large number of Sikhs did go through the initiation but it is not said anywhere that all did so or that those who did not were then onwards excluded from being Sikhs. Nonetheless the tradition strongly supports that the Guru did receive baptismal from the five elect and has been immortalized in the recital at Sikh religious service ‘waho waho gobind singh aapai gur chela’.

There is one caveat that cannot be brushed aside in this context. The Gurus also had in the past developed the institution of masands to be led by select Sikhs but Guru Gobind Singh abolished it because of weaknesses that had crept into the character of appointees. As such it is difficult to accept an argument that the mere act of going through the amrit ceremony can be eternally transforming. An amritdhari has to continue to demonstrate to be worthy of the blessing bestowed by amrit by his/her conduct.

The Force of Example

The second argument makes abundant sense. History gives ample proof that the example did lead to spread of Sikhi. The lives of Gurus were inspiring and during the time of Guru Arjun the Sikh following had already spread far and wide. Gurus selected committed and respected Sikhs to lead the institutional structure that they had created. Consequent to the martyrdom of Guru Arjun the Sikhs admired the courageous example of Guru Hargobind. Likewise after the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur the Sikhs came together to follow the young Guru Gobind Singh. Looking through history one also finds ample evidence as to how the demonstrated merit of the Khalsa inspired Sikhs to join their fold in increasing numbers during the 18th century. The case for the example being a motivating factor in spread of Sikhi is strong but the examples that inspired clearly were of demonstrated worthy lives rather than mere appearance.

Sikh Only if Amritdhari

The argument about the ritual initiation being mandatory or to take the position that one becomes a Sikh only upon going through the baptismal is not supported by history or by the SRM. Apart from references cited earlier from the SRM there are some more aspects that reflect variously on this issue:

  • Dishonoring the hair; eating meat of an animal slaughtered the Muslim way; cohabiting with a person other than one’s spouse and using tobacco constitute four transgressions (tabooed practices) that must be avoided by an amritdhari Sikh. In the event of the commission of any of these transgressions, the transgressor must get baptized again. If a transgression is committed the person must seek pardon of the present congregation and accept any punishment that is awarded. However if transgression is committed unintentionally and unknowingly, the transgressor shall not be liable to punishment. [Article XXIV, Section p]
  • The SRM says that amritdhari Sikhs are prohibited to associate with a Sikh who had uncut hair earlier and has cut it or a Sikh who smokes. [Article XXIV, p]
  • If amritdhari Sikhs commit any of the several prohibitions listed in Article XXIV, Section q they shall be liable to chastisement involving automatic boycott. These prohibitions include default in the maintenance of Sikh discipline [q, 7] and eating or drinking leftovers of the unbaptized or the fallen Sikhs [patit] [q, 2].

The above not only points to Khalsa being held to a more rigorous code of discipline but also brings out that unbaptized kesdharis, sirgunm and patit all are referred to as Sikhs. There is no hint or a suggestion that they cease to be Sikhs.

Choice or Right of Passage

Going through the baptismal has not been included as a rite of passage in the SRM which has a chapter on rites and ceremonies that covers:

  • Ceremonies pertaining to Birth and Naming of Child[Article XVII]
  • Anand Sanskar: Sikh Matrimonial Ceremony and Conventions [Article XVIII]
  • Funeral Ceremonies (Antam Sanskar) [Article XIX]
  • Other Rites and Conventions Apart from the above rites and conventions, on every happy or sad occasion, such as moving into a new house, setting up a new business (shop), putting a child to school, etc., a Sikh should pray for God’s help by performing the Ardas. [Article XX]

Further the SRM says ‘The person to be baptized should not be of very young age; he or she should have attained a plausible degree of discretion.’[33]It thus clearly is a deliberately made choice, by a person in full knowledge and acceptance of the commitments it entails. It also signals a person’s clear acceptance of the Khalsa obligations and having moved beyond doubts and second thoughts that seem to afflict so many of us.  

Hiduism as a Fallback Position

Suggestion that to give up hair is to be lost to Hinduism is rather infantile in the face of our assertion that we are not Kesdhari Hindus; for if we are not, then why is such a status considered a fall back to Hinduism?  Our identity as Sikhs must be rooted in our belief system with ritual observances superimposed – not the other way around. Even though the contemporary experience may indicate that even 2nd/3rd generation mona Sikhs have not got absorbed in the Hindu pantheon the fear may have justification because of what happened to the sizeable Sikh following among Biharis, Sikligars, Banjaras and the like after the Guru period. Reasons for this are more likely in neglect by Punjabi Sikhs to be inclusive and keep connected with them. The drift of sehjdharis and mazhbis away from Sikhi is also reflective of their continued discrimination within the Sikh pantheon rather than the absence of cementing influence of amrit.

There is one possibility however because of which the reference to being assimilated asHindus may be relevant. There seems to be an evident preference by Sikh girls to wed monas rather kesdhari Sikhs with even fewer opting for an amritdhari. There seems to be increased incidence also of Sikh girls marrying non-Sikhs. On the other hand in inter religious unions between Sikh men and Hindu women earlier trend was that the kids were brought up as Sikhs but cursory anecdotal evidence now may suggest that not to be the case.

In the overall the risk of assimilation in the mainstream whether it is Hindus in India or Christians in the West is real though I was surprised at the steadfastness of the small number of Sikhs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and East Africa who in spite of generations of isolation and often living in poverty have been able to successfully protect their identity. This subject however merits further enquiry to grasp the effect of diverse environmental influences on this phenomenon.

Are Amritdhari & non Amritdhari Sikhs Alike?

The question is asked that if amritdharis and other Sikhs are alike then why create the practice of amrit. We have already seen that the discipline code for amritdharis is more onerous. Looking closely at this code we find the differences to be in the realm of social behavior where amritdharis are subject to certain sanctions for breach of prohibitions. In addition there are certain other expectations of amritdhari Sikhs for example per Article XXIV, Section p and Article XVII, Section q amritdharis:

  • Must ever be ready for the service of the Panth and of the Gurdwaras.
  • Must tender one tenth [Daswand] of earnings to the Guru.
  • Ought to get his wife also baptised.

Amritdharis thus are expected to live up to a more rigorous code and in that respect they are treated differently in the SRM. They also are expected to be exemplars. However it is difficult to say if in practice the remedial measures are enforced or and if so applied as to their effectiveness. Intended to work like an honor system if the person chooses not to come forward the risks of fallout from discovery of any wrong doing, unless egregious, are minimal or at best notional.

Regarding being ready at all times for service again very little information is available to guide us to form an informed opinion. Historical experience as well as ground realities support the impression that amritdhari Sikhs have been ahead in providing leadership to the Panth and the Gurdwaras. This does reflect their readiness to respond to the call of service by the Panth. However in times of distress like the riots in 1947 and the troubled 80’s all Sikhs seemed to be responding to the community’s needs for help. As for seva in Gurdwaras what one sees at least in the Diaspora is that most of the real seva is done by the monas.

There is however one observation that may be relevant here in that amritdharis certainly do display a greater degree of robustness and relative sense of comfort in the corporate Sikh gatherings as well as interfaith settings. They tend to be aggressively articulate and defend their opinions. This indicates that they have formed opinions about the Sikh way of life possibly because their choice for getting initiated into the Khalsa order was made with discretion and more likely on their own.

Regarding contributing daswandh the position can be verified relatively easily though I am not aware of any attempt ever having been made to analyze the Sikh giving in such a manner. My impression based on my experience as a Gurdwara functionary is that most of the contributions came from those who were struggling to make ends meet and mostly were monas. Well to do amritdharis, kesdharis and the elitist monas seemed to be among the lesser contributing groups.

In the realm of personal piety the standard of Gurmat Rehni applies equally to all Sikhs. Failings in this area are wide spread but the visibly noticed failings are seen to be those who are shedding their outer form. When we look at the incidences of violence or other forms of untoward behavior within Gurdwara precincts amritdharis may likely be more defaulting. As for failings at the moral, ethical and spiritual plane it is not easy to form opinions but based on stories through the grape wine this problem seems evenly spread even though it must be conceded that it is amritdharis who are more subject to this scrutiny and unfortunately objects of rumor and innuendo.

As for both spouses being amritdharis it seems to be not very common.

Born Sikhs or Not

The SRM says‘The Guru’s tenets are: — A Sikh should, in no way, harbor any antipathy to the hair of the head with which his child is born. He should not temper with the hair with which the child is born. He should add the suffix “Singh” to the name of his son & “Kaur” to the name of his daughter. A Sikh should keep the hair of his sons and daughters intact.’ [Article XVI, section I] This clearly implies that children born to Sikh parents are considered to be Sikhs as per the SRM and parents are expected to bring them up with kes irrespective of their own choice in the matter.

In this light the claim made by some that Sikhi is not hereditary but has to be earned is at best misplaced as far as our limited subject is concerned. The Gurus did praise a Sikh as being as good as the Guru. That state of Sikhi has to be earned but it does not mean that one is not a Sikh if born into a Sikh family untill as a Sikh in waiting the person decides, at some point in their life to go through baptismal ceremony to be called or become a Sikh otherwise one would have lived and died a non-Sikh? That would indeed be an incredible position to take.

Some Esoteric Aspects

Some ardent proponents of amrit put forward some very esoteric arguments that go like this – if one follows the example of Guru Gobind Singh, then one needs to receive amrit from the Khalsa. Have you received it from the Khalsa? If so, did you receive it from the Guru or ‘5 fabulous ones’? If you have received it from the Guru, then no ‘humans’ were involved. If you have received it from 5 people, then perhaps the quality or lack thereof matters.

This raises some interesting issues not easy of answer. Do we expect that the initiate must believe in those administering amrit as the fabulous ones or should their faith as initiates inspire them to envision those administering as fabulous ones, epitome of the Guru and if that inspiration does not well up within them, their potential for transformation would be adversely influenced? What kind of spiritual or inspirational threshold is expected for one seeking amrit and for being one of the five [or six] who administer the baptism? Is it being suggested that the initiate should choose the five who are evolved and inspire Guru consciousness before accepting to be initiated by them? The SRM does not envisage acceptability of the five to the initiate.

Chip on the Shoulder

There is a clear under current of opinion among lay Sikhs that most amritdharis behave as if they are a cut above the rest. More often this attitude seems to arise out of their feeling that they are the one’s that are carrying the Guru’s Sikhi forward. Comments such as ‘an amritdhari is 100% better Sikh than any other patit or non amritdhari Sikh’ or ‘if one cuts one’s hair one is zero – that is it, just a zero. Whatever they may otherwise achieve does not matter’ are often heard.

This is unfortunate. However as said earlier such comments are only heard from Sikhs in worldly pursuits and not from those who are engaged day in and day out in liturgical and religious work.

Guru Panth

The SRM says that Panth’s Status of Guruhood named Guru Panth was fostered by all ten Gurus and formalized by the tenth Guru and constitutes the entire body of committed amritdhari Sikhs. Amritdharis therefore do have this special privilege of being members of Guru Panth and thus potentially be a part of the collective of Sikh religious authority. In this light the laws restricting the office bearers to being amritdharis could be seen to be in the spirit of this concept. There is one difference however between what the SRM says and what the law specifies. SRM is specific about committed amritdharis constituting the Guru Panth. In other words only those amritdharis who live in cosonance with the SRM will costitute Guru Panth though it has not been said how intrusive will that scrutiny be in its application. The law does not envisage any such qualification of amritdharis – the mere act of having gone through the ritual makes one eligible to hold an office under the acts.

Beating up on Monas

Many amritdharis tend to make very disparaging remarks about mona Sikhs. Mostly it is venting their disapproval of the act of dishonoring hair but it gets articulated in the claim that monas are no more Sikhs but can re-enter the faith through baptismal initiation. Unfortunately in trying to promote [or defend] the practice of amrit, such positions are not only not in keeping with the SRM but are also likely to be counter productive and may in fact turn the youth and those wavering against the very objective that they are trying to promote.


We have discussed the amritdhari worldview and arguments in support of amrit tradition. Even though some of the counter arguments have also been articulated in the foregoing analysis, the thrust of opposing themes runs along the following lines:

  • No rite can liberate us unless we follow its edicts. Gurbani can liberate us if we live it. Amrit will emancipate us if we follow its edicts.
  • Amrit was institutionalised to create dedicated people at a critical time in our history to save dignity and honor of the people, to achieve liberty from the oppressors. Guru Gobind Singh struggled for high principles. Amritdharis have failed to live up to those principles.
  • Amrit was not intended to create a political class among Sikhs.
  • The number of Sikhs giving up on keeping unshorn hair has increased so much that it is now estimated that as much as 80% of the youth in Punjab do not keep to the tradition. The situation in the Diaspora is nearly the same. With such large numbers Sikhs should decide on reforms through democratic methods.
  • There is visible discrimination against non-amritdharis especially the mona Sikhs.
  • With changing demographics the Gurdwara managements may in any case not continue to be the preserve of those keeping kes. Sikhs therefore must develop inclusive approaches to avoid continuing conflict.
  • How can you stop the wavering? They are listening, watching and waiting for an opportunity or reason to shed their hair.
  • Attitudes are changing. People ask questions and must be provided credible answers and explanations. Continued use of fear tactic may not be effective any longer.

The first three arguments have been variously addressed in our discussion so far. There is merit in such arguments if these are equally applied to all believers whether amritdharis or otherwise. Following the edicts is important for all. Decadence has set in across the board and is not confined to amritdharis. Let us now look at the other arguments like use of democratic methods, discrimination felt by monas, effect of changing demographics, vulnerability of the wavering and the challenge of attitudinal changes.

Democracy as a Tool for Reform

The thrust of arguments one hears regarding Sikh reforms [main subjects being amrit, kes, SRM] is that Guru Gobind Singh bequeathed Gurudom jointly to Guru Granth and Guru Panth. The Panth therefore should take into consideration how the majority of Sikhs feel and institute reforms that in essence do not contravene teachings enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. Mostly those who have given up on their hair advance this argument in the expectation that with large percentage of Sikhs now in that state the majority would move to remove distinctions and treat all shades of Sikhs as equal.

In spite of its simplistic appeal the argument suffers from a serious difficulty in that the authority vested in Guru Panth cannot be exercized by the Panth. Guru Panth as we saw earlier is the collective of committed amritdharis. Even though there is no historical precedence of an activist role by Guru Panth, the collective if it were to deliberate on the issue is not likely to be swayed in favor of what monas wish for. Panth, designated as the corporate Sikh body, does not have any authority. Even though the institution of sarbat khalsa is known to have taken collective decisions for the community in the past it is not clear if sarbat khalsa of 18th century was a collective of all Sikhs or of all Khalsa – if the latter, it would be no different from what is understood by Guru Panth per the SRM.[34]

It is also questionable if in matters spiritual the human understanding is that the so-called rule of 51% provides the right answer. Gurus clearly give the message that ‘je sabh mil kai akhan paey, vada neh hovai ghat neh jaey’ – God’s status will not rise or fall even if all unitedly express any particular view. Likewise divine play goes on notwithstanding our shared anguish ‘aitee maar payee kurlaanai tain kee dard neh aya’ – hearing the helpless shrieking of the oppressed did You not feel any compassion? Divine will is not guided by polls!

God is however amenable to and listens to His [true] devotees. There is very powerful message in the verses ‘toon bhagtan ke vas hain’– You are amenable to Your devotees – and ‘meri bandhi bhagat chhadaey bandhi bhagat neh chhutai mohe’ – devotees can make me alter what I ordained but I cannot over ride what my devotees decide. This does lend value to collective desire for change of course. The examples of Guru’s deferment to sangat and the panj pyaras fall in that genre, but do not point to bowing to the majority.

Religious reform invariably has been led by a charismatic personality who came forward with an alternate vision and then labored through with it. Some succeeded. A lot failed. It is a path that will call for deep thinking, clarity of vision, courage to present the thought, create the following and be prepared to make sacrifices for the cause. Such visionary has not yet been seen or known or caught the imagination of Sikh mainstream.

The Leadership & Discrimination Questions

This is becoming a hot button issue in the Diaspora setting. A preponderant tool to limit leadership positions in Gurdwaras to amritdhari or kesdhari Sikhs is by incorporating an over riding clause in the constitution or by-laws. Unlike the SGPC or DSGMC acts, it is not likely that constitution of any Gurdwara in the Diaspora may deny membership of the General Body to monas. In other words they are not denied voting or membership rights as long as they continue to be members in good standing. It also seems unlikely that the Gurdwara managements would ever opt to restrict membership criteria for the pragmatic consideration that numbers are resource pool for fund raising and for the more arduous yet less visible seva. Those in leadership positions understand this dynamics of numbers very well. 

Real question is as to why and how none of the General Bodies so far has tried to amend the Constitution or byelaws in spite of fairly widespread disapproval of such restrictive practices.  To my mind such a course of action may have been avoided because of factors such as:

  • Most Sikhs seem to believe that there is value to the turban identity when among non-Sikhs and are therefore not resentful to move to install others in their place.
  • Sikhs seem to assign higher observance level to kesdharis and amritdharis and prefer liturgical services being performed by them.
  • Monas or kesdharis rarely try and contest or challenge amritdharis. It could be because amritdharis are generally more assertive but it could also reflect tacit acceptance of higher spiritual value to amrit in Sikh psyche.

There is one potential distortion however that has always been the anathema of Sikhs and has stoked the siege mentality among them that their religious institutions could be in the line of assault by non-Sikhs, especially Hindus, with the ultimate purpose of assimilating Sikhs into the majority fold by gaining control of these institutions. This as we had noted earlier was the motivation for restricting the voting rights in the acts only to observant kesdharis. Such a ploy is not unknown in Indian history. Mughals used its obverse very effectively to separate Sikhs from Hindus by ordering that those who sport unshorn hair will be taken as Sikhs and be subject to being hunted, with a prize for every head that was hunted. Even though it is difficult to conclusively establish the existence of conspiracy by Hindus to use this ploy but the other unsavory possibility of Sikhs themselves using such a ruse to pad up their following is supported by a recent report from the UK. Sewa Singh Sidhu writing from Hounslow on Dec. 27, 2007 at GLZ says that ‘in this country many Gurdwara management committees are very keen to enrol their Hindu friends as members of Gurdwara to get their votes in elections. They also do not hesitate to enrol Namdharis and Christians just to get votes and stay in power forever. In our local Gurdwara it has been done recently and to find the fact any body can go through their membership lists.’

The problem therefore does not seem to be just one of a liberal concept of equality but is possibly rooted in how most have collectively accepted intra community stratification and the hold of raw no holds barred politics that has come to characterize our Gurdwara managements. With the inner conflict subduing responses of lay Sikhs attempts by those in leadership to continue their hold on power by padding up voter lists by non-Sikhs or by narrowing the exclusionary boundaries further are not rare. I will explain the latter by a couple of examples. In Pennsylvania where I now reside a couple of enthusiasts insisted that monas must not be allowed to perform any liturgical seva such as officiating as granthies, distributing karah parshad etc much to the consternation of the management as well as the sangat but had their way nonetheless. In Connecticut a Gurdwara functionary insisted that monas will not be allowed to address in the Gurdwara even if they were eminently qualified to expound on Gurbani for it sets a poor example for the others. He had his way with muted private protest by some.

It is pertinent here that while some restrictive practices are sanctioned for the five takhatsin the SRM, in other Gurdwaras, no Sikh is restricted from performing any seva. As such what transpired in both the above cases was not only not in keeping with teachings of the Gurus but also in contravention of the SRM. Such behaviour also exacerbates tensions within the sangat.

At another plane, the prejudice against monas is carried way beyond not allowing them a share in management or performing some types of seva. As a group we seem to be shy to even acknowledge their accomplishments or service that may be praiseworthy. There are some telling examples. A few years back, during the Internet boom, Sanjeev Sidhu made it to the Fortune list of the richest in the world. I felt pretty elated at his achievement and mentioned it to some of my Sikh activist friends in CT but received a stony silence in response. I asked and the reason was bland ‘we do not care for the accomplishments of Sikhs who cut their hair. As far as we are concerned they are no more than a zero.’ I even raised the subject of recognition of Diaspora Sikhs’ excellence by Govt of India with Tarlochan Singh, then Chair, Minorities Commission. He said he was working towards that but confided that he would recommend only kesdhari Sikhs.

Unfortunately the fact is that we tend to almost disown those who do not have the Sikh look and all this is done little realizing that this phenomenon is not peculiar to Sikhs. If we look around we will find that there are several layers of observance among followers of all faiths but they are not excluded or disowned or hidden from public view. Hopefully we also will grow out of it, as have others.

Use of kes and amrit for creating classes among Sikhs should be avoided.  Beginning of the caste system so much castigated by the Gurus also was class. Kashatriyas and Vaish could do any worship at home but organized religious service had to be performed by a Brahmin only. In course of time the stratification became a major vested interest resulting in its divisive and corrosive effects.

This is where our reform movements have been going astray and in spite of such high sacrifices we have not really been able to either reconcile the Guru’s inclusive thought and the compelling necessity to define our identity or make any spectacular, abiding thrust in growth or development. Our theology, though possibly the most suited for the contemporary world has been lying safely sacred and sacrosanct in expensive wraps, not understood by the hungering world and hungering Sikhs alike. In the meanwhile we have drifted to practices that over ride Gurbani rather than are in keeping with it.

Turned Tables- Demogrphics at Play

A development reported from Warrington, England is relevant to our discussion here. The control of Gurdwara in Warrington has passed to a majority committee consisting of mona Sikhs who claim they will bring the community together. In the changed setting it is the turban wearing Sikhs who complain that ‘The general tendency is to treat the turbaned bearded “sorts” as outcasts.’

They also say that not once has anyone discussed what the Guru’s hukumnama said today or what we should teach the youth. Plenty of Sikh History is talked about and there is lots of good Kirtan. However once when a Dhadi jatha vigorously preached the importance of kes the committee including its president became openly critical and humiliated the Ragi after the service in front of everyone in the langar hall.

This may be a unique occurrence but the change is happening and increasing number of Gurdwaras may experience leadership shift to monas.  It is therefore important for us to act now to curb exclusionary tendencies and promote inclusiveness. If we do not cases of perceived discrimination by kesdhari Sikhs as in Warrington may not be rare as days go by. The experience should also make us sensitive to the feelings of monas and bring home the possibility that with changing demographics the control of Gurdwaras will not be easy to be kept within the control of minority amritdharis or kesdharis.

The Wavering: Which way Will They Go
The debate on this subject is in the open and we have seen the variety of views expressed by the proponents of kes and amrit. We also have touched upon the views and arguments presented by those who do not subscribe to kes and amrit as the defining chracteristic of a Sikh. While this playing out there is an unidentified pool of those who are wavering and wrestling with the question whether they should continue with the tradition of keeping kes or not. They are subject to varying degrees of transmitted influences to continue with the tradition and a variety of environmental factors that may be counter to this influence. In this setting while some of the amrit proponents have not desisted to raise the spectre of ‘hell and brimstone’ for those who break from the tradition, some among monas have not been hesitant either to encourage the wavering to follow their example. What follows is from an actual exchange on the Internet. Some who do not subscribe to the kes surely saw it as appropriate intervention while others who believe in the tradition felt it to be irresponsible if not intentionally disruptive.

A young Sikh who was contemplating shedding his hair but was consumed by self-doubt posted a message on a forum seeking advice. While his enquiry clearly showed his deep concern for his likely sense of remorse if he took the step yet he seemed to be looking to get some support so that he could go ahead and shed his hair. One comment offered was a gentle goading saying “Thanks for bringing the plight of this young Sikh to our attention and especially in the absence of parental advice and leaving the difficult decision up to him. I wish some how I could communicate with him and assure him that spirituality does not lie in the symbols of any religion but lies in prayer, meditation on Naam, and service of the humanity.”

Let us try and look at the above statement in its context a bit more critically. The message has been very empathetically worded. Notice sympathy for ‘plight’ of the young Sikh. Notice also that the youth does not have parental advice available and thus it has become his burden alone to decide what to do. This forlorn boy needs parental advice and must be helped. The advice then is offered – symbols have no value spiritually.

To any objective reader this surely is not the advice expected of a parent who brought up their son with all those self-doubts and sense of possible guilt if he were to take this step. Obviously the outreach extended in the guise of substitute parental guidance would seem to be motivated to gently urge the person to go over the edge.  

Let us look at it a bit deeper. We are persuaded to not shy away from righteous causes.[35] We are also persuaded that absent true naam ritualistic observances are of no avail to cennect with God.[36] The first is a clear guide when one is able to identify the righteous course in a complex situation; the second relates to our connecting with the divine where ritualistic symbolism, as the only and preferred mode does not help. Yet the comment on symbolism cannot be construed to imply that giving up symbols by itself is a brave step launching one on to the path of spiritual ascent. There is a fine line that separates crossing or avoidance to breach a restraint. Going over has never been viewed lightly or explained away by quoting homilies for symbolic may not signify a mere symbol – there could be a sublime thought behind the restraint that it promotes. Breaking past such restraints can only lead to a rudderless life lived in pursuit of the self and the worldly, not higher values so carelessly used as the logic for the decision to get past the dilemma of the moment.

Yes action choices are important and are determinants of how our lives would be judged.  Yes ritualism is no substitute for spiritualism. Yet all faiths have and promote certain symbols and follow certain rituals. Will Sikhs become all spiritual and their failings disappear once they cut their hair, shun the kirpan and give up on amrit? Where does one draw the line? Rejection of some symbols and rituals while submitting to others is at best selective rationalization. I do not advocate symbols or rituals but I do question selectivity approach in their rejection/acceptance.

Another relevant factor is that the young man has to live with the decision he makes and if those who took this road decades back still have not been able to move beyond their own choice then made and continuously keep on giving vent to their inner struggle by loud proclamations of lack of connect between symbols and spirituality and their sense of being discriminated, how can they in fair conscious offer a quick fix to another to go over the edge.

Ultimately in the temporal setting as well as in the court of Akal Purakh the individual has to live with and answer for the choices he makes. Those of us who volunteer counsel will also have to make judgment about righteousness of our motive. Prolific quotes from Gurbani do not necessarily make the discourse theologically, ethically or morally correct. Gurbani can guide us to discover the paradigm that helps us to swim across this difficult and challenging journey of life but such a paradigm essentially will have to have some place for self restraint, personal evaluation of our thoughts and motivations and careful appraisal of what we are trying to promote.

There are umpteen situations in life where things inexorably seem to be moving to some kind of inevitability. The happenings on ground especially in Punjab have momentum of their own for all to see. Ironically even as this spectacle is playing out in our midst it still leaves those in Punjab, who are not taking the step under false pretences but only to get their scalps tattooed as a fashion statement, as spiritually more savvy than others who are trying desperately to link the choice to an expression of their spiritual awareness. That is why the incident is troubling. Considering the enormity of numbers shedding their hair in Punjab and elsewhere the incident by itself is not a trendsetter and could well have been a crank.

In the process however this unsavory discussion has unraveled certain questions that we should ponder over if our agenda is not limited to taking the 80 or 90 close to 100% and then revert to our traditional warfare on another issue while the drift continues unabated. That would be myopic and surely will not transform the counselor or the counseled.

Some Emerging Positions

Some of the first generation monas display remorse at breaking away from the tradition but the second generation do not seem to be troubled by such doubts. In other words the attachment to 5k’s seems to be receding from their minds as time goes by. Among older adults, there is a growing number of urbanite educated monas who have a grasp of the essence of Gurbani and the historical evolution of Khalsa tradition. They prefer rational approaches and tend to apply the Guru Granth criteria to test the validity of rituals and ritual observances. They take comfort that their choice of shedding hair passes this test.

The voices that one hears show conviction that kes or amrit do not have any transforming value though there are rare interpretations acknowledging the tradition’s uplifting as well as transforming influence during the trying times of the tumultuous 18th century. A view is also expressed that the Khalsa accomplishments of the 18th century preceded any of the rahitnamas. In other words the rahitnamas have had a constraining influence and have restrained the free spirit and the sense of being sovereign that Khalsa believed in and that brought them success against very heavy odds. The SRM therefore is not in the interest of Sikh development and growth.

They strongly defend being Sikhs but assert that being non-Khalsa is more a matter of belief [in righteousness of the choice as per Gurbani] rather than non-adherence to praxis or tradition. To say that being non-Khalsa is primarily a matter of conscientious belief is a strong repudiation of the popular persuasion that promotes Sikhs to imbibe amrit and aspire to become Khalsa. So far there is no evidence of any serious work done to develop this theme or to develop its theology from within the Sikh scriptural literature, history, experience and tradition. If that happens Sikh panth could face major reform pressures from within.



In the above discussion several arguments both question and draw on historical evidence or theological interpretation. It is well recognized that both recording of historical events and interpretation of historical evidence can be subjective. That is why accounts of the same events by different writers and their analysis by various historians are found to be significantly different. There are therefore limitations to using history for validating complex concepts. In any case because of gaps in Sikh history we are still trying to grasp how the concepts of miri piri, guru panth, panj pyare, sarbat khalsa, hukamnamas and the like worked in practice in the absence of a formal cleric order.

Theological search also has limitations because of the way Guru Granth Sahib is written and edited. Routines, rituals, ceremonies are not spelt out or codified. Thus interpretive approach in their case too can be subjective and susceptible to same kind of skepticism as historical evidence. We could in our understanding use some exhortations in Gurbani to construct or to test validity of some of the ways that we have received the transmitted tradition but not develop a well-defined model. Let us take an example. Gurbani tells us that Guru is always in our midst and manifest in sangat. There is mention of dharamsal, gurdwara, kirtan, katha, ardas and langar obliquely somewhere in the background – but no clear markers that help us to construct the way a Gurdwara should function from Gurbani alone. Selective use of Gurbani to accept or reject what the tradition has come to pass on as tenets of the faith or its core practices and observances thus may lead to pitfalls.

In view of these difficulties received tradition may be a more credible guide than we tend to normally think. It is representive of collective understanding by the believers even if it is not codified. It also has an element of continuity though distortions and changes would happen over time and in response to local environments. The core shared-understanding however does get transmitted and that core can be easily identified within the overall package transmitted.

To me the core tradition about being a Sikh seems to be:

  • If born in Sikh family, one is a Sikh. There is mention of ‘gurcharni lagana’ or ‘matha tikana’ and ‘dastar bandhi’ ceremonies but these are not prescriptive. 
  • Transition from sehjdhari to kesdhari traditionally has involved no ceremony. It happened within families and there is sufficient empirical evidence to show that it was mostly an informal process.
  • Mixed marriage situations also suggest an informal transition of the non-Sikh spouse to becoming a Sikh in cases where such change may have happened.
  • Conversion by choice or missionary persuasion has been largely through the ceremony of khande ka pahul.
  • Choice of a believer to imbibe amrit has been voluntary. It also has been seen as progression to a higher level of commitment.
  • The surviving tradition does not indicate any legacy of charan pahul as initiation rite though charan dhur and water from sarovars [amrit] continue to be objects of veneration.

There are three change points that could have radically impacted this transmitted tradition if the purpose at the time was clearly and categorically to formalize the process. The first Vaisakhi of 1699, then Singh Sabha and amrit parchar movements of late 19th/early 20th centuries and then promulgation of SRM in 1945 – in all the three the direction of change was towards promoting khande ka pahul. The ground reality however is that no one so far has been denied the right to claim to be a Sikh if the person so chooses and khande ka pahul continues to be practised as a choice by an individual and not an obligation for all Sikhs. This understanding has informed Sikh praxis and has survived as well as served the purpose of providing a shared anchoring in the faith in spite of its visible identity variants. We must note that this surmise is not influenced by the political compulsions to define the voting rights for purposes of SGPC, DSGMC or other institutional positions.

Nonetheless we must ask ourselves why are we so obsessed with the question – who is a Sikh? I do not see other faiths so concerned about who claims to be one of them. There is hardly any such exclusionary conversation among Hindus, Christians, Buddhists or Jews – within sects yes, broadly under the umbrella faith, no. In Islam a verbal affirmation is enough for being a Muslim.

Theologically Amrit necessarily relates to inner search and realization within of eternal truths. It is a state of being, a stage of elevation achieved through living in truth and with the benevolent grace of the Guru. Sikhi is a path on which one’s spiritual progression is determined by one’s ‘rehni’ or the ethico-spiritual quality in the way one lives. Any ritual amrit should help put us along this path and not be construed to impart instant elevated status or to distance those not observant in outer form from the Guru.

Let us therefore try to understand what is it that inspires us. It would seem incongurous that we cover our heads going into Gurdwara and submit to several ritualistic practices but question others for lack of clear scriptural authority. In the ultimate analysis Sikh’s relation with the divine is personal but it is linked strongly to the social. The first gives us our choices but the second increases the burden on us to be socially responsible – best discharged by translating in our lives humble acceptance that Truth is not the same as our sense of the reasoned and rational.

Sikhs are easily persuaded to donate in the name of the Guru and are not evaluative about the end use of their giving. As such even those Gurdwaras that may have permitted egregious intra community discrimination to take place have not felt money crunch. One can only hope that the youth will eventually succeed where we seemingly have not been able – to promote a constructive, inspiring, inclusive and involved sangat playing the role in our corporate Sikh lives as Gurus envisioned for it.

For too long the trend for this wind of change getting stronger is visible. For too long we have persevered with insistence by several that those with Bana are superior to those not in Bana, whatever their demonstrated behavior. For too long we have tried to keep lids on the problem with the fear of Tankhah and Patit-ta. It could not have worked and it is not working. Sikhi is about lifting people, whatever their level – not an exclusive association of those who consider themselves already lifted. To use it to subserve worldly interests of any group be they amritdhari, kesdhari, mona or Punjabi is a disservice to the Gurus and their universal message. Concern for preserving the observance of kakkars is well placed but we should do our best to bring those who may have deviated back into observance through love and persuasion. Break up into sects like Orthodox, Conservative and Reform can come but it is not sure if that will solve these problems. One can however envision bigger problems because being a faith with very weak cleric order we could be struggling with issues of clerical authority and related questions in emerging sects. The answer for us seems to be to stay together; accept one another as we all strive to connect with the divine through the teachings of the Gurus. Let us imbibe the sublime message of the Gurus that bestowing His mercy Akal Purakh accepts us without dwelling upon our merits or demerits.[37]

[1] I prefer the use of the term ‘mona’ – those who have their hair – to the word ‘sirgum’ that has been used for them in the Punjabi version of Sikh rehat Maryada. The term ‘mona’ is widely used for this category in lay discourse though some also use the term ‘patit’, translated as ‘fallen’. I have later argued that the latter is not appropriate for this group per my reading of the SRM.

[2] so guroo so sikh kathheealae so vaidh j jaanai rogee  this kaaran ka(n)m n dhha(n)dhhaa naahee dhha(n)dhhai girehee jogee  kaam krodhh aha(n)kaar thajeealae lobh mohu this maaeiaa  man thath avigath dhhiaaeiaa gur parasaadhee paaeiaa – Gauri M I, p. 503

[3] Maya moh gur sabad jalaey nirmal nam sadh hirdai dhiaey dhavat rakhai thaak rahaey sikh sangat karam milaa-ay – Asa M I, p. 412

[4] so sikh sakhaa bandhap hai bhaa-ee je gur kay bhaanay vich aavai – M III, P. 601

[5] gur satgur kaa jo sikh akhaa-ay so bhalkay uth har naam Dhi-aavai. —- jo saas giraas Dhi-aa-ay mayraa har har so gursikh guroo man bhaavai — jis no da-i-aal hovai mayraa su-aamee tis gursikh guroo updays sunaavai. jan naanak Dhoorh mangai tis gursikh kee jo aap japai avrah naam japaavai – M IV, p. 305-6

[6] satgur sikh kee karai partipaal. sikh kee gur durmat mal hirai. satgur sikh kay banDhan kaatai.gur kaa sikh bikaar tay haatai. satgur sikh ka-o naam Dhan day-ay. gur kaa sikh vadbhaagee hay. satgur sikh kaa halat palat savaarai. naanak satgur sikh ka-o jee-a naal samaarai – Gauri Sukhmani M V, p. 286

[7] Jaagat jot japai nis baasur ek binaa man naik na aanai Pooran prem prateet sajai brat gor maimat bhool na– 33 Swayya, Dasam Granth, p. 1350

[8] pooran joth jagai ghatt mai thab khalas thahi nakhalas janai  jagith joth japai nis basur eaek bina man naik n anai  pooran praem pratheeth sajai brath gor marrhee matt bhool n manai  theerathh dhan dhaya thap sanjam eaek bina nehi eaek pashhanai – Amrit Keertan, Page 291

[9] khhalasa akal purakh kee aj  pragattiou khhalasa pramatham kee maj  jab lag khhalasa rehae niara  thab lag thaej keeo main sara  jab eih gehai biparan kee reeth  main n karon ein kee pratheeth – Amrit Kirtan, p. 291

[10] As quoted and translated by W.H. McLeod, in Sikhs of the Khalsa, p. 125, 2003, Oxford University Press

[11] amrit teree baaneeaa – Srirag M I, p. 72

[12] amrit sacha nam hai kehanaa kashhoo n jaae – Srirag M III, p. 33

[13] Jin vadiāī tėrė nām kī tė rahė man māhi. Nānak amrit ėk hai dūjā amrit nāhi. Nānak amrit manai māhi pāiai gur parsād. Ŧinĥī pīā rang sio jinĥ ko likhiā ād – Slok M II, p. 1238

[14] gurdev teerath amrit sarovar gur giaan majan aparanparaa– Gauri M V, p. 262

[15] pee amrit santokhia daragehi paidhaa jaae – Srirag M I, p. 62

[16] ho paapee pathith param paakhanddee thoo niramal nirankaaree – Sorath M I, p. 596

[17] meha pathith thae hoth puneetha har keerathan gun gavo – Todi M V, p. 73

[18] pathith pavith lag gur kae pairae jeeo – Majh M V, p. 216

[19] kar saadhhasangath simar maadhho hohi pathith puneeth – Sorath M IX, p. 631

[20] jio chhuhi paaras manoor bheae kanchan tio patit jan mil sangatee sudh hovat guramatee sudh haadho – Kanra M IV, p. 1297

[21] jeethehi jam lok pathith jae praanee har jan siv gur gyaan rathae – Sava-yay (praise of Guru Ram Das: Ga-yand) p. 1401

[22] tayray bankay lo-in dant reesaalaa. sohnay nak jin lammrhay vaalaa. kanchan kaa-i-aa su-inay kee dhaalaa – M I p. 567

[23] paekh aaeiou sarab thhaan dhaes pria rom n samasar laagai – Sarang M V, p. 1209

[24] kays sang daas pag jhaara-o ihai manorath mor – M I, p. 500, 2

[25] gur kay charan kays sang jhaaray – M I, p. 387

[26] ik jataa bikat bikraal kul ghar khovhee – M I, p. 1284

[27] moond mudaa-ay jataa sikh baadhee mon rahai abhimaanaa manoo-aa dolai dah dis dhaavai bin rat aatam gi-aanaa amrit chhod mahaa bikh peevai maa-i-aa kaa dayvaanaa. kirat na mit-ee hukam na boojhai pasoo-aa maahi samaanaa – Maroo M I, p. 1013

[28] naa sat dukhee-aa naa sat sukhee-aa naa sat paanee jant fireh. naa sat moond mudaa-ee kaysee naa sat parhi-aa days fireh – Ramkali M I, p. 952

[29] kabeer man moondi-aa nahee kays mundaa-ay kaan-ay jo kichh kee-aa so man kee-aa moondaa moond ajaan-ay – Slok Kabir p. 1369, 101

[30] khoob thaeree pagaree meethae thaerae bol  davaarikaa nagree kaahay kay magol  chandee hajaar aalam aykal khaanaa. ham chinee paatisaah saavlay barnaa– Tilang Nam Dev, p. 727

[31] For a detailed treatment and analysis see Tirlochan Singh, The Turban and the Sword of the Sikhs, Amritsar, 2001

[32] Teja Singh & Ganda Singh [Patiala, 2006] say that ‘He also ordered that all those who called themselves Sikhs should get themselves confirmed by receiving the new baptism.’ [p.68] Khuushwant Singh has quoted Teja Singh & Ganda Singh but his account does not include this assertion. [Vol. I, 2004] Gopal Singh is also quiet on the subject. [2002] Sangat Singh has quoted Gopal Singh and made no comment on this issue. [1999] Harbans Singh also has said nothing. [Manohar, 1999] J S Grewal has said that khalsa were the true Sikhs but adds that sehjdharis were considered part of khalsa in 18th century – see note 34.

[33] Article xxiv, d

[34] Noted historian J S Grewal writing in Tribune in May 2007 says ‘Guru Gobind Singh instituted the Khalsa in 1699 as a political community — Khalsa alone were the true Sikhs for Guru Gobind Singh. — [there] were also the sahajdharis who believed in the ten Gurus and the Guruship of the Granth. They were not keshdhari, but they were seen as an integral part of the Khalsa in the 18th century.’ The last observation notwithstanding the institution of sarbat khalsa has been dormant for very long and its revival in the present context will not be easy.

[35] shubh karman te kabhoo neh taroon – Dasam Granth

[36] nanak sachai naam bin kya tikka kya tag – Asa ki Var

[37] gun avgun prabh kachhoo neh beechareo kar kirpa apuna kar kiya – Bilawal MV, p. 829

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