Equality and Caste Among Eighteenth-Century Sikhs

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Equality and Caste among Eighteenth-Century Sikhs

The ideal of equality associated with the Sikh movement is generally believed to have been re-inforced by Guru Gobind Singh for the Khalsa, instituted as an egalitarian order in 1699. Therefore, the eighteenth century has an added importance for the study of caste among the Sikhs. A number of scholars have touched upon the subject of caste from different perspectives, but none of them has written exclusively on the issue of caste among the eighteenth-century Sikhs. The paper analyses contemporary evidence for the conception of equality among the Khalsa and the pull of their caste background.  

    The Persian sources give some indication of the social background and occupations of the Sikhs. The importance of Jat Masands is emphasized in the Dabistan. According to Kamwar Khan, the people who gathered around Banda belonged to ‘base and lowly castes’, like sweepers, tanners, and banjaras. According to Khafi Khan, the followers of Banda came largely from ‘the lower castes of Hindus’, including the Jats. Ghulam Ali Khan says that the leaders of the Sikhs were mostly from the lower classes, such as carpenters, shoe-makers, and Jats. Many of them were yogurt-sellers, confectioners, fodder-vendors, grain-sellers, barbers, and washermen.

    According to Muhammad Shafi Warid, Muslims too were enrolled among the Sikhs after the death of Wazir Khan, and they were told to take their meals together ‘so that the distinction in honour between the lowly and the well born was entirely removed and all achieved mutual unison, acting together’. Indeed, a sweeper sat with a raja of great status, and ‘they felt no hostility to each other’. The author of the Tashrih al-Aqwam observed that ‘any one from any caste (qaum), whether Brahman or sweeper’ could join the Sikh faith, and that the Sikhs allowed no distinction among them in eating and drinking. They did not recognize any difference between one another. Any Sikh could hold a position of power. Warid says that a lowly sweeper or cobbler (chamar), more impure than whom there was no caste (qaum) in Hindustan, could attend on Banda and be appointed to govern his own town; the moment he stepped into the territory, or town, or village, all the gentry and notables went out to receive him, and stood before him with folded hands. The early Persian writers, on the whole, emphasize the plebian background of the Sikhs, their egalitarian ethos, and social nobility.  

    The most radical of the early Sikh writers on the issue of caste is the author of the Prem Sumarag. The Khalsa order, for him, was meant to be casteless. As he puts it, the baran (varna) of the entire Khalsa was pure (pawittar). If anyone asks a member of the Khalsa for his jati, he should reply, ‘I am a Sodhi Khatri’. If there is only one caste of the Khalsa, there could be no hierarchy. Indeed, he states explicitly that ‘there is no difference amongst the Khalsa of Sri Akal Purkh: all belong to one baran’.

    In the varnashrama ideal jatis were linked with occupations, and occupations were regarded as hereditary. It is important, therefore, to note that the author of the Prem Sumarag imposes only one restriction, and that too is ethical: the Khalsa of Akal Purkh should pursue an honest occupation (dharam di kirt). However, he goes on to add that a Khalsa should not take up personal service (chakari). If a Khalsa takes up personal service, it should be soldiering (sipahgari). A Singh soldier should not indulge in plunder in a battle and never think of appropriating the property of another. A Khalsa should not take up petty shop-keeping. It is preferable to work at home as a craftsman, and manufacture articles for sale in the bazar. The most preferable occupation is trade in horses (saudagari). Next to it is agriculture. On the whole, thus, there is preference for trade, agriculture and craft over personal service. The only chakari allowed is soldiering. There is emphasis on honest pursuit, but there is no reference to hereditary calling. In fact, preference implies choice.

    As the progeny of Akal Purkh, the Khalsa share the same faith. They should never hesitate to eat with one another. However, if a Chuhra, a Chamar, a Sansi, a Dhanak or a Kalal who actually distils liquor wishes to offer food to the Khalsa, he should provide rations in kind, or cash, and ask a Khalsa of another jati to cook the food. But they all belonged to Akal Purkh and followed the same path; all those who say, ‘I am (the Khalsa) of Sri Guru Akal Purkh’ should be seen as equal. They should all eat together, and they should never bother about the (Brahmanical) norms of chauka. All articles of food and drink are gifts from God and, therefore, all equally pure. The most strongly recommended article of food is meat. It is the great food (maha prasad). A Khalsa must eat meat every day. A Khalsa should not eat alone; if there is no one to share his meal at the time of eating, he should set apart a meal for a visitor, whether a Sikh, a Hindu or a Muslim.

    In matters of matrimony, the author of the Prem Sumarag is prepared to compromise a little more. For the marriage of a son, a Khalsa should have no consideration (of caste or jati), but in the case of a daughter, the first preference should be a Sikh boy of the same caste. But then, within the caste no further distinctions should be made. Furthermore, if a boy from the same caste or jati is not found for any reason, a daughter may also be married to a young man of another caste or jati. No consideration should be given to the caste or jati of the girl’s mother. The one who entertains the idea of the high and the low is punished in the divine court. Eventually, with the passage of time, all shall belong to one baran. The author clearly visualizes marriage between boys and girls of different castes and jatis. A Sikh boy’s marriage with a slave girl or a Muslim girl is also envisaged.

    The Rahitnama associated with Chaupa Singh upholds the ideal of equality as much as the norms of varnasharam dharma. The Sikhs of the Guru from all the four barans share the same faith and follow the same ethical principles, but each baran has its own social norms and practices. The Khatris are servants (sewaks) of the Brahmans and not equal to them. In serving others, a Khalsa should give greater consideration to Brahman Sikhs. A Sikh of the Guru should make a distinction between dhan (what is eaten) and kudhan (what is not eaten), and also between suitable place (thav) and unsuitable place (kuthav). He should not infringe the customary practices (maryada). There is great emphasis on honest occupation (dharam di kirt) for all members of the Khalsa order. There is no suggestion of a hereditary occupation. A Khalsa should disregard the differences of wealth. It is commendable to forge matrimonial ties with a poor Sikh: it pleases the Guru. Thus, the differences of background are disregarded in matters religious and political, but not all the traditional practices of commensality and connubium. The Khalsa are more equal in religious and political matters than in social matters.

    In the Tankhahnama, Guru Gobind Singh says, ‘I shall make one baran of all the four barans, and they will all recite (the name of) Vaheguru’. Sainapat, a poet at the Guru’s court, gives no thought to caste or jati, but he does notice the reluctance of Khatris and Brahmans to accept the new norms of the Khalsa in matters affecting their traditional practices. Koer Singh, a kalal, gives the names and jatis of the five Sikhs who offered their heads to Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur on the Baisakhi day. Three of them were Shudras in the traditional social order: a Chheepa, a Nai, and a Jhiwar. People criticize Guru Gobind Singh for abolishing all distinctions between the four castes. The Shudra, the Vaish, the Khatri, and the Brahman eat together at one place. The Rajput Rajas of the hills refused to become members of the Khalsa because their kula dharam did not permit them to eat with the four castes. Among the Khalsa, all the twelve jats and seven sanats were rolled into one. Guru Gobind Singh decided to give rulership to the Khalsa.  

    Kesar Singh, a Chhibber Brahman, looks upon the Khalsa as the home (ghar) of Akal Purkh and all their sins are washed away. Three of the five Sikhs who responded to Guru Gobind Singh’s call for sacrifice were Shudras. Though all the four barans had taken refuge in the Panth of the Guru, rulership was given to the Shudras. However, Chhibber invokes the authority of Guru Gobind Singh in favour of the sacred mark and the saved thread for the higher castes, and marriage within the caste. But if a Sikh wishes that the conjugal knot should be tied between his son and the daughter of his Sikh sewak, he should not delay the matter; he could seek forgiveness afterwards. On the question of commensality, Chhibber keeps the touchable Sikhs strictly out. He refers in fact to an incident in which a Mazhabi Sikh, who had posed as a Jat and shared food with Sandhu zamindars, was hanged by Kahn Singh Trehan and his action was appreciated by all the Sikhs. It may be added that the four categories of Sikhs (didari, mukte, murid and mayiki) mentioned in the Bansavalinama, and in the Chaupa Singh Rahit-Nama, have no bearing on caste or social differentiation.

    Sarup Das Bhalla states that the Sikhs who used to come to Anandpur for the darshan of Guru Gobind Singh from different ‘countries’ belonged to all the four castes. There was a common langar for them all. Guru Gobind Singh adopted the outward appearance of the Khalsa to become one of them. The sacred thread was replaced by the sword belt. The Khalsa became sovereign without possessing any territory. In the Guru Kian Sakhian there is no general statement about the kind of people who joined the Khalsa but the individual cases are mentioned. Bhai Jaita, who brought the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur from Delhi to Anandpur, was an outcaste; he was declared to be the Guru’s son (Guru ka beta), and he was baptized as Jiwan Singh to became a commandant, and he died fighting in the battle of Chamkaur. Among the five Sikhs who offered their heads to the Guru, one was a Khatri, another a Chheepa, the third a Nai, the fourth a Jat, and the fifth a Mehra (Jhiwar).

    Sukha Singh makes the explicit statement that Guru Gobind Singh transformed men into gods, and created the third Panth, the Guru Khalsa. The sacred thread was replaced by the sword. The fools began to say that he had indiscriminately baptized men from all the four barans and asked them to eat together. The practice of the earlier Gurus was discarded, and there was no Veda, no Pandit, and nothing else of the kind now. The Hill Rajas reported to the Mughal emperor that Guru Gobind Singh had created the Khalsa to destroy the mlechh and to establish the rule of the Khalsa over all the lands where the sun rose and set.

    According to Bhai Daya Singh, baptism of the double-edged sword was meant for all the four barans. The Khalsa were incarnation of Akal Purkh. A Sikh should marry his daughter to the son of a Sikh. To give one’s daughter to a non-Singh was like handing over a goat to the butcher. The Bedis, Bhallas, and Sodhis should observe the rahit of the Khalsa and worship in accordance with the Sikh dharam (to deserve respect). The Guru-Khalsa is the manifest form of Akal Purkh. Both the Panth and the Granth are to be recognized as the Guru. Bhekh and baran are not dear to the Guru; what is dear to the Guru is the actual conduct in life. A Sikh baptized by the pahul of the double-edged sword should not meet a Brahman or a Sarwaria. According to Bhai Desa Singh, the first article of rahit was to take pahul and become pre-eminent. Men of all the four barans should be encouraged and induced to take pahul of the doubled-edged sword. A Sikh should pursue an occupation that did not infringe dharam, like theft and dacoity. Agriculture, trade, and craft are commendable. Any other honest occupation that one liked could be adopted. However, marriage within the caste is recommended.

The early European observers talk of both Hindus and Muslims becoming Sikhs. According to John Griffiths, the Sikhs received proselytes from all castes of Hindus and they initiated Muslims too. This was the view taken by Forster who adds that the number of Muslim converts to Sikhism was rather small. In ethnic and occupational terms the European writers tended to equate the Khalsa with the Jats. Polier thought that the Sikhs were generally cultivators of land, especially Jatts. John Griffiths saw similarities between the Sikhs and the Jats of Sind and Haryana. Thus, the Singhs among Sikhs, and the Jatts among Singhs appeared to be preponderant.

    The early European writers have a few other comments to offer on the relevance of caste for the egalitarian Sikh social order. George Forster thought that there was no difference between Sikhs and Hindus so far as the patterns of matrimony and commensality were concerned. The only item of food that was shared by all alike was the prasad (sacred food). In the Military Memoirs of George Thomas, the Sikhs are stated to allow ‘foreigners of every description’ to join their standard, to sit in their company, and to shave their beards, but they did not consent to intermarriages. The only exception in this matter were the Jat Sikhs who presumably would intermarry with non-Sikh or non-Singh Jats. Nor did the Sikhs eat or drink from the hands of an alien, except from Brahmans for whom they professed the highest veneration. It may be noted that the author is not talking of relations of the Sikhs among themselves but with outsiders.

    John Malcolm saw a close link between Guru Gobind Singh’s political purpose and his attitude towards caste distinctions. Converts were admitted from all ‘tribes’ and the rules by which the Hindus had been so long chained were broken. The old institutions of Brahmanical order were subverted. Guru Gobind Singh adopted all the religious usages of Guru Nanak, and declared that all the four castes would be made one. He opened the dazzling prospect of earthly glory to men of the lowest ‘tribe’. He rewarded the sweepers by high rank and employment for bringing away the corpse (actually head) of Guru Tegh Bahadur from Delhi. Several men of this tribe became Sikhs. Known as ‘Ran-Rata’ (Ranghreta) Singhs, they showed remarkable valour, and attained great reputation. The Brahman who entered the Khalsa order had no higher claims to eminence than the lowest Shudra who swept his house. The honourable title of ‘Singh’ raised every Sikh to the rank of a Rajput. It was Guru Gobind Singh’s object to make all Sikhs equal in civil rights. However, due to the deep-rooted prejudices of the Hindus, some distinctions of the background of Sikhs were still kept up, ‘particularly those relating to intermarriage’.

    The Sikh converts continued to observe the ‘civil usages and customs’ of their ‘tribes’ only so long as they did not infringe the tenets of Guru Nanak and the institutions of Guru Gobind Singh. The higher caste of Hindus, that is, the Brahman and Khatri Sikhs, continued to intermarry ‘with converts of their own tribes, but not with Hindus of the caste they have abandoned’. This was not true of the Jat and Gujjar Sikhs who preserved an intimate intercourse with their original ‘tribes’ for both intermarriage and commensality. Malcolm refers only to the marriage between the Sikh House of Patiala and the Jat House of Bharatpur. The Muslim converts to the Sikh faith intermarried among themselves. At the time of the meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa, the Jat Sikhs and others ate together.

    It seems, on the whole, that the plebian background of the Khalsa and the operation of the idea of equality are reflected in the rise of Jats, Tarkhans and Kalals to political power in the eighteenth century. There were no Khatri, Rajput or Brahman rulers among the Sikhs. There is no doubt whatever that the lower castes were dominant in the order of the Khalsa. In 1881, there were more than 1,125,000 Jats and more than 145,000 Chamars and Chuhras, with about the same number of Tarkhans, Nais and Kalals, among the Singhs. The Aroras, Khatris and Banias, together, accounted for less than 80,000 Sikhs. The preponderance of Jats, the outcastes, and the service performing groups is evident from these figures.

    However, there is no indication in contemporary literature that any hierarchy of caste or class was propounded or upheld. On the contrary, the ideal of equality is espoused and recognized by nearly all the contemporary writers. In the sphere of religion and politics no distinction on the basis of caste is made by any Sikh writer. The older patterns of matrimony appear to have continued, but largely within the Sikh social order and not in relation to non-Sikhs. In matters of commensality, only the erstwhile untouchables were excluded from interdinning. We do not know the social background of all the Sikh writers, but the known Brahman writers are rather conservative and somewhat reactionary in their social stance and the known Jat and Kalal writers are relatively egalitarian. There probably was an on-going tension between the new ideology and the social background.

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