Recently, a video was taken of an individual at an online event about Sikh spaces and queerness who said “Fuck the Rehat Maryada”. As this video was taken secretly of what was supposed to have been a private event with no recordings, my disagreements with the statement aside, I have no wish to dredge it up and share it further. However, the statement elicited several waves of reactions; both from Sikhs infuriated with the statement, as well as Sikhs who sought to provide solidarity to the statement, justify it, and support it.
The second group was predominantly composed of Sikhs who came from what we could refer to broadly as a progressive/leftist political background. This group denounced the Rehit Maryada on various grounds of it being inauthentic, unrepresentative, queerphobic, privileged, and so on. Some examples provided here:
The irony is that the text of the [SGPC] Rehat Maryada (unlike some other Sikh texts) makes no reference to LGBTQ+ people in any way — the perceived “queerphobia” or “erasure” stems from how the Rehat Maryada stipulates that Anand Karaj wedding ceremonies are to be performed between a Sikh man and a Sikh woman (a view that is not exclusive to that document). But actual reading is a chore when there’s a fun social media frenzy to be made. Adding to the chaos were those who detest reading authentic history, but love the sound of their own voice — such as shamsher of nsyf. In his long thread, shamsher fundamentally questions the Rehit Maryada by trying to craft how its stance is problematic in the longer line of Sikh theology and history.
The thread is manipulative and deceptive in how it falsifies certain aspects of the Rehat Maryada’s history . For example, the initiative for composing the Rehat Maryada started after the Gurdwara Reform Movement, which sought to free Gurdwaras from British state control — the opposite of it being a state controlled and compromised document as he stated. Additionally, many of the subcommittees in its decades-long formation explicitly sought to include input from a diverse set of jathebandis and scholars. Even more shamefully, shamsher tries to unite his disparaging attitude for the Rehit Maryada with the history of the armed movement for Khalistan in an unholy marriage with his claim that the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa which dissolved the SGPC additionally dissolved the stature of its Maryada. Putting aside the issue of the many Sikhs who accepted the Rehit prior to 1986 (including Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale), shamsher fundamentally misrepresents the purpose of this action — which was a dissolution of the SGPC as a political decision-making body in favor of a new one (the Panthic Committee)— NOT because the Singhs in 1986 believed that the SGPC Rehat Maryada was regressive, inauthentic, imperfect, queerphobic, or the like. If anything, the Panthic Committee [set up in place of the SGPC] was ideologically aligned to the Damdami Taksal, which has its own Rehat Maryada that shares many the same features leftists deem problematic with the SGPC one (it indeed does stipulate that Anand Karaj is to be held between an Amritdhari Sikh man & woman). The leftist brigade trotting out abuses against the supposedly queerphobic 1930s Sikh institutions dominated by cishet men would be doing the exact same for the ones set up in 1986; which, by the way, should be a damning indication of the depths of nihilism this mindset represents.
But shamsher did not bring up the origin of the Rehat Maryada, the SGPC, or the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa because he genuinely believes these are historical events that can inform our understanding of Rehit as Sikhs; he brought these up as manipulative red herrings to distract from the fact that he and his cadre have no better and authentic historical justification for his contorted and shoddy understanding of Sikh belief and practice.
Sidenote: That shamsher tried presenting this complete misinformation with a smug remark about “reading your own history”, cheered on by other self-professed leftist Sikhs in a self-congratulatory circlejerk, attests to the type of total stupidity we find normalized in many modern Western Sikh “intellectual” circles, the arrogance of those who gate-keep it, and the unfortunate contagion-like nature of its spread. Blind lead the blind!
Moving beyond the sad self-promotion performance by shamsher, I think the broader conversation on the Rehit, although perhaps not as manipulatively constructed, suffers from a lack of vision and understanding as well as a nihilistic undertone that I highlighted earlier. This should NOT be generalized to the issue of how some perceive the Rehat Maryada to be anti-queer or this particular issue, as this type of questioning and these types of arguments are common.
This isn’t to say that the Rehat Maryada is infallible; indeed, a closer look at our precolonial past, particularly via access of written sources and a growing appreciation for the lifestyles of the Akali-Nihangs (who stringently reject the SGPC Rehat Maryada for their own reasons, albeit not for its lack of progressive politics) has led many to question some of the inconsistencies it has with historical evidence and some of the overly puritanical answers it has to suppressing interesting heterodoxies that once flourished in the Sikh panth. That analysis is appreciated, as is fair inquiry into what the future of the document may be.
However, like the above image, this has also created an environment where it’s chic to hate on the Rehat — with a variety of lazy heuristics that can easily be laughed away. For example, the oft-cited, “this was literally a document made by a random committee in the 1900s” is rather stupid, especially when it’s used to make a point about the archaic and outdated nature of its contents — is the validity of our Sikhi a function based on proximity to the current year? That would lead to the belief that any documents closer to the times of the Gurus would be more invalid, a rather confusing paradox for those who claim to follow the “Gurus alone”.
Another cliche comes in with the claim that the Gurus never created the Rehit themselves, but that it was created after they passed. Given that we don’t have extant written copies of Rehits from the Gurus’ handwriting (we do have some hukamnamas which are something to the same effect), it’s easy to understand why people are lulled in by the prospect that the 10th Guru mysteriously chose to never define a Rehit, and broadly gave power to The People in a last bout of democratic fervor. The tendency to gravitate towards this interpretation even perhaps may be informed by people making a mental map to modern constitutions, and the idea of a “living document” that can be amended and added as times change. But although there certainly is flexibility in how many specifics of the Rehit is defined by one’s Panj Pyare and has space for diversity of thought, this concept of the “living Rehit” looses much of its meaning when one considers how a large function of Rehit is preserving Sikh tradition over generations. Why would the Guru vest the Khalsa with its own unique identity as a tisrapanth, bolstered with its own religious social language and identity, and not want that to be a concrete, defined entity? I suspect that the group of folks who believe making amendments to Sikh ceremonies defined in Rehit to be in line with laws that Western governments are legally implementing would not be on board with people noting that in the “modern day”, most people do not keep their hair or wear weapons, and that perhaps these stipulations of the Rehit could also be “amended” to “suit our times better”.
I could go on with specific examples, but this comes down to the crux of the issue — a large subset of the folks most vocal about the Rehat Maryada in its entirety as being an inherently problematic, illegitimate, and regressive document, believe that it needs “correction”. But (for most), the impulse for correction isn’t directed towards understanding Sikh history, reading what preceded the Rehat Maryada, parsing through precolonial Sikh texts and Rehitname, and seeing what historical attitudes were to make a more approximate assumption of what rehit was historically. Instead, many desire that the “correction” for the Rehit come from a 21st-century Western leftist revision board, who can make the changes they like with hardly much of a theological justification or appeal to precedent other than vague allusions to how Sikhi is about equality/justice/love/fairness/compassion/etc.. That some, like shamsher, wish to muddy the waters further with manipulations of history, is an unfortunate reflection of how some use the pretense of knowledge to spread more ignorance. Indeed, the superficial level of engagement over such intriguing issues highlights a delicate spiritual reality in this wonderful yet dark world of individualism —that our Panth is rife with many a Sikh who is certain of their own self-interest and finding ways to mold the Guru to suit it, over exploring the depths of what the Gurus’ wisdom and its lived experience in years prior to us was.