The Historical Role of Caste among Sikhs
The role caste plays in the modern practice of Sikhi is an explosive topic that can inflame at really any point and create massive ideological divisions between people on various sides of the fence. What often ends up being a problem, however, is the poor understanding most people have of “the caste system”, how Sikhi tells us to engage with it, and how Sikhs historically dealt with it.
To start off, most Sikhs have a monolithic understanding of caste that conflates multiple things and vastly oversimplifies what is a multifaceted and complex social system. There is a plethora of academic literature that discusses the complexity of caste, how it evolved, and how different groups (like the British) complicated things with warped understandings of what caste is. But on a very basic level, there are two big things to consider — the idea of JAATH/JATI versus VARNA/BARAN. On a basic level, varna (baran in Punjabi) is the Hindu hierarchical caste system that arose in Vedic times with four broad groups:
-Brahmins (priests). This was the group who studied the sacred Hindu texts and wrote discourses on them. Brahmins would also often act as advisors, educators, and academics. Generally speaking, Brahmins are thought of as being the “top” caste in the Varna system.
-Kshatriyas (warriors). This was the group that formed the bulk of highly trained and skilled warriors in Vedic India, and also formed the ruling class. Maharajas and Rajas would be Kshatriyas, and would often have Brahmin advisors. Kshatriyas are often considered to be secondary on the caste system, as although they had political power, they had duties to Brahmins (many Kshatriya kings saw it as their duty to protect Brahmins, and would hold festivals to feed Brahmins and the like).
-Vaishyas (merchants and farmers). This was the group that didn’t have any strong ceremonial features, and was rather broad in its scope. It encompassed much of what would compose the middle class in society; merchants and farmers.
-Shudras (members of the working class). This was the group that often did menial labor or work that was seen as insignificant. This group was considered the lowest on the caste system, and often faced outright discrimination and marginalization; for example, many Shudras were not permitted to read Hindu sacred texts.
The reason this is referred to as the Vedic caste system is because it is widely accepted this system came into use to describe the various groups living in India during the Vedic period. Groups who came to India after this (as we would later see, the Muslims), were considered external to the caste system, a fate considered worse than being a Shudra; although sometimes, such foreign groups would be able to get accommodated into the Varna system over time. The Varna system was also intrinsically linked to religion, as it was a popular Hindu belief that Shudras were born into those bodies as a result of accruement of poor karma in their previous lives, and that only members from the upper caste could read the Hindu sacred texts and achieve moksha (spiritual liberation).
The Varna system was challenged by many saints in India, including the Buddha and many Bhakti saints like Kabir and Ravidas. This program was continued by the Sikh Gurus, who did away with the idea of varna entirely, and said that all have an equal opportunity for spiritual liberation.
This idea of the four varna coming into one is solidified into the ethos of the Khalsa, as written by Ratan Singh Bhangoo in the Panth Parkash (this analogy of the four varna blending into one is also found in Bhai Gurdas’s work):
In fact, the Khalsa itself represents an entire dissolution of the idea of Varna. Khalsa warriors often referred to themselves as Kshatriyas in an archetypal sense; that regardless of the circumstances of their birth, their being warriors fighting for righteousness and dharam was representative of that of a Kshatriya. All the Sikh texts would be open to all regardless of their caste background, and a group of Sikhs called the Nirmalas would even publish Braj and Punjabi copies of ancient Sanskrit Hindu texts to open their knowledge to an audience outside of Brahmins. Even some social markers of Varna, such as the janeu that the “upper caste” Brahmins and Kshatriyas wore, were prohibited for the Khalsa in favor of a uniform look for all:
The question of Varna’s role in Sikhi and the Khalsa is now answered; it has absolutely no place, whatsoever. An obvious question still remains though; the majority of caste politics with regards to Sikhs has almost no mention of Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, but is dominated with words like “Jatts”, “Sainis,” “Tarkhans”, and the like. Where do these groups fit into the Varna system?
The answer comes back to the idea that caste is multifaceted and complex. Even this in and of itself is an oversimplification, but in addition to Varna (the Hindu hierarchical system), there is the institution of Jati (or Jaath). Unlike varna, which refers to caste in terms of religious hierarchies, Jati refers to caste strictly in terms of social organization. A Jatt is one “jati”, a Saini is another, a Kamboj is another, a Brahmin is another, and so-on. The Jati system interacts with the Varna system to an extent, which is why some people place Jatis as “sub-castes” compared to Varnas as “castes” but it is in a muddled and unclear way.
In fact, jatis themselves are muddled and complicated; part of it is organization upon occupational grounds (people belong to castes based on what jobs they have), but a good part of it, especially in the Punjab is actually based on ethnic groupings (people belong to castes based on their ancestral tribes and history). For example, most evidence points to Jatts being a pastoralist people organized into tribes who came into India after Vedic times. Because they came to India after Vedic times, they had no caste themselves, and were considered external to the caste system; hence, many considered Jatts to be Shudra. In Sikh history, this is why we often find reference to how upper caste Rajputs and Brahmins looked down on the “low class” of many of the Gurus’ followers (who, especially in the Khalsa period, had many Jatts along with other lower classes). However, many Jatts were occupationally farmers, and some therefore considered them to be Vaishyas. This is further complicated by the fact that especially in Punjab, many Jatts became warriors or acquired political domain — these Jatts would claim to be Kshatriyas! Additionally one should note that there was a degree of mobility to Jatis themselves, as seen by certain groups like the Chauhans and Bhattis who were once considered Rajput, but would later be considered Jatt.
The point is that Varna (Brahmin/Kshatriya/Vaishya/Shudra) is certainly linked to Jati (Jatt/Saini/Kamboj/Gujjar/etc), but the two are not really the exact same thing. In Pakistan, there is no real presence of Varna whatsoever because of Islam. But Jatis are still very much a thing; groups like “Jatts” and “Gujjars” which Indian Punjabis would refer to as “castes” are generally referred to as “tribes” in Pakistan, which in some ways is a better descriptor of the origins in these groups, in that many of them indeed are tribal or ethnic; Jatts are not Jatts because they farm, they are Jatts because their ancestors were part of Jatt tribes. Initially, these tribes were nomadic herders (and some still are in Sindh and Balochistan). Some of them settled in the plains of Punjab and became farmers. Some of them later grew in political influence and became landlords, rulers, politicians. The point is that all these peoples are still Jatts ethnically.
So what does the Guru and Sikh history say about Jati? Starting off, the Guru states that Jati on a metaphysical and spiritual plane is entirely irrelevant. However, this applies to other social metrics, such as class (how wealthy someone is), linguistic ethnicity (whether someone is Punjabi, Bihari, white, black, etc):
However, the Guru does not say that Jati “does not exist”, because that would be like saying ethnicity “does not exist”. In fact, Guru Ram Das Ji refers to Bhagat Dhanna specifically as “Dhanna Jatt”:
Later for the Khalsa, we see some edicts such as Sikhs being told specifically to never put pride in Jati, never discriminate someone for their Jati, never explicitly ask a Singh for his Jati or address him by his Jati alone, and so on. The occupational role of Jati also was somewhat dissolved by all members of the Khalsa taking similar roles as warriors and saints, living together, and eating together in langar. But the idea of “jati” itself was never specifically “abolished” or made to entirely poof out of existence. The names of “Singh” and “Kaur” were introduced to create uniformity and connection in the Panth and replace surnames such as “Das,” “Dev,” “Rai,” “Chand,” or so on; they never were intended to replace “caste” or jati surnames such as Dhaliwal, Sandhu, Sidhu, Gill, or the like. We can see this by, again, consulting the Sikh historical tradition.
As early as the Gurus themselves, we can note that the Gurus were aware of their own jati (they were all Khatris), and even their caste surnames. Bhatt Bani refers to Guru Ram Das ji by his “caste” surname Sodhi:
Guru Gobind Singh Ji in the Bachittar Natak refers to his Sodhi heritage and Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Bedi heritage:
Furthermore, descendants of the Gurus, specifically of Guru Angad Dev Ji and Guru Amar Das Ji, were aware of their caste surnames they had inherited from their ancestors, and nobody is pretending to not know which caste these surnames belong to:
We know the Jati and caste surname of pretty much every Sikh martyr, because they themselves were aware of it. Although they referred to each other as _______ Singh/Kaur, everyone was aware of their own and other people’s family names. Another example from the Panth Parkash (again, written by Ratan Singh Bhangoo) where Singhs from multiple castes are listed as all coming together to help aid Bhai Tara Singh in battle:
We now have looked at two basic ideas, and can perhaps come to two distinct conclusions:
-Sikhi and the Khalsa straight up abolished the institution of Varna wholesale, because Varna was hierarchical and enforced on a metaphysical level (suggesting certain groups of people had exclusive right to religion and spiritual liberation, and others did not). In Sikhi, this is irrelevant because every person, regardless of circumstance of birth, has an equal right to the Guru and an equal right to become spiritually liberated. Furthermore, as a member of the Khalsa, one has duties of all the castes, as warriors, householders, workers, and saints. So Varna is moot on that point as well.
-Sikhi has said that one should not be proud and haughty of one’s Jati or believe in superiority as it is ultimately spiritually irrelevant. Also for Sikhs, the institution of the Khalsa should be a social priority over that of one’s Jati. This is seen in how historically, Jatt members of the Khalsa would consider Tarkhan, Brahmin, Khatri, Kalal, etc members of the Khalsa as their community and family and always have a social obligation to other members of the Khalsa regardless of caste, not other non-Sikh Jatts. However, to say that Jati “does not exist” in the Khalsa is false, based on how the Sikh Gurus and exalted Sikh personalities themselves were aware of their own jati and others.
Another, final, key piece in this puzzle (and there are in fact many, many, pieces; this article itself oversimplifies much of the complexity of this system) is to consider the Dalits and the practice of “untouchability”. Dalit is a modern word that means “oppressed” and refers to untouchables; people mostly from groups external to the Vedic caste system (such as Kalals, Chamars, Chooras, Rangrettas, etc) who have been particularly marginalized, persecuted, and oppressed by other castes in India. These groups were often religiously excluded by upper castes in the Varna system, and the nature of that has continued even into the Jati system, with forms of social exclusion such as keeping separate utensils, not allowing them to share in social functions, and in general treating them as second class citizens. This behavior is absolutely unacceptable from a Sikh perspective. Two of the greatest Sikh warriors, Bhai Jiwan Singh and Bhai Bir Singh, came from a Dalit backgrounds. Other Sikhs were aware of the Rangretta backgrounds of these two exalted Sikhs, yet they showed no discrimination to them. They ate from the same utensils as Sikhs from other castes, lead Sikhs from other castes into battle, and commanded utmost respect and loyalty from Sikhs from other castes. In fact, in the Sikh tradition, the word “Mazhbi” meaning “the faithful” is often used to describe Sikhs from these backgrounds as a buffer to Sikhs who would otherwise treat them without dignity.
In general, as a community, Sikhs have a lot of modern tough problems to solve around caste — intercaste marriage, the marginalization of Dalits in Punjab, the disunity and social segregation between castes, the splitting of Sikh institutions based on caste, the utter arrogance and haughtiness displayed by certain caste groups, the dissolution of Sikh values in favor of this caste arrogance, and so on. The point of this paper is not to provide answers one way or the other for these, but to provide some historical background so that discussions surrounding these issues can be based upon a comprehensive understanding of the philosophy of the Gurus and the history of the Khalsa, rather than petty squabbles over oversimplified English translations of these systems that our Gurus were able to provide us guidance for.