The Khalsa and its Relevance in the 21st Century
Many students of Sikhi will hit a point at which they are given two seemingly contradictory views of the faith. One view claims that God turns a blind eye to one’s religious identity and the religious rituals they perform; that devotional love for Waheguru, manifested through meditative experience and compassion for humanity, is what grants the elusive spiritual union with Waheguru that every Sikh craves. In the Sikh historical tradition, the janam-sakhis, or life-stories, of Guru Nanak seem to embody this aspect best. The first Guru is portrayed as a skeptic who openly defied the religious authoritarianism and ritualism that permeated the faith traditions he encountered in his life journeys.
However, this seems to fly in the face of another very visible and uncompromising part of Sikhi, the aspect relating to…religious rituals and identity. With markers of faith like the Kakkars (5 K’s), Sikhs are arguably more vocal about their faith than other religious groups. In many contemporary historical narratives, the final living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, is seen as the one who best represents this doctrinal aspect of the faith.
For many, these two parts seem to be contradictory. How can Sikhi simultaneously lampoon facets of organized religion yet have its own versions of them?
THE CREATION OF SIKH SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS
To start, we need to shift our thinking away from what contemporary perceptions of religion in general may be, and radically change our understanding and contextualization of Sikh history.
For all that Guru Nanak seemingly eviscerated facets of organized religion (e.g., ritualism, fanaticism) in the writings he penned on his journeys across South Asia and the Middle East, he ultimately founded a community — Kartarpur Sahib — that acted as an platform for which to organize his followers into a cohesive community of believers. Guru Angad Dev Ji introduced the idea of an akhara (gym), as well as a community-run kitchen known as the langar. Guru Amar Das Ji further institutionalized this and established a Manji and Pir system meant to promulgate Sikh teachings with established Sikh representatives at locations across the region. Guru Ram Das Ji took the next step in Nanak’s vision with the creation of a small town, Ramdaspur (nowadays known as Amritsar), where the Guru and his followers forged a semblance of autonomy to freely practice the teachings themselves and spread them. This trend had a dramatic crescendo of sorts with the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev Ji, which arguably was spurred by Mughal discontentment with the Gurus’ increasing spiritual sphere of influence as a result of Sikh parchar efforts as well as the Guru’s personal entanglements with controversial political figures — in this case, the Mughal Prince Khusrau.
The final 5 Gurus further built on this foundation of an organized religion with social institutions, with the introduction of weapons training and armies and public facilities like hospitals. These took root in stronger social centers such as Kiratpur and Anandpur Sahib, which interacted with neighboring polities and were self-sustainable.
All the while, these developments still maintained the spirit of the revolutionary spirituality enshrined in the Adi Granth at this time. For example, the various Gurdwaras built held no real spiritual significance; the earth that they stood on was equally holy and valid for spiritual realization as that found underneath a tree outside or one’s own home. However, a Gurdwara provided a more organized forum for Sikhs to easily discuss concepts and practice their lifestyle alongside fellow believers who were on the same wavelength. The same way that, sure, the quality of instruction from Khan Academy is pretty great in its own right, but a university provides a much richer environment with peers, accessible resources, and a dedicated community in which to learn these ideas. Similarly, fighting in holy wars supposedly in the name of God’s glory doesn’t mean much in terms of spiritual liberation; but maintaining good health and being prepared for self-defense is a necessity of the temporal world.
So as we can see, when Guru Gobind Singh declared the formation of the Khalsa, a tight-knit faith community of initiated Sikhs who chose to wear visible markers of faith identity (Kakkars), much of the groundwork had actually already been laid out by the previous Gurus. As mentioned in previous discussions, the Khalsa acted as a living representation of the Gurus’ ideals put into practice. More importantly, however, is the fact that Guru Gobind Singh was eternalizing the Sikh teachings to extend far past his own time.
When we take into account the exact significance and purpose of the Khalsa, the modern notion that Guru Granth Sahib represents all that is the 11th living Guru may need to be revised.
First of all, as a side-note, it is very important to note that the edition of the Adi Granth that became the Guru Granth Sahib was directly penned by Guru Gobind Singh, and that too after the creation of the Khalsa — leaving no doubt as to the fact that the he adhered to the universalist spiritual beliefs within the Adi Granth just as strongly as Guru Nanak, and that there was hardly ideological conflict of interest between the 1st and 10th Sikh gurus.
However, many historical narratives suggest that the duty of Guruship was bifurcated, into the spiritual and the social aspects each of the living Gurus actively embodied. To that point, the Adi Granth was christened as the Guru Granth Sahib, and became the mind of the Guru; a spiritual reservoir meant to enlighten the individual regardless of outward religious identity or affiliation. However, the Khalsa Panth was to be considered the body of the Guru; thus taking on the roll the 10 physically-living Gurus had, of maintaining a strong community with social institutions conducive to the preservation and promotion of Sikh teachings within the real world.
The Guru Granth goes hand-in-hand with the Guru Panth. An example of this can be found in Rehit, the code of conduct Khalsa Sikhs are expected to follow. On the one hand, it would be logically incoherent to say that that following the Rehit (which prescribes appropriate rituals and identity markers for Sikhs) is how to achieve God, when the Sikh concept of God cares for neither of those things. This is because Rehit is not meant for spiritual attainment of Waheguru the way the GGS is; it is for Sikhs themselves, and should serve as an ancillary text to maintain social cohesion within the institution of the Khalsa. As such, it should still be fundamentally based on generic ethical and spiritual principles found within the Guru Granth Sahib, but cannot serve the exact same purpose.
KHALSA IN THE MODERN DAY
What this all means is that the Khalsa represents far much more than just a temporary bout of militarism Guru Ji implemented to fend off the Mughal hordes; it is a realization of 9 Gurus’ worth of community-building efforts, and the eternal essence of the Gurus’ leadership qualities meant to lead us as a Panth for today and the future.
How do we implement these seemingly archaic teachings within our daily lifestyles? Perhaps it is fruitful to take a look at how we treat the spiritual half of the Guru, the Granth. Many of the allusions and metaphors in the Guru Granth Sahib incorporate Indic and Abrahamic mythos as well as cultural-specific imagery that would elude many Sikhs today who are reading straight from the source with no teekha’s (reference books) to guide them. However, the core message within the Guru Granth Sahib has stayed the same and holds relevance to life today, and with proper tools, we can easily harvest specific ideas from Gurbani and find ways to apply them within our own lives.
The Khalsa can be seen in much the same way. Many of the specific traditions and markers of faith have somewhat lost their specific original context, but the fact that Khalsa Sikhs keep many of them even in the modern day (Kakkars) while being adaptable in other facets allows them to be reinterpreted to bolster their original purpose. An example of this is the turban. In many modern Western countries, nobody really makes the connection that the turban is a symbol of Persian and Indic royalty, and that Sikhs wearing them is a sign of their individual sovereignty and defiance to aristocracy. However, the turban is often seen as an exotic object in a sea of homogeneity, one that sticks out against the grind, defies the traditional expected set of norms, and marks out a Sikh in a large crowd — which achieves the same purpose of alterity for modern Sikhs that it did for Sikhs of old. For Sikhs a couple of centuries ago, the Rehit was a stronghold against the corruption and moral degeneration that was seen to particularly affect people of power, which many of the Khalsa would undoubtedly become after smashing military successes in the Punjab. While Sikhs aren’t really laying hold to territory and becoming landed nobles today, the modern overindulgence of hedonism, materialism, and thrill-seeking is tempting enough that many otherwise devout Sikhs may potentially slip without having a clear line defined hard-and-fast for them in a rulebook. Furthermore, the Khalsa Panth ensures that a bulk of people can pursue Sikhi at their own pace, without immediately surrendering their previous identity and affiliations (and by extension, without immediately donning the symbols of faith), as there will always be a set of sworn loyalists responsible for managing Sikh social affairs and institutions.
This contextualization of the Guru Panth and Guru Granth as two separate systems working in conjunction with one another can easily dissipate the tension between the social and spiritual realms of the Sikh religion, which, again, each have very different intellectual methodologies. With this dualism in mind, Sikhi’s relevance in the today’s world holds much more weight and is logically consistent.
Ultimately, the larger difficulty for many of us isn’t going to be the intellectual parsing out of which ways we, as Sikhs in the modern age, can live a Sikh and Khalsa lifestyle — it’s going to be accepting that because of the everlasting 11th Guru Panth and Granth, Guru Gobind Singh’s demand for Sikhs to give up their heads to the Guru and Panth reverberates just as powerfully today as it did in Vaisakhi 1699. The moral impetus for dedicated Sikhs in the 21st century to sacrifice some conveniences and pleasures in modern life is just as strong today as it was for Sikhs in the 18th century to sacrifice their lives — and so, the Khalsa Singh’s and Kaur’s of today deserve to be just as much celebrated and revered as those of our past.