Let us venture to dwell on this caste malaise prevalent in the Sikhs, both in India as well as abroad. It is noteworthy that the origin of Sikhism started with their Gurus from Nanak Saheb to the tenth Guru Gobind Singhji aka Gobind Rai Ji.
Guru Nanak Ji (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539) was the founder of the lineage or religion of Sikhism; was born in the Hindu Khatri family of the Bedi clan and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. He preached equality of all humans including women and irrespective of any societal discrimination.
When in the Middle East, the West and the rest of Asia – slavery, varna/class and race discrimination was rife and respect between the different classes and caste was at low ebb, Guru Nanak preached against discrimination and prejudices due to race, caste, status, etc. More at: http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Guru_Nanak
The tenth Guru was Gobind Singhji aka Gobind Rai who ultimately laid the foundation of “Khalsa Panth (the Granth and the Panth)” and had also declared that the Holy Book called “Guru Granth Sahib” will be their final Guru and guide from now on, i.e. after his departure; there will be no more human Guru. This is their ‘Panth’ i.e. the ‘path’ to follow.
The meaning of Khalsa translates to “Sovereign/Free”. Another interpretation is that of being ‘Pure’. A Sikh who has been initiated into the Khalsa is titled Singh (males) and Kaur (females) and commonly referred to as Amritdhari.
Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God’s eyes. Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.
The traditions and philosophy of Sikhi were established by ten specific gurus from 1469 to 1708. Each guru added to and reinforced the message taught by the previous, resulting in the creation of the Sikh religion.
It is noteworthy that Guru Nanak was born in the era when the cruellest and barbaric Mughal invader Baaber aka Baabur was repeatedly inflicting his tyrannical atrocities to expand his empire in the Indian subcontinent from present-day Uzbekistan. Baabur also had a great passion to kill people, cut heads of people and create pillars out of the cut head. He claimed to have created several such pillars in his autobiography. More at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babur
Prof. Baldev Singh ‘Panthi’ has expressed it fairly well in his long researched essay in these words, “The issue of caste in Sikhism is quite complex, always inviting a diversity of impassioned opinions. One thing we can be certain about is that Guru Gobind Singh had abolished all caste inequality with the inception of Khalsa on 13 April 1699 and with the institution of Khanday-Ki-Pahul or the Baptism of Sword.”
“Faithful Sikhs do not practise caste discrimination but this is not to say that all Sikhs necessarily act following their faith. Consequently, the caste does exist in Sikhism, though in a diluted form than found in the rest of Indian society.”
“But at the outset one thing can be confidently stated which is that there is no clearly defined caste hierarchy in Sikh society, leave alone a vertically ordered one. Any layperson or author giving a clearly ordered Sikh caste hierarchy is himself mistaken or is purposefully misleading others.”
This statement is self contradicted by Baldev Singh himself in his same article. We shall refer to it later. As regards misleading is concerned, it is the same concern that has prompted me.
Sikhism and beginnings of Caste curse:
During those days in Asia as well as in Europe, the local kings and rulers used to fight among themselves for most of the time on one or the other pretexts. This was also the case in the lifetime of the evolution of Sikhism in just less than a century and a half of the lives of their ten Gurus.
Prof. Baldev Singh ‘Panthi’ has written a long document elaborating extensively on the castes in Sikh society. Here are some extracts from his essay.
“…the Sixth Guru and his successors found that most of the Rajputs of their time were only interested in petty fights and intrigues and had all but abdicated their responsibilities as Kshatriyas. While they toadied up to the Mughal rulers to protect their petty fiefs, they not only did not defend the rank and file of the Hindu society but were often themselves engaged in the oppression of lower caste Hindus.
Having failed to get the desired response from Rajput rulers after prolonged diplomacy and persuasion, the tenth Guru finally decided to institute a new Order in which each initiated Sikh could play the role of all the four castes. As a Shudra, a Sikh is to believe in the dignity of labour. As a Vaishya, Sikh is meant to engage in commerce with honesty and work for the prosperity of society. As Kshatriya, the Sikh is meant to carry weapons and not shy away from a just fight. And finally, as a Brahman the same Sikh – who has simultaneously all varnas in his being – is to recite Sri Guru Granth Sahib and also play a priestly role whenever needed.
… Fighting for both one’s life and faith was the greatest need in the era of Gurus. Therefore, the Kshatriya part of Sikh’s identity got more highlighted in Sikh society but it does not mean that the Shudra, Vaishya and Brahmin aspects of his personality were to be devalued. The dignity of labour is the cornerstone of the Sikh faith and Maryada (prestige or honour). Each Sikh is to take pride in doing service or Seva.”
It is this very assertion by Baldev Singh that is self-contradictory to his earlier boastings above as regards the caste issue. At the same time, it also proves my contention that Sikhs were forced to bifurcate out from their Hindu community to protect them from the atrocities by invading Islamic plunderers and nomadic barbarians. It is certainly disappointing to see that the same class of people who once acted as protectors of Hindus have become disaffected and turned their back against the parent society.
All of the Sikh Gurus were born in the Khatri caste. Guru Nanak’s father Mehta Kalu was also a shopkeeper and he tried his best to make his son follow his caste profession of shopkeeping.
Baldev Singh further extends his apologia, “The reasons for such petty arguments about each others’ relative social status are unfortunate and are to be seen in the backdrop of the colonial era when the trading castes like Khatri and Baniya were perceived to be usurers and exploiters of the misery of indebted farmers from these landowning and agricultural castes. British policies also played some role in fostering already existing schisms among the Indian castes.
For some reason, British army recruiters considered all of these mercantile castes unfit for military service. Khatri Sikhs were sometimes recruited when they happened to have taken up farming and sometimes because of their knowledge of Pashto, which came in handy to the British to deal with the unruly Pathans… While Bhatias mostly did not even find a mention in recruitment manuals of Royal Indian Army, the Aroras were contemptuously dismissed with comments… by the likes of Barstow: “The Arora, whether Sikh or Hindu, is generally unsuited for military service, and men of this class should never be enlisted except under special circumstances.”
Professors Niranjhan Singh and Baldev Singh ‘Panthi’ have both done extensive research on this sensitive issue of castes in Sikhs as well as they also mention its ramifications in other religious communities e.g. Muslims and Christians. However, the work done by Baldev Singh appears more extensive than Vis a Vis Niranjhan Singh. Both have given their detailed accounts in their separate works independently. Both of them have first segregated the various major castes in Sikhs; then enlisted the various subcastes in alphabetical order.
It counts in thousands and is mind-boggling.
It is bewildering that in Sikhism, which is now claimed to be a religion, in such a short period of mere three centuries, the caste in Sikhs is far more deep-rooted than Hindus. Baldev Singh has tried to extend various excuses, apologias and causes for this caste practice in Sikhs; hideously incriminating the British Raj politics also. It certainly was a major factor indeed.
Baldev Singh and Niranjhan Singh have painstakingly tried to enumerate the groups and subgroups in Sikhs, which will be briefly elaborated on herewith.
Various castes and subcastes in Sikhs:
Sikh castes have been grouped under nine major heads altogether with thousands of further subgroups. Anyone interested in detailed bifurcation is requested to ctrl+click on the hyperlinked names which direct to their respective webs with extensive names of various castes and subcastes.
As originally enunciated by Guru Nanakji, it should have been a casteless society. By the time of Guru Gobind Singhji, only in a span of one hundred and forty years, it became imperative for the last Guru Gobind Singhji to accept and perpetuate the four Varna systems as enunciated in ancient Hindu tradition which got corrupted over the time.
Baldev Singh mentions a debate on castes in Sikhs and states, “There has been a vibrant debate within the Sikh Panth on the issue of the caste since late 19th century. Generally, this debate has been shaped by two broad lines of argument.” (1) Castes Exist But All Castes Are Equal. (2) Caste Should Not Exist At All.
Who would disagree on it?
This is a helpless cry towards an indirect debilitating apologia while accepting the caste malaise and suggesting remedies simultaneously. But the remedies have been tried by the Hindus also over centuries, if not millennia; nay there have been painstaking hard societal battles fought by many Hindu socio-political and religious reformist leaders with sincere intention to eradicate it without any fruitful results.
The causes have been both intrinsic as well as extrinsic from the vested interests of the few powerful institutions or individuals or groups whose benefits were/are linked in its perpetual maintenance. The interests may have been either direct fiscally linked or predatory conversions indirectly or for continuing the clandestine rule by divide et impera.
Thus the very existence of caste and its multipronged bewildering subdivisions in small Sikh and Jewish communities could be a very good module to study, first the existence of castes; next to evolve the effective means to eradicate it.
Caste and subcaste groups in Sikhs:
I have been able to access two leading Sikh scholars on this issue; I shall try to briefly touch on their descriptions separately. Both are going to overlap each other slightly.
Professor Niranjhan Singh: Anyone wishing to peruse details of his descriptions is requested to peruse the hyperlinked name. He states the various castes under the following heads.
1. Brahmin surnames: Under two alphabets B and R – 2castes
2. Kshatriya surnames: Under alphabets A, B, C, K, M, S – 21 castes
3. Jatt surnames: Under A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, – 949 castes
4. Ramgharia surnames: Under B, C, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, S, V – 42 castes
5. Chimba, Darsi, Thank-Kshatriya and Halvyi surnames: Under B, D, G, J, N, T, V – 9 castes
6. Chamaar, Lohaar and Churrah surnames: Under B, D, G, K, R, S – 20 castes. This section also has one separate group with ‘M/L i. e. Moonlighters’ who are counted as a higher class in this otherwise low caste group.
It totals 1043 (One thousand and forty-three) names of castes.
Niranjhan Singh thinks that Gobind Singhji abolished the castes in Sikh communities and it restarted from the period of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikh Missls (from the Persian word “misl” meaning “similar” or “alike” generally refers to the twelve sovereign states in the Sikh Confederacy). However, his statement is at variance with the view held by Professor Baldev Singh ‘Panthi’.
Baldev Singh feels that the four castes/Varnas were started by Guru Gobind Singhji. He thinks that caste was banned by Guru Nanak Devji from its very inception. But for certain reasons beyond his control, Guru Gobind Singh himself created this system in Sikhs during his lifetime like the four Varnas in Hindus as explained earlier.
Professor Baldev Singh ‘Panthi’ states in the introductory section of his essay under the section of “Major Sikh Castes and Subcastes” e.g. Arora, Khatri, Ramgarhia, Jat, Saini, Kamboh, Mahton, Chhimba, Mohyal, Chamar, etc. Each caste has its sphere of influence and specialization (same as in Hindus – Author). The order of castes… has been randomly mentioned one before the other.
Commercial Castes: Arora, Khatri and Bhatia Sikhs
Aroras and Khatris
In the cities, Khatri and Arora dominate the sphere of business activities. Khatri and Aroras are essentially identical caste and are primarily a caste of traders, shopkeepers and accountants. Sometimes people belonging to these castes are called “Bhapa Sikhs”.
Another minor Sikh commercial caste is that of Bhatias. Bhatias claim origin from Bhati Rajputs who had taken to shopkeeping.
Zamindar and Agriculturist Castes
Following Sikh castes are essentially agricultural and landowning castes: Jat, Kamboh, Mahton and Saini. In the estimation of the British, only these Sikh castes were temperamentally and physically suited for active military service and warfare like the hardy Scottish Highlanders back home who also made excellent soldiers. The glorious Sikh Regiment, the most decorated regiment of the Indian Army, consisted of these castes primarily, although Labanas and Kalals were also sometimes recruited.
Ramgarhia is also a prominent Sikh caste. According to McLeod, the present-day Ramgarhias are a caste formed by the merging of Nais (barbers), Raj (blacksmiths) and Tarkhans (carpenters). They are primarily expert carpenters and blacksmiths.
Brahman, supposedly the highest caste among Hindus, does not have the same rank in Punjab, especially among Sikhs. In rural areas, most of them are ordinary farmers and generally not as prosperous as Jats, Mahtons and Sainis etc. They also used to work as cooks in villages… In the urban area, they also do shopkeeping.
Nomadic and Wandering Castes
Another caste within Sikhs worth mentioning is that of Saansis. It is not a Sikh caste with significant numbers but they have produced one of the greatest Sikh personalities, i.e. Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is a caste of vagabonds and gypsies. They claim origin from Bhati Rajputs and were enlisted as a criminal tribe by the British.
Labana is another Sikh caste. They were considered to be akin to Banjaras or gypsies but a considerable number of them are also settled in agriculture. Labanas engaged in agriculture are also called Labana Jats.
Among the Dalit caste groups are prominent ones – Chamars and Chooras. Both communities are called Mazhabi Sikhs. The word Chamar is derived from Charmakar or leather tanner. They used to be expert shoe-makers. Some poor men and women of this caste also work as labourers on the farms…
Discrimination against them as stated before unfortunately still exists in Sikh society. For this reason, Mazhbi Sikh brethren are extended reservation as scheduled caste in India. Mazhbi Sikhs have in the past made a sterling contribution to Sikhism both as mystics and soldiers.
Bhagat Ravidas belonged to the Chamar caste but is accorded the highest respect in Sikhism with his poetry being included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. In recent times Sardar Buta Singh is a well-known Mazhbi Sikh politician.
Baldev Singh makes a detailed dissection and the above extract does show the real menace on account of castes in the Sikh community. Here is a brief list of the Castes he further dwelt upon in his next section in Sikh Caste Names.
1. Bhatia Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, G, J, K, R, S, W – 18 castes
2. Jat Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y – 995 castes. This group is the largest of all, perhaps due to their agriculture profession.
3. Mahton Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, G, H, J, K, L, M, P, S, T, W – 48 castes
4. Kalal or Ahluwalia subcastes: A, B, C, D, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, Y – 67 castes
5. Kamboh Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, S, T – 104 castes
6. Khatri Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, G, H, J, K, L. M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, W – 144 castes
7. Arora Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, V, W – 310 castes
8. Ramgarhia Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, V, W – 454 castes
9. Saini Sikh subcastes: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, S, T, U, V – 193 castes
All these numbers add to a staggering figure of 2643 (Two thousand six hundred forty-three). This is no mean figure. Thus this menace of caste curse is as bad in the contemporary Sikhs as it is in any other society. It should be noted that Baldev Singh spells ‘Ramgarhia’ while Niranjhan Singh has spelt it ‘Ramgharia’ and both are the same except for the individual variant in its spelling. Perhaps my inclination would be for Baldev Singh’s spelling.
It is pointed out that Sikhism is only a toddler in religious history. Jews are only a few million in number and are fighting for their establishment in Israel; yet both have, more or less, been stung by the hornet of castes. One only needs to stretch their imagination to think of an order vibrantly flourishing since times immemorial, for countless millennia despite being persecuted from time to time by rapacious savage profligates of barren deserts and beyond.
Author: Dr O. P. Sudrania
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This article was first published in The Chakra and we have republished it with their kind permission.