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Religion Library: Sikhism

Schisms and Sects

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Through the late 18th century and into the early 20th, several Sikh rulers granted importance to the descendants of the Gurus. This importance was often underscored by land grants, which fueled the descendants' sense of self-importance relative to the community at large. During the colonial period, egalitarian and modernist Sikhs sought to dislodge these groups' leaders of their authority by emphasizing the equality of all Sikhs under the Gurus.

The 19th century inspired other sectarian groups, once rooted within the Sikh tradition, that were interested in their own ways of responding to modernity. The Nirankaris ("followers of the Immortal") were founded by Baba Dayal (d. 1855) an urban Sikh leader from a town in what is now Pakistan, who was uncomfortable with the level of respect segments of the Sikh population gave to Hindu temples and priestly hierarchies. Baba Dayal wanted Sikhs to see more clearly their independence from Hinduism that the Sikh scriptures spoke about. Because of its geographical location and leadership, this group found favor among urban mercantile communities, and the remnants of that community, called the Sant Nirankaris, are today centered in Chandigarh and Delhi.

The Namdharis ("bearers of the divine name"), who called themselves the Sant Khalsa, found favor amongst artisan groups in the Sikh community, and were founded by Baba Ram Singh (d. 1885). They saw themselves as purifiers of the faith, devoted to destroying the tombs, idols, and shrines associated with rural Punjabi folk religions. A strong element of resistance to British colonial rule developed among their ranks. They are centered in Baba Ram Singh's native village of Bhaini, near Ludhiana in Punjab, India. Members of the group practice strict vegetarianism and follow a living Guru, who is today Jagjit Singh.

Mainstream Sikhs took issue with the level of reverence these two groups afforded their leaders, calling them "Guru" and thereby interfering with the doctrines of following only the ten authentic Gurus, the Guru Granth (scripture), and the Guru Panth (community). In the late 1970s, members of the above-mentioned Sant Nirankaris came into tension with other, more conservative elements of the Sikh community. Today, there is generally peaceful co-existence between these relatively minor groups and the mainstream community.

Study Questions:
1.     What issue repeatedly interfered in the succession process from one Guru to another?
2.     Who are the Nirankaris?
3.     Who founded the Namdharis and why?