Schisms and Sects

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

During the period in which the Gurus lived (the 16th and 17th centuries), succession disputes caused some stirs, but were smoothed out over the course of time as a mainstream Sikh tradition emerged.

For example, Guru Nanak's (1469-1539) sons expected some inheritance from the tradition their father started, but the Guru passed his office to Lehna (renamed "Guru Angad," 1504-1552) on the basis of the successor's merit, not genealogy. This did not sit well with Guru Nanak's sons, who laid claim to their father's land and thus some aspect of his authority. One of the Guru's sons used his family connections to become a founding figure in the movement known as the Udasis. This group, being an ascetic order, was never considered to be part of the Sikh community and is not a major religious order today.

During the successions after the second and third Gurus' lives, there were again inheritance issues raised within the Gurus' families. Finally, Guru Ramdas (1534-1581), the fourth Guru, tried to put an end to this by choosing his own son and thereby maintaining the community's lands in the inheritance of his sons. However, within his own family, the elder son (Prithi Chand), who was not chosen, tried to establish his own authority after the youngest (Guru Arjan) died in 1606. What emerged as the mainstream community labeled this group "the Minas," or the scoundrels. The mainstream Sikhs blamed the leaders of this group for Guru Arjan's martyrdom in Mughal custody, and for the fractious divisions within the 17th-century community.

Along with the "Minas," two other groups formed around sectarian leaders in the 1600s. All of these groups shared with the mainstream community a belief in Guru Nanak's founding leadership, reverence for a common scripture (although some of the sectarian leaders wrote their own compositions), and comparable systems of worship. The sectarian groups, however, were pro-establishment—they received land grants from the Mughal Empire—while the mainstream community was set apart by its strict anti-establishment stance and willingness to undergo persecution.

The tenth and final Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), realized a re-consolidation of the community around 1700 C.E. The Guru was able to dominate his cousins, who could not challenge his authority as supreme temporal and spiritual leader of the community. At his death, there was a consensus that Guru Gobind Singh had abolished the notion of personal Gurus. Issues of succession were no longer to be problematic because his authority was passed on to the Guru Granth Sahib (GG) (the scripture) and the Khalsa Panth (the community). Several competing factions did vie for leadership within the community, but an overwhelming consensus emerged within the Khalsa-at-large: divine authority was vested on earth only with scripture and the Khalsa as a whole.

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?

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