Sikh religious titles, duties and related skills

Sikh religious titles, duties and related skills

Gurmukh Singh OBE

There is no ordained priesthood in Sikhism, and no structured hierarchy or strict division of duties. Generally, any Amritdhari Sikh, with the necessary skills and proficiencies, can perform all the ceremonial and other duties in a Gurdwara without any discrimination regarding gender, caste or race.

An Amritdhari Sikh is one who has accepted the full physical and spiritual discipline according to the Sikh code (the Sikh Reht Maryada) at an Amrit Sanchar ceremony. This ceremony is conducted by the Five Beloved Ones (the Panj Piaray) – themselves Amritdhari Sikhs, who are selected for the ceremony by the holy congregation, the Sangat (or the Gurdwara management these days).

While the same person, with the necessary qualifications, can perform all the religious duties, the following are the titles and related functions performed at the Gurdwaras:

Granthi: Bearing in mind that there is no ordained priesthood in Sikhism, a Granthi equates to a priest or “minister of religion”. Any qualified Amritdhari Sikh can perform the duties of a Granthi. One appointed as a full time Granthi MUST be an Amritdhari practicing Sikh following the prescribed code of religious discipline, the Sikh Reht Maryada. He (or she) should have all the skills of a Paatthi (be able to read the holy Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib), be able to interpret the Gurbani ( sacred hymns in Guru Granth Sahib), deliver sermons to the holy congregation (Sangat) and do all the duties relating to the care of Guru Granth Sahib as the “living Guru” at ceremonial occasions. Preferably, a Granthi should be able to hold discourses, know the language of the country and carry out extrovert religious duties including those relating to the interfaith aspect. It is desirable but not essential that a Granthi be able to sing the sacred hymns i.e. musical proficiency is not a requirement. Also, it is preferable that a Granthi should be married.

Paatthi: A person who is proficient in reading the holy Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib. Usually, a Paatthi is also able to do the other tasks associated with supplication (Ardaas) in the congregation (Sangat) and the morning evening ceremonies associated with Guru Granth Sahib e.g. first opening in the early morning and final closure of the holy Book in the evening. These tasks do not require much proficiency but the reading of the Scripture requires years of practice in correct pronunciation. Some never reach the final stage of absolutely correct pronunciation (Shudh Ucharan) which has great significance for interpretation. Knowledge of any other language is not necessary. Granthis, Raagis, Kathakars and most practicing Sikhs who can read Panjabi in Gurmukhi alphabet, are usually reasonably proficient (acceptable) Paatthis.

Raagi & Raagi Jatha members: A Raagi is a singer of sacred hymns. A professional Raagi must have a group called a Raagi Jatha of at least two persons: the main singer and a percussionist who usually plays the Indian tabla (two small drums placed side by side). Usually Raagi Jathas (groups) travel in threes – the main Raagi and another, maybe less proficient, and the percussionist, the one who keeps the drum beat. The main Raagi should be proficient at singing Gurbani (sacred hymns) preferably to the musical measures prescribed in Guru Granth Sahib. Years of training is required.

These days the main Raagi must be able to play the harmonium or a string instrument (rare). Any practising Sikh with reasonable proficiency can sing Gurbani in a Gurdwara. Ability to speak local language would be desirable e.g. to be able to teach children or do short translations of hymns in between singing for the benefit of Sikh youth or non-Sikhs who are entitled to sit in the Sangat. There are well known Raagi families (Ghranas) in Panjab tracing their ancestry back to the days of the Sikh Gurus. They command much respect amongst the Sikhs but may not be bale to speak any other language. .
Percussionist with Raagi Jathas: Beat is almost essential for professional Gurbani singing. A Raagi Jatha always has a percussionist, playing Indian tabla – a pair of small drums – or some other type of traditional drum e.g. dholki or mardang, which are rarely played these days except in cultural programmes. A number of years of training is required to play the tabla proficiently, although, there are always local amateurs.

Kathakar and Pracharak: Kathakars are Sikh scholars proficient at interpreting the holy Scriptures in the traditional and modern context. The interpretation is direct (of the Guru’s Word or Gurbani) as well as illustrative through historical accounts and modern incidents. Most Granthis should also be reasonably proficient Kathakars. Pracharaks are articulate missionary preachers well versed in Sikh history and religious tradition, and may also be proficient kathakars. It is highly desirable that Kathakars and Pracharaks should be reasonably proficient in the English language.

Dhadi and Dhadi Jathas are very popular, especially amongst Sikh migrants from Panjab: A Dhadi sings religious ballads, usually martial in nature telling the stories of great Sikh heroes, sacrifices and armed struggle for the righteous cause. These ballads are called the Dhadi Vars and are sung to popular traditional beats and rhythms from the land of undivided Panjab. Considerable vocal and musical instrumental skills are required. The two instruments usually played are a string instrument called the sarangi, and a small hand-held drum called the dhad. One person plays the sarangi and two play dhads. Some dhadi jathas may occasionally use sarangi and a harmonium accompanied by a percussionist playing a drum called dholki. Dhadi jathas are part of the Sikh religious martial tradition. They travel around in groups of threes or four and are never employed full time by Gurdwaras. Knowledge of English is not relevant.

Sikh religious scholars visiting UK should be proficient in the English language. However, certain traditional Sikh schools of learning do not teach English, yet, they produce Sikh scholars of the highest calibre capable of interpreting Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh religious tradition.

(Prepared as a briefing paper for UK Sikh-government meetings)

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