Sikh Missionary Society U.K. (Regd)
10, Featherstone Road. Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Tel: +44 020 8574 1902
Fax: +44 020 8574 1912
Reg Charity No: 262404
Some Sikh Institutions & Concepts
Visiting a Gurdwara
The Panj Piaray
Important Sikh Concepts
Sangat & Pangat
Simran & Seva
Meeri & Peeri
To call a Gurdwara by the name of a ‘Sikh Temple’ is rather erroneous. A temple is usually associated with idols or statues, and their worship. A Gurdwara has none of this, except for the ‘Holy word’ i.e. Guru Granth. Therefore, it is inappropriate to produce a letterhead or a nameplate for the Sikh place of worship with the words ‘Sikh Temple’ instead of ‘Gurdwara’.
The first such Sikh place of worship was established in 1521 when Guru Nanak himself led his Sikhs to daily prayers at his own residence at Kartarpur. This daily ‘service’ included the concept of ‘Sangat’ (congregation), Shabad Keertan (singing of hymns with musical instruments) and ‘Langar’ (free kitchen) which are now the main features of a Gurdwara. Whether in India or abroad, in towns or in villages, wherever there is a small Sikh Community there is, probably, a Gurdwara as well. The size and outer appearance of a Gurdwara may differ from place to place, but there are certain common features, which make all Gurdwaras distinct from any other religion’s place of worship.
The most identifiable external feature of a Gurdwara is its tall flag post called Nishan Sahib rising from ground level to well above the building, and often dwarfing it. Traditionally, almost every Gurdwara building has a rather distinctive central dome along with some smaller domed kiosks ornamenting the parapets.
Gurdwaras of historical importance are usually massive buildings spreading over acres of land, and the top of their dome is often gold leafed. Whereas, the Community based Gurdwaras* are usually modest buildings depending upon the strength of the congregation. Again, most of the historical Gurdwaras have a large srovar (tank) nearby, where as the community Gurdwaras give priority to car parks and reception halls. Almost all Gurdwara buildings are painted brilliant white.
A Gurdwara is essentially a place of worship where the Guru Granth (the Holy book) is the focus of attention, placed centrally on a dais called Manji Sahib (a small wooden construction with a canopy). Often adjacent to the Manji Sahib is another low platform where the raagis (hymn singers), priests and other exponents of the Sikh scriptures recite and sing Shabads (hymns), usually accompanied by traditional musical instruments e.g. baja (harmonium) and tabla. The rest of the congregational hall is usually well carpeted, and every body is expected to sit on the floor, which is symbolic of down-to-earth humility before the Guru, as well as, equality with fellow beings. During the service, generally, the women sit on one side and the men on the other side of the hall, mainly because of tradition and convenience.
Gurdwaras are usually open to worshipers and visitors, every day and all day. Special services or prayers are held at dawn and dusk, which many Sikhs attend, as per their convenience before going to work in the morning, and again in the evening before retiring. However, a priest at the Gurdwara can be requested for a short service at any other time of the day.
Community based Gurdwaras* : Community based Gurdwaras e.g. in Britain, Canada and USA indeed function as community centres, where apart from usual daily and weekly religious services, provisions are made, depending upon the resources available, for a number of other activities for the community. These include classes for the teaching of Panjabi language, Sikh Studies, Sikh Music and Sikh Marshal Art; a library/reading room, an elderly group, a women group and a free kitchen service.
Before entering the main congregational hall called Darbar Sahib, visitors are expected to show their respect by observing the following:
Depending on the time and the nature of one’s visit, a non-Sikh visitor may observe or participate in the ‘Service’, if it is being held. One may notice that the Sikh devotees, while paying their respects to the Guru put some money on the ‘spread sheet’ or into the golak (donation box) placed in front of the Manji Sahib. Some, especially women, bring articles of food such as milk, sugar and butter, which are then collected for the Langar. Sometimes these items may also include boxes of fruit, soft drinks, and Indian sweets.
Whilst seated in the prayer hall, one may also notice that the atmosphere of the Diwaan (congregation) is rather less formal, though not really informal. Again depending up on the occasion, such as a Gurpurb celebration, and time of the day, one may notice different things happening at different times. This is because the Sikhs are very open minded and liberal in the use of their Gurdwara pulpits. They seem to have all the time for every one. It may be that a group of Raagis is sitting, singing hymns with their musical instruments for an hour; or that a group of Dhadis is standing, singing ballads, about Sikh Gurus and other Sikh heroes with some traditional musical instruments; or that a person is standing and lecturing the audience on a topic of Sikh history, religion, education, community affairs or even political thinking.
However, all congregational services or meetings end with Ardas (prayer proper). During Ardaas every one stands with folded hands in a gesture of humility and submission as the priest leads and says the prayer on behalf of every one present. He occasionally prompts it with the word Waheguru which is repeated by the whole congregation, like saying Amen. Finally, every body sits down to hear the concluding sermons from the Holy Granth and to receive the Karrah Parshad* before dispersing.
*Warm sweet pudding cooked in a Karraha or Karrahi (large wok); made with flour, purified butter and sugar in equal quantities.
Note: An important part of the Sikh worship
at the Gurdwara is the provision and participation in Langar
(common kitchen). All visitors, members of the congregation are
expected to partake meal during their visit.
The Sikh Institution of ‘Langar’ is an important aspect of the Sikh way of life. ‘Langar’ literally means kitchen or refectory. But in Sikh terminology Langar is a ‘free community kitchen’, usually associated with a Gurdwara and hence often called ‘Guru Ka Langar’. It is often said that where there is a Gurdwara, there is Langar. Indeed, Langar has become an important feature of Sikh religious services or ceremonies, whether held in a Gurdwara, a family home or a hired hall.
The origin of this unique institution can be traced back to the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, who started this tradition of sharing of food among those who used to congregate at his place for prayers. Later, during the time of Guru Amardas when separate prayer halls (Gurdwaras) were established, the Sikh disciples from far and near were directed to have meals first and then join the prayer. Indeed, every Sikh Guru ensured that there was a provision of Langar where ever they lived, travelled and preached.
The setting up of the institution of Langar along with a Gurdwara proved to be a very revolutionary step on the part of the Gurus. It helped to eliminate discrimination based on class or caste and any of the taboos against inter-dining. Indeed, it became a means of achieving social cohesion and integration as the devotees sat on the floor mats in rows and took their meals together regardless of their social position or status.
It also turned out to be a training centre in Community Service. The running of Langar required a lot of physical effort, e.g. collection of food and rations, cooking of food, serving of meals, cleaning of dishes, utensils and floor etc. All this voluntary service was provided with the utmost humility and dignity.
Apart from this voluntary service requiring physical effort, Sikhs were also asked to make a willing contribution called Daswandh (tithe) towards the running of the Langar and other charitable purposes. This was called service with Dhan, i.e. donations in cash or kind. In villages Sikh land owners and farmers started donating grains and any other foodstuffs useful for the Langar. Others made cash donations according to their ability and enterprise. However, the Guru expected that any service with Tann (body) or Dhan (money) must initiate from Mann (mind) otherwise it was meaningless.
Today, this institution of Langar is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the ‘Sikh way of life’. In whichever country, whatever the size of the Sikh community, where ever there is a Gurdwara or a Sikh congregation, there is always a queue of willing helpers to run the Langar for every visitor Sikh or non-Sikh. In Sikh terminology this is called ‘Langar-d-sewa’.
Some other features of Langar
The Sikh word for prayer is Ardaas. All religions practise and profess the importance of formal prayers, but it remains a very personal thing. It is being in direct communication with the Creator, Preserver and the Destroyer i.e. Waheguru, the One-God. Therefore, the Ardaas can vary in length and content. Sometimes in an informal and personal situation only a few words are said e.g. saying a short prayer before or after meals, or when starting on a journey or any new job.
There is, however, a standard version of Ardaas given in the booklet Sikh Rehat Maryada (code of conduct) which is expected to be recited on all formal occasions, such as at the conclusion of a Sikh congregational service or after the normal recitation of Gurbaani, even by an individual Sikh. Again, although a Sikh can perform Ardaas at any time, at any place and in any posture he/she finds convenient, a congregational prayer is more of a formal thing and as such a certain amount of discipline and etiquette is expected when the prayer is being said.
A formal or a standard version of congregational Ardaas constitutes about 25 sentences of various lengths. They consist of 350-400 words, most of them in rhythmic prose and are thus easily committed to the memory by any person leading the Ardaas. Broadly speaking, Sikh prayer may be divided into three parts. The first part constituting the opening sentences of the Ardaas is regarded as having been written by Guru Gobind Singh. It invokes the blessings of God and the nine Gurus before Guru Gobind Singh himself. The second part is committed to the remembrance of events, aspirations and sacrifices of the Sikhs from the time of Guru Gobind Singh to the present day. The last part is rather flexible in content, and usually includes the devotee’s personal thoughts, purpose or the occasion initiating the Ardaas. The last two sentences are again formally set by the Sikh Rehat Maryada. In the first, the devotee asks for forgiveness of any mistake made while reciting Gurbaani and remembering God, and the second and final sentence refers to Nanak, through whom every Sikh seeks the blessing of the Holy Name, and uttering in unison sarbat-da-bhalla (for the good of all living beings).
Before the formal Ardaas begins, the whole congregation stands up facing the Holy Guru Granth. Everyone folds their hands before their chest and bows their head slightly in humility. First a Shabad* (see below) is sung in chorus and then the Ardaas proper is said by a priest or a person so competent. Everyone follows silently, except for saying one word ‘Waheguru,’ occasionally, at the call of the leading priest. At the end, again, before sitting down, a few more verses are sung in chorus. Finally, the leading priest calls out loudly -- ‘Jo Boley so Nihal’ (blessed are those who say) and the whole congregation responds with one voice -- ‘Sat Sri Akal’ (Truth is God/God is Truth).
Again, in a formal congregation, every body sits down for a few more minutes to listen to the final sermons from the Holy Granth before receiving a small serving of Karrah Parshad. People then disperse.
PRELUDE TO THE SIKH PRAYER
“Tu Thakur tum pe Ardaas
Jio pind sabh Teri raas
Tum Maat Pita hum baarik Teray
Tumri kirpa meh sookh ghaneray
Koe na jaanay Tumra unt
Ooche se oocha Bhagvant
Sagal samagri Tumre sootar dhaari
Tum te hoe su agiakaari
Tumri gat mit Tum hi jaani
Nanak das sada kurbaani”
To Ye, O Lord, I make this supplication
This body and soul are all Thy property
Thou art the Mother and Father of us children
By Thy grace we get so many joys
No one knows how limitless Thou art
O God, the Highest of the high
The whole world is attached to Thy string
Every thing is under Thy command
Thou alone knows Thy state and extent
Nanak, this slave is for ever a sacrifice.
Note: On certain occasions such as during Anand
Kaarj (wedding) or an Akhand Path (non-stop reading of the Granth) when
a specific ceremonial Ardaas is performed on behalf a person/s, or for
a specific purpose then the rest of the congregation or attendance may
As previously explained, the word Panj means five, whereas Piaray is the plural of Piara meaning beloved or ‘loved one’. So the term ‘Panj Piaray’ literally means ‘five beloved ones’. Guru Gobind Singh was the first Guru to use this term in a particular context, referring to those five Sikhs who had passed the ultimate test of faith in their master showing death defying courage and humility. On the Vaisakhi day of 1699 at Anandpur, The Five had been witnessed by thousands of other Sikhs as they came forward and offered their heads to the Guru’s sword, one by one. They were the first five Sikhs to receive the ‘Khande-Baate-da-Amrit’ (initiation/ceremonial water) at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh himself. Before saying any thing further let us remind ourselves of the original Panj Piaray who were regarded as the essential pillars supporting the edifice of Khalsa Panth. They were:
1. Bhai Daya Singh from Lahore
2. Bhai Dharam Singh from Hastinapur
3. Bhai Mohkam Singh from Dwarka
4. Bhai Sahib Singh from Bidar
5. Bhai Himmat Singh from Jagannath
Unfortunately, not much is known about the early lives of these five Sikhs, nor can one give the exact age of each, except that they were all in their thirties. However, it is clear that their lives were short lived like the Guru himself. Three of them namely Mokham Singh, Sahib Singh and Himmat Singh died during the battle of Chamkaur, while Daya Singh and Dharam Singh were able to accompany Guru Gobind Singh to Nander in Deccan where they also died soon after the Guru’s death.
Later, after the death of these five beloved ones and the passing away of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, the contextual term of ‘Panj Piaray’ became a recognised concept and, indeed, a popular institution of the Sikh way of life. Now, the term ‘Panj Piaray’ may refer to the original five, or it may refer to a newly formed body of five Amritdhari Sikhs who may have been asked to perform a particular task or duty to which they are entrusted by the Sikh community. This may happen at any level, local, national or global. Whatever the country, or size of the Sikh community, the institution of ‘Panj Piaray’ is with them. It is often seen that for settling many matters of the community, such as internal disputes or difficulties, or taking initiatives and decisions, it is this body of ‘Panj Piaray’, which is most in demand.
This is because of the fact that when Guru Gobind Singh had given finality to the Guru Nanak’s mission by establishing the Khalsa Panth, using the Panj Piaray as a base, he had at the same time created this new democratic institution, which was free from the barriers of caste, class or gender. As we can see each of the five ‘beloved ones’ of the Guru who belonged to a different caste of the time was regarded as equal to every body else. Further more, by kneeling down before the newly formed body of Panj Piaray, and himself receiving Amrit from their hands, the Guru gave a signal to the rest of the Sikh community that ‘the Five’ had as much power and prestige as he himself, indeed more. These original ‘five beloved ones’ were not to be regarded as just body guards of the Guru, they were there with him all the time to defend him, to advise him and even ‘order’ him if it needs be. This they did, when the Guru had to accept their decision to leave the fortress of Chamkaur, so that he could live to complete his mission rather than be killed fighting against overwhelming Mughal armies
Today, whether it is the local Sikh community or a Sikh religious organisation, the importance of ‘Panj Piaray’ cannot be under estimated. They are, usually, men or women of respect in the local community having no criminal record, and their only qualification is that they are ‘Amritdhari Sikhs’ (baptised Sikhs). When ever or whereever the need arises, they are often unanimously chosen from amongst the community. They act more like a Jury, and their tenure is rather temporary and honorary.
However, whereas local matters are usually dealt
with by a body of local ‘Panj Piaray’, the national or global issues
affecting the whole Sikh community are dealt with by the five Jathedars
or leaders of the Five Takhats, under the chairmanship of the
‘Jathedar’ of Sri Akal Takhat at Amritsar.
Sangat and Pangat are two very important Sikh concepts, which have become institutionalised over a period of time, and are as old as the birth of Sikhism. ‘Sang’ literally means company and ‘Sangat’ refers to the company of worshipers or a religious congregation. The use of the term ‘Sangat’ started with Guru Nanak as a reference to his assembled devotees. Wherever he went on his missionary tours he left behind a legacy of Sangat. He encouraged his disciples to join into Sangat for the purpose of prayer and worship by building suitable centres, later to be called Gurdwaras. Today any assembly of Sikh worshipers, large or small, is called the Sangat. However, this term Sangat has acquired a broader meaning and purpose with the ‘Community Gurdwaras’, which are acting as community centres as well as a place of worship. Here the Sangat is regarded as a very democratic institution. Not only, do the members pray and eat together on the same floor, shedding their sense of ego or individualism, they also learn to work rather democratically towards meeting the social and cultural needs of the community. The Sikh Sangat often takes up certain welfare projects within and outside the Sikh community. In Sikhism, the institution of ‘Sangat’ is known for its unanimous decisions regarding any social or community matter brought to its notice. Pangat literally means a line or a row. It is an important word of Sikh terminology and is fully synonymous with the institution of Langar, where the Sikh worshipers or any other visitors to the Gurdwara eat their food together sitting on the same level in rows. While ‘Sangat’ refers to a body of worshipers, ‘Pangat’ refers to the worshipers dining in a row.
The concepts of SEVA & SIMRAN are very important in Sikhism. Although these are two different words with different meanings (literally, Seva means service and Simran is repeating God’s name) they go very much together in Sikh ideology and are part and parcel of the Sikh way of life. Because the very purpose of Simran is to be one with God by meditating upon His Name, then to achieve this state of mind one has to forget one’s own self, annihilate one’s ego by some practical gestures of service which are selfless, non-discriminatory and without any expectations of reward or recognition. As in the Sikh scripture,’Vin Gun Keete Bhagat Na Hoe’ (No good deed, no good devotee)
The spirit of service generates love and affection among people and spreads the message of humility around. A real Sikh who engages himself in the routine of ‘Simran’ cannot stay behind in Seva, for both these acts help to bring him closer to God and His people. Service may be carried out in many different ways or forms e.g. by helping the needy or the poor, giving to charity, contributing towards the general welfare of the community, working for the moral or spiritual uplift of fellow beings. In the context of ‘Seva’, three words representing three types of service are very popular in Sikhism i.e. Tann, Mann and Dhann (body, mind and material or money). Such ‘seva’ is most obvious in the running of Langar at a Gurdwara.
The Sikh Guru’s have given much emphasis to Simran, which can be done by either recitation of the holy Name e.g. Satnam or Waheguru or by spontaneous and silent remembrance of His Name with heart and mind. Although early morning or dawn is regarded as a good peaceful time, for Simran, it depends mainly on the needs and convenience of the individual as to what time is suitable to him or her. Similarly, sitting cross-legged is regarded as the best position for Simran, but a Sikh can do so in any posture or position, provided he or she can concentrate on God’s Name.
The concept of Meeri- Peeri is also very important in Sikhism. After the Martyrdom of Guru Arjan, his successor Guru Hargobind, in keeping with Guru Nanak’s protestations against the offences committed by Emperor Babar, felt the need to rejuvenate the system to defend oneself against injustice, and uphold truth and moral values. In a symbolic gesture to demonstrate his resolve, he donned two Kirpaans (swords), one symbolising spiritual authority or strength called Peeri, and the other temporal authority or power called Meeri. (The sword being the traditional symbol of power and prestige, royalty and respect as well as an instrument of defence to face the tyrant oppressor). The Guru exhorted his Sikhs to take a firm stand against any injustice or violation of their human rights.
Later the same ideal was reaffirmed by Guru Gobind Singh when he ended the line of Guruship and passed on the Spiritual succession to the Guru Granth Sahib, and the temporal succession or power to the Khalsa Panth. Whereas, the latter may change or adjust itself with the times through the Gurmattas of the Sarbat Khalsa, the former is permanent and is subject to no change.
Literally, Sarbat means all or entire and ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ mean the entire Khalsa or the Sikh community. However, the concept of Sarbat Khalsa is much more than its literal meaning, and needs some elaboration. It is indeed a theo-political doctrine by which a truly representative gathering of all Sikhs assumes powers and status to discuss and decide about matters of extreme importance affecting the Sikh community as a whole. Like a truly democratic institution the working and the verdict of the Sarbat Khalsa should therefore reflect the care and concern of the whole Sikh community, whether in India or abroad, and not just of few pressure groups present in a particular meeting. Indeed the concept of Sarbat Khalsa lies in its being ‘the centralised conscience and will of the people’. In modern terms the working of Sarbat Khalsa is more or less similar to that of the U.N.O. and the Security Council, except that instead of the member countries it constitutes all-important Sikh organisations, and the five Jathedars of the five Sikh Takhats are like the permanent members of the Security Council.
The need for ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ came into being after the death of Guru Gobind Singh when he passed the line of Guruship on to two new Institutions. Meeri, spiritual authority, was vested in the Guru Granth Sahib and Peeri, temporal authority, in the Khalsa Panth. During the post Guru period of the 18th century, Sikhs went through an extremely difficult period and at one time the Governor of Lahore offered rewards for bringing in Sikhs alive or dead. Although severely persecuted and hunted down, the Sikhs kept their spirits high, scattered themselves into various armed groups and kept themselves organised and alert to the changing political situation. However, they used to meet once or twice a year at the Akal Takhat/Harmander Sahib, Amritsar. The dark night on the occasion of Diwali was regarded as the most suitable time for their movements and meeting. They often used this opportunity to discuss new matters, new strategies and other questions of interest regarding the Khalsa Panth. The discussions would lead to Gurmattas, and if a consensus was formed for a Gurmatta (resolution), they would pass it, deemed to be acted upon. (In those days many such decisions were taken by the Sarbat Khalsa e.g. accepting a ‘Jagir’ in 1733; building a fort at Amritsar in 1747; forming of Dal Khalsa in 1748; attacking Lahore in 1760 etc.)
As already partly explained a Gurmatta is a resolution after necessary discussions. However, this discussion and resolution must be carried out by a truly representative Sikh Sangat in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. Since, ‘Matt’ means wisdom, advice or counsel, ‘Gurmatta’ has to be the Guru’s advice direct or indirect i.e. keeping the Guru in sight and in mind. A Gurmattas can be adopted by the local Sikh Sangat for their local issue/s, but it can not be an instrument to pronounce on the fundamentals of Sikhism, and hence not to be treated as a Hukamnama.
Hukumnama is Persian word, which was commonly used by Mughal Kings, and which means ‘royal order’. After acquiring the status of ‘Meeri & Peeri’, Guru Hargobind also introduced this concept to the Sikh community. However, to Sikhs a Hukumnama became an even more powerful mandate, because it was issued by the person who was their Spiritual and Temporal Authority. The present status of a Hukumnama is such that it is binding on the Sikh Community through out the world, and any non-acceptance or defiance may be regarded as self expulsion from the Sikh Community. However, only the Jathedar of Akal Takhat can issue a Hukumnama, and that too, after due consultations, and upon obtaining the consensus of all the other four Jathedars of the Sikh Takhats.
Literary, ‘Tankhah’ means salary or wages. However under the Sikh code of conduct ‘Tankhah’ and ‘Tankhahyia’ terms are used to mean a ‘treatment’ or ‘referral’ to rectify an offence and/or the offender. Some people use these terms in a punitive sense, and mean punishment and receiver of punishment, which is mainly in the form of community service. The Tankhah is awarded mainly for committing a religious offence by a practising Sikh. Depending on the place and position of the offending Sikh and the nature of offence, the Tankhah is decided in a local Gurdwara by the Panj Piaray, or centrally at Akal Takhat, Amritsar, in consultation with and on the approval of the Jathedars of the five Sikh Takhats.
Traditionally, any alleged ‘Tankhahyia Sikh’ is supposed to be present before the ‘select five’, and in the presence of Guru Granth and the Sangat. One can appeal for forgiveness after attending the treatment in the form of a set community service, which is usually a formal sum to be donated to a charity fund, as well as some work carried out physically and openly with humility e.g. cleaning dishes at the Langar. This Sikh code of Tankhah has been applied in the past, equally, without any favour or fuss from the lowest to the highest in public standing e.g. Maharaja Ranjit Singh the ruler of Panjab; Buta Singh, the Home minister of India; Surjit Singh Barnala the Chief minister of Panjab were among them.
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