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A History Of The Sikh Code Of Conduct


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Humans are social animals and, in time, their way of life evolves into a codified set of traditions and laws - a code of conduct. For Sikhs, this code of conduct evolved slowly over several centuries from the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, who started the process of delineating Sikhism as an entity independent of its neighbors' beliefs and practices, to Guru Gobind Singh, who formally established the institution of the Khalsa in 1699.

A religion, in its final analysis, is a way of life that makes possible the formation, survival and growth of human societies. A society collectively determines what constitutes right conduct or what deserves censure, and also in what form such disapproval is expressed.

We all know the message of the Sikh Gurus was simple yet universal; it empowered the powerless. What then is the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct)? What does it say? How and when did it evolve into a written document? A Sikh, and even a non-Sikh who wants to understand his Sikh neighbors, cannot be but curious about these matters. It is a riveting tale; the London based Giani Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan tells it well, though some questions remain unanswered.

It is not entirely unexpected or odd that the formalization of the Sikh way of life into a written structure, approved by the Sikh community and its representatives, took another two centuries after the canon was sealed and the Khalsa discipline established. History tells us that agreement on major issues of Christian doctrine and dogma, for example, did not occur until several centuries after Jesus. Living religions evolve, and their practices achieve clarity only over time, even centuries later. Some matters that appear settled at one time may continue to vex believers and may be revisited and re-explored years later.

During the two centuries of the Gurus, Sikh belief and practices evolved and matured. The subsequent two centuries left the Sikhs little peace or leisure to formulate their way of life into a coherent whole. In the meantime, many contradictory practices, often drawn from the large religious traditions of Hinduism and Islam, that surrounded the Sikhs, a small minority, wormed their way into the Sikh way of life.

Sikhs wrested control of their historical gurdwaras only in 1925-26 after a titanic struggle that shook the British Empire to its core. The next step was quick but equally significant. On March 15, 1927, a general body meeting of the S.G.P.C. at the Akaal Takht appointed a 29 member subcommittee, convened by the Jathedar Akaal Takht, Bhai Teja Singh, to explore Sikh teachings, traditions, history and practice, and prepare a draft of a Code of Sikh Conduct and Conventions. It is important to note that the list of members was a veritable Who-is-Who of the Sikhs of that time. While Gulshan names twenty-six members, three are only listed as jathedars of the Takhts. Who were these three individuals?

Two years later, in April 1931, a preliminary draft was distributed to the Sikhs and their opinions solicited. The subcommittee reconvened on 4-5 October, 1931, January 3, 1932, and again on January 31, 1932. Inexplicably, the number of attendees declined to thirteen; an additional four members appeared at some meetings. (How were they appointed?) On March 1, 1932, four members were dropped from the subcommittee, and an additional eight members appointed to it. (Of the four ousted from the committee, Giani Sunder Singh died, Babu Teja Singh was excommunicated and an edict issued to deny Bhai Lal Singh the right to offer prayer at the Akaal Takht. What happened to the fourth, Bhai Mya Singh is not stated.) Of the eight new members, five are named; three are listed only by their titles.

Agreement on the draft remained elusive. On May 9, 1932, only ten members attended the meeting; at the September 26, 1932 meeting, only nine members were present. (Was this a quorum?) On December 30, 1933, a conclave of the wide spectrum of the Sikh nation, somewhat akin to Sarbat Khalsa, was convened at the Akaal Takht. President of the S.G.P.C., Partap Singh Shankar, presided; 170 Sikh representatives attended it, only nine were members of the subcommittee originally appointed for the purpose.. After two full days of heated discussion, agreement eluded them, and the issue was tabled indefinitely.

A 50-member (48 named, 2 anonymous) subcommittee of the S.G.P.C. that included representation from Stockton (California), Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia, with opinions from 21 additional correspondents, approved a draft Code of Conduct on August 1, 1936; S.G.P.C. ratified it on October 12, 1936. This Code was implemented while suggestions and critique continued to pour in. The general body of the S.G.P.C. approved the document on February 3, 1945, and an eight-member subcommittee met on July 7, 1945 to fine tune the Code of Conduct.

In drafting the Sikh Code of Conduct, scholars drew upon the teachings in the Guru Granth, as also the unbroken oral tradition and practice. They also examined various historical documents to ferret out the common thread in them. These documents were the Guru Granth, the writings of Guru Gobind Singh, the poetical works of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal, the available Janamsakhis, Bhagat Mala (Bhagataavli, Bhagat Rachnaavli), Sarabloh, Rehatnama Bhai Chaupa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Prehlad Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Desa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Daya Singh, Gur Sobha, Prem (Param) Sumarag, Sau Sakhi, Mahima Parkash, Gur Bilas, Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Sri Guru Panth Parkash, Gurmat Parkash (Bhag Sanskaar), and the many Hukumnamey of the Gurus that are available.

Clearly many of these sources and documents are, at least in part, apocryphal, yet they provide rare historical information on Sikh doctrine and practice. The task of the subcommittee was daunting indeed - how to sift the wheat from the chaff. How best to capture the common thread that runs through much of Sikh history while discarding what was obviously an accretion and even contradictory to the common body and continuity of doctrine and teaching?

Starting with the definition of a Sikh, in the bulk of the book, Gulshan explores briefly but methodically, each line of the Code and every requirement of a Sikh in his or her personal and congregational existence.

Sikhism arose and flourished in the Indian culture. Sikh teachings, therefore, are cast in the language and cultural context that is largely Hindu. Now that Sikhism is a universal religion, we need to reexamine, even reinterpret the language in the context of our present reality. For instance, the language in the Rehat Maryada may appear sexist in places. That might be in tune with the Punjabi-Indian culture of the last century but it is contradictory to the spirit of the Sikh message of gender equality. Also, matters of interfaith relations need clearer definition from the Sikh perspective, now that we exist in a multifaith world.

With such minor caveats, Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan does an excellent job of explaining in detail, with scriptural and historical references, the Sikh Rehat Maryada. He successfully strips it of its mystery, and frees Sikhs of the fear that many have of a document they have never read and not understood. Readers will find the Code surprisingly consistent and largely free of contradictions. The Sikh Rehat Maryada is a liberal document that needs to be liberally interpreted.

Before this book saw the light of day, Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan circulated draft chapters on the Internet. This means that a significant part of the worldwide Sikh community got an opportunity to comment. Ultimately that is the meaning of participatory self-governance.

In all, a very satisfying read.

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