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Article on the Nirmal Sampraday/Nirmal Ashram in the Tribune


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A nice one that passed me by from the Tribune last September. Its Sri Mahant Gyan Dev Singh, not 'Nam dev Singh' as the article states. Interesting thing on Gyani Sant Singh Maskeen too. The photo's on the site. Nirmal Ashram is popular among Hemkunt Sahib yatris.



Blend of Sikhism and Vedanta

Tarlochan Singh

Mahant Ram Singh and Sant Jodh Singh from the Nirmala Ashram at Rishikesh

NIRMALA ASHRAMS all over India are carrying on their mission to serve the people irrespective of caste and creed and remain away from any political activity. Nirmala, derived from Sanskrit meaning spotless, unsullied, pure, bright, etc, is the name of a sect of Sikhs primarily engaged in religious study and preaching.

The members of the sect are called Nirmala Sikhs or simply Nirmalas. The sect arose during the time of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). Guru wanted his followers not only to train in soldierly arts but also to have interests in letters. He had engaged a number of scholars to translate Sanskrit classics into Punjabi, in order to bring them within the easy reach of people.

Guru Gobind Singh sent five of his Sikhs, namely Karam Singh, Vir Singh, Ganda Singh, Saina Singh, and Ram Singh, dressed as upper-class students, to Varanasi, the centre of Hindu learning. These Sikhs worked diligently for several years and returned to Anandpur as accomplished scholars of classical Indian theology and philosophy. In view of their piety and their sophisticated manner, they and their students came to be known as Nirmalas, and were later recognised as a separate sect.

After the evacuation of Anandpur in 1705, the Nirmala preachers went to different places outside Punjab, particularly to Haridvar, Allahabad and Varanasi, where they established centres of learning that exist even today — Kankhal, near Haridwar; Pakki Sangat at Allahabad; and Chetan Math and Chhoti Sangat at Varanasi. When, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the Sikhs established their sway over the Punjab, some of the Nirmala saints came back here and founded centres at different places.

It was customary for Nirmala scholars to attend, along with their disciples, religious fairs at prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres such as Haridwar, Allahabad and Gaya, where they, like other sadhus, took out shahis or processions and had philosophical debates with scholars of other religious denominations as a part of their preaching activity. During the Haridwar Kumbh in 1855, at a general meeting of the Nirmalas held in their principal dera at Kankhal, the first step was taken towards setting up a central body by electing Mahitab Singh of Rishikesh, reputed scholar of the sect, as their Sri Mahant or principal priest. This tradition is continuing and the present head in Sri Mahant Nam Dev Singh.

The Nirmalas believe in the 10 Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib. They wear either white or saffron attire. They generally practise celibacy and are devoted to scriptural and philosophical study but by tradition they are inclined towards classical Hindu philosophy, especially the Vedanta. Their contribution towards the preaching of Sikh doctrine and production of philosophical literature in Sanskrit, Braj, Hindi and Punjabi is considerable. Some of the important works that contributed to Sikh learning and regeneration of Sikh principles in particular are by them.

The Nirmala Ashram at Rishikesh was established in 1903 by Mahant Buddha Singh. Its main branches are at Haridvar, Karnal and Mumbai. This place has served the purpose of spreading the message of Guru Nanak. Giani Sant Singh Maskin was one of the illustrious students of this centre. Lachman Dass Chela Ram, world known Sikh scholar stayed here, to translate the Guru Granth Sahib in Hindi.

During my recent visit to Rishikesh, I came to know about their humanitarian deeds. The Gyan Daan Academy has been set up to provide free education to poor children of all castes. Its beautiful sprawling campus on the Dehra Dun road has become a boon for the entire area. Four classes are already in session with facilities like free uniforms, textbooks and stationary, mid-day meal and free transport from village to the school.

The Ashram is already running a public school with boarding facilities on the Haridwar Road. Mahant Ram Singh, head of the Ashram, and Sant Baba Jodh Singh believe that altruism is the essence of Guru Nanak’s teachings. They have set up a big hospital with modern facilities in Rishikesh. A 100-bedded state-of-the-art eye hospital is coming up as well.

Renowned educationist S. Waryam Singh, the chairman of the schools run by the Ashram, said the main source of the income was donations by Sindhis, who are devotees of Guru Nanak.

— The writer is a Member of Parliament

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  • 4 months later...

Its gone really quiet in here, but I'll keep plugging away. Some tasty Nirmal Ashram updates;


Pictures of Baba Ram Singh and Baba Jodh Singh with that big Swami bloke who does evening aarti at Svargashram, rishikesh on TV. He runs one of those theatrical (but very nice in this case) ashrams that posh types from delhi tend to love so much.

The Nirmal Ashram website has been updated and includes some new info on the four yugs along with the older 'pearls of wisdom' written by Pandit Nikka Singh Maharaj.


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Anyone who studies traditional indian philosophy and then returns to examine the teachings of the guru will inevitably draw upon or lean toward Vedanta, since its conceptual framework derives from Vedanta. Thats what they got in kashi yes along with the other darshanas and thats what they were writing about from that time onwards since of the six darshanas traditional Vedanta is closest. The earliest Nirmalay granths are Vedantic from the mid 1700s (although Nirmala historian from back when, mahant ganesha singh states Kavi Sukhdev was one of the earliest nirmala writers with his granth adhayatam prakash...I'm not so sure myself).

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This is a point I've made a few times on here before, and even to Chatanga ji if I remember correctly.

The context in which I'm talking about vedanta is the looser one in which it means any attempt to create a comprehensive sidhant based on Vedantic concepts (i.e. concepts deriving from the Upanishads) such as; the atma thinking it is independent due to illusion, maya, nirgun brahman, four fold mind as chit-man-budhi-hankar, atma (and its non-difference to Brahman), experience of truth in the form of gyan, the four states of consciousness etc, etc.

Modern scholars have generally used the term 'Vedanta' (i.e. 'the Nirmalas had a vedantic bias') to specifically describe Shankaracharya's Advaita Vedanta. I assume through ignorance, they are unaware of the broader meaning of the term, and the fact that there are many forms of Vedanta ranging from the are anti-jnana Hare Krishnas through to a near buddhist form of neo-Vedanta. The Nirmalay believe Sikhi is a salient form of Vedanta.

As came up while doing my next translation and commentary, I see it as a flaw of the overly theoretical approach of modern scholars to conceptualise the two as water tight cohesive philosophical models with which to 'compare and contrast'. From what I have seen and heard, it does not work that way. Vedanta is used in specific context to convey experience...it is more functional. It does however build on the fact that the linguistic concepts which the Gurus use are predominantly Vedantic. For example, in two places Guru Nanak specifically describes the four states of consciousness (jaagrat, svapna, sukhopati and turiya) not as a metaphor but as qualification of the highest state. This is then explored as a model into which we need to incorporate other elements. So when someone like Gyani Gurbachan Singh Bhindranwale describes Sikhi as 'advaita' (see his Sri Japuji Sahib Steek) or Sant Jagjit Singh Herkhowal describes Sikhi as Vedanta, it is more in this kind of context.

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