Idolatry in Sikhism
Growing Sikh popular discontent with Gurdwara administration and practices during the 1800s, revivalist movements in the mid-1800s who opposed idolatry like the Nirankaris (who strongly opposed the practice, though reverting to treating their leader as a living guru or god since the 1970s) and the Namdharis (who however have followed a living guru since its inception), and the encroachment of Brahmanical customs in the Golden Temple during that period, led to the establishment of the Singh Sabha Movement in 1873, in which the Tat Khalsa faction, dominant since the early 1880s, pushed to renew and standardize the practice of Sikhism. After a period of political advancement, the Khalsa faction re-established direct control over Gurdwara management over the Udasi and Hindu mahants, who institutionalized idol worship and would eventually identify with the Sanatan Sikhs, who identified with the Brahmanical social structure and considered idolatry as not harmful. The mahants had gained control of Gurdwaras after heavy Mughal persecution forced the Khalsa to relinquish control of the Gurdwaras and vacate the Punjab plains in the 1700s; they were most prominent in the 1800s. The Arya Samaj, opponents of the Sikhs, asserted that many Sikhs accepted idols and their worship within Sikh temples, unlike Khalsa Sikhs who strongly opposed the practice.
In 1905, after re-establishing institutional control, the Khalsa managed to have removed the idols installed during the preceding period, as well as ending mahant administration and the practice of other non-Sikh, Brahmanical rituals in the process, considering them “Hindu accretions” and “Brahmanical stranglehold,” amidst a major controversy within the Sikh community of that era. The prohibition, state Fenech and McLeod, has also served a means to assert Sikhism differs from Hinduism.
Idol worship is mentioned as a futile and worthless practice in the Sikh texts such as the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the teachings of Guru Nanak call the practice of worshipping stones as useless and ridiculous. These stones cannot answer any questions nor provide spiritual guidance as the guru can, states Nanak, and only the guidance of a guru can carry one across the “Ocean of Existence”. For example, in the following hymn of Guru Granth Sahib, Bhagat Namdev rejects idolatry.
One stone is lovingly decorated, while another stone is walked upon. If one is a god, then the other must also be a god. Says Naam Dayv, I serve the Lord.— Bhagat Namdev, Guru Granth Sahib 525
Idolatry is criticized in the Dasam Granth traditionally attributed to the tenth Guru Gobind Singh. The Dasam Granth includes idolatry along with other practices such as smearing sandal paste, offering food, visiting graves and tombs, bowing and others as futile and unhelpful in knowing God.
According to the Indologist Harold Coward, the Sikh scriptures critique idolatry and Guru Nanak’s words protest and condemn empty, magical worship of idols. But, states Coward, an icon treated as a symbol that does not confuse the physical with the spiritual, and with the “right motivation and understanding”, the Sikh scripture does not exclude the reverence of the Guru Granth, which accompanies ritual devotional singing in Sikh Gurdwaras.
Historical references to idolatry
Zafarnama and Dasam Granth
The Zafarnama, or letter of victory, was written in Persian to Aurangzeb in 1705 by Guru Gobind Singh after the battle of Chamkaur. In the Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singh chastises the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for promising safe passage to his family but then reneging on that promise. The 95th couplet, in Persian, referring to his battles with the Mughal-allied hill rajas of the Sivalik Hills, states:
“I, too, have fought against the hill-chieftains (kūhīyān, “hill-men”) [who] venerate idols. As they are idol worshippers, so I am the idol-breaker.”
The Dasam Granth where the Zafarnama is found, is a complex text; considered as the second scripture by some Sikhs, while others dispute its authority and the authorship of certain parts. It also includes the 33 Savaiye, or “33 quatrains,” of which quatrains 19 through 21 specifically address the futility of idol worship. The ritual sastar puja (worship of weapons) in the Khalsa tradition for some scholars, states Singh, is akin to idolatry. In Sikh scholarship, the ritual is denied as the worship of God, rather it is defended as the worship of what the weapons iconographically represent to the Sikh: adi shakti (power of god). These verses are related to Khalsa’s preparation for the war against the Mughals and “enabling the destruction of the enemy”.
The Dabestan-e Mazaheb is a mid-17th-century text on religions in India. The text does not disclose the author, and it is unclear who authored it. Some credit it to Muhsin Fani – possibly a Persian Muslim, some to Maubad Ardastani – possibly a Zoroastrian, and some to either Mirza Zu’lfiqar Beg or Kaikhusrau Isfandyar. The text survives in two major manuscript versions with several notable recensions; all five manuscripts are currently held in Maulana Azad Library in Aligarh. Both major versions have five Ta’lims on non-Muslim religions and seven Ta’lims on Islamic sects. In the five devoted to the non-Muslim religions, one each is dedicated to the Parsi religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. The second Ta’lim is on Hinduism and other Indian sects; one section presents Sikh beliefs and practices.
The second ta’lim of Dabistan-i-Mazahib includes one of the oldest references to Nanak-panthis. This term is uncommon in the literature of Guru Nanak’s era, but it is attested in the writings of Miharban (d. 1640), a grandson of Guru Ram Das and one belonging to the Minas – one of the five splinter groups instructed by Guru Gobind Singh for the initiated Khalsa to avoid. Nanakpanthis as mentioned in the Dabistan-i-Mazahib are understood to be Sikhs of mid-17th-century who followed Guru Nanak.
Among the first details mentioned of the faith at the time is the author’s direct observation of the lack of belief in idols and idol-temples among the Sikhs of the time. It addition, it states that there is no veneration of mantras, idols, and avtars of the Hindus, nor is there regard of the Sanskrit language. And further on, an anecdote popular among the followers of Guru Hargobind, who had been the Guru around the time of the writing of the treatise, is relayed, telling of the smiting of an idol of a local deity by a Sikh named Bhairo while the Guru was at Kiratpur near the foothills of Punjab following the Battle of Kartarpur. Upon being identified and brought to the local raja, the Sikh pointed out the impotency of the idol by its inability to identify its damager, leading to the subsequent conversion to Sikhism by the local populace. The dietary laws of the Hindus, as well as their “austerities and worship” were also said to disregarded. The Dabistan also states, “Nanak praised the religion of the Muselmans, as well as the avatars and divinities of the Hindus; but he knew that these objects of veneration were created and not creators, and he denied their real descent from heaven, and their union with mankind,” described by the author as the doctrines of halool and ittehad.
According to Irfan Habib, the Dabistan-i-Mazahib states Guru Nanak practiced rituals of both Hindu and Muslims, which is in “apparent contrast” to the contemporary orthodox Sikh belief that he rejected all rituals; Habib also states that “from his verses in the Guru Granth Sahib too it is obvious that he rejected not only tiraths (pilgrimages), but also all “distinctive rituals.”” Further, all three surviving recensions of the older version of the Dabistan-i-Mazahib state that all Sikhs that the author of Dabistan had met, except one, believed that Baba Nanak was God. In the Dabistan, a Brahmin gyani, or claimant to possession of divine knowledge, named Deva addressed the Guru as Parmeshwar; to account for this, Irfan Habib posits that by the time of Guru Arjan, a belief had taken root among Sikhs regarding Guru Nanak as having been a god, “for Deva to seize the chance of playing upon it.” The translation of the Persian term نا شمرد na-shumard (translated as “does not regard”) according to what Habib terms as the two “Version B” printed copies of the treatise, which translations like that of Ganda Singh were based upon, as opposed to بی شمرد bi-shumard (translated by Habib as “regards”) in the three “Version A” manuscripts, also attest to this belief. The Dabistan relays that during the time of Guru Arjan, “the Sikhs or disciples had become numerous and made exaggerations in their beliefs,” though Guru Nanak “reckoned himself a slave [of God]” and described God as formless, “who is not a body and bodied and is not united with [material] body.”
Malhotra and Mir point out that the author of the Dabistan-i-Mazahib considers Guru Nanak’s compositions to be written “in Jataki, ‘the language of the Jats,’ who have no regard for the Sanskrit language.” The treatise also mentions that the Nanak-Panthis regarded Udasis, or ascetic renouncers of the world, as well as another splinter group, as “not praiseworthy.” Banerjee describes the author as “liberal-minded and a friend of the Guru,” and as someone who “does not ‘misrepresent’ Guru Nanak’s character for sectarian motives,” though the challenge exists to “assess the historical value of traditional accounts which are infected by the ‘enthusiastic admiration’ of his ‘adherents’,” applying this remark to all Sikh hagiographical writings. He goes on to say that “on the whole, Dabistan is of greater use as a clue to the seventeenth-century image of Guru Nanak than as a biographical narrative.”
According to Harnik Deol, during the 18th-century and the Sikh Empire rule (1801–1849), the Sanatan Sikhs – particularly “pujari” priestly class – provided ritual services and led functions for Sikh aristocrats and elites. They were Sahajdhari Sikhs, and generally members of the Sikh Gurus’ lineages, holy men (babas, bhais, sants) and intellectuals in Sikhism called “gianis and dhadhis”, states Harnik Deol. This class gained control of Sikh shrines under the patronage of Sikh elites and aristocracy. The Sikh mahants, states Deol, practiced the worship of images and idols. The British colonial rulers, after annexing the Sikh empire in mid-19th-century, continue to patronize and gift land grants to these mahants, thereby increasing their strength. A faction of the Singh Sabha Movement called the Tat Khalsa sought to purge this priestly-mahant class. The Tat Khalsa accused the mahants of the Hinduization of Sikh customs and of instating idolatrous practices. The movement, states Kashmir Singh, sought to purify their religion and targeted what it alleged to be anti-Sikh practices. In 1905, they removed all idols from the Golden Temple. Since early 20th-century, the orthodox stance has been that Sikhism rejects idolatry.
The orthodox Sikhism of the Khalsa forbids idolatry, in accordance with the teachings of the Gurus. This remained the case during the time of the Gurus, until increased Mughal persecution in the eighteenth century forced the Khalsa to yield Gurdwara control to mahants, or custodians, who often belonged to Udasi, Nirmala, or other Brahmanical-influenced ascetic heterodox sects, or were non-Sikh altogether. The Khalsa at this time engaged in guerilla campaigns against the Mughals and the hill-rajas of the Sivalik Hills allied to them, and later fought the Afghans and established themselves as local leaders, while mahant control of Gurdwaras continued into the nineteenth century. Such groups wrote exegeses while the Khalsa focused on political power at the time, as Sikh jathas solidified into the Sikh misls of the Dal Khalsa, which would establish the Sikh Empire.
The struggles of the Khalsa Sikhs elevated the Sikhs to new levels of political power never before experienced by the community, which had been persecuted for much of its existence and especially in preceding decades. The Khalsa, as they had raised arms against the state, had experienced heavy persecution by the Mughals, to the extent that for a period the Khalsa vacated the plains of Punjab, situating themselves in the refuges of the northern hilly areas adjoining Punjab, and in the desert areas to the south, from where they mounted further attacks. This created the opportunity for other less disruptive sects to gain control of Sikh institutions, due to their lack of external identifying features compared to the initiated Khalsa. The struggle for self-defense and political autonomy produced the misls and eventually the Sikh Empire, though in the midst of consolidating power in the face of Mughal and Afghan attacks, came at the expense of reestablishing direct control over Sikh institutions and the eroding of Sikh mores, a development that Khalsa would have to contend with when the Sikh Empire was lost to the British.
After the fall of the Sikh Empire, the Singh Sabha movement was begun in the 1870s to revitalize Sikh institutions that had deteriorated under the administration of the mahants, who had become increasingly corrupt and had introduced non-Sikh practices into the Gurdwaras. Khalsa Sikhs sought to establish a distinct Sikh identity and make some fundamentals of belief and behavior its basis. The Singh Sabha movement eventually brought the Khalsa back to the fore of Gurdwara administration, which they achieved after expelling the mahants and their corrupt practices, which included idolatry, financial malfeasance, Brahmanical privilege, and the dissemination of unsavory literature. The prohibition of idolatry in Sikhism, in accordance with Sikh scripture, was formalized in the 20th century after the revitalization of Sikh institutions led by the reformist Tat Khalsa of the Singh Sabha Movement of the late 19th-century, accepted as having the orthodox position by the Sikhs, in reaction to what was seen as Brahmanical Hindu interference in Sikh affairs, particularly of organizations like Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj, who were proselytizing in the area along with other religious factions like Christian missionaries and Muslim groups like the Ahmediyya, following the fall of the Sikh Empire. In 1905, the Sikh manager of the Harmander Sahib ordered the removal of idols and the end of Hindu practices in the temple in accordance with Sikh scripture, an order that was subsequently backed by the Tat Khalsa, upsetting the privileged, nationally hegemonic upper-caste Hindu orthodoxy. The Akali movement, fueled by incidents like the Nankana massacre, brought control of the Gurdwaras from the mahants back to mainstream Sikhs; the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, or SGPC, now manage Gurdwaras in accordance with mainstream Khalsa norms.
In the view of Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, a professor of Sikh Studies, the Singh Sabha movement intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century, created exegetical works in their attempts to overcome idolatrous notions of God. This was the Singh Sabha’s attempt to cleanse Sikhism of Hinduism, but Mandair alleges that they ended up admitting the “tiniest residue” of the practice and formulating new norms that did in a different way what they accused Hindus of doing in practice. According to Mandair, the Sikh scripture includes words such as “murat”, “sarir” and “akal,” which, selectively read, can be viewed as teaching an abstract “formless” concept of God. However, states Mandair, other parts of the Sikh scripture include terms such as “murat” which relate to “form, shape” creating exegetical difficulty. Mandair posits that Khalsa writers of the Singh Sabha movement reinterpreted and gave new contextual meanings to the words such as “murat” in order to show that there is no inconsistency and contradiction in their exegetical attempts around idolatry in Sikhism. In response, historian and professor Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon calls Mandair’s own reading of the text “selective,” and as seeking “to make Guru Nanak’s monotheism redundant.” Dhillon sees Mandair’s view as ignoring Guru Nanak’s own direct words regarding idolatry, and questions how qualities listed in the Mul Mantar could apply to an idol, “as the term “Akal Murat” takes its meaning not in isolation but from the total understanding of the Mul Mantar.” and that the terms “timeless,” and “Eternal Reality” cannot be applied to a physical idol. Mandair’s purpose is described as an effort “to connect Guru Nanak’s Time and World and then to idolatry, “tear[ing] words and terms out of context and twists their meaning to suit his contrived thesis.” Dhillon holds that Mandair’s inclination towards the McLeodian school of Sikh thought led to utilizing the Hegelian approach to produce ‘new knowledge formations’ to delegitimize Sikh interpretations of their own faith in order to serve “Hindu-centric and Christian-centric state models” by levelling regional identities in an attempt to overcome identity politics bolstered by the concepts of religion and regional political sovereignty.
Among the earliest reform movements that opposed idolatry practices in the Sikh community was the Nirankari sect started by Baba Dyal (1783–1855). The Nirankaris condemned the growing idol worship, obeisance to living gurus and influence of Brahmanic ritual that had crept into the Sikh Panth. Though not an initiated Khalsa, he urged Sikhs to return to their focus to a formless divine (nirankar) and described himself as a nirankari, He was opposed to all idol worship, including the then existing practice of keeping idols and pictures of the ten Sikh Gurus and praying before them. He built a new Gurdwara in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), Dyal Das was opposed for his strict teachings by upper-caste Sikhs and had to shift his residence several times, eventually moving his reform movement into its suburbs. After the partition of British India along religious boundaries, the Nirankaris along with the vast majority of Sikhs chose to move to predominantly Hindu-majority India rather than stay in predominantly Muslim-majority Pakistan. Nirankaris moved their headquarters from Dayalsar in Rawalpindi to Chandigarh. Nirankaris were a potent and active campaigners in late 19th-century and early 20th-century for the removal of all idols and images from the Golden Temple and other Gurdwaras.
His work was continued by various successors into the 20th century and eventually gained a following of several thousands. However, when they eventually reverted to treating their leaders as living Gurus they came into conflict with mainstream Sikhs, especially in the late 1970s. Nirankaris have continued to campaign for the abolishment of idolatry like the orthodox Khalsa, but continue to accept a living human guru beyond the ten gurus which has made them a heterodox sect of Sikhism. According to Jacob Copeman, Nirankaris revere Guru Nanak, but they also worship a living saint (satguru) as god.
The Namdhari sect, also called Kuka, was founded as one of the Sikh revivalist movements during the late rule of Ranjit Singh, by Balak Singh in 1857. Its followers view Balak Singh as an incarnation of Guru Govind Singh. They did not believe in any religious ritual other than the repetition of God’s name (or nam, for which reason members of the sect are called Namdharis), including the worship of idols, graves, tombs, gods, or goddesses. The Namdharis had more of a social impact due to the fact that they emphasized Khalsa identity and the authority of the Guru Granth Sahib. They call their houses of worship as dharamsala rather than Gurdwara, where they revere a living guru unlike Khalsa, and as such are considered as heretical by the orthodox Khalsa Sikhs.
According to the Namdhari sect of Sikhism, it was Khalsa Sikh led Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee that invented phrases such as “Guru Maniyo Granth” in 1925 to remove idol worship within the Sikh community. They believe that Khalsa inserted their own definition of Gurdwara into the colonial era Gurdwara Act to emphasize Guru Granth Sahib as the only extant Guru of the Sikhs, ignoring the Namdhari belief that a “place of worship can only be a gurdwara when a living guru is seated” under the canopy of its sanctum. In Namdhari places of worship, if the living Guru is not present, Namdhari Sikhs place a picture of him on a raised platform of the sanctum. The devotion is then directed towards the icon of the living Guru.
In contrast to Nirankari and Tat Khalsa Sikhs, Sanatan Sikhs considered images and idols of the ten Sikh gurus, as well as others, to be an inclusive practice and acceptable means of devotional worship. According to Tony Ballantyne, the Sanatan Sikhs were spiritually sympathetic to the worship of idols and images, rural traditions and to respecting Hindu scriptures. Their views have been dismissed by some Khalsa Sikh scholars, and labeled and shunned as “Hindu saboteurs” and of being “conspiratorial”.
Scholars such as Eleanor Nesbitt state the Nanaksar Gurdwaras practice of offering food cooked by Sikh devotees to the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as curtaining the scripture during this ritual, as a form of idolatry. Baba Ishar Singh of this international network of Sikh temples has defended this practice because he states that the Sikh scripture is more than paper and ink.
The daily routine of the gurdwara includes the prakash, which involves carrying the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in a small procession of granthis, or gurdwara religious officials, placing it on a stand, unwrapping it, and opening it to be read; and the sukhasan, when the scripture is retired at the end of the day to a designated room, or sachkhand.
English travelers to Sikh temples during the early 1900s saw the veneration of the Granth as coming close to defeating the purpose of Guru Nanak’s reforms (away from external authority to living experience), and saw it as a warning to Christian Protestants to avoid lapsing into bibliolatry, as Hindu temple idolatry served as a warning to Catholics.
While conceding that Sikhs did not worship idols, Swami Dayanand, the founder of the Arya Samaj Hindu reform movement of the 1800s and critic of Sikhism, attempted to link veneration of the Guru Granth Sahib with idolatrous practices, based off his understanding of the Sikh faith. Dayanand Saraswati – the founder of the missionary Arya Samaj movement in the 1800s who interpreted Hinduism as originally a non-idolatrous monotheistic religion, considered Sikhism as one of the cults of Hinduism. Like Hindus who he called as “degenerate, idolatrous”, he criticized the Sikhs for worshipping the Guru Granth Sahib scripture as an idol like a mithya (false icon). Just like foolish Hindus who visit, bow, sing and make offerings in Hindu temples to symbols of goddess, said Saraswati, foolish Sikhs visit, bow, sing and make gifts in Sikh gurdwaras to the symbolic Sikh scripture. He condemned both the Hindus and the Sikhs as idolators, stating that while “it is true they do not practise idolatry,” he saw the Sikhs of the time as worshipping the Guru Granth Sahib even more than idols.
According to Kristina Myrvold, every Sikh scripture copy is treated like a person and venerated with elaborate ceremonies. However, according to Kristina Myrvold, these rituals are a daily means of “merit bestowing ministrations”. These daily ritual ministrations and paying of homage for the scripture by Sikhs, states Myrvold, is not unique to Sikhism. It moulds “meanings, values and ideologies” and creates a framework for congregational worship, states Myrvold, that is found in all major faiths.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia