Sects Of Sikhism

Sects of Sikhism or Sub-traditions, also known as Samparda in Punjabi language are sub-traditions within Sikhism that believe in different approaches to practicing the religion. While all sampradas believe in Waheguru and one creator, do not believe in idol worship or caste system, different interpretation have emerged over time, some of which practise having a living teacher as the leader orthodox. The major historic traditions in Sikhism, states Harjot Oberoi, have included Udasi, Nirmala, Nanakpanthi, Khalsa, Sahajdhari, Namdhari Kuka, Nirankari and Sarvaria. During the persecution of Sikhs by Mughals, several splinter groups emerged such as the Udasis, Minas, and Ramraiyas during the early Guru period during the period between the death of Guru Har Krishan and the establishment of Guru Tegh Bahadur as the 9th Sikh Guru. These sects have had considerable differences. Some of these sects were financially and administratively supported by the Mughal Empire in the hopes of gaining a more favorable and compliant citizenry.

In the 19th century, Namdharis and Nirankaris sects were formed in Sikhism, seeking to reform and return to the Sikh faith to the original ideology of Sikhism. They also accepted the concept of living teachers. The Nirankari sect though unorthodox was influential in shaping the views of Tat Khalsa and the contemporary era Sikh beliefs and practices. Another significant Sikh sect of the 19th century was the Radha Soami movement in Agra led by Shiv Dayal, who relocated it to Punjab. Other contemporary era Sikhs sects include the 3HO Sikhism, also referred to as Sikh Dharma Brotherhood formed in 1971 for establishing the Sikh faith in the western hemisphere. This was led by Singh Sahib Yogi Harbhajan Singh.

Early Sikh sampardas

Panj Samparda is the collective name for the following five early sampradayas in Sikhism.


Udasi derived from the Sanskrit word “Udasin”, meaning “detached, journey”, reflecting an approach to spiritual and temporal life, is an early sect based on the teachings of Guru Nanak’s elder son Sri Chand (1494–1643), who, contrary to his father’s emphasis on participation in society, propagated ascetic renunciation and celibacy. Another Sikh tradition links the Udasis to Baba Gurditta, the eldest son of Guru Hargobind, and there is dispute on whether the Udasis originated with Sri Chand or Gurditta.

They maintain their own parallel line of gurus from Guru Nanak, starting from Sri Chand followed by Gurditta. They first came to prominence in the 17th-century, and gradually began to manage Sikh shrines and establishments in the 18th century, from where they espoused a model of Sikhism that diverged considerably from that of the Khalsa. They would set up establishments across North India through to Benares, where they would come to be ideologically joined with monastic asceticism. The combination of Hindu gods and the Sikh religious text indicated that the sect evolved over time under many historical influences and conditions, interpreting the message of Guru Granth Sahib in monistic Vedantic terms. They were initially largely based in urban centers where they set up their establishments, or akharas, only beginning to spread into rural areas during Sikh rule.

According to 18th-century descriptions, they either cut or mat their hair under a turban, rather than knot it under a turban like Khalsas, and instead of the Khalsa emphasis on the panj kakkar garb and sporting arms, their dress code would include items such as a cap, a cotton bag, a flower rosary, a vessel made of dried pumpkin, a chain around the waist, ash to smear on their body, and a deerskin upon which to perform Hatha yoga, resulting in an extremely divergent appearance from Khalsa Sikhs in the eighteenth century. In addition to not consider the Khalsa’s Rehat Maryada to be binding on them, their modes of thought and attitude towards salvation also differed significantly. The Khalsa believed that salvation could be attained while taking part in society and pursuing secular objectives like political power and accumulation of resources like agrarian land, though this had to be accomplished within a particular framework of beliefs and spiritual practices, chief among which was the societal order and structure of the Khalsa. The Udasis considered secular pursuits to be incompatible with personal salvation, which was to be achieved only through renouncing the world, espousing asceticism and a monastic traveler lifestyle. Udasis are known for their Akharas along with the Nirmala sect of Sikhism.

Udasis protected many Sikh Gurdwaras in the 18th century, managed them in the 19th century. They built simple shrines far from Punjab. Above: an Udasi shrine in Nepal.

Udasis protected many Sikh Gurdwaras in the 18th century, managed them in the 19th century. They built simple shrines far from Punjab. Above: an Udasi shrine in Nepal.

During the era between the martyrdom of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716 and the rise of Ranjit Singh and the Sikh Empire, they were among the few sects able to build and manage Gurdwaras and train apprentices; they were scholars in both Sanskrit and Persian. They were respected and patronized through land grants during Sikh rule. With a wide reach due to their attempt to synthesize Sikh tradition with Hindu ascetic orders they synchronized with, they were able to derive significant acceptance during the era of armed struggle in Punjab, bringing a large number of people into the Sikh fold during the 18th and the early 19th centuries. They greet each other with “Om namo Brahmane,” and attribute their origin to the mythic Sanandan Kumar, the son of Brahma. When the Singh Sabha movement, dominated by Khalsa Sikhs, codified the Sikh identity in the early 20th century, the increasingly corrupt  and hereditary Udasi mahants were expelled from the Sikh shrines. After the standardization of Sikh identity after the Singh Sabha movement, the Udasis increasingly regarded themselves as Hindus rather than Sikhs.


The Mina sect followed Baba Prithi Chand (1558–1618), the eldest son of Guru Ram Das after the younger brother Guru Arjan was officially made the next Guru. Called Minas by the orthodox Sikhs, a derogatory term meaning “scoundrels”, An alternate non-derogatory term for them has been the Miharvan Sikhs, after the son of Prithi Chand. This sect was shunned by orthodox Sikhs, declared by Guru Gobind Singh as one of the five Panj Mel that a Sikh must avoid.

They emerged in a period of religious persecution and inner dispute within the Sikh tradition during the 17th-century on the appropriateness of violence and non-violence in the pursuit of religious freedoms and spiritual matters. According to Hardip Syan and Pritam Singh, Miharvans emphasized more of the non-militant approach of Guru Nanak and earlier Gurus in theological pursuits, while the Guru Hargobind followers pursued the “miri-piri” approach and began militarizing the Sikh tradition to resist the Mughal persecution. The Minas controlled Amritsar and Harmandir Sahib built under Guru Arjan for much of the 17th-century.

The Minas faded in the eighteenth century and is now extinct.


See also: Akhara § History, and Niranjani akhara

A lesser Sikh sect contemporary to the Minas was the obscure Hindalis, or Niranjanis, who followed Bidhi Chand of Jandiala (distinct from Bidhi Chand Chhina), son of Hindal, a resident of Amritsar who became a Sikh during Guru Amar Das’ reign, who would follow his father’s path, becoming a chief official at a Sikh temple in the town of Jandiala Guru in Amritsar. He would lose his congregation after marrying a Muslim woman however, and so would establish a new panth in an effort to undermine Guru Hargobind, propagating his father Hindal to be superior to Guru Nanak, who was relegated to being simply a follower of Kabir. They would not impact Sikh society the way as the Minas did, leaving little behind besides a janamsakhi tradition and attempts to link their tradition to Bhai Bala, a Sandhu Jatt, as they were a Jatt-led sect. Despite the majority of the Sikh panth being Jatt, the Hindalis did not draw a large following. The Hindalis, compared to the Minas, produced a modest volume of literary contribution. The competing works of the Minas and Hindalis provide insight into early Sikh society and thought.


Ram Raiyas were a sect of Sikhism who followed Ram Rai, the eldest son of Guru Har Rai. He was sent by his father as an emissary to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi. Aurangzeb objected to a verse in the Sikh scripture (Asa ki Var) that stated, “the clay from a Musalman’s grave is kneaded into potter’s lump”, considering it an insult to Islam. Ram Rai explained that the text was miscopied and modified it, substituting “Musalman” with “Beiman” (faithless, evil) which Aurangzeb approved. The willingness to change a word led Guru Har Rai to bar his son from his presence. Aurangzeb responded by granting Ram Rai a jagir (land grant) in Garhwal region (Uttarakhand). The town later came to be known as Dehradun, after Dehra referring to Ram Rai’s shrine. Many Sikhs settled with Ram Rai, they followed Guru Nanak, but orthodox Sikhs have shunned them. They were one of the Panj Mel, the five reprobate groups that orthodox Sikhs are expected to shun with contempt. The other four are the Minas, the Masands, the Dhirmalias, the Sir-gums (those Sikhs who accept Amrit baptism but subsequently cut their hair).


A Nanakpanthi is a follower of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first guru of Sikhism. The community transcends the boundaries of Sikhism and Hinduism, and was also a reference to the early Sikh community. Most Sindhi Hindu people are Nanakpanthi, and during the 1881 and 1891 censuses, the community could not decide whether to self-identify as Hindu or Sikh. In 1911, Shahpur District (Punjab) reported 12,539 Hindus (20% of the total Hindu population) identifying themselves as Nanakpanthi, in addition to 9,016 Sikhs (22% of the total Sikh population). The institutional focus of Nanakpanthi social life was around a dharamsala, playing the same role before the 20th century as the Gurdwara has played thereafter under Khalsa dominated period. The beliefs and practices of the Nanakpanthis overlapped with those of Sahajdhari and Udasi Sikhs in pre-20th century period, as evidenced by documents dated to that period. In 1891 Census of British India, which was the first to categorize Sikhs into sects, 579,000 people identified themselves as “Hindu Nanakpanthi” and another 297,000 as “Sikh Nanakpanthi”. The other major Sikh categories were Sikh Kesdhari and Gobind Singhi Sikhs in this census.

Later Sikh sampardas


Main article: Namdhari

Namdharis, also known as Kuka Sikhs, believe that the line of Sikh Gurus did not end with Guru Gobind Singh, as they claim that he did not die in Nanded but escaped and lived in secret, and that he nominated Balak Singh to be the 11th Guru, a tradition that was continued through the Namdhari leaders. 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 dharamsalas.

Namdhari Sikh singer and musicians.

Namdhari Sikh singer and musicians.

Their 12th guru was Ram Singh, who moved the sect’s center to Bhaini Sahib (Ludhiana). A Tarkhan or Ramgharia, his rural sect would be composed largely of Ramgharias and poorer Jat Sikhs. They have been strictly vegetarian and a strong opponent of cattle slaughter, and retaliated against Muslims for killing cows in 1872. Their leader Ram Singh was arrested by the British and he was exiled to Rangoon, Myanmar. Dozens of Namdharis were arrested by the British and executed without trial in Ludhiana and Ambala. They consider Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth as equally important, and compositions from the Chandi di Var are a part of their daily Nitnem. Like Hindus, they circumambulate the fire (havan) during their weddings, but they differ in that the hymns are those from the Adi Granth.

The Namdharis wear homespun white turbans, which they wrap around their heads (sidhi pagri). They are called Kuka, which means “crier, shouter”, for their ecstatic religious practices during devotional singing. They also meditate, using mala (rosary). Some texts refer to them as Jagiasi or Abhiasi.


The Nirankari movement was founded by Baba Dyal Das (1783–1855), as a Sikh reform movement in northwestern Punjab around the middle of 19th century, in the later part of Ranjit Singh’s reign. Nirankari means “without form”, and reflects their belief that God cannot be represented in any form and that true Sikh faith is based on nam simaran. Among the earliest Sikh reform movements, 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. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Empire was said to have appreciated his teachings.

Nirankari have opposed any form of ritualism in Sikhism, emphasizing the need to return to the teachings of their founder Guru Nanak. They were the first sect to demand major changes in how Sikh temples are operated, the Sikh ceremonies. They also disagreed with the orthodox Sikhs on only 10 Gurus and the scripture as the living Guru. Nirankaris believe that human guru to interpret the scripture and guide Sikhs is a necessity. Nirankaris are indistinguishable from other Sikhs in outward appearance, with both kesdhari (“hair-keeping”) and sahajdhari (“slow-adopter”) followers; their acceptance of the mainstream Sikh marriage settled the main issue dividing them from the orthodox Sikhs, leaving only their recognition of a continuing line of Gurus from Baba Dyal as the main differentiation.

The Sant Nirankaris are a small group which splintered from the Nirankaris in the 1940s, and is opposed by orthodox Sikhs and Nirankaris alike.  They believe that scripture is open and therefore added works of their leaders into the Guru Granth Sahib. This led to increasingly conflicts with the orthodox Sikhs, with whom the Sant Nirankaris had clashed since the 1950s, with tensions increasing due to some of Gurbachan Singh’s religious actions, culminating in the 1978 Sikh-Nirankari clashes and further incidents. In late 1970s, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale repeatedly denounced their practices. In 1980, the leader of Sant Nirankari tradition, Gurbachan Singh, was assassinated.


Nirmalas are a Sikh tradition of ascetics. According to the traditional beliefs, the Nirmala Sikh tradition was founded by Guru Gobind Singh in late 17th century when he sent five Sikhs to Varanasi to learn Sanskrit and Hindu religious texts. Another tradition states that they originated during the time of Guru Nanak. These beliefs, according to W. H. McLeod, are of doubtful historicity because they are “scarcely mentioned” in Sikh literature before the 19th century.

The Nirmala Sikhs wear ochre-colored robes (or at least one item) and observe celibacy, and keep kesh (unshorn hair). They observe the same birth and death rituals as the Hindu ascetics and have an akhara (martial organization) in Haridwar, and a number of deras in Punjab (India). They have been one of the procession participants in Kumbh Melas. They were itinerant missionaries who traveled and spread Sikhism among the masses beyond Punjab, and were particularly active in Malwa within Punjab through Patiala and Phulkian state patronage during the 19th century, thus making an important contribution to the growth of Sikhism. They often served as one of the mahants in Sikh temples (gurdwaras) during the 18th century. Nirmalas interpret the Sikh literature in Vedantic terms. During the Singh Sabha Movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century, some of their doctrines met with disapproval by the Tat Khalsa faction of Sikhs, though they continued to be accepted as Sikhs, and were cordially regarded by the Sanatan faction.

Radha Soami

The Meaning of Radha Soami is Lord Of The Soul. This movement was started by Shiv Dayal Singh (also known as Soamiji) in 1861, who was himself a follower of Tulsi sahib of Hathras. The Radhasoamis are often erroneously considered in Punjab an offshoot of Sikhism, as it does have connections with Sikhism, and the teachings of their founder were based, in part, on those of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak and those who followed. Many recite verses from the Adi Granth during their worship, though few would call themselves a Sikh sect, as there are no ties between it and orthodox Sikh organizations, and most Sikhs would also regard the idea of Radhasoami as separate from their own. However, they are also different from the Sikhs because they have present-day Gurus, and many do not follow the Khalsa dress code. The Radhasoamis are a religious fellowship that accepts saints and living gurus from anywhere. According to its founder, “image worship, pilgrimages, idol worship or the reading of religious books” is a “waste of time,” “ceremonies and religious rituals are a conceit,” and all traditional religious technicians, “the Rishis, Yogis, Brahmans, and Sannyasins,” have “failed,” while its leaders, while believing in karma, have been emphatic in rejecting other often cardinal Hindu beliefs and in their suspicion of institutions, leading a 19th-century leader to assert its independent basis from Hinduism “or any other religion,” often choosing to avoid the word “religion” altogether, with a leader describing it as “no religion at all,” but an amalgamation of “the teachings of … all saints of the world.” It has attracted a large number of Dalits, and in the diaspora have attracted may members of other ethnic groups for which the satsang is conducted in English.

Like the writings of Sikh gurus, Shiv Dayal used the epithet satnam for the divine. The Radhasoamis do not install the Guru Granth Sahib or any other scriptures in their sanctum. Instead, the guru sits in the sanctum while conducting the satsang and they listen to explanation of sayings of various saints, from the Adi Granth or other religious scriptures and the living guru, as well as sing hymns together. The Radha Soamis are strict vegetarians. They are active in charitable work such as providing free medical services and help to the needy. They do not believe in orthodox Sikh practices such as covering one’s head inside the temple or removing shoes, nor do they serve karah prasad (offering) at the end of prayers.


The Ridváni Sikh Fellowship was founded in Mumbai in the year 1908 by Prof. Pritam Singh, who was the first Sikh to profess faith in Baháʼu’lláh, founder of the Baháʼí Faith. The name Ridváni is derived from the Baha’i festival of Ridván. The Ridvanis view the Báb and Baháʼu’lláh as the Mahdi and the Kalki avatar respectively, as the Dasam Granth notes they had yet to arrive by the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Ridvánis keep the panj kakkars, adhere to the Rehat Maryada, and read the Guru Granth Sahib, while also following the commands of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas including Baha’i prayer and meditation, giving 19% of one’s disposable income in kind, and social ordinances like burial customs. Ridvani Sikhs celebrate all traditional Sikh and Baha’i holidays, as well as astrological holidays such as Sankranti, Muslim holidays such as Qadr Night and Eid al-Adha, and the Christian holidays of Fasika, Pentecost and Halloween. While most Ridvánis live in India, a significant diaspora exists in North America and historically in Baghdad.


The 3HO sect is a western group that emerged in 1971, founded by Harbhajan Singh also known as Yogi Bhajan. It requires both men and women to wear turbans, and adopt the surname Khalsa. They also call themselves the “Sikh Dharma movement” and “Khalsa Dharma movement” and are often called Gora (“white person”) Sikhs by the mainstream adherents of Sikhism. Their name 3HO, stands for Healthy Happy Holy Organization. This Sikh sect emphasizes meditation and Yoga. The sect started and grew a number of international business brands such as Yogi Tea. 3HO’s relations with the orthodox Khalsa are quite mixed. The 3HO sect has a strict rahit, the code of conduct expectation.

Split traditions


The Ravidasi Panth used to be a part of Sikhism. In 2009, the sect left Sikhism and gained recognition as a separate tradition. It is based on the teachings of the 14th century Indian guru Ravidas, revered as a satguru. The movement had attracted dalits (formerly marginalised), and they felt that they were a victim of social discrimination and violence from Khalsa Sikhs.

Historically, Ravidassia represented a range of beliefs in the Indian subcontinent, with some devotees of Ravidass counting themselves as Ravidassia Sikhs, but first formed in the early 20th-century in colonial British India. The Ravidassia community began to take on more cohesion following 1947, and the establishment of successful Ravidassia communities in the diaspora.

Ravidassias, states Ronki Ram, accept contemporary living sants of Ravidass Deras as Guru whereas the Sikhs do not. In 2009, Sikh radicals violently attacked the living guru, his deputy and followers at a Ravidassia gurdwara (temple) in Vienna. This assassination attempt injured many and killed the deputy Ramanand Dass. This triggered the Ravidasi Sikhs to leave Sikhism and become an independent religion fully separated from Sikhism.

Prior to their break from Sikhism, the Dera Bhallan revered and recited the Guru Granth Sahib of Sikhism in Dera Bhallan. However, following their split from mainstream Sikhism, the Dera Bhallan compiled their own holy book based exclusively on Ravidas’s teachings, the Amritbani Guru Ravidass Ji, and these Dera Bhallan Ravidassia temples now use this book in place of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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