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Sikh Reform


Time, Mar. 9, 1925

One of the most remarkable religious wars of history apparently came to an end last week with the pronouncement of sentence by the Imperial British Court in Lahore, India, upon 54 Sikhs - for 4, death; for 9, life imprisonment; for 41, a term of three to seven years hard labor.

The story of this war is a coat of many colors, of which the patches must be plucked from the incidents of four centuries.

Sikhism is the world's newest great religion; is, in many respects, the world's purest. Its locale is Northwestern India (Punjab, etc.) and its personnel, about 2,000,000 - a sturdy, rugged, effectual type not found elsewhere in the Indian Empire.

About the time of Martin Luther (1483 to 1546), there arose among these people a prophet protesting against Hinduism on the one hand and Muhammadanism on the other. His name was Nanak. He taught that God was neither Allah nor Ram, but simply God. He rejected the Hindu idols, caste-system, concremation of widows (suttee), pilgrimages to sacred rivers (TIME, Feb. 9). He forbade wine, tobacco, infanticide. His essential difference from Christianity was a belief in transmigration and fatalism.

The new religion of high morality grew and waxed great in the border country. But, as the years passed, the independence of the Sikhs aroused the jealousy of Akbar the Great and his Imperial Muhammadan successors, until finally a Sikh ruler, in self-protection, was forced to add militarism to the Sikh code. His name was Govind Singh. He instituted the ceremonial of baptism. When a mature Sikh youth became baptized, he added Singh (Lion) to his name - 'John Jones' became 'John Jones, Lion.' From baptism, the youth must wear the five 'K's: 1) kes - uncut hair of the whole body; 2) kachh - short drawers, for convenience in fighting; 3) kara - iron bangle; 4) khanda - steel dagger; 5) khanga - comb (his kit for cleanliness).

It was Emperor Aurangzeb, grandson of Akbar, builder of Taj-Mahal, who first captured a Sikh ruler and executed him in 1375. During his imprisonment, the Emperor accused him of looking toward the west in the direction of the imperial zenana (women's quarters). Replied the Sikh Singh: 'I was not looking at thy private apartments, O Emperor, or at thy Queen's. I was looking in the direction of the Europeans who are coming from beyond the seas to tear down thy purdahs (curtain which screened off women's apartments) and destroy thine empire.' This prophecy became the battle-cry of the Sikhs when they routed the British in Delhi in 1857.

This new doctrine did not appeal to women, who preferred the picturesque material brightness of Hinduism, but it developed the fighting man. Hardy, victory-or-die, well-disciplined sort of fellow, the Sikh has become without peer the greatest soldier in Asia. Him the British found hardest to conquer. Having conquered him, they found him their great military asset overseas. In Shanghai and other treaty ports of China, the only constabulary are the long-haired, short-drawered Sikhs. (It is required of them that they stand 6 ft. in their stockings.) And, in India, it is the Sikhs who keep the peace.

But, after their final surrender to the British, 60 years ago, the Sikhs allowed their religious customs to fall into decay and corruption. Their moral code became slack. Their shrines were placed in charge of a 'manager' appointed by the British Raj.

Five years ago, the reforming zeal of Nanak and Govind Singh broke out once more. 'Sikhism,' cried the new zealots, 'must be kept pure. The shrines must be redeemed from the 'manager' and placed once again under the stern rule of a guru [chief Lion].'

In February, 1921, many Sikh Singhs were killed by the hired soldiers of a decadent Abbot whose monastery they had attacked. Later in the same year, the Government of the Punjab endeavored to satisfy the reformers but were balked by the die-hard attitude of the Shroniani Gurdwara Prabanak (Sacred Shrines) Committee, which represented the reformers. In 1922 and 1923, this Committee exercised a reign of terror over the Punjab; and in October, 1923, the British Raj practically outlawed the Committee. In 1924, there was a pitched battle in which 21 reforming Sikhs were killed and 34 wounded. Casualties in informal raids were innumerable. Finally, last year, 54 members of the committee were arrested. Last week, they were found guilty of treasonable conspiracy and condemned to death or prison. This reformation is dead.