Please know, under NO circumstance am I writing this article to degrade, slander or put down any particular Gurdwara, committee or Giani. I just want to share my observation as to why I think a Gurdwara today is no longer the same Dharamsaal created by Guru Nanak.
I have travelled and visited many Gurdwaras in Malaysia, India and other parts of Asia including in the UK and I see there are countless issues such as fights, control of power, who can and cannot do certain sewa(s), the questionable rituals being carried out in the darbar itself, lighting of jyot/ deewa, putting up framed Guru’s and some saintly person’s photos, etc (the list goes on)…
Today, many Sikhs (especially the younger generation Gen Y & Z) are questioning everything. They are not getting answers as they are being told to simply listen and obey. The outcome of this mentality of the elders not having answers to their questions, or worst still, trying to answer illogically or giving answers that do not make any common sense, has somewhat created a ‘disconnect’ a vacuum in the minds of our children about Gurdwaras.
Our children simply can’t fathom the countless rituals and religious dogmas being practiced today. How do I know this? Because, I have 2 growing up kids aged 11 and 13 and they asked me some of these questions too, which I have tried to pen the answers to in this blog post.
So, what is the REAL role of a Gurdwara? How can 21st century children and youth see themselves getting connected with a Gurdwara?
Place of Worship
First, let’s try to understand the meaning of the word ‘gurdwara’. If you type the word Gurdwara in Google, you will probably see a similar search result like the one below:
Wait a minute! What?
A Gurdwara is NOT a Sikh place of worship! Someone please update Google on this.
Sikhs do not need a specific place of worship because according to Guru Nanak’s philosophy, God resides in us, in His entire creation. God (the Lord, the light, creator of the Laws of the Universe, which governs EVERY living thing, Hukam) is Omnipresent.
God does NOT reside in a particular place or in a building like in a temple, in a church, in a mosque or in a gurdwara! The whole world and this entire creation is His place of worship!
Guru Nanak made this very clear when He recited the ‘Aarti’ during one of his travels (udaasi) to Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha (east of India).
Guru Nanak observed that the worshipers (devotees) of Jagannath (Lord Vishnu) were singing praises with candles lit on a plate and were moving them in a circular motion while facing Lord Vishnu’s idol.
Instead, Guru Nanak, went into the open field and composed and sang the ‘Aarti‘ facing the entire creation, while Bhai Mardana (Guru Nanak’s companion) played the rebab.
The devotees were shocked to see how Guru Nanak was singing the Aarti so melodious and beautifully, that too without any plate of candles in His hands. What did this even mean? They were bewildered.
Here are few lines from Guru Nanak’s ‘Aarti’…
ਰਾਗੁ ਧਨਾਸਰੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥
ਗਗਨ ਮੈ ਥਾਲੁ ਰਵਿ ਚੰਦੁ ਦੀਪਕ ਬਨੇ ਤਾਰਿਕਾ ਮੰਡਲ ਜਨਕ ਮੋਤੀ ॥
ਧੂਪੁ ਮਲਆਨਲੋ ਪਵਣੁ ਚਵਰੋ ਕਰੇ ਸਗਲ ਬਨਰਾਇ ਫੂਲੰਤ ਜੋਤੀ ॥੧॥
ਕੈਸੀ ਆਰਤੀ ਹੋਇ ॥
ਭਵ ਖੰਡਨਾ ਤੇਰੀ ਆਰਤੀ ॥
ਅਨਹਤਾ ਸਬਦ ਵਾਜੰਤ ਭੇਰੀ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
Raag Dhanasree Mehla || 1 ||
Gagan Mai Thaal Rav Chand Deepak Benay, Tarika Mandal Janak Moti ||
Dhoop Malaanlo Pavan Cavro Karey, Sagal Banrai Phoolant Joti ||1||
Kaesi Aarti Hoi || Bhavkhandana Teri Aarti|| Anhata Shabad Vajant Bheri ||Pause||
(SGGS Page 13)
Upon that cosmic plate of the sky, the sun and the moon are the lamps. The stars and their orbs are the studded pearls. The fragrance of sandalwood in the air is the temple incense, and the wind is the fan. All the plants of the world are the altar flowers in offering to You, O Luminous Lord. ||1|| Guru Nanak is saying, You are the dispeller of doubts and this is Your Aarti. Without beating any drums, the Shabad (laws) are prevalent. ||1||Pause||
Whilst Guru Sahib is looking at the surrounding environment and expressing His realization of the how he sees the entire creation as singing the Aarti, we Sikhs have not been able to capture the essence of what Guru Nanak said and did.
Instead, we have begun worshipping (pooja) Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS).
In many Gurdwaras (especially the ones in India) the clergy, literally lights up candles in a plate and starts to sing the Aarti shabad while moving the candle-lit steel plate in circular motion (exactly the same as how the Hindu priests do in the mandirs). Instead of facing an idol or deity, we are facing Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
Look at the irony of what we ourselves are doing! I’m not even going to get into what the Nihangs do during the Aarti ceremony. Their version is almost identical of what you will find the Brahmin priests do in mandirs and Indian temples. It’s true but it’s a sad truth.
How would you answer your child if he/she were to ask you to explain what the Giani is doing in the above photo? Is this part of Guru Nanak’s Sikhi? What would you answer? Tough one, right?!
Sikhs today are all into the outward appearances, dressing up in white kurta-pyjamas, adorning long beards and kesari colored turbans, putting on the 5Ks as an Amritdhari Sikh, more like appearing to look like Sikhs of Guru Nanak BUT whom are we trying to fool? Our actions are PRECISELY that of a Hindu Brahmin priests!
Doorway of Guru’s Teachings
Guru Nanak Dev Ji established the first gurdwara in Kartarpur back in 1521. Back then, it was called a ‘Dharamsaal’ or Ashram.
Later on, Guru HarGobind Sahib, the 6th Guru, introduced the word ‘gurdwara’ and since then, the name ‘gurdwara’ has been used.
DID YOU KNOW?
Guru Nanak’s son, Baba Sri Chand was an outcast son of the Guru? Many do not know this but Sri Chand wanted the Guruship for himself and refused to accept Bhai Lehna (later known as Guru Angad) as the next Sikh Guru. In retaliation, Sri Chand adorned a very different dress, looks and character compared to His father, Guru Nanak. He put on a loin cloth, wore the janeyu (which Guru Nanak out right refused to wear), covered his body in Ash and later on took possession of Guru Nanak’s Ashram and converted it to become the Center for Udasis movement.
The etymology of the term gurdwara is from the words gur (ਗੁਰ) (a reference to Shabad – NOT THE PHYSICAL GURU) and dwara (ਦੁਆਰਾ) (doorway) in Gurmukhi. When put together, the meaning would be doorway of the Guru’s teachings.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji says…
ਮੈ ਬਧੀ ਸਚੁ ਧਰਮ ਸਾਲ ਹੈ ॥
ਗੁਰਸਿਖਾ ਲਹਦਾ ਭਾਲਿ ਕੈ ॥
Mai Badhhee Sach Dharam Saal Hai ||
Gursikhaa Lehda Bhaal Kai ||
“I have established a true Dharamsaal. I’ve discovered the right-minded GurSikhs in this place of learning.”
So, to answer the question, “why are gurdwaras today NOT the same dharamsaals as established by our gurus?”
The simple, straight-forward answer to this question is because, we Sikhs had for a very long time (for almost 60-years) LOST CONTROL of our institutions to several groups of deviant and anti-Sikhi groups mainly the Udasis, Nirmalas and ‘Sant Babas’ beginning from 1718.
Dr. Karminder Singh Dhillon (Malaysia) has done extensive research on this topic in his latest book “Hijacking of Sikhi” which I’ve had great privilege to read myself. I must say, “a truly brave attempt to reveal the depths of truth, well researched and easy to understand book every Sikh should read!”
Dr Karminder has described in his book, showing how the plot of the Udasis (beginning with the retaliation of Guru Nanak’s son – Baba Sri Chand) being totally unhappy with his father’s decision of passing the Guruship to Bhai Lehna (Guru Angad) and his subsequent plot together with the Brahmin priests who planned to take control of the Kartarpur Dharamsaal of Guru Nanak with the hopes of luring Sikh followers to accept Sri Chand as the rightful Guru. Sri Chand later created Kartarpur Ashram as the center for Udasi sect and learning. How did the Nirmala priests take control of our literature, our institutions and gurdwaras instilling Snatan, Vedic and Brahmannical beliefs (which we see happening in most gurdwaras today) and later on how Sant Deras mainly the Taksaals wrecked the worst havoc by completely renouncing Guru Nanak’s unique philosophy and propogating physical saroop worship of SGGS among other damages. A truly well-written book.
Baba Banda Singh Bahadur gained a stronghold for 10-years (from 1708 – 1718) but sadly his reign came to an abrupt halt (likely due to conspiracies created by power hungry and greedy Sikhs within the army itself). Many were jealous of Baba Banda Singh’s prowess and his ever-growing support of the Sikh communities throughout Punjab and India.
By this time Baba Banda Singh had taken over many major cities and towns in Punjab. So, it is likely these evil-hearted individuals conspired with the British government to grab power and control away from Baba Banda Singh. This, I believe lead to the capture and murder of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, his children, countless families as well as his loyal members of the army. Most of them had actually fought the same battles side by side with Guru Gobind Singh.
So, coming back to the question, what is a Gurdwara meant to be?
Place to receive spiritual wisdom
I think this is one of the most important functions of a gurdwara – to read/listen, understand and then apply Guruji’s teachings in ones life thru Shabad Gurbani. In the past, during the times of our Guru, a lot of emphasis used to be put towards Gurbani Vichaar (contemplation and understanding of Guru’s teachings). In fact, when Guru Nanak himself in Kartarpur, spent hours on with the Sanggat (congregation) imparting ‘true’ spiritual knowledge and true knowledge (sacha gyan). Back then, many followers of Guru Nanak were not even Punjabis or Sikhs by birth. They came from various backgrounds and race ethnicity. Some were Hindus, some were even Muslims but because Guru’s Nanak’s message struck a UNIVERSAL chord, all accepted His teachings and sermons with an open heart.
Place to practice equality and selflessness
During Guru’s time, anyone and everyone was welcome to the Dharamsaal. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. One was NEVER to look down upon others based on their gender, race, skin color etc. Guru Nanak was especially strict about this. Knowing the only way to break this vicious caste system, the guru introduced selflessness in the form of ‘sewa’ (service) to mankind, NOT just in the gurdwaras but also in our day-t0-day living. Did you know, in Kartarpur, Guru Nanak used to cook and serve ‘langgar’ (meals) for the pilgrims who visited the dharamsaal? It is true! In fact, NO one was on any kind of wage or salary. Everyone volunteered to be part of something so remarkable. They gave out 10% of their incomes as ‘dasvandh’ which was used to run the day to day operations of the dharamsaal and to feed and give shelter to the needy. The sewadaars had NO ulterior motives like wanting to gain popularity, control of the Dharamsaal, politics etc, like the way we see in today’s Gurdwaras.
Place for community resources and healthcare
During the times of our gurus, (and even till today in some gurdwaras in the world), the dharamsaals used to act as a community center providing services such as health care, family guidance, consultation, Punjabi classes and collaboration. In fact, free medicine and healthcare was given to anyone who needed medical attention regardless of their gender, race, caste, age, religion or social status.
State of Gurdwaras Today
Too much power given to committee or clergy (Giani)
Over the last three hundred years (303) or so, we Sikhs have been very unfortunate to have our gurdwaras taken over by the Udasis, Nirmala Mahants and Sant Babeys.
It took Guru Nanak and the other Sikh gurus close to 200-years to abolish the caste based system and rituals but either due to circumstance or probably due to our own ill-preparedness and naivety, we lost control of the gurdwaras to outsiders for many-many years. This is probably why till today, many Sikhs worship Guru Granth Sahib in its physical form. We spend lots of money buying expensive rumaleys (coverings), langgars, donations etc, but we’ve NEVER lifted the rumaleys and read the Divine Shabads of our Gurus in Guru Granth Sahib.
In fact, we carry out rituals and practices which our Gurus have refrained us from doing and which Guru Granth Sahib Ji condemns. The worst part of all, Gianis and gurdwara committee use emotional tactics to lure us into the ‘guilt trap’ of parting with our Dasvandhs and donations to do programs and Akhand Paaths or Sampat Paaths.
Why? So, that they can build more than required building structures, pointless renovations, all in the name of religion. But how about the learning and deciphering of Gurus messages within Gurbani? No one has time for that!
Akhand paaths and Gurpurabs outsourced
I know of a particular gurdwara here in Malaysia where they openly advertise everyone should do ONE Akhand Paath a month! They’ve even printed and distributed brochures of all the different Paaths the gurdwara can undertake together with the breakdown of prices. Come one. Where is this coming from? I mean some of us can’t even find time to recite Nitnem everyday, how can they expect families to do ONE Akhand Paath a month? But probably thats the plot of the clergy and committee.
Since we are not able to carry out and do the Akhand Paaths ourselves, outsource it! So, we end up paying the Giani and his team to do it ON BEHALF OF US! This is NOT based on Sikhi or Guru Nanak’s teachings. The clergy can even go on to say, the families who do this Akhand Paaths with them, participating occasionally, will get their problems resolved and they would receive rewards (pun) in the after-life.
Do you know why some Gurdwaras and their Gianis are rich? Because, they’ve made this whole Paath recitation a commercial act. One Akhand Paath can bring in say RM2500 for the Gurdwara, minus the ration which some charge separately. How much can 10 Akhand Paaths a week earn the gurdwara?
RM25,000 x 4-weeks and that’s a whopping RM100K p/month just from Akhand Paaths! It’s a HUGE money making business, isn’t it? Of course, during the COVID19 pandemic, the gurdwaras made some loses as they could not get the crowd to attend Gurdwara functions but its nothing compared to what they make during normal times. You can do the math yourself.
Sunday Gurdwara – family get-together
Have you been to a Sunday program in your local gurdwara? I don’t know about you, but as a child, I used to enjoy attending Sunday programs. Why? Because I get a chance to meet and play with my friends, not to mention the free delicious langgar I get to eat after that.
The Giani will be singing one shabad after another for about 1-2 hours and then he would share some mythical story (which he probably heard from his grandmother) and worst of all, they do it so confidently, as if the story is part of Gurbani. I’ve nothing against story-telling, but most of their stories are nothing but concocted tales and lies.
Either the Giani or an invited ‘raagi jatha’ (professional singers) who will do the kirtan with the aim of collecting the most ‘shabad peth’ (money). On several occasions, when I had the chance to attend Sunday programs, I realized the number of people sitting in the langgar hall always outnumbered the ones sitting in the ‘darbaar’ (main hall).
We’d rather sit in the langgar hall, gossiping, instead of sitting in the main hall listening to kirtan. But I cannot blame the Sanggat entirely either. We get Gianis who are not well trained, who themselves have not understood Guru Nanak’s teachings and have made practically NO attempts to apply the teachings of our Gurus in their own lifes. They say something but do something else.
I’m sure you’ve heard or seen first-hand some of the lives of these so called Gianis. At the end, they get caught with their pants down, drinking, smoking, womanizing, telling false tales etc. Some of these Gianis even tell us to belief in miracles and say our Gurus used miracles and had super-natural powers.
Most are trained by deviant centers like the Damdami Taksaal where they use the Fareedkoti Teeka, Sooraj Prakash Granth, Gurbilas Patsaahi 6, and countless other anti-Sikhi texts and books to train the clergy. Not a surprise then why many sanggat members, including the youth have become ‘disconnect’ and are uninterested in attending Gurdwara programs anymore.
Wrong concept of Langgar
Are we deserving to eating Guru-Ka-Langgar? I don’t think so. Guru Nanak established the concept of langgar to feed the poor and abolish the caste system because everyone had to sit together to have their meals. Even if you were a king, you’d still have to sit with the rest. But today, you will notice a select few would sit on the floor separately whilst the rest sit on tables and chairs. Where is the unity in thought here? Moreover, today’s langgar is being given to the already well fed and some of the dishes served are probably more expensive than what one would have in a restaurant. Do we need such an extravagant menu for langgar?
Gurdwaras as profit centers and elections
Did you know all gurdwaras are registered as non-profit organizations? But to be honest, Gurdwaras today operate like a large corporation with profits in mind.
The committee conduct their roles as if they are running a business or a shop. They go on collecting and keeping Sanggats funds and when it comes to helping out a poor family or to provide funds for a child’s education, they say, they have NO funds!
Every once or twice a year, they carry out elections to vote in a new president. But, instead of passing the baton over peacefully and giving a chance to others to lead, they are busy back-stabbing one another, trying to get votes from the Sanggat. Instead of helping the new president and committee to a smooth take over, they squabble and fight, throwing tantrums and even sometimes ending up with fist fights. I’m sure you’ve heard of police being called in to calm the crowd during an annual gurdwara election? How embarrassing right?
Is there a solution?
Yes! There are many solutions, provided we make a concerted effort to revisit our roots of Sikhism first and study the core values and principles taught to us by our Gurus. Then and only then, can we re-purpose the existing gurdwaras.
We can easily put the blame on Akaal Takhat, SGPC, Taksaals, Sant Babeys, Jathedaars etc but truthfully, the blame should be upon us, the Sikh sanggat. You may ask why? Because, we are split in thought and action. We have different viewpoints of many essential basic tenets of Sikhi. There is a saying, “united we stand, divided we fall”. We are either united in thought and action or we will fall!
We should ourselves recite Gurbani, understand and apply the teachings for ourselves first then share it with our close ones and family before attempting to go out and teach others. Why is this essential? Because Gurbani is meant to elevate ones mind and bring about positive characteristics, divine personalities. Without which, we will always struggle to decide between right and wrong, good and bad deed, selfishness or selflessness.
We need to choose our leaders wisely. We cannot expect a corrupt leader to lead and govern a Gurdwara because, corrupt beings are selfish, greedy and only think for themselves.
We need to bring in well-trained and English learned Gianis. Ones who can speak, read and write English as well and who are trained to view Gurbani from the standpoint of practical living – NOT sharing fake and concocted fairy tales. This will certainly help the younger generation who will stand to benefit from English explanations of Gurbani during Kirtan and Katha sessions in the Gurdwara.
Like a said, the list of possibilities is long. We need to start somewhere. We need to transform our own perceptions of lots of things and start seeing Guru Nanaks Sikhi as a practical, logical and transformational path. We need to make a firm stand to protect what’s left of our Gurdwaras and rid the rituals and senseless activities that has nothing to do with the minds elevation.
We are smart beings. Our youth and the next generation need to see Gurdwaras as REAL centers of learning or else, it’s going to be a downward spiral. In time to come, no youth will step into a Gurdwara. In the next millenium, we might lose our Gurdwaras entirely. How?
The Gurdwara land we are all so proud off is given to us by the local authorities to be used as centers of learning and prayers. But it is not written in stone that they cannot take the land and the buildings back. When the government sees there is not much of activity happening and nothing fruitful is being done to help the youth and the community, they might take our Gurdwaras back and use it for something else.
I hope we will not let this happen!