The Jap ji Sahib, believed to be composed by founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev, is a prayer with which the Guru Granth Sahib begins. Speaking about the divinity to which the Sikhs look up to it states “Thapia na jaye kita na hoye, aape aap niranjan soye”. Roughly that translates to: “He cannot be installed nor shaped, for he is the formless one.” For the Sikhs, portrayal of their ten Gurus or their families is sacrilege, prohibited in the writings of the founder of the religious sect himself. Lately, the Sikh prohibition of the pictorial depiction of their Gurus has come into focus with the protest against the release of the film, “Nanak Shah Fakir”, the first-ever film on the life of Guru Nanak Dev ji.
Produced by columnist and writer Harinder Sikka, the film was first released in 2015 after Sikka obtained permission from the Akal Takht, considered to be the supreme temporal body of Sikhism. However, after repeated objections being raised by several Sikh bodies, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) stepped in, demanding a ban on the film. Following the demand for a ban, Sikka withdrew the film from everywhere, seeking approval of the SGPC first. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court, however, refused to stay the release of the film.
The controversy over the film has turned the spotlight on the artistic portrayal of Sikh gurus. As per common public knowledge, the proscription of pictorial depictions of those associated with divine power is an aspect considered to be an Islamic belief. “In Islam and Sikhism they say God is unbound. God is beyond everything, he is the Akal Purukh. That is why Sikhism does not allow the pictorial depiction of God or the Godly men, the Gurus,” explains writer Amandeep Sandhu.
Curiously though, in contrast to Islam, we do see images of the Sikh Gurus. One of the earliest instances of pictorial depiction in Sikhism is the B-40 Janamsakhi, completed in August 1733. It is a collection of anecdotes from the life of Guru Nanak, including 57 illustrations. According to historian, Hew McLeod, Sikh art has its genesis in these Janamsakhis. Further, twentieth century painter Shobha Singh is known for the many portraits he created of the Sikh Gurus, several of which are part of the art gallery in Parliament House. To understand this dichotomy in Sikh belief systems, we need to reflect upon the genesis of the sect, steeped as it was in syncretism and then the evolution of it in response to political developments in the nineteenth century.
Sikhism and a syncretic belief system
“Sikhism is a syncretic religion. It took some ideas from Hinduism and some from Islam. Then, of course, it had its own ideologies,” says Sandhu. Sikhism took birth in the Punjab of sixteenth century, when the dominating religions in the region was Hinduism and Islam. The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev was born to Hindu parents. Scholar of religious studies, David Lorenzen believes that “the Sikh religion derives from the Nirguni current of Bhakti tradition”. The Bhakti movement was a devotional trend that had developed out of Hinduism in medieval South India in the eighth century, and by the fifteenth century had swept through large parts of North India.
However, it would be erroneous to say that Sikhism was following the same trend as the Bhakti tradition since it did not adhere to several teachings of the Bhakti movement. On the other hand, the religion drew significantly from Vedic traditions. At the same time the new found religion drew upon Islamic ideologies, particularly the Muslim idea of one God (Allah).
Sikhism also had its own ways of relating to the divine. Accordingly, the Sikh Gurus urged their followers to focus on the Guru Granth Sahib, the religious scripture composed by the ten teachers of the faith.
However, we need to keep in mind that the idea of religion at this point in time in the subcontinent, was far more fluid than what it is today. Professor of Asian Studies Harjot Oberoi, in his book, “The construction of religious boundaries,” writes that “for much of their history, people in the subcontinent went on with their rituals, pilgrimages, and acts of religious piety without objectifying religion into an exclusive entity”. Accordingly, it would have been difficult to categorise people on the basis of Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. There existed multiple religious identities in the same person.
Consequently, during the early period of Sikhism, there were hardly any distinct religious boundaries. There existed multiple sects within the Sikh tradition, many of which did not even adhere to popular Sikh beliefs like the maintaining of unshorn hair. Even when a rigidity in Sikh identity did come into existence in the eighteenth century, there were many who continued to interpret the religious tradition differently.
Sikhism and a rigid belief system
We may safely say that by the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no cohesive Sikh identity. However, things began to change with the onslaught of colonial rule. On one hand there emerged active proselytizing efforts by Christian missionaries, and on the other hand the Arya Samaj too was vigorously attempting to reform Hinduism. A response to the combination of these two trends was the attempt to modernise Sikh tradition, cleaning out the pluralistic aspects from the same.
The most important contribution in this regard was that of the Singh Sabha (Society of Sikhs) which was established in 1873 to reaffirm Sikh identity. While the Singh Sabha in itself consisted of three separate movements, it was the Tat Khalsa which emerged most influential by the turn of the century.
The Tat Khalsa rejected all Hindu accreditations prevalent in the practise of Sikhism in the nineteenth century. According to the writings of social scientist, Giorgio Shani, “from the early 1880s onwards the Tat Khalsa aggressively sought to strengthen Sikh cultural boundaries by initiating three measures.” First, they removed all non-Sikh icons from Sikh sacred centers. Second, they prohibited all seasonal fairs to be held within the precincts of Sikh shrines. Third, they actively sought to reform temple management. By the beginning of 20th century, agents of the Tat Khalsa and removed all idols and images of Sikh Gurus from the premises of the Golden Temple, citing their actions as a means of purifying Sikhism.
By the 1920s, the Tat Khalsa made an important legal intervention when they managed to establish direct control over all the major gurdwaras in the subcontinent. “Inspired by the Tat Khalsa ideal, the Akali movement of the 1920s eventually secured British assent to the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925, under which control of all gurdwaras passed to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC),” writes scholar of religious studies Pashaura Singh. Control of the gurdwaras gave immense political power to the SGPC and by the 1950s, it had grown to become the ultimate authority on all religious matters associated with the Sikhs. To this date, the SGPC remains the primary institutional mechanism to legislate on all issues related to the Sikh community and to give expression to Sikh identity.
In the midst of the controversy surrounding the film Nanak Shah Fakir, the SGPC maintained that they would have wanted to remove all existing pictorial depictions of the Sikh Gurus. However, since their circulation is so widespread that they are difficult to be removed now. However, the committee now wishes to prohibit celluloid portrayals of the Gurus. A syncretic, fluid religious system, developing rigid boundaries over time is perhaps what best explains the debate surrounding the prohibition of pictorial depictions of divinity in Sikhism.