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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Simply put: What the ongoing crisis in the Sikh Panth means

Who are the Panj Pyare, and why are they upset with the five high priests? What is the larger political context of the crisis in the Sikh clergy?

Written by Navjeevan Gopal |
Updated: December 25, 2015 11:26:19 pm
SGPC, SGPC news, SGPC panj pyaras, panj pyaras suspension, punjab news, punjab protests, punjab crisis, chandigarh news, latest news, india news Amritsar: Panj Payara directing SGPC to terminate services of Sikh high priests from Akal Takht after Sikh clergy didn’t appear before them in Amritsar on Friday. (Source: PTI)

What is the institution of Panj Pyare?

Panj Pyare (Five beloved of the Guru) is the name given to five baptised Sikhs who perform the Amrit Sanchar (baptism) ceremony to initiate Sikhs into the order of the Khalsa (Pure). The institution came into being in 1699, along with the Khalsa Panth itself. On March 30 that year, Baisakhi day, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, ended a stirring oration to thousands of followers at Anandpur with a call for sacrifice. It is said that one by one, five men offered their heads to the Guru, who took them to a nearby tent, emerging alone on each occasion, his sword dripping with fresh blood. As a hush fell over the gathering, Guru Gobind Singh presented the five men before them, all hale and hearty, wearing garlands and similar attire. The Guru initiated them into the Khalsa, after which they baptised the Guru. These five men — Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Dharam Singh, Bhai Himmat Singh, Bhai Mohkam Singh and Bhai Sahib Singh — were the first Panj Pyare, an institution that has occupied a unique place in Sikh religion and history ever since.

How are the Panj Pyare chosen now? Where do they draw their authority?

The set of Panj Pyare at the centre of the current crisis are employees of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex representative body of Sikhs, and the custodian of gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Chandigarh. They are granthis (ceremonial readers of the Guru Granth Sahib) who are chosen from among baptised Sikhs who know the five baanis — Japji Sahib, Jaap Sahib, Sawayae, Chaupai Sahib and Anand Sahib — that are recited during the Amrit Sanchar ceremony that the Panj Pyare perform at the temporal seats of Sikhism. Though appointed by the SGPC (or individual gurdwara management boards) with no fixed tenure, the Panj Pyare draw their authority from the institution itself — they represent the Guru Panth. Besides performing Amrit Sanchar ceremonies, the Panj Pyare also lead religious processions.

Who are the five high priests?

The high priests, or Jathedars, head the five temporal seats (Takhts) of Sikhism — the Akal Takht (the highest temporal seat) in Amritsar, Takht Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib, and Takht Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo (all in Punjab), Takht Patna Sahib in Patna, and Takht Hazur Sahib in Nanded. The Akal Takht is headed by Giani Gurbachan Singh, Takht Keshgarh Sahib by Giani Mal Singh, Takht Damdama Sahib by Giani Gurmukh Singh, Takht Patna Sahib by Giani Iqbal Singh, and Takht Hazur Sahib by Giani Kulwant Singh. The SGPC controls the three Punjab Takhts, and appoints their high priests; Jathedars of the other two Takhts are appointed by their respective management boards. SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar is also president of the Takht Patna Sahib Management Board. Tara Singh, a BJP MLA in Maharashtra, is president of the Takht Hazur Sahib Board. Giani Kulwant Singh rarely attends the meetings of the high priests, and is represented by the head granthi of Takht Hazur Sahib.

Why are the high priests and Panj Pyare in the news now?

On October 16, the five high priests revoked an earlier decision (made on September 24) to exonerate Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, of charges of blasphemy. The controversial chief of the Dera had allegedly dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh in 2007. As resentment mounted against the decision to grant him pardon, the high priests reversed their order.

On October 21, the Akal Takht Panj Pyare, who as an institution have great moral authority, issued a Gurmatta — a resolution made by consensus in the name of the Guru and in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib — to summon the five high priests to explain their flip-flop. It was an unprecedented escalation — and the SGPC cracked down within hours, suspending the Panj Pyare for their “self-styled act” that had done “damage to Panthic tradition” and was “not tolerable”.

But the Panj Pyare remained unfazed. They met on October 23, and after none of the high priests appeared at the Akal Takht in response to the summons, directed the SGPC to terminate their services. Two days later, as SGPC climbed down, revoking the suspension of the Panj Pyare “unconditionally”. The Panj Pyare have maintained throughout that as an institution, they cannot be suspended.

On October 27, four of the five Panj Pyare were sent outside Punjab for Amrit Sanchar.

How does the crisis affect the politics of the SGPC and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)?

Three of the five Sikh high priests are appointed by the SGPC, a majority of whose 190 members owe allegiance to SAD. Since the other two high priests generally have no dissenting notes, the decisions of the top clergy are perceived to carry the stamp of the SAD. The Panj Pyare’s summons to the high priests and direction to the SGPC to sack them are unprecedented — and threaten to put the SAD in a difficult situation as far as pulling strings to get Panthic decisions for electoral benefits is concerned.

So what do the SAD and the Badal family stand to lose if the crisis continues closer to the Assembly elections?

The SGPC has attempted damage control by revoking the suspension of the Panj Pyare, but is yet to take a call on the Gurmatta seeking termination of the services of the high priests. Sacking the high priests will establish a precedent of the Panj Pyare exercising their authority, and inevitably dilute the control of the SAD over the SGPC and, ultimately, over the decisions of the Akal Takht. On the other hand, disobeying the Gurmatta would amount to rejecting the authority of the Panj Pyare, which will invite the anguish of the Sikh community. Since the Panthic community is the SAD’s core constituency, the party faces a Catch-22 situation. The longer the deadlock stretches, the more it will hurt the SAD.

And what is in store for the high priests?

The clamour for their ouster for pardoning the Dera chief is growing. The Badals are accused of having scripted the pardon for electoral gains — the Dera is seen as controlling a huge votebank. Slogans have been raised against the Akal Takht chief amid demands for his resignation; he has also been called “paapi” (sinner). Many see the revocation of the suspension of the Panj Pyare as a sign of the SGPC preparing the ground for the ouster of the high priests.

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