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Three Centuries Down

Dr Birendra Kaur*

The ideological beliefs of Sikhism were laid down by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Over the next over two centuries, various institutions were put in place from time to time by succeeding Gurus to give practical shape to those beliefs. Institutions, such as, sangat, pangat, dharamsal, langar, manjis, kirtan, daswandh, masands, gurdwara, sewa, miri-piri, akal takht, khalsa, sant-sipahi, sabd-guru, were created from time to time to cater to needs of the time.

The Tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, considered the Sikhs to be mature enough to guide their own destiny as a quom. He thus ended the personal guruship, and made practical the belief that bani guru, guru hai bani. Guru Granth Sahib, the repository of the divine hymns, was thus anointed the spiritual guide, the Guru for eternity. Guru Gobind Singh had earlier equated himself to the committed panj piaras, who had literally offered their heads at the instance of the Guru.

The Gurus did not rigidly outline / prescribe any practice, but merely defined the concepts, so the Khalsa may move with the moving times. Thus, by 1708, the year the personal guruship ended, the Sikhs had the institutions of akal takht as the throne of the Almighty, the granth as spiritual authority, and the panj piaras as temporal authority of the Guru. The Khalsa was to owe allegiance solely to Akal Purakh, and serve as His fauj towards sarbat da bhala. The panj piaras were to make collective decisions regarding their own destiny, at any given time in the course of history, in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib and execute these through the Akal Takht. Thus was made practical the doctrine guru granth – guru panth, which authorizes the Panth, for all times to come, to chalk out the course of its own history/evolution.

Let us see how we have evolved: In 1708, the Sikhs had the Word as Guru, one takht of Akal, and five piaras. By 2008, three centuries down, we have countless sants and babas enjoying the status of Gurus, five takhts, five jathedars, and no piaras. We have thus become far removed from the base on which we were to conduct ourselves; the niarapan of the Sikhs is wanting and, therefore, the tej of the Guru is amiss amidst us.

When and why did the later four takhts come to assume that their status is equivalent to that of the Akal Takht? Why were these called takhts at all? One Akal Takht was to have five piaras. But we have five takhts and five jathedars, with the result the Ultimate Authority of the Akal Takht stands diluted five times, and the temporal authority of each jathedar multiplied five times. And, the piaras are figuring nowhere. Actually, we have come to use the term jathedar interchangeably/synonymously with piaras (beloved ones) of Guru Gobind Singh in whom he placed authority equal to the Guru.

Today, Jathedar, Akal Takht is the most representative face of the Sikh nation. Let us review what face we are presenting to the world, in the light of other religions, in which their religious heads too play a significant role, such as in Buddhism and Christianity:

The religious/spiritual heads of Tibetan Buddhists and Catholic Christians, the Dalai Lama and the Pope, respectively, are world-renowned figures. Although their status and powers are different as compared to one another, or with those of a jathedar for that matter, they are the most representative faces of their religion.

The Pope, by virtue of his position, as successor of St Peter, is the chief pastor of the whole Church, the Vicar of Christ upon earth. The Pope is the supreme teacher of the Church, whose role is to prescribe what is to be believed by all the faithful, and to take measures for the preservation and the propagation of the faith. Pope is considered Infallible, although the Infallibility is not attributed to every doctrinal act of the pope, but only to his ex cathedra (literally, from the chair) teaching. As the supreme governor of the Church, the pope has authority over all appointments to its public offices. He can legislate for the whole Church, with or without the assistance of a general council. The pope alone can prescribe the liturgical services employed in the Church.

For Tibetan Buddhists, the institution of Dalai Lama serves as a potent symbol of national identity. The present Dalai Lama is the spiritual as well as the political head of his people. Identified since the age of two, today, he has international contacts, and he embraces democratic rule for the Tibetan people. He has fought for Tibet’s independence in international forums, and his advocacy of a program of a non-violent resolution to the conflict with China won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

In the contemporary scenario, a jathedar remains a mere local political boss in Sikh politics, owing his allegiance to the Shiromani Akali Dal which might be one or more than one organization, each claiming itself as the true and genuine spokesman for the Sikh causes. He is appointed by the Head, SGPC and, as such, is a mere employee. No, worse still: An employee is hired for a fixed tenure, but the jathedar can be removed/sacked, even unceremoniously, by the employer any time. Under the circumstances, a jathedar is no more than a pawn – a pawn leader, that is. This, thus, is a contradiction in terms, not only as far as the role is concerned but also the designation. The jathedars are, in fact, the piaras, but of the ‘elected’ political chief. And, the fact that the electoral process involves drugs, cash, gifts, etc., is too well known.

The titles used for the Buddhist and Christian religious heads signify knowledge, love, and/or humility, in spite of the great powers that their Heads are invested with. The Tibetans address the Dalai Lama as Gyalwa Rinpoche (‘Precious Victor’), Kundun (‘Presence’) Yishin Norbu (‘Wish-fulfilling Gem’), and so on. The Panchen Lama, the second most prominent religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism means the ‘Great Scholar.’ He is believed to be a physical emanation of the Buddha Amitabha, whose name means ‘Limitless Light.’ The title ‘Benedict’ chosen by the current Pope stands for ‘benevolence.’ The title pope is a derivative of papa from Greek papas, a variant of pappas – father. Another noteworthy title for the Pope is Servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God). This phrase is now so entirely a papal title that a Bull (an Apostolic letter with a leaden seal) in which it should be wanting would be reckoned unauthentic.

The title jathedar, literally means ‘leader/captain/boss/head/chief.’ Not stopping at this, ‘Singh Sahib Bhai’ is further added as a prefix. The love and humility reflective in the piaras is missing altogether; the Singh Sahib Bhai/Jathedar so & so ji can only inflate one’s ego, which a Sikh is rather expected to rid altogether.

Selection Process
Further, the process through which the Buddhists and Christians select/elect their religious leader is indeed intricate, complex, and extremely thorough – only to ensure that the person in position chosen is worthy of the status he is to symbolize. A cursory look at their methods of selection:

The Dalai Lama: Dalai Lama is the leading spiritual figure; the Panchen Lama is the second most important figure in religious authority. Both are seen as the reincarnations of their predecessors.

Upon the death of the Dalai Lama, a search for the Lama’s reincarnation is conducted. The process can take around two or three years to identify the Dalai Lama. The High Lamas used several ways in which they can increase the chances of finding the reincarnation. High Lamas often visit the holy lake, called Lhamo La-tso, in central Tibet and watch for a sign from the lake itself. This may be either a vision while meditating or some indication of the direction in which to search.

High Lamas may also have a vision in a dream or if the Dalai Lama was cremated, they will often monitor the direction of the smoke as an indication of the direction of the rebirth.

Once the High Lamas have found the home and the boy they believe to be the reincarnation, the boy undergoes a series of tests to affirm the rebirth. They present a number of artefacts belonging to the previous Dalai Lama and if the boy chooses the items which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other indications, that the boy is the reincarnation. If there is only one boy found, the High Lamas will invite Living Buddhas of the three great monasteries together with secular clergy and monk officials, to confirm their findings and will then report to the Central Government through the Minister of Tibet. Later a group consisting of the three major servants of Dalai Lama, eminent officials and troops will collect the boy and his family and travel to Lhasa, where the boy would be taken, usually to Drepung Monastery to study the Buddhist sutra in preparation for assuming the role of spiritual leader of Tibet. However, if there are several possibilities of the reincarnation, the individual is chosen by placing the boys’ names inside an urn and drawing one lot in.

For the present 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, it took four years to find him. When he was two years old, a search party of Buddhist officials recognized him as the reincarnation of the 13 previous Dalai Lamas and he was enthroned before he turned four. He was educated at a monastery and went on to achieve the Geshe Lharampa Degree, a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy.

The Panchen Lama: Tibetan Buddhists view the Panchen Lama as a ‘tülku,’ a spiritually advanced being who consciously chooses to reincarnate in successive bodies in order to work for the benefit of others. When a tülku dies, the search for his or her successor begins, and the child identified as the reincarnation is usually brought to a monastery for training in Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice. Their fellow tülkus are generally responsible for locating and identifying reincarnations. This process is also often aided by divinations, pronouncements by oracles, and predictions by the tülkus themselves prior to their deaths. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the selection by tülkus is not a matter of luck and that the search process should be rigorous in order to ensure that the correct reincarnation is identified.

The Pope: In theory, any practicing Roman Catholic man can be the pope. In reality, the pope has for centuries been chosen from within the Sacred College of Cardinals.

There have been a number of methods for choosing a pope over the centuries. Local clergymen who lived near Rome chose the first popes, but kings, emperors and other interested bystanders have done what they could to influence the process as well.

But in 1059 Pope Nicholas II decreed that henceforth all papal electors must be cardinals, and in 1179 Pope Alexander III ruled that all cardinals would have an equal vote in the election. In 1274, Pope Gregory X decided that the cardinals must meet within 10 days of a pope’s death, and that they should be kept in strict seclusion until a pope was chosen. By the late 1500s, most of the electoral procedures now used were in place.

The new pope will be chosen from among 117 cardinal-electors. There are short lists everywhere of the leading contenders, these so-called papabili.

The pope can be elected by one of the three methods. A unanimous voice vote is permissible, as is the unanimous selection by the cardinals of a 9- to 15-member committee, which then must agree on a pope. The most common method, however, is election by ballot, which works as follows:

When the pope dies, the dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals notifies the cardinals and calls a meeting — always held in the morning — that must begin no more than 20 days after the pope’s death. The cardinals draw lots to select three members to collect ballots from the infirm, three tellers to count the votes and three others to review the results.
The Cardinals must take an oath when they first enter the Conclave that they will follow the rules set down by the Pope and that they will maintain absolute secrecy about the voting and deliberations. (The penalty for disclosing anything about the conclave that must be kept secret is automatic excommunication.)

Blank ballots are then prepared and distributed. After writing the name of one man on his ballot, each of the approximately 120 active cardinals — those under 80 years of age — walks to an altar and pledges to perform his duty with integrity. He then places his ballot in a container, which is covered by a plate. After all votes are cast, the tellers tally the ballots and the result is read to the cardinals.

If there is no winner, another vote is taken. If there is still no winner, two more votes are scheduled for the afternoon. After the votes are counted each time, the ballots are burned. If there has been no winner, a chemical is mixed with the ballots to produce black smoke when they are burned. Sight of the black smoke emerging from the roof of the Vatican Palace tells the crowd waiting in St. Peter’s Square that a pope has not yet been selected. When a winner has been selected, the ballots are burned alone, and the white smoke indicates there is a new pope.

On 6 April 2005, it was announced that, in addition to the white smoke, the bells of St Peters Basilica would be rung to signal the election of the new Pope. This will avoid any doubt about whether the smoke is white or black.

Once there is a winner, the pope-elect is asked if he accepts the decision. If he does, the dean asks what name he chooses and announces it to the cardinals, who then come forward to offer congratulations. The oldest cardinal then steps out on a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and says to the crowd, “Habemus papam” – “We have a pope.” He then introduces the Pope, who steps out on the balcony to bless Rome and the people.

Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America, said there are three factors that will be important in the selection of pope, and the first is age. Second, the next pope must speak a number of languages. English, which has become the world language, is a must, as is Italian since the pope is also the bishop of Rome. Third, he’s got to have a public presence. He can’t be a media disaster, because so much of the media will be focused on him.

On 19 April 2005, at the age of 78, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as the successor to Pope John Paul II on the second day of the papal conclave after four ballots. He chose to call himself Benedict XVI.

The selection process of the Pope and the Dalai Lama is so thorough, that there is literally no scope of going wrong. The previous Pope John Paul II remained in office for 27 years till his death. The current Dalai Lama has been identified as the reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas since the age of two, and was enthroned before he turned four. He is now 73 years old.

On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, our jathedar may be dismissed, even summarily. Most recent is the sacking of Jathedar Vedanti in August 2008 to install Gurbachan Singh in his place. This is not the first time that a jathedar has been removed unceremoniously by the SGPC. The removal of Bhai Jasbir Singh Rode as the Akal Takht Jathedar started the trend of sacking jathedars. Jathedar Manjit Singh was sacked following allegations of corruption and misuse of his position, by the then SGPC President, Kirpal Singh Badungar, to pave the way for Bhai Ranjit Singh. Bhai Ranjit Singh was sacked on April 28, 1998 and SGPC installed Giani Puran Singh as the new Jathedar on February 15, 1999. Vedanti was appointed as acting Jathedar of Akal Takht on March 28, 2000 after the SGPC, then led by Bibi Jagir Kaur blamed Giani Puran Singh of violating the maryada (Sikh code of conduct) and sacked him. It is common knowledge that even the wrong persons have sometimes, somehow been installed as jathedars due to certain inimical forces becoming overbearingly operative at those times – again due to a lack of a proper system in place.

Back to the Basics
We need to go back to basics. The status of piara was earned through absolute submission to the Guru. We cannot repeat the method of selection of the Guru, but we have to identify the spirit of absolute commitment somehow in those, in whom we trust the future of our community, and who represent us to the world.

Let there be only one supreme takht, the Akal Takht, with five piaras collectively representing the authority of the Guru Panth. No one person should be the representative face of the Panth, but a body of five. This body would then be comparable to the Pope or the Dalai Lama, and the uniqueness of our institution of collective leadership will stand out amongst the institutions of other religions. These five piaras could be selected from amongst or elected by a body comprising about a hundred odd devout Sikhs, say rattans, from various walks of life, who enjoy an unblemished reputation of a lifetime. The remaining could act as the advisors to the institution of Akal Takht. They could be further grouped into committees, on the basis of their expertise, so as to focus and address various Panthic issues. Thus the selection/election of the panj piaras should be de-linked from the election process of the SGPC altogether. The sangat of each city could select a rattan to represent that city, from India as well as abroad. (Modalities could be worked out in detail. Even a Form could be created or have a point-system like the immigration departments of various countries to qualify one to be a rattan. Each could be further required to take exams in gurmat, world history, current affairs, etc.) The decisions of the rattans could be the gurmattas, which should have the approval of all panj piaras, before it can be announced as a hukamnama from the Akal Takht.

Mine is one voice; let us have a platform where every concerned voice can be heard. And this is only one issue. We have piled up countless other issues that need to be resolved/addressed on an urgent basis at the Panthic level. Delay in handling these can only spell disaster. Let us hold brainstorming sessions to put our house in order. Such a model is, in fact, already in place in the constitution of the International Sikh Confederation (ISC), Chandigarh, and many devout Gursikhs of national and international fame are already devoting their time and expertise to issues concerning the globally settled Panth.

What the political and religious leaders did not do in spite of their resources and the following, the intelligentsia has done. Now the ball is in our court; we have to do our bit. Let individual organizations/panthdardis come together in the ISC,* with a sense of urgency and responsibility, to reflect upon the current scenario and the future plans, and reach a consensus, so that we may all pull in the same direction for significant progress and an honorable standing amongst world communities. If we still fail to unite, then we have only ourselves to blame, and not the politicians or the jathedars.

As followers of the great visionary Gurus, we should have had a perfect system in place by now to guide the quom through thick and thin – rather a system that should act as a model for even others to follow. It’s never too late. Let this centenary year mark the accurate decoding of the gurmat doctrine of guru granth – guru panth, as applicable in this day and age. Let us become worthy of the Guru’s tej.

United, even sparrows can achieve the inconceivable. Assin taan phir baaj haan!


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