In October’s book club meeting we discussed ‘The Udasis in Colonial Punjab 1849-1947 AD’ by Kiranjeet Sandhu. The book can be found here.
Disclaimer: Please note the opinions stated here are not of any one individual or association, but are only a record of the points discussed by our members in this month’s book club.
This text was published in 2011 from Guru Nanak Dev University as part of a PhD in Philosophy. There is not much information on the author but we can assume the text has been written from an academic’s point of view. The meeting began with many members reflecting that there was clearly a huge amount of research which had gone into producing the thesis. On the other hand this made the text slightly difficult to read as there was a large volume of condensed information which didn’t always flow easily in the mind of the reader.
The thesis highlighted the multiple meanings of the word Udasi (the travels of the Guru, the Udasi samparda and the direct meaning of renouncing the world). Guru Nanak Dev Ji went on Udasis, but Baba Sri Chand Ji became an Udasi. The references within the thesis were mostly unheard of to many of the members, indicating the lack of familiarity we have with texts from the Sikh Empire and Udasi samparda. It was clear that there had been many offshoots from Sikhi right from the time of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Often we mistakenly perceive that disunity is a modern problem within the Panth.
During the time period described in the thesis, the Masands were contributing to the recognised preaching system within the Indian subcontinent. Was it due to a failure of their organisation that the Udasis came to the fore? Or were these two separate but co-existing systems? The thesis indicated that potentially one of three situations occurred with regards to the Udasis. Either Baba Sri Chand Ji started the samparda outside of Sikhi right from the start, or he was initially resentful of not having the Guruship and then subsequently was welcomed back into the Sikh fold, or thirdly that the Udasis came back into the Sikh Panth but then chose to leave again. The author doesn’t fully address which of these is closer to the truth.
The text made reference to some belief systems which clearly differ to the mainstream Panth e.g. five deity worship. It is unclear when this was introduced within the samparda and sometimes appears at odds with the samparda’s principles. Traditionally Udasis believe in two Gaddis – Guru Angad Dev Ji as the sucessor of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, but also Baba Sri Chand Ji as a holder of spiritual knowledge. There was discussion as to whether the Udasis believe that Baba Gurditta Ji was a reincarnation of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and the implications of this i.e. whether this validates their belief in legal succession. Clearly the act of Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji giving his son to this samparda may highlight that the Udasis and Sikhs are close brotherhoods but with slightly differing viewpoints. Although Guru Gobind Singh Ji created the Khalsa which united the Sikhs, certainly the Udasis are not included amongst those groups with whom Sikhs are instructed not to associate when inducted into the Khalsa brotherhood. Some Udasis have adopted the concept of Amrit and also join the mainstream Sikh Panth.
The members discussed the different approaches to succession. For example, the Gurus participated in nominal succession; whomever was the best individual to take the Guru’s succession became the next Guru, regardless of familial association. However the Udasis may have preferred nominal succession i.e. that Baba Sri Chand Ji was the rightful heir of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. However as Baba Sri Chand Ji was celibate they must have started a nominal succession process themselves in order for the samparda to survive. Subsequently the Udasis supported Guru Arjan Dev Ji when they were proclaimed Guru, rather than supporting Prithi Chand. This may indicate an evolution in their thinking over time.
There is no doubt that Baba Sri Chand Ji was an elevated spiritual being, and this is evidenced by his own writings. The essence of these writings such as the Matra Sahib is very similar to the teachings of the Gurus. Udasis of course believe that these writings are to be given the same level of respect as Gurbani. The concept of gnosis (knowledge of the self) was discussed with regards to whether this is any different to that of Sikhi. Some felt that gnosis referred to hidden knowledge, and that in Sikhi although knowledge is treasured and received from the Panj Pyare, it is always accessible. The author makes reference to Baba Sri Chand Ji visiting the Gurus himself in subsequent years, beginning with Guru Ram Das. The 3HO Sikhs hold Baba Sri Chand Ji in high regard due to his association with being a true Yogi. The thesis also made reference to the huge role that the Udasis played in spreading the message of Sikhi across India and beyond and being the guardians of the Gurdwaras for many decades. Baba Sri Chand Ji clearly also was talented with a certain level of diplomacy which encouraged many Kings and materially important individuals to consort with him despite any conflicts they may have had with the Gurus. This is not to say that the Udasis have remained politically inactive; when fake Gurus attempted to infiltrate and take over the rule of Anandpur Sahib, the Udasis were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the Gurdwara complex and forcibly removing these individuals. Mahants were individuals within the samparda who’s primary focus was to act as decision-makers for the Deras. There were several other groups of individuals who supported the Mahants in achieving this role. Only a minority of Mahants were not worthy of the name, and this has unfortunately tainted the Udasi samparda by association.
The members discussed the pros and cons of payment when it comes to parchar. The thesis described in depth the system of grants which was present during the age of the Sikh Empire. The only way to prevent the Mahants from begging was to ensure they were provided a salary of sorts. Even during Mughul rule, the Udasis received money from the establishment. Was this a conflict of interest or a necessity for survival? (We have a perception that the Mughuls were one entity but this is not the case, and certain local Mughul rulers were fair.) Each Dera within the Udasi samparda was also independent.
It seems an injustice that the Udasis were the gatekeepers of Takht Hazur Sahib until the 1800s but were then regarded as outsiders when the mainstream Sikhs took control of this. The Udasi samparda has been forced to undergo many transformations since the age of the Sikh Empire. After the British Raj, the education system was changed from a traditional one to one which employed the English system. Lands were divided in a completely different way, and consequently much land was lost, resulting in a reduction in the numbers of Udasis. One of the most significant aspects of this thesis was the discussion of the 1920s Gurdwara Reform Act removing the Udasis from the Panth. However the Anandpur Resolution aimed to reintegrate them back. Perhaps the Udasis purposely use their distinct identity to protect themselves against the rule of the SGPC. Even today the Brahmbuta Akhara lies very close to Harmandar Sahib but is not within its formal rule.
The members concluded that this thesis, although very academically written, provided several useful insights into the history and traditions of the Udasis many of which were previously unknown to us. The contribution of the Gurdwara Reform Movement in the alienation of this samparda cannot be underestimated, and consequently this has shaped our own often narrow-minded views of Sikhi.