Idolatry in Sikhism
|Part of a series on|
Sikhism has prohibited idol worship since early 20th century, led by the Tat Khalsa of the Singh Sabha Movement of late 19th-century. Prior to 1905, idols were a part of Sikh gurudwaras, including the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple, Amritsar). According to Namdhari sect of Sikhism, it was Khalsa sect of Sikhism led Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee that invented phrases such as "Guru Maniyo Granth" in 1925 to remove idol worship within the Sikh community.
The Sanatan Sikhs considered keeping idols within the temples as not harmful. With the launch of Singh Sabha movement in late 19th-century, the Tat Khalsa and the Nirankari Sikh community strongly opposed the practice, stating that God could not be represented by any icon. In 1905, as a part of Sikh reform movement, idols were removed from the Golden temple and other Gurdwaras, midst a major controversy within the Sikh community of that era. The prohibition, state Fenech and McLeod, has also served a means to assert Sikhism differs from Hinduism.
Idol worship is mentioned as a futile and worthless practice in the Sikh texts such as the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the teachings of Guru Nanak call the practice of worshipping stones as useless and ridiculous. These stones cannot answer any questions nor provide spiritual guidance as the guru can, states Nanak, and only the guidance of a guru can carry one across the "Ocean of Existence". Idolatry is criticized in the Dasam Granth traditionally attributed to the tenth Guru Gobind Singh. The Dasam Granth includes idolatry along with other practices such as smearing sandal paste, offering food, visiting graves and tombs, bowing and others as futile and unhelpful in knowing God.
According to the Indologist Harold Coward, the Sikh scriptures critique idolatry and Guru Nanak's words protest and condemn empty, magical worship of idols. But, states Coward, an icon treated as a symbol that does not confuse the physical with the spiritual, and with the "right motivation and understanding", the Sikh scripture does not exclude the reverence and worship of the Guru as a sacred symbol. Copies of the Sikh scripture have been widely venerated in the Sikh tradition. It attracts ritual devotional singing and worship in Sikh Gurdwaras.
Nirankari Sikh opposition
Among the earliest reform movements that opposed idol worship practices in the Sikh community was the Nirankari sect started by Baba Dyal (1783-1855). He was not an initiated Khalsa, his movement was called Nirankari which literally derived from Nirankar or "the formless one". He was opposed to all idol worship, including the then existing practice of keeping idols and pictures of the ten Sikh Gurus and praying before them. According to Dyal, such practices were against Sikh teachings. He built a new Gurdwara in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), but facing opposition from Sikhs to his ideas, he moved his reform movement into its suburbs. Nirankaris were a potent and active campaigners in late 19th-century and early 20th-century for the removal of all idols and images from the Golden Temple and other Gurdwaras. After the partition of British India along religious boundaries, the Nirankaris along with the vast majority of Sikhs chose to move to predominantly Hindu-majority India rather than stay in predominantly Muslim majority Pakistan. Nirankaris moved their headquarters from Dayalsar in Rawalpindi to Chandigarh. They have continued to campaign for the abolishment of idolatry like the orthodox Khalsa, but continue to accept a living human guru beyond the ten gurus which has made them a heterodox sect of Sikhism.
Sanatan Sikhs acceptance
In contrast to Nirankari and Tat Khalsa Sikhs, Sanatan Sikhs (lit. "Traditional Sikh") considered images and idols of the ten Sikh gurus, as well as others, to be an inclusive practice and acceptable means of devotional worship.
Khalsa Sikhs opposition
The orthodox Sikhs led by the Khalsa state that idolatry is forbidden in Sikhism, they recommend the reverence of icons such as the Nishan and the Guru Granth Sahib. However, this is a relatively recent development, according to Namdhari sect of Sikhism. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee invented phrases such as "Guru Maniyo Granth" in 1925, state Namdharis, to remove idol worship within the Sikh community. These views of Khalsa Sikhs on idolatry emerged during the Singh Sabha movement as an attempt to distinguish Sikhism from Hinduism and restate its core beliefs and change the historic practices in Sikhism.
According to Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, a professor of Sikh Studies, the Singh Sabha movement intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century, created exegetical works in their attempts to overcome idolatrous notions of God. This was the Singh Sabha's attempt to cleanse Sikhism of Hinduism, but they ended up admitting the historic practice and formulating new norms that did in a different way what they accused Hindus of doing in practice. In the second half of the 19th-century, states Harjot Oberoi – a professor of Asian Studies specializing on Sikhism, images of Sikh gurus were commonly worshipped in many Gurdwaras including major sacred sites such as at the Golden Temple, Akal Takht and Baba Atal.According to Mandair, the Sikh scripture includes words such as "murat", "sarir" and "akal". Murat is same as murti or an "image, statue, idol", sarir means body, while akal means "timeless". Selectively read, parts of the Sikh scripture can be viewed as teaching an abstract "formless" concept of God that is also found in Hindu texts (along with other theistic and atheistic ideas). However, states Mandair, other parts of the Sikh scripture include terms such as "murat" or "murati" which relate to "form, shape" creating exegetical difficulty. The writers of the Khalsa group within the Singh Sabha movement reinterpreted and gave new contextual meanings to the words such as "murati", as well as emphasized a stereotypical orientalist view of Hinduism, in order to show that there is no inconsistency and contradiction in their exegetical attempts around idolatry in Sikhism.
Scripture as an idol
Since early 20th-century, Farquhar and other scholars state that the matha tekna by Sikhs at the door of Gurdwara or before the Guru Granth Sahib, and other daily rituals such as putting the scripture to bed (sukhasan) in a bedroom (sachkhand), waking it up every morning, carrying it in a procession and re-opening it (prakash) in major Sikh Gurdwaras is a form of idolatry. Late 20th-century comments acknowledge that modern Sikh temples lack idols, but the widespread devotional worship of the Guru Granth Sahib in these temples has drawn questions that the Sikh scripture is being ritually treated like an idol. According to them, idolatry is any form of bowing or worship of any object, paying homage to any icon, any ritualized direction or house of worship. It is a form of bibliolatry, where the Guru Granth Sahib is the eternal living guru treated with rituals of respect similar to how people of other faiths treat an idol or statue or image. According to Kristina Myrvold, every Sikh scripture copy is treated like a person and venerated with elaborate ceremonies. In major Sikh temples, these rituals are devotional worship and are a daily means of "merit bestowing ministrations". These daily ritual ministrations and paying of homage for the scripture by Sikhs, states Myrvold, is not unique to Sikhism. It moulds "meanings, values and ideologies" and creates a framework for congregational worship, states Myrvold, that is found in all major faiths.
Scholars such as Eleanor Nesbitt state the Nanaksar Gurdwaras practice of offering food cooked by Sikh devotees to the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as curtaining the scripture during this ritual, as a form of idolatry. Baba Ishar Singh of this international network of Sikh temples has defended this practice because he states that the Sikh scripture is more than paper and ink.
- W. H. McLeod (2009). The A to Z of Sikhism. Scarecrow. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-8108-6344-6.
- Louis E. Fenech; W. H. McLeod (2014). Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-4422-3601-1.
- Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 542–543. ISBN 978-0-19-100412-4.;
Harjot Oberoi (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. University of Chicago Press. pp. 322–326. ISBN 978-0-226-61592-9.; Quote: "First, they stated that the idols had been in the [Golden] temple from the time of its inception. Even under the Sikh misls and during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh no one had demanded their removal. Therefore it was an established custom to house idols with the Golden Temple precincts. Second a vast majority of Sikhs staunchly believed in idol worship and it would have been contrary to their religious rights to take away images." (Note: see pages 322-326 for the context of late 19th-century and early 20th-century dispute between Tat Khalsa Sikhs and the Sikhs that opposed them, as well as notes on idolatry in Sikhism prior to early 20th-century).
- Kenneth W. Jones (1976). Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th-century Punjab. University of California Press. pp. 211–212. ISBN 978-0-520-02920-0., Quote: "Brahmin priests and their idols had been associated with the Golden Temple for at least a century and had over these years received the patronage of pious Hindus and Sikhs. In the 1890s these practices came under increasing attack by reformist Sikhs."
- Harjot Oberoi (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. University of Chicago Press. pp. 323–324. ISBN 978-0-226-61593-6.
- Knut A. Jacobsen; Kristina Myrvold (2011). Sikhs in Europe: Migration, Identities, and Representations. Ashgate. pp. 297–299. ISBN 978-1-4094-2435-2.
- Harjot Oberoi (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. University of Chicago Press. pp. 320–327. ISBN 978-0-226-61593-6.
- Khushwant Singh (2006). The Illustrated History of the Sikhs. Oxford University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-567747-8.
- Louis E. Fenech; W. H. McLeod (2014). Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-4422-3601-1.
- W. H. McLeod (1968). Gurū Nānak and the Sikh religion. Oxford University Press. pp. 209–210.
- W. H. McLeod (1984). Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester University Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-7190-1063-7.
- Harold G. Coward (2000). Scripture in the World Religions: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld. pp. 130–132, 209–210. ISBN 978-1-85168-244-7.
- Kristina Myrvold (2017). "Guru Granth: Ceremonial Treatment". Brill's Encylopedia of Sikhism. Brill Academic. pp. 141–145. ISBN 978-90-04-29745-6.
- Roshen Dalal (2010). The Religions of India: A Concise Guide to Nine Major Faiths. Penguin Books. pp. 268–269. ISBN 978-0-14-341517-6.
- Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 353–354. ISBN 978-0-19-100411-7.
- Surjit Singh Gandhi (1993). Perspectives on Sikh Gurdwaras Legislation. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. pp. 13–17. ISBN 978-81-7156-371-5.
- W. H. McLeod (1984). Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester University Press. pp. 122–126. ISBN 978-0-7190-1063-7.
- Louis E. Fenech; W. H. McLeod (2014). Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 234. ISBN 978-1-4422-3601-1.
- Louis E. Fenech; W. H. McLeod (2014). Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 151, 273. ISBN 978-1-4422-3601-1.
- Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–29, 73–76. ISBN 978-0-19-969930-8.
- D.G. Singh (2002), Idolatry is impermissible in Sikhism, Sikh Review, Volume 50, Issue 5, pages 35-37
- TN Madan (1994). Martin Marty and R Scott Appleby, ed. Fundamentalisms Observed. University of Chicago Press. pp. 604–610. ISBN 978-0-226-50878-8.
- Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (2009). Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. Columbia University Press. pp. 231–232. ISBN 978-0-231-14724-8.
- Harjot Oberoi (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. University of Chicago Press. pp. 102–104. ISBN 978-0-226-61592-9.
- Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (2009). Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. Columbia University Press. pp. 62–68, 229–232. ISBN 978-0-231-14724-8.
- James Bissett Pratt (1975). India and Its Faiths: A Traveler's Record. Houghton Mifflin (Orig year: 1915). pp. 250–251.
- Kristina Myrvold (2008). Knut A. Jacobsen, ed. South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora. Routledge. pp. 144–145, context: 140–154, . ISBN 978-1-134-07459-4.
- Jacqueline Suthren Hirst; John Zavos (2013). Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia. Routledge. pp. 61–62. ISBN 978-1-136-62668-5.
- Darren Todd Duerksen (2015). Ecclesial Identities in a Multi-Faith Context. Wipf. p. 103 footnote 6. ISBN 978-1-63087-885-6.
- Eleanor Nesbitt (2014). Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 362–365. ISBN 978-0-19-969930-8.