Singh Sabha Movement

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The Singh Sabha Movement was a Sikh movement that began in Punjab in the 1870s in reaction to the proselytising activities of Christians, Brahmo Samajis, Arya Samaj, the Aligarh movement and Ahmadiyah.[1] The movement was founded in an era when the Sikh Empire had been dissolved and annexed by the colonial British, the Khalsa had lost its prestige, and mainstream Sikhs were rapidly converting to other religions.[1] The movement's aims were, according to Barrier and Singh, to "propagate the true Sikh religion and restore Sikhism to its pristine glory; to write and distribute historical and religious books of Sikhs; to propagate Gurmukhi Punjabi through magazines and media". The movement sought to reform Sikhism and bring back into the Sikh fold the apostates who had converted to other religions; as well as to interest the influential British officials in furthering the Sikh community. At the time of its founding, the Singh Sabha policy was to avoid criticism of other religions and political matters.[1][2]

Colonial rule[edit]

Fall of the Sikh Empire[edit]

The British East India Company annexed the Sikh Empire in 1849 after the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Thereafter, Christian missionaries increased proselytising activities in central Punjab. In 1853, Maharajah Dalip Singh, the last Sikh ruler, was controversially converted to Christianity. In parallel, Brahmo Samaji and Arya Samaji reform movements of Hinduism began active pursuit of Sikhs into their suddhi ceremonies. Muslim proselytizers formed the Anjuman-i-Islamia midst the Sikhs in Lahore, while the Ahmadiyah movement sought converts to their faith.[1][2]

The annexation of the Punjab to the British Empire in the mid-19th century saw severe deterioration of Gurdwara management.[3] The British sought to cosset and control the Sikhs through the management of the Golden Temple and its functionaries, even ignoring its own dictates of statutory law which required the separation of secular and religious matters, neutrality in the treatment of religious communities and the withdrawal from involvement in religious institutions; the need to control the Golden Temple was held to be more paramount, and along with control of Sikh institutions, there were measures put in place like the legal ban of carrying weapons, meant to disarm the Khalsa, who had fought against them in the two Anglo Sikh Wars.[4]

In this way the Khalsa army was disbanded and the Punjab demilitarized, and Sikh armies were required to publicly surrender their arms and return to agriculture or other pursuits. Certain groups, however, like those who held revenue-free lands (jagirdars) were allowed to decline, particularly if they were seen as “rebels,”[5] The British were wary of giving the Sikhs unmitigated control of their own gurdwaras, and drew from Sikh factions seen as loyal to the British, like the Sikh aristocracy and Sikhs with noted family lineages, who were given patronage and pensions, and Udasis, who had gained control of historical gurdwaras in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were allowed to retain proprietary control over lands and gurdwara buildings.[5] The British administration went to considerable lengths to insert such loyalists into the Golden Temple in order to exert as much control over the Sikh body-politic as possible. One reason for this was the emergence of Sikh revivalist groups, like the Nirankaris, the Namdharis, and the Singh Sabha movement, shortly after annexation; this revivalism was spurred by a growing disaffection within the ranks of ordinary Sikhs about the perceived decline of proper Sikh practices.[5]

Mahant period[edit]

Sikh institutions deteriorated further under the administration of corrupt mahants, or gurdwara custodians, supported by the British,[6][7][8] who not only ignored the needs of the Sikh community of the time,[7] but allowed the gurdwaras to turn into spaces for societal undesirables like petty thieves, drunks, pimps, and peddlers of unsavory and licentious music and literature, with which they themselves took part in such activities.[9][7] In addition, they also allowed non-Sikh, Brahmanical practices[7] to take root in the gurdwaras, including idol worship,[7] caste discrimination, and allowing non-Sikh pandits and astrologers to frequent them, and began to simply ignore the needs of the general Sikh community,[7] as they used gurdwara offerings and other donations as their personal revenue,[7][8] and their positions became increasingly corrupt[7][8][10] and hereditary.[11]

Singh Sabha[edit]

1873 founding[edit]

The first Singh Sabha was founded in 1873 in Amritsar as a response to what were identifies as three main threats[12]:

  1. From Christian missionary activity, who attempted to draw from the Sikh community,[12]
  2. From the “reverse-proselytizing” of the Arya Samaj, which was part of the rising tide of Hindu nationalist consciousness in the British Raj and which commonly denigrated Sikhs or claimed them as a minor Hindu sect;[12] and
  3. The possibility of the losing British patronage due to the disruptive actions of groups like the Namdharis,[12] after the British neutralization of the Khalsa Sikhs.

The 1869 founding of the Anjuman-i-Islamia, a Punjabi Muslim advocacy organization, and the activity of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reform movement composed of English-speaking Bengalis than served as the lower rung of the British administration in Punjab and which had set up branches in several Punjabi cities in the 1860s, also motivated the formation of the Singh Sabha.[13]

This first Singh Sabha was set up and backed by Khatri Sanatan Sikhs, Gianis, and granthis.[14] who rejected Khalsa practices like the Khande da Pahul initiation ceremony on the grounds that it polluted their ritual boundaries, and supported ideas of pollution and purity based on the caste system[6] and their caste status, which they regarded as primary, and were more permissive of idol worship and other Hindu accretions following the neglect of Sikh institutions under the British, and styled themselves as “Sanatan Sikhs”[15] Shortly thereafter, Nihang Sikhs began influencing the movement, followed by a sustained campaign by Tat Khalsa.[16][17][18] While the Sanatan faction resented the democratic tendency within the Khalsa groups,[15] who historically drew more from the traditionally disenfranchised avarna, or casteless, groups like the Jatts who made up the majority of the Khalsa and are the majority of Sikhs today, they continued to co-exist within the broader Sikh panth, even as they remained aloof from the mainstream Khalsa practices.[15] They regarded themselves as the rightful leaders of the Panth even during the days of Khalsa ascendancy, and regained their social prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries by taking over the main gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions vacated by the Khalsa Sikhs in their fight for survival against the Mughal state in the 18th century.[15] The Nirmala, Udasi, and Giani schools of Sanatan thought, strongly influenced by Brahmanical philosophy, had risen to prominence and had produced the bulk of exegeses up to that era, while the Khalsa had instead remained engaged in the pursuit of political power, resulting in the Sikh Empire, in armed struggles against Mughal and Afghan forces in the 18th and 19th centuries.[19] The Sanatan groups attempted to align Sikh tradition with the Brahmanical social structure and caste ideology; their predominant concern was to protect the social framework in which they held status.[15]

For these groups the principle of authority of Sikh tradition was invested in living gurus (as Khem Singh Bedi, leader of the Sanatan Sikhs, liked to be regarded) rather than the principle of shabad-guru, or the Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru, which was upheld by the dominant Khalsa tradition.[15] This ideology invited stiff opposition from the rest of the Panth, particularly from those who held Khalsa beliefs, who through access to education and employment, had reached a position to challenge the Sanatan faction, forming the Tat Khalsa faction, or “true Khalsa,” in 1879, headed by Gurmukh Singh.[20]. The Tat Khalsa’s monotheism, iconoclastic sentiments, egalitarian social values and notion of a standardized Sikh identity did not blend well with the polytheism, idol worship, caste distinctions, and diversity of rites espoused by the Sanatan faction. [21]

Subsequent Singh Sabhas[edit]

The Tat Khalsa, maintaining the orthodox Khalsa Sikh tradition, based in the previous capital of the Khalsa-dominated Sikh Empire, Lahore, which was then majority-Sikh and a Khalsa stronghold, quickly gained ascendancy in the Singh Sabha movement, with immediately successful organizational and ideological challenging of the Sanatan faction as early as the early 1880s, [21] to the point where the term “Singh Sabha” became synonymous with the far more dominant Khalsa faction.[20]

After the Lahore Singh Sabha, many other Singh Sabhas were formed in every town and many villages throughout Punjab, exceeding over 100 in number by the end of the 19th century, modelling themselves on either the Tat Khalsa or Sanatan factions, contributing to the overwhelming dominance of the Tat Khalsa faction.[20][18][16][21] Tat Khalsa actions and views ultimately prevailed.[22] Once the Singh Sabha movement started, many Singh Sabhas began forming locally all over northwest through the 1870s and 1880s. Of these, the rivalry of the Lahore and the Amritsar units were more intense. Despite this, Sikh public leaders formed a central committee and a General Sabha in 1880. On April 11 1883, this General Sabha evolved into Khalsa Diwan Amritsar, with about 37 affiliated local Singh Sabha chapters, according to Gurdarshan Singh. Other Singh Sabhas, however, opposed it and there were also internal dissensions. The Singh Sabha chapters could not agree on its constitution or its leadership structure, ultimately leading to a split into Khalsa Diwan Amritsar with about 7 chapters and Khalsa Diwan Lahore with about 30 chapters. Each had "greatly different" constitution, in nature and composition, states Gurdarshan Singh.[23]

In its first of several defeats, the Sanatan faction proposed renaming the Singh Sabha to the Sikh Singh Sabha in 1883, as he perceived that the Singh Sabha had already become synonymous with the Khalsa Sikhs, and wanted to attract other minor Sikh sects to the organization. The opposition to this initiative was so overwhelming that Khem Singh Bedi was forced to drop it in the next meeting of the Diwan in April 1884.[21]

Chief Khalsa Diwan[edit]

In the 1890s, Sikhs groups formed many Khalsa Diwans in towns and cities, while rural groups formed their own Sikh Sabhas. By 1902, there were over 150 Singh Sabhas and Khalsa diwans in existence. Another attempt brought 29 of these Khalsa Diwans and other Sikh societies under a Chief Khalsa Diwan, partly due to the need for greater political coordination in the face a far more powerful common adversary, the Arya Samaj, the main representative of political Hinduism in Punjab.[20] This, and the nature and character of the Singh Sabha’s modernizing zeal, was motivated in large part by the Arya Samaj’s own political innovation of the term “Hindu” from meaning a non-Muslim inhabitant of India to a specifically religious identity embodied by the term “Hinduism.” This Arya Samaj modernizing innovation was seen as a threat by Sikhs of both persuasions in that it provided Hindus not only a regional but a pan-subcontinental religious identity, making India synonymous with “Hinduism” as a religion, with the connotation that Sikhs, who the Arya Samaj commonly disparaged, were claimed as a tiny sect, in this new, politicized religious identity.[20]

According to J.S. Grewal, while there were disagreements, the Singh Sabhas and Diwans were all concerned with religious reform and to collectively addressing the growing threat from Christian missionaries who were converting Sikhs into Christians, after the much-publicized celebrity conversions earlier such as of Maharaja Dalip Singh and Kanwar Harnam Singh Ahluwalia.[24] Sikh publications by the various Sikh Sabhas expressed their fear for the Sikh identity in early 20th-century given the success of the Christian missionaries, as well the rising threat of Muslim and Arya Samaj proselytization efforts.[24][25] The Sikh leaders were concerned about Christian missionary schools targeting the Sikh youth. They welcomed the English language education but opposed the Christian theology that was also being taught in these schools.[24]

The CKD was officially registered and recognized by the colonial British government on July 9 1904. The new body was financially supported by the affiliated Singh Sabhas, and Sikh aristocrats. It also attracted dedicated Sikh preachers or Updeshak. By 1920, the Chief Khalsa Diwan oversaw 105 affiliates. It developed an elaborate structure with the Chief Khalsa Diwan having three types of advisors and various committees, all paid a monthly salary from dues collected from the affiliates and members.[26] While Sikh newspapers championed the Chief Khalsa Diwan and the British colonial government recognized it as representing the entire Sikh community and all the Sikh Sabhas, in late 1900s and throughout 1910s significant internal disagreements led important Sikh activists to challenge the authority of the Chief Diwan Khalsa.[27]

Between the 1870s and 1890s, the efforts of Tat Khalsa reformists had focused on reinforcing the distinct Sikh identity separate from Muslim and Hindu practices, the primacy of the Khalsa initiation and codes of conduct, and setting up schools and colleges in town and villages,[28] initiatives that continued through the CKD period. Through print media newspapers and publications, like the Khalsa Akhbar (in Gurmukhi Punjabi) and The Khalsa (in English), the Singh Sabha solidified a general consensus of the nature of Sikh identity, and that the source of authentic Sikhi was the early Sikh tradition, specifically the period of the Sikh Gurus and immediately after. The Adi Granth was held to be the authoritative Sikh literature, along with compositions by Guru Gobind Singh, the works of Bhai Gurdas, the janamsakhis, and Gurbilas literature and the Rahitnamas,[28]later codified by the SGPC as the Sikh Rehat Maryada. Non-Sikh practices accumulated during the period of institutional neglect by the British and mahant control, including idol worship, the primacy of non-Sikh Brahmins, caste discrimination, superstitious cults of folk heroes and Hindu deities, and Vedic rites officiated by Brahmins during the mahant period, were banished, and Sikh rites and symbols including the Khalsa initiation, the names “Singh and “Kaur,” the 5 Ks, Sikh birth, death, and marriage rites, and the compulsory learning of Gurmukhi and Punjabi in Khalsa schools, an institution found in modern Gurdwaras worldwide, were formalized.[28]

20th century[edit]

In the early decades of the 20th century, The Tat Khalsa also contributed to two major legal victories, the 1909 Anand Marriage Act, and the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, which re-established direct Khalsa control of the major historical gurdwaras, previously run by British-supported mahants and pujaris,[29] or Hindu priests, and their rites. The reestablishment of Sikh control of Gurdwaras, after the non-violent Akali Movement, also known as the Gurdwara Reform Movement, was touched off in 1920 following General Reginald Dyer’s invited visit to the Golden Temple failed to pacify the Sikhs. The Akali Movement, lasting from 1920 to 1925, culminated in the transfer of gurdwara control to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC); the Akali Movement is the forerunner of the modern Akali Dal political party.[29] In 1919, the internal disagreements led some Sikh leaders to form the Central Sikh League, while in 1920 the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, or SGPC, emerged for the same reasons.[27]

In 1932, a general meeting of the Sikhs formed the Khalsa Darbar as an attempt to form a united front triggered by the colonial British government's Communal Award of seats to the Punjab Legislative Council. The Central Sikh League formed in 1919 merged into the Khalsa Darbar. However, in 1937, the Sikhs split into Shiromani Akali Dal and Congressite Sikhs.[30] The Singh Sabhas of the late 19th-century were overwhelmed by these organizations as Britain attempted to gain Indian soldiers for their World War II efforts and from the dynamics of religion-based political partition of the Indian subcontinent in the final decades of colonial rule.[24][25] The SGPC, as a democratic institution, has represents the majority opinion of Sikhs, and is the authoritative voice of the Sikhs.[29]


Harjot Oberoi, a Sikh academic known for his liberal reinterpretation of the formative events of Sikhism and other faiths,[31] argues:

The older forms of Sikhism were displaced forever and replaced by a series of inventions: the demarcation of Sikh sacred space by clearing holy shrines of Hindu icons and idols, the cultivation of Punjabi as the sacred language of the Sikhs, the foundation of cultural bodies exclusively for Sikh youth, the insertion of the anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus into the ritual and sacred calender and most important of all, the introduction of new life-cycle rituals.

Dr. Harnik Deol, Ph.D, of Cambridge, refutes Oberoi's assertion, which she deems as the 'hegemony' approach to the study of religious reform in colonial India, or how a rising middle class uses religious reform to gain hegemony by administrating religious centers and defining a uniform religious discourse.

This view holds that in pre-colonial India the boundaries that marked the beliefs and practices of Indian religion were open, allowing room for local practices. Participation of different religious communities in the worship of local saints is interpreted as a sign of in-built tolerance. But, what did this mean to the different religious communities involved in these shared practices? What was the nature of their interaction with each other? What were the constraints on this interaction? These questions have been persistently ignored.

...But the approach adopted by Oberoi provides only a partial understanding of the historical process of identity formation. This view is based on the contention that the Singh Sabha reformers enunciated a fundamentally new Sikh doctrine which dramatically transformed the Sikh identity. Harjot Oberoi argues that in order to establish a separate Sikh identity, the Khalsa Sikhs formulated 'their own code of conduct, a novel form of initiation and some new rites of passage' (Oberoi 1994:89). What was so novel and profound about this message remains unexplained in Oberoi's book and contradicts his earlier observations. For instance, he argues, 'But is the eighteenth century the Khalsa Sikhs became keenly aware of the absence of distinct life-cycle rituals and took urgent steps to rectify the situation by introducing new rites, particularly to make birth, initiation and death' (Oberoi 1994:63,65-67). This is in stark contrast to his later claim, 'Similarly, in the area of life-cycle rituals, Sikhs had not as yet formulated distinctive marriage and mortuary rituals' (Oberoi 1994:90). On the one hand, he argues that the Khalsa Sikhs had established their distinctivrites of passage by the eighteenth century. On the other hand, he claims that a novel form of initiation and exclusive Khalsa life-cycle rituals were constituted by the Tat Khalsa reformers only during the nineteenth century. It is evident that there was nothing innovative about the Sikh initiation ritual, and the rites to mark birth and death. Oberoi surprisingly does not consider the systematic and rigorous religious and moral codes an iniated person was required to follow. This is one of the reasons why the percentage of Sikhs who undergo an initiation rite remains fractional....The Sikh initiation rite is consonant with the teachings of Guru Nanak. Oberoi empties the Sikh initiation rite of its profound, ritual and symbolic significance, and reduces it merely to its overt function as an ethnic marker. But religious rituals aim at transforming the self by overcoming the forces that threaten personal and cosmic harmony, and cosmological understandings are communicated in religious rituals.

In other words, Oberoi's suggestion that the beliefs and practices of the Tat Khalsa movement in the nineteenth century marked a fundamental transformation in Sikh identity and were radically different from earlier Sikh tradition is not only difficult but self-contradictory. The iconoclastic monotheism and egalitarian social values were precisely the principal teachings of the Sikh gurus.

— Harnik Deol, [33]

This is also rebutted by Pashaura Singh, who accuses Oberoi of “tilting the balance of evidence artificially in favour of Sanatan Sikhism,”[34] by retroactively projecting Sikh practices during the British administration era

to imply that Sikh identity was always predominantly fluid, with free mixing of Sikh and Hindu practices. This is questionable. From as early as the period of Guru Arjan, Sikhs clearly were encouraged to think of themselves as a new community. Not surprisingly, J.S. Grewal criticizes Oberoi’s view of the Singh Sabha ‘as a new epistome arising out of praxis’ since it precludes the ‘possibility of any meaningful linkages with the past’ (Grewal 1997: 73)”

— Pashaura Singh, [34]

Pashaura Singh also considers Oberoi as presenting a false Tat Khalsa/Sanatan dichotomy, and that mention of other strands of Singh Sabha thought, like that of the Bhasaur Singh Sabha, were neglected in order to do so:

There were three strands of thinking represented by three prominent individuals. First, Khem Singh Bedi of Amritsar Singh Sabha supported the centrality of the Singh identity and the significance of the Khalsa initiation, but he also stressed the idea of divine incarnations, the need for a living guru, and the indivisibility of Sikh and Hindu society. Second, Gurmukh Singh of the Lahore Singh Sabha held the middle position that the activities of the ten Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib serve as the ultimate source of Sikh belief and practice. The Singh identity was the ideal but those who had not undergone the Khalsa initiation were an indivisible part of the Sikh Panth as long as they recognized the Guru Granth Sahib as the ‘eternal Guru.’ Sikhs constituted a distinct community and the question of the Hindu-Sikh relationship was a redundant issue. Third, the position of Teja Singh of the Bhasaur Singh Sabha was far more radical. He claimed that anyone who had not undergone the Khalsa initiation should have no place within the Sikh Panth. In his vision of ‘orthodoxy’ the periphery was to be simply excised, and raising the issue of the Hindu-Sikh relationship was an insult to the Sikhs. In the beginning of the twentieth century ‘Bedi and Bhasaur were eventually sidelined’ (Mann 2004: 63) and Gurmukh Singh’s middle position of the Tat Khalsa achieved general acceptance, both in institutional and ideological terms.”

— Pashaura Singh, [35]

Thus, the Tat Khalsa position is presented as the actual moderate, popular position. In addition, Pashaura Singh mentions that W. H. McLeod also refutes Oberoi and recognized continuity in the Sikh tradition from time of Guru Nanak to the Singh Sabha, emphasizing that

the Khalsa tradition was ‘systematized and clarified’ by the Singh Sabha to make Sikh tradition consistent and effective for propagation. The Tat Khalsa conception was both old and new, a point which McLeod forcefully made in contrast to Oberoi’s assertion that the Tat Khalsa was totally a new invention: “To suggest that they [Singh Sabha reformers] developed a new tradition is false. Equally it is false to claim that their treatment of it can be described as a simple purging of alien excrescence or the restoration of a corrupted original.”

— W.H. McLeod, [36]


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  31. ^
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