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Importance of the Singh Sabha Movement

After the annexation of Punjab fear gripped the Sikhs, what were the British going to do with their faith, their traditions and way of life? But as history has shown the threat did not come from the British, it was from a lot closer to home. It was due to scheming Brahmanical groups and hindus influences that the Singh Sabha movement was created and gathered momentum.

Other groups had established themselves, like the Nirankaries, Radhasoamies and Namdharies but they had their own agendas. They had no set goals for the community and rather emphasised the ritual aspects. They had little or no impact. There were fundamental differences between these groups and mainstream Sikhism and this led to these groups breaking away.

These problems were little compared to the Brahmenical influences. At the time of the late 1800's it was clear that certain areas of Sikhism were lapsing back into hinduism. Sikhs who had recently converted were now returning to the hindu fold uncertain of the future of Sikhism. A British observer Sir Richard Temple commented "Sikhism is on the decline, a spent force, the Sikhs are the most uneducated people in the Punjab."

The British exploited the lack of political knowledge of the Sikhs by setting up Christian missionaries. They also opened a Christian missionary school in the holy city of Amritsar, striking at the very heart of Sikhism. Lower class Sikhs who were tired of the way they were treated by the Sikh leaders converted to Christianity. High numbers of Sikhs were changing their faith so soon into British imperialism. It was not only the poor Sikhs who were converting, many well off Sikhs with great political and social leverage moved over to Christianity due to enticements of government posts and hefty pensions.

The British intentions were clearcut but the hindus were more scheming and made the boldest religious moves during this period. In 1875 a hindu group calling themselves Arya Samaj, led by Swami Dayanand started making bold and derogatory statements about the Sikhs. Their main belief was that all religions and faiths were simply a branch of hinduism. hinduism is like an ocean which all rivers flow to. All their beliefs were centred around the book of Vedas. Swami Dayanand denounced Sri Guru Nanak Sahib Ji and labelled the Guru's and Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji as having little importance.

The sect was growing in popularity within Punjab and it was apparent to all Sikhs that this group was here to stay and was seeking to eradicate the Sikh faith through lies and accusations or by any means possible. The problem with the Sikhs was that they were by and large leaderless, there was no control of the religion, there were no institutions, no custodians. Other faiths like Christianity, Islam and hinduism had schools of faith and learning centres. Schools where children could be nurtured, raised within the fold of the faith. This was not the case with the helpless Sikhs.

This was the origin of the Singh Sabha movement. The society described itself as Singh Sabha, founded in Amritsar 1872, it set out to protect the Sikhism from invading interests. The Singh Sabha held meeting and led protest marches against the hindu ‘anti-Sikh' orators. The group organised meeting to educate Sikhs of the values of Sikhism which had been dented and neglected , to reveal the teachings of the Guru's. The Singh Sabha also started the production of religious literature and laid the foundations of a campaign against illiteracy.

Prof. Gurmukh Singh

Prof. Gurmukh Singh

A few years later in 1879 a branch of Singh Sabha was founded in Lahore. The leaders were educated, energetic, middle class and politically aware. Bhai Gurmukh Singh, a professor at the Oriental College of Lahore was its secretary. He brought into the movement two veteran preachers , Bhai Ditt Singh Giani and Bhai Jawara Singh. Both of these preachers became extremely popular due to their sincerity of belief in the true doctrine of the Guru's and their sense of mission and zeal to serve their faith. Inspired by Gurmukh Singh , Bhai Dit Singh devoted his whole time to propagate the Sikh faith, writing over 25 books to dispel ignorance about the religion and its history. During this time Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha, a notable scholar was contacted. Bhai Kahn Singh wrote various books on Sikhism, his most notable work being Mahan Kosh (encyclopaedia of Sikhism) and Ham hindu Nahi (We are not hindus). Bhai Vir Singh founded the Khalsa Tract Society , he contributed to the purity of Sikh thought and instilled faith the the Khalsa traditions by writing various books, his most famous being Kalghidar Chamatkaar.

The governor of Punjab Sir Robert Egerton became the patron of the Singh Sabha. The Singh Sabha began to open in towns and villages and started to send out missionaries to remoter parts of the region. They also formed alliances with Sikh regiments and increased the production of the religious literature. It was at this time that the Sikhs felt an urgent need to have a translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji in English.

Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha

Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha

After a hectic search Bhai Gurmukh Singh persuaded Mr Max Arthur Macauliffe of the Indian civil service working as a divisional judge to undertake the task on behalf of the Sikh community. Both moral and financial support was given. Under the guidance of Bhai Kahn Singh, Mr Macauliffe spent the next 15 years translating Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. By 1909 the great work was complete and published by the Oxford University press.

In 1883 the Amritsar and Lahore Singh Sabhas tried to merge but were unsuccessful. The reason of the failure was the stark contrast between the two groups. On one hand there was the Amritsar group led by Baba Khem Singh, who did little to help the lower castes and suffered from having strong ideals in elitism. On the other hand the Lahore group was more radical and pro-lower caste. They were more democratic and believed in equality and representation. The contrast between the two was obvious and the Amritsar Singh Sabha refused links with the Lahore group.

This dispute turned nasty and open hostility broke out between the two groups, this resulted with Baba Khem Singh taking Giani Dit Singh to court over a play he had written called Swapan Natak (The Dream Play) which was thought to be a veiled attack on Baba Khem Singh. In due course most of the Singh Sabhas and devout Sikhs came to realise the righteous stand taken by the Lahore group and Gurmukh Singh and Bhai Dit Singh for the Singh cause.

This dispute simply helped the Arya Samajists, with their leader venting out anti-sikh rhetoric. The threat was real and realising this the two groups merged. Through the Khalsa Diwan it was desired to set up a Sikh college. Cleverly the Singh Sabha aligned themselves with the British in order to gain funds for their educational programme. Some British well wishers even raised money through committees in England. In 1892 enough money was raised to lay the foundation stone of the Khalsa College. The collage made the teaching of Gurmukhi and Sikh scripture compulsory. The college was founded with the notion to challenge the ‘anti-Sikh' wave that Punjab was harbouring.

Bhai Ditt Singh

Bhai Ditt Singh

The original founders of the Singh Sabha Movement were sanatan or ‘Traditional' Sikhs believing that the paanth certainly consisted of the followers of the Gurus, but had no problem with the hindu traditions that were creeping in. There were the Sabha of Amritsar of 1873.

The radical Sikhs were the Tat Khalsa centred at Lahore. For the Tat Khalsa it was impossible to be a hindu and a Sikh, as those of the Sanatan persuasion maintained. The only correct style for a Sikh was that of a Khalsa and although they did not cast out the non-Khalsa variety, they explicitly adopted the view that those non-Khalsa Sikhs were on there way to becoming fully fledged Sikh. In other words they were said to be aspiring to become members of the Khalsa, that is they were Sehaj-dhari ‘s or slow learners.

Ultimately the victory went to the Tat Khalsa and since the early years of the twentieth century Sikhs have been progressively learning three things. First, Sikhs are no hindus, secondly Khalsa membership should be the objective of all Sikhs and thirdly, the Khalsa membership requires obedience to the Rehat.

Founders of the Sanatan movement were predominantly conservative Sikhs, concerned to sustain and protect the society in which they had been nurtured, this was a society which permitted a variety of Sikh identities and different modes of worship. The Tat Khalsa strongly disagreed with the actions of the Amritsar Singh Sabha. Those with radical opinion drew strength from the educational developments in Lahore. For the Tat Khalsa Sikhism could not possibly be as broad as Sanatan Sikhs believed. Emphatically Sikhs were not hindus, and hindu tradition was not what Sikhs should follow.

Bhai Vir Singh

Bhai Vir Singh

Sikh values were propagated through Punjabi newspapers, the Khalsa Tract Society and the Khalsa Diwan. In 1899 the weekly journal Khalsa Akbar was started. The main goal of this publication was to educate Sikhs about politics and Sikh history. Over the course of time more and more Sikhs saw the merits of the view point of the Lahore Singh Sabha and threw their lot with it.

With pressure applied by the Sikh masses, idols that had been placed in the precincts of Sri Harmandor Sahib in the days of the hindu onslaught were removed. Later, in 1920 the practice of caste discrimination in Sri Harmandor Sahib was stopped, due to pressure from the masses the priests has no option but to accept all offerings from all people.

Notable Sikh thinkers and leaders who contributed to restore the Sikh faith to its original Khalsa traditions and pristine purity were Professor Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Dit Singh, Bhai Jawahra Singh, Giani Gian Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha and Sundar Singh Majithia.

Bhai Vir Singh (1872 –1957) was a great poet, a scholar and a very spiritual person. Through his writings he brought awareness of the glory of the Guru's and the Khalsa to the Sikh masses. His writings in Punjabi are famous all over India. From his pen came the best novels of the Punjabi language.

Bhai Vir Singh wrote historical and philosophical essays, he was the force behind the cultural renaissance in the Punjab at the turn of the century. He was conferred the degree of Doctor of Oriental learning Honoris Causa in 1949 by Punjab University. He was honoured with the Sahitya Academy Award in 1955 and the Padam Bhushan in 1956 for his contributions of Punjabi literature.

Bhai Vir Singh was the force behind the Singh Sabha movements literary output which was so important in awakening the Sikh masses. His earlier written novels like Sundari, Vijay Singh, Santwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh have to the viewed with reference to the social and political conditions of the end of the nineteenth century.

Singh Sabha

Tarlochan Singh, Bhai Vir Singh & Sundar Singh Majithia

The books central theme was heroism and chivalry of the Sikhs and the ethical excellence of the religion. The novels brought out the pristine glory of the Khalsa in contrast to the servility of the hindu masses and the oppression of the Pathan and Mughal rulers.

Bhai Vir Singh then turned his attention to explaining the Sikh scriptures in his weekly paper, the Khalsa Samachar. He also wrote poems which gave him a most honoured place among Punjabi poets.

Thereafter he wrote biographies of the Sikh Guru's: Kalgidhar Chamatkar, the life of Guru Gobind Singh Ji and Guru Nanak Chamatkar, the life of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji. Bhai Vir Singh Ji was dedicated to the cause of reform, he propagated the cause of education by building schools and colleges and was a founder director of the Punjab and Sind Bank, which greatly helped in uplifting the Sikh economy.

The main goals of the Singh Sabha movement was clear and uncompromising. To uplift the Sikhs in all spheres, be it political, social, moral or economic. The propagation of the Guru's divine word, carrying of his teaching to the highest level. The removal of illiteracy and the spread of education regardless of caste or creed. The protection of political rights for the Sikhs and the removal of their grievances through constitutional methods. This was the backbone of the Singh Sabha movement, a movement that gained much attraction and gave Sikhs a role within their religion.

It was the Singh Sabha movement that poured water over the rampage of hinduism in the Punjab.

It was Singh Sabha that halted the slide of Sikhism into unretreavable waters and it was Singh Sabha that made the Sikhs feel proud to be Sikhs again.

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