Religious authority

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This is the second in a series of posts on Sikhism, written by Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham.

In my last post I explained the history of the Sikh dharam and the global migration of Sikhs, now I want to address religious authority and representation in a global world, and who does speak for the Sikhs in the UK.

Although there was initially a bishopric type system amongst the Sikhs in the 16th century, it was completely dismantled by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh in the early years of the 18th century when ultimate authority, spiritual and doctrinal, was invested permanently in the Guru Granth Sahib.  This action was taken by Guru Gobind Singh due to the increasingly corrupting influence of local faith leaders who were more interested in wealth and power than in spirituality and dissemination of knowledge. By replacing the line of human Gurus with the Eternal Living Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh enabled a direct and personal relationship between Sikhs and the Guru, and ultimately with Waheguru (the Almighty), without the need for a ‘middle man’ or religious hierarchy.

In the spirit of equality, the Sikh faith does not espouse a formal priestly hierarchy, which means that any Sikh should be able to read the scriptures and interpret them for themselves. It also means that a Sikh should also be minded that they are a representative of the entire faith and not just themselves. Sikhs also have a reputation of being free-spirited and non-conformist. The Gurus actively encouraged Sikhs to challenge those in authority and institutions when they weren’t working for the good of the people and to question established beliefs and practices. In the present day that can often manifest itself in new organizations being set up by Sikhs who feel overlooked within the existing structures.

Whilst one acknowledges that there is a hierarchical structure of leadership in India, which comprises of the Jathedars of the five Takhts[i], and the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee – regulation of Gurdwaras), in the global Sikh community there is no universally recognised hierarchical structure, although there is an expectation that we confer and accept the leadership in India. This vacuum in leadership has effectively meant that in the global context, if you are Sikh and you feel that you can do a better job at representing the views of the community and interpreting Sikh scripture than some other person, group or organisation, there is nothing to prevent someone from developing a base within the community and claiming that they are a leading Sikh representative in their own right.  Today we have numerous groups who claim this role, Network of Sikh Organisations, established in 1997, British Sikh Consultative Forum, established in 2002,  Sikh Federation UK, established in 2003, Sikh Council UK, established in 2010, City Sikhs, established in 2010, and The Sikh Network, established in 2014.

The establishment of such groups demonstrates the strong sense of independence of the community, which is one its strengths, but it also poses its own difficulties in the modern world because nobody truly represents and speaks, with one voice, objectively and authoritatively for all Sikhs in the UK.  If the conclusion is that nobody and everybody speaks for Sikhs this becomes particularly problematic when we consider the growth of social media globally, and how social media has come into itself within the Sikh community. The growth of social media and the use of Twitter, Facebook and other websites means that more often than not, minority or fringe voices within the community who tend to be more politically motivated than the majority dominate the debate in the web. The corollary of this is that issues that get discussed extensively on social media, such as the creation of Khalistan, may not reflect issues that the majority Sikh community in the UK see as particularly important or relevant.

In the next post I will address how through globalization and advances in communication technology, this representation and leadership has changed, particularly as a result of social media.

[i] Akal Takht, Amritsar; Takht Keshghar Sahib, Anandpur Sahib; Takht Patna Sahib; Takht Damdama Sahib, Batinda; Takht Sachkhand, Hazur Sahib.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

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