"Sikhism in Crisis - Proliferation of Cults and Sects in Punjab" is written by Dr. Jaspal Singh. Source of article:  South Asia Post

Primitive man in remote antiquity worshipped many forces of nature out of fear or to seek boons in times of adversity. In many cultures he personified these forces as distinct gods. In course of time this polytheism gave way to monotheism that is belief in one [omniscient] all-powerful God. Thus the main religions of the world naming Judaism, Christianity, and Islam came up with their own versions of faith in one God. Some of the other religions particularly Hinduism still believed in the existence of many gods though a few of its sects have become monotheistic in course of time.

Within the pale of Hinduism a new religion emerged in sixteenth century, which was formally codified towards the end of the 17th century in the form of the Khalsa. Since the believers of this faith were called Sikhs or ‘disciples’ so it assumed the name of Sikhism. This new religion is also monotheistic like Islam and it took about two centuries for it to fully acquire the present shape and norm. After the demise of the 10th Guru in early eighteenth century, Sikhism became a biblio-centric religion, now believing in its scriptures that were anointed as the Guru Granth Sahib.

In course of time many aberrations and immoral practices appeared in the ‘faith’ leading to large scale disturbances in the first quarter of the 20th century. Sikhs all over Punjab were up in arms against the custodians of the gurdwaras, who by now had completely degenerated into immoral lumpens. This movement is called Gurdwara Sudhar Lehar (religious reform movement), which eventually succeeded in its aims, and the gurdwaras were liberated from the clutches of immoral masands.

An apex democratic body called the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee) was devised to manage the gurdwaras. Consequently Sikhism became one of the most modern and democratic religions. It rapidly spread in many sections of people in Punjab. But as time passed Sikhism again became a victim of corruption and other noxious activities of its new custodians. Castism, which has been banned in Sikhism, continued in the same old form. Apart from this, the patrons of the faith displayed the same Brahmamical arrogance and used the religion to perpetuate their socio-political hegemony in the state

Most of the members of SGPC were drawn from one dominant caste of Punjab and in most of the gurdwaras in the villages. The management remained in the hands of dominant farming castes particularly the Jatts. The lower castes especially the scheduled castes and the untouchables were allowed in the gurdwaras as menials or sevadars while the financial and managerial work was monopolised by the dominant farming castes.

In many villages lower castes are not even allowed to sit in the main halls rather they are made to sit outside in the verandas. Secondly, many poor people have problems associated with their financial condition, health and family discords for which they seek magical treatments. Such people think that some godman with ‘divine powers’ is more potent to solve their problems than the inanimate scriptures [sculptures]. So in order to get rid of their distress and to seek boons these people visit the various ‘saints’ and munis.

The gurdwaras being dominated by the dominant castes, the poor and the disadvantaged section of the populace makes to the deras (hermitages or centers of deviational cults) where they find greater solace. Attitude of the managers and sevadars at these centers is more humane and compassionate than what is usually found in the gurdwaras and temples especially those managed by the SGPC.

Some of the main deras that have made a mark in Punjab are:  Dera Radha Soami, Beas; Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa; Dera Namdhari, Bhaini; Nirankari Mission, Divia Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, Dera Bhaniaranwala and the Sikh Deras like Damdami Taksal and Dera Begowal. Apart from these deras there are scores of gurdwaras patronised and managed by scores of sants of different denominations.

All these religious and semi-religious centres exercise a lot of influence among the people. All those disenchanted with the main stream conventional religions patronise such centres. Consequently a parallel religious movement has come into existence that has provided legitimacy to such deviational varieties of faith. As hundreds of thousand people visit these places, they bring a lot of wealth to them. With wealth and the faithful multitudes comes the power.

The importance of deras in a democratic set-up where the numbers count more than anything else is clear. Most of the deras have significant following in certain areas that can tilt the balance of power in an election. That is why politicians make a beeline for the dera heads. This practice is the main reason behind the arrogance and the pretentious ostentation of the godman. In fact, politicians are mainly responsible for degrading public morality by giving importance to pseudo godmen, astrologers and other voodoo personalities.

The present chief minister of Punjab with pretentious of being a ‘devout Sikh’, has visited almost all the dera chiefs in the state some of which believe in anti-Sikh rituals and has visited some voodoo oracular charlatans in order to seek electoral success or to ward off evil spirits which were supposed to have haunted him when he was in adversity due to his own misdeed. This is true of many other Indian politicians including the late Rajiv Gandhi who went all the way to Mathura to be touched by the foot on his head by a voodoo man hanging on  to a tree.

Now such antics of the top politicians give unnecessary credence to the “holy” pretenders and hypocrites. As has been mentioned earlier, the failure of the mainstream conventional religions has given an impetus to the non-conventional deviational sects and cults. With a huge scheduled caste population in Punjab (nearly 34%) such centres have attracted millions of followers with a lot of political clout in a democratic polity. The SGPC on the other hand has remained riddled with scams and misappropriation of funds. Its offices function like government offices and many officials are steeped in corruption.

It is natural for the socially and economically backward people to strive for alternative spiritual centres which are ostensibly egalitarian in nature. The hypocrisy and duplicity of the leaders have further disappointed the people. Whenever a dera does not support a particular political party, it is debunked by its leaders. But when the same dera declares its support to the same political party a few years later it is glorified in superlative terms.

Political clout of some of the deras is one thing; the other is that some of them have become dens of black marketers, smugglers, corrupt officials and politicians to disguise their immoral activities and to launder their black money by using a spiritual garb. Now the question is how can Sikhism win back its lost followers? For this Sikhism requires another reform movement. True spirit of Sikhism has to be brought back. The SGPC requires huge structural changes. Its caste and communal composition has to be changed. The gurdwaras have to be liberated from the new masands. Last but not least the down-trodden section of society that has discarded the gurdwaras and has adopted new cultish and sectarian practices should be brought back to the fold by sharing power with them.

The finances and management of the gurdwaras should not be the monopoly of one dominant caste of Punjab. Unless there is an equitable distribution of duties, responsibilities and authority, the disadvantages sections cannot be brought back to the mainstream. Apart from this, religious piety, compassion and belief in humanistic values have again to be inculcated. The crisis of Sikhism is really more serious than its present day custodians visualize.

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