Teachings about Caste Equality from the Guru Granth Sahib
Discussing the role of caste amongst Sikhs is a sensitive issue; many Sikhs will outrightly reject the suggestion that caste has survived amongst Sikhs. It is true that on a philosophical level, based on the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, Sikhism is an egalitarian faith that does not discriminate according to traditional practices of the caste system. In practice however, caste differences/discrimination does, indeed, take place amongst Sikhs – this is most prominent in the case of Sikh marriages, which are endogamous in terms of one’s zat (caste) but exogamous with regard to the got (family name).
In his following composition, Guru Nanak openly spoke of the worthlessness of caste:
Worthless is caste and worthless an exalted name, For all mankind there is but a single refuge. (AG 83).
Guru Nanak’s message was also repeated by his successors, in the following hymn Guru Amar Das, the fourth guru, says:
When you die you do not carry your caste with you. It is your deeds [and not your caste] which will determine your fate. (AG 363).
In your opinion, is the use of the term ‘Dalit Sikh’ or ‘Mazhabi Sikhs’ in line with Sikhi (the teachings of the Sikh Gurus)? Does your exploration shed light on the apparent discrepancies between teaching and actual practice amongst many Sikhs?
The following quotation is from Manusmriti (or The Laws of Manu): “A Chandala (the ‘lowest’ caste), a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating women and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmins when they eat.” Guru Nanak was born into fifteenth century Punjab where the lower castes were ill treated, and as the quote from Manusmriti above indicates, their treatment was sanctioned through religious texts. Thus, the advent of Sikhism must have been particularly welcoming for the lower castes, especially the Dalits in the light of the Guru’s teachings about the equality of all castes (zat in its Punjabi usage). Why do you think, despite the efforts of the Ravidassia Central Committee, there is some degree of resistance in shedding the Sikh identity in favour of adopting the distinct Ravidassia identity?
Watch the short clip below from the documentary ‘Segregation and Survival: The South Asian Caste System’ by Saira Macleod:
Consider to what extent the distinct identity amongst Ravidassias is based on caste discrimination from higher caste Hindus and non-Dalit Sikhs. Do you think the actions of the Ravidassias in proposing the replacement of the Guru Granth Sahib with Amritbani Shri Guru Ravidass is justified – you could have a class discussion on this topic.
Further discrepancies between Sikh teachings and actual practice are highlighted in the case study below from the records of CasteWatch UK:
“…I first heard the word choora at school at the age of 15 years. I was confused and angry because it had to mean something bad for it be said to me time after time. This abuse started when I became friendly with a Sikh boy in my class. He had a cousin who is also in our class. The cousin was about the same height, build and weight as me. His hair was long and tied up in a knot and covered with a small piece of dark cloth. This boy always told the other kids in the class, including the white kids, that he was a true Sikh and a true Indian warrior prince. One day at recess, he saw my friend and I were having a joke and we were laughing so much, he came across and told my friend to stay away from me and also told him that I was a choora and that his dad had told him that chooras were a dirty tribe in India and were also called ‘untouchable’. This happened every time my friend and I talked. He said it in front of some of my other mates. This made me feel ashamed because they actually started to ask me if it was true when I was not sure what it meant. They all laughed at me…” (Case: CW0012)
What do the above testimonial indicate about the role played by caste amongst South Asians in the diaspora? Is it true to say that attitudes about caste hierarchy have migrated along with South Asians to the diaspora?
Click on Identity Politics amongst Punjabi Dalits to assess the impact of social movements that have been instrumental in raising consciousness amongst the Punjabi Dalits.