(Prof. Baldev Singh 'Panthi')
"The Word is the Yoga, the Word is the spiritual wisdom; the Word is the Vedas for the Brahmin.
The Word is the heroic bravery for the Kshatriya; the Word is the service to others for the Shudra.
The Word of all the Words is but One Word for one who knows this secret.
Nanak is the slave of the Immaculate Divine." ||3||
-Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Ang 1353
The issue of caste in Sikhism is quite complex, always inviting a diversity of impassioned opinions. One thing we can be certain about is that Guru Gobind Singh had abolished all caste inequality with the inception of Khalsa on 13 April, 1699 and with the institution of Khanday-Ki-Pahul or the Baptism of Sword. Faithful Sikhs do not practice caste discrimination but this is not to say that all Sikhs necessarily act in accordance to their faith. Consequently, the caste does exist in Sikhism , though in a diluted form than found in the rest of Indian society.
But at the outset one thing can be confidently stated which is that there is no clearly defined caste hierarchy in Sikh society, leave alone a vertically ordered one. Any layperson or author giving a clearly ordered Sikh caste hierarchy is himself mistaken or is purposefully misleading others.
There has existed a vibrant debate within the Sikh Panth on the issue of the caste since late 19th century. Generally, this debate has been shaped by two broad lines of argument.
Some say that Guru Gobind Singh did not abolish caste system within Sikhs but merely implied equality of all castes. As per this view each caste was to play their respective functional role but no caste was to be treated as superior or inferior to the other, and that all occupations from that of a sweeper to that of a priest were to be held in equal esteem as each caste had traditional specialization in producing goods and services that the society needed. These people cite the example from Gurus' own family as an example for this. They say that since none of the Gurus or their family members married outside the Khatri, or the trading caste, it is a proof positive that the Gurus meant to abolish inequality inherent in caste system but not necessarily the caste itself.
There are some reformist Sikhs who, with very good intentions, hold a more radical view and believe that caste should not exist in any form and all marks of caste identity should be abolished which should lead to fusion of all castes into one temporal and spiritual body called the Khalsa. This view was very actively propagated by Singh Sabha, a reformist Sikh movement which was born in the later half of 19th century in response to Christian attempts to proselytize Sikhs. Later the Singh Sabha movement was also engaged in a prolonged ideological battle with the Arya Samaj of Swami Dayanand over various issues, but both reformist bodies were in an unanimous agreement in their view that caste should not survive in Indian society in any form whatsoever.
This issue whether Sikhism abolished all forms of caste or merely the inequality inherent in its corrupted form has been debated extensively in the past and is unlikely to have a clear resolution in near future . But despite this all observant Sikhs agree on the point that all castes are fundamentally equal and this view is also embedded firmly in the Sikh belief and practice through the establishing of four separate but equally weighted entrances to Hari Mandir Sahib (Golden Temple), the holiest Sikh shrine. According to many Sikhs, each of these four entrances represents one of the four traditional varnas of Hindu society.
If some Sikh does not believe in the equality of all castes and treats one caste or occupation superior or inferior to the other , it is his personal failing not that of the Sikhism.
While an elaborate body of literature exists about caste discrimination among the Hindus, it is worth mentioning that the Muslims and the Christians of Indian subcontinent also have caste based distinctions. In West Punjab , Pakistani society also has a number of castes. The highest castes in Pakistan are Pathan, Ranghar and Syeds. Awans, Dogars, Jats , and Arains are ranked in middle , with a number of artisan and menial castes ranked gradually lower. The Chooras, or the caste of sweepers, are mostly Christian in Pakistan, and they face the same discrimination as do Mazhbi Sikhs and Dalit Hindus in India. Their houses are generally located on the outskirts of the villages. In both India and Pakistan upper caste converts to Christianity generally preserve their caste names and identity. In certain cases they have separate pews in churches and different burial grounds then those of lower caste Christians. This is hardly different from separate White and Black Churches in many parts of USA , although no Church openly admits to discrimination.
Historically, within Christianity the theological basis of the hereditary enslavement of Blacks can be traced to the two Papal Bulls of 1452 and 1455 which sanctioned Christian Europeans to enslave "Saracens, pagans and any non-believers". Saracens were the Muslims of the time but these bulls were extended by interpretation to include all the Black people or people of colour who were , through theological insinuations, labelled as descendants of the Biblical Cain. Cain, according to the Genesis, had committed fratricide on his noble brother Abel, and was thus along with his descendants "cursed forever". Thus Black Africans became a fair game for abduction and enslavement by the White Europeans who were supposedly the representatives of noble Abel. These decrees were Catholic in their origin but they also influenced Protestant churches many of which also actively supported enslavement of the darker races. The ramifications of these Papal Bulls were felt until 1960s when many of the Americans Churches were still not fully desegregated and actively practiced discrimination against Christians of darker colour. In India too low caste converts to Christianity failed to integrate themselves with their European or even upper caste convert counterparts. In fact, the term Indian Christian became a byword for a low caste convert and ended up as just another stratified caste category with a different name. It did not liberate the convert, as had been his real intention, from a pejorative and socially degrading label.
The roots of Islamic caste system in India can be traced to the 14th century decree called "Fatwa-i-Jahandari" of Ziauddin Barani who was the official cleric of the Tughlaqs. The decree introduced a formal division of Ashraf and Ajlaf in the Muslim society of India . Ashrafs were the light-skinned Muslims who had come from Central Asia while the term Ajlaf was used for native converts who were generally darker skinned, and proselytized by means both fair and foul mostly from the lower Hindu castes. Largely , this term was reserved for converts to Islam from occupational castes such as Darzi (tailors), Hajjam or Nai (barber), Julaha (Weaver) , etc although the upper caste Hindu converts were also subsumed in the same category. These lower caste Muslims also later invented the tales of foreign origin to escape discrimination from the upper caste Muslims.
Upper caste Hindu converts such as Rajputs and Brahmins maintained their caste identities even after adopting Islam. Rajput converts were generally identified as Khanzada, Ghauri Pathan, Kayamkhani, Ranghar, etc. Brahmin converts to Islam generally styled themselves as Shaikhs. These upper caste converts faced less discrimination but they also could not aspire for the status of a Syed, who was the Ashraf of the highest class, supposedly being a direct descendant of Prophet of Islam. The 1901 census of British India actually records a third even lower class of Muslims called Azrals who belonged to the scavenger castes such as Halalkhor, Lalbegi, Abdal , Bediya , etc. These lowest caste Muslims were reportedly even denied entry to the mosques.
So the view popularized in colonial era , and a view espoused by the Marxist historians who seized the historical narrative since then, that conversions to Islam, and later to Christianity, happened because of the desire of the low caste Indian natives to escape discrimination is inter alia not fully informed by actual sociological evidence on the ground.
All Sikh men use Singh and Sikh women use Kaur with their names. Singh means lion while Kaur is a short form of Kanwar or princess. This convention is an extension of the Hindu Rajput or Kshatriya tradition into Sikhism in addition to some other aspects of Rajput martial culture like "Jhatka" , "Shastar Tilak" , etc which are preserved in the traditions of Nihang and Hazoori Sikhs to this day.
In the earlier Hindu society , the titles of Singh and Kaur or Kanwar were only meant to be used by Rajputs or Kshatriyas. During the earlier stages of Sikh militarization, the Sixth Guru and his successors tried their best to inspire Hindu Rajputs into performing their traditional function of defending the weak against oppression. In fact the earliest Sikh soldiers were trained by Rajput military instructors only in the era of Guru Hargobind Rai, the Sixth Guru, as an act of gratitude for the latter having helped 52 Rajput princelings to secure their release from the prison of Gawalior where they were incarcerated with the Guru.
Despite having tried their best in persuading the Rajputs to perform their Dharma , to their dismay, the Sixth Guru and his successors found that most of the Rajputs of their time were only interested in petty fights and intrigues and had all but abdicated their responsibilities as Kshatriyas . While they toadied up to the Mughal rulers to protect their petty fiefs, they not only did not defend the rank and file of the Hindu society but were often themselves engaged in the oppression of lower caste Hindus. While many well meaning Rajput Rajas, like the 52 princelings who befriended the sixth Guru in Gawalior prison, gave support to Sikh Gurus, most disappointed them.
Having failed to get the desired response from Rajput rulers after prolonged diplomacy and persuasion, the tenth Guru finally decided to institute a new Order in which each initiated Sikh could play the role of all the four castes . As a Shudra, a Sikh is to believe in the dignity of labour. As a Vaishya, Sikh is meant to engage in commerce with honesty and work for the prosperity of the society. As Kshatriya, the Sikh is meant to carry weapons and not shy away from a just fight. And finally, as a Brahman the same Sikh - who has simultaneously all varnas in his being- is to recite Sri Guru Granth Sahib and also play the priestly role whenever needed.
Since every Sikh was spiritually a Kshatriya too, they were to use the titles of Singh and Kanwar or Kaur on the lines of Rajputs , and establish the Khalsa Raj or the Rule of the Pure. The Khalsa Sikh was take over the traditional role of the Kshatriya in the Hindu society. Fighting for both one's life and faith was the greatest need in era of Gurus Therefore, the Kshatriya part of Sikh's identity got more highlighted in Sikh society but it does not mean that the Shudra, Vaishya and Brahmin aspects of his personality were to be devalued. Dignity of labour is the cornerstone of Sikh faith and maryada. Each Sikh is to take pride in doing service or seva .
Some prominent castes among Sikhs are Arora, Khatri, Ramgarhia, Jat, Saini, Kamboh, Mahton, Chhimba, Mohyal , Chamar, etc. Each caste has its sphere of influence and specialization. The order of castes given below should not be mistaken for a hierarchy as they have been randomly mentioned one before the other.
Aroras and Khatris
In the cities, Khatri and Arora dominate the sphere of business activities. Khatri and Aroras are essentially identical caste and are primarily a caste of traders, shopkeepers and accountants. Sometimes people belonging to these castes are called "Bhapa Sikhs". Khatris and Aroras are equivalent of Baniyas found elsewhere in India. Please note there are also Agarwal Baniyas in Punjab too but they are almost 100% Hindu.
All of the Sikh Gurus were born in Khatri caste. Guru Nanak's father Mahta Kalu was also a shopkeeper and he tried his best to make his son follow his caste profession of shopkeeping. But Guru Nanak rejected his tutoring and became a man of spirit.
Please note that although the word Khatri appears to be a vernacular form of Sanskrit Kshatriya, the caste is exclusively composed of cloth merchants, grocers, perfume sellers (or "Gandhis") and traders . Dashrath Sharma, an eminent historian, has described this caste as probably a "pratiloma" or ritually inferior mixed caste created through union of Kshatriya fathers and brahmin mothers. Some say that they are the descendants of Shudra fathers and Kshatriya mothers. It is impossible to ascertain which one or both of the views are actually true. S.N. Sadasivan cites a version of the popular fable regarding the origin of Khatris which is closer to the latter view, that is , Khatris are a caste born of the union of Kshatriya mothers and Shudra fathers. In the ancient India such mixed castes such as Khatris were regarded as "'varnasankara" and were denied the respectability extended to the well-born and ritually pure Kshatriyas and Brahmins. Manu Smriti gives the name of a caste of this composition as "Kshaatri" instead of "Kshatriya". The word Khatri accordingly may have originated from "Kshaatri" instead of "Kshatriya". Rajputs , the bonafide Hindu Kshatriya caste, disown all connection with them and treat them same as one of the Baniya castes. Aggarwal Baniyas, a reputable vaishya caste of Hindus, also deny any link with them.
English ethnographer Sir Herbert Hope Risley also denied the possibility of the link of Khatris with Kshatriyas. He wrote in 'The tribes and castes of Bengal' : "It seems to me that the internal organization of the caste furnishes almost conclusive proof that they are descended from neither Brahmans nor Kshatriyas...The section-names of the Khatris belong to quite a different type, and rather resemble those in vogue among the Oswals and Agarwals. Were they descended from the same stock as the Rajputs, they must have had the same set of section-names, and it is difficult to see why they should have abandoned these for less distinguished patronymics. In addition to their own sections, they have also the standard Brahmanical gotras ; but these have no influence upon marriage, and have clearly been borrowed, honoris ctium, from the Saraswat Brahmans who serve them as priests. If, then, it is at all necessary to connect the Khatris with the ancient fourfold system of castes, the only group to which we can affiliate them is the Vaisyas" William Hunter gave similar opinion in The Imperial Gazetter.
Some speculate that the word Khatri is derived from the word "Khata" . Before the partition of Punjab, Khatris were largely concetrated in West Punjab where, according to English writer Barstow, they were employed in a rather humble way by Pathans as their accountants. It is in this reference some derive the origin of word "Khatri" from "Khata" or an accounting scroll. It could be that Arora caste which came under patronage of Pathans and Khokhars in NWFP and upper western Punjab as their accountants came to be called "Khatri" because of maintaining "Khatas" or accounting books of their patrons. Pathans, according to Barstow, could treat Khatris like personal property , much like the medieval lords in Europe who treated their Jews like chattels. He wrote , "In Afghanistan, among a rough alien people, the Khatris are, as a rule, confined to the position of humble dealers, shopkeepers and moneylenders; but in that capacity the Pathans seem to look on them as a kind of valuable animal and a Pathan will steal another man's Khatri not only for the sake of ransom, as is sometimes done in Peshawar and the Hazara frontier, but also as he might steal a milch-cow, or Jews might, I dare say, be carried off in the middle ages with a veiw to render them profitable."
In many other Indian regions like Mysore and Gujrat the term Khatri is synonymous with the caste of weavers or Julahas and sometimes also with the caste of tailors or Darjis. English writer Dr. Buchanan wrote that ' in Behar one-half of the Khatris are goldsmiths.' Another writer of English era added that 'the 'Khatris are traders in Punjab, and silk-weavers, when we find them in Bombay.' Lewis Rice offered a similar view about the Khatri caste in various regions of India.
Khatris are said to have a peculiar custom termed as "Hansa Tamasha" whereby when an old man dies , all members of the decesased family put on masks, sing and play, and sometimes indulge in obscene songs.
As stated before, sphere of Khatri and Arora influence in Punjab is the urban centres where they dominate the shopkeeping profession. Being connected with commerce and trading, their literacy rate is among the highest in Punjab and they were also the earliest beneficiaries of colonial education system being located in urban areas. Khatris are a forward caste in Punjab but as we have seen that neither their social standing nor their occupations are uniform across the country. It is no surprise they are enlisted among Other Backward Castes (OBC) in many other states like Gujrat, Tamil Nadu, etc.
Another minor Sikh commercial caste is that of Bhatias. Bhatias claim origin from Bhati Rajputs who had taken to shopkeeping. This caste now has no semblance of former link with Rajputs and the Hindu Bhatias were in the past considered lower than Khatris and even Aroras, who as already pointed out, are purely trading castes equivalent to Baniyas found elsewhere in the country. According to English observers of 19th century Punjabi social order, "they stand distinctly below the Khatri and perhaps below Arora, and are for most part engaged in petty shop-keeping, though the Bhatias of Dera Ismail Khan are described as belonging to a "widely spread and enterprising mercantile community."
Two of their subcastes are Gandhi and Soni which are also occupational descriptives of perfume-sellers and goldsmiths ("Suniyaras" in Punjabi) respectively. Intermarriage between Bhatias and Aroras is not uncommon .
For some reason British army recruiters considered all of these mercantile castes unfit for military service. Khatri Sikhs were sometimes recruited when they happened to have taken up farming and sometimes because of their knowledge of Pashto, which came in handy to British to deal with the unruly Pathans. The mercantile element of this community, which almost entirely constitutes its core identity, was denied access to army. While Bhatias mostly did not even find a mention in recruitment manuals of Royal Indian Army, the Aroras were contemptuously dismissed with comments such as the following by the likes of Barstow : "The Arora, whether Sikh or Hindu, is generally unsuited for military service, and men of this class should never be enlisted except under special circumstances."
Following Sikh castes are essentially agricultural and landowning castes : Jat, Kamboh, Mahton and Saini . In the estimation of British only these Sikh castes were tempramentally and physically suited for active military service and warfare like the hardy Scotish Highlanders back home who also made excellent soldiers. The glorious Sikh Regiment, the most decorated regiment of the Indian Army, consisted of these castes primarily, although Labanas and Kalals were also sometimes recruited. Out of these Jats were the largest in numbers which only reflected their numerical majority in Sikh society. In addition, Mazhbi Sikhs were also recruited in good numbers but were generally denied roles in cavalry because of caste discrimination practiced and promoted by British. Initially, they were recruited only for menial jobs.
Jats are the biggest group in terms of numbers among Sikh castes. Sikh Jats enjoy a status much superior to their Hindu Jat bretheren who are officially part of the backward castes in most states. In Pakistan Ranghars , Pathans and other upper caste Muslims use the word Jat in somewhat derogotary way and do not regard Muslim Jat as their equal.
Jat Sikhs are also now very well educated and they have taken up various professions besides agriculture, which is their signature trade. Jat Sikhs are known for their lively spirit and easy-going nature. Many theories are attributed to the origin of Jats but the most common view is that they are probably one of the late immigrants to the subcontinent who gradually got integrated into the lower echelons of Hindu society. The status of Jat outside Punjab is somewhat low and some scholars say that they were actually considered Shudra caste until very recently. Eminent Sikh writer Khushwant Singh also holds this view but in Sikhism they have made rapid upward strides on the social scale and are now considered one of the premier Sikh castes. Their large numbers ensure that they now control the politics of Punjab and most Sikh institutions. They are found all over Punjab and are the majority population in almost every district. As noted before Jats are numerically the most significant Sikh castes. About 66% of all Sikhs are said to belong to this caste.
Since all Sikh Gurus were from Khatri caste, some Khatris tend to claim superiority in Sikhdom on this basis but this perception of superiority is not acknowledged by Jat and other rural landowning castes like Mahton, Kamboh, etc who address Khatri as "Kirar" or "Bhapa", or sometimes even as a "Baniya", in rural areas where Khatri typically does not enjoy much influence beyond the portal of his grocery, cloth or trinket shop . In their opinion Sikh Gurus were above caste and cannot be thus claimed by any particular group. If that were the case , they point out, even Mazhbi Sikh castes could claim superiority over others because many of the Bhagats like Ravidas, Namdev, Kabir, etc were from service and artisan castes. These Bhagats hailing from lower castes are also honored by Sikhs and their writings are also included in the Sikh scripture like those of Sikh Gurus. The reasons for such petty arguments about each others relative social status are unfortunate and are to be seen in the backdrop of colonial era, when the trading castes like Khatri and Baniya were preceived to be usurers and exploiters of the misery of indebted farmers from these landowning and agricultural castes . British policies also played some role in fostering already existing schisms among the Indian castes.
Among the other rural landowning castes among Sikhs, prominent ones are Mahton, Saini and Kamboh. Among these three Mahton and Sainis are of Rajput origin, while Kamboh claim origin from Kambojas mentioned in Mahabharata. These castes were also recruited in the Royal Indian Army in the colonial period in large numbers and were considered good soldiers . All of these castes have pockets of their influence and dominance in certain districts where they exclusively own a number of villages , but on the whole they are numerically overshadowed by Jats all over Punjab. Sainis have their stronghold in Hoshiarpur , Gurdaspur and Ropar districts where they hold and dominate significant number of villages. Mahtons hold a number of villages in Kapurthala, Jalandhar and also Hoshiarpur.
Similarly, Kamboh lead in a number of villages near Sunam, Philaur , Kapurthala and Nakodar. Famous Indian freedom fighter and martyr Sardar Udham Singh was a Kamboh.
Ramgarhia is also a prominent Sikh caste. According to McLeod, the present day Ramgarhias are a caste formed by merging of Nais (barbers), Raj (blacksmiths) and Tarkhans (carpenters). They are primarily expert carpenters and blacksmiths. Their exceptional skill in these trades have earned them a good reputation as machinists. In rural areas their primary patrons were landowning castes like Jat, Mahton, Saini, etc who needed their services as makers of agricultural implements and also weapons. A large number of them are now great entrepreneurs and are quite prosperous. They are also known for their industry and exceptional work-ethic.
Besides the above there are other minor Sikh castes which are primarily artisans. Chhimbas are tailors (darzi) and printers (chhipa) who had assumed the title of Tonk Kshatriyas in the colonial era. Suniyaras or goldsmiths call themselves Mair Rajputs. Kashyap Rajput is a reference used for the caste of water carriers or Jheers these days. Jheer is essentially a service caste and not an atrisan caste like the others in the foregoing list .
Similarly, Kalals - who could be called both an artisan and a commercial caste- are a caste of distillers or liquor sellers and are also called Ahluwalia, an adoptive name derived from Sikh leader Jassa Singh Kalal's village which was called Ahlo. Most of the castes like Kalal, Tarkhan, Jheer, Suniyara, etc who changed their titles have done so for upward social mobility or to escape discrimination which unfortunately continues to exist despite dissemination of Sikh ideas of equality. For some inexplicable reason a low esteem continues to be attached to artisan trades requiring a high degree of skill and industry. This sentiment is altogether against the spirit of Sikhism but unfortunately does exist.
Brahman , the highest caste among Hindus, does not have the same rank in Punjab, especially among Sikhs. In rural areas most of them are ordinary farmers and generally not as prosperous as Jats, Mahtons and Sainis etc. They also used to work as cooks in villages when they did not have sufficient land for ploughing. In urban area they also do shopkeeping. They gave up their traditional profession of priest craft a long time ago during Mughal era when Hinduism was not allowed to be practiced openly. A clear sign of this state of affairs to have existed was the complete absence of historical Hindu temples in Punjab which were demolished during Mughal rule. Brahmins of Punjab were thus deprived of their traditional means of living and were driven to penury.
Mohyals are one of the Brahmin groups of Punjab who in earlier era also used to be Sikhs in good numbers. Many of Gurus' close comrades like Chaupa Singh, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Sati Das came from this caste. In the earlier era of Sikh history, it was not uncommon to come across the term Brahman Sikh.
Some of the earlier Rehitnamas or regulations of Sikhs were authored by Brahman Sikhs some of whom had used them to insinuate higher status for themselves but the reformist Sikhs of twentieth century rejected these Rehitnamas as inauthentic and developed a new revised one which is now endorsed and published by SGPC.
Another caste within Sikhs worth mentioning is that of Sansis. It is not a Sikh caste with significant numbers but they have produced one of the greatest Sikh personalities, i.e Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is a caste of vagabonds and gypsies. They claim origin from Bhati Rajputs and were enlisted as a criminal tribe by the British. A small section of this caste got settled in agriculture near Raja Sansi in Amritsar district and among them was born the great Maharaja. Sansis have been denotified since Indian independence and have been rehabilitated, at least in the government records.
Labana is another Sikh caste. They were considered to be akin to Banjaras or gypsies but a considerable number of them are also settled in agriculture. Labanas engaged in agriculture are also called Labana Jats.
Among the Dalit caste groups prominent ones Chamars and Chooras. Both communities are called Mazhabi Sikhs. The word Chamar is derived from Charmakar or leather tanner. They used to be expert shoe-makers. Some poor men and women of this caste also work as laborers in the farms of traditional landowning castes like Jat, Mahton, Saini, etc.
Discrimination against them as stated before unfortunately still exists in Sikh society. For this reason , Mazhbi Sikh brethren are extended reservation as scheduled caste . Mazbi Sikhs have in the past made sterling contribution to Sikhism both as mystics and soldiers. Bhagat Ravidas belonged to Chamar caste but is accorded highest respect in Sikhism with his poetry being included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. In recent times Sardar Buta Singh has been a well-known Mazhbi Sikh politician.
1. The opinion of Khatri being a Kshaatri, a mixed caste of low status described in Manusmriti, instead of Kshatriya proper was stated by historian Dasratha Sharma in the publication cited in the bibliography. The same opinion is stated by L.M. Khanna and S.N. Sadasivan two ther authors cited above. Earlier, this opinion was articulated by Pt. J.N. Bhattachary , Christina Oesterheld and Claus Peter Zoller. It was also cited in an influential book "Kshatriyas And Would-Be Kshatriyas", a work by Kumar Cheda Singh Varma, a Barrister-at-Law at Allahabad High Court.