From Model to Ideal – The Sarbat Khalsa - Sikh Research Institute

From Model to Ideal – The Sarbat Khalsa

The one thing that unifies us

In the winter of 1999, a loose network of Sikhs known as The Sikh Network (aka Synet for Sikh Youth Network) was in the middle of planning for their annual winter retreat. Being the year of the 300th anniversary of the inauguration of the Khalsa Panth, it was decided that as a history workshop it would be appropriate to develop an interactive, informative and inspiring workshop on the Sarbat Khalsa.  As usual, last minute preparations – readings from various books and resources, discussions in person and on phone and drafting of “workshop facilitator guides” – were done and the very first Model Sarbat Khalsa workshop was conducted in a rented campsite in Houston, TX.


Before I share about the creation and purpose of this powerful workshop and how it can be utilized and further developed into a practical exercise for today’s Panthak need of the hour, I would like to take the liberty of a short detour down memory lane.


I recall fondly being part of that group called the Sikh Network (synet). We were young and restless; we were dreamers and idealistic; we were hot headed and had unlimited energy. We accomplished a lot. We inspired hundreds of young Sikhs – at least I hope we did – and made many older generation Sikhs proud of our work and community engagement.  When I look back I am dumbfounded as to how we were able to produce so much literature in the form of workshops and essays in such little time without Google or Facebook or Youtube and digital copies of classic Panjabi and English Sikh texts – most of our reference material were physical paper books – yes I know, Wow!  But we did.


We were well aware of the divisions in the Panth at that time. We even embarked on some overtly confrontational experiments at our retreats and events on purpose and to raise awareness. For example, at the various Amrit Sanchar’s conducted at the retreats we insisted to have a Kaur or two to always be part of the Panj Piare who would administer the Khande ki Pahul to new initiates. One time we had to seek volunteers to literally remain watch outside the camp site lest the “other” hot headed jathebandis come and disrupt the Amrit Sanchar as they had threatened to do so with kirpans and violence believing it is “against maryada to have females in the panj piare.” Thankfully it remained non-violent but not without loud shouting matches at a neutral gurduara after the retreat was over and a literal maryada thumping episode.


I, at least, have grown since then and do truly believe that the myriad jathebandis, organizations and schools of thought of the broader Sikh community can indeed cordially co-exist and do have at least one if not more unifying factors that binds all of us regardless of our divisions. That one unifying entity is the Ever Present and Visible, the Protector while Here and Hereafter, the Oceanliner of Nam, the Boat of Wisdom, the Divine Light of the Gurus, the Master of our Universe the One and Only, Revered and Holy: Guru Granth Sahib.


As far as I remember and ever since I became interested in Sikhi and Sikh affairs, we as a community have been bogged down in trivial matters of what to eat and what not to eat, what to wear and what not to wear, even what to read and what not to read.  But regardless of where we stand on the different issues at the end of the day we will not tolerate any purposeful and malignant disrespect to our Guru Granth Sahib.  Every single one of us will bow down to our Sovereign with genuine awe and respect.


I have been very affected by the recent events in the homeland related to the episodes of desecration of our Guru Granth Sahib and the crackdown on peaceful protestors but also more so with the deterioration of the very idea of the Guru Khalsa Panth that has plagued our community for decades.  The institution of Panj Piare and the idea of ‘atma granth vich, deh panth vich’ or ‘puja akal ki, parcha sabad ka and didar khalse ka’ have been foreign ideas to a majority of our elders and youth and are never emphasized or propagated in our mainstream gurduaras or organizations.  It is with this long term frustration brewing within me and these recent episodes in the homeland of Panjab weighing heavily on my heart that I got this urge to write out what may be one possible plan of action – short to mid-term – to facilitate and organize at least the Sikh youth in the Diaspora where I have a minor sphere of influence. The goal is to revive the respect and reverence of the idea of double sovereignty bestowed in the simultaneous Guruship of the Guru Khalsa Panth with the Guru Granth Sahib.


The idea is to take our two decades old Model Sarbat Khalsa workshop and convert it into a practical tool for enablement of a real live consensus building exercise on the myriad of topics and issues raised in the recent resolutions of the Sarbat Khalsa gathering of November 10, 2015.

First let us walk through what the Sarbat Khalsa Workshop was all about.


The Model Sarbat Khalsa Workshop

When we first devised this workshop we had a lot of fun with it.  As I mentioned earlier, we were well aware of the divisions within the Panth and the nuances of beliefs within the various jathebandis. We also knew and felt the pain related to the events of 1984 and the decade or so after.  We constantly kept the memory of 1984 alive and devised many informational workshops related to the Human Rights topics at our retreats and day events. When the opportunity of the 1999 winter retreat came by we must have somehow unconsciously thought it prudent to tackle the issue of diversity within the panth and the memorialization of the events of 1984 through a tightly orchestrated learning experience of a model or mock Sarbat Khalsa.  We understood that the workshop was a theoretical exercise and had multiple overarching goals for it.  Given below is verbatim the goals of the very first Model Sarbat Khalsa workshop:


The Sarbat Khalsa workshop is divided into two major sections.  The first section is on the background, history and issues related to the concept and institution of Sarbat Khalsa.  The second part of the workshop is devoted to an interactive role-playing session titled a “Model Sarbat Khalsa”.  This will be of a similar format to a Model United Nations that takes place in high schools and colleges around the world.  It allows the participants to actively take part in discussing and deciding issues related to topics of importance to the community.  They learn procedure, patience and perseverance.


Overall intentions:
What is a Sarbat Khalsa?  Gurmatta?
Background of past decisions – when, by whom, type
Model Exercise – Point not to come to consensus but to understand how difficult the PROCESS is
Can we have a Sarbat Khalsa now? 
What should be decided?  Ardaas issue, spiritual issues, political issues?  Participants asked to reread history worksheets, look at the issues involved and compare them to issues today. In past, Sarbat Khalsas/Gurmattas usually were political in nature.




Remember I mentioned that we had fun with this workshop? Let me explain how and why. In order to showcase the diversity within the Panth, we had to divide the participants into groups that represented different jathebandis. After all, in the history section of the workshop we explain to the attendees that traditionally the misls had many differences of opinion and indeed different “maryadas” but when they collected as the Sarbat Khalsa they pledged to forgo their differences and unite and come to consensus on matters of great importance to the Panth. We decided to take the example of five major categories of jathebandis but rather than explicitly mentioning these groups by name we chose to sprinkle the names of the groups and their associated descriptions with a little satire and imagery.  Those that have not yet partaken in this workshop will get a kick out of the way it has been presented.


The attendees in their groups were to become “one with their jatha descriptions.” The workshop was to be most affective if the role play was serious enough to truly represent the reality of differences of opinion and was to be fun enough to keep the attendees engaged.


The mock crisis of the Panth that required resolution and as explained in the workshop guide was that the Sikh Rahit Maryada needed to be changed and the Panthak Ardas needed to be modified to officially include mention of the 1984 martyrs.  The diverse mix of jathebandis were to form consensus around 1) should it be changed or not, 2) if so, then what text should be inserted within the currently Panth accepted Ardas.


We even had an actor “Akali jathedar” who was usually very strict, enforced procedure, kept jathebandi jathedars in check and really streamlined the proceedings giving it an official and serious tint. Other facilitators would encourage the groups to stay steadfast to their biases and make it difficult to negotiate on the content of the resolution, as it did not suit the general interest of their jathebandi.


The workshop was instantly a hit and the Sikh Network conducted it multiple times at future retreats. After the silent demise of the Sikh Network, the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI) picked up the mantle, further developed the workshop as a very effective educational resource and conducted many more sessions in many different locations around the world (US, Canada and UK).


I recall one time when one group really took their jathebandi so seriously that they dressed up as holy men from the fake Sadhu Samparda Samaj and the followers of the pseudo-Sant brought their Baba to the Sarbat Khalsa in a procession waving fans and “serving their mahapurakh.”  All this in order to role play particular jathebandis efforts to disrupt or hijack Sarbat Khalsa as has been common in the past.


At the end of the day feedback on the workshop has been consistent in that it has become a great learning tool on a major aspect of Sikh tradition that is not discussed in mainstream gurduaras around the world. Also it exposed, just as we intended, that procedure, patience and perseverance are essential to consensus building.


If it weren’t for the recent events of November 10th and the aftermath of the Sarbat Khalsa with the crackdown in Panjab, I for one would have been fine with leaving the workshop as it is and do my little part to ensure it gets conducted in various places off and on and as needed.


But November 10th Sarbat Khalsa changed everything. It is safe to say, none of us involved in developing and conducting this workshop over the years had any expectation that we would witness the fervor of a real live Sarbat Khalsa in our lifetime. Everything that we role played, all the advice shared on how the process could work, should work and has worked in the past, is now real and tangible. Although there is always the time for training and education, the need of the hour is to put the learning in practice and transform the model into a real and practical project. If the training has enabled us to think and dream of the Khalsa’s governance systems and sovereign attitudes now is the time to be the change agents and bring the past pristine glory and enhanced reputation of the Khalsa (khalsa ji ke bol bale) back to life.


From Model to Real and Ideal Sarbat Khalsa

Regardless of whether we feel that history has been unfolding for the better during the last couple of months or whether yet again like the Rajoana and Gurbaksh Singh episodes this is just a temporary phase that will pass, it behooves us to do something.


The process of the November 10th Sarbat Khalsa was left wanting.  We are all anxious and expecting changes over night so our patience has been tested.  And finally we are delusional if we think that the efforts that individuals or organizations have thus far put in during the last couple of months is a testament to our perseverance to revive the tradition.  There is a lot more work to do.


Who are the individuals to lead the work, which group or collective of organizations needs to be invited and involved, where or what is an appropriate venue to “lay down the common sheet to sit and engage in this discourse of Wisdom?”


What protocols and procedures need to be adopted so that everyone’s voices are equally heard?


What is the vision? The mission? The guiding principles? The areas of focus?


The questions are myriad but I believe the answers are found in a two-pronged approach: education and engagement.


For the sangats that still need it, we need to continue to conduct the Model Sarbat Khalsa workshops with the excellence and efficiency that people have been accustomed to and as a result expect with SikhRI. We probably also need to incorporate more contemporary and contextual content within our presentations in this regard and update the role playing components of the workshop. We continue on our path to inspire Guru-oriented lifestyle by providing the appropriate educational resources.


In order to engage we need individuals and organization to step up and create a framework for practical engagement and well – go and engage!


SikhRI’s mandate is “education.” We are more the enablers of engagement rather than the organization that would directly engage the jathebandis and communities that need to be part of the real and ideal Sarbat Khalsa of the future.  SikhRI, however, can indeed commit ourselves to educating in-person, online, individually, in groups, in gurduaras, outside gurduaras, in print, with videos, older generation, younger generation, college aged and professionals – all we have done and will continue to do.  But the education has a goal and a purpose.  Education should create an environment where individuals and communities embark on active and thoughtful engagement and social responsibility.  This is what is the need of the hour.


SikhRI is willing to do its part.  Are you?


May the Rider of the Blue Steed protect us everywhere!


Guru Rakha!



Inderpreet Singh serves on SikhRI’s Board of Directors. He is also a frequent presenter on behalf of SikhRI.

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