NIRANKARIS, a sect of the Sikhs born of a reform movement which arose in northwest Punjab in the middle of the nineteenth century aiming to restore the purity of Sikh belief and custom. Its founder, Baba Dayal (1783-1855), was a contemporary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. A man of humble origin, he cavilled at the shortcomings of the mighty and assailed the rites and observances which had perverted the Sikh way of life. His main target was the worship of images against which he preached vigorously.

He reemphasized the Sikh belief in Nirarikar the Formless One. From this the movement he started came to be known as the Nirarikari movement.What a crucial development this movement was in Sikh life will be borne out by this excerpt from the annual report of the Ludhiana Christian Mission for 1853: Sometime in the summer we heard of a movement… which from the representations we received seemed to indicate a state of mind favourable to the reception of Truth. It was deemed expedient to visit them, to ascertain the true nature of the movement and, if possible, to give it proper direction.

On investigation, however, it was found that the whole movement was the result of the efforts of an individual to establish a new panth (religious sect) of which he should be the instructor…. They professedly reject idolatry, and all reverence and respect for whatever is held sacred by Sikhs or Hindus, except Nanak and his Granth…. They are called Nirankar is from their belief in God as a spirit without bodily form.The next great fundamental principle of their religion is that salvation is to be obtained by meditation on God. They regard Nanak as their saviour, inasmuch as he taught them the way of salvation. Of their peculiar practices only two things are learned.

First, they assemble every morning for worship, which consists of bowing the head to the ground before the Granth, making offerings and in hearing the Granth read by one of their numbers, and explained also if their leader be present. Secondly, they do not burn their dead, because that would assimilate them to the Hindus; nor bury them, because that would make them too much like Christians and Musalmans, but throw them into the river.In its emphasis on the primacy of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sikh system and on self identity, the Nirarikari movement foreshadowed the principal concerns of the Singh Sabha reformation. Baba Dayal`s influence was confined to the northwestern districts of the Punjab, and he founded in 1851 at Rawalpindi the Nirarikari Darbar.

Baba Dayal was succeeded by his eldest son, Baba Darbara Singh, who led the Nirankaris from 1855 to WO. The most important work of Baba Darbara Singh was to issue a hukamndmd in which he explained, with profuse quotations from the Guru Granth Sahib, how the Sikhs were to order their ceremonial life at the time of birth, engagement, marriage, death and during the regular worship of God.He continued to propagate his father`s teachings, prohibiting idolatrous worship, the use of aicohoi and extravagant expenditure on weddings. He introduced in the Rawalpindi area the anand form of marriage rite. Anand, an austerely simple and inexpensive ceremony, became a cardinal point with leaders of subsequent Sikh reformation movements.

The number of Nirankaris steadily increased. From a reported sixty-one in 1853, their number grew to around five hundred in 1861; by the time of the death in 1909 of Barbara Singh`s brother and successor, Baba Sahib Ratta, they were a few thousand.Their organization was based upon a hereditary guru and his appointees called Inreddrs who were to watch over Nirankaris living in towns and villages outside Rawalpindi. What seems to have held the Nirankaris together as the Singh Sabhas gained influence towards the end of the century was their gurus, their distinctive ceremonies, and their annual gathering at the Darbar in Rawalpindi held to celebrate the death anniversary of Baba Dayal. They had no special initiation ceremony to separate them from non Nirarikaris.

They were Sikhs, some kesddhdn and some sahijdhdri, but, because of their rites and ceremonies, they were called by the 1881 Census Commissioner, “the Purists of the Sikh religion,” and that is probably how they saw themselves.The fourth Nirankari leader was Baba Gurdit Singh, the son of Sahib Ratta. During his time, January 1909 to April 1947, there were two developments of note. The first was the creation of a succession of Nirankari organizations the Nirankari Balak Jatha (1922), the Nirankari Bhujhangi Sevak Jatha (1923), and especially the Nirankari Youngmen`s Association (1929)which represented at least a modification of, if not a departure from, the traditional Nirankari pattern of organization.

With these new organizations came new visions of what the Nirankaris ought to be doing beyond the purely religious. The result was a degree of internal tension between what might be termed the traditional is ms and the modernists in the Nirankari fold.The second development was closely related to the first; the new organizations began to collect, record and publish, in a series of tracts, accounts of incidents in the lives of the first three teachers. These appear in the form of sdkhis which provide the basis of what has been a somewhat idealized and very gurucentred account of Nirankari history. Other tracts were devoted to discussing important issues of theology and conduct.

The partition of the Punjab in 1947 created a serious crisis for the Nirankaris, the majority of whom lived in and around Rawalpindi. The Darbar had to be shifted to India and only in 1958 was it permanently established in Chandigarh.Equally important, but far more difficult, was the location and gathering together of the Nirankaris who were now scattered all over north India. This work of rebuilding was undertaken by Sahib Hara Singh, the fifth Nirankari teacher. Today the Nirankaris are led by Baba Gurbakhsh Singh, the eldest son of Sahib Hara Singh.

They number about 1200 families scattered from Srinagar to Bombay to Calcutta.They are drawn largely from the Khatri, Arora, Bhatia and goldsmith communities and include significant proportions of both kesddhdns and sahijdhdns. They have a large new darbdr hall located in Chandigarh where they now gather for their annual functions.They continue to maintain their traditional patterns of organization with only slight modifications. The office of tnreddr seems to be passing out of existence, but prominent local Nirankaris perform the functions traditionally carried out by bireddrs.

Thus the difference would seem to be that local initiative is replacing appointment by the teacher. A Sikh visiting the Nirankari Darbar would find that in most respects it resembles any other gurudwara. The architecture is different, as all of the Darbar`s doors face in one direction: the setting of worship is the same. The Guru Granth Sahib occupies the central place and the teacher sits either behind it when reading from it or beneath it to one side when he is not.

The ardds differs in two respects; it invokes God as Nirarikar and not as BhagautI and it mentions the former Nirankari teachers after Guru Gobind Singh. In the sangat, and in all Nirankari affairs, sahijdhdns enjoy equal status with kesddhdns. The teacher`s role is that of interpreter of the Guru Granth Sahib which is authoritative for all Nirankaris; he is not an object of veneration and makes no claim to be one. The Nirankaris have always considered themselves to be Sikhs and not a separate sect. The label, “Nirankari Sikhs” is perhaps the most appropriate one for them as they are Sikhs and yet distinctive as Sikhs.

These Nirankaris should not, however, be mixed up with “Sant Nirankaris” for the latter have nothing in common with the Nirankari sect of the Sikhs, except for the name. They are not even a schism split from it, although the founder, Buta Singh, was once a member of the Nirankari Darbar at Rawalpindi. Upon being asked to sever his connection with the Darbar for some misdemeanour, he raised a group of his own. He was succeeded by Avtar Singh, who after partition migrated to Delhi and set up a centre there. Over the years he recruited a considerable following from among the Sikhs, Hindus and others. The present leader, Hardev Singh, is his grandson.

References :

1. Webster, John C.B., The Nirankari Sikhs. Delhi, 1979
2. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
3. McMullen, Clarence O., The Nature of Guruship. Delhi, 1976
4. Nirankari, Man Singh, Nirankari Gurmat Prarambhita. Chandigarh, 1951