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The Granthi … Priest, Rabbi or Minister?

by nishaan@magazine

There are several drawbacks to emigrating, as well as a major gain. One has to recast one’s assumptions and cultural framework in terms of the new, host culture and in a new language. Such transformation is not easy.

Since culture and language are inseparably intertwined, many of the religious and cultural concepts cannot be adequately or accurately expressed in a different language. Yet, effective communication requires that we try.

The constant immersion in a new system and a new society forces us to think afresh our fondest assumptions and beliefs – and that is the gain though it is not without pain.


I smile to myself when I hear a Sikh refer to a gurdwara as our “temple” or “church” in a non-Sikh gathering. He is trying a short-cut to communication but loses precision in the process. A gurdwara is definitely not a church or a temple, just as a synagogue is not one, and nor is it a mosque. Nw with so many gurdwaras around the world, it is time for the term ‘gurdwara’ to take its rightful place in the lexicon describing places of worship.

What also bothers me is our confusion in how to refer to the person who conducts the religious service in a gurdwara. Is he akin to a priest, a minister, or a rabbi, or is he uniquely different? What should we expect of him? What moral or ecclesiastical authority does he have? What title shall we give him when we speak in English so that his position and functions are not misunderstood?

When Guru Nanak settled in Kartarpur after his many far-flung travels, he became an active farmer. He tilled the lands, earned an honest living, fed his family and preached his message. In many ways, his life remains the ideal.

Given the bent and history of the Hindu Brahmin who made a business of religion and sold religious indulgences while making himself the sole proprietor of this less than honest trade, the pragmatic Sikh mind remains skeptical of a professional clergy. At one level, we feel that no man should sell religious knowledge; such truth should be freely given and to profit from it would be sinful. Yet we recognize that the person who dedicates his life to learning and teaching about Sikhism needs to be paid.

Religious learning is his (her) trade just as you and I making our living from other vocations. And like us, he too has a family to support and bills to meet; the world does not put food on his table.

This dichotomy in our thinking does not sit well. The result is that the man who performs the religious service is usually inadequately and grudgingly compensated, and little respected. At another level however, we also see that this man brings us the teachings of our Gurus and sometimes both the heart and purse strings open most generously. Some itinerant preachers rake in millions.

Our preacher has historically been called a Bhai which translates into “Brother”, or Granthi which means “curator of the Guru Granth”.

“Granthi” appears to be a more accurate term and it seems to me that it need not be translated into English. A rabbi is not called someone else in English, nor should he be. An imam remains that in English as well. Pundit, the Sanskrit word for a scholar, is now part of the English language.

If non-Sikhs are not now familiar with the word “Granthi”, they will, in time and with usage. Some concepts lose their majesty, power and accuracy upon translation.

The granthi is very different from a priest. Sikhism has never recommended, required or taught that a granthi be celibate. In fact, most Sikhs would be suspicious and leery of one who was. In the Sikh view, the family life is the right way; renunciation just would not do for either the clergy or the laity.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the office of the priest carries certain ecclesiastical authority which is not granted to the clergy by the Sikhs. The office of the granthi is accepted by the Sikhs as a necessity. The respect for the man who occupies it does not come with the title; it has to be earned and depends upon the individual.

The expositions of the granthi are at best recommendations. In many ways the style of the traditional granthi is that of a Talmudic scholar, his sermons and writings are commentaries on Sikh scriptures and he often attempts to apply the lessons of history to contemporary life-situations. He never speaks ex cathedra, no matter how important the subject, how strongly he feels about it, or how venerated he is.

Anyone may openly disagree with him or engage him in debate, though not while a service is in progress. Also in most gurdwaras, his tenure of office depends upon the pleasure of the congregation and the management committee that is responsible for the physical property and the financial health of the gurdwara.

There are several caveats to these general statements. Many of the historical gurdwaras in India are managed by a legislated nation-wide organization called the Shiromini Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.). In these gurdwaras, granthis are appointed, transferred, certified, etc. by a central system of civil service. For these granthis, job tenure is not much different from that of a priest or any other bureaucrat, though moral authority still does not come with the territory.

Following the times of the Gurus, four major historical gurdwaras acquired a pre-eminent place in the Sikh psyche and have come to be referred to as “Takhts” or Thrones (Seats or Centers) of authority. In the last century, during the fifties, another was added to make a total of five. The Center at the Akal Takht in Amritsar, which was founded by the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind, remains the first among equals among these five.

The granthis of the five centers of authority are appointed by the S.G.P.C. and referred to as “Jathedars” – literally, leaders of “jathas” or bands or the community. These five leaders of the community, after collective deliberation, can issue joint directives or edicts to the community, including notification of a rare honor or castigation of an individual for a particularly heinous act.

However, even they lack any machinery or system for enforcement of their edicts except the social acceptability and respect for their pronouncements within the Sikh community.

If today not many gurdwaras have women granthis, it is because of custom and not canon. A minuscule minority like the Sikhs could not remain free from the influence of the predominant cultures of India –  Hinduism and to some extent Islam. In those two religions, women are not allowed as functionaries in the temple or mosque. Consequently, few Sikh women became granthis although many more perform the duties on an informal basis at Sikh services.

I was amazed to learn that the management of the Golden Temple would not allow any woman to sing within the inner sanctum, since none had by tradition. In reality, there is no function within the Sikh place of worship or in a Sikh service that is not allowed to a woman. It is well to remember that when Guru Amar Das first organized the widespread Sikh community into 22 dioceses, several of those named to head them were women.

Some of the cultural baggage that we bring with us, and the dead-weight we carry with us, was brought home to me about three years ago. A newly established gurdwara in New York was looking for a new granthi. Many were interviewed. I recommended a young man in his thirties who was fluent in Punjabi and English. As part of the job interview he gave a sermon. He was good but was not seriously considered because many of the older congregation were uneasy – he was too young to be a spiritual leader.

It reminded me that John Kennedy, when told he was too young to be President, made an election promise that he vowed never to break – if elected, he promised never to be that young again. The gurdwara found an excellent but older granthi instead.

Guru Gobind Singh is said to have sent several promising Sikh scholars to various centers of indigenous Indian Vedic philosophy – only because they were then the primary centres of formal religious learning. These Sikh scholars, on their return, then helped initiate Sikh seminaries and themselves formed the nucleus for the first granthis, because they were now well versed not only in the teachings of the Gurus but also in the scholarly tradition of the other major religions then known in the land.

From such noble beginnings we seem to have slipped, although there are still some very erudite granthis. By and large, most granthis today are limited in their education to knowledge of Sikh, Hindu and Moslem scriptures. Often, their familiarity with history is rudimentary and their sermons are overlaid with a strong dose of mythology and folk-tales. Entertaining but confusing, and certainly not satisfying.

The granthis are at a particular disadvantage when they follow the migration of Sikhs away from India. They are usually not schooled in any language but Punjabi, nor are they equipped to hold any other job. They have never been exposed to the teachings of Judaism or Christianity – the religions of the West. It becomes impossible for them to represent Sikhism outside to non-Sikhs or participate in inter-religious dialogues. Their role becomes increasingly limited.

Their congregation acquires sophisticated life-styles and is exposed to the temptations, successes and the excesses of the new culture. The granthi does not venture outside the circle of the gurdwara very much and cannot experience the needs and the frustrations of his congregation. Increasingly, he becomes only marginally relevant to the lives of the Sikhs, particularly the young. Only the older generation weaned on similar teaching in India listens raptly to the granthi. Even they do not find him or his message particularly important to their lives but his presence is comforting because it captures the emotional aura of back home.

Thus the listeners, but particularly the young, tend increasingly to lead schizoid lives.

Lest someone think that I am too strongly condemnatory – and that is certainly not the intent – I merely ask how many Sikhs, young or old, confide in the granthi about personal or familial problems that confront them?

Isn’t that a major function of the priest, rabbi, minister or granthi – to be a sensitive and learned ear and counsel. The fault lies not in the granthi but in how he is perceived and trained, and in the system which has not responded to the changing needs and times.

Parenthetically, I should add that some new Sikh academies in India are training a new, refreshing breed of granthis, but they are few and far between. Not long ago, when I had to confront my mortality via a two-week hospital stay, I noticed that our granthi does not visit the sick or comfort the old and the poor. He was never taught that this is part of the job. The priest and the rabbi do.

A minister must minister and so should a granthi.

The granthi needs to get out from the four walls of the gurdwara. He needs to become a friend and a guide. As the person in the gurdwara, the granthi has to be the pivot which holds the community together.

I would like to see a granthi who can communicate not only in the language of our scriptures but also in the local argot; who can represent us and our religion to others. A man who is at home in the library but also on the golf course and the tennis court. We do not need a recluse for a granthi but one who understands life and is paid accordingly; who is not so busy valuing book-learning that he has neither time nor skill to live a full life. Like a Talmudic scholar, he can make the teachings of Sikhism come alive to the needs of today and tomorrow.

The granthi can create an environment and a feeling where one can laugh at the absurdities of the young, hold a seminar where rebellious questioning is not deemed blasphemy, where frank discussions about sex and drugs would not be shocking, yet where the Guru’s grace pervades.

The Gurus were very forthright in their comments about the evils of the day, whether they were sati, the caste system, female infanticide or the use of intoxicants, etc. Our granthi needs to be equally forthcoming on what the twenty-first century promises to us –  from domestic conflict to the environmental crisis; from the dowry system to AIDS; from human rights to disarmament and reproductive rights.

This does not mean that the granthi needs to be an expert and speak authoritatively on all these matters. No one man can. It does mean that the granthi has to provide the atmosphere and the direction where these matters can be freely discussed – experts can always be found. Conclusions will rarely emerge, and any that we derive today may be modified tomorrow with changes in our understanding and our circumstances. The discussion in a spiritual ambience will not lead us astray but will enrich us.

Who but the granthi should provide the lead?

Who else but the granthi should steer the religious service in the gurdwara? No one else is as well trained. He should coordinate the program; arrange the appropriate mix of kirtan and kathaa. He should invite the appropriate singers of the liturgy, performers or lecturers. His opinion should be respectfully sought and heard, if a question arises on interpretation of a religious teaching, doctrine, tradition or dogma.

The management committee or other elected representatives have a different job; to set policy, to design guidelines within which the functions are held, to manage the property, raise funds, to hire or fire a granthi or other employees, and so on. The granthi remains answerable to the management as I remain responsible to my Dean for my performance at my University, but how I teach my specialty lies outside the Dean’s immediate expertise. If a serious disagreement surfaces, a parting of the ways may be necessary, but the Dean is not trained to teach my subjects, nor does he micromanage my teaching.

Why should we think that the management committee of a gurdwara, by virtue of having been elected, all of a sudden have acquired the specialized religious knowledge of a granthi? It seems hardly reasonable or operationally efficient for the secretary of the management committee to micromanage the daily religious service.

The duties of a modern granthi should occupy him longer than the two to four hours a week that he seems to work in most gurdwaras. And he needs to be well rewarded, consistent with his qualifications as a scholar, and the society in which he operates.

He needs and deserves our support and respect for he can help us find the way to an inner beauty and truth. He puts us in touch with our spiritual heritage. He is not a gofer, a janitor or a caretaker serving at the whim of a management committee of people who have little knowledge of religion and less serious interest in it.

On the other hand, we should not recast our granthi into the role of a brahmin who is called to officiate at a religious ceremony because without him the ceremony may not be valid. Such a view has no place in Sikh teaching.

The granthi, unlike the brahmin, does not hold the keys of heaven in his hot little hands but he can help us discover our own way to unlock the door.

Dr IJ Singh 

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