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There is no clearly defined caste hierarchy in Sikh society, let alone a vertically ordered one.

The issue of caste in Sikhism is quite complex, with diverse and passionate opinions. One thing we know for sure is that Guru Gobind Singh abolished caste inequality with the creation of the Khalsa on April 13, 1699, and the institution of the Amrit Sanchar or baptism ceremony. Devout Sikhs do not practice caste discrimination, but this does not mean that all Sikhs strictly follow their faith. As a result, caste exists in Sikhism, though in a less pronounced form than in the rest of Indian society.

However, it is important to note that there is no clearly defined caste hierarchy in Sikh society, let alone a vertically ordered one. Any person or author claiming to present a clearly ordered Sikh caste hierarchy is either mistaken or intentionally misleading others.

Debate on Caste in Sikh Society

There has been an ongoing discussion within the Sikh community regarding the issue of caste system since the late 19th century. Generally, this discussion has been shaped by two main viewpoints. One perspective argues that Guru Gobind Singh did not abolish the caste system among Sikhs but rather implied equality among all castes. According to this view, each caste was supposed to play its respective role, but no caste was to be treated as superior or inferior to others. All occupations, from sweepers to priests, were to be held in equal esteem, as each caste had traditionally specialized in providing goods and services needed by society. Supporters of this view point to the example of the Gurus' own family, arguing that since none of the Gurus or their family members married outside the Khatri (trading) caste, it is proof that the Gurus intended to abolish the inequality inherent in the caste system but not necessarily the caste system itself.

Caste Should Not Exist At All

Some Sikhs believe that the caste system should not exist in any form. They think all caste identities should be removed. This would unite all castes into one group, both in the physical world and spiritually. This group is called the Khalsa. This view was strongly promoted by the Singh Sabha movement in the late 1800s. The Singh Sabha started in response to Christian attempts to convert Sikhs to Christianity. Later, the Singh Sabha movement had an ideological battle with the Arya Samaj group led by Swami Dayanand over various issues. However, both reform groups agreed that the caste system should not continue in Indian society in any form.

Whether Sikhism abolished all forms of caste or just the inequality has been debated a lot in the past. This debate is unlikely to be resolved soon. But all observant Sikhs agree that all castes are fundamentally equal. This view is firmly established in Sikh beliefs and practices. The holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, has four separate but equally important entrances. Many Sikhs believe each entrance represents one of the four main Hindu castes.

If a Sikh does not believe in the equality of all castes and treats one caste or occupation as superior or inferior, it is that individual's personal failing, not Sikhism's teaching.

Discrimination Endemic in All Religions

There is a lot of information about caste discrimination among Hindus. However, it is worth mentioning that Muslims and Christians in the Indian subcontinent also have caste-based divisions. In West Punjab, Pakistani society has many different castes. The highest ranking castes are Pathan, Ranghar, and Syeds. Awans, Dogars, Jats, and Arains are considered middle-ranking castes. There are also several artisan and menial castes that are ranked lower.

The Chooras, or the caste of sweepers, are mostly Christian in Pakistan. They face the same discrimination as Mazhbi Sikhs and Dalit Hindus in India. Their houses are usually located on the outskirts of villages. In both India and Pakistan, upper-caste converts to Christianity generally keep their caste names and identities. In some cases, they have separate seating areas in churches and different burial grounds than lower-caste Christians.

This situation is similar to the separation of White and Black churches in many parts of the USA, although no church openly admits to discrimination. The caste system exists among different religious communities in the Indian subcontinent, leading to discrimination and segregation within those communities.

Significance of Singh and Kaur Titles in Sikhism

All Sikh men use "Singh" and Sikh women use "Kaur" with their names. Singh means lion, while Kaur is a shortened form of Kanwar, meaning princess. This practice extends from the Hindu Rajput or Kshatriya tradition into Sikhism, along with other aspects of Rajput martial culture like "Jhatka" and "Shastar Tilak," which are still preserved by Nihang and Hazoori Sikhs.

In earlier Hindu society, the titles Singh and Kaur (or Kanwar) were used exclusively by Rajputs or Kshatriyas. During the early stages of Sikh militarization, the Sixth Guru and his successors aimed to inspire Hindu Rajputs to defend the weak against oppression. In fact, the earliest Sikh soldiers were trained by Rajput military instructors during the time of Guru Hargobind Rai, the Sixth Guru. This was in gratitude for the Guru's assistance in securing the release of 52 Rajput princes from the prison of Gwalior.

Despite their efforts to persuade the Rajputs to fulfil their Dharma, the Sixth Guru and his successors were disappointed to find that most Rajputs of their time were more interested in petty conflicts and intrigues. They had largely abandoned their responsibilities as Kshatriyas, choosing instead to curry favour with Mughal rulers to protect their small territories. Not only did they fail to defend the general Hindu populace, but they also often oppressed lower-caste Hindus. Although some well-meaning Rajput rulers, like the 52 princes who supported the Sixth Guru during his imprisonment in Gwalior, stood by the Sikh Gurus, most Rajputs let them down.

After prolonged diplomacy and persuasion failed to yield the desired response from Rajput rulers, the Tenth Guru decided to establish a new Order. In this Order, each initiated Sikh could embody the roles of all four castes. As a Shudra, a Sikh is to honor the dignity of labor. As a Vaishya, a Sikh should engage in honest commerce and work for the prosperity of society. As a Kshatriya, a Sikh is to bear arms and not shy away from a just fight. Finally, as a Brahmin, the same Sikh—embodying all varnas—is to recite the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and perform priestly duties when needed.

Since every Sikh was also spiritually a Kshatriya, they adopted the titles Singh and Kaur, similar to the Rajputs, to establish the Khalsa Raj, or Rule of the Pure. The Khalsa Sikhs took on the traditional role of the Kshatriya in Hindu society. During the era of the Gurus, fighting for both life and faith was crucial, which emphasized the Kshatriya aspect of a Sikh's identity. However, this did not mean that the Shudra, Vaishya, and Brahmin aspects were less important. The dignity of labour is a cornerstone of Sikh faith and practice. Every Sikh is encouraged to take pride in doing service, or seva. Some well-known castes among Sikhs include Arora, Khatri, Ramgarhia, Jat, Saini, Kamboh, Mahton, Chhimba, Mohyal, and Chamar. Each caste has its own areas of influence and expertise. The order in which these castes are listed is random and does not indicate any hierarchy.

Commercial Castes: Arora, Khatri and Bhatia Sikhs

Aroras and Khatris

In the cities, Khatris and Aroras dominate business activities. These two groups are essentially the same caste, primarily composed of traders, shopkeepers, and accountants. People from these castes are sometimes referred to as "Bhapa Sikhs." Khatris and Aroras are similar to the Baniyas found in other parts of India. It is also worth noting that Agarwal Baniyas, who are almost entirely Hindu, live in Punjab as well. All of the Sikh Gurus were born into the Khatri caste. Guru Nanak's father, Mehta Kalu, was a shopkeeper who tried to guide his son towards the family profession. However, Guru Nanak chose a spiritual path instead.

Although the word "Khatri" seems to be a vernacular form of the Sanskrit "Kshatriya," the caste consists mainly of cloth merchants, grocers, perfume sellers (or "Gandhis"), and traders. Historian Dashrath Sharma described this caste as possibly a "pratiloma" or a ritually inferior mixed caste formed by the union of Kshatriya fathers and Brahmin mothers. Others suggest they are descendants of Shudra fathers and Kshatriya mothers. It is difficult to determine which, if either, of these theories is true.

Before the partition of Punjab, the Khatris were mainly found in West Punjab. According to English writer Barstow, they worked in modest roles as accountants for the Pathans. Some believe the term "Khatri" originates from "Khata," meaning an accounting scroll. The Arora caste, under the patronage of the Pathans and Khokhars in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and upper western Punjab, might have been called "Khatri" because they kept "Khatas" or accounting books for their patrons. 

Barstow noted that Pathans treated Khatris like personal property, similar to how medieval lords in Europe treated Jews. 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 view to render them profitable."

In other parts of India, like Mysore and Gujarat, the term Khatri is often associated with the weaver caste, or Julahas, and sometimes with the tailor caste, or Darjis. English writer Dr. Buchanan mentioned that in Behar, half of the Khatris are goldsmiths. Another writer from the English era added that Khatris are traders in Punjab and silk-weavers in Bombay. Lewis Rice shared a similar view about the Khatri caste in various regions of India.

Khatris are known for a unique custom called "Hansa Tamasha," where, upon the death of an old man, all family members wear masks, sing, play, and sometimes engage in obscene songs.

As previously mentioned, the Khatris and Aroras dominate the shopkeeping profession in urban centers of Punjab. Their involvement in commerce and trading has led to a high literacy rate, and they were early beneficiaries of the colonial education system due to their urban presence. Khatris are considered a forward caste in Punjab, but their social standing and occupations vary across the country. Consequently, they are listed among Other Backward Castes (OBC) in many other states, such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

Bhatias

Another small Sikh commercial caste is the Bhatias, who trace their origins to Bhati Rajputs who became shopkeepers. Today, the Bhatias no longer have any significant connection to their Rajput roots. Historically, Hindu Bhatias were considered lower in status than Khatris and even Aroras, who are primarily trading castes similar to Baniyas found in other parts of the country. According to English observers of 19th century Punjabi society, Bhatias were seen as being distinctly below Khatris and perhaps below Aroras, primarily engaging in petty shopkeeping. However, the Bhatias of Dera Ismail Khan were noted as being part of a "widely spread and enterprising mercantile community."

Two subcastes within the Bhatias are the Gandhi and Soni, which refer to their traditional occupations as perfume-sellers and goldsmiths (known as "Suniyaras" in Punjabi), respectively. It is not uncommon for Bhatias and Aroras to intermarry.

British army recruiters deemed these mercantile castes unfit for military service. Khatri Sikhs were occasionally recruited if they were engaged in farming or had knowledge of Pashto, which was useful for dealing with the Pathans. However, the core mercantile identity of these communities barred them from army service. While Bhatias were rarely mentioned in Royal Indian Army recruitment manuals, Aroras were often dismissed with comments like those from 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.

Zamindar and Agriculturist Castes

The following Sikh castes are primarily agricultural and landowning: Jat, Kamboh, Mahton, and Saini. The British believed that these castes, like the hardy Scottish Highlanders, were well-suited for active military service and warfare. The prestigious Sikh Regiment, the most decorated regiment of the Indian Army, mainly consisted of these castes, although Labanas and Kalals were also occasionally recruited. Jats formed the largest group within the regiment, reflecting their numerical majority in Sikh society. Additionally, many Mazhbi Sikhs were recruited, but they often faced caste-based discrimination and were generally not assigned to cavalry roles, initially being limited to menial jobs.

Jats are the largest Sikh caste in terms of numbers. Sikh Jats enjoy a higher status compared to their Hindu Jat counterparts, who are officially part of the backward castes in most Indian states. In Pakistan, upper-caste Muslims like Ranghars and Pathans use the term "Jat" in a somewhat derogatory manner and do not regard Muslim Jats as their equals.

Jat Sikhs are now well-educated and have entered various professions beyond agriculture, their traditional trade. Known for their lively spirit and easy-going nature, Jat Sikhs have various theories about their origins. The most common view is that they are likely late immigrants to the subcontinent who gradually integrated into the lower echelons of Hindu society. Outside Punjab, Jats were historically seen as a lower caste, with some scholars suggesting they were considered Shudras until recently. Eminent Sikh writer Khushwant Singh also holds this view. However, within Sikhism, Jats have made significant social advancements and are now regarded as one of the premier Sikh castes. Their large numbers allow them to dominate Punjab's politics and most Sikh institutions. They are prevalent throughout Punjab and are the majority in almost every district. About 66% of all Sikhs are said to belong to this caste.

Some individuals of the Khatri caste lay claim to superiority within Sikhdom due to the fact that all Sikh Gurus hailed from this caste. However, this claim is not accepted by Jats and other rural landowning castes like Mahton, Kamboh, etc. In rural areas, Khatri individuals are often referred to as "Kirar," "Bhapa," or sometimes even as "Baniya," reflecting their limited influence beyond their shops selling groceries, clothes, or trinkets

These rural communities assert that the Sikh Gurus transcended caste distinctions and cannot be appropriated by any specific group. They argue that if caste lineage were the basis for superiority, then Mazhbi Sikh castes could also make such claims since many Bhagats like Ravidas, Namdev, and Kabir hailed from service and artisan backgrounds. These Bhagats, despite their lower castes, are honored by Sikhs, and their writings are included in Sikh scripture alongside those of the Gurus.

The disputes over relative social status among these groups are viewed in the context of the colonial era when trading castes like Khatri and Baniya were perceived as usurers and exploiters of indebted farmers from landowning and agricultural castes. British policies exacerbated existing divisions among Indian castes.

Among the rural landowning castes in the Sikh community, prominent ones include Mahton, Saini, and Kamboh. Mahton and Sainis trace their origins to Rajputs, while Kamboh claim descent from the Kambojas mentioned in the Mahabharata. These castes were extensively recruited into the Royal Indian Army during the colonial period and were esteemed as skilled soldiers.

While these castes exert influence in certain districts where they own numerous villages exclusively, they are outnumbered by Jats across Punjab. Sainis are prominent in Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur, and Ropar districts, where they dominate many villages. Mahtons hold sway over villages in Kapurthala, Jalandhar, and Hoshiarpur.

Similarly, Kambohs lead in villages near Sunam, Philaur, Kapurthala, and Nakodar. Notably, Indian freedom fighter and martyr Sardar Udham Singh belonged to the Kamboh caste.

Artisan Castes

Ramgarhia is a well-known Sikh community, formed by the amalgamation of Nais (barbers), Raj (blacksmiths), and Tarkhans (carpenters), as per McLeod. They are highly skilled carpenters and blacksmiths, earning a reputation for their expertise in these crafts, particularly as machinists. Historically, they served landowning castes like Jats, Mahtons, Sainis, etc., crafting agricultural tools and weapons. Many Ramgarhias have transitioned into successful entrepreneurship, known for their hard work and industriousness.

Additionally, there are other minor Sikh castes, mainly artisans. Chhimbas are tailors and printers, often adopting the title of Tonk Kshatriyas during colonial times. Suniyaras, or goldsmiths, identify as Mair Rajputs. The term Kashyap Rajput is now associated with water carriers or Jheers, primarily a service caste rather than artisans like the others.

Similarly, Kalals, also known as Ahluwalias, are distillers or liquor sellers, originating from the village of Sikh leader Jassa Singh Kalal, named Ahlo. Many castes, such as Kalals, Tarkhans, Jheers, Suniyaras, etc., changed their titles to climb the social ladder or evade discrimination, which unfortunately persists despite Sikh teachings of equality. Artisan trades requiring skill and industry still face undeserved low esteem, contrary to Sikh principles, yet this prejudice persists.

Brahman Sikhs

In Punjab, the Brahman caste, which holds high status among Hindus, doesn't have the same prominence, especially among Sikhs. In rural areas, many Brahmins work as farmers, often less prosperous than other communities like Jats, Mahtons, and Sainis. Some Brahmins also worked as cooks in villages or ran shops in urban areas when they didn't own much land for farming. They abandoned their traditional role as priests during the Mughal era when practising Hinduism openly was restricted, leading to the disappearance of historical Hindu temples in Punjab. This left Brahmins struggling financially.

Mohyals, a Brahmin group in Punjab, had significant numbers who were Sikhs in the past. Notable figures like Chaupa Singh, Bhai Mati Das, and Bhai Sati Das, who were close to the Gurus, came from this caste. In Sikh history, the term "Brahman Sikh" was not uncommon.

Some early Sikh regulations, known as Rehitnamas, were written by Brahman Sikhs who sometimes sought to elevate their status. However, 20th-century reformist Sikhs rejected these Rehitnamas as inauthentic. Instead, they developed a revised version, now endorsed and published by the SGPC.

Nomadic and Wandering Castes

Another caste among Sikhs is the Sansis. While not large in numbers, they have given birth to one of the most significant Sikh figures, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Originally perceived as wanderers and gypsies, they claim descent from the Bhati Rajputs and were classified as a criminal tribe by the British. A faction of this caste settled in agriculture near Raja Sansi in the Amritsar district, and it was here that Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born. Since Indian independence, the Sansis have been denotified and have undergone rehabilitation, at least according to government records.

The Labana caste is also noteworthy among Sikhs. Initially associated with Banjaras or gypsies, a considerable number of Labanas are now engaged in agriculture. Those Labanas involved in farming are sometimes referred to as Labana Jats.

Service Castes

Within the Dalit caste groups, two prominent ones are the Chamars and Chooras, both referred to as Mazhabi Sikhs. The term "Chamar" originates from "Charmakar" or leather tanner, known for their skill in shoemaking. Some individuals from this caste also engage in agricultural labour for traditional landowning castes like Jat, Mahton, Saini, etc.

Regrettably, discrimination against them persists within Sikh society, leading to Mazhbi Sikh brethren being classified as a scheduled caste and thus provided reservation benefits. Despite this, Mazbi Sikhs have historically made significant contributions to Sikhism as both mystics and soldiers. Bhagat Ravidas, belonging to the Chamar caste, is highly revered in Sikhism, with his poetry included in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. In contemporary times, figures like Sardar Buta Singh have gained prominence as Mazhbi Sikh politicians.

 

*Based on an article by Prof. Baldev Singh 'Panthi, published in sikhcastes.com on 10th April 2015

 

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