Sangat and Society — the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere

I. Turning of the Wheel: Baba Nanak and Babur

In 1519, Babur invaded India — ‘ever since coming to Kabul we had been thinking of a Hindustan campaign, but for one reason or another it had not been possible,’ he writes in the Baburnama (translated by William Thackston, see pp 270–280). For some time his armies had been campaigning on the frontiers of the Hindu Kush, but these campaigns had yielded ‘nothing of consequence to the soldiers’. So, he turned to Hindustan. In the next few months, despite dogged resistance by the Afghans, Gujjars and Jats of the upper reaches of the Jhelum and Chenab, northern Punjab was subjugated, and plundered, by Babur’s armies. Babur himself spent most of his days inebriated, contemplating the legacy of Timur and setting poems to rhythmic metres. While his next great invasion of Punjab would come few years from then, in this interregnum, Punjab burned.

Among the towns and villages devastated was the settlement of Sayyidpur.

It was not long after Babur’s march of death through Punjab that Guru Nanak returned home from his western voyages — to Mecca, through Baghdad, Masshad, Khurasan, to Kabul, Peshawar, and, finally, to Sayyidpur. To the house of a humble carpenter, Bhai Lalo (Janam Sakhi Parampara by Kirpal Singh, pp 138–140).

Bhai Lalo had been Guru Nanak’s Sikh for decades, from before the Baba had set out on his voyages to the lands of East and West. These voyages are known as his Udasis — a word which has an intricate layer of meanings, like most Punjabi, especially old Punjabi words, born from the intense inter civilisational churnings of the land a Punjabi scholar calls ‘dhur desh’, the axial country, around which the wheel of history, in south Central Asia, turns. As it was, this time, with Babur’s invasion.

Among the layers of meaning in the word Udasi are significations of sadness, longing, even yearning. Also, separation, from normal, social life. Mendicants or hermits, or sanyasis, who live away from the household way of life — grihast — are said to live in a condition of Udasi. The theological and philosophical connotations of Baba Nanak’s Udasis deserve a comprehensive engagement in their own right. But, this Udasi of the West, was replaced by another form of udasi (sadness) at home — as a ravaged Punjab cried for help, for respite, for saving from the ‘messenger of death’, Babur, who after devastating Khurasan (in his struggle for the throne of Kabul) had now descended on India. (The description is from Guru Nanak’s composition known as the Baburvaani, which is also discussed at a later stage).

The arrival of Baba Nanak in Sayyidpur, to Bhai Lalo’s house, in wake of the devastation, must have been like the coming of a parent in a dark night to sooth the terrified weeping of a child. In the Shabad (word) that is known as the Baburvaani, Guru Nanak provides answers to what one can assume must have been the greatest question on the minds of those, who on that day, had gathered at Bhai Lalo’s house — why? Why did ‘god’ allow this? Why does He sit by and watch as those who have the might of kingship, the command of armies, wealth, and power, turn their ravaging eye on the defenceless and the weak? Or, the perennial question of why, if there is a god, and he is good, does evil happen in this world?

Guru Nanak heard their painful laments and evoked them first in the Shabad. And then he gave them an answer, not just in words, but in deed.


Just as Babur’s invasion of Punjab was one turning (chakkar) of the wheel of history, Baba Nanak’s Udasis had set in motion another. For more than twenty years Guru Nanak had travelled the world. From cities and settlements great and small in Punjab, to centres of pilgrimage, fairs, grand temples, small deras and shrines. He had conversed with kings, with villagers, with great scholars and collectors of rare books, with jogis, pirs and wandering fakirs. From the fields of Kurukshetra where the great battles which had defined Indian civilisation were fought, to the great centres of learning in Benares, from the forests of Assam and the Naga hills to the grand temple of Jagannatha and the wealthy coasts of the Coromandel and Malabar. To Sri Lanka, to Kathiawar, to Arabia, to Iran.

When he returned to a war torn Punjab, when he heard the laments of its people, he founded Kartarpur — the city of god. The answer to how ‘god’, or the divine, empowers the weak to confront the wicked.

In a later essay, I will discuss Guru Nanak’s dialogues with various people and sections of society in more detail. But here’s a summary of how the trail of Baba Nanak’s footsteps, had created the blueprint, a web, for the resurgence of a new kind of civilisational voice, with its branches everywhere that Guru Nanak’s Sikhs lived, but its roots, in Kartarpur. This was the beginning of a new form of society, a new social organisation, a bottom up rebuilding of Punjab’s society, which would one day have the power of confronting (and repelling) the top down violence of false kings.

A new form of society, the Sangat.

II. The pre-Nanak Public Culture of Punjab

The Sangat was the answer to the lament of the people of Punjab, but not just them, all weak and defenceless, those without protection, the victims of the ravages of history (nimaaney-neetaney).

The word Sangat means ‘gathering’ — both in its verb and noun sense. So, to bring into sangat, to have sangat with, to participate in the sangat of — signify actions. I will use the lower case to refer to the verb sense of sangat. In our discussion of the Sikh public sphere, however, I will use the upper case Sangat.

Before we begin engaging with this emerging form of social organisation, let us spend some time briefly discussing the intellectual climate in which the Sikh Sangat emerged.

Pre-colonial Indian public culture is understood as divided into two parallel worlds — the Perso-Arabic Islamic culture, and the Sanskritic Hindu. These two cultures often interacted with each other, but generally occupied their own social domains. While most studies of Indian history explore these two domains, individually or interactively, there is a third realm which is often hidden between the lines of history writing.

This third realm is home of the folk culture, of regional idioms and dialects, local languages, a rooted, organic, way of life. In pre-colonial Punjab, in addition to the two elite domains — the Perso-Arabic and Sanskritic, there were two alternate, folk domains which interacted more often with this folk cultural realm: the Pir-Sufi and the Nath-Jogi ecumenes, or, ways of understanding the world, its cosmology.

For the common people of Punjab, it was these two domains which were closer to their way of life, which ‘spoke’, as we would say today, to them on a deeper, more meaningful level. These two domains were, however, evolutionary stages in the development of the public sphere in Punjab. So, when the public sphere actually began to develop, it did so through active dialogue with these two folkic ecumenes.

The public sphere was an idea introduced by Jürgen Habermas, a German social scientist — as a realm of conversations, gatherings and sharing of ideas that lies between the state and the society. Here, in the public sphere, opinions are formed, power is critiqued and new ways of organising social life are imagined. Habermas used the idea to describe public life in 18th century Europe — where bars, pubs, coffee houses, and such places allowed people to do a simple thing like getting together to talk. More importantly, this was the realm where a public voice developed, one which was able to critique the role of kings, and act as a foundation on which the common people could build a strong front for their own interests.

The Sikh Sangat acted as a nascent public sphere in 16th century Punjab.

III. Baba Nanak’s Punjab: germination of a Sikh Society

Guru Nanak was born in a Punjab whose cultural and intellectual landscape was moulded by cross-cutting interactions between these four domains. The two elite traditions, parallel, or latitudinal, to each other, the two folk traditions, longitudinally interacting with the elite domains. There was, typical for Punjab’s plural society, some cross fertilisation of ideas between them. Even if it was filtered through power dynamics.

To explore Nanak’s Punjab, through his life we turn to the Janamsakhi tradition which is a collection of various remembered tellings of his life. The Janamsakhis say that Nanak was educated formally in both the Sanskritic Hindu ecumene, and, after mastering that, also in the Perso-Arabic tradition. This was the typical life experience of a well educated, upper class Hindu.

For Hindus living in these times, formal training in the Perso-Arabic knowledge system was something of a necessity. For Muslims, however, while many did take keen interest in Sanskritic knowledge (for example, see, in the Mughal age, Abu-l-Fazl and Dara Shukhoh), it was more of an interest based, even eccentric indulgence.

Guru Nanak’s engagement with both these elite domains wasn’t just formal, but keenly intellectual and philosophical. Also, very critical. The Janamsakhis say, even early on in his education he was critical of not just the way things were taught but the very nature of what was taught (or, epistemology and ontology, respectively).

More interestingly, for us, after what seems like a rejection of the two elite cultures of late 15th century Punjab, Nanak began an active engagement with the two folk domains. ‘The sangat of fakeers and mendicants was dear to him. Whenever he met a holy man, he invited him home to converse, and ensured he was well fed before he left.’

This behaviour was not typical at all for an upper class man. But it is indicative of the nature of the Sikh Sangat which was now, in the sangat (as a verb) of Nanak with participants from across elite ecumenical and folk cultural domains, beginning to germinate in the soil of Punjab.

At the most immediate level, Baba Nanak’s interactions across domains — with learned men of the two elite traditions, with fakirs, sufis, naths and jogis, from the rooted traditions, and, more importantly, with common folk like Bhai Lalo — was a shattering of social boundaries. In the longer term, this was the beginning of more intense, and open, public sphere dialogues across domains in modern Punjabi society.


The Sikh Sangat began to develop in this small scale, nascent form around Guru Nanak. His conversations with fakirs and mendicants, representing the folk domains, his observations on the two elite cultures, and further through his ‘friendship’ with Bhai Mardana, a bard of the mirassi community. It was through the agency of Bhai Mardana that Guru Nanak began to engage with the baani of bhagats — Kabir, Naamdev, Ravidas, Dhanna, Tarlochan.

Both, exalting Bhai Mardana as the voice of devotion of the Sangat, and opening the route into the Sikh Sangat for the baani of bhagats from various regions and communities of India, was a radical rescaling of the emerging blueprint for a more universal Punjabi society.

Throughout his Udasis, during the voyages, Guru Nanak had engaged in dialogue with people belonging to each of the four domains of knowledge, and others, and with interlocutors from different classes: village folk, artisans, peasants and, thieves and merchants and traders, and, hermits and mendicants, and, Brahmins, Mullahs and Kings.

One of the enduring themes in Baba Nanak’s dialogues with various people was the resolution of the question of the ‘right way’. This is in a sense was the spiritual dilemma, similar to our existential dilemma, of 15–16th century, and even, Middle East and greater India.

Whom do you follow, what is your path, and does it lead to the realisation of the divine? Is this the right path, the one we follow, or that, the one ‘they’ follow?

In answering each interlocutor Guru Nanak explained the nuances of his message of ‘ekankar’ — the oneness which is the root of all that exists and which is equally in all who exist. In doing so, he also questioned the right to exclusivity that each spiritual-ecumenical group claimed — the idea that one group, especially the elite in that group, had the monopoly of the royal road, so to say, to the divine. The mukaam (end goal) Baba Nanak stressed was in the ek (oneness) which was the root of the akaar (shape and structure) of existence.

IV. The Form of Sangat: settling of Kartarpur

In Kartarpur, the Sangat which was now formally constituted was a mingling of these various domains, and sections of society, based on the key principles of Baba Nanak’s message.

So, while, one pillar of Guru Nanak’s Sangat, is the rejection of the jealously guarded artificial boundaries created by different ecumenes. The other key principle is that the Sangat is ‘open’ to all. The walled gardens of various samradayas or silsilas were insufficient for an equal society.

On the question of allegiance, then, in answering those who asked — whom does Nanak follow? He answered — Nanak’s Sangat owes allegiance to the Saccha Durbar, that is, the court of the divine, with no intermediaries.

Now, we come to the question of how these principles answer the question, the lament, raised in the house of Bhai Lalo. The open Sangat, which owes allegiance only to the Saccha Durbar, was a model for a new kind of, subaltern, society. Rather than having to join one or the other elite culture, rather than leaving society to live in the walled off udasi lifestyle of the Nath-Jogi, or the implicit eltism of Sufi silsilas , the Sangat was space in which people from all walks of life, sections of society and classes, could come together.

Wealthy Hindu merchants of Lahore, minor Muslim Pathan or Jat landowners, villagers, artisans, even jogis and fakirs, all came together at Kartarpur. A new kind of Punjabi society was beginning to emerge. Importantly, in addition to the breaking of social and religious barriers, the Sangat also became a bottom up response to the top down violence of kings.

As a parallel to the actual physical and structural violence of the emerging Mughal State, the Sangat became a new subaltern support structure for those displaced or oppressed by it. In addition to the spiritual and psychological succour of the Sangat of the Guru, the Sangat at large could come to the aid of its members. And this is how, in deed, Nanak set in motion a new era in Punjabi society which would culminate — in a few generations, in Punjabis reclaiming first their inner strength, and then their sovereignty, and even, their civilisational space.

V. Sangat and Society: the Sikh response to History

In the the Baburvaani, Guru Nanak, embodying the voice of the broken people of Punjab, hearkens to God — asking him how He, the all powerful, could allow the Mughal, messenger of death to destroy Khurasan (Afghanistan) and Hindustan, about why a powerful man could at whim destroy the weaker around him, and the Master (God) do nothing to protect them. The Baburvaani seems almost like an admonition to God, until Nanak exclaims — ‘You yourself unite, You yourself separate; I gaze upon Your Glorious Greatness.’

What is the relevance of the Baburvaani to our discussion? The interpretation of the hymn guides us towards understanding, making sense of the darkest, most difficult periods in Indian history — the turning of the wheel of injustice from above, and the remaking of a just society from below. Just as Baba Nanak as the messenger of peace and Babur as the messenger of death, are the two parallel turnings of the wheel, so is the destruction of Sayyidpur and the settling of Kartarpur.

In theological terms, in the Sikh understanding of the universe, the moving force of history is the will (hukam) of the divine, the Timeless Akal (the Sikh idea of ‘god’); so whatever happens in history is an unfolding of divine will. In common language, we might understand this as a serial multitude of causes and effects, beyond human control.

An ‘invasion’ is almost like a natural force, whom do you blame for it — but the multitude of causes and effects which move the wheels of history? Leo Tolstoy reached a similar conclusion about Napoleon’s invasions across Europe. Napoleon was not some ‘great soul’ who remade history, as the German philosopher Georg W. Hegel saw him, he was the consequence of a churn from below, a figurehead who was created by the collective energies of the people who lived in the age. So, perhaps, was Babur.

So, this is a vision for understanding history that comes from engaging with the Baburvaani. Rather than looking at the characters of people, of individuals who were, in the end inconsequential, what does an era of invasions actually mean, in a deeper sense, for a civilisation. Why does death and destruction happen — because in the words of the Baburvaani, it is a ‘separation’, that makes possible a new ‘unity’.

Again, the moving force of history is not individuals as much forces from below, in society their amalgamation.

Now, in the face of the unfolding of brutal history, what can a ‘normal’ powerless human being do? The Akal, who is ‘nirbhau/nirvair’ — beyond human values and one who does not take sides — in a sense, ‘allows’ history to happen, because It will not intervene in human affairs. At least, that is what the Baburvaani initially implies. But if we look closer, It has intervened, and It has done so through Guru Nanak.

From here, further elements of Sikh society begin to reveal themselves. In the face of historical forces, to protect defend itself, a society must look within: for faith to understand our predicament, and we must look outside, at our neighbours who are all facing the same consequences of the movement of history. In the Sangat one is no longer alone to face the wrath of history.

VI. Second Turning of the Wheel

In 1524, Babur invaded India again. This time, Lahore, one of the greatest cities in the world, burned for two days. Again, Baba Nanak, in his dual role as the guru of the common people, and the Guru carrying the word of the divine evoked both the suffering and the solution (in Sikh theology these two elements are explained as the fatherly Baba Nanak and the formless, or, nirankaar Nanak) -

A fourth verse of the Baburvaani alludes to further destructions of Punjab’s social and spiritual fabric at the hands of Babur -

As descends the Lord’s word to me, so do I deliver it to you, O Lalo:

Leading a wedding-array of sin he has descended from Kabul and he demands by force the bride, O Lalo.

Decency and righteousness have vanished, and falsehood struts abroad, O Lalo.

Gone are the days of Qazis and Brahmans, Satan now conducts the nuptials, O Lalo.

The Muslim women recite the Qur’an and in distress remember their God, O Lalo.

Similar is the fate of Hindu women of castes high and low, O Lalo.

They sing paeans of blood, O Nanak, and by blood, not saffron, ointment is made, O Lalo.

In this city of corpses, Nanak yet proclaims God’s praises, and sings this truth:

The Lord who created men and put them to their tasks watches them from His seclusion.

He is True, True His verdict, and True is the justice He deals.

As her body’s vesture is torn to shreds, Hind shall remember my words.

In seventy-eight they come, in ninety seven shall they depart; another man of destiny shall arise.

Nanak pronounceth words of Truth, Truth he says, Truth is the call of the Age.

Among those displaced by Babur’s invasions was the family of an ordinary young man by the name of Lehna. Forced from their ancestral home in the tiny settlement of Mattey-di-Sarai, following its destruction by the invading army, Lehna’s family had found refuge in another small town called Hari-ke-Pattan. Livelihood was still difficult to come by in the war torn land, and the family moved again to the town of Khadur.

One day, in his village, Lehna had heard an old man narrate the sayings of a saint said to live in a small, newly settled village called Kartarpur. As it happened, this village was not a long way off from the route to the ancient temple of Jwalamukhi in the hills of Kangra — where from a deep crack in the ground, the fires of the Earth leapt upward into the sky, symbolic of the primordial cosmic force, the Shakti of the Mother Goddess Devi. So, when Lehna, a devout devotee of the Devi, came to a cross in the road — one path leading into the high hills of Jwalamukhi and the other to the tiny village of Kartarpur, he, much to the surprise of his companions, chose the latter (Janam Sakhi Parampara, pp 144–45).

To history, this Lehna is known as Guru Angad — rechristened so by Baba Nanak. Angad — a part of my body. When, in time, Guru Nanak would pass from the world, he would anoint Angad as his successor.

Guru Angad created the Gurmukhi script, commissioned the writing of manuscripts for disseminating Baba Nanak’s word, and had them read out in assemblies of Sangat in more and more villages, towns and cities of Punjab. The new spaces of congregation of the Sangat were known as Dharamsals — or sanctuaries, resting places. The Sangat, like spores from a great flowering in Kartarpur, spread and bloomed all over Punjab as Nanak’s word was read, sung and understood. Babur died — a long life of intoxication, perhaps a closeted sexuality, warfare and barbarity had taken its toll on a man who had once been a sensitive, young poet of Ferghana.

The Dharamsals became repositories of the native, organic, folk culture of Punjab — the language, the script, the wisdom of Nanak and the bhagats from across the spiritual-ecumenes which had shaped pre-Nanak Punjab.

The breaking had given way to a gathering. A story we will continue in subsequent explorations.


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