On the origins of Sikh naming practices (1)

Having focused in the previous post on controversies concerning the name ‘Insan’, and on how this controversy links with Sikh naming practices, I turn in this post to provide some contextual details about how Sikh names (are understood to have) obtained their particular character.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh’s fascinating book The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-Memory of Sikh Identity (2005) is, we might say, rather orthodox on the question of caste, but much less so on matters of gender; yet to be clear, in the ‘theologically correct’ Sikh view, to be orthodox on caste is precisely to hold a radically egalitarian position on it. Not a work of history in any conventional sense, the book elaborates and meditates on the foundation of the khalsa in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh. One of the book’s key arguments is that the revolutionary gender implications of the founding events have been historically marginalised; and the work is inventive and exciting in recovering lost feminist potentials in both the main body of Sikh holy texts and the specificities of the panth’s formation. It is N-G. K. Singh’s intention to show that the egalitarianism characteristic of the foundational attitude to caste is just as applicable to the question of gender, and that you cannot sensibly have one without the other. Names, as we shall see, are central to each dimension. Addressing gender in later posts, I begin by focusing on the book’s reflections on caste and names as a guide to ‘official’ Sikh positions on these matters.

The historical event in 1699 of the birth of the khalsa, invented and stage-managed by Guru Gobind Singh, condenses a great amount that is important to contemporary Sikhs. It was then, in Anandpur, that the guru, ‘through a dramatic hoax, demanded the ultimate test of loyalty to his person as a holy man’ (Gold 1987: 21). Asking for volunteers to offer him their heads in a test of faith, he secretly substituted goats for the five disciples who stood up ready to sacrifice their lives. It was here also that the famous five distinctive symbols that identify Sikhs as Sikhs were adopted — kesha (long hair), kara (bracelet), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), and kacha (underwear) – and the names ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ bestowed. N-G. K. Singh (2005: 55) cites the narrative poet Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (1968). After the five volunteers have been given amrit, Guru Gobind Singh, despite him and his audience of beloved Sikhs already knowing them well, asks them their names and origins, for the congregation is now exhorted ‘to follow their example of identity construction’ (Singh 2005: 55).

First they told their name and residence,

then the invincible guru repeated with them.

“I am from Lahore, your kindness,

my name is Daya Singh, the Compassionate One’s slave.

In a previous birth I was Lau from the Sobti Khatri clan.”

Then the second one said, “I am Nihchal Singh resident of Dwarka.

I was formerly Namdev from calico-printer’s class.”

The third was called Sahib Singh from the town of Bidar.

He was formerly Sain, the barber, from the caste known as barbers.

The fourth was the immortal Dharam Singh, who was from Hastinapur.

Saint Dhanna in a former birth, he was even now Jat by caste and color.

Then the tenacious Himmat Singh sang that he was from Jagannath: in a

previous birth he was a bird-catcher from the comfort-loving jhivar caste.

These five who had been companions in the ancient golden age

Now came together as the guru’s companions.

(Koer Singh, 9:28–34)

As the passage poetically declaims, each of the disciples abandons his family and community (caste) name in favour of ‘Singh’; females, meanwhile, will use ‘Kaur’. ‘Distinctions of caste, class, and family profession are therewith abolished’, says N-G. K. Singh (ibid: 56); ‘a new egalitarian and kindred identity is announced in the new family name of Singh’. The drinking of amrit from the common bowl, re-enacted daily in gurudwaras in the community meal (langar), coupled with the taking of a common family name, ‘shattered traditional social and religious structures by which people were divided and stratified’ (ibid: 93). Or as Khushwant Singh (1959: 38) put it, ‘Since an individual’s caste could be ascertained by his family name, with its abolition the “Singhs” became one family’.

But there is an ambiguity here, for as has been widely noted, the pre-existing association between the title ‘Singh’ and Kshatriyas/Rajputs makes it possible to view the initial baptism ceremony as being less a move towards putative castelessness than one towards martial ‘Kshatriyaisation’. An educational tract on ‘Sikh Castes’ explains that the convention by which Sikh men take on the name Singh and women Kaur ‘is an extension of the Hindu Rajput or Kshatriya tradition into Sikhism in addition to some other aspects of Rajput martial culture like “Jhatka”, “Shastar Tilak”, etc. which are preserved in the traditions of Nihang and Hazoori Sikhs to this day’ (Singh ‘Panthi’ n.d.). But even so, the same tract goes on to explain, this was not to devalue the other three varnas — entrants into Guru Gobind Singh’s new khalsa order were to embody idealized versions of all four of them – but since ‘fighting for both one’s life and faith was the greatest need in era of Gurus…the Kshatriya part of Sikh’s identity got more highlighted in Sikh society’ (ibid). Obviously, embodying the best aspects of each varna suggests less the annihilation of caste than a kind of enfolding sublation of it, and historians and Sikh thinkers continue to weigh up whether the correct Sikh attitude to caste is to adopt the position that castes do exist but are equal (casteism should not exist), or alternately that castes are not to be recognized at all and therefore all caste markers must be removed (caste itself should not exist). Moreover, the association, already mentioned, between ‘Singh’ and Rajputs, lends Sikhism an air of Kshatriyaism, notwithstanding the diversity of the ‘real’ caste makeup of adherents. I point to these different understandings simply to show that prior to present-day debates about the use of caste names by Sikhs there were already ambiguities in respect of Sikh approaches to caste, not least in respect of the name ‘Singh’; the very name which some see as levelling caste has been viewed by others as a marker of Kshatriya-isation.

In future posts I will expand on these themes to consider further ways in which ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ are central to Sikh self-understanding and presentation, and also some debates about their proper and improper usesinghking.



In this and the following posts I am going to change tack slightly to look at Sikh personal names. Like in the previous posts, however, the relation between caste and names remains central.

I am going to start by considering the name of a controversial guru: the spiritual leader, now in prison, of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) devotional order, which is based in Sirsa, Haryana state. When I first became interested in the DSS in 2004 the guru’s official name was Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, though devotees would also call him Hazoor Maharaj or simply Pita Ji. As Santosh Singh explains, ‘Deras such as Sacha Sauda and Dera Satlok of Baba Rampal in Hisar [Haryana], and many others in the region, actually organise around a father figure with an inflated narcissistic streak. It is not without reason that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh wanted his followers to call him pitaji’.

His name had already been expanded from plain Gurmeet Singh; the insertion of ‘Ram’ and ‘Rahim’ acting to ‘brighten the halo around his syncretic claims, with an eye at perhaps broadening the base of his clientele from varied religious affiliations’. That is, the guru’s official title, in combining names from Sikhism (Gurmeet), Hinduism (Ram) and Islam (Rahim), advertised the movement’s professed secularism, and also the guru’s claim to be the embodied confluence of all those faiths.

But the already spacious name wouldn’t stay still or contained. By 2015, when he began to star in feature films (which he was also said to have written and directed), his name was recorded in the credits as Doctor Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. It was also around this time that he acquired the nicknames MSG (Messenger of God, after the film series he starred in), and guru of bling (after his fabulous jewellery and costumes).


Much could be said about all these names and nicknames, but it is the addition of ‘Insan’ that interests me most here – an addition that is of a different order to the others since, though it is, like the others, his own innovation, it is one that is not only borne by him: ever since the order devised its initiation ceremony in 2007, which is contentious because it is so closely resembles that of orthodox Sikhism, all baptised devotees of the Dera Sacha Sauda have been expected to shun their family names, taking instead the name ‘Insan’ – ‘Human’.

Though the newly devised DSS initiation was controversial for a number of different reasons, each of them related to the movement’s relationship with Sikhism. The dehdari, or living, guru was proscribed by Guru Gobind Singh, the final living Sikh guru (according to the orthodox tradition), in 1708. But the injunction ‘No more gurus’ is experienced as being perpetually under threat, not least because there are a host of devotional orders, predominantly in the sant tradition, whose turbaned spiritual masters appear ‘as if’ Sikhs and, indeed, frequently hail from Sikh backgrounds.

One such guru is Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who was born into a Jat Sikh family. So, given sensitivities concerning the dehdari guru, the DSS movement was already contentious prior to the newly devised initiation. But when in May 2007 pictures began circulating of the guru dressed as Guru Gobind Singh while performing the new ceremony, the effect was explosive, with sustained civil unrest in areas of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi lasting for nearly two months, with the loss of several lives. In 2008 there was even an attempt to assassinate the DSS guru. But the imitation wasn’t only sartorial: in the pictures the guru is seen distributing a pink liquid substance (said to be a mixture of water, milk and Rooh Afza sharbat) to devotees in an action strikingly similar to the distribution of amrit (baptismal nectar) at the Sikh baptism ceremony, though the substance is tellingly renamed ‘Jaam-e-Insaan’ (‘Wine of Humanity’) in the DSS appropriation; and, as I mentioned, initiates were to take the name ‘Insan’.

If it was the photographs that incited the initial eruption of Sikh anger – a dehdari guru of highly dubious character attempting to claim the mantle of one of the most revered of all Sikh figures – the distribution of baptismal liquid and the granting of ‘Insan’ also formed critical, if slightly more subtle, imitative pressure points.

In what way is ‘Insan’ a copy? Just as the Sikh baptism ceremony requires the substitution of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ for family names connoting caste identity, the reworked DSS version substitutes ‘Insan’.

Why is it contentious? The answer lies in the peculiarly barbed nature of the copy. The suggestion of this imitative reworking seems to be that the original has failed. The intention of Guru Gobind Singh might have been to mix the four castes into one through drinking from a common bowl and taking a common name, but ‘Singh’ (for men) and ‘Kaur’ (for women) no longer – if they ever did – stamp out the initiand’s caste identity. As one Sikh Internet discussant, responding to the 2007 events, put it: ‘when I was growing up, my Sikh friends were just Singhs or Kaurs. Today, everyone seems to be an Aurora, or a Sahni’.

DSS3‘Insan’ is not merely a copy, then – it suggests the insufficiency of, and thereby critiques, the original. It is a copy that corrects. The suggestion is that the DSS seeks, in its act of corrective imitation, to revitalize the neglected ideal and thereby become better Sikhs than Sikhs themselves. In this light the highly agitated mainstream Sikh response to the imitative ritual tableaux shouldn’t be surprising at all. As I have argued elsewhere, while the response may have been partly connected with caste imperatives and vote bank politics, these were certainly not the only salient factors.

I have begun by describing this instance of name imitation, which is also at the same time an instance of name correction, because how the DSS usage came to form a critical commentary on the persistence of caste identities and discrimination in Sikhism in fact takes us to the heart of issues to do with Sikh names.

We can think here of computer erasure protocols: that the double erasure of ‘Insan’ is considered necessary speaks to the failure of the first attempt to erase the hard drive (i.e. ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’). In the Derridean sense, comprehensive erasure is always deferred. But not only that, steps previously taken towards the destruction (erasure) of caste seem to reformers and others actively to be being undone, leading to criticism not only from the outside (here in the form of the DSS) but also internally within the Sikh panth.

Having set up the question, then, in future blog posts we will consider the Sikh history of personal names, and also recent and present-day criticisms of Sikh naming practices from both within and outwith the Sikh community.