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.