Institutions of olden times are facing a question of relevance and the same is of more intensity where newer institutions that have gained ground in recent times have gained strength and acceptability. The older institutions are finding their role and relevance diminishing to the point of redundancy in the contemporary age.
Nihangs were the original Khalsa, the institution for the protection of Dharma and the followers of faith from all persecuting powers , mainly Muslims at that point in time. They have been custodians of the vast and rich literature of our land which they not only preserved well, also preached to their disciples.The community of Nihangs was given this a special responsibility by Guru Gobind Singh Ji personally. They were also the favourites of Maharaja Ranjit Singh with the Nihang chief of the times, Akali Phoola Singh, rated as one among his best Generals. Akali Phoola Singh was also Jathedar of the Akal Takth.
Nihangs are meant to be strong, fearless and in high spirits as they are laden with the huge responsibilities of varied kinds. In situations where others fear to tread the path, Nihangs are expected to lead from the front. Being Nirbhay (fearless), they never chose to be under any institution except Guru Gobind Singh Ji. They wear what their Guru liked them to wear; they tread the path that the Guru wanted them to tread; they worship as their Guru worshiped. They have never had allegiance to any King, Chief and the controlling authority even under Mughal and British times.
There has been no distinction made between Hindu and Sikh religious literature. Nihang Taksal, Nirmal Sampraday, Udasins, Sewa Panthis and virtually all including Granthis (Sikh religious teachers) of Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) used to graduate in all Hindu Vedic scriptures like Purans, Upanishads, Hanuman Natak and others. That is why Guru Gobind Singh Ji wrote commentaries upon all ancient religious literature like Akal Ustat, Ugardanti, Ramavtar, Chandi Chariter, the list is very long. Nihangs continue to recite and preach them.
Worldly possessions create attachment and attachments bring weakness, so no worldly possessions could be an attraction for them. For Nihangs, their sacred agenda was their whole property and it being so, they developed a character of being the most affectionate forces of the Guru and they loved to be so. They wish to maintain the same character to this date.
Since their advent, Nihangs enjoyed respect from the whole Punjabi community as in every hard time on our land, they were there to defend, in every calamity over Punjabi community, they were there to serve.
Besides all this, they were the custodian of original religious traditions and literature as they had learnt from their Guru. Over the centuries they have preserved their religious literature and traditions from being diluted with the changing times and even suffered opposition from the newly developed movements and institutions This opposition has taken a more stringent turn in the last about a century and a half.
Like their Guru, the Nihangs expect members of their community to be masters of Shaastra & Shastra (Sikh literature, traditions and martial arts). They expect each member of their community be a master of religious literature and also capable of defending Dharma.
Passage of time has had its effect on this institution also and they have been divided into factions. Today there are different Deras headed by different chiefs. There are instances of fighting for supremacy between the different groups that, at times, are directed towards keeping and restraining possession over Gurudwaras. Yet, there is no compromise over basic traditions and philosophy.
The recent incident at Patiala of, wherein, a group of Nihangs got into a violent face-off with the police as also some previous unfortunate incidents should be an eye opener for the Institution itself and the ones heading the institution and for its members too.
Initial recruitment and training needs to be very strictly monitored and be only for the deserving ones and not like a normal school where everyone and anyone can go and start studies. Inner supervision and discipline is another point to be very jealously adhered to and only the ones who could fit in their future role of being a Scholar-Warrior, an embodiment of the Guru, should be worked upon. If such oversight in selection and training is not done then not much time is left before undeserving people would be wearing the robes of a Nihang and would be out to disgrace the whole institution and its glorious past.
Recent incidents at many places and some other in the past also of Nihangs indulging in a conduct unbecoming of them is an alarm not only for the society but also for the institution itself and it needs to stand as a vigilant guard for itself to prevent the fall it doesn’t deserve.
The present is the right time for reinventing the institution, for saving the sacred agenda and traditions and taking self care for preventing it from becoming rotten. It is time for the institution to reclaim its past glory. It’s time for being more assertively relevant to establish the original traditions of the Khalsa of which it is a custodian, to re establish the original teachings and traditions of their most revered Guru.
(Balraj Sharma is an advocate and social activist)