Explained: Why, despite no rule, women are not allowed kirtan sewa at Golden Temple

Divya Goyal
Inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Express Photo by Rana Simranjit Singh

During the special session called to commemorate 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution urging Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to allow bibi ragis (women singers) to perform kirtan sewa at the sanctum sanctorum of Gurdwara Sachkhand Sri Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) at Amritsar.

Only Sikh men perform kirtan at the Golden Temple as of now. The Indian Express explains how this gender-based discrimination came into being despite no such rule, written or otherwise, being mentioned in ‘Rehat Maryada’ (code of conduct) of Sikhism.

What does Sikh Rehat Maryada (The Code of Conduct and Conventions) document say about kirtan sewa?

The 41-page Sikh Rehat Maryada, which describes a proper set of conventions for gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) was drafted in 1932 by a sub-committee constituted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), then accepted by SGPC through a resolution on August 1, 1936, and later amended on February 3, 1945. Nowhere does the document say that any person, on basis of gender, can be stopped from performing kirtan sewa inside a gurdwara.

In Chapter V of the document, Article VI, pertaining to kirtan (devotional hymn singing by a group or an individual), reads, “Only a Sikh may perform kirtan sewa in a congregation”. It specifies no other condition or eligibility criteria or who may or may not perform a kirtan.

The first sub-committee which drafted the document in 1932, also had Bhai Labh Singh, then granthi of the Golden Temple as its member. Even when SGPC Advisory Committee on Religious Matters reconsidered the document in 1945, then Akal Takht jathedar Mohan Singh and then head granthi Golden Temple Bhai Achhar Singh were part of that committee, as written in the document’s introduction.

Does the Sikh Rehat Maryada document say anything about women?

Yes, it says that women should not sit in congregations with veils uncomfortably covering their faces as it is against Guru’s teachings.

The section (o) in Article V of Chapter (IV) - titled Gurdwaras, Congregational Etiquette, Rites - reads: “No Sikh should sit bare-headed in presence of Guru Granth Sahib or in the congregation. For Sikh women, joining congregation with their veils drawn over their faces is contrary to gurmat (Guru’s way)”.

So is there any separate Rehat Maryada document that applies for the Golden Temple? Is it written anywhere that women cannot perform kirtan sewa inside Golden Temple?

No, there is no separate document for the Golden Temple where it is written that women ragis cannot perform kirtan sewa in the sanctum sanctorum (near Sri Guru Granth Sahib) of the shrine.

Cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, who moved the resolution in the Assembly, says: “It is a non-existent rule. It is a self-created, orthodox and discriminatory traditional practice. There is only one document specifying Sikh Rehat Maryada and it applies to all gurdwaras. There are no separate rules written for Golden Temple. What is self-created can be undone anytime and there cannot be a better occasion than Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary year for it. My fight is against this gender based discriminatory practice which Guru Nanak would have never approved of. Sikhism or Sikh history has never discriminated against women ever in anyway”.

His resolution describes the practice as ‘Baani siddhant virodhi pratha’ (against teachings of Gurbani).
Kiranjot Kaur, member SGPC, adds: “Anyone who says that there is separate Rehat Maryada for Golden Temple should show us that document. The fact is that there is only one Rehat Maryada and the copy of which is available on SGPC’s website. The question is why this code of conduct is not implemented in the Golden Temple?”

Why women are not allowed to even sit behind men ragis in Golden Temple?

According to Kiranjot Kaur, member SGPC, the “discriminatory and orthodox practise” started during British rule when control of gurdwaras went to mahants and did not stop even after formation of SGPC or even after country’s Independence. “Before Singh Sabha Lehar, control of gurdwaras was with mahants who started all these gender-based discriminatory practises, which are against Guru’s teachings. Even after SGPC came into existence in 1920, this discriminatory practise continued. It is astonishing that it is continuing even after 72 years of country’s Independence. Earlier, women were not even allowed to sit on ground floor in Golden Temple at sanctum sanctorum where Sri Guru Granth Sahib is installed and they were asked to sit on first floor. Till date, women are not allowed to even sit behind Singh ragis (men kirtan singers) at Darbar Sahib. There is no answer to this question that why is it so?”

A decision was taken by SGPC committee in 1940 on the issue. What was it?

The issue was raised in a meeting of SGPC in 1940 and then the committee having control over gurdwaras in entire Punjab had ruled in the favour of women and decided to end this practice. “On March 9, 1940, the issue was taken up by Dharam Salahkaar Committee of SGPC. The title of the resolution was ‘Harmandir Sahib vich bibiyan de kirtan karan sambandhi’ (Regarding women performing kirtan sewa inside Golden Temple).

The decision taken was, “Bibiyan nu vi ohi khul honi chahidi hai jo purushan di hai (Women should have the same rights as the men)”. The decision, however, wasn’t implemented. Those opposing Assembly resolution should first challenge this 1940 decision of the SGPC,” says Kiranjot Kaur.

Who all are opposing the Assembly resolution? What is the way ahead?

In the Assembly, the resolution (moved on November 7) was initially opposed by some Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MLAs. The next day, SGPC and Akal Takht too expressed displeasure over “government trying to interfere in the religious matters”. Bajwa, however, clarified that he has only “requested” Akal Takht to end this discrimination and “did not challenge authority of Akal Takht”. Giani Jagtar Singh, additional head granthi, Golden Temple, said, “There is some maryada to be followed for Darbar Sahib and I will not comment on such controversial issue.” He refused to elaborate or answer further when asked if it is written somewhere that women can’t perform kirtan sewa inside Golden Temple.

Akal Takht jatheder Giani Harpreet Singh wasn’t available for comments and his personal assistant said that he will be available only after November 25. The implementation of the resolution passed by Punjab assembly entirely depends on the final decision to be taken by Akal Takht and SGPC. Only if Akal Takht passes hukumnama (orders), it can be implemented.

Harnam Singh Dhuma, head of Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, has also issued a ‘warning’ to the government to ‘stay away from religious matters’ and called the resolution an ‘attack on maryada of Akal Takht and Golden Temple.’

How Guru Nanak and other Gurus held women in the highest regards?

Guru Nanak wrote: “From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend, through woman the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman there would be no one at all.”

Guru Nanak also rejected the superstition of “sutak” according to which a woman giving birth to a child remains “polluted” for a certain number of days. The third Sikh master, Guru Amar Das, disfavored the use of veil by women (purdah) and also wrote against Sati pratha. Most importantly, Sikhism does not even bar menstruating women from entering gurdwaras.

Don't miss from Explained: Why IOA wants India to pull out of CWG 2022