Every now and then when I meet a fellow Sikh person for first time,
I get asked “What’s your caste?”
and most of the times person asking happens to be our older generation. I have always felt unpleasant talking about it.
As a kid, I didn’t like discussing castes because I feared that kids will make fun of my caste as the name sounded funny.
But as a grown up man, I find this question more disturbing.
More than 500 years ago Guru Nanak Dev Ji started the fight against discrimination, caste-system and gave us the concept of ੴ “EK ONKAR” meaning “ONE GOD”. And over 300 Years ago Guru Gobind Singh Ji gave us title of Singhs and Kaurs.
But today we are proudly known as Rajputs, Jatts, Ramgarhia, Labana, Ramdasia, Khatri, etc. etc. and then we add a subtle suffix “Sikh” at the end to make it as “Jatt Sikh”, etc.
It almost seems like an oxymoron to me. Because first part denotes “division” while second part is supposed to be the one who believes in ONE. Our Gurus didn’t believe in inequality or division.
They believed in ONE and they only taught us ONE. I may not know a lot about Sikhi and still learning but this is one thing I really know and believe that Guru Nanak Ji was against any kind of discrimination and division and He believed in equality in all aspects.
As I started search for my spouse questions like “What is your caste/sub-caste?” started to come my way more often (I will refer to these questions as “the question” here on).
My response back in days to the question used to be “I am Khatri”.
The interesting thing is that even though all my life I have grown up listening to “Ek Onkar” but in very subtle, unaware mind I became the part of the problem by identifying me as Khatri. Thanks to the rejections that came my way due to my so-called caste that made me sick listening to the question and whole caste differentiation.
I used to ask these questions in my mind “O Nanak where have your Sikhs gone? How can we call ourselves Sikhs, if we still practice casteism”. But the funny thing is that even at that time I was not looking at myself,
I was rather pointing fingers and blaming people for practicing caste system and not adhering to the basic principle taught by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. And as it always happens, one day it dawned upon me that even though I don’t like whole caste system and I don’t practice it but I was part of it – the minute I said “I am Khatri”. The minute I identify myself as any other Sikh, I falsify my Sikhi. So with this realization my answers changed as did the outlook towards the question. I have tried answering to the caste question as “I don’t believe in caste system” but I guess it didn’t feel like much of impact. Recently I have started to say “My caste is same like Guru Nanak Dev Ji” – go figure and if nothing else it makes me giggle inside for throwing this puzzle back at the people.
The issue of caste in Sikhism is quite complex, always inviting a diversity of impassioned opinions. One thing we can be certain about is that Guru Gobind Singh had abolished all caste inequality with the inception of Khalsa on 13 April, 1699 and with the institution of Khanday-Ki-Pahul or the Baptism of Sword. Faithful Sikhs do not practice caste discrimination but this is not to say that all Sikhs necessarily act in accordance to their faith. Consequently, the caste does exist in Sikhism , though in a diluted form than found in the rest of Indian society.
But at the outset one thing can be confidently stated which is that there is no clearly defined caste hierarchy in Sikh society, leave alone a vertically ordered one. Any layperson or author giving a clearly ordered Sikh caste hierarchy is himself mistaken or is purposefully misleading others.
Caste, lexically defined as “a hereditary social group comprising persons of the same ethnic stock, social rank, occupation and more or less distinctive mores” is a characteristic common to all societies the world over, and hardly shows anything more than social differentiations that have developed in varying degrees of discrimination or exclusiveness. In the Punjab, for instance, caste (jat or zat) signifies only an ethnic group gotra (family, line, sept or class) just like the MacDonalds, Montagues, Montmorencies, etc, in England, It is only when it develops into a system with its rigid stratification and permanent division of social status based on birth alone, as it did in India, that caste becomes a curse.