Principles and Concepts

Are there castes among the Sikhs?

Sikhs have not caste system. Five hundred years ago, Guru Nanak introduced the concept of a casteless society. The Hindus rigidly adhered to the caste system which divided the community into water-tight compartments. This not only prevents social intercourse but also encourages fatalism. Caste system believed that people were born either pure or impure and that “in principle” people were high or low which was unchangeable irrespective of an individual’s actions.
According to Guru Nanak, no man is born high or low. Taking the image of the potter’s wheel, Guru Arjan compared the different kinds of people to vessels of many types and patterns, but all made of clay. In spite of religious and social distinctions, all mankind is of one basic material common to all.

Many Indian saints and Bhagats (saints or seers) belonged to low castes, but this did not stand in the way of their spiritual attainment. They are still revered and worshipped on account of their saintliness. God’s Name burns away all impurities and ennobles the individual.

According to the Guru caste is humbug. Gurbani says:
ਬੁਰਾ ਭਲਾ ਕਹੁ ਕਿਸ ਨੋ ਕਹੀਐ ਸਗਲੇ ਜੀਅ ਤੁਮ੍ਹ੍ਹਾਰੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
“Tell me, who should I call good or bad, since all beings are Yours? ||1||Pause||”
(Ang 383)

Caste is man made division for selfish ends. According to Hinduism, one belonging to the lowest caste was not even regarded as worthy of religious instruction. Moreover, birth determines status and this could not be changed. This was against the Guru’s basic belief in the right of every individual, to the opportunity for both social and spiritual uplift.

A man becomes high or low according to his actions. Only they are really depressed who forget the Lord. When Guru Nanak was asked about his own caste, he replied, “I belong to the lowest among the low castes.” Kabeer Ji challenged the Brahmans and inquired if they were not born in the same way as men of the so-called low castes. Moreover, caste is of no consequence in the next world, or in the court of God.

The Caste system was destroyed by the Gurus. However, there is a misconception that caste system still operates widespread amongst the Sikhs. A Jatt (farmer/landlord) can become a Granthi (Sikh priest) and a Khatri (shopkeeper) would not object. A Chamaar (leather-worker) can become a Kirtani and is never stopped from performing Kirtan at a Gurdwara. No one asks a Sikh their caste before they perform Ardaas (prayer), read from Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, distribute Langar or sing Kirtan. According to the Caste system it is impossible for a low-caste to pray and worship God other than the Brahman and a Khyshatri (warrior) could not become a priest, nor could an untouchable (Shoodr) become a ruler. This does not exist in the Sikh community.

We should differentiate between “tribalism” and “casteism.” Casteism has been generally stamped out amongst the Sikhs, however tribalism is prevalent. In modern times Jatt, Tharkan or Bhatra are like tribes or communities. There is a strong tribalist mentality that people want to marry within their own communities. Perhaps this is due to a common lifestyle, values, and beliefs. Similar to university graduates marrying only university graduates, or doctors only wishing to marry doctors. However, being Sikhs of the Guru, a Gurmukh shares the lifestyle, values and beliefs of Gurmat. A Sikh marries a Sikh. Consideration to caste, race or colour in matters of matrimony should be discouraged.

Caste distinctions were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh Ji. When a disciple becomes a Khalsa, he renounces his previous caste and becomes a member of a casteless society:

ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਕੋ ਪਾਣੀ ਕਹੇ, ਸਿਖ ਕੀ ਪੁਛੈ ਜਾਤ।
ਦਇਆ ਸਿੰਘ ਮਮ ਸਿਖ ਨਹੀਂ ਜਨਮ ਗਵਾਵੈਂ ਬਾਦ।
“Asking a Sikh his or her caste is like calling Amrit “water”. Daya Singh does not deem them to be Sikhs; and they waste their (precious) life.”
(Rehitnama Bhai Daya Singh)

“The caste of all mankind is one and the same.”