BHĀĪ, of Indo-Āryan origin (Sanskrit bhrātṛ, Pālī bhāyā), means brother in its literal sense and is employed as an honorific as well as in the dominant familial sense and as a title of affection between equals. It has been used in the Gurū Granth Sāhib in the latter sense and there are several apostrophic examples none of which seems to imply any special rank or status. However, by the middle of the seventeenth century, it was being used as a title implying distinction : the earliest example is the Bālā Janam Sākhī (AD 1658) which refers to its putative author as Bhāī Bālā. The naturalness of its use in this particular context suggests that it must have developed the honorific connotation even earlier though it does not necessarily follow that these connotations were clearly apprehended in earlier usage. Mardānā and Gurdās may have received the title from their contemporaries without any deliberate intention to set them apart from ordinary Sikhs. It seems likely that the term, originally used in an egalitarian sense, progressively absorbed connotations of spiritual eminence from the reputations of those to whom it was characteristically attached. During the time of the later Gurūs and into the eighteenth century, the title came to be used for those in the community who occupied positions of leadership.
Generically, the term has naturalized among Sahajdhārī Sikhs (q. v.). Since the days of Bhāī Nand Lāl, of holy memory, who was a contemporary of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the term has been appropriated by them as a whole. Among modern exemplars may be cited the names of Bhāī Rām Lāl Rāhī who presided the Sahajdhārī Conference in the 1960's, and Bhāī Harbaṅs Lāl, a U. S. pharmacologist.
Bhāī was in common use especially for the more devout of the Sikhs and saṅgat leaders such as Bhāī Lālo, Bhāī Bhagatū and Bhāī Bidhī Chand. It remained in active use until the time of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. Pañj Piāre whom he initiated at the time of the inauguration of the Khālsā are to this day remembered in the daily ardās by the title of Bhāī. Bhāī gave way to more picturesque sardār (chief) as Sikhs started occupying territory. Under Nirankārī, Nāmdhārī and Siṅgh Sabhā reform Bhāī went through a revival, men like Jodh Siṅgh deliberatively choosing it in preference to other prevalent titles.
Modern usage, however, differs in two major respects : first, it applies the title much more rarely in its honorific sense, thereby enhancing its status when used and this process of contraction has tended to eliminate those whose authority is essentially administrative, restricting the title to the few who earn substantial reputations for piety or religious learning. Vīr Siṅgh, Kāhn Siṅgh Nābhā, and Raṇdhīr Siṅgh are notable twentieth century recipients. No formal investiture is involved in such cases. It is conferred simply through repeated usage and thus reflects a general opinion rather than any conscious decision.
The term has meanwhile developed a different sense, one which denotes a range of vocational roles. Any person employed as manager, musician, or instructor in a gurdwārā is today commonly designated Bhāī. The development is easily traced to and represents an entirely natural process. Distinguished disciples Mardānā and Manī Siṅgh were associated respectively with religious music and gurdwārā superintendence, and it is scarcely surprising that their modern successors should inherit their title without necessarily sharing their distinction. The result has been the emergence of a dual meaning in the case of 'Bhāī', with the divergence between the two continuing to grow wider. As the honorific title becomes increasingly rare, the vocational usage has gained popular currency today.
More recently, especially since the mid-eighties of the twentieth century, the term, Bhāī has been avidly embraced by activist Sikh youth and, besides recovering the old comradely connotation, it has acquired a decided political edge. Among those who set the vogue was Bhāī Amrik Siṅgh, president of the Sikh Students Federation, who fell a martyr during the Army attack on the Golden Temple premises in 1984.
W. H. McLeod