NIRAṄKĀRĪS, a sect of the Sikhs born of a reform movement which arose in northwest Punjab in the middle of the nineteenth century aiming to restore the purity of Sikh belief and custom. Its founder, Bābā Dayāl (1783-1855), was a contemporary of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh. A man of humble origin, he cavilled at the shortcomings of the mighty and assailed the rites and observances which had perverted the Sikh way of life. His main target was the worship of images against which he preached vigorously. He re-emphasized the Sikh belief in Niraṅkār --- the Formless One. From this the movement he started came to be known as the Niraṅkārī movement. What a crucial development this movement was in Sikh life will be borne out by this excerpt from the annual report of the Ludhiana Christian Mission for 1853:
Sometime in the summer we heard of a movement... which from the representations we received seemed to indicate a state of mind favourable to the reception of Truth. It was deemed expedient to visit them, to ascertain the true nature of the movement and, if possible, to give it proper direction. On investigation, however, it was found that the whole movement was the result of the efforts of an individual to establish a new panth (religious sect) of which he should be the instructor.... They professedly reject idolatry, and all reverence and respect for whatever is held sacred by Sikhs or Hindus, except Nanak and his Granth.... They are called Nirankaris from their belief in God as a spirit without bodily form. The next great fundamental principle of their religion is that salvation is to be obtained by meditation on God. They regard Nanak as their saviour, inasmuch as he taught them the way of salvation. Of their peculiar practices only two things are learned. First, they assemble every morning for worship, which consists of bowing the head to the ground before the Granth, making offerings. and in hearing the Granth read by one of their numbers, and explained also if their leader be present. Secondly, they do not burn their dead, because that would assimilate them to the Hindus; nor bury them, because that would make them too much like Christians and Musalmans, but throw them into the river.
In its emphasis on the primacy of the Gurū Granth Sāhib in the Sikh system and on self-identity, the Niraṅkārī movement foreshadowed the principal concerns of the Siṅgh Sabhā reformation.
Bābā Dayāl's influence was confined to the north western districts of the Punjab, and he founded in 1851 at Rāwalpiṇḍī the Niraṅkārī Darbār. Bābā Dayāl was succeeded by his eldest son, Bābā Darbārā Siṅgh, who led the Niraṅkārīs from 1855 to 1870. The most important work of Bābā Darbārā Siṅgh was to issue a hukamnāmā in which he explained, with profuse quotations from the Gurū Granth Sāhib, how the Sikhs were to order their ceremonial life at the time of birth, engagement, marriage, death and during the regular worship of God. He continued to propagate his father's teachings, prohibiting idolatrous worship, the use of alcohol and extravagant expenditure on weddings. He introduced in the Rāwalpiṇḍī area the anand form of marriage rite. Anand, an austerely simple and inexpensive ceremony, became a cardinal point with leaders of subsequent Sikh reformation movements.
The number of Niraṅkārīs steadily increased. From a reported sixty-one in 1853, their number grew to around five hundred in 1861; by the time of the death in 1909 of Darbārā Siṅgh's brother and successor, Bābā Sāhib Rattā, they were a few thousand. Their organization was based upon a hereditary gurū and his appointees called bīṛedārs who were to watch over Niraṅkārīs living in towns and villages outside Rāwalpiṇḍī. What seems to have held the Niraṅkārīs together as the Siṅgh Sabhās gained influence towards the end of the century was their gurūs, their distinctive ceremonies, and their annual gathering at the Darbār in Rāwalpiṇḍī held to celebrate the death anniversary of Bābā Dayāl. They had no special initiation ceremony to separate them from non-Niraṅkārīs. They were Sikhs, some kesādhārī and some sahijdhārī, but, because of their rites and ceremonies, they were called by the 1881 Census Commissioner, "the Purists of the Sikh religion," and that is probably how they saw themselves.
The fourth Niraṅkārī leader was Bābā Gurdit Siṅgh, the son of Sāhib Rattā. During his time, January 1909 to April 1947, there were two developments of note. The first was the creation of a succession of Niraṅkārī organizations the Niraṅkārī Bālāk Jathā (1922), the Niraṅkārī Bhujhaṅgī Sevāk Jathā (1923), and especially the Niraṅkārī Youngmen's Association (1929) which represented at least a modification of, if not a departure from, the traditional Niraṅkārī pattern of organization. With these new organizations came new visions of what the Niraṅkārīs ought to be doing beyond the purely religious. The result was a degree of internal tension between what might be termed the traditionalists and the modernists in the Niraṅkārī fold. The second development was closely related to the first; the new organizations began to collect, record and publish, in a series of tracts, accounts of incidents in the lives of the first three teachers. These appear in the form of sākhīs which provide the basis of what has been a somewhat-idealized and very gurū-centred account of Niraṅkārī history. Other tracts were devoted to discussing important issues of theology and conduct.
The partition of the Punjab in 1947 created a serious crisis for the Niraṅkārīs, the majority of whom lived in and around Rāwalpiṇḍī. The Darbār had to be shifted to India and only in 1958 was it permanently established in Chaṇḍigaṛh. Equally important, but far more difficult, was the location and gathering together of the Niraṅkārīs who were now scattered all over north India. This work of rebuilding was undertaken by Sāhib Harā Siṅgh, the fifth Niraṅkārī teacher. Today the Niraṅkārīs are led by Bābā Gurbakhsh Siṅgh, the eldest son of Sāhib Harā Siṅgh. They number about 1200 families scattered from Srinagar to Bombay to Calcutta. They are drawn largely from the Khatrī, Aroṛā, Bhāṭīā and goldsmith communities and include significant proportions of both kesādhārīs and sahijdhārīs. They have a large new darbār hall located in Chaṇḍīgaṛh where they now gather for their annual functions. They continue to maintain their traditional patterns of organization with only slight modifications. The office of biṛedār seems to be passing out of existence, but prominent local Niraṅkārīs perform the functions traditionally carried out by biṛedārs. Thus the difference would seem to be that local initiative is replacing appointment by the teacher.
A Sikh visiting the Niraṅkarī Darbār would find that in most respects it resembles any other gurdwārā. The architecture is different, as all of the Darbār's doors face in one direction: the setting of worship is the same. The Gurū Granth Sāhib occupies the central place and the teacher sits either behind it when reading from it or beneath it to one side when he is not. The ardās differs in two respects; it invokes God as Niraṅkār and not as Bhagautī and it mentions the former Niraṅkārī teachers after Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. In the saṅgat, and in all Niraṅkārī affairs, sahijdhārīs enjoy equal status with kesādhārīs. The teacher's role is that of interpreter of the Gurū Granth Sāhib which is authoritative for all Niraṅkārīs; he is not an object of veneration and makes no claim to be one. The Niraṅkārīs have always considered themselves to be Sikhs and not a separate sect. The label, "Niraṅkārī Sikhs" is perhaps the most appropriate one for them as they are Sikhs and yet distinctive as Sikhs. These Niraṅkārīs should not, however, be mixed up with "Sant Niraṅkārīs" for the latter have nothing in common with the Niraṅkārī sect of the Sikhs, except for the name. They are not even a schism split from it, although the founder, Būṭā Siṅgh, was once a member of the Niraṅkārī Darbār at Rāwalpiṇḍī. Upon being asked to sever his connection with the Darbār for some misdemeanour, he raised a group of his own. He was succeeded by Avtār Siṅgh, who after partition migrated to Delhi and set up a centre there. Over the years he recruited a considerable following from among the Sikhs, Hindus and others. The present leader, Hardev Siṅgh, is his grandson.
John C. B. Webster