PANTH, from Sanskrit patha, pathin, or pantham, means literally a way, passage or path and, figuratively, a way of life, religious creed or cult. In Sikh terminology, the word panth stands for the Sikh faith as well as for the Sikh people as a whole. It represents the invisible mystic body comprising all those who profess Sikhism as their faith and encompassing lesser bodies, religious as well as political, claiming to represent the whole of the Sikh population or any section of it. Panth for the Sikhs is the supreme earthly body having full claim on their allegiance. It transcends any of its components and functional agencies.
The use of the term panth as a system of religious belief and practice, synonymous with mārga or religious path, is quite old. Several medieval cults used it as a suffix to the names of their preceptors, such as Gorkhpanth and Kabīrpanth, their followers being called Gorakhpanthīs and Kabīrpanthīs. Even the Sikhs were earlier known as Nānakpanthīs. In the Gurū Granth Sāhib, panth is used both in its literal as well as in its figurative sense. In the former sense it frequently occurs in poetical images of a love-lorn soul with her gaze fixed on the path (panth) longing for the Divine Lover, God, or the Gurū who would unite her with the Supreme Being. In the latter sense it is often combined with an adjective or noun as in mukti panth, path to liberation, uttam panth, the superior path, nirmal panth, unstained, pure faith, dharam panth, religious creed and Hari kā panth, way to God. Bhaṭṭ Kīrat, a bard whose verses were entered by Gurū Arjan in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, identifies gur-saṅgat, holy assembly of the Sikhs as uttam panth (GG, 1406). Gurū Nānak, too, had used gurmukhi panth, religion of the Gurū-wards for those (the saṅgat) singing God's praises (GG,360). Bhāī Gurdās (d. 1636) uses panth for the entire body of Sikhs when he, eulogizing Gurū Nānak, records : "He vanquished the party of the Siddhas with his discourse and created his own separate panth" (Vārāṅ, 1.45).
Panth thus emerged as a comprehensive concept standing for the totality of the Sikh system. It represented both jot (spirit) and jugat (means or institutions) of the Sikhs. With their religious doctrines canonized in the Scripture, Gurū Granth Sāhib, their separate identifiable institutions like saṅgat and paṅgat and their holy places like Goindvāl and Amritsar, Sikhs had by the beginning of the seventeenth century become a distinct entity. The execution of Gurū Arjan in 1606 led to Gurū Hargobind, Nānak VI, introducing the doctrine of mīrī and pīrī (worldly and spiritual leadership) combined in the person of the Gurū. This doctrine meant the fusion of bhakti (religious devotion) and śakti (power). Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū, the author of Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, expounds it thus : "The Panth contains in itself the power of the Gurū the panth comprises devoted and disciplined worshippers of God."
A further dimension to the concept of Panth was brought about by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (1666-1708). He introduced the initiation by the double-edged sword and, to repeat a line from an old verse, transformed the saṅgat into Khālsā. The Panth was now identified with the Gurū himself. "The Khālsā is my special image," he said, "I abide in the Khālsā. Khālsā is my life and soul. " The Panth, now called Khālsā Panth, was the Gurū Panth. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh at his death declared the Granth Sāhib as Gurū everlasing for the Sikhs. The line of living Gurūs came to an end and the Gurū Panth became its own leader under the guidance of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The term Panth became more popular possibly for its assonance with Granth.
The achievements of the Sikhs under Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur and Dal Khālsā, the federated army of the Sikh misls, during the eighteenth century gave an expanded meaning and import to the term panth. Panth and Khālsā came to be used synonymously for the community as a whole as Gurū Panth or Gurū Khālsā and were even compounded as Khālsā Panth, Panth Khālsā or Gurū Khālsā Panth. Sikh Army Pañchāyats of the early 1840' s issued orders under the seal of Khālsā Panth Jīo. Some Punjabi poet-chroniclers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the same or similar terminology. Giānī Giān Siṅgh (1822-1921) calls his Panth Prakāsh a history of the Gurū Khālsā. Thus Panth which ideologically stands for a mārga representing the whole system of precept and practice laid down by the Gurūs, signifies, on the institutional plane, the corporate body of the Sikh community. In the latter sense it identifies itself with the Gurū Khālsā and claims sovereign authority over the affairs of the community.
In the earlier period of the emergence of Sikhs as a political force, the militant Khālsā under the leadership of Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur and the Dal Khālsā represented the interests of the Sarbatt Khālsā or Panth. With the establishment of Sikh power under Misl leaders and later under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, the function of guarding the interests of the Panth passed on to the Sikh State which, however, left the matters of religious and theological nature in the hands of local priesthood without a central body vested with controlling or supervisory powers. The British period following the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 maintained the status quo, but gradually a new representative organization sprang up in the form of Khālsā Dīwāns of Lahore and Amritsar, and later the Chief Khālsā Dīwān which, soon after its birth in 1902, replaced them. The functional mechanism of the Panth underwent a big change with the establishment of the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal in 1920. The latter, as a political party of the Sikhs, has since the middle of the 1920's dominated Sikh affairs, both religious and secular.
Yet the Panth, according to Sikh belief, is a permanent reality, higher than any of its functional agencies which must justify their validity by serving the interest of the Panth as a whole or be replaced by the Gurū Khālsā Panth assembling as Sarbatt Khālsā, the supreme repository of ultimate powers of mīrī and pīrī, i.e. secular and religious authority.