SAṄGAT, Punjabi form of the Sanskrit term saṅgti, means company, fellowship, association. In Sikh vocabulary, the word has a special connotation. It stands for the body of men and women met religiously, especially in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Two other expressions carrying the same connotation and in equally common use are sādh saṅgat (fellowship of the seekers of truth). The word saṅgat has been in use since the time of Gurū Nānak (1469-1539). In his days and those of his nine successors, saṅgat referred to the Sikh brotherhood established in or belonging to a particular locality. The term is used in this sense in the Janam Sākhīs, i.e. traditional life-stories of Gurū Nānak, and in the hukamnāmās, i.e, edicts issued by the Gurūs to their followers in different parts of the country. In the hukamnāmās there are references, for instance, to Sarbatt Saṅgat Banāras Kī, i.e. the entire Sikh community of Banāras (Vārāṇasī), Paṭnā kī Saṅgat, i.e. the Sikhs of Paṭnā, Dhaul kī Saṅgat, the Sikhs of Dhaul. In common current usage, the word signifies an assembly of the devotees. Such a gathering may be in a gurdwārā, in a private residence or in any other place, but in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The purpose is religious prayer, instruction or ceremony. The saṅgat may collectively chant the sacred hymns, or, as it more often happens, there may be a group of musicians to perform kīrtan. At saṅgat there may be recitals of the holy writ with or without exposition, lectures on religious or theological topics, or narration of events from Sikh history. Social and political matters of interest for the community may as well be discussed.
In Sikh faith highest merit is assigned to meeting of the followers in saṅgat. This is considered essential for the spiritual edification and progress of an individual. It is a means of religious and ethical training. Worship and prayer in saṅgat count for more than isolated religious practice. The holy fellowship is morally elevating. Here the seeker learns to make himself useful to others by engaging in acts of sevā, or self-giving service, so highly prized in Sikhism. The sevā can take the form of looking after the assembly's shoes for all must enter the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib barefoot; preparing and serving food in Gurū kā Laṅgar; and relieving the rigour of a hot summer day by swinging over the heads of the devotees large hand-fans. It is in the company of pious men that true religious discipline ripens. Those intent on spiritual advantage must seek it.
Though saṅgat has freedom to discuss secular matters affecting the community, it is its spiritual core which imparts to it the status and authority it commands in the Sikh system. As Gurū Nānak says, "satsaṅgat is where the Divine Name alone is cherished" (GG,72). This is where virtues are learnt. "Satsaṅgat is the Gurū's own school where one practises godlike qualities" (GG,1316). Attendance at saṅgat wins one nearness to God and release from the circuit of birth and death. "Sitting among saṅgat one should recite God's praise and thereby swim across the impassable ocean of existence" (GG,95). As satsaṅgat is obtained through the Gurū's grace, the Name blossoms forth in the heart (GG,67-68). "Amid saṅgat abides the Lord God" (GG,94). "God resides in the saṅgat. He who comprehends the Gurū's word realizes this truth" (GG,1314). "Deprived of saṅgat, one's self remains begrimed" (GG,96). "Without saṅgat ego will not be dispelled" (GG,1098). Says Gurū Arjan in Sukhmanī, "Highest among all works is joining the saṅgat and thereby conquering the evil propensities of the mind" (GG,266). Again, "As one lost in a thick jungle rediscovers one's path, so will one be enlightened in the company of the holy"(GG,282).
Saṅgat, fellowship of the holy, is thus applauded as a means of moral and spiritual uplift; it is as well a social unit which inculcates values of brotherhood, equality and sevā. Saṅgats sprang up in the wake of Gurū Nānak’s extensive travels. Group of disciples formed in different places and met together in saṅgat to recite his hymns.
As an institution, saṅgat had, with its concomitants dharamsāl, where the devotees gathered in the name of Akāl, the Timeless Lord, to pray and sing Gurū Nānak’s hymns, and Gurū kā Laṅgar, community refectory, where all sat together to partake of a common repast without distinction of caste or status--symbolized the new way of life emerging from Gurū Nānak’s teachings. At the end of his udāsīs or travels, Gurū Nānak settled at Kartārpur, a habitation he had himself founded on the right bank of the River Rāvī. There a community of disciples grew around him. It was not a monastic order, but a fellowship of ordinary men engaged in ordinary occupation of life. A key element in this process of restructuring of religious and social life was the spirit of sevā. Corporal works of charity and mutual help were undertaken voluntarily and zealously and considered a peculiarly pious duty. To quote Bhāī Gurdās : "dharamsāl kartārpur sādhsaṅgati sach khaṇḍu vasāiā", Varāṅ, XXIV. 11, i.e. in establishing dharamsāl at Kartāpur, with its saṅgat or society of the holy, Gurū Nānak brought the heaven on earth.
These saṅgats played an important role in the evolution of the Sikh community. The social implications of the institutions were far-reaching. It united the Sikhs in a particular locality or region into a brotherhood or fraternity. A member of the saṅgat, i.e, every Sikh was known as bhāī, lit. brother, signifying one of holy living. The saṅgat brought together men not only in spiritual pursuit but also in worldly affairs, forging community of purpose as well as of action based on mutual equality and brotherhood. Though saṅgats were spread over widely separated localities, they formed a single entity owning loyalty to the word of Gurū Nānak. Saṅgats were thus the Sikh community information.
In these saṅgats the disciples mixed together without considerations of birth, profession or worldly position. Bhāī Gurdās, in his Vār XI, mentions the names of the leading Sikhs of the time of Gurū Nānak and his five spiritual successors. In the first 12 stanzas are described the characteristics of a gursikh, or follower of the Gurū. In the succeeding stanzas occur the names of some of the prominent Sikhs, in many cases with caste, class or profession of the individual. In some instances, even places they came from are mentioned. In these stanzas, Bhāī Gurdās thus provides interesting clues to the composition, socially, of early Sikhism and its spread, geographically. Out of the 19 disciples of Gurū Nānak mentioned by Bhāī Gurdās, two were Muslims-- Mardānā, a mīrasī or bard, from his own village, and Daulat Khān Lodi, an Afghān noble. Būṛā, celebrated as Bhai Buḍḍhā, who was contemporary with the first six Gurūs, was a Jaṭṭ of Randhāvā subcaste. So was Ajittā, of Pakkhoke Randhāvā, in present-day Gurdāspur district. Phirnā was a Khaihrā Jaṭṭ Mālo and Māṅgā were musicians; and Bhagīrath, formerly a worshipper of the goddess Kālī, was the chaudharī, i.e. revenue official of Malsihāṅ, in Lahore district. Of the several Khatrī disciples, Mūlā was of Kīṛ subcaste, Prithā and Kheḍā were Soinīs, Prithī Mall was a Sahigal, Bhagtā was Ohrī, Jāpū a Vaṅsi, and Sīhāṅ and Gajjan cousins were Uppals. The Sikh saṅgat was thus the melting-pot for the high and the low, the twice-born and the outcaste. It was a new fraternity emerging as the participants' response of discipleship to the Gurū.
Saṅgats were knit into an organized system by Gurū Amar Dās who established mañjīs or preaching districts, each comprising a number of saṅgats. Gurū Arjan appointed masands, community leaders, to look after saṅgats in different regions. Saṅgat was the precursor to the Khālsā manifested by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh in 1699. That was the highest point in the evolution of the casteless Sikh commonwealth originating in the institution of saṅgat.
K. Jagjīt Siṅgh