SARBATT KHĀLSĀ (sarbatt from Sanskrit sarva/ sarvatas meaning the whole or entire) is a term with a dual connotation. It is a concept as well as an institution. In the conceptual sense, Khālsā is the extension of saṅgat, holy congregation, an institution which has been eulogized in the Sikh Scripture as symbolizing God's Own presence (GG,460, 1314, 1335). Sarbatt Khālsā in this sense is a mystic entity representing the "integrated conscience" of the entire Sikh people imbued with the all-pervasive spirit of the Divine. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh transformed saṅgat into Khālsā subserving God's will or pleasure. A verse in Sarabloh Granth, generally ascribed to the Gurū, declares:" Khālsā is the army of the Akālpurakh, Khālsā is born of the wish of the Supreme Spirit." Sarbatt Khālsā as the Gurū Panth, along with the Gurū Granth Sāhib, is held to be the true and eternal spiritual successor in the line of personal Gurūs ending with Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. In the other, historical, sense, Sarbatt Khālsā is the highest organ of the Khālsā Commonwealth representing its "integrated will," which no Sikh commoner, sardār or prince--- could dare defy. Sarbatt Khālsā, meeting in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, is the supreme sovereign body, with deliberative and executive powers, including authority to direct the affairs of the community. The institution of Sarbatt Khālsā grew out of the needs and compulsions of the turbulent eighteenth century when Sikhs, driven away from their homes to find shelter in remote hills and forests in large or small batches, the able-bodied baptized Siṅghs among each forming a fighting band, living off the land in defiance of the imperial might, it became customary for them to assemble at Amritsar, especially on the occasions of Baisākhī and Dīvālī. These gatherings of warriors and non-combatants considered to be representing the entire Panth, came to be called Sarbatt Khālsā. In this general sense, Sarbatt Khālsā denoted, as it still does, the entire body or the whole commonwealth of Sikhs in whose name ardās or the supplicatory prayer was offered individually or at public congregations. The Sarbatt Khālsā discussed and took decisions by common counsel upon matters of policy and upon matters requiring action. Reports on the activities of different jathās or groups were taken note of and strategies in respect of their continuing conflict with their Mughal and Afghān oppressors as well as in respect of their relationship with friendly powers such as the Jāṭs and the Marāṭhās were worked out. The earliest known meeting of the Sarbatt Khālsā took place on the occasion of Dīvālī in 1723 when a clash between Tat Khālsā and the Bandāis(owing fealty to Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur) was averted and amicably settled through the intervention and wise counsel of Bhāī Manī Siṅgh. The next notable Sarbatt Khālsā held soon after the martyrdom of Bhāī Tārā Siṅgh of Dall-Vāṅ in 1726 passed a gurmātā, as the decisions of the Sarbatt Khālsā were designated, laying down a three-fold plan of action, viz. to plunder government treasures in transit between local and regional offices and the central treasury; to raid government armouries for weapons and stables for horses and carriages; and, to eliminate government informers and lackeys. Another Sarbatt Khālsā assembled in 1733 deliberated upon and accepted the government offer of a Nawābship and jāgīr to the Panth. Under a gurmatā of the Sarbatt Khālsā on 14 October (Dīvālī day) 1745, the active fighting force of the Sikhs was reorganized into 25 jathās or bands of about 100 each. A further reorganization into 11 divisions or misls forming the Dal Khālsā was made by Sarbatt Khālsā on Baisākhī, 29 March 1748. Thus, Sarbatt Khālsā became the central body of what J.D. Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, terms a "theocratic confederate feudalism" established by the misls. But as the misl chiefs settled down in their respective territories, with the threat of invasion or intervention from outside eliminated, they began to bicker and fight amongst themselves. In that situation, Sarbatt Khālsā gatherings became less frequent and less important. Their constitution also changed. Whereas formerly all present could take part in the deliberations, now it was only the misl chiefs or their vakīls (representatives) who mattered. With the establishment of monarchy under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, the institution fell into desuetude. The last known Sarbatt Khālsā assembly took place in 1805 to deliberate upon the question of policy to be adopted towards Jasvant Rāo Holkar, the Marāṭhā chief who, defeated by the British, had sought the Sikhs' help. Only chosen Sikh chiefs were invited by Raṇjīt Siṅgh to take part in the convention. Opinions were freely expressed, but the role of the assembly was only advisory, the final word resting with the new sovereign, Raṇjīt Siṅgh.
Some details about the working of the Sarbatt Khālsā have come down to us through the writings of near contemporaries. According to them, the Sarbatt Khālsā was invariably convened at the Akāl Takht. The participants after ablutions in the holy sarovar and obeisance at the Harimandar, assembled in the open space in front of the Takht where Gurū Granth Sāhib was seated attended by Akālī (Nihaṅg) officiants. According to John Malcolm, Sketch of the Sikhs:
When the chiefs and principal leaders meet upon this solemn occasion, it is concluded that all private animosities cease and that every man sacrifices his personal feelings at the shrine of general good and actuated by the principles of pure patriotism, thinks of nothing but the interests of the religion and the commonwealth to which he belongs.
After the prayers (ardās) and distribution of kaṛāh prasād, the session commenced:
Then distinction of original tribes, which are on other occasions kept up, are on this occasion laid aside in token of their general and complete union in one cause. The Akālīs then exclaim, "Sardārs (chiefs), this is a Gurmata" on which prayers are again said aloud. The chiefs after this sit closer and say to each other, 'the sacred Granth is betwixt us, let us swear by our scripture to forget all internal disputes and to be united'. This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism is taken to reconcile all animosities. They then proceed to consider the danger with which they are threatened, to settle the best plans for averting it and to choose the generals who are to lead their armies against the common enemy.
In recent years efforts have been made to revive the institution of Sarbatt Khālsā to discuss important political issues confronting the Panth but no consensus on its constitution or commonly accepted sanction has so far emerged.
Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)