MĪRĪ-PĪRĪ, compound of two words, both of Perso-Arabic origin, adapted into the Sikh tradition to connote the close relationship within it between the temporal and the spiritual. The term represents for the Sikhs a basic principle which has influenced their religious and political thought and governed their societal structure and behaviour. The word mīrī, derived from Persian mīr, itself a contraction of the Arabic amīr (lit. commander, governor, lord, prince), signifies temporal power, and pīrī, from Persian pīr (lit. old man, saint, spiritual guide, head of a religious order) stands for spiritual authority. The origin of the concept of mīrī-pīrī is usually associated with Gurū Hargobind (1595-1644) who, unlike his five predecessors, adopted a princely style right from the time of his installation in 1606 as the sixth Gurū or prophet-mentor of the Sikhs, when as part of the investiture he wore on his person two swords, one representing mīrī or political command of the community and the other pīrī, its spiritual headship. For this reason, he is known as mīri pīrī dā mālik, master of piety as well as of power. This correlation between the spiritual and the mundane had in fact been conceptualized in the teachings of the founder of the faith, Gurū Nānak (1469-1539) himself. God is posited by Gurū Nānak as the Ultimate Reality. He is the creator, the ultimate ground of all that exists. The man of Gurū Nānak being the creation of God, partakes of His Own Light. How does man fulfil himself in this world—which, again, is posited as a reality? Not by withdrawal or renunciation, but, as says Gurū Nānak in a hymn in the measure Rāmkalī, by “battling in the open field with one's mind perfectly in control and with one's heart poised in love all the time” (GG, 931). Participation was made the rule. Thus worldly structures—the family, the social and economic systems — were brought within the religious domain. Along with the transcendental vision, concern with existential reality was part of Gurū Nānak's intuition. His sacred verse reveals an acute awareness of the ills and errors of contemporary society. Equally telling was his opposition to oppressive State structures. He frankly censured the high-handedness of the kings and the injustices and inequalities which permeated the system. The community that grew from Gurū Nānak's message had a distinct social entity and, under the succeeding Gurūs, it became consolidated into a distinct political entity with features not dissimilar to those of a political state : for instance, its geographical division into mañjīs or dioceses each under a masand or the Gurū's representative, new towns founded and developed both as religious and commercial centres, and an independent revenue administration for collection of tithes. The Gurū began to be addressed by the devotees as sachchā pātshāh (true king). Bards Balvaṇḍ and Sattā, contemporaries of Gurū Arjan (1563-1606), sing in their hymn preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib the praise of Gurū Nānak in kingly terminology. "He constructed the castle of truth on firm foundation, established his kingdom and had the (royal) umbrella unfurled over Lahiṇā's (Gurū Aṅgad's) head" (GG, 966). The execution in 1606, of Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, under the orders of Emperor Jahāṅgīr, marked the Mughal authority's response to a growing religious order asserting the principles of freedom of conscience and human justice. The event led to Gurū Arjan's young successor Gurū Hargobind, Nānak VI, formally to adopt the emblems of authority. In front of the holy Harimandar he constructed the Akāl Takht, throne (takht) of the Timeless One (akāl). Here he went through the investiture ceremony for which he put on a warrior's accoutrement with two swords symbolizing assumption of the spiritual office as well as the control of secular affairs for the conduct of which he specifically used this new seat. He also raised an armed force and asked his followers to bring him presents of horses and weapons. This was a practical measure undertaken for the defence of the nascent community's right of freedom of faith and worship against the discriminatory religious policy of the State. To go by the tradition preserved in Sikhāṅ dī Bhagat Mālā ascribed to Bhāī Manī Siṅgh and in Gurbilās Chhevīṅ Pātshāhī, Gurū Arjan himself had encouraged the military training of his son, Hargobind, and other Sikhs. By founding the Akāl Takht and introducing soldierly style, Gurū Hargobind institutionalized the concept of Mīri and Pīrī. His successors continued to function as temporal as well as spiritual heads of the community although there were no open clashes with the State power as had occurred during his time. Gurū Har Rāi, Nānak VII, tried to help the liberal prince Dārā Shukoh against his fanatic younger brother, Auraṅgzīb. To checkmate Emperor Auraṅgzīb's policies of religious monolithism, Gurū Tegh Bahādur toured extensively in the countryside exhorting the populace to shed fear and stand up boldly to face oppression. He himself set an example by choosing to give away his life to uphold human freedom and dignity.

         The blending of Mīrī and Pīrī was consummated by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh in the creation of the Khālsā Panth, a republican set-up, sovereign both religiously and politically. Ending personal Gurūship before he died, he bestowed the stewardship of the community on the Khālsā functioning under the guidance of the Divine Word, Gurū Granth Sāhib, in perpetuity. The popular slogan, "The Khālsā shall (ultimately) rule and none shall defy," is attributed to him; so are the aphorisms, "Without state power dharma cannot flourish (and) without dharma all (social fabric) gets crushed and trampled upon;" and "No one gifts away power to another; whosoever gets it gets it by his own strength."

         Combination of Mīrī and Pīrī does not envisage a theocratic system of government. Among the Sikhs, there is no priestly hierarchy. Secondly, as is evidenced by the Khālsā rule in practice, first briefly under Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur and later under the Sikh misls and Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, the form of government established was religiously neutral. Religion representing Pīrī did provide moral guidance to the State representing Mīrī, and the State provided protection and support equally to the followers of different faiths. Along with the liberation of the individual soul, the Sikh faith seeks the betterment of the human state as a whole by upholding the values of freedom of belief and freedom from the oppressive authority, of man over man. Religious faith is the keeper of human conscience and the moral arbiter for guiding and regulating the exercise of political authority which must defend and ensure freedom of thought, expression and worship. This juxtaposition of the moral and secular obligations of man is the central point of the Sikh doctrine of Mīrī-Pīrī.


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  10. McLeod, W.H., The Evolution of the Sikh Community. Delhi, 1975
  11. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)