Holiness, a fundamental concern of religions, is a concept difficult to define. Broadly speaking, it seems a compound of notions drawn from folk belief and mythology, theology and eschatology, and ideas of salvation and sacredness. The concept endows individuals, texts, times, places, institutions, and communities with a distinctly powerful hold over the human mind and emotions, making it distinguishable from others in circulation within civil society.

The term holiness subsumes the meanings of “sacred” – in common parlance the two are synonymous – but holiness also subsumes within itself a moral code that informs the values, beliefs, concepts, and symbols through which a community conceives what is just, legitimate, and virtuous. With this encapsulation within itself of a moral order, holiness enables a community to distinguish the pure from the impure, the right from the wrong, and the sacred from the profane, thereby establishing codes of individual and collective conduct.

Those who violate standards of holiness are usually subjected to the intense rage and indignation of the community, expressed through words, gestures, rumours, signs, and occasionally weapons. These traditional expressions of outrage against transgressors of a “holy order” – or a socially constructed common sense of holiness – were easily communicated and comprehended in local society [. . .]

In 1708 Guru Gobind Singh, shortly before his death that year, decided to make the Guru Granth Sahib the eternal future Guru of the Sikhs, thereby endowing the young community with a source of both cohesion and potential differences. Solidarity was achieved because the community was left with a common object of veneration and a scripture to guide the faithful, particularly in periods of trial, but powerful differences were also a possibility for hundreds of pages of verse in the holy book were open to differing interpretations. The evolving tradition was partially saved from this fundamental source of interpretive differences by the important tradition of the Bhais, dating back to the early Sikh movement.

Etymologically, the word bhai means brother, but within the early Sikh tradition the word was also used as an honorific for the holy men of the panth. To qualify for the title, a person had to demonstrate a capacity to interpret the Guru Granth Sahib, communicate the wisdom of the Gurus enshrined in it, and be publicly recognised for his piety.

If in addition he could work miracles, heal the sick, and give succour to the distressed, he was sure to occupy a position of considerable reverence and authority within the community. Such fully realised men were sometimes also honoured with the appellation “Baba”. However, it must be noted here that in the nineteenth century the honorific Bhai was also used for those who acted as professional readers of the Guru Granth Sahib.

The concept of “bhai” is as old as the Sikh faith. Among the first to earn the title and respect of a Bhai, probably the progenitor of the whole Bhai tradition, was Bhai Buddha (1506-1631). A disciple of Guru Nanak from the time of the Kartarpur community, he was a contemporary of seven Sikh Gurus and installed four of them to the guruship. It appears he was also consulted during the compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib. Equally important, if not more crucial, for the foundation of the Bhai tradition was Gurdas Bhalla (1551-1636).

Well known for his work as a scribe, and amanuensis of the Guru Granth Sahib, he also authored commentaries on the compositions of the Sikh Gurus. The latter task he performed so well that his exegetical works are known as “the key to Guru Granth Sahib”, i.e. to the Sikh scripture. Possibly since the days of Gurdas Bhalla, popularly known as Bhai Gurdas, the faculty of expounding on the teachings of the Sikh Gurus has been woven into the definition of a Bhai, and Bhais have been honoured as embodiments of the holy [. . .]

If one were looking for a single dominant theme in [Sikh] teachings, it would be [the] emphasis on the opposition between what is pure and impure. This recurrent concern may seem novel because interpretations of the Sikh movement always emphasise Sikhism as having already freed itself of ritual concerns by, in part, discounting ideas of purity and impurity. While it is true that questioning the caste-Hindu polarity of purity and impurity as the organising principle of society was a defining feature of the Sikh movement, this cannot obfuscate the fact that Sikhs themselves have always paid great attention to notions of ritual purity, both individual and corporate.

The third Sikh Guru, Amar Das (1479-1574), constructed a baoli at Goindwal which became a pilgrimage site for Sikhs to bathe in and rid themselves of impurity. All major Sikh shrines, including Amritsar’s Golden Temple, continued this tradition of an attached water tank for purificatory immersion, the obvious analogue being the Hindu tradition of acquiring merit by immersion in the Ganges. Mircea Eliade notes several features associated with water in religious thinking: it breaks and dissolves all forms, does away with the past, purifies and regenerates; in short, it is a symbol of renewal [. . .]

From 1866 onwards the Kukas [a sect within Sikhism] deeply committed to their worldview and with an unshakeable belief that the forces of the cosmos were on their side, spent their energies assailing those they saw as responsible for violating the conceptual principles of holiness. Reports from district police chiefs kept pouring into the provincial headquarters on how Kukas were desecrating, demolishing, and destroying village shrines and other sacred ancestral sites in the countryside.

One such report sent by an official from Ferozepore district stated: “some tombs lying between the boundaries of the village of Chuhar Bhainee and Choote Borrshoo were destroyed about the 1st September, 1866 by Wariam Singh, Futteh Singh and Jymal Singh Kookahs. One of the tombs had been erected to the memory of one Sungoor Singh a man held in reverence by the neighbouring villages.”

The police in Lahore, alarmed, informed their superiors that “on the 24th December, Ruttan Singh, a Brahmin of Shekhwan, reported at the Moreedke Police station that some of the new sect of the Kookas recently established in that village, had destroyed, by digging up with spades, two places sacred to Hunooman and Lutchman, worshipped by the Hindus of the village.”

While the colonial authorities in the 1860s were still busy debating what kind of threat the Kuka Sikhs represented to the Raj, four butchers in Amritsar were killed on the night of 5 June 1871. By the time the police caught up with the suspects and the investigating detective, Christie, proudly claimed he had solved the crime, butcher families in the town of Raikot were attacked on 1 July and three people killed. To the further embarrassment of the authorities, it turned out that the persons apprehended for the Amritsar case had been hanged and two of them transported for life. On 27 November 1871, two more Kuka Sikhs were hanged on charges of abetting the Raikot murders [. . .]

These seemingly bizarre episodes have caused much confusion among historians. Contemporary scholarship finds it hard to untangle the mystery of why the Kuka Sikhs should have taken on themselves to protect the cow, particularly in a period when many of their brethren would soon be proclaiming Hindu–Sikh distinctions. Picking up what was visibly a Hindu sacred symbol would hardly have helped an enterprise wanting to establish an independent identity for themselves within the Sikhs. Deciphering targets of civil violence and symbolic protest originating from religious communities is never simple, particularly because unlettered activists do not leave behind textual records containing an account of their motives and actions.

When Does History Begin?

Excerpted with permission from When Does History Begin? Religion, Narrative and Identity in the Sikh Tradition, Harjot Oberoi, Permanent Black.