14th January- Maghi was always a special day in our lives. It was the day after Lohri, when potatoes were roasted in left over bonfire of last evening. More than that, it was the birthday of Sant Baba Dalel Singh, my maternal family including my mother is a follower of him. An obscure religious/spiritual master and a good orator- whose teachings were limited to – taking the name of Lord, meditation, honest earnings and sharing them with all (Naam Japna, Kirat Karni, Vand Ke Chhakna), not much different from what Nanak preached in medieval era. He used to give Naam-daan, the mantra of desired deity. It is an old practise performed by Sadhus and other religious teachers. In his case the list of deities included the Hindu Gods as well as Guru Granth Sahib.
Dalel Singh belonged to Nirmala sect of Sikhism. A sect of celibates dressed in bhagwa, they believed in equality with Guru Granth Sahib- Adi Granth as their main deity. It is believed that Guru Gobind Singh sent five of his students to Banaras (Varanasi) for studying Hindu philosophy. They and their chosen successors became the bridge between the teachings of Sikh Gurus and the ancient and medieval philosophies: Vedic, Vedanta and Nirgun & Sargun Bhakti. Nirmalas trace their history from Nanak as there is an old saying- Maareya Sikka Jagat Mein Nanak Nirmal Panth Chalaya (rough translation- It was Nanak who coined Nirmala sect in this world).
In 18th century when Sikhs started organizing themselves as political power, Nirmalas became the source of their intellect. They were generally mobile. Whenever wherever they settled- educational centres for studying religion were set up. Their contribution in education can be realised from the fact that they had both Pandit & Singh in their name at the same time. As far as my understanding of history goes not one of these Nirmala saints was Brahmin by caste, almost all of them belonged to lower castes- or the Varna of Shudras. Punjab unlike many other states of India didn’t have had Brahminical hegemony. This has been pointed out by many scholars, including a recent article in Economic & Political Weekly. Islam, Sufism and Sikhism have had a role to play in keeping Brahminical tenets at bay.
When Mughal power in Delhi was declining, and there was a political vacuum in Punjab, with small fiefdoms scattered all over the region. In that period Brahminism did have a possibility of reasserting itself. Emergence of Nirmalas as religious scholars was one of the many factors which kept it at bay. The history of Nirmalas awaits fine scholarship to unlock its doors. In the current atmosphere of one sided narrative of Sikhism- where emphasis on separate identity instead of eclectic identity is given, it looks very infeasible.
Coming back to the story of birthday celebrations of Dalel Singh, villagers used to request him to have his birthday gathering in their respective village. There were no posters announcing the celebration of his birthday or visit to the neighbourhood towns for sermonizing. Information was passed on with the word of mouth. Unlike the modern day spiritual masters, whose posters cover every possible nook and corner!
Farmland was transformed in a small fair for three days, with the main hall where Guru Granth Sahib was placed as its nerve centre and Akhand Path – uninterrupted reading of the Guru Granth Sahib was organized, it takes two and half days to complete the reading of the whole text. After the conclusion of reading of the text, his sermons were broadcasted. During the latter part of his life, he took the vow of silence. No more conversation or Naam Daan and neither any desire to talk. The recorded sermons were telecasted. The videos of those sermons were and are not available for sale; some of them have been recently uploaded on youtube. No political discourses were undertaken during the sermons, though through story -telling (Katha Vachan) and metaphors, those at the helm of power were challenged.
Monetary donations were prohibited. Money creates fault-lines and rifts, therefore avoided the better. You can offer anything you want in kind, largely fruits and sweets; the same was distributed in the Sangat-followers through those three days. Langar- free kitchen was open to all, no one was hired to wash dishes, no was asked to cooked. People offered their services voluntarily and it continued.
He used to visit Nakodar, where my maternal grandparents and their family resided. There was an ancient Dargah of an unknown Pir called Barandari –building with 12 doors. He chose to make the roof of given Dargah, his place of residence during those few days of his stay. Followers visiting his shrine cum residence upstairs cleaned the Dargah premises, lit the lamps placed near the grave. After his death, the place hasn’t changed much. At the entrance of the premises of Barandari there is a room, where Guru Granth Sahib is placed. After that a grave on an elevated platform under the shade of peepul tree, with a corner cleared for lighting the lamp and one has to climb the stairs to reach his room- or little shrine. His pictures and portraits are kept there. Followers particularly women come once a week (not sure whether it is Thursday or Saturday) to sing hymns of all three major faiths of Punjab; perform the Aarti and share the sweets and fruits which they brought with them.