Inside the Guru's Gate : Ritual Uses of Texts among the Sikhs in Varanasi

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Summary: For religious Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib is a holy scripture which enshrines ontologically divine words and the teaching and revelatory experiences of historical human Gurus. Simultaneously the Sikhs have taken the concept of a sacred scripture much further than any other religious community by treating the Guru Granth Sahib as a living Guru invested with spiritual authority and agency to guide humans and establish relationships to the divine. Wherever the Sikhs have settled in the world today the scripture is staged at the center of their congregational life. The Sikh place of worship - a gurdwara or the Guru's gate - is by definition a space in which Guru Granth Sahib is made present to run a daily court. The scripture is installed daily on an elevated throne like a royal sovereign who/which admits worshippers and at nightfall ceremonially taken to a special bedroom for rest. In religious services the Sikhs daily recite and sing hymns of the scripture and explore its semantic inner for guidance in their social life.

Considering the significations of Guru Granth Sahib, as a living Guru of the Sikhs, it is surprising that scholars have paid considerably little attention to religious attitudes, behaviors and acts surrounding the physical scripture and the living performance traditions of orally rendering and exploring its content. "Inside the Guru's Gate: Ritual Uses of Texts among the Sikhs in Varanasi" aims to direct the focus towards a deeper understanding of contemporary religious worship and oral performance traditions in Sikhism. Based on field work in a Sikh congregation at Varanasi (Northern India), the study investigates how local Sikhs perceive, use and interact with the Guru Granth Sahib and other religious texts accredited gurbani status, i.e. words being uttered by their human Gurus, through a wide spectrum of practices.

From the perspective of ritual and anthropological theories, the study analyzes the discursive and ritual means by which local Sikhs create and confirm conceptions of the Guru's presence and agency in the world. Local discourses on the Guru Granth Sahib situate the scripture in a web of relationships - onto-theological relationships to the invisible divine, historical relationships to the human Gurus, and social relationships to contemporary disciples - that legitimize both its worldly and otherworldly identity and power. By arranging spaces and enacting ritual acts in the gurdwara, the Sikhs enmesh the Guru Granth Sahib in daily routines and stage the scripture as a worldly sovereign with capacity to provide spiritual guidance, transmit the divine revelation it enshrines, and make it possible for devotees to gain spiritual knowledge and experiences. Since Guru Granth Sahib belongs to a succession line of human Gurus it has inherited anthropomorphic habits and even has its own life-cycle rituals that mark important events and stages in the worldly life of the text. The study argues that ritual uses of the Guru Granth Sahib and the living performance traditions of mediating the scriptural words are the means by which the Sikhs personify and bring the scripture to life, as an agentive Guru, and make its teaching perpetually alive and relevant to changing contexts in a human and socially conditioned world. To develop and sustain a devotional and didactical relationship, even a social relationship, to the scripture is what makes people Sikhs - disciples of the Guru.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Centre for Theology and Religious Studies
  • Olsson, Tord, Supervisor
Award date2007 Dec 20
ISBN (Print)978-91-974897-7-5
Publication statusPublished - 2007

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 2007-12-20
Time: 10:15
Place: Spoletorps hörsal

External reviewer(s)

Name: Nijhawan, Michael
Title: Assistant Professor
Affiliation: York University


Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • History of Religions


  • anthropomorfism
  • personification
  • liturgies
  • ritual practices
  • religious worship
  • sacred places
  • gurdwara
  • migration
  • counter-narrative
  • emic historiography
  • speech act theory
  • ritual studies
  • oral tradition
  • performance studies
  • guru
  • holy scriptures
  • Adi Granth
  • Guru Granth
  • Benares
  • Varanasi
  • Punjab
  • Sikhism
  • Sikhs
  • Religious Studies and Theology
  • Religion och teologi
  • social agency
  • Övriga religioner
  • Humanities
  • Humaniora
  • rites of passage
  • festivals
  • rites of affliction
  • Other Religions
  • religious education


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