Understanding the Anand Karaj


Following a protest at an interfaith wedding at a Sikh Gurdwara in Leamington in September, concerns were raised about a rise in extremism among young Sikhs in the UK. However, many social commentators took to media outlets and and social media in an attempt to condemn the actions of the protestors without first taking time to understand the issue, and why Sikhs place such sanctity on the Sikh Anand Karaj ceremony.

In September, 55 protestors were arrested at a Gurdwara, as Warwickshire Police sent an armed unit to the Sikh Holy place of worship, in response to an emergency call that they received. The incident prompted national newspaper headlines describing the protesters as “armed thugs” who “stormed” the Gurdwara. However, video evidence painted a different, more peaceful picture of the protest.

In recent times, there has indeed been a rise in British Sikhs discovering their faith. Over the past five or six years, educational resources on Sikhi have become available in English, via the internet. As a result, young British Sikhs are now learning about Sikhi in a way that even their parents’ generation could not. They are discovering that many of the practices, the views and opinions that they previously held about Sikhi were misinformed.

Those Leamington protesters who were described as “armed” were simply carrying their kirpans; mandatory articles of faith for a baptised Sikh. Their protest consisted of them sitting on the floor, chanting God’s name in meditation.¬† At the time of writing, 50 of those protesters have been cleared of any wrongdoing at all, only one was cautioned, and four remain on bail.

The protest was to prevent an Anand Karaj ceremony taking place between a Hindu groom and Sikh bride. And a fundamental misunderstanding of the Anand Karaj ceremony, even among Sikhs themselves, has contributed hugely to this situation.

One characteristic of Sikhi is that it is opposes empty rituals and ceremonies. The first Guru of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, refused to have a Janeu, or a string, tied on them as part of a traditional coming-of-age ceremony. Instead, the Guru, at the age of nine, said: “Make mercy thy cotton, contentment thy thread, continence its knot, truth its twist. That would make a janeu for the soul; if thou have it, O Brahman, then put it on me.”

For a Sikh to undertake any ceremony is a big deal. There are only four ceremonies that a Sikh partakes in: the naming ceremony at one’s birth, the marriage ceremony or Anand Karaj, the Amrit Sanchar¬† (baptism/initiation) ceremony and the funeral. All other ceremonies are shunned in the Sikh code of conduct. Some Sikhs don’t even acknowledge their own birthdays. The four Sikh ceremonies are all centred around the living Sikh Guru and Holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.

Sikhs believe Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, their Holy Scripture, to be an incarnation of God Himself. We believe the scripture to be a “living” entity that one can form a relationship with. The Anand Karaj is a ceremony that officially acknowledges that relationship; between two Sikhs and their Guru, as they embark upon the next stage of their lives together.

The ceremony itself consists of four shabads, or hymns, being recited whilst the couple circumnavigates Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Those hymns consist of vows to the Guru and acceptance of the Guru’s way. It celebrates that the scripture is the Perfect and True Word of God.

Taking all of this into account, a mixed-faith Anand Karaj runs a very high risk of becoming an empty ritual, and understandably, the Sikh community wants to address this. And it has. In 2014, representatives from over 180 Gurdwaras nationwide, including Leamington, convened in Southall and unanimously agreed that Anand Karaj ceremonies would only be held for Sikhs.

This is a directive that was arrived at by consensus. It was reached by consulting those who are educated in Sikh history and philosophy and who understand and can explain the meaning behind the Anand Karaj ceremony. It is not always easy to reach a unanimous decision as a religious community.

In my personal view, holding an Anand Karaj for a non-Sikh is like holding a Bar Mitzvah for a non-Jew. The Anand Karaj is a religious ceremony whereas the act of getting married is not; it can be done in a town hall. And even those who were protesting in Leamington are openly inviting mixed faith couples to come to the Gurdwara and receive blessings for their marriage from the Guru. Sikhi is indeed inclusive, but it also has principles, which include shunning empty rituals.

By all means, a mixed faith couple could hold a Paath; a reading of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, and have an Ardaas, or Prayer, to request the Guru’s blessings for their marriage. But to undertake a ceremony like the Anand Karaj, in which one underlines their full commitment to a faith, but not actually commit to that faith, undermines the purpose of the whole ceremony.

The author of the article, Dawinderpal Singh can be contacted via @Dawinderpal. These opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Faith Matters.

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Categories: Anand Karaj, Gurdwara, Guru Granth, Interfaith marriage, Leamington Spa, News, Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji