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The Real Guru
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Dehdhari Guru

Dehdhari’ transliterates as ‘of living body’. Hence Dehdhari Guru within mainstream Sikhism refers to a living human Guru as opposed to ‘Shabad Guru’, and such Dehdhari Gurus are viewed with deep hostility and resentment. This term has become taboo, and as such no true Sikh thus can be designated as ‘Guru’ within modern Sikhism.

In contrast, within the Sanatan Sikh world, especially amongst the Udasis and Nirmalas, it was and still is common to designate their personal teacher as ‘Guru’. This designation does not suggest that Sanatan Sikhs disrespect Shabad Guru. Baba Teja Singh Nirmala explains:

‘Nirmala Saints believe in Dehdhari Guru, he from whom they attain knowledge, from whom they gain wisdom. He, they look upon as Guru. We consider Guru Granth as our, ‘Isht’. Isht means “the one even greater than our Guru”. Our Guru, even after bowing to Guru Granth sits on the floor. After bowing to Guru Granth, we sit on the floor, but when our Guru is sitting on his bedstead, we respecting him as our Guru sit on the floor. In front of Guru Granth, even our Guru sits on floor. There our ‘Isht Guru’ is only Guru Granth Sahib, but when Guru Granth is not there and our Guru is teaching us, we respect him as Guru. When they die we erect their ‘Samadhia’ (mausoleums). With full devotion we respect them. In many places are to be found Guru people’s Samadhs We celebrate their days of death and birth. There is no difference in this [from past Nirmala practices].’
Baba Teja Singh Nirmala, transcript of interview on 9-03-2001

A 'Samadh' (mausoleum) dedicated to the memory of an Udasi Guru within an Udasi Ashram in Nanded (Maharastra)

Sanatan Sikhs looked upon Dehdhari Gurus for spiritual guidance to interpret the spiritual knowledge within the Guru Shabad. In similar manner, other Sanatan Sikhs such as the Nihang Singhs looked up to their ‘Jathedars’ for spiritual guidance but were termed ‘Gurdev Singh’. Early last century, Bhai Vir Singh wrote of Akali Nihang Jathedars:

‘Sometimes the Jathedar was also known as ‘Gurdev Singh’.’
‘Satwant Kaur’, Bhai Vir Singh, 1900, Pa.225

Akali Guru Nanak Dev Ji Maharaj
Illustration of the first Sikh Guru accompanied by Bhai Mardana and Bhai Bala, from the 'Military Manual of Maharaja Ranjit Singh', attributed to the workshop of Imam Baksh Lahori (1822-1830)

Akali Nihang ‘Jathedars’ and ‘Ustads’/’Gurdev’ Singhs are never considered on par with Adi, Dasam and Sarbloh Guru Durbar. Formerly, such Jathedars or Gurdev Singhs in Akali Nihang Dals are adopted by saying an ‘Ardas’ (formal Khalsa invocation) in the presence of Adi Guru Durbar, by just acknowledging them as Gurdev in presence of other Khalsa by touching their feet.

To this day, Akali Nihang Singhs show respect by touching the feet of their Jathedar or Gurdev and bow their heads at their feet. They then sit on a lower plane then their Jathedar. As service, they squeeze and massage their Jathedar’s or Ustad’s legs. Some Nihang Singhs even eat ‘Jooth’ (the left over food) of their Jathedars. The Jathedar/Gurdev is looked upon not as Guru, but as the one who will guide an individual to their Guru. That is what gives him such an esteemed spiritual position.

All behavior towards Gurdev Singhs by Nihang Singhs is same as that of the Nirmalas, Udasis etc. towards their Dehdhari Gurus. Hence, through their ‘Isht Dev’ (meaning Guru’s Guru, i.e. Guru Shabad), Sanatan Sikhs do not have same aversion to Dehdhari Gurus as modern mainstream Sikhs.

Sriman 108 Mahant Ishvar Das Shastri
Photograph of the learned Udasi scholar, poet and author

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