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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

Decoding Dera: A Perspective on its Historicity and Guru Phenomena

Monday 6 November 2017

by Geetanjali Atri

With the imprisonment of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in the 15-year-old rape cases in the last week of August this year and the violence that followed, the sacred imagination of the masses has been marred by turmoil. The event sparked debates on a multitude of issues concerning the dera phenomenon in general, and the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), the Sirsa-based socio-spiritual organisation headed by Singh, in particular. The intelligentsia on the popular media was talking about the socio-economic composition of the followers of the DSS, the motivations backing their faith and the ontology of new religious consciousness emerging in the form of dera spaces. Besides the conceptual understanding of the dera phenomenon, this article is an attempt to explore what manifests the very foundation of such organisations. It is also an attempt to historicise them, with reference to their specificity to Punjab.

In order to study this social issue from an academic perspective, it is important to situate the dera phenomenon in the larger discourse of the sociology of religion. The subject matter of the sociology of religion is to study the religion as a social and cultural phenomenon.1 Accepting this as a valid argument does not forsake the legitimacy of individual belief and practices as a significant prospect for the study of religion. Although it is when such beliefs are collectively held and such practices are taken to the level of communal participation that one gets an interesting forte of enquiry from the standpoint of the sociology of religion. The phenomenon of the dera is such a collective expression of certain religious beliefs and practices that revolves around the charismatic authority of a spiritual leader.

In his The Sociology of Religion, Weber, while making a distinction between magic and religion, argues that in tribal societies magic is centred around the extraordinary powers (which Dur-kheim called mana) attached to certain objects.2 He calls this power charisma. When charisma is assigned to the mere objects, something beyond soul, spirit, and so on; magic starts transforming into religion. At the next level in the evolution of human society, when charisma is attributed to something beyond the visible material world, there begins the rationalisation of religious behaviour, wherein prescriptions for ethical and moral behaviour are devised. This, according to him, leads to the evolution of priesthood in human history. Priests become the experts in developing the ethical code of conduct and they continue to do so in order to fulfil their vested interests. Even later, when charisma is achieved by a human being as a result of his deep religious endeavour, he is believed to possess extraordinary powers. Such human beings are followed by many as religious prophets, who are seen as capable of bringing about religious change and suggest a path to salvation.

This theoretical observation of Weber is the key to understand what is the driving force behind these multi-crore empires, known as deras that cater to what Prof Jodhka termed as ‘the new-emerging anxieties of the modern Indian middle class’ in an interview with News 18.3 These organisations emerge around the charismatic authority of just one individual, whose prowess lies in a plenty of fields. As a philosopher, he unravels for his audience the mysteries encoded in the religious texts of different faiths. As a dynamic orator, he mesmerises them to invest their complete attention in him. As a spiritual leader, he disseminates a spiritual practice amongst his followers, which is believed to pave the path for salvation. And much like a magician, the tales of his miracles fetch many to his courts with the hope of healing. As a social entrepreneur, he constructs huge businesses for producing several goods that create his niche even in the material consumption market. As a philanthropist, he develops many not-for-profit institutions, like schools, colleges, community kitchens, hospitals, etc. for the general welfare of the masses.

These multiple manifestations of his charisma act as various catch-points for his audience. For instance, those interested in instant short-cuts subscribe to his miracle-performing capacity. Those looking for deeper meanings of religious texts, accede to his philosophical potentials. Gradually, with the number of admirers, followers and sympathisers on the rise, the need for having a permanent base or a centre arises. But, what is the importance of consolidating a fellowship in the form of a centre, or in this case a dera? Here Geertz becomes important for us to understand this development theoretically, because for him it is through the medium of a centre that charisma is conveyed not only to the members of the organisation but also to the rest of the society. This is the reason why a centre is as important in a community as its leader himself.4 For Geertz, centres are also crucial because it is within such places that serious decisions pertaining to the future of the community are taken and serious acts are planned. Thus, while being at such centre one gets a feeling of being at the heart of the affairs. Probably, for this reason many deras in Punjab, including Dera Radhasoami Satsang Beas and Dera Sacha Sauda, etc., have converted their centres into residential colonies for their followers. Thus, the otherwise highly individual and private discourse of religious commitment to a spiritual leader experiences growth within the scope of an established organisational set-up of a dera.

Deras literally mean camps or settlements; these are directly linked with the perception among the backward castes in Punjab and Haryana that the Shiromani Gurdwara Praban-dhak Committee is dominated by the upper castes. Therefore, those working on Dalit issues in Punjab have seen such spaces as the non-Sikh socio-religious organisations that promise social equality and dignity to the lower castes. There are basically two types of deras in Punjab—Sikh deras and non-Sikh deras.The difference between the two types is doctrinal, while the basic tenet remains the same—that is, guru bhakti. This is probably the reason behind the theorisation of Meeta and Ravilochan, who called these dera spaces as “guru panth”.5

Sikh deras are the ones which strictly observed the Sikh rahit (code of conduct). On the other hand, distinct rituals and practices are followed at the non-Sikh deras. The Radhasoamis, Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan, Bhaniarawala, Dera Sachcha Sauda, and Ravidasis are among the most popular non-Sikh deras. They have branches in many districts of the State, in other parts of the country as well as abroad. This alternative religious movement in Punjab with its “loose syncretistic practices”, according to Ram, throws an unnerving challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa religious identity.6 He argues that the near-exodus of Dalits from Sikhism towards the alternative socio-spiritual spaces provided by the deras invites hostility of the clerics of the already established religious order. Today, the total number of deras in Punjab, including both the Sikh and the non-Sikh ones, exceeds 9000. But these spaces are nothing new; neither to Punjab, nor to Sikhism, claims Neeru Verma. In fact, she, along with many others, claims that the dera phenomenon is older than the Sikh panth itself.7

While discerning the historical location of the dera phenomenon, this article adopts two vantage points, each highlighting a distinct facet of the dera tradition. The first standpoint traces the continuity of the tradition of Guru-Bhakti, beginning with the sant parampara of northern India that later manifested into the dera tradition, running into several common themes, like—faith in the nirguna bhakti tradition, satsang, guru-darshan and sadhana. To all these themes mutual to both the traditions, the authority of a ‘Guru’ plays the most important role. He is the soul of such organisations, without whom their existence is impossible. He is the sacred that is set apart from all that is profane, and around him revolves all the beliefs and practices of the tradition.

The second standpoint concerns the dera spaces, as they were during the Guru period in Sikh history. In the historic period of Sikh Gurus, those who did not colligate with the agency of those nominated as the succeeding Guru, established their own distinct authority as a Guru by streamlining their followers under a separate nomenclature. These faux claimants to Sikh Guruship thus laid the foundation of what was later to be regarded as deras by the scholars of Sikh history. During the period of Gurus, however, they were known with more than one name that signified their status as discrete from the mainstream Sikh religious identity, like Minas, Udasis, Handalis, Nanakpanthis, Bandai Khalsa, Nirmalas and Nihang Deras, among others. Then, they added heterogeneity to the Sikh religious virtues, and were seen as an obstacle to the path of consolidation of a universal Sikh faith.

On the basis of this discussion, one can conclude that deras, as we know today, have a strong historical legacy. They have existed in more than one form at different junctures in history. And, in contemporary times, they have assumed a critical role as the centres of mass mobilisation. However, what runs common through their various manifestations is the charismatic authority of a Guru. But as an American sociologist, Antonio N. Zavaleta,8 has posited, the purest form of charisma is exercised only as long as the leader possessing the charismatic traits is alive (or physically present at his centre). However, the people, who want to still keep alive the charisma of the leader even after he has left, are posed with a challenge now. Thus, they try to keep the aura of the leader’s charisma intact even if it is now in some debased or adulterated form. So, now what remains to be seen is how the Dera Sacha Sauda functions in the absence of its leader and what bearing his loss of charisma has on his followers.


1. Robertson, Roland (1970), The Sociological interpretation of Religion, England: Basil Blackwell.

2. Weber, Marx (1965[1993]), The Sociology of Religion, Boston: Beacon Press.

3. Sengupta, Anuradha (September 2, 2017), Watch: Off Centre with Surinder Singh Jodhka, News 18 [Online:Web], Accessed: October 13, 2017, URL: http://www.news18.com/videos/india/watch-off-centre-with-surinder-singh-jodhka-1507885.html

4. Geertz, Clifford (1977), “Centres, Kings and Charisma: Reflections on the symbolic of Power” in Joseph Ben-David and Terry Nicholas Clark (eds.), Culture and its Creators: Essays in honor of Edward Shils, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5. Meeta and Ravilochan (2007), “Caste and Religion in Punjab: Case of the Bhaniarawala Phenomenon“, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 21, pp. 1909-1913.

6. Ram, Ronki (2007), “Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras: Exploring the Myth of Casteless Sikh Society in Punjab“, Economic and Political Weekly,Vol. 42, No. 40, pp. 4066-74.

7. Verma, Neeru (2014), “Rise of Deras in Punjab: A Serious Challenge to Mainstream Sikhism”, Review of Arts and Humanities, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 83-86.

8. Zavaleta, Antonio N. (1998), “El Nino Fidencio and the Fidencistas” in William W. Zellner and Marc Petrowsky (eds.), Sects, Cults and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis, Westport: Praeger Publishers.

A former journalist, the author is a doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62