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Sikh Names and Surnames - Principles and Practices

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Sikh Names and Surnames - Principles and Practices - A Viewpoint from Gurinder Singh Sacha


Sikh Names and Surnames - Principles and Practices - A Viewpoint

There seems to be an on-going controversy among some Sikhs about the use of a surname after their first name. This is mainly due to misunderstanding on their part regarding the significance of the words Singh and Kaur. But, before going into further discussion about the role and relevance of ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ vis-a-vis Sikh identity, we should be clear about what constitutes a Sikh first name, and how it differs from a surname.

First name or Christening name:

The Sikhs have a unique way of naming their new born children. Most Sikh families follow the guidelines provided in the ‘Sikh Rehat Maryada’ document, published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) Amritsar, as approved by the authority of Sri Akal Takhat. In general, this means that when a new born baby is to be named, the parents should seek the blessings of the Baani of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. This blessing is obtained by way of choosing the first letter of a randomly chosen Guru Shabad, after which the name of the child is coined. For example, if the first letter of the first word in the Guru Shabad is ‘B’ then any name starting with this letter B, such as Balbir, Bahadar, Balvinder, Baltej etc can be chosen initially by the parents to their liking. At this stage an important point to note is that perhaps as a measure of equality, this initially chosen name does not distinguish between a male and a female Sikh. This means that the same name, for example, Balbir can be used for a boy as well as for a girl.

However, to avoid confusion and to establish the gender of the named person the directive in the Sikh Rehat Maryada document is that the chosen name should be completed by adding the word ‘Singh’ for a boy and the word ‘Kaur’ for a girl. For example, Balbir + Singh constitute a complete first name of a male Sikh, while Balbir + Kaur make up a complete first name of a female. In the Sikh community, not only is the procedure of naming a new born baby unique and innovative; it also has a nationhood connotation, so much so that a Sikh name is regarded as incomplete if it does not carry with it the word Singh or Kaur.

Surname or Family Name

The above described Sikh naming ceremony is an essential ritual, which gives the first name identity to a new born baby. However, a surname or a family name may also be added to link this identity to the larger Sikh community. This additional identity is established by adopting a word or name from ancestral family: for example from parents/grandparents, their trade, profession, passion, personal achievements etc. or relating to the name of one’s clan, country village, town etc.; or even by choosing any new imaginative surname according to one’s liking.  There are hundreds of family names or surnames, which are common among the Sikhs, such as Gill, Grewal, Sidhu, Sandhu, Bogal, Bhambra, Kambo, Kainth, Jammu, Josan, Jandialvi, Ludhianvi, Phul, Gulshan, Azad, Sewak, Dewana, Mastana etc. from an endless list.

Now let us address the controversy over what constitutes an appropriate Sikh surname. Although, a large majority of the Sikhs do not see any problem in using a family name or a surname of their choice, there is a significant number of Sikhs who say that the use of surname is a Western concept. Their reason is based on somewhat superfluous arguments that in days gone by Sikhs, had no tradition of using surnames; and that most Sikhs lived in villages and small communities, everybody was known by their first name. They emphasise that the use of surname is rather a recent trend started by some Western educated people reflecting their ego or pride in being different. They also argue that Guru Gobind Singh Ji has already given them a surname i.e. Singh or Kaur. In fact, it is this assumption which is the root cause of confusion.

Two points ought to be noted here. Firstly, while a surname signifies family connection and identifies its members i.e. father, son, daughter, wife etc. with the same surname, the use of Singh and Kaur (as surnames) do not seem to fit in to convey such connection or identity that they belong to the same family. Secondly, as has been already explained, ‘Singh’ is an inseparable part of a male Sikh name, while ‘Kaur’ goes to complete a female Sikh name. So we must remember that both these words are part and parcel of the first name of every Sikh, which they proudly use to express their national identity rather than family identity.

However, to claim, as some Sikhs do, that Guru Gobind Singh Ji instructed the Khalsa not to use any surname other than Singh is a myth. This raises a serious question about women being denied the same equal status to the word Kaur. Moreover, there is no authentic historical document to prove that Guru Ji made such a proclamation. His prime directive to the Sikhs was that having taken Amrit to become Khalsa, one must not think or recollect about one’s cast or class, but treat everyone as equal. This point has been very clearly emphasised in the freely available ‘Sikh Rahat Maryada’ document. For example, in its chapter on ‘Panthak Rehni’ and under the title ‘Amrit Sanskar’, the newly initiated members of the Khalsa are advised with this directive i.e. “…..ਤੁਸੀਂਪਿਛਲੀਜਾਤਪਾਤ, ਜਨਮ,  ਦੇਸ਼, ਮਜ਼ਹਬਦਾਖਿਆਲਤੱਕਛੱਡਕੇਨਿਰੋਲਖਾਲਸਾਬਣਗਏਹੋ---”meaning, that having become Khalsa you should no longer think of your previous cast lineage, birth, country, creed etc. Nowhere else in this document is there any directive about not using a surname with one’s first name. Indeed, on the contrary, there are some examples in both Guru Granth Sahib Ji and the Dasam Granth (Bachittar Natak) wherein certain people have been identified by cast names such as Bedi, Bhalla, Bhatt, Jatt and Sodhi. In early Sikh history, even Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s contemporary member of the Khalsa panth were identified with their given surnames e.g. Banda Singh Bahadur. Then again during the post-Guru period, before and after Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there are numerous examples of prominent Sikhs using surnames.In the early 20th century too, some leaders of Singh Sabha Movement, though rejected the cast names as well as cast based Gurdwaras, willingly accepted additional surname identity. 

In the end, it is worth repeating that every Sikh must include the gender identity Singh or kaur to one’s first name which signifies his or her national Identity on a global scale. But a precise identity in the form of a surname is also the need of the day, given that Sikhs are no longer confined to only India. This personal identity may be obtained from a variety of sources, such as heritage, parentage (name of a parental family member) village, town etc.; or even by making an imaginative approach in choosing  any appropriate meaningful word as surname, as has been discussed above.   

Moreover, it should be remembered that the word ‘Singh’ is not the sole property of the Sikhs, as it had been in use in many parts of North India among some Hindu communities too, especially the Rajputs, long before the Sikhs came to the scene. The only difference is that at the time of the founding of the Khalsa Panth in 1699 at Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh Ji declared it obligatory to conjoin the word Singh with the first name of male Sikhs and Kaur in the case of females. At the same time I would also like to add that the awareness about using an appropriate surname is on the increase, the proof of which can be seen in the ‘change of name’ columns of many English and Panjabi newspapers, in which majority of the notices by Sikh clients publicly announce a new surname added after the word Singh of their first name.

Gurinder Singh Sacha (London East)
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