(Last Updated on : 11-02-2011)
Baba Ram Singh was the founder of a transitional movement titled the Namdharis. Baba Ram Singh was born into a poor carpenter's family in the year 1816, in the village of Bhaini Arayian in Ludhiana
district. Although very little is known about the early life of Baba Ram Singh, it is said that he received no formal education and was married at the age of only seven. Later members of the Namdhari movement addressed his wife as 'Mata' or mother. In 1836, when Baba Ram Singh reached at the age of twenty, he joined the army of Ranjit Singh and served until 1845. While a soldier he demonstrated a deep commitment to religion and began to attract his own following. In 1841, he met Balak Singh of Hazru in Campbellpur district and became his supporter. Balak Singh urged his listeners to live a simple life and to reject all ritual except for repeating God's name. Those who accepted Balak Singh's leadership saw him as a re-embodiment of Guru Gobind Singh.
In 1855 Ram Singh returned to Bhaini, where he reopened the family's shop and lived there until his exile in 1872. Gradually disciples flocked to Bhaini where Ram Singh ran a free kitchen and preached his ideas of a purified Sikhism. In 1857, he formally inaugurated the Namdhari movement with a set of rituals, modeled after Guru Gobind Singh's founding of the Khalsa. Ram Singh used a recitation or hymns from the Granth Sahib, ardas (the Sikh prayer), a flag, and baptism for entry into the new community. Each of the baptized Sikhs wore the five symbols with the exception of the kirpan (sword) no longer allowed by the British government. Instead of the sword, Ram Singh required them to keep a lathi (a bamboo stave). Moreover, the Namdharis were usually clad in white clothes with a white turban and carried a rosary to further stood apart from all others.
Ram Singh asked that his adherents discarded the worship of gods, goddesses, idols, graves, tombs, trees, and snakes. Popular saints were rejected along with the rituals conducted by Brahman priests and the authority of the hereditary custodians of the Sikh gurdwaras (centres of worship). He also restricted the claims to special status by the Sodhis and Bedis and descendants of the Sikh gurus. The Namdharis were told to withdraw from drinking, infidelity, stealing, falsehood, backbiting, slandering and cheating. The consumption of beef was strictly forbidden, since protection of cattle remained one of the Namdharis most keenly held values. Proper behavior was enforced by panchayats (village courts), which gave out the suitable punishment for a particular misbehavior. Ram Singh also prohibited beggary and thus the role of hermits. His was a householder's religious path that stressed hard work, cleanliness and a moral life.
The Namdharis granted women a degree of equality. They too were initiated through baptism, allowed to remarry when widowed; dowries were rejected, and child marriage forbidden. For men, there was an importance on strength and martial qualities drawn from the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh and, no doubt, from Ram Singh's years as a soldier. As he expressed his ideas, the movement grew and the village of Bhaini became a point of pilgrimage later known as Bhaini Sahib. In time Namdhari worship acquired a new dimension.
Ram Singh attracted many of his disciples from the peasant and untouchable castes and changed them into a restricted community. Sangats were organized in any village that included a group of Namdharis. Each sangat had its own place of worship, a scripture reciter and a free kitchen. The granthi taught Gurmukhi and the Sikh scriptures to individuals of all ages. Sangats were grouped together and controlled by governors, assistant-governors and the jathedadars (group leaders), whose main aim was to collect funds and forward them to the headquarters at Bhaini. The Namdharis also maintained a system of preachers to spread their message and their own postal runners to ensure communications within the community. Among the Namdharis, prophetic letters appeared that described a re-embodiment of Guru Gobind Singh in the person of Ram Singh, and predicted the re-establishment of the Sikh kingdom.
The Punjab government became sufficiently uneasy with the Namdharis that on 28 June 1863 they locked up Ram Singh in his village where he was held until the end of 1866. By 1863, the Namdharis were estimated to have between 40,000 to 60,000 members and approximately 100,000 by 1871. The impressive growth of this movement as well as its militant ideology led the Punjab government to keep them under close surveillance and to prohibit Namdhari missionaries from preaching to Sikh troops of the British-Indian army.
The Namdharis continued to make converts during the period from 1867 to 1870. When Ram Singh went to Amritsar in 1867, he arrived with nearly 3,500 followers, converted 2,000, and conducted himself as a prince. He traveled with a guide of soldiers, held court everyday, and exchanged gifts with local rulers. The clash, when it finally exploded, was not over and Ram Singh's achievement of secular status was related to the issue of cow protection.
After few years, the police force raided Bhaini and arrested Ram Singh and he was exiled to Burma where he died in 1885. The government stationed a police post in the village of Bhaini where they remained until 1922. With the removal of Ram Singh, his younger brother, Baba Budh Singh, became head of the Namdharis. During the remainder of the nineteenth century studies of Namdhari attempts to find allies against the British in Nepal, Kashmir and Russia illustrated their enduring hostility toward the British government. Pilgrims continued to reach Bhaini, but the movement was effectively abridged.