Monday, October 8, 2012

Cults, Sects, Religions and Other Terms You Need to Know in Amritsar

Most everyone is familiar with the terms Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Islam, etc but what they don't realize is just like Christianity, none of these religious terms is all inclusive. Each religion has their own equivalent of denominations. In order to understand conversations and a lot of occurrences in daily life here in Amritsar, most of Punjab and quite possibly most of India there are some terms you should familiarize yourself with.

I have my own opinions and thoughts based on experiences with each of these groups but I will not share them here. Nor will I entertain or post comments disparaging anyone's religious preference. If you have a comment, keep it factual and not opinionated. Only provide information you can back up with a credible source. While these things may not work for you or me, they obviously work for others. The only point in this post is to bring light to the terms so you can familiarize yourself with them. 

Links are provided at the end of  and inside of this text for your own verification and so you can learn more about whichever of these terms you are most interested. It is also EXTREMELY Important you understand that the Indian versions of these groups is nothing like their western counterparts. In some instances the western counterparts have even been denounced or excommunicated by the Indian leaders of the groups.

P.S. This is a short list - it is NOT all inclusive and there are probably hundreds of important terms I've missed. You are more than welcome to leave a comment with other important terms but if you do, please leave a reputable link (NOT wikipedia or any other wiki. Reputable sources are university documents, government studies, etc.)


3HO - While they market themselves as a Kundalini Yoga group, 3HO also follow the teachings of Yogi Bhajan on life and living and follow the Khalsa (pure ones, see below). White turbans are common for men and women in this community. There are many negative connotations against this group worldwide, you can find one here. While this group is Sikh, they are not fully recognized by the major Sikh organizations and there are several significant differences between this group and the major Sikh sects.
Miri Piri - There is an academy for the Miri Piri in Amritsar. Quite often you will see large groups of academy patrons at the local mall shopping. A good portion of them are not Indian. They are most easily recognized by their white turbans (men and women) which they wrap in a distinctive manner that is not typical daily wear for other Sikhs. The academy is affiliated with the Khalsa and is primarily 3HO children.

Khalsa - Originally meaning pure, and sometimes still used in greetings, the term is also applied to a specific group of Sikhs who follow a strict regime of not shaving, dressing in a specific fashion, carrying specific items and wearing a steel bangle. These things are known as the 5 K's. Not all Sikhs belong to the Khalsa movement and entrance requires a form of baptism. Khalsa members are expected to become experts in arms and defend the weak and oppressed. Unfortunately this term is also widely misused because of it's many meanings.

Khalistan -This group fights against any and all things they feel are anti-Sikh related. The group once had a state of it's own under self-proclaimed Maharaja Ranjit Singh (who was not part of the Khalistan movement) prior to his death in 1839 and the overtaking of the British Raj. The group actively promotes the emergence of a new Sikh state. This group had a substantial role in the 1984 Amritsar riots that led to Indira Gandhi's assassination. Another prominent figure who fell victim to the riots is Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale (the face on many Khalistan logos), Riots after the event continued into the 1990's.

Nirankari - (not to be confused with Sant Nirankari) This group originated in Northwest Punjab. They adhere to strict Sikh beliefs and customs and do not drink any alcoholic beverages, including wine, do not eat meat and do not use tobacco products.

Sant Nirankari - Similar to the Nirankari, most moved further south toward Delhi after the partition. This group however, has been excommunicated from the Akal Takht because they believe in a living Guru after Guru Granth Sahib.

Singh Sabha Sikhs -In its beginnings, this groups aim was to produce literature in Punjabi/Gurmukhi and revive pure Sikh doctrines. They were born out of their perceived need to defend Sikhism against prostelyzation from the Christians and Hindus.

Babbar Khalsa International - This group is known as one of the longest standing and most well organized Khalistan Sikh separatists groups. They target Nirakari sympathizers and their primary objective is an independent Sikh state. The groups radical views and activities are monitored by the governments of at least 3 countries currently.

Azad Sangathan - a group of Hindu extremists credited with anti-Muslim bombings. This is a group you rarely hear about but you should know who they are. It's only been in the past year or so that they were linked to the bombings but the incidents had been occurring for a while.

Beas/Radha Soami - (pronounced rod-ha swami) This is a religious group and place not too far from Amritsar. The teachings are based off several religious principles and they do not adhere to any one faith. They focus on service and following Santmat and Beas is an ashram where they carry out this service. Followers are vegan or lacto-vegetarian only.

Muslim League - Prior to the partition, this group wanted Amritsar to be incorporated into what is now Pakistan. At that time Amritsar's population was more than 50% Muslim and the Muslim National Guards Organization headquarters were shifted to Amritsar around the time of the partition. For more information on the conflicts that ensued as a result of this, read this book.

Religious Terms
Guru Granth Sahib - The prime Sikh holy book.

Bhagavad Gita -The prime Hindu holy book. It contains Lord Krishna's truths for life.

Quran - The central Muslim holy book. (Alternate spellings are Qur'an and Koran. Also known as Al-Qur'an.)

Waheguru -Means "God" in the Sikh religion. There are Sikh scriptures that indicates no one can describe the Waheguru but that he can be realized (as in noticed but not seen).

Keshdhari - This term applies to Sikhs who do not cut their hair, shave their faces or their bodies, etc. They leave their bodies just as God designed them. The term "kesh" refers to unshaven as a verb.

Sahajdhari - This term applies to Sikhs who either cut their hair, shave or both.

Santmat - a spiritual path, or way of life, aimed at enlightening the follower and connecting the soul with a higher purpose.

Brahman - The Hindu Ultimate Reality. This is also a name given to a caste denomination.

Rig Veda - The most well known of the 4 vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva), this is a collection of religious songs/hymns.

Upanishads - Scriptures of the Hindu religion. They devolped after meditation on the 4 Vedas.

Ashram - A living place for devotees of a guru OR the term used for the four stages of life

Sannyasin or Sadhu - A Hindu who renounces all worldly things. This includes clothes, family, money, homes, etc AND religion. They rely on the kindness and goodwill of others for survival.

Ik Onkar - a symbol representing the One Supreme Reality.

Ahl Al-Quran - This group believes that the Quran is the only holy scripture. They operate the International Islamic center. There are several sub-sects of this group based in Punjab. One particular sub-sect in Amritsar is Anjuman-i-Ummat-i Muslimaone. You can read more about this group in this study (you must pay for access unless you have college access to these journals).

Sat Sang - A person of any faith who follows a specific moral and religious code. Sat sangi's (sometimes spelled satsangi) does not eat meat or eggs and abstains from the use of alcohol.

Digambara and Shvetambara - The two main Jain groups. Both are strict vegetarian and abstain from eating garlic and onions. 

Sunni - The majority of the Muslims currently residing in Amritsar are Sunni.

Jat - a term applied to a section of the Sikh population. Scroll to the end of the link for a detailed explanation of exactly what a Jat is. (Or search the page to get there faster.)

The Amritsar Mission - This is a joint effort among several Christian faiths that are active in Amritsar. They supply missionaries to work in the community and lead people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.

Other Terms

Partition - While in the short form this means the splitting of India into 2 countries (India and Pakistan), it is much more than that to most. It was a time of great hardship, families being split up and a long-standing disconnection between the two sides of Punjab (it was split and part went to Pakistan while part stayed in India). This one split led to multiple violent periods in Punjabs history.

Operation Bluestar - A bloody, violent, military operation in 1984. It is believed Indira Gandhi was assassinated as revenge for this uprising since she ordered the attack. This is a very sensitive subject for many Amritsari's.

Varna - Caste. There are 4 main castes and each has many sub-castes called jati. Though caste is outlawed, many people still boast about their caste and still abide by the hierarchy system of it.

Dalit - Untouchable. This is the term given to the lowest caste. It is not as widely used in Amritsar as other places but you will hear it on the news. In some locations across India there are signs up expressly forbidding entry of dalit's into temples. ***In some circles/thoughts, all westerners are in this caste.

Moksha - Release from the cycle of rebirth.

Ahimsa - Do no harm. Do not upset, psychically hurt or otherwise cause unsettling trouble for other people.

SikhiWiki: Nirankari
South Asia Terrorism Portal:Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood
The Singh Sabha Movment

***Hinduism Glossary

Thank you! To the pardesi's and desi's who helped me edit this page for accuracy and to ensure the information provided is correct.


  1. Excellent & concisely written post.
    I wasn't familiar with all the branches & offshoots of Sikhism.
    Having lived in Kashmir & being married to a Kashmiri Muslim- I was surprised to learn about all the different sects of Islam in India- not just Sunni & Shia, but Bohras, the Chishti, the Ahmadiyya, Mahdahvism, the Zikris, etc.
    I was surprised to see a large Sikh community living in Kashmir. My husband says most of the Sikhs living in Kashmir are a part of the Khalistan separatist movement who fled to Kashmir to avoid 'persecution' & the riots from 1984 to the 1990's.
    I believe it because I've actually seen Sikhs attacking policemen & the CRPF in Kashmir.
    I remember one incident in our neighborhood in old Srinagar where a young Sikh man began throwing rocks at the CRPF men who were on patrol. (This was 2007.) He'd throw a few chunks of concrete at the CRPF men's backs & then hide in one of the many 'maze' like streets of old Srinagar. He managed to convince a few Kashmiri Muslim boys to join him in this 'game'. No one in the neighborhood knew this black turbaned Sikh, nor had they ever seen him before. Eventually the rock throwing escalated to the CRPF donning riot gear-(shields, helmets, & lathis) & chasing down the rock throwing males. Tear gas canisters were fired, numerous windows & windshields were broken by flying rocks- more CRPF men were brought in. The CPRF officers began knocking on doors & asking for the names of those throwing rocks. Everyone denied any knowledge of the rock-throwers identities. Why? Because the black turbaned Sikh had already gone around & threatened to burn down the home and or business of anyone who identified him. As the situation escalated further the CRPF men began marching through the neighborhood beating their lathis on their shields. We locked ourselves indoors & I was told by my family not to stand by the windows. I went up to the top floor of the family compound (4 stories) & watched out a glassless window in the attic anyway. The CRPF men stopped beating on their shields & began throwing rocks at anything & everything. Every window in the neighborhood was now broken, every door & gate dented or damaged. Then the CRPF men began destroying all the cars, scooters & motorcycles in the neighborhood by hitting them with their lathis. Our car had every window broken, the stereo stolen, the floor mats stolen, and huge dents all over made by the CRPF men. This was really getting NUTS.
    We remained locked in the family compound for 2 days while things gradually simmered down. What a mess, broken glass everywhere. The CRPF never really gained control of the situation, the rock throwers just sort of gradually migrated to the next neighborhood to start the same 'game' all over again.

  2. Thank you! I actually didn't even get into the ruling sects around Amritsar. This post was just getting so long already so I'm thinking a part 2 is coming in the future.

    That situation you wrote about was very scary. Thanks for sharing. Some terrorist activities occurred while I was in Amritsar as well though it was nothing like that. In Delhi once there were terrorist apprehended right next to us in the market while we were shopping. They had been planning an event for that night! In my experience most Indians dismiss the activity or ignore it to avoid inviting trouble to their families or because they don't believe it's that bad (desensitized maybe). It's quite scary to a foreigner.

  3. Seems we have an Indian dismissing 'activity' right here on this blog!

  4. wow! this is some extensive list of organizations and ideas. even to an indian (who should be familiar with these ideas) there is a lot lot that is new. thanks for compiling and sharing, APPI.

  5. hey iam in Amritsar and iam amazed how much u know about our culture and such .nice job !!!

  6. vara is not caste varnas are 4.
    castes are about 3500+ recognized by govt

  7. Azad Sangathan never heard of them & could not find any stuff about them or their involvement in terror
    give some links(reputed newspaper)

  8. I thought I had this link on the original post but it's obviously not there. Hmm...Anyway, here's one of the few articles about this group. It seems like they've been under the radar for a while but they are active in small ways.