The practise of Jhatka is one of the most recognisable rituals of the Nihang Singhs. It involves killing an animal, usually a goat, with one swift swing of a sword which painlessly kills the animal with one blow. Jhatka is one of the most contentious and misunderstood traditions of the Nihang Singhs. It has always been an important tradition within the Khalsa and its existence is well documented in historical literature. At major festivals and celebrations Nihang Singhs perform Jhatka and distribute the resulting goat meat which is termed Mahaparshad, meaning blessed food. Within the Dalpanth, mobile battalions of the Nihang Singhs, Jhatka is performed much more regularly and meat forms and important part of the diet due to the rigorous and physically demanding lifestyle its members live.
“Jhatka is a distinguishable tradition of the Nihang Singhs. The Khalsa has been performing Jhatka since the time of the Gurus, it is part of our Kshatri (warrior) tradition. One is at liberty to choose for themselves whether or not they wish to eat Mahaparshad. Many oppose the tradition of Jhatka and the British tried to ban it, this means nothing to us and we will carry practising the traditions entrusted to us by our Gurus.” (Jathedar Baba Joginder Singh Nihang 96 Krori, Audio Recording May 2009)
The internationally renowned Sikh preacher Giani Thakur Singh Ji, a student of Damdami Taksal, explains the tradition as follows:
"Nihang Singhs eat Jhatka meat because of their traditions. The Guru allowed this tradition of Jhatka to be practised within his army and by his soldiers; it was not for civilians to eat. Maharaj said to them that if need be you may Jhatka an animal and eat it, not just goats or chickens but any animal you may find in the jungle. The Nihang Singhs of today still follow this tradition. When performing Jhatka on a goat, first the goat is bathed, then Japji Sahib and Chandi Di Var are read. One Singh stands by the head of the goat and upon the final lines of Chandi Di Var being read, ‘Those who sing this divine ballad will be liberated from the realm of life and death’, at this moment the goat is decapitated with one blow and the soul of the goat is liberated. The goat itself lowers its head to receive salvation”. (Giani Thakur Singh, Asa Di Var Viakhya Part 25)
Once the goats head has been removed in one blow, the blood is collected in an iron utensil and is used to anoint the Guru’s battle standards and weaponry in the Gurus army. This is a form of shastar puja or weapons worship. Jathedar Baba Surjeet Singh explains;
“Weapons are sustained by blood. We make an offering to our weapons which have been praised extensively by the Tenth Guru within their writings. We offer the blood to the Guru’s battle standards and pray that whenever we go to war with the Guru’s grace we shall be victorious.” (Oral Interview, July 2007)
The goat is then skinned; the skin of a goat has historically had great worth within the Sikh tradition. As well as being used to make various utensils and clothing, goats skin continues to be used to prepare Tabla drums which can be found in all Sikh Gurdware to accompany other instruments in the rendition of Kirtan (religious music). Furthermore, goats skin was also used to make the battle drums (nagara) of the Khalsa. Rattan Singh Bhangu mentions that when a small group of Singhs under the command of Nihang Tara Singh Wan were preparing for battle against a large Turk force sent from Lahore;
‘Jhatka was performed on a goat and its skin was removed. Immediately the Singhs made a nagara (battle drum) using its skin.’ (Pracchin Panth Parkash Steek, Part 1, Page 531)
The meat of the goat is cooked and served as mahaparshad ‘blessed food’. There are various accounts of Sri Guru Gobind Singhs Ji themselves eating Mahapashad, including the meat of a lion;
‘On one occasion Guru Sahib went to hunt prey. They showed the Rajput princes how to kill a lion and then ate the mahaparshad.’ (Sau Sakhi Steek, Part 1, page 197)
Jhatka in Sikh history and philosphy
The tradition traces back to the time of Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji who started the tradition of hunting for Sikhs. Even today Nihang Singhs continue to enjoy hunting trips and often wear either boar tusks or lion claws as a decorative piece as a trophy of their hunt. The Sikh community situated at Hazoor Sahib also frequently hunt in the jungles surrounding Nander. However, Shikaar (hunting) and Jhatka have been a much more ancient tradition practised by Rajputs and Kshatris, i.e. warriors of India. The goat is the favourite animal for Nihang Singhs to Jhatka. Bhai Gurdas Ji, the foremost philosopher of the Sikh tradition elucidates various reasons for this;
In the inimitable Sikh spirit of divine service to humanity, Sardar Karam Singh ji, the father of Baba Mit Singh ji , sadly passed away in 1903 while freely administering medicine to plague victims in the region. Baba Mit Singh ji was also briefly infected with the deadly plague, though he was marvellously healed by God's holy touch.
‘The proud elephant is inedible and none eats the mighty lion. The Goat is humble and hence it is respected and honoured everywhere. On occasions of death, joy, marriage and such celebrations only its meat is accepted. Among the householders its meat is acknowledged as sacred and with its gut stringed instruments are made. From its leather the shoes are made to be used by the saints merged in their meditation upon the Lord. Drums are mounted by its skin and then in the holy congregation the delight-giving kirtan, eulogy of the Lord, is sung. In fact, going to the holy congregation is the same as going to the shelter of the true Guru.’ (Vaar 23, Pauri 16)
The tradition was later reinforced by Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, who upon delivering baptismal vows to the Khalsa instructed;
‘Drink the immortal nectar and upon joining the Khalsa fold go hunting. Continually seek to perfect your use of weapons. Perform Jhatka and eat goats. Do not even go near Halal meat.’ (Pracchin Panth Parkash Steek, Part 1, Page 110)
As well as providing nutritional value, Jhatka helps prepare one for the scenes which are witnessed in warfare, many do not take likely to scenes of blood and death and therefore the exposure to Jhatka is essential. Furthermore, the head of goat is believed to require roughly the same amount of force that is required to take off the head of a man. Thus, Jhatka has been a great way for Nihang Singhs to practise their martial skills.
Importantly the ritual of Jhatka has further esoteric value for a spiritual seeker. Firstly, it involves a series of prayers and forms of worship. It involves visualising the destructive energy of the Divine in the form of the sword. Mahakaal, the timeless aspect of the divine is invoked as death approaches for the animal which ultimately lowers it head surrendering before God. It is said if an animal suffers at death or is frightened one bares that suffering and emotion upon consuming its flesh. This belief system suggests that the consumption of that food, where the animal has died surrendering itself before God would promote humility and Godly devotion within those who eat the flesh. The stroke of the sword personifies the speed within which death may strike down all. Jhatka can also be seen as an expression of one conquering their own animalistic instincts, moving beyond their lower self. In the same way that reading duels between forces of good and evil one seeks to conquer their own demons, upon visualising Akaal and performing Jhatka one offers a prayer to the Guru to rid them of their inner pasu, characteristic of the lower self. It is the historical traditions and spiritually enriching elements associated with Jhatka that are important, rather than simply just the consumption of flesh, that is important for warrior Nihang Singhs of the Guru to maintain. Therefore, all Nihang battalions forbid the consumption of non-Jhatka meat, this will be looked at in greater detail later in the article.
The tradition of Jhatka is closely related to the martial writings of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji which often discuss the ancient and cosmically ongoing warfare between the forces of good and evil. Many ignorant people and their farcical organisations may seek to question the writings of the Tenth Guru, but they alone who spent many hours reciting the writings of their father know the Bir Ras (warrior spirit) which is contained within the Tenth Guru’s writings. Baba Teja Singh Nihang Singh, a student of Sant Giani Gurbachan Singh Bhinderanwale, notes the additional practises which occur when Nihang Singhs perform an Akhand Path (continuous reading) of Dasam Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji;
‘Throughout the whole reading coconuts and sugarcanes are chopped, large amounts of Karah Parshad (blessed food) is given out openly and Shaheedi Degh (drink of the martyrs) made with some amount of Sukhnidhan (cannibas) is also given out openly. Once the reading has been completed Jhatka is performed upon a goat and its blood is used as an anointment. These maryada (traditions) are very difficult to maintain and is practised by great warriors... for more information regarding these traditions one should speak the Guru’s beloved Nihang Singhs.’ (Adi-Dasam Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji de Patha Dee Sankheph Maryada, Page 23)
The tradition of ritually sacrificing goats and consuming Mahaparshad remains alive not only with the Nihang Singh Dals, but also at Sachkhand Sri Hazoor Sahib and Sachkhand Sri Patna Sahib (two of the Sikhs holiest shrines). It is also worth noting that the ‘official’ Akal Takht maryada published SGPC also permits the consumption of jhatka meat.
Jhatka also used to happen at the Sri Akal Takht Sahib. According to the historical literature of the Sikhs, when a dispute between the Tat Khalsa and Bandai Sikhs was resolved in favour of the Tat Khalsa Nihang Singhs, Jhatka was performed in front of the Akal Takht and the Bandai Sikhs were only reaccepted into the Khalsa fold after the eating meat as an act of rejecting the Bishnoi practices which they adopted. With the Tat Khalsa and Bandai Khalsa divide also came about the first division of differences regarding diet. The nephew of Sant Baba Thakur Singh, Jathedar Baba Trilok Singh Ji states;
‘We read in history that when a dispute between the Sikhs arose it was settled in favour of the meat eating Tat Khalsa. A slip was taken from Tat Khalsa and one from Banda Khalsa and placed in the holy pool at Harimandir Sahib for the Guru to decide which group were the true Sikhs. It was the meat eating Tat Khalsa Nihang Singhs that the Guru chose to show were the true Khalsa.’ (Oral Interview, February 2009)
The practise of Jhatka outside the Akal Takht was only stopped in the twentieth century by the SGPC (organisation entrusted with running of Sikh temples) despite the official Akal Takht code of conduct published by the SGPC stating that Sikhs may eat Jhatka meat. During the British Raj various measures were taken in order to dilute the martial spirit of the Sikhs in order to rid the Sikhs of their natural revolutionary resistant spirit. The British had many individuals and groups working directly and indirectly to push forward their innovations within the Sikh community. Of the most noted individuals is one Teja Singh Bhasuaria of the Panch Khalsa Diwan; a retired government employee who is held responsible for raising doubts over the Raagmala, writings of the Bhagats, writings of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji and for removing the word Bhagauti (meaning sword) from the Sikh Ardas. Furthermore, he and his cult were also responsible for removing hymns which invoke martial spirit from traditional Sikh prayers such as Rehras Sahib.
From the writings of Principal Teja Singh, a vivid Sikh academic who often criticised British involvement in Sikh affairs, we learn that the ritual of Jhatka was banned by the British:
‘The Guru introduced this idea of Jhatka among his followers, which being incorporated later on by Guru Gobind Singh among the baptismal vows prescribed by him is still insisted on by Sikhs as a mark of their liberty. It stands for freedom of food, which was maintained as long as Sikhs were politically free. But with the coming of the British it was suspended for us, and we are still waiting for the day when we should be again free in the matter of food.’ (Sikhs as Liberators, page 5)
Despite this particular writing of Principal Teja Singh being published by the SGPC, it is the SGPC which has taken great efforts to minimise the significance and hide the history of Jhatka from the Sikhs. For example as well as willingly stopping the Jhatka from happening in front of Sri Akal Takht Sahib as it had been for centuries, they also restricted the availability of the Jhatka Parkash Granth – a text written by Bhai Narinjan Singh Saral on the tradition of Jhatka. Thus, despite historically having members who were critics of British influence in Sikh affairs, the Nihang Singhs and many Sikhs believe that as an organisation the SGPC is but an extension of British attempts of reforming Sikhi.
Jhatka Parkash Granth
The Jhatka Parkash Granth is a direct refutation of the misinformed but largely propagated views of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh Ji regarding the tradition of Jhatka. Bhai Randhir Singh was a highly respected Sikh saint and reformist during the twentieth century whose views were largely influenced by Bhasauria due to the strong relationship the two held for many years. Eventually Bhai Randhir Singh broke ties with Bhasauria once the latter had been excommunicated from the Sikh community after committing many blasphemies. However, some of his ideas continued to resemble those of Bhasauria who had managed to dramatically change the ideological foundations of the Sikh tradition with long standing consequences.
Disturbed by the views of Bhai Randhir Singh regarding meat which were outlined in his text ‘Tat Gurmat Nirne’, Giani Narinjan Singh Saral, a leading preacher of the SGPC, in detail refuted Bhai Randhir Singh’s views on Jhatka. Foremost, he highlights that Bhai Randhir Singh grossly misunderstood and misrepresented certain passages of Gurbani and that this misunderstanding is that root of his misinformed views on Jhatka and outlines complexities of scriptural interpretation. Giani Narinjan Singh addresses the root of every question and doubt raised against Jhatka by eloquently analysing etymology, ideology, history and philosophy surrounding Jhatka and related concepts. He praises Nihang Singhs for keeping alive the tradition of Jhatka and highlights that at the time of his writing Jhatka was performed at all Sikh Takhts, thrones of temporal authority:
‘The traditions of Kshatri Dharam, the ideals of Jhatka and the custom of anointing weapons with blood have been kept alive until now by the Nihang Singh battalions. Until today this tradition still exists at all Sikh Takhts, should for any reason this be stopped it would be great manmat (egocentric action of men which is against the teachings of the Gurus)’ (Jhatka Parkash, Page 228)
Giani Niranjan Singh states that during the writing of his book and afterwards he received many threats from the followers of Bhai Randhir Singh. Bhai Randhir Singh devotees consisted of largely urban well to do Sikhs who as a result of their financial strength had significant influence within the religious sphere. It is unfortunate that great efforts were taken to remove Jhatka parkash from all libraries and book shops limiting its existence to handful of private collections
Jhatka and Individual Spiritual Development
As a result of such historical whitewashing, today many practising Sikhs believe that Sikhs of old never practised Jhatka, despite ample references and sources to Jhatka and hunting existing in literature stretching around four centuries to the time of the 6th Guru. As well as deliberate attempts to rid Sikhi of its martial elements, this is also partly due to the influence of Sants (saints). Promoting the value of Satogun (saintly virtues) amongst their followings, Sants encourage their followers to refrain from meat as it considered to promote Tamogun. However, the value of Tamogun does form part of the Nihang Singh lifestyle (for more information see philosophy section). Recognising the importance of Jhatka for Nihang Singhs many Sants of past and present have at times made offerings of Goats to Nihang Singh battalions. Sant Joga Singh of Karnal closely associated with the Nanaksar samprada is one such saint.
The effect of meat on a person’s spirituality varies from individual to individual, the great saint and author Bhai Raghbir Singh Bir in his writings on spiritual living writes;
‘It is my personal view that excessive consumption of meat has evil effects and retards the spiritual progress. Its consumption should be reduced to the minimum. More liberal use should be made of milk, fruit and vegetables. I have, at times, eaten meat daily, and at other times, avoided it for a full year at a stretch, and have come to the conclusion that meat should be eaten sparingly, say, once or twice a week. Of course, those who do not eat meat at all, considering it unsuitable for spiritual growth are at liberty to do so as they choose.’ (Bandgi Nama – Communion with the Divine, page 194)
The possible negative impacts of meat consumption should also be considered. For example if an individual has difficulty maintaining self discipline such as arising early in the morning and following a set routine, then consumption of heavy food such as Jhatka meat should not be consumed. For this reason Jhatka is only practised by Nihang Singhs as a matter of preserving the Gurus tradition and not for pleasure of the tongue. It should only be eaten by those of martial inclination;
“Today people have changed traditions in order to please the desire of the tongue and eat other forms of meat from shops etc...Jhatka was a special tradition that was only for the soldiers of the Guru to practise, not normal householder Sikhs.” (Giani Thakur Singh, Asa Di Var Viakhya Part 25)
Partap Singh Mehta, while commenting on the Gurus instructions regarding meat states;
‘Satguru has ordered one to make the following choice, first draw a line and decide which side you want to stand on. If you wish to carry arms and live according to Kshatri Dharam (way of a warrior) then you should go hunting, hold foremost Kshatri ideals and eat meat. If you wish to stay Vaishnu (vegetarian) or follow the path of the saints then meat is forbidden. Those who wish just to meditate on God and those of Sattvic nature should not eat meat as it promotes Tamogun within the mind. They who practise for Dharam yudh and the protection of the weak, in battle they must spill much blood and be ready to sacrifice their own life. Such a person should have no fear of hunting and eating meat as they are preserving their Kshatri Dharam. But remember this, to eat meat because the tongue desires it or to indulge in pleasure is sin and in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji it is said such a person will reap severe punishment.’ (Sau Sakhi Steek, Part 2, page 137)
Liberating the Animal
Those Sikhs who study history or the writitings of the Guru’s learn that Jhatka was performed and the Gurus themselves were fond hunters. However, many Sikhs object to the idea of killing animals. A common belief is that it was ‘acceptable’ for the Gurus to kill animals because they had within them the ability to liberate the animals while humans do not. Indeed many lay Sikhs confidently and assertively propound this argument believing it to be an enlightened observation, in truth it is a flawed observation and shows a lack of understanding of Sikh tradition. Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji and Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji would take their beloved troops hunting and encourage such martial practises, therefore it is little surprise that the these traditions continue to flourish within the Guru’s battalions. With regards to the power of a human, it is entirely correct that one mortal being does not have the ability to liberate another. However, as a whole the Khalsa was invested the authority of Guru which ultimately implies that within the Khalsa resides the same miraculous ability and grace that was possessed by the Guru in their human form. It is the Gurbani which ultimately liberates the animal, as highlighted at the beginning of this article Jhatka is performed following the concluding lines of the Chandi Di Var which ends;
‘The composition of Durga has been poetically composed. Whosoever recites that shall not again take birth.’ (Dasam Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 325)
Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji at Kurukshetra
It is unfortunate that meat has become a popular issue of debate within Sikh circles at the expense of greater attention to matters more beneficial to an individual’s spiritual development. Indeed, amongst the Brahmin community who for centuries intellectually dominated India, the consumption of flesh was considered as a vile practise. Thus the performance of Jhatka and consumption of Mahaparshad is a clear inversion of brahmanical values. Upon cooking the meat of a deer in the holy city of on a solar eclipse, considered an auspicious occasion, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji wrote the following shabad following discourse with leading Brahmin scholars;
‘The fools argue about flesh and meat, but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom. What is called meat, and what is called green vegetables? What leads to sin? It was the habit of the gods to kill the rhinoceros, and make a feast of the burnt offering. Those who renounce meat, and hold their noses when sitting near it, devour men at night. They practice hypocrisy, and make a show before other people, but they do not understand anything about meditation or spiritual wisdom. O Nanak, what can be said to the blind people? They cannot answer, or even understand what is said. They alone are blind, who act blindly. They have no eyes in their hearts. They are produced from the blood of their mothers and fathers, but they do not eat fish or meat. But when men and women meet in the night, they come together in the flesh. In the flesh we are conceived, and in the flesh we are born; we are vessels of flesh. You know nothing of spiritual wisdom and meditation, even though you call yourself clever, O religious scholar. O master, you believe that flesh on the outside is bad, but the flesh of those in your own home is good. All beings and creatures are flesh; the soul has taken up its home in the flesh. They eat the uneatable; they reject and abandon what they could eat. They have a teacher who is blind. In the flesh we are conceived, and in the flesh we are born; we are vessels of flesh. You know nothing of spiritual wisdom and meditation, even though you call yourself clever, O religious scholar. Meat is allowed in the Puraanas, meat is allowed in the Bible and the Koran. Throughout the four ages, meat has been used. It is featured in sacred feasts and marriage festivities; meat is used in them. Women, men, kings and emperors originate from meat. If you see them going to hell, then do not accept charitable gifts from them. The giver goes to hell, while the receiver goes to heaven - look at this injustice. You do not understand your own self, but you preach to other people. O Pandit, you are very wise indeed. O Pandit, you do not know where meat originated. Corn, sugar cane and cotton are produced from water. The three worlds came from water. Water says, ""I am good in many ways."" But water takes many forms. Forsaking these delicacies, one becomes a true Sannyaasee, a detached hermit. Nanak reflects and speaks. ||2|| (Adi Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 1289)
Khulla Maas-Freedom of Meat
Nihang leaders stress the point meat resulting from Jhatka performed according to Nihang Singh traditions may be consumed, no other meat from shops etc, known as ‘khulla mass’ or freedom of meat, can be eaten:
‘This is not Kshatri Dharam (way of a warrior). Don’t shame us by wondering in shops, restaurants, market places etc eating meat, refrain from doing this! Perform Jhatka with your own hands and go hunting for prey. Only then are we permitted to eat meat’ (Jathedar Baba Santa Singh, Pracchin Panth Parkash Steek, Part 1, page 110)
“Those who wish to eat meat should eat Jhatka which gears individuals towards warfare. Those Sikhs who just wish to perform selfless service and meditate should avoid meat and maintain a very simple diet. There is no obligation on anyone to eat meat, one should never eat khulla mass.” (Jathedar Baba Joginder Singh, Oral Interview July 2006)
“It is important to perform Jhatka to anoint our weapons with blood and make an offering to Bhagauti. It then becomes mahaparshad (great blessed food) and one is free to make their own choice whether or not they want to eat this. Guru Sahib has instructed that one may perform Jhatka and eat meat. However, one should never eat meat brought from shops, butchers or restaurants. Who knows in what condition the animal, what illnesses it may have had and by what means it was killed?”(Jathedar Baba Surjit Singh, Oral Interview July 2007)
Jhatka is an ancient Kshatri ritual which the Sikhs have practised since the times of Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji and was reinforced by Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji. It is of great spiritual significance and also serves physical purposes. Prominent Sikh historians of past and present and non-Sikhs sources have given various examples of Jhatka being performed, including at the Sri Akal Takht Sahib. Deliberate attempts to demilitarise Sikhs and efforts of Sikh saints have lead to many Sikhs being ignorant of this historical tradition. Nihang Singhs and other Sikhs have kept alive this tradition and forbid consumption of non-Jhatka meat.