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Prof. Devinder Singh Chahal, PhD


Serious struggle of supremacy between the Sikh clergy and the Sikh polity started sometime during 1998 when planning to celebrate the Tercentenary of Khalsa was going on. The struggle within the clergy also started on the implementation of Nanakshahi calendar. The circumstances, the Sikhs are passing through, indicate that the fight may be to decide who is superior amongst the whole clergy and whether Piri (Sikh clergy) is supreme or Miri (Sikh polity). The present article presents the Miri-Piri concept keeping in view the Gurbani and the history. A lot of damage has already been done to Sikhism at the international level because of the infighting. It is a high time for the Sikh intelligentsia to decide the Miri-Piri concept in Sikhism to contain further damages to Sikhism and should set an example for peaceful living for the future Sikh generations beyond 2000.


AGGS, M 1, P 1412 [1]

Every scholar, who writes on Miri-Piri, quotes the above stanza of Guru Nanak. Many articles have been written on this topic in the past including an Editorial in the Abstracts of Sikh Studies [ 2]. This editorial is the most extensive work on this topic ever written in the Sikh literature. It has been observed that in almost every article, dealing with Miri-Piri, the above stanza of Guru Nanak has been interpreted very literally. For example,

a) By Dr Gopal Singh [6]:
"If you seek to Play (the game) of Love, Then enter upon My Path with your head upon your palm. But, once you set your foot on My Way, Then find not a way out, and lay down thy head."
b) By Dr Gurcharan Singh Talib [11]:
"Shouldst thou seek to engage in the game of love, step into my street with thy head on thy palm. While on this stepping, ungrudgingly sacrifice your head."
c) By Manmohan Singh [9]:
"If thou yearnest to play at love with me, then come thou in my lane, placing thy head on the palm of thy hand. Put thou thy feet on this road, lay down thou thy head and mind not public opinion."
d) In the Editorial [2]:
"If you want to play the game of love, enter my lane with your head on your palm, and, once on this path, then waver not."
e) Dr Sahib Singh's interpretation in Punjabi [10] is almost same as given in English by other scholars.

I feel that these scholars [2, 6, 9, 10, 11] have not done full justification in interpreting this stanza because it does not portray the main theme of Miri-Piri presented allegorically in this stanza. Before interpreting it, it is very important to understand allegorical system in the writings of Guru Nanak. Allegories are commonly used for teaching or explaining ideas, moral principles, etc. Guru Nanak used allegories, metaphors, and similes extensively in expressing various themes in his philosophy. The 'theme of righteousness' has been explained allegorically in the above stanza. Let us break down the allegoric characteristics of the above stanza:

The word ... (praem) in English is 'love'. And 'love' means: feeling of brotherhood and good will toward other people. Here, therefore, 'love' is metaphor for righteousness*; ... (khaelan) is for 'participation or acceptance'; ... (sir dhar tali) is an allegoric expression for 'to be ready to sacrifice onself'; ... (itt marg paer dharizae) for 'to follow this path (of righteousness)'; ... (sir deejae) for 'to sacrifice oneself''; and ... (kaan na kijae) for 'don’t back out'. Now it can be interpreted as follows:

"If you want to participate in righteousness* then be ready to be sacrificed while treading on the path of my philosophy of righteousness. Once you accept this path (of righteousness) then don't back out of this."

(*Righteousness: uprightness, fairness, justness, rectitude; and also piety, saintliness, devoutness, devotion, reverence, religiousness, godliness, spirituality, zeal, worship. Therefore, participation in or treading on the path of righteousness is the Miri-Piri Concept of Guru Nanak.)


Let us consider Miri-Piri Concept in details according to information available in history and Nanakian Philosophy.

A. In History

a) In Christianity

In Christianity the concept of 'two swords' (temporal and spiritual - Miri and Piri) was enunciated by Pope Gelasius during 5th century. According to this doctrine, the church and state were coequal in status [12]. During the Middle Ages, by and by the Pope attained more power and wealth than all the kings and nobles combined. His subordinate officials - the archbishops, bishops, and abbots - were usually great feudal lords, with rich possessions and military strength. The power of the church was rooted in the spiritual force of excommunication. A person guilty of offense against the church was expelled from it, and all Christians, even members of his family, were forbidden to associate with him. Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1076. Populace uprisings soon forced Henry to beg absolution. If an excommunicated noble remained defiant, the church imposed an interdict. This closed the churches throughout the noble's realm. Marriages could not be performed, nor could the dead be buried in sacred ground. Few nobles dared risk the rebellious fury that such a decree would arouse in their subjects [3].

By the 13th century Pope Innocent III made extreme claims to the effect that Holy Roman emperor (state) was subordinate to the Pope (church) because of the relative significance of the different jurisdictions given the two institutions [12]. Wilson [12] reported three types of relationships between church and state: At one extreme is the subordination of politics to religion, as in a 'hierocracy' or rule of priests as the guardians of divine mysteries. The other extreme entails subordination of the religious institutions to the political regime, as in Caesaropapism. Between these extremes are various relationships ranging from an Erastian, or state-dominated church, to a theocratic political order, in which rulers are closely monitored by guardians of the dominant religious tradition, as in Iran in the early 1980s.

Beside the complete domination of the church during the Middle Ages (500-1500 CE) every Christian had to give a tithe (daswand) to the church - every tenth egg, sheaf of wheat, lamb, chicken, and all other animals. Beside this all the peasants gave about half their time for all types of manual work for the church [3].

b) In Ancient India

Dr Jai Dev Singh Kohli has explained Mir-Piri concept as follows[8]:

"In India, Code of Manu laid down for Kashatriyas to rule and Brahmins to handle dharma. But Brahmins eventually made rituals so complicated that Kashatriyas could still rule but only with the blessings of Brahmins. Brahmins, though not ruling directly, did manage to take control of the rulers. Kashatriyas were content and even happy as long as they ruled. Again Miri and Piri were invested in the spiritual group only."

B. In Nanakian Philosophy

a) The Tithe

In contrary to the system of tithe (daswand) in Christianity during the Middle Ages, Guru Nanak suggested to share their material wealth without any definite proportion, like the tithe, but as a sort of sharing with others voluntarily without any force.

AGGS, M 1, P 1245.

Nanak says: "The one, who earns with his sweat of brow and shares some of his earning with others, has recognized the real path of life."

It gave rise to a new system of pooling such contributions at a central place for meeting the expenses for preaching of Sikhism and on the collective welfare of the Sikhs at large and the needy Sikhs in particular. The funds, thus collected, are not for personal use by the person/s controlling the Sikh institute/s, like Christian clergy during the Middle Ages, but for the spread of Sikhism and the welfare of the Sikh Nation.

b) Miri-Piri

In Sikhism Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) brought Miri-Piri concept in the forefront at the time (June 12, 1606 CE) of his succession to the House of Nanak. On that day he wore two swords declaring one to be the symbol of the spiritual (Piri) and the other that of his temporal investiture [5]. According to Macauliffe [4], the Guru reported to Bhai Buddha Ji as follows:

"It is through thine intercession I obtained birth; and it is in fulfillment of thy blessing I wear two swords as emblems of spiritual and temporal authority. In the Guru's house religion and worldly enjoyment shall be combined - the caldron to supply the poor and needy and scimitar to smite oppressors."

The first portion, dealing about his birth in the above statement, appears to be based on the stories found in the traditional literature. Nevertheless, from the later part of the statement of Guru Hargobind it is clear that in Guru's house besides being religious one can enjoy all the worldly comforts and riches, and must share with the needy. It clearly indicates that spiritual and temporal (worldly enjoyment) lives should go together in a person but it does not establish superiority of Piri over Miri or vice versa. It is also clear that the caldron is to supply food to the poor and one should be strong enough to defend oneself from oppression of any kind. Here the scimitar (kirpan) is a metaphor for any suitable approach to smite the oppression.

Dr Jai Dev Singh represented the concept of Miri-Piri in Sikhism as follows [8]:

In Sikhs Miri Piri has great significance... At the time of his coronation, Guru Hargobind asked Baba Budda ji to get him two swords and put the traditional Saili away with great respect. The two swords represented Miri and Piri respectively. He wore two swords, one on each side, completely separate from each other meeting briefly at one intersection only, thus symbolizing that the two powers were separate altogether and yet so close they have to exist in life together… Thus Guru Hargobind ji separated Miri and Piri, recognizing both as the essential integral part of life.

c) Kirpan (Sword)

In every article on Miri-Piri the use of kirpan by the Sikhs is mentioned extensively. The Editorial [2] has specifically mentioned the use of kirpan as follows:

"The kirpan constantly reminds the Sikhs of three things. First, of his responsibilities to confront injustice and oppression in the political field, both as an individual and as member of the Sikh society. Second, the use of force, to the extent necessary, is permitted. The third reminder is equally significant, namely, that the Sikh society should never shirk its socio-political responsibilities, nor decline into monasticism, withdrawal or asceticism."

It is strange that the most important use of kirpan as a metaphor of 'wisdom' as shown in the Nanakian Philosophy has been ignored entirely in this Editorial [2]. For example,the use of kirpan as 'wisdom' to kill the five evils, i. e. lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego:
AGGS, M. 1, p. 1022.

Taking up the sword of wisdom, one struggles with his mind, and keeps one's hopes and desires under control and destroys one's five enemies, i. e. lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego.

AGGS, M 3, p 1414.

Those, who are awakened to the teachings of the Guru, kill the five demons (lust, anger, greed, attachment, ego) with the sword of wisdom given by the Guru.

AGGS, M 5, p 1072.

With the Lord’s blessing I was given the sword of wisdom. With this sword I succeeded in slaying the enemies (lust, anger, greed, attachment, ego).

AGGS, M 4, p 983.

"The wave of greed is like a mad dog when bites the others make them greedy (mad). The news of the Almighty, received through the Guru, advises me that greed (mad dog) can be killed by the sword of wisdom."

The irony is that many writers in their writings on the Miri-Piri generally ignore the above most important advice given in the Nanakian philosophy. Now let us consider what is Miri-Piri Concept according to the Nanakian Philosophy and the information available in history.

The term 'Miri' (Persian word) has been used as a simile for the king, the ruler, and the rich, and 'Piri' (Persian word) for the spiritual leader, Guru, and even for the Almighty in the Gurbani to explain various themes. The following stanza gives a clear picture of the Miri-Piri Concept of Guru Nanak:
AGGS, M 1, P 417.

"Hearing of the invasion of Mir (Babur - Mughal), millions of Pirs (religious persons) were engaged by Pathans (Mirs) for performing miracles (praying and reciting of Kalmas /mantras) to check the attack. But he (Mir - Babur) burned all the age-old temples and resting places, and princes (the other Mirs - Pathans) were cut into pieces and were thrown away. Not even a single Mughal (Mir) was blinded by Pirs and none of their miracles could check the invasion of Mughals (Mir)."

At the end of the above verse Guru Nanak Says:

"Laws of the Nature are going on under the order of the Almighty. Therefore, every one gets what one sows (whether one is Mir or Pir)."

The theme of the above verse clearly indicates that Pirs engaged by Mirs (Pathans) had no power to check the invasion. Similarly, the Mirs (Pathan) having all the powers also failed to check the invasion by another Mir (Mughal). The winner was the one who had confidence in oneself (Piri) rather than dependence on other Pirs for miracles to be performed. Beside, the winner also had fighting ammunition (Miri) to defend and attack the enemy. In the above stanza there is no indication of superiority of Piri over Miri or vice versa.

Guru Arjan has further strengthened the above concept of Miri-Piri as follows:
AGGS, M 5, P 320.

"Build your homeland on truth and righteousness, the unshakable pillars. And take the support of the Almighty, who sustains the world."

{Here ...(dharam) is the metaphor for righteousness}

Here again there is no indication of superiority of Piri over Miri or vice versa. Guru Hargobind was propagating the philosophy of Guru Nanak that none of the forces, Piri or Miri is superior over the other. Becoming of Pir by renouncing the household is of no avail. Similarly, establishment of Miri (kingship, power) without doing good deeds for the public is also not the way of salvation.

Now it is clear that Nanakian Philosophy teaches the development of truth and righteousness in individuals as well as in the governance. The Miri-Piri System discussed in the Editorial [2] describes it as spirituo-ethical principle and socio-spiritual life without superiority of Piri over Miri as is evident from its conclusions:

"Theirs (Gurus) is a this-worldly system calling upon man to live a life of love and hope, and zealously to struggle against evil, and for the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is Guru Nanak who gave the call for a life of love, and to waver not from making sacrifice in the struggle against evil. In their Scripture compiled and authenticated by the Gurus, they not only laid down distinct spirituo-ethical principles of life and the responsibilities of man, but also demonstrated in their personal lives extending over almost two and half centuries how to live a true socio-spiritual life. They trained, conditioned and motivated an organised society led by them to struggle against all forces that impede the socio-spiritual progress of man."

Similarly, the following representation of Miri-Piri concept reported by Major Gurbax Singh [7] is also not supporting the superiority of Piri over Miri or vice versa and also clearly emphasizes the absence of priestly hierarchy in Sikhism:

"Combination of Miri-Piri does not envisage a theocratic system of government. Among the Sikhs, there is no priestly hierarchy. Secondly, as is evidenced by the Khalsa rule in practice, first briefly under Banda Singh Bhahadur and later under the Sikh misls and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the form of government established was religiously neutral. Religion representing Piri did provide moral guidance to the state representing Miri, and the state provided protection and support equally to the followers of different faiths. Along with the liberation of the individual soul, the Sikh faith seeks the betterment of the human state as a whole by upholding the values of freedom of belief from the oppressive authority, of man over man. Religious faith is the keeper of human conscience and the moral arbiter for guiding and regulating the exercise of political authority, which must defend and ensure freedom of thought, expression and worship. This juxtaposition of the moral and secular obligations of man is the central point of the Sikh doctrine of Miri-Piri."

The irony is that in the traditional literature the concept of Miri-Piri is interpreted contrary to that given in the Nanakian Philosophy as described above. The traditional literature favors the upper hand of Piri (religious authority) on the Miri (state) and also accepts that Piri (Sikhism) cannot be disseminated and popularized without the help of the state (Miri).


  1. Christian clergy was in complete control over the state during the Middle Ages. The clergy had the so-called spiritual power to excommunicate anybody including the king. Therefore, nobody dared to speak against the clergy. By the end of 20th century in Europe and North America the Miri-Piri Concept has reached a level where clergy does not interfere with the state and state does not interfere with the religion (clergy).
  2. In Islamic countries the clergy is trying to control the state, e.g. in Iran and Afghanistan, like the Christian clergy did during Middle Ages.
  3. In India there are indications that the Hindu clergy may start fuming the same trend or as was practiced in ancient India.
  4. The struggle between the Sikh clergy (Piri) and the Sikh polity (Miri - state), started during the celebration of Tercentenary of Khalsa, is still going on. It is difficult to predict how long this struggle of supremacy of Miri or Piri will continue. Under these circumstances it becomes imperative for the Sikh intelligentsia to work out soon which type of Miri-Piri is applicable to the Sikhs. Is it one of the above three types of relationships reported by Wilson [12] or the Miri-Piri Concept of Nanakian Philosophy.


    AGGS = Aad Guru Granth Sahib. 1983 (reprint) 1430 p. Publishers: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. (M = Mahla, i.e., succession number of the Sikh Gurus to the House of Guru Nanak, P = Page of the AGGS).
  1. AGGS = Aad Guru Granth Sahib. 1983 (reprint).
  2. Abstracts of Sikh Studies, July 1993. Editorial. Sikhism: A Miri-Piri System. Pp1-51. Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh.
  3. Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Copyright 1997. The Peasant's Life; The Church. The Learning Company, Inc. 6160 Summit Drive North, Minneapolis, MN 55430, USA.
  4. Macauliffe, M. A. 1893. The Sikh Rekigion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. 6 Vols. Reprint in 1978. S. Chand & Co., Ltd., Delhi.
  5. Singh, Fauja. 1996. Hargobind, Guru (1595-1644). ). In: Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Harbans Singh, Editor-in-Chief, Punjabi University, Patiala. Vol. II: Pp 232-235.
  6. Singh, Dr Gopal. 1987. Sri Guru Granth Sahib. 4 vols. World Sikh Centre, Inc. New Delhi.
  7. Singh, Major Gurbax. 1997. Miri-Piri. In: The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Harbans Singh, Editor-in-Chief, Punjabi University, Patiala, Vol III p 91.
  8. Singh, JaiDev. 2000. Comments on previous articles. Understanding Sikhism Res. J. 2 (1): 37-38.
  9. Singh, Manmohan. 1972. Hymns of Guru Nanak (Punjabi and English). Language Department, Punjab, India.
  10. Singh, Sahib. 1972. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan (Punjabi), 10 vol. Raj Publishers (Reg.), Jallandhar.
  11. Talib, Gurbachan Singh. 1988. Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Vols. 4.Punjabi University, Patiala.
  12. Wilson, John F. 1998. Church and State. Microsoft ® 98 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
Also appeared in SPOKESMAN Weekly
(Monthly Issue, March 2000), pp 37-41,
Under the Title:
Miri-Piri Concept
the Ongoing Feud at Amritsar