Concepts in sikhism

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MAYA, (Wazir Singh) written and pronounced in Punjabi as maia. As a philosophic category in the Indian tradition, maya is interpreted variously as a veil or curtain concealing reality; the phenomenal world as it appears over against things-in-themselves; the grand illusion or the cosmic principle of illusion. Maya is assumed to stand between man and reality, producing error and illusion in the human mind, and creating difficulties in the individual’s progress to a state of knowledge and bliss.

The Advaitic conception of maya endows it with unique and matchless powers. It is conceived as parallel to Brahm, for both are treated as beginningless (anadi) and beyond adequate expression in human terms. The world of names and forms is a product of maya, which is indicative of its powers of creating illusion and of concealing reality. Only for a spiritually advanced individual maya ceases to be, and Brahma alone remains. Maya continues to exist for the rest of mankind as an objective entity.

Sikhism does not subscribe to this extreme objectification of maya in the Vedantic theory. The Gurus do not assign to it the character of a metaphysical category in the framework of their scriptural compositions. Of course, the figures of Brahma, Visnu and Siva, as also of maya, frequently find place in gurbani (utterance of the Gurus) indicative of a link with the tradition of Indian thought; but these figures stand only for the powers of the Divine. Brahma, for instance, is not to be taken in the literal sense of a creator with absolute authority. Likewise, maya as an independent creative power would be out of place with the spirit of gurbani. The only agency that governs the process of nature is nature itself as a manifestation of hukam, the Divine Ordinance. Guru Nanak describes such a world as an empty shadow misleading the world (GG, 932). It is an ephemeral world falsely viewed as eternal in itself. It is like the fire of a single straw, a cloud’s shadow becoming flood water (GG, 717).

Emphasis on the ephemerality and non-permanence of the cosmic order is, however, only one interpretation of the Gurus’ conception of maya and the world. Maya is that of which the essence is time; it has come into being at the will of the Divine, and must disappear when He so ordains. In other words, maya or phenomenal Nature is neither beginningless nor self-sufficient. It rests in the Creator, whose creation it is. But at the same time, it is also the embodied manifestation of the Eternal Spirit. Transient it may be, but it is not unreal. This world is the abode of God; the True and Eternal one resides in it (GG, 463).

In modern times, maya has been interpreted in several ways, departing from the exclusive meaning assigned to it by the orthodox Indian view, viz. grand illusion, giving maya an ontological status while denying reality to it. Dr. Radhakrishnan is known to have distinguished phenomenality and unreality, a view that comes quite close to the Sikh view. The world is phenomenal but not unreal; it is not real either. In Radhakrishnan, who seeks to unite Sankara and Ramanuja taking their positions as complementary, at least six meanings of the term maya, other than ‘grand illusion’, have been discerned. These are: inexpressibility of maya, as the relation between the Absolute and the world, not fully comprehensible to the human mind; creative activity of God, or his power of self-becoming ( maya-sakti); duality of all things in the world-process, a mixture of spirit and nature; primal matter (prakriti), that is, the Absolute with maya; concealment: God is enveloped in the cloak of maya; and lastly, one-sided dependence, that is of the world on the Absolute.

In gurbani, maya is also equated with wealth (material goods) as also with the sense of attachment to worldly possessions. Most often, the term denotes delusion, since under the spell of maya, the mind is not able to distinguish truth from falsehood, the ever-lasting from the ephemeral, the essence from mere appearance. In a word, maya in Sikhism connotes avidya, that is ignorance. This is the subjective dimension of maya, as opposed to the Advaitic approach that not only emphasizes the objective aspect, but leads to an emphatic objectification in its treatment of the concept. The Sikh system acknowledges the existence of maya, and lays stress on the lessening of its spell on the human mind, so that with the liberated psychic faculties, one may attain to the state of spiritual enlightenment —a state wholly exempt from the trance of maya, a state of being liberated from its web and being one with the Absolute.


1. Taran Singh, ed., Teachings of Guru Nanak Dev. Patiala, 1977.

2. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1981

3. Greenlees, Duncan, The Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib. Madras, 1960

4. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

5. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

6. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Nirnai. Lahore, 1932

W. S.
MIRI-PIRI (Major Gurmukh Singh), compound of two words, both of Perso-Arabic origin, adapted into the Sikh tradition to connote the close relationship within it between the temporal and the spiritual. The term represents for the Sikhs a basic principle which has influenced their religious and political thought and governed their societal structure and behaviour. The word miri, derived from Persian mir, itself a contraction of the Arabic amir (lit. commander, governor, lord, prince), signifies temporal power, and piri, from Persian pir (lit. old man, saint, spiritual guide, head of a religious order) stands for spiritual authority. The origin of the concept of miri-piri is usually associated with Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) who, unlike his five predecessors, adopted a princely style right from the time of his installation in 1606 as the sixth Guru or prophet-mentor of the Sikhs, when as part of the investiture he wore on his person two swords, one representing miri or political command of the community and the other piri, its spiritual headship. For this reason, he is known as miri piri da malik, master of piety as well as of power. This correlation between the spiritual and the mundane had in fact been conceptualized in the teachings of the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) himself. God is posited by Guru Nanak as the Ultimate Reality. He is the creator, the ultimate ground of all that exists. The man of Guru Nanak being the creation of God partakes of His Own Light. How does man fulfil himself in this world—which, again, is posited as a reality? Not by withdrawal or renunciation, but, as says Guru Nanak in a hymn in the measure Ramkali, by “battling in the open field with one’s mind perfectly in control and with one’s heart poised in love all the time” (GG, 931). Participation was made the rule. Thus worldly structures—the family, the social and economic systems—were brought within the religious domain. Along with the transcendental vision, concern with existential reality was part of Guru Nanak’s intuition. His sacred verse reveals an acute awareness of the ills and errors of contemporary society. Equally telling was his opposition to oppressive State structures. He frankly censured the high-handedness of the kings and the injustices and inequalities which permeated the system. The community that grew from Guru Nanak’s message had a distinct social entity and, under the succeeding Gurus, it became consolidated into a distinct political entity with features not dissimilar to those of a political state: for instance, its geographical division into manjis or dioceses each under a masand or the Guru’s representative, new towns founded and developed both as religious and commercial centres, and an independent revenue administration for collection of tithes. The Guru began to be addressed by the devotees as sachcha patsah (true king). Bards Balvand and Satta, contemporaries of Guru Arjan (1563-1606), sing in their hymn preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib the praise of Guru Nanak in kingly terminology “He constructed the castle of truth on firm foundation, established his kingdom and had the (royal) umbrella unfurled over Lahina’s (Guru Angad’s) head” (GG, 966). The execution in 1606, of Guru Arjan, Nanak V, under the orders of Emperor Jahangir, marked the Mughal authority’s response to a growing religious order asserting the principles of freedom of conscience and human justice. The event led to Guru Arjan’s young successor Guru Hargobind, Nanak VI, formally to adopt the emblems of authority. In front of the holy Harimandar he constructed the Akal Takht, throne (takht) of the Timeless One (akal). Here he went through the investiture ceremony for which he put on a warrior’s accoutrement with two swords symbolizing assumption of the spiritual office as well as the control of secular affairs for the conduct of which he specifically used this new seat. He also raised an armed force and asked his followers to bring him presents of horses and weapons. This was a practical measure undertaken for the defence of the nascent community’s right of freedom of faith and worship against the discriminatory religious policy of the State. To go by the tradition preserved in Sikhan di Bhagat Mala ascribed to Bhai Mani Singh and in Gurbilas Chhevn Patshahi, Guru Arjan himself had encouraged the military training of his son, Hargobind, and other Sikhs. By founding the Akal Takht and introducing soldierly style, Guru Hargobind institutionalized the concept of Miri and Piri. His successors continued to function as temporal as well as spiritual heads of the community although there were no open clashes with the State power as had occurred during his time. Guru Har Rai, Nanak VII, tried to help the liberal prince Dara Shukoh against his fanatic younger brother, Aurangzib. To checkmate Emperor Aurangzib’s policies of religious monolithism, Guru Tegh Bahadur toured extensively in

the countryside exhorting the populace to shed fear and stand up boldly to face oppression. He himself set an example by choosing to give away his life to uphold human freedom and dignity.

The blending of Miri and Piri was consummated by Guru Gobind Singh in the creation of the Khalsa Panth, a republican set-up, sovereign both religiously and politically. Ending personal guruship before he died, he bestowed the stewardship of the community on the Khalsa functioning under the guidance of the Divine Word, Guru Granth Sahib, in perpetuity. The popular slogan, “The Khalsa shall (ultimately) rule and none shall defy,” is attributed to him; so are the aphorisms, “Without state power dharma cannot flourish (and) without dharma all (social fabric) gets crushed and trampled upon;” and “No one gifts away power to another; whosoever gets it gets it by his own strength.”

Combination of Miri and 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 Bahadur 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 and freedom 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.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959

2. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan. Amritsar, 1962

3. Mani Singh, Bhai, Sikhan di Bhagat Mala. Amritsar, 1955

4. Sohan Kavi, Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi. Amritsar,1968

5. Macauliffe, M. A., The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909

6. Banerjee, Indubhusan, Evolution of the Khalsa. Calcutta, 1936

7. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

8. Teja Singh, Sikhism: Its Ideals and Institutions. Bombay, 1937

9. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna or the Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh. Jalandhar, 1959

10. McLeod, W. H., The Evolution of the Sikh Community. Delhi, 1975

11. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

M. G. S.
MOH (L. M. Joshi) from Sanskrit root muh meaning “to become stupefied, to be bewildered or perplexed, to err, to be mistaken,” stands in ancient texts for perplexity or confusion as also for the cause of confusion, that is, avidya or ajnana (ignorance or illusion). In another context, it stands for “the snare of worldly illusion, infatuation.” Its function is twofold: it bedims the discernment of truth, prevents the discernment of reality, and it creates an error of judgement or leads to wrong knowledge (mithya jnana). Men believe in an eternal reality of their own existence or ego; they see truth in what is false and seek happiness in what begets suffering. In Punjabi moh generally means love of and attachment to worldly things and relations. In Sikh Scripture, the term frequently occurs coupled with maya (maia) as maya-moh interpreted both as infatuation for or clinging to the illusory world of the senses and as illusion of worldly love and attachment. Sikh interpretation of maya, however, differs from that of classical, advaita philosophy, which considers the phenomenal world unreal and therefore an illusion caused by human ignorance. In Sikhism, the visible world is a manifestation of God Himself and is therefore real; yet it is not satya or true in the sense of being immutable and eternal. This world of mass, form and movement woven into the warp and woof of time and space is God’s play created at His pleasure and is as such real and sacred; but it represents only one transient aspect and not the Ultimate Reality. Maya is not an illusion in the sense of a mirage, a factual nullity; it is a delusion which represents transient as permanent and a part as the whole. Moh for maya, i.e. for this transient world of the senses, hinders the soul’s search for its ultimate goal and is, therefore, one of the Five Evils. It is related, on the one hand, to kam (desire, love) and lobh (possessiveness, covetousness) and, on the other, to ahankar (sense of I, my and mine). That is how moh has been referred to as a net, maiajal (GG, 266). Guru Nanak advises shedding of moh as it is the source of all evil and a cause for repeated births and deaths. (GG, 356).

The antidote to moh is non-attachment. This is not easy, for the Gurus preach active participation in life rather than renunciation and escapism. Ultimately, of course, all depends on nadar or God’s grace. Says Guru Nanak “nadari kare ta ehu mohu jai—by (His) grace alone will this moh be cancelled” (GG, 356). The right remedy is the understanding (gian) that the mundane world, its relations and affairs, demanding one’s participation and involvement are transient. Non-attachment thus is not non-action, but an attitude to action characterized by Guru Nanak as that of a bajigar, participant in a sport. The world, says Guru Nanak in a hymn in Maru measure, “is like a seasonal pastureland where one passeth but a few days. . . Like the bajigar one plays one’s part here and departs” (GG, 1023). An image in gurbani describing the ideal life is that of the lotus which, although living in water, keeps its head above it without allowing itself to be submerged.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

2. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

3. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

L. M. J.
MUKTI (J. S. Neki) or Mukti and its synonym mokh (Sanskrit moksa, Pali mo(k)kha) are derived from the root much (to let go, release) and seem to be identical in primary meaning with the English words deliverance, liberation, release, freedom and emancipation.

Although sometimes translated as ‘salvation’, mukti is different from the Christian salvation. The latter is a composite concept embodying redemption and reconciliation. Redemption is ‘the change in man’s relation to God by the removal of guilt and sin’ (R. Hazelton, ‘Salvation’ in a Handbook of Christian Theology edited by M. Halverson and A. Cohen, London: Collins Fontana Books); guilt and sin, however, are not basic to the concept of mukti.

Mukti has two aspects—a negative and a positive one. On the negative side, it stands for having got ‘loose from’ or ‘rid of’. That essentially implies a bonded state from which man must be freed—be it ignorance (ajnan), nescience (maya), mortality (kal), suffering (dukkha), passion (kama), desire (trishna), attachment (moha), superstition (bhrama), physical body (sharira) or the wheel of life and death (avagavan). All these spell only a perilous existence for man.

Mukti, however, is not to be construed as escapism. It is not that man is removed to a safe quarter in existence where no perils overtake him. He, rather, discovers within himself an unexpected power to withstand and not be shaken by any threat or danger. The security and integrity experienced are spiritual and ultimate; neither ephemeral nor circumstantial.

On the positive side, mukti signifies the fullest and truest realization of the self. The saved life is a fully human self, open and unhindered. It embodies the realization that there is no other than the self. Separation and ego-consciousness stand decimated. Everlasting peace of the eternal and infinite self transcend the make-believe world of weal and woe, good and evil, gaiety and sorrow, wisdom and folly.

The basic concept underlying mukti is that human life is in bondage on account of its own works (karma). All the schools of Indian philosophy, with the lone exception of Carvaka, conceive of an emancipated soul which, after exhausting the effects of all karmas, attains the liberated state. However, what exactly is conceived as bondage, and what as liberation varies from school to school.

The Nyaya-Vaisesika school views it as freedom from bondage to the senses and sensuous life of pleasure and pain.

The Sankhya view characterizes mukti as the cessation of the three types of pain (adhyatmika, adhibhavika, and adhidaivika). The Purusa (self) is able to attain such a state only by transcending the adjuncts of Prakrti (material nature). Happiness and misery are the handicraft of the gunas (qualities). The liberated soul having transcended the gunas goes beyond pleasure and pain.

The yogic school prescribes dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (the state of pure, contentless consciousness) as means to liberation—the emptied consciousness shining with its own radiance.

In Vedanta, mukti stands for the removal of duality (dvaita) and the merger of the self (Jivatman) with the Absolute (Brahman). The self then becomes resplendent as existent, intelligent and blissful (sat, cit, and ananda).

Nirvana is the name for mukti in the Buddhist vocabulary, the two being considered mutually comparable in the same Thought category (Majjhimai 304). Nirvana literally means extinction, and implies the extinction of ‘the five’—viz, rupa (form), sanjna (name), sanskara (impression), vijnana (knowledge) and vedana (pleasure-pain).

According to Bhakti schools, mukti is attained through upasna (worship) and consists in finding an abode in the spiritual realm of the upasya (worshipped deity).

The above bird’s-eye view of mukti as conceived by different schools of Indian philosophy serves as the essential background for the Sikh concept. In the first place, the variegated terminology employed by the various schools—including such terms as moksa, nirvana, aparamgati, brahmajnana, nirbhau pad, shunya (Punjabi sunn), nirguna avastha, etc.—has been indistinctively employed in the Sikh scripture. That possibly signifies that these various terms, though differing somewhat in conceptual detail one from the other, are held to be essentially identical by Sikh thought. Alternately, the Sikh view of mukti is essentially an eclectic one. That they can lend themselves to an eclectic treatment also testifies to their conceptual proximity and the Sikh concern with its catholicity.

In the second place, the Sikh thought seems to place accent on the positive aspect of mukti—thus departing from those schools that lay primary emphasis on its negative aspects. As an example of the latter, one may take the concept of moksa in the Bhagvadgita which is described as emancipation from evil (vii, 20), from karma (iv, 28), from lust and anger (v, 26), from decay and death (vii, 29), from the body (v, 23), from the illusion of opposites (XV, 5) and so on. A predominantly negative view, according to Sikh thought, cannot be the highest objective of life. Therefore

Those who know (jnani) desire not vaikunth (heaven),

They reject even mukti as of little import. (GG, 328)

and again,

I crave not for a kingdom, nor even for mukti;

What I long for is the lotus feet (of the Lord). (GG, 534)

In these quotations mukti as a negative concept is rejected.

The Sikh view holds that God, in His own pleasure, has Himself created both: the state of bondage (bandhan) and the state of freedom (mukti). “The free (mukat) and the bonded (bandh) alike are your creation” (GG, 796).

In point of fact, man is born free, but as he grows up, the ways of the world grow upon him. That is how from his nascent free state (sahaj) he slinks down step by step into the conditioned existence of worldly pursuit (dhat). In order to re-emerge from it and to re-attain the original state of sahaj he must pursue the path of liv (devotion). Mukti, in fact, is a by-product of the practice of liv, not its highest objective which is nothing short of God-experience itself, and subsequently remaining immersed in it forever.

The path of liv has its own distinctive discipline which therefore is a prerequisite for mukti. This discipline includes good actions as the first requisite (binu kartuti mukti na paiai—GG, 201). Other requisites are: the giving up of egoism (mukti duara soi pae je vichon apu gavai, GG, 1276); associating with God-men (mukti paiai sadh sangati, GG, 675); dwelling upon the Guru’s word (mukti maha sukh gur sabadu bichari, GG, 942), and accepting it mentally (mannai pavahi mokhu duar. GG, 3); and ever remembering the Lord (mukte raman gobindah, GG, 1360). It is imperative for attaining mukti that one should be ‘dead to oneself’. An egoist, be he clever or dumb, never can attain mukti ( hau vichi murakhu hau vichi siana mokh mukati ki sar na jana, GG, 466). One can attain freedom by serving him alone who is free himself (mukte seve mukta hovai. GG, 116). The Guru can remove all fetters and render one free (bandhan kati mukati guri kina, GG, 804). However, none can attain mukti without Divine Grace (soi mukti ja kau kirpa hoe, GG,1261).

The Sikh concept of mukti is essentially that of jivan mukti, the one attainable in one’s lifetime itself. Further, Sikhism rejects the idea of considering renunciation as the vesture of a jivan mukta. Contrast with it, for example, the Jain view according to which “The liberated persons. . . have to lead a mendicant’s life, for, otherwise, they cannot keep themselves free from karma” (G. N. Joshi: Atman and Moksa. Gujarat University, Ahmedabad, 1965, p. 260).

Jivan mukti itself brings one to the brink of videha mukti (incorporeal emancipation) which is freedom not from the present body, but from any corporeal state hereafter. It spells for the mukta a final cessation of the weals and woes of the cycle of birth-death -birth (janam-maran). This ultimate mukti is a continuation of jivan mukti, going on after the shedding away of the corporeal frame to the final absorption into the One Absolute—the blending of light with Light (joti jot samana).

The Sikh mukti is positive concept in two important ways. First it stands for the realization of the ultimate Reality, a real enlightenment (jnana). The mukta is not just free from this or that, he is the master of sense and self, fearless (nirbhai) and devoid of rancour (nirvair), upright yet humble, treating all creatures as if they were he himself, wanting nothing, clinging to nothing.

He rises from the life of do’s and don’ts to that of perfection—a state of at-one-ment with the All-self. Secondly, the mukta is not just a friend for all, he even strives for the freedom as well. He no longer lives for himself. He lives for others.


1. Dharam Singh, Sikh Theology of Liberation. Delhi, 1991

2. Glassnapp, Helmuth Von (Tr. E .F. J. Payne), Immortality and Salvation in Indian Religions. Calcutta, 1863

3. Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation. New York, 1983

4. —., A Comparative Study of the Concept of Liberation in Indian Philosophy. Burhanpur, 1967

5. Shivkumar, Muni, The Doctrine of Liberation in Indian Religions with special reference to Jainismm. Panchkula, 1981

6. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

7. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy. London, 1948

8. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

J. S. N.

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