Concepts in sikhism

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PAHUL (Taran Singh) or amrit sanskar, the name given in the Sikh tradition to the ceremony of initiation. The word pahul or pahul is a derivative from a substantive, pahu—meaning an agent which brightens, accelerates or sharpens the potentialities of a given object. In the history of the Sikh faith, the initiation ceremony has passed through two distinct phases. From the time of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder, up to 1699, charanamrit or pagpahul was the custom. Charanamrit and pagpahul meant initiation by water touched by the Master’s toe—the charan and pag both being equivalents of the word ‘foot’. In early Sikhism, the neophytes sipped water poured over the Guru’s toe to be initiated into the fold. Where the Guru was not present, masands or local sangat leaders officiated. A reference to initiation by charanamrit occurs in Bhai Gurdas, Varan, I.23, born 12 years after the passing away of Guru Nanak. The practice continued until 1699 when, at the time of the inauguration of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh introduced khande di pahul, i.e. pahul by khanda, the double-edged steel sword. This was done at Anandpur at the time of Baisakhi festival on 30 March 1699, in a soul-stirring drama. At the morning assembly of the Sikhs drawn from all four corners of India, Guru Gobind Singh, sword in hand, proclaimed, “My sword wants today a head. Let any one of my Sikhs come forward. Isn’t there a Sikh of mine who would be prepared to sacrifice his life for his Guru?” To five similar calls successively made, five Sikhs offered their heads one after the other. They were Daya Singh, Mohkam Singh, Sahib Singh, Dharam Singh and Himmat Singh. Guru Gobind Singh proceeded to hold the ceremony of initiation to mark their rebirth as new men. Filling an iron bowl with clean water, he kept stirring it with a two-edged sword while reciting over it five of the sacred texts, banisJapu, Jap, Savaiyye, Chaupai and Anand (stanzas 1-5, and 40). The Guru’s wife, Mata Jitoji (according to some, Mata Sahib Devan), poured into the vessel sugar crystals, mingling sweetness with the alchemy of iron. The five Sikhs sat on the ground around the bowl reverently as the holy water was being churned to the recitation of the sacred verses. With the recitation of the five banis completed, khande di pahul or amrit, the Nectar of Immortality, was ready for administration. Guru Gobind Singh gave the five Sikhs five palmsful each of it to drink. The disciple sat bir-asan, i.e. in the posture of a warrior with his left knee raised and the right knee touching the ground. Every time the Guru poured the nectar into his palms to drink, he called out aloud, “Bol Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji ki Fateh (Utter, Hail the Khalsa who to the Lord belongs; the Lord to whom belongs victory).” The Sikh repeated the blessed utterance. After the five life-giving draughts had been thus administered, the Guru sprinkled the holy liquid into his face gazing intently into his eyes. He then anointed his hair with the nectar. In the same manner, Guru Gobind Singh initiated the other four one by one. At the end, all five of them were given the steel bowl to quaff from it turn by turn the remaining elixir in token of their new fraternal comradeship. Then, following the Guru, they repeated Vahiguru five times as gurmantra and five times recited the Mul Mantra They were given the common surname of Singh, (meaning lion) and enjoined to regard themselves as the khalsa, i.e. the Guru’s own. They were told that their rebirth into this brotherhood meant the annihilation of their family ties (kul nas), of the occupations which had formerly determined their place in society (krit nas), of their earlier beliefs and creeds and of the ritual they observed. Their worship was to be addressed to none but Akal, the Timeless One. They were ever to keep the five emblems of the Khalsa—kesa or long hair and beard; kangha, a comb tucked into the kesa to keep it tidy in contrast to the recluses who kept it matted in token of their having renounced the world; kara, a steel bracelet to be worn round the wrist of the right hand; kachchha, short breeches; and kirpan, a sword. In the rahit or code of conduct promulgated for the Sikhs on that day were the four prohibitions, i.e. the cutting or trimming of hair, fornication or adultery, halal meat or flesh of animal slaughtered with the Muslim ritual, and tobacco.

The five were designated by Guru Gobind Singh as Panj Piare, the five beloved of the Guru. He now besought them to initiate him into their brotherhood, and asked them to prepare khande di pahul. The Panj Piare churned the holy water following the Guru’s example and administered to him the vows they had received from him. Even his name changed to (Guru) Gobind Singh. Many Sikhs then volunteered to undergo initiation.

The five who took the next turn were Ram Singh, Deva Singh, Tahal Singh, Ishar Singh and Fateh Singh. They were called by the Guru Panj Mukte, the Five Liberated Ones. According to the Guru kian Sakhian, in the next row stood Mani Ram, Bachittar Das, Ude Rai, Anik Das, Ajab Das, Ajaib Chand, Chaupat Rai, Diwan Dharam Chand, Alam Chand Nachna and Sahib Ram Koer, followed by Rai Chand Multani, Gurbakhsh Rai, Gurbakhshish Rai, Pandit Kirpa Ram Datt of Mattan, Subeg Chand, Gurmukh Das,

Sanmukh Das, Amrik Chand, Purohit Daya Ram, Barna, Ghani Das, Lal Chand Peshauria, Rup Chand, Sodhi Dip Chand, Nand Chand, Nanu Ram of Dilvali, and Hazari, Bhandari and Darbari of Sirhind.

Khande di pahul thus supplanted charanamrit. Since then initiation has been by amrit or holy water prepared in the manner laid down by Guru Gobind Singh. For the novitiates the same ceremony will be repeated. Panj Piare chosen at any place for their piety and reputation will officiate, in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib attended by a Granthi. Among the Panj Piare could be women too, as there could be among the novitiates. No particular age is prescribed for initiation. It could take place any time the novitiate is able to appreciate the significance of the ceremony and is prepared to abide by the discipline it imposed. A patit, an apostate or lapsed Sikh guilty of committing a kurahit, i.e. violation of any of the prohibitions laid down by Guru Gobind Singh, will have to go through the same ceremony to have himself reinitiated and readmitted into the Khalsa fold. Khalsa rahit or discipline flowing from khande di pahul has been sought to be codified in Rahitnamas, manuals of conduct. Some of these are attributed to Guru Gobind Singh’s contemporaries such as Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Chaupa Singh and Bhai Nand Lal.

Directions with regard to the conduct of the amrit ceremony as issued by the Shiromani. Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in its publication Sikh Rahit Maryada are as follows:

(a) The initiation ceremony may be conducted in any quiet and convenient place. In addition to the Guru Granth Sahib, presence of six Sikhs is necessary: one granthi to read from the Guru Granth Sahib and five to administer the rites.

(b) Both receiving initiation and those administering it should bathe and wash their hair prior to the ceremony.

(c) Any Sikh who is mentally and physically “whole” (man or woman) may administer the rites of initiation provided that he himself had received the rites and continues to wear the five K’s, i.e. Sikh symbols each beginning with the Gurmukhi letter “k”.
(d) Any man or woman of whatever nationality, race or social standing, who is prepared to accept the rules governing the Khalsa community, is eligible to receive initiation.

(e) No minimum or maximum age limit is stipulated for those receiving initiation.

(f) Those undergoing initiation should have the five K’s (unshorn hair, comb, shorts, sword, steel bangle). No jewellery or distinctive marks associated with other faiths may be worn. The head must be covered.

(g) Anyone seeking readmission after having resiled from his previous pledges may be awarded a penalty by the five administering initiation before being readmitted.

(h) During the ceremony, one of the five Piare (“five loved ones”—representing the first five Sikhs), stands and explains the main rules and obligations of the Khalsa Panth. These are to love and pray to one God, to read, study and live according to the Sikh teachings, and to help and serve humanity at large.

Those receiving initiation are then asked if they are willing to abide by these rules. If they indicate their assent, one of the five says a prayer for the commencement of the preparation of the Amrit (Nectar) and a lesson or passage from the Guru Granth Sahib randomly opened is read.

Clean water and sugar or other soluble sweet is placed in the bowl which must be of steel. The five now position themselves around the bowl in the bir asan position (kneeling on the right knee with the weight of the body on the right foot, and the left knee raised). Having so positioned themselves they commence to recite the following:

The Japji Sahib, Jap Sahib, Ten Svaiyyas (Saravag sudh vale), Benti Chaupai (from Hamri karo hath dai rachchha to dusht dokh te leho bachai) and the first five verses and the last verse of Anandu Sahib.

Anyone who is reciting these prayers should place his left hand on the edge of the bowl and stir the nectar with a short sword held in the right hand. The others participating in the ceremony should place both hands on the edge of the bowl and concentrate and meditate on the nectar.

After the completion of these prayers, one of the five says the ardas, after which the nectar is served. Only those who have sat through the whole ceremony may be served.

The Nectar is received by those being initiated whilst sitting in the bir asan position (previously described) with the hands cupped, right on left to receive the nectar.

This is received five times in the cupped hands; each time after receiving the nectar, the person being initiated says “Vahiguru ji ka khalsa, Sri Vahiguru ji ki Fateh.” This salutation is repeated each time the nectar is sprinkled on the eyes (5 times) and hair (5 times). The remainder of the nectar is then shared by those receiving initiation, al1 drinking from the same bowl.

After this, all those taking part in the ceremony recite the Mul Mantra in unison:

There is one God; His name is truth,

The all-pervading Creator,

Without fear, without hatred;

Immortal, unborn, self-existent.

One of the five then details the rules and obligations applying to the initiates.

“From now on your existence as ordinary individuals has ceased, and you are members of the Khalsa brotherhood. Your religious father is Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth and last Guru, founder of the Khalsa brotherhood) and Sahib Kaur your mother. Your spiritual birthplace is Kesgarh Sahib (birthplace of the Khalsa) and your home Anandpur Sahib (the place where Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa). Your common spiritual parentage makes you all brothers and you should all forsake your previous name (surname) and previous local and religious loyalties. You are to pray to God and God alone, through the scriptures and teachings of the ten Gurus. You should learn the Gurmukhi script if you do not know it already and read daily the Japji, Jap, Das Svaiyye, Sodaru Rahrasi and Sohila, and should hear or read the Guru Granth Sahib. You must keep the five K’s and are forbidden to:

(i) smoke tobacco or take drugs

(ii) eat meat killed by ritual slaughter (i.e. according to Muslim or Jewish rites)

(iii) commit adultery

(iv) cut your hair

Anyone who contravenes any of these rules has broken his amrit vows. He must go through the ceremony afresh after a suitable penance if the contravention has been deliberate.

Members of the Khalsa must be always ready to work for the community and should donate one tenth of their income for the furtherance of religious or social work.

(j) The newly initiated Sikhs are told not to associate with:

(i) the followers of Prithi Chand, Dhir Mall, Ram Rai or other breakaway groups

(ii) those who actively oppose Sikhism

(iii) those who practise infanticide

(iv) those who take alcohol, tobacco or drugs

(v) those who wed their children for monetary considerations

(vi) those who perform any rite or ceremony not sanctioned in Sikhism

(vii) apostate Sikhs who do not adhere to the five K’s.

(k) Ardas is then said and followed by the reading of the hukam. Finally, any of those present with a name that was not chosen using the Guru Granth Sahib, are asked to choose a new name in the customary manner.

The ceremony is then concluded with distribution of karah prasad, which, to emphasize the new brotherhood, is eaten by those newly initiated from a common plate.


1. Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, 1975

2. Kuir Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, ed. Shamsher Singh Ashok. Patiala, 1968

3. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna. Amritsar 1989

4. Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978

5. Sher Singh, ed., Thoughts on Symbols in Sikhism. Lahore, 1927

T. S.
PANGAT (Bhagat Singh), from Sanskrit pankti (lit. a row, line, series, or a group, assembly, company), stands in Sikh terminology for commensality or sitting together on the ground in a row to partake of food from a common kitchen regardless of caste, creed, sex, age or social status. Pangat is thus a synonym for Guru ka Langar, an institution of fundamental importance in Sikhism. It is customary for diners in the Guru ka Langar to sit side by side in a pangat or row when food is served to them by sevadars or volunteers. The institution of Guru ka Langar itself thereby came to be referred to as pangat. Another reason for the popularity of the term probably is its alliterative and sonorous affinity to sangat or holy congregation, another basic institution of the Sikhs. As, later in Sikh history, deg (lit. kettle) came to stand for Guru ka Langar because it rhymed with tegh (lit. sword), so did pangat for rhyming with sangat. The earliest use of pangat in Sikh literature appears in Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636), poet and exegete, in his Varan, XVII. 12, where it matches sangat to produce resonant effect: “hans vansu nihchal mati sangati pangati sathu bananda”—firm believers of the tribe of swans (i.e. the Sikhs) made appropriate company in sangat and pangat—in sangat they pray together, in pangat they eat together. Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) attached particular importance to pangat. He expected every visitor to partake of food in it before seeing him. This gave rise to the popular saying: pahile pangat pachhe sangat—eating together must take precedence over meeting together.


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

2. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909

3. Gian Singh, Giani, Panth Prakash. Delhi, 1880

  1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

B. S.
PANJ PIARE (S. S. Ashok) (lit. the five beloved), name given to the five Sikhs, Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Dharam Singh, Bhai Himmat Singh, Bhai Muhkam Singh and Bhai Sahib Singh, who were so designated by Guru Gobind Singh at the historic divan at Anandpur Sahib on 30 March 1699 and who formed the nucleus of the Khalsa as the first batch to receive at his hands khande di pahul, i.e. rites of the two-edged sword.

In Sikh theology, as in the Indian classical tradition generally, panj or panch, the numeral five, has a special significance. Guru Nanak in Japu refers to five khands, i.e. stages or steps in spiritual development, and calls a spiritually awakened person a panch. The ancient Indian socio-political institution panchayat meant a council of five elders. Something like an inner council of five existed even in the time of the earlier Gurus: five Sikhs accompanied Guru Arjan on his last journey to Lahore; the five were each given 100 armed Sikhs to command by his successor, Guru Hargobind; Guru Tegh Bahadur, set out on his journey to Delhi to court execution attended by five Sikhs.

Until the Baisakhi of AD 1699, Sikh initiation ceremony, charan pahul, comprised the administering of charanamrit or charanodak to the novitiate. As Bhai Gurdas, Varan, I.23, records, this was the practice Guru Nanak introduced for the Sikhs. At the ceremony the novitiate quaffed water poured over the foot of the Guru and vowed to follow the religious and moral injunctions as well as the code of communal conduct laid down. Later, masands or local leaders, specially authorized by the Gurus, also administered charan pahul. According to Kesar Singh Chhibbar, Bansavalinama, a modification was introduced in the time of Guru Hargobind when water, poured over the toe of the right foot of each of the five chosen Sikhs assembled in a dharamsal, was received in a bowl and administered to the seekers after ardas or supplicatory prayer.

Guru Gobind Singh, who had abolished the institution of masands replaced charan pahul with khande di pahul. He summoned a special assembly in the Kesgarh Fort at Anandpur on the Baisakhi day of 1756 Bk/30 March 1699. After the morning devotions and kirtan, he suddenly stood up, drawn sword in hand, and, to quote Bhai Santokh Singh, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, spoke: “The entire sangat is very dear to me; but is there a devoted Sikh who will give his head to me here and now? A need has arisen at this moment which calls for a head.” A hush fell over the assembly. Daya Ram, a native of Lahore, arose and offered himself. He walked behind the Guru to a tent near by. Guru Gobind Singh returned with his sword dripping blood and demanded another head. This time Dharam Das, a Jat from Hastinapur, emerged from the audience and followed the Guru. Guru Gobind Singh gave three more calls. Muhkam Chand, a cloth-printer from Dwaraka, Himmat, a water-bearer from Jagannath, and Sahib Chand, a barber from Bidar, stood up one after another and advanced to offer their heads.

Guru Gobind Singh emerged from the tent “hand in hand with the five,” says Kuir Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10. The disciples wore saffron-coloured raiment topped over with neatly tied turbans of the same colour. Guru Gobind Singh, similarly dressed, introduced his chosen Sikhs to the audience as Panj Piare, the five devoted spirits beloved of the Guru. He then proceeded to perform the ceremony. Filling an iron bowl with clean water, he kept churning it with a khanda, i.e. double-edged sword, while reciting over it the sacred verses. Guru Gobind Singh’s wife Mata Jitoji, brought sugar crystals which were put into the vessel at the Guru’s bidding. Sweetness was thus mingled with the alchemy of iron. Amrit, the Nectar of Immortality, was now ready and Guru Gobind Singh gave the five Sikhs each five palmsful of it to drink. At the end, all five of them quaffed from the steel bowl the remaining elixir binding themselves in new fraternal ties. Their rebirth into this brotherhood meant the cancellation of their previous family ties, of the occupations which had hitherto determined their place in society, of their beliefs and creeds and of the rituals they had so far observed.

The five Sikhs—three of them the so-called low-castes, a Kstriya and a Jat—formed the nucleus of the self-abnegating, martial and casteless fellowship of the Khalsa Guru Gobind Singh had brought into being. They were given the surname of Singh, meaning lion, and were ever to wear the five emblems of the Khalsa—kes or unshorn hair and beard; kangha, a comb in the kes to keep it tidy as against the recluses who kept it matted in token of their having renounced the world; kara, a steel bracelet; kachchh, short breeches worn by soldiers; and kirpan, a sword. They were enjoined to succour the helpless and fight the oppressor, to have faith in One God and to consider all human beings equal, irrespective of caste and creed.

The episode of sis-bhet, i.e. offering of the heads was recorded by Bhai Kuir Singh in his Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (1751) followed by Bhai Sukkha Singh, Bhai Santokh Singh, and others. Earlier chronicles such as the Sri Gur Sobha, and the Bansavalinama do not narrate it in such detail. Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, simply says that “five Sikhs were selected one each from five different castes.” From what is known about the lives of those five Sikhs, each of them had received instruction at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh, was a devoted disciple and had been in residence at Anandpur long enough to have been affected by its ambience of faith and sacrifice. It was a coincidence that they belonged to different castes and to different parts of India.

Khande di Pahul, introduced by Guru Gobind Singh on 30 March 1699, became the established form of initiation for Sikhs for all time to come; so also the institution of the Panj Piare. In fact, Guru Gobind Singh had himself initiated by the Panj Piare as he had initiated them. Since then this has been the custom. Panj Piare, any five initiated Sikhs reputed to be strictly following the rahit, or Sikh discipline, are chosen to administer to the novitiates amrit, i.e. Khande di Pahul. Panj Piare are similarly chosen to perform other important ceremonies such as laying the cornerstone of a gurdwara building or inaugurating kar-seva, i.e. cleansing by voluntary labour of a sacred tank, or leading a religious procession, and to decide issues confronting a local sangat or community as a whole. At crucial moments of history, Panj Piare have collectively acted as supreme authority, representing the Guru-Panth. During the battle of Chamkaur, it was the last five surviving Sikhs who, constituting themselves into the Council of Five, Panj Piare, commanded Guru Gobind Singh to leave the fortress and save himself to reassemble the Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh had abolished the masand system and before he passed away, he also ended the line of living gurus. In the institution of Panj Piare, he had created the nucleus of a casteless and democratic continuing society.


1. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan

2. Jaggi, Rattan Singh, ed., Bansavalinama. Chandigarh, 1972

3. Kuir Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10. Patiala, 1968

4. Bhangu, Ratan Singh, Prachin Panth Prakash. Amritsar, 1962

5. Santokh Singh, Bhai, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, Amritsar, 1927-35

6. Bhalla, Sarup Das, Mahima Prakash.

7. Gian Singh, Giani, Panth Prakash, Patiala, 1970

8. Sukha Singh, Gurbilas Dasvin Patshahi, Patiala, 1970

S. S. A.
PAPA (L. M. Joshi) (Sanskrit and Pali papa, Prakrit pava). The word stands for one of the basic concepts of the Indian religious tradition. This concept relates to what is considered religiously and morally evil, an act of body, mind, or speech opposed to what is considered religiously and morally good. In the long religious history of India the doctrine of papa was developed and elaborated in great detail and in many different ways by different systems of faith and morality. No single definition can adequately express its connotations. For example, in both Brahmanism and Sikhism it is customary to translate the word papa as ‘sin’. But ‘evil’ could equally well convey the sense. There are some other shades of meaning, which, however, have not found a place in the relevant contexts.

Any deed of commission or omission which is opposed to Dharma, God’s will, religious practice, and moral rules expressed or laid down in the sacred texts, may be included within the range of papa. The word thus means any act irreligious, immoral, bad, wicked, vicious and depraved. Some of the semantic cognates of papa are pataka (sin); apunya (unholy); akushala (bad); ashubha, (inauspicious); kilbisa, kilbikh (evil); dosha (defilement), duskrta (crime) and apavitra (impure).

The etymology of papa is obscure. The word pataka is derived from the root pat, to fall, physically or in the moral sense. Sin is what causes a fall from the religious, moral and spiritual position, the nature of which may vary from tradition to tradition. Violation of, or opposition to, a prescribed religious or moral law causes not only fall but also bondage. Therefore, it is said, that which binds or fetters (pasayati) and causes downfall (patayati) is called papa or sin. This seems to be the best soteriological definition of papa in the context of India’s religious experience which has placed supreme value on spiritual release (moksa). It is obvious that the idea of papa is associated on the one hand with the relation of man with man here and now, and on the other with man’s transcendental quest. All that leads us away from the ultimate Reality constitutes papa.

The primitive people conceived of sin or evil as a pollution which was derived from contagion and could be removed by physical means. The Rgveda and the Atharvaveda reveal traces of this external view of sin. Consciousness of morally evil things and of spiritual liberation emerged towards the middle Vedic epoch, especially from the thought of ascetic sages known as munis and sramanas. It is likely that the notion of papa as something morally evil originated among the pre-Vedic non-Aryan Indians. However, the word papa and some of its cognates, such as agha, durita, and duskrita occur in the Rgveda. The usual meaning of these words during this age was ‘guilt’, ‘evil’, or ‘sin’. The Rgveda also mentions seven limits by trespassing even one of which a man may come to suffering. The text does not specify these limits which, however, are listed in the Nirukta in the following order: theft, violating the bed of the guru, murder of a brahman, causing abortion, drinking wine, continual practice of wickedness, and bearing false witness.

It is in the ascetic philosophies of liberation, chiefly represented by Jainism and Buddhism, that we find, for the first time, a clear and detailed treatment of the doctrine of papa—its sources, nature, consequences and means of eradication.

To Parshvanatha (circa 750 BC) is attributed the tenet of fourfold restraint (chaturyama) against transgressing the precepts of truth, inoffensiveness, stealing, and attachment to earthly possessions. Violation of any of these precepts constituted papa. To this list Mahavira added incontinence as the fifth sin. The Sutrakrtanga lays down the general principles for all seekers of liberation to keep their souls away from evils. The Avasyakasutra gives a list of eighteen kinds of sin including killing, lying, stealing, sex-play, earthly possessions, anger, pride, illusion, greed, passion, hatred, etc.

The standard Buddhist decalogue has the following sinful pathways: killing living beings, stealing, sexual impurity, lying, slandering, speaking harshly, chattering frivolously, covetous thought, hostile thoughts, and false views. Two technical Pali terms, peculiar to Buddhism, are abhithana (deadly crime) and annantariya-kamma (an action bearing immediate retribution).

The Apastamba-Dharmasutra divides sins into two categories: those that cause loss of caste (pataniya) and those that cause impurity (asuchikara). In the first category are included theft of gold, drinking of wine, incest, etc., while the second category includes cohabitation by an Aryan woman with a sudra, eating meat of forbidden animal, e.g. a dog. The Dharmasutras considered voyage by sea as a sin leading to loss of caste. In the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna argues that there is sin in fighting with friends and evil in destroying one’s family. Krsna in reply introduces the tenet of the indestructibility of the self and argues that by not carrying on righteous war Arjuna will lose his own kartavya (duty) and incur sin.

The notion of sin as a moral and religious evil predominates throughout the Sikh texts. Besides this, Sikhism also developed the notion of papa from the standpoint of theistic devotionalism. Forgetfulness of God is the greatest sin in Sikhism: “Those who turn away from the holy Master are renegades and evil; bound to their desires they ever suffer and avail not themselves of the chance (to get away from the path of sin)” (GG, 233). Sikhism does not attach significance to Brahmanical and other rituals and hence their non-observance does not constitute sin. Similarly, failure to live up to the norms of varna or asrama does not form the basis for sinfulness as Sikhism does not believe in these social distinctions. In other words, emphasis is laid not upon the sinfulness based on violation of rules of domestic ritual and of performance of caste duties, but upon the violation of the norms of piety and moral conduct.

The Sikh Scripture being a poetic composition, contains devotional hymns with moral teachings scattered throughout. The concept of sin or evil is not expressed either in a set text or by a particular word or phrase; the term papa is employed here because it has high frequency in common usage, and it is the most comprehensive term to cover various aspects of the concept of religious and moral evil.

Many other terms which could be accepted as synonyms or near-synonyms of papa occur in the Guru Granth Sahib. Some of these are; mail (impurity), avagun (vice), burai (evil) kilbikh (sin), agh (fault), apavit (unholy), duratu (misdeed), etc.

Among the sources of sin mentioned are the four rivers of vice and the three maladies. These four rivers are hans, het, lobh, kop (violence, attachment, avarice and wrath). The three maladies are adhi, viadhi, upadhi, which are maladies of mind and body.

The Sikh catalogue of vices contains, among others, the following: lust, anger, avarice, attachment to the world, pride, stealing, tyranny over others, injustice, slander, lying, cheating, self-praise, coveting others’ wealth, and jealousy. A single term which comprehends the sinful tendency or nature is manmukh. It is opposed to another well-known term gurmukh. Scholars have usually translated the former as ‘egocentric and self-willed’ or ‘self-oriented’, and the latter as ‘God-ward turning’. This is a technical religious term with theological implications and we must emphasize its value from the soteriological rather than from the literal standpoint. A manmukh is a sinner not only because he makes his own laws and follows them wilfully, but chiefly because his will is opposed to God’s will (hukam) and he disobeys divine commandments taught by the Guru.

Delusion (moha), avarice (lobha) and hatred (dvesha) are the three roots of evil recognized in the Buddhist tradition. This view is shared by all the Indian religions. Vaisnavite Vedanta teaches that lust (kama), anger (krodha), and avarice (lobha) constitute the three-fold gate to hell, to the ruin of the self. Actions inspired by passion (lesyas) and instincts (sanjnas) of food, sex-play, fear, and of possession are declared to be the mainsprings of sins in the Jaina tradition. The Dharmasastras state that a person incurs sin by neglecting the daily ceremonies of oblation to the fire (agnihotra), rites of purification, worship, and by doing what is prohibited, such as drinking wine, and by not restraining the senses. The Kaushitaki-Brahmanopanisad teaches the doctrine that God makes that man perform good deeds whom He wishes to raise to higher worlds than these, and He makes that man do bad deeds whom He wishes to drag down. This doctrine is accepted in the Brahmasutra, and Sankara in his commentary on this sutra argues that the Lord does so in accordance with the past deeds of that person. Sikhism traces the origin of everything in the world to the Creator. The origin of sin thus is a divine mystery.

Poison (evil) and amrita (good) were created by God Himself; He produced these two fruits on the tree of the world (GG, 1172). Illusion (maya) and attachment were created by God; He Himself produced delusion (GG, 67).

In another text are mentioned together God’s law (hukam) and man’s actions: Man’s activity determines his destiny by operation of the law.

His law He operates, though the Divine pen writes according to the deeds of beings (GG, 1241). On the destructive nature of papa in man’s life, a number of texts from the Guru Granth Sahib may be cited. Some of these are given below: Babar in his invasion of India (1521) is stated by Guru Nanak to have descended on India with the wedding party of sin, and to have “forcibly demanded the hand of the Indian womanhood” (GG, 722). This sin, of course, was rape and rapine by the aggressor. In relation to Babar’s invasion also, contemplating the degeneration of the Indian ruling classes, given to accumulating lucre which now the invader snatched from them, he reflects: “Without sin is lucre not accumulated and with man it goes not at death” (GG, 417). Reflecting on the nature of the inevitable retribution for sin, Guru Arjan affirms: “You are engaged in sin, none shall be your friend (that is, when retribution comes)” (GG, 546). Says Guru Nanak: “Sinners like stones are sunk; by the Master’s teaching will they be saved” (GG, 163).

Guru Nanak compares man’s state to the bird’s (GG, 934): “Those that pick up the essence of truth, suffer not. Those that rush picking up excessive grain, have their wings broken and their feet caught in snares. Their sins bring them to torment.” Says Guru Nanak in Parbhati measure (GG, 1329): “Whoever keeps in bondage his evil propensities, to him am I a sacrifice. One that discriminates not between evil and good, is verily straying about.”

Haumai (egoism), according to Sikh thought, is the root cause of all evil impulses. Haumai is a type of spiritual blindness. Under its influence man becomes so much engrossed in the material world and the material self that he is unable to distinguish between the physical body and the real self, the atman. Being cut off from the real and pure self, he is now guided by the baser impulses of the material body which lead him from one evil to another. The more one gets enchanted by the allurement of carnal cravings, the thicker becomes the wall of haumai, till the light of atman is completely shut off and man becomes a plaything for cravings of the flesh.

The external view of sin recognized external means of its destruction. Thus some Vedic texts and most of the dharmasastras and puranas prescribe rituals of purification and ways of expiation. Offering oblation, performing sacrifices, bathing at holy places in holy waters, giving gifts to Brahmans and undergoing physical penances, are some of the means of destroying sin. Sikhism does not pay so much attention to this category of expiation (prayaschitta) of sins. Its expiatory emphasis is on prayer, contemplation (simran, smarana) and doing good to others. Engagement in beneficent actions, service (seva), is the best means of escaping sin and expiating for it. In this connection also is mentioned the triplicate formula of nam, dan, ishnan (contemplation of God, charity to others and the holy path). These are the cardinal duties and they ward off sin and its consequences.

The Bhagavad-gita strikes a new note in declaring that all sins are destroyed through loving devotion (bhakti) to God and through His favour (prasada). In addition to these, this text declares true knowledge (jnana) as the greatest purifier. Purity of mind and body, performance of actions with an attitude of non-attachment to their results are also counted as ways of going beyond sins and bondage.

Great value is attached to Divine favour (prasad, nadar, mihar or kirpa) in Sikhism. God is the supreme purifier. He purifies even the most sinful beings through His compassion and grace. God’s favour is attainable either through undivided love and faith, or through a true teacher (guru), as Guru Amar Das declares: “Utter the name of God, and contemplate in your mind, (then you will realize) that the impurity (of sins) is washed off through His grace” (GG, 230); and again: “Through the Guru’s grace egoism is cast out, through his grace impurity (of sin) will not touch you” (GG, 230).

God’s grace however is secured by doing good deeds, by keeping company with

the holy (sadhu-sangat) and by ceaseless devotion to the Lord. The Guru Granth Sahib repeats several times the statement that “suniai dukh pap ka nasu—by listening (to holy teaching) are suffering and sin destroyed.” The very name of God is auspicious and strikes away heaps of sin. “Like a tiny spark of fire that burns the entire bundle of firewood, God’s holy Name purifies the body and destroys defilement in a moment.” The very sight of the preceptor (Guru) is the door to deliverance. Defilements are not got rid of without guidance of the teacher. It is by enshrining the Lotus Feet (of the Lord) in one’s heart that one can wash off the sins of many an existence. Company of the holy (sat-sangati), rendering service to them (sant-tahal; sadh-seva), realization of God (brahma-gian), practice of virtue, service of the teacher (guru-sevana) and sense-control are also recognized as efficient means of eradicating sin.

According to the Christian doctrine, man suffers from the original sin of transgression committed by Adam. He can be saved only by surrendering himself to Jesus Christ. This idea is foreign to Indian thought. While the Guru’s grace is essential, man must work out his own liberation through prayer and good deeds. The idea of an intercessor common to the Semitic faiths is foreign to Sikhism. In Sikhism the Guru inspires devotion, but for release the devotee-seeker (Sikh, jigiasu) must depend on his own endeavour, from which there is no escape.

According to the teachings of Sikhism, thoughts, words or deeds based on egoity take one away from God. Haumai is annulled by nam, contemplation of God’s Name, and nam is realized by grace of the Guru. When nam comes to abide in the mind, man is cleansed of all sins. When the mind is polluted by filth of sin, it can be washed clean by devotion to nam (Japu, 20).

Numerous texts can be cited to show that kam (lust), krodh (wrath), ahankar (pride), etc. have to be eradicated or subdued before nam can abide in one’s heart. Man must shed lust, anger, falsehood, slander, greed for riches and the ego; again, one must get rid of the lust for woman, and worldly attachment; only then can one attain access to God even while living in this world of illusions. He must cleanse his mind of pride, of attachment to wife and children and of desire; only then, saith Nanak, shall the holy Lord abide in man’s heart, and he can, through the Word, get merged in His Name (GG, 141).


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Mantra, Susil Kumar, The Ethics of the Hindus. Calcutta, 1963

3. Ling, T. O., The Buddhist Mythology of Evil. London, 1962

4. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909

5. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

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

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

8. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1983

L. M. J.

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