Concepts in sikhism

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PATH (Taran Singh), from the Sanskrit patha which means reading or recitation, is, in the religious context, reading or recitation of the holy texts. In Sikhism, it implies daily repetition of scriptural texts from the Guru Granth Sahib. Reading of certain banis is part of a Sikh’s nitnem or daily religious regimen. Path of these prescribed texts is performed from a handy collection, called gutka (missal or breviary) or from memory. Three of the banis, Guru Nanak’s Japu and Guru Gobind Singh’s Japu and Savaiye—constitute the Sikhs mandatory morning path or devotions, and two—Rahrasi and Kirtan Sohila— evening path. Individuals add certain other texts as well such as Shabad Hajare, Anandu and Sukhmani. The path is also performed individually and more particularly in sangat from the Guru Granth Sahib itself. The Holy Volume is ceremonially installed under coverlets on a decorated seat resting on a raised platform, with a canopy above, and is opened by the pathi or reader who sits reverentially behind. Usually, another man stands in attendance, waving the flywhisk over the Holy Book. The pathi should have bathed and be dressed in clean clothes. Besides the reading of one single hymn to obtain vak or hukamnama (lesson or command for the day) or of some passages, three forms of complete path of the Guru Granth Sahib are current: akhand (unbroken recitation completed in forty-eight hours), saptahik (completed in a week) and sadharan or sahij (taken in slow parts with no time-limit for completion). A rarest variety is ati akhand path, hardly ever practised, in which a single participant reads within the prescribed 48 hours the entire text. Another variety is the sampat path. No time-limit is specified for it. Different schools and different groups or pathis have their own schedules. But the commonest factor in this variety of path is that a whole sabda or a portion of it from the holy text will be set apart for repetition after every full stanza or apportioned section of it has been recited. Time-limit will thus be variable, depending upon the length of the verse or verses chosen for repetition. The hymn or portions of it chosen for repeated recitation will be governed by the occasion or purpose of the path. At certain places even the Mul Mantra is repeated with the chosen line or lines. The relay of pathis in this instance will naturally be larger than in the case of a normal akhand path.


Cole, W. Owen and Sambhi, P.S., The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978

T. S.
PATIT (W. O. Cole), an adjective formed from patan meaning fall, decline or degradation, with its roots in Sanskrit pat which means, variously, “to fall, sink, descend; to fall in the moral sense; to lose caste, rank or position,” usually denotes one who is morally fallen, wicked, degraded or outcaste. It is slightly different from the English word ‘apostate’, which usually stands for one who abandons his religion for another— voluntarily or under compulsion. A patit is one who commits a religious misdemeanour or transgression, yet does not forsake his professed faith. He may seek redemption and may be readmitted to the communion after due penitence.

In the sacred literature of the Sikhs as well as of the Hindus, the word is normally used in the general sense of fallen or sinner as opposed to pure or virtuous. It often appears in composite terms such as patit-pavan and patit-udharan (purifier or redeemer of the sinner) used as attributes of God and Guru. Its use as a technical term in Sikh theology appears to have come into vogue after the creation of the Khalsa and the appearance of various codes of conduct prescribed for the Sikhs in the form of rahitnamas during the eighteenth century. Even the rahitnamas describe transgressor of the code of conduct as tankhahia (one liable to penalty) and not patit. Bhai Santokh Singh (1787-1843) the poet-historian appears to be the first to use patit in the sense in which it is now understood among the Sikhs. In ritu 3, ansu 51 of his magnum opus, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, the poet relates a story, based on an anecdote from an earlier work, Gur Ratan Mal (Sau Sakhi), of a Sikh lady shaken in her faith under the influence of a Muslim woman, who is subsequently reclaimed. She is described as saying: Bakhsh lehu ham tumari sharani; patitin pavanata bidhi barni (we seek refuge with you [O Guru:]. Pardon us and tell us the way to purify patits). The Singh Sabha movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century had reclamation of the patit Sikhs as one of its major objectives. Shuddhi Sabha, an offshoot of the Singh Sabha, established in 1893, had as its sole purpose the reconversion of apostates, and reclamation of patits. By a patit was meant a Hindu or Sikh, man or woman, who had abandoned his/her traditional religious faith under Muslim or Christian influence. Also, an initiated Sikh who committed a major kurahit or breach of religious discipline, became a patit, while for minor breaches of the Sikh code, one only became a tankhahia or one liable to penalty or punishment whose misdemeanour could be condoned by sangat or holy fellowship after an apology, repentantly and humbly tendered, and/or a punishment, usually in the form of tankhah (fine) and/or seva (voluntary service) and extra recitation daily of one or more routine prayers. Sikh Rahit Maryada approved by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1954 after prolonged deliberations retains the above rules without specifically defining the term patit. Its legal definition as inserted in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, through the amending Act XI of 1944 runs as below:

“Patit means a person who being a Keshdhari Sikh trims or shaves his beard or keshas or who after taking amrit commits any one or more of the four kurahits.”

Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971, contains a similar definition except a reference to keshadhari because unlike Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, it defines only keshadharis, and not sahajdharis, as Sikhs. It states:

“Patit” means a Sikh who trims or shaves his beard or hair (keshas) or who after taking amrit commits any one or more of the four kurahits.

According to old rahitnamas, as well as the Sikh Rahit Maryada, the four (major) kurahits are (1) trimming or shaving of hair, (2) eating kuttha or halal meat, i.e. flesh of bird or animal slaughtered in the Muslim’s way; (3) sexual contact with a woman or man other than one’s own wife or husband; and (4) the use of tobacco in any form.

Being a patit entails several religious, social and even legal disabilities. For example, besides being a religious offence punishable by sangat, being a patit is a social stigma; a patit cannot have his ardas said at any of the five takhts; and a patit cannot be elected to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The Sikh Rahit Maryada advises Sikhs not to associate generally with patits. Especially, co-dining with a patit would make a Sikh tankhahia. A patit who fails to appear before the sangat when summoned, or who refuses to accept its verdict could invite punishment leading to his excommunication from Sikh society. The power of excommunication however vests only in the Akal Takht at Amritsar, the highest seat of religious authority, and is exercised in exceptional cases involving eminent persons and panthic honour. Of course, the sanction behind such punishments and disabilities is purely religious, moral and social pressure, except in cases falling under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, 1975

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

4. Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925

5. Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1971

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

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

W. O. C.
PUNN (L. M. Joshi) a concept in the Indian tradition carrying simultaneously ethical, spiritual and philosophical connotations. As an ethical concept it implies voluntary obedience to the moral rules of conduct which have the sanction of a system of reward and punishment. As spiritual attitude, it is the inclination of the self towards a virtuous and ascetic living. As a metaphysical concept, it implies purity, holiness and goodness. Conceived as a value, punn is the subtle result of righteous actions which influence not only the doer’s present life, but also his eschatological state.

The word punn (Prakrit punna, Pali punna, Sanskrit punya) is derived from the root pu, meaning ‘to purify’ or ‘to make clear’. Punn is that action which purifies the self (atman) or the stream of life. The consequence of a pure action is pleasant and purifying not only for the doer but also for others. Any action which brings about desirable results, such as peace, prosperity, and happiness, that which is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end is indeed punn. In the sacred literature and lexicons of India we find this word used as a synonym of guna, subha, kusala, sukrta, dharma, pavana and sreyas. Translated into English these words mean ‘virtue’, ‘auspicious’, ‘good’, ‘noble deed’, ‘righteousness’, ‘pure’ and ‘preferable’. The term punn will perhaps best translate as right-doing—a meritorious action.

The word punya occurs in the Rgveda, though not in its later religious sense. The Atharvaveda mentions ‘pure worlds’ (punyansca lokan) while the Satapatha Brahmana refers to ‘religious works’ (punya-karma) such as horse-sacrifice performed by the Pariksitas. The Chandogya Upanisad attributes birth in higher state as the human to good conduct (ramaniyacharanah) and birth as a boar or a candala to bad conduct (kapuyacharanah). The Brhadaranyakopanisad states that a person becomes pious (punya) by pious deeds (punyena karmana). The early Upanisads also mention austerity (tapas) as a virtue. Study of the Vedas, sacrifice, almsgiving, and fasting are meritorious, but they are inferior to the knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman).

It is in the early Buddhist sources that the doctrine of merit is set down for the first time as an essential element in religious culture. Here a clear distinction is made between virtues or good qualities and their merit. Thus it is stated in the Dighanikaya that “merit (punya) grows by the cultivation of good qualities (kusala dharma).” The “foundations of meritorious deeds” (punya-kriya-vastu) are discussed minutely in the Buddhist texts. The three virtuous practices that contribute to merit are liberality (dana), good conduct (sila) and meditation (dhyana). Merit is often represented as the foundation and condition of birth in good states (sugati) and in heaven (svarga). Liberality, self-denial, self-restraint, truthful speech, austerity, continence, study of the doctrine, renunciation, friendliness, loving kindness, impartiality, serene joy, knowledge, right views, pure intention, forbearance and meditational achievements are some of the qualities contributing to merit. The Buddha is honoured as the embodiment of the supreme perfection of all meritorious virtues. Those bereft of merit are compared to the wood in the cremation ground. Absence of greed, of delusion, and of hatred is auspicious (subha) and leads to good states (sugati) and happiness (sukha). Punya is often compared to nectar, the antidote to living in hell and death. Human beings are purified not by birth or wealth, but by good deeds, knowledge, righteousness, and moral conduct. Sila or pure conduct is the basis of the entire religious life. The Emperor Asoka taught that one can obtain infinite merit (anantam punyam) by the gift of righteousness (dhammadana).

The Jaina attitude towards merit (punya) deserves special notice. Human beings have three dispositions (bhava): good (subha), bad (asubha) and pure (suddha). The first is the cause of religious merit (punya), the second of sinfulness (apunya) and the third of liberation (nivrtti). The sage (yogin), leaving both good and bad, establishes himself in the pure disposition. In the Jaina theory karma, whether meritorious or unmeritorious, results in bondage. For those who desire ultimate release (moksa), even punya is an obstacle; a shackle, whether of iron or of gold, is a shackle which binds. The argument is that the doer will have to remain in transmigration (sansara) in order to enjoy the fruition of his good works even if he be born in heavenly states. Unlike the religions of West Asian origin, the religions of Indian origin do not consider life in heaven as the highest goal.

Moksa being too high an ideal for the commonality of people, birth in good states of existence (yoni), whether in the divine or the human world (loka), is the generally cherished ideal. Merit (punya) is the sure means of getting into these existences. Hence, compassion, renunciation, fasting, penance, sense-control and almsgiving are recommended to the laity. Some Jaina texts distinguish between two types of merit; one founded on the ‘right view’ (samyagdrsti) and the other founded on the ‘false view’ (mithyadrsti); the former leads to liberation.

The Mahabharata, the Smrtis and the Puranas describe in detail the means of producing merits and the rewards they lead to. Going on pilgrimage to holy places (tirthas), bathing in sacred rivers (snana) and keeping various vows (vratas) and fasts (upavasas) are not the only ways of earning merit. Great emphasis is laid on the cultivation of moral qualities. According to these texts one obtains the full reward of pilgrimage and holy bath only when one is compassionate towards all beings and is pure and keeps one’s senses under control. Truthfulness, austerity, charity, celibacy, contentment, forbearance, sweet speech, and straightforwardness are the real tirthas that purify a being and beget merit. The Bhagavadgita lays down that one should perform one’s assigned duty (sva-dharma) in order to obtain excellent rewards. Among other things, death in battle is declared to be meritorious and resulting in birth in the heaven. An enlightened sage, sthitaprajna, however, is described as being untouched by good (subha) and evil (asubha) things.

The belief that merits travel with the self wherever reborn is common to all the religions of Indian origin. Spiritual merit is the only companion of a being in the next world (paraloka). Therefore, one should accumulate spiritual merits.

It will be incorrect to assume, however, that merits are accumulated only for the enjoyment of rewards in a future life. Some people may earn merits by doing good works with a view to gaining a good reputation and glory in this very life. Some people may perform meritorious deeds for destroying their sins, while a few might be inspired to pursue merits out of love and reverence for piety or with a view to growing in holiness. An important reason behind the accumulation of merits may be the desire to get and possess enormous supernatural powers. This is especially true of numerous figures of India’s legendary and mythical past. The name of such, as a king like Harischandra, a brahmana seer like Visvamitra, or an ascetic sage like Kapilamuni, represent a whole series of beings, either mythical, semi-historical or wholly imaginary, whose supernatural exploits occupy hundreds of pages of the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Like the practice of yoga, merits were stored for secular purposes also—victory in war, immunity from disease or curse, control over the forces of nature, such as rain and storm, and so on.

Certain faiths have paid little heed to this doctrine of merits. Among them may be counted the Bhaktimarga of India and the Sufism of Persia. Although faith and love are the dominant notes of the sects of Bhakti tradition of India, it will be wrong to say that they overlooked virtues like ethical excellence, compassion, and liberality. In the teachings of Kabir and Tulsidasa, who are among the greatest name in the Bhakti tradition, the value of good works, of altruistic ethics, has never been lost sight of.

How shall we define punn in Sikhism of which bhakti or devotion constitutes such an important factor? All those deeds of body, mind and speech which conduce to constant mindfulness of the Divine Reality are meritorious from the standpoint of Sikhism. The ideal person, in Sikh vocabulary, gurmukh, is the embodiment of moral and spiritual virtues. He lives, moves and has his being in the Timeless Being. In verse after verse in the Guru Granth Sahib he is eulogized for this moral excellence and blameless behaviour towards his fellow beings.

The God-inspired person (gurmukh) is not only a devotee or ‘a sharer in Divine Glory’ (bhagat). As stated in the Siddha-Gosti (stanzas 35-42), the gurmukh is engaged in meditation, in dispensing charities and purifying himself with the holy bath. He is enlightened and endeavours, like Ramachandra, in the way of God fighting against evil forces. He has the true discrimination and his transmigration is annulled. In devotion to the holy Lord, his egoism is consumed; by such devotion he is exalted. The Guru Granth Sahib refers to meritorious work as punn, sukrt, gun, bhali-kar and nam-simran (‘merit’, ‘pious action’, ‘virtue’, ‘good deed’, and ‘the mindfulness of God’) in different contexts. The message of the Teachers of the Sikh tradition is that faith in and love of the one Divine Reality must go along with morally good works of the body, mind and speech. “Without doing good no bhakti can be” (Japu, 21).

The foremost work of merit (punn) is, of course, constant awareness of God. This is the root of all the other merits; without this other good works are of little avail.

A person gets little honour through pilgrimage, austerity, mercy and liberal gifts; it is the hearing, accepting and meditating (on the Divine Essence) which is the real bathing in the innermost sanctum.

Holy bathing, austerities, compassion, charity—are all approved if these bring even a grain of true merit.

True merit lies in absorbing holy teaching, faith and devotion—

That will be the holy purifying bath of the Soul.

And without devotion to God,

No liberation can be (GG, 260).

The fact is that the gurmukh or God-inspired person is described as ‘undefiled’ (nirmalu), ‘pure’ (sucha), ‘self-controlled’ (sanjami), ‘self-investigator’ (parakhu), ‘contented’ (santokhi), possessed of the knowledge of sacred texts (sastar-simiriti-ved), one who has forsaken hatred (vair) and opposition (virodh), one who has eradicated all reckoning of complaint, hostility, and revenge (sagali ganat mitavai) against others, and as one who is rejoicing in the fervour of Divine Name (ramnam rangi rata).

The doctrine of grace has a place of special significance in Sikh thought. The compassionate attitude or favourable disposition of God (nadar, kirpa, prasad, mihar) is essential even for doing meritorious works, or for avoiding evil:

Through the Guru’s grace alone may one become pure and clean (GG, 158).

Virtuous conduct and even devotion to God is obtained through His favour:

Whosoever He elects to his favour becomes exalted. Through the Guru’s grace God’s Name abides in his heart (GG, 159).

One of the highest virtues, according to Guru Nanak, is to have complete control over one’s mana (mind)—“one who has conquered his mind, has conquered the world” (GG, 6). The sum total of such scriptural affirmations is that it is through God’s favour or direction that one becomes virtuous, that merit is accumulated through Divine grace. However this does not mean that in Sikhism there is no room for the exercise of free will in the practice of virtuous life.

It has, rather, been repeatedly emphasized in gurbani that human life is the chance provided to man for acquiring that which is the sole aim of all creatures, that is, communion with the Creator.

This emphasis on Divine favour (nadar, prasad), however, does not amount to predestinarianism and fatalism. In the Sikh Scripture the emphasis on ethical and moral teachings is very pronounced, making it clear beyond doubt that every individual is responsible for his actions, good or bad; and that he will get the reward accordingly:

Deeds good and bad will be weighed in the presence of the Law-maker; some will be judged to be close, others far apart. According to their actions will they be assigned their ranks (GG, 8).

Divine grace is not bestowed upon unworthy persons; one has to be virtuous to deserve favour of the Lord, though grace is essential to acquire purity, or to accumulate punn. But it comes to the lot of those alone who seek it and make themselves worthy of it.

The crucial question is raised in the Scripture: “In the face of both sin and virtue as our witnesses, what prayer can avail us” (GG, 35l)? Prayer bears fruit only when it is accompanied by good life. “Doing good deeds (sukrt) and remembering God one will not step out in the direction of hell” (GG, 461). It is the meekest and the humblest, those who rejoice in the dust of the feet of the sages (jan-dhuri), that obtain the Supreme state (paramgati).

We read in the Guru Granth Sahib: “Salute, with joined palms, that brings great merit; prostrate before them, and you will thereby accumulate much merit” (GG, 13).

The Sikh list of merits includes virtues such as mindfulness of God, spirit of detachment (bairagu), truthfulness, contentment, doing good deeds, restraint of the senses, righteous conduct, patience, faith, compassion, humility, fear of sin, chastity, scriptural study, liberality, knowledge, understanding, and desire for ultimate release (mokhu), etc.

But the greatest virtue is the destruction of haumai (self-centredness or egoity). “A man may do millions of virtuous deeds, but if he feels proud of his meritorious acts, all his efforts go waste. He may practise numerous austerities, but if he falls a prey to conceit, he will continue in the circle of rebirth in a good or bad state” (GG, 278). Haumai (egoity), thus, annihilates all punn or merit, and according to Sikhism, one cannot be virtuous unless one discards one's haumai.


1. Jolly, J., "Ethics and Morality (Hindu),” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. V. New York, 1964

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

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

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

5. Gunindar Kaur, The Guru Granth Sahib—Its Physics and Metaphysics. Delhi, 1981

6. Shan, Harnam Singh, Guru Nanak’s Moral Code. Delhi, n.d.

7. Thomas, George, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy. New York, 1958

8. Dhillon, Jaswinder Kaur, Guru Nanak di Kimat-Mimansa. Amritsar, 1982

9. Padam, Piara Singh, Rahitname. Patiala, 1974

L. M J.

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