Concepts in sikhism

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SIKH COSMOLOGY (Gurdip Singh Bhandari). From the very beginning man has been curious to know about the structure and constitution of the Universe and its origin. To locate the stable base of this universe and to fix his own place in it have been the subjects of his constant search and speculation for him. The Gurus brought their own mystical and philosophical powers to solving the riddle. In their poetry in the Guru Granth Sahib, they have expressed their sense of wonder and sung paeans of praise for the Almighty. A minute observation of the phenomenon of nature forms an important part of the Sikh metaphysical insight. It brings into view a palpable vision of the Creator and His creation. The medium used is poetry of far-reaching import. It is at the same time poetry of elemental beauty as well as of grandeur.

The Gurus have unequivocally and forcefully stressed the unicity of the Godhead. There is no room in it for any dualistic or polytheistic doctrines. The deities of the Hindu mythology, for instance, have no place in their belief as the objects of worship; nor was anyone of them regarded co-eternal with God. The matter out of which forms are shaped and the selves that inhabit them are eternal in Him but not with Him. Again, the God of Sikh teaching is not a mere concept or principle; He is the Ultimate Reality. True and eternal, He is the Power that has existed forever and will continue to exist when everything else has ceased. This power is endowed with will and supported by a conscious intelligence, which serves as the chief instrument for the fulfilment of His designs and purposes. With this will He comes out of His transcendental state of absorption in the Self and becomes the all-powerful immanent Creator (karta purakh). When He so wills, He draws it back, which is its dissolution.

The world for the Gurus is a creation, and owes its existence to the will of the Divine. It is the Creator’s sporting gesture, lila. He Himself is its material as well as efficient cause. Says Guru Nanak, “ tun karta purakhu agammu hai ape sristi upati—You are the creator, unknowable; you have yourself created the world” (GG, 138). There was a time when the world had not yet appeared and there will be a time when the world will again disappear. Says Guru Arjan, “kai bar pasario pasar sada sada ik akankar—Many a time you have projected this creation, yet you always remained the only formless One” (GG, 276).

The Gurus have called the pre-creation state sunya, meaning ‘empty void’, ‘negative abyss,’ ‘nothingness.’ Describing this stage, Guru Nanak says:

For countless ages utter darkness prevailed

There was neither earth nor heaven,

The will of the Infinite Lord reigned everywhere.

There was neither day nor night,

Nor sun nor moon,

Only Sunya (the Absolute self) stayed in solitary meditation. (GG, 1035)


For a good many ages

Utter darkness filled everywhere.

T he Creator was wholly absorbed in deep meditation.

There existed only His true nam, His glory,

And the lustre of His eternal throne. (GG, 1023)

Many schools of thought have put forth the view that the world was born out of nothingness. However, the Sunya of the Gurus does not correspond to the Buddhistic concept, nor the absolute nothingness, the ‘ex-nihilo’ of other schools. The “nothingness” of the Gurus refers to absence of creation, and not to the absence of the Creator or His essence or potency. The Gurus have used “Sunya” in conjunction with terms like samadhi, tari (trance, meditation) or sahaj (equipoise, balance) or sach (holy truth). These terms describe the state of complete tranquillity and oneness of the Absolute Self, and refer to that latent form in which every aspect of creation lies dormant in Him, waiting for the operation of the Divine urge for its unfoldment. With this urge, from apparent nothingness, the Formless assumes form, “The unattributed becomes the Attributed –“nirgun te sargunu thia” (GG, 940) and thus this world of a myriad colours takes shape.

The Gurus do not subscribe to the view that the world suddenly appeared in its finished form. It has passed through a gradual process of evolution. They also reject the view that it has been ‘produced’ or ‘manufactured’ mechanically as an artisan might produce an article out of a given substance. God and His creation are one—the creation was merged in Him. God raised the creation out of Himself. It is a gradual unfoldment of what lay folded within the Ultimate cause—the Absolute Self.

From the state of Sunya,

The latent form became active.

The elements of air and water

Were evolved out of Sunya. . .

Within the fire

Water and living beings is His Light,

And the power of Creation lies within Sunya . . .

From Sunya came out the moon

The sun and the firmament. . .

The earth and heaven have been evolved out of Sunya. (GG, 1037-38)

Guru Nanak mentions three stages in the process of cosmic evolution. The first is the atmosphere when there was only all-pervasive air. The second stage was that of water; the third was lithosphere when the crust of the earth took form. Situated in the midst of the elements, the self has to evolve its potentialities to merge into the Absolute, which is the state of liberation. Thus, a theory of spiritual evolution is implicit in this process.

The source and origin of Creation is shabad, sabda, (sound), nam, nad, bani or anahad sabad. The will of God (hukam) becomes synonymous with the word of God. Guru Nanak says, “kita pasau eko kavau tis te hoe lakh dariau—With his Primal Word (kavao) originated creation and millions of rivers were set flowing” (GG, 3). Guru Amar Das says “upati paralu sabade havai sabade hi phiri opati hovai—Through sabad (word) creation and dissolution take place and through sabad creation takes rebirth” (GG, 117).

The creative power of sabad (Word) is a concept common to most religious traditions. Sabad has been referred to as nad, vani or vak in Vedic and Upanisadic literature. There are clear references to it in the Zoroastrian sroasha, the Word or Logos of the Christians, and Kun or Kalima of the Muslims. To quote the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . All things were made by Him; and without Him was not made anything” (John, 1,1). The poets of the nirguna school like Kabir and Dadu also equate the sabad (Word) with the Creator.

Sabad (sound manifested) produces the subtle element akash (ether), from which the other four subtle elements emerge, which in turn give rise to the five gross elements. Air evolves from ether, fire from air, water from fire, and earth from water. The Gurus regard these five elements as the basic constituents of the whole creation. Guru Nanak says, “panch tatu sunnahu pargasa—From sunya the five elements manifested themselves” (GG, 1038) “Panch tatu mili ihu tanu kia—The human frame is also constituted of (these) five elements” (GG, 1039).

The evolution of the world from sabad (Word) indicates that the Gurus do not accept the traditional division of the world into matter and spirit. Since the light of the Lord (sabad) pervades the entire universe, what has sprung from Him cannot be lifeless or inert. Guru Nanak says “sache te pavana bhaia pavane te jalu hoi—From the eternal being air evolved and from air water” (GG, 19). Lifeless matter can neither respond to outer and inner influences, nor can it be translated into an evolutionary process. There is no such thing as pure matter in the entire universe.

Forms may be with or without a self or soul. The ensouled forms have been called jivas. In and through them the conscious luminous spirit, a spark of the Divine Flame, gains vital expression. While jivas have been divided into four broad categories (khanis)—egg-born, womb-born, earth-born and sweat-born—references are also made to the gods, ghosts and the like. Guru Nanak says, “Innumerable are the categories of creation in various colours and forms.” Creation cannot be limited to any fixed number of categories.

The Gurus have given vivid accounts of the visible and invisible worlds. They refer to countless kinds of creation. They speak of innumerable mountains, oceans, countries, continents, galaxies and universes. Guru Nanak’s composition “Japu” which is considered to be the epitome of the entire Sikh philosophy, gives a highly imaginative account of the gross and subtle worlds in the stanzas known as “khands” (regions). Metaphorical references to the three worlds (tribhavan), the nine divisions (nav khand), the fourteen regions (chaudah bhavan or lok) of Hindu and Muslim belief are also referred to, but the Gurus repeatedly say that like the Lord, His creation is also limitless. Says the Guru, “Without limit is creation, without measure. Millions long to find the limit, but limitless is creation.” Again, “Countless are the atmospheres, waters and fires; countless the clouds, the moons and the suns, infinite are the spheres, infinite the space.” The Gurus believe that there are many solar systems like that of ours and each solar system has its own Brahma, Visnu and Mahesa (gods of creation, sustenance and dissolution). So great is the lord and so boundless in His creation that countless planets and worlds are being created and dissolved in it in the twinkling of an eye.

Time and space are two very significant factors in the process of creation. The whole creation is under their influence and sway. It is, therefore, subject to growth and decay. Only the Creator, the Transcendental One, is beyond the influence of time and space. Guru Nanak calls Him akal murati, “you transcend time, time has no effect on you—tu akal purakhu nahi siri kala” (GG, 1038). In fact time and space exist only as part of the creation. Not only is creation in time and space, it can only be understood in relation to them. When creation itself dissolves at the time of pralaya (dissolution), time and space also merge into Eternity. Therefore, the Gurus do not accept the independent existence of time and space.

Time has been dealt with in Sikh teaching in detail. While the Creator has been called Akal (Timeless), which is a central concept in the Sikh philosophical thought, the universe is governed by the element of time. There is a continuing process of creation and dissolution. Says Guru Arjan in Sukhmani: Kai bar pasario pasar, sada sada iku ekankar

Numerous times has the visible Universal expanse been manifested;

Only the Supreme Being is eternal, (GG, 276)

In Gurbani, temporality and eternity are constant opposites. Time itself is immeasurable, beyond human conception. During it the universe has appeared and disappeared through endless ages. In Raga Maru Solahe, by Guru Nanak (GG, 1035), occurs a long disquisition on the process of creation. “Through millions of years was there utter darkness enveloping the space; everything was at standstill. Then He by His will created the universe, the continents, regions, and the nether worlds. And the unmanifest made himself manifest.”

Sikh cosmology maintains the fourfold division of time. Time is divisible into four yugas. The computation of time is in accordance with the Bikrami era, which precedes the Christian era by 57 years. Occasionally the kali yuga era too is mentioned. In the sum, for most practical purposes the prevalent Indian computation of time has been adopted.

The Gurus regard man as the crown of creation. Unique is the structure of his body which is “the temple of the living God—hari mandaru ehu sariru hai. . . .” (GG, 1346). It is in this worthy temple that the Creator is to be realized and worshipped. Guru Amar Das says:

In the body are contained,

Pearls and treasures,

The storehouse of devotion.

The nine regions of the earth,

Shops and markets

And the nine treasures of nam, the divine

Are contained in this frame. (GG, 754)

The human body is the model of the whole creation, We, each one of us, are the complete universe. Man is the microcosm of the cosmos which is the macrocosm. The study of this macrocosm can reveal all the secrets contained in the macrocosm. Our body is the epitome of all creation and we have only to turn within to seek the truth. There is a complete parallel system between the physical processes of the universe and the biological processes in the body of man. Above and beyond the nine visible ‘gates’ (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth and the two lower apertures) of the body there lies the invisible “tenth door” (dasam duar) where the true sabda, in all its resplendent glory and bliss, keeps ceaselessly resounding. This unstruck music (akhand sabad), the stream of perennial life, the true Nectar is incessantly in operation in the “tenth door” from where man can travel back to his true Home (sach khand) on the ship of the Word (sabda). He can then merge his individual self in the universal self to obtain lasting release from the cycle of birth and death. In fact, the human body is a precious gift, the golden opportunity which the great Lord mercifully grants to creation so that it may realize its true self and become one with the transcendent. To utilize the body for this purpose is the real goal and end of life, and the only justification for man’s sojourn in this world.

The concept of cosmology advanced by the Gurus is not merely theological or speculative. It is the outcome of their own spiritual and mystical experience. The Gurus were unmatched spiritual teachers who in their own spiritual ascent beheld the splendid vision of the entire creation. They described what they themselves saw vividly revealed within (GG, 894). Their personal mystical experience is the real base and authority of their revelation. They established a living communion with God and possessed first-hand experience of all the secrets of creation. However, in their humility the Gurus time and again have proclaimed that the mystery of creation is known to the Creator alone. Unlike those creeds which have set dates for the origin of creation, the Gurus have visioned it as wrapped in the mystery and infinity of the Creator. As stated in the Japu, none can claim knowledge of this mystery which the Creator alone beholds.


1. Mackenzie, D. A., Indian Myth and Legend. London, 1914

2. Nivedita, Sister, and A. Coomaraswamy. Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists.

New York, 1914

3. Mehta, D. D., Some Positive Sciences in the Vedas. Delhi, 1961

4. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Reprint]. Amritsar, 1986

5. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmati Nirnai [Reprint]. Patiala, 1990

6. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1983

G. S. B.
SIKHISM (G. S. Talib), the youngest of the major world religions, strictly monotheistic in its fundamental belief, was born in the Punjab in the revelation of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Although it bears close affinities in its terminology and in some of its philosophical assumptions with other India-born religions and with Islam, yet in its orientation it is a separate, independent faith. The distinctive nature of Sikhism has been asserted right from its origin in the pronouncements of Guru Nanak, not set down as a systematic treatise but scattered throughout his numerous hymns included in the Guru Granth Sahib, amplified by the lives and works of his nine successors and explained in the exegetical writings of Sikh scholars dating back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Again, Sikhism is not only a philosophical system but is also a distinct cultural pattern, a way of life signified by the term Sikh Panth.

Etymologically, the word sikh goes back to Sanskrit sisya, itself derived from the root sis or sas meaning to correct, chastise, punish; to teach, instruct, inform. In Pali sisya, (a pupil, scholar, disciple) became sissa and later, sekh or sekkha which means a pupil or one under training in a religious doctrine (Sanskrit siksha and Pali sikkha). In Punjabi the term is sikkh usually transliterated sikh. “Sikh” now almost universally denotes a follower of Guru Nanak, his nine successors and their teachings embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Scripture. “Sikhism” denominates the faith they profess. Scattered all over the globe, the Sikhs are mostly concentrated in the northwestern part of India. According to 1991 census, of the 17 million Sikhs in India over 85 per cent live in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh which till 1966 comprised a single state called Punjab. In the present state of Punjab where they number 10.2, million, they form 62.95 per cent of the population.

The first date in Sikhism is 1469, the year in which the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, was born. According to Janam Sakhis, traditional accounts of his life, he from early childhood possessed a reflective mind and liked the company of holy men of different denominations. He was already a married man and a father of two sons, when, towards the close of the fifteenth century, he had a direct mystic encounter with the Supreme Reality, which he called Nirankar, the Formless One He then set out to preach the Word, Sabda, revealed to him.

According to Guru Nanak, God is One, a single Supreme Reality. He is the creator, preserver, destroyer and recreator of material existence, but He Himself is uncreated, unborn and self-existent. In fact the Creator is not different from His creation but is one with it. All material existence emanates from Him and is the manifestation of His Self. Its apparent diversity does not alter the unicity of the All-embracing whole. God as the supreme spirit permeates throughout His creation but is not limited by it: He transcends it. He, the timeless and the boundless One, transcends even time and space.

In the Sikh Scripture, the concept of the supreme reality is not only dynamic and reverberating but many pluralities such as nirguna-saguna and transcendent immanent are subsumed in it. He is nirguna or without attributes. Yet He is saguna or with attributes, too, because in the manifested state all attributes are His. At the same time the ultimate reality of God never binds Himself to any specific forms of image. Sikhism clearly rejects avatarvad or belief in divine incarnation and idol-worship.

God was a palpable reality for the Gurus. They were so imbued with divine love that they never imagined there could be any doubt about His existence. It is true, though that as an infinitesimal part man can never know the Whole. The supreme reality in its totality is unknowable. Guru Nanak in his long hymn, Japu, which forms early morning prayer for the Sikhs, says: “je hau jana akha nahi kahana kathanu na jai—Even if I knew, I could not describe (because He) is indescribable” (GG, 2). Elsewhere using a poetic image he elaborates: “You are the All-knowing, All-seeing Ocean; how can 1, a (humble) fish measure (your) immenseness? —(tu dariau dana bina mai machhuli kaise antu laha” (GG, 25). Yet the individual self, being a tiny ray of the illimitable source of light that God is, is ever connected to that source and may feel and even comprehend its existence, however vaguely. The Gurus have often used the image of the sun and the ray to define the relation of God and individual self. They accepted the universal term atma or soul as the spark or ray through which the paramatma or the Ultimate Spirit permeates individual selves. To comprehend the latter, the former is to be awakened and ignited. This to be done through self-effort under the guidance of the Guru but, above all, with God’s grace, nadar, mihar or karam. Knowing God is meeting God, becoming one with Him, merging of the individual soul atma in the supreme spirit, paramatma, realization of God is a spiritual experience. It is a revelation which comes through intuition and divine grace. Logic or any other kind of reasoning is of no avail here, for against one kind of reasoning another can be advanced. Hence for the seeker is to try in a spirit of humility in prayer, and devotion, and in meditating upon nam, the divine name, or sabda, the Divine Word. For such effort, Sikhism does not favour asceticism or renunciation. It preaches humility, prayer, devotion and meditation to be cultivated and practised within the worldly life of a householder. Renunciation or rejection of the world as false would be to falsify God’s handiwork.

The material world of time and space is God’s creation. It is as real as the creator Himself. As says Guru Arjan, Nanak V: “True is He and true is His creation (because) all has emanated from God Himself—api sati kia sabhu sati; tisu prabh te sagali utpati” (GG, 294). In Sikhism, why, when and how of universe is not considered a matter for logic and reasoning nor of historical and scientific research. God creates it when he pleases and he destroys when he so wills. To quote Guru Arjan again “karate ki miti na janai kia, nanak jo tisu bhavai so vartia—The created cannot have a measure of the creator; What He wills, O Nanak, happens” (GG, 285). Again “apan khelu api kari dekhai, khelu sankochai tau nanak ekai—He watches His own sport; when, O Nanak, He winds up His sport, He the one, alone remains” (GG, 292). Guru Gobind Singh calls this process of expansion and reversion or dissolution as udkarkh (Sanskrit utkarsana) and akarkh (Sanskrit akarsana), respectively. “When you, O Creator, caused utkarkh” he says, “the creation assumed the boundless body; whenever you effect akarkh, all corporeal existence merges in you (“Benati Chaupai”). As to the time of the creation of the Universe, Guru “thiti varu na jogi janai ruti mahu na koi ja karta sirathi kau saje ape janai soi—(of creation) no yogi knows the date or day, none knows the season or month; the Creator alone who made the Universe knows” (GG, 4). Elsewhere, Guru Nanak in a 16-stanza verse describes his vision of the Pre-Creation state thus: “For countless eons there was a state of semi-darkness. There was no earth or sky but only the boundless hukam. There was neither day nor night, no moon nor sun. He was in a sunn samadhi (Sanskrit sunya samadhi) or trance in nothingness. There were neither any sources of production, nor language, air; nor water. Neither were the processes of creation and dissolution, nor transmigration of souls. There were no upper or nether regions, nor the seven oceans, or rivers, nor water flowing in them. . (and so on). He was all by Himself (until) when it pleased Him, He created the Universe which he sustains without any prop. . .” And he concludes, “The perfect Guru makes one understand. None knows His bounds. Those blessed ones, O Nanak, who are imbued with the love of the true one enjoy the bliss and sing his praises” (GG, 1035).

The created world is not maya or illusion. It is not only real; it is sacred because in Guru Angad’s words, “ih jag sachai ki hai kothari sache ka vichi vasu—This world is the abode of true one who is present in it” (GG, 463).

Guru Amar Das, Nanak III, identifies it with God Himself: “This (so-called) poisonous world that you see,” says he, “is (the manifest) form of God; it is his form that you see” (GG, 922). Elsewhere, however, the world is described as false and likened to an illusion, dream or bubble. The seeming contradiction is resolved by considering the word sat (Sanskrit satya) or true in its double nuance. Sat means true, real, actual, verifiable, genuine: not counterfeit, spurious or imaginary; it also means constant, sure, secure, steadfast, not subject to variation. The material or created world meets the former set of characteristics, but not the latter. It is true in so far as it is not imaginary or illusory, and is in fact a reflection of the supreme spirit. So are the souls which are nothing but the microcosmic bits of the Macrocosmic Spirit transcending even the macrocosm. But the bodies, the abodes of these bits of the True One, are transitory, changeable and ever-changing. It is in this sense that Guru Nanak, in a hymn declaring the world, its dwellers, its wealth, and human relations as false, laments: kisu nali kichai dosti sabh jagu chalanhar—whom to befriend? The whole world is in flux” (GG, 468). Elsewhere in the Sikh Scripture, the world is described as falsehood, illusion, dream, bubbles, a wall of sand, destructible. Thus, according to Sikhism, the world may be considered as a dialectical truth lying between the Absolute Truth and the Buddhist-Sankaracharyan maya.

The world came into being through God’s Will and is ever subject to His hukam, a Persian term meaning command, decree, verdict, order, fiat, rule, law, control, direction; authority, jurisdiction, etc. Hukam as a concept in Guru Nanak’s message is both Divine Will and Divine Law. In fact, Divine Law has its origin in Divine Will, and the sanction behind it bhai or bhau Sanskrit bhaya), the fear or awe of God. According to Guru Nanak, the whole creation is under bhau, fear of God (GG, 464). Other terms used synonymously with hukam are amar and farman (Divine fiat or command); bhana and raza (divine pleasure) and qudarat (divine power). But God, unlike God in some Semitic religions, is no jabbar (tyrant, oppressor) or gahhar (wrathful, avenger), and hukam is not a blind impulse of the supreme spirit; it is regulated by order and justice. The universe being the play of his pleasure, God enjoys it. He, of course, dispenses divine justice but it is tampered by his mihar (mercy) and nadar (grace). God in relation to his creation is benign and compassionate.

God’s creation does not exist in a lump. “The indestructible lord, ekankar (the one God) has spread himself in several ways, in several forms, several colours and several garbs” (GG, 284). He is immanent in all these diverse beings, in that atma, the divine spirit, pervades through all. Of these the sentient beings, jvas, are endowed with individual souls, jivatma. Jiva, jiu and jio are the terms used in the Sikh Scripture both for an individual being and for the soul while jia signifies both the individual being and man or mind. Jiva takes birth under God’s hukam through the fusion of the formless soul with some material form or body. While the former; being a part of the supreme spirit, paramatma, is immortal, the latter, conditioned by time and space, is transient and temporary, and is liable to laws of growth, decay and death. Jiva dies when jivatma or individual soul sheds its elemental body. Death like birth is also subject to hukam, God’s will. Hukam prevails even between birth and death, but there it operates primarily in the form of karma, the divine law of cause and effect.

Sikhism accepts the laws of karma and transmigration of soul, but according to it heaven and hell have only symbolic significance. The term karam, as it is spelt in Punjabi and as it appears in Sikh Scripture, has three connotations. As an inflection of Sanskrit karman from root kri (to do, perform, accomplish, make, cause, effect, etc.) it means an act, action, deed, etc. It also stands for fate, destiny, predestination inasmuch as these result from one’s actions and deeds. Thirdly, as a word of Arabic origin, karam is a synonym of nadar, that is divine grace, kindness, clemency. Under the law of karma, popular in several eastern religions, jivatma on leaving one body transmigrates to another body to take birth as another jiva which may belong to any one of the 8,400,000 species that exist. Whether the new body shall belong to a species higher or lower than the one lately cast off by the jivatma depends upon the good or bad deeds, respectively, performed during the previous birth or births. It is as result of good actions performed during successive births especially during human births, that, subject to nadar or God’s grace, a jivatma attains mokh (Sanskrit moksa), that is final liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Jivatma, a mere drop, then merges finally with the Unfathomable Ocean that is paramatma or God, and becomes undistinguishable from Him. But as long as such merger does not come about, the soul must wander enveloped in gross matter through various bodies and different species that form the cycle of transmigration.

Of all the species, human is the highest and the most privileged. Guru Arjan says, “lakh chaurasih joni sabai, manas kau prabhi dii vadiai. Of all the eighty-four lacs of species, God gave superiority to man” (GG, 1075); and “avar joni teri panihari, isu dharti mahi teri sikdari—All other species are your (man’s) water-bearers; you have hegemony over this earth” (GG, 374). Man’s superiority arises from his superior intelligence, keener understanding, self-knowledge and a fine moral instinct. Human birth is, therefore, the most appropriate for trying to attain moksa or mukti. It is a rare chance for Jivatma to seek union with paramatma. To quote Guru Arjan again, “bhai parapati manukh dehuria; gobind milan ki ih teri baria—(now that) you have got a human body, this is your turn to meet God” (GG, 378). Guru Nanak himself had warned: “Listen, listen to my advice, O my mind; only good deeds will endure, and there may not be a second chance—suni suni sikh hamari; sukritu kita rahasi mere jiare bahuri na avai vari” (GG, 154).

According to Guru Nanak, mukti or attainment of union with God is the ultimate purpose of man. In human mind, endowed with superior cognitive, affective and conative faculties, the spiritual spark shines the brightest. But haumai, or egoism, the sense of “I–amness” bedims the divine spark within him and hampers his understanding of the primal reality. Haumai or self-concern creates a wall around man’s understanding, separates him from his original source and leads him to agian (spiritual blindness, nescience). Haumai gives rise to the five passions, i.e. kam (sensuality), krodh (anger), lobh (avarice), moh (attachment), and hankar (pride). Led by these passions, he becomes manmukh, a self-centred, self-willed, unregenerate individual, unresponsive to instruction. His salvation lies in overcoming his haumai and understanding his true self, which is a spark of the light eternal. “Recognize yourself, O mind,” says Guru Amar Das, Nanak III, “You are the light manifest.” And he goes on in the same verse to show the way: “Rejoice in Guru’s instruction that God is (always) with (in) you. If you recognize your Self, you shall know Lord and shall get the knowledge of life and death” (GG, 441). The seeker is advised to follow gurmati, Guru’s instruction, and be a gurmukh, Guru-oriented, rather than a manmukh. Guru in Sikhism means, besides God Himself, the ten Sikh Gurus from Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) and, after them, their shabad (Sanskrit sabda) preserved in the form of Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Scripture of the Sikhs. Gurmati, therefore, means tenets and doctrines of the faith as revealed in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru is the voice of God and Guru’s shabad is his divine self-expression.

According to gurmati, the means to overcome haumai lies in understanding hukam, the fundamental principle of God’s activity, and in living one’s life wholly in accord with it. This understanding or gian (Sanskrit jnan) comes not through rites and rituals, nor through the study of voluminous tomes or discursive discussions. It is not attained through renunciation, austerities and penances, either. Sikhism recommends grihastha or normal life of a householder, but without falling in love with worldly life as if it would always endure. The only true love is devotion to God. Guru Nanak set forth devout love as the truest virtue. Love of God consists in immersing oneself in nam simaran, i.e. constant and loving remembrance of His Name, meditating upon His immeasurable immenseness in awe and wonder, and in singing His praises. Such loving devotion helps one to free oneself from haumai and to attain mokhduar or threshold of mukti, i.e. liberation from the circuit of birth, death and rebirth. At the same time as a householder one should earn one’s living by kirat karni, i.e. by hard work and honest means. The third virtue is vand chhakna, to share one’s victuals with others. Besides these Guru Nanak laid special emphasis on seva or self-abnegating deeds of service. “One who performs selfless service,” says Nanak V, “finds the Lord” (GG, 286). Shil (good conduct), sangam (moderation), santokh (contentment) and garibi (in the sense of humility, not of poverty) are the individual virtues a Sikh is instructed to cherish.

On the social plane, Guru Nanak preached equality of all human beings. He especially denounced distinctions and discriminations based on caste, creed, sex and worldly possessions. Humanism, universalism tolerance and seva are the pillars of social ethics of the Sikhs.

The founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, not only determined the principal truths and doctrines of Sikhism; he also took care to ensure that his teaching would endure. Wherever he went he advised his followers to join together in sangat, i.e. holy fellowship or community, to establish dharamsals or houses of congregation, and langar or community refectory (for themselves and for the needy). At the end of his udasis or travels, he himself had such a community established at Kartarpur on the right bank of Ravi. It was not a monastic order, but a fellowship of ordinary people engaged in ordinary occupations of life, congregating for prayer and sitting together to share a common repast, overruling distinctions of caste and creed. To carry on his work he himself nominated a successor, a devout Sikh Bhai Lahina, who he renamed Angad, a limb of his own body, and to whom he passed on a book containing his teachings, and his own light, transmitted further from one to the next succeeding Guru so that, the Sikhs believe, all the ten Gurus were of equal spiritual rank sharing the revelation of Guru Nanak, whose message they elaborated and preached and whose social institutions of sangat and pangat they expanded and consolidated into a well-defined community of believers which ultimately blossomed into the Sikh Panth.

Guru Angad (1504-52) popularized the Gurmukhi script among Sikhs, and Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) introduced a well-knit ecclesiastical system based on manjis or dioceses and organized regular congregational fairs for the Sikhs at Goindval, which became their special centre of pilgrimage. Guru Ram Das (1534-81) established yet another centre by founding the town of Amritsar, now the religious capital of the Sikhs. Under Guru Arjan (1563-1606) Sikhism was more firmly established. He constructed in the middle of the pool of Amritsar, the Harimandar, Golden Temple of today. He also founded new towns of Tarn Taran, Kartarpur and Sri Hargobindpur, and further consolidated the manji system by appointing masands to the outlying preaching districts.

More significant was his collection and canonization of the compositions of the Gurus and some other saints in the form of the Adi Granth, which he installed in the Harimandar. The provision of a central place of worship and the Scripture proved to be of great significance in moulding Sikh self-consciousness and in the reification of Sikh life and society. Sikhs were now a community distinct enough to attract the spite of the heir-apparent to the throne of Delhi who, soon after his accession as Emperor Jahangir in 1605, had Guru Arjan executed. Guru Arjan’s martyrdom, the first in the eventful history of Sikhism, gave a martial turn to the community’s orientation. His son and successor, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), instead of donning the rosary and other saintly emblems, wore a warrior’s equipment for the ceremonies of succession and encouraged his followers to train as soldiers. He set the principle of miri and piri, combination of worldly strength with spiritual faith; and devotion or, to use modern terminology, coalescence of religion and politics. Not that the earlier Gurus had been oblivious of the political happenings around them. The fusion of the worldly and the other-worldly was inherent in the basic teachings of Guru Nanak. The Gurus preached active participation in life rather than running away from it. What Guru Hargobind did was to consciously prepare the community to defend the faith against wilful oppression of bigoted state power. His task was made easier by the awakening brought about by the teaching of his predecessors. He was able to forge the instruments of a mighty revolution which he duly tested in his lifetime. His successors, Guru Har Rai (1630-61) and Guru Har Krishan (1656-64) kept the style he had introduced and were attended by armed followers. But although summoned to imperial presence, they were left in comparative peace by the ruling power. Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-75), the ninth Guru, again bore the cross. He laid down his life to defend the people’s right to their religious belief. His son, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), created the martial order of the Khalsa, a classless commonwealth of self-abnegating Sikhs, now surnamed Singhs, devout and peaceful worshippers of the One God but irreconcilable opponents of injustice and tyranny.

Seva or selfless service had always been a laudable ideal for the Sikhs. It implied some measure of sacrifice. With the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, sacrifice even in its most difficult form, sacrificing one’s life for a worthy cause, became a desirable goal for them. To die fighting in defence of righteousness was something to be sought after. “Grant me this boon, O Lord,” sang Guru Gobind Singh, “that I may not turn away from good deeds: may I not be afraid to fight the enemy (of faith) and may I assure my victory: may I instruct my own mind to greedily sing Thy praises; and when the end comes, may I fall fighting in the thick of the battle.”

Guru Gobind Singh transformed the Sikh sangat into Khalsa panth, giving it a distinct identity in form as well as in spirit. Before he passed away, he put an end to personal guruship and bequeathed the spiritual leadership of the community to the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, in perpetuity and the temporal leadership to the Panth itself who was to fashion its own destiny in future under the guidance of the Guru Granth Sahib, the perpetual repository of fundamental principles, spiritual and moral, as revealed by Guru Nanak in ten corporeal frames. Within half a century of Guru Gobind Singh’s decease, Sikhism had turned into a political force and in another forty years it had become a state. In the process the Panth had to undergo the worst state persecution and genocide in human history, but the courage, tenacity and faith with which it reacted to and overcame the suppression was equally unprecedented. The ultimate emergence of Sikhs as the ruling power in northwestern India, however, was accompanied by some loss on the doctrinal side. The Sikh doctrine is not a single reasoned statement but lies scattered in the Scriptural verses and in traditional institutions of the Panth. The preservation of doctrinal purity, therefore, largely depends on correct interpretation of Scripture and tradition. Unfortunately during the turbulent eighteenth century, while the Khalsa were fully involved in the grim struggle for existence and, later, in conquest and political administration, theological affairs fell almost completely in the hands of Udasi and Nirmala priests highly influenced by Hindu scholasticism. They brought in priesthood, ritualism and at places even idol-worship, all strictly forbidden in Sikhism. The rise of aristocracy and later of monarchy, on the other hand, put an end to such democratic, republican institutions as Sarbatt Khalsa, gurmata and Dal Khalsa.

After the conquest of the Punjab by the British, there was a sharp fall in the Sikh population. Two early attempts for the preservation of doctrinal purity were the Nirankari movement of Baba Dyal (1783-1855) and the Namdhari movement under Baba Ram Singh (1815-85). The real renaissance commenced with the Singh Sabha movement launched in 1873. It touched Sikhism to its very roots and made it a living force once again with a renewed search for separate Sikh identity. It opened for the Sikhs doors of modern progress, and ushered in a period of vigorous educational and literary activity. The Singh Sabha gave place to Gurdwara Reform movement of the early 1920’s which resulted in the removal of the influence of the priestly class and the establishment of a democratically elected statutory body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, to look after the religious affairs of the Panth and the management of Sikh shrines. For political leadership, bulk of the Sikh population looked up to the Shiromani Akali Dal. At the national level, their commitment to the cause of Indian freedom was total and their contribution to it was noteworthy.

In 1940, the Muslims of India represented by the Indian Muslim League made a bid to have a separate country of their own, Pakistan, comprising predominantly Muslim territories culled out of India. The Sikhs were both alarmed and motivated. The Punjab, which to them was their only home, was a Muslim majority province. Its transfer to Pakistan would greatly jeopardize their interests, and threaten their newly re-discovered identity. They made a bid for an independent homeland of their own, but they were too few in numbers (1.47 per cent of the total population of India and 13 per cent of that of the Punjab according to the 1941 census) and too thinly spread to justify their claim to a viable territorial unit.

The partition of the Punjab in 1947, which divided the Sikh population into two almost equal halves, was a severe blow to them. Those left in districts assigned to Pakistan had to migrate to the Indian side of the Punjab and the Sikh states of cis-Sutlej region. But by their native tenacity and enterprise, they soon rehabilitated themselves in independent India. Yet fresh doubts and misgivings soon arose about the preservation of their jealously-guarded identity and cultural heritage. The framers of the new Constitution of India declined to grant to them special rights as a minority community, and a bulk of the non-Sikh Punjabis disowned Punjabi as their mother tongue, with the result that while the whole of India was reorganized on linguistic basis, the Sikhs had to launch a prolonged struggle to secure a Punjabi-speaking state. Language being one of the most important factors of any culture, the Sikhs are highly sensitive about it.

On the theological plane, modern Sikhism is a continuation of the Singh Sabha restoration. While it retains its creedal unity and its adherence to its original metaphysics and symbolism, it has found enough resilience in the framework it has inherited to adapt itself to the modern course of progress without compromising on the fundamentals. Deeply conscious of its eventful history, its outlook is essentially forward-looking. Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Scripture, is the continuing spiritual authority and is venerated as the living presence of the Gurus. It gives form and meaning to the Sikhs’ religious style and social customs. It is the integral focus of their psyche and the regulative principle of their belief and practice. Through their sacred book and through their 500-year old history, they maintain a strong attachment to their religious inheritance. Yet their deep allegiance to it creates no exclusivism. Their faith has a broad humanitarian base. Singly in their homes and collectively in congregations in their places of worship, the Sikhs conclude their morning and evening prayers, or prayers said at any other time as part of personal piety or of a ceremony, with ardas or supplicatory prayer which ends with the words: Nanak nam charhdi kala tere bhane sarbatt ka bhala—May Thy Name, Thy Glory be forever triumphant, Nanak, and in Thy Will, may peace and prosperity come to one and all.


1. Jodh Singh, Bhai Gurmati Nirnai [Reprint]. Patiala. 1990

2. Harbans Singh, Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith. Patiala, 1969

3. Nirbhai Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Delhi, 1990

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

5. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna. Amritsar, 1989

6. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, l983

7. Harbans Singh and Lal Mani Joshi, An Introduction to Indian Religions. Patiala, 1973

8. Talib, Gurbachan Singh, An Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Patiala, 1991

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

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

G. S. T.

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