The Golden Temple

Sikhism and Jainism are two smaller but significant Indic religions, which like Buddhism split off from Hinduism. In addition to their shared cultural origins (including belief in the Karma, Rebirth, and Liberation of the soul) they also both put a particularly strong emphasis on universal love. In what follows I will summarise the most interesting things I’ve learned about Sikhism.

Bhakti (devotional) movements in Hinduism in the Middle Ages made monotheism increasingly popular in India, and of course the oneness of God was much more strongly emphasised in neighbouring Islamic Pakistan. The founder of Sikhism Nanek Dev (1469-1539) was passionate about the unity of mankind, emphasising that the God of Muslims was the same God as that of Hindus. Nanak was the first in a succession of ten gurus from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 18th century. They were based in the Punjab region, which is still home to the largest concentration of the Sikh population and remains their spiritual homeland.

Whereas Jainism never compromised with theism, guru Nanak took Indic religion to the opposite extreme of being exclusively monotheistic. God is called Waheguru, the greatest teacher, the True Guru (note the capital G). A personal God, s/he is the supreme being and creator of the universe. God is described as being invisible, featureless and formless. How then can can s/he be worshipped? In response to what one clearly perceives as God’s providence and instruction. ‘Guru’ means ‘teacher’, just as ‘Sikh’ means ‘follower’, but the gurus had characteristics of prophets also. The earlier gurus composed the canonical scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib (or Adi Granth) and the later ones codified the Sikh practices and traditions as are followed by the majority of adherents today, most famously the ‘Five Ks’.

Despite his focus on monotheism Nanak was not so much concerned about theology but about spiritual practise. This is probably why he situated himself in the Indic tradition (where the focus is on religious experience rather than creedal belief) and did not become a Muslim (because Islam tends to put a strong emphasis on correct beliefs and ways of thinking). Like Buddhism Sikhism emphasises not getting into conflict about speculative things and therefore it, like Hinduism also, is non-proselytising and do not demand that people think that God exists. There is a Sikh saying “if you learn to think of yourself as a temple of God then you will perceive the world as the kingdom of God”, and it is that perception, that experience of the world that is of central importance.

Yet Nanak also strongly distinguished his faith from Hinduism, criticising as excessive its demands of ritual, asceticism, and most importantly the caste system. Denouncing status and emphasising the unity of humankind under the one God he said: “Worthless is class and worthless an exalted name, for all humanity there is a single refuge.” Adi Granth, 83. In a statement that could been lifted out of the New Testament the third guru, Amar Das stressed salvation through faith: “Upon the worthless God bestows grace, if they will serve the True Guru.” Adi Granth, 38.

Guru Nanak suggested that it was as silly to say that God was male as it was to say that s/he was a bird. Adi Granth, 100. Like Jainism, Sikhism is explicit that women are included in its stance on equality. One facet of the status distinctions in the Hinduism of his contemporaries was that women are unclean when they bleed from menstruation or childbirth. Nanak ridiculed this: “If pollution attaches to birth then pollution is everywhere.” Adi Granth, 472. By this I suppose he meant that having children was one of the very greatest things in life, so if it was bad then everything else must be even worse. In a beautiful verse he exhorted men to honour women: “Our birth is from a woman and in that woman we grow. We are engaged to and wed a woman. Woman is our friend and from woman comes the family. If one woman dies we seek another; without woman there can be no bond. Why call a woman bad when she gives birth to kings?” Adi Granth, 473.

How then does a Sikh serve the True Guru? Although Sikhism is marked by being less ascetic than other Eastern religions it retains that element universal among faiths of advocating self-transcendence. That is, improving one’s life and the lives of others through bettering oneself by becoming less-self centred. Nanak said “to conquer the impulses of one’s ego is to conquer the world.” The pattern which this self-transcendence takes is summarised in the idea of directing one’s focus towards the outer Guru so that it does not get directed at one’s inner man. This is the same as the way in which I read the Western concept of worship (when extracted from its monarchical cultural baggage).

In the communal worship at the Gurdwara, Sikh scripture is treated with enormous reverence, even more so than the Qur’an in Islam. (So in addition to strict monotheism, Sikhism also has the prophetic ‘top-down’ relationship of  God to man more characteristic of Semitic religions than Eastern ones.) Outside the temple, Sikhs are each day called to read a specific passage, which nowadays is often done on a computer to avoid the rigamarole demanded for handling a physical copy of the book. Of course this devotional reading is a contemplative practise was well as an instructive one, but the main contemplative practise prescribed for directing oneself outwards to the Guru is that of Simram Nām, meditation using the name of God as a mantra.

Ideally practised daily, this meditation focuses one’s mind upon the One Eternal Word through which all the world’s creativity and wisdom is spoken. So this is very similar, not only to the word ‘Om‘ in Hinduism, but more surprisingly to the Judeo-Christian conception of God’s revelation in his holy name and divine word (the Logos, the reason of the universe). Speaking of which, it is notable that Sikhs are more numerous than Jews and are growing at a faster rate so our common expression ‘five biggest religions’ must be changed to ‘six’. Either that or we would have to get rid of the Jews- a statement which might give rise to an unfortunate misinterpretation! (No offence to my Red Sea pedestrian readers.)

As to be expected these spiritual practises are intended to be transformative of everday practical life also, and this is represented by two further necessary elements of Sikh life which together with Nām go together to form what are often called the Three Pillars of Sikhism. These are Kirat Karo, living with honesty and in accordance with duty, and Vand Chhako, to live in solidarity with the poor and make charitable donations whenever possible. While the first of these falls under what in the West is called Natural Law, and in the East is known as Dharma or the Tao, the latter is very similar to the concept of the Preferential Option for the Poor in Christianity and the Islamic Pillar Zakāt.

Source:  Nesbitt, Eleanor, (2005), Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP

More Indic Religions: Sikhism


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