WOMEN IN SIKHISM
Jasbir Singh Sethi
This Topic alone, in the recent past, has become the clarion call for Sikhism. Many scholars have written books. Dozens of articles are being written and published in magazines all over the world.
I am not rehashing this subject once again. I want to share some “Case Histories”. Case histories are important. They become truth of daily life. They either confirm the application of what the scholars deduce or highlight the gap that exists between the “Theory” and “Practice.”
In the beginning let me at least quote (for reference) one scholarly work. (1)
Dr Kohli in his article, “The Position of Women in Sikhism” in his book, “Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib”, has surveyed the Indian Literature, historical and mythological to define the role and status of women in ancient India. He determines that women were exalted. It is under the influence of Islam that Indian Women became subservient. (2)
He also covers it from social and cultural spheres too. His references from ancient and medieval Punjabi Literature, for example “Mirza – Sahibaan” and “Heer – Ranjha.” Is interesting. I wonder why he has stayed away from direct quotes from other religions, particularly Hinduism. (3)
He has given ample quotes from GURBANI, such as, “So kiyo manda aakhiyae…..(Asa Di War)” and “Satian eh Na aakhiyae…….(Var Suhi)” etc.
Please do read Dr. Kohli’s scholarly article.
I get opportunity to participate in “Interfaith Meetings” here and I do come in close contact with Scholars from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Bahais, Hinduism and Buddhism.
On the subject of “Status of Women”, they just cannot state it looking straight in your eyes.
I leave it to scholars to give similar quotes from the Scriptures of other religions. I just give one :
“Theirs is the only religion (Sikhism) which says in their religious scriptures that women are equal in every respect to men. They even had women soldiers, leading armies into battle against, “You know who” (the usual suspects – Muslims !). Their history is a proud one…..” (3).
This one quote summarizes the comparison for all other religions.
I met a lady in the Sikh Center, Houston. She was wearing Keski. I knew a number of White American Ladies wearing Keski attending Gurdawara. By the way, some of our Indian Origin young Sikh ladies have also started wearing Keski (though very few). But this lady was black. I met her after langar. She told me that she had a Ph.D. We talked couple of time. She told me that she is born Christian. They had a Study Circle, meeting once a week for Bible Studies. In one such meeting, she raised this specific question, “Status of Women in Christianity.” A few weeks, in their study circle discussions were devoted to this topic. Various quotes from Bible were dissected. She said, she was not convinced rather became disappointed.
Then she on her own started surfing the “net” and lo and behold, she discovered Sikhism. She said, she could not believe that such a religion existed that bestowed such unconditional equality of gender. Then she found out that in Houston, there is a Sikh Center where the Sikh congregational meetings are held. She started visiting the Sikh Center. She introduced me to her 5 year old son and her husband (a white American and an IT big shot.) The husband had also started wearing a turban.
Then, I noticed that they stopped coming to the Sikh Center. Months later, I again met them in another Sikh Gurdawara. (Houston now has 6 gurdawaras, starting with the one – The Sikh Center established in 1973.
She told me, frankly, she is disappointed, because, firstly, the whole service is conducted, which neither she can participate nor understand. Secondly, all the priests in the Gurdawara have no knowledge of English and she cannot even communicate with them. Thirdly, she has observed that women’s actual participation is only in the kitchen, to cook langar. Thus in practice, the women in Sikh Religion are treated no different than in any other religion, may be even worse. There is a huge gap in what the Sri Guru Granth Sahib says and what the Sikhs practically portray.
It is sad but true, our Gurdawaras here in USA are all run as replica of a gurdawara in a village in Punjab. Our clergy and management are extremely deficient in English and simply cannot impress let alone the westerners, even our own younger kids.
In another incident, I was in the Sikh Foundation Office in Palo Alto, California. Next door is Stanford University, one of America’s top most prestigious and also the most expensive private University. In fact, Stanford University is the leader in giving birth to and nurturing America’s Hi-tech industry – the famous Silicon Valley.
Just fifteen Sikh students there, had taken an initiative to get a course introduced on Sikhism. It was with the approval of the Dean and at no cost to the University. The classes were held every Thursday evening with volunteer teachers/ from the Bay Area Sikh Community.
The Sikh Foundation Chairman, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, the Father of Fiber Optics was scheduled to give one lecture in this series. Unfortunately, he fell sick and was unable to attend. In his place, at the last minute, I was drafted in to fill that slot.
I was surprised that though only fifteen students had registered, but the attendees were more than fifty. A number of young Sikhs and even non Sikhs executives from Silicon Valley (Hi tech Community), surrounding Stanford University, when learnt about this course, joined in as “Audit Students.”
After the lecture, I was requested to help conduct the Question and Answer session continuing from a previous class, and the subject was, “Status of Women in Sikhism.”
I opened the subject with the statement that any Scripture or for that matter any worthy document (Such as the Constitution of USA ) can have Three positions on a subject. One positive; second negative and third, neutral – no stated position i.e. “Silent”.
The Constitution of USA was silent on the issue of voting rights to women. It took almost 140 years of struggle by the women in USA to get their voting rights.
Now, if a Scripture is NEGATIVE, how can you change it to be positive? Even if the Prophet himself came back and wanted to change, his zealot followers won’t let him do that. So in my opinion, this is fait-accompli and a lost cause.
Third situation, when the scripture is very positive, Like Sri Guru Granth Sahib, wherein, not just in the passing but over and over the equality of women is asserted. There is no ambiguity, no doubt, at all.
But the problem in Sikhism is the big gap between the teachings and their practice. I believe that the Psyche of Indian Sub Continent is corrupted by the thousands of years of slavery in the worst form of caste system. Only with that kind of psyche, Sant Tulsi Das in RAM CHRIT MANAS could dare put women along and in the same category as the untouchables, animals and beasts of burden – all worthy of beating with a stick. (Here I beg to differ with Dr. Kohli, Ref. (1))
It is not the influence of the Muslim culture that the status of women has been degraded. The native Hindu Culture already had this incurable cancer. (3)
Sikhs are surrounded by this culture and thus start accepting it and practicing it. Even though it is right in contravention of the clear teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
But if the women come forward and start meeting all the requirements of a position, they can demand and claim their rights back – because they are guaranteed in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
I gave one example from Houston. Every year in December, Sikh Youth Camp and Retreat is organized in Houston. One major item of Agenda is , “AMRIT PRACHAR.” (Administration of Baptism)
Once, a young Sikh Lady, who had taken Amrit in previous years ceremony, claimed that she has been keeping REHAT (Sikh Code of Conduct), rigorously, and she wants to be included in the “PANJ PYARAS.” (The Five Beloved ones, who are chosen to prepare and then administer – AMRIT). There sure were objections, but she won her right.
Repeatedly another similar question is asked about why no female raagi does kirtan in Darbar Sahib. My feeling is that they have to first deserve then desire. They should first fulfill all the other requirements of a good Kirtania.
One more related question is about “SEWA IN THE DARBAR SAHIB.” It was attempted by American Sighnis. They were granted the right, but in the last minute, they were cheated (5). But they should not give up their right and claim it again and again, till it becomes part of the tradition.
In social, day to day life events, once, the wife of a friend told me, “ Veer Ji, you have exalted Mrs. Sethi so much and have spoilt her.” I smiled and said, “Dear Sister, I am following the edict of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Didn’t he give the name of “KAUR” (meaning Princess) to our daughters? Yes, then the mother of a Princess has to be a Maharani (Queen) and so she deserves to be respected and treated like a Queen.
We used to have a one hour “Radio Cast” – “GURBANEE VEECHAR”. Every Sunday morning in Houston. One fifteen minute segment on “Questions and Answers” was hosted by me.
Once a young lady asked me a question about the status of women in Sikhism, but she predicated her question that she has read and heard about all the quotes from Sri Guru Granth Sahib; she wanted to know if there is any scientific basis behind all these quotes, since Sikhism is considered very scientific religion.
This was a very strong, very modern question, no doubt, and a very challenging one.
My answer was very straightforward. The entire world is built on molecular theory and of course, the minute components of a molecule such as atom, electron, neutron etc. are basic building blocks. Similarly in Biology, there are cells and chromosomes. The sex determining chromosomes are Y and X. In fact Y Chromosomes are basic feminine chromosomes. In humans, YY chromosomes determine a female person, and XY chromosomes are in a male person. Thus even males are half females. Does it not look obvious that really basic one is “Y” Chromosome?
Hence Guru Ji says:
“Eis Jag Maen Purakh Ek hae, Haur Sagli Naar" - page 591-592
(In this world, there is just One MALE – AKALPURAKH (The ALMIGHTY); every one else are females.)
Let us consider another Branch of Science – Psychology.
Guru Ji has very emphatically stated that “Naam” cannot come if there is “Ego”. These two – NAAM and EGO cannot reside concurrently. Since attainment of Naam is the goal, that means ego has to go. That is why Guru Ji is stressing those very female characteristics such as “Hukam Mannna”, “Haleemi”, “Submission” “Tehl Sewa” on and on. It is through the female characteristics that subdue EGO, that you can attain Naam. (I think it is not just equality, but females are superior to males in spirituality).
In Sri Guru Granth Sahib, there are many examples of “Pangs of separation” suffered by a wife when she is separated from her husband. Those kinds of pangs, are clearly symptomatic of very high, rather ultimate level of LOVE, of which Guru Ji says, “Jin Prem Keo Tin Hi Prabh Paeo.” (Those who love can attain Akalpurakh) (6)
Hence, we have to accept the “basic nature as female”, then the light of Gurbani shines brilliantly.
Unfortunately our big male – chauvinism is our biggest hurdle and is the main road block in the path of our progress on this “ROAD LESS TRAVELLED – SIKHI.”
Due to complete neglect and giving no attention to the teachings of Gurbani, we Sikhs, over hundreds of years, have lapsed into this pitfall, where our practices in regard to equality of gender are miles away from the teachings of Gurbani.
A massive radical movement of the Kind of Singh Sabha Lehr is needed. It is needed urgently, because this issue has attained world wide prominence and Sikhism is the only religion that can guide humanity in the right direction.
Since the question has come from the western world where the women all over have woken up and are challenging wrongful doings, we will have to address this issue independently than in India or Punjab. Sikhs in Diaspora will have to take the lead in closing this gap between the practices and teachings. They are the ones with comparatively lesser cultural baggage.
However, my assessment is that the disengagement of this movement from Punjab and spearheading it in west will in fact be resisted by the “So called Tradition Bound Religious Leadership in Punjab.” On many minor previous issues, they have demonstrated their very lack of vision with respect to global context.
Organizationally, I think Khalsa Council is best suited to take lead. They are not Diaspora Sikhs, but American Sikhs. Sikhs in Diaspora must join hands with them to spear head this movement.
AWARENESS: Awareness is needed both at individual and panthic levels. A campaign has to be launched to bring about this awareness. Based on the level of awareness, local cells to be created that should promote activities at closing the gap. In these cells, the active members will automatically be the younger Sikh generation, who were born and or brought up in the western countries. These cells will network with other cells as well as the Central Body of Khalsa Council.
Actions must be like double edged. On one hand encouraging and preparing females to take on more definitive roles and on the other hand to persuade the current managements at local levels to let go and give proper opportunities to Sikh Females to be more in positions of visibility and in public performances.
Having recognized the need of this mass movement and its inauguration itself will start opening many doors at least in USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and other western countries.
It is not going to be easy task, to rectify the neglect of centuries but we owe it to our Guru Ji and to humanity at large. The time is NOW.
1. “Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib’ by Dr. Surinder Singh Kohli, National Book Shop (2007); ISBN: 81-7116-093-X; Page 86, “The Position of Women in Sikhism.”
3. “Sarvuttam Granth – Guru Granth Sahib” by Swami Ram Tirath Danda Sanyasi, SGPC Publication (Punjabi); Swami Ram Tirath Dandi Sanyasi has written two small booklets (in Hindi) – (a) “Sarvuttam Granth – Guru Granth Sahib”- (The Best of all Scriptures – Guru Granth Sahib) – (b) “Sarvuttam Panth – Khalsa Panth” – (The Best of all Religions – Khalsa Panth). Both of these booklets have been published in one volume by SGPC (Shromini Gurdawara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar (in Punjabi). Swami Ji (who later became Khalsa) has given example after example from various Hindu Scriptures testifying that in Hinduism, the Status of Women (per their Holy Scriptures) is outright degrading and even obnoxious. All the scriptures cited by him are ancient, much before the advent of Islam. Probably, Dr. Kohli did not have access to this booklet.
4. INDIA JOURNAL (Feb. 01, 2008); Your Opinion Column, “Study of Different Religion by Atheists.” Dr. John Smith (Atheist Society)
5. “VIEWS AND REVIEWS” by Jasbir Singh Sethi (Under print); Review of an excellent book of Poems on Sikhism - “PURE LONGING FULFILLED” by Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa.
6. An Urdu poet has said, “Intiha yae hae ke Bande Ku Khuda Karta Hae Ishaq”. This is a famous Qwali in “Barsaat Ki Raat”. It covers various stages of love starting from its lowest stage of “lust” the final stage that it makes a person one with God.