SRI GURU GRANTH SAHIB and SIKH SOCIETY
– Keynote Address –
The main objective of the Seminar:" Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Sikh Society" with its selected sub-themes (theological, sociological, value systems and modern challenges) is to provide a realistic checklist of aspects of the Sikh Religion so that a description of it or a theory about it is comprehensive and not lopsided. By seeing the dimensions of a religion by which it manifests itself, we can learn to understand how it functions and vivifies i.e. gives new life or energy to the human spirit in history. Prof. Nirbhai Singh puts it in the Sikhism's context as a movement from "Sachkhand of Guru Nanak Dev Ji to the creation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh Ji (The Sikh Dynamic Vision)
Prof. Ninian Smart, after reviewing the seven dimensions of the major world religions i.e. Doctrine, Philosophy, the Ritual, the Mythic or Narrative, the Experiential & Emotional Dimensions, concluded that while some aspects of the sacred are flourishing, the others are fading. "The ritual dimension, though pervasively important in human life, is fading somewhat because attempts to bend the powers of the worldly by such means no longer hold out their old promise. But others are burgeoning: the experiential grows in importance as men and women search their inner lives for greater meaning.
While the learned scholars will be presenting Papers on each of the sub-themes, I propose to explore some selected concerns relating to these sub-themes.
A.I. Trends in the Religious Studies: The contemporary focus in the theological studies is on assessing, evaluating, ranking and grading of the world religions by the Western Christian Scholars for determining their theology of other religions in the context of religious pluralism. The criteria adopted for such an exercise include: theological coherence, religious adequacy, spirituality, morality, existential response, psychological health, or liberating capacity. These involve subjective, persona! decision grounded on fundamental presuppositions about the Divine reality and the human condition. More acceptable is the criterion of viability, namely their capacity to satisfy the spiritual demands and animate the lives of adherents not for the totality of a religion but some aspects of it. The focus of the religious studies is more on the "lived religion" and not merely the theologies of the contemporary faiths-on the phenomenology of a religion especially by the anthropologists and sociologists. Some of the sociologists are asking the question: "Is Sociology the core discipline for the scientific study of religion (Ellison, C G; Social Forces, V 73, N4, June 1995).
It is, therefore, of paramount importance to address the issues arising from the operative or perceived gaps between the beliefs, value systems and practices as enshrined in SGGS and the way the Sikh religion is being actually "lived" now in the global context. This approach forms the basis for the selection of the four sub-themes of the Seminar. There cannot be any rigid division between the sub-themes which do interact with each other.
A.II. The State of the Sikh Religious Studies: A unique feature of Sikhism in this context is its synthesis of mysticism and realism: (Avtar Singh: Ethics of the Sikhs-p.261). Gurus described the moral, ethical, and social conditions as they really were during their period but gave their own vision of what these should be according to their teachings. Their focus was more on the "lived religion" and not merely the theologies of the contemporary faiths
Late Prof. Pritam Singh, based on his interactions with community's representatives in a number of countries, opined that there is a near absence of quality literature on Sikh Theology, Sikh Sociology and Sikh History. There is an urgent need to apply the principles, concepts, methodology of Social Sciences to the study of religious phenomenon for purposes of analysis, comparison, evaluation or grading of religious traditions. Equally important is to recall the comments by some of the Western Scholars that the Sikh Studies and the Sikh literature has been mainly historical and commentary in nature; in theology it has mainly a description of individual concepts without any effort on integration into a systematic theology. Even some of the few recent books on Sikh theology do not deal with the concept, nature, role, function and categories of theology in an introductory chapter or in the body of the text. As a result, Prof. McLeod came out with an assertion that a "Sikh theology for the modern times has yet to be written"
A comment on the theology of Guru Nanak Ji by Bede Griffth- a Christian Monk who lived in South India for years and did in-depth comparative study of religions - is very significant as this has relevance to a number of issues which may come up for discussions related to the four sub-themes of the Seminar "There has never been such a pure monotheism as that of Guru Nanak. As soon as God is projected outside, a division is made between man and God and from this spring all other divisions between man and man and still more between man and woman. In the Semitic religions God is always conceived in masculine terms. Yahweh and Allah are always "He". But in the Sikh tradition God is both Father and Mother. "You are my Father, you are my Mother; you are my Brother, you are my Kin". So sings Guru Arjan. When the feminine is rejected in God, it is also rejected or suppressed in human society and we are slowly realizing today that we live in a patriarchal culture in which the feminine has been rejected in God and women subjected to man." (P.289; Sikhism; Universal Wisdom- A Journey through the Sacred Wisdom of the World.)
Divergent conclusions have been arrived at by certain scholars on the issue of Theology and Moral Development in Sikhism depending on perspective and methodology adopted by them:
Trumpp had remarked that "They [Sikhs] could easily destroy by their martial fury an old weak establishment, but were not able to erect a new solid fabric upon its ruins, as they had not in themselves the necessary moral and intellectual capacities." (Ernest Trumpp, The Adi Granth,(London:1877),p.cxvi)
Max Arthur Macauliffe, who undertook the study of Sikhism, on the other hand, made a generous claim in respect of Sikh morals, which more than countered the assertion of Ernest Trumpp. In a lecture in England, Macauliffe claimed, "I am engaged here tonight in offering to your attention a religion which has God and Soul, which presents no mysteries and which embraces an ethical system such as has never been excelled, if indeed it has ever been equaled-I mean the Sikh ReIigion" ( Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, A Lecture, delivered before the Quest Society at Kensington, May 12,1910
Prof. R. Murray Thomas in his "Moral Development Theories-Secular and Religious-A comparative study" applied Eight Criteria for Evaluating Theories: Theories are judged satisfactory to the degree that these are understandable, explanatory, practical, verifiable/falsifiable, adaptable, fertile, lasting, and self-satisfying
Rating for Sikhism was found by him to be better than for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
A Muslim scholar commenting on the influence of Sikhism on present-day life in India has written:
"One of the significant features of Indian culture is its capacity to absorb different trends... When different traditions have combined together, what has grown is not merely the aggregate of these traditions-the interaction has led to the emergence of something which is much more and is characterized by freshness and vigor. Among the finest fruits, of this process of cultural synthesis has been the rise of Sikhism. Guru Nanak not only imbibed various teachings of Hinduism and Islam, but his own teachings have a quality whose mark on the personality of India remains very deep. (Hasan, 1979, p. ix)
This brings us to the question of proper methodologies for study of the scriptural theology in general and for Sri Guru Granth Sahib in particular. Theologians can recover a scriptural imagination by replacing a historical-critical approach with an awareness of the world as portrayed in SGGS, by cultivating a community of faith that follows Sikh piety, by exploring the images and metaphors, and by grounding the Scripture in human experience. If Scripture is ever again to be a living source for theology, those who practice theology must become less preoccupied with the world that produced Scripture and learn again how to live in the world Scripture produces, especially in respect of Shri Guru Granth Sahib: The Eternal Living Guru for Sikhs
Dr J S Ahluwalia provides a relevant perspective in this regard, reproduced below in his own words:
"The Sikh scholars would have to go beyond their present reactive role to a really pro-active role in setting the ideational agenda of discourse about Sikhism. This is essential for two main reasons. The Christian and the Sikh perspective constitute, epistemologically, two different frames of reference, the categories of which are not symmetrical. Secondly, a religious tradition needs to be approached in terms of its own self-definition, in terms of its self-defined identity... This, epistemologically, requires an unmediated experiential insight-through socio-religious osmosis-which is not possible in the case of outsiders, whatever is their cerebral brilliance or methodological novelties". (Doctrinal Aspects of Sikhism and Other Essays)
Prof. Noel King asserts that if properly understood and fairly presented in context and in full, Sikh Scripture and Tradition has nothing to fear from any true criticism properly used. It has never lacked critical acumen of its own. In fact we can say the first Guru was also the first relentless Sikh critic of all empty word-forms, of all religiosity, empty worship and blind acceptance of tradition. It has a living, native born and organic tradition of criticism. Sikhism has nothing to fear, she has always welcomed scholars from wherever they come, but obviously this does not mean she should sit around and be overtaken by the outside world and by misunderstanding. She has to make sure the truth is established and be prepared to argue it out. She has to have every one of her own people and well-wishers well informed. The ignorant are not enemies, but Sikhs must not miss a single chance to tell others the truth about their religion" (CAPAX IMPERII? SCRIPTURE, TRADITION AND 'EUROPEAN-STYLE' CRITICAL METHOD: Noel Q. King, Chapter 1 of Advanced Studies in Sikhism)
The Global Sikh University established by the government of Punjab is a welcome step to achieve the objective of inter-disciplinary Sikh religious studies and to highlight Sikh theology's social concerns including issues relating to value system, justice, equality, gender, caste, identity and subalterns. There is an urgent need to follow up the Prime Minister's announcement at Amritsar in 2004 for setting up a National Institute for study of SGGS in its various dimensions and from various perspectives.
B. Sikh Social Theology: Gaps between Theory and Praxis:
The social ideal is one where there is liberty, justice, kindness, and peace. Some of the verses of SGGS which teach these human rights and social values have stirred people of every age to the struggle for freedom and justice. Furthermore, we may look at passages which describe the ideal society in comparison with the decadence of societies in the existing world. Some enunciate general principles. Others describe the ideal society as it was purportedly realized long ago in the Guru period:
"Now is the gracious Lord's ordinance promulgated, No one shall cause another pain or injury; All mankind shall live in peace together, Under a shield of administrative benevolence. "Sikhism. Adi Granth, Sri Raga, M.5, p. 74
The concept of an egalitarian society, free from any exploitation, is the topic of the hymns by Bhagat Ravidas, describing an ideal city as Begumpura.
The social, egalitarian and ethical responsibilities, concerns and dimensions of Sikh theology have been dealt with in detail by number of Sikh scholars. There is no need to repeat those here. I will attempt to explore the perceived gaps between the theory and praxis in respect of some of the issues concerning social marginalization in contemporary Sikh society.
Socio-political aspects and Caste Issues
i. Issues of Identity among the Valmikis and Ravidasis in Britain:
Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, (Lecturer in Religious Studies, especially Sikhism, at the
University of Wolverhampton, England.) While emphasizing that the Guru Granth Sahib repeatedly reminds its readers of the egalitarian nature of the Sikh faith (which almost promises to eradicate notions of pollution attached to the lower castes) raises the question: "Why then lower caste members of the Panth felt that their Mazhabi labeling has prevented their equal assimilation into the Sikh Panth?"
She reports that two such groups in Britain today are the Valmikis and the Ravidasis. The Valmikis, especially praxis at the Coventry Sabha, pose very interesting dialogue as to who a Sikh is. The Sabha is unique in the fact that it houses a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib alongside that of Valmiki's Ramayan.
Her focus is on the need to address the root causes of the Valmikis' and Ravidasis' emphasis on an identity distinct from Sikhs and on an investigation to ascertain whether the move towards religious autonomy is politically or socially motivated?
ii. Ramgarhia caste: Struggle for emancipation from Jajmani/Sepi system:
Over a period, there has been an effective social mobilization in this sub-group to come out of the "Kamin" and "master-servant" Sepi system related to mode of agriculture production in rural Punjab. The Land Alienation Act 1900 treated Ramgarhiahs as non-agriculturist. This was perceived by them as legally pinning them down as service provider. They organized, at Gujranwala, Punjab, their first annual conference in 1901 for protesting against the Land Alienation Act. As a result of social mobilization, there was a marked shift to urban areas and to South Africa and subsequently to U.K. The sub-group has organized caste based institutions and Gurdwaras and have a high sense of pride of their history: Jassa Singh Ramgaria, a grandson of S. Bhagwan Singh baptized by Guru Gobind Singh Ji; their services in protection of Golden Temple and their heritage of Ramgariah Bunga. As a result, there is a marked shift in the relative influence of the sub-groups in Sikh society in certain locations.
iii. Subaltern/ Dalit Groups: Impact of Changes in society and economy:
The Sikhs constitute 63 per cent of the Punjab state's population at present. Their share in the rural population is higher; about 72 per cent. The dalits or the scheduled castes constitute a high proportion of population in the state, 28.3 per cent in 1991 which is projected to have increased to over 30 per cent in 2001, the highest among the states in India. Over 80 per cent of them live in the rural areas. Punjab's villages are, therefore, predominantly Sikh and dalit
The socio-economic impact of social marginalization is incalculable and, in many respects, is beyond description in mere words and statistics. The scars of subaltern section of Sikh society are so deep, visible and intolerable that the healing process may take a long time. The subaltern/Dalit population of Punjab must have justice and the first step in that regard is to address urgently their most basic needs. This Seminar can send a powerful message to the national community in putting in perspective the immense task facing a future government in the areas of housing, health, education and training, employment and the eradication of mass poverty in respect of this segment of Sikh society.
In the context of prevailing tensions amongst various social groups, particularly in rural Punjab, there is an urgent need to move from the genuine renunciation of domination and confrontation, to healing and reconciliation. And it must be accepted that more will be achieved socially, economically and culturally by all people cooperating together and constructing the building blocks of a new and wholesome Punjab.
Although the socio-economic imbalances constitute daunting challenges for any society and future government, they also represent unique opportunities for constructing a future inspired by a genuinely inclusive spirit, as opposed to the exclusivity of the subalterns; one based on mutual interests and benefits rather than one offering unilateral and one-sided advantages; a future that draws on a truly synergetic dynamism among all social components rather than on the subaltern-induced rigidity and stagnation of the social and economic systems. A vision for a democratic society that will permit all Punjabies, individually and collectively, to attain their full potential is the need of the hour.
It has been argued that the Sikh movement was the realization of the divinely commissioned purposes of the Akalpurakh for the uplift of the subaltern. Guru Nanak identified himself with the subaltern masses. And Guru Gobind Singh identified himself with the Khalsa. This sort of fusion of one's personal identity requires fusion of the transcendental identity of the Akalpurakh. The latter identity cements the societal solidarity with others. Such a person sees divinity in other persons. Guru Arjan Dev reiterates this idea that a realized person completely identifies himself with the cosmic form of Hari and sees nothing, but Hari [i.e., bin(u) har(i) hai ko kaha batavoh Guru Granth, p 1218]. The Sikh Gurus, much before the contemporary debate, suggested that there were not only individual rights but also the rights of a people or group, oppressed by the power regime. The suggestion touches the matter of cultural and group rights that are still hard to digest for the liberal human rights discourse" (Nirbhai Singh)
Sikhism appears to have exercised a significant liberating influence on the dalits (former untouchable castes) in the Punjab. The teachings of the Sikh Gurus, the religious institutions of'sangat' and 'langar', the absence of a caste-based priesthood, and the respect for manual labour, all these were together aimed at creating a caste-free Khalsa Brotherhood.
However, there was a wide gap between the doctrinal principles and social practice, in theory and praxis. The somewhat mutually conflicting existential concerns of various sub-groups within the Sikh society seem to be over-shadowing the universal concerns of Sikhism. That perhaps is the reason that the full potential of the impact of the Sikh social theology has not been realized in contemporary Sikh society of Punjab.
A political analyst provides a possible explanation: "An understanding of the distinctive caste hierarchy in Sikhism and the new pattern of competing hierarchies, parallel to that of the Hindus, calls for insights into the dynamics of political power and economic relations both at the local and regional levels". His paper "aims at exploring the trade-off between the doctrinal principles of Sikh religion and the ruling social and political interests in the context of changes in the society and economy of Punjab" (Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community: A Historical Perspective; HARISH K PURI, Economic and Political Weekly June 28, 2003)
Sikh Militancy and Non-Violence: Holistic Image of Sikhs
Sikh history is replete with the valor of the Sikh warrior in battle. However, there is less attention to the Sikh warrior in equally and perhaps more demanding non-violent actions. Paul Wallace advises to emphasize the development of non-violent militancy extending from the Gurdwara Reform Movement thru 1925, the Punjabi Suba Movement culminating in l966, and the non-violent "battle" against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Emergency. (Dr. Paul Wallace, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri)
Religion, Civil Society and the State
A reviewer of Prof. J.P.S. Uberio's book highlights his attempt to demonstrate that Sikhism in and of itself presents a radical rupture, a fundamental discontinuity in the Indian medievalist course and is thus part and parcel of the Indian modernist project which attempts to bring together, face to face, "the three spheres of religion, state and society," spheres which were "walled off from each other" in Medieval India (p. 84). The key to this rupture and the harbinger of Indian modernity, he proclaims, is in the figure of the martyr in Sikhism, specifically its first traditional martyr, the fifth Sikh Master, Guru Arjan. According to Uberoi, by the example of his life, work and non-violent self-sacrifice or martyrdom, the fifth guru folded up the...structure of the medieval regime and its intersecting dualisms of status and power...and found for good and all the true centre of freedom, self-rule and self reform. (p. 89, Religion, Civil Society and the State: A Study of Sikhism.By J.P.S.UBEROI, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, New Delhi, 1996.}
While we have a doctrine of Miri and Piri as enunciated by the sixth Nanak, we don't have an effective and adequately serviced institutional arrangement for issuing periodic guidelines or Hukamnamas on the contemporary issues faced by Panth here in India or by the Diasporic segment of the Panth.
This may be compared and contrasted with the situation in Christianity where the Pope issues periodic encyclical as guidelines for the Church. One wishes that the guidelines of this nature but as per Guru's political ideology could be issued as Hukamnama for the Panth by Shri Akal Takht Sahib, serviced by the same type of institutional and expertise set up as in Vatican for preparation of periodic encyclical of the Pope.
Sikhism in Global Context: Sikhs have spread and prospered throughout the world, but in the process several key elements have affected their religious belief, practice, and sense of community. .Authority, who speaks for the Sikhs, remains a problem, often leading to a repetition of arguments concerning tradition, history, and strategies to strengthen Sikhs worldwide. Although older conflicts persist, especially in the Diaspora, there has been a general trend towards finding structural and cultural mechanisms to resolve disputes and to move the community forward. The rapid spread of new organizations and means of mobilizing Sikhs at every level has played a major role in the confidence and positive aspects of daily life. Finally, Sikhs in every setting are engaged in understanding their faith in a more ecumenical and universal context. They self-consciously are balancing the persistent pressure to emphasize distinct elements of culture and religion with accommodation and integration in national and international arenas. (Sikhism in a Global Context: The Legacy of History and Contemporary Challenges. Dr. N. Gerald Barrier, Professor Emeritus, History Department, University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri)
It is relevant to recall the comments of Toynbee, a renowned world historian of the modern age:
"Mankind's religious future may be obscure; yet, one thing can be foreseen: the living higher religions are going to influence each other more than ever before, in these days of increasing communication between all parts of the world and all branches of the human race. In this religious debate, the Sikh religion and its scripture the Adi Granth will have something of special value to say to the rest of the world."
The Responsibility of the Sikhs:- Owen Cole in (SGGS in World Scriptures-in SGGS and Its Context) while commenting on Mundhawani opines that it is "a bounty extended by God to all humanity, to be enjoyed by everyone… Sikhs have a responsibility to witness to the light that they have received through the message of the Guru Granth Sahib, and to practice the life style exemplified by the Panth at Kartarpur. Further, if the scripture is the eternal Word of God, the Shabad Guru as Sikhs express it, then it is for the people of faith to discover how to live up to it as those did to whom it was originally revealed. The message of Shri Guru Granth Sahib is one of spiritual liberation.
Tasks for the Participants in the Seminar; This Seminar provides an excellent opportunity to the participants to bring out new and valuable contributions on the theme of the continued relevance and validity of the guidance available from SGGS.
In conclusion the task assigned to or taken up by the participants may include:
To delineate the ideas, beliefs, and practices as enshrined in Shri Guru Granth Sahib, that is, 'what we teach'... [and] to examine the lived experiences in present times globally, the gap between the two and how to bridge that gap.
ii. To present the Sikh traditions in such a way that some form of a divinely ordered cosmos is always a central concern and that there are many ways to understand right order, from the level of the individual to the family, the society, and the religious institution with a view to engage with the wider society and with other traditions for inter-faith dialogue.
iii. To highlight the strong internal resources which the Sikh tradition has utilized in the past and how the tradition evolves and responds to the social challenges.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank you very much for listening patiently to this presentation. I wish the participants every success in their deliberations.