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Dr Rajesh Gill

In this paper I intend to focus upon the immensely rich interpretation contained in Guru Granth Sahib, of the predicaments of modern life, which for me is the most critical, liberal, democratic and modern outlook on human life, of course if put into practice. While our Gurus practiced what they preached, we have been largely preoccupied with the mechanical reciting of Gurbani, hardly ever showing either the guts or desire to implement even a fraction of this wonderful philosophy in our mundane life. Unfortunately, the leadership too has hardly ever made a sincere effort to translate theory into practice, perhaps due to the other priorities chosen by them. It is high time that we make a bold effort towards an introspection into our own selves, with the objective of sensitizing our younger generations about the huge potential held by this religious philosophy for easing out most of the strains and predicaments faced by us, in contemporary scenario. Before going into the rich thoughts enshrined in the Granth, let me first bring out the increased relevance of this philosophy in the stressful life of the present day.

The dawn of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century Europe did one remarkable thing. It pushed rationality to the center stage, with science and industry in the driving seat, and religion, values and culture to the back stage. For quite some time since then, the whole world, especially the less developed, following the footsteps of the West, came under a strong belief that culture follows science and reason. It became almost fashionable to underplay the role of culture and religion in order to boost economic rationality and the spirit of science. What came out as a consequence of all this was an extremely competitive society, where only a rational and scientific attitude plus merit could succeed, thus driving human beings towards a kind of life that was totally mechanical and enslaving.

In due course of time, it became almost impossible to explain everything in terms of economic rationality and science. Some societies made greater strides in economic development as compared to others, while their starting points were almost similar. Scholars now started recognizing culture as the deciding factor, likely to make all the difference. Even when economic prosperity was accomplished, a shattering of social fabric and individual integrity became widespread, resulting into a huge question mark in front of the individual as to what had gone wrong. Alas, science, the fountainhead of all knowledge had no answer, neither did the rationality, man had been so proud of. Man here had to turn towards culture. By culture, I mean the values, attitudes, beliefs and norms followed by a group of people.

Stranded in this predicament of a social order haunted by high incidence of suicides, indicating the lack of coordination between individual and society, a high level of marital maladjustment, indicated by the rising rates of divorce, extra marital alliances and broken homes, an insensitive attitude towards women, from the time of their birth, through marriage till their death and so on, man has been gasping for peace of mind. Very high hanging egos are making it difficult for people, both men and women, to adapt with each other, except during huge stakes, when one is ready to stoop to any level. Opportunism in the name of rationality and objectivity has already rendered the relationships hollow and worthless, difficult to be dragged on throughout life. Globalization, information revolution and electronic media have no doubt resulted into a shrunken market, where every body is busy, striving hard to sell his/her product and services (including knowledge), by showing its indispensability – whether it is a cosmetic or a toilet seat, an automobile or an insurance scheme, a computer or a vote. While scientists make inventions, how these are to be used are never decided by them. This is decided either by the politicians or businessmen, for their own gains, which are either directed to power or money. For instance, while satellite television has modernized communication tremendously, the same medium is being exploited by Indian marketers for reinforcing the orthodox, devastating social attitudes, e.g., if you are the father of a marriageable daughter, you will not get a nice groom for her if you do not buy her a fair and lovely cream, or get your house painted with Asian paints, or a bride must be given a mobile phone in dowry so that she can talk to her father while going in the doli. Science and knowledge can only give means and not ends, comforts and not tranquility. If this is so, where must the humans turn for learning to apply this knowledge, for setting their priorities, so as to ensure not merely a quantity but even a quality of life?

I wish to argue that most of the religious doctrines, like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and so on, have wonderful clues that can guide humans towards a meaningful application of knowledge for the human good. For the present purpose, I am focusing upon the Sikh philosophy enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. I wish to put forth two arguments. First, there is no necessary contradiction between science/pragmatism, on the one hand, and religion, on the other. And I cite the Sikh philosophy to substantiate my point. The second argument that I make is that despite the fact that the Sikh philosophy is quite popular, with which a majority of people are familiar, it has so far hardly been put into practical use, mainly because it has been arrested within the narrow boundaries of gurdwaras and rituals, and hardly ever adopted in mundane life. It is a mere ritual to recite during prayers “Nanak naam chardi kala, tere bhane sarbat da bhala,” while the whole day one is struggling hard to see oneself climbing the ladder of worldly success, at the cost of others. There is need to identify the parallels between the academic or intellectual development and the spiritual. In the following discussion, I shall make an effort to trace out the linkages between the intellectual development, on the one hand, and the Sikh doctrine, on the other.

As against the positivistic philosophy of scientific belief in universal truth, with a total rejection of values, the later intellectual perspectives, particularly the interpretive, look at social reality as fluid, transitory, in a process of being created each moment. Similarly, the postmodern philosophy argues that there is no universal truth, no objective reality and no fixed meanings. I found similar notions in the Sikh philosophy, which I consider as basically the most modern and liberal religious philosophy, intended to free man from the suffocating shackles of ritualism and fundamentalism. The most remarkable thing I found in the Sikh philosophy is that there is not a single issue confronting contemporary Indian society that has been left out by it. Right from consumerism to the social evils of dowry, conspicuous consumption, extravagant expenditure during social occasions, superstitions related to religious practices, etc., are addressed in the Sikh Holy Granth.

Let me start with the most relevant and practical reproduction of Sikh philosophy in the shape of Rehatnama that provides a detailed prescription of an ideal Sikh. Apart from the prescribed lifestyle for a Sikh, the Rehat Maryada (a guide to the Sikh way of life) also specifies the rules regulating the studying and meditating upon the scriptures. Sikh Rehat Maryada commences its section on the Anand marriage by specifying various conditions, viz., no account should by taken of caste; a Sikh girl should be married only to a Sikh husband; and Sikhs should not be married as children. According to the Sikh Rehat Maryada, taking and giving of dowry is prohibited, but the practice has continued to flourish among the Sikh families. The Rehat Maryada looks at divorce unfavorably, yet it allows for divorce if the marriage does not work and it does not stigmatize the woman.

The values of equality and fraternity, though prioritized by the modern rationalist philosophy, not achievable even with scientific knowledge, are amply reinforced in the Sikh philosophy. The regulations instituted by the Guru ‘to distinguish them from other communities’ came to form the ‘essence of their creed.’ They observed a distinct ceremony of initiation, which symbolized equality and was meant to destroy the ‘fabric of ceremony and form’ regarded by the Hindus as the essential principle of their religion (Grewal 1998). The inclusion of the hymns of Kabir, a low caste weaver, Ravidas, an outcaste Chamar, and Namdev, a low caste Chhimba by Guru Arjun Dev in the Granth Sahib further indicates his rejection of caste distinctions. According to McLeod, the renowned historian, the most significant example was set by Guru Gobind Singh at the initiation of the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699. This consisted of a ceremony of baptism requiring all candidates to drink from a common bowl, striking at the notion of ritual purity. The debunking of caste in Sikh tradition is apparent from the belief that the first five to accept baptism included only one high caste Khatri, the rest comprising of a lowly Jat and other lower caste, a Nai, (barber), Dhobi (washerman) and a water carrier. The Sikh movement was an egalitarian revolution in social as well as political terms. It enabled the individuals from the lower castes in the traditional Indian society to come into political power, which gave them a new social status. The genesis of the Sikh revolutionary spirit lay essentially in the religion of the Sikhs, which stands for social and political equality.

Guru Nanak gave the most distinguishing, modern and critical philosophy of Sikhism. He was opposed to the bigotry of the Muslims and the superstition of the Hindus. His aim was to reconcile the ‘jarring faiths’ of Muhammad and Brahma. He adopted the maxims of Sufis to reinforce the values of equality and tolerance. He said,
Fakkar jati fakkar nao, sabhna jeean Ikka chhao.” – Adi Granth, p 83

The pattern of religious belief taught by Guru Nanak has been enlarged by later Gurus, particularly Guru Gobind Singh and subsequent experience has augmented it still further. There was no priestly class among the Sikhs. By removing Brahmins from the power seat, Sikhism made a serious blow to caste hierarchy. Ultimately, this attempt to evolve a separate identity for Sikhs was further strengthened by Guru Gobind Singh with the creation of the Khalsa, breaking away with both the caste society as well as the caste ideology (Grewal 1998). The leaders of the Khalsa included members of the lower castes and even the outcastes. Caste prejudices and caste priorities were abolished in matters of commensality. In fact, Guru Nanak identified himself with the lowest of the low. The religious implications of the caste system were rejected by the very fact that the Gurus were Khatris, not Brahmins. Using the vernacular instead of Sanskrit, they went even further against the Brahminic tradition, as set out in the Laws of Manu, by preaching to the lowest castes and accepting them into the Sikh Panth. The Harmandir at Amritsar was given four doors to be open to all four castes, and Guru Arjun Dev said of the Adi Granth:
This divine teaching is for everyone, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. Whoever utters the Name which lives in all hearts, under the Guru’s instruction, is delivered from the Dark Age.” (Kal Yug) – Adi Granth, p 747

As a consequence of this, the Sudra as well as the Brahmin could attain God realization. Many of the lower caste may receive enlightenment, for they were already of humble status though haumai (ego) could stand in the way. Man came from a single clay, and at death would return to the same dust be she a princess or washerwoman or a priest or cobbler:
In the hereafter, caste and power do not count, for every soul appears there in its true colours.” – Adi Granth, p 469

What one should look for in others is not caste, but God’s presence:
Know people by the light which illuminates them, and do not ask what their caste is. In the hereafter, no one is distinguishable by caste.” – Adi Granth, p 349

The rejection of caste and other social distinctions, particularly the vertical, were further implemented by Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das through the institution of community langar, where it was compulsory for all visitors to eat in the langar. All Sikhs, irrespective of their castes ate together (Jagjit Singh 1985). Till date, the institution of langar has been kept alive, where people from all castes, including the Mazhabi Sikhs, apart from various religious groups, take part in preparing the food and serving it to others. At the village level, Sikhs of all jatis, except the Mazhabis, inter dine, though the Mazhabis sit with others in gurdwaras. On the whole, the position of artisan and menial groups in Sikh society is better than the position of other religious communities (Jagjit Singh 1985).

That religion and science may not necessarily be contradictory becomes evident from another tenet of Sikhism. The pragmatic approach of Sikhism is obvious from its rejection of asceticism. You do not have to renounce the world in order to attain God. Sikhism is often defined as the religion of the householder, i.e., emergence of Sikhism is an equally vehement rejection of the path of the recluse and the ascetic, of withdrawal from the world which at that time was one of the most favoured. In the Bani of Kabir in Guru Granth Sahib:
Nagan firat jo paiae jog, ban ka mirag mukat sab hog.” – Adi Granth p 324

The true life of discipleship to the teachings of the Gurus can most completely be carried out in the householder (grihasthi) state. Marriage is not a social contract, but aims at the fusion of two souls into one. It is as a householder (grihasthi), a member of a family, not as one who has withdrawn from the world either to become a student or a hermit, that a Sikh should explore the meaning of God realization. Emphasizing upon the effective discharge of social responsibilities, Guru Nanak said that it was easier to turn away from the social responsibilities, but asceticism and renunciation are rejected. Guru Nanak commanded:
Remain in towns and near the main high roads, but be alert. Do not covet your neighbour’s possessions. Without the Name we cannot attain inner peace, nor still our inner hunger. The Guru has shown me the real life of the city, the real life of its shops, it is the inner life. We must be traders in truth, moderate in our eating and sleeping. This is true yogism. – Adi Granth, p 939

The Sikh Gurus honoured the institutions of marriage and family and strongly denounced asceticism. They castigated those yogis who left their houses and lived on the generosity of the common people. The yogis took pride in being celibates, but inwardly were craving for sexual indulgence. According to Guru Nanak:
In his hands is the begging bowl and he wears a patched coat like a mendicant’s, but within him is immense craving. And though he abandons his own wife, he is attached to another’s, lured by the sex desire.” – Adi Granth, p 1013

The Sikh Gurus therefore condemned the hypocrisy that characterized yogis. In their view, there is nothing unclean about normal sex life. All the Sikh Gurus were married, except the eighth Guru who died very young.

The householder’s life is an essential element of social life and social structure, apart from being a life of service and austerity. It is in fact the performance of social duties that make home a true home. The householder’s life provides a means whereby an individual advances on the moral plane, and finally reaches a stage where he develops chastity of mind and body, and identifies himself with the well being of the whole universe. One obtains salvation while living with one’s family and since both man and woman are co-partners in this life, both command equal respect. The Gurus rejected all kinds of superstitions and rituals, so very characteristic of the Hindu way of life. They also rejected belief in auspicious days. Interestingly, Sikhs have no weekly holy day. A tendency to observe the first day of the month (new moon day) has a secular rather than religious significance.

Gender equality received a special emphasis in Sikhism. As a religion that asserted the equality of mankind, Sikh Panth has always accorded, at least in theory, to Sikh woman a higher position as compared to her Rajput and Brahmin sisters. Their right to participate in Panthic rituals is generally recognized, even to the extent of permitting women to sit in attendance on the Guru Granth Sahib and recite from the sacred scripture in public. Sikhism does not debar woman from attaining salvation. A woman can act as a priest, conduct the service and lead a prayer in the gurdwara. She does not have to veil herself while sitting in a congregation and can receive as well as impart baptism. Guru Nanak rejected many of the Hindu notions according to which menstruation and childbirth were polluting for women. Guru Nanak denounced that celibacy was preferable to marriage since a widow brought ill luck upon those with whom she came in contact:
It is through woman, the despised one, that we are conceived and from her that we are born. It is to woman that we get engaged and then married. She is our life long friend and the survival of our race depends on her. On her death a man seeks another wife. Through woman we establish our social ties. Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born?” – Adi Granth, p 473

Women served as missionaries during the fifteenth century and when Guru Gobind Singh introduced the new initiation rite in 1699, it was significant that his wife placed the sugar crystals in the water. According to Hindu ideology, however, she could have defiled and nullified the ceremony (Cole and Sambhi 1999). Rejecting the notion of biological impurity of women, making them handicapped in participation in religious and even social activities, Gurbani says:
Jeon joru sirnaavani aavae vaaro vaar, joothe jootha mukh vasae nit nit karae khuar…” – Adi Granth, p 472

Another strong point in the Sikh philosophy that can give tons of moral boost to the modern man, burdened by the suffocating uncertainties of life and loneliness, consists in its repeated assurance to man that he is under perpetual care of God Almighty. According to Gurbani,
Tu kahe dole prania, tudh rakhega sirjanhar, jin paidaish tudh kiya, soi dae adhaar.” – Adi Granth, p 724

One finds several such verses in Gurbani which instill tons of optimism in an individual to do well in life, especially when the ends are ethically correct:
Na daro ur seo jab jahe laron, Nischay kar apnee jeet karon.” – Dasam Granth

It is indeed very interesting that when we, in this competitive and extremely individualized world, get haunted by the fear of failure, we turn to the best sellers like Dale Carnegie’s “Stop Worrying and Start Living”, spending hefty amounts, reading through the same sermons time and again, and finally getting recharged and reassured. I find the same lessons prescribed by Carnegie in Guru Granth Sahib. To take one such example, it is suggested that one must work hard towards his/her goal, give out the best; and then, leave it to nature, because the end is not within his hands. Gurbani says :
Mata kare pachham di tain, purab hi lai jaat, Jo anroopayo thakur merae, hoe rahi oh baat.” – Adi Granth, p 496

Also, attaching undue importance to the worldly success and materialism finds rejected as is indicated in the following lines:
Jaisa supna rain ka taisa sansar.” – Adi Granth, p 808
Jag rachna sabh jhuth hai jan leho re meet.” – Adi Granth, p 1429

Hence the transitory nature of this reality called society is emphasized just in line with the postmodernist philosophy.

One also finds an interesting commentary on the hollowness of man when he just acts like a machine, amassing worldly pursuits, with hardly any concern for the surroundings – both nature and human beings. A person bereft of love thus acquires many psychosomatic diseases. Such a person has been named ‘manmukh’ by Guru Nanak in Sidha Gosti. Manmukh intensely craves for the canalization of all worldly pleasures towards him. In order to do so he interprets and distorts all the cherished values and codes of conduct according to his own convenience, without caring for the troubles of others and his own conscience. Very many interesting comments are found in the Bani that deplore the insatiable greed of modern man for material gains, for which he damages the gifts of nature, God’s creation. The duality between subject and object in man, opposition between mind and matter, and life and nature, is rejected by Sikhism, emphasizing upon a balance between the two sides of an individual.

Man’s agony and suffering in the contemporary world is ascribed to his lust for money, fame, success and other worldly pursuits, as revealed in the following words:
Das bastu le pachhai pawae, Ek basat karan bikhot gawawai,
Ek bhi na de das bhi hir le, Tau mura kaho kaha kare.
”– Adi Granth, p 268

In the cut throat competition, the total indifference of man to his fellow beings becomes evident. Despite the best stage management, it is just not possible for him to conceal his animal-like cravings and greed. This is brought out in the following verses:
Kartut pasu ki manas jat, Lok pachara karai din rat,
Bahar bhekh antar mal maya, Chhapas nahen kachh karai chhapaya.
”– Adi Granth 267

That worldly success earned through worldly knowledge can not ensure happiness and tranquility to man is suggested clearly in the Sikh philosophy:
Wade wade jo deesah log, tin ko biyape chinta rog,
Kaon wada maya wadiyae, so wada jin Ram liv lai
.” – Adi Granth, p188

The increasing concern for mankind, the future generations, the whole concept of sustainable development, disillusionment of man with the extremely mechanistic way of life, in fact the whole question of ethics that is being so aggressively circulated in the whole world as a gift of the Western philosophy, finds repeated mention in the Sikh philosophy. It has been recognized now that mere scientific knowledge will not suffice. While it has helped mankind tremendously in reducing the biological suffering and making life immensely comfortable, it has no answers for the human alienation, estrangement and personal disorganization, necessitated by the contemporary competitive and an insensitive society. The highly inflated ego of man in this extremely individualized society is a source of many a problem, both at the personal as well as the societal levels. It is very aptly brought out in Gurbani:
Jis ke antar raj abhiman, So narakpati howat suan, – Adi Granth, p 278
Jo jane mai jobanwant, So howat bista ka jant,
Aapas ko karamwant kahave, Janam mare baho jon bharmave,
Dhan bhoom ka jo kare abhiman, So murakh andha agyan,
Kar kirpa jis ke hirdai garibi wasave,
Nanak eeha mukat aage sukh pave.

Humility finds a very valuable place in the Sikh philosophy:
Aapas ko jo jane neecha, Sou ganea sab te ucha.” – Adi Granth, p266

Management of these problems for a quality living is possible with the help of knowledge contained in the Sikh philosophy, which is absolutely pragmatic, itself critical of any kind of unscientific superstitious ritualism.

The last question that I wish to address is, given such a rich knowledge, why have the individuals not been utilizing it to resolve their tensions of mundane life. Actually, the Sikh philosophy compiled in the form of Granth Sahib has mainly been treated as a pious religious text, which has been adopted in our lives merely as a ritual. It is unfortunate that most of the knowledge contained in it operates at the theoretical level, in sermons, in temples and gurdwaras. What is urgently required is that it must enter our homes, our lives, our attitudes and finally our behaviour. If put into application, this philosophy can boost the morale of man, push him to success in the worldly pursuits, at the same time helping him/her prioritize the ends correctly. Confidence within oneself, faith in others, and a readiness to serve those who are in need, can solve more than half the problems – both social as well as personal. But for that one needs conviction, faith, of the same strength that modern man had for science and rationality, unshakable and strong.

Therefore, the Bani apart from offering a rich critique of contemporary society, also offers an alternative philosophy of life, an alternative lifestyle, with an altogether different prioritization. Here, religion, the existence of God, the attainment of God, and all such issues are brought out of the closed and rigid domain of temples and mosques, right in the center, within one’s reach, within one’s home, irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender. Arrogance on any account, be it material pursuits, or beauty or even knowledge, is out rightly condemned. It is emphasized that physical beauty, or shrewdness cannot get one happiness and solace.

Thus the whole exercise of disguising as a saintly person, with lots of greed for worldly pursuits at heart, would not fetch anything. Without the true service of God, man would never attain true happiness in life. This is a reaction to the very institutionalization of ritual symbolization of God with certain kinds and colour of dress, and an outward garb of godliness, which may in fact be totally false and deceitful. Hence, the Gurbani’s insistence upon real and unreal, true and false, genuine and fraudulent is very significant, since it negates a blind submission to any kind of hierarchy, whether ritual, social, economic and so on. Thus by putting on a particular kind of garb one does not become a yogi, it is instead the deeds that make him so.

The other accomplishment of the Holy text that needs to be commended is that it makes God easily accessible to all men and women, irrespective of their caste, religion or economic standing. One does not need a middle man to approach Him, something that had been institutionalized in Hinduism and even Islam. Instead, one can achieve God and serve Him while engaged in the routine worldly pursuits of life. While it is easier to escape the hardships of real life and adopt asceticism for attaining God, it is much more difficult to attain Him while fulfilling one’s daily chores in life. Hence, reaching to God is as easy or as difficult for a cobbler as for a king, or for that matter a Brahmin or a Sudra.

I, at this moment, find myself unable to resist the temptation to introspect the application of this philosophy in contemporary society, in real life situations. While the text contained in Guru Granth Sahib has today been translated in several languages, interpreted and reinterpreted by hundreds and thousands of scholars all over the world, it is a pity that its translation into practice evades us today more than ever. Thanks to the so-called secular ideology so readily adopted by the Sikhs, that they have embraced all the ritualistic practices on marriages, births and deaths, categorically denounced in the sacred text. I always wonder why can’t we deliberate upon the text and its practice simultaneously. I am saying this because I am apprehending that these remarks in my paper will certainly prompt some learned scholars to silence me, arguing that we are to discuss the Granth and not its practice. But I am forced to dwell upon the question of practice since the whole text talks about nothing else but practice and action.

The message that I could carry from the Gurbani is that neither theoretical or, to use a better term, cerebral knowledge, nor mere reciting of the religious scripture could take you towards God, it is the practice of this philosophy, that you will have to incorporate into your attitude, your psyche, your thoughts and your behaviour, if you wish to attain true happiness. It is unfortunate that while, on the one hand, the number of gurdwaras where the Guru Granth Sahib is respectfully worshipped has grown manifold, the philosophy of egalitarianism is almost missing in the so-called modern society, Sikhs in particular.

Given such a democratic, modern, bold and secular ideology in our Holy scripture, it is the most heinous sin we commit when we as mothers, fathers, grandparents and aunts, kill a life before it sees the beautiful world merely because it is a girl, and then we shamelessly turn towards God and ask him to bless us with a son; we commit a sin when we, the proud Sikhs, indulge in tremendously wasteful expenditure on marriage forced upon the parents of the girls, even when they are more educated and better placed than our sons, once again violating the pious teachings of our Gurus. We keep on committing countless sins day in and day out, while reciting Gurbani, which for most of us, Sikhs, is nothing more than a ritual to be performed everyday, without any conscious effort to ‘understand’ the meaning of what we recite. It is a pity that while our Gurus vehemently rejected all kinds of ritualism, superstitious beliefs and wasteful ceremonies, either social or religious, we are pursuing the same rituals, beliefs, etc., in the name of God. For instance, our Rehat Maryada, which is a beautifully drafted document to put an end to the then prevailing superstitious beliefs in auspicious and inauspicious days, elaborate and suffocating ceremonies of marriage and death among others, finds no followers today among Sikhs who are too busy identifying auspicious dates and timings for marriages, inaugurations and financial transactions, indulging into the same very practices which were condemned long time back by our Gurus. It makes me feel as if while our Gurus, who were far more than modern and secular than us, were struggling to pull us ahead, much ahead of their times, we, who claim to be ultra modern and developed, have never been able to carry forward the torch our Gurus entrusted us with, thus betraying their faith.


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