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Sikh Mystical Experience vis-a-vis Social Reality

Dr Shashi Bala

Religion is an inseparable part of society and it indicates to a belief in Supreme Power and stands for the unity and integrity of the cosmos. Revelation and community are integral part of any religious faith that cannot originate in a cultural vacuum; rather it reflects on the cultic practices of a particular religious community, its way of life and the prevalent traditions, and is a form of response of the divine preceptor to his environment. Being ineffable and incomprehensible, the divine experience finds expression through the prevalent nomenclature and vernacular language. To study the Sikh mystical experience vis-a-vis social reality, it is pertinent to keep in mind the following points: first, nature of religious experience and world-view; second, response to the existing social order; third, social philosophy of Sikh religion; and fourth, implementation of this philosophy through community life.

1. Nature of Religious Experience
The Sikh religion is a revealed religion which enunciates the monotheistic concept of One God, rejects the doctrine of incarnation, idol worship, and formalism of ritualistic ceremonies by stressing on the contemplation of God and service of humanity. It integrates the spiritual and the temporal and presents a non-dichotomous, holistic and integral view of cosmos. The Sikh scripture enunciates a humanistic aspect of religion which makes no distinction between the contemplative life and the social life, and stresses not only on the knowledge of truth but also the implementation of that knowledge in one’s own life. The inter-subjective character of Sikh mystical experience takes into consideration not only the persons but also the total setting of life as well as its activities and is not confined to the limits of structure of thought but tries to understand the meaningful in man. Besides the spiritual dialogue, there is initiated a dialogue of life as well as a dialogue of deeds. Whereas the spiritual dialogue expatiates the religious experience in the form of prayer, contemplation, faith and ways of searching for the Absolute, the dialogue of life is animated by an attitude of concern, respect and hospitality towards persons of other faiths, and the dialogue of deeds stands for humanitarian attitude towards the spiritual evolution of man. Speaking about such experience, a modern philosopher Emmanuel Levinas opines:

Spiritualizing a religion does not consist in judging one’s experiences in the light of the scientific results of the day, but in understanding these very experiences as links between intelligences, links situated in the full light of consciousness and discourse — To speak, at the same time as knowing the Other, is making oneself known to him. The Other is not only known, he is greeted. He is not only named, but also invoked.2

The divine revelation of this type of experiential experience is clearly stated by Guru Nanak in Raga Majh ki Var3 and this inner experience is a sort of moral command or an illumination of the soul or an intuitive realization which may be interpreted as ‘a moral demand to undertake a certain course of action’ as in Judaism or the discernment of the sacred within oneself as in the Indian tradition.4 This attitude is defined in the words of Keith Ward as:

The occurrence of a revelation depends upon the existence of the appropriate responsive attitude on the part of the subject. This attitude must be at the same time cognitive, affective and dispositional involving the total personality.5

The main emphasis of the scripture is on realization of the meaning of God’s existence in human life and in the world of experience or the recognition of God’s presence in one’s daily experience as the source of all things. Mere intellectual arguments about the existence of God are futile exercise and abstract thinking with little relevance to actual life. Stressing on the integration of personality, Gurbani has pointed out the consequential effect of the cognitive efforts made by the contemporary religious leaders. For instance, more reading and writing creates anxiety; roaming over the pilgrimage-places makes one boastful; adoption of sectarian garbs inflict pain on the body; starvation creates loss of taste; and silence makes man unable to wake from his ignorance.6 On the other hand, when man’s individual will surrenders itself to the Divine Will through contemplation of word (sabad) of Guru, the divine preceptor, then the opposition disappears and there remains no dichotomy between the subject and the object. This type of realization or the oneness with Divine Will, is indeed cosmic consciousness which liberates man from the fluctuations of impulsive life as well as from the limits of social injunctions and moral codes, and inculcates in him a spirit to participate in cosmic love.7

A person with enlarged consciousness is a free moral agent and active in social life. His works are not motivated by any selfish desire but by the altruistic spirit. By his acts, he participates in the working of God, not under any moral obligation but spontaneously as functional expression of his evolved nature. By attuning to hukam (Divine Will), man attains spiritual enlightenment and such person is denominated in the Holy Scripture as jivan-mukta, gurmukh or brahmajnani and this state is known as sehaj-avastha, turiya ava sotha, param-pad and amara-pad.8 This cosmic consciousness means realization of the inner unity and identity as well as intuitive perception of the inner truth of things and beings. This type of consciousness is not complete extinction of ego-consciousness, but rather it is the sublimation of ego-consciousness by transcendence and participation in the cosmic consciousness.

The phenomenal world is created by God’s Will and is therefore not mithya or configuration of maya as in Sankara’s philosophy. The world as envisaged by Guru Nanak is an ethical order to practice righteousness and, therefore, the purpose of the world and of human existence is seen in the existence and duration of the world in its God-given orders and life-accomplishments. The world is not as it should be, but it is on the path to its destination. The purpose of the world lays not in its existence and its condition, but in its goal and its destination that is to find ‘the transcendental foundation or a trans-empirical background of the world.’ Hence, the world-view of any religion is concerned not only with the visible world but also ‘with the world as a whole of being and happening, with the natural life and mental-psychic existence in the world and with nature, culture and history interpreted as per purpose, goal and value, from the view of basic religious experience.’9

Guru Nanak neither encouraged life of withdrawal nor life of indulgence but suggested a balanced way of life, i.e., living detached amidst worldly life. It is a sort of inner denouncement of world in which one still remains in the world and performs his works in it, without clinging to them. Guru Nanak envisaged the middle path which denounces sensuous pleasures and self-mortification. The identification with the worldly things and indulgence in the fulfillment of worldly aspirations strengthens the false notion of separateness which creates a feeling of self-centeredness, self-alienation, self-doubt and inner emptiness. Spiritual renaissance is the pre-requisite condition to reform any society. The enlightened man develops new patterns of life in relation to his environment but an ignorant person, being engrossed in worldly things perishes due to spiritual darkness.

2. Response to the Existing Social order
Society, indeed, is a combination of different religious communities, caste-groups, linguistic groups and professional groups, and each of these groups contributes for the social solidarity. The reaction and interaction of emerging religion towards the existing social order and its attempt to reconstruct that order is clearly visible in the Holy Scripture as well as in the community life of that particular religion. The Sikh Gurus have not only identified the problems of social milieu of their times but also offered a practical solution. Guru Nanak condemns the corrupt priests and conveys fearlessly his message to the masses by his extensive travels. He presents a radical, self-generating, self-protective and a totally new system of society which finds expression in the medieval terminology, no doubt, making a break from the past. Guru Nanak was conscious of the defects of conventions of contemporary society and he made use of those conventions to convey his own idea to society. He reacted strongly against the hypocrisy of the priestly class who beguiled the innocent people by their formal ways of worship and by their outward appearance. He has minutely noticed the deceit and hypocrisy in the character of the contemporary Brahmins and Kashtriyas who were leading a dual life. Whatever may be the inherent cause, either to please the Muslim rulers or to gain economic benefits, they accepted the subjugation of Muslim invaders. They worship their idols within, but read Quran and observe the code of Turks.10 Repudiating their outward symbols, Guru Nanak stressed on the inner purity of thoughts. Only through purity of mind and purity of conduct, one can find the true reality.11

This philosophy of life-affirmation and world-affirmation is explicitly clear in severe criticism of the practices of a sect of Jainism, who were neither yogis nor jangams nor qazis nor mullas, but persons leading an unclean life on the pretext of ahimsa or non-injury to the living beings. A vivid portrayal of their daily life makes it clear that such persons have no realization of the divine presence, no sense of human dignity, no consciousness of higher aim except their own stern notion of purity. The stress is on inner purity and detachment while living in the world. Instead of repression of mental modifications (citta-vrttis) by difficult methods, the way suggested is by sublimation of urges and directing them for some higher aim through nam-simran.12

An explicit attitude of defiance of the existing cultural-pattern is clearly visible in the holy compositions of Guru Granth Sahib along with the presentation of new value system which nonetheless elevates man from the natural instinct of fear and withdrawal to the conscious decision to face challenge with courage and enthusiasm. The nucleus of the Sikh community life is based on the ontological principles laid down by the Gurus. The basis of this type of egalitarian order was the subaltern revival by reconstructing society on the moral and spiritual basis and by transcending the social barriers by assimilating in its fold all men irrespective of caste, creed and race. There are also several instances in the Sikh history revealing this type of defiance of the Sikh Gurus towards the socio-political system. For instance, Guru Nanak’s defiance of the religious ceremony of Janeu, the sacred thread, supposed to be worn to attain formal status in the varna hierarchy; Guru Amar Das’ challenge to the notion of social segregation by making it obligatory for all visitors to partake the community kitchen (langar) alongwith others regardless of his caste and creed; Guru Ram Das’ defiance of the existing rigidities of the cultural system; Guru Arjun Dev’s, defiance of the existing political system that led to his martyrdom; Guru Hargobind’s defiance of complete revival of existing culture by integrating the temporal with the spiritual, i.e., piri and miri; Guru Tegh Bahadhur’s defiance of Mughal rulers for their forcible conversions and its culmination in the creation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. No doubt, the distinctive character of the Sikh religion was vouchsafed by the Gurus by creating cohesive infrastructure for the community but the distinct Sikh identity was conferred by Guru Gobind Singh, with the imposition of five symbols, viz., keshas, kangha, kirpan, kachha and kara. These symbols are indicative of the disciplined life of the individual as well as of the corporate identity of ethno-religious, ethno-social and ethno-political nature. The underlying basis of the Sikh community’s glorious heritage of chivalry and martyrdom is the integration of religious aspects with the temporal aspects.

3. Social Philosophy
The Sikh religion repudiates the prevalent notion of world-negation and the life of asceticism and believes in the dynamic and creative aspect of the Absolute Being. Hence any abstract idea of God without a world would be a spiritual life with no hold on the real or in other words a life of pure escapism. The mundane world is taken as a dharamsala, i.e., a field of man’s activity where each process of creation, animate or inanimate, is teleological and performing work with a telic goal to conserve the stability of world-order. Real freedom of man lies not in escapism from the hard realities of life but going through them in the spirit of detachment. It endorses the idea of self-realisation through self-fulfillment and not through self-abnegation and this aspect is clearly visible in the following aspects:

Family Life
The institution of marriage and family life is viewed ‘as the progress of the individuals, their ascending social relations, towards the spiritual and the ideal.’13 The ceremony of marriage is called Anand Karaj which is performed by chanting the four hymns (char lavan) of the Holy Scripture indicating commitment to the life of householder and its duties; uniting to the noble qualities by the spiritual preceptor; release from passions and experience of pure joy and last stage of attainment and equipoise which is state of new union, both social as well as spiritual. In Guru Granth Sahib, the sanctification of married life is endorsed by the frequent use of the metaphor of husband-wife relationship to indicate the love of individual soul for God, which is to be attained by cultivating peace and by surrender of ego.14 The basis of peaceful and healthy family life is true love which consists of not being together, but of being two flames as manifesting one light.15 No type of subordination of man and woman is tolerated in the holy scripture, which insists on the woman to inculcate the virtues of contentment, peace and humbleness16 and to practice self-continence, pious conduct and obedience.17 Man is also endowed with the moral responsibility to be faithful to his wife and whosoever abandons his wife and has affair with another woman is called sinner, whose home always burns in unquenched fire.18 What is needed, is the spontaneous expression of inherent values which provide the basis for positive giving and receiving. The inner tranquility can alone make possible the spontaneous expression of positive love, and it demands the inner conversion by controlling the mind, sublimating the passions and cultivating the positive virtues.

Spiritual Basis of Human Relations
The three main precepts of Sikhism viz., nam japna, kirat karna and vand chhakna are the basis to regulate the human-social relations. Prof Puran Singh observes that kirat karna means work inspired by the spirit of holiness and this work includes gathering bread for hungry mouths, providing solace to the sick, clothing the naked and making the burden of suffering light for humanity by completely losing our individual selfishness. Nam Japna means being capable of active divinity in inspirational touch with the divine spirit and vand chhakna is to share our bread and joy and love and attainment of God-realisation with all.19 The stress on the dignity of labour and work is laid to raise man above the material level because a sincere devotion to work is an honest worship of God. On the one hand, work and sharing indicates to the co-ordination of individual as well as social life and, on the other hand, these percepts point to non-exploitation and justice which are important ingredients of a healthy society. To usurp the rights of others through dishonest means or exploitation of others is as sinful as the eating of the cow for a Hindu and the pig for a Muslim. Moreover, sharing also stands for healthy and balanced social order and democratic social structure.

These three cardinal precepts of Sikhism are indicative of an active and virtuous householder’s life along with the inner spirit of ‘chardikala’ (spirit of optimism) and ‘sarbat da bhala’ (welfare of humanity). The social meaning of virtues is emphasized as conducive to the sublimation of ego and for the harmonious well-being of an individual as well as of society. Moral norms are desirable not only for the cultivation of inner harmony but also for promoting inter-personal relations at the cosmic level. Equality, brotherhood, social justice, humility, classless society and freedom of women are the basic postulates of Sikh religion. The notion of social equality, being derivative of the ontological principle of oneness of reality, repudiates the social organization based on caste ideology and lays the foundation of a distinct social order with a plebian base. Instead of preaching and practicing the prevalent notion of individual emancipation, the stress is laid on the societal aspect of emancipation indicating the spiritual transformation as well as socio-spiritual welfare of humanity by expansion of self and participation in the cosmos.

Dissemination of Spiritual Knowledge
The development of man’s personality as well as his cultural system lies in the improvement of its learning procedures. In the age of science and technology, there is an imperative need to devise certain plans for ushering into existence some form of global culture. Guru Granth Sahib is a repository of those spiritual preceptors who through their hymns and praxis have enlightened men by lifting them from the quagmire of formalism, superstition, dogmatic beliefs and talked in terms of the ‘secrets of alphabet’ (akhar ka bhed).20 They stressed on the dissemination of spiritual knowledge through education or vidya. It is clearly stated that the cultural person can be the benefactor of all (vidya vichaari ta parupkari). The highest knowledge is Brahm-gian which lights the lamp of knowledge and sheds the darkness of ignorance. Language is also an important vehicle of culture and its development is an important contribution of the Sikh Gurus, who chose the vernacular language for dissemination of their message and enriched the Punjabi script with Persian, Arabic as well as Sanskrit vocabulary.

Attitude towards Evil and Suffering
No religious mystic can remain unconcerned with the presence of evil in the phenomenal world and it is clearly evident in Babar-Vani, which is a vivid portrayal of the occurrence of evil in its diverse manifestation, viz., war and violence, death, destruction, inhumanity of man towards man, dehumanization of women, scarcity of food, moral degradation, indulgence in ritualism and magical practices. Babar-Vani comprises of four hymns of Guru Nanak, three in Raga Asa and one in Raga Tilang, alluding to the invasions by Babar.21 Though these hymns are related to the physical event happened at a particular time and at particular place, yet its deep philosophy of suffering in its different manifestation, cause of suffering and solution to the problem of suffering in the larger cosmic context is highly thought provoking. These four hymns depict the depth meaning of the occurrence of suffering as well as the sentiments of deep sympathy and concern for humanity and thereby complaint to God but with a reconciling attitude due to cosmic awareness of the prevalence of Divine Will and inevitable judgment of God. There are instances of the martyrdom of the Sikh Gurus who not only have undergone sufferings but also remained active in suffering, thus conveying the message of active participation and not of asceticism.

Socio-Spiritual Realisation
In Guru Granth Sahib, a historical idea of man is presented who is not alienated, intellectual and contemplative but is active, participating, kind, who is interested in understanding and changing history and in overcoming various constraints in the way of true human development. This viewpoint emphasizes on action, creativity and concrete human being in historical situation. It repudiates the meta-praxiological approach which stresses on the alienation of theory from practice, thought from action, and intellectual from moral. There remains no distinction between the contemplative man and the man of action. The Gurus have directed the path to spirituality through the analogy of worldly professions which ought to be performed in detached and ethical manner. Man is exhorted to make fortune in the field of spirituality with righteous efforts. Taking the analogy of agriculture, it is stated that to attain a blissful state, one must make the body as farm, mind as the farmer, good deeds as the farming, right efforts as the irrigation of the farm, contemplation of the Divine Name as the seed, contentment as the furrowing, humility as the fence around the farm. In this way the seed of good fortune sprouts by the deeds of love. Similarly, to be an honest shopkeeper and to reap the profit of joy, one must make one’s decreasing age as the store-house to put the stock of Divine Name in it. Besides one must make concentration and reason as the store-house and put the treasure of Divine Name in it and have his dealings with the God-oriented peddlers. The traveling tradesman, in order to enjoy the bliss of Divine Presence, must make the hearing of scriptures as his trade. He should load the horses of truth, have the fare of merit and should not postpone his present work to another day, and his land of arrival should be the Formless God. The man of service, in order to attain honor in the spiritual realm, should perform real service by attuning to the Divine Name. The deed of his service should be belief in God and he should make righteous efforts to still evil tendencies.22

Social Virtues
The Holy Scripture stresses on the practice of altruism and this altruistic spirit finds expression in the ideal of self-sacrifice, which does not mean self-negation or self-denial but it is self-transcendence or dying to live. It indicates to a life of detachment, expansion of consciousness, elimination of fear and service for the welfare of humanity (sarbat da bhala). The altruistic spirit also finds expression in two ways, viz., the individual-centered altruism and the social-centered altruism. The former is related with the welfare of an individual, while the latter is concerned with the charge or reformation of unjust social organisations.23 To maintain peace at the macroscopic level, the society-centered altruistic motivation is most urgently needed and this type of spirit is explicitly clear in Guru Granth Sahib which initiates the possibility of inter-faith dialogue with diverse types of religious and social groups, without any sign of conflict or an idea of conversion but the sole purpose being to convince them to transcend above the external formalism and to understand the inner depth meaning of their respective faiths.
Holistic Attitude to Life and Nature

A reverential attitude and an inner urge to safeguard the autonomy of life are essential elements of the inner dynamics of Guru Granth Sahib. The equilibrium of eco-systems is found in many hymns in which manifestation of nature in all its cosmic and humanistic aspects is portrayed. These also indicate the heights of creative human sensibility and intuitive perception of cosmic beauty.24 Man’s intervention in the process of nature has resulted into pollution of elements, viz., air, water and earth. The depletion of Ozone layer, acid rains, global warming has put the existence of man in danger. The economic development through industrialization at the cost of environment would lead to disaster. The Nuclear energy has also affected the entire atmosphere. The use of artificial fertilizers and deforestation activities are aggravating the ecological imbalances, which will affect the whole climate and will lead to social instability and disharmony.

The Sikh religion stresses on the inner harmony of man which is pre-requisite condition to create harmonious environment. Inner harmony means the balance between the instinctive needs and the spiritual capacities or the integration of the lower self and the higher self. The problem of ecology starts with the conflict between man and nature, when man tried to exploit nature for his selfish motives to satisfy his greed. Man’s mastery over science and technology has resulted in artificial intervention in the process of nature and thus creating impediments in the smooth working of natural course.25 Nature has its own laws of continuity and preservation; of maintenance, of unity and order of existence26 and the sustenance of all living beings including man depends upon the natural environment. Therefore, disturbance in any component of the environment is likely to affect the whole eco-system. Does it not seem paradoxical that man with advanced mental skill, instead of serving the cause of humanity, is exploiting not only nature and animal species, but also his fellow beings? ‘The cause underlying this fact is lack of moral awareness, which not only pollutes man of his natural resources, but is also polluting the entire environment. The Sikh religion advocates and recommends a balanced and moderate living27 in harmony with the outward surroundings. Man should avoid the mixing of knowledge and technology with commercial motives. There should be sustainable economic development to sustain man at the reasonable comfort level, to conserve environment and its resources, to stop environmental degradation and this is possible by transcending oneself from self-centeredness and by developing cosmic consciousness.

4. Implementation of Social Philosophy through Community Life
The spirit of the integration of the spiritual and the temporal is explicitly visible in the Sikh history. To demolish caste system, Guru Nanak insisted on common kitchen and built the first dharamsala or chapel of the Sikhs at Kartarpur. To organize the disciples of Guru Nanak and to secure the individuality of Nanak’s mission, Guru Angad compiled the thirty five letters of Gurmukhi script and also enlarged and expanded the institution of langar or free kitchen which was already initiated by the first Guru. To strengthen and propagate the Sikh faith, Guru Amar Das established twenty-two manjis all over the country. He also laid the foundation of Goindwal and constructed a baoli at Goindwal. Guru Ram Das laid the foundation of the city of Amritsar, Ramdaspura or Gur Ka Chak and introduced reforms, particularly in wedding ceremony, and composed a long hymn in four parts which is recited at the time of marriage ceremony. Guru Arjun Dev, the first martyr in the Sikh history laid the foundation of Sikh theocracy by compiling the Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. He laid the foundation of Tarn Taran, a town and completed the holy tank at Amritsar and shifted his headquarters to Amritsar. He appointed masands or collectors in each of the twenty two provinces to collect funds and encouraged adventure and enterprise among his followers. Guru Hargobind saw the martyrdom of his father and offered armed resistance to the Mughal Empire. He was the first Sikh Guru who wore two swords of shakti and bhakti, combining in him spirituality (piri) and royalty (miri). Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed his life to save the Kashmiri Pandits from the forcible conversions to Islam. Guru Gobind Singh confronted the Mughal Empire and struck a blow at the might of Aurangzeb. He sacrificed his all sons but refused to embrace Islamic faith. With the creation of Khalsa in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh gave a new shape to the Sikh religion by imposing a distinct individual and corporate identity to the Panth. The establishment of Sikh institutions is clear indication of implementation of the religious precepts in and through the community life. The highest aim of life is realization of spirituality and its expression through human conduct. It is clearly evident in the practice of the three cardinal precepts that are simultaneously functional both at the individual level as well as at the social level. The Sikh institutions such as sangat and pangat provide a model for an egalitarian society.

To conclude, the philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib is universal, dynamic and deeply humanistic and is not confined to the boundaries of space and time but encompasses the whole humanity in providing solace and bliss due to its cosmopolitan spirit, interfaith dialogue and its emphasis on world-affirmation with deep concern for spiritual transformation of man. Though the Holy Scripture reflects on the contemporary conditions by offering positive solution, yet its eternal spiritual philosophy and moral values provide perennial solution to the emerging problems of human life.



1. Keith Ward, The Concept of God, pp 3-8
2. E Levinas, Difficult Freedom, pp 6-7
3. Guru Granth Sahib, p 150
4. Keith Ward, op. cit., p 77
5. Ibid., p 27
6. Guru Granth Sahib, p 467
7. Radhakamal Mukherjee, The Way of Humanism, p 80
8. Guru Granth Sahib, pp 154, 227, 359, 725
9. Gustav Mensching, Structures and Patterns of Religion, pp 153-54
10. Guru Granth Sahib, pp 471-72
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., p 938
13. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs, p 108
14. Guru Granth Sahib, p 664
15. Ibid., p 788
16. Ibid., p 17
17. Ibid., p 185
18. Ibid., pp 1164-65
19. Puran Singh, Spirit of the Sikh, pp 27-29
20. Wazir Singh, Sikhism Philosophy and Culture, pp 65-66.
21. Guru Granth Sahib, pp 360, 723
22. Ibid., pp 595-96
23. S P Kanal, Philosophy of Religion, pp 386-89
24. Guru Granth Sahib, p 141
25. Ibid., p 1002
26. Ibid., p 20
27. Ibid., p 16


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