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Saran Singh

The Nature of Theology
The root dilemma of humanity through the ages has been the search and identification of the true Teacher, or prophet, who could rescue mankind out of the quagmire of sin and superstition, and guide him into the realm of self-realisation and bliss. In the present age, the masses, in colossal ignorance of the Creator’s purpose, languish in poverty, pain and misery:

jgqu jlµdw riK lY AwpxI ikrpw Dwir ]
ijqu duAwrY aubrY iqqY lYhu aubwir ]

The World is aflame in sin, unable to accomplish its own redemption. Guru’s intervention and the summoning of Divine Grace is the last desperate instrumentality for salvation.” – Guru Granth Sahib, p 853**

In this predicament, the Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib represents the most comprehensive, coherent and compelling enunciation of the creation’s moral and spiritual purpose. Its versified message packs astonishing spiritual power and majesty. In so far as its original text is set to ineffable symphonic raags, or measures, its direct appeal is to the deep faith residing in the heart, rather than to the intellect. The holy word affirms that man is capable of experiencing and realising God, howsoever subtle and incomprehensible He may be. For the true devotee He is not impersonal:

sB qy prY prY qy aUcw gihr gMBIr AQwihE ] 2 ]
Eiq poiq imilE Bgqn kau jn isau prdw lwihE ]
(page 1299)

Guru Granth Sahib is, quintessentially, the poetry of pure devotion. It must be approached with love, devotion and humility. The scriptural power to illumine our darkened hearts like a thousand suns, to sweep away the cobwebs of doubt with the force of a tornado, to feel the ecstasy like being borne on the waves of a heaving sea – needs to be imbibed and experienced only in small doses. That is perhaps one reason why one must be wary of the ritualised ‘Akhand Path’ – non-stop recitation that knows no pause nor deliberation, preoccupied more with compulsions of time than sublimity of thought. In all conscience, this formal (and often commercialized) use of the text of Guru Granth Sahib needs to be discouraged. The text of the holy scriptures is so succinct and economical, allegorical and inspiring, profound and pregnant with meaning that it is necessary to read, recite and sing the verses with reverence and patience, absorbing the meaning and saturating the soul with its beauty. It is in this spirit that the meditation on God’s name acquires the power of healing:

srb rog kw AauKdu nwmu ] (page 274)

The sacred text, in its myriad variations, constitutes the intelligent man’s guide to inner peace. Its overwhelming lyricism creates a ground swell of enthusiasm which pure one to a pure and ethical life:

scju ErY sBu ko aupir scu Awcwru ] (page 62)

Guru Granth Sahib teaches us that success in the material terms is a trap; that attachment to worldly relationship is a hurdle to spiritual progress. The individual loses perspective and purpose of self realisation:

mn qUM joiq srUp hY Awpxw mUl pCwxu ] (page 441)

The Sikh Theology is unapologetically prescriptive. It does not claim to be value-free, or neutral, or non-committal on the key issues of existence. It comforts, castigates, cajoles, warns, encourages, exhorts, begs, threatens and guides.

Institutional Practice of Theology
Ideals of Guru Granth Sahib: Truth, compassion, service of humanity, equality, liberty, honest living, tolerance, acceptance of God’s will, optimism and rejection of superstitition, idolatry and pantheism – all these virtues and precepts had to be embodied in a coherent code of day to day living, for the benefit of seekers of truth and, indeed, for the human race as a whole. This was an evolutionary process, not a contrived, abrupt formulation. Theology must teach people how to cope with the worldly responsibilities, and conduct oneself from day to day, and from place to place, without compromising on the basic ideals. Theology must satisfy certain deeper needs of the people and provide them with community values.

Arising from these imperatives are the symbols of faith sanctified by Guru Gobind Singh in the dramatic culmination of the Sikh ethos on the Baisakhi day, 1699. Those who argue in levity or seriousness that these symbols are a relic of the past, are only too willing to trade them for crass new fads and myths that are fickle and soon forgotten. The younger generation who question the relevance of the discipline of the symbols need only to develop the patience to reflect on their psychological and spiritual benefits as an explicit uniting force.

When Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life for the fundamental right of worship, symbolized by the ‘Tilak and sacred thread,’ it was, intrinsically, a universal act for all faiths, and not for a particular people. The symbols of Sikhism spell faith and embrace the whole human race. Their message has meaning for all people everywhere. It is the magic of symbols that, despite their small numbers and minority status, the Sikhs have evolved a sense of peoplehood and solidarity.

Like the Buddhist exhortation “Sangham Sharanam Gacchamd,’’ the Sikh Theology preaches congregational participation and social activism as an endeavour in collective humanism and spiritual uplift:

sqsMgiq imlY q icVqw AwvY, hir rwm nwim insqwry ] (page 987)

The ethical principle in Guru Granth Sahib emphasizes the holiness of life: ‘body is the temple of God, every human being has the right and duty to strive for self-realisation. Towards achieving this goal, the Guru suggests a specific code of conduct that demands protection – not penance of the body, including its crowning glory, the keshas, abstinence from deleterious drugs and intoxicants, austerity and early rising. Amrit is meant as the climactic benediction to the observance of the code. It is the common bond of brotherhood in the service of humanity – a relationship that transcends distinctions of caste, colour and social status. Too often we tend to fall into the trap of the present-day media that religion is a strictly ‘personal’ matter. This, in a country dotted with places of ‘collective’ worship. In Guru Granth Sahib, there are as many references and metaphors underlining man’s relation with God that are plural, social and dynamic, as there are for the deliverance of the individual. In this commonality of purpose, mutual hostility and distances dissolve and disappear. Total awareness builds a sense of oneness – of a world community for whom we daily pray: srbq dw Blw ]

The tolerance, or goodwill, for all, is not a weakness, but strength. For fanatics of one kind or another, it is foolish to think they are God’s own instruments for ‘eliminating those who disagree with them.’ History is replete with the tragic consequences of fanatical intolerance, from medieval crusades and jihad to the modern ghalugharas. Five and brimstone are instruments of destructions. Love and goodwill are the means of preservation.

But why are we so insecure and embattled? It is mainly because we have used theological power and privilege as a political weapon. Instead of engaging in resolving philosophical issues, laying down moral guidelines, or interpreting spiritual values, the ‘priestly fraternity’ has been dragged into political controversies inherent in the working of historical shrines and gurdwaras. At the lower levels of town and village gurdwaras, the priest is among the lowest paid workers, pitifully dependent on the charity and offerings of the devout members of the congregation. Ironically, the custodian of Guru’s Treasure of spiritual truth is invariably a semi-literate and impecunious individual eking out a lack-lustre existence. In a vicious circle, the economic status and condition of the priest do not encourage the younger men (and women) to study Sikh Theology, and Divinity as a subject, and even (to a degree) discourage the adoption of priesthood as a profession. The contribution of Taksals in the past few decades has been the only silver lining. So also the endeavours of missionary colleges continue to make a dent in the problem of parchar. Finally, with all the affirmations of equality between men and women, we have a poor record in women’s representation in the institutional set-up of Sikh Theology. Attitudes have to change and the anachronism of the male domination in theological institutions must be discarded.

Emergence of Fundamentalism: Religious fundamentalism is a global phenomenon, relatively recent in origin. In the case of Sikh doctrine, it emerged as a conscious counterblast to what may be called the creeping ‘permissiveness’ of modern society. Indiscipline, alcoholism, addiction to drugs and intoxicants and apostasy triggered a reassertion of moral and spiritual values that has electrified the Theological scene. This reassertion of traditional religion is not a new implant coming from the intellectual centres of learning, but arises from the very soil of Sikh seminaries, or Taksals. This renaissance in religious faith and feeling was bound to have far-reaching social and political consequences. We are witness to these repercussions.

What is required is a re-integration of the human, moral and spiritual values inherent in the Sikh scripture and tradition. Equally important is the synthesis of the Sikh Theology with the scientific temper. A swing towards militancy, or confrontation with political power, which precipitates unending violence, would be fatal to the theological imperatives of Sikhism. We can neither dismantle the modern world nor desert it, or run away from it. What we can do is to rediscover the dynamic and everlasting truths of Guru Granth Sahib, towards a resurgent Sikhism at home in the 21st century.

An eminent Sikh journalist and author, who is never tired of proclaiming agnosticism, recently wrote about his dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He asked the spiritual head of Mahayana Buddhism what he thought of the origin of life on our planet. Did he subscribe to the intermediate theory put forward by Hinduism and its offshoots – Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism – of order emerging creator, preserver and destroyer? The learned questioner apparently did not care to recall what Guru Granth Sahib has to say about the origin of life on earth, quite independent of the mythological explanations offered by classical Hinduism, viz.:

swcy qy pvnw BieAw pvnY qy jlu hoie ]
jl qy iqRBvxu swijAw Git Git joiq smoie ]
(page 19)

Sikhism is no ‘offshoot’, it is a sovereign religion. Far from accepting the prevailing theory of a heavenly Triumvirate, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Guru Nanak deeply reflected on the nature of the Universe. There is a clear refutation of the Creator – Preserver – Destroyer trinity in the following verses:

Arbd nrbd DuMDUkwrw ] Drix n ggnw hukmu Apwrw ]
nw idnu rYin n cMdu n sUrju suMn smwiD lgwiedw ]... 
bRhmw ibsnu mhysu n koeI ] Avru n dIsY eyko soeI ]
(page 1035)

Indeed, Gurbani is not in conflict with the scientific principle. It reflects upon the nature of cosmos, the planetary system, origin of earth, biology, physics and chemistry. But it goes far beyond the physical aspects of the Universe – to the mysterious fourth dimension – the mind and consciousness. Sikhism does not have to defened itself against the expanding realm of science. Gurbani says there are immense spaces of the mind and spirit which remain a mystery. It will be many millennia before material science can unravel it. It is significant that Guru Nanak was a forerunner of Galileo (1564-1642). As one of the most extensively travelled leaders of his time, Guru Nanak was fully aware of the physical aspects of the universe. What came to be known as the spirit of scientific enquiry is writ large in the Guru’s writings. “qwrw ciVAw lMmw....” (page 1110) – is not a fanciful flight of imagination, but an explicit reference to the appearance, in the year 1531, of what later came to be known as Halley’s Comet. It is the scientific spirit that gave the edge to the Guru’s explanations of solar and lunar eclipse, and other natural phenomena, as well as his gentle admonition of those who were struck with paralysis of superstition relating to lunar days and solar seasons. The Sikh religion thus acquired enormous advantage over the preceding faiths and beliefs in adopting the scientific temper as the sheet-anchor of man’s physical existence, even as it refused to stay earth-bound. Myth and superstition were forever banished from the Sikh thought and theology. The frequent use of the idiom pertaining to configuration of planets and heavenly bodies in Guru Granth Sahib denotes the depth of ignorance among the illiterate masses then – as now.

One is struck by the reference to sciences other than physical. Take, for instance, the following utterance of Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru, on economic disparity being the root cause of social unrest:

ijsu igRih bhuqu iqsY igRih icMqw ]
ijsu igRih QorI su iPrY BRmMqw ]
duhU ibvsQw qy jo mukqw soeI suhylw BwlIAY ]
  (page 1019)

You could not find a more appropriate motto for the world Bank.
Enter the rationalist, who decries religion as the villian generating internecine hatred. This reaction arises from ignorance of science of the mind. Religious perversity, not religion or Theology, is responsible for the hate and violence. This was not a conflict between religion and science, but between religion and blind faith. The blind faith, of whatever denomination, breeds hatred and violence. The entire Guru Granth Sahib is a repudiation of this false religion:

jIA bDhu su Drmu kir Qwphu ADrmu khhu kq BweI ]
Awps kau muinvr kir Qwphu kw kau khhu ksweI ]
(page 1103)

Fanaticism is merely another face of this falsity. It is contageous. It tends to evoke similar response from the adversary. Pascal (1623-62) said it more than three centuries ago, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” This is true of any religion gone berserk – including Sikhism. It is also true of the narrow nationalism of the kind that induces wars, such as between Iran and Iraq, or hatred, such as between India and Pakistan. Narrow Nationalism, often masquerading as patriotism, is as dangerous as blind faith bereft of the true scientific spirit of enquiry which Guru Granth Sahib sanctifies in numerous allusions. Cynics never fail to argue, ‘How can one speak of a benevolent God in a world of war and misery and malignancy,’ little realising that the very question opens the door to theological enlightenment, the truth about pain and pleasure, life and death on the physical plane, the suffering of the righteous, the crucifixion of a Christ or the agonising martyrdom of Guru Arjun.

The Plural Society in a Secular State
The twin dangers that Sikhism faces today are the ultra-liberalism, on the one hand, which seeks to discard the basic discipline, and the fundamentalism, which takes us into a blind alley, on the other. To turn one’s back on the code of conduct, or rehat maryada is tantamount to mass hara kiri. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is founded on the concept that the rehat maryada must be interpreted literally and placed on an absolute pedestal. In one sense, fundamentalism is the by-product of the traumatic events of the last few decades. The media widely publicized the new Theological phenomenon as fundamentalism. More deplorable was the media’s onslaught against established traditions, such as Amrit Prachar and the reaffirmation of the explicit symbols of Sikhism. The official media gave it a sinister aspect, undermining its spiritual significance and its importance as a bulwark of Indian defense and integrity. This produced devastating results.

Today’s average urban, educated Sikh is unable to correlate himself. He wants to hunt with the hounds, but finds himself running with the hares. He is half-worldly, half other-worldly, a wishy washy egoist, occasionally a terminal schizophrenic. His thought process is atrophied, his religiosity skin-deep. Since 1984, which was the watershed year – captains of industry, commerce and agriculture have rearranged their lives around money and materialism, not around the Guru’s purpose. Even their observance of the religious occasions, Bog, kIrqn, AKMf pwT, whether happy or sad revolve around money and ostentation. The day may start with kirtan, but it often ends up with an evening cocktail. God is conveniently marginalized!

Partly, this image is the result of a materialist plural society in which different people professing different religions come into daily contact. Diversity is an inevitable fact of life in a shrinking world. Equal respect for all religions is the best way of peaceful co-existence. That is the raison-d’etre of the policy of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In simple terms, it means the State or Government must not get involved in any single religion or religious practice, not even when that religion happens to be the majority’s religion. One could call it, roughly, a policy of ‘wholesome neutrality.’

But are the ground-rules of such a policy of neutrality being followed in India today? We find that the government, as well as the political system, are deeply involved, not in the moral principles of religion, but in the trappings of it. At election time, candidates are often selected on the basis of caste or community. The formal opening of development projects is marked with religious rituals, like Bhoomi Pujan and the breaking of coconut. Leaders of Government are ever so anxious to be seen with ‘tilak’ mark on the forehead and an angavastram around the neck.

You simply cannot build compartments into life in a society where religion is a force to reckon with. If the leaders cannot practise secularism in the true sense of the term, why not concede the imperatives of equal respect for all religions? So irresistible is the mystique of religion that modern nationalism is tempted to adopt its symbology. The country is symbolized by the figure of a shakra or goddess. Idols, samadhis, eternal flames, Vedic hymns as logos, and other paraphernalia are elaborately and freely displayed, and obeisance demanded. The department of Science and Technology, Government of India, actually sponsored a British Vigyan Mandal’s rain-producing project at Mathura in May, 1988. Any deviation from the norms prescribed by the State is met with swift indictment. Indeed the State has arrogated to itself the omnipotence of God! This danger of the State power approximating to Divine power is as real as the danger spelt by fanatical fundamentalism in religion.

Achievement of religious tolerance among people is all the more essential in a plural society. Likewise, the State has to be wholesomely neutral in order to be truly secular. The Sikh theology and lore has it in its genius to offer dynamic participation in the nation’s life. Participation, however, presupposes dignity, identity and discipline.

A Glorious Heritage Projected into the Future
History helps us to identify ourselves in time and space. To ignore the past or forget the tradition is to be ungrateful to those who shaped our ethos and sacrificed their tomorrows for our todays. We cannot sleepwalk through our present, unaware of our past and unprepared for the future that our children are heading for. We cannot side-step the crucial message of Guru Granth Sahib that God may be working through these traumatic events to accomplish the Divine will in order to draw us closer to His purpose. In this uncertain world, Guru Granth Sahib offers the only certainty, the only firm moorings in the raging tempest. This may sound simplistic, but it is the heart of the Sikh doctrine.

That doctrine tells us that, notwithstanding the chaos and tyranny, God is in charge of the universe: not God of the Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims, but God of all humanity. That is the most reassuring fact of life. Not only does it provide confidence, it also engenders a buoyant optimism – charhdi kala – which is the mystical formula for success. To be God-accepted and God-realized is our best reason for living a righteous, charitable and compassionate life as demonstrated and demanded by the succession of Ten Great Teachers. Only such a life can be meaningful for the individual, the family, the society, the country and, indeed, for all the human race. We may be passing through the age of technology, of space exploration, of energy crisis and environmental pollution, but nothing can save humanity with as much certitude as the principles enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib.


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.