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Guru Nanak: The HarbinGer of Gender Justice

Arvinder Singh

Democracy is the most popular system of government in the contemporary world as it is based on the will of the people. The present ideal for democracy is that it should be inclusive, representative and participatory. As an ideal, democracy aims essentially to protect and promote the dignity of both men and women. The success of democracy depends upon a genuine partnership between men and women in all spheres of life. Gender justice is embodied in the democratic principles. To strive for gender justice as a pillar of democracy requires abolition of gender discriminations.

Woman is an integral part of society. She is a pivotal of family life. The status of woman depends upon social traditions, norms and customs. The position and rank of woman reflects the true image of cultural, social and spiritual level of society. Despite her invaluable significance for the family and society, she has been victim of gender inequalities and discrimination over the centuries. The history of gender discrimination is as old as history of mankind.

In order to ameliorate her deplorable conditions, gender justice is needed. It implies gender equality, women’s empowerment and to reduce discrimination and inequalities based on sex. It aims at promoting equal opportunities to both men and women. It also includes all those attempts to provide equal rights to women in the male dominated society and elimination of gender bias. Gender justice is an offshoot of social justice. Gender equality is an essential component of human rights and a pre condition for social justice, peace and prosperity. Gender justice is intimately linked with process of democracy. Gender inequalities and discriminations are antithetical to democracy.

Guru Nanak is the first person who pleaded gender justice forcefully and single handedly. Guru Nanak is credited of being harbinger of gender justice. During medieval India, Guru Nanak raised strong voice in favour of women. In His divine hymns, woman got emancipation, equal status and equal rights. Justice according to Guru Nanak lies in equal rights for both men and women. Guru Nanak’s views on gender equality are revolutionary in letter and spirit. Guru Nanak’s ideas on gender justice paved a way for women to develop ability to organize and influence the direction of social and economic order. It would be desirable to discuss the prevalent attitudes towards women before and at the time of Guru Nanak.

In Greek culture, misogynistic attitude towards women can be found. The Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had also presented subservient position to woman. They were reluctant to grant equal status to women. Greek philosophers had considered women as sub-human creatures. Greek mythology had also painted woman as a root cause of all evils and troubles. She is treated as irrational and imprudent creature. For example, in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman to be created, introduced trouble in the lives of men.  As she opened the box containing all the evils of the world, she allowed these all to escape and earned women the designation of troublesome.  There is another myth of ‘The Fall of Man’. According to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible, it was Eve, the first woman, who was persuaded by serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, and Eve convinced Adam to take a bite as well. God called them, and Adam told that Eve had given him the fruit to eat. When God asked Eve why she had done this, she told him that the serpent had tempted her. God then expelled them from the garden. The curiosity and foolishness, which drove both Pandora and Eve, were presented as typical attributes of women and the cause of beginning of all types of complications, adversity and miseries in the life of men.

In Semitic and Aryan religious traditions, custom and literature, we find considerable misogynistic attitude towards women. There is a great deal of prejudice and hatred for women. In Christianity, women have not been given equal status. Woman is regarded as devil’s gate because she is supposed to destroy God’s image in men. In the Old Testament, we find this key sentence: “Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die.” (Sirach 25:24) In Judaism, Jew women were discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits. The word for woman in Persian language is ‘Aurat’. The literal meaning of this Persian word ‘Aurat’ is a thing which is required to be kept hidden.1 In Islamic society, women are supposed to be veiled or hidden. Misogynistic and self styled interpretation of Quran, Islamic laws and Shari’ah has created several restrictions and troubles for women in Islamic states.

In Hinduism, woman is regarded as an ‘ardhagani’ i.e. better half of man and Goddess (Devi), on the one hand and, on the other hand, she is regarded as ‘abla nari’. In the very early Vedic period, Indian women had much of the same access to education, participation in religious, political and social roles. They even composed some of the hymns in the Vedas. In Upanishadic period, there was relative downfall in the status of woman in the society and this trend continued in epic period also. This had changed drastically with the arrival of the laws of Manu. The status of women was totally degraded at every level and women were effectively enslaved. Women in Hindu society were now bound by a series of rigid laws that defined social, occupational and religious conduct. In Manu Simriti , Manu said that during childhood age, a woman is under the control of her parent, when she is young she is under the command of her husband and during the old age after the death of husband she should be under the supervision of her son. At no age she is allowed to live according to her will.2 Even in Buddhism, there was ban on woman in sangh. Although Jainism is considered a religion of equal rights, women are largely unable to become liberated themselves. The very femininity of females is a deterrent to their religious freedom. In Jainism, woman as a mother finds respect in society.

The position of woman was not honourable in the medieval society. In the Naath sect, she has been called a tigress who swallows the man. For Muslims, woman was only source of gratification of their sexual urge. In Hindus, some out of respect called her by the name of ‘Maya’ and the other ‘Shakti’.3

During medieval times there was a great deal of condemnation of women. Tulsidas had presented a very gloomy picture of women and said in Ram Charitas Manas, gvwr SUdr pSU nwrI jy sB qwVn ky AiDkwrI’. Pilu, a famous Punjabi Kissa poet had condemned the women and said, ‘BT rMnW dI dosqI KurI ijnHW dI mq’. To him women are neither trustworthy nor wise.

During medieval India, the conditions of women were pitiable. They were equated with drums or cattles, who could be beaten at will. Like Shudras, they also had no right. The women in India, in the pre-Muslim period, although dependent upon and protected by men, enjoyed, in theory as well as to a considerable extent in practice, an honourable status in society. Apart from their being the unquestioned mistress of the household, they were free to partake in other outdoor social activities.4

The position of a Hindu woman was subordinate, and it was considered that she was to serve the male and was dependent upon him in every stage of life. But with the advent of Moghuls, the position of a Hindu woman had worsened all the more. After the fall of every fort or city during the war, the Hindu woman suffered every kind of privation. Sometimes even in the times of peace, this sex remained the real target of suffering at the hands of the Muslims.5

Women and the members of lower strata were denied the right to perform religious rites and rituals. The customs of ‘Jauhar’, ‘Sati’, female infanticide, child marriage, and purdah had created a hell on earth for the female sex.6 Being a part of the cultural matrix of India, the position of women in the Punjab, generally speaking, had striking similarity with the women of the rest of India. Nevertheless, in some respects it was and varied from one social strata to another. Irrespective of the social segment she belonged to, she enjoyed considerable authority within four walls of the house although her birth was not looked upon as a welcome addition to the family.7

The role of women in the middle ages was totally confined to the house. They were supposed to remain busy in the domestic chores.8 There was a famous proverb “AMdr bYTI lK dI, bwhr geI kK dI” which clearly shows that women are safe in their homes especially in the time of political turmoil. The Parda system did not allow women to interact with others.

Even before the birth of Sikhism, a celebrated woman had begun to play pious role, though consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, contributed towards the cause of mission. This woman was no other than Nanaki, the eldest sister of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.9 The first to recognise Guru Nanak as divine was a woman, his own sister Nanaki. His sister Nanaki saw from her very infancy in him the light of God, and kept her discovery a profuse secret. She was the very first woman inspired by Heaven to be his disciple.10 Bebe Nanaki became the first Sikh to follow the divine message of Guru Nanak. Beside Bebe Nanaki another woman ‘Dultan’ a midwife at the time of birth of Guru Nanak had got divine experience to see birth of divine spirit.

The theories and ideas related with women, preceding to Guru Nanak, reflect misunderstanding of religious scripture, social customs and values, and had damaged the image and status of women. Guru Nanak was acutely conscious of the position of inferiority assigned to woman. He had many bold and sympathetic words to say for them. At the time of Guru Nanak, Indian women were severely degraded and oppressed by their society. Given no education or freedom to make decisions, their presence in religious, political, social, cultural, and economic affairs was virtually non-existent. The task He regarded as of prime importance was to remove social evils from the Hindu society on the basis of equality amongst its members as well as equality between men and women. Therefore, Guru Nanak raised his voice for the emancipation of women, and removed their disabilities.11

It is evident that Guru Nanak is prepared to defend woman against those who insist on relegating her to an inferior position merely on the basis of her sex. There is no reason to believe that Guru Nanak’s path of salvation was not open to women. In this sense, she was certainly placed at par with man, just as the Shudra was placed at par with the Brahman.12 The Hindus considered the woman a very inferior thing, a sort of possession and device for sexual pleasure. She was kept in purdah and within the four walls of the house. The freedom given to woman in Vedic times and her status in society of that age was utterly forgotten. Guru Nanak could not tolerate this sad plight of Indian women.13 During this dark age, Guru Nanak’s idea on gender equality is a great departure from the prevalent ideas on women. Guru Nanak developed a new model of society which emanates from higher consciousness. His Sikh has been assigned a duty to realise the ideal of new type of society through his living on this earth. The Sikh of Guru Nanak has potential to practise justice in all walks of life. The Sikh of Guru Nanak is the embodiment of Guru Nanak’s higher consciousness.

Guru Nanak’s views are a liberating force for women in Indian society. Guru Nanak had made an attempt to divinise the life of both man and woman. He said, “Thy light is contained in the creatures and the creatures are contained in Thine light. Thou O mighty inconceivable Lord art filling all”.14 He also said, “There is the same inner consciousness amongst all the beings”.15 Guru Nanak abolished the feeling of superiority and inferiority on the basis of sex when he said, “Amongst all there is light and that light (art Thou)”.16 He said, “Thou Thyself art the male and Thyself the female”.17 Both men and women are His children. The higher consciousness prevails equally in both men and women. Gender discrimination is a man-made phenomenon. Guru Nanak said, “Among all the women and men, Lord’s Light permeates”18. Guru Nanak has emphasised on truthful living for his Sikh. He said, “(As) everything is underneath Truth, the living with the Truth is superior to all.”19 To Guru Nanak a society based on ethical values is a precondition to uphold the dignity of women. Men and women should be morally and spiritually oriented to develop an ideal society, which has potential to eliminate gender discrimination. To uphold the dignity and higher status of woman, he said, “Attached to another’s woman, other’s wealth, and slander, they eat poison and suffer pain”.20 Guru Nanak bestowed the sacredness to the beauty of woman. To him, “Amongst women she is beautiful, on her brow she wears the jewel of Lord’s love”.21 To Guru Nanak, woman is fortunate if she is close to almighty God. She must possess the divine knowledge and the virtue of contentment.
Guru Nanak denounced asceticism and renunciation for the attainment of salvation. Instead of celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommended grhastha — the life of a householder. His religion is in fact a religion of householder. Guru Nanak is not in favour of renunciation which persuades a person to escape from social responsibilities. Yogi and Nath cults condemn the women. To Yogi, woman is a stumbling block in his spiritual flight. But Guru Nanak suggests a family life, wherein woman has pivotal role to play. A true householder of Guru Nanak’s ideas is one who has control over his sensual temptations. Husband and wife are seen as equal partners, and loyalty was enjoined upon both. Guru Nanak has all praise for ‘Grahisthi’. Guru Nanak advocates family life. Guru Nanak said, “He is called a Yogi who looks upon all mortals with the same eye and deems them as equal”.22 Therefore if a yogi condemns woman, he is not yogi in the real sense. Guru Nanak emphasised on performance of household responsibilities and regard family life as perfect place to seek salvation. He said, “Nanak, the Guru has united me with God and I, the bride, have obtained my Groom in my very home”.23

He said, “He alone is the house-holder, who checks his passion and begs from the Lord meditation, hard toil and self–resrtraint”.24 Guru Nanak repudiated condemnation, hatred and negative image of woman. He strongly advocates the case of women and has gone to an extent to say that, “Within a woman, the man is conceived and from a woman he is born. With a woman he is betrothed and married. With the woman man contracts friendship and with a woman the system of propagation keeps on going. When one’s wife dies, another lady is sought for. It is through a woman that man restraints his passions. Why call her bad, from whom are born the king”.25 He holds that woman not only preserves the child in her womb in his pre-natal state of existence but also gives birth to him so as to enable him to grow in the world as a human being. Implying the child to be a male, Guru Nanak contended that woman is invariably his preserver and deliverer. Woman is thus the preserver and deliverer of not only the male child but also the male sex, albeit the whole human race.26 Guru ji stressing those very female characteristics such as “hukam man-na”, “haleemi”, “submission”, “tehl sewa”, on and on. It is through the female characteristics that one can subdue ego, that one can attain Naam.27

The women are condemned on the basis of ‘Sutak-Patak,” i.e., impurity. Guru Nanak dealt with the idea of impurity in a philosophical and comprehensive manner. To him, people are concerned with physical impurity of others while ignoring their own polluted mindsets. Guru Nanak said, “The defilement of the eyes is to behold another’s woman, another’s wealth and beauty”.28 Guru Nanak considers duality as a source of impurity. He said, “All diploment consists in doubt and attachment to duality”.29 Guru Nanak suggests a way to remove impurity by following the divine message. He said, “Nanak, the Guru-wards, who know the Lord, to them impurity sticks not”.30

The teachings of Guru Nanak are practicable in society. Woman should be cared and respected in all spheres of life. In his bani, only a woman is not necessarily female; a male is also a woman. Throughout his bani, he details that relationship of devotee with God is that of woman, which means all devotees are woman and only God is man.31 Guru Nanak, in his compositions, addresses men as women in relation to God. Guru Nanak has used husband-wife relationship as metaphor for the relationship between God and human beings.

Guru Nanak established some institutions to carry his teachings into practice. The institution of Sangat and Pangat are primarily aimed to inculcate the feeling of equality in the society. In fact, it is the impact of Guru Nanak’s teachings that in Sikhism, these institutions have enabled women to actively participate in social and religious affairs and removed the gender discrimination in letter and spirit. During the Guru Period and afterwards, women in Sikhism have played momentous role in the Sikh society.

Guru Nanak’s appreciation of the social importance of women is pleasant and meaningful deviation from medieval ideas. He recognises them as the most vital role in the preservation of society as also in the proper development of family life as wives, mother, and links in the development of ‘social ties’.32 Guru Nanak was the first person in India who revolted against the injustice done to women in Hindu society since time immemorial. Under the teachings of Guru Nanak, Indian women broke the shackles of slavery. He fought for the liberation of women in the sixteenth century whereas the movement for the emancipation of women was started in Europe in the 19th century.34 Guru Nanak’s views on gender justice and women liberation are much ahead of his time. He is in favour for equal rights and equal participation for women in all walks of life during the medieval times. Even western democratic and modern countries were reluctant to provide women suffrage at national level till twentieth century. Women have been able to get right to vote in national elections in UK, USA, USSR (former) only after first world war. International community recognised women’s rights as human rights in World Conference held in Vienna on Human Rights in 1993.

The Constitution of India so far as the equality of men and women is concerned is very much close to the ideas of Guru Nanak. After independence, several constitutional provisions have been made with view to uplift women in the society. The Constitution of India provides under Article-14, Equality before Law (to both man and woman), Article-15(1) Prohibition of Discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Article-15(3) nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any special provision for women and children. Article-16(2) No citizen shall on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of any employments. Article-39(a) the citizen, men and women, equally have the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Under the first four Five Year plans (1951-1974) emphasis was on education & welfare activities of women. Expectancy of life of females at birth has witnessed a rise from 31.6 percent in 1950s to 62 percent in 2000. Improvement in the female literacy went up to 54.97 percent in 2001 from 8 percent in 1947. There is no doubt that status of women has got new heights.

Above mentioned figure definitely reflects the considerable rise in the status of women in India. But there exists another part of the picture which is very gloomy and sad. The prevailing socio-economic conditions for women are not very much qualitatively different from medieval India. Women are victim of variety of heinous crimes like rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and foeticides. It would be injustice if women have been denied much needed equal opportunities to make progress in all spheres of life. In the present day, in electronic and satellite media woman is presented as a vamp. Erotic appearance of woman has been given over due attention while ignoring her feminine virtues.

NCRB in its 2007 report mentioned that dowry deaths have increased from 6208(2003) to 8093(2007). Rape cases increased from 15847(2003) to 20737(2007). NCRB in its report mentioned a horrifying fact that from 1971 to 2007 rape incidences in India has increased from 2487 to 20737 that is 733.8 percent increase in such type of heinous crime against women in India. The report says that a total of 2,276 females committed suicide due to dowry disputes in 2006, that is, six a day on an average (four in every hour). Punjab (35) and Rajasthan (16) together have accounted for 53.2 percent (51 out of 96) of cases of foeticide reported in the country.34 In India, sex ratio is declining rapidly. Census data 2001 shows that females per thousand male is 933. In Haryana sex ratio is 861, in Punjab sex ratio is 876 and in Daman & Diu sex ratio is 710.35

Guru Nanak’s religion is primarily an experiential, not a merely theoretical. He had addressed social behaviour towards women. No practice can ever survive without an ideology. Guru Nanak has developed an ideology of women liberation. He had assigned a new role to woman in society, a society which is based on higher consciousness and true understanding of ancient truth about women. Guru Nanak’s views on women liberation are very much relevant in the present day scenario. Guru Nanak laid the foundation of society in which man and woman have been enabled to live in harmony.

His views on gender justice are of great significance in the sense that man and woman are both essential for the very existence of society. In the absence of gender equality, the survival of family and society would be in danger. Guru Nanak has given due attention to spiritual and moral development of both men and women. He gave us a way of life which is based on humanitarianism, respect for dignity and self respect of both man and woman. Infact, it is the result of Guru Nanak’s teachings that his successor Gurus gave much needed attention to uplift the status of women not in theory but in practice also. He is, in true sense, the harbinger of gender justice.



1. Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, Mahan Kosh, Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala, 1974, p. 24.
2. Mohan Lal Sharma, Manu Simriti (Translated), Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala, 1989, p. 108.
3. Taran Singh, Teachings of Guru Nanak, Publications Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala, 2001, p. 112.
4. Harbans Kaur Sagoo, Guru Nanak and The Indian Society, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1992, p.131.
5. Bakhish Singh Nijjar, Punjab Under the Sultans (1000-1526 A. D.), Sterling Publishers Pvt., Ltd., Delhi, 1968, p. 211.
6. Ibid, p. 212.
7. Satish K. Bajaj, “Status of women in Pre-Modern Punjab” in Proceedings of Punjab History Conference, 18th Session, Punjabi University, Patiala,1983, p. 138.
8. Gurdeep Kaur, Political Ethics of Guru Granth Sahib, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p. 43.
9. Bhupinder Kaur, Status of Women in Sikhism, SGPC, Amritsar, p. 18.
10. Puran Singh, The Book Of Ten Master, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 2008, p. 21.
11. Gurdeep Kaur, Political Ethics of Guru Granth Sahib, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p. 45.
12. J. S. Grewal, Guru Nanak In History, Publications Bureau Punjab University, Chandigarh, 1998, p. 192.
13. S. S. Kohli, Philosophy of Guru Nanak, Publication Bureau, Punjab University, Chandigarh, 1998, p. 22.
14. jwiq mih joiq joiq mih jwqw; akl klw BrpUir rihaw ] vwr-Awsw, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 469.
15. eykw suriq, jyqy hY jIa ] isrIrwgu, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 24.
16. sB mih joiq, joiq hY soie ] DnwsrI, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 13.
17. Awpy purKu, Awpy hI nwrI ], mwrU, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1020.
18. nwrI purK, sbweI loie ]3] A. G. P. 223, gAuVI, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 223.
19. schu ErY sBu ko; Aupir scu awcwru ]5 ], isrIrwgu, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 62.
20. pr Dn pr nwrI rqu inMdw; ibKu KweI duKu pwieAw ], mlwr, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1255.
21. nwrI aMdir sohNI; msqik mNI ipAwru ] isrIrwgu, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 54.
22. eyk idRsit kir smsir jwNY; jogI khIaY soeI ]1] rhwAu ] sUhI, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 730.
23. nwnk, myil leI guir apNY; Gir vru pwieAw nwrI ]16] quKwrI, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1109.
24. so igrhI, jo ingRhu krY ] rwmklI vwr-1, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 952.
25. BMif jMmIaY, BMif inûmIaY; BMif mMgNu vIawhu ] BMfhu hovY dosqI; BMfhu clY rwhu ] BMfu muAw, BMfu BwlIAY; BMif hovY bMDwnu ] so ikAu mMdw awKIAY? ijqu jMmih rwjwn ] BMfhu hI BMfu AUpjY; BMfY bwJu n koie ] nwnk BMfY bwhrw; eyko scw soie ], vwr-Awsw, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 473.
26. Tejwant Singh Gill, “Guru Nanak’s View of Woman” in Journal of Sikh Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1996, p.5.
27. Jasbir Singh Sethi, “Gender Justice: Status of Women in Sikhism” in Sikh Review, Vol. 57, No. 663, 2009, p.52.
28. aKI sUqku vyKNw; pr iqRa pr Dn rUpu ] vwr-Awsw, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 472.
29. sBo sUqku Brmu hY; dUjY lgY jwie ] vwr-Awsw, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 472 .
30. nwnk ijnI gurmuiK buiJAw; iqnw sUqku nwih ]3] vwr-Awsw, mÚ 1, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 472.
31. Darshan Singh, Key Words in Guru Granth Sahib, The Sikh University Press, Waremme, 2009, p. 128.
32. A. C. Banerjee, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Religion, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, 1983, p. 122.
33. Gurdev Singh Hansrao, Ideology of Sikh Gurus, Hansrao Publishers, Ropar, 1990, p. 50.
34. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s Report ‘Crimes in India 2007’, www.ncrb.nic.com, as viewed on 20 December 2009.
35. Statistical Abstract of Punjab, 2007, pp. 90-91.



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