Gender equality and women’s empowerment in Sikhism – the epitome of womanhood*
Principal Prabhjot Kaur & Dr Birendra Kaur
The times of Guru Nanak (1469-1538 CE), founder of Sikhism,1 were fraught with social inequalities of every kind, be these based on religion, race, caste or gender. ‘Might is right’ was the law of the land. Centuries-old social stratification was the cause of exploitation and the degradation of man. In the midst of such an utterly deplorable scenario, the condition of woman was even worse, irrespective of the stratum to which she belonged. She was at par with animals, untouchables, and considered the lowest of the low, a gateway to hell. Her existence was, thus, subhuman. The Guru, however, by arousing the conscience of the people, raised a powerful voice in her favour. In those times of monarchy, kings were considered God-incarnate and, like God, without any blemish. Guru Nanak reasons in the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib: ‘How could woman from whom kings are born be reviled?’2
The Guru’s ideology of ‘one God of all humanity’ addresses not only gender inequality, but every kind of inequality that may be prevalent in any society. He pronounced that ‘Almighty is the Father, Almighty is the Mother; and all human beings are God’s children’. Guru Nanak also sees a friend/relative in God, and a husband with every devotee denoted a woman. Reference to God with both genders, and reference to men and women with the same gender, renders the issue of gender inequality non-existent, a non-issue. To him, the issue was neither man in relation to man nor man in relation to woman, but to weave a beautiful relationship between the All-Powerful and the person, be it he or she, or be one from any religion, region, race or caste.
The Guru, thus, bestows equality as well as dignity to women. A Sikh woman does not have to ask for these; they are her birth rights. Consequently, her life changed drastically as the taboos related to her gender were now gone: now, she was not considered impure during her menstrual cycle or after childbirth; she began to participate in all religious activities; she could be initiated and also initiate others; she could be a religious head; she was not to wear a veil to cover her face; families that indulged in female infanticide were to be socially boycotted; child marriage and dowry were prohibited; widows could remarry.
The Guru created an environment where women could live a life free from any indignities. They recognized as real all feminine urges and emotions. Household duties performed by women were not considered insignificant. Rather, caring for the family, performed so naturally and lovingly by women, is seen as godlike. Spiritual flavour is lent to these activities by comparing the love of a mother for her child to the love of God for His creation.
The nine succeeding Gurus further provided equal opportunities of education, training in martial arts, religious and political leadership roles, and endowed responsibilities and duties on women. Women thus involved themselves wholeheartedly in the making of a new social order. This journey started with Mata Khivi, wife of the second Guru, Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552), who became the first administrative head of the Guru’s free communal kitchen, langar, and helped establish it as a permanent institution in Sikhism. Years later, when the third Guru, Guru Amar Das (1479-1574), gave structure to the Sikh panth (nation) and organized his preachers into 22 teaching districts or manjis (literal translation: type of seat), he put Bibi Amro, daughter of the second Guru, in charge of one of these districts. As the Guru’s representative, she also had the responsibility of collecting revenues and making decisions for the welfare of her diocese. By the time of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), women were even confident enough to fight in the battlefield alongside men if needed. Women would also nurse the wounded in the battlefield, and undertake daring activities. Mata Sundri, the tenth Guru’s wife, courageously and successfully steered the Sikh community for 40 years through turbulent times after the Guru’s demise. She issued hukamnamas (edicts) under her own seal and authority. Later, during the Sikh confederacies and Sikh Rule (1716-1849), women proved to be good administrators, political advisors to the rulers, and rulers themselves.
The community thus raised the self-esteem and confidence of woman. She transformed into a persona and experienced the belief to be able to perform any feat possible in the domain of human capabilities. Women began to venture out with men on equal footing in every human enterprise. In short, they participated in every sphere, and in equal measure, towards improving the lot of one and all. A Sikh woman feels duty-bound to live up to the confidence that the Gurus have reposed in her.
The experience of women in other parts of the world, however, was at a variance. It was in the twentieth century, five centuries later, that they had to protest, organize movements and wage long drawn-out struggles to seek basic human rights.
While women today have excelled in every field, the ideal of a dignified existence for them is still wanting. In the advertising and cosmetics industries, women are portrayed as mere physical beings, and specific standards of beauty and fashion are outlined by fashionist as norms to influence the gullible populace. However, the Guru’s concepts of beauty and fashion, delineated centuries ago, put the modern-day notions to question. According to the Guru, beauty is an inner quality, and not the narrowing down to or crowning of ‘Miss Universe’ or ‘Mr Universe’. He broadened the ambit to include one and all, by promoting that beautiful is one who inculcates virtues; that is to say, one who adorns oneself with truthfulness, compassion, contentment and piety. And his pronouncement on the external appearance is to maintain the body in its natural form, respecting the sexual dimorphism that nature has fashioned for humankind. In other words, the Guru expects his followers to be beautiful within and natural without. The Guru also makes statement about what criteria to base one’s attire and food habitude upon: Wear and consume not what causes pain to the body and/or generates negative thoughts in the mind.
Sincere efforts of governments to ameliorate the condition of women, such as introducing social welfare schemes and legislating for their safety at home and in the workplace, are the need of the hour and deserve all appreciation. But without a respectful place in society, woman lacks what it takes to feel like a worthy human being. The Guru’s approach is to transform the psyche of both men and women so as to create an ideal world. While the Guru instils self-confidence in women, he highlights to men the importance of woman at every stage of their life. Respect for women had to be integral to their values. Adultery was prohibited. The Gurus had planned to take the panth to the pinnacles of glory and for that it was important that people had a strong moral character.
There was a strict injunction never to overpower a weak person in need and rather to rescue such a one. Such values motivated the Sikh warriors to rescue women abducted as booty in wars, even at risk to their own lives. Even the women from the opponent’s camp were to be treated with respect. Thus, the Gurus struck the precise balance to raise the very level of existence of both men and women.
The Gurus also redefined prevailing concepts and practices which were derogatory or discriminatory to women in relation to men, by attributing altogether new meanings to these. For example: yogi (an ascetic who shuns social responsibilities) is not the one who is celibate, but one who remains committed to one woman; pati parmeshwar (concept that husband is God) was changed to parmeshwar pati (God is husband); purdah (veil) is not to cover a woman’s face, but man’s misplaced perception of her; sati is not the wife who is to burn herself on the pyre of her husband, but one who lives in remembrance of her deceased husband. Also, the patriarchal tradition that lineage runs through male members of the family and is projected through their surnames stood negated when the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, replaced the surnames of all Sikh men and women with ‘Singh’ (lion) and ‘Kaur’ (crown prince) respectively. This meant an independent identity for her, irrespective of whether she is married, divorced or single – she remains ‘Kaur’ throughout life. Such a nomenclature abolishes not only the supremacy of man in patriarchy but also that of woman in matriarchy. It’s worth noting that in the process of giving equality to one gender, the status of the other is not compromised.
The Guru makes spirituality the vehicle of change. Men and women are considered spiritual beings, whose aim in life is to merge with the Almighty. The Guru, in fact, considers virtues inherent to women as ideal, indispensable to convey the pining of the human soul for the Almighty. He therefore ascribes feminine gender to all human beings in his compositions. For this, the simile of a ‘bride’ for a devotee and ‘spouse’ for the Almighty is used in the hymns at places. Husband and wife are not considered those who merely live together, but those who merge their soul with God, and live as two bodies having one soul. The path prescribed by the Guru for the merger of the soul-bride with the Almighty-Spouse is through inculcating God’s virtues and attributes in oneself; otherwise all embellishments, such as garlands of flowers, fragrances, mascara and all, as used by a bride to look beautiful, are a waste.
Human virtues, vices and emotions are not gender specific, yet certain qualities and features in the two genders vary, given the specific biological roles each performs as designed by nature for the propagation of the species. Physical differences are mere biological dualities, and mutual appreciation is the only way forward. Femininity and masculinity are thus to be cherished, and each gender is to complement and supplement itself with the qualities intrinsic to the other. As the Guru sees similar potential and promise in both genders to grow in every sphere, be it spiritual, social or political, the Sikh ideal is to be a saint warrior’, that is, each is to inculcate the piety of a saint and the bravery of a warrior.
The Guru revolutionized the way women viewed themselves and the way they were viewed by others. His wisdom is indispensable to put an end to all kinds of dichotomies and divisions in society and bring about a healthy shift in the consciousness of the people. The fact that the spiritually-awakened Sikh woman performed so well in all areas of human endeavour without the subjugation of one gender to the other, speaks volumes about the inherent potential in this visionary approach.
Guru Nanak, indeed, is the pioneer of the journey of the emancipation of women. The Guru has bestowed upon women more than what women have sought so far; they are yet to comprehend the vision of the Guru. The dignity and status the Guru accords to women, and which was put into practice more than six centuries ago, is unparalleled. And, it is there for the taking.
1. Sikhism is a revealed Faith, preached by 10 Gurus (lit., the dispellers of ignorance). The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh ordained the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, to be the living ‘Word Guru’ of the Sikhs for eternity. It enshrines not only hymns composed by Sikh Gurus but also those by Hindu and Muslim pious souls. Its universal message of the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of mankind is for the entire humanity.
2. ‘So kyon manda aakhiyey jit jammey rajaan’., page 473