Indian Pluralism and Intolerance
– Multiculturalism in Gurbani –
Perhaps, hardly any other Indian medieval vernacular religious or secular text reflects, reasserts and reiterates the inbuilt cultural multiplicity and pluralism of the Indian society than the Gurbani canonical text of the sacred Sikh scripture Adi Granth/ Sri Guru Granth Sahib (1604) compiled in Gurmukhi script. It not only contains the verses of six Sikh Gurus, all of them belonging to the relatively higher kshtrya caste and cultural denomination but also the verses of more than thirty Indian spiritual savants primarily belonging to a vide spectrum of lower subaltern castes and cultural, occupational denominations. These verses not only establish, validate and vindicate the multicultural and pluralistic texture of Indian society and propagate the monotheistic fatherhood of the single Divine power and fraternal brotherhood of whole mankind, but also question and challenge the supremacy and discriminatory, oppressive dominance of the centuries old, deeply entrenched Brahimincal priestly class and its highly intolerant, exploitative, and dehumanizing subjugation of the lower caste sections of society. The seeds of the present aggressive ultra nationalistic but essentially sectarian and abominably repulsive stance of the majoritarian Hindutva ruling political outfit in India can be traced to its stronger dominance over lower castes in medieval ages and beyond to the vedic age with its representative ideology Manusmriti text.
Gurbani text, containing the literary poetic verses composed in almost all the prevalent Indian contemporary poetic generes such as salokas, padas, chants, vaars, Baranmanahas etc reflects not only the unity-in-diversity of India's rich, composite culture and heritage but also provides a legitimate space to the dissenting subaltern voices protesting against the illegitimate stranglehold of the majoritarian Hindutva Cultural classes. Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru, the compiler of this text acknowledging the equality of all the four Indian castes and their cultural communities, provided a spiritual pulpit and public platform to the spiritual and literary representatives of their cultural communities to express their spiritual vision and firm faith in the singleness of transcendental Divine creator and its unbiased universal compassion for its created beings irrespective of their caste, creed and cultural background. It would be beneficial to bring out the essential multicularistic and pluralistic nature of Indian society through illustrations from the verses of Sikh Gurus and their Indian saintly predecessors and contemporary Indian saints and Bhaktas (devotional poets) drawn from diverse regions, linguistic mediums and, of course, subcultures of India.
The six Sikh Guru whose verses have been included in the Gurbani text consistently highlighted the one common fatherhood of Divine power and equality of status of all Indian castes both in respect of the monotheistic character of the transcendental cosmic power as well as the joint partnership and their eligibility or worthiness to receive the Gurus' Gospel addressed to all the social stake holders. Guru Nanak's unequivocal declaration:
ਸਾਹਿਬੁ ਮੇਰਾ ਏਕੋ ਹੈ ॥ ਏਕੋ ਹੈ ਭਾਈ ਏਕੋ ਹੈ ॥1
One and only one is the Lord, He is my Lord as well.
ਸਭੇ ਸਾਝੀਵਾਲ ਸਦਾਇਨਿ ਤੂੰ ਕਿਸੈ ਨ ਦਿਸਹਿ ਬਾਹਰਾ ਜੀਉ ॥2
All created beings are the joint stakeholders in God's creation.
For none of them art thou an outsider.
ਖਤ੍ਰੀ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣ ਸੂਦ ਵੈਸ ਉਪਦੇਸੁ ਚਹੁ ਵਰਨਾ ਕਉ ਸਾਝਾ ॥3
(Guru's/ Gurbani's) message is equally meant for All the castes
Be they kshatriyas, Brahmins, vaish or shudras.
Recognizing the legitimacy of all the existing spiritual and religious Indian streams as valid channels of God realization and human emancipation, Guru Nanak makes a desperate prayer to the trancedent Divine power to protect and save humanity from the hellish flames of human vices by acceding to the call for deliverance from whichever quarter it may come:
ਜਗਤੁ ਜਲੰਦਾ ਰਖਿ ਲੈ ਆਪਣੀ ਕਿਰਪਾ ਧਾਰਿ ॥।
ਜਿਤੁ ਦੁਆਰੈ ਉਬਰੈ ਤਿਤੈ ਲੈਹੁ ਉਬਾਰਿ ॥੪
Save the strife-torn world from damnation, O merciful Lord,
May it be redeemed from damnation through whichever (spiritual) pathway
You deem fit.
The essential message of these specimen verses of the Sikh Gurus and a similar thematic unity in the verses of other contributor Bhagtas emphasizing the oneness of God and equality of all the castes, creeds and parity of all spiritual, meditational communicational modes for access to and communion with the Divine cuts at the roots of the medieval and contemporary monophy of the brahminical priestly class and negates their arbitrarily assumed ownership of the spiritual domain. It is an acknowledgement and endorsement of the multicultural and pluralistic approach and its equal relevance in both spiritual and temporal aspects of human life. At times, this stance acquires challenging and denunciatory overtones against Hindutva intolerance of other castes and communities:
ਜਾਤਿ ਕਾ ਗਰਬੁ ਨ ਕਰੀਅਹੁ ਕੋਈ ॥ ਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਬਿੰਦੇ ਸੋ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਹੋਈ ॥ ੧ ॥
ਜਾਤਿ ਕਾ ਗਰਬੁ ਨ ਕਰਿ ਮੂਰਖ ਗਵਾਰਾ ॥ ਇਸੁ ਗਰਬ ਤੇ ਚਲਹਿ ਬਹੁਤੁ ਵਿਕਾਰਾ ॥5
Let not any one feel proud of superiority of his caste,
He alone is a true Brahmin who dwells on the Lord Divine.
Be not proud of your caste, O ignorant Fool,
For pride breeds indulgence in many vices.
This challenge against the entrenched Brahminical cultural hegemony and assertion of equality of caste and cultural status becomes more assertive and bold, at times becoming shrill, vociferous and rebellious, in the contributory verses of Bhaktas, belonging to the so-called untouchable, marginalized communities like those of weavers, cobblers, butchers, barbers and calico printers. Some of the verses of Kabir not only hail the common lineage of whole humankind and his own spiritual enlightenment despite his birth as an outcaste but also question the Brahminnical claim of caste supremacy and its denial of the equality of status to Indian lower castes and their deliberately downgraded cultural identities exclusively due to their accidental birth in the low caste households and occupational allocation of menial duties to them.
ਅਵਲਿ ਅਲਹ ਨੂਰੁ ਉਪਾਇਆ ਕੁਦਰਤਿ ਕੇ ਸਭ ਬੰਦੇ ॥
ਏਕ ਨੂਰ ਤੇ ਸਭੁ ਜਗੁ ਉਪਜਿਆ ਕਉਨ ਭਲੇ ਕੋ ਮੰਦੇ ॥6
The supreme Divine created the whole creation,
All the human beings belong to His creation.
From the same single source was the whole creation created
How come some are labeled virtuous others wicked?
ਜੌ ਤੂੰ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਬ੍ਰਹਮਣੀ ਜਾਇਆ ॥ ਤਉ ਆਨ ਬਾਟ ਕਾਹੇ ਨਹੀ ਆਇਆ ॥ ੨ ॥
ਤੁਮ ਕਤ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣ ਹਮ ਕਤ ਸੂਦ ॥ ਹਮ ਕਤ ਲੋਹੂ ਤੁਮ ਕਤ ਦੂਧ ॥ ੩ ॥
ਕਹੁ ਕਬੀਰ ਜੋ ਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਬੀਚਾਰੈ ॥ ਸੋ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਕਹੀਅਤੁ ਹੈ ਹਮਾਰੈ ॥7
If you, born of a Brahmin female's womb, consider yourself a Brahmin
Were you born through a different reproductive system.
How come you came to be called a Brahmin,
And, I was branded a shudra
Does Milk circulate in your veins instead,
And blood in my veins circulates?
He alone is called a Brahmin amongst us,
Who meditates upon the Divine, Says Kabir.
A somewhat mellowed yet equally confident and assertive subaltern voice runs through the verses of Bhagat Ravidas, a cobbler and a scavenger of carcasses of a very low caste solely by virtue of his profession. Having meditated deeply and having attained spiritual enlightenment subsequently, even the most venerated Brahmins the holy city of Benaras are constrained to pay obeisance to him despite his stigmatized caste denomination:
ਮੇਰੀ ਜਾਤਿ ਕੁਟ ਬਾਂਢਲਾ ਢੋਰ ਢੋਵੰਤਾ ਨਿਤਹਿ ਬਾਨਾਰਸੀ ਆਸ ਪਾਸਾ ॥
ਅਬ ਬਿਪ੍ਰ ਪਰਧਾਨ ਤਿਹਿ ਕਰਹਿ ਡੰਡਉਤਿ ਤੇਰੇ ਨਾਮ ਸਰਣਾਇ ਰਵਿਦਾਸੁ ਦਾਸਾ॥8
Lord, my lineage be from a lowcaste, a Daily carrier of Carcasses,
In and around the (holy) city of Benaras;
Yet the most prominent Brahmins do pay me obeisance,
I (Ravidas) having become worthy of your grace through Meditation.
ਰਵਿਦਾਸ ਚਮਾਰੁ ਉਸਤਿਤ ਕਰੇ ਹਰਿ ਕੀਰਤ ਨਿਮਖ ਇਕ ਗਾਇੀਂ
ਪਤਿਤ ਜਾਤਿ ਊਤਮੁ ਭਇਆ ਚਾਰਿ ਵਰਨ ਪਏ ਪਗਿ ਆਇੀਂ9
Ravidas, a low caste (cobbler) meditated upon God,
Remaining engrossed in recitation of devotional verses.
So much was he emancipated despite his low caste,
That people of all the four castes came to pay him obeisance.
A similar strain of equality of status in the spiritual domain earned through meditation runs through the verses of Namdev, a tailor by profession.
A verse of Bhagat Namdev, a tailor and a lower caste by cultural denomination describes and records a miraculous divine approval of his spiritual supremacy despite his inferior social status solely because of his spiritual, meditative regimen:
ਹਸਤ ਖੇਲਤ ਤੇਰੇ ਦੇਹੁਰੇ ਆਇਆ ॥ ਭਗਤਿ ਕਰਤ ਨਾਮਾ ਪਕਰਿ ਉਠਾਇਆ ॥
ਹੀਨੜੀ ਜਾਤਿ ਮੇਰੀ ਜਾਦਿਮ ਰਾਇਆ ॥ ਛੀਪੇ ਕੇ ਜਨਮਿ ਕਾਹੇ ਕਉ ਆਇਆ ॥
ਲੈ ਕਮਲੀ ਚਲਿਓ ਪਲਟਾਇ ॥ ਦੇਹੁਰੈ ਪਾਛੈ ਬੈਠਾ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਜਿਉ ਜਿਉ ਨਾਮਾ ਹਰਿ ਗੁਣ ਉਚਰੈ ॥ ਭਗਤ ਜਨਾਂ ਕਉ ਦੇਹੁਰਾ ਫਿਰੈ ॥10
Playing around did Namdev enter a place of worship
Meditating amongst the congregation was he turned out
Being of a low caste Yadav lineage
Why was I (Namdev) born in a tailor's family, they alleged,
Picking my woolen cover, I came back
And squatted at the rear of the temple
As (Namdev) kept on meditating upon Lord's name outside,
The place of worship turned towards him.
Besides these representative verses of the contributor Sikh gurus and Indian Bhaktas acknowledging and vindicating the cultural variety and diversity and its unity at the deeper umbilical level of the multicultural Indian society, we find an unmistakable undercurrent of resentment, opposition and rebellion against the Hindutva intolerance about other social cultural identities and their demand for recognition of their distinctive cultural identity of each caste and community. Dissenting voices such as these have always been raised in every age and every society and the right wing fascist forces have been adopting an intolerant, at times an oppressive stance and methodologies all along to crush these dissenting, multicultural voices. The same process is presently being repeated again in modern India as well as in America, some countries Western European and the Middle East. But such theocratic, narrow nationalistic dispensations have a very short shelf life whereas multicultural societies co-existing with each constituent cultural identity are more enduring, stable and peaceful. While the former religio-political dispensations pass into history, the ideas of social multiculturalism, plurasim and dissent against intolerance, recorded and reflected in contemporary literatures, endure forever. These compositions always have linkages with the past, reflect their immediate present, and look forward to the similar ideational works in the future. Gurbani literature performs this task adequately and makes a significant link in this 'Great Tradition' (F.R. Leavis). Gurbani literature recognizes no part of land as the Promised Land, Dev Bhoomi or Puniya Bhoomi and no race or bloodline as chosen race nor even any particular language as Dev Bhasha. It considers the whole planet earth as the mother earth of the whole humanity with its common air, water and other elements which nurture the whole creation day and night
ਪਵਣ ਪਾਣੀ ਅਗਨੀ ਪਾਤਾਲ ॥ ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਧਰਤੀ ਥਾਪਿ ਰਖੀ ਧਰਮ ਸਾਲ ॥
ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਜੀਅ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਕੇ ਰੰਗ ॥ ਤਿਨ ਕੇ ਨਾਮ ਅਨੇਕ ਅਨੰਤ ॥
ਕਰਮੀ ਕਰਮੀ ਹੋਇ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥ ਸਚਾ ਆਪਿ ਸਚਾ ਦਰਬਾਰੁ ॥
ਤਿਥੈ ਸੋਹਨਿ ਪੰਚ ਪਰਵਾਣੁ ॥ ਨਦਰੀ ਕਰਮਿ ਪਵੈ ਨੀਸਾਣੁ ॥
ਕਚ ਪਕਾਈ ਓਥੈ ਪਾਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਗਇਆ ਜਾਪੈ ਜਾਇ ॥11
Air, water, fire, anti podal (Nether) region,
In their midst is earth established as a place for righteous deeds.
On it exist created species in all their variety,
Innumerable and diverse are their names.
Their worth is evaluated on the basis of their deeds,
True indeed is the Divine Lord and his Divine Court.
The Supermacy of the virtuous alone is accorded a pride of place there.
They alone are stamped with Divine Grace
Therefore, Gurbani literature forbids hurting the feelings of others as the true Lord resides in every one's heart.
Baba Farid's words endorse the human necessity of respecting everyone's sentiments as all human beings belong to the same divine creator:
ਸਭਨਾ ਮਨ ਮਾਣਿਕ ਠਾਹਣੁ ਮੂਲਿ ਮਚਾਂਗਵਾ ॥
ਜੇ ਤਉ ਪਿਰੀਆ ਦੀ ਸਿਕ ਹਿਆਉ ਨ ਠਾਹੇ ਕਹੀ ਦਾ ॥12
Everyone's sentiment being precious
Never dost thou hurt anybody's feelings.
If Thou art keen to commune with the Divine,
Never break anybody's heart.
Let us conclude with an affirmative answer to Gayatri, Chakaravorty Spivak's searching question. "Can the subaltern speak?" (1983) which has been repeatedly raised and answered in Gurbani literature and multiculturalism and pluralism repeatedly espoused and intolerance questioned and repudiated. Instead of creating faultlines in Indian society through the vindication of majoritarian dominance of minorities and creating an atmosphere of intolerance and religious and communal hatred, let us pray and work for an egalitarian and harmonies Indian society as enshrined in Rabindra Nath Tagore's poem 'Let my country awake':
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Note: English Translation of Gurbani verses quoted in the paper is by the Author of this paper.
1. Sri Guru, Granth Sahib, M. 1 p. 350
2. Ibid., M. 5, 97
3. Ibid., M. 5, p. 748
4. Ibid., M. 3, p. 853
5. Ibid., M. 5, p. 1128
6. Ibid., Kabir, p. 1349
7. Ibid., Kabir, p. 324
8. Ibid., Ravidas, p. 1293
9. Ibid., Ravidas, .p. ?
10. Ibid., Namdev, p. 1164
11. Ibid., M. 1, p. 7
12. Ibid., Farid, p. 1384
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2017, All