The Universal Message of Sikhism to Mankind
Kulwant Singh, Inderjit Singh & Birendra Kau
“None is a Hindu and none a Muslim” were the first words pronounced by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 AD), the founder prophet of Sikhism, when he reappeared from the river Bein after having been absent for three days. Hindus and Muslims, the two prominent religious communities of his times and region, were at loggerheads; hatred, intolerance and injustice were rampant and forcible conversions were the order of the day. Thus, he conveyed emphatically that foremost of all we are human beings, over and above any classification. He clearly desired to create individuals who rise above denominations: “We neither are Hindus nor Musalmans: Our body and life is Allah-Rama’s.”1
Sikhism, in its entirety, is the sum of the mystical, revelatory and cumulative experience of Guru Nanak and his successor nine Sikh Gurus (1469-1708). It provides a purely spiritual message for peaceful coexistence and integration to the whole of mankind. Sikhism believes in the complete non-duality of God, who is the prime cosmic energy at once transcendent and immanent in its created visible and invisible universe. It exists, creates, sustains and, at times, destroys its creation according to its own will, which remains inscrutable and beyond human reckoning. The quantification of its extent and the nature of its creation are beyond human comprehension. However, the magnitude of its immensity can be realized through mystical experience of some of the attributes of its persona – the single, monistic nature of its all-pervading, all-controlling power; its abiding eternal presence and its existence beyond the limits of time, space and vacuity; its progenitive energy; its inherently instinctive inclination of being free from fear and malice; its timeless, eternal existence; its mysterious self-created being and becoming and, above all, its all-embracing compassion, love and bounteous disposition. Sikhism’s resultant theology, philosophy, ideology, history, societal practices, conventions and way of life are a corollary of these essential, seminal postulates enumerated in the very first verse, mool mantar, of Guru Nanak’s Japu – a preamble to the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal Guru.
The firm belief of Sikhism in the monotheistic identity of Godhead and its malice-free, indiscriminate compassion and love for all created species, gives a message of the equality of human beings irrespective of their racial, ethnic, territorial, religious, cultural and civilizational affiliations: “Since from one Light is the whole world created – who is noble, who inferior?”2 It preaches the fatherhood/motherhood motherhood of God – “Thou art my father and mother, conferring joy on my life and breath”3 – from which follows brotherhood of man: “Of one father are we all children; Thou my Preceptor.”4 Sikhism does not recognize any social hierarchical order, and respect for dignity of every individual is inbuilt in the Sikh metaphysics and way of life. Stress on the equality of women is unparalleled. It was Guru Nanak who challenged the age-old biases against women and demolished these with logic: “Why revile her of whom are born great ones of the earth?”5 He advocated equality of women with vehemence, unknown before him or even now. Courtesy of the concepts and practices of women’s empowerment introduced by the Gurus, Sikh women have performed significant roles of service and valour throughout Sikh history.
The Sikh Gurus preached their message through their precept and example, words and deeds and their verses in Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak, along with his two disciples – Bala, a Hindu, and Mardana, a Muslim – travelled across the length and breadth of India and a few neighbouring countries and held discussions with the leaders of religious faiths, also acquainting them with his own mystical realization of the monotheistic presence of God and His abiding love for all creatures. The third Sikh Guru, Guru Amardas, initiated the tradition of partaking food together by all, irrespective of social status, caste, class or religious denomination. This practice (langar) continues to serve humanity throughout the world in Sikh places of worship, gurdwara, to this day and inspires, through its generous, charitable act of free distribution of food, to serve the victims of natural calamities and disasters. Serving the needy is considered an expression of one’s love for God: “Lord! Thy grace falls on the land where the poor are cherished.”6 The fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, got the foundation stone of the historic Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, laid by a Sufi saint, Hazrat Mian Mir. In its architectural design, he kept four doors opening in four directions, symbolizing access to all to the gurdwara and further endorsing the pluralistic outlook of Sikhism’s message and appeal. There is not a trace of any communal, religious or sectarian bias or exclusiveness about the Sikh faith either in the stance of Sikh Gurus as the sole intermediaries between man and God, or in the worship of Sikh Gurus as cult figures leading to the ultimate emancipation of human beings. In fact, the Guru identifies himself with the lowliest of the lowly: “The lowest among the lowcaste; those still lower and condemned – Nanak is by their side; He envies not the great of the world.”7 In addition, he prays to God to save the world through whichever way He deems fit: “Save by Thy grace, the world in flames; save it at whatever portal it may be saved.”8 The customary daily Sikh prayer, Ardas, concludes with the supplication ‘welfare of all’. A similar spirit of respect and love for the whole of mankind runs throughout the linguistic phraseology of Guru Granth Sahib. The scripture is a unique text of pure spiritual ecstasy, reflecting the unity of the divine creator and its creation in a rare cosmic togetherness. In addition to the verses of the Gurus, selected verses of various contemporary sages and saints from different religious denominations are also included herein. Many a name used for God by Hindu, Muslim and other oriental religious faiths finds mention in it with equal respect to emphasize the divinity and oneness of the divine power.
The Guru’s religion is a whole-life religion, and aims at a balanced development of the individual physically, mentally, morally and spiritually. The Guru rejects the dichotomy of spiritual (piri) life and temporal (miri) life, and stresses the significance of spiritual ethics in temporal deeds. The Guru calls life a ‘game of love’, which is to be played with absolute commitment. He beckons his followers thus: “Shouldst thou seek to play the game of love, step into my street with thy head placed on thy palm: While on to this stepping, ungrudgingly sacrifice your head.”9
Sikhism’s message is to live a life of dignity and uphold human rights; one must protect not only one’s own rights, but also those of the oppressed and the suppressed. Tyranny should be resisted by all means, even by fighting if all else fails. Brave is considered the one who fights for the helpless: “The true hero is one who fights in defence of the humble; is cut limb after limb, and flees not the field.”10 The saint-warrior is a fundamental concept of an ideal human being in Sikhism, in whom the righteousness of a saint and the dynamism of a warrior integrate and assimilate. In other words, one is neither to frighten anyone nor fear anyone: “One that strikes not terror in others, nor of others stands in fear – saith Nanak: Listen myself, know such a one to be liberated.”11 One is to recognize God’s will and, as His instrument, ever engage in carrying out the same through altruistic deeds. Respect for each other’s beliefs and views is the bedrock of Sikhism: “None now is our foe, not a stranger – with all are we in accord.”12 It holds this fundamental human right of freedom to profess one’s faith to the extent of defending it even at the cost of one’s life. The voluntary sacrifice of the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, in 1675, in protest against the forcible conversions of followers of another religion, Hindus, by the then Mughal ruler, bears testimony to the earnest Sikh espousal and vindication of the basic human right of religious freedom. Subsequently, the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh’s militant combating of religious persecution through his creation of the Khalsa commonwealth and their ultimate sacrifices for righteousness further corroborate Sikhism’s firm belief in human rights. Sikhism lays great stress on inculcating virtues, as these go a long way to create individuals, who are sensitive to the needs of fellow beings: “Break no heart – know, each being is a priceless jewel. Each heart is a jewel; evil it is to break any; Shouldst thou seek to find the Beloved, break no one’s heart.”13
Sikhism places as much stress on the justness of the means as on that of the ends. It advocates earning one’s livelihood through hard work and honest means, sharing this with the needy and living in continuous remembrance of God. This trinity of the fundamental doctrine, kirat karna, wand chhakna and naam japna, keeps human beings from being arrogant and parasites, freeloaders and ascetic escapists: “Those that eat the bread of their labour and give away something in charity, saith Nanak, truly recognize the way.”14 Grabbing and acquiring what does not come through one’s own labour finds widespread condemnation in Sikh thought: “Saith Nanak: To grab what is another’s is evil, as pig’s flesh to the Muslim and cow’s flesh to the Hindu.”15 Living a life of uprightness – good moral conduct – is therefore deeply etched in the Sikh psyche; so much so that Sikhism puts a premium on truthful living even more than on truth itself: “Realization of Truth is higher than all else – higher still is truthful living.”16 Rendering selfless service to the deprived and the disadvantaged through voluntary assistance in any form makes truthful living more tangible than mere rhetorical talk about truth. Bhai Kanhaiya’s free and indiscriminate act of serving water on the battlefield to Sikh and enemy soldiers alike, and dressing their wounds on Guru Gobind Singh’s bidding, is an example. Many premier Sikh institutions and individual charities provide valuable services to disadvantaged sections of society, across the board.
Sikhism, being a comprehensive way of life, is as much concerned with the physical aspects of human life and its environment as with the metaphysical and philosophical aspects of life. It considers both the planet Earth and the human body as equally sacred abodes of the divine: “This world is the holy Lord’s chamber; in it is His abode.”17 Acts of pollution and the contamination of both is considered an act of sacrilege and desecration. The concluding verse of Guru Nanak’s Japu considers air as the guiding breath, the water as seminal paterfamilias and the Earth as the creative mother: “Air is the vital force; water the Progenitor; The vast Earth the mother of all; Day and Night are nurses, fondling all creation in their lap.”18 The Sikh Gurus developed water bodies, planted mangroves and made Sikh shrines on the banks of rivers. The Sikh scripture gives a message to keep away from drugs and intoxicants, and to live in tune with nature. Sikhs maintain the body in its natural form as gifted by God – the most eco-friendly way of life.
It is for the holistic value system of Sikhism that leading historians, scholars, Nobel laureates and thinkers have recognized and appreciated the universalism and significance of the Sikh religion to mankind. To quote Pearl S Buck: “I have studied the scriptures of the great religions, but I do not find elsewhere the same power of appeal to the heart and mind as I find in these volumes (Guru Granth Sahib)... They speak to the person of any religion or of none. They speak for the human heart and the searching mind,”19 and Arnold Toynbee: “The Adi Granth (Guru Granth Sahib) is part of mankind’s common spiritual treasure. It is important that it should be brought within the direct reach of as many people as possible.”20 The Sikh value system is a unique blend of concepts and practices, which are ideal for creating an environment conducive to peaceful coexistence among communities and cultures, on account of the simplicity of its metaphysics, the span of its vision and the universalism of its approach.
[Note: All the quotes of Guru Granth Sahib are taken from its translation by Gurbachan Singh Talib: Sri Guru Granth Sahib – in English Translation, Punjabi University, Patiala, (Punjab) 1997]
1. Gurbachan Singh Talib, Sri Guru Granth Sahib – in English Translation, Punjabi University, Patiala, (Punjab) 1997, p. 1136
2. Ibid. p. 1349
3. Ibid. p. 1144
4. Ibid. P. 611
5. Ibid. p. 473
6. Ibid. p. 15
8. Ibid. p. 853
9. Ibid. p. 1412
10. Ibid. p. 1105
11. Ibid. p. 1427
12. Ibid. p. 1299
13. Ibid. p. 1384
14. Ibid. p. 1245
15. Ibid. p. 141
16. Ibid. p. 62
17. Ibid. p. 463
18. Ibid. p. 8
19. Gopal Singh, Dr, Guru Granth Sahib, English Version, Vol 1, Some Opinions, p XIV, World Book Centre, New Delhi, 1996
20. Selections from The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, Translated by Trilochan Singh, et al, UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: Indian Series, Foreword, p 9, 1960
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2017, All