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Social Significance of Nam

It has been seen that, according to the earliest Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak received a two-fold, simultaneous mandate of propagating Nam and of creating the Panth, not for sectarian ends (“There is no Hindu, no Mussalman”), but for the fulfilment of a humanitarian purpose. Yet, there are some scholars who see a dichotomy between their own perceptions of Nam and the development of the Sikh Panth, at least at the stage when Guru Hargobind took up arms. And, there need not be any doubt of such a dichotomy if Guru Nanak’s religion is to be lumped together with world-rejecting religions, or with religions whose sole aim is the single-minded pursuit of mukti, shanti (peace), or spiritual bliss. Max Weber’s thesis might be very helpful in sifting such issues in this chapter.

1. Max Weber’s Thesis
(a) World-rejecting asceticism And
inner-worldly asceticism

“Concentration upon the actual pursuit of salvation may entail a formal withdrawal from the ‘World’, from social and psychological ties with the family, from the possession of worldly goods, and from political, economic, artistic, and erotic activities, in short from all creaturely interests. One with such an attitude may regard any participation in these affairs as an acceptance of the world, leading to alienation from God. This is ‘world-rejection asceticism’ (Waltablehnede Askese).

On the other hand, the unique concentration of human behaviour on activities leading to salvation may require the participation within the world (or more precisely, within the institutions of the world but in opposition to them) of the religious individual’s idiosyncratically sacred religious mood and his qualifications as the elect instrument of God. This is ‘inner-worldly asceticism’ (inner-weltliche Askese). In this case, the world is presented to the religious virtuoso as his responsibility. He may have the obligation to transform the world in accordance with his ascetic ideals, in which case the ascetic will become a rational reformer or revolutionary on the basis of a theory of natural rights…”1

(b) a tool of God
“Salvation may be viewed as the distinctive gift of active ethical behaviour performed in the awareness that God directs this behaviour, i.e., the actor is an instrument of God. We shall designate this type of attitude toward salvation, which is characterized by a methodical procedure for achieving religious salvation, as ‘ascetic’. This designation is for our purpose here, and we do not in any way deny this term may be and has been used in another and wider sense.”2

“Nevertheless, the world as a creation of God, who comes to expression in it, despite its creatureliness, provides the only medium through which one’s unique religious charisma may prove itself by means of rational ethical conduct, so that one may become and remain certain of one’s own state of grace.

“Hence, as the field provided for this active certification, the order of the world in which the (inner-worldly) ascetic is situated, becomes for him a vocation which he must fulfil rationally.”3

“In contrast to asceticism, contemplation is primarily the quest to achieve rest in God and in Him alone. It entails inactivity, and in its most consistent form it entails the cessation of thought, the nemesis of everything that in any way reminds one of the world, and of course the absolute minimization of all outer and inner activity.”4

“For the (inner-worldly) ascetic too, the perception of the divine through emotion and intellect is of central importance, only in his case it is of a ‘motor’ type, so to speak. The ascetic’s assurance of grace is achieved when he is conscious that he has succeeded in becoming a tool of his God, through rationalized ethical action completely oriented to God. But for the contemplative mystic, who does not desire to be God’s ‘instrument’, but desires only to become God’s ‘vessel’, the ascetic’s ethical struggle, whether of a positive or a negative type, appears to be a perpetual externalization of the divine in the direction of some peripheral function. For this reason, ancient Buddhism recommended inaction as the precondition for the maintenance of the state of grace, and in any case Buddhism enjoined the avoidance of every type of rational, purposive activity, which it regarded as the most dangerous form of secularization. On the other hand, the contemplation of the mystic appears to the (inner-worldly) mystic as indolent, religiously sterile, and ascetically reprehensible self-indulgence — a wallowing in self-created emotions prompted by the deification of the creaturely.”5

“For the Buddhist monk, agriculture is the most reprehensible of all occupations… Yet the alms he collects consist principally of agricultural products.”6

“In any case, the typical mystic is never a man of conspicuous social activity, nor is he at all prone to accomplish any rational transformation of the mundane order on the basis of a methodical pattern of life directed towards external success.”7

(c) Social and Historical Implications
“The decisive historical difference between the predominantly Oriental and Asiatic types of salvation religion and those found primarily in the Occident is that the former usually culminate in contemplation and the latter in (inner-worldly) asceticism.”8

“Moreover, only in the Occident was the additional step taken — by ascetic Protestantism — of translating rational asceticism into the life of the world. The inner-worldly order of dervishes in Islam cultivated a planned procedure for achieving salvation, but this procedure, for all its variations, was oriented ultimately to the mystical quest for salvation of the Sufis… The asceticism of the dervishes is not, like that of (inner-worldly) ascetic Protestants, a religious ethic of vocation, for the religious actions of the dervishes have very little relationship with their secular occupations, and in their scheme secular vocations have at best a purely external relationship to the planned procedure of salvation.”9

“But an unbroken unity integrating in systematic fashion an ethic of vocation in the world with assurance of religious salvation was the unique creation of ascetic Protestantism alone. Furthermore, only in the Protestant ethic of vocation does the world, despite all its creaturely imperfections, possess unique and religious significance as the object through which one fulfils his duties by rational behaviour according to the will of an absolutely transcendental God. When success crowns rational, sober purposive behaviour of the sort not oriented exclusively to worldly acquisition, such success is construed as a sign that God’s blessing rests upon such behaviour. This inner-worldly asceticism had a number of distinctive consequences not found in any other religion. This religion demanded of the believer, not celibacy, as in the case of the monk, but the avoidance of all erotic pleasure; not poverty, but the elimination of all idle and exploitive enjoyment of unearned wealth and income, and the avoidance of all feudalistic, sensuous ostentation of wealth; not the ascetic death-in-life of the cloister, but an alert, rationally controlled patterning of life, and the avoidance of all surrender to the beauty of the world, to art, or to one’s own moods and emotions. The clear and uniform goal of this asceticism was the disciplining and methodical organization of the whole pattern of life. Its typical representative was the ‘man of a vocation’, and its unique result was the rational organization and institutionalization of social relationship.”10

“To Max Weber the example among such religious movements that ‘change the world’ was Puritan… none in his opinion had influenced in such a revolutionary manner as had Puritanical religiosity.”11

2. The Sikh Concept of Nam
Nam is a very comprehensive concept in Sikhism.12 “Nam sustains the whole animal life… Nam sustains the entire creation.”13 We restrict ourselves here, for our purpose, to only those aspects of Nam which are related to the main points covered by the excerpts given in the previous section, and which are amply vouchsafed by the hymns of the Gurus and their life-accounts.

(a) Not World-rejecting14
For the Gurus, the world is true and not a thing to be rejected or to be escaped from.

“True are Thy worlds and Thy universes, true are the forms Thou createst.”15
“True is He; True is His creation.”16

“Deride not the world, as it is the creation of God.”17

The Gurus have explicitly condemned all ascetic or escapist practices. “One reaches not Truth by remaining motionless like trees and stones, nor by being sawn alive.”18

O yogi, you are sitting in a trance, but you discriminate and have a sense of duality. You beg from door to door, are you not ashamed of it.”19 “Jainic asceticism, or even if the body were cut into bits, would not efface the dirt of ego.”20

All the Sikh Gurus, excepting the eighth, who passed away at an early age, were married householders. In selecting his successor Guru, Guru Nanak passed over his son Baba Sri Chand, who was a renowned ascetic, and the third Guru issued an injunction that no recluse or ascetic could be a Sikh.21

(b) Nam and Mukti
In Sikhism, the object of Nam is not to secure release from life, but to attune oneself to the Will of God, i.e., God-oriented activity, and not salvation is the goal. Guru Nanak’s mission was also distinctly different from that of the religions whose sole “aim was to achieve a state of ecstatic Godly possession through orgiastic means, in contrast to everyday life, in which God was not felt as a living power… Or the aim was the achievement of apathetic-ecstatic Godly possession of gnosis in opposition to everyday life as the abode of transient and meaningless drives.”22

In the first place, the traditional idea of mukti or salvation from life is not given that importance. “He who is fond of God, what has he to do with mukti or heaven.”23 “Crores of heavens cannot equal God’s Nam. The God-conscious man has no desire for mukti .”24; “I seek not power, nor mukti; grant me the love of God.”25 “Mukti techniques and many a comfort and felicity cannot equal love of God.”26 Guru Gobind Singh changed the title of Nand Lal’s composition from Bandginama (meditational path) to Zindiginama (the way to live).27

Secondly, the concept of mukti was given a new content. It meant getting immersed in the love of God and His creation; it meant release from self-centredness, selfishness, and individualism, and not from the world or life. Mukti was linked to the service of humanity : “By service in the world alone one finds a place in God’s court.”28 The Sikh Gurus made the service of humanity a prerequisite to spiritual development. “He who performs disinterested service meets God.”29 In fact, service of humanity is an essential component of the Sikh way of life, even after the highest spiritual attainment,30 as the service of humanity is meant to reflect the Will of God.31

“Not only do the prophets of ethical salvation not need orgiastic intoxication, but it actually stands in the way of the systematic ethical patterning of life they require.”32 “The exceptional nature of the experiences characteristic of all orgiastic cults, and certainly of all erotic ones, accounts for their having exerted no influence at all on everyday behaviour, or at least no influence in the direction of increased rationalization or systematization — as seen clearly in the fact that the Hindu and dervish religiosities produced no methodology that aimed at the control of everyday living.”33

(c) a Tool of God
‘To abide by God’s Will’ is the summum bonum of Sikhism, as this is the ultimate goal to which all spiritual or religious aspirations and strivings must converge. As seen, Mukti and heaven (in the traditional sense) are not the Sikh ideal. After negating certain current paths followed for attaining salvation, Guru Nanak clinches the issue by first posing the question : “How to become True, and how to tear the veil of falsehood ?”, and then by answering it : “By abiding by (God’s) Will”.34 In fact, ‘abiding by God’s Will’ is so central to Sikhism that this theme is emphasized again and again in Guru Granth Sahib. Secondly, in Sikhism no methodology has in it an in-built compulsive force to achieve salvation in its own right. It all depends on God’s Grace. The very opening line of Guru Granth Sahib, enumerating the attributes of God, ends with the stipulation that He is attained through ‘Gur-parsad’ (i.e., Guru’s or God’s Grace). Guru Arjan, in one of his hymns, gives a long list of methods for God-realisation (including ascetic practices of yoga) tried and found wanting : “I tried many methods of meeting God and failed. Frustrated, I surrendered myself to God and begged to be granted enlightenment”35 “Nam, the immaculate, is unfathomable, how can it be known ? Nam is within us, how to get to it ?… The perfect Guru awakens your heart to the vision of God. It is by the Grace of God that one meets Guru.”36 “By His Grace alone is He ever remembered (Simrya jaye).” And to become “a tool of God” is the way to earn God’s Grace and Nam. “Service in the world leads to approval in the Court of God.”37 “He who serves God gets bliss and is absorbed in Nam, without straining himself unduly (sehje).”38

The Sikh Gurus conceive of God as a God of Will, who is creative and whose Will is operative in the world with a direction and purpose. For man, therefore, the ideal is to carry out His Will by doing creative activity in the universe as God’s instrument. The ideal is not blissful union as an end in itself, but union with a view to knowing His Will and carrying it out. Accordingly, to be linked to Nam means “to become God’s instrument” and to share the responsibility of a creative and virtuous development in the world.39 “May I have millions of hands to serve Thee. Service is the way to cross the hurdles of life.”40 “Serve God every moment and relax not.”41

It has been seen that Guru Nanak’s very mandate from God at the moment of his enlightenment was two fold — to propagate Nam (Nam japana) and to establish a new Panth.42 In other words, in Guru Nanak’s mission, Nam Simran was inextricably joined to sharing responsibility of “a creative and virtuous development in the world.” This does not mean pitting Nam Simran or spiritual bliss versus God- orienated worldly responsibility, or excluding one at the cost of the other. What it means is striking the right balance between the two for the purpose of transforming the world in accordance with the God’s purpose. In Sikhism, ‘Sewa-Simran’ (i.e., social service and Nam Simran) became a joint watch-word, as complementary components and not as mutually exclusive of each other.

3. A Parallel Development
One should not expect an exact parallelism between two different social and historical developments, especially between those separated by considerable time or space. What we want to emphasize, by putting the Sikh view of Nam in juxtaposition with the excerpts from Max Weber’s thesis given in the previous section, is that “to become God’s instrument in carrying out His Will and purpose in this world” is a distinct religious ideal as well as a means of securing spiritual bliss or salvation; and this ideal was shared both by Protestant Christianity and Sikhism. It is striking, indeed, how the practice of this ideal led, in both cases, to far-reaching social and historical developments.

4. Nam and the Historical Challenges
Inequality and aggression are in-built foci of tension in society; hence, any stratification based on inequality and aggression is a permanent source of social conflict. In other words, this problem poses ever-recurring historical challenges to the Nam-oriented approach to life. “Prophets systematized religion with a view to simplifying the relationship of man to the world, by reference to an ultimate and integrated value position.”43 As an essential part of this “integrated value position”, most of the prophets (at least Jesus, Muhammed, and Nanak) laid great stress on humanitarian values of equality, freedom, and brotherhood. Therefore, it goes without saying that any religious movement organized around these humanitarian values is bound to stand in a state of high tension in relation to de facto social or political orders.

Now, there are two alternatives open to a religious approach for meeting this tension, either by turning a blind eye to the compulsions of humanitarian values and accepting the status quo, or by actively attempting to change the social order so as to bring it into accord with these values. “Owing to his contact with the deepest sources of life, the prophet reacts vigorously against all disturbances or perversions of the civic or moral order which is meant to reflect the divine will.”44

There were two outstanding historical challenges in India at the time Guru Nanak appeared on the scene, the caste order of the Hindu society and the foreign religio-political domination. He reacted vigorously against both.

The motivative power behind the caste system was the upholding of the caste-status of the Brahmin and, to a lesser extent, that of the other Dvij (twice-born) castes. As already seen, economic-status and political-status were made lower than caste-status. Legitimation of political power was a powerful lever in the hands of the Brahmins, because it was they alone who could do it. The political upstarts hankered after the legitimation of their status in the caste hierarchy, because this legitimation secured for them a superiority over their subjects “with an efficiency unsurpassed by any other religion”.45 This is how the barbarian warrior castes and the Rajputs accepted the hegemony of non-martial Brahmins.

Guru Nanak attacked the caste ideology which sanctified caste-status, and called it perverse. “According to the Hindus, foul is the ablution of the chandal, and vain are his religious ceremonies and decorations. False is the wisdom of the perverse; their acts produce strife. In the impure man is pride; he obtaineth not the flavour of the Lord.”46 Further, he aligned himself with the lowest of low castes,47 whose very touch, or even sight in some cases, was believed to pollute a member of the high castes.

Guru’s reaction was not born of social, political, or economic considerations or compulsions, because the moral, social, and political ideas of the prophets are caused, conditioned, and determined by their basic religious experience. “The moral and social restitutio in integrum here and now, in this world, will have only a preliminary and preparatory value in the eyes of the prophet. Helped by his deeper perception and surer anticipation of the future, the prophet views the things of the world in the light of its final destiny.”48 Guru Nanak condemned the caste order not because he was primarily a social reformer and looked at it only as a social evil. He did it because his deeper perception, born of his experience of Nam, found that “the flavour of the Lord” was bestowed only on those who cared for the lowliest and the lost. His condemnation of caste-status was only a part-expression of his spiritual perception whereby he viewed things in the light of their final destiny, because Sikhism is opposed to status consciousness in all its forms. In fact, it is opposed to pride (which the Guru said was the root-cause of caste discrimination) in all its manifestations.

“He alone is supreme among beings,
Whose ego goeth in the society of the Holy.
He, who thinks himself to be the lowliest of the lowly,
Yea, he alone is the highest of the high.
He, whose mind is the dust of all,
O, he alone worshipeth the Lord in his heart.”49
And, according to Guru Nanak :
“Haumein (ego, pride) is a deep malady. The remedy is to attune to Nam by God’s Grace.”50
This is how he viewed the problem of caste, or for that matter the problem of ego, “in the light of its final destiny”.

The second major historical challenge in India was that of foreign political domination, which India had been suffering for about 500 years at Guru Nanak’s time. It was not only ruthless political domination and economic exploitation; it was compounded by extreme religious hatred and dictation. Non-Muslims were Kafirs, who were offered the alternatives of either conversion to Islam or to become zimnis (i.e., second class subjects), failing which they had to accept death. This was a typical political situation which ran counter to the value-position of the prophets.

An epoch in religious history is marked by the rise and growth of founded religions. Prior to them, no opposition was created in principle to the established powers which were sanctioned by tradition. “The founders, on the other hand, were forced to begin completely de nouveau, guided by their own creative religious experience. They had to rethink the very principles to which they and their followers were to be oriented. The inevitable result was that they or their followers (Jesus, Zoroaster, Muhammed, Gautama, Vardhamana) found themselves in irreconcilable opposition to certain principles, to statutes, institutions, or representatives of the state.”51

Guru Nanak declared :
“This age is a knife, kings are butchers;
Justice has taken wings and fled.
In this completely dark night of falsehood
the moon of truth is never seen to rise.”52
How the Sikh movement met this political challenge, and how it affected the destiny of the Panth, we will discuss later. Let us first compare the social and historical manifestations of two allied Indian movements, because this comparison is very revealing. Both the medieval Bhagti movement and the Sikh movement professed to follow the Bhagti or Nam Marg, but these led to different far-reaching social and historical consequences, mainly because their perceptions about the Bhagti Marg or Nam Simran were not the same.


1. Max Weber : The Sociology of Religion, p. 166.
2. Ibid., p. 164. As this is likely to cause confusion, we are adding, within brackets, the word “inner-worldly” to the term “asceticism” used by Weber in his restricted sense, in order to distinguish it from world-rejecting or contemplative asceticism.
3. Ibid., p. 167.
4. Ibid., p. 169.
5. Ibid., p. 171.
6. Ibid., p. 172.
7. Ibid., p. 176.
8. Ibid., p. 177.
9. Ibid., p. 182.
10. Ibid., pp. 182-83.
11. Mommsen (p. 311) cited by S.N. Eisenstadt : Sociology of Religion, edited by Roland Robertson, p. 305.
12. Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, pp. 186-87; The Doctrine of Nam, Journal of Sikh Studies, August, 1975.
13. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 284.
14. Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, Chapter 15.
15. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 463.
16. Ibid., p. 294.
17. Ibid., p. 611.
18. Ibid., p. 952.
19. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 886.
20. Ibid., p. 265.
21. Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, p. 270.
22. Max Weber : The Religions of India, p. 337.
23. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 360.
24. Ibid., p. 1078.
25. Ibid., p. 534.
26. Ibid., p. 1323.
27. Macauliffe, Vol. V, p. 103; Mehma Parkash, ii, p. 775.
28. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 26.
29. Ibid., pp. 286-87.
30. Ibid., p. 273.
31. Wach, p. 348.
32. Max Weber : Sociology of Religion, p. 158.
33. Ibid., p. 160.
34. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1.
35. Ibid., pp. 641-42.
36. Ibid., p. 1242.
37. Ibid., p. 26.
38. Ibid., p. 11.
39. Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, pp. 215-16.
40. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 781.
41. Ibid., p. 77.
42. Janam Sakhi of Meharbanwali, edited by Kirpal Singh, p. 89.
43. Max Weber : Sociology of Religion, p. 69.
44. Wach, p. 348.
45. Max Weber : The Religions of India, p. 16.
46. Macauliffe, i, p. 379.
47. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 15.
48. Wach, p. 349.
49. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 266.
50. Ibid., p. 466.
51. Wach, p. 297.
52. Macauliffe, i, p. xliv.


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