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The Context
The dichotomy of body and mind, matter and spirit, material and ideal is a very core problem of philosophy throughout its history. In different historical periods, the problem assumes different theoretical formulations. In religious systems, the basic problem of philosophy acquires the formulation of interaction between the idea of God and the world.

Indian history knows many philosophical schools — religious and non-religious, ancient and medieval — which were involved, as we see, in formulating the above said dichotomy, occasionally trying to find appropriate mediators between the opposite categories, and in various ways attempting to transcend the dichotomy of matter and spirit. Although the early Samkhya thought postulated that the entire world evolved (parinama) out of prakriti — the primary nature — afterwards it ended in the dualism of prakriti and purusha. Jainism, too, did not escape the binariness of jiva and ajiva. The Vedantic philosophy proposed a three-fold hierarchical set up — Brahman, atman and maya concepts. The great Vedantic thinker, Sankra, made up a non-dualistic advaitic identity between the first two concepts of Vedanta, that is, unity of Brahman and atman. This advaitic unity was achieved only after discriminating the world as a mayic entity. The status of world in advaita Vedanta is one of complete negation, so that it named the world as illusion (maya mithya) and the knowledge of world as illusory knowledge (avidya). With the evolution of Vedantic thought and with the formulation of the advaitic thesis of maya, one can say that the first circle of history of Indian philosophy reaches its end, and that an absolute dichotomy of spirit and matter is well established.

The Problem Of Reality Of World And Its Implications
It is at this juncture that Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya identifies the basic problem of Indian thought in the following manner1 : “A broad surveyof Indian philosophical literature shows that among the philosophically significant questions discussed in it, there is clearly enough one such problem. It is the problem of the reality of the material world or nature, and consequently of the relevance of the philosopher’s attempt at a better understanding of it. All the major philosophers of India are directly involved in the controversy over this problem.”

The question of reality or non-reality of the world has many implications. The implications are of epistemological, axiological and ultimately of sociological character. Let us enumerate the galaxy of problems involved here:

(i) Problem of reality of the world or ontological status of the world.
(ii) Worthwhileness of inquiry into its nature and structure.
(iii) Epistemological status of human sensations and forms of knowledge.
(iv) Human relation or attitude towards the world.
(v) Way of individual life or behaviour pattern (ethics).
(vi) Way of social living.

The advaitic school by way of asserting the non-reality of world, epistemologically stood for disbelief in sensory data. Human senses were excluded from the advaitic list of authentic pramanas. Human reason acquires only a subservient role, or no role, and even a disturbing role. Practice has no part in cognition. Ultimately, the authority of the Vedas only triumphs.

In terms of human relation or attitude towards the world, the thesis of mayic nature of the world has very odd implications. It allows any amount of manipulative and exploitative relations with the external world. This includes unethical and irresponsible attitude towards the eco and environmental systems.

The Vedantic thesis implies worthlessness of living the earthly life. An ascetic way of living and an intuitive realisation of the unity of atman and Brahman are the goals proposed to an individual by the advaitic school. The social implication of the thesis of non-reality of world is even more horrible. It condemns the human body, and together with it an entire race of people, who engage in manual labour and worldly toilings. The pure spirit without any earthly characteristics or gunas receives full appreciation in advaita Vedanta. Consequently, a pure intuitive elitism becomes one of the central implications of that type of philosophy.

The Sikh Thesis Of Reality Of World
Now, it is in this above said philosophical context that the contribution and originality of Sikhism is to be understood. Chronologically, Sikhism is post-Vedantic. It is an alternative to the Vedantic thought and represents another trend in Indian philosophical thinking.

Guru Nanak Devji and the other nine Sikh Gurus have brought forth a theo-philosophical system in which the problem of spirit and matter transcends its classical dichotomy. The ideas of God and world acquire equal status in a specific way in the thought of the Sikh Gurus. God and the created world are found united in Sikhism. Not a discrimination towards the world, but a lovely bond and an active association with it are in-built in Sikhism.

As the most important step towards unity of God and world, Guru Nanak declares the reality of the world :

“True are Thy regions and true Thy universes;
True Thy worlds and true Thy creation.”2

In the context of Indian philosophy, the Sikh thesis of reality of world is a revolutionary one with all its implications.

The Sikh Guru further postulates the familial relation or attitude of man to nature. Natural elements are portrayed as kith and kin of humanity :

“The air is the Guru, water our father; and the great earth our mother;
Days and nights are our two nurses, male and female,
Who set the whole world a-playing.”3

This attitude is even more intensified by an aesthetic perception of world in the hymns of Guru Nanak. The world has been portrayed as a creation which is the embodiment of beauty and wonder. The world with all its forms and colours, varieties of experiences men have in earthly life, the pleasures to which mortals are attached, all these are declared as beautiful and wonderful by Guru Nanak.4 A Sikh scholar, Kharak Singh, observes that all along in Guru Granth Sahib, the world has been referred to as ‘colourful earth’ and ‘garden of flowers’.5 According to the Sikh Gurus, the aesthetically perceived wonderful varieties of world as the handiwork of God prove the greatness of God.6 The famous Sikh scholar, Gopal Singh, concludes that in Sikh philosophy, “the material is the expression of the spiritual, as the spiritual is the justification for the material”.7

This is a philosophical standpoint very much closer to the Hegelian position. Such a close dialectical relation between man and nature, familial and aesthetic perception of nature exclude any exploitative relation towards nature. Even when there is difference between the human and natural realms, their inter-relationship is one of non-antagonism and familial.

The Epistemology
Sikhism holds the view that there is order and regularity in the world and that the world is cognizable. The Gurus declare that our sensations are true and they give, although limited, knowledge about the world. Recently, a Sikh scholar, Gurnam Kaur, has written an interesting article on Sikh epistemology.8 The scholar identifies that the Sikh Gurus have accepted three kinds of knowledge; perception, reflection and contemplation. Through perception one gets sensory knowledge, through reflection rational knowledge, and contemplation gives the intuitive knowledge. According to the Sikh conception, each kind is complementary to the others.

Gurnam Kaur stresses that in the Sikh epistemology, practice occupies a specific place. This is a very rare position in theory of knowledge which equates the Sikh epistemology with that of Twentieth Century theories. Neither in reflection nor in contemplation, truth of world is given to man. Knowledge starts with practice, and practice is the final criterion of truth. Sikhism holds the view that truthful living is better than having the truth in contemplation.

The Human Body
Sikh thought discards the hatred Indian philosophy inculcated in its Vedantic version towards human body. Guru Nanak declares that not only is the soul the creation of God, but the body too. “By His order bodies are produced.” “The soul and body are all Thine.”9 There is a long hymn composed by Bhagat Pipa which is included in Guru Granth Sahib:

“ In the body is God, the body is the temple of God,
In the body are pilgrims and travellers;
In the body incense, lamps, sacrificial food.
In the body are offerings of leaves and flowers.
I have searched many regions, and it is only in the body.
I have found the nine treasures;
What is in the universe, is found in the body :
Whoever searcheth for it shall find it there.”10

Although many narrative moments here are traditional, one may also find the message that the sacredness has wholly penetrated the otherwise profane realm of body. It is a way of overcoming the medieval hatred for the human body.

The Sikh Concept Of Social Action
The Sikh Gurus are not votaries of renunciation of the old Hindu type. They did not strive for any liberation, mukti or moksha after death. In contrast to the old ideal of Videhmukti, the Sikh Gurus stood for Jivanmukti, liberation in one’s lifetime. There are numerous verses in Guru Granth Sahib condemning, and even ridiculing, the ways of renunciation. Sikhism considers, the otherwise highly appreciated ascetic way of life, as passivity and parasitism:

“ Through the pain of hunger, the Tapa wandereth from house to house;
In the next world he shall obtain twofold punishment.
His appetite is not satisfied,
And he never eateth in comfort what he obtaineth;
He even beggeth with persistency and annoyeth the giver.
Leading the life of a householder by which somebody may gain,
Is better than putting on such a sectarial dress.”11

Rejection of asceticism by the Sikh Gurus does not mean acceptance of a consumeristic or hedonistic way of living. The Sikh Gurus have left sharp criticisms addressed to the hedonistic way of living. The modern sociologist Max Weber’s views can be quoted here : “Anti-asceticism and anti-hedonism become the two boundaries in between which the Sikh idea of social action is displayed. Asceticism and hedonism are to be negated as two extremes so as to build the boundaries of morally dyed Sikh concept of social action.”

The Sikh idea of social activity is closely interwoven with, and even conditioned by its sensitivity to social evils. The Sikh Gurus have composed many hymns criticising the atrocities of the rulers, the destruction brought to common people by wars, etc. Atrocities and harshnesses by state officials, by religious elites, by zamindars and by trader-cum-moneylenders, are criticized by the Sikh Gurus, mainly from the point of view of poor peasants, artisans and village folks. This includes condemnation of institutions of power, status and wealth.

The Guru even complains to God for atrocities committed over the poor and weak :

“Should a powerful foe molest one equally powerful,
Little would the mind be grieved,
But when a ferocious tiger falls upon a herd of kine,
Then the master must be called to account.”12

Sikhism proposes strong forms of protest, even armed protests, to defend the social rights of the oppressed. Really the Sikhs conducted various wars against oppressions of rulers of the day. In Sikh history, there are many episodes of peasants rising against oppression, and the Sikh Gurus leading and inspiring such uprisings. Kharak Singh says, “The Guru’s message of socio-political responsibility is clear. His Sikh has thus to accept full social responsibility, and is enjoined upon to resist oppression and to protect the weak and down-trodden. That is the only way to express and test his love for the Lord and His creation.”13

Summarising the discussion made in the article, it can be said that with the concept of reality of the world, practice and social action, one really identifies the religion of the Sikh Gurus as a monotheism, not discriminating the world and earthly life, but integrating them with the idea of divinity. In the earlier part of this article, it was mentioned that Sikhism was chronologically post-Vedantic, and was an alternative to Vedantic philosophy. Let us add to it now a remark of Gopal Singh that the Sikh way of thinking is indigenous and pre-Aryan.14



1. Debiprased Chattopadhyaya : What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, PPH, New Delhi, 1977, p. 11.

2. M.A. Macauliffe : The Sikh Religion, S. Chand & Co., Delhi, 1963, Vol. I, p. 219.

3. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 217.

4. Wonderful Thy world, wonderful Thy knowledge;

Wonderful Thy creatures, wonderful their species;
Wonderful their forms, wonderful their colours;
Wonderful the animals which wander naked;
Wonderful Thy wind; wonderful Thy water;
Wonderful Thy fire which sporteth wondrously;
Wonderful the earth, wonderful the source of production;
Wonderful the pleasure to which mortals are attached;
Wonderful is meeting, wonderful parting from Thee;
Wonderful is hunger, wonderful repletion;
Wonderful Thy praises, wonderful Thy eulogies;
Wonderful the desert, wonderful the road;
Wonderful Thy nearness, wonderful Thy remoteness;
Wonderful to behold Thee present.
Beholding these wonderful things I remain wondering,
Nanak; they who understand them are supremely fortunate.
Ibid., Vol. I, p. 221.

5. Kharak Singh : Guru Nanak in History of Religious Thought, in the book : Recent Researches in Sikhism, (Eds.) Jasbir Singh Mann and Kharak Singh, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1992, p. 74.
See also :
O, eyes of mine .........
All this world which you behold is God’s image;
God’s image appears in the world.
M.A. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 128.
This world is a garden; my Lord is its Gardener :
He guards it even; and there is no part of it exempt from His care.
The odour which He infused into it prevails;
What is planted is known by its odour.
M.A. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 175.
God is the spring;
The whole world is His garden
M.A. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 239.

6. Khushwant Singh : Hymns of Guru Nanak, New Delhi, 1969, p. 57.

7. Gopal Singh : Sikhism : Its Unique Contribution to Human Civilization, in the book : Sikh Gurus and the Indian Spiritual Thought, (ed.) Taran Singh, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1981, p. 29.

8. Gurnam Kaur : Kinds of Knowledge and Place of Reason in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, in the book : Recent Researches in Sikhism, pp. 91-105.

9. M.A. Macauliffe : op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 196-224.

10. Op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 119.

11. Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 37.

12. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 360.

13. Kharak Singh : op. cit., p. 79.

14. Gopal Singh : op. cit., pp. 1, 11, 12.



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