CONCEPT OF MAN IN SIKHISM
Man — An Integral Being
Sikhism perceives the Reality as a coherent and united system in which every part is related positively with the whole and with other parts. No doubt, the idea of God occupies the supreme position in such a system. However, man is related with God as an inseparable entity. Consequently, man is approached in Sikhism not as an individual being, but as a societal being as well as the highest being in divine creation.
Traditionally, the philosophies of the world dichotomised the man into soul and body, and liberation was conceived as liberation of soul from the body. But for Sikhism, man is an integral being in which both the body and soul are created by God. Both body and mind are moments of one great reality, that is, the spirit. The spirit-produced body and mind are considered as expressions of Divine beauty. Guru Nanak says :
“Attach thyself to Him who created thy body and
mind and gave it such an aspect of beauty.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 62)
We have indicated on various other occasions that Sikhism is philosophically comparable to the system of Hegel. In it, the spirit pervades the entire existence of man and no part of him is excluded or discriminated. The spirit pervades not only human soul but also the body. Therefore, Sikhism is not just a soul-liberating thought. It consciously wages a war against the soul-liberating attempts of the ascetic sects. On the other hand, its ideal is liberation of man, the social and earthly being.
The soul-liberating philosophies of earlier history inculcated contempt towards human body. Thinkers of such philosophies, despite their sincerity and mental capability, were living a life alienated from human labour and collective social living. Their general frame of thought was individual contemplation and they carved out a concept of human liberation in the same realm of individual contemplation.
Sikhism does not have contempt for human body. On the other hand, it condemns a way of life based on contemplation only. The Sikh Gurus themselves lived the life of hard labour, and Sikhism as a faith is based on the value-system of hard working peasants, artisans and workers. Consequently, Sikhism does not despise human body. Guru Amar Das says :
“ Vast is this citadel of the human body
By a chain of fortunate happenings obtained
The Lord Himself abides in this body
Himself tasting all delectation.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 514)
Guru Nanak says :
“ The mind’s life is breath, Lord of the body,
In the body is the Divine essence pervasive.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 598)
Thus, Sikhism perceives the unity of God, soul, mind and body. As such, the methodology of Sikhism is not analytic, in the sense that it does not tear away the various moments of man — body, soul, mind, senses, etc. — into compartmentalised parts. The Sikh approach is synthetic and it looks at man as a united being in himself. Moreover, man is united with other fellow beings and with God.
The Sikh conception of integrated human existence can be demonstrated by another argument also. That is, the concept of soul does not receive a specialised treatment in Sikhism. This fact must be compared with the case of previous schools of philosophy and religion in which exclusive attention was paid to the concept such as atman, jiva, purusha, etc. Only Buddhism exempted itself from the general trend with its conceptions of anatmavada and universal interrelationships. The Buddhist concept of anatmavada supposed that there is no separate and static entity as atman or jiva. The concept of universal interrelationships, too, supports the above thesis. Of course, Sikhism does not support the concept of anatmavada. Its criticism on anatmavada would be that the thesis might lead to an extreme relativism. However, one finds a striking resemblance between the two in their silence about the concept of pure and independent soul. Sikhism would also support the concept of universal interrelationships. Even when Sikhism does not advocate the ontological conception of anatmavada, it considers the feeling of ego (haumain) in man as the basic source of evil, suffering and alienation.
The Concept Of Haumain Or Egoism
Haumain, usually translated as egoism, is one of the basic concepts of Sikhism. The Sikh Gurus have devoted thousands of lines to explore the phenomenon of haumain and to the ways of eradicating it. The concept is so important that without it, proper understanding of the Sikh thought cannot be perceived, understood and interpreted in its wholeness. Many more terms such as maya, five evil passions, etc. stand subservient and explanatory to the concept of haumain in Sikh Thought.
The Punjabi word haumain is translated as ego, egoism, individualism, self-centredness, illness, self-conceit, etc. As the Sikh scholars define it, haumain is the sense of individuality or of one’s consciousness of separateness from the whole and also from the other beings. In the total structure of Sikh metaphysics, the term can be translated as ‘separateness’ or ‘non-relatedness.’ The question arises : Separateness from what ? This takes us to the Sikh conception of Reality. Sikh conception of Reality is the relatedness of God, Nature, society and man as a spiritual continuum. It is in the background of such a reality, the term haumain acquires the meaning of separateness. When any one moment in the systematic, coherent, dynamic unity proclaims that it is not related with the system, that it is self-sufficient, then it is called as separatedness or non-relatedness. And it is haumain. Haumain is, above all, non-recognition of system and its unity.
Man, immersed in the feeling of I-ness or haumain perceives the world as his possession. The self-centred man loses his societal nature and his primordial familial relation with nature. Nature becomes an object to him and he feels that he is the master of it. His relation with his fellow men, too, is permeated by the dichotomy of subject and object, and consequently, every next man is an object or an instrument to him. A haumain-oriented (manmukh) man attaches himself with the privileges he gains from his caste or regards the power at his hands as supreme.
Haumain of individual as non-relatedness also means human alienation. “Fish, out of its own waters” is the metaphor often used by Guru Nanak to indicate the desperate position of the alienated man. The relation between a fish and water is vital. “The bride without the love of the spouse” is another metaphor of the Sikh Gurus for human alienation. Haumain is human alienation, loneliness, rootlessness, suffering, violence, irresponsibility and it is also an unidentified longing for love, affection and solidarity.
Sikhism considers haumain or individualism as the greatest malady of mankind. This aspect of Sikhism can be well understood by comparing it with the modern European life. The modern Western culture is occupied with the ideal of Individual, his so-called natural rights, his freedom, his property, career and success, and at last it has found that its individual is completely estranged from everything human and social in him. For more than three centuries, the West has celebrated the ideals of Individual and the same historical period has been the most violent and repressive. The late 19th and 20th century thought of Europe is realising the failures of the Individualistic ideals of Western history. The psychologist, Sigmund Freud has shown that the Western Individual is not united, that he is torn into atleast three pieces — the subconsciousness, consciousness and social consciousness. A whole set of philosophers, who go with the name of Existentialists, has found the Western Individual in a deeply alienated situation. They have shown that the individual of West is inevitably split and perverted. Again, the post-modernist philosophers declare the ‘death’ of the individual. These philosophers inform us that the Western axis of individual is no more than an ideological construction of modernism. They call for fresh, post-modern societal and communitarian models to emancipate the Western man. This has been realised by the Western scholars only at the aftermath of the failure of the ideals of Individualism. But the danger of Individualism was brilliantly realised by the Sikh Gurus some 500 years ago, possibly in the wake of a fresh wave of Individualism in Indian history.
The Sikh Gurus identified the emerging individualism — haumain — as the greatest malady of Indian society. Guru Arjun warns :
“ Those that live caught in egoism are verily dead
Those whose egoism is dead are truly alive.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 374)
Every positive concept of Sikhism such as God, devotion, Naam and liberation is opposed to haumain and it is directed against individualism. Bhagat Ravi Das says :
“ While my ego lasts, Thou are not seen,
Now Thou alone are, I have ceased to be.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 657)
Guru Amar Das says :
“ Egoism and devotion are to each opposed,
Abiding not together.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 560)
Guru Ram Das says :
“ Such a one is jivan mukta
— finding life after destroying the ego.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 449)
Guru Nanak says :
“Liberated are those who subdue egoism.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 413)
Eradication Of Haumain And The Concept Of Liberation
As has been already mentioned, Sikhism does not follow the traditional religious paradigm of body-mind dualism, and so it does not advocate the liberation of soul as its ultimate aim. The Sikh concept of liberation operates on the basis of the newly carved paradigm of haumain and its eradication. Not the liberation of soul from the body, but the enlightenment of integral man in unity with the other moments of the total Reality is the conception of liberation in Sikhism.
Haumain has been sometimes defined in Sikhism in the traditional way as comprising the five evil passions. They are kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobh (greed), moh (attachment) and ahankar (self-pride). They are compared to the five thieves who steal away the spiritual wealth of man. However, the genius of the Sikh Gurus lies in contextualising the meaning of haumain and the five evil passions in their contemporary life situations. The Sikh Gurus identify haumain as casteism, ritualism, asceticism, the power of the despot-tyrant, exploitation of man by man etc. It is also interesting to note here how Guru Nanak formulates the basic problems of human existence:
“ The greatest of all suffering is separation from God
Another is the suffering of hunger and poverty
Next is the suffering from the tyrant-aggressor.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 1256)
In this verse, the issue of haumain has been defined as ‘separation from God’ and it has been identified as one of the basic problems in unison with human poverty and oppression on common man. This passage of the hymn of Guru Nanak also shows how far the great Guru has travelled away from the traditional problematics of religions. Like in the famous formulation of Buddha, human suffering has become the central focus of Guru Nanak’s religion. The principle of miri-piri, the unity of spirituality and earthliness, finds a spectacular confirmation here. The Sikh concept of liberation is also to be worked out in the same spirit.
History of religions, particularly of Indian religions, evidences that there were two types of liberation in vogue, namely videh mukti and jivan mukti. Most of the religions stress on the concept of videh mukti, that is, the liberation of soul after death or after completely discarding the bodily and worldly existence. Such a conception presupposes the dichotomy of body and soul, and independent existence of soul after death. Videh mukti is also based on a negative attitude to earthly living, and in its extreme form it characterises the world as mithya (illusion). The ideal of Sanyasin was worked out on this basis. The Sanyasin’s ideal of videh mukti considers that every human action — good or bad — is a cause of bondage and proposes absolute passivity or non-activity. Ultimately, the videh mukti ideal is, in principle, incapable to deal with ethical problems of man because ethics is an earthly discipline, whereas the philosophies of videh mukti consider earthly life in toto as meaningless.
Contrary to the ideal of videh mukti the ideal of jivan mukti has been formulated. This concept asserts that liberation is possible in one’s lifetime. In other words, this latter concept tries to accommodate somehow the living of man on earth in its concept of liberation. Following this, it tries to formulate various ways of achieving liberation in one’s lifetime. Sikhism, in a sense, would support this latter concept of liberation i.e., liberation has to be sought by one’s own efforts during one’s lifetime. However, Sikhism differs from the concept of jivan-mukti, too, in certain aspects. The Sikh position is not just to ‘accommodate’ the mundane living of man with the spiritual goal. Earthly living is not just an instrument or a carrier to achieve the ultimate spiritual goal. Sikhism gives full reality to earthly life and pays utmost importance to the earthly strivings of man. An ethical and social living of man dyed with supreme spirituality is the ultimate goal of Sikhism. Consequently, even when Sikhism accepts the concept of jivan mukti, it gives deeper and broader meaning to the concept.
Sikhism would reject the individualistic frame of the concept of jivan mukti too. As it stands for the liquidation of haumain or individualism, it would not want to seek the liberation of individual soul. Sikhism advocates the ideal of universal liberation. This is closer to the Mahayana concept of Sarva Mukti — liberation of all, a third type of liberation differing from the earlier two. The Sikh concept of liberation is also comparable to the Mahayana concept of Bodhisatwa, a monk coming to earth after rejecting his own individual Nirvana.
To conclude this discussion, a little more is to be added that the Sikh conception of universal liberation is essentially social. It needs to be mentioned that the earlier traditions, even when they subscribed to universal liberation, did not include social participation and struggle for social justice as its essential aspects. But Sikhism includes them and it is the distinguishing mark of Sikhism. A Sikh is pious in his religiosity, active in social life, aware of justice and he is responsive to any injustice done to any one. It is this supreme and difficult ideal, which the Sikh Gurus in all their humanist zeal have given to their Sikhs.
1. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Trans. by Gurbachan Singh Talib, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1990.
2. Selections from the Holy Granth, Trans. by Gurbachan Singh Talib, Guru Nanak Foundation, New Delhi, 1982.
3. Nirbhai Singh : Philosophy of Sikhism, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 1990.
4. Dharam Singh : Sikh Theology Of Liberation, Harman Publishing House, New Delhi, 1991.