SIKHISM : PATTERNS OF SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
The concept of justice is a late-comer to philosophy and religion. A modern sociologist wonders “how recent and belated is the development of the idea of equality” in human thought (Louis Dumont, 1980 : 11). For centuries, humanity has believed that inequality is the law of life. The greatest philosophers of ancient Greece, for example, did not even suspect that a philosophy could be produced keeping in mind the interests of the slaves. Greek philosophy basically was the philosophy of the slave-owners and their elite. We also know the history of Christianity, which once emerged as the religion of slaves, soon transformed itself to serve as the ideology of medieval feudalism and later of colonialism. The Indian scene was not any better than its European counterpart. It was even worse. From the most ancient recorded history of India, one finds that social inequality has been given religious sanction. India is considered as a classical society of Homo Hierarchicus. Indian society is animated by the spirit of hierarchy which permeates every sphere of life from family to state, and from religion to metaphysics. Andre Beteille maintains, “Caste has not only been a very durable feature of Indian society, but its influence has reached into every sphere of its composite structure” (1987 : 58). He continues, “Indian society has come to signify not just inequality, but inequality of the most rigid and uncompromising kind” (1987 : 34).
Scholars have already mentioned that injustice has been maintained in Hindu ideology with the help of certain strategies of exclusion and oppression such as Varnashramadharma, theories of karma, pollution, guna, etc. However, it is often conceived that the metaphysics and theology of Hinduism are innocent of the caste hierarchy existing at the social level. It is perceived that metaphysics as a discipline of Transcendental Reality is unaware of social injustice. The present article is intended to explore the opposite. It tries to assert the intimate and necessary relations between metaphysics and justice or injustice. Sikhism in this context appears to be a major indigenous attempt to propose an alternative metaphysics to the existing metaphysics of injustice. This paper identifies Sikhism as an integrated system of metaphysics and social philosophy together, permeated by the idea of justice.
Metaphysics And Injustice
Above all, mention must be made of the Vedic line of thinking, starting from the Upanishads to Sankara’s Advaita, which gradually moves towards a dichotomised perception of reality into Brahman and atman, at one end, and maya at the other end, distinctly defined and counterpoised, parallel to and in tune with the historical process of formation and consolidation of varnas and castes in India. We do not propose a one-to-one deterministic relationship between the conceptual apparatus of Vedantic philosophy and the social structure prevalent in India. The interrelationship is very complex, and subtle arguments are available to substantiate the Vedantic thinking without relating it directly to the social system. Vedanta seeks to locate the supreme idea of Brahman beyond and outside the pale of actual life, which it characterises as maya or illusion. Brahman is reached only after discriminating the empirical and social life. (Neti, Nirprapanca, Nirguna, Nirakara, etc.). The relation between the reality of Brahman and earthly life is binary, hierarchical and discriminative. Even when maya does not mean absolute nothingness according to the subtle arguments of Advaita philosophers, it is the lower reality, less real like a dream which is to be overpowered, dominated and controlled. The latter understanding is more meaningful in the context of our present discussion, as it means a relationship of power, domination and exclusion between the concepts of Brahman and the world. It is the same relationship of power, domination and exclusion that characterises the caste hierarchy. One cannot avoid the conclusion that “Vedanta was the philosophical-cum-religious binding force of chuturvarnya, and consequently, in the course of time, of ramification into innumerable castes ......... This interrelation is the key to a sober objective assessment of Vedanta” (Sardesai, 1976 : 120). The quoted author rightly points out that “Broadly speaking, the development of the concepts of the Brahman and atman, the central theme of Vedanta and the development of chuturvarnya go hand in hand” (Ibid : 122).
The Vedantic characterisation of external world as maya also inculcates a negative attitude to nature, makes nature into raw material, an unanimated ‘phusis’, a mere object, the other, with which man is allowed to have any amount of exploitative relation. In this sense, it is an anti-environmental eco-destructive system of thought. The attitude to nature is further extrapolated to people involved in physical labour and they are treated as raw material or instruments in relation to the supreme reality of Brahman. It is no wonder that in corroboration to this type of philosophy, the varna ethics evaluates the people of physical labour as low, impure and polluted. It must be remembered here that the Vedantic idea of Brahman does not include in itself any moment of activity or dynamism. Its characterisation of nirguna attributes change and activity only to the mayic, material world. The Swarupa of Brahman — Sat Chitananda, i.e., pure reality, pure consciousness and pure bliss —, too, excludes any activity from the realm of Brahman. Karma, even in its best sense of activity, belongs to the maya-world. Not only material activity but also intellectual activity or logical thought does not deserve any support in Vedantic philosophy. “Since, even thought and reason are human and hence a material faculty, ipso facto, Brahman is beyond cognizance by reason or thought as well. It is acintya, ajneya, etc.” (Sardesai, 1976 : 122). However, this is not only an epistemological issue. Ontologically, this means that the Brahman-reality cannot be changed by any means, material or intellectual. This shuts down all possibilities to transform the reality by human efforts. Brahman is allowed to rule over the world in peace, completely insured from any attack from below. Louis Dumont confirms this, “What is characteristic of the Indian order, with a division of labour based upon the fundamental religious values (i.e., caste system), is a complete differential between the spiritual and the temporal” (1980 : 278). Vedanta postulates two absolutely disconnected levels of being, Paramarthika and Vyavakarika.
The above discussion shows clearly the intimate relation between Vedanta metaphysics and the caste ordering of society. We come to the conclusion that the dichotomy of Brahman and maya is the philosophical expression of the social hierarchy of varnas or castes. The conceptually made hierarchy between Brahman and maya is a model to the social classificatory system of castes, and vice versa.
In a similar vein, we want to assert the inseparable link between the Sikh metaphysics and the Sikh ideal of social justice. However, by way of preparing the ground for it, let us digress to register the sensitivity of the Sikh Gurus to social injustice.
Sensitivity Of Sikh Gurus To Social Injustice
The Sikh Gurus were very sensitive to the social evils of their days. Sikhism is a grand response to the social inequality and oppression, found expressed in and caused by the prevailing caste system, depotisms of political rulers, hypocrisy of religious leaders and ascetics, and rigidity of rituals and penances, preached and practised in place of true religion.
Guru Amar Das indicates that a myriad errors flow out of caste pride (Harbans Singh, 1968 : 100). Guru Nanak simply identifies himself with the lowest of the low castes and asks, “What have I got to do with high castes ?” (Ibid : 100). Kabir addresses the Brahmin, the leader of the caste system:
“ Say, O Pandit, when were the Brahmins created ?
Do not waste thy life by proclaiming thy Brahminhood.
If thou art a Brahmin, born of a Brahmin woman,
Why hast thou not come through another way ?
How art thou a Brahmin ? How am I a Sudra ?
How am I blood ? How are thou milk ?”
(S.S. Kohli, 1961 : 171)
Guru Nanak’s religious mind encaptures the basic problems of human existence in the following manner :
“ The greatest of all sufferings is separation from God
Another is suffering of hunger and poverty
Next is the suffering from the tyrant-aggressor.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 1256)
The religious suffering of Guru Nanak is the actual sufferings of the people whom he passionately loved, and it is also an expression of the search into the ultimate question of existence. The compassionate heart of the great Guru cries out loudly and even dares to question its own master :
“ The people wailed in their agony of suffering —
Didst Thou feel no compassion for them ?
If a powerful foe molests one equally powerful
Little would be there to complain.
But if a ferocious tiger falls upon a herd of kine
Then the Master be called to account !”
(S.G.G.S., p. 360)
Possibly this was the moment of Truth, moment of need for a revelation, birth of a new religion, religion of a new type. Guru Nanak’s compassion for the weak, yearning for justice and his commitment to God, all these fuse together at this moment. This comes to explain the fact of an alternative metaphysics of justice and equality which goes with the name of Sikhism.
Sikhism : An Alternative Metaphysics
Sikhism, necessarily makes a radical departure from the classical Indian metaphysics. Besides the revelatory and mystic roots of origination of Sikh thought, it was also conditioned by, as we have seen, the sensitivity of the Sikh Gurus to the contemporaneous social situation. Sikh metaphysics has a direct and immediate bearing on Sikh commitment to social justice. Dharam Singh points out, “The metaphysical doctrine of Sikh theology, in fact, forms the basis of the Sikh social thought from where it gets its emergence as well as sustenance. The stress on moral and ethical values in social and political life has been so intimately intertwined with the religious thought, that any endeavour to isolate them would lead to the disintegration of the whole fabric” (1994 : 326).
Sikhism, very fundamentally repudiates the dichotomised perception of Reality, which now in Sikhism is considered as an uninterrupted continuum of God, man and the world. The Sikh Mul Mantra begins with the numeral one — IK — which means the oneness and unity of Reality and equality of all its moments. Guru Amar Das says :
“ Holy is the Lord, ever holy, holy all created forms.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 1131)
And no discrimination can be attributed to any part of the Reality :
“ He who fashioned our self, life and body,
And created us, feels for us too.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 1137)
Nirbhai Singh maintains, “In Sikhism, the reality is a nondual systematic unity, which manifests itself as hierarchical and coherent dimensions of the reality” (1990 : 61). Here, the term hierarchy does not mean the social hierarchy of castes. Guru Nanak leaves no doubt regarding the equality of human beings:
“ God looks upon all mortals with the same eye and deems them as equal.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 730)
Therefore, the term ‘hierarchical’ here means “all grades of creation — egg-born, mammals, perspiration-born, earth-born” (S.G.G.S., p. 1109), without any discriminative attitude to any one of them. Sikhism forwards a holistic, integrative monotheism, which forms the basis for its perception of cosmological and social order. In this order of things, the body is not discriminated, the world is not despised and matter is not condemned. Everything is permeated by the idea of God. “All existence is interpenetrating”, says Guru Nanak (S.G.G.S., p. 596). Guru Arjun asserts:
“ The Creator’s holy name, His Truth everywhere pervasive.
No spot of Him is emptied; each vessel He fills.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 523)
The Sikh Gurus repeatedly emphasise that the world is true, real, wonderful, holy and united with God. The discriminative, dichotomised perception of Reality is completely overcome here, giving way to an egalitarian and just order of things. We call it the metaphysics of justice.
Sikh metaphysics is not logocentric as it is found in Vedantic thought. Sikhism is a grand dialogue and dialectics of God and world, spirituality and earthliness, where the world and earthliness themselves are not distinctly cut away from God and spirituality. It is not the dialectics of opposites as it is founded in Hegelian philosophy. It is the dialectics of the differing entities, however, organically united. The dialectics of opposites cannot avoid giving equal importance to destruction, whereas in Sikh dialectics the creative moment is predominant. “Sikhism does not accept the ultimate dichotomy of matter and spirit”, says Kapur Singh (1993 : 138) and further quotes, “the subtle and the gross are, in fact, identical” (Ibid : 95).
Sikh ontology, in this regard, has the support of Sikh epistemology. The dichotomy of Brahman and maya is conditioned by the preference of Vedanta to analytical episteme that it seeks to perceive entities in a distinctly clear, unconnected and categorical form. Vedanta also follows a regressive method to reach the Swarupa of Brahman, gradually discriminating and bracketing out everything earthly. Sikh epistemology contrarily is synthetic, integrative and holistic. From the central idea of God, it spreads out to encompass man, world, and the entire existence.
The Sikh conception of Reality is analogised to the structure of a family. Consequently, all the moments of Reality are related with one another by familial bonds :
“ 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 world aplaying.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 8)
Nature is in familial relation with man. This excludes any unjust and eco-destructive relation to nature. The relation between God and man is metaphorised to the love and separation between the bride and her spouse. It is interesting to notice that the bride’s maternal household, which she leaves to unite with her husband, is compared to the world :
“ In the parent’s home, the world,
by the Word has the self-female acquired respect —
Thus in the husband’s home, the hereafter, has she found favour.
Saith Nanak : As the Holy Preceptor union to her has granted,
Eliminated is abject dependence on the world.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 1111, Also see : S.G.G.S., pp. 355, 357, 370, 371)
The holistic view of Reality is consistently saved here. The world is not despised, but only the abject dependence on the world. Metaphorically, the world is not alien to man, but it is only the parental home of man. It is within the limits of familial structure, the dialectics of God, world and man is played. It must be mentioned here that, within a family, love binds every member of the family. No member is discriminated, and no one is the instrument at the hands of the other. In the Sikh conception of Reality, family has been taken as the model for equality, love and justice.
Caste, Renunciation, Family And Khalsa
The metaphor of family preferred in Sikhism brings to our discussion its place in comparison to other forms of living available in Indian tradition. The pre-Sikh period of Indian history has evolved out predominantly two patterns of living, i) the caste pattern, ii) the way of living of a renouncer. The caste pattern of living, as we have seen, is permeated by the principles of hierarchy, fragmentation and discrimination. Every member of society is born and accommodated in a caste, and is taught to have a particular attitude towards other castes. This is rigorously guarded by rituals, rites, dharmas and by religion. The inequality is inborn in this pattern of living. It is these principles of hierarchy, inequality, etc., that were found confirmed by the Hindu metaphysics also.
On the other hand, Indian tradition has also offered another pattern of living — renunciation — the way of life of an ascetic. The ascetic ideal as such was worked out mostly by the heterodox traditions like Aajeevika, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. However, it was imported into and sanscriticised by the Brahmanic tradition as one of the four ashramas. Some of the modern sociologists are inclined to see in the institution of renunciation, a counter-pattern of living in preference to and in opposition to the caste-hierarchical pattern, as the ascetic is the one who renounces his ‘social’ role of being the member of a caste and prefers to go out of the given system. Thus, renunciation has come to be seen as the opposite of caste pattern of living.
The already quoted sociologist, Louis Dumont, describes the history of formation of the opposition between caste and renunciation in the following manner : “The historical transition can be represented schematically as a twofold movement. On the one hand, society, under the aegis of the Brahman, was to become more and more settled into categories of strict interdependence, having the pure and impure as their axis (i.e., the caste system). On the other hand, the individualistic philosopher of the previous age was to become a renouncer, Hindu or heterodox” (1980 : 186). Romila Thapar, too, identifies counter-caste initiative in renunciation (1984-63-104).
Coming back to the discussion of Sikhism, one finds that the Sikh ideal of society excludes both the above said ways of living — caste and renunciation. The Sikh critique of casteism has been enunciated above in this article. And its criticism of renunciation, too, is well known. However, objectively, the renunciative model of opposition is highly abstract, theoretical and idealistic. As Louis Dumont himself indicates, the renunciative ideal hides its subtle individualism behind its universalism. Besides, renunciation pathetically fails to make any material of intellectual initiative against the caste system, as by its own definition, renunciation is also renunciation of discursive thought and praxis. Ultimately, renunciation’s opposition to caste system is illusory and it ends in no more than a passive escape from the social reality of caste. In this sense, the idea of justice, if any; of a renouncer, too, is illusory, and abstract. It is on these valid grounds that Sikhism repudiates the institution of renunciation.
Negating the historical models based either on hierarchy and fragmentation or on individualism and inaction, Sikhism proposes the alternative that is constructed by the principles of holism (critique of haumain), equality (critique of caste) and dynamism (critique of renunciation). At one level, the Sikh Gurus land on family as a metaphor of their social ideal. However, the ideals of the Sikh Gurus find their completion and fulfilment in the Khalsa.
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