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This is an article about the Sikh social ideal. The Sikh conception of society emanated in the Indian historical context which was predominated by caste system on the one hand, and the way of living of a renouncer on the other hand. The present paper pursues the analysis of the essential characteristics of these prevalent social models and indicates the points of departure of Sikhism from them. By the fifteen - sixteen Centuries A.D., Sikhism had its encounters with the Islamic understanding of society too. Although Islam inspired Sikhism in many respects, they had their points of divergence too. The Sikh social ideal, consequently, had to work out its response to the Islamic way of acting in society. This has been dealt in the next part of the paper.

The later part of the paper looks at the modern Western liberal democracy as a social model from the Sikh point of view. Some of the recent studies in the West1 have resurrected the Hegelian concept of ‘end of history’ meaning the modern Western societies as the best, final and ultimate pattern of social government in the history of mankind. This has been taken for scrutiny from the Sikh viewpoint and the possible points of criticism of Western system are notified. Thus, the paper is dedicated to the Sikh social ideal in comparative perspective and aimed at bringing to the forefront the search for alternatives to the existing models.

Critique Of Caste System
The Sikh principle of miri-piri is the starting point of the discussion.2 It makes Sikhism differ fundamentally from various traditional belief systems which were dichotomic and one-sidedly transcendental. Sikhism, on the other hand, aims at the unity of spirituality and earthliness. It proclaims the authenticity of the world, societies and life on earth. The world is declared holy and named as a place of righteous deeds. Sikhism obligates “an enlightened, loving and creative interest in the world and in its development.”3 The principle of miri-piri renders theoretical justification to the Sikh interest in working out a social ideal.

The primal context of emergence of the Sikh social theory is the Hindu caste system. One can quote any number of songs from Guru Granth Sahib to show that the Gurus outrightly denounced the caste system. The Sikh thought, in order to make coherent and systematic its rejection of caste system, repudiated the entire corpus of appending theories and customs associated with the caste system. The theory of pollution, the theories of karma and transmigration, origin myths justifying the hierarchical social structure, ritual status attributed to scriptures recommending the varna system etc. were banished by the Sikh Gurus.4 The metaphysics advocated by the orthodox schools was exempted by the Sikh Gurus as the metaphysics of injustice and cultural oppression.5 The Sikh practice of pangat and langar were clearly aimed to break the food taboos which formed the anthropological basis for untouchability and casteism. Finally, the Khalsa was envisaged as a necessary form of empowerment of the poor and oppressed.

The Sikh critique of caste system exposes the essential features of the caste system such as hierarchy, fragmentation and inequality, and the Sikh social ideal replaces them with holism and equality. The rigidity of caste compartmentalisation makes the society stagnated and morbid in terms of social mobility and economic productivity. Sikhism proposes a dynamic whole in place of the former. Every moment of the Reality is perpetually in movement and motion that life is ever freshly created. The Sikh Gurus compared Reality to an ever-growing tree. The aspect of change is an inalienable moment of Reality, according to the Sikh Gurus.

Sometimes it is held that caste system had a cosmological appeal that it is a model not only of society, but also of the entire universe. Thus, holism is argued as one of the basic components of caste perception of the world. However, it must be stated that in the caste universe, holism is secondary while hierarchy remains its primary and all-pervasive aspect. Whereas in Sikhism, hierarchy has been eliminated to make the spirit of wholeness uncompromising and fundamental. Reality is conceived in the latter as a unified and related whole, every moment of which is equal to the other.6 As hierarchy is identified as a factor of fragmentation, inequality and stagnation, wholeness comes to be emphasised and re-established.

Critique Of Renunciation
The Indian religious systems indeed have another model of living which goes with the name of renunciation. Jainism, Buddhism and later a few unorthodox Hindu sects (Gorakh Nath Yogis, Siddhas, etc.) developed this pattern. Some of the recent sociological studies enunciate the social meaning of renunciation in that it is an alternative to caste system and that it achieves equality in transcendental seclusion and monkhood. It is claimed that a renouncer above all renounces his caste living and the caste role ascribed to him. Thus, the argument developed is that renunciation no more needs to be looked at as a life-negating principle, but as an alternative institution contradictory to the caste society. A revised approach has been proposed postulating a positive social role to the institution of renunciation that it inspires the society towards radical change.7

Taking into consideration this argument, one is compelled to look at the analytical moments of the renunciative ideal. The chief attribute of the renunciative ideal is that it shares with many transcendental systems absolute non-action as its basis. Even knowledge is understood as an aspect of materiality — and so of activity. Consequently, all theoretical and practical activities are exempted from the renunciative ideal. Thus, the renunciative critique of casteism becomes purely abstract and utopian. That renunciation inspires change is an argument debatable. By renunciating all action and sources of action from itself, renunciation turns incapable of inspiring any action for change. A careful look at the history of the institution of renunciation shows that it has failed to inspire change, and on the contrary, it has become an “addition” to the religion which has advocated caste system. Louis Dumont is right when he says, “the discipline of the renouncer by its very tolerance of worldly religion (read : Caste Religion - NMM) becomes additional to it.”8

The universalism of the renunciative ideal is also a cunning one. It hides behind itself an individualism. Renunciation of the world and one’s body is possible only by presupposing the individual existence of an atman or soul distinct from the world and body. This is again postulating an individualistic position at the transcendental level. It is an apparent universalism hiding behind itself its own opposite. It is interesting here to note that Sikhism outlaws renunciation on the grounds that it is abstract, utopian and non-dynamic on the one hand, and individualistic on the other hand.

Critique Of Individualism
The Sikh Gurus have left an extremely large corpus of verses criticising the phenomenon of individualism. Haumain, a Sikh concept for individualism and I-am-ness is found to be repudiated in every alternative line of Gurbani. It has been identified as the greatest malady of mankind and a wall which divides man from man, every individual from the whole. Haumain is interpreted by the Sikh Gurus in terms of contemporaneous social realities in that it is the root cause of caste pride, renunciation, despotic rule and economic exploitation. The entire socio-religious thought of Sikhism is aimed at eradicating the evil of haumain and to make the man a sachiar, to achieve a truthful mode, of living, that is to unite oneself harmoniously with the whole.9

The Sikh Gurus did not encounter directly the Western liberal democracy, and their critique of individualism was worked out in a different social context. Possibly, it was the context of India encountering the Islamic religion and rule, and above all the unleashment of the fresh wave of individualism as the result of the above. The despotism and arrogance of the ruling elite, and the wars and aggression steered by them are attributed by the Sikh Gurus to the phenomenon of haumain. We understand that individualism, as indifferent to others and to the whole, must have rooted by this time with a fresh stress. As a response, the Sikh Gurus decided to uphold the primacy of justice and holism against the unbridled individualism of the age. They bring to the forefront the subtle forms of the functioning of haumain and make the critique of it the corner-stone of their thought.

The Sikh rejection of individualism as a structuring principle of society appropriates a crucial meaning, because it contains the possible criticisms to the Western mode of liberal democracy, which has been celebrated as the end-model of social governing in history. Individual is the atom, cell or the unit of the Western modernistic system. It is true that it assures certain amount of legal or judicial form of equality among the citizens of the system. It is from the point of view of this legal form of equality, for example, Ambedkar criticised the Hindu caste system of inborn inequality and hierarchy. But equality in real terms is not ensured by the system structured by individualism nor by the legal form of equality. Individualism as the basic unit of society, has the other side of it in that man is alienated from one another, removed of his rootedness in society, community and culture, and that he is split and got in limit situations. The Sikh thought looks at individualism, above all, as alienated and unrooted.

It is often held that the Western liberal pattern guarantees creativity and dynamism. Apparently, it is there and the individual becomes highly mobile and dynamic due to his alienated and individualised position in the system. He mobilises all his vital energies as an individual in order to survive and to have power over the other and to defeat the other. As a post-modernist writer says, “The vital energies of an individual are mobilised to transform himself into wild, primitive and completely merciless in and against the other.”10 The ethical responsibility to the other is completely lost in this way of thinking and living. So, the individual is “destructively creative” in the system, a form of individualisation destructive of unity.11 The only way left to the individual to rebuild the social wholeness is the illusory inter-subjectivity of bureaucratic rationalism. It is interesting to note that the Sikh Gurus were able to identify very subtly the outcomes of the haumain-oriented dynamism, that is destructive, arrogant, oppressive and despotic to the other and to the whole. As the renunciative model, the individualist episteme, too, is ontologically dichotomic. It presupposes the dualism of I and the Other. The I-ness, for its assigned freedom, manipulates, disregards, overpowers and oppresses the Other. The Other — whether it is nature or woman or next man — is made into a lifeless object for subjugation. The philosophers say that through dichotomy, the Other is made to undergo the process of objectification.
Sikhism, on the contrary, builds a non-dichotomic system of man’s being-in-a-world-with-others. It resists any form of suppression of the Other. The Reality is perceived as dynamic to establish justice and to resist the evil of dichotomy. Sikhism really poses an alternative social ideal to the modes living history has witnessed.



1. Francis Fukuyama : The End of History and The Last Man, Penguin, 1992.

2. Kharak Singh : Sikhism : A Miri-Piri System, SGPC, Amritsar, 1994.

3. Daljeet Singh : Sikhism : A Comparative Study of the Theology and Mysticism, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 1994, p. 203.

4. Jagjit Singh : The Sikh Revolution, Jagjit Publication, Patiala.

5. N. Muthu Mohan : Sikhism : Patterns of Search for Justice, in the book : Current Thoughts on Sikhism, (Ed.) Kharak Singh, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1996, pp. 413-423.

6. Nirbhai Singh : Philosophy of Sikhism, Atlanta Publications, New Delhi, 1993.

7. Romila Thapar : Renunciation : A counter-culture ? in the book : Ancient Indian Social History — Some Interpretations, Orient Longman, 1978, pp. 63-105.

8. Louis Dumont : Homo Hierarchicus, The University of Chicago, 1970, p. 275.

9. N. Muthu Mohan : The Concept of Haumain in Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh Review, Culcutta, October 1994.

10. David Harvey : The Condition of Post-Modernity, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 15.
11. Ibid., p. 16.



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