SIKHISM AND MODERNITY
Sikhism as a religion and as a way of living was founded by Guru Nanak Devji towards the end of 15th century. Chronologically, fifteenth century is counted as belonging to the medieval age in Indian history. But the question is whether the chronological characterisation should be taken as conclusive. One observed that the Sikh religion founded in the sixteenth century is in many respects critical to the medieval spirit and is highly responsive to many of the problems of modernity. That is simply the argument developed in this paper.
Above all, Sikhism demands a re-definition of the concept of religion itself. Classically, religion was defined as one which deals with the supreme metaphysical reality, i.e., God and usually evaluates the mundane reality as something mayic or sinful or a place of suffering. Sikhism very modestly transcends such a definition of religion. Sikhism is not only a religion of metaphysical ultimate, but also a religion of active earthly life. In fact, Sikhism successfully integrates the spiritual and temporal realms of human life. At the one end, it intensifies the faith in the transcendental God. God is beyond any one of our descriptions. He always remains above all over characterisations :
“ All God’s laudation, repeated over and over again
Comprehends not His greatness.
He is unknowable as the ocean
Into which streams and rivers fall.”
(Japuji, S.G.G.S., p. 5)1
At the other end, Sikhism intensifies the idea of reality of world and meaningfulness of living. The world is the creation of God. In the world one finds the becoming of God in time. And so life is wonderful and renouncing the world has no meaning. Guru Amar Das says :
“ Thou art All-holy;
All-holy Thy creation.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 423)
Guru Nanak characterises the world as Dharamsala :
“ He created night and day, seasons and occasions.
So also air, water, fire and the nether regions
Amidst these has He fixed the earth,
the place for righteous action (Dharamsala). ”
(Japuji, S.G.G.S., p. 7)
In this way, unity has been proposed and achieved by Guru Nanak between the sacred and temporal. The sacred touches the temporal and penetrates it to make it meaningful and ethical. On the other hand, the temporal enters the sacred and makes it dynamic. This revised definition of religion has an all embracing implication in Sikh thought and Sikh way of life. The Sikhs live a pious but an active life. It is this definition of religion which brings Sikhism up to the modern age.
We know that the modern age coined the ideas of democracy and egalitarianism. But the very same concepts are deeply embedded in Sikh thought. The composition of the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is the best evidence of its democratic basis. Sri Guru Granth Sahib is free of any sectarianism in religious matters. The holy scripture contains not only the hymns and songs of Sikh Gurus, but also that of Kabir, the sufi saints, the vaishnava bhaktas and saints of the period. This strange but democratic spirit of tolerance and respect to the view points of other religious saints is a unique phenomenon in the history of religion. No other scripture of any religion in the world includes in itself the hymns of saints of another religion. This type of humane and brotherly attitude to people of other religions is found through the entire history of Sikhism. Indeed, Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru of the Sikhs, stood and fought to defend the religious symbols of the Kashmiri Pundits. In modern terms, it was a heroic struggle for human rights in religious matters.
The institution of Khalsa in Sikhism established by Guru Gobind Singh contains in itself a broad and popular democratic basis. Guru Gobind Singh gave primary and utmost importance to the collective voice of the Khalsa and the sangat. The Guru had mentioned that while the “Guru’s sovereignty is full of twenty measures, that of the sangat as the vice of the people is of overriding paramountcy, of twenty one measures.”2 Guru Gobind Singh formulated four principal vows3 for a man to be incorporated into the order of Khalsa:
(1) That he will have no pride of his occupation (Kritnash).
(2) That he will have no pride of high birth, etc. (Kulnash).
(3) That he will discard all superstitious and traditional beliefs in false
dharmas, rituals, etc. (Dharmnash).
(4) That he will discard all social customs and practices; and instead
fashion his life according to the injunctions of the Guru (Ritinash-Karmnash).
A careful scrutiny of these vows would indicate that they are directed towards abolition of all privileges on the basis of caste, birth, position, etc. Guru Gobind Singh laid the principles of Khalsa to make it an ideal model for a just and democratic society.
The spirit of egalitarianism is very deep in Sikhism. In Indian context, egalitarianism is not merely an economic category; it should be understood above all in terms of social justice. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak as an alternative to the caste-ridden, hierarchical Hindu social order. Guru Nanak introduced himself not as Khatri, but as the lowest of the low, as a friend of the poor. Many authors of Sri Guru Granth Sahib were born in families of ‘low’ castes. The great Guru founded the practice of langar — the common dining — as a gesture of equality of all castes and to feed the poor. The Tenth Guru, who instituted the Khalsa recruited the first five members (Panj Pyare) of it mostly from the so-called low castes.
God and justice go together in Sikh religious thought. God’s ordinance, the court of God is described as just and true. (Japuji, S.G.G.S., p. 7). Guru Nanak says :
“ God approves not the distinction of high caste and low caste
None has He made higher than others.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 53)
One of the salient features of modernity is its critical spirit. In the early centuries of modern age, the critical spirit of European Philosophy was directed against the religious orthodoxy. Later it broadened its space and became directed towards transforming the social reality which was despotic.
Sikhism in the history of Indian thought inherits the critical spirit of Buddhism. But the criticism is not passive as in the case of Buddhism. The Sikh Gurus were fundamentally critical to the Brahminic and Islamic orthodoxy, the authority of texts as Vedas and Quran. Sikhism rejected the priestly order of both the religions.
The Sikh criticism was not limited to religious realm. Guru Nanak and other Gurus were very sensitive to the socio-political evils of their time. It is out of this social sensitivity that the ideal of Sant-Sipahi emerged. Guru Gobind Singh declared :
“ When all other means have proven ineffective (to secure justice)
It is right then to take up the sword.”4
The Sikh criticism of the Hindu caste-system is well-known. Ultimately, the critical approach of Sikhism has its philosophical foundation. Sikhism preaches a philosophy of unity and difference with the world. It means that the world is true, one has to associate himself with the world, but the world has to be transformed according to the just ordinance (hukam) of God, not that injustice is to be tolerated. Sikhism is optimistic at its ends, too, that the world can be transformed through critical enlightenment and social action.
Sikhism is modern not only because it transcends the medievalism of Indian religious history, but also by its wise understanding of the inevitable problems of the modern way of living. In European history, modernism reaches its absurd end in consequence of its over-centredness at the individual. Among the recent Western philosophies, Existentialism pays special attention to the sufferings, anxiety, fear and desperateness of the individual. It indicates how much the cherished European ideal of Individual is split and alienated at the present age. Some other thinkers of the West talk of the temporariness of the episteme of ‘Individual’ and propose to work out fresh forms of communicative living.
It is very interesting to note here that Sikhism at its core condemns the ego-centric way of living. Haumain, the I-ness of the individual, has been identified as the major source of evil. Fallenness and liberation are understood in Sikhism in terms of haumain and its dissolution. Sikhism proposes the community living and collectivism as the alternatives to the ego-centric way of living. Guru Amar Das says :
“In egoism is the world ruined further and further declining.”(S.G.G.S., p. 555)
Guru Arjun Dev declares :
“ Those that live caught in egoism are verily dead;
Those whose egoism is dead are truly alive.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 374)
Meticulous care had been taken from the time of the first Guru to develop the spirit of collectivism in Sikhism. Guru ka langar, sangat, pangat and finally the Khalsa are important milestones in the history of Sikhism to build up the Sikh community. In Guru Granth Sahib one can find any number of verses in which “the Holy company” or “the Holy congregation” (sangat) has been identified as the necessary condition of living a meaningful life. The religion of Guru Nanak even gains its name “Sikh Panthi” from its stress on the importance of the community of its followers — the Sikhs meaning the sishyas.
It is this spirit of pious collectivism and just action that Sikhism earnestly suggests to the post-modern age.
1. Here and below : Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Tr. by Gurbachan Singh Talib, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1988.
2. Quoted from J.S. Bains in Sikhism and Indian Society, IIAS, Shimla, 1967, p. 132.
3. Quoted from Kirpal Singh Narang, Ibid., pp. 148-149.
4. Quoted from J.S. Bains, Ibid., p. 134.