INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE : A SIKH PERSPECTIVE
Sikhism emerged as a distinct religion in a pluralist situation existing in late-medieval India. At the macro-level, it was Hinduism and Islam which represented themselves as the varying religions of the time. At a micro-level, Saguna and Nirguna Vaishnava Bhakti, the Nath Sampradaya, the Sufi tradition of Islam, the Sidhas of Tantric Buddhism, Kabir Panthi and many more formed the religio-cultural multiplicity of late medieval India. Sikhism is a positive response to this situation. The doctrine of Guru Nanak is an indigenous result of a grand religious dialogue. The life of Guru Nanak is full of religious seeking, wanderings (Udasis) over the entire length and breadth of India and beyond. The great Guru visited Multan, Pakpattan, Hardwar, Kurukshetra, Kashmir, Benaras, Gaya, Rajgriha, Puri, Rameshwar, Ceylon, Mecca, Medina, Baghdad and Tibet, and there are some suggestive references that Guru Nanak visited Madurai and Palani.1 In all these places, Guru Nanak not only provoked serious discussions with religious scholars of varying types, but he has even recorded some of his dialogues and comments. One of the Tamil Siddhas, Pooranananda, claims that he had got his inspiration and esoteric knowledge from the disciples of Guru Nanak.2 Sikhism is thus surely an indigenous product of a grand religious dialogue and of the genius of Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus.
Guru Granth Sahib — A Scripture Of Dialogue
The Sikh Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is unique in its composition. The compilation of the work was organised by the fifth Guru, Guru Arjun Dev, and the final edition was done by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru. Whom do you think as the author of Guru Granth Sahib ?
Guru Granth Sahib contains the hymns and songs of thirty six saints, of which six are Sikh Gurus. The remaining thirty authors of the holy scripture of Sikhism are non-Sikhs. Jaidev belonged to Bengal Vaishnavism of Krishna worship. Namdev and Trilochan were of Maharashtrian Krishnite movement. Sheikh Farid and Bhikhan were Muslim Sufi Fakirs. Ramanand and Ravidas hailed from Uttar Pradesh and they were radical Vaishnavite Bhaktas. Kabir was a Muslim weaver and one who is known for his revolutionary ideas. To Kabir scholars of today, Guru Granth Sahib becomes one of the primary sources. There are 534 songs of Kabir recorded in Guru Granth Sahib. Eleven more bards of Punjabi Vaishnavism too find a reverent place in the Sikh scripture.3
It must be mentioned here that by the time of Guru Gobind Singh, two Gurus — prophets Guru Arjun Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur — were martyred by the Delhi rulers. But, for that reason, Guru Gobind Singh, the final editor of Guru Granth Sahib did not opt to edit away the songs of Muslim saints Sheikh Farid, Bhikan or Kabir from the Sikh scripture. The same can be said regarding the other side. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the Hindu Rajas of Himachal and the Brahmin orthodoxy of North-West India developed a lot of antipathy towards Sikhism. Again for that reason, the Sikh Gurus never thought of omitting the hymns of Hindu saints from Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikh Gurus transcended the communal divide. In their magnanimity they were true to the spirit of religious harmony. In every gurdwara all over the world, the scripture which contains the hymns and songs of Sikh Gurus together with that of bhagats and saints of Hindu and Muslim origin is given the status of Guru, the status of Gurbani, the word of Guru and is respected as the revelation of God. Prof. Jodh Singh mentions, “He cannot be a Sikh who can afford to disown Ravi Das, Namdev, Kabir and Jaidev on the one hand, and Sheikh Farid, Sheikh Bhikan on the other, because they are all integral parts of the Sikh Scripture.”4 This has been said, to put it mildly, after the attack of state forces on Akal Takht and the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.
Theological Grounds For Dialogue And Unity Of Religions
Sikhism, as a positive response to the religiously pluralistic situation existing at the time of its making, has registered the spirit of tolerance and dialogue in its theological concepts explicitly. The Sikh concepts of God, Naam, haumain and other concepts pronounce the dialogic spirit proposed by the Sikh Gurus.
First, the Sikh concept of God. There is a particular definition of the concept of God in Guru Granth Sahib which needs special attention here. This particular definition says that God cannot be comprehended by the human mind, that His greatness cannot be defined. I quote from Guru Granth Sahib :
“ His infinity no one may measure or state
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,
Yet it even eludes them”
(Japuji, S.G.G.S., p. 5)5
The Jaap of Guru Gobind Singh expresses again the same idea : “By human mind, He cannot be comprehended even though it cogitated a hundred thousand times.”6 This quite simple definition regarding the idefinability of God has been elaborated in many more words throughout the Sikh Scripture. This seemingly negative definition of God contains a very positive attitude of Sikhism to various other religions. The idea is that if God cannot be comprehended by any particular attempt, it means that no particular religion, or individual or any one scripture can claim monopoly over God. This forms the theological ground for unity acceptable by every religion.
Another concept which prepares the ground for religious dialogue in Sikh perspective is the concept of Naam. Sikhism, gives central importance to Naam Simran, which can be translated as devotion to the Name of God or meditation the Name of God. The concept is so central that often Sikhism is identified as a Naam Marga. The concept of Naam is of very rich content in Sikhism.7 It has at least two dimensions. First, it is the manifested being of the Transcendent God. In this sense, it is this dynamism and creativity which created the universe and sustain it. The second dimension is that from the point of view of the devotee, Naam is the Name of God. Consequently, the devotee is expected to devote himself to the Name of God, remember it and meditate over it.
However, the question still remains unanswered : What is the Name of God ? The Sikh Gurus reply that there is no Name to God. He is the Nameless. Otherwise put, it can be any name of God who is Nameless. Consequently, Naam Simran means spontaneous and voluntary devotion to the Name of God who is Nameless. How can one devote himself to a Nameless Name ? It is here, one identifies the space for dialogism and unity of religions in Sikhism. The idea here is that Sikhism does not stress the particular Name of God, but its stress is on devotion itself. Particularism and sectarianism are transcended here and a pristine devotion is proposed. It is at this juncture the Sikh Scripture says :
“Through whatever road a man takes, or mode of worship he adopts to achieve nearness to God, verily God receives him and accepts him.”8
Deconstruction of ego or haumain is another conceptual ground for religious dialogue in Sikhism. Haumain is approximately translated by Sikh scholars as I-am-ness, self-centredness or individualism of man. It has been identified as the greatest malady of mankind. Haumain is characterised as a curtain or a wall which stands between man and God, man and man :
“ Within us abides the inexpressible;
yet he is inaccessible;
In between is spread the curtain of egoism (haumain).”
(S.G.G.S., p. 205)
In Sikhism, haumain is attachment of man with worldly possessions, status, power and birth. In our present context, haumain is also the religious pride, attachment to religious particularism, exclusiveness, sectarianism, attachment to rites and rituals of one’s own religion, etc. In a few words, religious pride has been condemned in Sikhism. Guru Nanak says :
“ The Kazi, Sheikh and mendicants of numerous garbs
Arrogating greatness to themselves, in torment of egoism are caught.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 227)
Guru Amar Das mentions :
“ Ego-prompted man from pride engages in ritual acts.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 230)
Consequently, to get liberated from haumain, one has to re-construct his egoistic religious pride.
Ethical Grounds For Religious Dialogue
Religious ritualism is replaced by an alive humanistic ethics in Sikhism. Possibly, the Sikh Gurus considered that religious dialogue and unity of religions could not be achieved at the level of rituals and rites. And instead ethics can serve such a purpose. Sirdar Kapur Singh rightly points out the importance given to ethics in Sikhism. “Sikhism raises ethical conduct to a higher and more independent, absolute status and makes it as the true expression of the harmony of human personality with the Will of God.”9 The Sikh Gurus were very sensitive to the ethical degradation of religious leaders of their time and this became one of the reasons for the emergence of Sikhism. Guru Nanak, the founder-Guru of Sikhism, has left many sharp criticisms addressed to the ethical depravity of religious leaders:
“ The Quadi speaks falsehood and eats filth.
The Brahmin, guilty of much cruelty makes a show of ritual bathing.
The yogi, blind and misguided, knows not the true practice
All three are one in bringing ruin to the people.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 662)
Guru Nanak proposed to meet a Muslim or a Hindu at an ethical plane.
“ Nanak maketh this emphatic declaration,
Let all men ponder over it;
Ethical conduct is the only foundation of human life on earth.”10
Again he says in Japuji,
“ Make contentment the earrings;
modesty thy begging bowl and pouch
contemplation thy ashes.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 6)
“ Make enlightenment thy diet;
compassion the dispenser;
Let Divine music resound in each heart.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 6)
The Sikh Gurus did not propose anybody to renounce his own religion, but suggested only “deeper penetration of one’s own religion in thought, devotion and action. In the depth of every religion there is a point at which religion itself loses its importance and so breaks through its particularity elevating it to spiritual freedom.”11
Philosophical Ground For Dialogue
Metaphysical exclusivism in doctrine and asceticism in the way of life are general patterns of most of the traditional religions. History of religions evidences that most of the world religions centre themselves too much in the metaphysical territory. They over-engage themselves there and lose sight of earthly life. This phenomenon goes in the history of religions as logocentrism. Logocentrism develops a sort of non-dialogism with earth and earthly problems. Ultimately, most of the religions have become dichotomous. An uncrossable barrier is built between sacred and profane, between spirituality and mundaneness.
The prime victims of this over-engagement with metaphysics are ethics, social justice and dialogue with others. A religion, which is over-engaged with its own metaphysical territory, becomes so self-satisfied and self-authentic that it cannot start a dialogue with the neighbouring religion. Attributing over-authenticity to its own religious experience makes it refuse recognition even to the existence of a neighbouring religion.
Sikhism is a different type of religion. It is not a religion of pure metaphysics. It is not a religion of ascetics or asceticism. Even its inspiration is not from the ascetic end. The Sikh Gurus have left sharp criticisms addressed to the ascetics who beg for food without any earnings for themselves. The Sikh Gurus opened their religion for justice in earthly life. The Sikh ideal is expressed by concepts such as miri-piri, sant-sipahi. They mean the unity of spiritual and sensual, metaphysical and physical, spirit and matter, phenomenon and numenon. In the words of Sirdar Kapur Singh, “there is no essential duality between the spirit and matter ......... They are not antagonistic to or dissevered from each other, the one subtle, the other gross, but that they are simply and just dissimilated, and that the core of the human nature, which is self-conscious, and the physical nature are accountable ultimately in terms of ‘the subtle’ ......... removes the basic duality between spirit and matter. The subtle and gross are, in fact, identical.”12
Sikhism has a unique synthetic spirit, synthesis of God and the world, God and creation of God. Sikhism proposes a synthetic, whole-life philosophy. The world and its problems are harmoniously united with God. It is this same synthetic spirit which leads it to the ideal of social justice. The Sikh Gurus included the concept of social justice into the core thought of Sikhism. God and justice go together in Sikhism. The Sikh Gurus thus consciously waged a long crusade against the caste system of India.
It is this synthetic spirit of Sikhism which opens up enormous possibilities for real and meaningful dialogue.
1. Harbans Singh : Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith, Asia Publ., New Delhi, 1969, p. 144.
2. The Tamil Siddha Poetry Compilation, (Ed.) Aru Ramanathan, Prema Publ., Madras 1959, p. 341.
3. Taran Singh : Sikhism — An experiment in National Integration of the Country in Sikhism and Indian Society, IIAS, Shimla, 1967, pp. 285-291.
4. Dr Jodh Singh : Inter-religious Understanding : A Sikh Viewpoint, in The Sikh Review, No. 482, Calcutta, Feb. 1994, pp. 50-51.
5. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Tr. by Gurbachan Singh Talib.
6. Quoted from Sirdar Kapur Singh : Sikhism : The Oecumenical Religion, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1993, p. 208.
7. Daljit Singh : Naam in Sikhism in Advanced Studies in Sikhism, (Ed.) Jasbir Singh Mann & Harbans Singh Saraon, Pub. by Sikh community of N.America, USA, 1989, pp. 56-88.
8. Quoted from Sirdar Kapur Singh : op. cit., pp. 180 / 129 / 178 / 94-96.