SIKHISM AND INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE
We shall deal with the subject under the sub-heads:
1. Sikh Ideology
2. Categories of Religions
3. Approach of other religions towards Pluralism
4. Approach of Sikhism to Pluralism
5. Problems of Pluralism and Inter-Religious Dialogue
The salient points of the issues are discussed below as briefly as possible.
1. Sikh Ideology
Every religion follows the spiritual experience of its Prophet. The Basic Reality has invariably been described as unknowable. And, yet each prophet has given to his followers important principles and doctrines that follow from the spiritual experience that he has gained of the Basic Reality, God or the Transcendent. The Sikh Gurus have profusely defined the various aspects of the Reality, but their emphasis is that He is the 'Ocean of Virtues' and 'Love'. The Guru says: 'Friends ask me what is the mark of the Lord; He is all Love, the rest He is ineffable.1 'Love being creative, dynamic, and the mother of all values, the Sikh Gurus have laid down a system which in its essentials is entirely different from the earlier Indian systems. Gurus' description of God has five corollaries. First, it implies that the world is real, for, love can have its expression only in a real world.2 Second, it means a system of life-affirmation, and consequently an inalienable combination between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. The world becomes a real and meaningful place, since God is working therein with love. Third, it prescribes a religious methodology of deeds, and gives spiritual sanction to the moral life of man. The Guru says that all spiritual assessments of man will be based on his deeds.3 And, it is by our deeds that we become near or away from God.4 Fourth, the goal of spiritual life is not merger or union with God as an end itself, but it is a life of activity, God's Will being Creative and Altruistic. Guru Nanak has in unambiguous words stated that spiritual life means to work according to the Altruistic Will of God,5 and that the highest spiritual life is of a truthful conduct. 6 Fifth, it assures man of God's Benevolence and interest in life, and, for that matter, gives hope, confidence and optimism to man. In short, Guru Nanak's thesis is basically and essentially a whole-life or Miri-Piri system.
The above system involves six responsibilities of the spiritual life that have been emphasized by Guru Nanak in his Bani and demonstrated by the Gurus in their lives. As a consequence of his Miri-Piri system Guru Nanak rejected asceticism, monasticism, lifenegation and withdrawal from life, as also celibacy, the caste structure, downgrading of women, and Ahimsa. The first responsibility in a wholelife'system is to live in the world as a householder or otherwise; but one has fully to participate in all walks of life. Second is the acceptance of equality between man and woman. In that respect Guru Nanak is the first man of God to emphasize this aspect of his spiritual system. The third responsibility is of equality between man and man8, thereby rejecting the Varan Ashram Dharma or the caste ideology of his times. Fourth, he places on man the responsibility of work and production9. He deprecates the life of an ascetic, who is not willing to work and resorts to begging at the door of householders, expecting them to sustain him. Fifth, he stresses the responsibility of sharing one's earnings with others.10 For, God's bounty belongs to all, and it is men who try to grab it for themselves.11 Sixth, Guru Nanak lays down, and this is an important responsibility which he prescribes for the spiritual man, that injustice and oppression should be resisted. Since large scale injustice, oppression and aggression are a socio-political phenomenon, he took two steps to combat it. First, he organised a society or a Panth, and second, he discarded the inviolate character of Ahimsa.12 He even complains to God for allowing the weak to be trampled upon by the strong.13 This hymn of his, means two things. First, that aggression and injustice are violative of the Order of God, and, for that reason, it is the duty of the Godman, the religious seeker or the religious society to resist and confront injustice in life.
Guru Nanak's system has been called the Naam Marga, and rightly so. But his concept of Naam is creative, dynamic and full of values. It is God or Naam which is working the world. Naam Marag is essentially an effort to tune our wavering egoist psyche to His Will or Flow of Naam. The net result of that effort, with the grace of Naam, is to work actively and truthfully in harmony with die Will of God or Naam, which permeates and guides the world. The Guru at many places states that the role of the gurmukh in life is not to be a pacifidst or an ascetic, but to 'live truthfully'. Hence the Summum Bonum of spiritual life in Sikhism is to 'live truthfully'14 or 'to work in tune with Naam. For, the man imbued with Naam (Naam Ratte) lives truthfully, and this has amply and perfectly been demonstrated by the Ten Masters in their own lives.
2. Categories of Religions
'Broadly, there are four categories of religious systems. The first category is of dichotomous systems in which the spiritual path is distinct and separate from the empirical path. All Pre- Sikh Indian systems belong to this category, in which asceticism, monasticism, withdrawal from life, celibacy, downgrading of women, unreality of the empirical life and Ahimsa are normal features. In these systems, normally, the spiritual path is just an individual endeavour for personal salvation, without much of societal implications.' In contrast, is the whole-life system of Sikhism, which we have described above. To the third category belongs Christianity, in which pacificism and nonresistance to evil are essential ingredients. It started as a societal religion with the direction 'to love one's neighbour as oneself’15 but during the course of time it became dichotomous by, on the one hand, accepting the institutions of monasticism, nunneries and celibate priests, and by, on the other hand, giving full and complete role to Secularism in the empirical life of man. To the fourth category belong the whole-life systems of Judaism and Islam. These started as complete Miri-Piri systems, since both prophets Moses and Prophet Mohammad were, simultaneously, spiritual and empirical leaders. In the earlier centuries of their lives, there was no place for monasticism, pacificism or withdrawal in these religions. But, in later centuries in both of them monastic and ascetic sects arose. For example, Essenes, Kabbalists and others, in the case of Judaism, and Sufis, in the case of Islam. Actually, Christianity branched off from Judaism at a time when pacificist sects, with non-resistance to evil as originally recommended by Jeremiah, had arisen therein. Although these religions, as such, were originally whole-life, monastic and padficist sects, have, in both of them, an established religious sanction. These are the four principal categories of religious systems. It would appear to us that historically, padficism and withdrawal from life appeared in these whole-life religions, when their elan was on the decline. The net result is that for the last over two centuries, as Toynbee declares,16 in the Christian Societies religion has virtually been discarded from the socio-political culture of the West. The above is the position of the religious life and the empirical life in the present age.
3. Approach of other Religions towards Pluralism
So far as wholly dichotomous or salvation religions are concerned, their approach to empirical or societal problems has always been lukewarm, because withdrawal from life is incongruous with any attempt at solving socio-political problems of man. In fact, for the religious man such an involvement would be a contradiction or an unwanted entanglement. This is also the reason that the inequity of the caste system could survive without check in the empirical life of India for thousands of years. In Hinduism while there is tolerance for any kind of personal belief a man might hold, the outsider has been looked upon as a Malechha, polluted or impious and a journey across the seas is virtually taboo. Hence, in these systems spiritual path being only an individual endeavour, inter-religious cooperation has a very limited scope, since the religious problem is reduced" to man's individual attempt at salvation or Moksha.
Difficulties of inter-religious dialogue are present in Judaism too. It believes that the Jews are the Chosen Community of God, with whom they have a living covenant.17 This being their fundamental faith naturally problems of inter-religious dialogue, on terms of equality, arise. But apart from its exclusivism, Judaism's long history of persecution in Europe, including the latest holocausts in Hitler's Germany, hardly helps it to maintain a healthy approach to pluralism. The position in Islam is less conservative, since it accepts the prophethood of earlier Western religious leaders. But its exclusivism is there, Prophet Mohammad being the seal of prophets18, it would not be easy for its theology to recognize the validity of later or other revelations. The position in Christianity is also plainly exclusive. For, the Roman Catholic Maxim is "Outside the Church no salvation". Similarly, according to the conservative Evangelical Protestant viewpoint salvation is denied to anyone without faith in Jesus Christ.19 The stand is clearly absolutist.
Broadly, this is the theological position in the case of the four religions mentioned above. However, this is not to say that attempts at inter-faith dialogues have not been made. In fact, Christian scholars have made considerable effort and studied its problems, although their moves have sometimes been looked upon with suspicion by others. We shall discuss the issue further while dealing with the problems of inter-religious dialogue.
4. Approach of Sikhism to pluralism
The Sikh position on pluralism and inter-religious dialogue is extremely explicit and stands defined by the Gurus themselves. Not only is Sikhism universal in its approach, but the Guru in his Bani clearly accepts the possibility of other revelations. For the Fourth Guru prays: "Save by Thy Grace the world in flame. Save it at whatever portal it may be saved" 20 The couplet clearly denies any exclusiveness, and accepts that God in His Grace" could resort to more ways of redemption than one. The second statement is by Guru Nanak who in his reply to the Naths, says that his mission, with the help of other Godmen, is to ferry men across the turbulence of life.21 This clearly envisages not only inter-religious dialogue, but inter-religious cooperation in the mission of God which the Gurus were carrying out. Third is the specific demonstration of their thesis of universalism in the two historical steps the Guru took. The first is presence of the Bani of twenty two Hindu and Muslim saints in the Guru Granth Sahib which is the Guru of the Sikhs. This is something extremely uncommon and new in the history of religious scriptures. Second is the laying down of the foundation stones of Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar (Golden Temple), by Sain Mian Mir, a Muslim Sufi, who was invited by the Guru to do so. It is, therefore, clear that the Sikh Gurus not only have laid down a religious system which is universal in its character, but they have also taken clear steps both in their Bani and in their lives to demonstrate that universalism and inter-religious cooperation should be an essential component of the spiritual life of man.
5. Problems of Pluralism and Inter- religious Dialogue
We have stated that, because of its universalism, Sikhism presents no problem, nor has it any reservations regarding pluralism and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. But in some other religions, theological problems of exclusivism are there. Judaism, because of its political history, past and current, naturally raises some hurdles. For, in West Asia it is still locked in a political struggle with the Islamic countries. This bitter strife has also religious complexion and overtones that militate against any healthy or uninhibited inter-religious dialogue. For somewhat similar reasons the position in Islam is no different. Culturally it finds itself on the defensive both in the West-East and South-East. Another snag is that in the West Asia it has a feeling that the dominant Christian West is unreasonably siding with Judaism. Thus, Islam is itself trying to re frame its approach to the Western culture, which, by and large, has become secular in the socio-political field. That is why a Muslim theologian, Sayyad Mohammad Naquib-al-Attas, proclaims that 'Islam still resists secularisation in a way that Christianity has not', and that, he feels, is the reason for 'Islam having a future and a final meaning for humankind.'22
In Christianity there is' a serious debate as between protagonists of its exclusivism and these that suggest pluralism and serious interreligious dialogue. It is the irony of man that whereas in all the three religions, viz. Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the brotherhood of man is their first fundamental, their churches have become quite exclusive. The learned Hillel when asked to explain the 613 Commandments of Torah, stated "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn it."23 Similarly, the Bible, while it commands the Christian to love God with all one's heart, simultaneously prescribes to treat one's neighbourer as oneself. In Islam, too, the story of Abu Ben Adam emphasizes that the love of man is synonymous with the love of God. This being the ideological position in the three religions, the problem of inter-religious dialogue has seriously concerned thinking persons of these religions. The Western culture being, by and large, Christian, the greatest debate is naturally taking place among the churches. Adolf Von Harnack therefore, tried to emphasize that the essence of Christianity lay in only three Truths, namely, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man, and die Infinite value of the individual human soul.24 Similarly, men like David Lockhead, Paul Knittor, John Hick, Schuon and many others strongly suggest the shedding of exclusivism, and accepting a theology of Pluralism. Lockhead suggests that the Christians have in the course of history developed four ideologies, namely the ideology of isolation, the ideology of hostility, the ideology of competition, and the ideology of partnership. 25 He recommends the last which, he feels, is essential for any ideology of universalism which Christianity prescribes. But the view is criticised because "To be a Christian is to be committed to Jesus Christ. To regard God's activity in Jesus Christ as simply equivalent to ways God may have chosen to act in other religions, seems to destroy the point of our commitment."26 Similarly, Paul Knittor's edited book The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, and John Hick's thesis of Pluralism of various religions being just human responses to the Transcendent, have both had very strong opposition and criticism, including publications like Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of Pluralistic Theology of Religion, from the faithful. Pluralists have been accused of undermining the Truth claims of each religion and recommending just a kind of 'religious agnosticism', which in a way destroys the very basis of religious faith, based on a living tradition. Similarly, F Schuon in his classic work, The Transcendent unity of Religions, classifies human religious responses into the Esoteric and the Exoteric. He makes a strong case for inter-religious understanding, while suggesting that "exoteric differences, are just due to influences of culture, time and space and should not deter us from appreciating the underlying esoteric' unity. For, "there is unity at the heart of religions."
We need not go further into this internal debate in Christianity, except record two facts. The first is the sceptic reaction of other religions towards Christian inter-faith dialogues, especially because of the colonial background of the Christian world. For, many a time, it is felt, that inter-faith dialogues have been just instruments of conversion. Because the Christian Churches, as a whole, are still far from accepting the ideology of pluralism and partnership. The second point is the problem of Secularism as also of injustice and oppression in the political field. This problem has been a major issue with sensitive Christian thinkers, so much so, that it has been argued "that the common interest of the religions in resisting secularism is more important than the differences that exist between them."27 In some sections of the Christian world, Secularism, Communism and Individualism have been considered allied problems that are a serious danger to all religions. A corollaxy of Secularism is the injustice and oppression that are present both in the Christian world' and outside it. Jurgen Moltmann, a theologian of liberation, emphasizes that 'interreligious dialogue is only fruitful, when religions are committed to the task of eliminating common threats such as injustice and oppression.'28 This feeling is more so in Latin American and African countries, where Poverty is a major problem, and seeds of Liberation Theology have sprouted. In the same strain Father Camilo Torres declared, "The Catholic who is not a revolutionary, is living in mortal sin."29 Similarly, Catholic Archbishop, Helder Camara states, "that the force of Truth, Justice and love is greater than that of wars, murder and hatred. But he has claimed that the violence of the rich against the poor, and the violence of the developed countries against the under-developed, is more worthy of condemnation than the revolutionary violence that they create. "30 It has however, to be stressed that so far these voices in the Christian world are in a small minority. And for the reason, while serious problems of secularism, injustice and oppression are facing all religions and societies, in the Christian world ideas of pluralism have not been able to gain sufficient momentum so as to organise inter-religious cooperation with a view to solving them. This is very clearly evidenced by the statements of Metropolitan Dr. Paules Mar Gregories who has been the President of the World Council of Churches for seven years. Following the multiplying and mounting problems of Secularism, the North American Christian Churches raised a strong voice asserting that Secularism was a common danger and needed to be eliminated as a social force, and that Christianity should seek the cooperation of other religions to combat it. But this voice was throttled in the World Council, because the European Churches felt that "Secularisation, not secularism is the primary process. It is a process in which some of the values of Christian faith have been put in a' secular framework, bringing about a powerful force, which is' destroying all old ideas. Hence, secularisation is an ally, because it will destroy Hinduism, Islam and other forms of what they consider to be superstition. We should ally ourselves with secularisation and see it as the work of God". Later it was again repeated, "We do not feel that we have any thing-lacking. And so we are opposed to dialogue, unless it is for the sake of testifying to Jesus Christ". "That was it. Then they passed a resolution saying that' 'under no circumstances should multi-religious dialogues put Christianity on the same level as other religions, and this is unacceptable'. So because the European Christians had that point of view, the World Council has not been able to engage in multireligious dialogue for quite some time."31 Lest it should be considered that the situation has since then changed in any manner, we quote the statement of Metropolitan P.M. Gregories made in April 1991 at the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace: "I have been associated with the World Council of Churches and its work in dialogue with people of other faiths since 1954. But I find, particularly on the part of European Christians, that there is still an inhibition about entering into full dialogue with other religions. In the minds of people there is a fear that having conversation with other religions may imply some compromise in one's own conviction. And in the World Council of Churches I can assure you that this view has been a major inhibiting factor. We could have gone much further in dialogue, if European Christianity was less inhibited."32
Thus, at the present stage Christianity partly because of the theological reasons, and Judaism and Islam, partly because of their socio-political struggles have natural limitations is entering into meaningful inter-religious dialogues. In the Indian sub-continent too, increasing tensions between Islam and Hinduism are hardly conducive to healthy inter- religious cooperation.
Although Sikhism, because of its universalism, has been traditionally cooperative in the inter-religious field, the present political developments in the Punjab are affecting the recognition of its identity. In 1987, the Council for World Religions arranged a seminar on Hindu- Sikh dialogue. It is somewhat amusing that majority of the Hindu Scholars virtually questioned the very identity of Sikhism. One scholar observed, "Sikh Scholars see the Miri-Piri concept as an inseparable whole in the religious order. Non-Sikhs have come to see a religion politics linkage in Sikhism, and deduce the root cause of the current crisis in the Punjab to this. " 33 Ignorance about Sikhism is so great that another scholar felt that as Sikhism had arisen only as a social protest against caste ideology, its relevance as a separate religion was now hardly there. He wrote "Untouchability has been abolished by political legislation. Government steps are persistently being taken to uplift the castes considered backward so far. As such, the very point against which original Sikhism had reacted, no longer remains a point of contention. Moreover, the problem of social inequality and the consequent demand for justice no longer remains a province of religious organisation. It is the Government agencies who have to look into the problems in order to eradicate social inequality and provide social justice. As such, the problem has shifted its locale from the religious to the political"34 Another scholar was more forthright in his attack. He stated, ''To the extent Hinduism has been influenced by Vedanta either traditionally or in modem version of Ram Krishna and Vivekananda, it has a tendency to subsume all religions as different aspects of one large religion-of which Hinduism is a subconscious, if not an overt model. And, of course, in this religion, the closer a person or a doctrine is to the Advaita Vedanta, the closer to Truth is that person or is assumed to be. It is not entirely possible to include Christianity and Islam, in spite of this philosophical proclivity of the Hindu mind, as branches of the great tree of Hinduism. This is so for obvious reasons of history, language, foreign origins of these religions, and the fact that Hindus have been for centuries ruled by followers of these religions. But when it comes to Indians belonging to religions which originated within India, such as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, many Hindus regard them as downright unpatriotic or unspiritual, or both, if they wish to maintain their identity distinct from the Hindus. Distinctions are just not considered a mark of high enough vision, and are mere appearances."35 This gives a glimpse of the self-image and the conditioned approach of Hindu theologians and scholars towards the identity of other religions, especially of Buddhism and Sikhism.Hence, the difficulties and the problem of inter-religious dialogues in South-East Asia.
We have attempted to give a bird's eye-view of the position and scope of inter-religious dialogue among major religions of the world. The problems appear to us serious enough for anyone to be under any illusion in this regard. However, it is our view that the solution of man's moral problems lies only in the domain of religion. There is hardly a trace of inter- species or intra-species morality in the animal world. For, without accepting the Fatherhood of God or the Transcendent Reality, the Brotherhood of man remains only an empty slogan. Sikhism emphasizes that spirituality alone can be the source and elan of the moral life of man. It is for this reason that many thinking scholars in the Christian and the Islamic worlds consider Secularism to be the greatest danger to the modern culture. It has been clearly apprehended that it is Secularism that has led to the demeaning of politics and the social life of man. 36 Individualism, Nationalism, Communism, Imperialism, Militarism, Racism, and the break-up of the family are the natural consequences. Marxism and rationalism raised the hope that a secular culture could bring about greater justice between man and man. The crash of the Russian Empire has demonstrated that rational means, howsoever well intentioned, are incapable of creating a moral cohesion to sustain a people, or a society : Uninhibited or unchecked egoist proclivities of man invariably lend to injustice and oppression. The results are the same, whether it is Secular Marxism or Secular Capitalism. The consequences of Secular Capitalism are evident in Latin America and Africa, where Christian priests are fighting it under the banner of liberation Theology so as to close the widening gap between the affluent rich and the miserable poor. It was too much both for the priests and the poor to accept the ugly anomaly that those who for six days of the week practised cruelty and aggression against the weak, on Sunday sat in the Church on the front benches, with the suffering poor on the hind ones. Hence the voices of men of religion like Archbishop Helder Camara, Father Camilo Torros and Jurgen Moltmann quoted earlier. The talk and preachings of the brother-hood of man have no meaning, if the Church of a religion is unable to translate it into deeds in the socio-political life of man. Just as the Christian priests of South America and Africa, in order to make the Bible meaningful for the poor, seek to draw on the essence of Christianity that fundamentally prescribes the brotherhood of man, similarly, Islam too, is trying to fall back on its religious roots to sustain its culture. It is no fundamentalism to turn to the essence or elan of a religion to enrich its moral fibre in time of difficulty or crisis. Fundamentalism is essentially a Christian word for those who literally accept the truth of all statements about history and life in the Bible. There is nothing parochial or obscurantist to derive one's moral strength from the spiritual base.
We have indicated above both the secular attack against religion and the difficulties of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation that face the truly religious man. In this context, we should like to stress that in a whole-life religion like Sikhism, the empirical life is essentially informed by the spiritual component, which alone can supply it with moral content and cohesion. Without a spiritual base, Secularism, as we have seen, remains ethically barren. It is this divorce between Secularism and Religion and its attendant dangers which the North American Churches, the Liberation Theologians and Muslim thinkers are lamenting. God being the Source of all virtues, the Gurus have clearly defined many of the attributes of God which are not only relevant in the empirical field but which form the very basis of Sikh ethics. It is they who call God the Shelter of the shelterless, Help of the helpless and Destroyer of the evil-doers.37 He showers His Grace where the lowly are helped.38 The whole-life Sikh ethics that prescribes the responsibility of the Sikh in all field of life, is based on the Gurus' perception of the attributes of God. Schuon suggests the same thing, "If the virtues act as modes of knowledge, it is because they retrace by analogy Divine attitudes; there is in fact no virtue that does not derive from a Divine prototype, and therein lies their deepest meaning: "to be" is "to know."39 For, "Love of one's neighbour, is so far as it is a necessary expression of the Love of God, is an indispensable complement to Faith."40 In Sikhism the highest stage is of the gurmukh who does not merely preach but who "Lives truthfully", for God is not only to be loved, but love has also to be lived. In Sikhism there is nothing like knowing God, but knowledge of Him comes both from loving and living. The Transcendent, is also the only Fount of spirituality and love, "The fact that it is thus transcendent, however, means that it can be univocally described by none and concretely apprehended by few. For these few the problem of the relation between the religions is, by it, solved; for the many the problem is unsolvable, because for the many the generic is abstract and the concrete is not generic, and only what is concrete can be loved and worshipped. "41 It is in this context, that Sikhism calls Him to be the only Source of moral life that can sustain the empirical life of man. It, thus, unambiguously believes in inter- religious dialogue and cooperation in this world of God, but that cooperation can be fruitful only if it is firmly based on the stand-point laid down and lived by the Gurus, namely of Love, which has multiple facets and responsibilities.
In sum, Sikhism prescribes inter- religious cooperation, but that cooperation has to be on the basis of the Fatherhood of God or : The Transcendent and for the goal of establishing the brotherhood of man; and for that end confronting the forces of injustice and oppression, as did the Gurus for a period of over 200 years. They lay down that human salvation lies in accepting His Fatherhood and seeking His Grace to struggle against the so-called evil or the imperfect forces of life. The eternal problem, as also stated by the minority voice in Christianity, is of Secularism (or lack of Faith in Him as the Source of all Morality) and the struggle against injustice and inequality. This struggle for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth has gone on since the dawn of civilisation and may go on for many a millennium more. Therefore, from the stand-point of Sikhism interreligion dialogue has a meaning, as also observed by Moltmann, if there is a commitment to struggle with faith against 'injustice and oppression'.
Copyright Institute of Sikh Studies, All rights reserved.
Designed by Jaswant (09915861422)