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THE SIKH IDENTITY*

Daljeet Singh

Introductory
In order to understand the sovereignty and independence of the Sikh religion we shall discuss the subject under the following heads: (1) Spiritual experience and concept of God, (2) Ideology, (3) Class, (4) Scripture, and (5) Panth and Its Institutions. Since the subject of Sikh identity is very wide, only a brief reference to the various elements mentioned above, will be made.

Spiritual Experience and the Concept of God
It is significant that Guru Nanak clearly claims that he has a mission as ordained by God, “O Lalo, I say what the Lord commands me to convey.”1 This statement about their prophethood and mission has been made by the other Gurus as well, of course, the mission is the same as proclaimed by Guru Nanak. In describing the spiritual experience, the Gurus have unambiguously asserted the existence of the Fundamental Spiritual Reality, and its ineffability. Yet, they have described profusely the various attributes of God, social, political, ethical, metaphysical, etc. Three things they have repeatedly emphasized, first, that He is Unknowable, second, that He is the Source and Ocean of all values and virtues, and third, that He is All-Love: “Friends ask me; what is the mark of the Lord. He is All-Love; the rest He is ineffable.”2 These important characteristics described by the Gurus, stress the dynamic and creative character of God. Seen in the light of the Indian definition of Sat-Chit-Anand, and the characteristics tabulated by Stace3 and William James, this definition is clearly different in the sense that whereas the Guru’s spiritual experience, the others indicate a sense of tranquility, blissfulness and passivity.

It is not suggested that the Gurus deny the experience of blissfulness, but they highlight the dynamic aspect of that experience. In fact, the significant activities of the lives of the Gurus and the Sikh religion clearly bear the stamp of that spiritual experience. In this respect the Gurus also stress four aspects of their concept of God. First, that apart from being transcendent, He is also immanent; and being immanent, He is Creative and Directive, i.e., He has a Will. The second quality emphasized is that He is the Ruler, Protector and Sovereign (Rakba). The third attribute is His being the source of all values and virtues. And the fourth aspect emphasized is His interest in life and the universe. It is these principal attributes of God and the spiritual experience of the Gurus that give a new shape and identity to Sikhism and its life, i.e., its dynamism and ethical activities.

Ideology
The chief elements of the Sikh ideology are based on the spiritual experience of the Gurus, as indicated above, and their definition of God. The subject may be dealt with under the following heads:

  • Reality of World: The Gurus have repeatedly stressed the reality of the world. In fact, the very concept of God being Immanent in the world means the profound importance of the world and life. The Guru says: ‘God created the world and permeated it with His Light.'4 Evidently, the universe in which God is immanent and is working with His Light, could neither be unreal, mithya or a suffering. So that is an important departure which Sikhism has made from the then existing Indian religions.
  • Goal: The Gurus have already defined that God has a Will with which He works the world. This being so, Guru Nanak clearly lays down that the goal of life is to work in line with God’s Altruistic Will. He rejects the path of ascetic silence and states that the human goal is to carry out or move according to the Will of God. Guru Nanak puts the question as to how to become a ‘sachiara’ or True Man, and how to break the wall of falsehood (obstructing our vision)? Then he gives the answer, saying that the goal or the true path is to carry out the Will of God.5 This is also a very important departure from the goal prescribed in Indian religions, which is generally of merger in Brahman or extinction in the ocean of Nirvana or Brahman. This very important departure from the goal in Indian systems, has great implications. For that reason, while it rejects the path of withdrawal and asceticism, it clearly prescribes a life of dynamic activity in accordance with the Attributive Will of God. It is because of this goal that the entire system of Sikhism is different from the other Indian religious systems, in which monasticism, celibacy, Ahimsa are accepted institutions. It is this contrast in goals that makes for the Sikh way of life being entirely different from the paths prescribed in other religions. The goal is so different that the Gurus have used the Semitic words ‘hukm’ and ‘raza’ to express their concept of this ideal. .
  • Methodology: The world being real, and the goal being to carry out the attributive Will of God, naturally this leads to a life of altruistic activities for the seeker. The Guru says that it is by our deeds that we are assessed by God.6 “It is by our deeds that we become away from or near to God.”7 “Good, righteousness, virtues and the giving up of vice are the ways to realize the essence of God.”8 Love, contentment, truth, humility and virtues enable the seed of Naam to sprout.”9
  • Everything is lower than truth; Higher is truthful living or conduct.”10
    In short, in Sikhism, according to the Gurus, it is by one’s deeds and one's character that one is judged by God.
  • Gurmukh or the Ideal Man: We have already indicated the goal in Sikhism. Naturally, the ideal man is the one who lives God in life, and always carries out His Altruistic Will. In this regard, the Gurus have indicated two concepts, one of manmukh and the other of gurmukh. Manmukh is the egoistic man, who, being unconscious of the universal Will of God, lives and works egoistically. The Gurus have clearly stated that man’s problems and maladies, all arise from his egoism and selfish living. Clash, conflicts and wars in life arise, because at the present level of consciousness or our existence, we neither comprehend nor accept the universal character of life and the brotherhood of man. It is this egoistic living that brings us into conflict with other beings. The Gurus do not accept or assume any concept of fall, evil or Satan in life. They only state that at the present stage of development, man is egoistic and for that matter imperfect. They prescribe the methodology, as mentioned above, of altruistic deeds, that alone can make for his spiritual progress. They clearly lay down a message of hope, right effort and progress; “O man you are superior in God’s creation; now is your opportunity. You may fulfill or not fulfill your destiny.”11 “You have obtained the privilege of human birth; now is your opportunity to meet God.”12 “God created first Himself, then Haumain (sense of individuation), third, Maya. (multifarious beings and entities), and the fourth higher stage is of gurmukh who always lives truthfully.”13

This concept of manmukh and gurmukh is fundamental to the understanding of Sikh theology. The Gurus have emphasized three things. First, that at the present stage of development man is egoistic and all his problems of conflict, clash and suffering are due to his ignorant and egoistic living. But they, on that account, neither curse man nor life, rather they hold out hope for man saying that by living a life of virtuous deeds and accepting the universal character of God, they can not only alleviate their suffering but also make for spiritual progress towards their destiny. The third important thing is that the fourth stage of gurmukh is not of a man who merges in God, but it is of a gurmukh who always lives truthfully. Hence, the fourth stage of gurmukh is of one who continuously carries out the altruistic Will of God. And God being the Protector of the weak, the Destroyer of the evil-doers14 and the demonical15 , the sachiara, or the gurmukh always participates fully in life and accepts total social responsibility. His sphere of functioning is as wide as the domain of God and no aspect of life is taboo for him. In short, he accepts all challenges of life, and seeks to solve them altruistically. Therefore, the Gurus prescribed for the gurmukh an ideal of Sant-Sipahi. This concept follows clearly and logically from the spiritual experience of the Gurus, their definition of God and their theology as mentioned above. As God is the Protector of the weak, Just (Adli) and Destroyer of the evil-doer, and this being His Will, acting and directing in the universe, the gurmukh as the instrument of God must inevitably follow that spiritual course. Hence, this ideal of Sant-Sipahi, while in perfect consonance with the thesis of the Gurus, is entirely different, and in certain respects, diametrically opposed to some of the principal elements of the earlier religious systems. Accordingly, in no manner can the independent character of Guru Nanak’s ideology be doubted or confused with any other identity or religious system.

Class
As following from the spiritual experience of the Gurus and their theology, is determined the class or category of Guru Nanak’s system. Broadly, we may classify religious systems into four classes. First is the category of Indian systems which are dichotomous in the sense that logically the spiritual path is different from the empirical path. Therefore, in dichotomous systems, monasticism, asceticism, Sanyas and withdrawal are prescribed as a part of their religious methodology. The second corollary of these systems or Sanyasa is that involvement in the world is a distraction and virtually a fall. The third corollary is that celibacy is a virtue and for that matter householder’s life is generally discarded and woman is considered to be a temptress. The fourth corollary is that Ahimsa or pacificism is an integral virtue. It is because of this dichotomy between the spiritual and the empirical lives, we believe, that the highly discriminatory and unfair system of caste, untouchability and pollution has continued to be a part of the Indian empirical life. The second category of systems includes Judaism and Islam, which are whole-life systems, because in these, spiritual life and empirical life are combined. But both these systems have two other features. One, they are both exclusive in their character. Second, in both of them in the later part of their history, monasticism and asceticism have appeared and been accepted. This happens in the form of Essenes, Kabbalists, etc. in the case of Judaism, and various sects of Sufism in the case of Islam. To the third category of systems belongs Christianity, which although it accepts involvement in life, strictly prescribes non-resistance to evil, and pacificism. Probably on this account, in Christianity, which was originally a householder’s religion, later appeared monasteries and nunneries. It is for the same reason that later still the institutions of secularism and communism have arisen in the Western life, involving thereby a virtual dichotomy between the religious life and the empirical life.

To the fourth class of religious systems, belongs Sikhism. While like Judaism and Islam, it is a whole-life system, it is free from their other two features, namely, of exclusiveness and of accepting monasticism and withdrawal as a part of their religious system. In Sikhism, on the other hand, both these features have been rejected. Sikhism discards monasticism, asceticism and withdrawal. This rejection was made clear both by Guru Nanak in not allowing Baba Sri Chand to be his successor, and by the subsequent Gurus by excluding Sanyasis and ascetics from the Sikh fold. Obviously, a whole-life system with the concept of Miri and Piri and the ideal of Sant-Sipahi, could not in any manner countenance the presence of recluses and Sanyasis as a part of their flock. For the same reasons, both celibacy and the downgrading of women, were emphatically rejected. Nor could a Miri-Piri system accept Ahimsa as a virtue or a part of its religious ethics. Further, the importance of work and sustaining life was clearly recommended, and yogic aloofness condemned. For similar reasons caste ideology was rejected since it militated against the Gurus’ basic principle of fairness and brotherhood of man. Lastly, in order to give a clear and visible shape to his new ideology, the Sixth Master created the institution of Akal Takht at the same place as Harmandir Sahib with separate flags representing Miri and Piri. An important feature signifying this combination is that the Sixth Master wore two kirpans meaning thereby an integral unity of spiritual and empirical life in the Sikh system, because Piri was represented by a kirpan as much as Miri was done. It is significant that in Nathism, which was a very old system, quite alive in the Punjab, the Nath had to take vows for remaining celibate, for not doing any work or business, and for strictly observing Ahimsa.16 Although these recluses did to an extent accept the validity of the caste system and the Hindu gods, Guru Nanak categorically rejected all these features, and organised a whole-life system of householders participating in all walks of life and remaining socially responsible.

Another important fact which generally goes unnoticed is that the Tenth Master in prescribing the wearing of kirpan for the Sikhs clearly reminds him of his duty against aggression and tyranny, and warns him against any relapse into a monastic or ascetic system of withdrawal from life. Hence, in every respect and in the essentials of its theology, Sikhism belongs to a class of systems quite apart and independent in its ideology. For, Guru Nanak and the succeeding Nine Masters clearly demonstrated in their lives what Sikhism stood for and how it was to be lived in a manner emphatically different from not only the Indian systems but also from the three Semitic systems, current in his times. In fact, clear direction was given to see that features that had appeared in some of the earlier whole-life systems did not creep in Sikhism at some later stage. All this shows how clear were the Sikh Gurus in their vision and about the independence and sovereignty of their system and the mission they were to pursue.

Scripture
Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture, is the most emphatic pronouncement about the distinct and independent identity of Sikhism. Apart from being the embodiment of the words or Shabad of the Gurus, and for that matter of the commandments of God and the Sikh doctrines, and being final in every respect, it is the living guide of the Sikhs and has been so apothecated by the Tenth Master. The phenomenon of Sikh Scripture is unique in the annals of religious history of man. In the case of every other religion, its scripture was compiled decades, and mostly centuries, after the prophet had left the physical scene. In all these cases numerous problems of authenticity, textual accuracy and advertant additions and interpolations, have arisen, thereby creating many controversies, both among the faithful and the scholars. In fact scholarly debate has arisen in Christianity as to whether or not Christ wanted to initiate a new religion or intended only to reform Judaism. But the step taken by the Fifth Master makes its absolutely clear that the Gurus had a new thesis to give, entirely different from the earlier ones, and for that matter, it required a separate and authentic compilation. By this important measure, the Master eliminated all possibilities of attendant controversies that had arisen in the case of other religions. Secondly, he made it equally explicit that in its message the Scripture was final and complete. And the Tenth Master, while stopping the line of human succession to the Guruship, made it clear what the position of the Guru Granth is in the Sikh religion. The Gurus thus created a tradition that not a word could be altered nor any line added to the Guru Granth. The story about Ram Rai, Guru’s own son, and other similar incidents make it clear how particular the Gurus were in maintaining and securing the authenticity of the Bani (Shabad) and how sacred they felt to be its character as the vehicle of Truth.

In this context, one fact is very significant. In the presence of the existing position on the Guru Granth neither can there be an alteration in the Sikh thesis, nor can any saint or person, while claiming to be a Sikh, attempt to create any deviation or schism in the Sikh society. It is in this background that one can understand the activities and writings of two writers of long association with a Christian Mission in Punjab, in making unfounded and misleading statements about the authenticity of the Kartarpuri Bir. The surprising part of such statements, in fact, some misstatements17 , is that those have been made or repeated without a proper study or examination of the Bir or the authentic literature that existed long before these persons raised unwarranted doubts. And the very fact that some of those statements or the intentions behind making them, is being now denied, shows the fishy nature of such attempts. All we wish to emphasize is the great and unprecedented vision of the Sikh Gurus in authenticating the Sikh Scripture, thereby eliminating for the future the possibility of any such controversy. This shows both the clear identity of the Sikh thesis and the intention of the Gurus to secure its purity for all times to come. The Sikh Gurus were fully aware of numerous scriptures in India and outside, and it is in that background that they took the monumental step of authenticating the Guru Granth Sahib. The implications of this step about Sikh identity are indeed profound and emphatic.

Panth and Its Institutions
We have already indicated Guru Nanak’s system was a whole-life or Miri-Piri system and, for that matter, it envisaged the creation of a society or Panth. For, it was not a salvation religion for the guidance or benefit of a few. In this matter, Sikhism is entirely different from the Bhakti religions or the other Indian religions. This intention of Guru Nanak is clear from the very start. For, wherever he went, he created and organised Sikh societies with a place for the regular or periodical socio-religious meetings of his groups. And after the close of his travels, he organised such a centre at Kartarpur. It is clear that his purpose was not of merely giving a new thesis, but he also wanted to organise a society that should live the ideals laid down by him. It is for that purpose that he started the institution of succession, since he knew that although the thesis had been clearly expounded in his Bani, the society he had initiated, had still to be nurtured, motivated and developed. Of course, Guru Nanak had laid down the lines on which his society was to work, and the targets it was to achieve. His being a Miri-Piri system, it was he who had rejected the doctrine of Ahimsa. Apart from that, the institution of Langar was also initiated by him; it was something which was wholly revolutionary in his times. For, not only Shudras but Muslims also participated and sat at the same platform. In the work and lives of the subsequent Gurus, we can see a clear development and ascent in the organisation of the Sikh Panth. Separate centres of the Sikh societies were created, which were all linked to the central place where the Gurus worked and where periodical meetings of the entire Sikh Sangats were held. Apart from that, the institution of Daswandh was created. It is significant that both the field centres and the place of the Guru dealt with social as well as religious problems of the Sikh society. The primary object of all this was, on the one hand, to knit together the Sikhs as a separate Panth or People, and, on the other hand, to wean them away from the other religions and cults, which were numerous in the country. The Sixth Master, in pursuance of the instructions of his father, started militarisation of the Sikh society, and raised the institution of the Akal Takht side by side with the Harmandir Sahib. Almost since the time of the Fifth Master, the Sikh society started growing as a parallel socio-political organisation. As it was also militarised, the tension between the Sikh society and the state naturally grew, ultimately leading to open clashes. The Seventh Master promised aid to Dara and the event was evidently not forgotten by the Delhi Emperor. Similarly, the organisation of a Millat, a people, by the Ninth Master came to the notice of Emperor Aurangzeb, who offered18 to give grant to the Guru, if the latter gave up his political and what he felt to be somewhat rebellious activities. The Guru declined the offer. The intentions of the Gurus became clear and open, when finally the Tenth Master formally organised the institution of Sant-Sipahis or the Khalsa with Amrit ceremony. What is very significant is that as an essential component of the Sikh thesis, he prescribed the wearing of kirpan, which indicated that the Sikhs had neither to abandon or relax in regard to their responsibility of reaction against injustice and oppression, nor had this society to relapse into a group of Sants unconcerned with the problems of the empirical life and their responsibility to solve them.

The broad indication of the development of the Sikh society from the time of Guru Nanak to the Tenth Master, makes it clear that from the very start the Gurus were aiming at the creation of a people imbued with the ideals of Sant-Sipahi, based on the Miri-Piri or whole-life doctrine of Guru Nanak. For, Sainapat records that on the Baisakhi day 1699 was revealed the plan, which, till then, was in the mind of the Master.19 The question is not of what an arm-chair scholar might feel today, but the important fact is what was the perception of the state during the period from the mid-sixeenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. The martyrdom of the Fifth and the Ninth Masters and the open military clashes between the armies of the state and the Sikhs showed that the Delhi Empire always took the Sikh society to be an unwanted political entity, which had to be curbed and destroyed. Hence the conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughal state and the ultimate triumph of the Sikh society is not a phenomenon subsequent to the Guru period, but a continuing war of socio-political interests between two societies of which both sides were fully conscious and working for the success of their respective objectives. So far as the Gurus were concerned, we have already stated that they were developing a society or a people inspired with the values of the Miri-Piri thesis of Guru Nanak. Hence the identity of the society was unquestioned by the political rulers of the day, and is, for that matter, unquestionable, both in the field of religion and that of social growth. The institution of the Panth started by Guru Nanak, the system of succession and the Ten Masters who nurtured and matured the Sikh society, the institution of Langar, brotherhood and equality, coupled with the institution of work and production, can be explained only on the assumption that Guru Nanak had a separate thesis which was calculatedly sought to be implemented. Similarly, the institution of Daswandh, the history of martyrdoms and extreme sacrifice by the Gurus themselves, and the institution of Amrit and the Five Kakars equally highlight how this society was welded into a people with new motivations and ideals. In fact, this uniqueness is also evident from the failures of some scholars, drawn from pacificist or dichotomous religions to understand the logical unity and integrity of the Sikh thesis. Because according to the logic of their systems the development of the Sikh society from the seventeenth century does not appear to them to be congruous with the doctrines of their pacificist or dichotomous religions. On the other hand, seen in the light of the whole-life thesis of Guru Nanak, the entire history and institutions of the Sikh society appear so natural, logical, necessary, and understandable.

Conclusion
We have discussed the Sikh identity under the five heads mentioned earlier. The spiritual experience of the Gurus being different from that in the case of other systems, their ideology is equally new and different; since, instead of being dichotomous or pacificist, it is a whole-life system that considers the development of a socio-religious society to be essential. But that society has not in any manner to be exclusive, nor the struggle for justice only for a narrow cause. In fact, its history shows that the approach of the Sikh society has always been universal. For, it was the Sikh society which for the first time brought a sense of equality among the different castes and creeds in India. An equally important fact is that although the Sikhs had a long history of struggle with the Muslim state, they, while in power, never tried to convert Hindus or Muslims to the Sikh faith. In fact, both the communities flourished because of respectful regard for their faiths. The treatment the Sikh armies gave to their vanquished adversaries or to the civil populations, can bear comparison with the conduct of any army, contemporary or modern.

It is significant that it was Guru Nanak’s call for playing the game of love and sacrifice, which the Tenth Master repeated at the time of the Amrit ceremony. For, just as Guru Nanak wanted a total commitment for the cause of the faith, the same total commitment was desired by the Tenth Master in response to which the Five Piyaras offered their heads. And the important fact is that this commitment to the faith was led and sanctified by the Gurus themselves with their own blood. Apart from the five factors mentioned above, the Tenth Master himself emphasized this identity by the introduction of the Nash Doctrine,20 while administering Amrit to the Five Piyaras. For, he said that break with the earlier religious traditions, with the earlier superstitions, rituals and taboos, with the earlier ancestry or lineage, with the earlier deeds and professions or their immobility, was complete. By this Nash Doctrine the Tenth Master endowed the Sikh society with Five Freedoms or Liberations from all earlier traditions and taboos. What we seek to emphasize is that Sikh identity is not in any manner artificial, it is the one that was clearly created and proclaimed by the Gurus themselves.

~~~

References

1 Guru Granth Sahib, p. 722
2 Ibid., p. 459
3 Stace, W. T., Mysticism and Philosophy, pp. 131-133
4 Guru Granth Sahib, p. 730
5 Ibid., p. 1
6 Ibid., pp. 26, 1091-92
7 Ibid., p. 8
8 Ibid., p. 418
9 Ibid., p. 955
10 Ibid., p. 62
11 Ibid., p. 913
12 Ibid., p. 12
13 Ibid., p. 113
14 Ibid., p. 1208
15 Ibid., p. 224
16 Briggs, G,W., Gorakhnath and Kanphata Yogis, p.28
17 McLeod, W.H., The Evolution of the Sikh Community, pp. 76-78
18 Bannerjee, A.C., Journal of Sikh Studies, Vol. III (Feb. 1976), p. 61, and Haqiqat-i-Banau,
Uruj-i-Firaq-iSikhan (author not known), pp. 3-6. (Also, Sikh Review, February 1991, p. 22).
19 Sainapat, Gur Sobha (Edited by Ganda Singh), pp. 21, 32
20 Cunningham, J.D., History of the Sikhs, p. 64; Bannerjee, LB., Evolution of the Khalsa, Vol. II, p. 116


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