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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh



Sikhism and Women
Interpreting Gender RElations within Sikhism in Western Paradigm

Amandeep Singh*

Of-late, we are witnessing some debates in Sikh circles that are not in harmony with the traditional ideology of Sikh imagination. On excavating history of these debates, we discover that the emergence of post-modern psyche and thereafter, evolution of global western culture is a significant contributor to these emerging paradoxical discussions. The origin of post-modern psyche can be found in the Renaissance period of European history, which was followed by reform movements of different religious groups in European colonies. Socio-cultural and religious reforms like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Aligarh movement, Singh Sabha movement etc. were journeys of cultural and religious purification or in other words the ‘Renaissance of Indian subcontinent’, that had their respective constructive contributions, besides their limitations.

The protestant ideology that developed after the dark ages of the Europe, especially during and after the Renaissance period, led to psychological transformation of European way of thinking that slowly diffused in Asian and American nations with their colonization. This protestant thought brought the spirit of religious structures under the lens of analytical investigation that cornered traditional faith in cultural and religious ethos. With its growing influence, many intellectuals suggested that traditional way of thinking is perhaps, an array full of orthodoxy, hypocrisy and superstition. In the name of unmasking hypocrisy, religion was brought under a direct probe and audit, by many socio-political thinkers. Philosophers like G.W.F. Hegal and Karl Marx, propounded for new social, political and economic orders, that led mankind towards secular models of communism and capitalism, that were two sides of same coin: 'The Capital'. In the past century, intellectual environment around the world has witnessed empirical hermeneutics as a method of research being invoked for philosophical analysis, which to a certain extent is a brainchild of protestant school of thought initiated in Renaissance period. Methods of scholarly researches involved collection of information and accumulation of great variety of data, in order to build a thesis that was stirred towards an empirical conclusion. Hermeneutics transformed into a battlefield of thought that is polarized to its protestant extremes. Thinkers of Eurocentric western paradigm or Western paradigm in short, probed history and pre-history with a critical lens, deep diving into past, borrowing certain references to influence man's present and future. In order to consolidate their psychological position in intellectual aura, modern scholars invoked analytical objectivity into their studies. An exhaustive change to traditionally religious thinking was brought with the substitution of spirituality with matter, as the nucleus of man's inspirational journey.

Within this changing aura, it is becoming increasing compulsive to explore the origin and the experience of emerging thinkers in order to comprehend the background and the approach being used for research purposes. To carve their space within the transformed environment, many scholars especially after the last quarter of Nineteenth Century, have initiated a process of dissection of existing ideological structures, by constructing new boundaries within them. Each dissected part is studied as a discrete 'object' or unit, with physical strings of connectivity among them in history, that proposes that each unit is an indispensable tract of research. This is also evident from mushrooming independent academic faculties in universities around the world. One such field of research that has sprouted recently, in academic circles is 'Sikhism and Women'.

In this paper, I shall try to bring forth the aspects of hermeneutics, especially empirical hermeneutics, that has crept into Sikh sphere of thought and has disturbed the intrinsic balance of man and woman both as genders and socio-cultural institutions. Further, I shall try to define the value of feminine epistemology, in Sikh imagination and also, how Sikh consciousness has been cornered, by imposing interpretations of western philosophy on its real character. In other words, I shall try to examine the units of scale that are being used in western circles, to evaluate the religious space of Women within Sikh religiosity. In order to conduct my study, I shall be comparing the scholarly works of Nikki Guninder Kaur Singh and Doris R Jakobsh, who have undertaken serious contemplation on feminine epistemology in Sikh religious spheres with different convictions but similar approach. Finally, I will also try to bring the tone of Punjab's ontological understandings into my study that to my belief, is an attempt to resurrect Her losing cultural spirit.

Interpreting Gender relations within Sikhism in Western Paradigm
Gender construction and identity transformation, according to some researchers is an important subject because they believe that man and woman are not just genders, but also a socio-cultural phenomenon, that carry their distinct ontological significance in political, social and economic spheres. Calling for institutionalizing genders, some modern thinkers have suggested that radical feminine epistemology is necessary in study of history. Drawing inferences, from these suggestions, some feminist scholars have dissected the sacrosanct nature of Sikh consciousness, into two independent units that are identified and polarized apart in Sikh understanding. Whatever may be the approach, but whenever Sikhism and Women is studied as an independent branch of research, there are three different units that are created by-default for building a structure of this research project.

The first two being man and woman, who are in a constant state of some political tension of authority, while third is their cultural and religious norms that binds them together. Scholars bring each one of these units independently under their microscope and provide empirical logic, to undertake their study to examine social, political, economic and cultural position of Sikh Women, conceiving their ideals in western atmosphere.

Interestingly, the psychological conclusion of such research is derived before the subject is actually analyzed, which includes a comparison between the status of biological genders, comments on social cultural problems including infanticide, comparison of the socio-economic status of women in eastern and western societies, contribution of patriarchy in falling sex ratio and responsibility of culture and religion as a binding glue that maintains a state of equilibrium between secularly independent genders. More interestingly, a study of social space of women lands in an aura where men, socio-cultural norms and sometimes religious rituals etc., are criticized more than throwing constructive light on the primary subject 'The Women'. This approach of study by enlarge focuses, firstly, on man's support to pseudo-masculinity and secondly, on patriarchal nature of culture and religion. This process squeezes the universal meanings and cosmic understanding of religion, in order to focus specifically on gender relations.

Doris R Jakobsh's work of Relocating Gender in Sikh History:
       Transformation, Meaning and Identity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003, and Sikhism and Women History texts and Experience, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010, belongs primarily to this category of scholarship.

Historically, there has not been any classification in socio-religious spheres of Sikhs that calls for a research based on their biological distinction. The ontology of man as a gender or otherwise as a human, is indeed a foreign concept in historic imagination of Sikhs, because construction of role models is not pertinent to the core of Sikh philosophy. This is because the process of construction of role models, creates a historical relevance and sectarian construction of religion, that steals the lyrical transparency of its inner character. Whenever, there is a reference of a role model in Sikh historical writings, their ontological significance is purely as a devotee, surrendering to Supreme Will, referred to as ‘Hukum’. The significance of physical being as a gender or otherwise is therefore, not a process of history formation in Sikhs, but a process of devotion to earn the natural character where man and cosmos are in living relationship under the Supreme Will. The Sikh of the Guru is devoted to achieve a status, where he is as tolerant as the earth and as vast as the sky. Perhaps, the spirit of living becomes more organic and meaningful to a Sikh psyche than the conception of dying in the name of religion, which is important for history construction. As a mind opens to receive the characters of Cosmos, the physical being of man or his gender carries hardly any significance. Doris R Jakobsh and Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, who both happen to be women with western experience, have done a comprehensive analysis on feminism in Sikh history and philosophy.

Both scholars arrive at conclusions that are poles apart in analogous and reflective interpretations. Although, there is hardly any difference in the approch used to study feminism in Sikhism, by both Nikki and Doris, yet there is a wide gap in values associated to their conceptions about the subject that reflects in their study. Doris invokes 'Hermeneutics of Suspicion' in her interpretation of Gurbani, to construct parenthesis of gender construction by attacking the religious value system, while Nikky adopts 'Hermeneutics of Faith' in a constructive atmosphere, bolstering Sikh ideology, indicating that the literal symbols in Sikh literature and Gurbani, should not be considered as merely figurative or symbolic references, but should be translated into socio-political realities. Doris conjures western conception of Sikh ideology, where she looks at history, culture, tradition, social values and by providing empirical arguments to present Sikh Women's case, to 'unmask' a hypothetical conspiracy of the Gurus, by 'masking' the symbolic references in literature and Gurbani, to draw spuriously literal conclusions. Nikky also uses western philological scales to conduct and stir her study towards oriental enlightenment, in order to address socio-cultural issues by constructing an affirmatively conceived thesis, which acts like a torch, enlightening future Sikh movements against social and cultural evils, bringing it closer to the heart of modern Sikh spirit.

In her book, Relocating Gender in Sikh History, Doris R Jakobsh notes: “….. with Guru Ram Das the symbol (i.e. female voice registered in Aad Guru Granth Sahib which the author notes earlier in the passage) takes on a more palpable reality; indeed love of the divine came to be expressed in utterly profane language”1.

Doris R Jakob’s ‘Hermeneutics of Suspiscion’, draws orthogonal inferences from the Aad Guru Granth Sahib ( AGGS), to establish a notion that a patriarchal system is firmly supported within Sikh society, by the Gurus and that the Gurus had relegated a secondary status to Women within Sikh ideology.2 The work of Jakobsh leaves distaste in the minds of Sikh readers, as she goes too far in her ‘forensic’ investigation, without ascertaining, as said by Martin Lings, “The very purpose of allegory is, after all, to convey truth not falsehood3". Yet the research of Doris R Jakobsh encourages a scope of work to be done by Sikh research institutes, to undertake such endeavors that can help in bringing forth more transparency of gender transformation, gender identity [de]-construction and gender translation in oriental understanding and to build a more lively and natural relationship between genders in a constructive atmosphere.
       “The ontological shock is necessary because once we have enchewed our sexist vocabulary and replaced it by a feminist language, we must supply our new feminist discourse with a radically new ontological foundation. Our empirical language of gender must be grounded in ontology. Otherwise we would be left merely with the struggle between a feminine ideology and a masculine ideology, rather than masculine illusion and a feminine reality.”4
- Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

The term masculine illusion used by Nikky, refers to male chauvinism with false self-images that is a roadblock in transcendence into divine oneness of personal relations of man with God, which is elevated to feminine reality expressed in Aad Guru Granth Sahib. Certainly, proximity of technique and distance in convictions of both Doris and Nikky can be easily felt from the examples given above and also from the fact that both scholars use ontology as primary to their convictions, only to arrive at different conclusions. In fact at some instances Nikky gives undue and disproportionate weight to ontology that can easily invoke polarization of genders. Perhaps a reasonable evidence of their faith in ontology is also expressed from the fact that, there is a complete absence of references of Puran Singh’s extensive literature, that is one of the most renowned and legendary prose-poetic lyricism, in the works of both Nikky and Dorris. In his chapter on 'Bread', 'Woman' and 'Bridegroom', in his phenomenal contribution ‘Spirit Born People’5, Puran Singh has devotedly expressed the organic nature of spiritual genders and their ontological insignificance as physical genders. Moreover, both scholars examine time and history only at its turning points, to audit the role players or role models of history, based on their biological gender. The silent history does not carry much significance in the work of both scholars.

In a feminist research conference, where both these scholars were present, I asked Doris to explain me the reason of using western paradigm in studying oriental ideology. While expressing her unawareness of the meaning of term 'Western paradigm' that I have examined before in this paper, she quizzed me to explain its meaning. Perhaps, she only attempted to avoid the question that I was asking, as this has been a point raised by J.S. Mann and S.S. Sodhi6 in their critical review of her work.

Whatever may be the reason, but for her to understand western paradigm, she needs to experience the vividness of soul imparting oriental lyricism. The analysis of Sikh ideological spirit that is reflected in her work, points towards the void in her experience of lyrical imagination of Sikh religiosity. With this vacuum of her oriental spiritual experience of Sikhi, Doris or for that matter any western scholar, would perhaps use the ‘only available’ lens and not even know that his or her evaluation is biased at its origin. The somehow obvious best answer for Doris is, to express ignorance of a phenomenon, because it invokes a challenge to her theory, which she is trying to ‘impose’ on Sikh consciousness. This helps her in two ways. Firstly, by expressing her ignorance about western paradigm, Doris is avoiding the question on her thesis that why is she conducting an inorganic division of man and woman in religious sphere, where they are accepted as one spirit.

Secondly, she is smoothly diverting the focus from devotion in Sikh consciousness, towards a gender division, in order to arrive at her engineered conclusion that there is something ‘wrong’ in the core of the philosophy of Sikh religion.

The above examples are not an attempt to comment on the works of both scholars, but behind that it calls for an evaluation of the measures and conceptions, both relatively and symbolically, as an ideal in Sikh imagination for brushing our socio-cultural ethos. Western scholars interpret the spirit of Sikh religion with ethnocentric utilitarian models. Take for example many western scholars regard the establishment of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, as a process of militarization of Sikhs. But actually in Sikh imagination it has a very different meaning that invites for a relationship accepting responsibility, justice, physical and emotional restrain, piety and devotion termed as ‘Rehat’, which is the sovereign light of the Guru. It is a process of endowing upon man the responsibility of being the Guru in body and action, who's spirit rests in the Aad Guru Granth Sahib.

In order to cement her thesis, Doris R Jabosh infers and declares that inauguration of Khalsa brought a radical change in Sikh andocentric psyche, where the masculine ethos were transformed into hyper masculine ethos7. Inauguration of Khalsa as a process of militarization of Sikhs, reference of Gurbani as a poetry of Sikh Gurus and Saints, status of Sikh Gurus corresponding to that of social reformers etc. all these subjects hold incommensurable meanings in Sikh imagination. Gurbani to Sikhs is a divine revelation and not poetry. Poetry, that is composed from imagination, no matter how deep, remains a product of human mind, while divine revelation is God's word in human language. Similarly, Sikh Gurus are divine phenomenon beyond the boundaries of ontological comprehensions, and therefore any comparisons to that of social reformers is not only an act of blasphemy, but also an act that belittles the Sun to an electric bulb, in a laboratory of philosophy. But all these matters are different challenges that cannot be discussed any further in the current scope of our discussion.

The point that I am raising is that western understanding of economic empowerment of Women should not be accepted and implied as universal laws applicable to all societies. The locus of Women borrowed from west is tearing the fabric of her vivaciously enduring and firmly cohesive role in eastern societies. It is ironical, that even though there is life imparting, 'synthesizing' and truly galvanizing status of women in Sikh religiosity that can act to enlighten her socio-cultural status, yet we keep awaiting and looking at standards of measurement from capitalized west to define her social relations.

Man and woman, in the spirit of Sikh ideology, share an organic and fluid relationship. In fact the Cosmos and the human do not exist as separate entities in Sikh consciousness. The duality of mind and matter or the theory of relativity is shed in the opening experience of Ik Oan Kar. Therefore, as one may enter into the spiritual spheres of Sikh cosmology, the biological being of man transcends into the spiritual being of a woman that brings deeper meaning to mystical metaphysics of Sikh devotion. Biological man and woman are like petal and fragrance of a flower in original Sikh religious culture. Between them is an independent, yet synchronizing relationship. Their status is complementary, not supplementary or comparative. What modern Sikh has borrowed psychologically is that it is imperative for fragrance to be a petal; else it perhaps is disgraceful in being a 'mere' fragrance. When the forty Muktas (The liberated ones) were sent back by their spouses to fight for the Guru, 'she' fought along with 'him', in spirit that resulted in death of mere bones and flesh. 'They' both live together, in the imagination of the Sikhs everyday and their relationship cannot be discovered or for that matter 'unmasked' in the pages of history. The roles of biological genders in Sikh spirit are very different than what has been advertised in today's environment. Within Sikh consciousness, it is the duty of man to hold the arms against tyranny and reasonably enough, it is the responsibility of woman to inspire him to live up to their mutually nourished and cultivated 'prayer'.

Lately, many scholars of west have started evaluating the hollowness of western archetypes not only for gender construction, but overall accepting it as a yard stick to measure the qualitative progress of human life verses its 'quantitative' growth. Perennial scholars like Rene Guenon and Martin Lings have raised legitimately unchallenged questions pointing towards the real quest of human existence over his objective transformations. Amongst other findings, these scholars have pointed out that modern man has grown in his knowledge, while sacrificing his wisdom, that is silently existing, within his consciousness. It is unfortunate, that their voice is not getting registered because the echo of skeptical and suspicious scholars is amplified in academic circles that has asserted and imposed their ideology on oriental academia.

Anyway, the points above raise the question if there is a scope of re-looking at the religious ethos, in order to find the status of biological gender in religious and devotional circles. In other words, is there a scope of studying genders as discretely objectified entities in Sikh spirituality? Besides that, another question that calls for an urgent attention is whether the western feminist paradigm is analogous to the spirit of oriental and specifically, Sikh conceptions.

The feminine conception in western paradigm is encroaching upon the psyche of both man and woman in oriental cosmology. Before we decide to look at the status of the women in religious spheres and draw comparisons between western and eastern models, we need to stop being the prisoners of our thoughts that accept western lens as a 'holy lens' to evaluate our religious performance. The scholars within the faith need to translate the socio-cultural values to find their ideals in religious originality. Otherwise, such comparisons invite the risk of agnostic evaluations burdened on faith, like that of Doris R Jakobsh that are hard to chew for a Sikh Psyche. Of course, the latest work of Doris in her book titled Sikhism8 is showing a few signs of her evolving spiritual experience that reflects in her hypothesis, which is indeed the quest of her soul as a human, but there is a reasonable element of ironic interpretations, perhaps because her foundation in Sikh religious experience, requires a fundamental renovation in the right light.

The religious status of man and woman indeed, should be evaluated within the religious values. If we study the status of women from a western paradigm, then her economic liberty is the primary and indeed, the most compulsive scale that drives the socio-cultural status of the women. Moreover, if economic liberty of women is the panacea to uplift her social and cultural values, then we need to evaluate the status of woman in western anarchy, where she has belittled her relative position to a 'substance' or a 'symbol' of man's sensual market, unimaginable in Sikh imagination. Therefore, we need to address the question that do we need to beseech the scale of our social, cultural and religious ethos from western archetypes or if it is already existing silently in our sacrosanct tradition? In the name of liberation of women, are we translating western techniques to match our conception of values or is it transforming our values to match the meanings of western conception?

Of course the socio-cultural problems like dowry and foeticide invite for questions that are raised on socio-cultural issues. But the point as made by Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, is that socio-cultural ethos need to be reinterpreted, redefined and reformed in the light of religion and not viceversa.

'Death is indeed the highest virtue that a Man can earn in his conviction to fight for 'The Truth', yet more virtuous is the earth that nourishes her blood to create his worth to be a Man'.

That could perhaps be the essence closer to the reference of the Earth as symbolic 'Mother' in Jap Jee Sahib of Guru Nanak.

As a mother is garlanded with the pieces of her child, her sacrifice crosses the martyrdoms of many martyrs of human history. Alas the birth of a scholar! who constructs it as a conspiracy of patriarchy. May The Merciful condone the sins of ‘our’ existence!


  1.   Doris R Jakobsh: Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning and Identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003 pp.31-32
  2.   Ibid pp. 42-45, 238
  3.   Martin Lings Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions, p.3
  4.   Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh: The feminine principle in the Sikh vision of the Transcendent Cambridge University Press, 1993 pp. 250- 251
  5.   Spirit Born People pp. 36-49
  6.   J.S. Mann, S.S. Sodhi “Review of Relocating Gender in Sikh History by DorisR Jakobsh” http://www.globalsikhstudies.net/pdf/review/Doris_R_Jakobsh_S_S.pdf
  7.   Doris R Jakobsh: Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning and Identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003 p.44
  8.   Doris R Jakobsh: Sikhism, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2012.


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