Sikhism: Basic Elements
1. Concept of God
At the very outset we should like to say one thing. Obviously, it is not possible to deal with all aspects of Sikhism in this chapter. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves only to the essentials of Sikhism, and highlight only those aspects of it that clarify and underline the point of view which we wish to express.
The Sikh Gurus are uncompromising monotheists. In the very opening line of Guru Granth Sahib, God is described by Guru Nanak as “By the Grace of the Sole One, Self-existent and Immanent, the Creator Person, without Fear or Unconditioned, without enmity or Un-contradicted, the Timeless Person, Un-incarnated, Self-created and Enlightener.” [1. p. 1]. God is never born. The becoming world is His creation, and not his emanation; nor is it identical with Him.
We shall first indicate, briefly, the kind of God that is envisaged in Sikhism. In their hymns the Gurus described God in numerous ways, referring to His social, political, aesthetic, metaphysical, ethical and other attributes. But a few aspects of God need particular mention. These will enable us to understand the significance, origin and objectives of the Sikh tradition, institutions and practices.
(i) Creator : God is the Creator. The universe is His creation. The very concept of a Creator-God implies a universe as different from Him. The universe is in time and space. It is changing and is governed by fixed laws. The Creator is different from the creation, which is limited and conditioned. As Creator, God is Free. He is not determined by any laws known to us. He is not the material cause of the universe. But, no independent Prakriti is assumed “God created the world of life, planted Naam (Immanent God) therein, and made it the seat of righteousness.” [1. p. 930]. “He creates all, fills all, and is yet separate.” [1. p. 937]. There are many hymns in Guru Granth Sahib which mention that God was there even before He created the universe, He being Transcendent. “He is the Sole-creator. There is no second one.” [1. pp. 11-12]. “God was by Himself and there was nothing else.” “In the region of Truth, God creates perpetually, and watches His creation with a Benevolent eye. He is happy about it, and deliberates over it, directing it with His Will.” [1. p. 8]. God is Ever-Creative.
This gives an idea of God, His creative activity, and the cosmological aspect of His creation.
(ii) Transcendent and Immanent : God is both Transcendent and Immanent. He is both in the universe and outside it. While time, space and change are features of the becoming universe, God is Eternal, Self-existent. He cannot be conceived or explained in empirical terms. He is beyond space and beyond time. The Gurus have cautioned us against the inadequacy of human logic to comprehend Him. He is Entirely Different, or ‘Wholly Other.’ “When there was no form in sight, how could there be good or bad actions. When God was in the Self-Absorbed state, there could be no enmity or conflict.” [1. p. 290]. That state of God is to be envisaged in terms of spacelessness and timelessness. The nature of God transcends all known categories of thought. The Creator of these limited categories cannot be judged by them. The Gurus call Him Unfathomable, Indescribable and Ineffable. “The mind alone can know Him.” [1. p. 612]. He is Transcendent.
The Immanent aspect of God has been variously described as His Will that directs the universe, His Word that informs the universe, and His Naam that not only creates the entire universe but also sustains and governs it. “God creates the universe, takes His abode in it and sustains it.” [1. p. 788]. God creates the universe and becomes Immanent in it, being at the same time Transcendent. “He that permeates all hearts is Transcendent too.” [1. p. 294]. “Having created the world, He stands in the midst of it and is separate too.” [1. p. 937]. This Immanence of God is only a symbolic way of expressing God’s connection with the world. When the world was not there the question of His Immanence did not arise. When “there was no form, the Word (Immanence) in essence abided in the Transcendent God.” [1. pp. 945-6].
The Immanence of God is important. It emphasises the spiritual and meaningful character of the universe and life’s capacity for relationship with God. His Immanence indicates God’s Love for His creation. This Immanence gives relevance, authenticity, direction and sanction to the entire moral and spiritual life of man. It also emphasises God’s capacity for revelation, His nearness to man and His deep and abiding interest in the world. All theistic systems assume His Immanence. For, where God is only Transcendent and unapproachable, all moral and spiritual life would become pointless.
God’s being both Transcendent and Immanent, does not mean that there are two parts, stages, or phases of God. It is the Transcendent God who is everywhere in each heart, place and particle. It is He who is both Transcendent and Immanent. “The same God is Sargun and Nirgun, Nirankar and self-Absorbed (Sun Samadhi).” [1. p. 290]. “Sargun and Nirgun are created by Naam.” [1. p. 387]. “He is the One, both Nirgun and Sargun.” [1. p. 250]. The Gurus repeatedly emphasise that He is One and we only give Him different names. It would be highly inappropriate to confuse the Gurus’ concept of Sargun and Nirgun (One Transcendent cum Immanent God) with the Vaishnava meaning of these terms or with the idea of Ishvara. These Vaishnava concepts of phases, or stages, have been clearly repudiated by the Gurus’ concept of One God.
(iii) God Of Attributes: The Gurus call God the ‘Ocean of Attributes, Values and Virtues.’ This aspect of God is of importance in indicating the spiritual and moral trends and the character of Sikhism. A God of Attributes lays down the ideals for which man has to work. Its significance has often been missed. “He is always Benevolent.” “You are my Mother, You are my Father, You are my Protector everywhere.” “He relieves the sufferings of the downtrodden; He is the Succour of the succour-less.” [1. pp. 263-4]. “God is eyes to the blind, riches to the poor, Nanak, He is the Ocean of Virtues.” [1. p. 830].
This Attributive aspect of God not only links God with the universe, but it establishes beyond doubt the character and direction of God’s Will. This leads to four important conclusions. First, attributes and values have relevance only in a becoming or relative world. Beacuse all perfection is static and all qualities are relative. A God of Attributes has, thus, a meaning only in relation to the changing world of man. Evidently, for the expression of attributes, a changing universe is essential and becomes an integral part of the creative plan of God. God and the universe are, thus, closely linked. It is impossible to think of a God of Attributes in the absence of a changing world. That is why when God was all by Himself, the question of ‘Love and devotion or good or bad actions’, [1. pp. 1035-6] could not arise. Secondly, and this is the most important inference, virtues and attributes emphatically indicate, apart from the standard of ethical values and moral life, the direction in which spiritual efforts should be made. These point out the purposes for which the Will of God works. Thirdly, it indicates the continuing interest of God in man and the universe. This gives authenticity to life and the universe which is as we shall see, decried or downgraded in many other religious traditions. In addition, there is the benevolent character of God. Not only is He the Creator and Sustainer of life. He nurtures and develops it with loving care. He has also been called the Enlightener (Guru or Guide) of man. “He rewards your efforts and acknowledges your deeds.” “God rewards all efforts to become divine.” [1. p. 859]. It gives a pre-eminent meaning to life, and optimism, hope and confidence to man in the achievement of his ideals. Man is given a clear direction in which he should move. In addition, he also knows that there is some one to guide and help him with love. Lastly, it gives primary validity and spiritual sanction to the moral life of man. For, in many other systems, it is deemed to be an entanglement. At best, some systems accept it as the preparatory method of purity for the spiritual life to be attained. But, in Sikh theology, this attributive aspect of God gives a clear priority, primacy and spiritual character to the moral life of man. This is the reason that in Sikhism moral life is of basic importance both for the seeker and the gurmukh. For, if God is the helper of the weak and the ocean of virtues, the spiritual person has to shape himself likewise.
(iv) God Has A Will : Everything is governed by His Will. “Everything happens within the ambit of His Will.” [1. p. 1]. A God of Will naturally pre-supposes that He wants the universe to move not chaotically but in a system and with a purpose. Just like the Attributes of God, God’s Will, too, can be exercised only in a changing world and towards a goal. The very idea of a Will implies a direction and an aim. This, too, re-emphasises the same points as stated in regard to a God of Attributes. The direction is governed by the Attributes of God and the purpose, as we shall see later, is to evolve a higher consciousness in man. This concept is central to Sikh theology. But, a God of Will does not at all mean a predeterministic world, because God is Creative and Free; and all movement in life is towards a creative freedom.
(v) God Does Not Incarnate : God has been mentioned as One who never takes birth, nor takes form. “May that mouth burn which says that God has incarnated.” [1. p. 1136]. “God alone is the One who is not born of a woman.” [1. p. 473]. The Gurus have definitely decried belief in the theory of incarnation. In order to dispel such ideas, they have stated that He created countless Brahmas, Sivas and Vishnus. “The Formless, One, alone, Nanak, is without fear; many are Ramas as the dust of His feet, and many Krishnas. Many are their stories and many are the Vedas.” [1. p. 464] The idea that God never takes the human form has distinct implications. First, it shows that God is ‘Wholly Other.’ For a God that is Transcendent and unknowable, the question of His taking human form does not arise. Secondly, all pantheistic implications, as flowing from the idea of incarnation, are ipso facto repudiated. Besides, the concept has three other corollaries too.
The first is that man can never become God, and that God and man are not identical. Secondly, it indicates that the aim of spiritual effort is not merger in God, as under some other systems, but to be in tune with Him. This has a crucial significance in determining the human goal, and in showing that the entity of man is distinct from that of God. The two can never be one, though man can be His instrument. Thirdly, it, inter alia, shows that spiritual activity does not stop after the final achievement. The superman has a role to perform in carrying out the Will of God. Consequently, so long as the universe is there and the Will of God is in operation, the activities and duties of the superman continue endlessly.
(vi) God Of Grace : God has been called Gracious and Enlightener. A God of Will and a God of Grace have a meaning only in a becoming world, wherein alone, His Grace and Will can operate. These aspects of God also emphasise His Personal character. Grace implies that God’s Will is free, undetermined by any outside law. In addition, it also stresses Love and Benevolence of God towards man. For, a Gracious Being can bestow His Grace only on something other than Himself. It has been repeatedly stressed that all final approval of man is an act of God’s Grace. “O Nanak, the intellect is of no avail, one is approved only by His Grace.” [1. p. 467]. A God of Grace dispels the idea that the world is deterministic. His activity is, therefore, incomprehensible except in terms of His Grace or Freedom.
(vii) Naam: The Sikh Gurus have given the word Naam, a distinct and significant meaning, which is far different from that of the mere ‘Naam’ or psychic factors as understood in the traditional literature. “Naam sustains all regions and universes, all thought, knowledge and consciousness, all skies and stars, all forces and substances, all continents and spheres...... He, on whom is His Grace, is yoked to Naam and he reaches the highest state of development.” [1. p. 284]. “Naam is the Creator of everything.” “Naam gives form to everything, and through Naam comes all Wisdom or Light.” [1. p. 946]. Naam is the ‘Nine Treasures’ and nectar (amrit).
From the above verses it is clear that the Gurus do not use the word Naam in any restrictive or limited sense. They refer to it as the Highest Power : creating, informing, supporting and working the entire universe. The highest state of man is mentioned as the one when he lives and works in tune with God or Naam. Therefore, God and Naam are Real, Eternal and Unfathomable. It means that God and Naam are one and the same. Naam may be called the immanent or the qualitative aspect of God, working and directing the manifest world of force and form.
2. The World
Sikhism proclaims the dynamic reality and authenticity of the world and life. “God created the world of life and planted Naam therein, making it the place of righteous activity.” [1. p. 930]. “God created the world and permeated it with His Light.” [1. p. 1304] Since Naam has not only created the world but is also supporting, controlling and directing it, the same cannot be unreal or fruitless. His Immanence in this world guarantees its being a place of righteous action. “True are Thy worlds and Thy universe; true are the forms Thou createst. True are Thy deeds.” [1. p. 463]. “True is He, True is His Creation.” [1. p. 294].
The world being real, creative work and virtuous deeds are of fundamental importance. “The Guru contemplates God by word, thought and deed.” “Earth is the true abode of righteousness.” [1. p. 785]. “Truth and continence are true deeds, not fasting and rituals.” [1. p. 841]. “Good, righteousness, virtue and the giving up of vice are the way to realize the essence of God.” [1. p. 418].
The above quotations affirm unambiguosly the reality and significance of human life. Practices involving direct or indirect rejection of life have been denounced. There is a hymn in Guru Granth Sahib by Farid which would seem to suggest that the world is not real or is a place of suffering. While recording it in Guru Granth Sahib, the Fifth Guru has introduced, along with it, another hymn of his own. It is a clarification to dispel the contrary impression. He writes, “Beauteous, O Farid, are the garden of earth and the human body.” [1. p. 1382]. The Guru further states, “Deride not the world as it is the creation of God.” [1. p. 611].
This emphatic assertion about the reality of the world is a clear departure from the Indian religious tradition. The Gurus were extremely conscious of this radical and fundamental change they were making. That is why, both in their lives and in their hymns, they have been laying stress on this aspect of their spiritual thesis, lest they should be misunderstood on this basic issue. Living in this world is not a bondage for them but a rare opportunity. Not only is God benevolently developing and guiding the world in which He is Immanent, but each one of us is “yoked to his task and each is assigned a duty to perform.” [1. pp. 736, 425,765]. The persistent interest of God in the creative movement is also obvious from the fact that the Gurus call Him Protector, Father, and a Just Administrator.
While discussing the concept of God of Attributes, Will and Grace, we have indicated its far-reaching implications about the reality of the world and the spiritual primacy of moral life therein. These aspects of God intimately connect Him with the world which is their only field of operation. Consequently, the Gurus’ message and mission also relate to this world, wherein alone their mission could be fulfilled. No prayer has been expressed with greater depth and intensity than the one for the ‘gift of Naam.’ Naam being the Benevolent Supporter and Director of the world, the gift of Naam to the devotee simply means an enlightened, loving and creative interest in the world and its development. How can one claim to be a devotee of God or Naam and ask for its gift and, yet decline to toe the line of God, namely, of nurturing and advancing the process of creativity and construction in the world ? It is for this reason that the Gurus have strongly condemned all ascetic and escapist practices. “One reaches not Truth by remaining motionless like trees and stones, nor by being sawn alive.” [1. p. 952].
In India, generally, the householder’s duties were not believed to be conducive to higher spiritual attainments. That is why one had to renounce worldly activities and take to the life of a hermit or Sanyasin. As against it, all the Sikh Gurus, excepting the Eighth Guru, who passed away at an early age, were married householders. Till the last days of their lives, they worked creatively and carried out their mission in the social and political fields. Seen in the context of Indian tradition, the ideals and institutions of Sikhism are entirely different. For the Gurus the world is a place of beauty. Man’s struggle therein provides an opportunity for his progress. Hence the arena of man’s and the mystic’s work has to be in life and life alone. It is only the challenges of life that enable man to show and test his moral and spiritual fibre. It is his deeds in the world that alone form the basis of his spiritual assessment. The Guru, therefore, emphasises that “one gets not to God by despising the world.”
The doctrine of haumain is basic to Sikh theology. The present state of man’s consciousness, the Gurus say, is egoistic, i.e. it is governed by haumain. The Gurus call such a person manmukh. In this normal state of man, his self-will and animal propensities dominate. The ideal man, with the highest level of consciousness or God consciousness, is called gurmukh. This egoistic consciousness or haumain is the cause of all man’s problems and limitations. This doctrine of haumain holds the key to the understanding of Sikhism.
Haumain is the “I” of the normal individual psyche. It is the director of all one’s organs, including the nervous system and human reason. It is the self, the ego, or the centre of control of all working in every being or individual. The Gurus say that “the world came into being by individuation.” [1. pp. 946, 466]. Evidently, for the growth of life, this creation of an individual self or haumain in every being was essential. There could be no animal life without there being in each organism a centre of consciousness. Haumain has, thus, enabled the evolution of life. Every man is equipped with many kinds of organs and faculties. These faculties, including his thoughts, are subservient to his individuality, self or ego. Throughout the evolution of life, this ego-centre, or haumain has been the instrument and guardian of his security, welfare and progress. Without a deep commitment to the interests, preservation and progress of the self, to the exclusion of every other being or self, life could never survive the battle against challenges from the environment. This ego, or haumain, has been the best means of securing the survival and the progress of life from amoeba to man.
But, what has been the very means of life’s survival and progress, has now become “the great malady of man.” [1. p. 1258]. The struggle against the elements and other species having been largely won, man still finds himself quite unequipped and helpless in dealing with the other members of his own species. The Gurus emphasise that this haumain has become the greatest problem of man both for his social life and future progress. Just as it is impossible for one’s stomach or liver to digest food for another person; in much the same way, it is impossible for one’s thought system, intellect or reason to be anything but self-centred, the same being basically subservient to the individual self or ego-consciousness. It is this organic condition of man that the Gurus call haumain or ego. Man’s consciousness being self-centred, he is constitutionally incapable of looking to the interests of others. This is the root-cause of the entire conflict between man and man, between one society and the other, and between one nation and the other. Man is well equipped intellectually and materially, yet poverty, misery, and war remain his major unsolved problems. The altruistic tendencies developed in man as the result of cultural conditioning over the years are only superficial or conditioned. Spontaneous altruism is constitutionally and psychologically impossible in the egocentric or haumain governed man. The moment, the struggle for existence becomes keen, the basic self-centredness of man comes into play. Thus start all the conflicts of man, social as well as national and international.
According to the Guru in this state of haumain man has three limitations. He and his consciousness are alienated or unconnected with the Basic or the Higher Consciousness that is the source of all energy, virtues and goodness. “God created individuation but by forgetting Naam we come to grief.” Secondly, he is unaware of his inalienable kinship with the other beings. Thirdly, ego-consciousness, by and large, works in a determined or mechanistic way. It is not creative or free. The Basic Reality or God alone is Free and Creative. God is the Causeless Cause or the Un-created Creator. We have already referred to two important aspects of God. He is Creative or Free, He is the Ocean of Values and Virtues. Man’s egocentrism or haumain thus, constitutes his basic moral or spiritual problem. The fundamental question is, how to shed one’s egoism and transcend one’s present limiting state or development.
The Gurus are not pessimistic about the world or this egocentric condition of man. They emphasise that man is not only capable of transcending this ego-consciousness, but is destined to do so. Their entire message is meant to solve this problem. Theirs is a crusade to enable man to rise above this present level and remove the hurdles that plague him and solve the problems that face him.
The Gurus indicate that there has been a continuing process of development, evolution and progress in the empirical world. They point out that progress from egoistic man to superman, or God-centred man is not only possible, but is in accordance with the purpose of God. Individuation was created by God. There has been gradual growth from small organisms to animals and finally to the animal-man with his subtle sense of discrimination and introspection. “For several births (you) were a mere worm, for several births an insect, for several births a fish or an animal.” [1. p. 176]. “After ages you have the glory of being a man.” “He endowed you with the light of reason, discrimination and wisdom.” [1. p. 913]. “O man you are supreme in God’s creation; now is your opportunity. You may or may not fulfil your destiny.” [1. p. 913].
Further progress of this egoistic man depends entirely on the deeds of the individual. Till man had appeared on the scene, it was not possible for life to outgrow its animal character and alienation from God. So far, like other animals, man, too, has been living an animal life. But, the Gurus emphasise the opportunity available to man to grow into superman. They repeatedly address man to give up his egocentric activities and thereby to rise to his full stature. “After ages, this invaluable opportunity of human birth is available, but one loses it for nothing.” [1. p. 1203]. “You have obtained the privilege of human birth, now is your only opportunity to meet God.” [1. p. 12].
The remedy according to the Gurus is that man should develop a higher consciousness by linking his consciousness with God, Naam, or the Basic Consciousness. It is this solution which is the basis of their religious system and institutions. The Guru says, “Naam and haumain are opposed to each other. The two cannot co-exist.” [1. p. 560]. “Haumain is a great malady. The remedy is to attune oneself to Naam by God’s Grace.” [1. p. 466]. It means that self-centredness should be substituted by God-centredness. “The man who is self-centred is far from God.” [1. p. 235].
Let us explain the implications of these important hymns. In most other religions, worldly life is opposed to spiritual life. But, not so in Sikhism. Here it is egocentric life that is opposed to spiritual life and not worldly life as such. The Gurus consider the world to be real and accept full responsibilities in that regard. In fact, as God-centredness implies activity in the worldly life, the same is considered essential for the seeker and the God-conscious person. For, link with Naam means to be the agent of Dynamic Naam or God, the Ocean of Virtues. In fact, life and its activities alone reveal the distinction between a self-centred man and a God-centred one. Hence, “He who destroys evil becomes a perfect man.” [1. p. 404]. “Love, contentment, truth, humility and other virtues enable the seed of Naam to sprout.” [1. p. 955]. “Our deeds alone bear witness unto our life.” [1. p. 1383].
These hymns indicate that the way to higher achievement lies in being altruistic or moral instead of being self-centred. Except for some conditioned or calculated moral activity, a self-centred person cannot be spontaneously altruistic. The solution really consists in transferring the control of the mind and body from narrow ego-consciousness to Naam God or God-consciousness. And being linked to Naam involves neither inactivity nor withdrawal from life. Perforce it must lead to spontaneous altruistic deeds because this consciousness is aware of its kinship both with every other being and with the Basic Reality, the Ocean of Virtues. Therefore, this consciousness accepts total responsibility and is as active as the Creative Reality. Just as haumain and Naam are opposed to each other, in the same manner God-centredness and inactivity are a contradiction in terms.
We shall explain why there is so much emphasis on moral life in Sikhism. A self-centred person has virtually a determined psyche. He is neither free, nor creative. The progress from self-centredness to God-consciousness, is progress from a virtually determined or a mechanistic state to a free and creative state. A moral act involves voluntary decision on the part of one’s consciousness. We never call a material thing to be moral or immoral, since it is goverened by the laws of physics and its movement is determined. But, a moral act on the part of a person is the result of his free will or decision or choice. It is, thus, a clear step on the path from being determined to being free; it is an effort to rise from the state of haumain to the state of God-consciousness or creative freedom. It is, indeed, a spiritual act. Hence the fundamental importance of moral life in Sikhism, since it is the only spiritual means leading towards God-consciousness. “One cannot be a Yogi by mere wishing. Real Yoga lies in treating all beings alike.” [1. p. 730]. “Let all be called high, to me none appears low; One Potter has fashioned all vessels and One Light pervades the whole universe.” [1. p. 866]. Real spiritual life involves the acceptance and practice of the idea of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man in one’s actual living. The Gurus stress that God pervades all hearts and one can attune oneself to Him and develop a new state of higher consciousness. While we are in the normal ego-state, we are unconscious of this Immanence of God in us. “Where there is egoism, God is not; where there is God, there cannot be any egoism.” [1. p. 1092]. “God unites the seeker with Himself.” “God pervades the heart and one gives up ego and evil.” [1. pp. 32, 30, 35, 49]. “By His Grace God comes in body and mind.” It means that the entire psyche of such a person is guided by God-consciousness. “By Naam is the mind illumined.” [1. p. 82]. Naam is dynamic and attributive.
These hymns emphasise that the way to solve our problems and difficulties is to establish a relation with God. This presence of God in us has variously been described as Naam, Guru, Word, Light and Will.
It is virtuous deeds alone that lead one away from the life of haumain and towards the path of Naam or God-centredness. But, ultimately it is only God’s Grace that unites one with Naam. By this union a new and higher centre of consciousness is gained, called God-consciousness. With God’s Grace is the ultimate insignia of approval conferred on man.” [1. p. 7]. It is a state when the human consciousness becomes free and spontaneously moral and altruistic.
Guru Nanak puts the question as to, “How can the wall of falsehood intervening between us and Reality be removed”, and gives a categoric reply. “It can be removed by carrying out God’s Will.” [1. p. 1]. And God’s Will is Attributive, Creative and Gracious. This explains the pre-eminent importance of moral life in Sikhism.
The next issue is as to what is the goal in Sikhism. In this field the Gurus have made a completely radical departure from the general religious tradition, more especially from the Indian tradition. Many misunderstandings about the ideology, growth and history of Sikhism arise because of the fallacious assumption that the goal in Sikhism is the same as in the other Indian religions.
The Gurus have explained their views about the spiritual goal of man by enunciating five principles. All of them point to the same conclusion about the ideal life.
(a) Righteous Deeds Alone The Basis Of Man’s Spiritual Assessment : In the first hymn of Cosmography, Guru Nanak states what should be the role of man on earth, which has been declared to be a place for the practice of righteousness. The assessment of man, Guru Nanak says, will be made on the basis and character of his deeds. This idea has been repeated in numerous hymns like. “With God only the deeds one does in this world, count.” [1. p. 1383]. “Through virtue is one enlightened.”
(b) Higher Than Truth Is Truthful Living : Guru Nanak states, “Everything is lower than Truth, but higher still is truthful living.” [1. p. 62]. It is just a symbolic way of emphasising that the ideal is to live the active life of truth and not only to know Truth as an end in itself. The goal is to live an active and creative life. “True living is living God in life.” [1. p. 684].
(c) Carry Out The Will Of God : Guru Nanak specifically raises the question as to how one can be a true human being, or an ideal man. Then he himself provides the answer : “By carrying out the Will of God.” The Gurus conceive of God as a God of Will, Dynamic, Attributive and Creative. God is always nurturing the world with a benevolent eye. For man, the ideal life is to carry out His Will. The goal is not only to establish union with God, not only to know his Will, but after having done that, to carry it out. The ideal is not blissful union as an end in itself, but union in order to be God’s instrument or agent in the world. Therefore, in Sikhism it involves a life of continuous moral activity.
(d) God-Conscious Man : On the question of haumain, we came to the conclusion that the Gurus lay down God-consciousness as the ideal. Because of his new consciousness he is spontaneously virtuous. All exhortations to man are to achieve his ideal by the practice of virtues. “Make the body the soil; put therein the seed of good deeds; with Naam Divine irrigate it. Let thy mind be cultivator, and raise crop of God's devotion.” [1. p. 23].
(e) Link With Naam : Naam is Creative and Attributive. Naam is working in the world with Benevolence and Love. A very large number of hymns in Guru Granth Sahib request for the individual to be linked to Naam. “He reaches the highest stage whom God graciously galvanises to His Naam.” [1. p. 284]. “Pray, link me to God.”
Accordingly, the ideal of Sikh Bhakti is to be yoked, attuned or linked to Naam. Naam being the opposite of egoism, and the Ocean of Virtues and Values, to be linked to Naam simply means to become His instrument and share the responsibility of a creative and virtuous development in the world.
The Gurus have laid down these five principles prescribing the goal in Sikhism. Whether it is the ideal of God-consciousness, or of carrying out the Will of God, or of the gift of Naam, in essence all of them prescribe the same goal or spiritual truth. Again, whether it is the ideal of righteous deeds or of truthful living, the discipline and direction are exactly the same. We, therefore, come to the conclusion that in Sikhism, the goal is to develop a higher consciousness and lead a life of creative and moral activity. It means that spiritual life and moral life are virtually synonymous and coextensive. One inevitably leads to the other.
It is in this context that the Gurus describe themselves as the “servants” of God and His “soldiers.” The Gurus pray that their lives may be devoted to the service of God. “May I have millions of hands to serve Thee.” [1. p. 781]. “The service is the way to cross the hurdles of life.” “Be ever alert in the service of God. Serve God every moment and relax not.” [1. p. 77]. As the world is the authentic creation of God, supported by His Immanence, the service of God means the service of His creation. “Service in the world leads to approval in the Court of God.” [1. p. 26]. This is the goal of Sikhism.
6. Gurmukh or the Ideal Man
The Gurus describe the qualities of the gurmukh and the role he is expected to play in life. These draw a clear picture of the ideal life in Sikhism. The lives of the Gurus are another indication of the kind of life, the seeker and the gurmukh are supposed to lead. Bhai Gurdas calls Guru Nanak a gurmukh. A gurmukh, being the instrument of God, exhibits in his life all the qualities attributed to God. Because on the one hand he is in touch with God who is All Love, and on the other hand he is conscious of his close kinship with every other living being.
(i) He Is Godly, And Has All Virtues : “He (gurmukh) is the ocean of virtues, pure and truthful.” [1. pp. 905,1000,1175]. “He deals in the virtues of God.” “He is shelter for the shelterless.” “God is Compassionate, Merciful and Support of the earth; and so is the nature of saints.” [1. p. 1017]. “The gurmukh saves all and removes pain.” [1. p. 232]. “He becomes like Him with whom imbued.” [1. pp. 411, 1021]. “He practises good spontaneously; he is the fountain spring of benevolence.” [1. p. 273]. Being God-conscious, he is not alienated from his relationship with other beings.
(ii) He Carries Out His Will : God has a Will. The ideal man carries out that attributive Will. His mind is filled with Naam; true mind is imbued with Word, he serves truth, practises truth and earns truth. “Imbued by His Will, he carries it out.” [1. p. 1423]. “The soldiers of God act just as He Wills.” “Wonderful is His Will; one knows it only if one walks in His Will. Then alone one knows how to lead the life of truth.” [1. p. 940]. The Guru emphasises, that he who carries out His Will alone knows it; and he who knows it must carry it out. A Will known is essentially a Will carried out. “They who know His Will carry it out.” [1. p. 991].
(iii) He Is The Servant Of God And Man : They “dedicate life to Him”; he is “a combatant in the cause of God”; [1. pp. 74, 281] he is “the servant of God.” The Guru calls himself as “the slave of all creation.” [1. pp. 254, 377, 844]. The Guru prays : “The world is sick, O save it by any means you please.” [1. p. 853]. This hymn is of classic significance. The Guru prays for the entire humanity. He does not want God to help men only through him. He makes no claim to exclusive prophethood. He wants everyone to be saved by any means God may be pleased to use. Nothing could be more expressive of the anonymity and humility of the Guru and his deep concern for the entire humanity.
(iv) He Partakes Actively In All Fields Of Life : Unlike the Jivan Mukta in other systems, where the goal is union or merger as an end in itself, the gurmukh’s aim is not salvation for himself alone. He works for all, nor does he compromise with evil. For, “God’s chosen is one who fights for the oppressed.” [1. p. 1105]. His responsibility is total. As the instrument of God, he works for others and in all fields of life. Just as is the area of his responsibility, the gurmukh’s sphere of activity too is unlimited.
(v) He Aims To Make All Others God-Centred : “He unites himself with God and unites others too with Him.” “The servants of God salvage all.” [1. pp. 8, 3, 944, 295]. “His self is emancipated and he emancipates others.” The emphasis on this ideal of making everyone God-centred is so great that the Guru says that “God established the earth for the sake of God-centred persons.” [1. pp. 965, 941]. This, in essence, means that the creation or evolution of the superman on earth is the purpose of God towards which all life is moving, and the gurmukh works for it.
The Gurus have prescribed three modes of discipline. (a) company of God-centred persons, (b) moral life or service of man, and (c) remembering God and prayer. It is a code of conduct the seeker has to practise throughout the entire course of one’s life.
(a) Company Of God-Centred Persons : The society of the ideal man is of great value to the seeker, both as a model and as a guide. His influence is the best for shaping man’s growing personality and giving him strength and direction in times of doubt and difficulty. “Just as the harind (castor plant) imbibes the fragrance of the chandan tree, the fallen are emancipated by the saints.” “In good company one becomes good.” “God sends saints to reveal God’s concern for man.” [1. p. 929].
(b) Moral Life And Service : Guru Nanak says that the earth is a place for the practice of reighteousness. In Sikhism, moral activity is a step towards freedom and creativity. Hence, the highest importance of moral activity in the spiritual training and system of the Gurus. Spiritual discipline aims at enabling man to face life in a righteous and creative way. As such, a householder’s life is an essential moral responsibility of man. The seeker’s training has to take place during the course of a moral life and not in a monastry. It is important to understand that the Gurus never created any monastic system or a place for the training of a few. The psyche can be properly conditioned only when it is subject to the stresses and strains of the social environment of man. One can learn to swim only inside the pool and not outside it. This is exactly the reason why the Gurus excluded ascetics from the Sikh fold [4. p. 86] and condemned all ritualistic, yogic and other-worldly practices and austerities. In Sikhism, moral activity is the basis of all spiritual growth, and this activity can be done only in the social field. For, such activity alone is the way to eliminate egoism, and test the seeker’s progress. Keeping in view the character and role of the gurmukh it is obvious that progress is possible only through moral life. “Singing and dancing in ecstasy are no worship; love and the giving up of ego are the ways of real worship.” [1. pp. 159, 465] “Drive out selfishness and one is fulfilled.” “Where the weak are cared for, there is showered God’s mercy.” [1. p. 750]. “Evil separates, good deeds unite.” “Service in the world is the way to be fulfilled.” There is, indeed, no spiritual progress without active moral functioning. The service of God is a synonym for the service of man. Moral activities have the highest priority in Sikhism, these being the best means of training.
The use of human rationality and a sense of discrimination (babek budhi) have a distinct place in moral life. Sikh theology being non-deterministic, man has a distinct moral freedom and responsibility in the choice of his actions. It is this exercise of right choice that determines his spiritual progress. “By use of discrimination or intellect one serves God.” [1. p. 1245]. God’s concern for the moral development of man can be gauged from the fact that it is “His innermost nature to help the erring.” “With self-control and discipline, we forsake vice and see the miracle of man becoming God.” [1. pp. 343, 347].
For the moral life of man two virtues, namely, humility and love, find the highest priority in the Guru’s ethical system and the discipline prescribed for the seeker.
(c) Remembering God And Prayer : In Guru Granth Sahib, there is considerable emphasis on remembering God. But, the remembering of God is by itself not enough to link oneself with Him. This contemplation does not mean yogic practices for the achievement of the so-called bliss as an end in itself. We are unaware of any hymn in Guru Granth Sahib recommending yogic practices or any tradition in this regard. Nor are we aware of any hymn in Guru Granth Sahib which, apart from recommending prayer and keeping the fear of God always in one’s mind, directs the practice of day-long meditations in seclusion, and away from the day’s work. There are clear hymns against the use of such a course as a means of spiritual advancement. “Every one repeats God’s name, but such repetition is not the way to God.” “With guile in heart, he practises guile but mutters God’s name. He is pounding husk and is in darkness and pain.” [1. p. 656]. The Gurus deny the utility of any mechanical means of worship or mere repetition of words or hymns. But remembering can be a way to keep in mind one’s basic ideals. Evidently, remembrance of God is a kind of preparation for the virtuous activities to be undertaken in the social life. It is actually the character of the subsequent deeds that will be the test of man. This remembering is like keeping the fear of God in mind and moving in life strictly on the moral path. It does not mean mechanical repetition every day or morning. That is why the Guru says that “it is only one out of crores who remembers God.” [1. p. 1428].
Prayer as in any other theistic system, finds a place of eminence in Guru Granth Sahib. Prayer, expresses the humility and insignificance of the devotee. It is a mode of seeking God’s Grace. It is a humble attempt to draw upon God’s strength so as to restore one’s sagging energies and will in the moral struggle of man. “My energies are exhausted and I am helpess. But O God, with Thy Grace nothing is difficult for me to accomplish.” [1. p. 1429]. Such a prayer is not a repetitive formula or practice, nor is it an end in itself. It is really a preparation for the moral activity to be undertaken in the world. In fact, it is inalienably linked with the subsequent activity. Without its external operation, the internal activity remains invalid. The very fact that the Gurus started no monastic system shows that they never advocated either prayer or any other meditational system as an independent mode of spiritual training. “One is emancipated while laughing and playing in life and living a full life.” [1. p. 522]. “The God-centred lives truth while yet a householder.” [1. p. 661].
8. Sikh Bhakti and Society
We have already come to the conclusion that in Sikhism moral activity is the chief method of spiritual growth. This raises two issues. The first concerns the approach of the gurmukh towards social institutions and making changes in them. The Gurus, and more especially Guru Nanak, have been sharply critical of the evil socio-political institutions and customs of the times. About prejudices regarding caste and against women (which had recieved almost religious sanction), the Gurus say, “The Vedas make a wrong distinction of caste, colour, heaven and hell.” [1. p. 1243]. “No one should take pride in caste; foolish man be not proud of caste; this pride leads to innumerable evils. They make distinction of four castes, but all are born of God.” “The whole world is made of the same elements. Then why make distinctions ?” [1. pp. 1128]. “They talk of pollution and warn others not to touch their food, lest it should be defiled. But their own bodies are impure.” [1. p. 472]. “Why call woman impure when without women there would be none.” [1. p. 473]. Evil social practices and customs have been denounced. God-consciousness consists in treating all as equals. The idleness of yogis and ascetics, hypocrisy of priests and Brahmins, and inequalities in the economic field and the amassing of wealth have been condemned. “God’s riches are for all but men try to grab them for themselves.” “God’s bounty belongs to all, but in the world it is maldistributed.” [1. p. 1171]. “Man gathers riches by making others miserable.” [1. p. 889]. “Riches cannot be gathered without sin and these do not keep company after death.” [1. p. 417]. “ O yogi, are you not ashamed of begging from door to door for your food?” [1. p. 886]. “The man incapable of earning a living, gets his ears split (to become a yogi) or becomes a mendicant. He calls himself a guru or saint but begs for food from door to door. Never look up to such a person or touch his feet. He knows the right way who earns his living by hard work and shares his earnings with others.” [1. p. 1245]. Similarly, in the political field, the oppression of the rulers, the tyranny of the invaders, and the corruption of the officials have been deprecated.
Two important things should be understood in regard to this criticism. This criticism is the direct consequence of the Guru’s ideas about God and the reality of the world. Their world-view is clearly of life-affirmation. The brotherhood of man is the basis of their socio-spiritual approach. Hence their three-pronged attack on all kinds of socio-political evils and inequalites, on downgrading the socio-religious status of women, and on idleness, renunciation and withdrawal from the world. Secondly, this condemnation was not a mere verbal exercise, it was an essential step to educate the people, change their ideas and build up fresh motivations. For, an important function of religion is to create and “establish powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations in men.” [5. p. 75]. Further change in social institutions could never have been brought about unless this calculated change in the moods and the minds of people had been brought about before that.
The second issue concerns the remoulding of social institutions and organisations, and the means to be adopted for the desired purposes. The Gurus describe God not only as the Helper of the weak, the shelterless and the supportless, but also the Destroyer of the oppressor. The Sixth Guru clearly stated that his sword was both for the help of the oppressed and the destruction of the tyrants. It evidently implies that the Gurus contemplate reconstruction and creation of alternative moral institutions. Naturally, alternative human institutions can come up only by the substitution, remoulding or destruction of the old and unwanted organisations. The lives of the Gurus are a clear pointer that, in their system, change of environment to improve the moral climate in all fields is clearly envisaged and sanctioned. In any system where moral life has an independent validity and an importance of its own as a desirable end, the making of environmental and organisational changes for that purpose would ipso facto be justified. The Gurus accordingly envisage a change in environment and the remoulding of social organisations.
An allied important issue is the means to be adopted for bringing about the desired institutional and other changes. In God’s world all form and progress are the product of force; since no change is possible without the use of force. Again, as all encroachment on the rights of others involves aggression, the same cannot be undone except by the use of an equal and opposite use of force. In fact, all action and activity, howsoever good, involve the use of force, because action and force are synonymous. Action not involving the use of force is a contradiction in terms. Therefore, except by some miracle, it is impossible to bring about a change in the social or institutional environment without the use of requisite force. It is significant to note that in the entire Guru Granth Sahib there is no miracle attributed to a Guru. In the Guru’s system, only the miracle of deeds are performed. Logically, it is impossible to construct anything without destroying or remoulding the existing structure. Of course, the force used should not seek to serve any selfish or egoistic purpose.
In the background of the Indian tradition this issue about the use of force as the means for a moral end needs some clarification, since a lot of confusion among some scholars has arisen on this score. The alternative to the use of force or killing and meat-eating is the doctrine of ahimsa. Ahimsa has been advocated by most Indian religions, as was also done by Bhagat Kabir. But, it is of significant importance that it is Guru Nanak who opposed this doctrine. “Men discriminate not and quarrel over meat-eating. They know not what is flesh and what is non-flesh, and in what lies or does not lie a sin.” [1. p. 1289]. In his hymns, the Guru details his views concerning the issue of means and the cant about meat-eating. He chides the Brahmins for their pretence about meat-eating. He describes how the ways and processes of life involve the transformation and the use of the flesh. He also explains that life is present in every grain of food and even in the fire-wood and the cow-dung which the Brahmins use for the purpose of purification. The Guru exposes the fallacy that life, much less a moral deed, is possible without the use of force. He means that immorality does not lie in the use of force, which is inevitable for all living, whether moral or immoral, but it lies in the direction or the purpose for which force is used. The significance and thrust of these hymns have often been missed. Evidently, from the very start Guru Nanak contemplated a change in the socio-moral atmosphere and institutions. The doctrine of ahimsa was a serious hurdle in disturbing or demolishing the status quo. Therefore, as a prophet of a new religion, he once and for all made it plain that, so long as one worked in the midst of social life, all arbitrary prejudices against meat-eating or the use of force as such were wrong and meaningless. It is very significant to note that the religious systems that insisted on ahimsa were either ascetic or monastic, or suggested withdrawal from the world. The Radical Bhagats were neither monastic nor ascetic, but they never considered social involvement to be a duty or a field of spiritual training and growth. Kabir deems the world to be a trap from which deliverance has to be sought. His attitude towards woman is exactly like that of monastic or ascetic religions. While referring to the Bhakti cults of India, Ray says that these had completely surrendered to the status quo and the socio-political establishment of the day. All we wish to emphasise is that no religious system that suggests the love of man as an essential part of the love of God can accept or suggest the limitation of ahimsa for work in the moral or the social field. Ahimsa is inevitably linked with religious systems that have a world-view of life-negation and are unconcerned with socio-political changes. It is, in fact, an ascetic tool, being the product or a part of an ascetic or monastic methodology.
It may be argued that great pacifists like Mahatma Gandhi successfully employed non-violence as the means of bringing about socio-political changes. But, it is now well-known that when the Mahatma had to face the major challenge of his life, he found himself helpless. The Mahatma being the greatest exponent of non-violence in modern times, when the Second World War broke out, the pacifists of the world looked up to him for a lead. But the Mahatma could furnish or suggest no non-violent or effective remedy. Ahimsa could be of little help to him in stopping the holocaust. The situation became so frustrating for the Mahatma that he even thought of committing suicide so that if he could do nothing to stop the destruction, he would at least not live to see the misery caused by it. [2. p. 34]. The two occasions when he had to discard ahimsa as a tool are quite well-known, namely, when he agreed to the Congress accepting the responsibility of the war effort, and, again, when in 1947, he had no objection to the entry of Indian forces in Kashmir for its defence. Another great pacifist, too, had to take a contrasted stand when faced with a crucial issue. During the First World War Bertrand Russel opposed the idea of war and violence to the point of being arrested in pursuance of his pacifist beliefs. But, later, after the Second World War, Russel himself suggested an attack against Soviet Russia before it became a major atomic power and a threat or menace to the entire world. [3. pp. 53-57].
The issue needs some further clarifications. Reasons and force are two tools available to man for work and progress in the socio-political sphere. Without the use of both these means, it is impossible to bring about any social change. In fact a high sense of reason or discrimination is the chief faculty that distinguishes man from other animals. We have seen that the Gurus clearly indicate reason to be a good instrument of religious progress. “By the use of discrimination of intellect one serves God. By discrimination one is honoured. By intellect and study one understands things.” “It is the sense of discrimination that makes one charitable. This is the right way, rest is all wrong.” [1. p. 1245]. “Man is blessed with the light of reason and discrimination.” “One in fear of God and discriminating between good and bad, appears sweet to God.” [1. p. 763]. Yet in the history of civilisation human reason or intellect has also been used as the greatest instrument of oppression and destruction. Human rationality has been called a convenient and clever cloak to cover man’s bestiality. Does it imply that we should altogether discard reason as a useful tool for religious progress. We have already noted what is the answer given by the Gurus on this point. The fact is that both reason and force are neutral tools that can be used both for good and evil, for construction and destruction. The Gurus unambiguously accept the use of both of them as the means of religious functioning and progress. In doing so they made major departure from the earlier Bhakti and religious traditions. This break with the past was the direct result of their new religious methodology and goals and consequent social involvement and objectives.
All consciousness or life is nothing but a centre of perfection, deliberation, activity and organisation. The Gurus accepted life, the world and its responsibilities in toto. “Despise not the world for it is the creation of God,” says the Guru. As the instruments or the servants of God, they had to carry out God’s Will in helping the weak and destroying the oppressor. Their spiritual system, therefore, involved the use of all the available tools, including reason and force, for the purposeful progress of man and his organising consciousness. According to the Guru, the malady is not the use of reason and force, which can both be used and abused, but the egoistic consciousness of man, which is narrow and inadequate in its perception and partial in its outlook and functioning, because it stands alienated from the Basic Reality. Therefore, the way out is the development of a higher consciousness in order to become a whole man or superman with a sense of kinship and total responsibility towards all beings. The higher the consciousness, the truer its perception and the greater its capacity for organisation and functioning in order to execute God’s mission. Man’s greatest problems today are poverty, disease and wars. Undoubtedly, these need the greatest organisational effort in the socio-political field. The diagnosis of the Gurus is that the egoistic man has neither the perception nor the vision nor even the organisational, moral and spiritual capacity to solve the problems of man. It is only the religious man with a higher consciousness, who alone can fulfil God’s mission of creating the Kingdom of God on earth. The Guru indicates the path of progress or evolution : “God created first Himself then haumain, third maya and fourth the state of poise and bliss.” [1. p. 113]. And in the second and third stages man’s development is only partial. The aim is the achievement of the fourth stage. In Sikhism, the development of union with God is not an end in itself. The goal is the development of a higher consciousness, so as to discharge the total responsibility devolving on man in order to create a world of harmony and happiness.
The Gurus say that human problems cannot be solved at the third stage of man’s development. These can be dealt with adequately only at the fourth stage. And, this development of a higher consciousness is for a religious purpose. That purpose or mission is epitomised in the lives of the Gurus. Guru Hargobind in his talk with Saint Ramdas made it clear that what Guru Nanak had given up was mammon and not the world, the enrichment of which, in accordance with the attributive Will of God, was the mission of the Gurus, as also of every God-conscious man. In such a righteous world alone the problems of poverty, misery, disease, war and conflict can be solved. The development of superman is, therefore, the spiritual purpose for which life has been striving.
1. Guru Granth Sahib.
2. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad : India Wins Freedom.
3. Russel, Bertrand : Unpopular Essays.
4. Hari Ram Gupta : History Of The Sikh Gurus.
5. Juergensmeyer, M., (Ed.) : Sikh Studies.
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