The Contemporary Relevance Multiculturalism as Espoused in Sikhism
Imagine a world where people had no element of distinctiveness, if, all followed a similar faith, adhered to the principle of “one religion”, if “one ideology” was to be considered sacrosanct. It indeed would bring about stagnancy. In such a world there would be no discourse, no arguments and no counter arguments. The growth of new ideas would cease, absence of vibrancy and diversity in the form of religion, culture, values, dress forms, etc would make life mundane and unexciting. Interestingly, no society is homogeneous in nature and character. The heterogeneity characterized by its demography, social and cultural differences makes it rich and lively. And as nations claim to be liberal, democratic it becomes important to provide space to cultural diversity, diverse ideas, perspectives and beliefs. Further, with the impetus laid on good governance, it becomes all the more important for the states to facilitate the establishment of a societal order wherein the diversities are protected,accommodated and given equal status. A state that provides for a conducive environment to protect and nurture the creativities of different cultures present within it qualify as good democracies. However, equally true is the fact that the contemporary Indian reality is disturbing and worrisome. The observable developments in the form of ethnic conflicts, religious animosities, lynching, hate crimes, hate speeches, exploitation of religion for dubious purposes; spread of communalism and religious fundamentalism; cultural stereotyping of the ‘other’ religion, are among many other manifestations that draw attention to the need for sensitising people to inculcate the right values for a healthy, peaceful and amicable order. These issues cut across borders and territories and India too is grappling with such issues despite its more than seven decades of strong federal democratic experience and the written constitutional provisions that guarantee every individual to avail equal rights. Yet, there exists cultural gap and reports of cultural discrimination in its various forms are often reported from the several nooks and corners of the country that require not only state intervention in form of affirmative measures, policy response or punitive actions but also necessitates the contribution of every common man for social cohesion, tolerance and composite culture which is a bedrock of national unity in a multicultural society.
Promoting and propagating the philosophy of multiculturalism is a response to issues arising out of cultural assimilation and diversities. Religion happens to be one of the significant components of culture, thus making it important to understand multiculturalism from the perspective of religion. Moreover, if the mentality, behavior, approach and practices of people are to be altered in conformity with principles of accommodation and acceptance, exploring multiculturalism from the standpoint of religion is definitely imperative. Every religion has something to offer in this regard.
Diversity is a hallmark of civilisations -Western or Eastern; New or Old. Culture is one among the many aspects (ethnicity, language, geography) that contributes towards diversity in a nation. Before proceeding to discuss and define multiculturalism,it is pertinent to have a fair idea of culture. Culture refers to the elements like shared language, beliefs, values, norms, behaviors, and material objects that have a vital role in not just shaping human personality, identity and behavior but are also important as they are faithfully preserved to pass on to the successive generations. Culture has a decisive role in establishing/demolishing/maintaining and developing a worldview. The Oxfor Learners’ Dictionary defines the word ‘culture’ as “the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organization of a particular country or group”. Every culture with its distinctive features,makes a value addition in the conception of good life and hence needs to be preserved and deserves to be represented in the public sphere. As each culture has something unique to offer and at the same time no culture is complete in itself as is asserted by Bhiku Parkeh,” However rich it might be, no culture embodies all that is valuable in human life, and develops the full range of human possibilities. Different cultures thus correct and complement each other, expand each other’s horizon of thought and alert each other to new forms of human fulfillment” therefore the worthiness of each culture needs to be recognised and respected. The fact that culture is learned, undergoes transformation, is shared and its elements are sacrosanctly held high is undeniable. A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture is healthy and without doubt infuses a sense of pride and togetherness. However, it has been observed that people often tend to evaluate or judge the other cultures and compare it to one’s own cultural norms and in the process develop and propagate disdain or dislike for other cultures, causing misunderstanding and conflict. And cultures are one among the often potent factors in conflict and affect the ways we name, frame, blame and attempt to tame conflicts.
States inhabited by different people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds having their distinct culture, language, values and beliefs etc is certainly a reflection of its diversity which is splendid, impressive,colorful but at times threatening to the socio-political order as differences present among various cultures, social status, religion, language and ways of life are neglected. The “marginalized” groups are often pushed aside by the dominant group, pushing the former to further deprivation and peripheralization. Minorities often feel neglected and abandoned, which poses a challenge to the socio-political fabric of the society and enhances economic, social and cultural insecurity among the minority groups. So to establish a cohesive and peaceful socio- political order, it is important to handle diversity sensitively, by turning separations into a positive way, facilitating people of different cultures to connect with one another and be encouraged for productive engagements. History is replete with examples of societies like the Egyptian, Persian and Indian among others where people of diverse cultures have lived together peacefully, tied together in the bonds of understanding and acceptance. Cultural plurality within the same social space has been the hallmark of societies since times immemorial, however, must not be confused or be understood as the presence of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is much beyond the existence of multitude of culture based communities living together in harmony, it concerns ensuring the equal treatment and equal representation of diverse cultures in the public sphere.
Multiculturalism as a policy adopted by modern democratic nation states aims to ameliorate the conditions of minorities and to address exclusionary practices which contribute towards discrimination, deprivation and socio-economic inequality of minority communities. It addresses various issues regarding cultural identity, pluralism, minority rights in public space, individual and group rights and recognition. It stresses on equality of different cultures and argues that all cultural communities must be entitled for equal status in the public sphere. Different but equal, this is the leitmotif of multiculturalism. The purpose of multiculturalism is to safeguard the interest of all irrespective of all differences of language, culture, ethnicity, religion etc. It;s an inclusive approach that values all cultures.
The concept has assumed prominence in academic, political or developmental discourse in recent times as unprecedented development of communication and travel facilities has enabled people to settle in distant and different parts of the world. But the philosophy has its roots in the past, especially in the Indian context where both immigration and multiculturalism are as old as recorded history. Historically, the reflection of the latter in theory and practice is indisputable. India has been a land of invaders and conquerors, people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds have poured into and settled in India at various periods of history and beautifully assimilated into its mosaic yet maintained their distinctiveness. Each community, while interacting and being influenced by the others, retained its own identity, customs, beliefs and ways of life. It has truly been said that Indian culture is a ‘culture of cultures’, like a beehive of interlocking cells. India cannot claim for the genesis of modern markers of multiculturalism but has definitely lived the experience of it. As a social reality Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Bahaai, Jain, and Parsi and various other ethnic communities have continued to co-exist for many centuries now it only celebrates the multicultural nature of its ethos. The ancient Indian traditions and religions proved to be a foundational basis for shaping the Indian mind and character. The Rig Vedic dictum: Aano bhadra kratavoyanti visvatah, (“Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides”) has facilitated the Indian sub continent to be home to a staggering array of languages and spiritual creeds, and ways of life. Discussing multiculturalism in the Indian context is incomplete without a mention of the catchphrases like “Unity in Diversity” or Vividhata Mein Ekta or belief of Sarva Dharma Sambhava and so is it incomplete without the detailed exploration of the contribution of Sikhism in this regard, which unequivocally stresses on modern day concepts like democracy, secularism, egalitarianism, human rights, justice, liberty and multiculturalism too.
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism was a forerunner in not only promulgating the above cherished ideals and values, rooted in humanism but also brought the ideals in practice in his daily life and through various institutional practices. Condemning duality, superstition, orthodoxy, hatred, fundamentalism and outrightly attacking the tyrant, corrupt rulers and religious leaders who sought to suppress the “freedom of religion and cultures” by way of their power and authority, Guru Nanak expressed his affirmation for a multicultural society. Laying the foundation of a monotesitic religion, Guru Nanak sought to address religious intolerance, racial arrogance and false pretense of cultural superiority and spent his life spreading the eternal message of peace, coexistence, cross cultural understanding and harmony. The birth of Guru Nanak was in the period of history that was characterized by tyrannical and coercive rule in times when Hinduism and Islam were intensifying their ‘orthodoxies’. Religious intolerance, social injustice and political persecution were the landmarks of that time. In addition, this period also saw the emergence of Bhakti and Sufism that sought to bring about socio-political and cultural reformation in Indian society and bring about reawakening among masses,encouraging all for the establishment of a peaceful order.
Guru Nanak and all his successors through their teachings that lay faithfully preserved in Guru Granth Sahib ji, Janamsakhis and other scriptures gave message of “Oneness” yet contended for the preserving the distinctive character of every faith, culture, language to the extent of accepting martyrdom. Indeed,the unique and exemplary contributions of the Sikh Gurus for the establishment of a multicultural order finds no parallel in the recorded history.
Rejecting all divisions in the name of religion, culture, race etc Guru Nanak sought to bind humanity in the bonds of trust, empathy, tolerance and understanding and encouraged people to acknowledge the presence of one God in all his creation. Guru Nanak’s divine composition promoted composite culture and outrightly rejected the existence of any clash between the one and multi centers. Guru Nanak opined that One and Multi centers must always be in harmony and that the latter are always in His Kind glance. The underlying message of the Guru promoted multicultural society denouncing any attempt to abolish any center according to the pleasure of a human being, howsoever powerful he or she may be. According to Guru Nanak each center is radiating the divine command, manifesting a dimension of higher life and those who recognise that all paths lead to the One, shall be emancipated. The foundational principles of Sikhism preach true gursikh to protect, guard and allow the free practice of the customs and rituals of other religions.
rwh dovY ieku jwxY soeI isJsI]
He, who deems both the ways lead to one Lord, shall be emancipated.
gurU gRMQ swihb, pMnw 142
The composed hymns of the Gurus are a reflection of the emphasis on the establishment of a society wherein there is equanimity among the stratified and divided groups and all are able to follow/preserve/practice their cultural ethos without fear or threat.
BY kwhU kau dyq nih nih BY mwnq Awn ]
khu nwnk suin ry mnw igAwnI qwih bKwin ]
Whosoever frightens none nor is afraid of anyone.
Says Nanak, hear thou, O my soul, call thou him, a man of Divine knowledge
gurU gRMQ swihb, pMnw 1427
Guru Nanak’s set forth on his spiritual journey by expressing his urge for the establishment of a multicultural social order with his opening remarks “I am neither a Hindu, nor a Muslim" thus sending across message to both Hindus and Muslims alike to follow their respective faiths and practices honestly. Guru Nanak urged both communities to make no attempt to attack/defame/ dishonor the cultural and religious values of each other and instead see common light pervading among all.
sBu ko aUcw AwKIAY nIcu n dIsY koie ]
ieknY BWfy swijAY ieku cwnxu iqhu loie ]
Call every one exalted, none appears to be base.
The One Lord has fashioned the pots, and
One Light is pervading the three worlds.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 62
Gurbani emphasizes on the spiritual unity of mankind and there exists a common bond among all of us, it is only under the impact of ego/haumein that we fail to recognise that unity and the reality of Oneness remains hidden from us. Guru Arjan Dev ji says:
nw ko bYrI nhI ibgwnw sgl sMig hm kau bin AweI ]
No one now is my enemy, nor is anyone a stranger to me and I am the friend of all.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299
eyku ipqw eyks ky hm bwirk qU myrw gur hweI ]
Of one father are we all children;
Thow my Preceptor .
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 611
nw hm ihMdU n muslmwn]
Alh rwm ky ipMfu prwn]
I am neither a Hindu, nor a Muslim.
My body and soul belong to Him,
Who is called God of Muslims and the Lord of Hindus.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1136
Bhagat Kabir ji says:
Avil Alh nUru aupwieAw kudriq ky sB bMdy]
eyk nUr qy sBu jgu aupijAw kaun Bly ko mMdy]
Firstly God created light and then,
By His Omnipotence, made all the mortals.
From the One light has welled up the entire universe.
Then who is good and who is bad?
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1349
Guru Nanak unequivocally stood for dignity and honor of all, which are intrinsically linked to the enjoyment of civil liberties, socio- economic equality and political justice. Human dignity is a central theme of the divine compositions and in defense of human dignity, the supreme sacrifices of the Gurus’ would be remembered till eternity. Tolerance and equal respect for all religions were the salient elements of the Gurus’ teachings that essentially paved the way for accepting, respecting and ensuring equal treatment for people of all cultures.
He denounced forcible suppression of anyone’s feelings. And Guru Nanak inspires people not to speak ill of others, be judgemental and create quarrels.
mMdw iksY n AwiK JgVw pwvxw]
Speak not ill of another nor involve thyself in a quarrel.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 566
Besides promoting the cultural rights of all and inspiring people to not think evil of others, Guru Nanak also urged both Hindus and Muslims to be faithful to their respective religion, however encouraged them to denounce those aspects of religion that are rudimentary and against humanity. Condemning the Hindus for shedding their own culture and language under the pressure of the ruling class and adopting their culture instead to please them Guru Nanak says
AMqir pUjw pVih kqybw sMjmu qurkw BweI] CofIly pwKMfw ]
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 471
Guru Nanak denounced the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who instead of defending their own folk, blessed the oppressive rulers. The religious leaders for their vested interests, go to any length and misguide the people. As a result the very purpose of religion to establish harmony among all faiths is defeated. In Sikhism , the idea of unity of God is reiterated through various hymns composed by the gurus. For instance
ਕਾਦੀ ਕੂੜੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਮਲੁ ਖਾਇ ॥ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਨਾਵੈ ਜੀਆ ਘਾਇ ॥
ਜੋਗੀ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਨ ਜਾਣੈ ਅੰਧੁ ॥ਤੀਨੇ ਓਜਾੜੇ ਕਾ ਬੰਧੁ ॥2॥
The Muslim Judge utters falsehood and eats filth;
The Brahmin guilty of slaughter of humanity,
makes show of pious bathing;
The yogi, blind of insight, knows not the true praxis.
The devices of all three ruin mankind.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 662
Guru Nanak gave a unique model of inter-faith dialogue, the relevance of it in the present day globalized world is more than ever, providing a viable alternative to create an atmosphere of communal harmony and peaceful co-existence. The philosophical basis of inter faith dialogue lies in the recognition and acceptance of multiple paths to the realization of One Ultimate Truth. And one finds a practical expression of this philosophy with the inclusion of the hymns of Medieval Indian saint- poets belonging to diverse faiths alongside those of sikh Gurus in the Holy scripture Guru Granth sahib ji and this is reflective of multicultural ideals of the Gurus’ brought into actual practice. As a harbinger of democratic ideals and multicultural society, Guru Nanak persuaded all to endorse the good attributes of all cultures and negate the bad ones. He stopped people from seeing each other as mleccha or kafir and taught people to see each other as the creation of the one and only God. Similar message is reverberated in Kabir ji’s composed hymn in Raag Parbhati:
ਬੇਦ ਕਤੇਬ ਕਹਹੁ ਮਤ ਝੂਠੇ ਝੂਠਾ ਜੋ ਨ ਬਿਚਾਰੈ॥
Say not that the Vedas and Muslim books are false.
False is he, who reflects not on them.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1350
Beda refers to vedas, the sacred scripture of Hinduism and Kateba refers to the sacred scripture of the Abrahamic faith and this verse by Bhagat Kabir emphasizes the underlying spiritual unity in the diverse manifestations of the worldly scriptures.
Through the organization of Sangat-Pangat, Guru Nanak brought into practice equal respect towards all people. In addition to this Gurudwara and concept of dasvandh fostered love, cooperation, tolerance and unity among all. Thus these new institutions taught people to develop the understanding for other cultures and trained people for a multicultural society. Guru Nanak’s successors followed his ideals and practices and also added an element of novelty and freshness during their respective Guruship.
Gurbani also emphasizes that for a healthy multicultural society mere tolerance and acceptance is not enough. It requires an active engagement with the diversity of co-existing faiths in the society, and the two-way process of interaction facilitates gaining knowledge and understanding of each other’s faith/ cultures. Appreciation of diversity enables giving equal treatment to the people of diverse cultures.
ਜਬ ਲਗੁ ਦੁਨੀਆ ਰਹੀਐ ਨਾਨਕ ਕਿਛੁ ਸੁਣੀਐ ਕਿਛੁ ਕਹੀਐ॥
While life in the world lasts,
For a while listen to God's Name; for a while utter it.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 661
Gurbani categorically rejects considering anyone as “the other”. Guru Nanak says where is the “other”
ਦੂਜਾ ਕਉਣੁ ਕਹਾ ਨਹੀ ਕੋਈ॥ਸਭ ਮਹਿ ਏਕੁ ਨਿਰੰਜਨੁ ਸੋਈ॥
Whom should I call the second when there is none else?
Amongst all is contained that One Pure Lord.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 223
The idea of ‘the other’ is dealt from a philosophical perspective in gurbani stressing on the metaphysical concept of the unity of all existence and happens to be the cornerstone of Sikh world view. And in this Unitive consciousness none is treated as alien or “the other”.Recognizing the Supreme Being as creator and sustainer of the created universe inspires us to treat all beings as equal. Interestingly dialogue, propounded by Guru nanak is a unifying method for healthy engagement wherein” the other’’ engaged in genuine dialogue is treated as equal.
Fifth nanak, goes a step ahead by recognizing the ‘other’ as a friend, a party in a relationship of “equals”. There is conflict when you see “other” as an enemy.
ਨਾ ਕੋ ਮੇਰਾ ਦੁਸਮਨੁ ਰਹਿਆ ਨਾ ਹਮ ਕਿਸ ਕੇ ਬੈਰਾਈ॥
No one is, now, my adversary, nor am l an enemy of any one.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 671
Besides composing hymns, traveling far and wide, establishing institutions and also by personally remaining in company of people from diverse cultures, the martyrdom and the sacrifices made by the Sikh Gurus for the upkeep of multicultural order of the society can never be forgotten. The detailed contribution of each of the Sikh Gurus’ in this regard requires bringing out a separate paper. However, the text that follows provides a brief overview the contribution of Guru Gobind Singh ji and the contemporary Sikh personalities in this regard
Guru Gobind Singh ji lived in a period of history that was dark and grimm when religious fanaticism posed a serious threat to the human spirit of freedom and liberty. But took the ways of interfaith promotion and taking forward the teachings of preceding Sikh Gurus, promoted social institutions such as the langar, sangat and kirtan as great levelers and unifying agencies. The hymn composed by the tenth Nanak:
ਮਾਨਸ ਕੀ ਜਾਤ ਸਬੈ ਏਕੈ ਪਹਚਾਨਬੋ॥
is an illustration that he dreamt of a society outside of the prevailing rituals and ethics, based on social equality and built on the ‘recognition of light of the divine in all beings in equal measure’.
Guru Gobind Singh worked tirelessly to restore society’s confidence in the time-tested human values of unity in diversity, freedom of faith practices, justice and compassion. He challenged the ruling and dominant powers with perseverance and determination. With equal might he challenged the wide-spread religious bigotry. The establishment of the khalsa panth created a bedrock of multicultural order. It is symbolic of ecumenical human society, grounded in a world culture, representing free and organic fusion of various strands of the spiritual heritage of man.
To spread his message of a perfect egalitarian society based on one-ness of God that celebrates diversity in all of its myriad forms, he said:
As out of a single fire arise millions of spark; but all of them merge back into the same fire. As out of same dust arise millions of dust particles; but all of them merge back into the same dust. As out of a single ocean arise millions of waves; but all of them merge into the same water. So from God’s form, emerge all creation, animate and inanimate; and all of them are in equilibrium with the same Creator.
The supreme sacrifices of our Gurus and Great Sikh men, women and children for preservation of multicultural order and in defense of “Righteousness” is unmatchable and inscribed in golden letters in the annals of history. Blessed with the Divine Wisdom, the Sikh Gurus sought to bring about positive transformation in the society. And when it became necessary, a “Holy War” against the repressive authority that periled the multicultural order was waged by the tenth Master.
The legacy of Guru Nanak encapsulating humane, brotherly attitude and a spirit of openness and tolerance for the Other is endorsed and given expression not only in the past but even today. The task of social transformation was carried out by the saint soldiers like Banda Singh Bahadur, Bhai Tara Singh, Nawab Kapur Singh, Jessa Singh Ahluwalia who took up the cause of humanity. They contributed in their own unique ways to upkeep the multicultural fabric.
In 1801 Maharaja Ranjit Singh emerged as an iconic figure who established a unified Sikh empire with cosmopolitan characteristics. As a devout sikh, he upheld the teachings of the gurus, showed respect for all religions and faiths both in letter and spirit and the testimony to it is that the administrative responsibilities were shared by the heterogeneous group of people belonging to different religions that included Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, races, regions and nationalities and so was the nobility, too diverse. It is mention worthy that famous Muslim, Fakir Aziz-ud-Din. was a close confidante of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Prime Minister was a Hindu Dogra, his Foreign and Interior Ministers were Muslims. Moreover, Ranjit Singh brought peace to Punjab through promoting art and culture, and most notable is the fact that even the European artists were accorded a place of honor in the Lahore Darbar. And the culture and art of those times also had European influence.
The concept of multicultural social order envisaged in Sikhism rests upon the fundamental values of liberty, equality, justice, love, coexistence still proves to be a guiding force as many Sikh organizations come forward to extend support to the minorities and humanitarian assistance. Guru Nanak’s philosophy asserting on the co-existence and co-development of the positive, creative individualities of the constituent social units bringing about organic wholeness is as relevant today as was in his own times. The philosophy of multiculturalism as espoused by the Sikh Gurus is legacy given a practical shape through the continuing traditions of sangat, pangat, nishkaam seva, in the present times. And it indeed is a divine gift to the governments and international bodies to address the perennial issues of communalism, ethnic conflicts, and fundamentalism which the present world is confronting with. The need is to revisit the eternal teachings of Sikhism and work on the fundamental precepts.
– Muthu Mohan N. Dharam Singh (Ed) (2003) Essential postulates of Sikhism Publication Bureau, Punjabi University Patiala.
– Eck, Diana L. n.d.a. What Is Pluralism? Available online: http://pluralism.org/what-is-pluralism/ (accessed on 12 March 2018).
– Mahajan Gurpreet Rethinking multiculturalism accessed on 12 March 2018 from http://www.india-seminar.com/1999/484/484%20mahajan.htm
– Sandhara Sharanjit Kaur (2012) GURU NANAK AND MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH - The Unlikely Connection UNDERSTANDING SIKHISM – The Research Journal January – December 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1-2
– Arvinder Singh (2912) THE IDEA OF MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY IN SIKHISM UNDERSTANDING SIKHISM – The Research Journal January – December 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1-2
– Singh Daljeet (1994) Essentials of Sikhism Singh Brothers Mai Sewan Amritsar.
– Ahluwalia, J. S. 1991. Identity Crisis in Religious Faiths and Communities. In Madanjit Kaur (Ed.), Co-Existence. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University. p. 36.
– Ahluwalia, J. S. 2000. Sikhism and the 21st Century Society. The Sikh Review , Vo. 48. No. 560.
– Kaur, Jaspal. 2006. Multiculturalism: Rediscovering the Other from Gurbani. Pakistan Journal of History and Culture , Vol. 27. No. 2.
– Parekh Bhiku (2006), Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, 2nd Ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.