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The Sikh Ideology

Jagjit Singh

What the Radical Bhaktas could not do, the Sikh Gurus did. They created an egalitarian society (Sikh Panth) outside the caste society and made it the spring-board for giving shape to a revolutionary movement. But, before we come to discuss these developments, it is necessary to understand the Gurus’ view of life, because it is not possible to appreciate the significance of the Sikh movement without understanding the Sikh thesis highly integrated in its conception. In fact, it is so radical, new and creative in character that it has led to many misunderstandings about its world-view. Another factor that has caused a lot of misconception about it is the background in which Sikhism appeared. Brahminism being a medley variety of creeds and cults, embracing even conflicting and contradictory systems, there is a lazy tendency to regard Sikhism as an off-shoot of the orthodox cultural complex. But, the growth of Sikhism in India is so exceptional that there is hardly a common essential between Sikhism and the traditional Indian religions. For this reason, it is necessary for us to give a brief outline of the main traditional socio-religious trends and the corresponding Sikh approach.

The Traditional Background and Approach
The course of all religious, social and political evolution, up to the time of the Gurus, had been steered, or greatly influenced, by three dominant factors. The first was the overriding social and political consideration of preserving the Varna Ashrama Dharma; the second was the individualistic and quietist approach of life; and the third was the doctrine of Ahimsa. No social or political movement, which went against the fundamentals of the caste ideology, could arise out of the orthodox creeds, because that would negate Orthodoxy. The Buddhists and the Radical Bhaktas were not bound down to the caste ideology, but both shared, in varying degrees, the quietist approach to life. M Hiriyana writes, ‘These are the two elements common to all Indian thought — the pursuit of Moksa as the final ideal and the ascetic spirit of the discipline recommended for its achievement.’1 Both these elements implied a negative view of life. The dominant refrain of the Indian religions was that the world was unreal or a place of suffering. Life was a bondage from which release had to be obtained by cutting oneself away, as far as possible, from the world of activity and resorting to meditational or ascetic practices. From the sociological point of view, this approach to life was pessimistic, individualistic and anti-social. Pessimism was such a prominent feature that the Greeks noted that ‘Death is with them (Brahmins) a very frequent subject of discourse.’1 a In the case of the orthodox schools, this view of life was further compounded by the paramount consideration of preserving the caste order. Lord Krishna is the only prominent Indian prophet who propounded the philosophy of Karma (activity) in the Bhagavadgita, but in the same text he is said to be the author of Varna Ashrama Dharma. Therefore, this Karma, in its application, meant nothing beyond the performance of ritualistic duties, as in the Vedic religion, or of the prescribed caste duties as advocated by the orthodoxy. All activity had strictly to be within the orbit of the caste structure.

Similarly, although Mahayana Buddhists took a prominent part in alleviating human suffering, they were inhibited from tackling political problems by their adherence to the doctrine of Ahimsa (non-violence) and by their regarding the world as a place of suffering. ‘It is well known how Buddhism turned into peaceful nomads the Mongolian hordes, who in the 13th century devastated the whole of Iran, Western Asia, and south-eastern Europe.’1 b Buddhism eschewed the use of force for any purpose whatsoever, and gave the doctrine of Ahimsa a prominent place in its scheme of religious propaganda. In Jainism, the application of this principle covered even the smallest of living beings. Later on, Brahminism also partly accepted this approach. The cumulative result of all the three limiting factors was to help maintain the social status quo and entrench social reaction in the form of the caste order. All purposeful revolutionary movement towards human liberty and equality was either discounted or barred.

The Sikh World-view
The Sikh movement deliberately built up a society outside the caste society. It was also the only people’s movement of Indian origin which strove to capture political power for humanistic ends and objectives. In the context of the Indian tradition referred to above, both these developments could not be fortuitous. A great conscious and sustained effort was needed to go against and overcome the hardened traditional trends and rigidly fixed social alignments. This needed a new and original ideology, a clear-cut direction, a committed organization and a determined leadership. Here, we shall briefly state the rationale of the Sikh thesis, which, in its logical execution, required of the Sikh movement a complete reversal of the traditional trends.

Before stating the Sikh view of life, we should like to make one point clear. Many of the misinterpretations of the Sikh thesis and the Sikh movement are, in no small measure, due to the Sikh Gurus having used old Indian religious idiom and terminology for the expression of their gospel. In the Indian tradition, all spheres of life, whether social, political or economic, had, in one form or the other, religious implication or connotation. Even ordinary rules of human behaviour and hygiene were conceived and expressed in religious idiom. In this back-ground, the urge for social and political change could properly be understood and appreciated by the people only through the language of religion. It is not at all suggested that the Sikh Gurus used religion as a mask to cover their social aims. For them, the tackling of all problems of life was an integral part of their religion itself. It has to be emphasised that, in Sikhism, the entire field of life was contemplated, covered and moulded by religious precepts. As such, social ideas and urges could not be an exception. For this purpose, the Gurus put their own meaning and content into the old Indian religious terminology. This fact is in itself a sufficient indication to show that the Gurus did not want their movement to remain confined to the traditional concept of the religious sphere of activity. It also indicates the direction in which they wanted their movement to move.

The World is Real
The Sikh Gurus regard the world as real and meaningful. “True is He, True is His creation.”2 “By despising the world, one gets not to God.”3 “Deride not the world, it is the creation of God.”4 This Sikh thesis made a major breakaway from the traditional Indian thought, which, including Buddhism, regarded the world with indifference or as a place of suffering, and made the attainment of release, salvation (Moksa or Mukti) or spiritual bliss the bell and end-all of all religious endeavour.

The world being real, object is not to secure a release from life, but to strive for a moral and spiritual living. God-centred activity, and not salvation is the goal. In the first place, the so-called Mukti, the idea of salvation from life, was not given the importance “He who is fond of God, what has he to do with Mukti or heaven.”5 “Mukti techniques and many a comfort and felicity cannot equal love of God.”6 Guru Gobind Singh changed the title of Nand Lal’s composition from Bandginama (meditational path) to Zindginame (The way to live.)7 Secondly, the idea of Mukti was given a new content. It meant release from self-centredness, selfishness and individualism and not from the world. In fact, Mukti was linked to the service of humanity. “By service in the world alone one finds a place in God’s Court.”8

Social Involvement
The second corollary of the world being real is that one should not shun life or run away from it. Full participation in life is advocated. Guru Nanak’s first utterance after his enlightenment was, “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman,”9 “This is an announcement of supreme significance. It declared not only the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God, but also his clear and primary interest not in any metaphysical doctrine but only in man and his fate. In addition, it emphasised, simultaneously, the inalienable spirituo-moral combination of his meassage.”10 “The kind-hearted Baba Nanak could not bear to see others in grief.”11 He told Shah Sharaf that those men who love their fellow beings come out successful in this world.”12

In consequence of his ideology, one great practical step Guru Nanak took for the social involvement of his creed was to establish the primacy of the householder’s life. It was such a big departure from the religious tradition that the Naths accused Guru Nanak of putting acid in the pure milk of religious life in order to spoil it.”13 ‘In his (Guru Nanak’s) system, the householder’s life became the primary forum of religious activity. His was not a concession to the laity. In fact, the normal life became the medium of spiritual training and expression.’14 The Gurus offered householder’s life not only as an alternative, but made it of primary importance for the seeker. Guru Angad and Guru Amardas explicitly excluded the Udasis, who led a celibate and ascetic life, from the Sikh fold.15 The Sikh Gurus, excepting Guru Harkrishan who died at a tender age, were themselves married householders.

Another major practical step to wean people away from an ascetic’s or a mendicant’s life was the Guru’s insistence on earning one’s bread by honest work. “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 upto such a person or touch his feet. He knows the right way who earns his living by hard work and shares his earning with others.”16

The Unitary View of Life
The caste ideology compartmentalized not only the society, but also orthodox ethics and religion. To take a unitary view of life and reconcile it with the hierarchical, inequitous and exploitative caste system was impossible. As the preservation of the caste order was the supreme consideration, truly religious life was circumvented or avoided lest it should question the inhumanity of the caste system. Instead, all religious yearning was sidetracked into esoteric or other otherworldly fields. One course adopted was to let recluses, Naths, Yogis, mendicants, Sanyasis and the like cut themselves away from the society and pursue their ideals in isolation without disturbing the caste order. The second course followed was to divorce religion itself from worldly life, especially from political life. How strong a hold this narrow and irreligious view-point had on the Indian mind can be seen from the following excerpt from Rabindra Nath Tagore’s writing: ‘The liberation which Baba Nanak realized in his heart was not political liberty, but spiritual freedom. Nanak had called upon his disciples to free themselves from selfishness, from narrow bigotry, and from spiritual lethargy. Guru Govind organized the Sikhs to suit a special purpose. He called in the human energy of the Sikhs from all other sides and made it flow in one particular channel only; they ceased to be full, free men. He converted the spiritual unity of the Sikhs into a means of worldly success,’17 It is really sad how successfully the traditional approach, under the cover of spiritual freedom and salvation, continues to make even sensitive minds indulge in he make believe that spiritual freedom could be divorced from political liberty.

The Sikh view of religion is diametrically opposed to the traditional one given above. It does not permit of any dichotomy of life, or of any divorce of the individual from his society. Nor does it visualize that true religion and ethics can operate unconcerned beside an unjust social or political order; nor that spiritual freedom can co-exist with religious dictation and political slavery. The Sikh Gurus take a very comprehensive view of religion. Theirs is a unitary and integrated view of life. They do not look upon the individual as an entity detachable from society. As such the religious and spiritual problems of an individual cannot be divorced from the moral spiritual predicaments of the society as a whole. Personal salvation (Mukti), or remaining absorbed in spiritual bliss, is not the Sikh ideal. For, the striving for moral spiritual progress is not an end in itself; it is a preparation to equip oneself for the better service of humanity. In fact, service of one’s fellow-beings is indispensable for one’s moral and spiritual growth. The real love of God is its transformation into love for man. For God loves all men, the lowest and the down-trodden. According to the Sikh Gurus, religious, moral and spiritual activity covers the totality of life of the individual as well as of the society. For, life is one whole and cannot be arbitrarily split up into separate religious, social or political spheres. Nor can it be ignored or left to take care of itself. For them, religion has to meet all the problems and challenges thrown up by life. Each and every activity of man is either God-oriented or self-oriented, viz., it is either for the uplift of man and his society or it is destructive. There cannot be a neutral position. Inaction and sloth are sins.

As a consequence of their unitary view, the Sikh Gurus gave the Sikh movement a two-pronged direction. The first was an emphasis on changing the value-patterns of the individual and that of the society. This was to bring about, what has come to be called in modern parlance, a cultural revolution. The second line was to change the inequitable social, religious and political set-ups. Both these processes were of one piece and for one overall purpose. They were complimentary to each other. None could be complete by itself. All social systems have to be run by men, and in the last analysis, their worth is determined by the character of the people who manage them. And, it is imperative that social, political and economic systems should be just, because these determine the development of the human personality.


1 Hiriyanria, M. : Outlines of Indian Philosophy, p. 24.
1a. The Fragments of Indica of Magesthenes by J.W. McCrindle; I.A., Vol. 6
1a. The Fragments of Indica of Magesthenes by J.W.. McCrindle; I.A., Vol. 6
1b. Albrect Weber : I.A., Vol 30, p. 280
* Sikhism is a vast subject. As our object is to provide only a brief ideological background relevant to the true appreciation of the Sikh movement, it is not necessary to go into the details of its theology. For a comprehensive treatment of this subject, the reader may consult ‘Sikhism’ by Daljeet Singh.
2 Guru Granth, p. 294
3 Ibid, p. 962
4 Ibid, p. 611
5 Ibid, p. 360
6 Ibid, p. 1323
7 MacauIiffe, Vol. v, p. 103; Mehma Parkash, ii. p. 775
8 Guru Granth, p. 26
9 Janamsakhi Walaitwali, (edited by Bhai Veer Singh) Sakhi Waieen Parvesh
10 Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, p. 255
11 Janamsakhi Meharban Wali, edited by Kirpal Singh, p. 471
12 Janamsakhi Bhai Mani Singh Wali, (Janamsakhi Pramsra, Antka, p. 344)
13 Bhai Gurdas, Var One, pauri 40
14 Daljeet Singh : Sikhism, p. 260
15 Gupta, Hari Ram: History of Sikh Gurus, pp. 83,86
16 Guru Granth, p. 1245
17 Sarkar, : History of Aurangzeb, VoI. Ill, p. 303



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