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Sikh Scriptures

ROLE AND STATUS OF WOMEN IN SIKHISM

 

ROLE AND STATUS OF WOMEN IN SIKHISM

Dr. Upinder Jit Kaur
Punjabi University, Patiala.

1. Introduction

It is generally said that the state of development of a society can be judged from the status a woman occupies in it. A woman performs a number of roles in the family, community and the wider social system. Her status in the society is determined by her composite status depending upon her various positions and roles. To an extent, it also depends upon her consciousness of her own status. In the final analysis, the status is "the conjunction of positions a woman occupiesas a worker, student, wife, motherthe power and prestige attached to these positions and the rights and duties she is expected to exercise".1 The status of a woman can best be measured by the extent of control that she has over her own life, derived from access to knowledge, economic resources and political power and the degree of autonomy enjoyed by her in the process of decision making and choice at crucial points in the life cycle. Accordingly, a woman's status in society is to be analysed in terms of her participation in decision making and her access to opportunities in education, training, employment and income as well as her ability to control the number and spacing of her children. The role that a society assigns to woman in real life determines the extent and level of her participation in the social, economic, cultural and political proccesses which in turn shapes the demographic portrait of a country.

Women in the Indian society occupy a low status. They have been discriminated against in all walks of life, accentuating social, economic and cultural inequalities. The sex-based discrimination deprives them of exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all spheres of life. A host of factors are responsible for this sorry state of affairs, including the religious. In India, the religious factor has been of utmost importance in determining the status of women since it exerts powerful influence on the thought, culture and behaviour of the people. It permeates their personal and family lives as nothing else does and it also regulates inter-personal and inter-group relations. In short, there is hardly any aspect of social conduct which is not affected by the sanctions of religion.

Women have rarely been regarded as a rich resource for building up society. Women account for 48.3 per cent of the population in India and their fuller development and welfare are of vital importance for the national economy. However, the main factor that has been responsible for underutilization of full women power potential in India is the impact of the Hindu religious precepts and tradition that shape the thought, attitudes and behaviour of more than four-fifths of the population.

2. Place of Women in the Hindu Society

It is a sad comment that women have been denied the freedom and opportunity to develop as full-fledged individuals. They have been debarred from making their proper contribution to social and economic advancement as their development has been held in check due to various cultural, social and historical factors. The religious factor has contributed in a significant way in creating bias against them and in keeping them in a state of backwardness. In most Indian religious systems, women have been considered an impediment in the religious path leading to salvation or given only a secondary place in the conduct of religious life and institutions. They have not even been considered worthy of attaining the highest religious goal-salvation. The Digambara sect of Jainism maintains that women cannot obtain moksha. They cannot become siddhas. The very fact that God has created them as women deprived them of entering into heaven or attaining any salvation. They must be reborn as men to get release from the cycle of birth and death. In this way even God is made to practise discrimination against women. The position of women in Hinduism is no better. Their fate has been hanging in between that of Durga and Devdasi, closer to Devdasi than to Durga.2 For a long time, because of high valuation placed on the ideal of sanyasa in Hinduism, women were despised as the source of worldliness. They were regarded as the "torch lighting the way to hell". They were held in low esteem. They were regarded a living picture of lust and greed. They were considered to be a bad influence on men, a positive hindrance in their spiritual journey. Sant Kabir asked men to shun the company of women as 'Kabira tin ki kya gat jo nit nari kai sang'. She was looked down upon as a potential temptress. Sant Tulsidas, the revered Hidnu poet and author of Ram Charit Manas, placed woman at part with a Sudra and animal when he said, 'Dhol gavar Sudar pasu nari, teeno tarran key adhikari". The Yogis stressed the need of renouncing worldly life and renouncing women for the attainment of salvation. Yogi Gorakh Nath called women baghani, a she-wolf who robbed man of his youthful vigour. Yogis take vow to remain celibates for ever. The founder of Buddhism, Lord Buddha, too forsake family life for his nirvana. Buddhist monks are required by their religious discipline to remain sanyasis. Similarly Ramanuj, the chief exponent of Vaisnavism, held women and Sudras to be sin-born and refused to admit them as a Vaishnava.3 Sankra Deva, another Vaisnava saint of the fourteenth century, commented, "of all the terrible aspirations of the world, women's is the ugliest. A slight side glance of her's captivates even the hearts of celebrated sages. Her sight destroys prayer, penance and meditation. Knowing this, the wise keep away from the company of women."4 Women were thus dishonoured and viewed lowly by the Hindu society.5 It were the religious beliefs that finally culminated in the formation of social attitudes despising women. Nathism, Vaisnavism and some other sects of Hinduism spurned the householder's life. They were for monasticism and celibacy. Chandogya and Mundaka Upanishads recommended sanyasa and brahmncharya for the realization of God.6 Women were to be shunned for they were regarded as a source of sin, vice or dishonour to man. The condition of woman was no better than that of the downtrodden Sudra. She was considered an unhealthy influence on man, and, therefore, reglegated to the cultural backwaters.

In India, woman was reduced to the status of slave ever since the establishment of Brahman's dominance and enforcement of Manu's code. It is true that during the Vedic period, women commanded respect, and no religious or social work was considere to be completer without the active support of one's wife. Women had the right to education and knowledge. Boys and girls used to get their education together. Even among the authors of the Vedas, there were said to be twenty-two women. Women like Gargi and Maitreyi were revered as seers. But Manusmriti, the Veda of the Brahmanical revival, laid down the fundamental and outrageous doctrine of woman's perpetual subjection. Says Manu, "In childhood, a female must be subject to her father; in youth to her husband; when her lord is dead, to her son : a woman must never be independent"?7 The position of women in Hindu society was governed by rules and regulations laid down by Manu. And it seems that there was a deliberate attempt in the dharam shastra of Manu to lower the rank of women. A woman was considered inferior to man in all respects. The natural affectionate relationship between husband and wife was marred by the degraded and inferior position in which woman was placed. A woman was required to worship her husband as God whatever his failings. According to Manu, "Though destitute of virtue or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a God by a faithful wife."8 She was not to grumble or show any disrespect in any manner. On the other hand, the husband was fully empowered to take action against the erring wife. "She who shows disrespect to (a husband) who is addicted to (some evil) passion, is a drunkard, or diseased, shall be deserted for three months (and be) deprived of her ornaments and the furniture.She who drinks spirituous liquor, is of bad conduct, rebellious, diseased, mischievous or wasteful, may at any time be superseded".9 The husband was authorised to supersede his wife even on much less serious grounds. "A barren wife may be superseded in the eighth year, she whose children (all) die in the tenth, she who bears only daughters in the eleventh, but she who is quarrlesome without delay".10 The poor wife was made to bear all the insults and humiliations and degradation with stoic calmness. If she made any protest, she was beaten with a rope or a split bamboo and humiliated. She had no rights. She was no match to her husband. Commenting on the sad plight of women, R.C. Majumdar says, "The poor wife was expected to follow her husband even in death by burning herself alive, but the husband, "having given sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, may marry again, and again kindle the fires". Strangest of all, women who once even composed Vedic hymnas, were not allowed to study the Vedas and perform sacrificail rites."11 Women were thus condemned to a life of permanent degradation and misery. Thery were required to observe strict purdah and confined to the four walls of the house. Their mobility was constrained. They were denied access to education and got caught in the whirlpool of ignorance. A woman had no identity of her own. Marriage became her only career and goal in life. Child-marriages came to be practised. They became the rule rather than the exception because it was considered obligatory for parents to marry off their daughters before they attained the age of puberty. In the case of husband's death a woman could not marry as widow remarriage was strictly prohibited by Manu. So child-widows became a familiar phenomenon who had to go through a hell of life and bear various atrocities. In the case of married women barrenness was considered sinful. The birth of a son was the most desired thing. It led to frequent pregnancies and poor health of women. The birth of a female child was a sign of misfortune. So female infanticide came to be practised. A female child was not even entitled to the basic human right to live in the world. Similarly, a woman had no right to live after the death of her husband. So sati-widow cremation was practised. It was only the birth of a male child that improved the position of a woman in her family and society. The iniquitous barrier which the Hindu society had raised between man and woman drained the strength and liveliness of social and domestic life. The stifling environment obstructed development of a woman's mental and intellectuals faculties, shortened her life, and in turn sapped the strength and vitality of domestic and national life.

3. The Role and Status of Women in the Sikh Society

Sikhism made a radical departure from Hinduism by demolishing the iniquitous barriers that the Hindu society had erected between man and man, and between man and woman. The Sikh Gurus laid down the foundations of a healthy, egalitarian and progressive social order. They advocated the principles of universal equality and brotherhood as the only true basis of social relations. The Sikh concept of equality transcended the narrow considerations of caste, creed, clime, sex and colour. The Sikh Gurus held woman equal to man in every field of life. They pleaded for equal rights and privileges for her, both in religious and socio-political fields. Sikhism does not debar woman from attaining salvation. She can realize the highest religious goal while remaining a woman. There is no need for her to first take birth as a man to attain mukti. A woman is not debarred from reading the Scripture. She can act as a priest, conduct the service, and lead a prayer in the gurdwara. She can join any congregation without any inhibition and restriction. She does not have to veil herself while sitting in a congregation. She can receive as well as impart baptism. She enjoys equal religious rights. Guru Amar Das even assigned to women the responsibility of supervising the community in certain sectors. They were invested with the office of preachership and missionary work. Mata Sahib Kaur, wife of Guru Gobind Singh, participated in the preperation of amrit by pouring sugar crystals in it which was administered to the Five Beloved Ones at the time of the formation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. Similarly, women were invested with equal rights in the social and political fields. Mata Kheevi was held in high esteem for her dedication to social work. Mata Gujri, Mata Sahib Kaur, Mai Bhago, Mai Sada Kaur, Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharani Sahib Kaur participated in political and war affairs of the Sikhs. Some of them assumed the role of a fighter for dharam yudh and fought against enemy forces. The Sikh history records with appreciation the heroic deeds performed by these brave Sikh women. It was the impact of the egalitarian Sikh teaching that these women could come to the fore and distinguish themselves.

The transformation the Sikh Gurus brought in woman's status was truely revolutionary. The concept of equality of woman with man not only gave woman an identity of her own but tended to free her from all kinds of fetters to which she was bound in the Hindu society. Condemned to a life of misery and degradation and deprived of all social privileges and rights, she had hitherto come to develop a slavish mentality. This coupled with social restraints had totally killed her initiative and restricted her mobility. She had grown into a listless individual and wore a pathetic sight. It was in this setting that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, raised his voice for justice to women and provided the scriptural basis for equality which was not to be found in the scriptures of other India born religions. He pleaded the cause of women and strove for their liberation in the fifteenth century whereas women's emanicipation movement in Europe started much later, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In an age when the inferiority of women was taken for granted and female infanticide and the customs of purdah and sati were commonly practised, the Guru spoke out against them in a voice of reason and sanity. As the Sikh faith grew, his protest grew louder and it demolished one by one all centuries-old disabilities against woman. In an oft-quoted sermon the Guru tries to show the folly of treating woman with disrespect :

From the woman is our birth;

In the woman's womb are we shaped.

To the woman are we engaged;

To the woman are we wedded.

The woman, yea, is our friend,

And from woman is the family.

If one woman dies, we seek another;

Through the woman are the bonds of the world,

O' why call woman evil who giveth birth to kings

From the woman is the woman;

Without the woman there is none;

Nanak, without the woman is the

One True Lord Alone (AG, p. 473).12

The Guru insisted that woman must be treated with difference as she is the source of man's physical existence and his entire social life. The Sikh Gurus denounced all those practices and restrictions which tended to reduce woman to a position of inferiority. They gave them more freedom in the affairs of the society. The false notions that women were unclean were removed. Women were no longer considered a source of sin. They came to be respected as equally good members of the society. In the medieval India, the practice of sati (immdation of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) was common. The Sikh Gurus condemned it long before any notice of it was taken by Akbar and later by the British rulers. Guru Amar Das carried out a vigorous campaign for the aboliton of this inhuman and barbarous practice. He observed :

A Sati is not she, who burneth herself

On the pyre of her spouse.

Nanak : a Sati is she, who dieth with

The sheer shock of separation.

Yea, the Sati is one who liveth contended

And embellisheth herself with good conduct :

And cherisheth her Lord ever and calleth

On Him each morn.

The women burn themselves on the pyres

Of their lords,

But if they love their spouses well,

they suffer the pangs of separation even otherwise,

He further said :

She who loveth not her spouse,

Why burneth she herself in fire?

For, be he alive or dead.

She owneth him not (Ag, p. 787).13

The Guru denounced Sati as an infliction of unforgivable cruelty on women and strove hard for the emanicipation of women from this forced brutal social practice. He also sought amelioration of the position of women by deprecating the custom of purdah (veil) and by encouraging widow remarriage. No woman could come to the conregation in purdah. Guru Amar Das also established twenty-two Manjis covering several parts of India for the growth of Sikh religion and organization. He entrusted four of these to women. The Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind called woman"the conscience of man "without whom moral living was impossible. The girls were also encouraged to receive education. Child marriage was discouraged and the practice of female infanticide severely banned. The latter was considered so important that it was subsequently made a part of the instructions given to the Sikhs at the time of baptism. The oath requires that Sikhs will not practise female infanticide or have any association at all with those who practise it, will not take alcohol, tabacoo and other drugs, and will not marry their daughters for monetary gain. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, firmly endorsed the principle of human equality in all walks of life at the time of administering amrit to his followers. Guru's baptism was and is open to all. A Sikh cannot be called a Sikh if he discriminates between a high and a low or between a man and a woman. Sikhism has thus been a potent influence in the emanicipation of Indian womanhood. According to the basic tenets of Sikh religion, a woman has full freedom for worship, education and vocation. She may work in a field or a factory or go to a battlefield as a soldier. There are no obstacles in her way. Further, not only are there no prejudices in Sikhism against women engaging in productive work, it is made obligatory for all individuals, both men and women, to engage in gainful and productive activity and contribute something for the public weal.

In Sikhism, a woman is not considered an evil who leads man astray. Nor is she regarded an obstacle in the realization of the spiritual ideals. Sikhism is a householder's religion for man and woman alike. The Sikh Guru honoured the institution of marriage and strongly denounced asceticism. They castigated those yogis who left their houses and lived on the generosity of the common people. The yogis took pride in being celibates but inwardly they were in fact craving for sexual indulgence. Said Guru nanak, "In his hands in the begging bowl and he wears a patched coat like a mendicant's but with him is immense craving. And though he abandons his own wife, he's attached to another's, lured by sex-desire" (AG, p. 1013).14 The Sikh Gurus condemned the hypocracy that characterized yogis. In their view, there is nothing unclean about the normal sex life. All the Sikh Gurus were married men, except the eighth Sikh Guru who died very young. They also led a normal life of a householder and regarded sex desire as a natural phenomenon.

In Sikhism, spiritual freedom is to be secured not by the unnatural suppression of human desires but by their judicious organization. In other words, Sikhism is for temperate gratification of bodily desires. It deprecates animality in man and approves the institution of marriage as the practical and natural artifice for taming and controlling the biological instincts. The Sikh religion does not make any virtue of sexual abstinence as Hinduism does and vowed celibacy is not upheld as any more virtuous than normal living.15 According to Sikh teachings, true absitnence or renunciation is a mental attitude of detachment; emphasis is laid on the practice of ascetic virtues without any person having to renounce the family and the society. What is stressed again and again in the Sikh scripture is self-restraint and self-control. Guru Nanak observed in this context. "The paper and salt if treated with ghee dissolveth not in water, So do the Lord's devotees abide in the midst of maya and yet remain detached" (AG p. 877). The householder's life is an essential element of social life and social structure. The life of the householder is a life of service and austerity. It is in fact the performance of social duties that make a home a true home. A Sikh by leading a householder's life becomes a sharer of the riches of life but he at the same time never loses sight of the ultimate reality. A Sikh is ordained to be an "ascetic within and secular without." He is asked to conduct himself in the worldly surroundings like a lotus in muddy water. Man and woman are equal companions in life. Their role is complementary and not competitive. A married woman performs a very useful role in society through maintaining sexual discipline and establishing a morally healthy society. She is an embodiment of virtue and fortitude and not a force that seduces man to evil. She must be respected because mand and all his social life would be incomplete without her.

In Sikhism, man and woman are regarded as complements to each other; one is incomplete without the other. Woman is considered ardhangni, that is the other half of man. The basis of man-woman relationship is true love, nothing else. Marriage is considered essential but marriage is not regarded as a contract subject to dissolution at will. It is an unbreakable spiritual union. Ths basis of marriage is not simply a physical union, but an everlasting true love. According to Guru Amar Das, "Bride and groom are not they who pose as one whole; bride and groom are they who are two bodies with one soul" (AG, p. 788).16 Marriage aims at the fusion of two souls into one. It is a means by which the two souls attain spiritual growth. Marriage is thus a loving comradeship between a man and a woman who seek to live creatively in partnership to gain the four objects of life : dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Its main purpose is the enrichment of the personality of husband and wife in a way that each may suplement the life of other and both may together achieve completeness. Marriage is also a means by which a person gains self-fulfilment. It becomes workable only on the basis of mutual trust, understanding and fidelity. Sikhism upholds monogamous ideal of marriage. Giving his views on chastity, Guru Gobind Singh said, "As I grew up, my Guru instructed me thus : O son, as long as you live, keep up thy vow (of chastity). Let not thought of other woman cross even thy dreams. And let the wedded spouse be the exclusive objective of thy ever increasing love."17 Sikhs are required by their religion to be loyal to their spouses. In Sikhism, even celibacy has been redefined in terms of chastity. According to Bhai Gurdas, a celibate is one who is married to one wife only and treats all other women as sisters and daughters Sikhism condemns adultery in unequivocal terms. All the Sikhs who accept baptism by the sword are forbidden to (i) smoke tobacoo or take liquor, (ii) eat meat killed by ritual slaughter, (iii) cut hair, and (iv) committ adultery. It is obligatory for Sikhs to desist from the evil of adultery. No one is spared, not even the king. Sikhism directs its followers to be sincere to their wives, and look at all other women as if they were their mothers and sisters.18

Sikhism commends married life as it enables a person to fulfil his obligations to the society at large more effectively. Production gets augmented where there is trusting companionship, shared work and interests, tolerance and understanding between man and woman. Sikhism regards it a vital social and national service to work hard, to serve and rear a family. Sikhism thus ensures regular and continous supply of labour which is both a means and an end of productive activity. But procreative activity must not proceed unchecked. The symbol kachh signifies continence and is indicative of the Sikh's manly control over his appetite even as he commits himself to the procreative world. And the same thing is applicable in case of women too. In modern parlance, it may be said to imply having children by choice and not by chance, and thereby promoting family welfare. This whole approach illustrates life-affirming character of Sikhism which calls for judicious organisation of life in a way that man is fulfilled. The householder's life provides a means whereby an individual advances on the moral plane and finally reaches a stage where he develops chastity of mind and body and identifies himself with the well-being of the whole universe. The householder's life paves way for the realization of the spiritual goal. One obtains salvation while living with one's family (AG, p. 661). Since both man and woman are co-partners in this life, both command equal respect.

To sum, Sikhism fully recognizes the useful role played by woman. She is not an evil or a seductress, but the mother of mankind. Guru Nanak's was the first voice raised against discrimination perpetuated on the mute and submissive woman. Sikhims endeavoured to create elements of a fresh and vigorous life by giving due recognition to the constructive and important role played by her in the society. Inso far as the scriptural value system of the Sikhs is concerned, woman is accorded equal religious, social, economic and political rights. She has full freedom to worship and read scriptures or work in fields and factories or participate in legislatures. No field is barred to her. Sikhism encourages education of girls which will enable them to adopt rational modes of thought and use their faculties to the maximum advantage of society. Since the Sikh scriptural value system accords reasonable equality to women in all walks of life, it does not allow any waste of precious human resources. It paves way for full utilization of woman power potential, thereby aiding the process of economic growth. However, when the operative value system of the Sikhs is scanned, there are so many deviations. In spite of the exhortations by the Sikh Gurus, woman remains less than equal to man in the Sikh society. When confronted with the stark realities of life there emerges a different picture. Sikhs are a part and parcel of the Indian society which is comprised of more than four-fifths of Hindus-their exact proportion during the four censuses beginning 1951 being 84.9 per cent, 83.5 per cent, 82.7 percent and 82.6 percent respectively. As against this, Sikhs constitute only a small segment of the total population of the country, representing 1.74 percent in 1951 and 1.79 percent, 1.89 percent and 2 percent in the three subsequent Censuses.19 Sikhs are governed by the Hindu Personal Law. Further, there is close social interaction between the Hindus and Sikhs. As a consequence, Sikh women too have come to acquire certain disabilities which traditionally characterized the Hindu society. To this caterogy belong such sex prejudices as preference for a male child. Similarly, Sikhs are as well disposed to sex pre-selection techniques as are Hindus. Female infanticide too was not an unknown evil among them, particularly among some sections of Jat Sikhs, until recently a hangover from the traditional Hindu society. The dowry system is still prevalent among the Sikhs, both in India and abroad.20 However, instances of self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands have been more or less non-existent among them. The same holds for bride burning cases. But the practice of Polygamy - a transplant from the Hindu society -survived all scriptural exhortations to the contrary. If a Sikh couple did not have a male, or any, offspring, the husband was free to marry another woman without inviting any social disapproval. On the other hand, if the husband had any infirmity, this did not raise any eyebrow. Social conscience was easy in matters relating to women and double standards, one for man and another for woman, come to be accepted without any qualms. Male chauvinism was a dominant feature of the Hindu society in the past and is there even now though its intensity has somewhat diminished. It enveloped Sikh society too, though in a rather subdued form since it did not have the sanction of their religion. Socially, a Sikh woman has never been on an equal footing with man though in her case the difference has somewhat decreased because of the issuance of religious injunctions. There is always a gap between the doctrine and the reality. This shows up in the operative part of the Sikh value system also. The right of Sikh woman to equality with man was foreclosed by the Hindu society out of which she grew and it has been a long and ardous process for the forces of religion to give her this right. She is still a lesser person -subject to the dictates of the male members of her family on all crucial matters - though her lot is comparatively better than that of women belonging to other major Indian religions. It needs to be added here that many Sikh women see a silver lining in the social reform campaign launched recently by the militant youth in Punjab against the dowry system, ostentatious celebration of marriages, and screening of films showing nudity and improperly clade female bodies, notwithstanding the objectionable means being employed to implement it. Sex determination tests are also being given to go-by as a part of the movement which encompasses elimination of many other harmful activities such as smoking and taking alcohol.

One of the important determinents of woman's status as also of population growth is the rate of fertility. Religion is one of the important factors that shape the thought, attitudes and behaviour of thepeople which in turn affect fertility. The important factors that effect the level and pattern of fertility in a society are : firstly the rules and customs concerning the obligation to marry and the age at which marriage takes place : secondly, the mores and customs governing marital behaviour and, thirdly, health and mortality conditions. As noted above, Sikhism promotes methodical control of life and sexual mores through rational reflection and self-discipline thereby encouraging family welfare measures. Insofar as marriage is concerned, it is almost universal among the Sikhs. But Sikhism disapproves early marriage. Sikh Rehatnamas lay down that a girl should marry only when she reaches adulthood and forbid marriage when a boy or a girl is of tender age. Sikhism also encourages widow remarriage but it does not approve of widows marrying again when they have children living with them.21 It is apparent that some of the aforementioned factors tend to increase fertility while others tends to reduce fertility. Prem Sumarg Granth also specifies rules governing behavious in marriage. There are taboos against intercourse on particular days (for 16 days) during a month and during pregnancy, which tend to reduce dfertility.22 Excessive indulgence in sex is discouraged as it amounts to animality in man. Sikhism allows for judicious organization and temperate gratification of bodily pleasures so as to improve the overall quality and rhythm of life. Sikhism also puts great emphasis on personal hygiene so as to promote physical fitness. All these factors taken together tend to save the girls from unwanted early and frequent pregnancies and consequent high risk of death. These can go a long way in improving their health, longevity and status. Woman are then in a better position to perform their multifarious roles in the society. It may be said that there is no scriptural injunction in Sikhism that goes against birth control measures. There is no evidence available that shows religious resistance to human interference with fertility. Sikhism, on the other hand, seems to encourage its adherents to keep a check on their procreative powers. This sanction can help a great deal in reducing fertility and thereby growth of population.

However, when we observe the value system as it operates in the Sikh society, we find once again a wide divergence between the precept and the practice. The Sikh society strongly sanctifies the patriarchal social structure in which marriage, motherhood and service to husband become the most valuable attributes of woman and which perpetrate the negation of woman's personality. Woman is respected for the above mentioned roles but she is generally placed in a secondary position to man. It is man who takes precedence over her in all privileges of life, whatever be her merit. Accordingly, a Sikh woman like a Hindu woman does not have much of a say in decisions relating to the number and spacing of children. This affects her so completely that she cannot exercise and enjoy other options in life. Social norms as prevalent in Sikh or Hindu society favour high fertility. A sterile woman is looked down upon and a woman with many sons is greatly respected. It is considered a great fortune to have many sons. "May you have seven sons" is a blessing given to a newly-wedded girl. Sons are wanted for continuance of the family line, for performance of the last rites of parents, and for looking after parents in their old age. In a society not covered by any public social security system, they offer a safeguard at nothing else does. All this stands in the way of planned families and ends up in high fertility rates.

The foregoing analysis of Sikh thought on women clearly point to the great hiatus between what ought to be and what actually is. There may be a difference of degree in the male dominance of the Sikh society and the resulting socio-economic disabilities as compared to woman's position in other major Indian religions but the fact that the Sikh societytoo is male dominated is beyond the pale of doubt. The force that suppress woman have survived the strong counteracting impact of the Sikh religious thought though their hold and regour have been gradually weakening. As of today, a Sikh woman does not at all have an identity of her own and the autonomy that she enjoys is determined entirely by the degree of tolerance shown by the male members of her household. The value system as it operates among Sikhs in relation to women is sharply at variance with the code of conduct laid down in the scripture with the consequence that the favourable impact which their proper integration with the labour force could have exercised on material and human development is severely hamstrung. Attitude to family and fertility and women's participation in gainful economic activities are the two major variables that are thwarted in the process. The limited empirical evidence that is available shows that total fertility as well as total marital fertility rates are almost identical in the case of the Hindus as well as the Sikhs.23 The influence of the Sikh precepts on fertility is not clearly discernible. Again, the sex ratio in the Punjab State - the home state of the Sikhs - has been persistently adverse to women due to various sociological reasons. If participation of women in economic activities is considered, the female participation rate in the State as a whole is among the lowest in the country. There is an urgent need to dismantle iniquitous social barriers to release woman from her timeworn stranglehold so as to enable her to play her true role as a free productive agent in promoting human welfare and happiness. The progress in this direction will largely depend on the vision and fair-mindedness which the Sikh male society comes to acquire in its march toward modernism.

 

REFERENCES

1. Status of Women and Family Planning, quoted in United Nations, Population of India (New York, ESCAP Population Publication, Country Monography Series No. 10, 1982), p. 359.

2. S Radha Krishnan, Religion and Society (London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1966), p. 139.

3. S. Jaiswal, Origin and Development of Vaisnavism, pp. 115-118.

4. H.V.S. Murthy, Vaisnavism of Sankra Deva and Ramanuja, p. 212.

5. It may be pointed out here that degradation of women was not a characteristic of Hindu society alone. Woman has been considered inferior and relegated to the background in almost all the societies in the past. Great thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle assigned a lower status to woman in society. She was considered weak of will and therefore incapable of independence of character. Continuing in the same vein, W. Shakespeare held woman to be another name for frailty and John Milton regarded her as the mischief incarnate who was responsible for the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden. The commonly held belief among the Christians is that woman represents evil; she destroys God's image in man. To quote S. Radhakrishnan, "According to a great religious tradition, scarcely had woman been created than she was accused in the revealing sentence : 'The woman tempted me.' Christian Europe has been brought up on the belief that death would have been unknown but for the unkindness of woman. She was accused of treachery, backbiting and tempting men to their doom" (Religion and Society, p. 143). The Catholic Church even today upholds asceticism and celibacy as great virtues. The Christian priests, monks and nuns and required not to marry. The position of women in Islam also suggests certain infirmities. Whereas it encourages its adherents to lead a normal householder's life, women are not at the same social footing as men. For example, when they go out of their homes they are required to use a covering known as burqa. Their participation in social activities is also some-what restricted. In property too, they do not have the same rights as men. There are other sex-based taboos which make men more equal than women. For example, a man can have four wives and his fidelity is also not to be questioned. He is also permittted to take a wife from outside his religion. In his case, divorce also does not require much of an advance notice and can be settled in a very simple ceremony. A study conducted by Government of India concedes it when it stats, "female seclusion and the unilateral right of male to divorce are the two handicaps that Islam has placed upon Muslim Women" (Towards Equality, Delhi, 1975), p. 43.

6. G.S. Ghurya, Caste and Race in India, pp. 24-32.

7. Cited by R.C. Majumdar, Ancient India (Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass, 1960), p. 474.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid, p. 475.

12. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, translated and annotated by Gopal Singh (Delhi : Gur Das Kapur and Sons, 1964), p. 467; (hereinafter referred to as SGGS. The original Punjabi text is referred to as the Adi Granth (AG.)

13. SGGS, p. 747.

14. SGGS, p. 967.

15. The sikh view on this issue is not in concord with the Hindu view or the Christian view. According to the scheme of four ashramas (stages of life), a Hindu has to pass through the progressive path laid down for him from that of a student to successively that of a householder, an ascetic and a recluse, Such a scheme does give importance to living in a family set-up at one stage, but, as the Hindu tradition goes, much greater sanctity is attached to the monastic way of life. There are many sects in Hinduism that take vow of celibacy and adopt monasticism as a way of life. But in Sikhism the householder's way of life is the only proper and natural course. Accordingly, man and woman become equal partners in this relationship and work together to promote godly causes. There is nothing unwholesome about sex life. Like Hinduism the great accidential religion - Christianity - too views sex life as somewhat unholy. Commenting on this aspect of Christianity, S. Radhakrishnan observes : "Jesus did not marry; and the whole idea of immaculate conception indicates that there is something unclean about normal sex life." Radhakrishnan quotes St. Jerome who said, "Marriage peoples earth, but virginity heaven.There are virgins in the flesh who are not in the spirit whose body remains untouched but whose soul is corrupt. Only a virginity which has never been soiled, by a desire either of flesh or of the spirit, is a worthy offering to Christ" (See Religion and Society, p. 148). All this implies that if one wants to attain perfection, one must deprive oneself of sex life and the normal family affections. As opposed to this, Sikhism looks upon married sex life as sacred and the householder's life as an important adjunct to spiritual life.

16. SGGS, p. 748.

17. Gopal Singh, Thus Spake The Tenth Master (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1978) p. 142.

18. Bhai Gurdas, Varan (Amritsar, S.G.P.C., 1977) Var, 29, Pauri 11.

19. Compiled from (i) Census of India, 1961, paper No. 2 of 1963, Religion, pp. iv-v. (ii) Census of India, 1971, Series I, Paper 2 of 1972, Religion, pp. 2-4. (iii) Statistical Abstract of Punjab, 1986 (Chandigarh, Economic Adviser to Goverment, Punjab, Feb. 1987) pp. 72-73.

20. Parminder Bhachu, Twice Migrants : East African Sikh Settlers in Britain (London, Tavistock Publications, 1985).

21. Bhai Randhir Singh (ed.) Prem Sumarag Granth, pp. 41, 48, and A Guide to the Sikh Way of Life (Patiala, Adademy of Sikh Religion and Culture), p.-13.

22. Bhai Randhir Singh, o. cit., p. 75.

23. Census of India, 1971, Paper 2 of 1977; Census of India, 1981, Series 17-Punjab, Part -II.

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