THE SIKH RELIGION
ITS GURUS, SACRED WRITINGS AND AUTHORS
BY MAX ARTHUR MACAULIFFE
INTRODUCTION : CHAPTER V
In the hymns of the Gurus, Nirvan, or absorption in God, is proposed as the supreme object of human attainment; but a paradise called Sach Khand is also promised to the blest. There they recognize one another and enjoy everlasting beatitude. Several learned Sikhs, however, maintain that Nirvan and Sach Khand are practically the same.
Contrary to the practice of the ancient Indian ascetics, the Gurus held that man might obtain eternal happiness without forsaking his ordinary worldly duties. Reunion with the Absolute should be the supreme object of all Sikh devotion and aspirations.
My soul, seek shelter in God’s holy name;
Pondering on this should’st thou all thought employ.
No more thou’lt grieve, hemmed in by mortal frame,
But gain in God Nirvana’s final joy.
Nirvan, from nir out and va to blow, means in Sikh literature the cessation of individual consciousness caused by the blending of the light of the soul with the light of God. The Sikhs compare it to water blending with water:–
As water blends with water, when
Two streams their waves unite,
The light of human life doth blend
With God’s celestial light.
No transmigrations then await
The weary human soul;
It hath attained its resting-place,
Its peaceful crowning goal.
Nirvan is to be obtained by meditation on God, with sufficient attention and iteration, and by a life spent in conformity with the Guru’s teachings. Individual consciousness then ceases, and there is no further pain or misery.
A man may have performed good works on earth, but, if they be unattended with devout meditation and mental absorption on God, he cannot expect either Nirvan or Sach Khand, but must undergo purgation after death. After this the soul returns to a human body and begins anew its career, to end in either the supreme bliss of ultimate absorption or the supreme misery of countless transmigrations.
If man have done evil and laid up demerits, his punishment after death must be severe. When the punishment corresponds to his misdeeds, his soul must enter some lower animal and pass through a greater or lesser number of the eight million four hundred thousand forms of existence in creation, until its turn comes to enter the offspring of human parents. The soul thus reborn in a human being has again to proceed in its long struggle to obtain the boundless reward of Nirvan.
Longa dies, perfecto temporis orbe,
Concretam exemit labem, purumque reliquit
Aetherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem.
Mind, whether known as reason or instinct of a greater or less degree, and whether an attribute of the brain, of the nervous system, or of the heart, is common to all animals. It is held in most religious systems to be distinct from the soul. It induces the soul, under the impulse of goodness or passion, to perform good or evil acts. Both the mind and the soul are concomitants of life, which is a particular combination of certain elements existing in the body, and abides -is long as the bodily mechanism is in order and harmonious operation. When the mechanism has fallen out of gear by illness, accident, or old age, life departs, and with it the soul, which in some religious systems is held to perish with the body, in others to be immortal and individual, and in others again to transmigrate from one living creature to another. We are in this work only concerned with the soul in its migratory aspect.
In the Mosaic system God is represented as jealous and visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children even to future generations. The Indian philosopher feels that this belief is derogatory to God, and holds that the state of the soul after the death of the body depends on its acts (called Karma) while contained in the body. These acts attach to the soul, follow it, and determine its next abode.
Hindus, and all who have sprung from them, have never entertained any doubt as to the possibility of the wanderings of the soul in the bodies of all created animals. And not only Hindus, but some Europeans of exquisite intellectual fibre have accepted or coquetted with this belief, as if the
[1. Virgil, Aeneid vi. 7 45.
2. In the Tusculan Disputations Cicero quotes a paragraph he had written in a work on Consolation, in which he appears to treat soul and mind as identical. After referring to the soul as that which possesses feeling, understanding life, and vigour (‘quicquid est illud, quod sentit, quod sapit, quod vivit, quod viget’), he states that the human mind is of the same kind and nature (‘Hoc e genere atque eadem e natura, est humana mens’), Tusc. Disp. i. 27.]
minds of men of vivid imagination were of necessity recalling from the misty past–gathering from the fount of original knowledge-ideas evolved by primitive man long anterior, not only to European civilization, but to all Semitic history. Many persons have thought on beholding for the first time, in this life at any rate, scenes in foreign lands, that they had been previously familiar with their beauties and derived no new gratification from them. The tenacity with which the Greek philosopher Pythagoras held this doctrine, which he called metempsychosis, is well known. Well known, too, is the success with which he and his followers for a long time imparted their views to the Dorian aristocracy on this and kindred subjects, such as, for instance, the non-destruction of life. And according to the Phaedo of Plato, Sokrates appears to have proved the doctrine of Pythagoras to his own satisfaction.
To some of our English poets the belief has been one of curious interest and satisfaction. Thus Wordsworth:–
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Thus, too, Browning:–
At times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sages’ way,
And tread once more familiar paths.
And also Rossetti:–
I have been here before,
But how or when I cannot tell.
The soul when it separates from the body is likened in ancient Indian works to the moon on the day when it is invisible on account of its conjunction with the sun. The, soul exists as the moon exists, though it is not perceptible; and as the moon shines again when it progresses in its motion, so does the soul when it moves into another body.
The soul being in a state of mobility. and at the same
time immortal, seeks a body for the performance of its functions, and, as it were, enters into a matrimonial alliance with it for the completion and perfection of both. As the same thread will penetrate a gold bead, a pearl, or an earthen ball, so the soul, bearing its burden of acts, will enter any body with which it comes in contact. This the soul is enabled to do by its possession of a covering of finer or grosser texture, which it takes with it from the last body it has inhabited. The soul thus passes from body to body in a revolving wheel, until it is purged of its impurities and deemed fit to blend with the Absolute, from which it originally emanated.
Paramâtama, the primal spirit, is the Supreme Being considered as the pervading soul of the universe. It is represented as light. Jîvâtama, the soul of each living being, is also light, an emanation from the Paramâtama and not material.
The lines of Milton may be accepted as a definition of the deity according to the Sikh conception:–
. . . . Since God is light
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity-
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
And of Thomas Campbell nearly to the same effect:–
This spirit will return to Him
Who gave its heavenly spark.
The Paramâtama is likened to an illimitable ocean, the Jîvâtama to a glass of water immersed in it. The glass is the subtile body or covering of the soul. If the glass itself be broken or taken away, the water in it, which corresponds to the Jîvâtama, blends with the water of the ocean. This is an exemplification of Nirvan.
According to Sikh ontology all animals have two bodies, one a solid material body and the other a subtile intangible body. The jîvâtama is separated from the former at the
[1. St. Paul speaks of a spiritual body (I Cor. xv. 44).]
time of death, but not from the latter unless the state of Nirvan supervenes. While the jîvâtama is encased in a subtile body, it is susceptible of punishment.
Sokrates, in discussing the possibility of a separate existence after death, dilates on the pleasure it would afford to meet such men as Homer, Hesiod, &c.; but Plato has not recorded what Sokrates’ sensations would be on meeting his tormentors and persecutors in the same happy region. John Stuart Mill, too, thought that the most serious loss which would result to mankind from a disbelief in an after existence would be the despair of reunion with those dear to us who have ended their earthly life before us. An aspiration for such a reunion is easy to understand, and the hope of its realization has soothed the death-bed of many a believer in the soul’s immortality. But all people are not equally dear to us, and it did not apparently occur to that eminent philosopher that, granted the hope of meeting those we love beyond the grave, there is also the possibility of meeting those who are not equally the objects of our affection–those who have perhaps embittered or even abridged our terrestrial existence, and who, it may be as the result of predestination or elective grace, are admitted to the sempiternal joys of paradise. To the believer in Nirvan there is no apprehension of such associations. Only those who are sufficiently purified can be absorbed in the Absolute, in the all-dazzling fount of God’s infinite perfection and love. Here individual consciousness ceases, the supreme goal of existence is attained, and neither sorrow, misery, nor remembrance of earthly evils can be apprehended.