LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
THE SIKH – SANT CONNECTION
Sikhism is described as being founded by Guru Nanak in the early 16th century. Yet, Nanak was himself a philosopher with ties to an older tradition, the Sant tradition. This movement dates back to the 13th century in Southern India, spreading to the north two hundred years later. It reached its zenith during Nanak’s time. The movement is analogous to the Protestant Reformation with its concern for the layperson and its diverse pockets of teachers (sants) all articulating a very similar message. They taught that God was without specific form (nirguna), an ineffable transcendental reality, and through mysticism and meditation one can experience this mystery firsthand. In meditation one would repeat a divine name (or names) of God (a practice called simran) and as the soul ventured upwards to the highest spiritual realm, Sach Khand (Realm of Truth), mystical sounds and lights (referred to as shabd) would manifest. These interior visions would draw one closer to ultimate realization. With each step towards that goal, feelings of devotion (bhakti), love and a longing to be united (viraha) would intensify. The spiritual teacher (guru) plays a significant role in all of this. He/She is generally viewed as having succeeded in accessing these higher realities and thus serves as a necessary guide to neophytes. Often the guru would be placed in a position of adoration as the disciple saw within him/her a reflection of the Divine. Inherent in this philosophy is native Indian concepts such as karma and reincarnation.
All of these philosophical concepts actually have earlier sources. The bhakti notion dates back to Vaishnava (devotion to Vishnu) and Shaivite (devotion to Shiva) Hinduism. The esoteric mysticism can be traced back to the Nath Yogis, who actually have a Tantric Buddhist origin. The Sufis, with their emphasis on interior visions and the pains of separation, also may have influenced the Sants. There is a debate, however, among scholars if the later played a major role or a minimal one. Nonetheless, Santism seems to be a blend of bhakti, Nath and Sufi influence.
Important Sant Mat Terms
Bhakti: Devotion or love; reverence for a sacred object or person
Nirguna: Formless; nirguna God refers to an indescribable reality; a nirguna bhakti mystic refers to the Divine as devoid of all properties; saguna God refers to the manifestation of the Divine in a particular form
Sant: A surat shabd yoga guru; viewed by disciples as enlightened
Sant Mat: Teachings of the saints
Satsang: Place where the spiritual service is held; congregation of earnest devotees
Simran: Internal repetition of prayers, usually holy names for God
Surat Shabd Yoga: Surat refers to spirit and shabd to the mystical sound current; it is a form of meditation where the disciple seems to join the soul with shabd
Besides their mystical orientation, the Sants were also interested in social reform. They clearly rejected the caste system and denied Brahmanical authority. Moreover, their heterodoxy included a rejection of the Vedas, any form of idols, and superficial rituals. The Nath and Sufi resemblances are apparent. The Sants’ radical message was enthusiastically embraced by the lower castes of India who felt empowered by it. Spiritual liberation was open to all without the requirement of a Brahmanical position.
Examples of Popular Sants
Dadu Nanak Ecknath Ram Das Jnaneshvar Shiv Dayal Singh Kabir Tulsi Das Namdev Tulsi Sahib
An example of a well-known Sant is Kabir, a 15th century guru of Northern India. Many have compared him to an Indian Martin Luther who sought to liberate India from superstitions and idolatry. He also challenged other popular ideas such as polytheism, the caste system, asceticism, and the performing of elaborate rituals. Kabir’s biography is a bit nebulous as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all claimed him to be one of their own. Kabir, whose name in Islamic means the "Great," describes himself as a Muslim weaver (julaha) but seemed to deviate significantly from orthodox Islam. Hindus have tried to hinduize him by claiming that he was born of a Brahmin widow and that he was a follower of the Hindu teacher Ramanand. Sikhs have also tried to link him to their religious head, Nanak. Whether there was an historical meeting between Kabir and Nanak remains uncertain, especially since the actual birth and death date of Kabir has not yet been established. Some scholars place Kabir between 1380-1460 making it impossible for Nanak to have met him, while others claim Kabir existed between 1440-1518 making him a contemporary of Nanak’s.
Profile of Kabir
Birth Date: Possibly 1380
Death Date: Possibly 1460
Writings: Found in Adi Granth (541 hymns), Bijak, Kabir-Granthvali
Teachings: Sant ideas with a frank dislike of institutionalized religion and orthodox formalism
Many of the writings attributed to Kabir, such as several verses in the Sikh scriptures, are not free of alterations. Since Sikhs were presenting him as a sort of spiritual brother of Nanak they may have made small changes to his words to fit him more properly into their ideology. While Kabir’s philosophy certainly fits in the Sant tradition as does Sikhism there are subtle differences between Nanak and Kabir. For instance, Nanak emphasizes community and consensus whereas Kabir seems more of a loner and a revolutionary. Moreover, the former guru’s teachings are consistently coherent, while the latter guru’s message can be quite obscure at times. Kabir’s ideas are found in three main sources: Bijak, the Adi Granth and Kabir-Granthvali. However, scholars question whether these writings are from his own hand. Most likely, Kabir was illiterate and passed his ideas through oral tradition. His utterances are usually in short, pithy verses.
Kabir’s Hymn on Death in the Adi Granth
Listen, Man! Such a spectacle is this world:
None in this can last forever.
Listen, Man! Walk you along a straight path;
else will you be pushed about.
Listen, Brother! Yama (Death) carries all away –
be one child, old person, or youth.
Listen, Man is like a poor mouse;
death the cat swallows him.
To those known to be wealthy or indigent
no consideration is shown.
Yama kills all – kings, subjects: so might is death.
Wonderful is the take of God’s devotee, pleasing to Him.
Not transmigrating, they die not;
Ever with the Supreme Being abiding.
Progeny, wife, wealth, and substance –
know it in your mind: Discard these.
Saith Kabir: Listen, devotees of God!
Thus shall the Lord,
Holder of the Bow grant you union.
Like Kabir, Nanak also embodied the Sant tradition. He taught that God is a Formless One and through shabd yoga one can ascend to higher regions of indescribable bliss. He acknowledged five realms of ascent, the final being enlightenment. There is a famous story illustrating Nanak’s view of God as permeating all existence. One day Nanak took a nap and paid no attention to the direction of his feet. Muslims passing by rebuked him for not facing his feet in the direction of Mecca. Nanak requested then that they place his feet in the direction where God is not. Realizing his wisdom the Muslim travelers went on their way.
Guru Nanak’s Hymn on the All Pervasiveness
of God in the Adi Granth
Lord, Thou Mighty River, all knowing, all seeing,
And I like a little fish in Thy great waters,
How shall I sound Thy depths?
How shall I reach Thy shores?
Wherever I go, I see Thee only,
And snatched out of Thy Waters I die of separation.
I know not the fisher, I see not the net
But flapping in my agony I call upon Thee for help.
O Lord, who pervadeth all things,
In my folly I thought Thou wert far,
But no deed I do can ever be out of Thy sight;
Thou art All-seeing, all things Thou seeth:
I am not worthy to serve Thee.
Several biographers have claimed that Nanak tried to harmonize Hindu and Muslim ideas. Yet, according to W.H. McLeod, he did not combine the two but rejected both. When Nanak said "There is no Muslim and there is no Hindu" many assumed he was announcing as part of his doctrine the unity of Hinduism and Islam. However, Nanak may have actually been proclaiming that neither of these religions was sufficient for spiritual enlightenment. Instead of placing him in Hindu or Muslim waters, McLeod argues it is more correct to recognize his Sant affiliations. Sant teachings impregnated the religious sensibilities of the time and Nanak was a product of this. When he set up his religious community at Kartarpur he implemented classic Sant activities such as: meditation; spiritual discourse (satsang) about the importance of the Divine Name, the immorality of the caste system and the superficiality of performing rituals; and daily labor (disciplined worldliness in rejection of asceticism).
Guru Nanak’s Hymn on Meditation in the Adi Granth
They who think on Thee, they who meditate on Thee,
In this dark age have their peace.
They who think on Thee: they are saved, they are liberated;
For them death’s noose is broken.
Those who meditate on the Fearless One
Will lose all their fear;
Those who have worshipped the Lord,
In the Lord they are now mingled.
Blest and blest again are those
That have set their thoughts on the Lord.
Nanak argued the necessity of a guru but whether he himself had one is unclear. Some scholars have argued that he may have had a human guru while others have asserted his guru was none other than shabd itself. From a Sikh’s perspective to suggest that Nanak needed a guru is offensive since it seems to lessen his spiritual authority. Placing Nanak as the first of a ten guru lineage marks his importance.
Guru Nanak’s Hymn on the Importance of a Guru in the Adi Granth
Those who encounter the Guru
Achieve an indestructible love of God.
The Guru bestows Divine Knowledge
And unveils the mysteries of the three worlds.
That man whose feet are set on the path of virtue
Never abondoneth the pure Name.
Without the Guru’s help we cannot burn
To nothingness the ashes of self-love;
For the Guru kindles in the human hearts
The fire of the love of God.
Through the Guru’s Word alone
There comes the moment of knowing:
‘My Self is that Self.’
Through faith in the Guru the True Self is known.
While there is some mystery behind Nanak’s biography we do know about the specifics of his family: his parents were Kalu and Tripata; his sister’s name was Nanaki; he married Sulakhani and had two sons, Lakhmi Das and Sri Chand. At the age of thirty Nanak is said to have had a transformative experience (a vision of God) while meditating in a forest in Sultanpur, India and afterwards left his family in search of truth and wisdom. Wandering India with a Muslim companion, Mardana, together they visited places of pilgrimage and sought the company of religious teachers and scholars. Supposedly, their journeys also included Tibet, Mecca and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Later, Nanak settled in Kartarpur and taught his disciples Sant teachings. Before his death he passed the leadership of the fledgling religious movement to another one of his disciples, an elder man named Lahina, referred to as Angad (translated as "my limb"). The fact that he did not award the position to his eldest son, Sri Chand, led to a schism. Upset that his father overlooked him, Sri Chand developed his own group called the Udasis. Unlike Nanak, he emphasized asceticism.
Profile of Guru Nanak
Birth Date: 1469
Death Date: 1539
Founding of Sikhism: 1499
Parents: Kalu and Tripata
Sons: Lakhmi Das and Sri Chand
Travel Partner: Mardana
Religious Center: Kartarpur
Teachings: Same as Sant tradition (Nirguna God, Meditation, Satsang, etc.)
The Sant tradition is still alive today, and Sikhism is part of it. While the title of Sant Mat (translated as "Teachings of the Sants") was not coined until the late 19th century by Tulsi Sahib, the philosophical mindset was indeed prevalent for many centuries. Nanak’s connection to it is obvious. One can go as far as to say, as McLeod has, that Nanak did not found Sikhism, since he did not articulate anything new. Nanak did, however, add his own creative thought and clarity to the Sant tradition and so his genius should not be underestimated. Today there are several modern movements in India that fit under the Sant category. One such group is the Radhasoamis founded by Shiv Dayal Singh in the mid-1800s. This branch will be discussed in Chapter Four.
Traditional Sikh Teachings
The Ten Gurus: Traditional Sikhs acknowledge ten historical gurus, beginning with Nanak and ending with Gobind Singh. The guru is viewed as an enlightened being and a manifestation of the Divine. The name Sikh means disciple, since they see themselves as adherents of the ten gurus.
God: Sikhs are strict monotheists, denying the multifarious images of Gods found in Hinduism. Idols of God are not allowed. God is often referred to as Wahiguru.
The Divine Name: practice the repetition of the Divine Name of God as a form of meditation.
Classic Indian Ideas: Sikhs embrace an Indian worldview including beliefs in reincarnation, karma and samsara (the cycle of birth and death).
The Goal: The spiritual goal of Sikhism is to attain moksha (liberation) from the bonds of samsara and thus return to one’s true spiritual home. This can also be thought of as enlightenment.
Social Teachings: Sikhs reject the caste system, in that all castes can equally pursue spiritual liberation. The four doors to the Golden Temple reflect the view that all castes are welcome. In Sikh social gatherings everyone eats together and prays together; this is a taboo for Hindus.
The Khalsa: Orthodox Sikhs are referred to as Khalsa Sikhs (a community of the pure). Males assume the name of Singh (lion) and females take the name of Kaur (princess). They are prohibited from smoking and from eating Muslim meat. Most importantly, the males wear the five ks: kesh (long hair wrapped in a turban), kanga (comb), kara (bracelet), kaach (short briefs), kirpan (sword). While most Sikhs are members of the Khalsa, not all are.