Economic Dimensions of Sikh Social Philosophy
Harjit Kaur Arora
Professor of Economics
Le Moyne College
Syracuse, NY 13214
I wish to thank my father, S. Rajinder Singh for his helpful comments on the earlier draft.
When we talk of Oriental religions, the general assumption is that they consist of mysticism, intuitive experience, things ephemeral, of the other world, disconnected from the day to day mundane materialism. An economist, on the other hand, views society from a materialistic angle. Religion and economics both answer similar questions. Religion gives us ideals. Economics describes reality. Not that economists do not believe in God or that priests do not have monetary needs. It is not always easy to have an overall synthetic view of both. An economist talking of religion and philosophy is apt to walk on a slippery ground. An attempt to combine the two sometimes results in interesting observations. But I believe that these differences can be overcome since people usually follow their own self interests. We have to find a way to structure economic incentives that support and encourage ideal social behavior and to devise a common ground in the social behavior which governs both the economic and religious activities. It is a happy blend of the two, with religious behavior governing the general principles, that lead to a positive long lasting peace and even to world peace.
Before we go into a detailed discussion of the subject, it would be appropriate to broadly review the basic principles of Sikhism, the teachings of its Gurus and its economic philosophy. Sikhism is perhaps the youngest religion in the world. A majority of its followers live in the northern part of India in Panjab and Delhi. But they can be found in all parts of the world including the North and South Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia etc. They are easily recognizable because of their unshorn hair and the headgear of their menfolks.
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539 AD) who was born in the Panjab. This was an era of great awakening when old dogmas and faith of established religions were being reviewed and challenged. Some of the religions, especially in South Asia, had lost their original direction at the hands of an established priestly class. These religions have degenerated into a bundle of elaborate rituals the purpose of which was not always clear to its followers. Besides per existing codes religious activity could only be performed by a particular class of people called Brahmins or their progeny without regards to their educational background or spiritual status. These rituals spanned the whole spectrum of human activity from birth to death and covered all major events in one’s life like marriage, house warming ceremonies, establishing a new business, and day-to-day activities like eating, charity, and pilgrimages etc. It extended far beyond a person’s death in as much as the soul of the deceased had also to be cared for by propitiation of gods and providing food and other gifts in annual ceremonies which eventually went to the priests. All these activities were controlled by the priestly class of Brahmins who would do so in consideration of cash and/or other material benefits. Besides society was divided into various castes/sects who believed in a large number of deities and gods each requiring a separate set of rituals.
In this chaotic condition of a society Guru Nanak and his nine successors in Guruship worked to redefine the religious and social values of mankind. The Gurus also fought the social and political exploitation of man by man and laid down a clear and straight path unencumbered by elaborate rituals and free of the stranglehold of the priestly class of both Hindus and Moslems. Freedom from economic oppression and uplift of the economically disadvantaged was one of the platforms for the social uplift of masses. The tenth master ended the succession of human Gurus and proclaimed Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Scripture) as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. Guru Granth had earlier been compiled by the fifth Guru and is authentic as it has been written by the Gurus themselves. The holy scripture does not narrate the biography of the Sikh Gurus or any other historical event. It contains hymns to the glory of God written the Gurus and by various Hindu and Moslem Saints subscribing to same line of thinking as the Sikh Gurus.
TEACHINGS OF THE SIKH RELIGION:
Among the major teachings of Sikhism are:
1. Concept of God: God is one. The name is Truth, it is absolute, one supreme Being, Eternal, all pervading, the Creator, is without fear, without hate, envy or enmity, not revengeful, self-existent, not incarnated, the Being beyond time, Enlightener. He is attained through the grace of the Guru. The same Divine light (Jot) not only permeates all human beings irrespective of caste, creed, color, race, sex, religion or nationality but also the entire universe.
2. The ultimate aim of a Sikh is not salvation or an entry into heaven or attainment of worldly riches but a permanent and lasting merger of one’s soul into the divine Jot (God). The only way to achieve this is through recitation of God’s name and singing of his glories and qualities so that these qualities permeate into one’s soul and the person becomes one with God not only after death but in this life itself. This is known as the path of JEEVAN MUKTI or emancipation in this life itself. This would prove that Sikhism is a separate religion with a specific and clearly laid out objective. It would be wrong to suggest, as some scholars have done, that Sikhism is a modified or blended form of either the oriental or the occidental religions.
3. A Sikh rejects all fasts, rites and rituals, yoga, mortification of body, self torture, penances and renunciation. It rejects any self inflicted pain for attainment of God.
4. A Sikh believes that all that happens is in the will of God. God being the benefactor of all mankind, knows and does all that is in the best interests of His creation. Once a person willingly submits to and accepts, and not just acquiesces into, the will of God, he/she rises above joy and sorrow and is in eternal bliss even here in this life.
"GUR KAHIYA JO HOYE SAB PRABH TE
TAB KARHA CHHOD ACHINT HUM SOTE
"The Guru says that whatever happens is through the will
of God. Therefore I worry not and sleep peacefully and without care."
This does not, however, imply that we should not actively participate in day to day activities and passively renounce our duties. It certainly helps us take a detached and unprejudiced view of all our activities and lets us perform our duties selflessly and in the best interest of society at large.
5. By acceptance of God’s will and by following the Guru’s teachings bliss comes here and now in this life. It is carried forward to the life hereafter.
"HALIT SUKH PALIT SUKH NIT SUKH SIMRANO
NAAM GOBIND KA SADA LEEJAY" (DHANASARI,pp. 683)
"He who utters the name of God is ever at peace both here
and hereafter; And he is rid of his age old sins; joining
the society of Saints; the dead one is brought back to life."
6. Kaam, Karodh, Lobh, Moha, Ahankar (Lust, Wrath, Greed, Attachment, Ego or Pride)
While Sikhism believes in living a normal family life, it prohibits its believers in engaging in lustful activities, acting in a rage, greed and/or attachment to worldly things or indulging in egoistic activities. Each of these items would need a full paper in itself. Constraints of space and time, and limitation of the subject does not permit a complete discussion of each item. Suffice it to say that extremes of any kind are prohibited in Sikhism. While lustful activities are prohibited, celibacy does not carry any merit and is discouraged. Similarly while greed for possession of any kind of property is unacceptable so is renunciation or retiring to the jungles for extreme penance or living on alms. While ego and pride are considered a sin so is lack of self respect or respect for others. While a Sikh is expected to maintain and care for the family and other material goods, he is not supposed to be so attached to them as to forget his ultimate aim in life or grieve at their loss. He is required to stay like a lotus flower in a pond living in it, getting his sustenance from the water but still detached and head held high outside the water.
SIKHISM AND ECONOMICS
Ideally all religions aim at the maximum benefit of maximum number of persons. We also know that corporate capitalism or state monopoly are responses to imperfect economic conditions. It is therefore necessary to review and redefine some of the religious principles for the benefit of society as a whole especially the underprevileged. Specific religious institutions also need to be created for the implementation of these principles. Religious economics has, of necessity, to be a welfare economics. Sikhism is no exception to this general rule. It has tried to evolve a set of principles that are practically acceptable to a vast majority of its followers and can be implemented without undue harm to the participants.
The basic requirements of any individual or a group of individuals are food, clothing, shelter and adequate supply of money for ancillary activities like education, transportation, entertainment, and an adequate provision in sickness , disability and old age. Sikhs believe that God, the Creator of this world, has supplied all this in plenty for all the creation in the world. The problem arises when there is an unequatable distribution of resources, greed, hoarding, and/or excessive waste of resources resulting in deprivation to the weaker sections of society. If sufficient and unhindered supply of money for these items can be assured, mankind would be less greedy and would be more considerate towards their fellow beings. Hoarding would become less attractive and superfluous. Of course one has to work to earn money for their basic necessities and in today’s world, an equitable distribution of wealth just does not exist. Sikhism resolves these problems as follows:
Honest living The same theory of greedlessness and detachment applies specifically to a Sikh in economic matters. As has been explained earlier, the ultimate aim of a Sikh is the merger of the soul with the Jot (God). A Sikh believes that this is a transient world and that what is contained herein is transitory and impermanent. The wealth accumulated in this world is also transitory. It has been provided to us by God for our sustenance for the period of our stay in this world. The man comes to this world naked and would go bereft of all the worldly wealth. Only the spiritual activity and good deeds done by a man would gowith him in the yonder world. A Sikh should never be attached to his worldly possessions. It would be in the interest of mankind to donate a part of one’s surplus wealth for the welfare of the needy. Economics translates this ideal into the format of progressive tax structure. A Sikh contributes by donating part of his/her income to a just cause.
A Sikh believes that this human life has been granted to him as an opportunity for spiritual advancement by the grace of God. He should therefore maintain this body in a healthy condition, well fed, but not underfed nor overfed. He must provide sustenance to this body by earning an honest living. The body need not be tortured by fasting or by over-indulging. Money is needed for this purpose only.
Prior to the advent of Sikhism, it was general practice in the prevalent religions that a specific sect or group of that religion would abjure all economic activity in the name of spiritual advancement. They would leave their homes, go and live in the jungles or caves in the Himalayas or other secluded places or at various pilgrim stations on the river banks but would still come back to the cities to beg for food or alms. This practice had a very demeaning effect on these religious recluses. Besides the wealthy persons, who were required to provide charity in such cases, would accumulate wealth by unscrupulous means in the belief that their sins would be washed off by the blessings of the spiritual alms seekers. The society was thus divided into two distinct groups both of which were demeaning to human dignity. Sikhism does not accept this artificial division between the spiritual haves and have-nots. A Sikh believes that each soul has to work for its own emancipation in the midst of economic activity. Everybody is responsible for his own deeds or misdeeds and will have to answer for them to God.
A positive externality of this system is that Sikhism does not practice the tradition of established priesthood. More specifically that of priests belonging to a particular caste/sect or that of hereditary priests. In Sikhism women are also eligible to act as a priest. Any baptized Sikh irrespective of sex, caste, creed or color can act as a priest and perform all the religious ceremonies which generally are very simple and need no elaborate arrangements.
SIKHISM AND SPIRITUAL WELFARE
As has been stated earlier, the primary goal of a Sikh is not accumulation of wealth, but his/her spiritual welfare. In addition to recitation of name and communion with God what better method can there be for such an uplift except through service to mankind. So all the Sikhs, wealthy or otherwise, donate voluntarily but generously to funds set up in various Gurudwaras (places of worship) according to their capacity to donate. Most of these donations are anonymous. These donations are used in the following manner:
1. Institution of Langer: All the major Gurdwaras (places of worship) maintain a free kitchen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, where any person irrespective of his religion, color or creed is welcome to eat. This is known as the institution of "Langar".
2. Education: Most of the major Gurudwaras maintain schools and colleges where any student can receive education free of cost.
3. Health care: Some Gurudwaras maintain hospitals where doctors volunteer their time and medicines are provided free of cost to the needy.
4. Senior Homes, orphanages and inns for travellers: Some Gurudwaras maintain rest houses and homes for the old and orphans where free lodging is provided.
5. Duswandh (ten percent): A majority of Sikhs consider it their duty to donate up to 10 percent of their income to the house of God. All these funds are used for the uplift of the poor and the needy in the manner stated above thus alleviating their sufferings, reducing their poverty and helping them in time of need. The recipients also exercise voluntary self control and do not take more than what is immediately needed by them. The giving and taking of charity is routed through the Gurudwaras as it is believed that giving through the God’s temple leads to humility on the part of the giver and does not demean the receiver who knows not the identity of the giver but believes that he is receiving it from God’s house.
The concept of Community service is very strong among the Sikh devout who irrespective of their status or station in life consider it their proud privilege and a service to God to volunteer time for the various services organized by Gurudwaras. There are therefore no overheads in the administration of various services and all the funds are fully utilized for the purpose for which these are donated.
Sikhism believes in voluntary religious regulation of economy as distinguished from government regulated or capitalistic economy. It adopts a pragmatic and realistic approach of subordination of economic activity to the spiritual and religious values. It does not reject, renounce or denounce economic activity as something inherently bad nor does it encourage economic activity as an end all and be all for all human endeavors. Money, property and all other worldly goods are a gift of God to mankind to be used for the service of mankind. These have to be earned by honest means and should not be accumulated by torture and deprivation of other sections of the society. Excessive accommulation of wealth is considered burdensome and unnecessary. The Sikhs believe that uncontrolled indulgence in the pursuit of wealth is at the root of various ills of the society. In sum, Sikhism adopts a middle path where even when not being attached to accommulation of wealth, a Sikh endeavors to earn an honest living, sharing his earnings with not so fortunate, does not renounce worldly activity, knowing fully well that he has a higher purpose and aim in life. He does not overlook the moral, social, religious and spiritual obligations in pursuit of wealth. His economic activity does not degenerate into greed or lust for power over others.
I believe that ultimate world peace can be achieved when prosperity comes through a happy combination of religion and economic activity. Socialist economies have failed to bring peace to mankind and have bred corruption and lower standards of living for everybody. The free capitalistic economy, where big fish eats small fish, often leads to various aberrations and depressions, where the poor becomes poorer and wealth is accumulated in the hands of a select few. It is time to give a trial to voluntarily regulated economic activity dominated by religious ethics and based on universal brotherhood. People will only do this if they perceive it as being in their own self interest. This is where religion can play its part. This is beautifully summed in a hymn.
"JIS GRIHA BAHUT TISE GRIHA CHINTA
JIS GRIHA THOREE SO PHIRE BHARMANTA
DUHU BIVASTHA TE JO MUKTA SOEY SOHELA JANIYE."(MARU, pp. 1019)
"He, who has more is worn by care;
He, who has less, wanders about (in search of more);
He, alone is in peace who has neither less nor more."
Will it succeed? Possibly yes. Religion is far more effective driving force than all the government regulations put together. It has succeeded to some extent in the small Sikh community. But it will need more fine tuning for its application on a global scale. Still it is worth a trial in this troubled world hankering for peace and where quite a large number of people are below the poverty line inspite of significant advancement in science.
Harjit K. Arora (Phone) (315) 445-4436
Professor of Economics
Economics Department (fax) (315) 445-4540
Le Moyne College
Syracuse, NY 13214