Sikhism A Faith Misunderstood
Dr Gurbakshish Singh
Misunderstanding regarding the principles, concepts and philosophy of a religion exists, usually not only in the minds of those who are not members of it but also in the minds of those who profess to be its true followers, or even champions and preachers of that faith. In case of Sikhism this is particularly so. Most of what is said, followed and preached by majority of the Sikhs about Sikhism, cannot be considered a part of the Sikh faith, rather some of it is anti-Sikhism. We have developed our own interpretation of Sikhism by watching the behavior and actions of political and religious leaders which quite often may not agree with the principles of the faith. Unless all the notions so formed, are taken out of our mind. Sikhism cannot be understood in its true perspective as preached and practiced by the Gurus. To properly understand this article the reader is, therefore, requested to forget, at least temporarily, all the ideas about Sikhism he has already formed in his mind.
Because of the new thoughts given by the "learned Sikhs" original concepts of Sikhism as delivered by Guru Nanak, have been diluted, discolored and sometimes deliberately misinterpreted. If this is allowed to happen for sometime more, Sikhism, like Hinduism will, become undefinable. Hinduism cannot be regarded as distinct, definite religion. As understood today, Hinduism has become a culture. It has many mixed together under one common name. this faith has more than one independent and sometimes contradictory concepts. Idolatry is valued high and practiced regularly by some Hindus while others have not just given it up but are vehemently opposed to it. People who kill cow and people who worship cow, both claim to be Hindus. Some gods need the sacrifice of animals, others advise Ahinsa Parmo dharma. If one is an Indian and non Muslim, or a Christian, he can be broadly classified as a Hindu.
Sikhism as well, like any other faith, has been given new interpretations intentionally, or unintentionally. this happened even during the Gurus’ period. At that time any corruption in the faith was emphatically rejected even if it meant discarding the sons and near relatives of the Gurus. The purity of the faith was maintained at every cost.
Today, Hinduism has about three dozen Bhagwans each claiming to be the God-incarnate (not just sent by God) which obviously cannot be correct. There are today more than 250 answers to the question of ‘What is Christianity’? Rather more serious, is the case with Islam in which there are fundamental differences, one sect is not ready to consider the other as a believer of the faith. Many killings have taken place because of the differences in deciding what Islam is and what it is not. In the near future, the Sikh "Saints" and the modern scholars along with political leaders will make, rather they have already made to a great extent, Sikhism too a hotch-potch of many self-contradictory beliefs and principles.
Sikhs believe that the tenth Nanak passed on the Guruship to the Adi Granth as eternal Shabad Guru. A very small minority, however, believers that Baba Ram Singh was nominated as the 11th Guru. Therefore, this nomination is going on in the same family as an ancestral right today. They do not take Amrit as done by the first category who believe in the Guruship of the Adi Granth. If rituals are any indication of the religion, these Sikhs are orthodox Hindus with Keshas. They have the faith in the Adi Granth not as a Guru but as a book.
Quite a few other sects have also emerged which claim to be the followers of Guru Nanak, even when they have little regard for the Gurbani written by the Gurus. They mis-quote some sections of it to justify their own ‘revised’ interpretation of the faith. Outwardly they keep the appearance of Sikhs but the faith and rituals they preach and the spiritual path they describe to perceive God, have nothing common with that mentioned in the Adi Granth, call them cheats. They feel Sikh appearance by such fake ‘Gurus’ is being kept to catch the un-wary Sikhs into their net while preaching everything against Sikhism.
It is noted with regret that historically, these so called ‘Gurus’ began as "preachers" of Sikhism. When they were accused of distorting the original concept they debated and tried to prove their description to be the genuine faith. Later on, when their identity was well established; they took advantage of the political situation and constitutional rights, and disconnected themselves from their Sikh base and started claiming themselves to be the founders and preachers of a new faith. They no more call themselves Sikhs and have adopted new names. This has resulted in mutual fights and quarrels, one protecting the original faith, the other trying to destroy it to establish itself.
Those who have written about Sikhism, can be grouped into distinct categories. One group believes that Sikhism is another sect of Hinduism and they think that Sikhs are Hindus with ‘Keshas’. Others feel that Sikhism is that modern version of Hinduism which excludes orthodox and dogmatic approaches of the faith. The Western writers and many Indians too, however, feel that it is the resultant effect of Islam and Hinduism inter-acting together. They base their conclusion on the thesis that some of the rituals/principles of the Sikh faith agree with Islam (belief in one God, rejection of Idols) and others agree with Hindu faith (soul migration, marriage, death and birth ceremonies). Some people who keep the Sikh philosophy in mind rather than rituals followed by Sikhs observe that Sikhism is very near Islam less the fanaticism which was shown by the Muslim rulers. People very favorable to Sikhism have written that Guru Nanak picked up the good points both from Hinduism and Islam and named the combination of these as Sikhism.
The author feels all these views originate from the ignorance about the birth of Sikhism, its development in Punjab and its further progress in the whole if India, rather the whole world. To consider Sikhism as another faith is not acceptable to this writer, who believes Sikhism is not one more addition to the long lists of faiths in God, the principals of the faith and the practices suggested for a Sikh, one cannot help to recognize that Sikhism does not belong to the class of the existing religions. It is a class by itself and fundamentally different from all existing religions.
When observed superficially some of the practices and beliefs may appear to be already existing in one or the other faith, but when studied thoroughly, these would be found having a different meaning from that given to them earlier by some other faith. Sikhism, therefore, cannot be placed on the same platform as other religions, it has to be given a new platform, a new place, a different place.
Let us study some beliefs common on Sikhism and other religions to explain this point. Hindus burn their dead and the Muslims bury them. The practice of burning their dead by Sikhs cannot be said to have been taken from Hinduism because the faith behind the action is totally different. Sikhism believes all practices, burning, burying, throwing in the water or any other method of disposing of the dead body equally good. These practices do neither any benefit nor any harm to the soul. This means Sikh adopt these methods without assigning any religious sanctity to these rituals which is not the case with other religions.
Similarly, in case Sikhs bury their dead it is not because Muslims do it. The same action is based again in a different philosophy. The latter do it because if the body is put on fire, the soul goes to hell, while the former do it, because it is a convenient method of disposing of the dead body. If the Sikhs throw their dead in the river to be consumed by the water life, the practice has not been taken from the Parsis who throw their dead to the vultures. All this proves that even when the same ritual is followed by Sikh it does not have the same meaning as in Hinduism or Islam.
If in Sikhism a particular spiritual thought, is same or similar to that of another religion, it is not an adoption from that religion because conceptually the two are different. The belief in only one God (not in many gods as in Hinduism) and non-worship of idols, have not been taken from the Muslim faith because the philosophy behind these practices is totally different in the two cases. According to the Muslim faith, a person becomes a believer in one God only if he embraces Islam otherwise he is a non-believer even when he holds a strong and sincere faith in God. According to this philosophy there must be two Gods, one for the Muslims and the other for the non-Muslims. This fact will be explained later. Here the purpose of stating this is that even with the same of similar rituals faith existing in Sikhism as in other religions, they cannot be made as a basis for concluding that Sikhism has been founded by taking good points both from Hinduism and Islam. It is a fundamentally new approach to the religion.
After this rather long introduction, I would like to state some fundamental beliefs of Sikhism.
Each faith of a sect has a name given to the Creator, the Almighty i.e. God, Father Allah, Ram, Gobind, Krishan ect. But any and every name for the Supreme power is accepted in Sikhism. The Adi Granth (uniquely the ever-existing Shabad Guru, not just a religion book) which enunciates the fundamentals of the Sikh faith contains all these and more names of God. It is emphatically asserted that Ram (God of Hindus) and Rahim (God of Muslims) is the same Power/Authority. According to the Adi Granth, therefore, there cannot be two religions, Puran (Hindus) and Quran (Islam) but only one religion, as there is only one God for the whole humanity. In addition to Ram, Rahim and Puram Quran, some more corresponding terms of the two religions have been so used as to depict a very close association between them through their similar rhythm. For example, "Baid" (Veda) and "Ktaib," the former meaning all Indian religious books and the latter meaning all books of the Western faith (Quran, Bible, Toroth Zachariah).
According to Sikhism there is no particular place specifically reserved and furnished for the abode of God like "Puri", seventh sky, ect. He lives in every one’s, heart, black of white, eastern or western, low caste or high caste, good or bad, rich or poor.
The Adi Granth not only describes the existence of the all prevailing God, but it offers strong proof of the same. If more than one person independently observes a particular fact, it is regarded as a reality. There are many authors (out of which only 7 in addition to Nanak have been referred to later in this article) who belonged to different places, practiced different methods of worship, were born in different castes, suffered socially low status or enjoyed very high respects in the society but made the same observation "God lives in everybody, you love man if you want to love God."
The faith Guru Nanak possessed, preached and initiated humanity into, is that there is only one God, the whole universe is just a manifestation of it and he is therefore, everywhere and in every soul. That is why, Guru Nanak decried the divisions of humanity on any basis, religion, caste or color.
His first lesson, was "Neither there is any Hindu nor a Muslim" implying thereby that there cannot be two or more religions, there is only one God hence there can be only one religion. Though, born in a Hindu Khatri family, he refused to wear the sacred thread and he had no hesitation to go to a mosque for prayers because the God he ‘saw’ was not imprisoned in a temple. This shook the whole society. He went to Mecca (a place of Muslim worship) and Hardwar (a place of Hindu worship) to preach the same truth-give up the distinction of being a Hindu or a Muslim-all of us are human beings, we have no other religion than that.
He also demolished all the dividing walls of the four Varan-Ashrams in Hindu society. Brahmin and Sudra were not different. Birth in Brahmin family, does not make a person of higher, spiritual merit and being a Sudra does not deprive him of it.
He did not stop here. He challenged the status of Sanskrit as the language of gods and the elite. Sanskrit, he asserted, is no more sacred than Persian of any other language. He preached, that language of God is love, every human being can express it in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Bengali, Gujrati, English or any other he knows. The people who believed that Sanskrit is the language of gods or Arabic is the language of Allah, found it difficult to agree with Nanak but the ‘love’ for all won him the place of honor and respect from all places of worship, both Hindu and Muslim.
Was this all, the Guru did? No. He not only described this new faith, but also explained it and practiced it. To inculcate the feeling of oneness, he made all the people sit together as Sangat (a group of comrades). A Sudra and a Brahmin, a king and a beggar, a Muslim and a Hindu, all would sit together in a Sangat and sing the praise of the same God. When Guru Nanak expired people did not know, to which faith he belonged. Both Hindus and Muslims loved him, respected him and accepted him as their Guru but he was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim. He laid firm foundations of the new faith, the followers of which were known as students (Shish or Sikh) of truth. Having failed to label him as a Muslim or a Hindu, both raised memorials at the same place (Kartarpur on the right bank of the Ravi where he breathed his last) in his honour.
Was he dead? No; he is living even today. A unique principle he preached was, that not his body but the Words-"Shabad" said by him, are to be valued and respected as living Guru. His words (Gurbani, Adi Granth) are with us and would ever be. Therefore, he would continue to guide humanity to the right path as long as it cares to understand him and follow his teachings.
The first lesson of "Sangat" was followed by the second lesson of "Pangat"-eating together. As this would finish the caste barriers of the Hindu faith, high caste people complained against this "anti-Dharam" activity of the Guru (3rd Nanak) to the king Akbar who rejected their petition when he was told details of the Sikh faith by Bhai Jetha ji (later on 4th Nanak).
" Baoli"-a common source of water and "Sarovar" (Amritsar) the sacred bathing tank, were the next practical steps for totally removing the sectarian or narrow communal feelings from the minds of the people. All this was crowned by welcoming Mian Mir, a Muslim by name and rituals but a Sikh by faith, to lay the foundation stone of the world famous Sikh Shrine, The Golden Temple, in the center of the Amrit Sarovar, now in the city named Amritsar in Punjab, India.
Another big step was taken by the fifth Nanak, who compiled the Adi Granth to be placed in the Golden Temple. It contained the writings of not only of the Gurus but also of many other persons who ‘saw’ the God living everywhere and in everyone, high and low, rich and poor. The first Nanak during his travels in India and abroad had collected their writings i.e. ‘bani’ or "shabad".
Why did the fifth Nanak do so? Why did he bring them at par with the Gurus? Were the writings of the Gurus not sufficient to give the guidelines of the faith preached by them? Inclusion of the writings of the persons was deliberate and had a deeper significance. It was to give a proof that anyone with any ‘faith,’ any caste, any place, who sincerely worships Him, will realize Him and find Him in ever heart. through this unique step, it was declared and preached that it is absurd to say that there is only one particular name of the God and there is only one particular method of worship to realize Him of find Him and reach Him. It was to be taught emphatically to all that any name and say method is right if there is sincerity behind the action and it is wrapped in pious love. The experiences of those seekers who "found" Him, were recorded for eternity in the Adi Granth. It must be taken not of that these persons were born in different religions, were of different castes and adopted different rituals but realized (experienced) the existence of the same God everywhere and in everyone. Here is what, a few of them whose writings are included in the Adi Granth, have said:
1. Rama Nanda was a Gaur Brahmin, Vaishanava. When he perceived the existence of the God in all and everywhere, he questioned the validity of outward rituals and announced "I need go nowhere. I have realized that all pervading god in my own heart as well" [Page 1195]
2. Kabir who was never weaver and brought up under Muslim environment spoke the same thing "God has created all beings from the same source and He Himself is existing in all of them and everywhere" [Page 1349]
3. Namdev was Maharashtrian calico-printer. Through sincere devotion he too reached the same stage of spiritual attainment-"In every body, there is the same God who speaks. Who else than God can be there to speak in every person?" [Page 988 ]
4. Sheikh Farid a Muslim who followed all Mohammedan rituals advises us: "If you want to love God, do not injure the feelings of any-one because He resides in everybody"[Page 1384 ]
5. Bhikhan another Muslim devotee also came to the same conclusion and said "Wherever I see, It is He Who is there" [page 659 ]
6. Ravidass : a cobbler, Sudra by caste, when he attained the stage of God-realization, even the Brahmins fell at his feet. He also came to the same conclusion "There is no second or third, it is the same God Himself everywhere" [Page 345 ]
7. Pipa a Raja and a disciple of Rama Nand has his own way of expressing the same feelings. "The God which prevails in the whole universe also resides in my own heart too. Anyone who search Him will find Him." [Page 695 ]
According to the Adi Granth, therefore there is one God and one humanity, hence only one religion. The Creator can be given any name-Allah, Ram, Gobind, Wahe-Guru, Hari, Krishan, God. Followers of this faith as stated earlier go the popular name, Shish (Sikh) which means a student (a disciple) of spirituality, Sikhism, therefore, is not communal in the narrow sense like some other religions and can be named as Humanism.
Some persons preach the philosophy that all religions are good. No, this is not acceptable to a Sikh. He would not accept any religion to be good if it believes a person to be low or high because of his birth. The distinction of being a Brahmin or Sudra by birth is against the basic tenets of Sikh faith. A man is as he behaves and not as he is born. Any one who loves Brahma (God) is a Brahmin even if he was born in any of the so called low-castes. Any faith which divides humanity on any basis, colour, caste or religion cannot be agreed to be a good religion.
Another fact which distinguishes it fundamentally from other religions is that they claim that their founders were specially sent by God’ as Avtar/Prophet or His son. A follower of these must observe all the rituals prescribed by that guide and must utter a particular word, only then the prophet (the Avtar) will help him to obtain salvation. Sikhism is basically opposite to it. It simply tells ANYONE who loves human beings irrespective to their faith, (Hindu, Muslim, or Christian) birth (caste), social status, education (learned pandit or illiterate) and remembers Him with sincere mind would attain salvation/realize God. Sikhism does not make it obligatory for a devotee to accept a particular prophet to have been sent by God to save him and take his sins on himself.
By now, the reader would appreciate the ideas that Sikhism is not just another faith like so many other faiths. It is a catholic faith for the whole humanity. Anyone who studies Adi Granth in depth, will reach, this conclusion. H.L. Bradshaw has thus highlighted this unique aspect of the new faith:
"Sikhism is a Universal world faith-with a message for all men. This is amply illustrated in the writings of the Gurus. Sikhs must cease to think of their Faith as "just another good religion" and must begin to think in terms of SIKHISM being the religion for this New Age. The religion preached by Guru Nanak is the faith of the New Age. It completely supplants and fulfills all the former dispensations or older religions. Books must be written proving this. THE OTHER RELIGIONS CONTAIN TRUTH BUT SIKHISM CONTAINS THE FULLNESS OF THE TRUTH"
Bradshaw has found many more valuable things in the Guru Granth Sahib. he continues "Guru Granth Sahib of all the world religious scriptures were all concerned only with this world and its spiritual counterpart. To imply that they spoke of other worlds as does the Guru Granth Sahib, is to stretch their obvious meanings out of context. The Sikh religion is truly the answer to the problems of Modern Man."
A Sikh is not he who knows all about the principles and philosophy of Sikhism, and can scholarly explain it and effectively preach it. To be a Sikh, is to act according to his faith which may mean sacrificing all the comforts, wealth and even one’s life. After giving the philosophy of the faith, the 10th Nanak wanted volunteers who would accept the faith in toto i.e. not just believe in it but live up to it. The first five who offered their lives for it, were initiated into it, and called Panj Piaras-The Five Beloved Ones. Others followed them and were collectively designated as the Khalsa. The responsibility given to them, in today’s terminology, would be Honorary Army of the United Nations for the rule of Truth and love for the whole humanity. Five symbols ("Kachah", a special type of underwear; "Kara", wrist iron ring; "Kirpan," sword; "Kesh," un-cut hair; "Kanga," comb) were given to them for having been initiated into this army.
The history is filled with numerous examples, when the Sikhs gladly underwent un-told sufferings and sacrificed themselves just to uphold the principles that all humanity is one. They would help the poor and even die for them irrespective of their religion, or caste (because the Sikhs believed that God lived in their hearts too). Guru Teg Bahadur did not offer his head because the Hindu Dharm was in danger because a tyrant was making innocent people suffer an inhuman oppression. He would have done the same thing if a Hindu king had committed atrocities on the Muslims. Did not Guru Nanak sympathize with the innocent Muslim Pathans who suffered when Mughal King Babar attacked Punjab? Did not Guru Gobind Singh help Bahadur Shah, son (the rightful heir of Delhi Kingdom) of Aurangzeb against his younger son who tried to get the kingdom by force. One can understand the greatness of Guru Gobind Singh only if he remembers that Aurangzeb killed not only his father, his sons but also his large number of Sikhs. The Guru still struck to his principles-Help those who are in need of it and deserve it.
Now to conclude, it can be said safely, without any fear of contradiction that Guru Nanak laid the foundation of a non-sectarian, universal faith for the whole humanity, not just another religion. Unfortunately, those who claim to follow it, have mis-understood it and describe it only as modern religion or at the most a happy blend of what is good in Hinduism and Islam. Further it has been limited to the rituals of doing or not doing something and eating or not eating certain foods. it is limited sometimes to the identity (5 K’s) given to the followers which is to express their conviction in the faith and not faith itself. Sikhism cannot be confined to these narrow bounds. It is not just a new religion; it is a way of life for the new man-the man who believes all men are brethren and children of the same God and its mission is to work for the welfare of all and when the occasion demands to sacrifice his all for this ideal.