FAITH is an inner experience and attempts to describe FAITH do not do it any justice. This remains equivalent for the message and revelations of Guru Nanak, the founder of SIKHISM. We will attempt to describe the tenets of the Sikh faith as experienced and practiced by Guru Nanak. However, there remains no substitution in actually hearing from a true practitioner of Sikhism, when it comes to understanding their inner experiences and emotions. Today, twenty million people profess to practice the Sikh faith or describe themselves as Sikhs, but as in any other religious community, true practitioners are rare.
Prelude to a Revolution
Inequality, oppression, torture, abuse, corruption, idol worship, and blind ritualism compose the thread of society. The majority of people comprise the lower castes, mainly composed of peasants, laborers and servants. They account for more than seventy to eighty percent of the population and are labeled Sudras. Most of their day is spent working extremely hard and long hours, just to be able to eat and provide crumbs for their families. Many are literally owned by the upper castes (Khatris and Brahmins) and are severely maltreated. Child labor and abuse, along with physical, verbal and sexual abuse towards the majority of the population is quite common and tolerated. The Sudras along with women are thought of as impure, polluted, and the equivalent of dogs. They are not allowed to participate or even hear any sort of "religious" ceremony or ritual performed by the Brahmin priest. They have no access to the language or any sort of education. They have no desire to demand equality and have accepted their subservient status
The Birth of a Revolutionary
The year was 1469 and the place was Talwandi in the land of five rivers, Punjab, during a time of religious strife and intolerance, oppression and social inequality, not much different than what is experienced in many parts of the world today. Nanak, born into a Khatri caste family headed by Mehta Kaloo, thought and behaved in a manner opposite to his family and the society they lived in.
From a young age, Nanak challenged the social system of caste division with a grace and manner, which exemplified his mystical nature. He refused to participate in the sacred thread (Jenoo) ceremony, which represented social apartheid by discriminating against the "lower castes" or "dreads" of society. He did not denounce the world as an illusion as was popularly believed, and remained responsible to his familial and academic responsibilities, despite his revolutionary worldview. He was an excellent student and later managed his brother in law's business, working long and hard hours.
It was at the age of twenty-seven that young Nanak disappeared from his village for three days and could not be located. History recounts the following account of Nanak's encounter with God.
As God willed, Nanak, the devotee, was escorted to The presence, the divine presence, and then a cup filled with Liquid of Immortality was given to him, accompanied by the command: "Nanak, pay attention. This is the cup of holy adoration of my Name; drink it. I am with you, and you do I bless and exalt. Go, rejoice in my Name, the Name of God, and preach to others to do the same. Let this be your calling."
Henceforth, Nanak was to be known as Guru Nanak and was given a mission to preach God's word. Loosely translated, the word Guru refers to one who teaches or enlightens. Literally translated, it refers to one that takes us from darkness to light and is used to address Guru Nanak and his successors. Guru Nanak repeatedly states that his Guru is the Word of God and asserts that he only speaks what God inspires him to say.
Guru Nanak was found bathing in a river and at that time shared his mystical experience of God - "One, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Fearless, Without Enmity, Timeless, Unborn, Self-Existent entity whose Name is Truth and therefore Never Dies and who can only be realized by the Grace of the Guru." He made it clear that there was only One God for the entire Creation, and separate Gods for various communities did not exist. Committed Sikhs recite this experience of Guru Nanak before they recite his Jap Jee prayer daily when they awaken.
Guru Nanak went on to raise a family and was a responsible father and husband. After his sons had grown, he began a journey on foot to spread God's message with his companion Mardana. This would be the first of four journeys he would take, spanning over eight thousand miles. He traveled to areas as far as Ceylon, Tibet, and the Middle East spreading his revelation through singing God's praises, meaningful discussion and leading by example with a virtuous character full of love, compassion, integrity, and discipline.
A Defender of Human Rights
During his journeys, Nanak challenged many prominent beliefs, practices, and social ills of society. He allied with the downtrodden and oppressed parts of the population, completely rejecting the caste system or any social hierarchy. He says, "Neecha andar neech jaat neechee hoon utt neech…" - "There are lower castes among the low castes and some absolutely low. Nanak seeks their company. What has he to do with the high ones? For, where the lowly are cared for, there is Thine (God's) Benediction and Grace" (SGGS, p. 15). He condemned the practices of Brahmin priests as sole interpreters of scriptures and created a script (Gurmukhi) where the entire populous would have access to spiritual truth and Divine Revelation.
Guru Nanak's utterances against the tyranny involved in the invasion of South Asia by Babur, the Mughal, in the year 1521 provide insights unknown to most. He heard of this invasion while he was still in Central Asia and he hurriedly returned to South Asia through Hussan Abdal, which is now the Sikh shrine of Panja Sahib. Guru Nanak's long hymn, popularly called Babar-bani, gives the proper reaction of a socially committed being towards situations of this kind. Where a strong and powerful tyrant tramples over the rights and lives of those who have neither the means nor the power to defend him or herself, nor does anyone else arise to defend them.
Guru Nanak relates a heart-rending cry and puts forth an audacious question to God in the Babar-bani, on witnessing the misery caused by Babur's brutalities to undefended and unarmed civilians. "Just as a herd of meek cows is attacked by a bloodthirsty tiger," as Guru Nanak puts it: sinh pave ja vagge. There is clearly the seed of his new concept of individual, personal and human responsibility of humans to be directly concerned with oppression and tyranny on this earth, and to resist it instead of either remaining unconcerned about it, or hoping for extra-terrestrial intervention to destroy it.
This is the question of Guru Nanak in relation to a situation of this kind. He implies that under such circumstances it becomes the duty of an enlightened and spiritually committed person to come forward and to organize with those who are similarly cultured to resist evil in hope and faith that God will give success. But never to sit in the corner, or the fence, feeling that it is none of my concern or saying that it is the concern of God alone, nor to retreat and live like an ascetic away from society. The implication is clear: God helps those who help themselves. This distinguishes the society that Guru Nanak founded, from most of the previous societies that have existed in the East or elsewhere.
Central to Guru Nanak's message is the need for submission to a SatGuru, or enlightened Master or Guide who has crossed worldly boundaries and has realized God, in order to experience God oneself. Only through Grace from a Guru ("Gur Parsaad"), will one experience God who reveals the Divine Message and Will to the Guru:
Gauri Ki Vaar, Mahla 4, page 308, SGGS:
O Sikhs of the Guru, know that the Bani, the Word of the True Guru, is true, absolutely true. The Creator Lord Himself causes the Guru to say it.
Guru Nanak believed in the freedom of CHOICE and every individual having the right to choose a guide and choose a path that they think may help them on their own individual quest and spiritual journey. He also makes clear that the Guru an individual chooses may lead one astray, so an individual only can learn from their experiences, and thereby modifies their future choices and decisions based on the consequences and outcomes of their experiences and actions. Guru Nanak call his experience, "the Game of LOVE" and he states "if you want to play this Game of Love, come down my street with your Head on your Palm," thus signifying true submission and commitment. Based on his experience of God, the highest form of Love, he ascribes certain tenets of faith to his Sikhs, or disciples who have chosen his path.
The Central Tenets of Guru Nanak’s Revelation
SIMRAN: Meditation on God's Name - more than just reciting God's Name emptily from the mouth but looking deep within oneself below the surface layers and FEELING God within yourself and making a spiritual connection with one's soul. The Guru tells his own mind, "Man toon jot saroop hai apna mool puchaan" - "O my mind, you are the embodiment of Divine Light, recognize your True Origin." This includes INTROSPECTION or looking within you and being honest to yourself about your true motivations, intentions, and recognizing your strengths and weaknesses. This includes fervent PRAYER (ARDAAS), asking for the company of those blessed with God's experience and virtues and the thirst for God's presence. Also, asking for forgiveness, strength, and help to overcome one's EGO, which keeps one away from realizing one's True Self, and keeps one trapped in selfish ways and the weaknesses that stem from the EGO: Kaam, Krod, Moh, Lobh, Ahankar - (lust, anger, attachment, greed, pride). This includes singing the PRAISES of God and the Guru (called Kirtan), using the Guru's Shabad (Divine Word).
For a Sikh, Heaven is remembering the Creator Lord. Hell for a Sikh is forgetting his or her all powerful, omnipotent benefactor. Remembrance of God is the central tenant of the religion.
God resides in every human and throughout the entire Creation. Therefore, social apartheid and systems of caste division are antithetical to Guru Nanak's practice. Equality between genders is especially emphasized and direct action was taken to ensure that women are treated on equal footing with men. In fact, for the first time in history, women were assigned the role of Manjis (head missionaries). They were sent out to share Guru Nanak's experience and reside over community congregations referred to as Sangats. The concept of Langar (Pangat) was created where all sit on the ground irrespective of their caste, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other background, and partake in meals together before meeting for prayer and praise of God. The king Akbar also partook in Pangat and sat on the same floor next to the poor, prior to visiting Guru Amar Daas (the third Nanak). The institution of Langar is a creative innovation of the Sikh religion, a faith that believes in the oneness of humanity and seeks to eradicate all systems of societal stratification.
The practice of blind ritualism, worshiping of idols and inanimate objects, participating in fasts, pilgrimages, special diets, or believing in any other superstitions or fads, will not bring one closer to God or make one a better human being:
"I observe neither Hindu fasting nor the ritual of the Muslim Ramadan month; I serve the One, who at the last shall save. The Lord of the Universe of the Hindus, Gosain and Allah to me are One… I do not make pilgrimages to Mecca, nor do I worship at Hindu sacred shrines. I serve the One Lord, and not any other. I perform neither the Hindu worship nor the Muslim prayer. I have taken the One Formless Lord into my heart; and I humbly worship my Lord there. We neither are Hindus nor Muslims; our body and life belong to the One Supreme Being who alone is both Ram and Allah for us." (GGS, 1136)
The above quote from the Sikh scripture makes reference to Hinduism and Islam, as they were the prevalent religions during that time, but this also helps clear the often-misperceived fact that Sikhism is an offshoot of Islam or Hinduism, instead of a distinct ideology and faith.
GRIST JEEVAN (Non-Asceticism):
One ought not to retreat or escape from tending to one's familial duties, relationships, occupation or education, through asceticism. Guru Nanak tells the Sidhs who have fled to the mountains to perfect the art of yoga and concentration that asceticism is of no avail and God is realized by overcoming one's difficulties and challenges within the world. He rejects the prominent Hindu belief that the world and humanity is FALSE and is all an ILLUSION. He states in his revelations that the entire Creation/Universe is Real and Truthful since the One who is Real and is the Truth has created it. He further states that the only illusion is the ATTATCHMENT that humans have with the world because it stems from the perceptions created by their own EGO.
SEVA (Selfless Service):
Guru Nanak makes social service a prerequisite for True Spirituality. The entire Sikh Revolution was focused around helping and serving the downtrodden, the low castes, the oppressed, the impoverished, the medically ill and malnourished, women, and anyone else who was maltreated. When there are no rewards, expectations, attachments or pride with one's service does it actually become selfless. Guru Nanak says, "The individual who expects salvation from their "religious" deeds loses in the end." Thus, Simran and Seva go hand in hand. Service dedicated to the Creation with simultaneous remembrance of the Creator lead to the vision of the Timeless One in everything and recognizing humanity as One - "Manas kee jaat sabh ekay pachhaanbo."
As Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."
Guru Nanak's revelation asserts that God created the universe, and everything occurs according to God's will. Since this is the case, one can only become attuned to God, if one is showered with God's blessing or the Grace of the Guru. The Gurus have prescribed certain means to make oneself eligible for grace. They include Simran, Seva, and earning an honest living through hard work.
For Guru Nanak, playing the "game of LOVE" is the means to God. Since it is a "game," love consists of action and not just sentiments and emotion. It means pushing oneself, an "act of will."
This requires following and submitting to the tenets of faith. When one submits to these tenets, which comprise the message of the Guru, a Sikh automatically starts forming a character full of God-like virtues like the Guru and starts using these as the means in whatever he or she does. He or she develops a being full of devotion, kindness, consideration, tolerance, patience, humility, integrity, discipline, courage, wisdom, generosity, strength, insight, and awareness. He or she develops a state "Chardi Kala" in complete acceptance of God's Will, understanding what he or she can control and what he or she cannot, recognizing in the big picture, everything lies in what pleases almighty God as manifested in God's Will. He or she also develops a state of "sahaj" or poise and equilibrium, in complete balance and harmony with the entire Universe.
The Divine Word and Spirit (Shabad)
Before physically passing away, Guru Nanak gave "Guruship" to Bhai Lehna, a disciple who he felt was most ready to continue practicing and sharing his message of Love. Bhai Lehna who had proven this to Guru Nanak through his actions and sense of submission, then became Guru Angad, which means connected to body and spirit. So the embodiment of Guru Nanak's spirit and being was now residing in Guru Angad. "Guruship" was transferred eight more times, and Sikhs believe that all ten Gurus/Teachers shared Guru Nanak's spirit and experience in ten different physical forms. The nine Masters after Guru Nanak confirm that they are just a vessel for Nanak's spirit, in their own writings.
The nine successors of Guru Nanak instituted practices based upon the ideology and tenets of faith he set forth. The manifestations of the ideology varied depending on the circumstances and situations of the times. Each Guru built upon the building blocks that had been laid by Guru Nanak. A common misconception is that Guru Hargobind, the sixth Nanak, formed the idea of double sovereignty, miri and piri. On the instructions of Guru Arjun, the fifth Nanak, two swords, one representing spiritual authority and freedom from one's Ego (Piri) and the other representing temporal authority (Miri) were presented to Guru Hargobind when he was anointed as Guru. Sikhism places no distinction between the spiritual and temporal world. In order to become God conscious, it is important for one to excel in both.
Guru Nanak applied this principle of miri-piri when he stood up against King Babar and his merciless killings of the innocent. At that time he did not have an army trained in combat and martial traditions and used the only weapon he had, the power of voice. Guru Amar Das applied this when he stood against widow burning, a brahminical practice. Guru HarKrishan applied this when he spent his life helping the ill and poor. Guru Teg Bahadur applied this when he was beheaded as he stood up for the FREEDOM of CHOICE and RELIGION of another group. Brahmin priests asked him to help them against the tyranny and injustices of Aurangzeb who was desecrating their temples and forcefully converting them. It is ironic that Guru Nanak, at the age of nine, refused to allow the Brahmin to place the jenoo ("sacred thread" given to boys within the high castes) on him as it represented social apartheid, yet in his ninth manifestation, stood up against forced conversion of the Brahmin.
Guru Nanak's vision was to create a community full of individuals who possessed godlike virtues and qualities committed to universalism and equality with faith and humility under the One Almighty God, often referred to as "Haleemee Raaj". The nine Nanaks after him continued his idealistic mission, progressing towards this vision. As Sikh scholar Jagjit Singh states in his book the Sikh Revolution, "Idealism has, except as a source of inspiration, limited social utility if it is not properly organized for social ends."
Before the martyrdom of the ninth Nanak, Guru Teg Bahadur, he passed Guruship to his son, Gobind Rai. Tyranny, oppression, and inequality rampaged throughout the land under the rule of Aurangzeb. Guru Gobind created the Khalsa ("direct channel to the Divine"), a community of Saint-Soldiers dedicated to Guru Nanak's tenets with the specific mission to stand up against tyranny, oppression, inequality and injustice anywhere. Thus, as Teja Singh and Ganda Singh articulate in their book Short History of the Sikhs, "The harvest which ripened in the time of Guru Gobind Singh had been sown by Nanak and watered by his successors. The sword which carved the Khalsa's way to Glory, was, undoubtedly, forged by Gobind, but the steel had been provided by Nanak."
The Guru abolished the caste suffix of every individual, man or woman, who was baptized into the Khalsa fold. The men were given the name "Singh" (lion) and the women were given the name "Kaur" (lioness). He forged an identity and uniform for the Khalsa, which consists of five articles of faith, called the panj kakaars (5 K's): kanga (small comb), kara (stel bangle), kacheraa (long undergarments), kesh (unshorn hair), kirpan (sword). These five articles of faith are a constant reminder and proclamation of the momentous mission bestowed upon the Khalsa, a mission whose equal the world has never seen.
A Khalsa recognizes all humanity as family and is enjoined to care for them as if they were next of kin. Sikhs are reminded of this everyday in their congregational prayer when they recite the following: "First we pray on behalf of all creatures of God. May the presence of God be progressively felt in the hearts of all the sentient creatures, and the whole creation become happy, prosperous and transfigured thereby."
Sikhism is an extremely introspective religion but also recognizes that in order to fight injustice, sometimes the power of the sword must be unleashed for spiritual ends. In other words, the sword is to be used to fight the oppressor and tyrant as Guru Gobind Singh clearly describes this Sikh principle in his Epistle of Victory ("Zafarnama"), "When an affair is past every other remedy, it is righteous to unsheathe the sword." This letter was written to Aurangzeb who continued his tyrannical ways despite all types of protest and non-violent measures. After reading the letter, Aurangzeb realized the truth of his ways.
After the creation of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh passed Guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Scripture for Sikhs, which contains the Divine Message of the Gurus and their devotional experiences of God. Sikhs all over the world pray from and use it as their guide to help with life's difficulties and as a source of inspiration and spirit. It is unique in the world of scriptures because not only is it accorded the status of being the spiritual head of a religion, but it also contains writings of saints from other faiths whose thoughts and experience were consistent with those of the Gurus. Guru Arjun, the fifth Nanak, who used an intricate numbering scheme to prevent tampering, compiled it himself. Guruship was also given to the Khalsa Panth, or the community of committed Sikhs, which represent the physical body of the Guru. He tells his Sikhs that the Guru will be present wherever five-committed Khalsa are together.
One can recognize the Khalsa by his or her uniform, which consists of the five articles of faith described above. Men and some women (with a recent reemergence of women again following tradition) also wear a turban, as a head covering for their unshorn hair. Many Sikhs have not been baptized into the Khalsa fold, but do believe in Guru Gobind Singh's crowning and are striving to make that commitment. According to the Rehit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct), one must believe in the ten Gurus and have their aim at partaking in the Khande di Pahul (baptism into the Khalsa) ceremony in order to label themselves a Sikh.
But a uniform without the character or actions to back it up is meaningless. True recognition occurs if they are carrying out the mission of the Khalsa engaged in prayer, social service and the social activism, as defenders of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Everyday, committed Sikhs recite in their prayer by the tenth Nank, Guru Gobind Singh: "Saachh kahoon sun leyo sabbhe, jin prem keeyo thin hee prabh payeeo." - "Listen ye all, for I speak the Truth, only those who Love will experience God." So for a Sikh, Love conquers all!
The Sikhs by Patwant Singh, published by Alphred A. Knopf: New York, 2000
Some Insights into Sikhism by Sirdar Kapur Singh, published by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab, India, 1995
A Brief History of the Sikhs by Ganda Singh and Teja Singh, published by Punjabi University, Patiala, 1989.
On the web, visit http://www.sikhs.org