Sunday, 1 August 2010

Understanding Sikhism - I

Sikhism originated in the late-medieval period, a time-period dominated by reasoning, questioning the prevailing rituals, the rise of new schools of theology, the modification and even the rejection of the existing schools of thought and the development of a new understanding of religion, God, theology, spirituality and metaphysics. The Sikh school of theological thought has attracted a large number of critics and scholars, even given the fact that Sikhism as a religion has existed since such a short time-frame and that Sikhs are a microscopic minority even in the countries of the origin and early development of the Sikh thought, India and Pakistan. The Sikh way of life has found a large numbers of acceptors among all creeds, races, linguistic and ethnic groups of the world. This, basically, is due to the uniqueness and authenticity of the Sikh thought and its non-belonging to either the Abrahamic or the Eastern school of religion. The main aim of our present discussion shall be to equip ourselves with sufficient information and knowledge so as to attempt a better and deeper appreciation of the Sikh religion and theology.

Sikhism, as a word, has been derived from the word 'sikh', which, in turn has evolved from the Sanskrit root 'sikhya' meaning teaching or exposition. Before attempting a definition of the word 'Sikh', we shall trace the meaning of the word 'Guru' or the holy teacher, as translated into English. The word 'Guru' in Sanskrit means ‘superior’, ‘knowledgeable’ or more correctly 'perceptor'. The exposition of the Guru is known as the ‘Gurbani’, the voice of the Guru. A person who accepts the Guru as his holy teacher and guide is known as a ‘Sikh’ or a ‘Gursikh’. The relation of the Guru with the Sikh is more or less as that of a teacher with a student, of a father with a son, or the divine with the faithful. Now, let us consider the characteristics of the 'Sikh' as described in the Holy text of the Sikhs, The Guru Granth Sahib,

“One who calls himself a Sikh of the Guru, the True Guru, shall rise in the early morning hours and meditate on the Lord’s Name. Upon arising early in the morning, he is to bathe, and cleanse himself in the pool of nectar. Following the Instructions of the Guru, he is to chant the Name of the Lord. All sins, misdeeds and negativity shall be erased. Then, at the rising of the sun, he is to sing Gurbani, the teachings of the Guru; whether sitting down or standing up, he is to meditate on the Lord’s Name. One who meditates on my Lord, with every breath and every morsel of food — that Sikh becomes pleasing to the Guru’s Mind.” (Guru Granth Sahib, Page 305)

Sikhism, as an organized religious belief, accepts ten human Gurus and the present Guru of the Sikhs is the divine Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, paid the highest respect among the Sikh circles. The founder of Sikhism and the first Guru, Guru Nanak Dev (A.D. 1469-1539) himself describes the ‘Guru’ as the divine word and not the physical body,

“The Word, the Bani is Guru, and Guru is the Bani. Within the Bani, the Ambrosial Nectar is contained. If His humble servant believes, and acts according to the Words of the Guru’s Bani, then the Guru emancipates him.” (Page 982, Guru Granth Sahib)

The Sikh Gurus were known for giving new meanings to the words of religious usage, rather than coining new ones for impressing upon their ideas. This gave the theological force of their ideas a higher literary and practical merit. In this context, the word ‘Guru’ is no exception to the same. This is a unique concept; there is a specific continuity in the succession of Gurus. Among the Sikh circles, the various Gurus are not regarded as different beings, but the same divine light that worked in different physical bodies and finally culminated in the Guru Granth Sahib, the present Guru of the Sikhs and as regarded by others, the Holy text of the Sikhs. Consider, “The divine light was the same; the master simply changed the body” (Guru Granth Sahib, Page 966). There are many such metaphysical proofs from within the Guru Granth Sahib, but may not be described in detail in our present discussion so as to keep the subject matter from becoming voluminous. The point is that the Sikh is not a worshipper of the body; he/she is a worshipper of the word and that too, because the word is the only way of describing the Almighty and that too, not in totality, because the word in itself is a comparison with a known entity, and this is a serious limit to the description of the God. Let us understand this concept first. If we describe, say, “Mr. X is a tall person.” We mean that the said Mr. X is taller in height than the average human being. So, we are in a way comparing Mr. X with a known fact. Now let’s elaborate. Let’s say that, “The Universe is infinite”. So, we are remarking that the Universe is beyond delimitation and complete description by the human mind. So, to say ‘infinite’ is an acceptance that the same ‘cannot be reduced to finite terms’; to say ‘countless’ is an acceptance that the same ‘cannot be counted’. Similarly, the words commonly used to describe God, cannot be thought as adjectives of description, they are merely connotations, and so, no single ‘Word’ can fully describe the God. The conclusion the reader must draw is that the Guru Granth Sahib is devoted to the description of the entity that represents God, and the knowledge that the reader must possess is that the God cannot be fully known, it is only in the higher state of mind that the faithful can understand the Lord, and the study of Guru Granth Sahib is aimed at achieving that very state of mental and physical self. In fully understanding the Lord is to merge with him, that your will become the will of the Lord and your words and actions, those of Lord himself,

“As the Word of the Forgiving Lord comes to me, so do I express it” (Guru Granth Sahib, Page 722)
“I don’t say anything at my own; I utter whatever I am ordained by him to say” (Guru Granth Sahib, Page 421)

Let us now learn about the history, development of the Guru Granth Sahib, which shall be done in brief, and not to deviate from our topic, which is not history but metaphysics. The Guru Granth Sahib war originally written in Gurmukhi script, and contains words from over 16 languages, all in their perfect sense. The interesting point is that, the languages and diction used in the Guru Granth Sahib do not belong to the upper priest class, but to the common folk, so that it may be understood and imbibed by the common man. In all, Guru Granth Sahib has the contributions, of 5 Sikh Gurus (Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Angad Dev, Guru Amardas, Guru Ramdas, Guru Arjun Dev, and Guru Teg Bahadur), 15 Bhagats (Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Trilochan, Farid, Beni, Dhanna, Jaidev, Bhikhan, Parmanand, Sain, Pipa, Sadhna, Ramanand and Surdas), 11 Bhatts (Kalsahar, Jalap, Kirat, Bhikha, Salh, Bhalh, Nalh, Balh, Gayand, Mathura and Haribans) and 3 Gursikhs (Satta, Balwand and Sundar). A unique type of grammar has been used and the hymns have been bound in 31 musical measures or Raagas, all in a unique series to make the whole system foolproof enough to prevent any tempering or modification in the original text. Moreover, the compositions included in Guru Granth Sahib are first-hand accounts by the original compositors and were bound and drafted in a single volume be the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun Dev, and later by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh himself bestowed the title of Guru upon Guru Granth Sahib in front of the sikh community. History describes the words spoken by Guru Gobind Singh on the occasion as:

“So does the Holy Lord ordain,
The Word is Master now-
The song of the name, the Guru Granth Sahib,
All faithful should seek the Master in his Word,
And bow to Guru Granth Sahib as my successor.”

This is the fact that constitutes a high merit for the Guru Granth Sahib. Mr. Max Arthur Macauliffe, a noted British historian, views thus,

“The Sikh religion differs as regarding the authenticity of its dogmas from most other theological systems. Many of the great teachers the world has known, have not left a line of their own composition and we only know what they taught through tradition or second-hand information. If Pythagoras wrote of his tenets, his writings have not descended to us. We know the teachings of Socrates only through the writings of Plato and Xenophanes. Buddha has left no written memorial of his teachings. Kungfu-tze, known to Europeans as Confucius, left no documents in which he detailed the principles of his moral and social systems. The founder of Christianity did not reduce his doctrines to writing and for them we are obliged to trust the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Arabian Prophet did not himself reduce to writing the chapters of the Quran. They were written or compiled by his adherents or followers. But the compositions of the Sikh Gurus are preserved and we know at first hand of what they taught.”

Now, let’s view the literary merit of Guru Granth Sahib before signing off this section of discussion. The whole draft of Guru Granth sahib is in verse form of the highest order, bound in musical measures or ragas, which can be sung rhythmically. The verses touch the human heart and help an individual to tread the holy spiritual path for the realization of God. The Guru Granth Sahib advocates the complete and natural equality of women with men in every sphere of life. It is also the first scripture in the world to exhort the rulers, kings, monarchs etc. to be democratic, secular, just and humble and has a pleading for global justice and dismisses shibboleth. The Guru Granth Sahib also tackles the problem where most of the scriptures have let down, the conflict with Science. Although the Granth may not be considered a scientific text, and neither the Gurus nor their followers have made any such claim, The Granth is never in conflict with Science or any of its principles. In some elements the Guru Granth Sahib has even supported the present human scientific understanding on the Big bang, Evolution, Properties of matter, Human psychology et al. Not consuming much space, we end this section of discussion in which we had a brief introduction of Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib, promising to meet again and discuss the theory of Sikhism in more detail in the subsequent sections. I would like to leave the readers with the following quote by Ms Pearl S. Buck, a Nobel laureate,

“Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a source book, an expression of man’s aspirations, his longings, his yearnings for communication with the Divine Being. I have studied the scriptures of other great religions, but I do not find elsewhere the same power of appeal to the heart and mind as I find here in theses volumes. They are compact in spite of their length and are revelation of the vast reach of the human heart – varying from the most noble conception of God, to the recognition and indeed the insistence upon the practical need of human body. They speak to a person of any religion or of none.”

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