“The age is like a knife. Kings are butchers, religion hath taken wings and flown. In the dark night of falsehood I cannot see where the moon of truth is rising” (Guru Nanak).
Every religious movement starts with a view to fill the gaps in the existing faiths and is shaped and bears resemblance to the past. Sikhism was born out of the belief systems of the then prevalent Hinduism, Islam and Christianity to a certain extent. Hinduism was the main religion of India during the fifteenth century and Islam, the religion of the invading armies was fast taking root while Christianity was confined to certain pockets of India. Hinduism has three basic aspects: a large number of gods and goddesses with their legendary tales; the social order implemented through the cast system and its philosophical thought enshrined in poems in the Sanskrit language classics. The main point was its spiritual texts contained in Vedas to provide spiritual insight; the Upnishads for philosophical thought and justification and the Epics to give the ethical concepts of behavior by the masses. The large number of gods and the strict segregation of castes causing social and financial degradation of many was a heady mix with dormant anger was crying for a change.
Into this large country with different languages, vast mineral and artisan resources with different gods being worshipped as idols came in the two religions totally against any form of idolatrous practices- Islam and Christianity. Christianity was preached by Apostle Thomas and Islam by various traders reaching from Arabia for business but these remained constrained to the coastal regions only for a long time. The invading armies from the seventh century onwards caused resistance to Islam and later it proliferated through use of force.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion was born in 1469 in North West Punjab about forty miles from Lahore. In the past eight centuries the effect of the other religions had created a new Sufi saint tradition and Guru Nanak was attracted towards this from early childhood. Despite various attempts by His father he preferred to indulge in singing praises to God and a Muslim musician Mardana was his companion. Guru Nanak travelled far and wide from all over India to present day Bangla Desh and even up to Mecca to study the religious practices of all religions including Hinduism. After his return he, as per legend, disappeared for three days and then preached the first verse of the Adi Granth (The Holy Book Of Sikhism) in praise of the Creator, which states- “There is one God; He is the supreme truth; He is the creator; Is without fear and without hate; He the Omnipresent pervades the universe; He is not born; nor does He die to be born again; by His grace shalt thou worship Him. Before time itself there was truth; when time began to run its course He was the truth; even now He is the truth and evermore shall truth prevail”.
Teachings of Guru Nanak – Among the pantheon of Hindu gods Guru Nanak preached monotheism- the concept of one God who is without form. The second major concept in line with the Sufi school of thought was the institution of guru, a spiritual mentor who formed a pivot of the religion. The guru was to be respected with the status of a guide and a teacher but not god and was not to be worshipped and he referred to himself as a servant of God. This was followed by all gurus and the tenth guru declaring that “I am a servant of God, here to witness the drama of life on the earth”. The teachings of the gurus are recorded in hymn form set on various musical ragas as the Psalms in the Bible. The principles of faith enunciated by him are:
- Purity of life in a sinful world – The Hindu religion considered ascetic isolation and living a life separated from the worldly pleasures essential to meditate and reach God. Guru Nanak did not ascribe to this view and his idea was to live the life of an ascetic while living in the world performing all social responsibilities. He preached the path of achieving enlightenment in civic life.
- Casteless society –India during that era was divided by a well entrenched religiously established caste system where the division was as per the tasks performed by the individual. A group working as scavengers and such menial works was totally segregated and looked down upon. Even the advantage of education, which was religious texts reading and meditation, was also denied to them. Guru Nanak not only preach this but took practical steps to eradicate this through institution of the community kitchen and partaking of food together by all castes sitting together on the floor. He preached “Once we say: This is pure, this unclean, see that in all things there is life unseen” (Asa di var).
- Meditation and self discipline for salvation –Hinduism practiced three alternative paths to salvation- of action (Karam); of knowledge (gyan) and of devotion (bhakti). Guru Nanak did not deviate much from this but advocated the path of Nam and Sehaj implying meditation and self discipline to obtain salvation. He preached “Words alone do not the saint or sinner make, action alone is written in the book of fate, what we sow that alone we take, O Nanak, be saved or forever transmigrate” (Japji). His mantra to conquer self or ego is repeated recitation of nam (his writings found in the religious book) to achieve a state of divine bliss through stillness of the wandering mind. From this state attain super-conscious stillness (divya drishti) which will open the tenth gate of the body to receive the vision of God. He advocated triumph of human will over fate and predestination. Self discipline, as per him, was necessary for each individual and not a life of penance or an ascetic and this could only be achieved by all through self effort alone. His teachings recorded in poetry, form the basis of religious texts to which other Gurus added.
Guru Nanak lived and preached the living of a saintly life while performing all worldly duties of family and social life. The other eight Gurus that followed him adopted a similar life style and the ninth Guru offered to die for the preservation of faith of the Hindu priests (pundits) hailing from Kashmir and was executed in Delhi by the Muslim rulers of that time on 11 November,1675, about 136 years after Guru Nanak anointed the second Guru in 1539. Till this time the Sikh faith was one of peaceful living with no specific identification or symbols to attain a different recognition separate from the Hindus. The tenth Guru changed this in 1699 by starting a separate baptismal ceremony where water sweetened with sugar flakes (Patasha) was prepared as sacred water through recitation of the five books from the Sikh Scriptures contained in the Adi Granth. Guru Gobind, the tenth Guru, redefined the life of a Sikh to be of a saint soldier to be prepared for fighting for his rights as well as for truth.
Symbols of Sikh Faith – With this change the external appearance of a Sikh was also specified and he was to wear five symbols of his faith where each symbol represented a particular aspect of life and a Sikh to be a Khalsa- the pure one. These symbols of dress give the Sikhs a different identity different from the Hindus and Muslims and carry deep ideological, social and spiritual meaning.
- Kesh or long hair – Long untrimmed hair symbolize holiness and strength and a Sikh is directed to wear his hair long as an act of submission to God through retaining of the original form created by Him. The hairs are covered by a turban which was worn by the kings and priests and the combined effect is to display a different elitist persona.
- Kara or a steel bracelet – This bracelet represents God with no beginning or end and is a symbol of restraint and gentleness. On the one hand it is a reminder to each Sikh that he is a part of the large chain while on the other it reminds him/her of holiness of action. Since it is not an ornament it is made of steel.
- Kangha or a wooden comb – It is used to keep the hair tidy and represents purity and cleanness of thought and the God gifted body which is a vessel for obtaining enlightenment and worshipping God.
- Kachehara or a special underwear – Holy and chaste living is considered by a Sikh to be essential for salvation and this long underwear reaching up to the knees, symbolizes that. It was suitable for horse riding and warfare and suited to the life of the Sikhs during that period.
- Kirpan or a ceremonial sword – The change of a Sikh’s life style from a saint to saint- soldier necessitated the introduction of a weapon, the sword. The sword at that time was carried by the royalty and soldiers only and it represents the spiritual and actual fight of good over evil. It is to be used for self defense, defense of the weak and to end injustice.
The Sikh religion emphasizes truthful living to be above truth also (Sach upar sach aachar) and the symbols of faith represent truthful living to be an essential part of life as meditation is. Sikh religion is based on the essential three pillars of – kirat karo, nam japo and wand chhako (work, worship and giving in charity) Tithing is an important part of Sikh faith.
The concept of a Guru – Before the advent of Sikhism the Sufi doctrine advocated the need of a mentor for each individual. Guru Nanak made this the pivot of the Sikh religion preaching the necessity of a guru for salvation. A guru is supposed to be a mentor and a guide to help lead his disciples a holy life. Guru Nanak described himself as a teacher and not god and advised consultation and respect for the guru but no worship of the guru. He neither accepted such worship nor allowed it by calling himself as a servant of God. The tenth guru ended the chain of living gurus and commanded all Sikhs to accept the Adi Granth as a guru after him.
Many other religions consider the guru to be liable to falter being a human being. In addition he is bound by the limits of presence and a guide or a teacher who can be ever present with man is considered essential. Lord Jesus Christ promised a guide and a helper from God and that this helper would dwell within man. The Holy Spirit living in man reveals God to man one the one end while urging and leading him to a sinless life on the other. The Bible preaches seeking of God’s help to live a holy life for it is is not possible for man to achieve this on his own. God is a Spirit and can only be worshipped and reached by the spirit of man under the leading of God’s Spirit.