Reposting this piece by @JuggadiJatt, originally published on his blog, The Sikh Mindset:
It is a wonderful (if not sad) coincidence that on the day before I finished writing this post, Nikki Hailey came out with her statement about Sikhi “acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God”. If that doesn’t justify an article of this nature being written, I don’t know what does. Unfortunately, Hailey’s blunder is but the latest in a long line of misconceptions held about the Sikh faith, many of which belong to Sikhs themselves. The community’s meteoric transformation from a rural South Asian demographic into a global entity has brought with it a whole host of novel challenges, the root of all stemming from the difficulty in navigating a Western conceptual framework of ‘religion’ with the realization that Sikhi is wholly unsuited for that category.
I felt writing this that each paragraph topic could have an essay dedicated entirely to itself. I don’t think this is an exhaustive look at how Sikhi differs from Abrahamic theology in any way, but hopefully it can be a start. Unlike most content of this variety this is not an academic journal entry written for scholars so should hopefully be able to resonate with and speak to normal people. If it becomes a reference point for future discussion on the matter, helps just one person see things differently or even just acts as a link-able piece when misinformation about our faith sprouts up in the future, this write-up will have fulfilled its purpose.
The Western World has been the dominant civilizational force on the globe for much of the past 500 years, and its hegemonic power is demonstrated in full force through the Sikhs it has been responsible for producing. The erosion of traditional Sikh theological context is evident when speaking with young Sikhs born and brought up in nations from the Americas to Europe and Australia. The internet is awash with questions about why bad things happen if God is good, comments indicating disbelief in God and concerns that “religion,” including Sikhi, “is hopelessly outdated in modern times”. Though perhaps all fair game, the lack of any semblance of historical Gurmat framework in which these queries are rooted is strikingly noticeable.
When we think of globalisation our brains tend to focus on intercontinental communication at the click of a button, migration patterns giving rise to diverse nation-states and visits to exotic lands nothing but a day’s air travel away. What we often overlook is the impact of the cultural, social and ideological shifts taking place as a result of our planet being connected like never before. In the space of 50 years, our very understanding of our faith has transformed to such an extent that it may be almost completely unrecognizable to previous generations.
In this post I want to devote a bit of effort aimed at addressing the problem. And while I am aware this is too complex an issue to resolve completely here, I hope I can at least offer a starting point towards doing so. It is my belief that Sikhi is too important a way of thought with far too much spiritual value to offer to allow the tides of time to dilute it beyond recognition.
Every coherent worldview is predicated on a conceptual pillar that acts as the bedrock for the rest of the ideological milieu. About 300 years after Christ, the West had its. Shortly following the adoption of Christianity as the empire’s official religion, the Roman Emperor Constantine I called a group of Christian bishops to convene in the Bithynian city of Nicaea. These Church leaders, forming the ‘Council of Nicaea’, considered the identity of Christ as he relates to God- was Jesus equal to ‘The Father’, or something else? The conclusion put forth at the end of the deliberation was the concept of the Trinity, which has since been the beating heart of mainstream Christianity. While the empire itself may have gone on to fall a century later, its decision to elevate Christianity to official religion status meant that the fledgling Western civilization beginning to take shape in the shadow of Rome’s remnants would have relatively no doubts as to the identity of its faith, nor to the status of the Trinity as that faith’s cornerstone.
None of this is intended to be religious studies lecture. Quite the contrary, it’s a history lesson. The aforementioned events took place in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Guru Nanak Dev ji was born in 1469, over a thousand years later. This is more than enough time for Christian leaders to parse out their doctrine and for it to disperse across the known world. Given the Guru’s lengthy travels, he must’ve been acutely aware of the long-standing legacy left behind by the Council of Nicaea. Islam, the other major Abrahamic monotheism, developed partly to provide a theological response to the Trinity (while still retaining fundamental classic beliefs on God’s relation to the mortal realm- discussed later), expressed contemporarily as the concept of ‘Tawheed’. The Guru during his travels throughout the religious centers of the Islamic world and proximity to Muslims from a young age would naturally be aware of both sets of religious ideas, and with Sikhi’s divergence from Islamic thought already well recorded, it’s worth pointing out that there’s evidence within the Guru Granth Sahib ji of the Gurus being familiar with Biblical thought as well.
Very early on in the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, at Pauri 22 of the Japji Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev ji says “sahas athārah kahan katēbā asulū ik dhāt”. The “katēbā” being spoken of here are the Jewish books which mention “sahas athārah” (18,000) worlds in existence. Judaism is of course the predecessor to Christianity and Islam, and the scripture being referenced here is the Talmud, a collection of discussions and commentaries on the contents of the Torah (which makes up the first part of the Bible, the second part being the New Testament of the Christians) and how best the Jewish people can apply its teachings to their lives. The Talmud mentions 18,000 physical planets, and Guru Sahib brings this to light in a section of the Japji Sahib which explores what the great religions have to say about cosmology. In other words, not only did the Guru have extensive knowledge of primary Biblical teachings, but to top it off he was conscious of the Bible’s supporting axillary literature, such was the extent of his study.
Then where does this all lead? What exactly is the point of all these historical and theological loose ends? Why bring up the Trinity, its adoption by the Roman Empire and the Gurus examination of Biblical thought in Gurbani? Well, there’s a few reasons. The basic unifying message is this: the bedrock of Western civilization’s eventual religious philosophy began to arguably take shape some time in the 4th century. The development of the Trinity gave Christians their conception of “what God is like…[provided a] central element of Christian identity…[and] steers humanity away from wrong ideas of God”, among other benefits. From this central axiom and its emergent principles (God’s properties, a binding group-identity and a litmus test to identify hereticism), Christian leaders over the centuries were able to logically deduce conclusions ranging from the nature of this one true God, the manner in which one may establish a relationship with Him as well as the post-life fate of non-believers. And not only were the Gurus aware of this theological solidification, but they reflected on it greatly throughout the angs of the Guru Granth Sahib ji. In other words, while we grapple with the West’s domination over the religious context countless Sikhs find themselves operating in these days, it’s worth remembering that much of the remedy for this faulty conceptual framework- perhaps the very antidote altogether- can be found within the pages of our eternal Guru, if searched with a bit of forethought.
It will come as no surprise to any that the Gurus disagreed with large sections of what Christian scholars and clergy produced with regards to the prior topics (more on this later). But as a number of influential thinkers note, “we may be in the midst of the discovery that the only thing worse than religion is its absence.” Speaking on the matter of religion’s role in historic wrongdoings, many observers argue that while faith has been used to justify the excesses of ruling elite and frenzied mobs on any number of occasions, these traditions have provided the sole truly successful super-structure to date capable of facilitating the progress of humanity from tribal societies to advanced civilizations. Therefore, the argument goes, even if one does not agree with the religious doctrines underpinning our nations, we must exercise caution before tearing out the foundations of that religious substratum, for in the absence of an overarching mythological umbrella, the resulting void may be something far more terrible than anything imaginable.
So what about the Gurus? Often characterized as mere social reformers even by some Sikhs today, were they solely evaluating the systematic arrangement of power in society, highlighting abuse perpetrated by spiritual charlatans and voicing concern over potential oppression emanating from the ideas presented in pre-existing religious texts? If so, the previous critique may apply to them, and they could theoretically be dismissed as unproductively judgemental. “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is,” after all, “called whining”. A damning indictment if there ever were one. Thankfully that is not who the Gurus were, and certainly not what they were doing. While they were quick to shed light on the perpetuation of sins around them and not shy in bringing attention to the role scripture played in abetting many of those misdeeds, the Gurus always offered considered resolutions for the issues at hand. At the core of these was their central philosophical principle, ੴ.
I believe the solution to the West’s hegemony as our religious point of reference has been staring at us right in the face all along- multiple times a day too, considering ੴ (‘Ik Onkar’) is read in multiple compositions during each of the allocated Sikh prayer periods. It was always going to take something special to challenge the European and Middle Eastern theological pillars of Trinity and Tawheed, but Guru Nanak Dev ji did not hesitate when he presented ੴ at the very beginning of the first line on the first ang of Guru Granth Sahib ji. ੴ may rightly be viewed as the seed of Sikhi. When watered, it gives rise to the Mool Mantar, the roots of Sikhi. As these are nurtured, they lead to the Japji Sahib, the trunk of Sikhi. Often called the theological summary of the Sikh faith, Japji Sahib produces the rest of Guru Granth Sahib ji- the branches, leaves and fruit of Sikhi. Many Gursikhs thus suggest that the key to understanding Sikhi lays in ੴ, and one who understands ੴ can lay claim to grasping the heartbeat of the faith.
Remember what we talked about before; every coherent worldview is predicated on a conceptual pillar that acts as the bedrock for the rest of the philosophy. ੴ lays out the spiritual foundation of Sikhi: that there is but One Supreme Essence, flowing through every inch of our reality – from the atom, to the collective universe and beyond. Perhaps this is why Sikh scripture itself states “One who sees that Light within each and every heart understands the Essence of the Guru’s Teachings ||4||”. By analyzing what ੴ entails for our perspective on other faiths, other people and the Divine Being Itself, it becomes relatively straightforward why the chasm between the Gurmat and Western perspectives exists. We also begin to realize that pigeon-holing Sikhi as a religion in the Western sense may not be the most appropriate manner of viewing the faith.
As stated earlier, the advent of the Trinity allowed Christians to situate themselves around a core principle and kick-started the process of higher level theological discussions. Among these were questions of God’s attributes, exclusivity/the status of those who don’t follow Christ and a solid position on the afterlife. The culture birthed from this millennia-long reasoning posits the Divine as distinct from the universe. God is often granted ontological separation with the cosmos, a fancy way of saying He (using the Christian pronoun) is different to what He has created. In this ‘Classical Theist’ view, then, the Ultimate Reality constructs a temporary realm of existence removed from Divinity wherein all of us live out our lives. God then sends Jesus as humanity’s saviour to lead them to heaven, an eternal resting place once the finite world comes to an end. Because of Jesus’ position as the Son in the Trinity he *is* God Himself, which obliges mankind to accept the truth of his message. Christian belief plainly holds Jesus as the sole channel for souls to enter heaven, and failing to acknowledge Jesus’ personhood and significance is enough to warrant one’s place in hell. No qualification is made here- your status as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person has no bearing on where you end up. Without faith in Jesus as saviour, the life-saving doctor, life-long philanthropist and normal, decent human being join the mass-murderer in eternal damnation.
ੴ AND TRINITY
The Gurus, who were without doubt familiar with this religious construct, tear through it in its totality. Beginning from the root of the matter, Gurbani emphatically states that “The Creation is in the Creator, and the Creator is in the Creation, totally pervading and permeating all places. ||1||Pause||”. This is in stark contrast to the Classical Theism of Church pillars such as Sir Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine of Hippo, where God is decidedly stationed outside the mortal dimension. The Guru Granth Sahib ji flips this notion on its head. For the ten individuals from Nanak Dev to Gobind Singh and the array of Bhagats (devotees) found throughout the covers of Sikh scripture, God is not a foreign entity to be believed in and met after death, but an unquestionable, ever-present Being to realize, experience and merge with in this life on earth. “Why do you wander from jungle to jungle, crashing through the thorny trees?” asks Baba Fareed. “The Lord abides in the heart; why are you looking for Him in the jungle? ||19||” Navigating the challenges of life can be like finding your way out of a forest; you don’t always know which direction to go, there is much to be wary of and the endlessness of the present situation is often disorienting. The Guru, however, exists to drown out the feeling of perplexity, rid us of anxiety and illuminate the path to God. As far as meeting the Lord is concerned, it is an entirely internal process. Worship services, punishing austerity, ceaseless ritualism and displays of purity- none of these compare to enshrining Love for Waheguru, the Wondrous Enlightener, in our hearts.
The Guru Granth Sahib ji is not a book of rules and regulations. It is not bothered by political theory, nor does it attempt to infringe on scientific exploration. It has no desire to micromanage every aspect of our lives, let alone use fear to establish that control. It is 1430 pages of musical poetry of the highest order, uplifting the human consciousness, composed to be sung with accompanying instruments. It sheds light on the stories of the Gurus and their contemporaries, highlighting the individual sorrows, fears, hopes and aspirations experienced on their personal journeys as they reached the spiritual summit of realizing and becoming one with Waheguru. Fundamentally, the Guru Granth Sahib ji is an autobiography of fellow travellers who have walked on the Path of the Saints before us and are now lighting the path and showing us the way as we attempt to do the same.
To realize the Creator, then, one must see the Divine as the Guru did- “Nanak sees the Supreme Lord God pervading everywhere. ||4||81||150||”. But there are obstacles in the way, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. While the previously quoted line underscores the Guru’s vision of the Ultimate Reality, the one right before mentions the hurdles to spiritual realization. “Pride, emotional attachment and superstition” must be dispelled before Love for Waheguru comes to reside in the heart, and tellingly they also represent the boundary between the two views of God we have discussed in this article. There is a certain amount of pride associated with seeing oneself as a member of a special group which has exclusive access to the Divine. To perceive yourself and your co-religionists as the only recipients of God’s Word, lone beneficiaries of God’s Love and eventually, the sole inhabitants of the Lord’s carefully crafted Paradise not only elevates one’s own sense of importance, but provides an emotional dimension as well. It feels good to have this grandeur attached to yourself, you can derive a level of reassurance in knowing God is on your side, not the other; the promise of eternal comforts while those who doubted you receive punishment may be the greatest superstition of all time, but a large ego-stroke nonetheless. It is easy to see why all of this may be an attractive proposition.
But the Gurus did not exist to tell people what they want to hear- they existed to tell the truth. And the truth is, any comfort attached to this view is as fleeting as the offer of alcohol to the drunk. The destructiveness (wars fought over whose religion is right), the poison (allowing people to go their whole lives living under the crushing fear of hellfire for acting like normal human beings) and ultimately, the unsustainability (the decrease in the West’s religiosity as individuals search for faith congruent with scientific discovery and healthy spirituality) of this theological doctrine tell the whole story. It is perhaps for this reason the metaphor of intoxication is a reoccurring theme in Gurbani, with the Gurus making ample use of it when attempting to explain the perils of this dogma. Intoxicated with ego and self-conceit, you are deceived into believing your superiority complex will provide reassurance and grandeur forevermore; it is but an illusion, and spiritual ignorance leads you down the path of perpetual pain and destruction.
Everything in Sikhi weaves together at this node. The Guru Granth Sahib ji calls on the reader to begin the process of experiencing the Lord in this life- there is absolutely no need to have blind faith in a paradise after death. But that experience itself is predicated on the massive conceptual shift which occurs when one truthfully accepts ੴ with all its implications, the biggest one being “O my mind, you are the embodiment of the Divine Light – recognize your own origin”. Every single one of us, from the richest to poorest and youngest to oldest, regardless of sex, race, color or orientation, contains a portion of the Divine Spark. And just as friction allows wood to generate fire, the Guru’s Teachings fan the Spark until you are filled with the Flame of God’s Love and radiate the Lord’s Light through your very existence. No artificial construct or biological boundary prevents one from achieving this realization. Sikhi gifts an individual the highest form of dignity– the knowledge that we are intrinsically connected to the Lord, and through Gurbani we merge back like waves into the ocean. When that happens, lasting peace is truly achieved. “I am filled with bliss, and all my pains have been taken away. All my suffering has been dispelled. ||2||”.
There are no threats, no hatred nor blackmail. You will not be consigned to an eternity of torture in the hereafter if you disbelieve, disagree or die without having called yourself a Sikh. No misery will be wished upon you, and you are certainly not seen as an enemy; multiple times a day in Gurdwaras across the world, Sikhs pray for the well-being of every soul (Sarbat Da Bhala). And, well, the Guru’s words speak for themselves: “I am not called good, and I see none who are bad. O Nanak, one who conquers and subdues his ego, becomes just like the True Lord. ||8||2||10||”. The American Sikh Yogis have a pertinent saying- “if you can’t see God in all, then you can’t see God at all”. But when you do see God in all, you can truthfully say that “No one is my enemy, and I am no one’s enemy. God, who expanded His expanse, is within all; I learned this from the True Guru. ||2||”.
Sikhi is not a religion of fear motivated by terror at the thought of hell. It is a path of love for God, love for the Guru and love for humankind. “If you desire to play this game of love with Me,” says the Guru, “then step onto My Path with your head in hand”. This attitude is reflected in everything from the Sikh position on exclusivity, missionary work and our eventual fate. Maya (the material realm) is but a momentary dream, and Waheguru alone is the unchanging Truth- there is nothing else at all. Neither a sole religion, individual or scripture can ever lay claim to being the exclusive intermediary between God and mortal, for the way to the Lord is through searching your own heart, and no one can prevent you from doing so. There is thus no missionary work as conventionally understood in Sikhi, but a call for humanity to shed emotional attachment to a transient world, pride in artificial social status and the ego of limiting ourselves to fleeting physical bodies in order to recognize our true identity as manifestations of Waheguru’s Divine Light. For those who may not be able to do so in this existence, there is no cauldron of flames awaiting. “O Nanak, our Lord and Master is merciful forever. ||49||”. Countless mistakes are forgiven in an instant and there is always an opportunity to learn life’s lessons again, such is the mercy of the Infinite, Supreme Waheguru.
Much needs to be addressed before our severe inadequacies pertaining to Sikhi in the 21st century West can be rectified. Practically speaking, developing a rigorous exegesis of ੴ, which is intelligible in our new cultural milieu, is likely to be key. However there is reason to be optimistic, and many areas of discourse to take inspiration from. The Sikh message of Ik Oankar, of this Oneness permeating and pervading through every inch of the cosmos and Waheguru as the singular permanence underscoring our illusory reality is so fundamental to the human spirit that we see it expressed across time, geography and societies repeatedly. Relevant to our objectives we can turn to Alan Watts, the British writer who pioneered the popularization of Eastern philosophy in the West, for the first glimpses of the potential there is to work with. His lectures, dispersed across Youtube and other video-hosting sites, have become wildly popular for presenting an outlook on life and the world far more attractive, progressive and healthy than the standard version informed by classical theism over the past two thousand years. His talk on “the real you”, wherein he explains human identity at the deepest layer, comes across as if he were reading straight from the Guru Granth Sahib ji. “What you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something the whole ocean is doing. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around. The real deep down you is the whole universe…everybody is I, you all know you’re you, and wheresoever beings exist across all galaxies- it doesn’t make any difference- you are all of them, and when they come into being that’s you coming into being…”.
Sound familiar? Of course there are differences in terminology and analogy, but the underlying messages are in synchrony. As he states near the end of another popular lecture, “If you awaken from this illusion, and you understand that ‘black’ implies ‘white’, ‘self’ implies ‘other’, ‘life’ implies ‘death’ (or shall I say ‘death’ implies ‘life’), you can feel yourself- not as a stranger in the world, not as something here on probation, not as something that has arrived here by fluke – but you can begin to feel your own existence as absolutely fundamental…. So in this idea then everybody is fundamentally the ultimate reality, not ‘God’ in an [Abrahamic] politically-kingly sense, but ‘God’ in the sense of being the self, the deep-down basic whatever-there-is, and you’re ALL That! Only you’re pretending you’re not.” I’d argue that this is about as close to a summary of Gurbani’s teachings on the mortal-God relationship as exists in the English language and it along with his other speeches branching out from the same theme have generated hundreds of millions of views across digital medium. There is perhaps no greater cue that the world is crying out for the inspiring spirituality Gurmat provides, and a reminder that even centuries later, Bhai Gurdas Ji’s Vaaran still apply- “The benefactor Lord listened to the cries (of humanity) and sent Guru Nanak to this world.”
Sikhi is a truly unique gift to the world, encompassing a philosophical and spiritual breadth far beyond the conventional religious mould. But the transition into a global Quom has presented novel challenges which will require creative solutions. This century, the Panth grapples with the question of how to explain, without compromise, the profound tradition the Gurus have left us. And as we attempt to do so against the backdrop of Western hegemony, it’s worth remembering that this monumental task is far from a lost cause. After all, for all his massive cultural impact over the decades, even Watts’ contribution to a conceptual shift in the minds of people searching for God is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a process which is thoroughly underway, and Sikhs must do justice to their inheritance by recognizing Sikhi as the revolutionary belief it is before taking a place at the forefront of this movement. Perhaps only then will our future generations exchange concern over belief in God with curiosity for the experience of Waheguru.