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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 26

Religious Tolerance in Sikhism

Tuesday 19 June 2007, by K S Duggal

There are not a few who believe that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, never intended to found a new religion. Essentially a man of God, he wanted the Hindus of his time to be good Hindus and the Muslims to be good Muslims, urging them to live in peace and harmony in the ambience of religious tolerance. Were a proof needed, it is provided in the fact that when he passed away, the Hindus wanted to cremate him and the Muslims insisted on giving him a burial. His incipient utterance—there is no Hindu; there is no Muslim (all are human beings)—immediately after his enlightenment confirms it.

What is termed as religious tolerance is fundamental to the creed Guru Nanak expostulated. It is reflected in his person most vividly. Born in a -Muslim majority region, Bedi by caste, devoted to Vedic studies, he came to be known as—
- Baba Nanak Shah faqir
- Hindu ka Guru
- Musalman ka Peer.
- [Guru Nanak, the Super Seer,
- A Guru of the Hindu
- And of Muslim, a Peer.]

After his own sister Bebe Nanki, the earliest follower who glimpsed the divine in Guru Nanak was the village chief, Rai Bular, a Muslim. For his constant companion, he had Mardana, a Muslim bard. While he went on pilgrimage to Hardwar, the distance and the travail of travelling in those times did not deter him from undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina to pay his homage in the manner of a devout Muslim. It is said during his pilgrimage to the Muslim shrines, he dressed himself in blue, like a Muslim pilgrim. He had no reservation in joining the Qazi and the Muslim Nawab when invited to offer Muslim prayers provided their heart was in it. At Mecca, when said to have been asked who, in his opinion, was better, a Hindu or a Muslim, Guru Nanak’s reply was—without enlightenment both are misled.

No wonder Sikhism, the faith Guru Nanak is said to espouse, is marked for tolerance in the comity of world religions.

The fundamental postulate of Sikhism enshrines the essence of all the living creeds:

- There is but one God.
- Truth Incarnate.
- The Master Creator.
- Unafraid.
- Disdains none.
- Image Eternal.
- Beyond Incarnation.
- Self-existent, True.
- Realised through the grace of the Guru.

Times were out of joint when Guru Nanak appeared on the scene. India was repeatedly being invaded from the north-west ever since the 12th century. The periodic incursions had utterly demoralised the Indian people, more especially in the north. In Guru Nanak we have a visionary who realised this and helped put an end to this menace. Together with the practitioners of the Sufi-cult he brought home this fact to the Muslims of India that the invaders did not distinguish between the Hindus and Muslims when they attacked in hordes. He inculcated secularism and patriotism amongst the Muslims as much as in the Hindus. While talking about the foreign onslaughts, not once does he condemn the Muslims as such, it is the Turks, Mughals and Afghans he deplores. He made the Indian Muslims realise that they were Indian first and Muslim later. Said Guru Nanak:

- Ander pooja padhi kitaban
- Saiyam Turkan bhai

- (Covert you do pooja and read Islamic holy books
- And live the Turkish way of life!]

Guru Nanak satirised both the Hindus and Muslims alike.
No wonder that Babar’s attack in Guru Nanak’s times was the last incursion from the north-west. The Mughals made India their home and came to settle in the land of their dream.

It is said that during his pilgrimage to the holy shrine in Mecca, Guru Nanak, who had undergone an arduous journey, fell asleep no sooner than he arrived at his destination. Heedless, he was fast asleep with his feet towards the sacred Kaaba when the security guard while taking his round during the night was scandalised and shouted: “Who is it sleeping with his feet towards the House of God?” Guru Nanak, who was greatly exhausted and was still in his slumber, replied: “Brother, I am much too tired, pray turn my feet in the direction where God is not.” Hearing this the security guard who had already picked Guru Nanak’s feet to correct them found himself in a whirl—where God is not! Where God is not!! Where God is not!!! He was awakened as if. He had lifted Guru Nanak’s legs to turn them around; instead his head fell on his feet and it is said he washed them with his tears.

SIMILARLY Guru Nanak went to the Holy shrine of Lord Jagannath at Puri. Finding the ceremonial rituals merely a mechanical exercise, he withdrew and, sitting in a corner, a little distance from the shrine, articulated his arti of the Lord, his companion Mardana playing on the Rabab.

- The sky is the platter,
- The sun and the moon are the candles,
- And the constellation of stars, pearls in showers.
- The sandalwood fragrance is the incense,
- The wind is the flywhisk
- And all the forests Your flowers.
- What a wonderful arati it is!
- Oh, You the Terminator of life’s train!
- The melody of Your Name is an unending strain. (1) Refrain

- You have a thousand eyes and yet not one eye.
- You have a thousand forms and yet not one form.
- You have a thousand unsoiled feet and not one unsoiled foot.
- You have a thousand noses and yet not one nose.
- I remain in charm!
- The light that enlightens everyone is His light.
- His refulgence turns everyone bright.
- By the Guru’s grace the truth appears in sight.
- Such an arati pleases my Lord, the Guide. (3)

- I hunger for the fragrance of Your lotus feet day and night
- O Lord! Grant a drop of water of Your grace
- To Nanak the thirsty bird.
- In Your Name he finds eternal solace.

It was exactly what Guru Nanak had done earlier at Hardwar. Finding the devotees offering offering water to his crops in the West, communicating his message unmistakably.
Similarly, Guru Nanak would never miss an opportunity to bring home the fact what true Islam is to the Muslims of his time.

- It is difficult to be a Muslim.
- He who remains steadfast in times of trial is a true Muslim
- He should first have faith in God
- And shake off his false conceit.
- Being the Prophet’s devotee means shedding the fear of death
- And accepting the will of the Lord.
- With faith in the Creator, rid of conceit,
- If he is kind to one and all,
- Says Nanak, he can be a true Muslim called.

Guru Nanak laid emphasis on truthful living. Says he:

- Truth is Supreme
- Above truth is truthful living.

A true Hindu and a true Muslim can co-exist. Guru Nanak, therefore, wanted the Hindus to be true Hindus and Muslims to be true Muslims. The Sikhs were born out of it, religious tolerance being the fundamental postulate of Sikhism.

Maybe a quick look at the mystique of Sikhism help make the assertion more convincing.

It is a truism that while the Sikh faith has undergone changes due to the inevitable process of evolution during the course of 500 years that it has been in existence, religious tolerance, the essential feature of the Sikh religion as prescribed by its founder, Guru Nanak, remains intact. Said Guru Nanak: “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman—all are human beings.” For a true Sikh, he prescribed Nam Japna, Kirt Karni and Wand Chhakna, meaning—contemplation, working hard and sharing one’s earnings with others.

A change in emphasis was effected in the Sikh way of life by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, after his father Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru, was tortured to death by Jahangir, the Mughal emperor. Guru Hargobind embraced both Miri (temporal power) and Piri (spiritual authority). The sixth Guru came to be known as Sachcha Padshah (True King). He established the Akal Takht, the throne of the Timeless, where he sat and administered justice.

And yet Sri Hargobindpur, the town he founded on an enchanting spot on the bank of River Beas, had a mosque, probably the best building of its kind in the region.

The change in the Sikh religion became more pronounced during the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, when his father Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was arrested and mercilessly executed in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, because he refused to be converted to Islam or work a miracle to prove that he was a godman to whom the normal law of the land might not be applied. Unlike, Guru Nanak, who was a man of peace, Guru Gobind Singh took to the sword in order to fight tyranny and injustice.

He established the Khalsa on the Baisakhi Day in 1699:
An initiation ceremony involving the use of a sword was instituted; initiates were to keep their hair uncut; weapons were to be worn as a matter of course; smoking the hookah was forbidden; and many (though not necessarily all) who thus entered the Khalsa adopted the name ‘Singh’. (W.H.
McLeod)

BEFORE he passed away, Guru Gobind Singh declared that there would be no Guru in person henceforth and that the eternal Guru would live with his followers mystically in the Scriptures (The Holy Granth) and in the gathered community (The Panth). This position obtains until today. The Holy Granth was re-dictated by Guru Gobind Singh towards the close of his life. Its unique catholicity is evidenced in the fact that along with the hymns of the Sikh Gurus, are incorporated the compositions of as many as 36 men of God belonging to various castes and creeds, regions and avocations. Among them were Jaidev of Bengal, Surdas of Awadh, Namdev, Trilochan and Parma Nand of Maharashtra, Beni, Rama Nand, Pipa, Sain, Kabir, Ravidas and Bhikhan of Uttar Pradesh, Dhanna of Rajasthan and Farid of Multan. Kabir was a weaver, Sadhna a butcher, Namdev a tailor, Dhanna jat, Pipa a king, Sain a barber, Ravidas a tanner, Farid a Muslim divine, Bhikha a learned scholar of Islam and Surdas a Hindu mystic and poet.

Sikhism was not the state religion during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule. The Maharaja’s regime was essentially secular with patronage evenly distributed amongst the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. His Prime Minister was a Hindu Dogra, his Foreign and Interior Ministers were Muslims.

It was the Britishers who tried to foster the sense of identity as distinguished from the Hindus amongst the Sikh soldiers for reasons of their own. However, the Hindu religious practices continued to be followed amongst the Sikh masses; there were idols even on the premises of the Golden Temple.

In order to meet this challenge, the Singh Sabha Movement was launched towards the close of the nineteenth century. It was a reformist movement which laid stress on the distinctive Sikh identity. The process continued in one form or another until 1950 when a statement of the Sikh Rahat Maryada (the Sikh Way of Life) was adopted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, the statutory Sikh Council. It defines a Sikh as follows:

A Sikh is any person who believes in Akal Purakh; in the ten Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh); in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, other writings of the ten Gurus, and their teachings; in the Khalsa initiation ceremony instituted by the tenth Guru; an who does not believe in any other system of religious doctrine.

The Sikhs were conceived as a political entity, there is no doubt about it. As much as the soul, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, appears to be preoccupied with the socio-economic plight of his people. His first utterance after his enlightenment was—there is no Hindu; there is no Muslim. (All are human beings.) His other exhortations were—you must work har and share your earnings withm others. And a life of action is superior to a life of contemplation.
Commenting upon his times, Guru Nanak said:

- Kaliyug is a dagger,
- Kings are butchers, Dharma has taken wings
- And disappeared
- In the dark night of falsehood
- The Moon of truth is nowhere to be seen.
Agonised by atrocities perpetrated by the intruders on his countrymen at the time of Babar’s attack, Guru Nanak was fearless enough to remark:
- The dogs have ravaged the gem of a country.
- When they die, none will ever remember them.
He was equally harsh on the administration:
- There is none who receives or gives not bribe:
- Even the King administers justice
- When his palm is greased.

Chased by Sher Shah Suri, Humayun came to Guru Angad Dev, the second Sikh Guru, asking for help.

Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru, was visited by Akbar who was deeply impressed with what he witnessed and offered a tract of land to the Guru’s daughter Bibi Bhani as a wedding gift, since the Guru would not accept State patronage as such. Akbar again visited Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru, and as recorded by Abul Fazal, his Prime Minister and court historian, the King was fascinated by the Guru’s ‘handsome appearance, charming manners and princely style of living’. At the Guru’s request, the sovereign reduced to one-sixth the revenue of the state because of the scarcity conditions prevailing at the time.

HOWEVER the relations of the Sikh community with the State deteriorated soon after Akbar departed from the scene. Jahangir had Guru Arjan tortured to martyrdom because the Guru had blessed Jahangir’s son Khusro, the son of Jodha Bai who had come to seek his help, and also because he would not carry out the suggested modification in the Holy Granth.

As a result Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, who was called Sacha Padshah the (True King), assumed the mantle of ‘Miri and Piri, Shakti and Bahkti, Deg and Teg, one symbolised the temporal power and the other spiritual power, one to smite the oppressor and the other to protect the innocent’. According to Hari Ram Gupta, the renowned historian, Guru Hargobind emerged as ‘a saint, a sportsman and a soldier and proved himself the first national hero of the people of Punjab in 600 years since the conquest of Punjab by the Mughals’.

Guru Hargobind and the four Gurus following him maintained a regular army, built forts and fought 14 battles with the Mughals and vanquished the Imperial forces 12 times.

The Sikh Gurus were spiritual leaders alright but they were equally involved in social change. Guru Nanak discarded meaningless rituals and ceremonials. Guru Angad laid stress on children’s education. Guru Amar Das raised his powerful voice against the obnoxious practice of sati. They laid the foundation-stones of new townships. We owe Kartarpur to Guru Nanak, Khadur Saheb to Guru Angad, Goindwal to Guru Amar Das, Amritsar to Guru Ram Das, Tarn Tarn to Guru Arjan Dev, and Hargobindpur to Guru Hargobind. Anandpur Saheb was founded by Guru Tegh Bahadur and developed by Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Nanak had refused to wear the sacred thread as a mere ritual, Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, gave his life to safeguard the Hindu’s right to wear the sacred thread.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, corresponded with Aurangzeb, the ruler of the day. In Zafar Nama, his famous epistle to the King, he did some plain-speaking which was unheard of in those times:

- When all other means fail,
- It is fair to take to sword.

Guru Hargobind instituted the Akal Takht, a temporal seat as distinguished from the Harimandir Saheb, the sanctum sactorum of the Sikhs. In due course the Sarbat Khalsa, the assembly of the representatives of the Sikh people, came to be held here when important issues involving the community were discussed and decisions taken by what was called Gurmatta. Thus the Akal Takht, Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmatta came to be recognised as symbols of the Sikh polity.

In Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh people found the redemption of their cherished dream. A heroic people, they were the last to lay down arms before the British and were the first to raise them under Guru Ram Singh, the founder of the Namdhari Movement. The Sikh’s contribution to the freedom struggle is unequalled. According to the contemporary chroniclers, out of the 181 freedom fighters hanged by the Britishers 93 were Sikhs, out of 2646 patriots exiled to Kalapani (Andaman Island) 2147 were Sikhs, and out of 1202 people shot in Jallianwala Bagh 799 were Sikhs.

The Sikh concept is that of a welfare state. It is called Halemi Raj, a state in which truth forms the basis of spiritual as well as temporal activity. However, the establishment of Sikh Raj is found in the Sikh historical writings alone; there is no reference to it in the Holy Granth, the Sikh Bible. The Sikh Panth does have a tradition of combining Miri and Piri, amalgamating spiritual and temporal entities, but the vital issue is that of priority. When it is a temporal issue, the spiritual considerations are subdued and vice versa. The relation between the spiritual and temporal is organic, not mechanical. The Sikh concept is not that of a theocratic state. There is no such thing as Sacred Laws and the Order of Priesthood. The establishment of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh was not designed to institute a communal outfit; instead it was all-pervading, a religious, social and political brotherhood, more importantly, giving an opportunity to the down-trodden and oppressed to find an expression. The Sikh concept of the state is the marriage of Divine Truth with Humanism.

Some time ago when Sardar S.S. Barnala, the present-day Governor, Tamil Nadu, capitulated to the authority of the Akal Takht and submitted himself to undertake penance, his step invited a great deal of criticism from various quarters. A True Sikh doesn’t find anything wrong with it. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Master Tara Singh, Sant Fateh Singh and a number of other leading Sikhs have been offering penance for their so-called lapses in the eyes of the community.

As a monarch, exercising absolute power, Ranjit Singh did submit himself to the resolutions of the Sarbat Khalsa. It is said that when the Maharaja decided to marry Gulbahar Begum, a Muslim courtesan of Amritsar, he was advised by the clergy to have her converted to Sikhism to escape the wrath of the Sarbat Khalsa. ‘But it is I who want to marry her, not she,’ the Maharaja retorted, and had his way. Predictably, the Sarbat Khalsa censured the reigning monarch and the punishment inflicted was a certain number of lashes to be given on his bare back by Akali Phoola Singh, the chief of the Akal Takht. It is maintained that the Maharaja dutifully submitted to it but before the injunction was actually executed, better counsel prevailed and the punishment was converted to a substantial fine in cash.

Nevertheless, when it come to interfering with state affairs, the Maharaja would have none of it. A glaring instance of this was provided when the Maratha ruler Holkar, chased by Lord Lake of the East India Company, sought refuge in the territory under Ranjit Singh. The Sarbat Khalsa passed a resolution directing the Sikh monarch to provide protection to the fugitive Hindu ruler, as consistent with the Sikh tradition. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, knowing that he was not yet prepared to challenge the British soldiery, ignored the Sarbat Khalsa verdict. When pressed by the Akal Takht authority, he abolished the Sarbat Khalsa institution and replaced it by a supreme command known as ‘The Pillars of Kingdom’, in which he had, in addition to the Sikh high priests, Hindu and Muslim dignitaries also to serve as full-fledged panelists. In this way the astute ruler ‘formally affected a divorce between spiritual and temporal affairs’. Among his ‘Pillars of Kingdom’ were Dhian Singh Dogra, a Hindu who was his Prime Minister, and Fakir Azizuddin, a Muslim who was his Foreign Minister.

It is desirable that politics is distanced from religion. The Sikhs may find this irksome because of their being a minority community with limitation of availability of talent. Also because the Sikh tradition goes back to Guru Nanak’s time, who is said to have admonished Babar, and Guru Gobind Singh who waged a life-long holy war against unjust Mughal rule. And yet religious tolerance is fundamental to the Sikh faith. Guru Nanak prescribed it and Guru Gobind Singh solemnised it by enshrining the all-embracing Holy Granth as the Guru in spirit exhorting that those who seek God can find Him in the Holy Word which embodies along with Guru Nanak and the rest of the Sikh Gurus, Baba Farid, the Muslim mystic, and a gallery of the divines of the times.

Religious tolerance is, indeed, fundamental to the Sikh faith.

The author, a distinguished writer, is a former Member of the Rajya Sabha; he is also the President of the Punjabi Writers Meet.

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