The Unity of Indic Religions (III) – Sikhism: Bhakti, Shakti, and Seva

The Unity of Indic Religions (III) – Sikhism: Bhakti, Shakti, and Seva

[Parts I and II of this series of articles can be found here (I) and here (II)]. 

In projecting Sikhism as a religion separate from and opposed to Hinduism, Sikh scholars have betrayed the Gurus. In comparing them with self-appointed prophets and self-proclaimed saviors, they have defamed them. In presenting Sikhs as a religious minority, a la Muslims and Christians, they have rendered a disservice to their brethren. And in pinning their hopes for Hindu-Sikh amity on Nehruvian secularism, they are chasing a mirage. To restore the basic oneness, certain false notions maliciously floated by foreign rulers and picked up by their collaborators need to be exposed.

Among Indic traditions, Sikhism presents an interesting case. Outwardly it looks farthest removed from Hinduism, but internally the two are the same.

Sikhs have always been honored members of Hindu society. The rise of Sikhism was part of the Hindu response to the challenge of Islam. Initially, the response was only at the spiritual and philosophical levels. Later, under persecution by Moghuls it acquired strong military and political aspects as well. Political achievements of Sikhism have largely overshadowed its spiritual character. Yet, playing it down will be doing an injustice to the Gurus, besides limiting our own understanding of the shared ideas, ideals, principles, and the dharmic grounding of Hinduism and Sikhism.

While Buddhism and Jainism are indifferent, if not opposed to the authority of the Vedas, the Adi Shri Guru Granth Sahib (Granth Sahib) speaks with utmost reverence about the Vedas, puranas, smritis, and shastras. Guru Nanak says that as darkness is dispelled when a lamp is lit, so by reading the Vedas sinful inclinations are destroyed. The fifth Guru says that Vedas, puranas, and smritis have pronounced the correct word; but, like other Vaishnava saints, he also warns that the letter killeth, that the outer/literal meanings of the words are not enough, and we must imbibe their real meanings.

The Granth Sahib, which contains compositions by the Gurus as also many other saints, is regarded as the Sixth Veda after Ruk, Yajur, Sama, Atharva, and the Mahabharata. It is likened to a boat which can take one across the ocean of  worldly life (Bhavasagara) to the ultimate destination of Parabrahma. Its boatman is none other than Paramatma in the form of the Guru and reciting God’s name (japa) is the ticket to board it.

The central teaching of the Granth Sahib is bhakti (devotion) suffused with jnana (knowledge). It depicts bhakti in all its richness: nirguna-saguna, brahma-parabrahma, and priya-priyatama bhava. Stories of Krishna saving Draupadi’s honor, rescuing Prahlada and liberating the elephant from the jaws of crocodile are retold more than once.

The Granth Sahib is replete with philosophical terms, names of God and mythological tales drawn from Hindu scriptures. As the great scholar Dr. K P Agarwal has pointed out, it has about 10,000 references to Hari, 2,400 to Rama, 550 to Parabrahma, 1,400 to Omkara, and 350 to Vedas, Puranas, and Shastras. Puranic terms like Kali yuga, Charana kamala, Varuna, Yama, Dharmaraj, Chitragupta, Bhavajal, Vaikuntha, Teertha, Kirtana, etc., occur in it 1,750 times. Vedantic terms like neti-neti, triguna, brahmananda, jivanmukta, turiya avastha, amritpada, nirvana, etc., are used about 1,150 times. The ragas to which hymns in the Granth Sahib were set to by the Gurus belong to Hindu classical music. The parikrama, dhoopa, deepa, naivedya, and prasada in Gurudvaras resemble similar rites in Hindu temples.

The philosophical base of the Granth Sahib is identical with the Upanishads. The Upanishads describe Parabrahma, the Ultimate Reality, as eternal, unchangeable, bodiless, without wound, without sinews, taintless, untouched by sin, omniscient, ruler of the mind, transcendent, and self-existent (Isha 8). The very first verse of the Granth Sahib echoes this.

But the Upanishads go further. Brahman alone is. There is nothing else. It is the material as well as efficient cause of the world. Through the power of maya, God appears as the world. “Verily, all this is Brahman,” says the Mandukya Upanishad (1-2), and “Vasudeva is all this,” says the Bhagavad Gita (7-19).

The Granth Sahib says Adi Purusha is the creator, the means, the cause (p. 1385). Again, “He himself is the adversity, He himself is the solution. He himself is the father, He himself is the mother, He himself is what is subtle, He himself is what is gross. The play, O Nanak! cannot be described”.

Similes of ocean and wave, wave and foam, water and bubble, and gold and ornaments are used to describe the relationship between God and the world. The Granth Sahib says “Even as bubbles arise and perish in water, so has this world been formed (p. 274). “Even as wave, foam and bubbles are not different from water, so is this world a play of parabrahma (p. 485). By molding the same gold in many ways, he created many forms (p. 205). The description of the world as a tree with roots above and branches below (urdhva-moolam adha- shakham) is common to Upanishads, the Gita, and the Granth Sahib. Using another famous simile from the Mundaka Upanishad (3-1-1), the Granth Sahib says “two birds alight on a fruit tree. One enjoys the many-hued pleasures of the world, but the other remains absorbed in the Self and attains Nirvana”.

Parabrahma is the real self of man, say the Upanishads. The Granth Sahib says, “It is an incomparable wonder: Atman is a form of Parabrahma” (p. 868).  “This self is Brahman” (Ayamata Brahma) says the Mandukya Upanishad (1-4-2). “Thou art that (tattvamasi)” says the Chhandogya Upanishad (6-11-3). The Granth Sahib says, “In this body are Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh” (p.754).

To realize this unity, to grasp the God within is the ultimate objective of all religious endeavor say the Upanishads and the Granth Sahib. The liberated soul becomes one with God. Using a traditional simile, the Granth Sahib describes it as a state in which light mingles with light (jyoti jyoti samani). “As pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so does the self of the man of knowledge,” says the Katha Upanishad (2-1-15). The Granth Sahib says, “as the wave and foam become water, so does the devotee become God” (p. 206). “He who has known atman becomes paramatma himself” (p.421).

To attain nirvana, the Granth Sahib enjoins the traditional spiritual discipline: control over senses, devotion to God, reflection on the Self, truthfulness, compassion, freedom from desire, and turning away from worldliness.

Among all these, the Gurus assign a special place to namasimaran or remembrance of nama, which is best suited to Kaliyuga (kaliyuge Rama nama aadhara), when people are not capable of much tapas or yoga. Guru Nanak’s heart is pierced with Rama nama. For the fifth Guru, nectar is the name of Hari.

But this namasimaran is not an ordinary spoken word. The true shabad is born in the heart. It is an unstruck note (anahat nada), an unspoken word (ashabda) of Divyabindu Upanishad.

These close similarities between the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Granth Sahib and the idiom of the Granth Sahib and that of popular Hinduism cannot be explained away as being the result of close social interaction. The Gurus were not borrowing. In teaching what they taught, in doing what they did, they were expounding and defending an older and larger tradition of which they were part, which nourished them, and which they in turn enriched. The Gurus were not imitators, purveying borrowed ideas on an unsuspecting populace. Like the sages of the Upanishads, they spoke from direct experience of Reality.

The turning point in the history of Sikhism came with the martyrdom of the fifth Guru Arjun Dev, who was tortured to death in 1606 by Moghul emperor Jehangir for helping his rebellious son Khusrav with money. His son and successor Guru Har Govind, a lad of 11 years, received his father’s last injunction: let him sit fully armed on the throne and maintain an army to the best of his ability. Guru Har Govind immediately hung up two swords at his side signifying piri (spiritual power) and miri (temporal power).

The decisive break, however, came with the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Teg Bahadur who was executed by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb for his refusal to embrace Islam. His son and successor Guru Gobind Singh established Khalsa, a military order with the express purpose of fighting the religious and political oppression of Hindus by the Moghul emperors (Savalakh sang ek ladaun, tab Gobind Singh nam kahaun).

A doer par excellence and one of the bravest sons of India, Guru Gobind Singh taught that people should not depend on sovereigns and princes to defend their religious and political rights but come forward themselves. They should personally, individually feel for the national wrongs and collectively devise means to overcome them. The times were such that success would come only if a brick thrown at them were returned with a stone. Humility and service alone were not enough in such times.

To goodness were to be added not only condemnation of evil, but also destruction of evildoers. Love for one’s neighbor must be accompanied by punishment for the trespasser. Service of saints implied annihilation of tyrants. God, Guru, and sword form the new trinity in place of Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara that could lead to victory in the new age.

Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed all his four sons in his struggle against Islamic imperialism. He himself suffered tremendous hardships and privations. But he managed to build an institution that outlasted the enemy. The Khalsa covered himself with glory in the role assigned to it, and a grateful Hindu society affectionately honored its brave sons by calling them lions (sinh) and leaders (sardar).

The Guru’s desire for Khalsa to be the rulers (Raj kareyga khalsa) was fulfilled shortly after his untimely death in 1708. Vazir Khan, the Mughal governor of Punjab, died in 1710 and the entire province of Sirhind from Sutlej to Yamuna lay at Khalsa’s feet. They proclaimed themselves as rulers and issued coins in their name. They soon lost it, however, but rose again in forty years and ruled Punjab for a hundred years. It was indeed a miracle. The pinnacle of Khalsa’s glory came in the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who regained the whole of Punjab and Kashmir, reduced Afghans to subjects, and contained the British.

The Guru was clear in his aims and aspirations:

Sakal jagat mein khalsa panth gaje

Jage dharam Hindu, sakal bhand bhaje

Veda maryada jag mein chalaun

Goghat ka dosh jag se mitaun.

It is a travesty of his legacy that Sikhism today is presented as something different from and opposed to Hinduism. That needs to be examined. Ram Swarup, a scholar extraordinary, has documented it in great detail. A bare outline will suffice for our purpose.

For more than a century, Sikhs have been told by custodians of Akali politics and neo-Akali writers that Sikhs are not Hindus, that instead of deriving from Hindu Advaita, Bhakti, Avataravada, karma, punarjanma, and moksha, Sikhism has grown as a revolt against Hindu polytheism, idolatry, caste system and Brahmanism.

The early inspiration was provided by Christian missionaries and British administrators. Imperialism thrives on divisions and sows them where they do not exist. The British had conquered Punjab with the help of Poorabiya soldiers, but these played a rebellious role in the 1857 uprising. So, the British were looking for other allies and focused on the Sikhs who had remained faithful. They started telling them that Hinduism had always been hostile to Sikhism, and even socially the two had been antagonistic.

Officials like Max Arthur McAuliffe told the Sikhs that Hinduism is like a boa constrictor which winds around its opponent and finally swallows it. The Sikhs may go that way, he warned. He put words in the mouth of Gurus and invented prophecies by them which predicted advent of a white race to whom the Sikhs would be loyal. He described the “pernicious effects” of bringing up Sikh youths in a Hindu atmosphere.

McAuliffe was not alone. It was a concerted effort by scholars, officials, and missionaries. To separate the Sikhs, they were even made into a sect of Islam! Thus, the Dictionary of Islam, a scholarly work edited by one Thomas Patrick Hughes who worked as a missionary in Peshawar for twenty years, gave one fourth of a page to Sunnis, seven pages to Shias, and twelve pages to the Sikhs.

The British government took administrative and political measures which yielded quicker results. They formulated a special army policy which gave pride of place to the Sikhs. In 1855, there were only 1,500 Sikhs (mostly mazhabis) in the British army. By 1910, there were 33,000, mostly Jats. The recruitment process was calculated to give them a sense of separateness and exclusiveness. Only Khalsa Sikhs were recruited. They were sent to receive initiation as per rites prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh. Each regiment had its own Granthis. They greeted British officers with Wahiguruji ka khalsa, wahiguruji ki fateh.

“As a result of these measures, the Sikhs in the Indian army have been studiously nationalized,” observed McAuliffe. A secret CID report prepared in 1911 by D Patrie said that “every effort was made to protect them (Sikh soldiers) from idolatry,” i.e., Hinduism. “Sikhs were encouraged to regard themselves as a totally distinct and separate nation,” he wrote.

The British also launched Singh Sabhas and Khalsa Diwans which pledged loyalty to the Raj.

It may be noted that those foreigners who fanned Sikh “nationalism” had scant regard for the Gurus. The same Patrie, for example, wrote that (Guru) “Arjun Dev was a mercenary who was prepared to fight for or against Moghuls as convenience and profit dictated”. He tells us that (Guru) “Tegh Bahadur, an infidel, a robber and a rebel, was executed in Delhi by Moghul authorities”.

This has not prevented the mental progeny of McAuliffe repeating the lessons taught by them by the British to this very day. Sadly, scholars who ought to know better lead the charge, taking their cue from the pamphlet “Hum Hindu nahin,” written by Bhai Kahan Singh of Nabha, a staunch loyalist.

Since the essence of Sikhism is identical with Hinduism, external differences are pushed to the utmost and made much of. Sikhism is forced into the mold of Abrahamic ideologies. We are told that the Sikhs have a Book in Guru Granth Sahib, like the Quran and the Bible, while Hindus have none. Sikhism has a tradition of prophets or apostles in the ten Gurus, which Hinduism lacks. Sikhism frowns upon idolatry, Hinduism is full of it. Sikhism has no use for Vedas, Puranas, and the social system of the Dharmashastras which form the cornerstone of Hinduism. By giving up the external marks, the five K’s, Sikhs would lapse into Hinduism. The latter, therefore, represents a danger to Sikhism which must always preserve its external marks at any cost.

The arguments represent, at best, sloppy thinking. The Gurus and prophets are two different kinds of categories belonging to two opposite types of religions. None of the ten Gurus ever claimed to be a prophet, i.e., a privileged messenger who brought verbatim messages from a personal God, to be obeyed by the less privileged humans forever. True, the nirguna Brahma of the Granth Sahib and Upanishads is one without a second and formless. But if such a God cannot be depicted with any murti/idol, he cannot be caught in a name or a book either. He cannot be cruel, whimsical, jealous, or vindictive (as is the God of the Bible and the Quran) or benevolent, rational, generous, and forgiving. He is beyond all qualities and attributes.

Without analyzing the concept of idol worship/murti puja, it may be pointed out that Sikhs are not the only Hindu sect that does not believe in it. Vedic Aryans did not worship idols. Gautama Buddha did not want his followers to worship his own statues. The Arya Samaj does not endorse idol worship.

This is even more true of jati/caste. Claiming to be anti-caste is the typical Hindu thing to do these days. The RSS, VHP, and Arya Samaj, all regarded as orthodox Hindu organizations by their supporters as well as opponents, expressly claim to be anti-caste. On the other hand, Sikhs have observed caste rules as much as the Hindus have. Castes have existed on both sides and marriages take place between Sikhs and non-Sikhs but within the same caste, e.g., among the Jats.

But Sikh scholars and politicians are not alone in betraying the Gurus. Hindus have betrayed them, too. And not just by disowning Punjabi as their mother tongue. The Arya Samaj and the Sikhs got on with each other very well initially, but parted company later. Dayanand Saraswati’s unflattering remarks about Guru Nanak and the activities of Arya Samaj, which offered Shuddhi (purification) to the Sikhs along with Muslims and Christians, played straight into the hands of foreign mischief makers. Modern Hindu intellectuals have not bothered to claim the legacy of the Gurus and Sikh heroes. They have shown an indecent haste in calling the Sikhs a religious minority. The Hindu tradition of offering the eldest son to the Gurus is almost extinct. And in recent times, the attitude of the Rajiv Gandhi government to the Sikhs was not much different from that of the Moghuls.

The Gurus taught self-exploration, self-purification, and self-transcendence. We have replaced them with self-stupefaction, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement. The Gurus placed devotion above erudition, spiritual wisdom above rituals, and God-realization above heavenly pleasures. We are doing the opposite.

However, as Sita Ram Goel pointed out, all is not lost yet. Ordinary Hindus still cherish the memory of Sikh Gurus and seek solace in the Granth Sahib. There is no dearth of Sikh scholars who see Sikh spirituality as part of the larger and older tradition of Puranas and Upanishads. The time has come for them to make themselves heard more loudly and clearly in a Dharamyudh against false and poisonous ideas planted by foreign rulers with a malicious intent. Their voice is bound to reverberate in the hearts of Sikhs and Hindus alike.



Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh is a senior journalist of 45 years’ standing. He writes in English and Gujarati on economics and politics as also on issues related to Indian civilization, history and cultural nationalism. Currently, he is Executive Editor of Vyapar, a 72-year-old Mumbai-based Gujarati bi-weekly economy, business and investment.