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The Roots of Sikhism




I think it was the historian Arnold Toynbee who said that Vedantic and Judaic disciplines - the two great religious systems of the world - met in northern India.

'Collided' would be more like it.

Their confrontation spawned a new order - Sikhism - which has some elements of each but in other matters, rejects both.

Toynbee saw in Sikhism a synthesis of the best of the two noble religious systems. Most Sikhs look at their religion not as a philosophy of synthesis but as a new, revealed religion with little debt to the existing traditions.

Clearly, religions or any philosophic systems, for that matter, do not arise in a vacuum. A novel, fresh way of living must reflect on the old even if only to reject it but in that process becomes influenced by what is rejected.

Therefore, in most beliefs and practices, a pattern of continuity between the old and the new is never very difficult to discern. That is no proof that the new is merely a revamping and repackaging of the old, nor that it is a new superstructure constructed entirely or primarily on the old substructure. Some historians spend lifetimes counting bricks to see which ones or how many in the foundation of Sikhism are from the old edifice, others expend their energy denying in toto the existence of any old masonry in the new institution.

Even the most radical new design must derive in some part from the pre-existing one, even though in some fundamentally new ways. All new life emerges from the old and revolutions do not occur in a void. In the final analysis, the proof of how new is new rests with how revolutionized, changed, charged or new do the believers feel.

If both Hindus and Muslims lay claim to some features of Sikhism (as they do), that is a compliment to the Sikhs and their dynamic, young religion. Nobody wants to assert a kinship with one not admired. And such contentions do not detract from the revolutionary or the revealed nature of Sikhism though many Sikhs would like to disavow any connection to the old roots, whether Semitic or Hindu Vedantic.

Like the semitic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - Sikhism is a Religion of the Book, while Hinduism is not. Where Hinduism has a virtual army of gods and goddesses, Sikhism is like Judaism - strictly, passionately and unequivocally monotheistic.

The Judaic God is an immanent God and an angry, wrathful, revengeful one. With Christianity came a transformation and humanization of this God into a loving, forgiving father image. Because of the plethora of gods and goddesses, the Hindu God is not so easily defined but is probably transcendental in nature.

The Sikh concept of God, however, is one who is both immanent and transcendental, righteously just but also merciful.

Where theologians and their ilk love to write treatises, this very short treatment will have to suffice even though it is equally unjust to the Judaic, Hindu or Sikh views of God.          

Part of the problem in our understanding lies in the fact that both Judaism and Hinduism are ancient systems with their origins lost in antiquity. When it comes to Hinduism, the historical record is even murkier. The old, diffuse religions of mythology prevailed not only in Greece, Norway, Rome or Egypt but similar conceptualizations were also the underpinning of ancient 'Indian' civilization. To me, many of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism are not so different from the heroic and some not so noble figures of Greek mythology, and should be similarly interpreted. Certainly the stories about Echo, Narcissus, Hercules, Aphrodite etc in Greek mythology have no literal reality.

The stories in Hindu mythology about Brahma, Indra, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, beginning of the world, even the Ramayana and the Bhagvad Gita, are apocryphal and not meant to be taken literally. In spite of India’s astronomical population, there are perhaps more gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology than people.

In Europe however, a new religion with a defined theology - Christianity - unrelated to the native mythology and independent of it in origin, took hold and supplanted it. Pre-Christian mythology surely influenced many Christian beliefs and practices, and continue to lurk within it, but it is easy to see that the two - Greek mythology and Christianity - are distinct entities and remain so.

Mythology served its purposes in helping early man define his place in the universe. Later, the organized religion of Christianity provided a clearer ethical framework, a more sophisticated system for defining the nature of man and his inner reality in relation to society.

In Hinduism however, a radically different kind of development occurred. The Vedantic system was superimposed on the existing mythology but did not displace and replace it. Instead the religion of mythology became overlaid with a patina of highly sophisticated Vedantic philosophy; the two become so inseparable that Hinduism came to be defined through mythology. Mythology and philosophy became so enmeshed in the common mind and daily practice that it became well nigh impossible to identify the individual strands. That remains true even today.

At least two major religions - Buddhism and Sikhism - which are devoid of mythological baggage, did originate in India.

Buddhism has been pretty much lost to its native soil although it is widely extant in many neighboring countries.

Sikhism has endured because of its distinct theology, its proven ability to fight for survival and its distinct symbols. Though under constant assault, it may even be at the threshold of a renaissance at this time in human history.

Hinduism contends that God has taken human birth nine times and will once again, sometime in the future. Christianity presents passionate arguments for Jesus as the son of God - begotten, not made.

The preamble to Sikhism defines God as one who is free of birth and death. Worship only the One Immaculate, all-pervasive Creator, not the Gurus and not any holy book, say the Sikh Gurus. And we are all sons and daughters of God. God is to be found neither on a mountain-top by a recluse nor by the celibate clergyman in the service of the church. Marry, have a family and live a productive life of honest earnings and share what you have, keeping your mind attuned to the infinite within you.

God the Creator is revealed through His creation; not to live in harmony with it is the sin. Ritual animal sacrifice is therefore, not right, though Sikhs are not vegetarians by any religious law. In referring to God as the male father figure, we are limited by the paucity of human language and thought in expressing ideas. God in the Sikh view has no gender, race, lineage or form; He is free of all physical attributes that man can conceive. Sikhs refer to God as father, mother, brother, sister, friend and lover. A god who is a he or she is a lesser god not worthy of worship.

God is not to be remembered merely for an hour in a temple or a church on a Sunday, for example, but must become an integral, internalized part of one’s life, one who is never forgotten even for a moment. By analogies from farming - “The body is the soil, good deeds the plough,” from trading or from ordinary habits of simple people - “Make truth your prayer, faith your prayer mat” - the message of Sikhism was simple yet direct: Truth is high, higher still is truthful living.

Therefore, Sikhs do not speak of a Sabbath, a holy day of atonement or remembrance, nor do they ascribe special significance to any day of the week or month or any hour of the day. Any chore, no matter how mundane, performed with an awareness of the Infinite within, is sacred; even the most sacred task accomplished without that perception is profane. Similarly a day, an hour, even a moment spent in God’s grace is sacred, else it’s wasted.

One cannot buy indulgences from God by asking a holy man to perform prayers, rituals or ceremonies on one’s behalf, no matter how pious the priest or how expensive the ceremony.

A literal interpretation of mythology can be risky and Guru Nanak offered a surprisingly modern view of creation when he spoke of the void before creation, and of many galaxies and universes - without end and innumerable. He clearly refuted as nonsense any claims to knowing exactly what hour, day or year the world began or when it would end.

Perhaps the most visible point of divergence of Sikhism from Judaic philosophy and its stream, lies in the concept of original sin which is not found in the Sikh view. Sikhs believe that human life is special - a rare opportunity to serve both man and God. The human body is the mansion of God, a temple to be maintained well and healthy. There is no room for mortification of the flesh, whether by fasting or otherwise.

The sin lies not in living comfortably or well but in not using one’s blessings in service to others, for that is the way to find God. To leave the world a little better is a duty; not to try, a sin.

Sikhism asserts that the kingdom of heaven is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex or ethnic origin. Sexism and racism of any sort thus become failures in the practice of Sikh teaching. Those who are at one with God and Guru are the chosen people, not those of any particular caste, creed or ethnicity. Between man and God, no middlemen exists, no brokers are necessary. This also means that the authority and the role of the clergy are limited - defined by the scholarship and the persona of the man, not by canon.

In biology, hybridization is known to produce a more spirited stock. This is true of horses as it is of people and, I suspect, equally valid for philosophies. Whether it was the Aryans from the Caucasus, the hordes of Alexander the Great or the innumerable invasions through the Khyber Pass, Punjab was a fertile field for such mixtures of both people and ideas. Punjabi stock therefore, turned out more vigorous, energetic and outgoing.

So is their new ideology of Sikhism - a religion of joy, not suffering.

When Christianity was young, many Jews accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah but remained Jews - for Jesus. Now 2000 years later, the movement is not as strong but still exists. Sikhism is only 500 years old and if you count from the time that Guru Gobind Singh gave it the present form, about 300 years young. Three centuries are barely a drop in the bucket of human history. It is hardly surprising that some followers have one leg in the boat of Hinduism (the majority of the overwhelminmg in the land) and another in Sikhism. There are many Hindus who never formally accepted the full discipline of Sikhism - Sindhis, for instance - yet the only scriptures they read are Sikh, the only house of worship they know is Sikh.

Others attend both Hindu and Sikh or Muslim and Sikh services. Christianized Muslims (Morisos) of Africa come to mind as a parallel.

Almost from their inception, Sikhs have had to fight and die for their religion. It is no wonder that some followers practiced Sikhism at home but remained most reluctant to be so identified publicly. Under similar duress, the Marrano Jews remained Jews at home but outside, adopted the rituals and the lifestyles of Christians.

One intriguing historical curiosity that I often saw as a child is worth noting. Since Sikhs were always fighting for survival, many Punjabi Hindu families would dedicate one son to Sikhism. By making one child a Sikh, they acknowledged their debt to and respect for the Sikh way of life, while at the same time confessing the inability of the entire family to walk that perilous path. And taking care of their own security

If Sikhism brought the idea of eventual justice - Karma - from Hinduism, it freed the doctrine of its overtones of sexism and shackles of the caste system. Curiously, Islam found no place for music in worship; Hinduism on the other hand, not only exalted the development of music to a fine art but even mandated dancing girls and vestal virgins.

Sikhism, like Christianity, recognized the ability of music to move people to a spiritual high ... minus, of course, the dancing girls.

In Hinduism, congregational worship is unimportant; much more significant - even to the exclusion of everything else -  is private meditation. Judaism, with its two children - Christianity and Islam - emphasized much more the social aspect of man’s obligation and congregational worship became supreme.

Sikhism recognizes the worth of both. Private meditation is important for it allows man to discover the truth within. Congregational worship is necessary for it defines man in terms of the universe outside of him. In the Sikh view, the mystical presence of God pervades a congregation in mindful prayer; such a congregation remains in Sikh doctrine the supreme source of all temporal authority.

The essence of a Sikh life could be summarized as having three important aspects, like the legs of a stable stool: a life of honest work, honestly spent; sharing the rewards of such a life with fellow men; and both of those activities to be accomplished with a mind centered on the Infinite within. Nobody would deny the worth of the first two commandments; many, such as the prominent writer Khushwant Singh, fail to acknowledge that if man were more cognizant of the Infinite within, he would be more aware of his place within the creation and more in tune with the fundamental unity of all of God’s creation. All creation, human and otherwise, would then be less subject to man’s puffed up sense of self.

That third leg of the stool, an essential element of Sikh teaching, allows Man to look beyond the self at human life as a rare opportunity to enrich his environment including his fellow creatures.

There are other ways in which Sikhism departs from both the Judaic and Hindu traditions and which stem from the enhanced place of the lay follower in Sikhism. For instance the concept seen in Christianity of the clergy as shepherds leading a flock, or the primary role of the Brahmin as the essential middleman, are anathema to Sikhs.

Since a middleman or broker is not recognized, the power and authority of the clergy is necessarily curtailed. The scriptures are available to all - laity or clergy, men or women, high of birth or otherwise, Sikh or non-Sikh.

Parenthetically, I should add that Hindu scriptures are not available to the lower castes and may not be read by women. Also, the Council of Narbonne in 1229 forbade the possession of any part of the Bible by laymen; this was not corrected until centuries later.

In Sikhism no one may deny another the right to attend or perform any aspect of any Sikh service and it need not be only in a gurdwara but can be anywhere, even a house or in the open air; no approval from any clergy for any religious service is necessary.

It is also worth noting that, because Sikhism is so young, the compilation, authenticity and authorship of the Sikh scriptures are clearly and simply established. Such a claim is not easily made by many of the older religious systems.

It seems to me that when man finds himself in conflict with his environment as he inevitably must, the Judeo-Christian and the Hindu-Vedantic traditions provide him diametrically opposite ways of dealing with it. The primarily western Judeo-Christian outlook exemplified by the North-American lifestyle says: “The world is not as it should be and I am going to change the outer reality to be consonant with what I want it to be. I am going to master nature, recast it into my own view and make a difference even if I die trying.”

Frequently both things happen. Technological revolutions are unleashed, and we change the world around us to what we want it to be. But the price we pay is spiritual, and horrendous. Just look at the disintegration of the individual, dissolution of the family and collapse of society; otherwise our psychiatrists and lawyers would not be so busy.

On the other hand, in a similar conflict with the environment, the Asian approach - epitomized by the Hindu-Vedantic attitude - is dramatically different. It says in effect: “The external world is not as it should be. But there is a universe within the self which is infinite and far more beautiful. I am going to close my eyes, turn inward and be at peace.”

The desired result is achieved, but at what cost? One can exist for 2000 years in filth, amidst injustice, yet the mind is at peace and all is right with the world. Progress can become unnecessary, if not impossible or undesirable.

Clearly, both attitudes are wanting.

Sikhism directs that one be at peace within and at the same time be externally directed so as to make a difference.

Vedantic Hinduism regards the body as a prison for the soul; this results in a curious unwordliness or other-wordliness in Hinduism.

Sikhism regards the body as the temple of God who is to be discovered by serving and living with fellow humans.

Hindu mythology would tell us this world is unreal, a dream, not a tangible reality - Sikhism would agree only so that one may remain detached from this world, and as long as one remembers that this world is also true and it is by truthful living in this world that one will find the God within each of us.

Be like the lotus, says the Guru: exist in a cesspool, if you must, yet remain unblemished ... and serve others by your  fragrance!


[Reproduced from: SIKHS & SIKHISM: A View With a Bias, by I.J. Singh, 1998. Centennial Foundation, Toronto, Canada. Edited for]

August 1, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Kulwant Singh Kang (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), August 01, 2011, 11:33 AM.

Leave it to Sardar I.J. Singh ji once again to put things in perspective and make sense. I am a regular reader of the articles on this site (I check it out 3-4 times a day for new entries), but anxiously wait for articles from him. I wish this is how Sikhism could be presented in gurdwaras. Is it an unrealistic dream?

2: Dalji Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), August 01, 2011, 12:39 PM.

I couldn't agree more with Kulwant Singh. Not only are I.J. Singh ji's articles, but also his insight and comments on other artciles, amazing. I am a regular reader of this site and I believe that, on an intellectual basis (no intention to belittle other sites), this site gets great contributions from columnists and writers like I.J Singh, T. Sher Singh and others. Keep up the good work.

3: Jaswinder Singh (Seattle, WA, U.S.A.), August 01, 2011, 12:59 PM.

I am glad all of you enjoy I.J. Singh's articles. Please be sure to donate some money on a regular basis to this site, such as automatic monthly paypal donations, to keep this light-house going.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 01, 2011, 2:07 PM.

What a delightful expose, with the usual deft pen-strokes, leaving hardly any room for improvement in its scholarly flow.

5: I.J.Singh (New York, USA), August 01, 2011, 4:36 PM.

My friends, you are all too kind, much more than is comfortable. I am sure those who know me well would heartily disagree with you. All that aside, Kulwant Singh Ji, dream on; never let go of dreams. I think Shakespeare said something like dreams being the stuff that we are made of ... and our life being rounded with sleep. Gurdwaras are ours; they reflect what we are and they function as we let them or want them to, don't you think? Thank you, much.

6: K.P. Singh (Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A.), August 02, 2011, 8:34 AM.

We are fortunate and blessed to have a scholar of the caliber, dedication, and humility of Dr. I.J. Singh to illumine and enlarge our understanding about ourselves. He does this in words, scholarly study and contexts that the scholars and followers of other faith traditions can relate to and appreciate. We see behind the marvelous depth of his research, insights and wisdom, a distinguished Sikh lighthouse and a world-class human being who personifies the truth of his faith, while fully respecting the sanctity of other spiritual traditions. Inder ji: May Satguru continue to bless you and, through you, bless each one of us with a greater understanding of the true nature, meaning, and spirit of being a Sikh; and learn and advance the timeless relevance of Sikhi to all mankind through living those sacred truths. You are a gift to all humanity.

7: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, New Jersey, U. S.A.), August 02, 2011, 12:19 PM.

A very nice article indeed! Human minds like to compare and easily absorb (or rather adsorb) new information by comparing with what they already know. For example, if I have to buy a new phone (Phone-B) then I would prefer the salesman comparing its features with my existing phone (Phone-A), as I would already know about A's features in depth. Then my mind will try to count the new features Phone-B would be providing me, if at all I purchase it. As a next step, I would be tempted to perform a cost-benefit analysis. Finally, I would ask myself, is it really worth it or can I live with what I have? In this context, a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist, even a Hindu, might find such presentations on 'The Roots of Sikhism' very interesting as they already know the aspects of their own faiths better than outsiders (or at least they should). I recently tried this on my new neighbour (a South-Indian). His final response was: "So Sikhs are half Hindus and half Muslims, right?" I think we can do proper justice with such subjects by looking much deeper into the religious texts alone rather than jumping into comparisons. In this case, gurbani alone can properly guide us on 'The Roots of Sikhism'. Similarly, if I wish to know more about Islam, then first I would be interested in reading about the differences between Sikhism and Islam. However, this approach should be only the starting point. I ought to read the Holy Quran to understand the basics - the roots!

8: Aryeh Leib (Israel), August 02, 2011, 3:42 PM.

I am deeply appreciative of Dr. I.J. Singh's literary offerings, and like many others here, eagerly await a fresh missive. My life and my relationship with God has changed immeasurably as a direct result of my association with the Sangat-at-Large in general, and with my friend I.J. Singh in particular. I would take issue here with the statement that Judaism's origins are "...lost in antiquity". All one has to do is open the Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses - called by the Christians, "The Old Testament"), and one will see the entire history of the Jewish People from its very inception up until its entry into the Land of Israel. This is a singular case of a national/religious identity that was formed before the recipients even had a land to call their own. "Perhaps the most visible point of divergence of Sikhism from Judaic philosophy and its stream, lies in the concept of original sin which is not found in the Sikh view." It's not found in the Jewish view either - it's entirely Christian in origin. If I take the time to mention these things, it's not to criticize, but to enlighten, so that the conversation can proceed with fewer misunderstandings. Even being "equally unjust" can have its limit!

9: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 02, 2011, 7:03 PM.

Aryeh Lieb, thank you very much for your kind and informative comments. I don't even know the intricacies of Sikh thought, much less the complexities of Jewish belief. When I first wrote this essay in 1994, I was even less aware of how the Jewish and Christian interpretations have diverged. Also, keep in mind, as I mention in the essay, I provide a very brief and inadequate thumbnail of other religious beliefs; my aim is to connect and explore Sikh belief and practices. In this matter though, I know that the Jews don't label the issue or the event as the 'original sin' while Christians do - that is, when Adam disobeyed God. And as a consequence, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. To my reading, that disobedience is considered a 'sin' - or an infraction of some kind - in Judaism. And I suppose this was perhaps the first sin that Adam, the first human, committed ... hence, it is original. Now, what complex interpretations or divergences Jewish and Christian scholars give to the same story in the chapter of Genesis, which is common to both faiths, is something I am not equipped to handle. Again, my purpose is to explore in more detail Sikh belief and practice, not to provide a detailed exploration of Judaism. I have to confess though that my understanding nevertheless is that while Jews don't label it 'original sin' and Christians do, the consequences are the same in both belief systems - exile from Eden. And I suppose if that hadn't happened, according to both interpretations, we would have been spared all the sinning that has followed since then. I really don't understand the conceptual difference that is postulated between the Christian and Jewish view, and my friend, a rabbi, was not able to parse the two very effectively either. But I do accept your view that the two approaches are different vis-a-vis the Garden of Eden story.

10: Aryeh Leib (Israel), August 03, 2011, 6:25 AM.

As I understand it - and I am very far from being an Authority - the Christian interpretation of "Original Sin" implies that man is considered sinful from his birth, as he is conceived in sin (this explains the Christian ideal of celibacy postulated by Paul) and can only be cleansed and purified through belief in Jesus. I welcome clarification from Christian fellow readers. The Jewish interpretation holds that man comes into the world tabula rasa; a pure soul, with the equal possibility of deciding to do good or evil. At every point of spiritual growth in one's life, the odds adjust accordingly so that the equal possibility of free choice exists at all times. There even exists the tantalizing idea that Adam purposely disobeyed God - in order to establish the path of return to God for all humankind. Agreed - some 3500 years of studying these texts has produced some amazingly complex permutations that don't lend themselves to casual perusal! I simply felt this context to be a "teachable moment"; as I mentioned, criticism was not and is not my intention here. We're all here to help one another grow - in the best tradition of Sadh Sangat.

11: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 07, 2011, 1:28 PM.

I am greatly surprised by the continuing use of the term 'God' in reference to Sikh Philosophy. Sikhi is based on the concept of GuR Jot as Creator, and this GuR Jot cannot be termed as GOD.

12: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 09, 2011, 7:18 PM.

Parkash ji, I am in full agreement with you. Often now I refer to the Creator and shy away from the word "God" that comes to us because of the paucity of language and our limitations. Sometimes in this culture, and the limited conversations and constraints of time that the meeting groups or their sponsors have, it becomes impossible to elaborate. Keep in mind that this essay was written in 1994 - some years ago. I, too, have grown and changed since then, I hope. We do have some fundamental issues with non-Sikhs around us, such as this idea of God - a term both inaccurate and not free of gender bias, as well as the idea of a chosen people, and fall from grace, and exile from 'Eden'. Inaccurate shortcuts are often the result since we often do not think these matters through. Thank you for your note.

13: H.P.S. (India), January 09, 2012, 9:40 AM.

I have just read three of your posts. Why don't you try giving a commentary on Guru Granth Sahib? Your perspective would be a welcome addition to the existing ones.

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