ETHICS OF THE SIKHS
Harjit Kaur Arora
Ethics in broader term are defined as doctrines of values in human conduct. In other words, these are the life-rules by which people live. The code of conduct set for the Sikhs in the Rahit Maryada (life-rules) set by Shromani Gurdwara Prabandhak committee has profound impact on the Sikh living. These life-rules are found in the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of the Sikhs. The ethics can be divided into the following categories:
1. Moral Standard,
2. Human Motives, Propensities and Praxis,
4. Duties, and
5. Social Ethics.
Moral Standard: The major problem with morality is houmai (ego or I-am-ness). Guru Nanak, in his composition Japji identifies houmai as a feeling of individualism. Guru Nanak uses sat (truth) as the principle of spiritual progress. The morally good person, according to this approach, would be one who rises higher and higher away from houmai towards the larger self. The journey to sachiara (self-realization) becomes easier if we accept God’s hukam (will).
Human Motives, Propensities and Praxis:
Kaam (Lust), Karodh (Wrath), Lobh (Greed), Moh (Attachment), and Ahankar (Ego or Pride) are known as 5 thieves. The Gurus stress the need to control them or overpower them. These propensities keep a person in a state of restlessness. These propensities should be controlled voluntarily through poise and balance and not through penance. Guru Nanak pointing to desirable conduct says, “This township (of the body) is maintained by truthfulness, contentment, chastity, charity and self-control all-too-naturally, one is then met with the life of life” (SGGS, p. 1037).
Virtues: Virtues are qualities essential to endear the self to the Divine. The Sikh Scriptures emphasize the following virtues – wisdom, truthfulness, justice, temperance, courage, humility, contentment, and love for humanity. The Scriptures are embedded with these virtues, however, we do not find any hierarchy. Virtues have been treated in general way. However, some isolated references are found to certain virtues.
Duties: Duties of the Sikhs are outlined in Rahitnamas (code of conduct). A Sikh should perform all his duties to his/her best ability depending upon the station of life he/she is in. The Moral duties are (1) Right belief, (2) Right livelihood, (3)Chastity and fidelity. Organizational duties pertain to observing 5 K’s.
Personal aspect of duties:
1. Right Belief: This duty requires of a Sikh to have belief in One God.
2. Prohibition of the use of narcotics and intoxicants.
3. Respect for life and women.
4. Right livelihood and helping the needy.
5. Duty of serving others.
Social Ethics: Social ethics can be defined as the study of the response by a person in social situation according to certain moral principles. It is always helpful to evaluate someone’s social ethics considering history of the place a person is coming from. Sikh religion started in India by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 AD) who was born in Punjab. This was an era of great awakening when old dogmas and faith of established religions were being reviewed and challenged. Some of the religions, specially in South Asia, had lost their original direction at the hands of an established priestly class. These religions had degenerated into a bundle of elaborate rituals, the purpose of which was not clear to its followers. Besides per existing codes religious activity could only be performed by a particular class of people called Brahmins or their progeny without regards to their educational background or spiritual status. These rituals spanned the whole spectrum of human activity from birth to death and covered all major events in one’s life like marriage, house warming ceremonies, establishing a new business, and day-to-day activities like eating, charity, and pilgrimages etc. It extended far beyond a person’s death in as mush as the soul of the deceased had also to be cared for by propitiation of gods and providing food and other gifts in annual ceremonies that eventually went to the priests. All these activities were controlled by the priestly class of Brahmins who would do so in consideration of cash and/or other material benefits. Besides society was divided into various castes/sects who believed in a large number of deities and gods each requiring a separate set of rituals.
Social Inequality can be examined in the context of
1. Caste inequality,
2. Relation among economic classes,
3. Relation among men of different religions and nationalities, and
4. Status of women in society.
1. Caste Inequality: The prevalent Hindu caste system was first attacked by Buddhism, however, it survived. Sikh Gurus also denounced Hindu caste system by outright rejecting it. Complete equality among all men is declared as the fundamental moral principle by the Sikh Gurus through the following arguments:
1. validity of the caste inequality is denied as there is no fundamental difference among men in terms of physical constitution,
2. laws of nature are not more kindly oriented towards the members of the so-called upper castes
3. men have not emanated from different parts of the primeval man,
4. attainment of the ideal is possible for all men irrespective of caste distinctions right in the present life itself. Thus man need not wait for birth into the next higher caste for the attainment of salvation or spiritual realization, and
5. birth of a person and consequently the caste based upon it, does not enter into the ultimate reckoning of his deeds (spiritual realization).
Note -- Now the Constitution of the Indian Republic contains injunctions against discrimination on the basis of caste.
2. Equality Among Classes in Sikhism: Wealth is also a determinant of social classes besides the caste system. Sikh religion rejects distinction based on ownership of economic resources. According to Guru Nanak, “One lives not ever in the world: Neither king not beggars would remain, they all come and go” (Adi Granth, p. 931). Guru Arjan Dev says, “The wise of God looks upon all alike, such as the wind that blows alike for the commoner and the king” (Adi Granth, p. 272). In the same paragraph, the Guru alludes to fire and asserts that just as nature treats all alike, in the similar way, the wise in God treats all alike.
As a practical step to implement the equality among men, Guru Nanak started The Institution of Langer (the community kitchen) which is open to all irrespective of their economic station in life. Dining in Langer is representative only of an acknowledgment of social equality and integration.
Equality of the Guru and the disciple: the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, brought equality between the Guru and the disciple by initiating five people into Khalsa through Amrit (baptism) and then getting initiated himself through these five Khalsas. This Guru disciple relationship was also based on equality.
3. Relation Among Men of Different Religions and Nationalities: Discoursing about the merits of men professing different religions Guru Gobind Singh held, “One may be a Hindu or a Muslim, all human beings belong to one brotherhood of mankind” (Guru Gobind Singh, Dasam Granth). Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed, “God is in the Hindu temple as well as in the mosque. God is addressed in both the Hindu and the Muslim prayer; all men are one though they appear different. The Hindus and the Muslims are all one though they may have different habits under the influence of different environments: They are also compounded of the same elements, earth, air, fire and water. The Qur’an and the Puranas praise the same God. They are all of one form and one God has made them all” (Guru Gobind Singh, Akal Ustat, p. 86).
4. Status of Women in Society: The status was women in India was systematically degraded for centuries. The caste system, economic oppression, denial of property rights and inheritance, a false sense of impurity attached to menstruation and child birth, deliberate deprivation of education led to the deterioration of women’s position in society. Woman was referred to as a seducer, unclean, and a temptress. She was denied the right to preach or to participate in other religious rites. Another system whereby some young women in their late teens (called Dev Dasi’s - God’s slave) were supposed to be married to stone idols and were to remain celibates, was adopted in temples in parts of Eastern and Southern India. Such women were occasionally sexually abused by the priests of these temples. Unethical practices such as female infanticide, immolation of the widow with the deceased husband, and wearing of veils by women were common during the fifteenth century in India.
Sikh Gurus took a firm stand against derogatory practices in regards to the Status of Women by promoting equality between sexes. The Gurus have suggested remedial measures for rectification of the situation and have ordered their followers to adopt respect for women in their day to day conduct. Guru Arjan Dev reinforces the high status given to women by Guru Nanak by calling the God as our mother as well as our father (Adi Granth, p. 1144). Gender equality is introduced through the institution of Langer through the concept of Sangat and Pangat. The concept of Sangat is where both men and women sit together and equally participate in reciting the praises of the Divine and Pangat is where both men and women, irrespective of their caste or station in life, sit together to eat common meal in the Langer. Sikh religion also stresses family values and faithfulness to one’s spouse. Sikh gurus declared that marriage is an equal partnership of love and sharing between husband and wife.
Sikh religion condemns the practice of women burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre (sati); prevalence of female infanticide and the ritual of dowry in Indian society; wearing of veils by women; and the rape and brutalities committed against women. To raise status of women, Sikh Gurus have used feminine symbols extensively in their writings. Among the other measures taken to enhance the status of women, Guru Amar Das trained and appointed a large number of women as missionaries incharge of Manjis who had complete religious jurisdiction. Women were also cast into the role of saints and soldiers by baptizing them. Great emphasis is placed on the education of women. Since they are considered to be the equal partners, they can lead prayers and perform all religious ceremonies and their education is considered an asset for them. Widow remarriage is allowed in Sikh religion. Earlier it was considered only as a right of men.
CONCLUSION: Ethics is the science of values in human conduct. Many times these values are violated and we lose the ultimate purpose of life, that is, to become one with the God itself. Sikh Gurus have rejected old dogmas and practices so that human can achieve spiritual -realization and liberation from five thieves. Their teachings are compiled in Adi Granth also called Siri Guru Granth Sahib. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh accorded the status of Guru to Siri Guru Granth Sahib and declared that Siri Guru Granth Sahib is Guru for Sikhs for times to come.