ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS OF SIKH SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY
Harjit K. Arora
ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS OF SIKH SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY
When we talk of Oriental religions, the general assumption is that
they consist of mysticism, intuitive experience, things ephemeral,
of the other world, disconnected from the day to day mundane
materialism. An economist, on the other hand, views society from
a materialistic angle. Religion and economics both answer similar
questions. Religion gives us ideals. Economics describes reality.
Not that economists do not believe in God or that priests do not
have monetary needs. It is not always easy to have an overall
synthetic view of both. An economist talking of religion and
philosophy is apt to walk on a slippery ground. An attempt to
combine the two sometimes results in interesting observations. But
I believe that these differences can be overcome since people
usually follow their own self interests. We have to find a way to
structure economic incentives that support and encourage ideal
social behavior and to devise a common ground in the social
behavior which governs both the economic and religious activities.
It is a happy blend of the two, with religious behavior governing
the general principles, that lead to a positive long lasting peace
and even to world peace.
Before we go into a detailed discussion of the subject, it would be
appropriate to broadly review the basic principles of Sikhism, the
teachings of its Gurus and its economic philosophy. Sikhism is
perhaps the youngest religion in the world. A majority of its
followers live in the northern part of India in Panjab and Delhi.
But they can be found in all parts of the world including the North
and South Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia etc. They are easily
recognizable because of their unshorn hair and the headgear of
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469 - 1539 AD) who
was born in the Panjab. This was an era of great awakening when
old dogmas and faith of established religions were being reviewed
and challenged. Some of the religions, especially in South Asia,
had lost their original direction at the hands of an established
priestly class. These religions have degenerated into a bundle of
elaborate rituals the purpose of which was not always 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
much 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 which 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.
In this chaotic condition of a society Guru Nanak and his nine
successors in Guruship worked to redefine the religious and social
values of mankind. The Gurus also fought the social and political
exploitation of man by man and laid down a clear and straight path
unencumbered by elaborate rituals and free of the stranglehold of
the priestly class of both Hindus and Moslems. Freedom from
economic oppression and uplift of the economically disadvantaged
was one of the platforms for the social uplift of masses.
The tenth master ended the succession of human Gurus and proclaimed
Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Scripture) as the eternal Guru of the
Sikhs. Guru Granth had earlier been compiled by the fifth Guru and
is authentic as it has been written by the Gurus themselves. The
holy scripture does not narrate the biography of the Sikh Gurus or
any other historical event. It contains hymns to the glory of God
written the Gurus and by various Hindu and Moslem Saints
subscribing to same line of thinking as the Sikh Gurus.
TEACHINGS OF THE SIKH RELIGION: Among the major teachings of
1. Concept of God: God is one. The name is Truth, it is absolute,
one supreme Being, Eternal, all pervading, the Creator, is without
fear, without hate, envy or enmity, not revengeful, self-existent,
not incarnated, the Being beyond time, Enlightener. He is attained
through the grace of the Guru.
The same Divine light (Jot) not only permeates all human beings
irrespective of caste, creed, color, race, sex, religion or
nationality but also the entire universe.
2. The ultimate aim of a Sikh is not salvation or an entry into
heaven or attainment of worldly riches but a permanent and lasting
merger of one's soul into the divine Jot (God). The only way to
achieve this is through recitation of God's name and singing of his
glories and qualities so that these qualities permeate into one's
soul and the person becomes one with God not only after death but
in this life itself. This is known as the path of JEEVAN MUKTI or
emancipation in this life itself.
This would prove that Sikhism is a separate religion with a
specific and clearly laid out objective. It would be wrong to
suggest, as some scholars have done, that Sikhism is a modified or
blended form of either the oriental or the occidental religions.
3. A Sikh rejects all fasts, rites and rituals, yoga,
mortification of body, self torture, penances and renunciation. It
rejects any self inflicted pain for attainment of God.
4. A Sikh believes that all that happens is in the will of God.
God being the benefactor of all mankind, knows and does all that is
in the best interests of His creation. Once a person willingly
submits to and accepts, and not just acquiesces into, the will of
God, he/she rises above joy and sorrow and is in eternal bliss even
here in this life.
"GUR KAHIYA JO HOYE SAB PRABH TE
TAB KARHA CHHOD ACHINT HUM SOTE" (pp. )
"The Guru says that whatever happens is through the will
of God. Therefore I worry not and sleep peacefully and
This does not, however, imply that we should not actively
participate in day to day activities and passively renounce our
duties. It certainly helps us take a detached and unprejudiced
view of all our activities and lets us perform our duties
selflessly and in the best interest of society at large.
5. By acceptance of God's will and by following the Guru's
teachings bliss comes here and now in this life. It is carried
forward to the life hereafter.
"HALIT SUKH PALIT SUKH NIT SUKH SIMRANO
NAAM GOBIND KA SADA LEEJAY" (DHANASARI, pp. 683)
"He who utters the name of God is ever at peace both here
and hereafter; And he is rid of his age old sins; joining
the society of Saints; the dead one is brought back to
6. Kaam, Karodh, Lobh, Moha, Ahankar (Lust, Wrath, Greed,
Attachment, Ego or Pride)
While Sikhism believes in living a normal family life, it prohibits
its believers in engaging in lustful activities, acting in a rage,
greed and/or attachment to worldly things or indulging in egoistic
activities. Each of these items would need a full paper in itself.
Constraints of space and time, and limitation of the subject does
not permit a complete discussion of each item. Suffice it to say
that extremes of any kind are prohibited in Sikhism. While lustful
activities are prohibited, celibacy does not carry any merit and is
discouraged. Similarly while greed for possession of any kind of
property is unacceptable so is renunciation or retiring to the
jungles for extreme penance or living on alms. While ego and pride
are considered a sin so is lack of self respect or respect for
others. While a Sikh is expected to maintain and care for the
family and other material goods, he is not supposed to be so
attached to them as to forget his ultimate aim in life or grieve at
their loss. He is required to stay like a lotus flower in a pond
living in it, getting his sustenance from the water but still
detached and head held high outside the water.
SIKHISM AND ECONOMICS
Ideally all religions aim at the maximum benefit of maximum number
of persons. We also know that corporate capitalism or state
monopoly are responses to imperfect economic conditions. It is
therefore necessary to review and redefine some of the religious
principles for the benefit of society as a whole especially the
underprevileged. Specific religious institutions also need to be
created for the implementation of these principles. Religious
economics has, of necessity, to be a welfare economics. Sikhism is
no exception to this general rule. It has tried to evolve a set of
principles that are practically acceptable to a vast majority of
its followers and can be implemented without undue harm to the
The basic requirements of any individual or a group of individuals
are food, clothing, shelter and adequate supply of money for
ancillary activities like education, transportation, entertainment,
and an adequate provision in sickness , disability and old age.
Sikhs believe that God, the Creator of this world, has supplied all
this in plenty for all the creation in the world. The problem
arises when there is an unequatable distribution of resources,
greed, hoarding, and/or excessive waste of resources resulting in
deprivation to the weaker sections of society. If sufficient and
unhindered supply of money for these items can be assured, mankind
would be less greedy and would be more considerate towards their
fellow beings. Hoarding would become less attractive and
superfluous. Of course one has to work to earn money for their
basic necessities and in today's world, an equitable distribution
of wealth just does not exist.
Sikhism resolves these problems as follows:
Honest living The same theory of greedlessness and detachment
applies specifically to a Sikh in economic matters. As has been
explained earlier, the ultimate aim of a Sikh is the merger of the
soul with the Jot (God). A Sikh believes that this is a transient
world and that what is contained herein is transitory and
impermanent. The wealth accumulated in this world is also
transitory. It has been provided to us by God for our sustenance
for the period of our stay in this world. The man comes to this
world naked and would go bereft of all the worldly wealth. Only
the spiritual activity and good deeds done by a man would go with
him in the yonder world. A Sikh should never be attached to his
worldly possessions. It would be in the interest of mankind to
donate a part of one's surplus wealth for the welfare of the needy.
Economics translates this ideal into the format of progressive tax
structure. A Sikh contributes by donating part of his/her income
to a just cause.
A Sikh believes that this human life has been granted to him as an
opportunity for spiritual advancement by the grace of God. He
should therefore maintain this body in a healthy condition, well
fed, but not underfed nor overfed. He must provide sustenance to
this body by earning an honest living. The body need not be
tortured by fasting or by over-indulging. Money is needed for this
Prior to the advent of Sikhism, it was general practice in the
prevalent religions that a specific sect or group of that religion
would abjure all economic activity in the name of spiritual
advancement. They would leave their homes, go and live in the
jungles or caves in the Himalayas or other secluded places or at
various pilgrim stations on the river banks but would still come
back to the cities to beg for food or alms. This practice had a
very demeaning effect on these religious recluses. Besides the
wealthy persons, who were required to provide charity in such
cases, would accumulate wealth by unscrupulous means in the belief
that their sins would be washed off by the blessings of the
spiritual alms seekers. The society was thus divided into two
distinct groups both of which were demeaning to human dignity.
Sikhism does not accept this artificial division between the
spiritual haves and have-nots. A Sikh believes that each soul has
to work for its own emancipation in the midst of economic activity.
Everybody is responsible for his own deeds or misdeeds and will
have to answer for them to God.
A positive externality of this system is that Sikhism does not
practice the tradition of established priesthood. More
specifically that of priests belonging to a particular caste/sect
or that of hereditary priests. In Sikhism women are also eligible
to act as a priest. Any baptized Sikh irrespective of sex, caste,
creed or color can act as a priest and perform all the religious
ceremonies which generally are very simple and need no elaborate
SIKHISM AND SPIRITUAL WELFARE
As has been stated earlier, the primary goal of a Sikh is not
accumulation of wealth, but his/her spiritual welfare. In addition
to recitation of name and communion with God what better method can
there be for such an uplift except through service to mankind. So
all the Sikhs, wealthy or otherwise, donate voluntarily but
generously to funds set up in various Gurudwaras (places of
worship) according to their capacity to donate. Most of these
donations are anonymous. These donations are used in the following
1. Institution of Langer: All the major Gurdwaras (places of
worship) maintain a free kitchen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,
where any person irrespective of his religion, color or creed is
welcome to eat. This is known as the institution of "Langar".
2. Education: Most of the major Gurudwaras maintain schools and
colleges where any student can receive education free of cost.
3. Health care: Some Gurudwaras maintain hospitals where
doctors volunteer their time and medicines are provided free of
cost to the needy.
4. Senior Homes, orphanages and inns for travellers: Some
Gurudwaras maintain rest houses and homes for the old and orphans
where free lodging is provided.
5. Duswandh (ten percent): A majority of Sikhs consider it their
duty to donate up to 10 percent of their income to the house of
God. All these funds are used for the uplift of the poor and the
needy in the manner stated above thus alleviating their sufferings,
reducing their poverty and helping them in time of need. The
recipients also exercise voluntary self control and do not take
more than what is immediately needed by them. The giving and
taking of charity is routed through the Gurudwaras as it is
believed that giving through the God's temple leads to humility on
the part of the giver and does not demean the receiver who knows
not the identity of the giver but believes that he is receiving it
from God's house.
The concept of Community service is very strong among the Sikh
devout who irrespective of their status or station in life consider
it their proud privilege and a service to God to volunteer time for
the various services organized by Gurudwaras . There are therefore
no overheads in the administration of various services and all the
funds are fully utilized for the purpose for which these are
Sikhism believes in voluntary religious regulation of economy as
distinguished from government regulated or capitalistic economy.
It adopts a pragmatic and realistic approach of subordination of
economic activity to the spiritual and religious values. It does
not reject, renounce or denounce economic activity as something
inherently bad nor does it encourage economic activity as an end
all and be all for all human endeavors. Money, property and all
other worldly goods are a gift of God to mankind to be used for the
service of mankind. These have to be earned by honest means and
should not be accumulated by torture and deprivation of other
sections of the society. Excessive accommulation of wealth is
considered burdensome and unnecessary. The Sikhs believe that
uncontrolled indulgence in the pursuit of wealth is at the root of
various ills of the society. In sum, Sikhism adopts a middle path
where even when not being attached to accommulation of wealth, a
Sikh endeavors to earn an honest living, sharing his earnings with
not so fortunate, does not renounce worldly activity, knowing fully
well that he has a higher purpose and aim in life. He does not
overlook the moral, social, religious and spiritual obligations in
pursuit of wealth. His economic activity does not degenerate into
greed or lust for power over others.
I believe that ultimate world peace can be achieved when prosperity
comes through a happy combination of religion and economic
activity. Socialist economies have failed to bring peace to
mankind and have bred corruption and lower standards of living for
everybody. The free capitalistic economy, where big fish eats
small fish, often leads to various aberrations and depressions,
where the poor becomes poorer and wealth is accumulated in the
hands of a select few. It is time to give a trial to voluntarily
regulated economic activity dominated by religious ethics and based
on universal brotherhood. People will only do this if they
perceive it as being in their own self interest. This is where
religion can play its part. This is beautifully summed in a hymn.
"JIS GRIHA BAHUT TISE GRIHA CHINTA
JIS GRIHA THOREE SO PHIRE BHARMANTA
DUHU BIVASTHA TE JO MUKTA SOEY SOHELA JANIYE."
(MARU, pp. 1019)
"He, who has more is worn by care;
He, who has less, wanders about (in search of more);
He, alone is in peace who has neither less nor more."
Will it succeed? Possibly yes. Religion is far more effective
driving force than all the government regulations put together. It
has succeeded to some extent in the small Sikh community. But it
will need more fine tuning for its application on a global scale.
Still it is worth a trial in this troubled world hankering for
peace and where quite a large number of people are below the
poverty line inspite of significant advancement in science.