Sikh Philosophy

The basic belief in Sikhism is that life is not sinful in its origin, but having emanated from a pure source, the True One abides in all. Not only does all Sikh philosophy, but the whole of Sikh history and character flows from this principle.

Sikhism, the youngest of the world’s religions, is barely five hundred years old. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469. Guru Nanak spread a simple message of “Ek Onkar“: we are all one, created by the One Creator of all Creation. This was at a time when India was being torn apart by castism, sectarianism, religious factions and fanaticism. He aligned with no religion, and respected all religions. He expressed the reality that there is only one God with many paths that lead to Him, and that the Name of God is Truth, “SatNam“.

Guru Nanak’s followers were Sikhs (seekers of truth). He taught them to bow only before God, and to link themselves to the Guru, the Light of Truth, who lives always in direct consciousness of God, experiencing no separation. Through words and example, the Guru demonstrates to followers how to experience God within themselves, bringing them from darkness into light. Guru Nanak was a humble bearer of this Light of Truth. He opposed superstition, injustice, and hypocrisy and inspired seekers by singing divine songs which touched the hearts of even the most callous of listeners. These songs were recorded, and formed the beginnings of the Sikhs’ sacred writings, later to become the “Siri Guru Granth Sahib“.

The interior of the Akal Takht

The interior of the Akal Takht

i. One Immortal Being,
ii. Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Sahib to Guru Gobind Singh Sahib,
iii. The Guru Granth Sahib,
iv. The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and
v. the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru, and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion, is a Sikh.

Sikhism is classified as an Indian religion along with BuddhismHinduism and Jainism.

Main article: God in Sikhism and Gender of God in Sikhism

Ik Onkār, a Sikh symbol representing "the One Supreme Reality"

Ik Onkār, a Sikh symbol representing “the One Supreme Reality”

The basis of Sikhism lies in the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successors. Many sources call Sikhism a monotheistic religion, while others call it a monistic and panentheistic religion. According to Nesbitt (2005), English renderings of Sikhism as a monotheistic religion “tend misleadingly to reinforce a Semitic understanding of monotheism, rather than Guru Nanak’s mystical awareness of the one that is expressed through the many. However, what is not in doubt is the emphasis on ‘one’.”

In Sikhism, the concept of “God” is Waheguru (‘wondrous Lord’) considered to be nirankar (‘shapeless’), akal (‘timeless’), karta purakh (‘The Creator’), and agam agochar (‘incomprehensible and invisible’). The Sikh scripture begins with ik onkar (ੴ), which refers to the “formless one”, understood in the Sikh tradition as monotheistic unity of God. Sikh ethics emphasize the congruence between spiritual development and everyday moral conduct. Its founder Guru Nanak summarized this perspective:

Truth is the highest virtue, but higher still is truthful living.

Concept of life

Sikhism lays emphasis on

Ėk nūr te sab jag upjiā, ‘From the one light, the entire universe welled up.’

God in Sikhism is known as ik onkar (), the One Supreme Reality, the One Creator or the all-pervading spirit (i.e. God). This spirit has no gender in Sikhism, though translations may present it as masculine. It is also akaal purk  (‘beyond time and space’) and nirankar (‘without form’). In addition, Nanak wrote that there are many worlds on which it has created life.

The traditional Mul Mantar goes from ik onkar until Nanak hosee bhee sach. The opening line of the Guru Granth Sahib and each subsequent raga, mentions ik onkar:

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥

ikk ōankār sat(i)-nām(u) karatā purakh(u) nirabha’u niravair(u) akāl(a) mūrat(i) ajūnī saibhan gur(a) prasād(i).

“There is one supreme being, the eternal reality, the creator, without fear and devoid of enmity, immortal, never incarnated, self-existent, known by grace through the true Guru.”

Sri Guru Granth Sahib (17th c.), p. 1

Worldly illusion

Māyā, defined as a temporary illusion or “unreality”, is one of the core deviations from the pursuit of God and salvation: where worldly attractions which give only illusory temporary satisfaction and pain which distract the process of the devotion of God. However, Nanak emphasised māyā as not a reference to the unreality of the world, but of its values. In Sikhism, the influences of egoangergreedattachment, and lust, known as the pānj chor (‘five thieves‘), are believed to be particularly distracting and hurtful. Sikhs believe the world is currently in a state of kali yuga (‘age of darkness’) because the world is led astray by the love of and attachment to maya. The fate of people vulnerable to the five thieves, is separation from God, and the situation may be remedied only after intensive and relentless devotion.

Timeless truth

An Akali-Nihung Sikh Warrior at Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple

An Akali-Nihung Sikh Warrior at Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple

According to Guru Nanak the supreme purpose of human life is to reconnect with Akal (‘The Timeless One;), however, egotism is the biggest barrier in doing this. Using the Guru’s teaching remembrance of nām (the divine Name of the Lord) leads to the end of egotism. Guru Nanak designated the word Guru (‘teacher’) to mean the voice of “the spirit”: the source of knowledge and the guide to salvation. As ik onkar is universally immanent, Guru is indistinguishable from Akal and are one and the same. One connects with Guru only with accumulation of selfless search of truth. Ultimately the seeker realises that it is the consciousness within the body which is seeker/follower of the Word that is the true Guru. The human body is just a means to achieve the reunion with Truth. Once truth starts to shine in a person’s heart, the essence of current and past holy books of all religions is understood by the person.

Liberation

See also: Naam Japo (Meditation)

Guru Nanak’s teachings are founded not on a final destination of heaven or hell but on a spiritual union with the Akal which results in salvation or jivanmukti (‘enlightenment/liberation within one’s lifetime’), a concept also found in Hinduism. Guru Gobind Singh makes it clear that human birth is obtained with great fortune, therefore one needs to be able to make the most of this life.

Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma concepts found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. However, in Sikhism, both karma and liberation “is modified by the concept of God’s grace” (nadar, mehar, kirpa, karam, etc.). Guru Nanak states that “the body takes birth because of karma, but salvation is attained through grace.” To get closer to God, Sikhs: avoid the evils of maya; keep the everlasting truth in mind; practice shabad kirtan (musical recitation of hymns); meditate on naam; and serve humanity. Sikhs believe that being in the company of the satsang (association with sat, ‘true’, people) or sadh sangat is one of the key ways to achieve liberation from the cycles of reincarnation.

Power and devotion (Shakti and Bhakti)

See also: Bhakti

Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement, but it was not simply an extension of Bhakti.

Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the founder of Sikhism, was a Bhakti saint. He taught that the most important form of worship is Bhakti (devotion to Bhagvan). Guru Arjan, in the Sukhmani Sahib, recommended the true religion is one of loving devotion to God. The Guru Granth Sahib includes suggestions on how a Sikh should perform constant Bhakti. Some scholars call Sikhism a Bhakti sect of Indian traditions, adding that it emphasises “nirguni Bhakti,” i.e. loving devotion to a divine without qualities or physical form. However, Sikhism also accepts the concept of saguni, i.e. a divine with qualities and form. While Western scholarship generally places Sikhism as arising primarily within a Hindu Bhakti movement milieu while recognizing some Sufi Islamic influences, Indian Sikh scholars disagree and state that Sikhism transcended the environment it emerged from.

Some Sikh sects outside the Punjab-region of India, such as those found in Maharashtra and Bihar, practice Aarti with lamps during bhakti in a Sikh Gurdwara. But, most Sikh Gurdwaras forbid aarti (the ceremonial use of lamps) during their bhakti practices.

While emphasizing Bhakti, the Sikh Gurus also taught that the spiritual life and secular householder life are intertwined. In Sikh worldview, the everyday world is part of the Infinite Reality, increased spiritual awareness leads to increased and vibrant participation in the everyday world. Guru Nanak described living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” as being higher than the metaphysical truth.

The 6th Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, after Guru Arjan martyrdom and faced with oppression by the Islamic Mughal Empire, affirmed the philosophy that the political/temporal (Miri) and spiritual (Piri) realms are mutually coexistent. According to the 9th Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, the ideal Sikh should have both Shakti (power that resides in the temporal), and Bhakti (spiritual meditative qualities). This was developed into the concept of the Saint Soldier by the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh.

The concept of man as elaborated by Guru Nanak refines and negates the “monotheistic concept of self/God,” and “monotheism becomes almost redundant in the movement and crossings of love.” The goal of man, taught the Sikh Gurus, is to end all dualities of “self and other, I and not-I,” attain the “attendant balance of separation-fusion, self-other, action-inaction, attachment-detachment, in the course of daily life.”

Singing and music

Main article: Sikh Music
See also: Kirtan

Kirtan with traditional instruments by Sikh singers in Kenya in the 1960s

Kirtan with traditional instruments by Sikh singers in Kenya in the 1960s

Sikhs refer to the hymns of the Gurus as Gurbani (‘The Guru’s word’). Shabad Kirtan is the singing of Gurbani. The entire verses of Guru Granth Sahib are written in a form of poetry and rhyme to be recited in thirty one Ragas of the Classical Indian Music as specified. However, the exponents of these are rarely to be found amongst the Sikhs who are conversant with all the Ragas in the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak started the Shabad Kirtan tradition and taught that listening to kirtan is a powerful way to achieve tranquility while meditating; Singing of the glories of the Supreme Timeless One (God) with devotion is the most effective way to come in communion with the Supreme Timeless One. The three morning prayers for Sikhs consist of Japji SahibJaap Sahib and Tav-Prasad Savaiye. Baptised Sikhs – Amritdharis, rise early and meditate and then recite all the Five Banis of Nitnem before breakfast.

Remembrance of the divine name

A key practice by Sikhs is remembrance of the Divine Name WaheGuru (Naam – the Name of the Lord). This contemplation is done through Nām Japna (repetition of the divine name) or Naam Simran (remembrance of the divine Name through recitation). The verbal repetition of the name of God or a sacred syllable has been an ancient established practice in religious traditions in India, however, Sikhism developed Naam-simran as an important Bhakti practice. Guru Nanak’s ideal is the total exposure of one’s being to the divine Name and a total conforming to Dharma or the “Divine Order”. Nanak described the result of the disciplined application of nām simraṇ as a “growing towards and into God” through a gradual process of five stages. The last of these is sach khaṇḍ (The Realm of Truth) – the final union of the spirit with God.

Service and action

The Sikh Gurus taught that by constantly remembering the divine name (naam simran) and through selfless service, or sēvā, the devotee overcomes egotism (Haumai). This, it states, is the primary root of five evil impulses and the cycle of rebirth.

Service in Sikhism takes three forms: “Tan” – physical service; “Man” – mental service (such as studying to help others); and “Dhan” – material service. Sikhism stresses kirat karō: that is “honest work”. Sikh teachings also stress the concept of sharing, or vaṇḍ chakkō, giving to the needy for the benefit of the community.

Justice and equality

Sikhism regards God as the true king, the king of all kings, the one who dispenses justice through the law of karma, a retributive model and divine grace.

The term for justice in the Sikh tradition is “Niau”. It is related to the term “dharam” which in Sikhism connotes ‘moral order’ and righteousness. According to the Tenth Sikh Guru Guru Gobind Singh, states Pashaura Singh – a professor of Sikh Studies, “one must first try all the peaceful means of negotiation in the pursuit of justice” and if these fail then it is legitimate to “draw the sword in defense of righteousness”. Sikhism considers “an attack on dharam is an attack on justice, on righteousness, and on the moral order generally” and the dharam “must be defended at all costs”. The divine name is its antidote for all pain and vices. Forgiveness is taught as a virtue in Sikhism, yet it also teaches its faithful to shun those with evil intentions and to pick up the sword to fight injustice and religious persecution.

Sikhism does not differentiate religious obligations by gender. God in Sikhism has no gender, and the Sikh scripture does not discriminate against women, nor bar them from any roles. Women in Sikhism have led battles and issued hukamnamas.

Ten Gurus and authority

Main article: Sikh gurus

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak

The term Guru comes from the Sanskrit gurū, meaning teacher, guide, or mentor. The traditions and philosophy of Sikhism were established by ten Gurus from 1469 to 1708. Each Guru added to and reinforced the message taught by the previous, resulting in the creation of the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak was the first Guru and appointed a disciple as successor. Guru Gobind Singh was the final Guru in human form. Before his death, Guru Gobind Singh decreed in 1708, that the Gurū Granth Sāhib would be the final and perpetual Guru of the Sikhs.

Guru Nanak stated that his Guru is God who is the same from the beginning of time to the end of time. Nanak claimed to be God’s mouthpiece, God’s slave and servant, but maintained that he was only a guide and teacher. Nanak stated that the human Guru is mortal, who is to be respected and loved but not worshipped. When Guru, or SatGuru (The true Guru) is used in Gurbani it is often referring to the highest expression of truthfulness – God.

Guru Angad succeeded Guru Nanak. Later, an important phase in the development of Sikhism came with the third successor, Guru Amar Das. Guru Nanak’s teachings emphasised the pursuit of salvation; Guru Amar Das began building a cohesive community of followers with initiatives such as sanctioning distinctive ceremonies for birth, marriage, and death. Amar Das also established the manji (comparable to a diocese) system of clerical supervision.

Guru Amar Das‘s successor and son-in-law Guru Ram Das founded the city of Amritsar, which is home of the Harimandir Sahib and regarded widely as the holiest city for all Sikhs. Guru Arjan was arrested by Mughal authorities who were suspicious and hostile to the religious order he was developing.  His persecution and death inspired his successors to promote a military and political organization of Sikh communities to defend themselves against the attacks of Mughal forces.

The Sikh Gurus established a mechanism which allowed the Sikh religion to react as a community to changing circumstances. The sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was responsible for the creation of the concept of Akal Takht (throne of the timeless one), which serves as the supreme decision-making centre of Sikhism and sits opposite the Harmandir Sahib. The Akal Takht is located in the city of Amritsar. The leader is appointed by the Shiromani Gurdwara Pabandhak Committee (SPGC). The Sarbat Ḵẖālsā (a representative portion of the Khalsa Panth) historically gathers at the Akal Takht on special festivals such as Vaisakhi or Hola Mohalla and when there is a need to discuss matters that affect the entire Sikh nation. A gurmatā (literally, Guru’s intention) is an order passed by the Sarbat Ḵẖālsā in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. A gurmatā may only be passed on a subject that affects the fundamental principles of Sikh religion; it is binding upon all Sikhs.The term hukamnāmā (literally, edict or royal order) is often used interchangeably with the term gurmatā. However, a hukamnāmā formally refers to a hymn from the Gurū Granth Sāhib which is a given order to Sikhs.

The word Guru in Sikhism also refers to Akal Purkh (God), and God and Guru are often synonymous in Gurbani (Sikh writings).

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