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Sikhism : Its Ethics and Values

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Sikhism : Its Ethics and Values

Sahib Kaur, M.Sc. B.T.*

All universal religions have a two-fold aspect. They are born at a particular place and time, and as such have a local colour. The idiom in which they speak to the people is couched in the history and culture of the people. The language in which the original message of these religions is embodied is the language of the people who were the first recipients of the message. However the content of the message,or the the meaning their writings convey to the common man is relevant to all men in all times and climes, because it is a call to humanity in general to raise itself above its animal base to its divine potential.

Sikhism as a universal religion has the flavour of the time and condition of Punjab of the times of the Gurus, with its clash of two great religions and also is a call to men to rise above these local limitations to see from new heights the road to a higher and nobler version of man. This is clear from the fact that any man who translates the Guru’s Word into the language to which he is accustomed to, will feel his heart touched.

The ethics and values of Sikh religion are the outcome of religious and historical experience of the ten Guru’s, (from the first Guru, Guru Nanak, to the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh), and the people adhering to the faith. The process was initiated by the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, born in 1469 near Lahore. India of the times was passing through a dark period. The Hindus who formed nearly 90 percent of the population of the country were the subjects, while the Muslims, the then ruling class constituted the restof 10 percent, concentrated mostly in North-West of the country. The Hindus were rigidly following the caste system. They had no central church. Rather, there were separate creeds, each one following the ethical norms of its own. Muslims too were divided into three classes; the royal class, the preaching class and the common man. Such were the times when one of the noblest of men appeared on the Indian scene. Conduct, for him, was of wider and deeper significance in religious life, than it generally had in that of previous Indian thinkers. This is so, because Indian thought underrated the reality of Transitory world, while Guru Nanak showed profound faith in the Creator by declaring that the Creation of the True one cannot be devoid of Reality. Not only that, His creation was also the place where man recognizes God’s presence.

“Nanak, the Beneficent lord alone is True,

and He is Revealed through His nature.”

Var Majh M 1, P. 141

If so, the life of a man of religious insight must have a unique place in the scheme of things. At one point he says, Good conduct is above Truth itself.

“Truth is the highest of all virtues;

but true living is higher still.”

Sri Ast. M 1, p. 62

That is, though nothing else is more important than the vision of Truth, the life of truthful living is of great importance. Of course there can be no life of Truthful living without the experience of God or Reality. A man who contemplates on the Name of God attains the Truth through pure conduct.

“He contemplates His Lord with love

in the heart, and attaineth to God

through (pure) conduct and the Word,

by the Guru’s grace.”

Sidh G-33 Ramkali M 1, p. 941

This only means that you cannot separate a man’s conduct in the world from his insight of God. These two are the manifestations of the one Lord.

Concept of Mind

Man’s mind is given crucial importance in Guru Nanak’s ethical thought, as, “Man’s good or bad actions result from the working of his mind”.

“It is the mind that doeth deeds

and practiseth righteousness.”

Ast. M 1 9.8.3 p. 415

This mind is born out of five elements

Asa M 1 9.8.3. p. 415

In the Indian way of thinking, the five elements are the objects of five senses. These are sight, hearing, smell, taste and the skin sensation. By saying so, the Guru means to imply that the proper function of mind is to bind us to the real world and not to flee from it. Mind has three characteristics, all of which are ethically significant. First, it is restless, (chanchal). hence it is hard to fix attention on any object for any length to time. However, concentration of mind is as difficult a task as it is necessary. So it has to be acquired with constant discipline. And discipline requires surrender of the ego in man. This is emphasized again and again in Sikh teachings, and no doubt is allowed to remain on this point. Secondly, mind implies thinking and reasoning, attainment of beliefs and of convictions. Third, an essential characteristic of mind is its inherent ego-centredness (Haumai). The individual’s mind derives happiness or suffering due to his own experience. The I-ness, my-ness, of experience is ego (Haumai). It is neither good nor bad by itself. It is the power of mind, which could be used for good or misused for bad purposes. Haumai also leads us to identify ourselves with our way of life.

Man’s mind is the sum total of two factor’s. One factor is the evolutionary past of our species. This past is dominated by five inborn urges of lust, anger, avarice, attachment and pride. The second factors is the realization of man of his creaturliness and finite existence and his aspiration to transcend his finitude by relating himself to the transcendent God. Only too often, the urges to God-realization lies submerged in the mind and we live an ego-centred life, the life of Haumai. The ego-centered life is built on a false view of world called by Guru Nanak, Maya (illusion). Transitory things allure man towards falsehood or Maya. It deprives him of that potentiality of mind which enables man to rise to the vision of God, which for Guru Nanak is the Truth (Sach). Guru Nanak also says that it is through ego-centred-ness that man is oriented towards Truth or to falsehood.

“In ego is one truthful or

Lieth like a liar.”

Asa di Var 7.1, p. 466

Guru Angad, the Second Sikh Guru puts it thus

“Ego-centrism is a chronic disease, but the treatment also lies in it.”

Asa di Var 7.2, p. 466

In Guru Nanak’s teachings the vision of Truth is the vision of the Creator. Guru Nanak pays homage to the Creator as follows, “The Eternal ever was, ever shall be, the Eternal alone exists, nothing shall last but the Eternal.” (Japu-ji)

Again, he asks how can we find Truth and demolish the walls of falsehood?

“How then to be true? How rend the

veil of sham, untruth

Japuji p. 1

Here, falsehood stands for illusion or Maya which is the source of desire and worldliness. The Guru’s question points to the foremost concern of the seeker. When Truth is realized, it inevitably leads to noble action or good conduct. And Truth is realized only with help from the Guru or, as Guru Angad puts it, “By the grace of God, the Word of Guru (Shabad) dispels ego (Humai),” which hinders our search for Truth.

“If the Lord be in Grace, one

practiceth the Word of Guru.”

Asa di Var p. 466

It is only when man comprehends the Word (Shabad), that the life of worldliness or ‘Maya’ the life of gross egoism (humai) born out of lust, anger, avarice, attachment and pride is replaced by the life of self-transcendence, the life of Truth of the life of Naam or of Name of God.

“And stilthing his ego, he mergeth in God.

Ramkali M 1, Sidh G p. 941

The man oriented towards Guru’s Word (Shabad) is Gurmukh in contrast to Manmukh, the man sunk in the ego (humai). Gurmukh, is the man immersed in the Truth enshrined in the Guru’s Word thereby has killed his ego.

The Gurmukh is blest with Grace ...

and he stilteth his ego through the Word"

Sidh G p. 942

It is the mission of man to approach ever nearer to God. As he does this, he feels he has creativity, freedom and the will to act. The creativity of God has no reality apart from Him. In other words, only by expanding and transcending the ego, can a man accord with His Will, and thereby experience freedom.

Ethical Conduct

Having discussed the nature of human mind and its transcendence beyond the ego, we are now prepared to understand and define the ethical conduct of man. Guru Nanak has stressed the code of conduct for a God-oriented man in stanza 28 and 29 of his scripture Japuji. He has also stressed the code of conduct for the men in the position of rulers and religious leaders responsible for the moral set-up of society.

First, we will mention the ethical code for the individual comprising the elements as follows :

Contentment (Santokh)

Reflection (Saram)

Right orientation (Dhian)

Self discipline (Jugat)

Absolute faith in God (Partit)

Catholicity, i.e., showing respect to all other religious (Ai panthi sagal jamati)

Service to humanity (man jite jag jit)

We shall now consider the elaboration of these seven virtues in the compositions of the Gurus.

Contentment (Santokh) - The social order demands certain specific pattern of behaviour from every man and woman in society. An individual has to be content with his role in the social group. His ambitions should not outrun his role in the society. Thus, a farmer fulfills his Dharma by performing well his role of providing food for the society. A learned man performs his role well by acquiring and diffusing knowledge, a king by doing justice to every member of his society. In other words, by performing his own role every one is maintaining a desirable social order within the family, the occupations, the religious and social institutions, without which no one can lead a worthy life and be happy. Actually, through this variety of roles, they all really perform one role, that of maintaining the desirable social order.

“It is the bull of Dharma, the law born of mercy,

which through contentment creates harmony.

Japuji p.3

Reflections (Saram) - Man must determine and reflect on the propriety or otherwise of his own actions in terms of the ultimate concern, which is God-oriented life. By reflecting on Guru’s Word (Shabad) he must be able to interpret his Dharma in an honest and intelligent manner. To promote reflection, attachment to emphemeral objects has to be avoided :

“Love not then that which but

is a passing show.”

Sri Rag M 1 p. 21

Man has the capacity to withdraw himself in reflection. The concern of the wise man should be the preservation of social order. To attain this long-range objective, that is, maintenance of social order, he has to avoid temptations. For him, “Beauty, wealth, social status and the sweet pleasures of life as mere tinsels.” These are to be used only as necessities of life. Reflection helps us to shift real values from fake values.

(Asa di Var, Slok I, stanza 10, p. 468)

Right Orientation (Dhian) - that is, orientation to God. Guru Nanak calls this as the path of Naam or Name of God. Guru Nanak says, “I am blindfold, Naam is my Staff.” Concentrate on the Name and you will not be carried away by the allurements of Maya, that is, pitfalls in your ethical career :

“For me, the blind one, Lord’s Name is the only prop:

yea, he who leans on God

him the Maya enticeth not away.”

Suhi M 1 p. 752

Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru, says, this body is obtained by good fortune. Those who do not orient themselves properly by dwelling on the God by repetition of Naam or ‘Jap’ are slaying their self.

“The fortunate got the priceless gift of body;

But if he dwells not on the Name, he slayeth his self.”

Gauri M.5, p. 188

Repetition of the Name of God or ‘Jap’ is not to be taken as mechanical, parrot-like repetition of whatsoever name you choose to give God, but to align oneself with Him through Jap (repetition of Naam - Naam Simran).

Naam is not only the ultimate reality, but also the ultimate concern, which appears to us as the Truth, Truth which is the great medicine, that rinses away the sins.

“Truth is the cure-all, it washes

one clean of sin.”

Asa di Var 10.2 p. 468

Constant awareness of Naam is the cure for man’s ego-centredness. God can be best seen in His Creation, which he fills with himself without appearing to do so.

“In thy creations is thy light;

Through thy light are thou known,

and though without attributes, all attributes inhere in Thee.”

Asa di Var 12.2 p. 468

Even though intellectual conception does reveal the nature of Him and His Creation, yet for the common man the popular form of repetition of Naam is through listening and singing the praises of the Lord and to love Lord with all our heart.

“Sing of Him, of Him hear,

love Him, (He the master dear)”

Japuji, p. 2

Singing the praises of God through Guru’s Word in set musical notes according to Indian ‘Ragas’ is termed as ‘Kirtan’. For the common masses intellectual exploration of Naam, by reading piles of scriptures, Vedas, Puranas, and Guru Granth is a difficult task. For the common man Kirtan excels everything.

The Sikh way of life disapproves of concentration of mind on idols, pictures of Gurus, particular body postures, control of breath, performing formally prescribed bodily action, bathing at certain holy spots and going for pilgrimages just for the sake of going, as sham rituals.

Self-discipline and culture of life (Jugat) :- Self-discipline also means self-control. God-orientation naturally issue forth from a self disciplined and cultured style of life. It is the Lord sown in this body of man, sprouting forth in disciplined conduct, only thus do we know the presence of God in man:

“We know the Truth when the heart is true.”

Asa di Var 10.2 p. 468

Life that is oriented towards Guru leads a person to acquire three attributes i.e. Naam (the Name), Dan (service) and Ishnan (the purity of one’s own life).

“The Gurmukh is blest with the Name,

Compassion and purity.”

Ramkali M 1, Sidh p. 942

When we study the Guru’s scripture, we inevitably come upon some thoughts of self-discipline. A man should live the life of a hermit or an ascetic not by leaving one’s home or family, but by following the seeker’s path of God, in his daily life in his family and society. Man plays his distinctive role of Dharma by maintaining the social order. An essential part of this role is his life as a householder. Guru Nanak himself was a householder. In his life as Guru, he settled down to earn his own living by farming at Kartarpur, after he had completed his religious search. So were the next nine Gurus in succession, who were the true wise men upholding the social order of their society.

As a householder it is difficult for a man to keep his desires in check; he is apt to lose himself in the life of petty pleasures. Guru Nanak says that the householder of first waters is he who exercises self-control and regulates his life. One should eat just as much as is necessary for the maintenance of health and sleep as little as necessary.

“And I sleep little and eat little;

this is the quintessence I’ve found.”

Ramkali M 1, Sidh G p. 939

Guru Nanak abhors laziness. He exhorts man to work hard :

“Nanak : that alone is received whole in the you

that one giveth out off one’s honest day’s bread."

Asa di Var p. 472

One should keep away from lust, and anger particularly as they are physically and mentally injurious. We should root out greed and avarice from our mind, only then could we live in the spirit of God :

“But when through the Guru’s Word,

one overcometh one’s greed,

one is reconciled to the Lord.”

Asa di Var M 1 p. 419

Evenness of mind or poise under all circumstances has been regarded highly all Indian thinkers and Guru Nanak is no exception. He has given it a positive face. A God-oriented man lives in perpetual delight day and night.

“And they are thus ever in joy.”

Asa di Var 6.1 p. 466

The greatest upsetters of evenness of mind are worry and fear. Worry arises from our inability to adapt ourselves to unfavourable conditions in the world around us. Our own inability to detach ourselves from our loves and hatreds arises out of our ego-centred mind. The remedy lies in rising above ego-centrism, through the Guru’s Word :

“And bereft of hope and fear,

he burned down his ego with the Word.”

Asa di Var 9.2 p. 468

Our greatest worry comes with clinging to life and fear of death. There is no greater test of spiritual strength than when man is prepared to face death with poise. Guru Nanak has said this time after time :

“Thou, who abidest in me through

the Guru’s Grace, thou who determinest

my destiny as thou willest.”

Sri Rag M 1 p. 20

A God-oriented man, with complete submission to God looks at worry as not being his concern. “The Creator fulfills His purpose through us, let Him worry.” So says Guru Nanak. The care is His who created the world :

“Yea, the care is His who created the world.”

Asa di Var SMI p. 467

Self-discipline in God-oriented life is self regulation with devotion to Lord, not out of fear of God but out of divine love :

“What use that service which rids

not of the fear of the Lord Nanak;

the true servant is he who mergeth

in the master.”

Asa di Var p. 465

Guru Angad, the second Guru explains it further, saying that there is no service of Lord where there is fear of the Lord. A true servant is he who has completely attuned himself to the Lord :

“What use that service which rids

not of the fear of the Lord.

Nanak; the true servant is he

who mergeth in the Master.

Asa di Var SM2 p.475

The pursuit of worldly pleasure always lands us in suffering. The wise man therefore always tries to place himself, through reflection on Guru’s Shabad out of bounds to pleasures and sufferings alike.

“But one attains poise, and looks upon

pain and pleasure alike if one

pierces (the heart).”

Sr. M.1 Astp-57

Guru Nanak lays stress on all round religious and moral personality. Among the writings of numerous men of God who have adorned the pages of history, a special charm of Guru Nanak is, in going beyond orthodoxy, to include excellence, like mastery of language, knowledge, music sensitiveness to beauty, awareness of what is happening around you, intelligence, wisdom and literacy, which man must accomplish. He says those men who do not strive to attain these and yet are proud are real asses :

“Nanak : the real asses are those

who pride on themselves but have

no virtue to be proud of.”

Var Sarang M.1 p. 1246

A man who is God-oriented and self disciplined is simple in his appearance and behaviour. Those who assume air and throw their weight about in the world are so tainted that however often they bathe in 68 places of pilgrimages, the taint could never be removed. Guru Nanak believes in dignified simplicity (Garibi ves).

Indeed, they are good men in this world who are silk inside, while appearing as coarse clothes outside :

“They within is silk, and rags

without they are the good ones of the world.”

Asa di Var M.1 p. 473

The dignity of a cultured man comes through economy of speech, avoidance of needless debate and, above all, self-reliance :

“Why prathe over-much, all prattle is vain;

For the Lord knoweth all without being told.”

Dhanasari M.3 p. 661

“And, yea argue not with a fool.”

Asa di Var p. 473

“And thus with his own hands accomplish his task.”

Asa di Var p. 474

Faith (Partit) - Faith develops fearlessness in man. A man who has God in his heart and acts as described above walks tall with the staff of faith in his hand :

“For me, the blind one, the Lord’s Name

is the only prop.”

Suhi M.1 p. 752

Due to his well-regulated life and submission to God he attains fearlessness. Says Guru Nanak, “Now that I have your True Name in my heart, who is the other at whose door I should bow my head? “Except the True Master, he cares for none."

“For they care not for one other than

the True Lord.”

Asa di Var M.1 p. 473

He can serve no ordinary creature henceforth :

“When one serveth every “he and that,"

how will one attain to the Lord."

Asa M.1 p. 429

Not only does his faith show itself in this outer strength, but also in an inner strength. His mind is not like a divided house torn within itself because of doubts as is the mind of ego-centred man (Manmukh).

Principle of Catholicity i.e. Respect for all other religions (Ai Panthi Sagal Jamati).

In Sikh perspective, value is attributed to the principle that a wise man treats groups other than his, with the same respect that he gives to his own group. Says Guru Nanak, “We should not claim ourselves good and see others as evil beings. Suppressing our ego we should go on the basis of Truth” :

“I see no one that’s bad, though I am

not good sayeth Nanak; he who slayeth

his ego is himself like the true Lord.”

Maru M.1 p. 1015

Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru, says that if we change our angle of vision, we will see no enemy, no stranger, we will dwell in harmony with every human being.

“Yea, I am estranged with no one,

nor is anyone is a stranger unto me.”

Kanara M.5 p. 1299

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, says “Known you, that all human beings belong to one race” (Sarab Loh Granth). Guru Nanak applied this principle of friendly co-existence of religions and castes in his own times. At the very beginning of his mission he proclaimed that there were no Hindu and no Muslim, meaning thereby that they are both rooted in a common humanity. Between a good Muslim and a non-Muslim there could be no enmity. Not only did he say this, he demonstrated it by his warm and outgoing friendliness for his contemporary Muslim saints and admitting Muslims to his holy congregations (Sangat). In the Guru’s kitchen (Langar), which he established soon after settling down at Kartarpur, and which he continued since then as a living institution of organized Sikh religion, every body was expected to dine together without distinction of high and low. The fact that the shackles of Hindu caste systems are much less rigid in Punjab, than other parts of India, is due entirely to the work of Sikh Gurus, in this respect, first begun by Guru Nanak.

Service (Seva) - Guru Nanak perceives service as combination of four elements of behaviour in an individual - sweetness to others in daily life, forgiveness, compassion and service :

Sweetness to others in daily life without pride, but with humility is the basis of all social excellence.

“Sweetness and humility,

Nanak, is the essence of virtue."

Asa di Var 14.1 p. 470

We must avoid rude speech, as by speaking rudely we cast ourselves away from others.

“To be sour-tongued is to

destroy oneself.

O, foolish mind."

Sri Rag M.I p. 15

Avoid speaking ill of others and speak well of others in whichever place we are.

“Wherever we go,

We should speak nothing

but good,"

Suhi M.I. p. 766

Forgiveness (khima) - In the spirit of Guru Nanak forgiveness is not to be understood as mere overlooking offences aimed at us by others. Our false pride should not come in the way of forgiving others. But still we must keep in mind the overall social order or traditions of our society.

Compassion (Daya) - Man experiences universal compassion when ego dies in him. Having recognized himself in all beings he himself will become great, that is to say, transcend his finitude :

“When one dieth to the self,

one becometh a know-all;

and knoweth within All-Merciful God

the alone attaineth Glory who sooth himself in all life."

Sidh G, 24-940

If one finds himself in others, one will naturally do for them what he normally does for oneself. This is giving oneself to others (Dan). Without compassion one cannot give. Guru Nanak insists that we must give only from what we have earned by sweat of our brow.

Service (Seva) - We now come to the peak of behaviour pattern, that which we call service. Giving a desirable thing or a commodity is donation (Dan) service is style of life where one gives continuously. Short of service (Seva) there is no fulfillment :

“For, His service is

the Deed most sublime.”

Maru M.I p. 992

Here again, we have to see an all-society viewpoint, leaving our ego behind. Otherwise, you do not get the status in the moral life which belongs to a fulfilled man :

“If he loses his self and serves

He getteth honour.”

Asa di Var M. 2 p. 474

The best service a man can do is to help all those associated with him to similarly achieve their own perfections :

“And, emancipating themselves

they emancipate their clans too;

O, fulfilled is their life of the world.”

Maru Sohle M.I p. 1039

To sum up, taking a broad look on “mind” we found two seemingly opposite forces struggling for primacy in man’s life-man’s ego-Centredness (Haumai) and the urge for self-transcendence sought by following Guru’s Word or Shabad. We said ‘seemingly opposite’ because if Guru’s teachings have to be a force in our lives, it can only be done by the Guru’s Word being accepted by us, which means joining Guru’s Word with our ego. This is the essence of freedom of man, even when he is only a part of God’s Creation.

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