Jump to content

Relocating Gender in Sikh History, Read Here!


Recommended Posts

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

During my personal quest to study religions and determine which held what made my heart content, I mainly looked at how each religion positioned women. Being a woman myself it was something I wanted to explore, what would relate to me, and which rules I would be expected to follow, and whether these were truly divinely inspired laws, or laws given to women through a male dominated culture. I guess being a feminist did not make my study easier, as I dismissed many parts of religious beliefs solely for the fact that it had nothing but contempt for women and treated them as a hindrance to spiritual growth. Having spent most of my life growing up in Southall (UK), the religions I was most accustomed to, from their followers were Hinduism and Islam, and I looked briefly into both, and how they viewed women. Although I don't know much about Hinduism I would like to say something about Islam. I was always under the belief that the Hijaab demoralised women, not praying when menstruation, polygamy, not leaving the house without a male companion added up to extreme sexual discrimmination. However, recently after reading and asking the right people who actually practise their religion I have found the wisdom behind most of the above, but Im still a long way off from accepting it fully. The main point is that according to Islam there are clear cut rules for men and women based on the way they were created to perform different roles. Each rule is exclusive to them and benefits them according to their abilities and talents, both being equally valuable to the structure of a family and community. This makes sense because although men and women are different, we tend to make them equal in every sense, which doesn't always work as women have different basic natures to men. Extreme feminism has really damaged women I feel, and I think we should nurture the differences and provide equal OPPORTUNITY, rather than EQUALITY which is impossible as we are so diverse in not only biology but also psychologically.

In Sikhism, I never questioned gender construction and I was always told that it held women in high esteem. I still feel of all religions present in the world it allows women the most freedom in practising their faith. However, I always questioned when younger why there were no female Punj Pyare, female Guru's and more mention of women in Sikh history?! I wanted to see more studies done on Sikh women and although I read a few based on Bani, there was nothing which covered all aspects such as how the historical milieu at the times of the Guru's affected Sikhism's treatment of women. I don't have much knowledge about any religion, having just started to learn, and in no ways learned as the members here. Although we have had these Keski debates and third gender discussions, I guess I've always been defensive, not because I was aware of facts, but because I automatically assumed it was sexism. This was wrong, and I feel we need to be more open minded to views which are perhaps challenging our feminist beliefs which are probably not practical and for some we cannot even provide solid proofs.

Anyway, last year in India I picked up a few books on Sikh History from Keshgarh Sahib and one of these amongst them was 'Relocating Gender in Sikh History' by Doris R. Jakobsh. It has disturbed me a great deal, for as I don't know much about...well anything, I cannot come to terms with some of the points raised. I would like to share some of the excerpts from the book and request members to post their views and opinions.

We have some knowledgeable Sikhs on this forum, and I think this book deserves their opinions a great deal. This thread will not be for posting opinions, only to read the chapters from the book. I have opened a thread to comment on this book on the following link: http://www.sikhawareness.com/sikhawareness...opic.php?t=3994

Please post your opinions there.



The Construction of Women in Sikh History and Religion - Attitudes and Assumptions

An Overview of Secondary Sources

''The status of women was not an issue in Sikhism. Equality was implicit... .Women are considered as an integral part of society who must not be excluded by any ritual or doctrinal consideration. Since rituals tend to be exclusive, they cannot be made part of a true faith. (Suri 1989:112).''

''To know whether to take speakers seriously is difficult in a society that blurs the boundary between serious and strategic communication. When are promises or statements of intent, for instance, merely the casual talk of everyday life or stragic maneuvers in compromising situations rather than acts of serious communication? (Fenn 1982:113).''

The study of Sikh history from a feminist perspective has not been given a great deal of attention in Sikh studies. While Sikh apologetics repeatedly insist that women and men are inherently equal in the Sikh world view, in reality, historical writings contain virtually nothing about women, apart from minimal asides referring to the occasional exceptional woman who has been deemed worthy enough to have made the pages of history. These exceptional women are then typically held up as the standard by which to measure the gender-egalitarian ethos of the Sikh tradition. Clarence McMullen notes that in speaking of the religious beliefs and practises of the Sikhis, that it is necessary to make a distinction between what he labels normative and what he calls operative beliefs (1989:5).

''Normative beliefs and practises are those which are officially stated and prescribed or proscribed by a recognized religious authority, which can be a person, organisation, or an official statement. Operative beliefs and practices, on the other hand, are those actually held by people.''

The Development of the Early Sikh Tradition

A Gender Perspective

The Milieu

Im the traditional historical accounts of the Sikhs, there is little evidence that women were in any way active participants in the developing community. The Sikh community was born in the fifteenth century in northern India with the birth of Guru Nanak, a Hindu of the Khatri caste. At the time of Guru Nanak's birth in 1469, Islam was the dominant religion, with the conquering of India by the Mughals. Islam in fifteenth century India had a very few different constitution that in many other parts of the world. Few Indians could go on pilgrimage to Mecca; instead, local shrines became the focus of pilgrimage and devotion. In Punjab, the most important forms of Muslim life were represented by various orders within Sufism. Sufism was chronicled in the thirteenth to the seventeenth century as having penetrated all echelons of Indo-Muslim society. Significantly, the SUfi world view considered that both women and men were called into a life of mystical devotion to God (Schimmel 1975:433-4). Alongside Muslim religious culture, and perhaps more important in terms of numbers and religious forms, indigenous orders of Hinduism during this Indo-Islamic time period also flourished. These were largely regional outgrowths of the Bhakti movement that started in Tamil in the seventh century. The three major sects of the time were the Shaivites, the Vaishnavites, and the Shaktas. In all three, gender and caste affiliation did not stand in the way of discipleship. Furthermore, varied forms of popular religion were practised in these sects in combination with 'higher' forms of religion. For the common villager, worship of the sun, moon, rivers, godlings and ancestors was customary; the appeasement of malevolent spirits was part of daily ritual activity (Grewal 1979:103,136). Given the multiplicity of religious forms during the Indo-Islamic time frame, it is hardly surprising that ideas, rituals and practices were often adopted from the prevailing milieu, thier meanings merging into one another, adding to the richness of the religious culture. More importantly for the purposes of this study, caste and gender were on the whole no longer considered to be valid obstables to the attainment of liberation. And, significantly, this was Guru Nanak's milieu.

The Early Guru Period

Guru Nanak has been chatacterized as fitting squarely within the Sant parampara (tradition) and also, in a wider sense, the Bhakti milieu of North India. This tradition rejected the worshiop of incarnations and Hindu forms of professional asceticism, spurned the authority of the Vedas and other scriptures, and ignored the ritual barriers between low and high castes. Durther, the sants stressed the use of vernacular languages in their rejection of orthodoxy. Central to their doctrines, and binging them, were their ethical ideals and the notion of interiority - rituals, pilgrimages, and idols were worthless in the quest for liberation; only loving adoration to the Ultimate mattered. The strong similarities between the various groups who lived by these ideals have been characterized by WH Mcleod (1989:25) as the Sant synthesis, a combination of the Vaishnava tradition and the Nath tradition, with possible elements of Sufism as well. What the sants also had in common was a stress on the necessity of devotion to the divine Guru (Satguru) and the need for the company of sants (Satsang).

To understand Guru Nanak's attitude towards women and gender in general, it is useful to compare his theological underpinnings with those of Kabir, the fountainhead of the Sant synthesis. Though Kabir lives 150 years before Guru Nanak, the similarity of their teachings is striking, and as Karine Schomer points out, it is precisely this aspect as opposed to historical connection or institutional foci that closely binds Guru Nanak and Kabir. The latter's compositions figure prominently in the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs. Yet, especially with regard to Kabir's attitute towards, women, there appears to be a subtle break in the similarities between the two. Grewal (1996:150) explains this in terms of their relative standings in the Sant tradition of northern India. It would appear that one of the strands of this synthesis, hathyoga, was much less important to Guru Nanak than to Kabir. For yogis, whose primary aim was the vanquishing of desire, particularly sexual desire, women were great obstacles to be conquered. Kabir's attitude towards women was similar to that of the yogis in that he too viewed women as seductive, as tempting men away from their true calling. Guru Nanak, on the other hand, criticized yogis for their solitary, ascetic, spiritual search. Contrary to the yogic apprehension of sexuality, Guru Nanak furthered the ideal of the householder. Enlightenment was not to be found within the realm of austerity. The religious community of householders, who contributed concretely to society, who offered their services to their religious community, who brought forth children and provided for them, were, for Guru Nanak, ideal devotees.

With regard to women, Guru Nanak's writings, and those of subsequent Guru's, contain a range of views, from the positive to the negative as well as ambivalent attitudes, which suggest a tension between normative, negative assiptions towards women and more positive, inclusive, and emancipated attitudes (Shanker 1994:191). Clearly, Nanak's message maintained that women and members of the lower castes were not in any way barred from attaining enlightenment, the highest purpose of human life (Adi Granth 9, 223). However, procreation, the procreation of sons specifically, was central to Nanak's vision of the ideal woman. An oft-quoted verse, supposedly indicative of Guru Nanak's positive evaluation of womanhood, points to an appreciation of woman only vis-a-vis the procreation process.

''We are concieved in the woman's womb and grow in it. We are engaged to women and we wed them. Through the women's cooperation new generations are born. If one woman dies, we seen another; without the woman there can be no bond. Why call her bad who gives birth to RAJAS? The woman herself is born of the woman, and none comes into this world without the woman, Nanak, the true one alone is independant of the woman (Adi Granth, quoted Grewal 1993:5).''

Guru Nanak's stance towards women as manifested in this passage was strikingly similar to that of the writer of the Brhaspatismriti, written in the fourth century CE, albeit from with a different context. The earlier writer questioned the inconsistencies in the inheritance rights of daughters and sons. These too were based upon the same notion later advocated by Nanak: 'A daughter is born from (the same) human bodies as a son. Why then should the father's wealth be taken by another person' (Aiyanger 1941, cited in Bose 1996:3). While Guru Nanak's words have been lauded as the slogan of emancipation for women in the Sikh tradition, they had more to do with the rejection of prevailing notions of ritual purity and support of the social hierarchy of the time. For women gave birth to sons, especially those of noble birth, how then could they be considered ritually impure? The birthing of sons was the most elevated of aspirations; sons were avenues to fulfillment and the fervent wish of any woman during Indo-Islamic times. Thus, Guru Nanak's challenge, in referring to the contemporary hierarchical order, one which placed Rajahs at the top of that order, also indicated his support of the dominant social and political order of his time.

Yet, more often than not, one senses Guru Nanak's apprehension of the female. Women are often associated with Maya, the feminine principle that deludes the seeker, she that acts as a barrier to the attainment of emancipation. According to the Adi Granth, '[t]here is pleasure in gold, pleasure in silver, pleasure in women, pleasure in scents, pleasure in horses, pleasure in the conjugal bed, pleasure in sweets, pleasure in the flesh-there are so many pleasures of the body that there is no room for the Name' (Adi Granth:3). While woman is only one of the various attachments specified, she is mentioned time and time again, as an attraction to the male, woman thus becomes part of maya. Further, negative images of women were frequently compounded by ambivalent messages towards outcasts of the time ''Evil mindedness is a low woman, cruelty a butcher's wife, a slanderious heart a sweeper woman, wrath which ruineth the world a pariah woman'' (Adi Granth, Macauliffe 1990, VolI:52).

While Guru Nanak grieved the rape of women during the time of Babur, he did not censure the social order of the whole. Moreover, he firmly believed in God's omnipotence and the will of God behind these events (Grewal 1979:162,176). While aware of the social challenges facing the widows of his day, Nanak instead censured them for their unrestrained desires. He did not re-evaluate social institutions such as marriage and marriage practices to make them more equitable for women. Moreover his silence regarding sati is surprising, given that it was primarily confined to the upper echelons of society, to which he belonged. There was also no critique of female infanticide, again, a practise closely aligned to the upper castes. In the final analysis, when it came to the social status of women, Nanak seemed content to leave the prevailing system in place. In the patriarchal world view, women were indeed assigned a position of inferiority, however, that inferiority in no way detracted from their ability to attain salvation; salvation, regardless of station or gender was pronounced open to all who devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the Ultimate.

As noted earlier, Nikki Singh, has pointed to Nanak's use of the feminine voice in his Bani as indicative of the high regard the Guru had for women. Yet, this practise was certainly not unique to Guru Nanak; many North Indian Sants used the female voice. David Lorenzen in his analysis of upper-caste Bhakti saints makes note of a number of reversals-active responses towards the normative Hindu world view as represented in Manu's Darmasastra. For according to Manu, the female was necessarily subordinate to the male and the outcast subordinate to the upper class.

To be Continued...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...