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Sikhism and the Status of Women

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Harjit K. Arora,

We as human beings belong to a social group at birth and our development and growth is influenced largely by that groups' philosophy. Being a Sikh woman by birth and part of Panjabi society, I have seen women being glorified as goddesses as well as downgraded. Over the years this observation has developed into a search for an explanation, and recently I have turned to the Sikh Scriptures (Sri Guru Granth Sahib) for an answer.

The Sikh Religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 AD) who was born in Panjab, India. A brief reference about the social inequalities of that period, especially with respect to women, helps to appreciate the progressive doctrine adopted by Sikh Gurus. For centuries, the status of women in India was being systematically downgraded. The caste system, economic oppression, denial of right to property 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. This was further justified by religious sanctions as was done by Manu, the Hindu law giver. 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. Manu went to the point of declaring that the service of the husband by the woman is considered to be equal to the service of God .

Per Manu's laws only a male could perform the last rites and death anniversaries (saradhas) for the dead. Inheritance of the family's property was also limited to males. Dowry was prevalent. The husband was considered as parmesawara (God). Men could be polygamous whereas women were supposed to burn themselves alive on the pyre of their dead husband (Sati). A male child was preferred since he alone could carry his father's name whereas women's names (both first and last) were often changed at her marriage. Education of women was looked down upon. They were supposed to do household work only so that they became economically dependent on men. Women were considered to be the property of men. The value on this property was assigned based on the type of service women could render to men. Women were mainly considered seducers and distractions from man's spiritual path.

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.

The topic of research in this paper is the status of women in the Sikh religion. The first part of the paper gives a brief introduction to Sikhism followed by an examination of the Sikh doctrine regarding women enshrined by the Sikh Gurus in their Holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS). The paper ends with a brief reference to Sikh women in history.


As has been stated earlier the social condition of India during the fifteenth century was chaotic. Some of the religions, especially in South Asia, had lost their original direction at the hands of an established priestly class. These religions had degenerated into elaborate blind rituals, the purpose of which was not always clear to their followers. Society was also divided into various castes/sects that believed in a large number of deities and gods, each requiring a separate set of rituals. It was in this chaotic era that Guru Nanak, the great reformer of the east was born. Guru Nanak as well as his nine suceeding Gurus worked to reform and redefine the social and religious fabric of the time. Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Guru) ended the succession of human Gurus and proclaimed Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. The Gurus fought the social and political exploitation and opression of the times. They created a new order of followers unemcumbered by elaborate rituals and free of the stranglehold of the priestly class. Freedom from economic oppression and the uplifting of the economically disadvantaged was one of the platforms for the social improvement of the masses.

TEACHINGS OF SIKHISM: Among the major teachings of Sikhism are:

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 Joti (Divine light) 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 entry into heaven or attainment of worldly riches but a permanent and lasting merger of one's soul into the Joti. The only way to achieve this is through the rememberance of God at all times so that singing of his glories and qualities so that these qualities permeate into one's soul. Salvation does not have to wait till death but can be achieved while still alive. This is known as the path of JEEVAN MUKTI or emancipation in this life .

3. A Sikh rejects all fasts, rites and rituals, yoga, self torture, mortification of body, penances and renunciation. It rejects any self inflicted pain for attainment of God. The Gurus taught their Sikhs that it was not necessary to abandon ones family and social responsibilities in order to achieve salvation or be on the path 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, they rise above worldly joy and sorrow and achieve a state of eternal bliss.


"The Guru says that whatever happens is through the will of God. Therefore I worry not and sleep peacefully and without care."

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" (GGS, 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."

6. Kaam (lust), Karodh wrath), Lobh (greed), Moha (attachment), and Ahankar (ego and pride): While Sikhism believes in living a normal family life, it prohibits its believers from engaging in lustful activities, acting in a rage or out of greed and/or attachment to worldly things, or indulging in egoistic activities and encourges its followers to earn an honest living (Kirt Karna). In general, extremes and excesses 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, they are not supposed to be so attached to them as to forget his ultimate aim in life or to grieve at their loss. They are expected to live like the lotus flower which lives in water, but rises above it. Guru Arjan Dev (the fifth Guru) writes:

"Outwardly, I am on good terms with all, but I remain detached, like the lotus upon the water. By word of mouth, I talk with everyone; but I keep God clasped to my heart". (SGGS, pp. 384)

SIKH SOCIAL ETHICS: Avtar Singh, in Ethics of The Sikhs, (p. 148), classifies the fundamental

principles of social ethics in Sikhism into four main categories.

(1) The Universal brotherhood,

2) Sarbat da Bhala (altruism),

(3) social service, and

(4) social equality.

Social equality was sought to be achieved by

(1) caste equality or abolition of caste system,

(2) relations among economic classes,

(3) relations among people of different religions and nationalities, and

(4) status of women in society.

The SGGS is replete with feminine symbolism. In this paper I explore the causes of women's degradation one by one and demonstrate the hollowness of the various theories advanced to enslave women. This paper examines some of the causes of the social degradation of the status of women and refutes the various theories advanced to advocate and promote social inequality between sexes. SGGS not only suggests remedial measures for rectification of the situation but also orders their adoption in our day to day conduct. Nirmal Kuman Jain in his book Sikh Religion and Philosophy cited by Nikky Singh (p.) remarks:

The Gurus have tried to build a road for men and women on which both could walk hand in hand. It (Sikhism) is for this reason a very revolutionary creed, for most of the religions in practice have created a gulf between the two.

The first step in this direction is taken by writing in praise of women.


1. IN PRAISE OF WOMEN. Guru Nanak (first Guru) writes. "from the woman is our birth, in the woman's womb are we shaped; To the woman we are engaged, to the woman we are wedded; The woman is our friend and from woman is the family; Through the woman are the bonds of the world; Why call woman evil who gives birth to kings and all? From the woman is the woman, without woman there is none". (SGGS, pp. 473)

The Guru reprimands those who consider women as inferior to men. He sees them as active partners in advancing goodwill, general happiness and the collective moral values of society. This declaration definitively requires women to be placed in high esteem. Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation and asserts that pollution lies in the heart and mind of the person and not in the cosmic process of birth.

"If pollution attaches to birth, then pollution is everywhere (for birth is universal). Cow-dung (used for purifying the kitchen floor by Hindus) and firewood breed maggots; Not one grain of corn is without life; Water itself is a living substance, imparting life to all vegetation. How can we then believe in pollution, when pollution inheres within staples? Says Nanak, pollution is not washed away by purificatory rituals; Pollution is removed by true knowledge alone". (SGGS, pp.472).

In many religions God has been addressed as father. However, it was Sikhism which introduced the concept of God as mother and father. The fifth Guru (Guru Arjan Dev) reinforces the high status given to women by the first Guru by placing the feminine name given to God (mother) before the name of father.

God is our Mother as well as our Father. "Thou O Lord, art my mother and Thou my Father. Thou art the Giver of peace to my soul and very life". (SGGS, pp. 1144).

2. GENDER EQUALITY. In Sikhism widespread and practical steps are advised to be taken for the socio-religious equality of woman. Guru Nanak introduced the Concept of Sangat (holy congregation) - where both men and women can sit together and equally participate in reciting the praises of the Divine and Pangat - sitting together, irrespective of caste or social status differences, to eat a common meal in the Institution of Langar (common kitchen). Women were never excluded from any specific task. Both men and women took equal part in essential tasks, i.e., drawing water from wells, reaping and grounding corn, cooking in the kitchen, and cleaning of the dishes . The Guru says: "Come my sisters and dear comrades! Clasp me in thine embrace. Meeting together, let us tell the tales of our Omnipotent God. In the True Lord are all merits, in us all demerits". (SGGS, pp. 17).

There are no priests or commentators, no rituals or philosophical doctrines that stand between a person and the Guru's Bani (Nam). There is a direct relationship with God for every man, woman and child. Only the veil of ignorance or one's ego stands in the way between the human and the Divine Being.

3. CHASTITY - Sikhism stresses family values and faithfulness to one's spouse. "The blind-man abandons his own, and has an affair with another's woman. He is like the parrot, who is pleased to see the simbal tree, but at last dies clinging to it". (SGGS, pp. 788).

Sikh Gurus declared that marriage is an equal partnership of love and sharing between husband and wife. Married life is celebrated to restore to woman her due place and status as an equal partner in life. "They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather they alone are called husband and wife, who act as if they have one soul in two bodies". (SGGS, 1165).


A. The practice of women burning themselves on their husband's funeral pyre (sati). "A 'Sati' is not she who burns herself on the pyre of her spouse. A 'Sati' is one who lives contented and embellishes herself with Good conduct". (SGGS, pp. 787).

B. Prevalence of female Infanticide and the ritual of dowry in Indian society. "O' my Father! give me the Name of Lord God as a gift and dowry. Let the Lord be my wear, His Glory my Beauty, that my Task be accomplished. Blessed is the Lord's worship; the True Guru has blessed me with it. In all lands, nay, in all Universe Pervades the Glory of the Lord; the gift of the Lord's (Name) is matchless; All other Dowry displayed by the self-willed is false egoism and a vain show." (SGGS, pp. 79).

C. Wearing of veils by Women. One of the simplest but most effective instruments for the subjugation of women in society has been the invention of the veil. It hampered free movement and restricted their activities. It made them stay within the four walls of the home. One of the reasons advanced for the veil was that women were 'temptresses' for the celibate priests and sages. If that be so, perhaps the priests and sages should have the veils and not the women.

Guru Nanak abolished the system of veils by introducing the system of sangat (sikh congregation) where no veil was required. Both men and women were required to cover their head only as a matter of respect to the SGGS. Women are also expected to participate in religious rites as equal partners and even to lead the prayers.

D. The rape and brutalities committed against women by the Mughal invader Babar.

"Modesty and righteousness both have vanished and falsehood moves about as the leader, O Lalo. The function of the Qazis and the Brahims is over and the Satan now reads the marriage rites (rape). The Muslim women read the Quran are suffering call upon God, O Lalo. The Hindu women of high caste and others of low caste, may also be put in the same account, O Lalo." (SGGS, pp.722).

A novel method applied by the Sikh Gurus for the uplifting of women was the abundant use of feminine symbols in Sikh Scriptures and in day to day life. The Sikh Gurus have used poetry as the medium of communication. The poetic utterances of the Gurus were not called "Guru Vak" which is masculine but 'Guru Bani" which is feminine. Guru Bani was placed on a very high pedestal and was given an importance equivalent to that of the Gurus' themselves. Thus the fourth Guru (Guru Ram Das) says:

Bani guru guru hai bani, vicci bani amrit sare (SGGS, p.982). Bani is the Guru, the Guru Bani, Within Bani are contained all elixirs. Similarly, the Divine light was frequently referred to as Joti (a feminine symbol) and not chanana (which is masculine).

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh in her book The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent has discussed this theme at length. In chapter II "Mother: the Infinite Matrix" Nikky Singh has emphasized the importance given to women by the Gurus. In the epilogue of the Japu is the presence of equivalent female and male images. mata dharti mahatu The Earth is called the mother and is thus considered as the great mother of all. The Sikh tradition does not believe in worshiping the earth. However, it does honor the maternal nature of our planet. This clearly is a celebration of "Mother," the Infinite Matrix. The images pertaining to mother employed in the Sikh scriptures are garbha (womb), kudarati (nature), mati (wisdom), and nadar (grace).

Among the other steps taken in sikhism to enhance the status of women were:

(1). All men have a common last name SINGH (Lion), and all women have a common last name KAUR (Princess).

(2) Guru Amar Das (the third Guru) trained and appointed a large number of women as missionaries who had complete religious jurisdiction. All men and women gave them respect.

(3) Women Priests and Warriors: Sikh women were also cast into the role of saints and soldiers just like Sikh men. They could organize men and lead them in the battles for the freedom of people and their human rights.

(4) Education and Economic empowerment to women. Sikhism places a great emphasis on the education of women. Since they are considered as equal partners and are permitted to lead prayers and perform all religious ceremonies, their education is considered an asset for them. In the areas of Panjab and New Delhi, we have a large number of schools for Sikh children which are funded by the donations to Sikh Gurdwaras (temples). Free education is provided not only to Sikh girls and boys but also to any other person without distinction of color, creed, or religion.

(5) Widow remarriage is allowed in Sikhism. Earlier it was considered only as a right of men..


This paper would not be complete without a brief mention of the names of some of the great Sikh women who helped shape Sikhism and it's history. Mention can be made of:

1. Bibi Nanaki - Guru Nanak's sister and Mata Tripta - Guru Nanak's Mother. They played very important role in encouraging young Nanak to pursue his life long mission. They were the first to recognize Nank's saintlyness and encouraged his religious persuits.

2. Mata Khivi was the wife of Guru Angad Dev (the second Guru) and was in charge of Langar (the common kitchen). She was an unlimited resource of bountiful food and helped to create a new social consciousness in Sikh women.

3. Bibi Bhani has a unique position in Sikh history. She was the daughter of the third Guru (Guru Amar Das), wife of the fourth Guru (Guru Ram Das), and mother of the fifth Guru (Guru Arjan Dev). Bibi Bhani was an inspiration during the formative period of Sikh history and symbolizes responsibility, dedication, humility and fortitude..

4. Mata Gujari was an illuminating force behind her husband Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru) and her son Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Guru). After the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Mata Gujari guided and inspired her son Guru Gobind Singh. She was responsible for the training of the Sahibzadas (the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh) who gave up their lives for Sikhism while they were still in their teens. Mata Gujri was an inspiring force during one of the most difficult times in Sikh history.

5. Mata Sundri - the widow of Guru Gobind Singh - helped provide leadership for the Sikhs in a very difficult and tumultuous time following the death of Guru Gobind Singh. She helped maintain the sanctity of the Guru Granth Sahib as the only successor of Guru Gobind Singh and dealt strictly with pretenders and other aspirants of Guruship.

6. Mata Sahib Kaur - the spiritual mother of the Khalsa. During the first baptism ceremony of the Khalsa on April 13, 1699, Mata Sahib Kaur added sugar cakes in the preparation of the amrit (Holy water) which was administered to the Khalsa on that day.

7. Sikh Missionaries - Guru Amar Das (Nanak III) trained missionaries to spread Sikhism throughout the country. According to one account, of the 146 missionaries Guru Amar Das trained and sent out, 52 were women. At one time the religion seats in the country of Afghanistan and Kashmir were under the jurisdiction of women priests. These women had complete jurisdiction in decision making as well as preaching to congregations.

8. Mai Bhago was the brave woman who led a battalion of 40 men in the battle of Muktsar. All of them achieved martyrdom and were blessed by Guru Gobind Singh. Women continued to play important roles even in politics after the death of the last Guru. Notable among them were Sardarni Sada Kaur, mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sardarni Sharnagat Kaur, and Mata Kishan Kaur Kaonke during one period.

What is the situation today? Not an ideal one. With the passage of time, social pressures, male chauvinistic attitudes, and the forgetting of the essence of the teachings of Sikh Gurus, the position of Sikh women in today's society has suffered a set back. With the passage of time following the death of Guru Gobind Singh, chauvanistic attitudes of the existing Hindu and Islamic society of the Indian sub-continent. Many of the progressive teachings of the Sikh Gurus which were 500 years ahead of their time have been forgotten. But aided by the spread of education, economic empowerment and an analytical look back at the teachings and lives of the Gurus, the study of Sikh Scriptures has reawakened Sikh women. They are now conscious of their rights as equal partners in human progress, and citing the Holy Scriptures, they are fighting back for their rights. I am an optimist and believe the day is not far off when they will enjoy the same rights and privileges as were provided to them by the Sikh Gurus.

REFERENCES Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Scriptures). Brar, Sandeep Singh The Sikhism Home Page, http:/www.sikhs.org Singh, Avtar Ethics of The Sikhs, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1983. Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent, Cambridge University Press, 1993

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