3 – Unity of Indic Religions: Sikhism – Virendra Parekh

Guru Nanak

Virendra ParekhClose similarities between the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Granth Sahib and the idiom of the Granth Sahib and that of popular Hinduism cannot be explained away as being the result of social interaction. The Gurus were not borrowing. In teaching what they taught, in doing what they did they were expounding and defending an older and larger tradition of which they were part, which nourished them and which they in turn enriched. – Virendra Parekh

Bhakti, Shakti and Seva

In projecting Sikhism as a religion separate from and opposed to Hinduism, Sikh scholars have betrayed the Gurus. In comparing them with self-appointed prophets and self-proclaimed saviours, they have defamed them. In presenting Sikhs as a religious minority a la Muslims and Christians, they have rendered a disservice to their brethren. And in pinning their hopes for Hindu-Sikh amity on Nehruvian secularism, they are chasing a mirage. To restore the basic oneness, certain false notions maliciously floated by foreign rulers and picked up by their collaborators need to be exposed.

Among Indic traditions, Sikhism presents an interesting case. Outwardly it looks farthest removed from Hinduism, but internally the two are the same.

Sikhs have always been honoured members of the Hindu society. The rise of Sikhism was part of the Hindu response to the challenge of Islam. Initially, the response was only at a spiritual and philosophical level. Later, under persecution by Moghuls it acquired strong military and political aspects as well. Political achievements of Sikhism have largely overshadowed its spiritual character. Yet playing it down will be doing an injustice to the Gurus, besides limiting our own understanding of the shared ideas, ideals, principles, and the dharmic grounding of Hinduism and Sikhism.

While Buddhism and Jainism are indifferent, if not opposed to the authority of Vedas, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib (Granth Sahib) speaks with utmost reverence about the Vedas, Puranas, Smritis and Shastras. Guru Nanak says that as darkness is dispelled when a lamp is lighted, so by reading the Vedas sinful inclinations are destroyed. The fifth Guru says that the Vedas, Puranas and Smritis have pronounced the correct word; but, like other Vaishnava saints, he also warns that the letter killeth, that outer literal meanings of the words are not enough and we have to imbibe their real meanings.

The Siri Guru Granth Sahib, which contains compositions by the Gurus as also many other saints, is regarded as the Sixth Veda after the Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva and Mahabharata. It is likened to a boat which can take one across the ocean of the worldly life (Bhavasagara) to the ultimate destination of Parabrahma. Its boatman is none other than Paramatma in the form of the Guru and reciting God’s name (japa) is the ticket to board it.

The central teaching of the Granth Sahib is bhakti (devotion) suffused with jnana. It depicts bhakti in all its richness: nirguna-saguna, brahma-parabrahma, priya-priyatama bhava. Stories of Krishna saving Draupadi’s honour, rescuing Prahlada and liberating the elephant from the jaws of a crocodile are retold more than once.

The Granth Sahib is replete with philosophical terms, names of God and mythological tales drawn from Hindu scriptures. As the great scholar Dr. K.P. Agarwal has pointed out, it has about 10,000 references to Hari, 2400 to Rama, 550 to Parabrahma, 1400 to Omkara and 350 to Vedas, Puranas and shastras. Puranic terms like Kaliyuga, Charanakamala, Varuna, Yama, Dharmaraj, Chitragupta, Bhavajal, Vaikuntha, tirtha, kirtana, etc. occur in it 1750 times. Vedantic terms like neti-neti, triguna, brahmananda, jivanmukta, turiya avastha, amritpada, nirvana, etc., are used about 1150 times. The ragas to which hymns in the Granth Sahib were set by the Gurus belong to the Hindu classical music. The parikrama, dhoopa, deepa, naivedya and prasada in Gurdwaras resemble similar rites in Hindu temples.

The philosophical base of the Granth Sahib is identical with the Upanishads. Upanishads describe Parabrahma, the Ultimate Reality, as eternal, unchangeable, bodiless, without wound, without sinews, taintless, untouched by sin, omniscient, ruler of the mind, transcendent and self-existent (Isha Up. 8). The very first verse of the Granth Sahib echoes this.

But the Upanishad goes further. Brahman alone is. There is nothing else. It is the material as well as efficient cause of the world. Through the power of maya, God appears as the world. “Verily, all this is Brahman,” says Mandukya Up. (1-2). “Vasudeva is all this”  says Gita (7-19)

The Granth Sahib says Adi Purusha is the creator, the means, the cause (p. 1385). Again, “He himself is the adversity, He himself is the solution. He himself is the father, He himself is the mother, He himself is what is subtle, He himself is what is gross. The play, O Nanak! cannot be described.”

Similes of ocean and wave, wave and foam, water and bubble, gold and ornaments are used to describe the relationship between the God and the world. The Granth Sahib says “Even as bubbles arise and perish in water, so has this world been formed (p. 274). “Even as wave, foam and bubbles are not different from water, so is this world a play of Parabrahma (p. 485). By moulding the same gold in many ways, he created many forms (p. 205). The description of the world as a tree with roots above and branches below (urdhva-mulam adhah-sakham) is common to the Upadnishads, Gita and Granth Sahib. Using another famous simile from Mundaka Upanishad (3-1-1), the Granth Sahib says “two brids alight on a fruit tree. One enjoys the many hued pleasures of the world, but the other remains absorbed in the Self and attains Nirvana.”

Parabrahma is the real self of man, say the Upanishads. The Granth Sahib says, “it is an incomparable wonder: Atman is a form of Parabrahma” (p. 868).  “This self is Brahman” (Ayamata Brahma) says Mandukya Up. (1-4-2). “Thou art that (Tattvamasi)” says Chhandogya Up. (6-11-3). The Granth Sahib says “In this body are Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh” (p. 754).

To realise this unity, to grasp the God within is the ultimate objective of all religious endeavour say the Upanishads and the Granth Sahib. The liberated soul becomes one with God. Using a traditional simile, the Granth Sahib describes it as a state in which light mingles with light (jyoti jyoti samani) “As pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so does the self of the man of knowledge,” says Katha Up. (2-1-15). The Granth Sahib says “as the wave and foam become water, so does the devotee become God” (p. 206). “He who has known atman becomes Paramatma himself” (p. 421).

To attain Nirvana, the Granth Sahib enjoins the traditional spiritual discipline: control over senses, devotion to God, reflection on the Self, truthfulness, compassion, freedom from desire and turning away from worldliness.

Among all these, the Gurus assign a special place to namasmarana or remembrance of Nama (the Name), which is best suited to Kaliyuga (kaliyuge Rama nama aadhara), when people are not capable of much tapas or yoga. Guru Nanak’s heart is pierced with Rama Nama. For the fifth Guru, nectar is the name of Hari.

But this namasmarana is not an ordinary spoken word. The true shabad is born in the heart. It is the unstruck note (anahat nada), the unspoken word (ashabda) of the Divyabindu Upanishad.

These close similarities between the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Granth Sahib and the idiom of the Granth Sahib and that of popular Hinduism cannot be explained away as being the result of close social interaction. The Gurus were not borrowing. In teaching what they taught, in doing what they did they were expounding and defending an older and larger tradition of which they were part, which nourished them and which they in turn enriched. The Gurus were not imitators, purveying borrowed ideas on an unsuspecting populace. Like the sages of the Upanishads, they spoke from direct experience of Reality.

The turning point in the history of Sikhism came with the martyrdom of the fifth Guru Arjun Dev, who was tortured to death in 1606 by Moghul emperor Jahangir on the ground of helping his rebellious son Khusrau with money. His son and successor Guru Hargobind, a lad of 11 years, received his father’s last injunction: let him sit fully armed on the throne and maintain an army to the best of his ability. Guru Hargobind immediately hung up two swords on his side signifying piri (spiritual power) and miri (temporal power).

The decisive break, however, came with the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Teg Bahadur who was executed by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb for his refusal to embrace Islam. His son and successor Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa, a military order with the express purpose of fighting against the religious and political oppression of the Hindus by the Moghul emperors. (Savalakh sang ek ladaun, tab Gobind Singh nam kahaun.)

A doer par excellence and one of the bravest sons of India, Guru Gobind Singh taught that people should not depend on sovereigns and princes to defend their religious and political rights, but come forward themselves. They should personally, individually feel for the national wrongs and collectively devise means to overcome them. The times were such that success would come only if a brick were returned with a stone. Humility and service alone were not enough in such times.

To goodness were to be added not only condemnation of evil, but also destruction of evil-doers. Love for one’s neighbour must be accompanied by punishment for the trespasser. Service of saints implied annihilation of tyrants. God, Guru and Sword form the new trinity in place of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh that could lead to victory in the new age.

Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed all his four sons in his struggle against Islamic imperialism. He himself suffered tremendous hardships and privations. But he managed to build an institution that outlasted the enemy. The Khalsa covered itself with glory in the role assigned to it and a grateful Hindu society affectionately honoured its brave sons by calling them lions (singh) and leaders (sardar).

The Guru’s desire for the Khalsa to be the rulers (Raj kareyga khalsa) was fulfilled shortly after his untimely death in 1708. Vazir Khan, the Mughal governor of Punjab, died in 1710 and the entire province of Sirhind from Sutlej to Yamuna lay at the Khalsa’s feet. They proclaimed themselves as rulers and issued coins in their name. They soon lost it, however, but rose again in forty years and ruled Punjab for a hundred years. It was indeed a miracle. The pinnacle of the Khalsa’s glory came in the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who regained the whole of Punjab and Kashmir, reduced the Afghans and contained the British.

The Guru was clear in his aims and aspirations:

Sakal jagat mein khalsa panth gaje
Jage dharam Hindu, sakal bhand bhaje
Veda maryada jag mein chalaun
Goghat ka dosh jag se mitaun.

It is a travesty of his legacy that Sikhism today is presented as something different from and opposed to Hinduism. That needs to be examined. Ram Swarup, a scholar extraordinaire, has documented it in great detail. A bare outline will suffice for our purpose.

For more than a century, Sikhs have been told by custodians of Akali politics and neo-Akali writers that Sikhs are not Hindus, that instead of deriving from Hindu advaita, bhakti, avataravada, karma, punarjanma and moksha, Sikhism has grown as a revolt against Hindu polytheism, idolatry, caste system and Brahmanism.

The early inspiration was provided by Christian missionaries and British administrators. Imperialism thrives on divisions and sows them where they do not exist. The Britishers had conquered Punjab with the help of Purbiya soldiers, but these played a rebellious role in the 1857 uprising. So the British were looking for other allies and focused on the Sikhs who had remained faithful. They started telling them that Hinduism had always been hostile to Sikhism and even socially the two had been antagonistic.

Officials like Max Arthur Macauliff told the Sikhs that Hinduism is like a boa constrictor which winds around its opponent and finally swallows it. The Sikhs may go that way, he warned. He put words in the mouth of the Gurus and invented prophecies by them which predicted advent of a white race to whom the Sikhs would be loyal. He described the “pernicious effects” of bringing up Sikh youths in a Hindu atmosphere.

Macauliff was not alone. It was a concerted effort by scholars, officials and missionaries. To separate the Sikhs they were even made into a sect of Islam! Thus, the Dictionary of Islam, a scholarly work edited by one Thomas Patrick Hughes who worked as a missionary in Peshawar for twenty years, gave one fourth of a page to Sunnis, seven pages to Shias and twelve pages to the Sikhs.

The British government took administrative and political measures which yielded quicker results. They formulated a special army policy which gave pride of place to the Sikhs. In 1855, there were only 1500 Sikhs (mostly Mazhabis) in the British army. By 1910, there were 33,000, mostly Jats. The recruitment process was calculated to give them a sense of separateness and exclusiveness. Only Khalsa Sikhs were recruited. They were sent to receive initiation as per rites prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh. Each regiment had its own granthis. They greeted British officers with Wahiguruji ka khalsa, wahiguruji ki fateh.

“As a result of these measures, the Sikhs in the Indian army have been studiously nationalised,” observed Macauliff. A secret CID report prepared in 1911 by D. Patrie said that “every effort was made to protect them (Sikh soldiers) from idolatry”, i.e. Hindusim. “Sikhs were encouraged to regard themselves as a totally distinct and separate nation,” he wrote.

The Britishers also launched Singh Sabhas and Khalsa Diwans which pledged loyalty to the Raj.

It may be noted that those foreigners who fanned Sikh “nationalism” had scant regards personally for the Gurus. The same Patrie, for example, wrote that (Guru) “Arjun Dev was a mercenary who was prepared to fight for or against Moghuls as convenience and profit dictated.” He tells us that (Guru) “Tegh Bahadur, an infidel, a robber and a rebel, was executed in Delhi by Moghul authorities.”

That has not prevented their mental progeny from repeating the lessons taught by them to this very day. Sadly, scholars who ought to know better lead the charge, taking their cue from the pamphlet Hum Hindu Nahin written by Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha, a staunch loyalist.

Since the essence of Sikhism is identical with Hinduism, external differences are pushed to the utmost and made much of. Sikhism is forced into the mould of Abrahamic ideologies. We are told that the Sikhs have a Book in the Guru Granth Sahib, like the Quran and the Bible, while Hindus have none. Sikhism has a tradition of prophets or apostles in the ten Gurus, which Hinduism lacks. Sikhism frowns upon idolatry, Hinduism is full of it. Sikhism has no use for Vedas, Puranas and the social system of the Dharmashastras which form the cornerstone of Hinduism. By giving up the external marks, the five Ks, the Sikhs would lapse into Hinduism. The latter, therefore, represents a danger to Sikhism which must always preserve its external marks at any cost.

The arguments represent, at best, sloppy thinking. The Gurus and prophets are two different kinds of categories belonging to two opposite types of religions. None of the ten Gurus ever claimed to be a prophet, i.e. a privileged messenger who brought verbatim messages from a personal God, to be obeyed by the less privileged humans forever. True the Nirguna Brahma of the Granth Sahib and Upanishads is one without a second and formless. But if such a God cannot be depicted with any idol, he cannot be caught in a name or a book either. He cannot be cruel, whimsical, jealous and vindictive (as is the God of the Bible and Quran) or benevolent, rational, generous and forgiving. He is beyond all qualities and attributes.

Without analysing the concept of idol worship, it may be pointed out that Sikhs are not the only Hindu sect that does not believe in it. Vedic Aryans did not worship idols. Buddha did not want his followers to worship his own statues. Arya Samaj does not endorse idol worship.

This is even more true of caste. Claiming to be anti-caste is the typical Hindu thing to do these days. RSS, VHP and Arya Samaj, all regarded as orthodox Hindu organisations by their supporters as well as opponents, expressly claim to be anti-caste. On the other hand, the Sikhs have observed caste rules as much as the Hindus have. Castes have existed on both sides and marriages take place between Sikhs and non-Sikhs but within the same caste, e.g. Jats.

But the Sikh scholars and politicians are not alone in betraying the Gurus. The Hindus have betrayed them, too. And not just by disowning Punjabi as their mother tongue. The Arya Samaj and the Sikhs got on with each other very well initially, but parted company later on. Dayanand Saraswati’s unflattering remarks about Guru Nanak and activities of Arya Samaj, which offered shuddhi (purification) to the Sikhs along with Muslims and Christians, played straight into the hands of foreign mischief makers. Modern Hindu intellectuals have not bothered to claim the legacy of the Gurus and Sikh heroes. They have shown an indecent haste in calling the Sikhs a religious minority. The Hindu tradition of offering the eldest son to the Gurus is almost extinct. And in recent times, the attitude of Rajiv Gandhi government to the Sikhs was not much different from that of the Moghuls.

The Gurus taught self-exploration, self-purification and self-transcendence. We have replaced them with self-stupefication, self-righteousness and self-aggrandisement. The Gurus placed devotion above erudition, spiritual wisdom above rituals and God-realisation above heavenly pleasures. We are doing the opposite.

However, as Sita Ram Goel pointed out, all is not lost yet. Ordinary Hindus still cherish the memory of Sikh Gurus and seek solace in the Granth Sahib. There is no dearth of Sikh scholars who see Sikh spirituality as part of the larger and older tradition of Puranas and Upanishads. The time has come for them to make themselves heard more loudly and clearly in a dharamyudh against false and poisonous ideas planted by foreign rulers with a malicious intent. Their voice is bound to reverberate in the hearts of Sikhs and Hindus alike. – IndiaFacts, 9 August 2021

› Virendra Parekh is a senior journalist of 45 years’ standing. He writes in English and Gujarati on economics, politics and also on issues related to Indian civilisation, history and cultural nationalism. Currently, he is Executive Editor of Vyapar, a 72-year-old Mumbai-based Gujarati bi-weekly of economy, business and investment.

Greeting the Granth Sahib

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