Sikhism and Women
"A godly person covets not any women except his legal wife.
His relations with other women are governed by profound respect."
(Guru Granth Sahib)
Women and their rights have been ignored for too long. Any approach to solve problems of social justice and the environment must be sensitive to women's concerns, and must include women as equals.
Often piece-meal solutions to environmental problems focus on limiting population growth and family planning programs. Most family planning measures end up abusing women's rights and should be rejected on those grounds alone. Meanwhile they spread mistrust of family planning among women.
Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus in their life advocated equality and dignity to women and took steps to implement these principles. Guru Nanak denounced the idea that spirituality was only for men, and not for women. The first Sikh Guru in his preaching and writings made direct statements emphasizing that women were no less than men:
"After the death of one's wife, one seeks another,
and through her social bonds are cemented.
Why should we condemn women who give birth to leaders and rulers?
Everyone is born of a woman and a woman alone.
Nobody is born otherwise.
God alone is an exception to this rule."
(Guru Granth Sahib, page 473)
Guru Amardas strongly opposed the custom of Sati in the sixteenth century and also advocated widow marriages. Sati was the Indian practice whereby widows burned themselves with their husband's corpse at cremation. Guru Amar Das appointed and ordained a large number of women preachers, and at least one bishop - Mathura Devi, four hundred years ago. The Sikh Gurus also raised their voice against the Purdah or veil. Guru Amardas did not even allow the Queen of Haripur to come into the religious assembly wearing a veil.
The immediate effect of these reforms was that women gained an equal status with men. Those who lived as groveling slaves of society became fired with a new hope and courage to lift themselves to be equals of the best in humanity. The spirit of the Sikh woman was raised with the belief that she was not a helpless creature but was a responsible being endowed with a will of her own with which she could do much to mould the destiny of society.
Women came forward as the defenders of their honor and dignity. They also became the rocks that stood against tyrants. Without the burden of unnecessary and unreasonable customs, Sikh women became the temporal and spiritual supporters of men, often acting as the 'conscience of men.' Sikh women proved themselves as the equals of men in service, devotion, sacrifice and bravery.
Since the late nineteenth century Sikh community organizations have made efforts at expanding educational opportunities for all. Individual Sikhs, men and women, in various cities and towns, took the initiative to start and operate women's colleges and schools. Women's education was part of the drive to improve education among the Sikhs, initiated by Sikh organizations in the 1920s. In towns and villages in the Punjab and in cities with significant Sikh populations there exist schools and colleges operated by Sikh organizations.
Sikhism and Equality
The Institution of Sangat, Pangat and Langar
The Sikh Gurus, throughout their lives, provided role models for the Sikhs. They all actively worked to stress the equality of all humans and challenged the rigid social stratification of the caste system in India. The very existence of the Sikh religion is based on challenging (1) inequality in society, and (2) the exploitation of the poor and the marginal by the religious and political establishment.
Sikh Gurus provided many examples of standing by their principles and confronting exploitation and oppression. They stood by the ‘low’ and the ‘poor’, for, as Guru Nanak said:
"There are the lowest men among the low-castes.
Nanak, I shall go with them."
What have I got to do with the great?
God's eye of mercy falls on those who take care of the lowly.
(Guru Granth Sahib, page 15)
Sikh Gurus challenged the status quo and came into conflict with the entrenched elite - political, social, religious, and economic. The Gurus were most sympathetic to the down-trodden of society, the untouchables, and those of lower caste, They vehemently opposed the division of society on the basis of caste, which had been and is still significantly present. They identified themselves with the poor in full measure and were critical of those responsible for their misery. In the course of their travels, they preferred to live in the homes of those who made an honest living to the homes of the rich who thrived on exploitation.
Two Sikh Gurus were martyred by the regimes of their period for challenging the contemporary authorities. One, Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred when he stood up for the religious freedom of the Hindu inhabitants of Kashmir who were being forced to accept Islam by the rulers.
Sikh Gurus also molded traditional lifestyles to exemplify a more equitable society. They created many institutions that form the basis of Sikh society and are based on the equality of all. The Sikh Gurus invited people of all castes and creeds to meditate together. That would be called Sangat. Either before or after the meditation, people were asked to sit and eat together irrespective of their social background to create a sense of equality. That process would be called Pangat. Sikh Gurus started a tradition of free distribution of food to the rich or poor through the Sikh meeting areas. That would be called Langar. These three ideas were in contrast to the Indian society which had separate temples or water wells for social outcasts. These changes by the Sikh Gurus created a lot of opposition from the religious establishment. These changes are still much alive in Sikh practices today. Through the creation of the Khalsa, the Gurus established a system that would protect and maintain a free and just order.
Sikhism and Environment
"Creating the world, God has made it a place to practice spirituality"
(Guru Granth Sahib, page 1035.)
The Sikh scripture declares that the purpose of human beings is to achieve a blissful state and be in harmony with the earth and all creation. It seems, however, that humans have drifted away from that ideal. For the earth is today saturated with problems, it is agonizing over the fate of its inhabitants and their future! It is in peril as never before. Its lakes and rivers are being choked killing its marine life. Its forests are being denuded. A smoky haze envelops the cities of the world. Human beings are exploiting human beings.
There is a sense of crisis in all parts of the world, in various countries and amongst various peoples. The demands of national economic growth and individual needs and desires are depleting the natural resources of the earth. There is serious concern that the earth may no longer be a sustainable bio-system. The major crises facing the earth - the social justice crisis and the environmental crisis - together are heading the earth towards a disastrous situation. The social justice crisis is that of humanity's confrontation with itself and the environmental crisis is caused by humanity's confrontation with nature.
The environmental crisis caused by humanity's exploitation of nature is leading to the depletion of renewable resources, destruction of forests, over-use of land for agriculture and habitation. Today pollution is contaminating air, land and water. Smoke from industries, homes and vehicles are in the air. Industrial waste and consumer trash is affecting streams and rivers, ponds and lakes. Much of the waste is a product of modern technology; it is not bio-degradable, not re-usable and its long term consequences are unknown. The viability of many animal and plant species, and possibly that of the human species itself is at stake.
This crisis cries out for an immediate and urgent solution. The crisis requires a going back to the basic question of the purpose of human beings in this universe and an understanding of us and God's creation.
We are called to the vision of Guru Nanak which is a World Society comprising God-conscious human beings who have realized God. To these spiritual beings the earth and the universe are sacred; all life is unity, and their mission is the spiritualization of all.
Guru Nanak laid the foundation of Sikhism in the late fifteenth century. His writings, those of other human Gurus who succeeded him, and other spiritual leaders, are included in the scripture - Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Granth has been the Guru and Divine Master of the Sikhs since 1708, when Guru Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more human Gurus. Guru Nanak and his successors during their lifetime worked towards creating an ideal society that has as its basis spiritual awareness and ethical integrity. The name ‘Sikh’ means disciple or learner of the Truth.
Guru Nanak in his philosophy states that the reality that humans create around themselves is a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth - the external environment of human beings, is only a reflection of the instability and pain within humans. The increasing barrenness of the earth's terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans.
The solution to problems manifest in our world lies in prayer and accepting God's hukam. It is difficult to translate certain Sikh concepts accurately. Hukam is one such concept - it may be best described as a combination of God's will, order, or system. With an attitude of humility, and surrender to the Divine Spirit, conscientious human beings can seek to redress the current crises of the environment and of social justice. In the Sikh Way this is done through the guidance of the Guru, who is the Divine Master and messenger of God.
A Sikh theologian, Kapur Singh, explains that Sikhism has three postulates implicit in its teachings:
One, that there is no essential duality between spirit and matter.
Two, that humans have the capacity to consciously participate in the
process of spiritual progression
Three, the highest goal of spiritual progression is harmony with God,
while remaining earth-conscious, so that the world itself may be
transformed to a spiritual plane of existence.
Further descriptions of the universe and its creation in Sikh scripture are remarkably similar to recent scientific speculation about the universe and its origin. One of the basic hymns in the Sikh Scripture, which may be called the "Hymn of the Genesis" describes the indeterminate void before the existence of this universe. (See Appendix 1.0) Guru Nanak speaks of innumerable galaxies, of a limitless universe, the boundaries of which are beyond human ability to comprehend. God alone knows the extent of creation. (Appendix 3.0)
God created the universe and the world, for reasons best known to Him. And being the results of God's actions all parts of the universe are holy. God is an all-pervasive being manifest through various elements of creation. (Appendix 4.0)
Having created this universe and the world, God directs them. All actions take place within God's hukam. God alone knows how and why. God, however, not only directs this vast and massive theater, but also watches over with care and kindness-the benign, supportive parent!
"Men, trees, pilgrimage places, banks of sacred streams, clouds, fields.
Islands, spheres, universes, continents, solar systems.
The sources of creation, egg-born, womb-born, earth-born,
sweat-born, oceans, mountains and sentient beings.
He, the Lord, knows their condition, O Nanak.
Nanak, having created beings, the lord takes care of them all.
The creator who created the world, He takes thought of it as well."
(Guru Granth Sahib page 1016)
The world, like all creation, is a manifestation of God. Every creature in this world, every plant, every form is a manifestation of the Creator. Each is part of God and God is within each element of creation. God is the cause of all and He is the primary connection between all existence.
"The Creator created himself......
And created all creation in which he is manifest.
You Yourself the bumble-bee, flower, fruit and the tree.
You Yourself the water, desert, ocean and the pond.
You Yourself are the big fish, tortoise and the Cause of causes.
Your form can not be known"
(Guru Granth Sahib page 1016)
In the world God has created he has also provided each species and humans with means of support and nurturing.
In Sikh beliefs, a concern for the environment is part of an integrated approach to life and nature. As all creation has the same origin and end, humans must have consciousness of their place in creation and their relationship with the rest of creation. Humans should conduct themselves through life with love, compassion and justice. Becoming one and being in harmony with God implies that humans endeavour to live in harmony with all of God's creation.
The second postulate is that humans, practising a highly disciplined life, while remaining active in the world, are capable of further spiritual progression. It is important that Sikhs retain the primacy of spirit over matter, while it is desirable that they do not deny matter or material existence. It is not required that humans renounce the world. They must maintain their life in the world and uphold all responsibilities in the world. Humans should be renouncers of plenty and maintain a simple life. Further spiritual progress fundamentally starts with an individual conquering himself/herself with the guidance of the Guru. (Appendix 6.0) The emphasis is on mastery over the self and the discovery of the self; not mastery over nature, external forms and beings. Sikhism teaches against a life of conspicuous, wasteful consumption. The Guru recommends a judicious utilization of of material and cultural resources available to humans.
"Then why get attached to what you will leave behind.
Having wealth, you indulge in pleasures bout,
From that, tell me, who will bail you out?
All your houses, horses, elephants and luxurious cars,
They are just pomp and show, all totally false."
(Guru Granth Sahib)
The Gurus taught humans to be aware of and respect the dignity in all life, whether human or not. Such a respect for life can only be fostered where one can first recognize the Divine spark within oneself, see it in others, cherish it, nurture and fulfill it.
"This little shrine of the human body!
This great opportunity of life!
The object is to meet the Beloved, thy Master!
(Guru Granth Sahib)
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