Theosophical Encyclopedia


TE 2 Sikhism

Guru Nanak

A religion which started in the Punjab in northwest India in the late 15th century by Nanak (1469-1539), now called by his followers Guru Nanak Dev, the title guru meaning “teacher,” but having the connotation of deep respect or reverence, and dev being the Punjabi form of deva or “god,” “divinity.” The name Sikh is Punjabi for Sanskrit sisya or “pupil.” Nanak is identified in Theosophical literature as a genuine Prophet or Saint (cf. Besant, Sikhism, 1920, p.4) and a bas relief placard commemorating Sikhism is on the wall of the main hall of the headquarters building of The Theosophical Society (TS) in Adyar, Chennai (formerly Madras), India. The religion numbers some 6 million adherents. They are found mainly in the Punjab, but are also in other parts of India (especially the northern states) and in many other countries of the world where Sikhs have built temples, called gurudwaras (“gateways to the teacher”). Their spiritual center is the beautiful Golden Temple located in Amritsar.

TE 3 Sikhism Golden Temple Nightview

 Golden Temple Amritsar, night view

Nanak was born either on April 15 or October 20, 1469, in Rai Bhoeki Talwandi (now called Nanakana Sahib) about 55 miles (89 km) northwest of Lahore, an area now in Pakistan. His father, Mehta Kalu, was a patwari or government accountant for land revenue; his mother’s name was Mata Tripta. He had an older sister named Bibi Nanki who identified, while he was still a child, his spiritual nature and became his first disciple. Although his family was Hindu, from early childhood he became acquainted with both Hindu scriptures and the Quran and he also claimed to receive direct revelations from God (cf. Sikh Missionary Center, Sikh Religion, 1990, pp. 15, 246-248). It must be remembered that this was the period of the medieval bhakti (devotional) movement in India which produced some extraordinary mystical poetry, such as that by the low caste Muslim weaver Kabir (1440-1518) of Banaras (now Varanasi) who taught through his poetry “the brotherhood of Hindu and Muslim alike in the fatherhood of God” and who “opposed idolatry and caste practices, declaring that God was equally to be found in temple and mosque” (A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, 1954, p. 479). Much of Kabir’s poetry is included in the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib.

At the age of eight, Nanak refused to put on the sacred thread worn by all upper caste Hindu boys, telling the officiating Brahmin priest that only if the priest would spin the thread out of compassion, contentment, continence, and truth would Nanak wear it, adding the verses:

Such a thread once worn will never break

Nor get soiled, burnt, or lost.

The man who weareth such a thread is blessed.

(Sikh Religion, p.17; cf Besant, loc. cit., p. 13)

When he was a little older, Nanak often would sit in meditation for long periods of time, which greatly worried his father who sought to distract him by marrying him as a teenager to Kulakhni. She bore him two sons, but family life did not change his preoccupation with spiritual concerns, since he felt that humanity was his family and that he had a mission to teach mankind brotherhood and devotion to God. Nanak’s sister convinced their father to send him to Sultanpur to live with her and her husband. It was there that he met the Muslim musician (or minstrel) Mardana, who became his constant companion from then on. Since Nanak considered the world to be full of bigotry, fanaticism, hypocrisy, and falsehood, he decided in 1507 to undertake a series of travels (udasis, literally “retreats”) with Mardana to the sacred places of different religions — Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain — both to learn more of their teachings and to spread his own ideas. These took the two not only throughout India but to Sri Lanka (known then as Sangladeep), Mecca, Medina, and Baghdad as well. In all these places, he preached against idolatry, superstition, and meaningless ritual, attracting followers wherever he went. The songs (sabads) he sang at these various places — as well as the songs of the Gurus who succeeded him — have also been preserved in the Sikh scriptures and are the focal point of Sikh worship services. The most important of these is called the japji, the preamble to which is:

There is but One God

Eternal Truth,

Almighty Creator,

Fearless, without hate and enmity, immortal Being,

Unborn, self-existent.

By His grace shalt thou worship

The One Who was True before creation

The One Who was True in the beginning of creation,

The One Who is True now,

And, O Nanak, the One Who shall be True forever.

(Sikh Religion, p. 70)

It is generally suggested by scholars that Sikhism is an amalgam of the two dominant religions of India during Nanak’s day, incorporating, in the words of A. L. Basham, “all that was best of both Hinduism and Islam” (loc. cit., p. 479). Sikhs, however, maintain that it is a unique revelation directly from God.

The Sikh Scripture, Adi Granth (“Original Collection” or “First Book”), known to Sikhs as the Guru Granth Sahib (loosely translated “Book of God”), is a collection of more than 6000 hymns written in the Gurumukhi script in a mixture of languages, mostly Old Punjabi and Old Hindi. Most were composed by the first five Sikh Gurus. It is divided into 34 sections, 31 of which are classified according to the melodic form or raga in which they are sung. Modern printed versions always are exactly 1430 pages long. Besant comments about it, “You can catch the echo of the Upanishads thrown into more popular language, the deep thought of Hindu philosophy, put into a form for popular use” (Sikhism, p. 17). It explicitly mentions, for instance, the Hindu notions of reincarnation and karma. But one cannot miss in it also the Muslim influences of an uncompromising monotheism as well as its rejection of all forms of idolatry and caste, race, gender, and economic class discrimination. Sikhs give the etymology of the word guru as gu plus ru, gu meaning “darkness” and ru meaning “light.” In other words, they say, the Sikh scripture is the Light which dispels the darkness of ignorance. There are several translations of the Adi Granth into English. An early one was published by Allen & Unwin, London in 1877; a more recent one by Pritam Singh Chahil was published in four volumes in 1993, including the Gurumukhi text. A CD based on the latter, called the Khalsa Consensus Translation, is now available. Also, translations of selections of the scripture may be found both in Besant’s little booklet Sikhism and in Sikh Religion.

Guru Nanak died on September 2, 1539, after naming Bhai Lehna, who took the title Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552), his successor. This began the practice of Sikh Gurus naming their successor. Angad was followed in turn by Guru Amar Das (1479-1574), who was visited by the Moghul Emperor Akbar, Guru Ram Das (1534-1581), Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606), Arjan’s son Guru Har Gobind (1595-1644), Guru Har Rai (1630-1661), Har Rai’s son Guru Har Kishen (1656-1664), Har Gobind’s grandson Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675), and finally Tegh Bahadur’s son Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). After the tenth Guru, there were a series of leaders, such as the brilliant maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1838), who established a Sikh State in the Punjab in 1802 which lasted until 1849 when it was defeated by the British. But the Sikh scripture was considered the real Guru or Teacher from 1708 on, as Nanak had previously indicated:

My system began with the beginning of the breath of life.

Its source is the wisdom of the True Guru.

The True Guru is the Word,

And the attentive consciousness is the disciple.

(Sikh Religion, p. 49)

All the successors to Nanak were remarkable men who contributed in various ways to the Sikh religion. His first successor, the second Guru, Angad, revised the Punjabi script, which he called Gurumukhi (“spoken by the Teacher”). The third Guru, Amar Das, carried out a vigorous campaign for the abolition of the Hindu practice of sati organized the Sikhs into 22 manjis (dioceses), and expanded the caste-free kitchen started by Guru Nanak; even emperors (such as Akbar) had to sit with commoners when taking food there before they were allowed an audience with the Guru. The fourth Guru, Ram Das, established Amritsar as the Sikh holy center and organized a system for spreading Sikhism more systematically by means of an order of missionaries (masands) which the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, reorganized so as to attend to the secular as well as religious needs of the community. Guru Arjan also compiled the Adi Granth in 1604, completed the excavation of the “tank” or pool at Amritsar for the Sikh’s Golden Temple, and supervised the construction of the Temple in the middle of it. Unlike Hindu temples which are closed on three sides and admit only “twice-born” castes, or Muslim mosques which are oriented toward Mecca and, at that time did not admit women, the Golden Temple has entrances on all four sides, indicating that all people — of whatever caste, creed, race, color, sex, or nationality — are welcome. The similarity of this liberal ideal with the First Object of The Theosophical Society is obvious. The Adi Granth is placed in the very center of the Temple and Sikhs pay special reverence to it. Like Hindus, Sikhs first ceremonially bathe in an outer tank, then cleanse their mind of unworthy thoughts in an inner tank, called Hari Mandar (“House of God”) or Nam (“[Divine] Name”) before entering the Temple. Guru Arjun had befriended Amir Khusrau, the grandson of Akbar, whom Akbar had nominated to succeed him. But Jahangir, Akbar’s son and Amir Khusrau’s father, opposed that nomination and had Amir Khusrau imprisoned and Arjun Dev tortured and executed. This began an extended period of persecution by Moghul rulers of Sikhs and Sikh Gurus which ultimately resulted in the transformation of Sikhism in India from a pacifistic religion into a militant sect.

The sixth Guru, Har Gobind, began the process of militarization, urging his followers to become soldier saints, cultured and moral but “ever ready to measure swords with demonic forces” (Sikh Religion, p. 124). He erected a raised platform in front of the Hari Mandar, which was called Akal Takhat (“Timeless Throne”) and pronouncements made from it were considered the final word in legal disputes and secular affairs. Guru Har Gobind established friendly relations with Emperor Jahangir, but when the emperor’s son, Shah Jahan, succeeded his father after Jahangir’s death, the Sikh community again found itself facing Muslim hostility and Shah Jahan instigated four wars against the Sikhs between 1628 and 1634 in which many Sikhs were killed. The seventh Guru, Har Rai, became friends with Shah Jahan’s oldest son and heir apparent, Dara Shikoh. Unfortunately, a younger son and fiercely orthodox Muslim, Aurangzeb, usurped the throne, imprisoned his father, killed his three brothers, and continued the persecution of Sikhs (as well as Hindus) which resulted in the execution of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, on November 11, 1675.

The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, is one of the more remarkable figures in human history. He vowed to create a Sikh nation (panth) free from Muslim oppression and turned Sikhism into a militant brotherhood by creation of a casteless society of the pure (khalsa). Sikhs were baptized into the Khalsa by means of water mixed with sugar crystals made holy by stirring it in an iron bowl with a small two-edged iron sword (khanda). This water was called amrit (“nectar”; cf. Sanskrit amrta, the nectar of immortality.) They were then commanded to adopt the five “Ks”: wearing uncut hair (kesh) in which a comb (kanga) was kept, wearing short pants or underwear (kaccha), wearing a steel bracelet (kara), and wearing a dagger (kirpan) for self-defense as well as for a symbol of dignity and power. When the hair became long, usually in one’s teens, it was wrapped in a turban. After one was baptized, one took the name Singh (“lion”; cf. Sanskrit simha), hence all (or almost all) Sikhs are Singhs although not all Singhs are Sikhs, since some Rajputs also took that name. Guru Gobind Singh also instituted the following restrictions: not to remove hair from one’s body, to abstain from tobacco and intoxicants, not to commit adultery even in one’s dreams, not to eat meat slaughtered by slow degrees (a Muslim practice), to bathe and meditate daily, not to worship idols, never to show one’s back to the enemy in battle, always to be ready to help the poor and protect those who seek it, never to show caste discrimination, to marry only other Sikhs, and to believe only in One Immortal God. A song of his in the Adi Granth states some of these admonitions:

He who constantly keeps his mind

Intent upon the Ever-Awake Living Light of Consciousness

And never swerves from the thought of the One God;

Who is adorned with full faith in Him

And is wholly steeped in the Love of the Lord;

And never even by mistake puts his faith in fasting,

Or in worship of tombs, sepulchers, or crematoriums,

Caring not for pilgrimages, alms, charities,

Penances, or austerities,

Or anything else but devotion to the One God;

And in whose heart and soul the Divine Light

Shines forth as the full moon,

He is known as Khalsa, the purest of the pure.

(Sikh Religion, p. 203)

With the creation of the Khalsa, the succession of Gurus ceased and the leader was selected by five representatives. Guru Gobind Singh made a final compilation of the Adi Granth in 1704 and declared that after his death it would be the only Guru of the Sikhs. Sikhs played important roles in the British Indian military, but suffered enormous loss of life in the strife which happened in the subcontinent’s northwest with the partition of India and Pakistan at Independence in 1947. In the 1960s, subsequent to Indian Independence, Sikhs played a leading role in agriculture and led what is called “the green revolution.” They continue to be excellent farmers as well as being prominent in business and professional life and in the Indian military.

Sikhs believe that release from the cycle of reincarnation is attained by living a simple moral life and by meditation on and singing the praises of God. Helena P. Blavatsky praises the Sikhs for their idea of “a pure monotheism in the abstract idea of an ever-unknown Principle” which they “elaborated . . . into the doctrine of the ‘Brotherhood of Man.’” She continues in her usual ascerbic style, “In their view, we have but one Father-Mother Principle, with ‘neither form, shape, nor color,’ and we ought all to be, if we are not, brothers irrespective of distinctions of race or color. The sacerdotal Brahman, fanatical in his observance of dead-letter forms, thus became in the opinion of the Sikh as much the enemy of truth as the Mussulman wallowing in a sensual heaven with his houris, the joss-worshipping Buddhist grinding out prayers at his wheel, or yet the Roman Catholic adoring his jeweled Madonnas, whose complexion the priests change from white to brown and black to suit climates and prejudices” (CW I:372). And she says of the Sikh scripture, “While adopting equally the religious figures of the Vedas and Koran, after sifting them and explaining their symbolism, the Adi-Granth yet presents a greater similarity of ideas respecting the most elaborate metaphysical conceptions with those of the Jaina school of Gurus” (ibid., p. 373), an observation not found in either Sikh or scholarly sources. There are, then, a number of striking similarities between Sikhism and Theosophy, despite some differences.

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