Guru Nanak – Social-ethical philosophy

Guru Nanak – Social-ethical philosophy

A close study of the life of Guru Gobind Singh, his precepts and his utterances would lead us to the conclusion that the Sikh social ethics has four pronounced ingredients. These are social equality, universal-brotherhood, seeking good of all (altruism) and social service. These ingredients are inter­related and interactive. Altruism and social service are, in fact, practical measures to realize universal brotherhood, the actualization of which in its turn, depends on the extent to which the principle of social equality is realized in the conduct of those who form the social fabric. This concept is rooted in the belief that the whole matter is a unity and the moral world is that where this principle is crystallized in day to day life. The Guru’s concern for this unity was very acute and had been so vital a motivating force that he was very vocal and copious in his comments upon the contemporary social institutions which instead of unifying mankind on the principle of social equality propped up the inequitable and inquisitional social organisations and social ethics. In the process he made critical examination of the contemporary historical condition in India with a view to highlighting the problem of social equality in all its aspects in the contemporary context as also to suggest fresh formulations.

Equality In Terms of Different Religions and Nationalities

When Guru Nanak addressed himself to the task of shaping the society as per his conception, many religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism etc. were prevalent in the country. We understand religion at normative level is an attempt to instil harmony among the people to enable them improve their living as also to understand the secrets of the creation vis-a-vis God and his human beings. All religions, in fact, at the time of their birth or rise, project the modus operandi as stated above, but as times pass on, they fall victim to the parochialism of spirit or the narrow social political views of the people whom they profess to elevate. It was because of this that in Guru’s times, the religious groups were at loggerheads with one another. The followers of Islam especially the Sunnis were committed to safeguard the interests of their own sect and they enjoyed sadistic pleasure in torturing the votaries of other religious groups particularly the Hindus. The idea of Dar-ul-Harb is indicative of this fanatical attitude. The Hindus, in their turn, fared no better. They did not appreciate the good points of Islam and Islamic culture—rather they branded the Muslims as Malechhas—the profaned. There were very few persons among the Hindus and Muslims known as Sufis and Saints who understood the real role of religion but their number was slender and their voice was not heard in the din and noise of the communal clamour. If there were no riots on a large scale, it was either because of passivity of the Hindus or out of their fear of Imperial Muslims or because of the fact that Muslims were happy at their achievements.Christianity and other religions also did not prepare the psyche so as to enable people to appreciate and respect diverse religio-cultural paths. But the need of the hour was the development of peoples’ flexible attitude, towards all religions and religious groups along with their social and culture projections. The profile of the response could be visualized in the teachings of the Bhaktas particularly of the 14th and 16th centuries. Perhaps being earlier attempts their expressions were not forthright and their views were not categorical.



Equality In Terms of Preceptor-Disciple Relations


On March 29, 1699, the Baisakhi day, the tenth Guru floated the Order of the Khalsa. He administered Pahul to the five Sikhs who unhesitatingly responded to the call of the Guru to offer their heads thereby fulfilling Guru Nanak’s injunction to “enter the quarter of love with their heads on the palms of thy hands.” Guru Gobind Singh honoured them with the title of Guru’s Five Beloved Ones. They are ever remembered in the daily prayer of the Sikhs along with his four martyred sons, an honour which with characteristic generosity of Guru Gobind Singh, the unique, the mighty, could confer on sons of the spirit not less dear to him than the sons of his flesh. Just after their baptism, the Guru himself made a request before his disciples to baptize him likewise. This indeed was a unique and deeply meaningful action unparalleled in the world history. Nowhere else has it been seen that the founder of a faith has put himself in such a position of humility and begged of the disciples to confer upon him the faith by giving him what he has already given to them. The significance of this act is deep and abiding. On the basis of this act lay two ideas very crucial for democracy: one, an intellectually apprehended idea which recognized the value and sanctity of the individual personality and places its faith in the capacity of a man’s soul to grasp and pursue the good, and the second, the Master not only showed himself to be humble in spirit, thus giving the lesson which he and his predecessors had preached for generations but demonstrated also his identification with his disciples. The disciple, if he/she be true at heart and have dedicated himself to the Master’s mission is worthy enough to take Guru’s place and in Guru’s words, “To meditate on the Name himself and to lead others towards such meditation, their own faces bright with the light divine, they bring salvation to countless others.” It is when the Guru has identified humbly with disciples of such devotion and purity that it is just and right for him to change places with them. The Guru loves such disciples as they love him. Both became part of the flame exuding sameness or identification. Love being the base of identification is the seed of development which may be called democracy, equality or by any other name political. But all such labels are inadequate, for they lack the dimension of spiritual love, which is the true basis of such relationship.

Gender Equality – Status of Women

In Sikhism, the issue of the status of women has been tackled from many angles. Scriptural support has been extended in favour of woman that she is not at all inferior to a man. Guru Nanak says, “From the woman is our birth, in the woman’s womb are we are shaped. To the woman are we engaged and to the woman are we wedded. Woman is our friend and from woman is our family. If woman dies, we seek another; women are the bonds of the world. Why do we call women evil who give birth to kings. From the woman is the woman, without woman there is none, except God the creator. Verily, society the home, and the country where there is a true woman of divine virtues, are honoured, and become dignified and exalted in the Darbar of the True One.”

From this spiritual authority, it is clear that woman was assigned the status, in no way, inferior to a man. In fact home, society and country are honoured only if woman is held in esteem.

The Gurus in some of their compositions address themselves in feminine gender in relation to God. God himself acts as a woman. Metaphysical argument is also harnessed to impress upon the people that woman occupies equal status to man. It is held that since all mankind is emanation of God, it is ridiculous and unjust to deny equality to woman. Guru Arjan says, “Thou art my father thou art my mother”, (Tun mera pita tun hai mera mata) he does not make use of Mata—Mother—in feminine gender, thereby pointing out that physical differences also have no meaning in determining the status of women.

Against the background of spiritual-cum-metaphysical thoughts vis-a-vis woman as delineated above, Guru Gobind Singh discussed further the status of women. He did not regard ‘woman’ as hurdle or obstruction on the path of ultimate goal of self-realization. He rejected asceticism or renunciation as the pre-requisite and regarded householder’s life if led in a righteous manner, superior to that of an ascetic, and was not contradictory to the Moral Order. In fact, in the reckoning of the Guru, the Moral Order was meaningless if it was not to be realized in this world. To regard woman a ‘temptress’ or ‘seductress’ or ‘unclean’ was preposterous in his eyes. Guru Gobind Singh’s remarks in this context were pertinently magnificent. The discipline of Sannyas, (renunciation) consists of going to the forest after leaving one’s home, getting the hair matted and performing ablutions, growing long nails, getting instructions from the Guru Yogi, applying ashes on the whole body. Instead of all these Yogic rituals, the Guru says, that one should live in one’s house and develop moral virtues and remember God. One should enjoy all gifts of nature with moderation. A home can provide the environment of a forest if one is anchorite at heart. Countenance will be better than a Yogi’s matted hair which is nothing but hypocrisy. Instead of getting instructions from a Yogi, one should listen to one’s own inner self—Atam Updesho. One can see one’s real self and soul of the world and can realise the Supreme Being in his own home by eating frugally, sleeping frugally, coupled with qualities of love, mercy and forbearance, by practicing mildness and patience and by keeping away lust, wrath, covetousness, and obstinacy from one’s mind.

Family being the smallest but the most important social unit was sure to draw the attention of the Guru. A close study of the utterances of the Gurus would show that they all recognized this institution as the most fundamental salient of our social structure but they wanted a change in its conceptual structure and in the relation between different members of the family. The Guru never viewed this institution either as patriarchal unit or matriarchal unit because he never recognized the supreme authority of the eldest male member or the eldest female member in a family. He, on the other hand, wanted harmonious relationship among the members of the family on equal terms. In his views the principle of division of work and responsibilities was the right basis of relationship between different members of the family, and this being so, its each member was as important as the other. Father was a father only if he performed the duties bestowed upon him by divine order, and mother was ordained to function as a mother. From the point of procreation, either sex is equal, and in fact, it is co-operative effort of both the partners that procreation takes place. In no case, either sex, individually or conjointly, with the opposite sex can create anything, which is the miracle of God but an ability that He has vested in both parents equally.

The institution of family is very closely knit with marriage, which to a great extent, is the fulcrum of family, as also its adhesive. This is why at all places where people began to make conscious effort to grow as a civilized group, marriage was considered to be a sacrament. Indians were no exception to it. Guru Gobind Singh also recognized the fact and regarded marriage very sacred and an act deserving God’s benediction. It is really an irony that bridegrooms regard themselves superior to their brides, and do not feel abashed at their demands of dowry and other favours. Sikhism has condemned this attitude of the males and have regarded both of them two flames of the same light (ek jyoti doe murti). The variegated customs, which have grown around marriage, are meaningless accretions. Sex, of course, is a natural act of husband-wife relationship for furtherance of creation but to treat sexual gratification as the chief object of marriage tantamount to reducing oneself to animal level. The Guru says that the marriage should not be regarded as a union of bodies. If it is so, then this union may break at any level. Bodies go on changing and with the passage of time deterioration sets in physical beauty. Therefore he says that marriage instead of being a union of bodies should be a union of souls, of minds, leading to love of each other’s qualities and care for each other’s well-being. It is only in this context, which is at once moral and spiritual that marriage is Anand. Anand is different from pleasure although marriage signifies a physical relationship but ideals are embodied into it when it goes beyond a mere sensory experience. The word Anand indicates a physical immanence as well as a spiritual transcendence. The withdrawal from the physical by the ascetic monk was substituted by the realization of transcendence of Anand. The fulfilment was thus more meaningful and more valuable.

Guru Gobind Singh conceived in this unit of society a partial realization of God, as in the establishment of the Khalsa he had conceived a total realization of the Supreme Being. All the social units in the Khalsa Order are really the evolutionary stages of the manifestation of God, of the Sargonisation of the Nirguna, of the actualization of the possible of the potential. The first and the foremost step is the intimately fastened tie of man and woman in marriage. God manifested in this universe through the principle of His will which appeared in opposites: Haumai and Nam, individuation and universalisation. This bi-polar nature of reality continues till we reach the moral man as the higher achievement. The combination of man and woman in the highest moral order is the unity of bipolarity, the first achievement of ultimate Anand. Mating is a universal characteristic but mating in the moral order is possible only in man, hence Anand. Thus marriage in Sikhism has a metaphysical, moral and spiritual base.

Universal Brotherhood

The ideal of social equality is not the ultimate aim of the ethics of Sikhism. The equality may be maintained without feeling affection or regard for the person who is held to be equal but such bare equality would not be enough because it does not conform to the ideal of humanistic morality. Therefore it is essential that it should be doped with idea of spiritual unity of mankind. Thus the material content to the social ethics in Sikhism is provided from the same premises of spiritual unity which was used for propping up human equality. Guru Gobind Singh’s ideas in this regard are very expressive. He says, “As out of a single fire millions of spark arise in separation but come together again when they fall back in the fire; as from a heap of dust, particles of dust swept up fill the air, and then fall in the heap of dust; as out of single stream countless waves rise up, and being water, fall back in the water again; so from God’s form emerge animate and inanimate things and since they arise from Him, they shall fall in Him again.” The Guru in this statement asserts that everyone ought to treat everyone else as member of the same human brotherhood. Earlier, his predecessor Gurus had also made such assertions. Guru Arjan Dev says, “Thou art our only father, we are all thy children.” He was much pained at the attitude of ‘duality’ of certain people and had to make a very significant remark that true meeting with the Guru implied abandonment of the sense of duality. In fact the Guru equates the meeting of the Guru with the demolition of the walls of ‘otherness’—the other being a cosharer of the same source of emanation and a part of the same spiritual order. The universal brotherhood is thus linked together by bonds stronger than family or national affiliations.

In Guru Gobind Singh’s vision, “The whole humanity is one. That a man is to be honoured not because he belongs to this or that caste or creed but because he is a man, an emanation of God whom God has given the same senses and the same soul from Himself as to the other men. The Guru disliked the segmentation of the humanity on grounds of different modes of worship, appearances, castes, creeds and wished the people to cultivate right perspective and understanding so that they might be able to appreciate that there is an essential unity of human kind. Without realising this truth, “fools have wrangled and died over discussion of these differences.” They are incapable of realising that one should “Recognise the whole of humanity as one in spirit.” According to J.S. Ahluwalia, “Sikh religion is universal. It is not an ethnicity specific, region specific or caste specific religion. The different ethnicities of the first five Sikhs initiated into the Order of the Khalsa through the sacrament of holy Amrit by Guru Gobind Singh mean that this religion is not bound down to particular ethnicity. Guru Gobind Singh in his composition (Akal Ustat), refers to different people in terms of their ethnic identities co-worshipping God. Contemporary ethnicised Punjabiaised form of Sikhism is just one of the possibly many more determinate forms of Sikh religion flowing out in other ethnic contexts.

New ethno­-religious species, developing out of the parental genus would really make a religion embodying universalism and upholding as one of its cornerstones. Sikhism is also not tied down to a particular region, though the Punjab is the natural habitat of Sikhism where it has grown during the last five hundred years. The whole of Earth planet having revered as ‘mother’ in Guru Nanak’s Japji, (Pavan guru, pani pita mata dhart rnahat…) there is no specific holy land or promised land conceived as such in Sikhism.” According to Professor Avtar Singh, “The argument of the Guru seems to be that brotherhood is a reality but is not visible because of the pall of ego or Haumai (individuation). Once this partitioning pall is removed, the relationship should be visible clearly. As a matter of fact, the whole of social ethics of the Sikhs is oriented towards the demolition of this (false) wall of separation, and the realisation of order and still wider identification is indicative of the progressive realization of the ideal.”


In Sikhism, another social ideal is the welfare and happiness of others before one’s own. This ideal in the modern parlance is known as altruism. This ideal has been adequately praised in Sikhism. Bhai Gurdas says, “The test of a good man is that he seeks the welfare of others always. The bad man is selfish. He does no good to others. An altruist is far away from egocentricity. His is a heart always anxious to serve anybody without accepting or deeming any reward whatsoever. He/she regards altruism as an opportunity to receive divine sanctification since the Creator is present in His creation. Naturally any altruistic activity done in a spirit of selflessness takes one nearer to God. Altruism implies love and concern of human beings for others and thus enables them to completely moralize themselves. The Gurus, therefore, had always stressed on par-upkar (Good service to others) as the cardinal virtue, and true to this spirit almost all the moral codes (Rehatnamas) compiled by contemporaries or semi contemporaries of Guru Gobind Singh affirmed this aspect. The compiler of Prem Sumarg says, “When food is ready, pray for someone to come and share your food so that your food may be sanctified.” If a needy person turns up, consider him/her to be an answer to your prayer. In case no one comes, you ought to go out and seek out someone and if by chance no one is available, lay aside some food to be served in emergency. Bhai Chaupa Singh in consonance with this strain required the Sikhs to consider altruistic service to the needy as ‘rendition to the Guru’.

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