The roots of sikhism

I think it was the historian Toynbee who said that Vedantic and Judaic disciplines - the two great religious systems of the world - met in northern India. Collided would be more like it. Their confrontation spawned a new order - Sikhism - which has some elements of each but in other matters, rejects both. Toynbee saw in Sikhism a synthesis of the best of the two noble religious systems. Many Sikhs look at their religion not as a philosophy of synthesis but as a new, revealed religion with little debt to the existing traditions.
Clearly, religions or any philosophic systems for that matters do not arise in a vacuum. A novel, fresh way of living must reflect on the old even if only to reject it but in that process becomes influenced by what is rejected. Therefore in most beliefs and practices, a pattern of continuity between the old and the new is never very difficult to discern. That is no proof that the new is merely a revamping and repackaging of the old, nor that it is a new superstructure constructed entirely or primarily on the old substructure. Some historians spend lifetimes counting bricks to see which ones or how many in the foundation of Sikhism are from the old edifice, others expend their energy denying in toto the existence of any old masonry in the new institution.
Even the most radical new design must derive in some part from the pre-existing one even though in some fundamentally new ways. All new life emerges from the old and revolutions do not occur in a void. In the final analysis, the proof of how new is new rests with how revolutionized, changed, charged or new do the believers feel. If both Hindus and Muslims lay claim to some features of Sikhism (as they do), that is a compliment to the Sikhs and their dynamic, young religion. Nobody wants to assert a kinship with one not admired. And such contentions do not detract from the revolutionary or the revealed nature of Sikhism though many Sikhs would like to disavow any connection to the old roots, whether Semitic or Hindu Vedantic.
Like the semitic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - Sikhism is a religion of the Book, Hinduism is not. Where Hinduism has a virtual army of gods and goddesses, Sikhism is like Judaism - strictly monotheistic. The Judaic God is an immanent God and an angry, wrathful, revengeful one. With Christianity came a transformation and humanization of this God into a loving, forgiving father image. Because of the plethora of gods and goddesses, the Hindu God is not so easily defined but is probably transcendental in nature. The Sikh concept of God is one who is both immanent and transcendental, righteously just but also merciful. Where theologians and their ilk love to write treatises, this very short treatment will have to suffice even though it is equally unjust to the Judaic, Hindu or Sikh views of God.
Part of the problem in our understanding lies in the fact that both Judaism and Hinduism are ancient systems with their origins lost in antiquity. When it comes to Hinduism the historical record is even murkier. The old, diffuse religions of mythology prevailed not only in Greece, Norway, Rome or Egypt but similar conceptualizations were also the underpinning of ancient Indian civilization. To me, many of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism are not so different from the heroic and some not so noble figures of Greek mythology, and should be similarly interpreted. Certainly the stories about Echo, Narcissus, Hercules, Aphrodite etc in Greek mythology have no literal reality. The stories in Hindu mythology about Brahma, Indra, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, beginning of the world, even the Ramayana and the Bhagvad Geeta are apocryphal and not meant to be literally understood. In spite of India's astronomical population, there are perhaps more gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology than people.
In Europe however, a new religion with a defined theology - Christianity - unrelated to the native mythology and independent of it in origin took hold and supplanted it. Pre-Christian mythology surely influenced many Christian beliefs and practices but it is easy to see that the two - Greek mythology and Christianity - are distinct entities and remain so. Mythology served its purposes in helping early man define his place in the universe. Later, the organized religion of Christianity provided a clearer ethical framework, a more sophisticated system for defining the nature of man and his inner reality in relation to society. In Hinduism however, a radically different kind of development occurred. The Vedantic system was superimposed on the existing mythology but did not displace and replace it. Instead the religion of mythology became overlaid with a patina of highly sophisticated Vedantic philosophy; the two become so inseparable that Hinduism came to be defined through mythology. Mythology and philosophy became so enmeshed in the common mind and daily practice that it became well nigh impossible to identify the individual strands. That remains true even today.
At least two major religions - Buddhism and Sikhism - devoid of mythological baggage did originate in India. Buddhism has been pretty much lost to its native soil although it is widely extant in many neighboring countries. Sikhism has endured because of its discrete theology, its proven ability to fight for survival and its distinct symbols. Though under constant assault it may even be at the threshold of a renaissance at this time.
Hinduism contends that God has taken human birth nine times and will once again, sometime in the future. Christianity presents passionate arguments for Christ as the son of God - begotten not made. The preamble to Sikhism defines God as one who is free of birth and death. Worship only the one Immaculate, all pervasive Creator, not the Gurus and not any holy book, say the Sikh Gurus. And we are all sons and daughters of God. God is to be found neither on a mountaintop by a recluse nor by the celibate clergyman in the service of the Church. Marry, have a family and live a productive life of honest earnings and share what you have, keeping your mind attuned to the infinite within you. God the creator is revealed through his creation, not to live in harmony with it is a sin. Ritual animal sacrifice is therefore, not right though Sikhs are not vegetarians by any religious law. In referring to God as the male father figure, we are limited by the paucity of language and thought in expressing ideas. God in the Sikh view has no gender, race, lineage or form; He is free of all physical attributes that man can conceive. Sikhs refer to God as father, mother, brother, sister and friend. A god who is a he or she is a lesser god not worthy of worship.
God is to be remembered not for an hour in a temple or a church on a sunday but must become an integral, internalized part of one's life, one who is never forgotten even for a moment. By analogies from farming - "The body is the soil, good deeds the plough," from trading or from ordinary habits of simple people -"Make truth your prayer, faith your prayer mat" - the message of Sikhism was simple yet direct: Truth is high, higher yet is truthful living. Therefore, Sikhs do not speak of a sabbath, a holy day of atonement or remembrance, nor do they ascribe special significance to any day of the week or month or any hour of the day. Any chore no matter how mundane, performed with an awareness of the Infinite within is sacred; even the most sacred task accomplished without that perception is profane. Similarly a day, an hour, even a moment spent in God's grace is sacred, else it's wasted. One cannot buy indulgences from God by asking a holy man to perform prayers, rituals or ceremonies on one's behalf, no matter how pious the priest or how expensive the ceremony.
A literal interpretation of mythology can be risky and Guru Nanak offered a surprisingly modern view of creation when he spoke of the void before creation, and of many galaxies and universes - without end and innumerable. He clearly refuted as nonsense any claims to knowing exactly what hour, day or year the world began or when it would end.
Perhaps the most visible point of divergence of Sikhism from Judaic philosophy lies in the concept of original sin which is not found in the Sikh view. Sikhs believe that human life is special - a rare opportunity to serve both man and God. The human body is the mansion of God, a temple to be maintained well and healthy. There is no room for mortification of the flesh, whether by fasting or otherwise. The sin lies not in living comfortably or well but in not using one's blessings in service to others, for that is the way to find God. To leave the world a little better is a duty; not to try, a sin. Sikhism asserts that the kingdom of heaven is open to all irrespective of caste, creed, sex or ethnic origin. Sexism and racism of any sort thus become failures in the practice of Sikh teaching. Those who are at one with God and Guru are the chosen people, not those of any particular caste, creed or ethnicity. Between man and God no middlemen exist, no brokers are necessary. This also means that the authority and the role of the clergy are limited - defined by the scholarship and the persona of the man, not by canon.
In biology hybridization is known to produce a more spirited stock. This is true of horses as it is of people and I suspect, equally valid for philosophies. Whether it was the Aryans from the Caucasus, the hordes of Alexander the Great or the innumerable invasions through the Khyber Pass, Punjab was the fertile field for such mixtures of both people and ideas. The Punjabi stock therefore, turned out more vigorous, energetic and outgoing. So is their new ideology of Sikhism - a religion of joy, not suffering. When Christianity was young many Jews accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah but remained Jews - for Jesus. Now 2000 years later, the movement is not as strong but still exists. Sikhism is only 500 years old and if you count from the time that Guru Gobind Singh gave it the present form, about 300 years young. Three centuries are barely a drop in the bucket of human history. It is hardly surprising that some followers have one leg in the boat of Hinduism and another in Sikhism. There are many Hindus who never formally accepted Sikhism - Sindhis, for instance - yet the only scriptures they read are Sikh, the only house of worship they know is Sikh. Others attend both Hindu and Sikh or Muslim and Sikh services. Christianized Muslims (Morisos) of Africa come to mind as a parallel.
Almost from their inception Sikhs have had to fight and die for their religion. It is no wonder that some followers practiced Sikhism at home but remained most reluctant to be so identified publicly. Under similar duress, the Marrano Jews remained Jews at home but outside, adopted the rituals and the lifestyles of Christians. One intriguing historical curiosity that I often saw as a child is worth noting. Since Sikhs were always fighting for survival, many Punjabi Hindu families would dedicate one son to Sikhism. By making one child a Sikh, they acknowledged their debt to and respect for the Sikh way of life, while at the same time they confessed the inability of the entire family to walk that perilous path.
If Sikhism brought the idea of eventual justice - Karma - from Hinduism, it freed the doctrine of its overtones of sexism and shackles of the caste system. Curiously, Islam found no place for music in worship; Hinduism on the other hand, not only exalted the development of music to a fine art but even mandated dancing girls and vestal virgins. Sikhism like Christianity recognized the ability of music to move people to a spiritual high minus, of course, the dancing girls. In Hinduism congregational worship is unimportant; much more significant - even to the exclusion of everything else - is private meditation. Judaism with its two children - Christianity and Islam - emphasized much more the social aspect of man's obligation and congregational worship became supreme. Sikhism recognizes the worth of both. Private meditation is important for it allows man to discover the truth within. Congregational worship is necessary for it defines man in terms of the universe outside of him. In the Sikh view, the mystical presence of God pervades a congregation in mindful prayer; such a congregation remains in Sikh doctrine the supreme source of all temporal authority.
The essence of a Sikh life could be summarized as having three important, like the legs of a stable stool: a life of honest work, honestly spent; sharing the rewards of such a life with fellow men; and both of those activities to be accomplished with a mind centered on the infinite within. Nobody would deny the worth of the first two commandments, many such as the prominent writer Khushwant fail to acknowledge that if man were more cognizant of the Infinite within, he would be more aware of his place within the creation and more in tune with the fundamental unity of all of God's creation. All creation, human and otherwise, would then be less subject to man's puffed up sense of self. That third leg of the stool, an essential element of Sikh teaching, allows Man to look beyond the self at human life as a rare opportunity to enrich his environment including his fellow creatures.
There are other ways in which Sikhism departs from both the Judaic and Hindu traditions and which stem from the enhanced place of the lay follower in Sikhism. For instance the concept seen in Christianity of the clergy as shepherds leading a flock, or the primary role of the Brahmin as the essential middleman are anathema to Sikhs. Since a middleman or broker is not recognized, the power and authority of the clergy is necessarily curtailed. The scriptures are available to all - laity or clergy, men or women, high of birth or otherwise. Parenthetically I should add that Hindu scriptures are not available to the lower castes and may not be read by women. Also, the Council of Narbonne in 1229 forbade the possession of any part of the Bible by laymen; this was not corrected until centuries later. In Sikhism no one may deny another the right to attend or perform any aspect of any Sikh service and it need not be only in a gurdwara but can be anywhere, even a house; no approval from any clergy for any religious service is necessary. It is worth noting that, because Sikhism is so young, the compilation, authenticity and authorship of the Sikh scriptures are clearly and simply established. Such a claim is not easily made by many of the older religious systems.
It seems to me that when man finds himself in conflict with his environment as he inevitably must, the Judeo-Christian and the Hindu-Vedantic traditions provide him diametrically opposite ways of dealing with it. The primarily western Judeo-Christian outlook exemplified by the North-American lifestyle says: "The world is not as it should be and I am going to change the outer reality to be consonant with what I want it to be. I am going to master nature, recast it into my own view and make a difference even if I die trying." Frequently both things happen. Technological revolutions are unleashed, and we change the world around us to what we want it to be. But the price we pay is spiritual, and horrendous. Just look at the disintegration of the individual, dissolution of the family and collapse of society; otherwise our
psychiatrists and lawyers would not be so busy. On the other hand in a similar conflict with the environment the Asian approach epitomized by the Hindu-Vedantic attitude is dramatically different. It says in effect: "The external world is not as it should be. But there is a universe within the self which is infinite and far more beautiful. I am going to close my eyes, turn inward and be at peace." The desired result is achieved but at what cost? One can exist for 2000 years in filth, amidst injustice, yet the mind is at peace and all is right with the world. Progress can become unnecessary, if not impossible or undesirable. Clearly, both attitudes are wanting. Sikhism directs that one be at peace within and at the same time be externally directed so as to make a difference. Vedantic Hinduism regards the body as a prison for the soul, this results in a curious unwordliness or other wordliness in Hinduism. Sikhism regards the body as the temple of God who is to be discovered by serving and living with fellow humans. Hindu mythology would tell us this world is unreal, a dream, not a tangible reality - Sikhism would agree only so that one may remain detached from this world, and as long as one remembers that this world is also true and it is by truthful living in this world that one will find the God within each of us. Be like the lotus that may exist in a cesspool yet remains unblemished but serves others by its fragrance.