Sikhism is known as the world’s youngest and debatably, most modern religion. It was born out of the sifting of prevalent stifling and dogmatic belief systems of Hinduism and Islam. Despite historical upheavals, through the lifetime of all the ten Gurus, it maintained its progressive thought process.
It was after the demise of the tenth Guru, that the norms he had prescribed whether social, cultural or communal began to be questioned and modified. The issues that he had categorically denounced reared their heads overnight after his death. Casteism amongst Sikhs sprung up. Gender discrimination too! Dogmatic rituals and practices which were shunned by all ten Gurus, resuscitated. The fact is that Sikhism being practiced today is only a shadow Sikhism, practiced in essence by only a few of us.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was born in a patriarchal society in medieval times. Many consider him as a historian who philosophized revolutionizing religion.
He boldly went ahead to reform the then existing social and religious practices. He established a New Order, which challenged among other institutions, the treatment of women by the society of his time. His verses remain proof of the same. In fact there are three important sources of Guru Nanak’s life history: the Janamsakhis (janam-birth, Sakhi-story), Bhai Gurdas’s Ballads and the Guru Granth Sahib.
Let’s have a bird’s eye view of the social norms concerning women preceding Nanak and during Nanak’s times.
Under the inaction of the various Muslim rulers, like Babar and Ibrahim Lodi, women had suffered the most. They were carried off by the rulers and raped, or put to menial chores. Eventually, when the invaders left the plains of Punjab, they were inconsiderably killed. As a result, to escape from this ignominy and humiliation the girl child was either killed at the time of the birth (making infanticide a common practice that unfortunately still carries on) or married off at the age of five or six- making them unhealthy mothers or dissatisfied adults. If they became widows, they were either forced to commit Sati or cut their hair and wear unattractive clothes. Re-marriage was strictly prohibited.
Thus an actively pronounced desire for sons in the patriarchal set up was observed while the woman’s existence was denigrated. They remained wrapped in a subservient psyche and depended on males (father, brother or son). The Mughals added to the existing Vedic subservience by introducing the purdah and polygamy.
Nanak grew up in such times. He was very close to his sister Nanaki.
Guru Nanak and the subsequent Gurus empathised deeply with women.
Guru Nanak defied the norms of his time and asked the women to denounce the Purdah and discontinue the practice of Sati and instead sit with the males as part of Sangat to attend his sermons and singing of Divine Hymns. While men used to get the rations for langar, the women would cook food and both would serve the congregation.
SGGS pg 1
One (without duality) who
The only truth
The true creator
Nanak envisages the Divine in the form of numeral one, thus shattering the then prevalent social interpretation of God as the ‘father’ in various forms. By rupturing this millennia-old paradigm, he creates a new space for the Divine to be experienced, which is beyond any categories. This numeral One is transcendental in nature. It removes the patriarchal stratifications and provides the basis for a balanced spiritual study.
To better understand how Sikhism attempts to break away from a patriarchal pressure, we must understand this reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. Here birth and death are both to be celebrated; for the womb or garabh is the source of life. It is free from all patriarchal implications and is the primal source of procreation – all nourishing. The Gurus being aware of the oppressive patriarchal Indian society, through their verses rubbished the practice of women being called unclean and inferior during their various phases in life:
Guru Nanak wrote in the scripture Asa Di Var
Bhand Jamiye Bhand Nimiye
Bhand mangan viah
Band hove dosti
Bhande chale Raahu
Jith mukh sadha salahiyeti
SGGS pg 473
“A woman bears and conceives,
We bow to the woman form,
Whom a man marries
Why should we call her inferior
Of whom emperors are born?
Throughout Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Gurus have expressed their attachment to the Divine as an infant’s attachment to the breast milk:
Sada sada hum chohre tumro
Tun prabh hamro meeraa
Nanak barak tüm mat pita
Mukh naam tumaro kheera
By Guru Arjan Dev Ji pg. 712 SGGS
“Forever I am your child,
Lord! You are my friend!
You are mother and father
And your name is
Milk nectar in my mouth.”
The last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh put his seal on the issue of gender equality by creating the Singhs and Kaurs in the same breath. Singh (lion) for the male and Kaur (princess) for the female. By this he had done away with the compulsion faced by women, of adopting either their spousal or filial identity. She was to simply write Kaur.
People from different (castes, religion and) genders drank amrit from the same bata (utensil). Thus Nanak not only elevated the woman’s status socially but also theologically by running the maternal metaphors throughout his Bani.
Though spiritual devotion is akin to the mother’s milk or suckling the breast yet she is not edified; it is her purity and the respect for her womanhood, which is worshipped.
Unfortunately Sikhs today and in recent times have been unable to grasp the progressive approach of the Gurus and are dragging the woman back to regressive times. Let us try to understand how this found its wind. It started with an aide of the tenth Guru, Bhai Chaupa Singh. He reversed the directions of the Gurus’ teachings and rejuvenated the ideology that Man be worshipped by the woman, fasts be kept by women for the well being of their husbands and the denial of Amrit, disregarding the ordain of Guru Gobind Singh. Women could hear the recitation of Guru Granth Sahib but she could not (and cannot) render public recitation of the same in most places across the subcontinent.
He further segregated the female and male population. We find his other Dos and Don’ts in Chaupa Singh Rahitnama (the official edict of Chaupa Singh). The status of women had again plunged into the abyss, out of which our Gurus had bravely uplifted it.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, furthered the damage. Unfortunately, our permission to let monarchs and demi-monarchs play with the religious interpretations resulted in the practices of Purdah and Sati being reintroduced during his regime with several of his queens undergoing Sati. An absolute incongruity with the theologically propounded values.
The regressive ideology continues as there are no Sikh women Granthis in this multi-million strong community. The women Kirtani Jathas have to face discrimination within the community. Women are not allowed to render Sewa or Kirtan at prominent places of worship like Harmandir Sahib; they are not even allowed to touch the Golden Palanquin, on which the Guru Granth Sahib is carried into the Sanctum-sanctorum daily. This serves as an example for other Gurdwaras world over to follow – a sheer defiance of the message of Oneness propounded by Guru Nanak.
If Nanak could take up the banner of Feminism and Oneness in the Fifteenth Century, why are Sikhs scared to do so half a millennium later?
Why doesn’t Guru Nanak’s Bani, his verses, tunnel through the damaged perspectives of the Sikh psyche? Gender justice has to be practiced at all levels of the community irrespective of the discrimination or assigned roles. The Oneness of Nanak’s message has to be understood and practiced at all levels of social, spiritual, religious and cultural realms. Reading Bani for purely the sake of it, is grossly undermining the reality of our Gurus. Thus let us urge all fellow Sikhs across the world to come together to restore Nanak’s Ik.