Sharing a presentation I made a few months back at an interfaith symposium in Dar es Salaam
Please accept the Sikh Guru Fateh as my greeting to all of you:
Vaheguru ji ka Khalsa, Vaheguru ji ki Fateh
which translated means ‘Hail to the Almighty to whom we belong to! And Hail to the almighty Vaheguru who is all pervading and ever victorious’
A very good afternoon to all of you who have been so kind to take time out off your busy schedules to be a part of this enlightening symposium where we meet as equals aspiring to practise under a common faith of humanity – whilst adhering to follow the principles of our respective religions.
I stand before you today to share just a fraction of who Sikhs are and excerpts of the challenges faced by our first master – Guru Nanak Dev ji as he set the foundation of Sikhism.
With its roots in Northern India, Sikhism is one of the youngest religions amongst the major world religions. Founded in the 15th Century by Guru Nanak Dev ji, Sikhism is today the 5th largest religion in the world with over 30 million followers globally. It is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji, and the ten successive Sikh Gurus. After the passing of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh ji, our Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib ji, became the literal embodiment of the eternal, impersonal Guru, where the scripture’s word serves as the spiritual guide for us.
The development of Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement in Medieval India .. though not only as an extension to this movement, Sikhism developed while the region was being ruled by the Mughal Empire.
Guru Nanak Dev ji, the founder of Sikhism, was always fascinated by God and religion from a very young age. He would not partake in religious rituals or customs and oddly meditated alone. His desire to explore the mysteries of life eventually led him to leave home and take missionary journeys.
In his 70 plus years of Guru ship, He faced numerous challenges with regards to the then being practised Caste systems, Gender inequality, Forceful conversions, Abuse of Human Rights among others …. In today’s presentation, I will be focusing on the challenges our Gurus faced while bringing about Gender Equality amongst the people of that era.
The conditions affecting Gender Equality in India during the 15th Century were greatly affected by the arrival of the laws on Manu. These were laws outlined by Manu and Bhrigu in the 2nd Century BC on topics such as duties, laws, rights, conducts and virtues among others. The status of women was totally degraded at every level and women were effectively enslaved. Women in the society were now bound by a series of rigid laws that defined social, occupational and religious conduct.
Purdah and Sati
The women were not only relegated to their households, they were literally under the control of men from cradle to grave. They were compelled to observe Purdah. The Purdah was observed to avoid the men from being distracted by sexual thoughts.
The Sikh Code of Conduct (Article XVI, s) states, “It is not proper for a Sikh woman to wear a veil or keep her face hidden by veil or cover”. Apart from commanding women not to wear a veil, Sikhism makes a simple yet very important statement regarding dress code. This applies to all Sikhs regardless of gender. The Guru Granth Sahib ji states:
“Friend, all other wear ruins happiness, the wear that to the limbs is torment, and with foul thinking fills the mind”
Our 3rd Guru, Guru Amar Das Ji had refused to talk with a Hindu queen until she had removed her veil. It is believed that the purdah (veil) system suppressed the personality of women and reflected their inferior status.
Guru Nanak Dev ji abolished the system of veils by introducing the system of sangat (Sikh congregation) where no veil was allowed. Both men and women are required to cover their head in rememberance of Waheguru. Jews, Muslims and others cover their hair in places of worship, but for Sikhs the whole world is a place for Waheguru’s remembrance and holy living.
Thus, the individual Sikh knows what types of clothes fill the mind with evil thoughts and are commanded not to wear them.
Sati on the other hand was a practise where a widow was burned on the funeral pyre alongside her deceased husband. In some castes, the widows were allowed to live on .. but widowhood meant destitution at best, social rejection and lifelong loneliness. As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati, Sikhism permitted remarriage of widows.
Guru Amar Das ji abolished the tradition of Sati and Purdah. He established religious centers and women alongside men were recruited to lead and teach. Women worked alongside the men in maintaining the Guru’s kitchen, performing all duties and sitting side by side the men folk in Pangat.
“Stay, stay, O daughter-in-law – do not cover your face with a veil. In the end, this shall not bring you even half a shell. The one before you used to veil her face; do not follow in her footsteps. The only merit in veiling your face is that for a few days, people will say, “What a noble bride has come”. Your veil shall be true only if you skip, dance and sing the Glorious praises of the Lord” (P. 484, SGGSji, Kabeer)
Female Infanticide and Dowry
The birth of a daughter was viewed with disdain and sorrow and female infanticide rampant. The birth of a boy was celebrated lavishly but that of a girl meant scorn and blame by the in-laws. Women and girls’ health was poor due to frequent childbirth coerced by husband and in-laws till the birth of a male heir occurred for the former and sheer neglect of health care and nutrition of the latter. In a further effort to degrade the birth of a girl child, the practise of Dowry was very common amongst all the castes.
Our 6th Guru, Guru Hargobind ji called woman “the conscience of man “without whom moral living was impossible. During His Guru ship, Child marriage was discouraged and the practice of female infanticide, which had been strongly discouraged, was severely banned.
Guru Granth Sahib ji says:
“O’ my Father! give me the Name of Lord God as a gift and dowry. Let the Lord be my wear, His Glory my Beauty, that my Task be accomplished. Blessed is the Lord’s worship; the True Guru has blessed me with it. In all lands, nay, in all Universe Pervades the Glory of the Lord; the gift of the Lord’s (Name) is matchless; All other Dowry displayed by the self-willed is false egoism and a vain show.”
Many faith’s regard a menstruating women to be unclean. But in Sikhism this is not the case. Certainly this cycle may have a physical and psychological effect on a woman, but this is not considered to be a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it clear that the menstruation cycle is a God given process and that the blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being.
The Guru Granth Sahib ji (p.1013) states: “By coming together of mother and father are we created, by union of the mother’s blood and the father’s semen is the body made. To the Lord is the creature devoted, when hanging head downwards in the womb; He whom he contemplates, for him provides.”
Hence, the menstruation cycle is an essential, God given biological process. In some religions blood is also considered a pollutant. Guru Nanak Dev ji openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation and asserts that pollution lies in the heart and mind of the person and not in the cosmic process of birth. The only item of Importance is meditating on the Name of God.
Sikhism stresses family values and faithfulness to one’s spouse. We practise Monogamy.
Sikh Gurus declared that marriage is an equal partnership of love and sharing between husband and wife. Married life is celebrated to restore to woman her due place and status as an equal partner in life.
“They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather they alone are called husband and wife, who have one soul in two bodies”. (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 788).
To ensure equal status for women, the Gurus made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in sangat (holy fellowship) and pangat (eating together).
Slavery: Women and children were enslaved and force-marched by their captors to be sold on the markets of Persia, Afghanistan and sent further to Arabia and Africa. Married women on the other hand had some limited rights under Muslim law but functioned primarily in the home. They were often at the mercy of the man’s sexual desires. They did not have much freedom and few rights as well and again came under the dominion of their husbands. Since their movements were limited and women could not move unsupervised without a male chaperone, education and roles outside the home were not an option. If they did not obey their husband’s wishes they were beaten.
Another system whereby some young women in their late teens (called Dev Dasi’s – God’s slave) are supposed to be married to stone idols and are to remain celibates, is adopted in temples in parts of India. Such women were occasionally sexually abused by the priests of these temples.
Education of women was looked down upon. They were supposed to do household work only so that they became economically dependent on men. Women were considered to be the property of men. The value on this property was assigned based on the type of service women could render to men. Women were mainly considered seducers and distractions from man’s spiritual path.
Sikhism places a great emphasis on the education of women. Since they are considered as equal partners and are permitted to lead prayers and perform all religious ceremonies, their education is considered an asset for them.
Education is considered very important in Sikhism and was promoted by all the Gurus in their respective terms. It is personal development and it is the reason why the 3rd Guru set up many schools. Guru Amar Das ji trained missionaries to spread Sikhism throughout the country. According to one account, of the 146 missionaries Guru Amar Das ji trained and sent out, 52 were women. At one time the religious seats in the country of Afghanistan and Kashmir were under the jurisdiction of women. These women had complete jurisdiction in decision making as well as preaching to congregations. His belief was that no teaching could take root until and unless it was accepted by the women folk.
Mata Khivi ji, wife of Guru Angad Dev ji (the second Guru), was in charge of Langar (the common kitchen). She was an unlimited resource of bountiful food and helped to create a new social consciousness in Sikh women. In Gurbani she is mentioned as an example for how to serve.
Women swelled the ranks in spreading the message of the Gurus as missionaries. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh ji, 40% of them were women.
Role of Women in Sikhism today
Salvation: An important point to raise is whether a religion considers women capable of achieving salvation, a realisation of God or the highest spiritual realm. Both men and women can therefore attain salvation by obeying the Guru. In many religions, a woman is considered a hindrance to man’s spirituality. Guru Nanak Dev ji rejects this, He put woman on a par with man…woman was not a hindrance to man, but a partner in serving God and seeking salvation.
Hereditary Rights: Sikh women have full rights to contest any hereditary claim. No restrictions can be found in the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) and there is nothing to state otherwise. Since all children both male and female are equal in all respects, the property of the father is equally divisible amongst the children; women married and unmarried, have equal share along with the male progeny.
Thus all claimants are entitled to an equal share regardless of their gender.
Importance of the Woman’s View: Some religions regard the women as inferior when providing, for example, a testimony in a court. However this issue has never been in question in Sikhism. The Guru Granth Sahib ji states:
“Women and men, all by God are created. All this is Gods play. Says Nanak, all thy creation is good, Holy” (Guru Granth Sahib, p.304).
Gods creation is considered holy. There is no suggestion of inferiority amongst the role women can play and neither is a woman’s intelligence doubted.
Opportunity to Pray: Many religions blame the woman for the inability of a man to become God enlightened. This has in some cases led to rules, which define the locations where women folk can pray and what they must wear.
However in Sikhism, the aim is to rid the soul of sins and realise God by the Guru’s guidance. Once this is achieved the inner character becomes absorbed and strengthened by God. Thus, it is not women who are blamed for any sinful thoughts that occur within men, when they see a woman, but the men who allow lust to dominate their mind.
Any woman is permitted to enter a Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) and is accepted in all prayers and recitations of the Guru Granth Sahib ji. No area is made exempt and women are always an integral part of the congregation.
With the birth of the Khalsa the last of the barriers of caste and gender oppression had been smashed. Women though continuing their roles of mothers and wives were forever changed. They were lifted up and given the same Amrit at the side of their brothers. The same rules that applied to them to follow the Khalsa way applied to them. They were granted the same 5 K’s. Guru Gobind Singh ji’s encouragement of women to keep even shastars symbolized that he did not envision her role in society as being that of a “nice, meek housewife,” but rather that of a fearless, active, independent warrior, involved in the world.
Kaur became her name. Kaur has an interesting history. Its origin can be found in the word Kanwar, literally meaning a Crown Prince. Women were given Kaur to give them an identity independent of that of their husband and to uplift their spirit. Indeed it has been recorded in oral tradition that Guru Gobind Singh referred to his brave daughters as ‘Sahibzadey’ or sons for the valor they exhibited in battle.
At the time of Guru Gobind Singh ji, women who were literally and legally possessions of their husbands in Europe and in the American colonies, women who had no voice in administration in Europe, the Americas or India were now orators, teachers, warriors, and administrators and participated in the Guru’s kitchen. Guru Gobind Singh ji’s wife Mata Sundri led the Khalsa Panth for many years after passing of the tenth Guru. Jathedar Sada Kaur along with Maharaja Ranjit Singh made possible the formation of the Sikh Empire. She gave her contribution to the Amrit, sweet Patashey so that the disposition of the Sikhs would be also sweet. This is in a time when Hindu women were forbidden to read Vedic literature and or perform most religious rites.
Guru Nanak Dev ji writes:
“from the woman is our birth, in the woman’s womb are we shaped; To the woman we are engaged, to the woman we are wedded; The woman is our friend and from woman is the family; Through the woman are the bonds of the world; Why call woman evil who gives birth to the leaders of the World? From the woman is the woman, without woman there is none”. (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 473)
The Guru reprimands those who consider women as inferior to men. He sees them as active partners in advancing goodwill, general happiness and the collective moral values of society. This declaration definitively requires women to be placed in high esteem.
The issue of gender equality has over the years been enforced by our living Gurus as well as documented in our Holy Granth. All Sikhs are to wear the 5 K’s. This is unique for women because it is the first time in history when women were expected to defend themselves and others with their Kirpans (swords). They are not expected to be dependent on men for physical protection.
Unlike the women’s liberation movement, which tends to addresses mainly secular concerns, Sikhi for women empowers them and requires equal responsibility in the spiritual and temporal spheres while maintaining the integrity of the family. The life of a householder is no less a central one for a Sikh woman as it is for a Sikh man. A stable family becomes a nucleus where an active spiritual life to mature the treasure of the Guru is then imparted to the children. Sikh women like Sikh men are discouraged from the excesses of indulging in the powers of the 5 thieves therefore excess in vices is automatically curtailed.
In Sikhism widespread and practical steps are advised to be taken for the socio-religious equality of woman. Guru Nanak introduced the Concept of Sangat (holy congregation) – where both men and women can sit together and equally participate in reciting the praises of the Divine and Pangat – sitting together, irrespective of caste or social status differences, to eat a common meal in the Institution of Langar (common kitchen). Women were never excluded from any specific task. Both men and women took equal part in essential tasks, i.e., drawing water from wells, reaping and grounding corn, cooking in the kitchen, and cleaning of the dishes. The Guru says:
“Come my sisters and dear comrades! Clasp me in your embrace. Meeting together, let us tell the tales of our Omnipotent God. In the True Lord are all merits, in us all demerits”. (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 17).
There are no priests or commentators, no rituals or philosophical doctrines that stand between a person and the Guru’s Bani (teachings). There is a direct relationship with God for every man, woman and child. Only the veil of ignorance or one’s ego stands in the way between the human and the Divine Being.
Like the men, Sikh women are conscious of their social environment and are by nature of their bent for social justice and compassion can potentially champion the rights of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Given the natural disposition of the Sikh to serve others and by virtue of a vibrant spiritual life he or she stands ready to make the world better then he or she left it. The full implications of being a Sikh cannot be fully understood without adopting and fully imbibing the Sikh way of life by partaking of the Amrit and then living the path. Taking the Amrit means accepting equal responsibilities on a temporal and religious plane with their brothers. The Guru calls the woman a vessel through which all life comes to this world. This is a unique role given to her by God. In addition to this, with regards to identity, the Guru considers the woman to be a Princess, by giving her the surname Kaur. This is reserved solely for women and frees them from having to take their husband’s name when marrying.
The commands given to follow the way of the Guru are identical for both sexes. It means equal submission to the will of God and humble service to humanity.
As I come towards concluding my presentation, I would like to emphasise the fact that regardless of what we call ourselves or how we address our God, God is one and repeatedly our respective prophets have emphasized this point. The biggest religion is the religion of Love & Humanity and if we practise this, I am sure we will be following the path that will lead us to the Supreme Being.
In the words of Saint Kabir ji and as recorded in our Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib ji:
Awwal Allah Noor Upaya Qudrat Keh Sub Banday Aik Noor Keh Sub Jag Upajiya Kaun Bhale Ko Mandhe
God created light of which all the beings were born And from this light, the universe; so who is good and who is bad
Let us promise ourselves to be the best that we can be and love each other regardless of caste, creed, colour or religion .. because in Loving each other we are loving God
Thank you Mrs. Puspha Shah and Mrs. Zainab Eashid for making a part of this beautiful congregation.
God Bless us all.
Vaheguru ji ka Khalsa, Vaheguru ji ki Fateh