Distinguished by their typical headgear, uncut beard, robust health and enterprising spirit, the Sikhs are a virile and colourful little community of believers. They constitute nearly 27 million of the Indian population and are mainly concentrated in Indian Panjab after the Partition of India in 1947, though they are found in almost all parts of India and all over the globe. A colourful community of believers, Sikhs are known throughout the world because of their distinct physical identity and constitute nearly 27 millions of the Indian population. They owe their religion Guru Nanak and believe in one omnipotent God and the whole universe as His Creation. To people who were divided in the name of caste and religion, Guru Nanak gave them a new slogan to transcend religious boundaries.
A precocious child Nanak had a spiritual bent of mind. His father, who was a village revenue official, gave him twenty rupees (Indian currency now equivalent to 1/4th of Euro) to start some business. While on way to the city he found some mendicants who were hungry for the last several days. He bought food out of the money given by his father and happily returned home after feeding the poor children of God. When his father asked him, ‘what sort of business have you done for the day’? His answer was Sacha Sauda. `I have made a profitable deal’.
On noticing that Nanak was not interested in worldly pursuits his parents got him married to Sulakhni and sent the couple to another town where through the intervention of his brother-in-law, Nanak was able to get a job as a storekeeper. One day while meditating on the banks of River Kali Bein, Nanak is believed to have disappeared. According to hagiographical accounts, Nanak was called to the Court of the God and given a cup of nectar to drink and asked to preach the name of God. Imbued with Divine Spirit, Nanak went on spiritual journeys and travelled in different parts of India and neighbouring countries. According to popular biographical accounts he also visited Mecca and had a dialogue with Sheikh Ibrahim, the Muslim divine. When asked by the Muslim divine as to who was good a Muslim or a Hindu? Nanak’s simple answer was, ‘without good actions both are of no consequence’.
Towards the last phase of his life Guru Nanak found a new town on the banks of river Ravi which he named Kartarpur, the city of God. It was here that Guru Nanak developed a model society which comprised of his followers from Hindu, Muslim and other faiths. It was more of a commune where the Guru and his followers got up early in the morning and after ablutions recited their prayers collectively. Thereafter they partook simple meal and went to work in the field. Back home late evening, they again recited their prayers before supper. Before going to bed, they recited Kirtan Sohila. Thus the Guru and his followers went to bed with God’s Name on their lips and got up in the morning to repeat His Name only. Guru became equally popular with Hindus and Muslims and growing community of believers who came to be known as Sikhs.
Guru Nanak’s teachings can be summed up in three simple Punjabi words – Nam Japna, Kirt karni and Wand Chhakna, translated into English it means meditation, honest hard work and sharing of earnings with others.
In the Indian society birth of a girl was considered unwelcome. The Sikh Gurus restored the respect and glory which was due to women. “Why condemn a woman. It is she who gives birth to Kings”, said Guru Nanak. In the Sikh society there is complete equality between male and female. Sikh Gurus condemned the prevailing practice of female infanticide and Sati (burning of widow on the pyre of her dead husband) and advocated widow re-marriage. For the Sikh marriage they invented simple ceremony of Lavan, which literally means taking shelter under the Almighty. Sikh women can join in prayers, act as priests and perform all those roles which were traditionally reserved for males in the Indian society.
The Sikh Gurus repudiated the popular Indian belief that women were inherently `evil’ `unclean’ and `inferior’. They also rejected the idea that a woman was a temptation incarnate. According to Bhai Gurdas “woman is one half of the complete personality of man and is entitled to share secular and spiritual knowledge equally”.
The Sikhs believe that human being comes on this earth by Divine Will and departs when the Divine Call comes. Therefore, the Sikh Gurus advocated that after the demise of a dear one in the family there was no need to perform traditional mourning and advised to perform nonstop singing of devotional hymns from the scripture. They strongly condemened female foeticide and such other practices which were prevalent in Indian society. The Sikh tradition celebrates life and is against denouncing the world as worthless. According to Guru Nanak world is “Abode of God and the True One lives therein”. In this context an interesting anecdote is quoted by the Sikh chronicles. Once Guru Nanak met Sidhas (recluses) who had retreated to the Himalayan recesses. When Nanak asked them, `Why have you discarded the society?’ Their answer was, `It is not worth living’. The Guru asked another question, `When you feel hungry where do you go?’ ‘We send our juniors to go and beg for food’. Guru Nanak pointed out, it was strange that your pupils go and beg from the same society which you have discarded as unworthy of living.
Contrary to Guru Nanak’s teachings, affluent Sikh families have been resorting to female foeticide in their craze to have a male child. This practice initially was followed by the Bedis, who claimed to be higher among the Indian social hierarchy of castes and considered it below their dignity to marry their daughters to boys of castes lower than theirs. To avoid this perceived humiliation they instructed the midwives to kill the female child. Typical methods used were choking the new born on a placental blood, strangulation, poisoning with Calotropis procera or burying her alive. This practice was condemned by Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master, who issued injunction against this and desired his followers not to deal with such families.
These days those families desiring a male child have been practicing sex determination tests and resort to abortion in case of a female foeticide. Upon finding serious imbalance between males and females, the authorities have cracked down on clinics which were helping in determining sex through various tests. Fortunately religious leadership of Sikh community, including the Jathedar of Akal Takhat, highest seat of Sikh religious and temporal authority, have issued strongly worded injunctions against this practice. Strangely enough the Sikhs, who have literacy rate of 75.4% which is much higher against the national level average of 73%, are also resorting to this practice.
Sikh religion greatly values life on this planet and respects those who dedicate themselves to the service of mankind. Sikhs take great pride in the two institutions – Langar, where free meal is served to all who go to the Sikh shrines. During natural calamities such as earthquakes and floods, they rush their teams with food packages and medicines to the affected areas. The recent example of such voluntary efforts being taken by the Sikhs are their services during the earthquakes in Utrakhand, Jammu & Kashmir and the neighbouring state of Nepal.
In Sikh tradition there is mention of Bhai Kanahiya, a divine soul, who served water to the injured both in Guru’s camp as well as those in the enemy’s camp. When fellow Sikhs noticed this they complained to the Guru. When called to explain his conduct Bhai Kanahiya politely replied, “I see the same Divine Light in them as those of my own community”. Greatly impressed, the Guru gave him first-aid equipment and asked him to bandage the wounds of the soldiers in the enemy’s camps in addition to serving water. This laid the foundation of a group of dedicated volunteers called sewapanthis. They are more like our brothers and sisters in the Community of St. Egidio, who are serving free meals and soup to the needy in different parts of Italy.
Another such divine soul is Bhagat Puran Singh. He is popularly described by his admirers as Mother Teresa with turban and beard. Unfortunately his services have gone generally unnoticed. Born in a well to do family of Lahore (now in Pakistan) Bhagat Puran Singh took to social service as a school child. While visiting the Sikh temple in the city of Lahore he found an abandoned child. When no one else was willing to take care of this crippled son of a lesser God, Bhagat Puran Singh took him into his arms, named Piara, meaning beloved, and described him as “Garland round my neck”. After partition of Panjab in 1947 Bhagat Puran Singh moved from Lahore to Amritsar. When he found that after massive killings by the mob frenzy on both sides of the border, there was no one left to take care of the orphans, especially those physically challenged. A man of God, Bhagat Puran Singh made a temporary shed near Amritsar Railway Station and started his make shift shelter for the destitute. As he himself was penniless he begged from the nearby residents to feed the inmates and provide them essential medicines. This led to what is now internationally known as ` Bhagat Puran Singh Pingalwara (Leprosy Home), where Bhagat Puran Singh has been serving hundreds of destitute without any sufficient resources and modern facilities. It was only after his activity being reported in the media by Khushwant Singh and other eminent journalists that the selfless service of Bhagat Puran Singh came to the light.
In keeping with the teachings of their Gurus the Sikhs have been active in service of the poor and needy. Most of the Sikh shrines at home and abroad have carried on the tradition of providing medical care, shelter and free food to all those who visit their temples. To celebrate the value of life the daily repeat in their morning and evening prayers Nanak Nam Chardi Kala, Tere Bhane Sarbat ka Bhala.
Thy Name, Thy Glory, be forever triumphant, Nanak, and,
in Thy Will, may peace and prosperity come to one and all.