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Mohinder Singh

Punjab Studies Sikh University, India

I am grateful to the organisers for inviting me to this meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio in collaboration with the Albanian Bishops’ Conference and the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. This for me is more like a pilgrimage to the holy land associated with Mother Teresa. We in India are fortunate that the Mother Teresa made India her Karambhoomi (Land of Action). By serving the poor, orphan and the sick of slums in Calcutta Mother Teresa changed the whole paradigm from love for power to the power of love. India appropriately recognized Mother’s services by conferring on her the highest civilian order of Bharat Ratna. To perpetuate her memory Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi named a road by the side of the Presidential Palace as Mother Teresa Crescent. Again India has reason to celebrate that the Mother was beatified by the Pope Paul and given the title of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

Now let me come to the theme of this meeting – Development and Humanism in Asia. Of late Asia has made rapid advances but the religious leaders have been unable to put a check on this development without social and moral responsibility. China has made a distinct economic progress and has emerged as world’s fastest growing economy but has lost its symbiotic relationship with nature and traditional values of the Chinese Society. By enforcing one child norm traditional love between brother and sister has disappeared as a family has either a boy or a girl. Again the ‘big leap’ in economic field was achieved at the cost of democratic values. Since we have with us a learned scholar from China I would not like to speak further on the issue in the hope that as a Catholic leader he would enlighten us on the subject. Other Asian countries which have achieved progress by retaining the democratic form of governance have also lost the traditional values and have been unable to enforce the concept of social responsibility.

In the 20th century we watched Asian societies specially India and China adopting Soviet model of progress. While India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to develop the socialist model the Chinese used the Soviet model with their own version. With the collapse of Soviet Union the Soviet model has suffered a great setback and the capitalist model has to come dominate the world. Not many of us could have imagined that the Marxian model would collapse so soon and a country as powerful as the Soviet Union would disintegrate before the start of the new century.

I distinctly recall these issues being raised during a function in Moscow in 1987 organised by the Ministry of External Affairs of the then Soviet Union to mark thousand years of the establishment oldest Orthodox Church of Byelorussia. After sharing my thoughts about the Sikh society established by Guru Nanak, I compared and pointed out that while in Sikh system we voluntarily share because we believe that food belongs to the Lord and serving is the pleasure and privilege to whom the Lord has provided in plenty. In the Marxian model, resources are shared not voluntarily but under state’s dictate, which is quite different from the concept of voluntary sharing and seva (labour of love). I also committed the heresy of saying that the system, which was not based on justice and social responsibility, had no moral basis. Such remarks in those days of pre-Glasnost Soviet Union created some sort of commotion amongst the gathering. Realising the sensitivity of the situation, I tried to quickly wriggle out of the situation without any further elaboration or debate.

Now that those supporting the Capitalist model of society are celebrating the collapse of the Marxian model, I might be committing another heresy by pointing out that the Capitalist model, which is now fast emerging as a world model, would also collapse soon if this is not based upon social responsibility and compassion for fellow beings.

Asia which is the birth place of twelve world’s major religion has a role to play at a time when material progress and cut throat competition created by the capitalist model has almost destroyed spiritual and moral basis of social order. Since other scholars from different religious traditions of Asia will be talking from their rich traditions, I take the liberty of sharing with you some of my stray thoughts from the Sikh religious tradition which I have come to represent at this conference.

Before we talk of the spiritual and political concerns of the Sikhs it would be helpful to provide a brief background about the founding of the new faith and the distinct spiritual practices and ways of life evolved during the period of the Sikh Gurus. The Sikh faith was founded by Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) who preached monotheism and described the Creator as Ikk (one), without a second. Guru Nanak’s philosophy of God is best described in his composition Japji, the primal creed of Sikh faith. His teachings were strictly monotheistic, without scope for the worship of any deity or human teacher. Contrary to medieval Indian practice of denouncing the world for spiritual elevation, Guru Nanak believed that the world was worth living. “This world is the abode of God and the True One lives therein.” Guru Nanak believed that it was possible to live pure among the impurities of life. “As the lotus liveth detached in waters, as a duck floateth care-free on the stream, so doth one cross the Sea of Existence, his mind attuned to the Word. One liveth detached, Enshrining the One Lord in the mind, shorn of hope, living in the midst of hope.”

Guru Nanak’s teachings can be summed up in three simple Punjabi words, Naam Japna, Kirt Karni and Wand Chhakna (remembering God, earning one’s livelihood through honest means and sharing fruits of one’s labour with others). To practice his teachings of equality Guru Nanak started the twin institutions of Sangat and Pangat, emphasizing that all assemble in a congregation and while partaking food from the community kitchen should sit in one line without distinction of high and low or rich and poor.

Guru Nanak travelled throughout India and neighbouring countries, including Sri Lanka, in a spirit of dialogue with other religious traditions of his time. In this context, Guru Nanak’s encounter with the Siddhas during his visit to Achal (near Batala in Punjab, India) is worth mentioning: asked as to why they have denounced the world the Siddhas replied that “it was not worth living”. And when confronted as to where did they go for food when they felt hungry, the Siddhas replied “to the same society which had been denounced by them.” From Bhai Gurdas we learn that after his dialogue with the Guru the Siddhas were so satisfied that they became his admirers. The Guru emphasised that there was no need to denounce the world as this was the ‘adobe of the True Lord.’ The need was to denounce the lust and live in the world detached the way lotus floats in water.
Sikhism has a unique tradition of tolerance and co-existence dating back to the days of the founder. There is a story that when Guru Nanak visited Multan, the local religious leaders confronted him with a bowl of milk filled to the brim indicating thereby that the land was over filed with numerous religious teachers and that there was no place to accommodate a new creed. We are told that instead of arguing with them, Guru Nanak quietly placed a petal of jasmine over the bowl thereby indicating that the Guru would strive for unison with the existing religious traditions, and his followers would live with other communities the way jasmine floated in the bowl without disturbing the content. At a time when there are growing conflicts among religious traditions Guru Nanak’s example should serve as a timely reminder of the Indian tradition of peaceful co-existence.

Towards the last phase of his life Guru Nanak founded a city on the banks of river Ravi (now in Pakistan) and called it Kartarpur, i.e. city of God. There he worked on the field and shared his earnings with others. A community of disciples grew up at Kartarpur but it could not be described as any monastic order. On the other hand it was a fellowship of ordinary men and women from different faith traditions engaged in normal occupations of life, earning their livelihood through honest means and sharing the fruit of their labour with others. But what was remarkable about Kartarpur was that this provided a model of living which was to become the basis for the development of Sikh society and Sikh value system in the days to come. Herein the Guru and his followers got up before dawn and after ablutions said their prayers. The spiritual routine being over, the Guru and his followers partook the sacred food from the community kitchen and then attended to the day’s work. In the evening they again assembled at a common place and collectively recited their evening prayer and shared food. Before going to bed they all recited the Kirtan Sohila, songs of acclaim. Thus a Sikh goes to sleep with God’s name and after ablution repeats God’s name before proceeding on day’s work.

Through practical demonstration of their teachings, Guru Nanak and successive Gurus laid the foundation for an ideal society with emphasis on interfaith dialogue, religious freedom and responsibility towards fellow beings. The Sikh Gurus not only denounced the caste system but also provided the basis for a casteless society.  Inclusion of hymns of the Bhaktas from different castes, initiation into the order of the Khalsa of men from different castes and different corners of the country was a practical demonstration of Sikh concept of equality of human race. Sikh religion accepts validity of all religious traditions which is evident from Guru Amar Das’s hymn:

   `This world is going up in flames-
shower it with Your Mercy and save it
Save it, and deliver it, by whatever
method Thou can.
The ideal society perceived by the Sikh Gurus is called as Halemi Raj (a rule based on compassion) which is thus described by the fifth, Guru Arjan Dev.

   The merciful Lord has now given the command,
   That no one will domineer over
   and give pain to another,
   And all will abide in peace
   Such O dear is the rule of my compassionate God.
The Halemi Raj as described by the Sikh Guru has three distinct features:

i) The society is established under the command of the Lord Himself,
ii) In such a society no one would cause suffering or injury towards other and
iii) all will live in amity under peaceful conditions.

This concept of Halemi Raj advocated by the Sikh Gurus has features resembling those of modern welfare state. However, what distinguishes such a welfare state from the modern state is the fact that such a society is established not by individual efforts but under the Grace of the Creator. Welfare activities of such a society are not the result of any directives or legislation by the state but result of spiritual transformation. Under such a system there is no scope for exploitation of one human being by another. This concept of an ideal state is further corroborated in the hymns of Bhagat Ravidas wherein he talks of the concept of an ideal city calling it Begumpura – a city without any fear or grief – where human beings could live free from worries, sufferings and tensions. The citizens of such an ideal society would not have anxiety over the payment of tax on goods. Nor do they have the fear of any unjust king. Free from lust and greed, all live in full contentment as children of one Father. 

`Griefless’ is the name of my Town.
Where abide not either pain or care.
No anguish there of tax on goods,
Neither fear, nor error, nor dread, nor decline.
Oh! how wondrous is my fatherland.
Where there is always Peace and Calm,
O friend!
Ever-enduring is the Regime of my only
Lord over that Land.
And there is no second nor  third there,
but my only Lord.
Populous as ever, its Repute is eternal:
And, there abide only the Rich and the Content.
And there men go about as and where they wish:
They know the Mansion of their Lord, so
no one prevents (them).
Ravidas, a mere tanner, has been emancipated in this land:
And, he, who’s his Fellow-citizen is also his Friend.

Egalitarian order of the society described by the Sikh scripture is evident from the fact that Ravidas, the so-called low caste Chamar, a tanner, discarded by the so-called high class Brahmins, has not only been honoured by the fifth Guru Arjun Dev, by including his hymns in the holy Sikh Scripture, but he is often quoted by the Sikh scholars to describe an ideal Sikh society. In the Vars of two Bards, Sata and Balwand, there is a reference to `Nanakraj’ wherein Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh religion and social order, has established a society based on sound foundations of truth: `Nanak Raj Chalaya, Sach Kot Satani Nivde’. (Nanak established the Lord’s empire and laid a strong foundation of the fortress of Truth).

At the time when there are religious conflicts are all over the world and the younger generation is going far away from the traditional values, we would do well to debate if we could offer an alternative model of progress where all the children of God can equally partake His grace irrespective of their race and religious affiliations. Let me end this on the altruistic note from the daily Sikh prayer:

   Nanak Nam Charddi Kala tere Bhane Sarbatt ka Bhala

Thy Name, Thy Glory, be forever triumphant, Nanak, and in Thy Will, may peace and prosperity.