The Religion Of The Sikhs - Dorothy Field - ebook

Adherents of Sikhism are known as Sikhs (students or disciples) and number over 23 million across the world. Most Sikhs live in Punjab in India and, until India's partition, millions of Sikhs lived in what is now Pakistani Punjab.

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The Religion Of The Sikhs


Dorothy Field



Edition 2017 by David De Angelis – all rights reserved








Any writer on the Religion of the Sikhs must necessarily be greatly indebted to Mr. Max A. Macauliffe's unique work on the subject, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Saints, and Authors.

My special thanks are due to the Oxford University Press for kind permission to quote extensively from the translation of the hymns. The details of the lives of the Gurus are taken from the same source, together with the English version of the prophecies by Teg Bahādur and Gobind Singh.

D. F.


The object of the Editors of this series is a very definite one. They desire above all things that, in their humble way, these books shall be the ambassadors of good-will and understanding between East and West—the old world of Thought and the new of Action. In this endeavour, and in their own sphere, they are but followers of the highest example in the land. They are confident that a deeper knowledge of the great ideals and lofty philosophy of Oriental thought may help to a revival of that true spirit of Charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of another creed and colour.



Northbrook Society 21 Cromwell Road, S. Kensington, S.W.


The Religion of the Sikhs is one of the most interesting at present existing in India, possibly indeed in the whole world. Being of comparatively late origin, it has not, until lately, received the attention of students, but both in its history and its theology it will well repay study. It is a pure, lofty monotheism, which sprang out of an attempt to reform and to simplify Muhammadanism and Hinduism, and which, though failing in this attempt, succeeded in binding together, like Judaism of old, a whole race in a new bond of religious zeal. The Sikhs1 became a nation by reason of their faith,—and a fine nation of stalwart soldiers.

There is a tendency at the present day to reckon the Sikhs as a reformed sect of the Hindus; and this has become a matter for controversy among the Indians themselves. The word Hinduism is undoubtedly capable of a very wide application., but it is questionable whether it should be held to include the Sikhs in view of the fact that the pure teaching of the Gurus2 assumed a critical attitude towards the three cardinal pillars of Hinduism, the priesthood, the caste system,3 and the Vedas.4 A reading of the Granth strongly suggests that Sikhism should be regarded as a new and separate world-religion, rather than as a reformed sect of the Hindus. The founder of the religion, Nānak, was on the one hand the spiritual descendant of monotheistic reformers within Hinduism, but on the other, Muhammadan influences caused him to break away very much more from the older faith, and to admit much that might be directly traced to the followers of the Prophet. The subsequent enmity of the Muhammadans, and the consequent development of martial tendencies on the part of the Sikhs, can only be understood in the light of history, and for that reason we will consider briefly the lives of the Sikh Gurus, before going further into the question of doctrine.

The Gurus: Nānak.—Bāba—or Father—Nānak, as he is usually called by pious Sikhs, was born in the year 1460 at Talwandi, in the present Lahore district of the Punjab. It is said that his birth was attended by miracles, and that an astrologer predicted his future greatness. Very early the boy displayed a great interest in religious matters. At the village school to which he went he astonished his teacher by making an acrostic on the alphabet, in which he emphasised the need for true religion. After this Nānak took to private study, and spent much time in meditation and in association with religious men. He wandered in the dense forests around his home, and there doubtless met the religious teachers and reformers of his day, ascetics and wanderers of every kind. From them he must have learned the subtleties associated with religious controversy, and for the first time the principles of Muhammadan doctrine. Nānak's parents were strict Hindus of the Khatri caste, and in due time the Brahman priest came to invest the boy with the sacred thread.5Nānak was only nine years old, but he protested against the formality involved in such a ceremony by means of an improvised hymn:

"Make mercy thy cotton, contentment thy thread, continence its knot, truth its twist.

"That would make a janeu6 for the soul; if thou have it, O Brahman, then put it on me.

"It will not break, or become soiled, or be burned, or lost.

"Blest the man, O Nānak,7 who goeth with such a thread on his neck."

This hymn is typical of the manner in which Nānak afterwards conveyed most of his teaching. From that day onward he protested against the tyranny of caste, and the authority of the Brahman priesthood. He proceeded to learn Persian, in which language he was able to read many of the great Muhammadan writings, whose influence is shown so clearly in these early years. An acrostic composed on the letters of the Persian alphabet is entirely

Muhammadan in tone, as, for example, the following sentence, which shows how far Nānak's mind had travelled in this direction: "Renounce heresy, and walk according to the Shariat" (Muhammadan law).

For a long while all attempts on the part of Nānak's parents to induce him to enter some trade in accordance with the tradition of his caste proved fruitless. The lad was continually engrossed in meditation, and had no care for the things of this world. Finally, however, he consented to enter the service of a Muhammadan governor, whom after a time he converted to his reformative doctrine. On the occasion of this conversion Nānak showed a power of mind-reading, and such profound religious insight that, before he left the city, both Hindus and Mussulmans came to do him honour. After this it is said that Nānak went into the wilderness, where he was severely tempted by Kaljug, the devil. He resisted every attack, however, and afterwards was granted a, special vision of God, during which he held converse with Him, and received instruction for his mission. During this experience he composed an important part of the Jāpji,8 which has since become the key-note of Sikh doctrine. Nānak then donned a religious costume, and definitely set forth on his life-work as teacher, or Guru. He took with him his minstrel Mardana, who accompanied his hymns upon the rebook.9 The greater part of the new teaching was conveyed by means of these hymns, improvised and chanted to well-known musical measures.10 In this way Nānak discoursed with men of every caste and creed, but mostly with Brahmans, among whom he made many converts. He pointed out the inefficacy of caste and of the priesthood, protesting against formalism, whether Muhammadan or Hindu. He taught the existence of an all-powerful and loving Creator, who must be approached with simplicity and sincerity and by the loving repetition of the Sacred Name. Any one, of whatever caste or creed, who followed the Guru's teaching was held to have found salvation, even though he continued to live the ordinary life of the world. Much of Nānak's time was spent wandering and preaching in great simplicity of life—but he was married, as were all the Gurus after him. He discouraged ascetic practices, and taught that true religion was in the heart, whatever might be the walk in life. Whereas the Brahmans forbade either women or Sudras11 to read the Vedas, Nānak held that all human beings were on an equality in the sight of God. The Guru travelled all over India spreading his doctrines; to the Himalayas, to Ceylon, and it is said that he even went as far westward as Mecca, the pole-star of Muhammadan religion. A story told of him on this occasion is interesting, as showing the manner in which he conveyed his teaching. When outside the holy city an Arab priest reproached him for turning his feet in the direction of God.

"Turn my feet," answered Nānak, "in a direction in which God is not."

Upon this, it is said, the priest seized the Guru's feet and dragged them round, whereupon the temple turned, following the revolution of his body. This is usually understood in a spiritual sense, moaning that all Mecca turned to his teaching. During the Guru's wanderings he wore a strange mixture of Hindu and Mussulman costumes. This is supposed to show that he did not regard the two religions as essentially opposed in their pure forms, and that his own doctrines might be acceptable to both. Before Nānak died in 1538 he appointed his disciple, Angad, as his successor, whom he had previously subjected to severe tests.

An event which occurred at Nānak's death shows that his teaching had not been altogether unfavourably received. Hindus and

Muhammadans disputed as to which should have the disposal of his body. He himself, before dying, commanded the Hindus to place flowers on his right and the Mussulmans on his left; they whose flowers were found fresh in the morning should have the disposal of the body. The next day the flowers on both sides were found fresh, but the body had disappeared.12 The Sikhs erected a shrine, and the Muhammadans a tomb, in his honour, on the banks of the Ravi; but both buildings have been washed away by the river.

Angad.—Nine Gurus followed Nānak, and the first of these was Angad. Guru Angad's chief contribution to the religion was the invention of a special alphabet to be used for the writing of the Guru's hymns. Among the Hindus all sacred literature was composed in Sanscrit, even then a dead language—and it was entirely in keeping with the teaching of Nānak that this custom should be disregarded and the simple language of the people employed. Angad, however, modified. the Punjābi alphabet, in order that a special written character should be used. This modification of Punjābi was called Guru-Mukhi, and was thenceforth specially employed for all Sikh sacred literature. The new alphabet contained but thirty-five letters, whereas Sanscrit had fifty-two. Guru Angad held the Guruship for fourteen years, and died in 1552.

Amar Dās.—Amar Dās, his servant, succeeded him, This Guru made his head-quarters at Goindwal on the Bias, where he built a well with eighty-four steps, which is still regarded as sacred by the Sikhs. When he died, in 1574, he appointed his son-in-law as his successor, after subjecting him to very severe tests. He gave him the name of Rām Dās. The second Guru is specially remembered by the Sikhs for his intense humility.

Rām Dās.—Guru Rām Dās instituted the system of Masands. These men were appointed to collect the offerings of the faithful for the support and spread of the Sikh religion. After a while they became dishonest, and the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, abolished them. Rām Dās continued the excavation of Amritsar (lake of nectar), which he had begun during the lifetime of Amar Dās. This work was completed by his son, Guru Arjan, who succeeded him. Whereas the first three Gurus had passed over their sons when appointing successors, the office of Guru now became hereditary.

Arjan.—Guru Arjan entered upon the Guruship in 1581, and with his reign a change came in the fortunes of the Sikhs. Arjan was perhaps, the most notable of all the Gurus. He was possessed of remarkably handsome appearance and was a fine poet as well as a man of great practical ability. When he had completed the tank of Amritsar he set about the construction of the Har Mandar—or Golden Temple—which was to stand in the middle of the lake. He then proceeded to compile a volume of hymns, half of which were of his own composition, while the remaining half contained those of the previous Gurus, and of the earlier reformers, by whom they were influenced.12 The editing of this volume was a very important matter, upon which no time or trouble was spared. When completed it was called the Granth Sāhib—or noble book—and later the Adi (or first) Granth, in contradistinction to the Granth which was compiled in the name of the tenth Guru.