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Religion Library: Sikhism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

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Sikhism teaches that the sense of "self" is the primary cause of suffering. When the individual puts the self at the center of everything, he or she loses reality; the Sikh truth is that each person is part of a much larger whole, a universe in which Kartar is the Master. However, Guru Angad (1504-1552) (the second Guru) taught that self-agency is also where the cure to suffering lies, by directing the self to selfless acts:

The I-me (haumai) is a nasty disease
      But it also contains the elixir to cure
If He is so gracious
      To make us hear the Guru's word
Nanak says, listen people
      This is how pain is remedied.
(GG 466)

By attuning the self to the Shabad (the divine word), the Sikh believes that he or she is ready to receive the divine grace that will inspire righteous living and lead to the path of liberation. Ethics, not belief, rule the Sikh agenda. Internal spiritual practice and external daily actions must go hand-in-hand.

Evil is indistinct from extreme self-centeredness. Tyranny and oppression, far removed from all notions of compassion and empathy, are the most evil acts. Sometimes people suffer because of the self-centered actions of others. Sikh history is full of stories of martyrs for the faith who were steadfast in their opposition to oppression.

In the face of oppression, Sikhs have a wide array of choices in response. Humility in bearing suffering is one response to oppression. This entails the ability to understand suffering as part of the human condition, and the enactment of the divine will. This also entails a powerlessness on behalf of those who suffer to surmount the oppression. Sikhs make appeals to Kartar for the benefit of all humanity, and the final part of the Sikh daily prayer of supplication (ardas) requests just that.

However, human beings also possess the ability to redress the wrongs of the world, and thus make the world more just and compassionate. In the long term, then, simply bearing others' self-centeredness and cruelty is no way to live. This is especially the case when the divine will bestows the ability for creative responses to suffering. Standing up for one's rights and those of the oppressed is another choice that also corresponds with Sikh notions of honor (pat) and justice (nian).

After the martyrdom of Guru Arjan (1563-1606) at the hands of the Mughal state, and amidst a succession battle for the Guru's office, Sikh savant Bhai Gurdas voiced an optimism for the unfolding of divine justice that encapsulates a Sikh response to those "false" powers that oppress others. Bhai Gurdas wrote:

Falsehood is like a deceitful dagger
      Truth is a protective, iron shield
Falsehood is a perpetual enemy
      Truth is a good, supportive ally
Truth is a brave warrior
      Falsehood seeks false opportunity
Truth stands unwavering
      Falsehood, fickle, trembles
Truth grabs and thrashes Falsehood
      We look on from four directions, in all three worlds . . .
(Var 30 stanza 10)

 
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