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Religion Library: Sikhism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

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Sikhs believe that the world is real. What and how individuals perform here in life has real consequences. One need not escape the world through asceticism or austerity. In fact, pursuing ethical conduct in line with the Guru's teachings bestows gifts that even ascetics cannot reach. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writes:

Contemplating the word brings a benevolent attitude
Destroying self-pride brings austerity's fruits
The one who has heard the word is liberated-in-life
Right conduct brings true peace
. (GG 1343)

That is, the opportunity for spiritual cultivation exists in social life, and does not require austerity or renunciation of social ties. As a believer in the universal accessibility of the spiritual path, Guru Nanak was vehemently opposed to those who retreated from the world to seek their spiritual cultivation.

Guru Nanak's sense of moral responsibility required fair interaction between people under the watchful sight of a just God. Guru Nanak spoke out against lying lawgivers (GG 662) and officials who accepted bribes (GG 951). Taking more than one's fair share is expressed as a social taboo for Sikhs, comparable to eating beef for Hindus and pork for Muslims (GG 141). On the flip side, charity is key to the good life. Guru Nanak teaches that the person who gives from his or her rightful earning is surely on the path to liberation.

These kinds of ethical injunctions are echoed in the writings of the later Gurus, and especially in the writings of the Sikh savant Bhai Gurdas. He made the first attempt to systematize Sikh ethics in organizing codes of conduct in consecutive, coherent stanzas of poetry. For example:

Waking at the ambrosial hour, the Guru's Sikh bathes at the tank
Repeating the Guru's words, he arrives at the place of worship
Arriving at the holy congregation, he listens lovingly to the holy word
Dispelling doubts from his heart, he serves the Guru's Sikhs
Earning from his hard work, he takes sacrament and distributes it
Serving the Guru's Sikhs, he eats from what's left
Lighting the way in this Dark Age, the Guru is the disciple, and the disciple meets the Guru
Gurmukhs travel the straight path. (Var 40, Stanza 11)

Another way Gurdas proliferated Sikh morals was to expound upon words and phrases containing pithy kernels of Sikh teachings that the common person could remember and enact. Gurmat ("Guru's advice") is the word for the Sikh teachings and the Sikh way of life in accordance with scripture. Parupkari ("benevolence") is the highest aim in this way of life. Ethics, and enacting the right things in life, take precedence over all else, and Guru Nanak proclaims that rightful living (sach achar) is far higher than proclamations of truth. Knowledge, and reflection on that knowledge, allow for right actions, which culminate in benevolence. We ought to seek virtue by aligning our mind, words, and actions (man bach karam) with Sikh teachings.