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Religion Library: Sikhism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

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Along the way, remembrance of the Lord's name, charity, and spiritual ablution (nam dan isnan) guide our actions. Bhai Gurdas reflects on the Sikh Path:

Waking at night's end, hold steadfast to nam dan isnan
Speak sweetly, tread softly, give from your hands, give thanks
Sleep little, eat little, speak little, and receive the Guru's teachings
Eat of your labor, perform good deeds, be great but remain unnamed
Day and night, congregate with the holy, sing
Acquaint yourself with the sound of the word, thus know the true Guru and satisfy your heart
Amidst temptation, remain untempted.
(Var 28, Stanza 15)

Elsewhere, Gurdas expresses the Golden Rule in his own unique way: everyone loves their son, trade, and religion like you love yours.

Some aspects of Sikh morality have been misunderstood by Western scholars, particularly the issue of Sikh justifications for violence. A typical, but incorrect, understanding of Guru Nanak's message is that it is pacifistic, and that later tradition contradicted this in its militarization. It is more accurate to see that Guru Nanak was a politically engaged religious teacher, and even activist. His poetry expresses concern for the weak and the meek. He even writes that violence between equals is acceptable, and military targeting of civilians is absolutely and deeply unjust.

Most Sikhs believe that the increased politicization of the community from its inception into the 18th century was not a qualitative shift. That is to say, violence may be justified as a final means for political engagement. As an act of last resort, the use of violence must be tempered by moral deliberation. Sikh morality abhors violence of aggression, the killing of innocents and non-combatants, and policies of environmental destruction like "scorched-earth."

Overall, specific questions of ethics, sexuality, and abortion are left to individuals, congregations, and families to decide. The Sikh conduct code is clear, however, that no gender-based feticide is allowed and that women must be treated with proper respect. This code of conduct, called the Sikh Rahit Maryada, is a mid-20th-century product that has its roots in the Guru's teachings, the works of Bhai Gurdas, and 18th-century Rahit literature.

Study Questions:
1.     What were some of the basic ethical principles Guru Nanak laid out in his compositions?
2.     According to Bhai Gurdas, what were some of the important ethical landmarks in a Sikh day?
3.     How do Sikhs justify the use of violence?