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Religion Library: Sikhism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

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The most important characteristics of the divine include being beyond gender (though languages sometimes require gendered pronouns), beyond time, and beyond simple understanding. For Sikhs, who are committed monotheists, Kartar is truth. The divine is both the nearest thing to humanity, and the farthest, most removed, transcendent creator who sits outside of creation, watching, controlling, and relishing it. The first Guru, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), taught that truthful living is higher than the abstract concept of truth. By following the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib (GG, the sacred scripture), Sikhs believe they are walking along the path to Kartar, the path of truth. Ethical life is the highest principle in Sikh tradition. The divine is ultimately mysterious but "known" through reflection, in nature, and ethical "truthful" living.

The Guru Granth Sahib's first characters are the numeral one, and the first letter in the Gurmukhi script (used for writing in the Punjabi language), symbolizing Ik Oankar. This combination has been translated by scholars as "There is one God" or "One Reality Is." This statement commences an invocation to the Guru Granth Sahib that Sikhs now know as the mul mantar ("root formula") or mukh updesh ("primary teachings"). This invocation provides the basic description of the divine, and has been translated:

True in name. The creator being. Fearless. Other-less. Eternal. Unborn. Self-lit. Known by the Guru's grace. (GG 1)

Guru Nanak taught that Kartar was primarily true, true at the beginning of time, presently true, and continually truth itself.

How does one talk about "God" in the Sikh tradition? There is no one name for God, as the divine reality cannot be encompassed in words. Sikhs call the divine by the words from Sikh scripture or divine attributes like Kartar ("creator"), Karta Purakh ("creator being"), or Akal Purakh ("timeless being"). The most common epithet utilized today is probably Vahiguru ("Hail to the Guru!").

Sikhs believe that Kartar is beyond temporal constraints like gender. Thus, pronouns like "him" and "his" are considered mere human conventions and do not reflect an ultimate reality. Sikhism teaches that Kartar cares for and loves creation, like a divine mother, and that, like a father, Kartar watches over creation and protects it. As a sovereign ruler, he provides for his creation and rules over it. Kartar is cast in the role of a male lover to all humans, who by implication would be equal as members of one gender in relation to Kartar. Sikh spirituality is rooted in relating to Kartar's love and care in all of these ways.