Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

The Guru Granth Sahib (GG), the written embodiment of all the Gurus' teachings, begins with a composition of Guru Nanak's, which itself begins with a question: "How can we find truth? How can we break the shackles of falsehood?" Guru Nanak's answer to this age-old question sets the tone for understanding Sikh thought: "Nanak writes: merge with the divine command, walk in its way" (GG 1).

Sikhs perceive human life as an opportunity to merge with the divine will. However, the core problem is that human judgment is occluded by a false sense of self. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) called this false sense of self haumai ("the I-me"). Those who follow this sense of self, and thus the workings of their own deluded mind, are the manmukhs ("self-facing"); the pious Sikhs who follow the Guru's ways are called gurmukhs ("Guru-facing"). When following his or her own mind, and the false sense of self-importance that comes with it, the individual is susceptible to lust, anger, greed, clinging, and pride. These states of mind entrap and preclude individuals from walking the path of the pious.

Sikhism teaches that Kartar created the universe in one command and cares for it. His command set the world into being, and his orders run it. Humans are believed to be the apex of created beings—with intellect, emotion, and mastery of their senses—but are troubled by the same sense of self that makes them unique. One can pray formally, and visit all sorts of holy places, but Sikh teachings require a deep inner commitment by the individual in order to be on the path to liberation.

The Sikh ideal for human life is to live within the divine will. Humans should enjoy life amidst remembrance of Kartar and be disciplined by prayer, self-restraint, and moral purity. Sikhs ought to stand for justice against tyranny and live lives of truth. When living in accordance with the Guru's teachings, Sikhs believe they will inevitably be living on the path toward realizing Kartar and attaining liberation at the divine court hereafter.

On the Sikh spiritual path, the individual needs to come to terms not only with haumai (one's false sense of importance) but the "five vices" as well. These vices are kam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (clinging), and haunkar (pride), and in their daily supplications, Sikhs seek divine protection from indulgence in any of these. Guru Arjan (1563-1606), the fifth Guru, wrote of the wrestling arena of life, in which the "five challengers" are thrown down by the pious Sikh who has the support of his divine mentor (GG 74). This metaphor of wrestling does not deny the necessity of living with human vices and temptations; it assumes a lasting struggle with vice in which the self requires assistance from God and Guru.

The looming moment of death is a constant theme in Guru Nanak's compositions. According to Guru Nanak, death provides an opportunity to reap the good that one has sown in life. The "call" of death (sadd) will come suddenly, so individuals must be ever vigilant for it. This provides each person with his or her own personal day of reckoning, from which no one is exempt. Guru Nanak taught that accounts (lekh) of good and bad (bura bhalla) are kept, and that they must be faced in Kartar's everlasting court after death (GG 1110).

In sum, Sikhs believe that human existence is good and a gift from Kartar. Human life ought to be dedicated to realizing Kartar's grace and attaining liberation. Though this endeavor can be thwarted by the pitfalls of the human's own mind, these obstacles can be circumvented by walking the path of the pious and seeking the Guru's shelter. The Guru provides the knowledge and wisdom, via the Shabad (the divine word), that one needs to walk the straight path of ethical living. This kind of life inspires the mind to speak sweetly and act rightly, ensuring a favorable result in the hereafter.

Study Questions:
1.     What does Guru Nanak think will help people to find the truth?
2.     What is the ideal for human life in Sikh belief?
3.     What does Guru Nanak write about death?
4.     What should humans strive for in this life?

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