Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill
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.
The sovereignty of the divine is linked to the Sikh community's sovereignty on earth. That is to say, the Sikh community is an independent and autonomous unit, and these characteristics reflect the deity it worships. Sikhs have a strong notion of interaction with this divinity in their daily lives. The divine's presence is perceived by humans in the Naam ("name," or essence), which is a state of being that is available through the grace of the Guru and via the medium of the Shabad ("word"), which Sikhs can hear and utter as the compositions enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The Gurus were not divine incarnations, but divine mouthpieces. Sikhs remember the transmission of the office of Guru as a royal coronation, and the passing of the spirit of one Guru into the other's body like the merging of light with light (GG 967). The Guru was a medium of revelation from Kartar himself, and carried divine authority into the world like a viceroy. On earth, he was a king and the world of men and women were his subjects. With this belief system, the early Sikh community set the stage for seeing their community as a governing body parallel to the Mughal state, and their leader (the Guru) as a sanctified king.
In Sikh belief, a congregation immersed in the Shabad is a holy body of people. By the early 17th century there was a clear conflation in Sikh thought between the authority of the Guru, the authority of the word, and the authority of the congregation. This provides the ideological underpinnings of the 18th century's articulation of the doctrines of Guru Granth Sahib. Bhai Gurdas, the 16th-century scribe, wrote that two Sikhs formed a holy congregation, and where five congregated, Kartar himself was present. Today in the community, this means that the Guru's teachings represent the Guru's presence, and the congregation has the sanctioned decision-making authority.
Sikhs believe that the more one says about Kartar, the more there is left to say. Fools talk and talk, or write and write. Those who truly seek to know Kartar, try to enact his truth in their lives. Guru Nanak writes:
As great as You are, all goodness flows from You
As true as You are, all is true, and nothing is false
Speaking, beholding, talking, walking, living and dying we go
By His command, He creates, the True One keeps us (GG 145).
1. What are the characteristics of the divine in Sikh thought?
2. How do Sikhs characterize the transmission of the office of Guru?
3. In Sikh beliefs, what makes a body of people holy?