Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

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.

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?

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