Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

The social vision of Sikh tradition is not one of mass conversion or conquest, but rather one in which people, regardless of race or religion, have equal access to honor, respect, and the ability to work for a living while worshipping the Creator. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) wrote eloquently of his solidarity with the disenfranchised, which Sikhs have seen as a mark of his spiritual ascendance:

The lowest of the low born, the utmost and very low
Nanak is with those people! What need have I for the high?
Wherever the low receive care, surely there are Your blessings
. (GG 15)

This verse can be read like a mission statement for the Sikh quest for social justice and equality. The key point to register is that the easiest place to find divine grace is in places where the poor, downcast, and oppressed find some hope and care. Enacting care for the marginalized, Sikhs can be the expression of Kartar's care in the world. The Sikh focus on equality of all peoples and social classes is a beginning point for dispensing divine justice in the world.

Two of the most important elements of Guru Nanak's vision were his sensitivity to women's plight and strict class equality. Doctrinally and ideally this is where Sikhs stand, however it takes great work to live up to these beliefs in practice. Guru Nanak brought these ideals into practice through the institutions of Sangat (egalitarian congregation) and Langar (community kitchen and meals for all). For Sikhs, Guru Nanak's message was one of liberation—not just spiritual, but temporal as this world is the real expression of divine love and grace.

For the 17th-century Sikh scholar Bhai Gurdas, Sikhs are supposed to be in the world like shade-providing trees. The tree is an exemplar of the ability to tolerate pain and suffering: its head (roots) thrusts into the ground, it stands upside-down and bears the suffering of wind and weather. As it grows, it provides shade to the world, and fruit even when it is stoned. It may be cut down to make a boat but does not hold grievance against even the woodcutter. The benevolence of the existing trees (Sikhs) will seed other trees (converts, perhaps) and spread the ethic of benevolence the world over. Thus, for Gurdas, a vision for the growth of Sikh community was linked to the Sikh ideal of redeeming the world through adherence to moral rectitude, particularly found in the ethics of benevolence, charity, and humility.

In Sikh history, the increased politicization of the community led to a slogan that expressed one interpretation of that message. This slogan is Deg-Teg-fateh, which translates to "victory of the cauldron and sword." Both cauldron and sword are tangible instruments for the enactment of divine grace and justice in the world. For Sikh leaders like Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), military mobilization was a natural outgrowth of the Sikh commitment to establishing Kartar's justice and equality in the world. Sikhs encourage differences in viewpoints, especially within the monotheistic religions. The best religion is that which leads to good, ethical life. In the ideal society, there is social justice and accountability, retribution for political corruption, and work toward diminishing poverty.

In the early 1800s, a Sikh writer, Rattan Singh Bhangu, articulated a myth (a sacred story revealing deep truths) about the Khalsa's conception of its ruling territory. In the myth, Guru Gobind Singh, impressed with the performance of some Khalsa wrestlers, asks his men how much of the world's territory they would like to control. He is ready to bless them with sovereignty as far as they can imagine. They, however, only ask for the area around the central Punjab, no matter how much the Guru entices them with greater territory. This story speaks not only of the Sikh conception of nationhood, rooted along the central Punjab, but also the ideas of satisfaction and contentment. This myth expressed the idea that Sikhs are not trying to conquer the world, or bring all people to their fold. They stand for justice and equality the world over, and are happy to be the shade-providing trees no matter the hot winds that blow through this decrepit age.

Study Questions:
1.     From where do Sikhs get their vision for social justice?
2.     What does Bhai Gurdas mean by the metaphor of shade-providing trees?
3.     What is Deg-Teg-Fateh?

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