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General Sikhi & Sikhism: A Distinction Without a Difference

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by kds1980, Jan 31, 2009.

  1. kds1980

    kds1980 India
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    Apr 4, 2005
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    sikhchic.com | The Art and Culture of the Diaspora | Article Detail

    Sikhi & Sikhism: A Distinction Without a Difference

    by I.J. SINGH

    I had recently published an essay in which I wrestled with the problem of classifying Sikhs - are they a nation, ethnic group, race, religion or what?

    Then some readers pointed out that Sikhism is different from other religions in that it is less a movement with dogma, doctrine and hierarchy, and more a way of life.

    In a different context, the noted historian Hew McLeod suggested that the term "Hinduism" was perhaps inaccurate and imprecise. He credited Wilfred Cantwell Smith with the notion that "Hinduism" doesn't exist as a defined religion. Why? Because Cantwell Smith and McLeod posit that there is nothing that can always and unquestionably be affirmed concerning the fundamental belief system of Hinduism - not even caste or the position of Brahmins.

    Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the celebrated Indian philosopher, reasons similarly and labels Hinduism "a way of life" rather than "a religion" because of the variegated traditions within its capacious umbrella. McLeod thus prefers to speak of "Hindu traditions." This is because, he contends, Hinduism is not a single tradition but allows a multiplicity of practices.

    Certainly this is so and possibly explains why in Hinduism one can find so many apparently contradictory practices - from strict vegetarianism to ritual animal sacrifice; from vestal virgins in their temples where their illicit offspring are attributed to the acts of God (would that be an act of God under suspicious circumstances, I wonder!) to an unparalleled celebration and admiration of celibacy; from pantheism and innumerable gods and goddesses, in fact, more than the worshippers, to some very admirable strains of unitarianism and monotheism.

    Would it be better to simplify matters and classify these varied traditions as sects and denominations? Most religions do develop such sects; Christianity, for example, has more than 250.

    Indic religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, are resistant to the idea of sects; Buddhism is an exception.

    Hinduism does present a very complex interwoven structure of primitive mythology along with some beautifully nuanced philosophical depth. McLeod also points out that the term "Hinduism" may be the invention (and curse or gift, if you wish) of the British, who wanted to box in and pigeonhole the religious-cultural diversity of the Hindu traditions.

    I wouldn't credit or blame the British entirely for this; Hindu reformers such as Dayanand show a similar bent in their logic. To Dayanand, his own interpretation of Hindu practices was the one true path; all else was erroneous and alarming deviationism, not deserving of being labeled "Hindu".

    I detect somewhat similar strains in Kapur Singh's writings on Sikhism. In fact, he seems to go further. Sometimes I think he interprets Hindus to be all the people of northern India. In his view, the Hindu cultural and mythological practices define the worldview of all north Indians, with these "Hindu" people following very defined and divergent religious paths, such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and so on.

    Reasoning similarly, I have a Punjabi Hindu friend who claims, on a non-scholarly level, that the only religion of Punjab is Sikhism, and that Hinduism is the culture of Punjab, indeed of India. I can see the logic in Cantwell Smith, McLeod and Radhakrishnan on Hinduism and the diversity in Hindu traditions, but I doubt that most Hindus would accept the formulation and reasoning that Hinduism does not exist as a religion. Most scholars, whether Hindu or not, and certainly most lay Hindus, when writing or speaking about Hindus and their religion, label it "Hinduism," without any thought of sects or widely divergent practices.

    I wonder if every movement doesn't start as practices and mores of ordinary living - a way of life - which then turn into rich traditions with time, and these traditions then establish themselves enough to become institutionalized. And then we have a religion. Let's think this through.

    A coherent group of people, or a community, is no different from a family. What lends consistency to a people is a common set of values - their ethos that gives them common bonds, worldview and direction. As communities enlarge, the way of life of a people spawns institutions.

    A code of conduct becomes necessary and evolves with widespread acceptance of a way of life. As communities spread far and wide, it becomes necessary to design ways to communicate the code of conduct, as well as the means to ensure compliance with it. What emerges, then, from such shared needs and common ethos are religions and nations, even those that are sometimes politically drawn lines in the sand.

    To my mind, the story of any of humankind's religions is not much different. I believe Christianity, for instance, was not, at its inception and for several centuries later, a distinct institutionalized movement. Its traditions grew around its teachings and then later became an institution with worldwide presence and impact. In its early years, Christianity was perhaps no more than an informally observed "way of life." The Judaic Ten Commandments, at their best, define a way of life.

    Sikhism, too, was perhaps only a way of life when Guru Nanak founded a new community of his followers at Kartarpur; people attracted to his teachings came from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. Many of the followers, at least for a while, retained dual identities - of their native religion and of the path of Nanak. This is the lesson of the saakhi that at the end of Nanak's life, his Hindu and Muslim followers quarrelled, for each wanted to administer to him the last rites of its own religion. This tells me that in this early Sikh community, contradictory and conflicting practices must have coexisted, while the teachings of Guru Nanak provided the common uniting element.

    I have no doubt that Guru Nanak intended to start a new religion right from the start; I have dealt with this elsewhere. By the time of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, the clear message of Sikhism had been enunciated and conflicting practices clearly rejected. But doctrinal purity, which started with Guru Nanak and progressed continuously to Guru Gobind Singh, does not automatically translate into a similar single-minded purity of practice.

    New converts to the cause often brought lifelong habits from their original belief system and somewhat uncertainly grafted Sikh teachings onto them. Certainly during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, many new converts flocked to the Sikh faith, not necessarily out of conviction but perhaps from political expediency; their faith might have been only skin deep.

    The resulting contradictions in Sikh practices were most noticeable at the time of the Singh Sabha almost a century ago. Many practices in Sikhism at that time had come to us from our Hindu antecedents.

    Harjot Oberoi of British Columbia has produced an excellent and instructive compendium of mixed practices and rites among the Sikhs of a certain era in history.

    I could make a similar case for any other religion. Christianity, for instance, now has over 250 denominations. The teachings of all Christian sects flow from the life and work of Jesus and the interpretations by the apostles, yet their interpretations show major divergence and difference. The most visible schism is on the matter of the papacy, but lesser, yet critical, issues divide them on matters of faith, morals and practices. Doctrinal and practical differences remain.

    The whole direction and purpose of the Singh Sabha Movement a hundred years ago was to explore the Sikh tradition, discover the common threads of continuity in that tradition and thus arrive at a single unified vision of the teachings and practices of Sikhism.

    Yet some variability still remains. Perhaps time exacts such a price from all religions. So now I see a predominantly unified Sikh view, and in that sense it is a single Sikh tradition. However, some evidence indicates a plurality of practices as well, even if to us they appear heretical and a corruption or misreading of the original intent of the founder-Gurus of the faith.

    I point, for example, to the Naamdharis, who revere Guru Granth as holy scripture but also follow a living Guru.

    The Hindu way of life has retained, more than other religions, this plurality of practice and belief that I pointed out earlier; in that sense it is correct to speak not of a Hindu religion or Hinduism but of the multiplicity of Hindu traditions. Hindu traditions have remained diverse, even contradictory, and resisted the tendency to become a monolithic ideology perhaps longer and more successfully than the others. However, that is not to say that there is not a commonality that runs through all these competing Hindu traditions; I am pointing particularly to the preeminent centrality of the Brahmin, the inviolability of the caste system with the code of Manu, and cow worship.

    Would this core of common values not justify our labeling it "Hinduism"? It seems to me that it is around this enduring core that the contradictory Hindu traditions and practices exist and flourish. A growing and powerful movement in India takes its life from deriving and promoting the concept of Hindutva as the core structure of Hindu belief and practice.

    There is little doubt that the majority of the almost one billion Hindus think of Hinduism as a major world religion with viable traditions. And that, I think, is a very valid concept that even non-Hindus would have to accept.

    Similarly, in Sikhism, the central core is Guru Granth and the lessons of our history; practices around this core have varied throughout the years. The Singh Sabha movement, about a hundred years ago, laboured to define Sikh core practices and bring some order to the chaos. Certainly, mixed loyalties and practices can still be seen in many Sikhs, just as they can be seen in Christians and Jews - witness the Jews for Jesus movement that has existed for two thousand years.

    I think the practices of a way of life become, with time, traditions that define a people. These habits of the heart become institutionalized into religions. A way of life becomes a religion much as a people bring forth a nation - with clearly defined, yet porous, fences between neighbours. It is these chinks in the fences that make for the confusing array of mixed practices and traditions. As long as the traditions stay connected to the lives of the people, they remain living history; otherwise, they become fossilized.

    It seems to me that any religion is first and foremost a way of life and vice versa. This makes Hinduism a way of life and a religion, though more amorphously defined than many others.

    Similarly, Sikhism is a way of life. I could extend this logic to claim that communism, a discredited way of life, also was no less a religion of sorts. A belief in God is not essential to my definition of a religion, as Buddhism indicates by its very ambivalent position on the issue.

    So Sikhism is, then, both a religion and a way of life; the two cannot exist separately. I know that some scholars choose to think of the word "religion" as a Western concept with no equivalent or parallel idea in the Indic religions.

    They often point to the word dharma in Indic languages, which is used to delineate Hindu, Sikh and Jain or Buddhist ways of life. And dharma literally means "duty" or "a way of life." They further argue that dharma is not religion, and the word for "religion" in Indic languages is mazhab. But I think the word mazhab came to us from the Semitic traditions just as the word dharma came from Hindu traditions.

    Both words pertain to a way of life, which, in time, may become an established denomination or an entirely new religion.

    Some prefer to use the Punjabi word Sikhi to refer to all that comprises Sikh belief and practice. It may be a better descriptive term because the word encompasses both concepts - Sikhism, the religion with its doctrine, dogma and institutional structure, as well as a way of life.

    In our introspective trek, keep in mind the core beliefs - doctrine, dogma, history and practice - of what constitutes Sikhi, yet remain tolerant of the different beat of the distant drummer to which many choose to march.
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