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The Sikh Perspective On Death and Suffering

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Admin Singh, Feb 9, 2010.

  1. Admin Singh

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    The Sikh Perspective On Death and Suffering
    by Wazir Singh

    Copyright © Professor Wazir Singh, Punjabi University

    Pleasure and pain are a set of robes
    that men must keep on wearing.

    Sikhism is not a philosophy of suffering. Even so, human suffering and death are the two running themes in the Sikh poetic tradition. The poet-philosophers of Guru Granth the holy scripture, and practically all the commentators and interpreters of the Sikh faith, repeatedly stress these twin facts of human life, not for highlighting them, but to encourage men to face them and to conquer them.

    Apart from the ten spiritual mentors, or Gurus of the Sikh religion, six of whom composed hymns incorporated in the Granth, Sikhism recognizes a galaxy of medieval saints and divines, thirty-six in number and all poets, equal in rank and reverence for their moral and spiritual teachings. The main thrust of the voluminous compositions of these spiritual luminaries, is to awaken in man the urge to transcend his mundane existence, to inculcate in him love for the aesthetic-spiritual realm of life, to persuade him to imbibe virtues that help in the molding of a more humane order.

    All their teachings is addressed to man, for the well being of man, at the various levels of his existence - material, mental, aesthetic and ethical, social and spiritual. Their vision keeps in focus the regenerate man, transformed from the ordinary, existential plane of living into a qualitatively higher order of being. The essential man of their vision is one endowed with insight into life itself.

    Guru Nanak, the first of the ten Gurus, depicts the existential man covering four periods or quarters of life, from infancy with its ingrained attachment for parents, through youth with its passions, and middle age with its engrossments, leading to the period of decline and the time to depart. In this situation, man keeps on changing into the apparels of pain and pleasure, suffering and joy, with fear of death constantly lurking deep in his being.

    Human life may be portrayed in its four periods or ten stages, as found in the compositions of the Gurus and the bhaktas. But that is not the end of the matter. Some of the most forceful utterances, for instance in the hymns of Kabir, are those in which "men are urged to settle their accounts with God before death overtakes them and it is too late."

    Karine Schomer, illustrating this point with the help of Kabir's couplets, adds: "The theme of urgency in the face of death", is the persistent refrain in Kabir's hymns.2 And, for that matter, in the bani of all the authors of the Guru Granth. Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru and the first compiler of the Guru Granth, chastises man, first of all, to accord welcome to death, giving up all expectations of life; let him be at the service of all, then alone would he countenance God.3 As for the formula of overcoming anguish and suffering in life, the teaching may be summed up in Guru Arjan's proposition:

    Let my mind bank upon the support
    of that Lord
    Contemplating whom joy descends
    and all suffering vanish. 4

    Theme of Suffering In Gurbani

    It is not without interest to note that suffering in all its dimensions is considered in Gurbani, which in this context includes bhagat-bani as well. Guru Nanak, in Var-Malar refers to the "kind of suffering that results from separation, another kind that is caused by hunger and third type resulting from the unfailing advent of the messenger of death.5

    However, suffering at the organic level constitutes its physical dimension, depicted in terms of disease and pain, frailties and helplessness effected by intemperate living and/or old age, besides the tortures brought about by sadistic acts. The emotive dimension covers anxieties and pangs of separation (birha), and seemingly endless wait for re-union.

    Both the physical and emotive aspects of suffering have received attention of the poet-philosophers of the Guru Granth. Some perspectives on the intellectual dimension of suffering are also available, where the poetic sensibilities raise a voice of protest against human folly, social inequality and persecution, and even divine indifference. The fourth and fifth dimensions cover existential and spiritual suffering respectively.

    To be human is to suffer: that is the essence of existential sufferings, in itself incapable, but unlike physical pain or grief in its nature. It need not depend upon apprehension of a tragic situation or awareness of an impending calamity or fear. The uncaused anxiety, of which Heidegger speaks, and the existential anguish, of which Sartre speaks, are forms of suffering synonymous with existence itself.

    Kierkgaard regards such universal suffering as resulting from dread and the perilous tension between time and eternity. According to him, earthly existence is a mysterious blend of anguish and lovely dreams, of creation and despair.6 The problem of suffering, in this case, is intimately linked with human bondage. Professor Talib uses the phrase 'metaphysical suffering of sheer existence' - to describe the kind of suffering afflicting man who is born in pain and in pain shall die.7

    The problem of existential suffering was succinctly brought to the fore, perhaps for the first time, by Buddhism, which proclaimed that all is suffering - Sarvam Dukham. But Buddhist philosophy did not make suffering an inalienable feature of human existence. One of its four basic truths was made out to be nirodhasatya (the cessation of suffering), dukhasatya (the truth of human misery) not being the sole or absolute truth. "Nirvana is the end of suffering , the extinction of desire, the destruction of greed, hate, delusion, and of the constituent factors (skandhas) and the volitional forces (samskaras)."8

    According to the general rut of the Indian systems, "the human individual suffers or enjoys by virtue of his participation in the rolling process (i.e. samsara), on account of his sense of identification with it. This is some kind of 'original sin' which he calls his life or living."9 However, the utilitarian orientation of Buddhism coloured most of the subsequent philosophical systems in India. The various prescriptions were held out in accordance with the terms of diagnosis in each case.

    If craving (trishna) is the cause of all suffering, then the whole effort should be to root out this evil. If the individuating principle of ego is guilty, then, as in the case of Gurbani, utmost emphasis will have to be placed on the taming of egoism. "The ultimate truth is not realized in placing of one's self in the fore", says Guru Nanak. "The summum bonum comes within reach when the sense of ego is banished."10

    Guru Nanak's oft-quoted line "Nanak dukhiya sabh sansar", is matched in its sweep by Sheikh Farid's saying:

    I thought I alone suffered, but oh! the whole world is overtaken by grief. From the house-top, each abode is seen equally afire. 11

    A major stand in Farid is existential anguish, illustrated in his couplet that speaks of the midwife snipping the umbilical cord at birth: Better, if she would also press a little the throat; one would not have to face the affairs of life and bear its sorrows.12 In point of fact, the root-metaphor of Farid-bani is "Dukh". The individual, finding himself a solitary, friendless creature in a hostile world, undergoes the experience of anguish to which he is condemned. The spectre of old age haunts him; death holds a siege around him. Poor man! he would be reduced to ashes in the end.13

    But, the Sikh poetic tradition makes reference to the brighter aspect of dukh too. Guru Nanak's phrased "Dukh daru, sukh rog" alludes to a kind of 'pain' that serves as remedy and 'pleasure' that is the malady. In what sense is sukh (happiness) the root of evil, and suffering welcome for the sake of moral health? An answer is provided by Kierkegaard:

    The suffering which restores man to awareness of sin is also a means to reconciliation, only, however, if one dutifully accepts the suffering and turns it to good purpose.14

    Suffering is not, in all cases, a misfortune or curse. The thorn in flesh may be a blessing if it helps one to turn it into spiritual medicine. That is the creative approach to dukh, analyzed in Professor Talib's perspective on suffering.15

    Granted that suffering is a fundamental factor in the human situation, that it is innate to man, yet the self-inflicted suffering undergone for spiritual purification belongs to another category. Similarly, when man undergoes sorrow that lies in alienation from God, it is not simply on the mundane or profane level that he suffers. His suffering may be productive of moral and spiritual good; as

    Jesus suffered in the cause of God, and through his suffering was said to redeem mankind from sin and spiritual suffering.16

    The inscrutable mystery by which the Divine apportions dukh and sukh to his creatures, finds eloquent expression in Guru Nanak's Japuji:

    Countless stand condemned
    to pain and miseries ever;
    Such blessing in disguise
    the Bounteous One may shower.17

    Here, even the torments are treated as the Lord's gifts. Karl Jaspers paradox lends support to the view of man taking the 'risk' of being happy: When a man is unhappy being himself will be easier than when he is happy.18 Man is made aware of himself by his suffering - that seems to be the moral. And the pangs of separation suffered by the soul, are not extolled by Sheikh Farid without reason:

    The inscrutable mystery by which the Divine apportions dukh and sukh to his creatures, finds eloquent expression in Guru Nanak's Japuji:

    The pain of birha is belittled,
    but, birha, thou art sovereign!
    A body that never tasteth pangs
    Treat it like dead ground.19

    The Sikh poetic tradition advises the individual faced with a situation of inevitable suffering, to accept it with a sense of resignation to the Divine Will. The only alternative is to engage oneself in prayer for the alleviation of suffering, not only from one's own life, but from the life of humanity at large:

    Save this burning world through
    Thy Grace, O Lord!
    Lift us to whichever door of salvation
    Thou decidest20

    A Perspective on Death

    The death-theme affects the hedonist and voluntary on the one hand the devotee on the other, in different ways according as either understands the fulfillment of life to consist in what he has been seeking.

    Thus observes Professor Talib in the context of a study of Sheikh Farid's spiritual experience. To those who behold the underlying law of the universe in which all that is created is seen to be in a state of flux and subject to annihilation, such as Farid, "Death is a visible presence, not to be ignored in the course of daily round of life." Says Farid:

    Life is like a tree growing on the river's
    bank - how long may it last?
    How long may the unbaked pitcher retain water?21

    Compassion for man's state is the theme of another of Farid's couplets wherein, Death is figured as the bridegroom who must carry away on the appointed day, his betrothed bride, to leave the parents home like the typical Indian bride.22

    Guru Nanak employs the metaphor of sister and brother for depicting the relation of the body with the soul. At the time of parting, the sister calls out to the brother, but the latter has become a stranger to her. She pines and burns in separation.23

    The elements of inevitability and indeterminacy associated with death, by no means exclusive to Sikh tradition, constitute two major themes of hymns dealing with evanescence of human life, in the Guru Granth. Guru Nanak refers to "death overtaking all, all being subject to separation."24 Guru Arjan's expression - "whoever is born, is sure to die,"25 lends support to modern existentialist contention that an infant at birth is old enough to die. Man, is a being-toward-death. Guru Tegh Bahadur, in his own pathos-filled style, affirms:

    Whoever comes into being, has to depart;
    If not today, may be tomorrow.26

    The moment of actual arrival is kept secret, though its inevitability is not. Sheikh Farid talks of the 'eagle' swooping unawares upon the crane, spoiling its fun and frolic. Guru Nanak speaks of the 'net' thrown in to catch the fish; that is how death appears all too suddenly. And one knows not the mode of one's departure, how painful or peaceful will the end be!

    In his depiction of the existential man, Guru Nanak counts ten stages of life, beginning with the baby's love of mother's milk, followed by the various temptations and affections of life, leading to a decline in physical strength and finally to death that reduces the body to ashes.27 The truism that no one is completely satiated with the measure of lifetime given to him or her, is expressed in one of his slokas:

    "None seems to depart with the feeling that all his involvements are over." "Slowly and in bits, life is consumed and wasted away; death descends without asking and without giving a chance to complain."28

    Kabir strikes an optimistic note in proclaiming that it is through death alone that the eternals; perfect bliss is attained; that is why he is not afraid of death like the rest of the mortals.29 However the assertion of Kabir need not be construed in isolation and in the literal sense.

    Death is welcome, as it comes, but death is no better than life according to the Sikh perspective in general. Human life is a serious affair; it is a valuable gift, a rare opportunity to identify and realize the moral and spiritual objectives. That seems to be Gurbani's main message. It assures man that he is the pinnacle of all creation; it reminds him that he is the embodiment of Divine Light itself.

    An offbeat dimension of death and, for that matter, of life, is Gurbani's favourite conception of death-in-life. At the mundane level, it would sound queer and deserving of the cowards to say that one is as good as dead while alive; but in Gurbani this expression points to an awakened spirit fully aware of its origin and ultimate destiny. It refers to a person exercising control over his ego, over worldly attachments, over the sense of 'living' or 'being'. A hymn of Guru Amar Das concludes with a paradox that puts the pith of the matter:

    The true life is attained by one who courts death-in-life, through recognition of the divine Ordinance, by Divine Grace.30

    Kabir is in full agreement with this position since he observes that whereas everyone dies sooner or later, no one really knows how to die. If we knew what it means to die we would not have to die again. The point is elaborated in Guru Nanak's hymn in Ramkali measure:

    We cannot realize the absolute truth as long as hope and fear bind us down. One who expects not amidst expectations, meets the Truth. That is the way to earn salvation; that is how to die while alive.31

    Nirmal Kumar Jain who applies to such a death the epithet of 'philosophic death' draws a parallel with nirvana in its traditional sense. In Sikhism, it is 'dying out'. "But dying out of what?" he asks, and answers, "of haumai, the ego, the narrow self." For this,

    one has to shake hands with death. It is not the death of the body; it is death of the psyche, a much difficult thing.32

    Puran Singh in his poetic style describes death as the bride of the brave,

    Death, apparent death, is embraced by the Khalsa as no lover ever embraced his sweetheart. The Khalsa dies like the dashing waves of the sea, creating in the wake of its death millions more like itself. Citing Szirbi, the great Hungarian man of faith, Puran Singh approvingly remarks: Death is the soul's realm, not of the body. Thou wilt see the soul there, just as thou seest it not here." "Death is a gate all have to pass through. Beyond the gate is another courtyard, an unknown land." "He who is pure, his vision is clear, and he gazeth also with a smile.33

    Viewed in the context of the ideal of service to humanity and the values which make the moral progress of society possible, suffering and death remain no more evils, as Talib puts it. The man of God tastes all sufferings as though these were amrita, the ambrosial drink. He accepts sorrow and suffering, as they come, with perfect equanamity, with a sense of complete resignation to the Will of divine. Inviting reference to Guru Nanak's hymn symbolically addressed to the black buck, Professor Talib echoes the Guru's words: "Delicious are the delusions of the world."34

    Listen thou black buck,
    Why art thou so absorbed in this orchard?
    The fruit of poison tastes sweet
    for few days only;
    Then will it begin to torment thee
    Pleasure is unstable like the stormy ocean;
    Like the flashing lightning.
    Believe Nanak, though black buck
    forget not that thy path is the path of death!35

    Conquest of Suffering

    In the Sikh poetic tradition, the concept of vijog or alienation associated with dukh or suffering, and the concept of sanjog with sukh, i.e. joy and peace. Illustrations to this effect are rampant all over the corpus of the Guru Granth. Suffering or anguish may have multiple causes, but the assumption of individuated soul separated from its Base, pinpoints spiritual alienation as the root-cause of human suffering.

    Even though Sikhism does not proceed with the diagnosis and cure of the malady of suffering in the fashion of Buddhism, which lends medical flavour to the latter, the Sikh tradition does prescribe the method or marga of Naam-simran as comprehensive remedy for all the ills.

    The dimension of the sanjog-vijog pair of concepts that also forms the basis of Sikh mysticism, is the dimension of love-relation, which at the profane level is love between the spouses and at the sacred level, love of man for God. Sanjog, in the sense of de-alienation of the soul, is the culmination of the mysticism, which properly speaking is an experience and not a creed.

    As pointed out by Niharranjan Ray, there are many points of similarity and divergence between Guru Nanak and the totality of the Indian medieval mystic tradition that is protestant and non-conformist. Guru Nanak's mysticism was "limited to the final goal of sahaja experience which at the ultimate analysis was a mystical, ineffable, un-analyzable, inexpressible experience." Basic in this discipline is the conquest of the mind and the final point in the ascent is the 'state of mystic experience' which is the Ultimate Reality itself."36

    However, Sikhism shares with the Indian mystics, in general, its concern for communication and union with the Supreme Being. Reality of the mystic experience is affirmed on the basis of the testimony provided by its religious leaders and revered men of piety. However, it would not be correct to assert that mysticism is of central importance in Sikhism. In the context of Kabir's compositions, Karine Schomer observes:

    Utterances pointing to the ecstasies of mystical experience are not totally absent", in Kabir's hymns incorporated in the Guru Granth, but they are "strikingly few in comparison with those found in the Kabir Granthavali.

    The Sikhs are appropriately described by her as:

    A solid, moral, God-fearing religious community of householders. Theirs is a common-sense religion of inner sincerity and outer morality.37

    Nor can Sikh mysticism be described in terms of rapture, transport or emotional outbursts. At best, it is complete absorption of the individual in contemplation or simran, which, in the words of Puran Singh, is the "true Builder, the slow silent architect of the soul." "Simran is Law of Love. It is the holy manifestation of God in the matrix of matter."38 The Sikh looks inwards to draw inspiration from his spiritual resources, the experience the joy and ecstasy in the midst of the worldly and domestic chores.

    Bhai Vir Singh dwells on the idea and experience of joyfulness. The root-metaphor of Farid-bani is dukh. Perhaps the two are the obverse and converse sides of the same coin. Baba Farid flourished four centuries before the advent of Sikhism, and Bhai Vir Singh four centuries after it. The journey of eight hundred years is the journey from the idiom of suffering to the idiom of joy, in the interpretation of Sikh spirituality.

    The joyful state in Bhai Vir Singh is no different from the blissful spiritual state of communion, which in his poetic diction is termed as wasl or milap - i.e. sanjog, in its mystical dimension. His composition Rana Surat Singh concludes with the symbolic union of Rani Raj Kaur, deeply absorbed in loving devotion and attaining to the state of equipoise and merger (Sahaj-jog/sanjog) equivalent to the status of Gurmukh (the God-oriented one).39

    That is the state of freedom from suffering and anguish, freedom from fear and anxiety, freedom from duality and vijog. Guru Nanak indicates this state of realization and the means to its attainment, in unmistakable terms:

    One who abandons the sinning self
    and recognizes the Self.
    Afflict him neither sorrow,
    nor alienation, nor anguish.40

    The self to abandon is ego, i.e. the sense of particularity; the Self to realize is Spirit, i.e. the immanent universality. For, "there is no cure for human suffering outside of man, as suffering is an inner ailment of the spirit," says Puran Singh. "All joy is the health of the Spirit....The inward strength comes from the regions of inspiration."41

    Mysticism of spiritual union employs not only the symbols of sorrow-free, anguish-free state of the individual, but also the symbolism of a state that transcends all experience of pain and pleasure, sorrow and peace. This is clearly brought out in Guru Tegh Bahadur's hymns that depict the state of equipoise - where joy and suffering are treated alike, where affection and disaffection, honor and dishonor affect not one's equanimity. Such are the marks of a balance being.42 One of Guru Arjan's couplets addressed to Sheikh Farid speaks in the same vein:

    O Farid, treat dukh and sukh alike
    and cleanse the mind of evils
    Resigning thyself to Will divine,
    arrive at His portal.43

    An esoteric element in the sanjog-vijog mysticism is the element of divine concern for the human destiny, known as Grace or blessing. The Sikh poetic tradition makes eloquent references to the principle of divine Grace operating in the human universe. Mystery of the divine Ordinance coupled with the mystery of Grace, belong to the realm that none can claim to penetrate. Here, reason only rationalizes, and faith alone serves and guides.

    In terms of faith that Gurbani inculcates, Grace of God descends on the elect, picked up by the hidden hand for final communion. The bride may lack winsome qualities, she may not possess merits prized by others, but if she is the recipient of her spouse's love and care, she is the fortunate one. It is she who attains sanjog with her Lord; she is suhagan and she is suchaji. All the others who fail to receive the glance of grace of the spouse, are the luckless ones, waiting for their turn; they suffer in vijog and the epithets of duhagan and kuchaji apply to them.

    Says Nanak, when the glance Gracious
    blesses one, all the miseries
    of vijog vanish.44


    1 SGGS, p.149

    2 Karine Schomer in Sikh Studies, Berkeley

    3 SGGS, p.1102

    4 Ibid., p.517

    5 Ibid., p.1256

    6 See Arbaugh, Kierkegaard's Authorship.

    7 G.S. Talib, Guru Nanak: His Personality and Vision.

    8 L.M. Joshi, Journal of Religious Studies, Patiala.

    9 S.K. Chattopadhaya, Quest for Truth.

    10 SGGS, p.226

    11 Ibid., p.1382

    12 Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion.

    13 Ibid., p.1380

    14 Kierkegaard's Authorship, p.176.

    15 G.S. Talib, op. cit., p.232

    16 Ibid., p.229

    17 SGGS, p.5

    18 Karl Jaspus, Philosophy, Vol.2

    19 SGGS, p.1379

    20 Ibid., p.853

    21 SGGS, p.1382

    22 G.S. Talib, Perspectives on Sheikh Farid.

    23 SGGS, p.935

    24 Ibid., p.595

    25 Ibid., p.375

    26 Ibid., p.1428

    27 Ibid., p.137

    28 Ibid., p.1412

    29 Ibid., p.1365

    30 Ibid., p.555

    31 Ibid., p.877

    32 N.K. Jain, Sikh Religion and Philosophy.

    33 Puran Singh, Spirit Of the Sikh.

    34 G.S. Talib, Guru Nanak: His Personality and Vision.

    35 Ibid., p.439

    36 Niharranjan Ray, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society.

    37 Karine Schomer, op.cit. pp.84-86

    38 Puran Singh, op.cit. p.28

    39 Bhai Vir Singh Rachnavali, Vol.I

    40 Ibid., p.935

    41 Puran Singh, op.cit., p.36

    42 Wazir Singh, Falsafa te Sikh Falsafe.

    43 Ibid., p.1383

    44 Ibid., p.955
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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Strange to think about it this way -- but this essay about death and suffering is also a wonderful explanation of what Sikhism is about. How to find strength. Where to find strength.
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