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Ben Bet Beh

Jul 29, 2011
I read somewhere that Sikh's believe in a form of reincarnation. Is this true? How does it differ from (for example) Hindu belief?
Jan 7, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Re: Reincarnation?

Does Sikhism Believe in Reincarnation?

Baldev Singh

Only recently have I replied to this excellent question asked by a reader from Canada. Since this question has been raised again, I am going to dig deeper to answer it.

Before I came on the scene to interpret Guru Nanak’s teachings, numerous other scholars who have studied Aad Guru Granth Sahib (AGGS) concluded that Guru Nanak rejected the doctrines of “karma and reincarnation.” Moreover, to understand this better one needs to comprehend what constitute the Varna Ashrama Dharma/caste system. Together the caste along with the karma and reincarnation (or transmigration) constitutes the three external pillars of the caste system arranged on a hierarchical pyramid structure. In other words, both Karma and reincarnation are part of the invented trilogy and they both are designed to justify the caste base factor. Because of the time and space constraints, I will bypass addressing the internal pillars of Hinduism designed to augment and perpetuate the caste system.

Majority of the Sikhs agree that Guru Nanak rejected the caste system. Therefore a question logically arises: If Guru Nanak rejected the caste system then why would he accept its underlying justifications; namely both the karma and reincarnation? Now let us journey backwards: If Reincarnation is accepted then it makes sense to accept also the Karma theory. They both go hand in hand. If you are going to accept both of them then why shy away from accepting the caste. After all the caste is sustainable only because of karma and reincarnation factors, otherwise the caste pillar crumbles. This paradox brings us to the forefront to reassess what Sikh Gurus said and taught.

We agree that the only authentic source of Nanakian philosophy (Gurmat or Sikhi) is the sacred hymns (bani) of AGGS. More likely is the case that what you read or hear about the idea of reincarnation is the interpretation of Nanakian philosophy put out by the British colonists, Christian missionaries, other Westerners and Bipran- the opponents of Nanakian philosophy--Udasis and Nirmalas, and other proponents of the caste ideology. I recommend you to read two books: The Sikh Revolution by Jagjit Singh and Sikhism: A Comparative Study of its Theology and Mysticism by Daljeet Singh.

About two years ago, Colonel G.B. Singh initiated the debate on Biblical God, Soul, and Heaven with Reverend Zekveld on the I have added my commentary to this debate and finally I combined my pieces into a comprehensive article: “A Comparison of Two Credos: Christian and Sikh.” I wrote this article on the basis of the bani (sacred hymns) of AGGS. Via quoting various verses I have demonstrated that AGGS rejects incarnation of God, transmigration, Hindu view of karma, Biblical God, soul, heaven and miracles. This article is archived on the SikhSpectrum, May 2006. I have also written a detailed article “W. H. McLeod’s Interpretation of Guru Nanak’s Bani, archived on SikhSpectrum, February 2006.

Moreover, AGGS rejects earlier religious traditions and all the essentials of Hinduism. Check these references: Sangat Singh, The Sikhs in History, New Delhi: Uncommon Books, fourth edition, 2001, p. 19; J. S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 31; Jagjit Singh, The Sikh Revolution: A perspective View, New Delhi: Bahri Publications, 4th reprint, 1998, pp. 104-105.

Nanakian philosophy is based on logic, reason, skepticism, awareness, reality, and other factors often associated with critical thinking. It is not based on faith; Guru Nanak urges us to use critical (discerning) intellect in every walk of life.

Now you would ask me why my interpretation “reads” different from that posted on the Sikhnet? The answer to this question lies in the environment and the time, about five centuries back when Guru Nanak launched his movement. At that time Hindu texts were in Sanskrit language, which the Brahmins being the only priestly caste could read, write and speak. The Sudra caste and the Antyajas (untouchables) who constituted the vast majority of the population were forbidden from learning Sanskrit. Islamic texts were in Arabic, though Persian Sufis were preaching their version of Islam in Persian and few Muslim Sufis were using local Indian languages.

Guru Nanak wanted to preach and teach his message in the language of the masses. Therefore, he rejected Sanskrit in favor of Punjabi, which at that time was the language of the peasants, artisans, untouchables and traders. Moreover, there was no specific script for Punjabi language. Guru Nanak and Guru Angad constructed the Gurmukhi script from the crude scripts that were in vogue at that time. Before Guru Nanak there was no literature in Punjabi except the couplets of Baba Seikh Farid. So Guru Nanak is the father of Punjabi literature.

The Guru borrowed the vocabularies of other languages and terminologies of other religions to express his thoughts. In other words, he radically changed the meanings of Hindu or Muslim religious terminologies in the adoption process to express his (Nanakian) philosophy. There are words from more than 25 languages in AGGS. In the process of building his philosophy, Guru Nanak also coined his own words and new terminologies. Therefore, when we read the Gurbani, we are conscious of the facts that the Guru is fully aware in his expressions of both the Hindu and Muslim worldviews.

Most often we encounter his references to the ideas of reincarnation in the AGGS. Just because the Guru is expressing this idea, it doesn’t automatically mean he approves of it. At the least it means that the Guru is conscious of such Hindu beliefs and certainly not giving his accent to the belief as part of his own (Nanakian) philosophy. We, Sikhs, must be extremely careful of this and approach the topic with caution, careful analysis, and proper discussion.

Guru Nanak discussed and imparted credence to the subject of evolution of life about five hundred years ago, roughly 350 years before Charles Darwin. Moreover, the Entity (Creator) according to Guru Nanak is Itself evolving as in the very act of creation of the cosmos when the Transcendent became Immanent-the Invisible became Visible-the Unmanifest became Manifest.

Let us do a small experiment; get your pencil and a piece of paper in hand. In the 21st century, we have come a long way in understanding the subject of evolution. Now take the expressed central basic proposition of the theory of evolution and translate that into our present-day Punjabi language in general and in particular to the Punjabi language of the 15th century, something akin to the written language of Guru Nanak as we encounter in Gurbani.

You will be amazed to find that what you wrote sounds more like the language of reincarnation. And if your mind is already conditioned towards reincarnation, you will read this experimented material as justifying reincarnation. I am afraid that is what has exactly happened to the generations of Sikhs. To make the matter worse, our Sikh scholars too continued to express the same mode of routine ritual thinking. It only highlights the fact that we have failed to develop the Punjabi language in tune with the scientific progresses of the last century.

In our existing Punjabi vocabulary and its former usage there is no expressed distinctions between reincarnation and the theory of evolution; they both lie on each other. It is only in the last few decades some of us have smelled the burning rat and decided to reassess what the Gurus espoused; thanks in part to the Western sciences imparting us the gift of critical knowledge of evolutionary biology. Given this, the new knowledge, it is incredibly refreshing to read Gurbani.

In the quote taken from Sikhnet, "Be kind to me, O Purifier of sinners; I am so tired of wandering through reincarnation. Prays Nanak, I am the slave of the Lord; God is the Support of my soul, and my breath of life,” we should recognize the pitfalls of English translations of “wandering through reincarnations.” This is a literal and Brahmanical rendering of the hymn. Whereas when we substitute “wandering through reincarnations” with “various evolutionary stages of life,” the translation comes in sync with the Nanakian philosophy. And that is the proper way to interpret and express the bani.

One must remember that according to modern science all complex forms of life originated and evolved from a profoundly simple life. And it took millions of years for complex forms like the modern man to evolve through myriad forms of life to develop-—this fact amazingly is consistent with the Nanakian philosophy.

AGGS makes it clear that reincarnation of God, karma and transmigration, and hell and heaven, caste system and gender inequality, are not real; rather they are man-made concepts, as pointed out by Guru Angad.

It is the teachings of Vedas, which has created the concepts of sin and virtue, hell and heaven, and karma and transmigration. One reaps the reward in the next life for the deeds performed in this life-goes to hell or heaven according to the deeds. The Vedas have also created the fallacy of inequality of caste and gender for the world. AGGS, M 2, p. 1243.

Another relevant issue that needs addressing even though you didn’t ask and that is of soul. Again, here the Nanakian philosophy radically differs from other religions. In Nanakian philosophy, soul is God--the Transcendent One that permeates the entire cosmos and it is called as jyoti (light). Other synonyms used are hans (swan), atma, jio (spirit), Sabad-surat (God-consciousness) and moral principles that guide life (conscience). Guru Nanak rejected the idea that soul is something separate from God and that it leaves the body after death to seek punishment or reward depending upon the deeds of the person whose body it inhabits. Many verses in the AGGS attest to this fact that God is soul. For example:

After death some bodies are burnt, some are buried and some are left to be devoured by animals/birds (dogs). Some are thrown in water while others are thrown in a dry well. There is no evidence/proof where the so-called soul ends after these different methods of disposal of the dead body,” opines Nanak. AGGS, M 1, p. 648.

Do not believe that the benefits of deeds performed in the current life will be rewarded in the next world. AGGS, M 1, pp. 729-730

Within all there is light (jyoti) and it is Your light which is in all. AGGS, M 1, p. 663
The One God sustains all and It is also the Atma within all. In other words Atma is the Transcendent One. Nanak is at the service of one who understands this mystery, as such a person is God-like. AGGS, M 1, p. 1353 God is in soul and soul is in God. AGGS, M 1, p. 1153

“O my mind, the Universal light is within you, recognize your roots-the source of your origin-the Primordial Light-Energy,” so says Nanak. AGGS, M 3, p. 441.

Besides, the Sikh Gurus rejected the notion of past life or the life after death, and made it abundantly clear that the present life is the only chance to realize God. For example: O my mind, my dear friend, this is the time for you to meet the Creator. Moreover, this opportunity will last only as long as the body is healthy and full of vitality. AGGS, M 1, p. 20 Take advantage of your birth as a human, this is your only opportunity to meet God. AGGS, M 5, p. 378 “Don’t look to the past, make efforts to make your future life successful by meeting God, because you won’t be born again,” says Nanak. AGGS, M 5, p. 1096 “You won’t be born again, take some measures to obtain salvation right now. Praising the Merciful One, will take you across the ocean of worldly temptations,” says Nanak. AGGS, M 9, p. 220

In my correspondence with McLeod, I pointed out to him that there are numerous verses in the AGGS making it abundantly clear that our current life is the only chance to become a sachiara (gurmukh, understanding and realizing God). According to the dogmas of “karma and transmigration,” there could be many chances, theoretically unlimited. He refused to debate the matter.

I would be glad to discuss this topic further or any other question you may have about Gurmat/Sikhi.

Copyright ©2006 Baldev Singh.


Baldev Singh, PhD in medicinal chemistry, is a retired pharmaceutical research scientist. Dr. Singh has about sixty publications and 100 U.S. patents. Born in Takhtupura, District Faridkot, Punjab he has published article on Sikhism in Sikh Bulletin, Sikh Virsa, Spokesman, Abstracts of Sikh Studies and Understanding Sikhism Research Journal.

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Ben Bet Beh

Jul 29, 2011
Re: Reincarnation?

If I am understanding the article correctly, the gurus expressed divine reality in terms of reincarnation even though that reality may not exist. Since this reality was expressed as such, many in the Sikh religion advocated this and many still do so to this day. In today's world, with the advances in knowledge, the Sikh religion does not advocate reincarnation as a formal teaching.

Does this sum up current teaching in this area? Are Sihk's free to accept or reject reincarnation? Are they encouraged to advocate for or against reincarnation? Or perhaps it is an optional teaching where one is free to believe in it or against it and remain a follower of the Sikh faith?


ੴ / Ik▫oaʼnkār
Dec 21, 2010
Re: Reincarnation?

Ben Bet Beh ji some comments below,
If I am understanding the article correctly, the gurus expressed divine reality in terms of reincarnation even though that reality may not exist.
The Gurus have to deal with people and beliefs of the day. As such they related and used symbology for certain aspects including reincarnation, 8400000 possible varieties of life, etc. This symbology has been mis-associated as though Guru jis attested to its validity for Sikhs. The truth cannot be more further. Sikhism believes in here and now living in consonance with creation and understanding creator and creation is the goal towards this end.

Since this reality was expressed as such, many in the Sikh religion advocated this and many still do so to this day. In today's world, with the advances in knowledge, the Sikh religion does not advocate reincarnation as a formal teaching.
The notation has been mis-recognized as a reality and a belief by so inclined. However it does not make that the Guru jis taught such.

Does this sum up current teaching in this area? Are Sihk's free to accept or reject reincarnation? Are they encouraged to advocate for or against reincarnation? Or perhaps it is an optional teaching where one is free to believe in it or against it and remain a follower of the Sikh faith?
If a Sikh follows Guru jis teachings, one cannot be accepting of re-incarnation. Continuity of life in a family, your impact on other people while alive or dead are all possibilities but the indivisible soul leaving one body and being in another as such is not in the teachings.
I stand corrected with others wisdom.

Sat Sri Akal.


Apr 25, 2006
Re: Reincarnation?

Ultimately, the goal is to transcend such beliefs and see God, the Ultimate Truth, everything else is false. And this is not to be made into a belief. It must be realized.

But speaking about beliefs. I find the above article has many errors. This article is much more informative.

TRANSMIGRATION OF THE SOUL. doctrine of rebirth based on the theory that an individual soul passes at death into a new body or new form of life. Central to the concept is the principle of universal causality, i.e. a person must receive reward or punishment if not here and now then in a subsequent birth, for his actions in the present one. The soul, it is held, does not cease with the physical body, but takes on a new birth in consequence of the person`s actions comprising thoughts, words and deeds. The cumulative effect of these determines his next existence. Attached to worldly objects, man will continue in the circuit of birth death rebirth until he attains spiritual liberation, annulling the effect of his past actions.
Belief in reincarnation is basic to the eschatology of all religions of Indian origin. Some Western philosophers of yore also believed in the transmigration of soul, but for them it was associated with the concept of the immortality of soul. In Indian tradition, on the other hand, transmigration is an essential concomitant of the doctrine of karma, according to which every action, physical or mental, has its own consequence which must be faced immediately or in future, either in this life or in the hereafter, good actions leading to a favourable reward and bad actions entailing punishment.
The individual soul (jivatma), so it is believed, does not perish with the physical body but dons a new corporeal vesture in a new birth which is determined by its karma in the preceding births. Every new birth in its turn necessarily involves new karma or action leading to further consequences. Jivatma is thus tied to a karmik chakra or an endless cycle of birth action death rebirth, until the chain is broken and karmik accumulation is dissipated and the jiva attains muktior moksa, i.e. liberation or release from transmigration. The origin of the idea of transmigration is traced back to the post Vedic period.
The early Aryans simply believed that good men ascended to heaven to join company with the gods while the souls of the wicked sank.down into the abyss of hell. The postulate that there is no unmerited happiness and unmerited misery and that the individual soul takes after death a new existence during which it reaps what, good or bad, it had sown earlier was first propounded in the ^atpatha Brahmana, one of the several commentaries that preceded the appearance of the Upanisads. Since then in India the highest spiritual goal has been the release of the jivatma from the cycle of birth and death or avagaman (lit. coming and going). Different traditions within the Indian religious systems offer different analyses and correspondingly different solutions.
One view is that since transmigration is subject to karma or actions, the cycle can be broken only through the annihilation or karma. Various methods have been suggested to achieve this end such as renunciation, nonaction, ritualism and gian (jnana) or philosophical and metaphysical knowledge. The doctrines of transmigration of soul and karma are accepted in the Sikh system, but with significant individual shades and emphases. Karma, it is true, determines its own consequence : jehe karma kamai teha hoisias one acts so shall one be (GG, 730). However, karma as part of the Divine Order (hukam) is a natural compulsion and hence is unavoidable. What is needed, therefore, is not annihilation of karma through nonaction, but doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones.
Men are naturally endowed with power to discriminate between good and evil. Human life is on this account a valuable chance not to be frittered away. Guru Nanak warns : suni sunisikh hamari sukritu kitarahasimerejiare bahuri na aval van Listen, listen to my advice, 0 my Mind ! Only good deeds shall endure, and there may not be another chance (GG, 154). Says Guru Arjan :" milujagadls milan ki bana chirankal ih deh sanjana do meet the Lord of the Universe, for now is the time. After ages (passing through many different forms) have you attained the gift of human life" (GG, 176). Here in the world man has the opportunity to achieve ethical perfection, cherish the Lord and earn final release.
Secondly, what lies at the root of the problem is not karma, but haumai, i.e. egoity or the sense of Iness. Jivatma (individual soul) is a spark or ray of the Ineffable Spirit, Paramatma, and its deliverance lies in its reunion with its source. What hinders such reunion is thejiva`s egoism. The jiva confined in its narrow shell and devoid of understanding of the in finiteness of Reality claims for itself a separate, individuated existence. It is haumai that robs a jiva`s karma or potential merit. Even the holiest of acts would not avail when accompanied by haumai or self conceit.
Says Guru Arjan, Nanak V : "jojo karam kie hau haumai te te bhae a/ae All actions performed in ego go waste," (GG, 999) and "apas kau karamvantu kahavai, janami marai bahujoni bhramavai As long as he (jiva) thinks he is the doer, so long shall he continue wandering through wombs and births" (GG, 278). What is needed is not annihilation of karma, but the conquest of haumai. This is done through right understanding of hukam (Divine Order), and the sabad (Divine Word) itself.
As says Guru Amar Das, Nanak III, "ham kia ham karahage ham murakh gavar karnaivala visaria dujai bhai piaru Utterly misguided are they who, filled with ego lay out many claims for what has been done and for what remains to be done, forgetting the one who guides all of our actions, and falling a prey to illusion and duality" (GG, 39). When haumai is overcome and actions are dedicated to God, individuation ceases and die soul merges into the Absolute Beings. Another Sikh principle having bearing on the concept of transmigradon is that of nadar. Divine Order (hukam) although generally immutable is yet tempered by nadar or Divine Grace.
The law of transmigration of soul, too, does not condemn a soul to irrevocable predestination and eternal karmik chakra. God`s nadar (lit. favourable glance) can at any stage redeem a soul and release it forever from the circuit of avaga man or transmigration. Mukti or deliverance from the bondage of birth and death, according to Sikh belief, is not condngent upon the end to the present life. With God`s grace one can be a.jivanmukta, emancipated while still living. What is required of the seeker of nadar is to behave and act in such a way that he qualifies himself for His grace. Thus while karma is necessary and good deeds helpful, liberation finally comes through nadar.
Says Guru Nanak in the Japu, "karmi avai kapra nadan mokhu duaru body is determined by karma, but through nadar is found the door to liberation" (GG,2). There is nothing dreadful as such about birth and death, i.e. transmigration, although to transcend the cycle is ever the soul`s goal. Birth and death are part of hukam and are to be accepted as His raza or Will. Guru Nanak says : "jammanu mama hukamu pachhanuknow that birth and death are by His hukam alone," (GG, 412). Again, "jammanu marana hukamu hai bhanai avaijai birth and death are by His hukam; by His Will does one come and go" (GG, 472).
Besides being in tune with the Divine Will and practising humility and truth, the jiva is urged, in Sikhism, to take shelter in nam or sabda. Without savouring nam one wanders endlessly from birth to birth. Says Guru Nanak "gur kau jani na janai kia tisu chaju acharu andhulai namu visaria manmukhi andh gubaru avanujanu na chukal marijanamai hoi khuaruThey who have not cherished the Guru nor realized nam will continue to transmigrate" (GG, 19).
References :
1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959
2. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmati Nimaya. Lahore, 1932
3. Caveeshar, Sardul Singh, Sikh Dharam Darsha.n. Patiala, 1969
4. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
5. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1981


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Re: Reincarnation?

How are we distinguishing "errors" from "inferences" informed by reason and study, inferences with which we do not agree.

What guidelines and information did you use to come to your conclusion Bhagat Singh ji?

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Shabad Vichaar by SPN'ers

The shabd under discussion in this article is composed by Guru Teg Bahadur ji and is contained on Page 633 of the SGGS. The complete shabd is as follows:

ਸੋਰਿਠ ਮਹਲਾ ੯॥...​

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