Amritsar, August 23
Move of the SGPC to involve baptised Sikh women in the Panj Piaras (five beloved ones) and at the time of administering ‘amrit’ has evoked a strong protest from the Sant Samaj, the Damdami Taksal, and former Sikh high priests.
Bhai Ranjit Singh, a former Jathedar of Akal Takht, the Damdami Taksal and the Sant Samaj have convened an emergency meeting at Ludhiana on September 1.
Bhai Ranjit Singh said that the Panthic organisations would physically remove Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti as Jathedar, Akal Takht if he would toe line of the SGPC and Mr Parkash Singh Badal, President, Shiromani Akali Dal.
However, Bibi Jagir Kaur reiterated that as per Panth-approved ‘rehat maryada’ (religious code of conduct), baptised women were allowed to become one of the Panj Piaras. She said the ‘rehat maryada’ had also allowed baptised Sikh women to participate in the ceremony of administering ‘amrit’. Expressing shock over the move of the section of Sikh Panth, she said that it was unfortunate that such religious leaders themselves opposing the ‘maryada’, approved by the Khalsa Panth.
However, Bhai Ranjit Singh said that decision to allow Sikh women to perform ‘kirtan’ from the sanctum sanctorum of Harmandar Sahib should be taken only after taking entire Sikh Panth into confidence. Endorsing the views of Bhai Ranjit Singh, Giani Bhagwan Singh, a former head priest of Akal Takht said that there was no tradition of women performing Kirtan from Harmandar Sahib. Baba Harnam Singh Dhumma, Jathedar, Damdami Taksal criticised SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur for her statement that women would be included as Panj Piaras.
[FONT=comic sans ms, arial, helvetica]Equality of Women
in Sikh Ideology and Practice
A drastic distinction between the roles of the male and female exists in all of history’s modern human societies. Women have grown to accept, not without resentment though, the male-dominated atmosphere of the world. Because people use religious doctrine to define their life styles, religious scriptures in both the East and the West seem to condone, even encourage, the unequal treatment of women. In the 15th century, Guru Nanak established Sikhism, the first religion to advocate emphatically the equality of all people, especially women. In a continent characterised by severe degradation of women, this bold declaration, along with others, determined to erase the impurities of the Indian society. However, prejudices and injustices based on gender linger even today. In the dominant Western religion of Christianity, God created man, and then woman out of man’s rib. Eve, the first woman persuades Adam to eat the forbidden apple, thus committing the world’s first sin, a landmark recognized as the fall of mankind. The implied inferiority and corrupting influence of women in the Bible appear to justify their second rate treatment in Western society. In Eastern Society, the Muslim religion also demeans women. The Koran contains explicit details concerning the inferior treatment of women. This includes the right of a man to divorce his wife, never viceversa, and the wearing of a veil to cover a woman’s face, called burkah, in public. The Koran reminds men, "Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) ... And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them."2
At the time of Guru Nanak, Indian women were severely degraded and oppressed by their society. Given no education or freedom to make decisions, their presence in religious, political, social, cultural, and economic affairs was virtually non-existent.3 Woman was referred to as "man’s shoe, the root of all evil, a snare, a temptress."4 Her function was only to perpetuate the race, do household work, and serve the male members of society. Female infanticide was common, and the practice of sati, the immolation of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre, was encouraged, sometimes even forced.
Guru Nanak condemned this man-made notion of the inferiority of women, and protested against their long subjugation. The Ultimate Truth was revealed to Guru Nanak through a mystic experience, in direct communion with God. Guru Nanak conveys this Truth through the bani, Sikh Scripture. It first argues against the sexist sentiments of the pompous man about the necessity of women :
"In a woman man is conceived,
From a woman he is born,
With a woman he is betrothed and married,
With a woman he contracts friendship.
Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born ?
From a woman a woman is born,
None may exist without a woman."
The fundamental analogy used in the bani depicts the relationship between God and man, and proves that the physical body does not matter. The bani parallels all human beings (men and women) to the woman/wife, and God to the man/husband. 6 This means that every person is a sohagan — a woman who is the beloved of the Lord — whether they have the body of a man or woman. Because the human body is transitory, the difference between man and woman is only transitory, and as such superficial. 7 Thus, according to Sikh ideology, all men and women possess equal status. All human beings, regardless of gender, caste, race, or birth, are judged only by their deeds.
With this assertion, the Sikh Gurus invited women to join the sangat (congregation), work with men in the langar (common kitchen), and participate in all other religious, social, and cultural activities of the gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). The Gurus redefined celibacy as marriage to one wife and taught that male and female alike need to practice conjugal fidelity. They advocated marriage of two equal partners. Guru Amar Das, the third guru, wrote :
"Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies."
Guru Amar Das also condemned purdah, the wearing of the veil, and female infanticide. He spoke against the custom of sati, thus permitting the remarriage of widows. 9 Out of 146 chosen, the Guru appointed 52 women missionaries to spread the message of Sikhism, and out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the preaching of Sikhism, four were women.10 The steps the Gurus took to advocate the equality of women, revolutionized the tradition of Indian society. As they began to partake in social, religious, and political affairs, their contribution and worth as equal partners of men became more obvious.
However, the Guru’s teachings of equality have never been fully realized, which is clearly evident in the treatment of women even in the Sikh society today. Either because of the influence of the majority community on the Sikh minority or the Sikh male’s unwillingness to give up his dominant role, women continue to suffer prejudices. A woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee(the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab), or as the head of any of the five Takhts (the thrones of authority).11 Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces, and denies them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman’s value as a bride by the size of her dowry, not necessarily by her character and integrity. Alice Basarke, a free-lance writer, sadly realizes, "After 500 years head start, Sikh women are no better off than their counterparts in any other religion or nation."12
As a Sikh girl, born and raised in the United States, I have felt confusion and frustration upon recognizing the hypocrisy in the Sikh community in the subjugation of their women. America, origin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Women’s Liberation Movement, crawls ahead of other nations in the race to achieve practised equality for all. Because of its diverse and opportune atmosphere, I have experienced little discrimination based on my gender. I must struggle to empathize with the feelings of women in India whose tragic experiences I have not actively shared.
Yet, I am told, that upon my birth, distant relatives sent my parents blessings that sounded more like condolences than congratulations. Apparently, they pitied the supposed dowry my family would have to prepare, the inheritance I could never receive, and the family name that could never survive by me. One can imagine their joy and relief upon my brother’s birth two years later.
Such hypocritical actions bewilder me. Why didn’t Sikh women rise up long ago in protest against such treatment, reciting the words of the Gurus ? Why did we not endeavour long ago to realize fully the freedom and equality the Gurus advocated for all human beings, regardless of gender ? Is the equality the Gurus preached even understood by Sikhs ? At one time, Sikhs risked their very lives to fight for equality by opposing the caste system. Yet, today, many Sikhs judge each other by the caste they are from and the amount of income they earn. As Ms Basarke poignantly puts it, "How can women expect equality, when the Sikh community seems unable to distinguish between religious tenets and the culture imposed by the majority community which engulfs them ?"13
Indeed, how can women realize equality when the root of the problem lies much deeper than marches of protests or laws can reach ? The Sikh community needs to look beyond the ingrained customs, social taboos and know the true salubrious nature of justice and equality; the Sikh community needs to realise its tragic entanglement in a system that embraces practices antithetical to the very basis of the Sikh faith, against the very word of God; the Sikh community needs to shake itself vigorously to awaken and rise into a truly strong and potent religious people, living the way God desires us to live : by freedom, justice, love, and equality— for all.
Many Sikhs will acknowledge this truth, but instead of finding the enthusiasm and hope to shape the future, they will sadly shake their heads. After all, can we possibly unravel thousands of years of deep-seated Indian mentality ? Do the powers of revolution truly lie within our grasps ? We need only to remember the words of Guru Gobind Singh for an answer :
"With your own hands carve out your destiny."14
1. Robert O. Ballou : The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 237-241.
2. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, translator : The Meaning of Glorious Koran, Mentor Book, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontar
io, 1924, p. 53, Surah II, 223-228. 3. Kanwaljit Kaur : Sikh Women, Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1992, p. 96.
5. Guru Granth Sahib : p 73.
6. Ibid. : p. 1268.
7. Prof. Prabhjot Kaur : Women’s Liberation Movement and Gurmat, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 1997, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, p.76.
8. Guru Granth Sahib, p.788.
9. Ibid., p. 787.
10. Kanwaljit Kaur : op. cit., p. 99.
11. Alice Basarke : Where Are the Women ?, Current Thoughts on Sikhism, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1996, p, 265.
* Reader, Deptt of Guru Nanak Studies, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar 143005.
If we analyse the contributions of the Sikh women to the development of religious life and spirituality, there remains no doubt that they are the foundational basis of the Sikh religious life. The great works and achievements of Sikh women in the social, religious and administrative spheres cannot be underestimated, while evaluating the religio-historical progress of the Sikh religion. The prominent women who occupied a conspicuous place in Sikhism, belonged largely to the Guru’s family, either as mother or daughter or wife or sister. They have contributed to the Sikh religion in several ways, viz., looking after the domestic affairs of their family during the missionary tours of the Gurus; assisting them in the implementation of ideals; accompanying with the Gurus during their preaching; helping the Gurus in making an impartial choice of successor for Guruship; doing works of social welfare; offering sacrifices of the Guru-husband, of son and of grandsons - for the cause of the panth; and serving as beaconlights to the panth. The most significant roles such as Bebe Nanaki’s sisterely affection, Mata Khivi’s Langar organisation, Bibi Bhani’s spirit of service, Mata Gujri’s sacrifice, Mata Sundari’s guidance to the Sikh community, Mata Sahib Kaur’s designation as the "Mother of Khalsa," Mai Bhago, the first woman general, Bibi Deep Kaur, the warrior, Bibi Sharan Kaur’s devotion for relgion, Bibi Rup Kaur, the first author of Sikhism, Sardarni Sada Kaur, Sardar of the Kanhiya Misl’s patriotism and bravery, etc. are unparalleled instances in the history and development of the Sikh religion.
Here, we may mention about some illustrious Sikh women who did spectacular deeds in the Sikh religious life and are well-known and are remembered with devotion and honour in the Sikh history.
Bebe Nanaki, the elder sister of Guru Nanak, is recognized as the sister and the mother of the Sikhs. She perceived with her keen sensibility the prophet-like qualities of Guru Nanak and became the first disciple of the Guru. Speaking about Bebe Nanaki, a famour historian writers:
The sister, from the very beginning, has great attachment to her brother and was probably the first to discover the promise of future greatness in him. She is reverently remembered by the Sikhs as Bebe Nanaki. [Fauja Singh]37
The contribution of Mata Sulakhni, wife of Guru Nanak, cannot be ignored. She looked after the domestic matters during her husband’s thirty years of preaching and actually implemented the ideals of Guru Nanak.
The basic ideal of the Sikh Religion is to establish equality irrespective of caste, creed and race. For the implementation of this ideal, one important institution is the community kitchen or Langar, where people of all castes, high or low, male or female sit together in rows on the floor and eat together. The wives of the Gurus contributed in their own ways to give a practical shape to this ideal. No one can ever be oblivious of the name of Mata Khivi, wife of Guru Angad, who was not only administrator of the langar but also cooked and served. Due to her dedication, she was praised and her name occurs in the Holy Scripture.
Says Balwand: "Blessed is Khivi, the Guru’s wife whose dense leafy shade gives shade to all.
In the Guru’s kitchen, food is served abundantly,
Yea, the rice-pudding, mixed with ghee, which is nectar-sweet.[SGGS:967]38
The process of elevation of women in the socio-religious milieu was carried on the Bibi Amro, daughter of Guru Angad, who inherited the noble traits of her parents and contributed in uniting the two great souls of Guru Angad and Guru Amardas. Guru Amardas could have met Guru Angad only on hearing the hymns sung by Bibi Amro.
In the religious history of Sikhism, women served as missionaries in the fifteenth century. No doubt, women started taking part in singing of hymns (kirtan) and in missionary work since the period of Guru Nanak. But the third Guru, on the initiation of his wife, Mata Mansa Devi, who used to accompany the Guru, raised voice against the custom of sati and installed women as missionary preachers, by offering them official seats. He started the manji tradition, which refer to the seat of the provincial Sikh leader and offered two seats to women whose names in the list of manjis (given in the Haveli Sahib Picture) are Mai Sewa, of Kabul, and Mai Bhago of Kashmir. In addition, fifty two other missionaries were selected, the prominent names are Bibi Rajni and Mai Sabhraee.[GS Mansukhani: Aspects of Sikhism]39
An embodiment of devotion and humility was Bibi Bhani, who was the daughter of Guru Amar Das and who spearheaded the task of organizing langar and started the tradition of hereditary Guruship by asking of blessings from Guru Amardas, her father, whom she served like a son. She was granted a jagir (estate) by Emperor Akbar, when the latter visited the Guru and shared food in the community kitchen (langar). The Guru said, "All right, as you wish, O King Akbar! But your contribution will be utilized for the welfare of the widows under the supervision of Bibi Bhaniji."[GS Mansukhani: Ibid]40
However, the names of Mata Gujri, Mata Sahib Devan, Mata Sundari are well-known in the Sikh religious history for their participation in political and war affairs. Mata Gujri, the wife of Guru Tegh Bahadur, held the position of wife of a martyr, mother of martyr and the grandmother of martyrs and herself a martyr. She organized the langar and played a keen role as administrator of army. She, alongwith her grandsons, was captured by Subedar of Sirhind, who tortured and compelled her to accept Islam, which she refused and faced dire consequences. She was kept in captivity, alongwith her two grandsons and on hearing the news of the execution of her grandsons, she laid down her life and that place is now known as Gurdwara Burj Mata Gujri.
Mata Sundari, the wife of Guru Gobind Singh, was known not only to the Sikhs of Punjab, but also to the Sikhs of India. They used to visit Mataji to seek her blessings and willingly obeyed the orders (hukamnamas) issued by her. Even after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, she guided the Sikh community for forty years. The Sikhs used to gather in the Haveli of Mata Sundari to celebrate the festivals of Diwali and Baisakhi. This Haveli is known as Mata Sundari Gurdwara.
The involvement of women in the religious activities is visible in the case of Mata Jito, who was initiated into the Khalsa in the beginning and who also put the sugar crystals into the water to ensure the sweetness of the water to be given as amrit to the first initiated five beloved ones. Even Mata Sahib Kaur was bestowed with the status of mother of Khalsa, which Guru Gobind Singh has given her on her desire for a son. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh got married to Mata Sahib Devan on the request of the congregation (sangat) and had no physical relation but only spiritual relation with her. Even today, it is said to the initiated members of Khalsa that they are the habitants of Anandpur Sahib, and Guru Gobind Singh is their father and Mata Sahib Kaur is their mother.
Apart from the achievements of these women, belonging to the families of the Gurus, there are many other women who contributed in the Sikh religious history by their participation as warriors in the battlefield. No one can forget the name of Mai Bhago, the first women General, who took the command to fight with enemy, when the forty men of Guru Gobind Singh’s army had withdrawn themselves. On seeing her dauntless courage, they felt ashamed of their disloyalty to the Guru and re-joined him. Another warrior Bibi Deep Kaur, showed faith, courage and bravery and refused to yield to the enemy, even when she was mortally injured in the battlefield. Another important instance of fearlessness and bravery is Sardarni Sada Kaur, who was the head of Kanhiya Misl and who fought in the battlefield in disguise and served Punjab for thirty-three years.
The above mentioned instances of the achievements of women in the Sikh history clearly indicate their contribution as social reformers; as warriors; as missionary preachers and as an emblem of patience and service. She is helpful in the character building and in the attainment of spiritual heights. From the temporal and spiritual point of view, woman is half man’s body and she always assists him to the door of deliverance.41
Participation of Women in Religious Worship: The Sikh religion makes no distinction between man and woman at the theological level, as well as at the social level. The contributions of women in the socio-religious sphere of the Sikh history clearly indicate to their equal status with man. When the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa, he made no distinction of caste, race, creed and sex and admitted the women in the fold of Khalsa. Even today, whenever any person, man or woman is baptised, they are treated as one. The Guru, after baptism, granted each male Sikh the surname, ‘Singh’ or Lion, and each female the surname ‘Kaur’ or princess. They are supposed to wear the five symbols of Khalsa viz., Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (comb), Kara (steel wrist band), Kirpan (sword) and Kacch (a pair of breeches).
The Sikh Rahit-Maryada (a guide to the Sikh way of life), approved by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (S.G.P.C.) on 3 Feb. 1945, makes no difference between man and woman in the definition of Sikh which is given as below:
A Sikh is that woman or man, who believes in One God, in the ten Gurus and their teachings and in the Adi Granth. In addition, he or she must believe in the necessity and importance of amrit (initiation) and must not adhere to any other religion.
Therefore, the obligatory duties of Khalsa are similar for both man and woman. They are supposed to recite some hymns in the daily routine viz., Japji Sahib, Jap Sahib and Ten Swayyas of Guru Gobind Singh, Sodar, Rahiras (evening prayer) and Sohilla (late evening prayer before retiring).
The modes of worship in the Sikh Religion can be performed by reading the Holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, singing of hymns of Gurus in the holy congregation (kirtan), listening to sermons or discourses based on the teachings of the Guru (ketha). Any man or woman, who is a Sikh according to the above mentioned definition of Sikh Rahit –Maryada, can participate in any mode of worship and no prohibition is laid down for women.
Besides the normal reading of the Holy Scripture which is to be installed at a specific place in the house, the Sikh women can also participate to the akhand path, i.e. (uninterrupted complete reading of the Holy Scripture) which is undertaken on specific occasions of joy and sorrow, and the complete reading is to be carried out by a relay of Sikhs, may be family members, and takes approximately forty eight hours.
Another essential part of the Sikh worship is prayer (Ardas), which should be offered regularly. The Sikh women are fully entitled to participate in prayer and can hereself recite the prayer. It is most significant to note that in the prayer (Ardas), there comes reference of those great men and women, who wore arms and practiced charity and suffered for the cause of the panth:
Those men and women who, keeping the Name in their hearts, shared their earnings with others; who plied the sword and practiced charity; who saw other’s faults but overlooked them: think of their deeds and call on God! (Wonderful Lord!).42
After the prayer, Karah Parsad, made from plain flour cooked with equal quantities of ghee and sugar is served to the congregation. No inhibition is imposed on the Sikh women for the preparation of prasad. The Sikh women are allowed to prepare food at the community kitchen and to serve it in langar. The religious worship, in any form, can be performed by the women, with the only condition that like men, they should be amritdharis or members of the Khalsa and they must abide by the rules of Sikh Rahit-Maryada. It is most relevant to note that at present, the post of president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhanda Committee (a most important religious body of the Sikhs) was held by a woman, Bibi Jagir Kaur who was appointed on this post on 16 March, 1999 and was selected (by general voting) again for the same post on 10 Nov., 1999 until she resigned. This clearly indicates that women in Sikhism, have full freedom to participate in religious worship and religious activities.
Conclusion: The recapitulate, we can say that the Sikh religion accords an equal status to women in all spheres of life, viz., religious, social and political:
· From the theological perspective, no distinction is made between man and woman and it is vividly clear in the holy compositions of the Sikh Gurus as well as in the creation of Khalsa and in the definition of the Sikh as is given in the Sikh Rahit-Maryada.
· To add spiritual dimension to the personality of women, all the individual souls (jivatma), are symbolically taken as women or brides of Lord who always yearn for union with their Lord and who must develop woman-like virtues to attain communion with God. The loving devotion of the individual souls is presented through the symbol of husband-wife relationship and a jivatma is ever suhagan (married women) who enjoys the presence of Lord-God due to her merits.
· To elevate the status of women, the Sikh Gurus, through their holy compositions and through the examples of their practical life, have taken steps for the socio-religious equality of women. They condemned the custom of sati, female infanticide, forced widowhood adultery and seclusion of women by being in veils (purdah). On the other hand, they commended married life by giving it religious sanctity and allowed the remarriage of widows.
· The implementation of the ideals of the Sikh Gurus has been carried on by the participation of the Sikh women in the socio-religious field, as is evident in the Sikh history of past and present. They have made great contributions in serving and organizing of the community kitchen (langar), working as missionaries, sacrificing themselves and their families for the Sikh community, fighting bravely in the battlefield and offering guidance to the Sikh community in the critical periods.
· In the religious sphere, no prohibition is imposed on women for participation in religious worship and religious rituals. They can become members of significant religious bodies.
37. Fauja Singh, ‘A Study of the Paintings of Guru Nanak’ in Papers on Guru Nanak, Punjab History Conference Proceedings, March 14-15, 1969. P.122.
38. Guru Granth Sahib (3), p.967, trans. Dr. Gopal Singh, op. Cit., Vol. 4, p.924.
39. G.S. Mansukhani, Aspects of Sikhism, Punjabi Writers, Cooperative Industrial Society, New Delhi, p. 138.
40. Ibid, p. 155.
41. Dr. Jodh Singh, Varan Bhai Gurdas, Var 5, Pauri 16, Vol. 1, p. 156.