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Hard Talk What Sikhism Says About Gender And Sex?


Sep 24, 2004
by I.J. Singh

This century has discovered the evils of sexism, and gender politics is such that the subject will not go away, nor should it. Gender issues remain minefields that continue to impact all human societies, including Sikh teaching and practice.

Slowly but surely in the past century gender issues have moved center stage, and not only in the developed industrialized nations. Traditional societies, like the Indian and Arabic, deeply attached to traditions have not been immune. It remains perhaps the largest and most significant battleground in human rights. (This is not to diminish the fact that human rights of ordinary men and men remain under siege by despotic governments in much of the world.)

Sikhism spoke loudly and clearly against the evils of sexism right from its inception five centuries ago, but the rest of the world is discovering it only now. Sikh practices have, in the meantime regressed dramatically. We operate centuries behind where our Gurus left us, but more of that later.

Let us explore the place of women in Sikh society — what it is and what it should be. But let us also keep in mind the relationships between the sexes that exist in the species. Clearly sexual and gender interactions occupy much of our attention for the greater part of our lives.

Several questions need to be addressed here. Is there a clear Sikh theology on women or is it ambiguously stated but left to time, culture and circumstance? Has the message been equally clearly perceived, nurtured and treasured by the followers of Sikhism? How has Sikh society dealt with any ambiguities real or perceived in practice or in doctrine?

About the place of women in Sikh teaching, ask any Sikh, no matter how uninformed or unconcerned he or she is about Sikhism. The answer will be quick that they are equal, have always been so, and that the Gurus so ordained it. But push a little further. Ask any Sikh, no matter how liberated or erudite in the intricacies of the faith, of the position of women in Sikh society today and he or she will hem and haw, and side step the issue with an agility that will do credit to the wiliest politician at a hostile press conference.

A diligent search of non-canonical Sikh literature will reveal some material on the place of women but almost nothing on human sexuality. A brief article by Kapur Singh published long after his death in 1979 appears to be an early exception1 to be followed by an exhaustive and seminal analytical work by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh2. Later I attempted two brief essays3. This presentation is largely derived and takes off from these published works.

Could it be that on such an important human concern, the Sikh religion has nothing much to say. If that were really so it would be a grave shortcoming. It can’t possibly be right to neglect an area that occupies so much of time, attention and thought. As a man I know that little else in life claims more of our energy; I reckon women are no different.

No one can deny the fact that even in the most advanced societies, women had to wage titanic struggles to acquire the minimum rights which should be inalienable for irrespective of gender – such as the right to vote, to own property or to appear as credible witness in a court. Many of these rights were won less than a hundred years ago. The inevitable question is: In the power structure of human relations how did the downward slide of women’s share occur? How did this march begin in its precipitous decline to the point where women were no better than property? I am no anthropologist or historian but it seems that several factors may have juxtaposed and conspired.

Hormones and biology may have given different insights and talents but they gave men more brute strength. They also they saddled women with pregnancies and the nursing of infants. In a time that valued brute strength for survival and in professions that demanded it, men excelled at hunting and farming. Also, such a division of labor between men and women made sense in that society. Prior to the twentieth century, success outside the home favored the physically stronger or those who could marshal power, and men came naturally equipped to do so. (Historically, some women like Cleopatra, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi were able to amass power but, when they did they - sometimes abetting it with their feminine wiles - used their power just as men always had.)

Modern American society has now rapidly become the universal mirror through which most standards of societal behavior all over the world are defined and interpreted. However, it was not so long ago in American history that women and slaves had few rights. In contemporary U.S. society, I submit the most revolutionary changes in gender relationships — which continue to progressively define a more equitable balance of power — resulted not from any new revelations in Judeo-Christian theology. Instead, it is two unrelated events that have impelled change in how we perceive women. One was the Second World War in which most able-bodied men went to war, leaving women to run the factories and homes. “Rosie the Riveter” was the symbol of this new emancipated woman outside the home. The second event with a dramatic impact was the development of the birth control pill and the associated birth control technology. These were socially revolutionary events. They freed women of their slavery to home and children, and dependency upon men, transforming them from serfs to possible friends and helpmates of men. The revolution, still in progress, picked up momentum with advances in technology and advent of the computer. Now sheer strength is no longer a necessity on the job. In other words, economic freedom seems to have been the impetus for women’s rights that, in turn, led to further economic progress.

The next step was inevitable — a reinterpretation of Judeo-Christian theology to reflect the new equality of the sexes and the changed social order. Although it is now reacting positively to the new realities, the Judeo-Christian view has not always given an equal recognition to women. Look at the Biblical injunction: “As the Church is subject to Christ let the wives be subject to their husbands in all things.” Much has changed but the age-old difference in the status of women is still reflected in the conventional western marriage ceremony where the father of the bride symbolically “hands over” the bride to the groom. In the United States, as in much of Europe, women did not automatically receive their rights: they came with grave difficulty and much struggle.

Many of the old religions like Islam and Judaism traditionally gave little right to a woman seeking divorce except under very special circumstances; for a man seeking riddance of an unwanted spouse it was not so formidable a hurdle. The minimum requirement (minyan) for a congregational service in many faiths consists only of men; women do not count. An orthodox Jewish woman undergoes a ritual rite of purification (mikvah) at the end of her monthly menstrual cycle before participating in congregational worship. If Roman Catholic hierarchy still does not ordain women priests, traditional Hinduism does not even allow women to read scriptures. (I am aware that Reform Judaism places no barriers to women’s participation, some Christian denominations now allow women to serve priestly functions and women head some Hindu sects but those are rare or recent phenomena.)

Surely, my friends in other religions will not be satisfied with my very terse summary that cannot possibly do justice to their long, complex traditions and practices. But my purpose here is not an exhaustive discussion of what others believe but what Sikhism has to say on these important issues; the comparative framework is only the scaffolding to highlight our strengths and failings.

When we look at the place of women in Sikhism, two questions come to mind. Has there been a consistent theological teaching on this matter in Sikhism? Secondly, what does history teach us about our practices? An important starting point is the position of women in Indian society prior to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

When Sikhism originated in India in the fifteenth century, two major religions dominated the country. The majority of the population was Hindu but the minority ruling class was Moslem. Buddhism had already been wiped out of much of India.
One only has to read the Laws of Manu4 — which provide a code of ethics for every aspect of the life of a Hindu — that women’s rights were severely curtailed in that caste-ridden society. There were vestal virgins in temples and women were prohibited from reading the Hindu scriptures. The priests in Hinduism traditionally have always been male Brahmins only. Women were property of their fathers before marriage and of their husbands afterwards. They were married young while in their teens. If widowed they were not to remarry but preferably would commit sati by being burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husbands. Yet traditional Hindu society was a highly sexually aware one. Just look at the Kama Sutra or the world famous frescoes at Khajuraho.

The traditional Islamic society, which ruled India at that time, practiced polygamy, giving few rights to women, if any. The religion’s power structure, as that of most societies of the time, was exclusively male. In spite of the harems of the rulers, Islamic society was conservative and, in public, women appeared fully clothed from head to toe with a veil over their faces.

Because of the prevailing attitudes of Islamic and Hindu societies, Sikhism could not have ignored the issue of women’s rights, nor did it.

Every Sikh can recite the hymn (so ikau mMdw AwKIAY ijqu jMmih rwjwn5) from the morning prayers which clearly reminds the follower that all are born of a woman, that without her no one can exist, and then posits the rhetorical question: “Why should one demean a woman?” A hymn6 almost universally read at Sikh marriage ceremonies says, “A union of two bodies is no union, however close it may be; it is only when souls meet that we can speak of a union true:”

Dnipru eyih n AwKIAin bhin iekTy hoie ] eyk joiq duie mUrqI Dn ipru khIAY soie ]3] - vwr sUhI kI mhlw 3 pMnw 788
This speaks of a truly non-exploitive, equal, sharing partnership.

When speaking in English we often refer to God as Him or He. We do not think twice of referring to God as the Father. But there are many hymns (qUM myrw ipqw qUMhY myrw mwqw 7) in the Guru Granth, which clearly refer to God as both Father and Mother. The preamble to the Guru Granth could not be more direct when it states in unambiguous language that God has no gender. Nothing could be clearer than the teaching in the Guru Granth. These hymns are read so often at Sikh services that it would be virtually impossibly to find a Sikh who claims ignorance of them. The words are so simple that the meaning absolutely leaves no room for any misinterpretation.

In speaking of God the Father we reflect the limitations of the English language and perhaps of the user. In seeking a God that is a He or a She we look to a lesser god not worthy of our worship. That is what Sikhism tells me. In English, gender-free language is not always easy to find. God as “It” sounds strange — though it shouldn’t; using He/She every time seems awkward.

History clearly documents that the third Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Amardas, organized the Sikh world of his time into 22 geographical diocesan areas of authority, and that each See was headed by an eminent Sikh appointed by him. Of the 22 persons so appointed, 8 were women. He also preached against sati and dowry — both were pernicious evils of Indian society. He encouraged widows to remarry, a right that the Laws of Manu4 denied to Hindu women; interestingly Hindu men were not denied remarriage. These reforms advocated by Sikhism were radical steps indeed in the tradition-bound society of India over 400 years ago.

At a Sikh religious service there is nothing that a man can do that is prohibited to a woman. The Sikh congregation does not require a minyan of ten men. There is absolutely no bar — none whatsoever — to a woman performing any of the Sikh religious functions at any time of her life. I emphasize this because in some religions a woman may not attend services or perform certain rites during her menstrual period, for instance.

Yet people ask, if women were so equal in Sikh teaching, how is it that none of the ten Gurus was a woman? Why is it that when Guru Gobind Singh ordained the Khalsa, none of the first five Sikhs who voluntarily offered their heads was a woman? Did Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh have more than one wife? Female infanticide has always occurred in India, even in Sikh communities. Look at any gurdwara in India or abroad. They are mostly managed by men. There are hardly any women granthis who perform ministerial duties at a gurdwara.

Some of the answers lie in the Indian society of the fifteenth century in which many Sikh traditions are rooted, but more importantly are to be found in the inertia and resistance to change that are a specialty of the traditional society. Also keep in mind that in most developing societies where educational resources are limited, girls are treated differently and more poorly than boys. The traditional farming and hunting societies valued sons. Most such societies, at one time or another, practiced female infanticide. Indian society was no exception. Sikhism rejects such practices unequivocally in its teaching; practice has often fallen short.

Some thirty years ago, I found myself stage-managing a program in a gurdwara at the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. The Sikhs were still a novelty in New York and we hadn’t quite garnered the bad press that we later did by our political shenanigans in the gurdwaras. The gurdwara was the basement of a Church school rented for the day. The local press was interested in covering the occasion. I thought we would capture attention if I asked a woman from the congregation to lead the prayers. She did. The Press gave us good coverage, but some Sikhs in the congregation were displeased. Why a woman, a trustee asked. The only answer that made sense to me was: Why not? But it was not what the gurdwara management wanted to hear

I remember that when one woman wanted to be one of the five Sikhs who normally initiate others formally into the ranks of the Khalsa, the influential granthi of the local gurdwara vetoed the idea. His arguments were no different from those of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on why there should be no women priests; to wit, that none of the first five Sikhs who had embraced the initiation into the Khalsa Order in 1699 were women. I find such reasoning regressive at best, if not asinine.

The premier Sikh gurdwara, which defines Sikh history and tradition, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is cleaned every night by volunteers. But the volunteers are all men. When Sikh women from the diaspora visiting India volunteered to help clean the gurdwara, the best the management could do was to awkwardly spurn their offer and, when faced by mounting worldwide protests, bury the issue in a committee. Similarly, only once has the Golden Temple allowed women to perform keertan (liturgical singing) in its premises, and that was to American converts to Sikhism. As a rule Sikh women have been denied the opportunity. Why? It is undoubtedly against Sikh teaching. But it fits in with the age-old Hindu Indian tradition and we have never fully emerged from its tight embrace.

Yet gurdwaras worldwide celebrate Sikh women of achievement and our paeans usually start with remembering Guru Nanak’s sister Bibi Nanaki, who was the first person to discover his divinity. The second Sikh woman we celebrate is Mata Khivi, Guru Angad’s wife, for her unstinting dedication to the cause of langar and feeding of the needy. But these are traditional roles that were always available to women in the traditional Indian society of the day. Unconventional Sikh women that history remembers are Mata Sahib Kaur for her role in initiation of the Khalsa in 1699, Bhag Kaur who led men into battle, and Rani Jind Kaur for political acumen. But such role models are few. The names of women who led 8 of the 14 dioceses established by Guru Amardas are lost to history.

In exploring some baffling matters of Sikh history, keep in mind that contemporaneous events are a different matter. When we look at happenings of long ago, we need to remember that we must not judge yesterday’s conduct by today’s standards. One does not measure the past by the yardstick of today. For example, Jefferson was a slave owner, yet he was a champion of human rights whose voice continues to instruct us. It makes little sense in condemning Jefferson for owning slaves without also taking into account the societal norms of the day. One cannot ignore the cultural and societal context of the times when we sit in judgment of history.

Many societies practice polygamy; some show polyandry. It is more important to recognize that such practices reflect customs, traditions and an unequal power equation between the sexes in a society. Certainly, such practices need to be judged but by the standards of the times that they reflect, and they need to be non-exploitive. In Sikhism, the collective body of Sikhs can derive a code of ethics that is consistent with Sikh history and tradition, and is applicable to all Sikhs. Sikhs adopted such a Code (Rehat Maryada) after careful deliberation and it clearly mandates a monogamous relationship8. In Sikhism, sanctity of marriage is respected, promiscuity is not. I have to add that the language of the Rehat Maryada is rooted in the Punjabi Indian culture of a different era and needs to be recast in more gender neutral terms.

In many diverse but important issues such as birth control, abortion, reproductive rights, and divorce etc., Sikhism does not issue binding edicts or advocate unchanging positions written in stone. It is understood that many such issues are culturally dependent and time driven; they can change with our socio-economic circumstance and educational or technological development. The emphasis in Sikh teaching is on transforming an individual into a mature, ethical being who will act in every situation in a thoughtful, non-exploitive, generous, honest, caring, responsible and mature manner.

History tells us that perhaps 80,000 Sikhs attended the convention called by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 when the Khalsa was ordained. Many, if not nearly half, must have been women. As a young, feminist Sikh woman friend9 pointed out to me, perhaps many of those women were busy with their squabbling children. Perhaps they never heard the dramatic call by Guru Gobind Singh; there were no sound systems then. Many of them might have been busy with langar if 80,000 had to be fed. Given these preoccupations and considering the Indian society of which they were the products, many of them might have thought it more prudent to leave such matters to their men, particularly if it was going to involve fighting and battles. Don’t forget that Guru Gobind Singh made his calls for volunteers while brandishing a flashing sword. History also tells us that following the first five, and Guru Gobind Singh himself, over 20,000 became Khalsa that weekend; many of them were women.

If Sikhs rarely mention sex, sexuality or gender issues in their homes or gurdwaras, they are merely reflecting the attitudes of the larger Indian society, which is, in these matters, extremely circumspect. The question is how and when did the traditional Indian (Hindu) society which, judging from the Kama Sutra and Khajuraho etc, was not unaware of the joys of sex, become so Victorian and prudish. Again, there are a number of issues to be considered.

Hindu erotica is found in the Vedas. Hindu erotic art dates from about the tenth century. Even now, as we sit poised at the beginning of the twenty-first, phallic worship remains an integral part of services in Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, though many of the worshipers would be aghast at what they are doing, if only they understood it.

The West seems to have emerged from Victorian prudery to unbridled, uncensored sex while Indian society seems to have gone in reverse. The controlling, directing influence on Western society may well have been the modern psychological insights of Freud, Jung and others. In Indian society, Islamic invasions and the Islamic worldview may have been of greater import. Consequent to the many invasions of India and its subsequent conquest by the Moslems, many Hindu women were forcibly taken by the invaders and conquerors as the prize of victory, the spoils of war. The conquered people, in order to protect their women (and homes), devised codes to keep them from venturing outside. The society thus became guarded and pleasure became suppressed or unacknowledged.

In addition, one should not forget that there has always been an element in the Hindu worldview that exalted denial of sex and family. Brahmacharya and denial of the procreative instinct is a Hindu ideal, somewhat like the higher calling of the celibate clergy in Roman Catholicism. Sanyas or withdrawal from life — renunciation of family life — remains for the Hindu a highly desirable goal in life. It wasn’t such a giant step then for the sexually aware Indian society to become one that can outdo the Victorians any day in being sexually repressive and hypocritical. (It is only in Indian movies that sexuality is acknowledged and that too somewhat obliquely.)

On the other hand, Sikh teaching and the lives of the Gurus have consistently upheld the family life as the ideal. It is a model that many scholars such as Daljeet Singh and Kharak Singh10, among others, have labeled “a whole-life system” in which the life of the householder is supreme (skl Drm mY igRhsqu pRDwn hY ] kibq BweI gurdws (376-378)11The Sikhs, therefore, have sought to define a middle ground between a promiscuous society and a repressive one. Whereas one Hindu scriptural postulate holds that sexual passions are surmounted by indulging in them, another would recommend denial of sexual procreative urges. Sikhism teaches that unregulated passions eventually lead to sorrow and disease. (The Hindu position here reminds me of Oscar Wilde who is reported to have said that the only way to conquer temptation is to yield to it.)

Sikhism recognizes the futility of both sexual excess and of celibacy and denial of sex. In fact it recognizes sexual energy as most potent, and often explains the mystical experience in terms of human sexuality. A life of sexual denial is bluntly ridiculed thus:

ibMdu rwiK jO qrIAY BweI ] KusrY ikau n prm giq pweI 12Gauri Kabir, page 324)

If salvation lies in sexual denial, why would a eunuch not be automatically saved?

Not only does Sikhism deny any gender — and consequent sexual identity — or form to God, its scripture has an interesting inherent structure. Since the Sikh Gurus were teaching to a largely Hindu audience, many of the teachings are couched in Hindu metaphysical and mythological lexicon. Since the closest relationship that humans have or can comprehend is that between a man and a woman, Sikh teaching used this male-female bonding as a metaphor for the ideal union between the human and the divine. Repeatedly, Sikh scriptures treat all men and women equally as the female in this relationship and God as the only male.

nwrI purKu purKu sB nwrI sBu eyko purKu murwry13 ] pMnw 983
“Men and women – all of them – have swelled up from the one Lord.”
nwrI purK sbweI loie14 - pMnw 223
“The Lord’s light permeates in all – men and women.”
iesu jg mih purKu eyku hY hor sglI nwir sbweI 15 - vfhMs kI vwr mhlw 4 pMnw 591
“In this world there is only one spouse, all others are His brides.”

Such examples are not meant to advocate an unequal power relationship between men and women. Instead, such metaphors, in a sense, recognize the inevitable instinct for sexual coupling as a most powerful human need and desire. In Sikhism the human relationship should mirror the sanctity that exists in the human-divine connection. In more prosaic terms one could say that the human bond should be like a true coin that has two equal but different faces. Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh2 has a lengthy and persuasive analysis on the Sikh scriptures from what is undoubtedly the modern feminist perspective. Some of Bhai Vir Singh’s writings also turn out to be more than a pleasant story well told; he has successfully interpreted Sikh teaching as a way for the empowerment of women in some of his fiction like Sundari16 and Satwant Kaur17. But the whole territory lies relatively unexplored.

Sikhism repeatedly takes note of the fact that all birth is a result of sexual activity, which makes continuation of life possible. As Kapur Singh1 points out with a plethora of scriptural citations, sex too has a place in a normal, harmonious, disciplined life. And that is the teaching of Sikhism. In a life governed by such a healthy outlook, the two sexes ought not to be at war, nor should one exploit the other. Sexism can have no place in Sikhism, therefore, and nor can female infanticide, dowry, sati or the condemning of widows to a life of solitude and isolation. Yet these are all practices to be found in Sikh society today.

The fact is that there are only about 22 million Sikhs in the world, most of them in India. Much as the United States reflects Judeo-Christian values even though it guarantees separation of Church and State by law, similarly, India reflects largely Hindu values, even though it is nominally a secular country. Hindus form over 80 percent of the population. Hinduism is a rich, old and ancient tradition. Many of the Sikhs converted from Hinduism a mere two or three generations ago. Most people blindly follow, more or less, their religious traditions and the Sikhs are no different. Within a sea of Indian (Hindu) teaching and practice — all Indians are saturated in them, engulfed in them — Sikh teaching remains, for many Sikhs, far from being thoroughly internalized and integrated into their lives.

Yes, there is a clear Sikh teaching. Yes, Sikhs have produced some remarkable and memorable women who have led them, even in the thick of battle. Yes, there are Sikh women whose names are inscribed on our history’s scroll of honor. Yes, we repeat and read the hymns on these issues everyday.

Sikhism promised an equal place to women. The predominant society in India then and now does not; therefore, the practice fell far short of the preaching. In many matters however, Sikhism delivered. For instance, the Sikh gurus were the first to raise their voices against sati, a truly abominable custom. The Sikhs instituted Widow remarriage. There is no activity in the Sikh religion reserved exclusively for men, nor is there any which is closed to them, at any time of their lives. If in a Sikh service men and women sit on separate sides, it is based on custom, culture and tradition, not canon. In Sikh history, women have led armies into battle.

There is no question that sexism is unSikh and that the two genders share equally, enjoying the same rights, privileges and miseries. Once again this is clearly brought home by the fact that in the first names of Sikhs, no sexual distinction or identification is traditionally made. Only “Singh” or “Kaur” are used to distinguish a male name from that of a female. The traditional first name is absolutely gender-neutral. The use of gender-specific first names among Sikhs is a relatively recent phenomenon; the trend seems to be a reflection of the predominant non-Sikh culture around us. Except as responsible ethical individuals, the roles that men and women play in life are not defined by Sikh names, teachings or ceremonies but are determined by their own individual circumstances. The Gurus saw that often time, culture and individual circumstances shape what we do; if the people are responsible and ethical, they will evolve behaviors that are neither masochistic nor exploitive or sexist.

Not that it is unique to us, but there is an awful, yawning gulf between all that we preach and what we practice.

With great pleasure I thank Hakam Singh (California) and Ardaman Singh (New York) for their very generous assistance.

1. Singh, Kapur 1995 Some Insights into Sikhism (Eds Madanjit Kaur and Piar Singh) Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India
2. Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur 1993 The Feminine Principle of the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
3. Singh, I.J. 1998 Sikhs and Sikhism: A View with a Bias. Second Edition. Pages 127-143. The Centennial Foundation, Mississauga, Toronto, Canada
4. Muller, F. Max 1977 The Sacred Books of the East. Vol 25 The Laws of Manu, Translated by Georg Buhler. Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, India
5. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 473. Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
6. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 788. Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
7. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 103. Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
8. The Code of Sikh Conduct and Conventions 1994. (English Translation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada). Dharam Parchar Committee, Shiromini Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, India
9. Kaur, Gagandeep 1998 Personal communication.
10. Singh Daljeet and Kharak Singh (Eds) 1997 Sikhism: Its Philosophy and History. Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh India, P 233-267.
11. Kabit Bhai Gurdas (Bhalla) Pp 376-378
12. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Kabir, Page 324 Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
13. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 983 Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
14. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 223 Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
15. Guru Granth Sahib. The standard version of 1430 pages. Page 591 Shiromini Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, Amritsar, India
16. Singh, Vir 1898 Sundri. Translated by Gobind Singh Mansukhani 1983. Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi, India.
17. Singh, Vir 1900 Satwant Kaur Translated by Ujagar Singh Bawa 1986 The Washington Sikh Center, Silver Spring, Maryland.


Feb 18, 2009
Wahe guru!

Thank you for writing and posting that message. As a western woman who wants to convert to Sikhism, its really refreshing to see this issue addressed out in the open. Can I ask what is being done, if any, by Sikhs in India or elsewhere to improve gender relations and roles within sikh communities? Here in America , I know many granthis who are women, probably due to all of us converts, but don't know about that in other countries.

I've been reading the different versions of the Rehit as well, and there's a lot of questionable stuff from a gender bias, as well as things like "A foolish Sikh who does not recite japji should be punished.." and a list of other things to be punished (Bhai chaupa singh). Are their any Rehits written by women, or versions written with a modern verbal makeover?

Sat nam,
Kehar Kaur

Gyani Jarnail Singh

Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
Jul 4, 2004
Kehar Ji,

Most of those old Rehitnamhs are adulterated/seriously biased/or worse. THAT is why the SRM Committee was set up in the early 1930's just immediately afetr the formation of the SGPC/SAD/ and taking over control fo Historicla Gurdwaras/Takhats from Hindu Mahants who had occupied these for decades...this SRM committee afetr decade of consultationa nd examination came up with the SIKH REHAT MARYADA by the Akal Takhat/SGPC which is the normal one followed by nearly all Gurdwaras and sikhs.However this SRM was REJECTED by the Two takhats outside PUNJAB that still remained in local sikhs/Hinduised sikhs and was also rejected by the Damdmai taksal, and the DERAS which ahd vested interest in maintaining their own maryadas. Over time...the Non-SRM followers from the Taksals and DERAS took over all positions - granthis, parcharaks, ardassiahs, sewadaars etc in SGPC and event he Akal takhat whose Jathedar was a VEDANTI - expert in VEDANT --equivalent would be a Catholic POPE who is an expert in JUDAISM and TORAH rather than New testament..and nother who declared that he beleived Sikhs were descendats of LUV KUSH the two sons of Ram Chander of Ramayana/Auyothia when it cnat even be established that such a person ever existed..and thus today the SRM of the SGPC/Akal Takhat is in Practise NOT FOLLOWED there even though in written form it is there and still being printed...Most Vital Point is SRM ALLOWS WOMEN in all positions/posts..Kirtaniyah, granthi, Panj Piayra/sewadaar etc..BUT the Traditionalists in control at SGPC REFUSE to follow this stipulation in the SRM.

2. The Best way to go about such clauses in the rehitnamahs is using the Touchstone of GURBANI...if any clause falls flat in the face of GURBANI..discard it .


May 11, 2016
Inspirational women like Mai Bhago have shown equality in action, at a time that women were throwing themselves in fire following the death of their husbands, she inspired and led an army of men into battle.
Inspirational women like Mai Bhago have shown equality in action, at a time that women were throwing themselves in fire following the death of their husbands, she inspired and led an army of men into battle.


Sep 25, 2016
This post was a great read.

When Sikhism is taught and understood as it was meant to be, it is so incredible empowering, and especially empowering to women, who in most societies and religions have been considered second-class citizens. Sikhism truly captures oneness by viewing all people as human beings first and foremost.

It is so incredibly inspirational how our Gurus were able to be so progressive thinking in a society where women were undervalued. Oneness.

I find it so unfortunate that backward cultural ideals and traditions leak into peoples' understanding of Sikhi, and truly take away from how progressive the Guru's teachings are. Essentially, Sikhism just gets seen as "another religion," and starts to become understood in terms of western religious ideologies (e.g.: Judaism, Christianity, Islam) to people living in the west, and its gets mixed up with Hindu ideologies in India.

Essentially then, traditional gender roles for women, and for men, to some extent, continue to be perpetuated. We need to train ourselves to see people without labels, recognizing oneness first and foremost.
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