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Women And Sikhism - Free At Last

Aug 13, 2004
To understand what the Gurus said of women in Gurbani one must understand the conditions prevalent in India at the time of the Gurus. In the very early Vedic period women had much of the same access to an education, participation in religious, political and social roles. They even composed some of the hymns in the Vedas. That all changed drastically with the arrival of the laws of Manu. The status of women was totally degraded at every level and women were effectively enslaved. Women in Hindu society were now bound by a series of rigid laws that defined social, occupational and religious conduct.

The women were not only relegated to their households, they were literally under the control of men from cradle to grave. They were compelled to observe Purdah. Sati was expected at the death of the spouse in some castes or permanent widowhood in others even in the case of very young widows. Widowhood meant destitution at best, social rejection and lifelong loneliness. The birth of a daughter was viewed with disdain and sorrow and female infanticide rampant. The birth of a boy was celebrated lavishly but that of a girl meant scorn and blame by the in-laws. Women and girls’ health was poor due to frequent childbirth coerced by husband and in-laws till the birth of a male heir occurred for the former and sheer neglect of health care and nutrition of the latter. The Laws of Manu still maintain a powerful hold over Indian Society today in overt and covert fashions. They manifest as such in present societal mores and attitudes.(article on Laws of Manu as applies to women). These affect as much the modern Punjabi as well as Hindu societies. (This article a blessing for boys and girls are killed)Many of the same conditions that plague women in Indian society described above still exist today in many villages and city centers.

Under Islamic rule women fared no better. Hindu women and children were enslaved and force-marched by their captors to be sold on the markets of Persia, Afghanistan and sent further to Arabia and Africa. Muslim women had some limited rights under Muslim law but functioned primarily in the home. They were often at the mercy of the man’s sexual desires. They did not have much freedom and few rights as well and again came under the dominion of their husbands. Since their movements were limited and women could not move unsupervised without a male chaperone, education and roles outside the home were not an option. If they did not obey their husband’s wishes they were beaten. This rule is enshrined in the Qu’ran. Women were also veiled and may be one of 4 wives sanctioned in Islamic law. The testament of 2 women is equal to that of one man.

It is against such a backdrop that the Gurus implemented reform via their missions and tackled prevalent issues in their teachings.

This passage offers a powerful rejection of the Vedic mistreatment of women:

"We are conceived in woman,
We are born to woman.
It is to woman we get engaged,
and then get married.
Woman is our lifelong companion,
And pillar of our survival.
It is through woman,
that we establish social relationships.
Why should we denounce her,
When even kings and great men are born from her?" (P. 473 SGGS Guru Nanak)

Guru Amardas abolished the tradition of Sati and Purdah and indeed refused to have an audience with ladies that kept Purdah. He established religious centers and women alongside men were recruited to lead and teach. Women worked alongside the men in maintaining the Guru’s kitchen, performing all duties and sitting side by side the men folk in Pangat.

Guru Angad strongly encouraged the education of women.

Women swelled the ranks in spreading the message of the Gurus as missionaries. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, 40% of them were women.

With the birth of the Khalsa the last of the barriers of caste and gender oppression had been smashed. Women though continuing their roles of mothers and wives were forever changed. They were lifted up and given the same Amrit at the side of their brothers. The same rules that applied to them to follow the Khalsa way applied to them. They were granted the same 5 K’s. Guru Gobind Singh's encouragement of women to keep even shastars symbolized that he did not envision her role in society as being that of a "nice, meek housewife," but rather that of a fearless, active, independent warrior, involved in the world.

Kaur became her name. Kaur has an interesting history. Its origin can be found in the word Kanwar, literally meaning a Crown Prince. Women were given Kaur to give them an identity independent of that of their husband and to uplift their spirit. Indeed it has been recorded in oral tradition that Guru Gobind Singh referred to his brave daughters as ‘Sahibzadey’ or sons for the valor they exhibited in battle.

Indeed women did rule in their own right. The Victoria Museum in Calcutta shows many old paintings showing women with dastaars and in an old edition of Mahan Khosh there was a drawing of the Rani Raj Kaur with a dastar with the marks of royalty pinned adorning it. This certainly flew in the face of what women were expected to be. They were no longer subordinate to their husbands but to God like their male counterpart unlike Hindu or Islamic law.

At the time of Guru Gobind Singh, women who were literally and legally possessions of their husbands in Europe and in the American colonies, women who had no voice in administration in Europe, the Americas or India were now orators, teachers, warriors, and administrators and participated in the Guru’s kitchen. Guru Gobind Singh’s wife Mata Sundri led the Khalsa Panth for many years after passing of the tenth Guru. Jathedar Sada Kaur along with Maharaja Ranjit Singh made possible the formation of the Sikh Empire. She gave her contribution to the Amrit, sweet Patashey so that the disposition of the Sikhs would be also sweet. This is in a time when Hindu women were forbidden to read Vedic literature and or perform most religious rites.

Many other women were commanders of their own battalions and died on the battlefield. After Guru Gobind Singh the situation of not only women but also lower castes had deteriorated as people regained the old ways of caste and the oppression of women. The old habits and attitudes as you read in the laws of Manu continue in some form or another to ensnare the Sikh Nation as Brahmanic infiltration regained a foothold during the 19th century.

Given what we know of the history then and now here are some of the quotes regarding women:

In regards to dowry:

"O my Lord, give me thy name as my wedding gift and dowry." Guru Ram Das, Page 78, line 18 SGGSji

"Any other dowry offered is a valueless display of false pride and of no earthly use." Guru Ram Das, Page 79, line 2

In regards to marriage:

"They are not called husband and wife who merely sit together
Rather they alone are called husband and wife
who have one soul in two bodies."
In regards to the odious practice of Sati:

"A Sati is not she, who burns herself on the pyre of her spouse.
Nanak, a Sati is she, who dies with the sheer shock of separation (from God).
Yea, the Sati is one who lives contended and embellishes herself with good conduct (rather than jewels and dress)
And cherishing her Lord ever calls on Him each morning.
The women burn themselves on the pyres of their lords,
If they love their spouses well, they suffer the pangs of separation. (moh)
She who loves not her spouse, why burns she herself in fire?
For, be he alive or dead she owns him not (only God does)" Page 787,13, SGGSji Guru Amar Das)

Guru Hargobind called woman "the conscience of man "without whom moral living was impossible. Child marriage was discouraged and the practice of female infanticide, which had been strongly discouraged, was severely banned. Guru Gobind Singh enshrined in the Khalsa code of conduct for his Khalsa, male or female not to have social conduct, relations or marriage to those who kill their daughters. This Hukam is always told in any Amrit Sanchaar.

Regarding the practice of Purdah:

"Stay, stay, O daughter-in-law - do not cover your face with a veil. In the
end, this shall not bring you even half a shell. The one before you used to
veil her face; do not follow in her footsteps. The only merit in veiling
your face is that for a few days, people will say, "What a noble bride has
come". Your veil shall be true only if you skip, dance and sing the
Glorious praises of the Lord (P. 484, SGGSji, Kabeer)

Women and indeed all souls were strongly encouraged to lead a spiritual life:

"Come, my dear sisters and spiritual companions; hug me close in your
embrace. Let's join together, and tell stories of our All-powerful Husband
Lord."-Guru Nanak, pg 17, Guru Granth Sahib.

Now given this background how is all this relevant in today’s society? Unlike the women’s liberation movement, which tends to addresses mainly secular concerns, Sikhi for women empowers them and requires equal responsibility in the spiritual and temporal spheres while maintaining the integrity of the family. The life of a householder is no less a central one for a Sikh woman as it is for a Sikh man. A stable family becomes a nucleus where an active spiritual life to mature the treasure of the Guru is then imparted to the children. Sikh women like Sikh men are discouraged from the excesses of indulging in the powers of the 5 thieves therefore excess in vices is automatically curtailed. Like the men, Sikh women are conscious of their social environment and are by nature of their bent for social justice and compassion can potentially champion the rights of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Given the natural disposition of the Sikh to serve others and by virtue of a vibrant spiritual life he or she stands ready to make the world better then he or she left it. The full implications of being a Sikh cannot be fully understood without adopting and fully imbibing the Sikh way of life by partaking of the Amrit and then living the path. Taking the Amrit means accepting equal responsibilities on a temporal and religious plane with their brothers. The commands given to follow the way of the Guru are identical for both sexes. It means equal submission to the will of God and humble service to humanity.

Unlike the ambient ladies of the time locked up by their socio-religious law, these ladies became stateswomen, leaders, generals, jathedras, and educators and moved freely with their brothers. They, alongside their husbands, instilled in all their children the values of Sikhi. Having taken the Amrit they gained an indomitable spirit, soaring spiritual life, and freedom from the shackles that had kept them imprisoned so long. The noble heritage of the Sikhs is there to enjoy for those who wish to explore it and hopefully and one day fully live it.

Kharad Kaur can be reached at kharad.kaur@panthic.org.

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