At the outset, I would like to congratulate Ramakrishna Mission, Chennai, to organise this Parliament of Religions for commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda ji in a very appropriate scale and for choosing the topic of “Unity of Mankind through Harmony of Religions” for discussion as a part of this celebration.
Particularly on behalf of the Sikh community, I am grateful for selecting this subject, as it is one of the main causes for the birth of Sikhism. This platform provides me an opportunity to expose the perspective of a little known truth about this humanitarian movement of Sikhism. During its short span of life of about five centuries, it was badly persecuted by majority of the rulers of the days, distorted in history books and in present days maligned by both electronic and print media. My intention is not to blame them, as I appreciate their constraint of acceptability to the public, their bosses and the rulers. In the process of this projection they are unable to do justice to the cause, as they have to depend upon the briefings of authorities and based on the misinformation provided by people of vested interests. In some of the cases though they may not be biased, but are not impartial and investigative.
In modern era, about a hundred years ago, sincere efforts for Interfaith Dialogue began with the setting up on the common platform under the nomenclature of World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, U.S.A. Though Inter-faith meetings and interfaith dialogues have started all over the globe, a common strain of affinity, mutual understanding, peace and harmony is still a long way to go.
I need not remind you, how Swamy Vivekananda ji, addressed that huge congregation, the thundering and lengthy applauses he got for his presentation. That is how he introduced to the world the worth of Hinduism in its correct perspective. From then onwards, westerners started studying and researching it greatness.
Today in our country some religious outfits are engaged in aggressively preaching and converting people into their faith. I don’t think it is wrong, but they adopt some undesirable and intolerable means by spreading unwarranted hatred against the religion in which those people were born. These attempts are creating unhealthy atmosphere and damaging the harmonious relations among the people. To meet this challenge, some organisations are working for development of interfaith relations and harmony, which is insufficient for protection of “Freedom of Faith”. It requires a crusade to educate the people to understand and respect other religions too. I may kindly be excused for coming to the conclusion that in most of the cases religious practices by the followers are tailored for exploitation or by ignorance, without understanding their own Scriptures in true letter and spirit. Let us accept the truth that “all religions are Revelation of God alone, and came into existence only by the Will of God, not otherwise”.
It is a welcome measure the Ramakrishna Mission has also taken up the task of reviving and reinforcing this concept, which got eroded in our country of saints and sages by the misconception of Secularism and miscarriage of its spirit.
Uniting the Mankind by respecting other religions
For uniting the mankind through harmony of religions and equality, more than five centuries back, first founder of Sikhism Sri Guru Nanak Sahib felt the need of mutual interaction. He was the First person to introduce the concept of interfaith dialogue, between the clergymen and people of different religions. He spent about 40 years in travelling about 40,000 thousand miles around most of the parts of the globe. In those days, no mechanical means were available for travelling by land and sea, which we are enjoying today. He visited and stayed with them at the centres of learning and pilgrim stations of Hinduism, Budhism, Jainism, Sages and masses in the plains and at the peaks of Himalayan Mountains, Islamic centres within the country and around 10 years in Islamic countries. To demolish the discrimination of supremacy over one another, in the name of caste and creed, region, religion, language, gender and slavery-system, he advocated for Oneness of God and oneness of Mankind.
He gave a clarion call:-
This means, “Neither we are good people, nor any one is bad. God alone is the saviour, says Nanak”.
He categorically declared that:-
This means, “Let us test what is the worth and truth of high caste and religion? Take the poison is in your hand, taste and see how religion can save you, from its effects of death? The sovereignty of the True Lord is known throughout all ages. He, who obeys and surrenders at His Will, becomes noble in His Court.”
The 3rd Guru, Sri Guru Amardas ji says:-
This means, “This world is burning on fire. O God, be merciful and save all those whoever comes out from any passage, means through different religions and faiths.”
The 5th Guru, Sri Guru Arjan Sahib says:-
This means, “Of all the religions, the best one is to always remember the Name of God and do the good deeds.” He declared that salvation is in our own hands and that we could be saved only by our good deeds. In the court of God, we will be rewarded or punished according to our own deeds.
The 10th Guru, Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji declared that:-
This means, “Some claim to be Hindu, some Muslim-Rafzi-Imam Shafi (Muslim Sects), but realize the truth that all beings belong to one human religion.”
The firstfounder Sri Guru Nanak Sahib was born to the parents of high caste Khatri of Hinduism. But he refused to wear the tag of “Janevoo” i. e., the sacred thread worn across the chest by the male members of high caste. When he was 11 years of age, his parents arranged a ceremony, invited the priest to perform the ceremony. He posed a question to the priest and the audience, when all human beings are created alike by the Lone Creator, then what is the validity of this artificial discrimination among the fellow beings in the name of high caste and low caste and masculine and feminine gender?
Asked about his religion, he declared:-
This means, “The True Name of God is my caste and religion. Good deeds, righteousness and self control are my rituals.” Subsequently, all successive Gurus have refused to wear the janevoo i.e., the sacred thread. And finally the Guruship was bestowed to the Scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib which is an interfaith digest and present living Guru of the Sikhs.
Uniting the Mankind through Interfaith Scripture
For uniting the mankind through Scripture, its first founder Sri Guru Nanak Sahib started collecting the works for compilation of an Interfaith Scripture by demolishing the geographical and lingual barriers from the nook and corner of Indian sub-continent and developed the concept of “Indian Nationalism”. This process of collection for the text took 135 years from 1469 till it was compiled in 1604 by the 5th Guru Sri Guru Arjan Sahib. Its first compilation work took five years, and named “Sri AadGranth Sahib” i.e., Book of First Primal Person (one of the qualitative names of God), who existed from the beginning of the world. “Sri” and “Sahib” are the prefix and suffix for respect. A structure was constructed for placing this Scripture by giving a Hindu name “Har Mandir”. Its foundation stone was laid down by a renowned Muslim Sufi Saint of Qadiry Order Hazrat Mir Mohammad Khan popularly known as Hazrat Mian Mir on December 28, 1588. Now it is popularly known as Golden Temple, at Amritsar.
In the year 1705, the 10th Guru Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji added few hymns of the 9th Guru Sri Guru Tegh Bahadar ji and completed it. He bestowed his succession of Guruship to this Scripture in the year 1708 at Nanded of Maharashtra, which sequence was initiated by the first Guru and ordained that there shall be no further Guru in person except Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Thus it is named and regarded as Sri Guru Granth Sahib; the word Guru indicates its status. It is placed in every Gurdwara i.e., the Sikh Temple at a high pedestal and the congregation recites its hymns as prayers.
It contains 1430 pages of large size and a multi-religious mosaic. It consists upon the teachings of 36 contributors, spread over 500 years from Hazrat Baba Sheikh Farid ji (1175-1265) to Sri Guru Tegh Bahadar ji (1621-1675). Its contents are not imaginary product of mind nor coined in the forests, mountains leaving behind the masses to suffer the agony of life, but are the revelations of God through these pious souls. These are the results of interaction with the masses, dealing with their day to day problems to face the situations, practical experiences and experiments carried over in the Human Laboratories.
The beauty of this Scripture is, it does not advocate any one religion but preaches for practising different religions and faiths. Among its 36 contributors, 6 are Sikh Gurus, 1 Sikh, 2 deemed to be untouchables, 7 Muslims and remaining 20 are from different sects of Hinduism, preaching their own faith in their own language and style. For a common man, all religions seems to be different and some time contradictory to each other. But this Scripture is a living proof of the Unity of mankind projecting similarities of religions, in spite of fact that there seems to be the diversities in faiths and rituals.
In this most progressive and civilised era, without the fear of any contradiction, it can be said that no one especially untouchables can find any entry or equal treatment in the places of worship of other religions. But since four hundred years, the Sikhs are bowing their heads in obeisance to this Scripture as their living Guru and treat all its Hindu, Muslim and untouchable contributors as their mentors at par with their Gurus.
Living of the Sikhs
So far, we have discussed about the role of founders and Scripture. Let us thoroughly introspect about how their disciples the Sikhs behave with people of other religions and whether they have really contributed anything for promoting the goal for uniting the humankind? There are three institutions in Sikhism for uniting the mankind, which are still in very much practice and can be witnessed even today. They are 1- Sarovar, 2- Sangat and 3- Pangat, let us analyze one after another.
1-Sarovar: It means water pond for dip and bath. It can be observed in the villages, that there are separate wells for high caste and low caste people. Low caste people are denied even the drinking water from the well of high caste people. Elderly people may remember that before partition of the country, on the Railway Platforms of North India, free water used to be distributed with loud voices as “Hindu Water” and “Muslim Water”. This shows that even while travelling, to quench the thirst people were not prepared and accustomed to drink water at the hands of the person of other religion. Taking bath in the same water could not be imagined in those olden days. But Sikhism brought a revolution by constructing Sarovars i.e., water ponds at places of worship. Thus opened a new chapter for uniting people by giving them bath in the same water and demolished the barriers of inequality, which is continued at all major holy places.
I had an interesting experience, about half a century back, to acquaint myself with the rural life, I went to a interior village where I asked for drinking water at a hut. The lady was generous enough to offer me water, but was pouring it with her pot and I was drinking water by joining the palms. Seeing this, a passerby elderly person told her, that I appear to be a Sikh and one among them, so she should offer me the water in a tumbler. We can witness that in every Guru Ka Langar i.e., Free food of the Guru, is served alike and consumed in common vessels to each and every person of whatever religion and caste he or she belongs.
2- Sangat: This means company i.e., congregation. To enter into Gurdwara, one has to remove socks and shoes and cover the head for respect. There is no classification of the visitors, everybody has to come in line and enter by turn. At the entry point, Sewadars (volunteers) will collect your footwear in exchange of a token to put in a rack for safe custody free of charge. Some other sewadars will be seen polishing the shoes. It is worth mentioning that, Mr. Khurshid Khan, a leading advocate and landlord, then working as Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan Government at the High Court of Peshawar, has started this polishing of shoes at Gurdwaras since 2010. His intention is to heal the wounds of the Sikh community and convey the message of peace, love and friendship after abduction of 3 Sikhs for ransom, among them 1 was killed and 2 were rescued by the army.
In the prayer hall ladies and gents of any caste and creed sit together, no special status is given to any V.I.P., everybody sits cross-legged on the floor. The holy Prasad is distributed equally without any discrimination or preference among the gathering.
3-Pangat: It means sitting in a line for dining at Guru Ka Langar. This is one of the important institutions of Sikhism. This means, offering food freely without any discrimination. The 3rd Guru Sri Guru Amardas ji used to give audience to only those persons, who first take meals at Guru Ka Langar sitting on floor, cross-legged in a line, along with the men and women of high and low castes and status, jointly offered and cooked by the people of all caste and creed. A slogan was coined, “Pahley pangat – pachchey Sangat”, this means, first Pangat and then Sangat. This has played a major role in demolishing the discrimination between the high caste and low caste, men and women, and pride of status. In the year 1521, when Emperor Akbar the Great, came to pay obeisance to Guru Sahib, he had also to partake the food at Guru Ka Langar, forgetting that he is Emperor of India.
By eating together the Sikh community breaks down the barriers that divide the wider human community. In caste-conscious India of the 15th century, when the teacher Sri Guru Nanak Sahib first gathered disciples what became the Sikh community, the common meal was an egalitarian human revolution. In plain ritual language it spelled out the fact that among Sikhs there would be no discrimination of high caste or low, no male or female, no Muslim or Hindu, no Sikh or non-Sikh. Everybody is welcomed by the community members, nobody is stranger or outsider, anyone and everyone who comes is a guest and treated alike.
Mosque – Gurdwara – Mosque
In a developing process to keep pace with the challenging times and to effectively incorporate the fundamentals, the 6th Guru Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib introduced arms among the Sikhs and encouraged to use it. In the year 1608, he built Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, the 1st Religious Seat of Authority, in front of the Golden Temple in the same premises. In the year 1634 he also built a mosque for Muslims in the village Hargobind Pur of Gurdas Pur district of Punjab, which was famous as “Guru Ki Masjid”. In the year 1947 during the partition, all Muslims of the village migrated and the mosque was abandoned. Sikhs converted this deserted mosque into Gurdwara and named it as “Gurdwara Guru ki Masjid” retaining the name of mosque. In the year 2003, some Muslim families came for settlement in the village. Seeing this without asking for, the Sikhs voluntarily vacated the Gurdwara and handed it over to the Muslims. Now it is standing with great pomp and show as “Guru Ki Masjid” again, telling a unique story of series of conversions of this structure from Mosque to Gurdawra and again to Mosque, an unparallel historical event and marvellous precedence needed to be followed.
Recently, you might have observed in the media, that the Sikhs have established another unique precedence. On 20th August 2012 at the occasion of Eid, the village Joshi Math of Uttranchal State of Himalayan mountains had heavy rains, where lives about 800 Muslims. It is general practice that on Eid, the Muslim population offers collective prayers, and here they used to pray in the open of Gandhi Maidan, which was impossible and their small Mosques could not accommodate. The Sikhs invited them to offer prayers in Gurdwara and the Muslims gladly agreed and prayed facing towards Mecca not towards where the Sikhs face.
Thus Sikhism has proved effective in uniting the humankind. And its Scripture spreads a little known message that no religion in its correct perspective could cause any misgivings or segregatory influences. On the other hand, the text of this Scripture has proved beyond all reasonable doubts that, by understanding and respecting other religions one could stand for integration of human beings by staunchly following his own religion.
(Paper presented on 11 September 2012 at Parliament of Religions, organised by Ramakrishna Mission, at Ramakrishna Mission Auditorium, T. Nagar, Chennai.)
Nanak Singh Nishter
Director: International Sikh Centre for Interfaith Relations,