world council of churches

The Ultimate in a World of Religious Plurality
Charanjit AjitSingh

The underlying principles of Sikh faith as enshrined in the Sikh scriptures and the lives and teachings of the Sikh gurus provide constant inspiration and guidance to people of faith, whether they be Sikh or practice another religion. Guru Nanak was affectionately referred to as
Nanak Shah Fakir
Hindu ka Guru, Musaiman ka pir
The above verse means:
Nanak the holy man
Is the guru of the Hindus and the spiritual teacher (pir) of the Muslims.
Guru Nanak's house is described in the following verse:
Nanak da ghar kehra?
Jis da khula vehra.

Which is Nanak's house?
That which has open doors and a courtyard.

The Sikh place of worship is described as the gurdwara, the place of the guru. It is open to all, regardless of race, religion, gender, caste or language. Extremism is not what the Sikh faith is about. In Guru Granth Sahib and Sikh texts, there is continued reinforcement towards leading a balanced life, a life in which the three elements of living as a human being come together.

Firstly, there is the life of spiritual existence through prayer and meditation of the One God; secondly, the life of a family person, a householder who earns a living through honesty and hard work; thirdly, the life of sharing and service towards one's fellow beings with humility. This may be done through voluntary physical work, with commitment of mind and with provision of resources in cash or in kind. This way of life creates a holistic model where the divine is uppermost in our thoughts; in whatever we do we feel the presence of God and are in harmony with our environment. Sikhs describe this condition as sahaj, a state of spiritual and physical balance. In this framework, there is a clear opportunity for human endeavor, human activity and spiritual well-being, in which material progress, and moral and spiritual progress are not two diametrically opposed extremes, but are clearly linked through the process of sharing as equal brothers and sisters, all being the children of the same One God.

Sikhs also acknowledge the rights of others to practice their religion. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Ninth Guru, made a personal sacrifice by giving up his life to uphold the right of Hindus to practice their faith during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who wanted to spread Islam through forcible conversion and terror. Guru Tegh Bahadur is described in the writings of the Sikhs as a wrap, a protector of India ("Tegh Bahadur, Hind di chadar").The Sikhs have learnt an important lesson from the life and sacrifice of the Ninth Guru, namely that they would not live with fear or frighten others with fear. Their faith is important to them, for which many are prepared to make a sacrifice, yet there is tremendous openness to the faith of others.

Sikhs also have a strong belief that there are many paths to the divine. In congregational worship, prayers are often said for the well-being of the whole creation. There is also supplication to God to receive the devotees from whatever path or religious grouping they have come and to save them. God's grace is also for the non-believers. The Ninth Guru, Gobind Singh refers to God as the God of no religion, the God who is not confined to any one religion. God is beyond the confines of religion.

The Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, not only contains the writings of the Sikh gurus but also the writings of Hindu and Muslim saints. It could be called the first interfaith scripture in the world, compiled in 1605. Although it is written in Gurmukhi script, it contains many languages and dialects of India, as well as Persian and Arabic. Therefore, Sikh missionary activity takes place only within the broad Sikh faith grouping and rarely outside.

The Sikh community are preparing themselves for celebrating the Tricentennial of the Creation of the Khalsa (the distinctive Sikh fraternity) on Baisakhi Day on 13 April 1999. Baisakhi Day is often described by the Sikhs as their birthday, and sometimes as a New Year's Day by them, though the month preceding Baisakhi is usually considered the first month. The Tenth Guru's purpose in creating the Khalsa was to form a community of "Saint Soldiers," people of high moral courage, strong faith, compassion and dignity, who would be prepared to fight injustice and persecution, and defend the weak and downtrodden at all times. The Khalsa form is the special form, which the tenth Guru bestowed upon the Sikhs as his own and is therefore very precious to the Sikhs. This includes following the Sikh Rehat Maryada, the code of conduct, the wearing of the Five K symbols, the turban for men, though some women also wear it, and the initiation through the Amrit ceremony.

The Sikh community are commemorating the three hundred years of the Khalsa in different parts of the world, through exhibitions, religious ceremonies, pilgrimages, publications, seminars, radio and television programmes. It is aimed at inspiring the Sikhs about their religious heritage and informing others about the Sikh faith. There is an exhibition planned by the Victoria and Albert Museum called Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms from the end of March to the end of July. People from other faith groupings are participating in these events in many ways.

In the last five hundred years there have been periods when the Sikhs were much persecuted and denied the right to practice their faith; they themselves have always acknowledged the rights of others to practice their religion. By the end of the eighteenth century they had carved out Sikh kingdoms in the Punjab, in northwester India. The key figure was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, whose rule lasted forty years and was described as the golden rule. His was an inter-religious state in which he had ministers professing Hinduism or Islam. He had Frenchmen (presumably Christian) serving in his army. He gave grants for building temples, mosques and gurdwaras. The gilding of the Harimandir Sahib was done during his period and as a result became more famous as the Golden Temple.

The Sikhs have been successful, particularly in Britain, to be recognized as a distinctive community, after a lot of campaigning against discrimination. They were supported by some liberal Britons. In 1983 the House of Lords ruled that Sikhs are more than a religious sect. They are almost a race and almost a nation. They qualify as a group defined by ethnic origins because they constitute a separate and distinct community. Earlier, the Sikhs had been successful in getting special consideration to continue to wear turbans instead of crash helmets on motorbikes or protective helmets on building sites. Schools, state and private, cannot deny Sikhs admission on the grounds that they are wearing a turban. This has helped Sikhs to feel more positive about their identity while recognizing the need to be well integrated in mainstream society by being law-abiding citizens and making appropriate and effective contributions to the country in all areas.

Sikhs have made active contributions in the field of interfaith and race relations and have helped to create an environment in which cultural, linguistic and religious diversity are acknowledged as sources of enrichment for a modern society.

In my opinion the way to building peace between the religions and to counter extremism, is through dialogue built on understanding the other side's position. It does not mean watering down one's own faith; my personal experience of last twenty years has enabled me to feel much more confident and stronger in my faith as a result of a more meaningful encounter with religious plurality. We have the capacity as people of faith to come together and create an environment in which seeds of lasting peace can be sown. As a Sikh, I have no choice but to follow the footsteps of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, who honored the plurality of religious traditions and encouraged people of other faiths to be true to their faiths both in words and deeds.

Charanjit AjitSingh, a Sikh, is a lecturer and writer on Sikhism.

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