Ours in an age where the triumph of the material over the spiritual now faces a crisis. The inheritance and legacy of Western Enlightenment – specifically the forces of science, technology and capitalist economics – has rendered human life hollow. We find ourselves reduced to parts plugged into a merciless machine that generates wealth for the few, while destroying the Earth that has sustained our life for eons.
The pain of post-modern life spills into our streets, into our computer screens and into our souls. In this matrix of disillusion, many turn to “traditional” narratives for hope. Contemporary consumer capitalism doesn’t have much of a story to tell. Sure, we have made important and indispensable social and cultural progress on some fronts. Yet for the alleged progressive political parties, progress means that anyone, regardless of race, gender or religion can become CEO, or give orders to bomb foreign peoples.
We need new stories. The liberal worldview could only offer a softer, user-freindly capitalism. Meanwhile, the right entrenches its vision in memes of God and Country, patriarchal obedience and a return to an imagined white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Golden Age. The Salafism of Islamic State, too, offers its young, lost recruits a twisted, cruel reading of Islam that is currently ravaging the Middle East.
Sikhism, a religion born from conflict in the Punjab region of India nearly five centuries ago, does not prosyletize. I am not writing to convert you, just to offer a perspective. That perspective rests on the idea that justice, equality and solidarity can have a spiritual and disciplined foundation.
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, had an important realization. “Nahi Hindu, nahi musalman.” There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim. For Nanak, religious identity was merely a form., a specific kind of performance. Spirituality emerges from one’s relationship to oneself, and their connection to others. Nanak and his followers, as well as the subsequent Sikh Gurus (ten in all) rejected the Indian caste system. All beings have equal access to spirituality and its fruits.
This radical notion of equality and acceptance took on concrete practices. The langar, or free kitchen, is a place where anyone can get fed, regardless of background. When the Sikh community was visited by Emperor Akbar, the third Guru, Amar Das, insisted that the Emperor sit among the rest of the commoners during the lunch. Guru Nanak also proclaimed the equal status of women, and later Gurus decried cultural and religious practices that forced veiling or seclusion of women. Mai Bhago, a woman warrior, is revered by Sikhs to this day.
The word Sikhism comes from the a Sanskrit word which means to learn. A Sikh is a disciple. While the living Gurus represented spiritual masters, it is Ik Onkar, the spiritual unity of all creation that is the true guru, the thing from whence we should learn. Learning and spiritual practice lay at the heart of Sikhism.
Sikhism was, and is, a minority faith in India. Sikh’s have historically suffered under various rulers, and during the time of the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, this persecuted minority decided it needed to defend itself. The martial dimensions of Sikhism had evolved over time. Gobind Singh’s father, the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur had led a contingent of Sikhs to free some Hindu Brahmins that had been captured by the Muslim Mughals. These Hindu priests faced death if they did not convert to Islam. Sikhism stands against compulsion of religion, and Sikhs are no pacifists. The idea had developed in Sikhism that armed defense of the defenseless can be justified. The sword or dagger that Sikhs carry is known as the kirpan, which translates to “the blessed hand.”
Gobind Singh faced the persecution of his own Sikh flock. In order to prepare Sikhs for their own defense, he created the Khalsa. The Khalsa is the set of symbols and ideals that give Sikhs their unique identity and their martial inclination. The turban, the sword, the spirit of justice all lend to the character of the Sikh as Sant-Sipahi, the saint-soldier. But this is not a holy warrior bent on conquest and conversion. Rather, a Sikh strives to be a humble, disciplined seeker of justice and solidarity.
Unlike ascetic traditions found in other Dharmic religions, Sikhism does not advocate a retreat from the world in order to gain spiritual mastery. For Sikhs, engaging in the world as a father, mother, worker, artist, is the best field of spiritual study. Honest work and charitable works form central elements in a Sikh’s relationship to the world. In this way, a Sikh strives to diminish their ego. Solidarity and harmony with creation is not an abstract principle, but a concrete way of life.
So, besides just learning about a fairly modern, progressive faith tradition, why does this matter? As I said before, I don’t’ aim to convert you, or to advocate to make Sikhism the official faith of the revolution. In this time of crisis, as we see the cracks widen in the edifice of global capitalism, the purveyors of Abrahamic faiths bend towards rigid patriarchal and dominionist formations, while many Dharmic practitioners retreat into spiritually inclined fatalism. Sikhism lends us a glimpse at a potential model of spiritual resistance, a potential means of attaining deeper peace and unity with creation through the active pursuit of justice and defense. Much of what animates leftist narratives fall short of a fulfilling vision of the future meaning of new, revolutionary societies. Authoritarian communists rehash a stale myth of historical progress, replete with hammer and sickle banners and Soviet agitprop. And while various anarchist formations offer a much more radical – and spiritually seductive – vision of far-reaching human freedom, it isn’t always clear what would give life meaning beyond the emancipatory political project. Paganism can fill that void by offering a vision of community based on our natural inclination to Earth. Similarly, Sikhism provides an example of how spiritual meaning can fuse with, and become part and parcel of the emancipation of human freedom and dignity. We lose our ego in the other, not simply by recognizing their common humanity, but by our willingness to engage in struggle on their behalf.
The great Indian anti-colonial revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, was raised a Sikh. He notably pointed to the slaughter of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar as a pivotal moment in his political coming of age. Singh would develop a radical focus that drew from communist and anarchist principles, and remained largely secular in its scope. For Singh and his radical cohort, universal values took precedent over sectarian ones, as they believed that overcoming religious difference in Indian society would better serve the struggle against the British. Yet, Singh never shed his Sikh identity, and while it may be best kept as the subject of a separate essay, there is little doubt that universal principles found in Sikhism informed and shaped the foundation of Singh’s radical thought.
In this time when we face the rising tide of proto-fascist tendencies, environmental degradation and worsening global labor conditions, we need new stories. As Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh Guru’s is believed to have said before organizing the Sikhs to defend against the Emperor, “Ajo samne je koi haga soorme.” Come forward, you who has courage.
Bobby S. Gulshan
Bobby S. Gulshan is a programmer and writer in DC, focused on left politics, digital freedom and security, and the mystical dimension of human experience.