Monday, October 09, 2017

Sikhism and Renunciation

Almost all Sikhs are householders, and it is widely presumed that the Sikh Gurus condemned renunciation and advocated being a householder.

If we examine Sikhism as practiced in Punjab and elsewhere, it is indeed true that celibacy, living in a monastery, being a hermit, and other attributes of renunciation (as is practiced in India) are absent. Sikhs do not believe in the monastic attributes as worthy, and instead hold that their Gurus recommended living a normal life of working for one's livelihood, getting married, raising a family, etc. with spiritual salvation as the ultimate goal.

However, that is a bit self-serving and is just not true, if we read and interpret the writings of the Sikh Gurus, especially of Guru Nanak. The Sikh Gurus' (presumed) advocacy of a worldly and family life is a myth. Though the Sikh Gurus (and many of the other contributors to the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy scripture) were themselves married and were not hermits, they never quite glorified family life or outright condemned renunciation. One can only perhaps say that they regarded blind renunciation and asceticism as not sufficient for spiritual salvation.

Whether one was a householder, or an ascetic, the Sikh scriptures condemned hypocrisy and attachment. Since Sikhism was essentially an amalgam and a later development of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, the strength and authenticity of feeling and devotion was emphasized, and rituals, attire or an outward change in lifestyle were considered unimportant.

This is also true, that after Guru Nanak became a preacher, he did not really live a householder's life. After the age of 28 (it was 1497 when Nanak's second child, Lakhmi Chand was born), Nanak had no more children and spent most of his life in a manner similar to a wandering hermit.  Similarly, after their ascension, none of the Sikh Gurus earned their living through their vocation (if there was one), but instead depended on donations from their congregation and lived the life of a preacher.

Polygamy was normal in those times, and many of the Sikh Gurus had multiple wives. Even someone like Baba Farid had three wives and eight children. It is also now widely accepted by historians that Kabir was married.

Since a Guru's own life serves as an inspiration, Sikhs reject celibacy as an aid to spiritual upliftment. But the Gurus also condemned, in no uncertain terms, attachment to family, sexual desire and the pursuit of wealth. It is inexplicable to me how one can reconcile a householder's life with a lack of attachment, sexuality or the desire for prosperity (which is usually pejoratively called greed in most Indian scriptures). In my view, such condemnation of normal human drives leads to a chronic feeling of guilt and fallen-ness which then necessitates compensatory devotion and charity to a church or similar institution.

Considering the writings of Guru Nanak, the following are the major references to a householder's life:

Page 952, Line 13
ਸੋ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਜੋ ਨਿਗ੍ਰਹੁ ਕਰੈ ॥
He alone is a householder, who restrains his passions

(Lest we consider this an advocacy of a householder's life, immediately after this verse, Guru Nanak speaks similarly about an ascetic.)
ਸੋ ਅਉਧੂਤੀ ਜੋ ਧੂਪੈ ਆਪੁ ॥
He alone is a detached hermit, who burns away his self-conceit.

Page 1013, Line 11
ਧਨੁ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਸੰਨਿਆਸੀ ਜੋਗੀ ਜਿ ਹਰਿ ਚਰਣੀ ਚਿਤੁ ਲਾਏ ॥੭॥
Blessed is such a householder, Sannyaasi and Yogi, who focuses his consciousness on the Lord's feet. ||7||

Page 1169
ਜਾਮਿ ਨ ਭੀਜੈ ਸਾਚ ਨਾਇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
if you are not drenched with the True Name. ||1||Pause||

ਦਸ ਅਠ ਲੀਖੇ ਹੋਵਹਿ ਪਾਸਿ ॥
One may have the eighteen Puraanas written in his own hand;

ਚਾਰੇ ਬੇਦ ਮੁਖਾਗਰ ਪਾਠਿ ॥
he may recite the four Vedas by heart,

ਪੁਰਬੀ ਨਾਵੈ ਵਰਨਾਂ ਕੀ ਦਾਤਿ ॥
and take ritual baths at holy festivals and give charitable donations;

ਵਰਤ ਨੇਮ ਕਰੇ ਦਿਨ ਰਾਤਿ ॥੨॥
he may observe the ritual fasts, and perform religious ceremonies day and night. ||2||

ਕਾਜੀ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਹੋਵਹਿ ਸੇਖ ॥
He may be a Qazi, a Mullah or a Shaykh,

ਜੋਗੀ ਜੰਗਮ ਭਗਵੇ ਭੇਖ ॥
a Yogi or a wandering hermit wearing saffron-colored robes;

ਕੋ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਕਰਮਾ ਕੀ ਸੰਧਿ ॥
he may be a householder, working at his job;

ਬਿਨੁ ਬੂਝੇ ਸਭ ਖੜੀਅਸਿ ਬੰਧਿ ॥੩॥
but without understanding the essence of devotional worship, all people are eventually bound and gagged, and driven along by the Messenger of Death. ||3||


Page 1329, Line 15
ਜਿਸ ਤੇ ਹੋਆ ਸੋਈ ਕਰਿ ਮਾਨਿਆ ਨਾਨਕ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਉਦਾਸੀ ਸੋ ਪਰਵਾਣੁ ॥੪॥੮॥
We come from Him; surrendering to Him, O Nanak, one is approved as a householder, and a renunciate. ||4||8||

Reading these verses, it is clear that Guru Nanak did not especially recommend the householder role, but was instead an advocate of true devotion, no matter what one's circumstances.

The prime distinction between a householder and an ascetic is the vow and practice of celibacy. Passion (kaam) is considered one of the five vices/bondages according to Sikhism, the other four being krodh, lobh, moh, and hankaar (anger, greed, emotional attachment in a human being, and arrogance, respectively).

But there is a slight problem.  The other worldly activities can be carried out perhaps without desire, out of a sense of duty, but I fail to imagine how the sexual act can be performed without passion or desire. If a Sikh indulges in sex, which is impossible without desire and passion, he thereby must feel like having failed to follow their Guru's teachings. There is no place in Sikh scriptures for a moderate indulgence in sexual pleasure, and a pleasure it is. For a man, sexual arousal (which is a function of desire and is to a large extent psychological) is essential for the intercourse to occur.  This presents quite a predicament. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is easier for women to indulge in (or rather, allow) sex without arousal.

My point is, how can Guru Nanak be against sexual passion but also at the same time be against celibacy. Did he mean for Sikhs to have passionless sex? Did he mean monogamy, when monogamy was not the norm and as I stated earlier, many Sikh gurus and other mystics were married to multiple wives?  The Sikhs have resolved this predicament, quite realistically, by concluding that the Gurus advocated restrained passion, which meant having sex with one's own wife or wives, as a matter of duty rather than pleasure.

Guru Nanak had this to say about sexual pleasure:

Page 152, Line 11
ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਜੀਅ ਮਹਿ ਚੋਟ ॥
Sexual desire and anger are the wounds of the soul.

Page 1041, Line 14
ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਪਰਹਰੁ ਪਰ ਨਿੰਦਾ ॥
Leave behind sexual desire, anger and the slander of others.
Page 1110, Line 19
ਧਾਵਤ ਪੰਚ ਰਹੇ ਘਰੁ ਜਾਣਿਆ ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਬਿਖੁ ਮਾਰਿਆ ॥
The five restless desires are restrained, and he knows the home of his own heart. He conquers sexual desire, anger and corruption.

At a multitude of places, the Adi Granth, like Bible, prohibits and condemns a desire for another man's wife, though it never condemns having multiple wives of one's own.

For an average Sikh, the Gurus' teachings are therefore understood to be for sexual fidelity, which is a matter of morality and moderation, rather than freedom from sexuality, which is a form of transcendence.  But that is a convenient interpretation and ignores quite flagrantly the Gurus' condemnation of sexual desire in itself.

And nowhere does the Adi Granth advocate love and attachment toward one's own family.  In fact, quite the opposite, it asks the Sikh to remain detached from them and perhaps treat them as a responsibility or a duty.

Page 63
ਮਨਮੁਖੁ ਜਾਣੈ ਆਪਣੇ ਧੀਆ ਪੂਤ ਸੰਜੋਗੁ ॥
The self-willed manmukh looks upon his daughters, sons and relatives as his own.

ਨਾਰੀ ਦੇਖਿ ਵਿਗਾਸੀਅਹਿ ਨਾਲੇ ਹਰਖੁ ਸੁ ਸੋਗੁ ॥
Gazing upon his wife, he is pleased. But along with happiness, they bring grief.

Page 556
ਕਲੀ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਜਿੰਨਾਂ ਦਾ ਅਉਤਾਰੁ ॥
In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, O Nanak, the demons have taken birth.

ਪੁਤੁ ਜਿਨੂਰਾ ਧੀਅ ਜਿੰਨੂਰੀ ਜੋਰੂ ਜਿੰਨਾ ਦਾ ਸਿਕਦਾਰੁ ॥੧॥
The son is a demon, and the daughter is a demon; the wife is the chief of the demons. ||1||

To conclude, Guru Nanak's teachings never go so far as to recommend the life of a householder. At the most, we can say that the Guru equates the life of a householder with that of a renunciate, preferring neither, and praises them equally for their obedience to the Guru, for their devotion and for having attained freedom from passion and other vices, and condemns them equally for not having those qualities.    This equation of an ascetic and a householder is common in Bhakti and Sufi narratives, and not something new from Guru Nanak or other Sikh Gurus.

2 comments:

Swami Aniruddha said...

The best 100% Genuine Sikh householder guru of our present times is H H Santha Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaja ! You should consult him more on this subject & update your blog !

Still Sisu said...

Why do Sikhs wear turban and grow beard??? Isn't that quite silly? Have they ever questioned it?