Great Ideas from Sikhism

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 30

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

Welcome to all of our new subscribers and listeners! Our episodes on science and logic really draw a crowd! It’s true that the freethinkers of our organization value education and maintaining a firm grip on reality. Another thing we promote is the quest for a rich understanding of universal morality and answers to the timeless question, “what is right?”

In this episode, we continue on that quest. In the past, we’ve covered a few great ideas from Christianity. Today, we turn our attention to the fifth-largest organized religion in the world: Sikhism. What can Non-Sikhs learn from this young religion from India and Pakistan? Are there practical teachings of the Gurus that can be applied to the lives of atheists and theists alike? Join me in this episode, as we take a look!

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Before we dive into the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, I’d like to take a brief detour on, what I think, is the strongest reason secular modern people have to explore other cultures and beliefs.

Today’s discussion is purely academic. As an Atheist and aspiring Free-Thinker, there is much with which I can take issue when it comes to Sikhism or any other organized religion. But that really isn’t the point, is it?

It seems that, as a society, we tend to obsess over one another’s differences, perceived errors, and points of disagreement. Perhaps that represents some spill-over from the field of science, where we have good reason to throw-away ideas with which we have found even the smallest error. If a hypothesis can be disproven or shown to be flawed, it deserves to be tossed aside. Science can only move forward if we are willing to sacrifice good explanations for better explanations.

With that said, I feel that the study of religions, belief systems, and moral teachings deserve a different approach. By all means, if you want to know if something is actually real, use the scientific approach. But how can you tell if a certain idea is, indeed, moral or ethical? If we disagree with one concept within a belief system, should the entire system and all of its teachings be discarded?

I believe that our wisest option is to explore all of the work done by our ancestors across the cultures of the world. We can ignore what strikes us as repugnant according to our modern sensibilities, and cherish what we find profound. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s take a look into their moral traditions and see what gems we can find that can benefit not just a small group of religious adherents, but the entire human family.

I appreciate you going with me on that train of thought. I have been surprised at the push-back I’ve received from taking this approach, but I feel that that explanation may help us all get back on the same page.

Today, it is my pleasure to shine a light on Sikhism by featuring 7 of their tenets. I am impressed by what they believe, but I am far more impressed with what they do. In this discussion, it is not my intention to critique or offend Sikhs. If I make a mistake in this representation, feel free to correct me in the comments. If you fundamentally disagree with one or more ideas they offer the world, I encourage you to remember that a Sikh is just like any other member of our human family. They too should be treated with common decency and with respect to their rights and inherent worth as individuals.

Sikhs (meaning “disciples,” “students,” or “truth-seekers”) belong to the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. It was founded by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India in the 1400s. Nanak’s leadership was succeeded by ten other Gurus until Guru Gobind Singh appointed the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy and living scripture of Sikhism) as the Sikhs’ final leader and spiritual guide.

Although it is culturally influenced by Sufi Islam, Bhakti (Hinduism), and other teachings that came before, Sikhism is an independent and unique belief system shared by about 27 million adherents worldwide. Sikhs are monotheistic and their beliefs and practices are centered on devotional love toward their God, the one formless, unknowable, kind, eternal, and universal Truth. Now that you have a brief background on this religion, let’s jump into seven great ideas from Sikhism:

1. Kirat Karo (Honest Work)

Sikhs are known for their strong work ethic. On a spiritual level, they believe that they should use their skills and talents to earn an honest income by which they can support themselves, their families, and their society. This often takes the form of hard physical labor which is seen as honorable and noble. They believe that one’s life shouldn’t be wasted through laziness or dependence on others.

We would do well to look at an honest day’s work in this light. On a psychological level, I think that individuals are far healthier when they feel like they can sustain themselves and contribute in a practical way to their society. Even if your work isn’t that enjoyable or glamorous, you are still filling a niche and earning money in an honorable way. That should count for something. When we avoid work at all costs, choose to live with complete dependence on others, or earn our income through dishonest means, we hurt both ourselves and our society. To a Sikh, honest work isn’t just a means to an end, but a way to show love and gratitude to their creator.

2. Engagement with the World

For many westerners, when we think of a truly spiritual or devout person, we may imagine a kind of monk, closed off from the world, carefully studying scripture, taking vows of silence, and so forth. There are many traditions of asceticism in Hinduism, Buddhism, and beyond. But the Gurus teach their followers to be monks in their mind while also engaging with the world. Their true spiritual devotion is shown by living a good life, working hard, being generous, and so forth. They proactively step outside and interact with all kinds of people. They engage in interfaith dialogue on philosophy and theology. Although they believe in the concept of Maya (that the world is a kind of illusion) they don’t see the world and its people as wicked or inherently evil. As a secular or so-called “worldly” person, I can certainly appreciate that.

3. Interfaith Study, Tolerance, and Universal Inclusivity

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is celebrated as an open-minded student of religion. He carried with him a notebook as he spent years traveling and meeting with diverse spiritual leaders across Asia, the middle east, and India. Likewise, we would do well to take note of the gems of wisdom that we find from a variety of cultures. To me, Nanak sets a good example of how humanity can move in a positive direction. Rather than close ourselves off in our ideological groups, we should bring the best of what we have to offer to the table and see what we can learn from one another. Of course, that is easy for me to say. I am trying to be a freethinker. Guru Nanak, on the other hand, believed that he was sent by God to be a spiritual teacher for all humanity. To be driven by that kind of purpose, and still take the time to carefully consider the teachings of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and others, says something about Guru Nanak’s humility.

Sikhism was born from a society steeped in sexism, a strict caste system, and religious intolerance. Its Gurus, in contrast, championed a worldview in which men and women have equal status and all religious traditions are declared as equally valid paths toward the One True God. The Guru Granth Sahib even contains poems and teachings from Muslims and Hindus. Sikh buildings of worship, Gurdwaras, such as the famous “Golden Temple,” are open to all peoples of all faiths as symbolized by their four entrances facing each of the four cardinal directions.

This interfaith tolerance isn’t just taught, it is demonstrated in dramatic ways. The first ten Gurus of Sikhism were life-long champions of one’s right to be able to choose one’s own religion. This position was not popular in their time or in their part of the world. As a result, two Gurus were martyred by Islamic political leaders. One of the Gurus was martyred because he was defending the rights of a religious group other than his own. I can’t think of any greater proof of these values of tolerance and inclusivity than that.

4. Community Service

The Sikh work ethic and inter-cultural inclusivity both carry over to their dedication to improving their community. One famous example of this is the Langar, a free vegetarian meal offered to the public from their places of worship. These become the largest free kitchens in the world and serve hundreds of thousands of people in need. This food is freely given at a great cost of resources and labor. But the Langar is still served, every day. Why is it vegetarian? Mostly, I suppose, out of respect for the beliefs of Hindus, Muslims, and other religious people who participate. It is common for atheists like me to be critical of people who send their “thoughts and prayers” to people in need. But I feel like the approach taken by the Sikhs really gets to the heart of the issue. The good they do is tangible. They put a plate of warm food in the hands of the hungry. Their actions speak louder than their words, and the world is better for it.

5. Defending the Defenseless

Protecting and defending the oppressed members of society is also highly valued by Sikhs. Their communities have been suppressed and terrorized multiple times throughout their short history. Unfortunately, it is common today for them to be misidentified as terrorists themselves. But the Sikh community teaches us a great lesson in how they deal with this painful mistreatment. They don’t close themselves off from the world or rehash their wounds. Rather than turn to resentment and bitterness, they symbolically and literally take a stand for the rights of other mistreated people and groups. This is shown, in part, by the tradition of the Khalsa (saintly warriors) in Sikhism and the sacred sword carried by its initiated members, the Kirpan. Sikhs have a powerful military tradition and are well represented in the first and second world wars. Notwithstanding, they present themselves to the world as meek, loving, and friendly. This is one of my favorite things about this faith. They could be devastatingly violent, but they choose not to be, and that makes all the difference in the world. If your background is in Christianity, you may see this as remarkably similar to the example of Jesus Christ. It is a heroic worldview, with an emphasis on what we might call chivalry and powerful self-restraint.

This defense of the victimized is not only shown by military action, or the lack of military action. Sometimes it manifests in their attitudes toward various groups. There are times in history when Islamic mosques have been destroyed by war or natural disasters. How did the Sikh communities respond? By helping them rebuild, and by allowing Muslims to use their Gurdwaras for their prayers and worship. (Of course, this kind of treatment is not limited to Muslims.) This, right here, is how we deal with the horrible parts of our past. Sikhs move on, forgive, and express genuine love to their fellow man. They let past hardships make them better. Even if they have all the reason in the world to slander and shame other groups, they strive to take the higher road.

6. Acknowledging the Rareness of Life

Shiks believe in reincarnation. Rather than a final judgment, they teach that things like karma exist and that our actions determine our forms in our future lives. One may then ask if human life is really all that valuable if it is just one of many that one may experience. It is the answer to this question that catches my interest. A Guru taught that if a needle fell from the sky and landed on another needle on the ground, the probability of that happening that would represent the rareness of human life. Therefore, it is taught that human life should be cherished and seen as incredibly valuable. One’s life represents an important opportunity and shouldn’t be wasted.

This sentiment, I think, is a step in the right direction. When we imagine that this life is just a brief inconvenience on the road to heavenly bliss, we may fail to see what this life really is. Your time on earth is, indeed, a rare and precious thing. No other person or being in the universe will ever again think your thoughts or see the universe through your unique perspective or from your background. Time flows in one direction and we can only ride once. This realization may very well be a crucial factor in the development of one’s healthy morality.

7. A Deep Love of Life

As I have read some of the Guru Granth Sahib, I am overcome with this sense of the joyful love represented in its pages. You could say that their holy book is nothing but a love letter, filled with poetry and music expressing deep reverence. Where does all of this love come from? I suspect that a lot of it comes from their theology. Guru Nanak taught “There is but One God, His name is Truth.” The God of the Sikhs is not judgmental, angry, or vengeful. He isn’t necessarily a “He.” You could say that the God of Sikhism is love itself, life, nature, and the universe. In my studies, I couldn’t help but compare this concept of deity with that from Baruch Spinoza. To a Sikh, God is that wonderful spark of life that you feel inside you when you feel joy, love, or peace. One way that a Sikh experiences God is through learning. In fact, one of their most commonly used names for their God is “Vāhegurū” – “Guru,” meaning “One who shines light and knowledge into the darkness” and “vahe” meaning “profound awe and wonder.” You could say that as a Sikh meditates on this name, they are expressing amazement at the sensation of learning, inspiration, and enlightenment.

To wrap up, I’d like to say that I think this is one of the greatest treasures we are given by the Sikhs. Even if you don’t believe in god, which I don’t, we all still have the opportunity, every day, to feel a deep and profound awe for nature and for the universe. We can all come to develop a deep love for life itself. If you don’t love being alive this moment, perhaps it can help to ask yourself why. This kind of feeling can become a goal, and something special in those moments when it’s yours.

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

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