Every religion provides a code of conduct for its followers, and Sikhism
is no exception to this rule. There is no formal list of commandments
and prohibitions in the Sikh Scriptures. But they have been tabilized
in the “Rehat Maryada.” The Gurus by their words and deeds
guided their followers to a holy and purposeful life. Guru Nanak declared:”
Without virtuous living , there can be no devotional worship.” (AG,
4) He elaborates this idea through the homily of the love of a bride for
her groom. The good wife adorns herself with patience, contentment and
sweet speech in order to win the love of her husband. Then gives up anger,
covetousness and pride, so that she may enjoy bliss with her lord. Hence,
morality is the basis of spiritual life. Holiness and altruistic action
go together. The perfect man will always try to help others.
The sources of Sikh Ethics are the Guru Granth Sahib, the Dasam Granth, compositions of Bhai Gurdas, Janam-sakhis, Rahit-namas and The Sikh Rahat Maryada as issued by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. The Sikh principles of conduct and dynamic participation in secular matters are based on the stories and poems (hymns) contained in this literature.
Concept of Virtue
It is difficult to define virtue or morality. Dictionary definitions
cannot possibly cover its entire dimensions, but they all agree on “Righteous
action and honorable conduct” In the Sikh credo, virtue in its essence
is love. That universal love which finds expression in the brotherhood
of man and in respecting the common man. This love is the source of selfless
service and charitable work. It drives Out ego, which is the root of conceit
and exploitation. In its real sense, virtue means the love of God and
His creation. Guru Gobind Singh declared:” Only those who love God
unite with God.” So basically, any action which takes one nearer
to God is virtuous. Guru Nanak says: “All meditations, disciplines,
happiness, repute and respect O Musan, I will sacrifice again and again,
for a moment of love.” (AG, 1364) Putting it in different words,
all that is pleasing to God is virtuous and holy. According to the Gurus,
fasting, mortification, asceticism, poverty are not virtues, for they
affect the body adversely, as do an over-regard for eating, drinking,
dressing and amusement. The Guru lays down a simple rule, namely, “Shun
those things which cause pain or harm to the body or produce evil thought
in the mind.” This rule is basic to the Sikh way of life.
Sikhism believes in divine justice and the morality of the world order. Evil will ultimately fail, though it may often seem to succeed for a while. God alone is the Perfect Judge; He cannot be deceived by hypocritical acts or any cunning of man. He reads all hearts and knows every person’s innermost motivation. Goodness is to be rewarded and wickedness punished. Ultimately Truth alone will prevail.
Sikhism does not regard altruistic acts or good conduct as ends in themselves. These are a means to achieve the goal. Man’s divine spark is dimmed only by his ignorance or indifference to the force and suddenness of the temptations that constantly beset him; it is this inbuilt weakness that leads to his surrender to such forces and pressures. It is only by association with good and virtuous people that he will feel encouraged to “gird up his loins” and face the challenge of life.
Another important touchstone or yard-stick for man is the quest for “The Truth.” The Gurus considered Truthful living to be better than only a belief in “The Truth.” Many people swear by truth, knowing very well that they are following the path of falsehood or cant. Such double-conduct is found not only in political leaders, but also in men of apparent goodness and piety. The Gurus insisted on overcoming these negative forces before one attempted purity of conduct. The Guru says:
“Shun vice and run after virtue; those who commit sins wilt have to repent;
Those who cannot distinguish between right and wrong will, sink
in mud repeatedly
Shun greed, give up calumny and falsehood, then you may come to “The Truth.” (AG, 598)
A common human weakness is to criticize the vices of others, without trying to eradicate them in one’s self. One should endeavor to correct himself, before he criticizes others. Generally he finds excuses and compulsions for his own defects and lapses: This means that he is not true to himself. Progress follows where one can see oneself objectively.
3lkhlsm itself enjoins positive action and moral conduct. It must originate from good motivation and tend to further the right objective. We do many traditional things, little realizing that they have no meaning or value.
Concept of Sin
The general concept of sin is that it is “action in wilful disobedience
of the Will of God or the Commandments of the Scriptures.” According
to Dr. S. Radhakrishanan, “Sin is not the violation of a law or
a convention, but of the central source of all finiteness through ignorance
or an assertion of the independence of that ego, which seeks its own private
gain at the expense of others.” Amongst Christians there is the
concept of ‘Original Sin.’ This refers to the disobedience
of God’s order by Adam and Eve in eating the fruit of Knowledge
in the Garden of Eden. Sikhism has no such belief. Man is essentially
of divine essence. However, on account of his self-assertion or ego, he
ignores his divine source and then pretends to act in sheer ignorance.
He then thinks that he is distinct from God and builds around himself,
like the spider’s web, a shell of the ego (haumai) which makes him
forget the God in himself. Man’s building up of this separate identity
and his own self-conceit cause him to do things which then set in motion
Man’s ego takes many forms. The most obvious is selfishness or pride due to position, power, money or knowledge. It promotes a sense of superiority within him and also a sense of a disregard for others. This alienates him from his fellow-men and leads to sin and exploitation. Egoistic actions are like chains round the neck of the individual. Egoism is the root of man’s evil thought and action. The Guru says:
“The Lord has produced a play on the role of egoism.
There is one mansion and five thieves who do evil within.” (AG, 1096)
The five thieves mentioned above are the five major vices in Sikhism, namely, Lust (Kam), Anger (Krodh), Greed (Lobh), Worldly attachment (Moh) and Pride (Ahankar). Some of the others sins mentioned by the and Sikh theologians are atheism, inertia, deceits, slander and ingratitude . Guru Gobind Singh further laid down four prohibitions, which are regarded as “major sins” for the Khalsa. Additionally some minor sins” are mentioned in the Rahat-namas.
Is it possible to undo or escape the consequences of one’s sins? Some methods of atonement are provided by some religions by way of confession, sacrifice, austerities or fine. Generally speaking, the minor sins are said to be forgives by holy works, prayers and voluntary community-service. There is no particular penance provided by the Sikh Scriptures. Remembrance of the Holy Word or God’s Name washes away the pollution of sin. Similarly association with saintly beings removes the stain of sin:
“Listen, my friends, to the benefits of attending in the company of saints:
Filth is removed millions of sorrows vanish and the mind becomes
pure!” (AG, 809)
For which the world is the field of action. The Gurus called it Dharamsal—a place for the performance of one’s duties and righteous deeds. Duties imply obligations—to oneself, to the family, to society, to one’s country and humanity at large. Some duties are mentioned in the Scriptures and some are laid down by the State. Man has to obey both, because if he infringes them, he will reap the consequences thereof.
Man’s duties as an individual: Firstly, he must look after his body and his health. He must avoid that food and drink which will impair his physical or mental well-being. Moderation is the principle which should guide one’s choice in this field. Secondly, man must develop his mind through education and training and be able to earn his living. He must support his family (and his near relatives). Married life is. the normal state for an a individual, unless they are either physically or mentally retarded. One must earn his living by fair and honest means. The amassing of wealth by the exploitation of labour is forbidden in Sikhism, Thirdly, one must serve others as far as possible, share one’s food and also support projects of public welfare. Voluntary service to the poor and sick are recommended by the Gurus. There are also certain dues required of an individual as the member of an organisation. For example Khalsa Sikh has to maintain the Five K’s and follow the Khalsa discipline.
Man’s duties to others: The basic principle is that one must so
conduct oneself that he sets an example which others can follow. In any
event they should behave to others as they expect others to behave towards
them. The duties to others may also depend upon the holding of a particular
office. As a member of the human family others must be treated with consideration.
Neither slander others nor cause mischief nor harm to them. He should
be kind not only to his neighbors, but to one and all. He should be ready
and willing to help those who are less fortunate than himself and participate
in projects of social concern like orphanages, widow’s homes and
institutions for the care of the sick and the handicapped. There is also
a duty to one’s superiors like parents, teachers and the Head of
the community or the State. One must respect national leaders, obey one’s
parents and teachers. Seek the advice of the family elders in cases of
need. Teachers should be respected for they give knowledge through precept
and example. Similarly, one must show courtesy and consideration to the
aged and the handicapped.
The duties to equals or peers include politeness and cordiality in one’s dealings with them. Frankness and fairness will play a large part in oiling-the smooth flow of social life. The duties to one’s subordinate include trying to understand their problems~ and being able to sympathize with them in their times of crisis or distress. It is one’s duty to help any who seek one’s help, even those who on account of shyness may no ask for aid.
Certain religions exclude social morality and the betterment of the environment
from the sphere of duty. Sikhism believes in moulding one’s environment
for moral goals. The Gurus paid a lot of attention to social reform, particularly
in abolishing cruel practices like untouchability, infanticide and suttee.’Prudence
lies in considering what is right or wrong for society or the social group
as a whole. Man has the faculty of discrimination and he also has the
capacity to distinguish between good and bad. There are choices or options
open to man in many cases and then he must exercise his intellect to find
out what is in favor of human sociability and the public good. Sometimes
the choice may be difficult, as for example, traditional practice versus
moral compliance. In such a case the choice should fäll on the ethical
option or the one which promotes the quality of life. The Gurus protested
against the tyranny of their Rulers and the corruption of bureaucracy,
as well as caste prejudices and rivalries. They exposed the priestly class
for their greed and hypocrisy.
It is man’s duty to monitor his own environment and raise his voice against inequality and injustice. He must use his power of reason for the
betterment of society and the improvement of his surroundings. Prudence would even seem to recommend force, for a good purpose or a moral issue. Similarly, the social practices which promote inequality among men, the segregation of sexes, superstition and pollution, were condemned by the Gurus, They took steps to remove these promoters of inequality and myth. The begging mendicants pretending to holiness were dubbed as social parasites. The Gurus emphasized the use of reason in demolishing social ills and abuses.
Professional duties pertain to the relationship which a professional
person has with his client, for example the duty of a doctor to his patient,
of a lawyer to his client, of a merchant to his customer, or a landlord
to his tenant. Besides there are also the duties of elected representatives
or of holders of honorary position like the President of a mutual-benefit
Society or the Secretary Trustee, of a temple or a charitable organization.
The general duty of a professional is to discharge his functions efficiently, and with a sense of responsibility and sincerity. He must safeguard the interests of his client and give him the necessary truthful guidance and direction. A doctor’s duty to his patient is very delicate, for he is dealing with a human being in trouble, therefore he must give him his undivided attention and greatest professional devotion. He cannot afford to be indifferent or negligent. Similarly it is the duty of a lawyer or attorney to offer sound advice, to his client. He must not prolong the case to make more money or do any thing to obstruct the course of justice. Many litigants get dissatisfied with their legal counsel, because the latter have adopted unfair means to gain advantage from them. Honesty and fair play are the tests of professional competence.
With regard to elected or fiduciary positions, the duties are even more onerous and sensitive. There is an element of morality in such appointments, The representative is duty bound to pay attention to the wishes of the electorate or the people he is supposed to serve. As a trustee, he must safe-guard the interest of the entire group which elected him. He must look after the assets and property of any Trust, as if these were his own. Though law regulates the nature and functions of office-bearers it is important that people in power perform their functions, impartially and with care and integrity. Office bearers must act consciously in the interest of their beneficiaries and man’s duty to speak out against the malpractice
Justice as a virtue implies respect for the rights of others. It also
stands for fairness and impartiality. The neglect or violation of the
rights of others is a moral lapse. The Guru condemned the usurpation of
another’s right as ineligious like the eating of pork by a Muslim
or beef by a Hindu. Delay and the denial of justice, is generally due
to greed and selfishness. Justice must be done with a good heart, and
not by shedding crocodile tears. Justice lies in apportioning correctly,
what is the due of others, even if they have not the courage to ask for
In a wider sense, justice means the non-exploitation of others. Unfortunately in our modern competitive society, exploitation is sometimes condoned on - the grounds of the survival of the fittest. Trampling on the rights of others is justified as an ingredient of ambition and go-getting. It is generally agreed that many get rich as quickly as they can, even when this cannot be done without employing dishonest and underhand means. Making a quick buck is an art which involves cunning and trickery. Moreover, in our present-day society, the rich or the strong often get away with it. The Gurus censured the Rulers for looting the peasants and compared it to ‘Devouring men at night.’ Moreover, justice in its real sense connotes equity and not legalisticism. It forbids preferential treatment to any person, religious or social group. Justice in its essence manifests selflessness or the conquest of the ego, and is one of the means for self realisation.
People belonging to different regions and faiths have different customs, habits and manners. it is therefore necessary that the individual should not be upset by them. He must accept non-conformity and diversity as an inescapable fact of life. However, this does not imply that he should change his stand because of others. He must remain firm in his own convictions and make no compromise on principles; he must control any feeling of prejudice or violence when he sees people whose manners or customs are not to his liking. Racialism is a prevalent disease among the most civilized societies today; it is in fact a form of superiority writ large. The golden principle of tolerance den ands ‘live and let live.’ Tolerance puts a human and charitable construction on the apparently peculiar conduct of others. The tolerant person does not feel angry or upset. He keeps his cool in times of excitement or anger. Even if he feels mentally disturbed he will not show his impatience or annoyance. Just as a sensible person tolerates the foolish behavior of a child, in the same way, the tolerant person will be able to stand ignorance or lack of politeness in others. Why should one expect that others will always behave to us as one wants them to behave? Tolerance accepts dissent and even opposition. This quality is particularly needed by Rulers and religious teachers, because without it, they are likely to allow or condone many follies and atrocities against those who differ from them.
Self-control is necessary in desires, words and actions. It is generally agreed that man’s mind runs after lower things as a matter of course. The Guru says: “The mind seeks evil things, but through the Guru’s Word, it can be controlled.” Such control is not to be violent or mortifying like the practices of Hath-Yoga, but mental control through a process of harmony and moderation. Thus man’s faculties are rightly channelized and gently guided. This method is natural—Sahaj—and not forced or punitive. Guru Amar Das has advised in his “Anand” how to regulate the human organs of action for high and noble tasks. The eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands and feet are to be used for good purposes to act at the right moment. Temperance is like a fence which prevents one from straying into the wilderness. It is the golden mean between self-indulgence and rigid regimentation. Temperance is just the right way for the householder. He should enjoy the normal comforts and amenities of life, but at the same time, he must keep his passion and desire under control. This self regulation would result in a balanced and harmonious existence.
The virtues recommended by the Scriptures are many, but five of them, corresponding to the Five vices are regarded as major virtues. These five are Chastity, Patience, Contentment, Detachment and Humility.
Chastity or continence, is emphasized in Sikhism, because in the human
body lies the divine presence and as such, the body has to be kept clean
and perfect. Those things which harm the body or cause sickness and disease
have to be scrupulously avoided. Sex is to be limited to one’s wife.
Pre-marital or extra-marital sex is forbidden to a Sikh. He should consider
females older to him as his mother, equal to him as a sister, and younger
than him as a daughter. He should never entertain evil thoughts in the
company of women. Marriage is a sacrament and the purpose thereof is companionship
and help on the spiritual path, rather than sexual enjoyment. The marriage
ideal is summed up in the maxim: ‘one soul in two bodies.’
Fidelity to one’s married partner is the essence of continence.
Monogamy is the rule in Sikhism.
In order to avoid evil thoughts, one should keep away from obscene
books, nasty plays and films, and sexy music. Drinking of alcoholic beverages and wines or the wearing of scanty or flashy dresses and dancing of men and women together is prohibited for the Sikhs. The Guru says:
“0 Lust! You consign people to hell and to the cycle of transmigration, You cheat all minds, influence the three worlds and destroy all contemplation and culture; Your pleasure is momentary, you make one fickle and poor and punish the high and the low; I have overcome your fear by associating with saintly persons and taking shelter with God!” (AG, 1358)
Even in married life, sex is to be mutually regulated. Those who are spiritually inclined, consider the sublimation of sex into divine love as a great virtue.
Patience implies forbearance in the face of provocation. Some say that it is natural to be angry, but one should think twice before giving vent to anger. Patience gives moral courage to bear the unexpected, such as sudden hardships and sorrows. Guru Amardas says:
“There is no greater penance than patience, no greater
than contentment, no greater evil than greed, no greatet virtue than
mercy, and no more potent weapon than forgiveness.”
It may be noted that saints and great mens are tested through the fire
of suffering, though they have not done any thing to deserve that suffering.
The challenge of life are intended to evaluate the mettle of man.Even
the performance of duty may involve the facing of difficulties and personal
injury, but that is no excuse for shirking one’s duty.One must pray
for God’s help and grace to overcome the difficulties.
There are people, who are in a position to injure or even to crush their opponents with the power they possess, but they control resentment and anger, because they firmly believe that if another loses his head, they should not lose theirs. Moreover patience keeps their mental faculties in balance. Their minds are tranquil. They do not cry or rail bitterly against their enemies or at God for their misfortunes or deprivation. They maintain their peace of mind and keep calm when faced by threats or tragedy:
“Patience is the sustenance of angelic beings!” (AG, 83)
Contentment is an attitude of mind which accepts victory or defeat in
the same way. A contended man is active; he tries his best to go forward,
but he does not despair if he cannot achieve what he wants. Contentment
has no place for fear, fatalism, inertia or sloth. Guru Nanak tells us
of a contented person in the following lines:
“They (the contented ones) do not tread the path of evil, but do good and practise righteousness;
They loosen worldly attachments and eat and drink in moderation.” (AG, 467)
The contented man is free from envy, jealousy and greed. He is frugal and thrifty. He may have his ambitions, but he knows that every one does not get every thing. The Guru says:
“No one feels satisfied without contentment.” (AG, 275)
Contentment does not mean a compromise with poverty and privation. In the modern world, the common man has opportunities for self-advancement and affluence. He must develop his own potentialities and work hard to move forward; at the same time, he should not become proud through his achievement or feel frustrated in case of failure. God is the ultimate arbiter of man’s destiny, and He will not leave ‘an iota of a man’s effort uncompensated.’ Unfortunately, in this modem competitive world, one seems to keep multiplying one’s needs and commitments, in order to keep up with the Jones, thus only adding to one’s tensions and difficulties. The contented man knows the limits of his own needs and so does not feel frustrated if he is unable to get what his neighbor or friend has, in spite of his best efforts.
Truly conceited people realise the distinctions between means and ends. Wealth and position are the means and not the ends of life. If one has a large amount of wealth, then some must be devoted to the benefit of the community and for altruistic purposes. The hoarding of wealth and the prestige of office are not to be used as means for self-aggrandisement or inflation of the ego.
Detachment implies an ever increasing non-attachment to all things of a material nature. It does not imply renunciation or asceticism or indifference to the world in which we live. It implies devotion to duty and the performance of the chores of daily life. The Sikh serves the family and the community, but he does not get deeply involved in their problems. His attitude is that of a nurse attending a patient. She ministers to their care and comfort, but maintains her distance. Similarly, a Sikh has to live the life of a family~man* at the same time, he ought to adopt an attitude as that of a trustee in reference to his near and dear ones. Bhai Gurdas explains this attitude thus:
“Thue Sikh is the living yogi, for he lives unattached in the midst of Maya.” (Var, 29-15)
Guru Nanak has given the example of the lotus in the pond which is unaffected
by the mud or the movement of the water. In the same way, the ‘detached’
individual keeps him self away from worldly things. They live in the world,
but are not involved in worldliness. They keep their heads high and look
to a more spiritual goal.
Here is a story which reveals how detachment is possible in normal life. A Ruler once asked a saint to tell him how he could practice detachment. The holy man told the king that he had just one week more to live, that his death would occur after that. period. The king believed the holy man, and fearing death, led a good life, doing his duty, avoiding evil things and constantly thinking of his coming death. After the week when he did not die as forecast, the holy man returned to the King’s pàlace and asked him how he has passed the seven days. The king replied that he had spent that period like a traveller in an inn. He had done his duties as usual, but his mind was not involved in the routine. He had avoided doing any thing wrong, fearing that God would call him to account after his end. He had also prayed as much as he could during this period. The holy man told the king that this was what was meant “practising detachment in life.”
The individual alone, must overcome his own ego and pride. This is most
easily done on the path of humility, regarding oneself as the lowest of
the low and considering all others as being superior. The humble man,
will serve others without material motive or the expectation of reward.
He does this through his love of God and man. God is present in every
living soul, and therefore to injure the feelings of another person is
to hurt the God in him. Those who are vain and the haughty have an inflated
ego and as such do not mind exploiting their fellow-men. Even some holy
men are not free from pride and prejudice. Guru Tegh Bahadur warned pious
people of that pride, which is subtle and unobstrusive.
Modesty is generally appreciated as a virtue. A tree laden with fruit bends downward. Humility is not depreciation of oneself, but rather a recognition of one’s own faults and of how much one falls short of the ideal. It was a practice among the Sikhs before Guru Gobind Singh, to greet each other by touching the other’s feel This was an expression of the Sikh’s humility. In the Sikh religion, the opportunity to touch the feet of saintly beings or even the dust of the feet of the congregation, is regarded as a great blessing. The Gurus in their compositions have called themselves ‘unworthy and without merit.’ This reflects their own sense of humility. Guru Ramdas says:
“O my Master. I am silly, save me, 0 my Lord-God!
Thy slave’s praise in thine own glory!” (AG, 166)