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A Sikh Perspective on Freedom

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Guru Gobind Singh ji 'effectually roused the dormant energy of a vanquished people, and filled them with a lofty although fitful longing for social freedom and national ascendancy.'

 

J D Cunningham

 

Freedom to develop

 

The ideal conscious person defined by the Sikh Gurus is both liberated and liberating. There are various levels of freedom and I endeavour to touch on them all briefly. First and foremost is the transformation of a person's consciousness – this is the most vital aspect of freedom. We have the freedom to be spiritual, to follow a dharma, a spiritual discipline, if we choose, but many of us search deep within ourselves to live life free from anger, hatred, pain and desire.

 

Consider freedom from desire to be the ear-rings of the Guru's spiritual wisdom. The True Lord, the Soul of all, dwells within each and every heart.

 

SGGS pg 940

 

The knowledge or the ability to realise that we have no limitations as humans and are able to push ourselves beyond the boundaries that the physical world sets upon us is itself a freeing experience. I am reminded of the 'nothing is impossible' campaign launched by Adidas when they found a 93-year-old Sikh named Fauja Singh: he became the ambassador for their advertising as he was the oldest runner in Britain to complete the London marathon and beat his own record.

 

Social freedom

 

Social freedom is another important aspect as caste, slavery and class (in India) were huge obstacles in the past, and the Sikh gurus rose to the challenge by creating the Khalsa. This is the initiation ceremony given to those who commit to the faith and choose to walk on the path of human honour, dignity and freedom. All men are called Singh and all women are called Kaur, and the surnames that reflect caste were purposely abolished. The assumption that people from a particular area or caste were limited to a certain occupation was immediately lifted. As a member of the Khalsa, we become part of one family and join the brotherhood of humanity.

 

Freedom for women

 

Another reason for giving women the surname Kaur was to provide freedom from paternal and then marital status. When a woman moves from one family to another she must adopt different names as a result of family links. The Gurus liberated her from this system by awarding her the royal title princess (the literal meaning of Kaur).

 

Sikhism is a way of life that enlightens humans about living as liberated beings.

 

Gurbhagat Singh

 

In addition, there was a breakthrough in freedom for women; equality was high on the Sikh agenda – women were trained as missionaries in the early seventeenth century and sent out to teach and preach in villages in the Punjab.

 

Woman becomes his friend;
through woman, the future generations come.
So why call her bad?
From her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born;
without woman, there would be no one at all.

 

SGGS pg 473

 

The most liberating phenomenon that arose for women was that the ancient practice of sati, which involved burning women alive on the funeral pyre once their husbands died, was strictly abolished by the third Nanak, Guru Amardas. Pardhah: veiling of the face and body was also a practice that the Gurus spoke strongly against. A woman should not be denied the freedom to dress as she pleased, and it should be the men who needed to be conscious of and take responsibility for the way they looked upon and treated women. These thoughts improved the lives and liberated all women in India and were not contested by the Gurus on behalf of Sikh women alone.

 

Economic and political freedom

 

The Gurus also looked at economic freedom: they stood against exploitation of peasants and had several encounters with emperors, confronting and condemning them for the unjust taxes they were imposing on the poor. Political freedom was another hot topic that they voiced their concerns over – state oppression was never accepted.

 

If your living means suffering indignities, then fie on your being alive.

 

SGGS pg 579

 

According to Sikh beliefs, no state has the authority over an individual conscience and therefore cannot impose a particular type of philosophy on the people through political force.

 

G S Sidhu

 

Religious freedom

 

Religious freedom was in the past and is today very close to the hearts of every Sikh. Oppressors in the past tried hard to destroy minority faith groups in India, and Sikhism, being the youngest of all the major faith groups, was an easy target. In the West, young people growing up in the Sikh faith struggle with an identity crisis and suffer for fear of not being allowed to practise their beliefs. In France, for example, young Sikh boys are not allowed to attend school wearing their turbans, which protect their long uncut hair. The state law forbids any religious symbolism in schools, not allowing Muslim, Jewish or Christian children to wear any signs of their faith.

 

How is this so-called 'laïque' law giving freedom to its citizens? Suppression of people, their language, culture, and the right to wear certain clothes or colours was considered an ancient practice, how then has it come about in society today? Do we really live in societies that practise 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' (freedom, equality and brotherhood)?

 

The ninth Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur, sacrificed his life for the sake of freedom of worship of another faith, Hinduism. He was beheaded in Delhi by the emperor Aurangzeb, as he was in disagreement with him. He opposed the rule which was to deny people the freedom of belief. He protested that all beings were free to practise what was natural to them. The Kashmiri Pandits begged Guru Tegh Bahadur to save them from forced conversions; he took up the challenge and as a result he was sacrificed, along with many of his followers.

Freedom is another form of truth and by being true to oneself – keeping one's unique and beautiful identity – we maintain the freedom given to us by God at birth. Our rights are confirmed to us as part of the divine law. Neither our society nor our community traditions have the capability to prevent us from living free if we so choose.

 

Authority

 

The Siri Guru Granth Sahib is the senior most spiritual authority in every Sikh's life. There is a physical seat of authority, which is held by the Jathedar (equivalent to the Pope, appointed by the community) in the Akal Thakhat, seat of spiritual and political power in Amritsar, Panjab.

 

A revered member of the Sikh clergy holds this post and he orshe is able to deliver Hukamnamas (which are important decisions and societal messages to protect the Maryadha) for Sikhs to adhere to worldwide. No Sikh has the ability to challenge the Hukamnamas issued, and there are very rarely any reasons to do so.

 

A recent example of this type of authority being exercised occurred when affluent Sikhs in the West began to take the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to expensive lavish hotels in order to celebrate their marriage or a birth. This caused uproar. Gurdwara management committees faced a crisis because people getting married in a gurdwara would not use intoxicants after the ceremony. It also made a mockery of the sacredness of the blessings.

 

A Hukamnama was immediately issued banning the spiritual text being taken out of the premises of the gurdwara to perform such ceremonies. All the sangat (congregation) are expected to come to the court of the Guru to receive blessings and join together in humility in front of the Guru.

 

In any similar case, if it is reported that the Sikh code of conduct is being affected or that the spiritual discipline set by Guru is being challenged by a person, a book, or other means, a Hukamnama would be issued.

 

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