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Sikhism, Vaisnavism, Vedanta and Nathism

Daljeet Singh


The subject of this paper is to understand the uniqueness of the Sikh Religion and why and how Guru Nanak in laying down the principles of his religion and pursuing his mission completely departed from the earlier Indian traditions. In this attempt we shall describe the essentials of Sikhism and briefly compare them with three of his contemporary religious systems.


The bedrock of every religion is the spiritual experience of its founder. Let us see what is the spiritual experience of the Sikh Gurus and how they define God. Obviously, it is this experience that forms the driving force of the mission of a prophet and determines his goal. Guru Nanak says, "O, Lalo, I speak what the Lord commands me to convey."1 This means two things. First, that God is both Transcendent and Immanent, and, thus, operates in history. Second, that the Guru had a mission to perform. Guru Nanak calls God: "The Sole One, Self-existent and Immanent, Creator Person, Without Fear and Without Enmity, Timeless Person,2 Un-incarnated, Self-Created and Gracious Enlightener", "Benevolent", and "Ocean of Virtues". As to the character of spiritual experience, it is recorded, "Friends ask me what is the mark of the Lord, He is All Love. Rest He is Ineffable."3 It is this definition of God as "Love" and "Ocean of attributes" that governs the entire structure of Sikhism and the growth of its history. It is in this background that Guru Nanak gave for his mission the call, "If you want to play the game of love, Come with your head on your palm."4 and Guru Gobind Singh declared, "Let all listen to the Truth I proclaim, He who loves, attains to God."5 We have, thus, to see what are the doctrinal implications of the spiritual experience of the Gurus and their definition of God regarding the various issues we seek to understand. The metaphysical position of Sikhism being a monotheism is clear enough, but much more significant is the inference that the world is not only real but also meaningful. For, the Guru says, "True is He, true is His creation."6 "God created the world and permeated it with His Light."7 "God created the world of life and planted Naam in it, making it the place for righteous activity."8 Further, apart from the world being meaningful and a place for virtuous living, God has a deep interest in life and man. "God is eyes to the blind, milk to the child, and riches to the poor."9 "It is the innermost nature of God to help the erring.10 "This religious experience of the Gurus emphatically lays down the direction in which God wants man's spiritual activity to move. Altruism is, therefore, a direction and the methodology prescribed by the Guru both for the super-man and the seeker. For, "with God it is only the deeds in this world that count."11 "Good, righteousness, virtues, and the giving up of vice are the way to realize the essence of God."12 "Love, contentment, truth, humility and virtues enable the seed of Naam (God) to sprout."13 God showers His Grace where the lowly are cared for."14 "It is by our deeds that we become near or away from God."15 And finally, the Guru clinches the issue when he says, "Everything is lower than Truth, but higher still is truthful living."16 "The spiritual path can be trodden not by mere words and talk but by treating all alike, and as one's equal. Yoga does not lie in living in cremation grounds, doing one-point meditation or roaming all over places, or visiting places of pilgrimage, but by remaining God-centred while doing the affairs of the world."17 "By despising the world one gets not to God."18 In the Japuji the Guru pointedly asks a question as to what is the godly way and himself replies to it saying that by carrying out the Will of God one becomes a Sachiaara or God-man. And, God's Will is attributive, God being "All Love" and the "Ocean of Virtues".

The logic of the above approach of life-affirmation leads to a number of other inferences. Since love can be expressed and virtues practised only in life or social life, the Gurus clearly lived and recommended a householder's life. Except Guru Harkrishan who died at an early age, all the Gurus were married householders. This inference from the thesis of the Gurus was not just incidental, it was clear and categoric. Because Guru Nanak not only bypassed his son Siri Chand, a pious Udasi, in choosing his successor, but the second and the third Gurus clearly excluded the recluses, ascetics or Sanyasis from the Sikh fold. In short, monasticism, asceticism and other-worldliness were clearly rejected. Instead, the worldly life was accepted as the arena for the practice of virtues for spiritual growth. Similarly, life-affirmation and the rejection of celibacy led to the second inference, namely, that the status of woman should be equal to that of man. The Guru says, "Why call woman impure when without woman there would be none,"19 and when it was she who gave birth to kings among men. This was the logic of Guru Nanak's path, against the one of celibacy and women being considered sin-born and therefore an impediment in the spiritual path. In Hinduism women were classed with Sudras, being generally regarded as unfit for the spiritual path.

Guru Nanak's system leads to a third inference as well, namely, the importance of work and production. He says, "The person incapable of earning his living gets his ears split and becomes a mendicant. He calls himself a Guru or a saint. Look not up to him and touch not his feet. He knows the way who earns his living and shares his earnings with others."20 It is significant that after his long tours Guru Nanak worked as a peasant and started a Langar (free food for all and service at one platform) till the end of his days. This practice of earning one's own living continued till, after the Fifth Guru, organizational work of the Panth and confrontation with the Empire made the carrying out of a private profession impossible. It is important that all these doctrines of their religion were not only scripturally sanctioned but were also actually practised by the Sikh Gurus. This was very essential because, these doctrines being so radically different from, or even opposed to, the earlier religious traditions and trends, their import and importance would have been completely missed or misunderstood if these had not been visibly lived and demonstrated in practice. For example, it is significant that in order to establish the equality of man, and demolish the ugly caste discrimination, Guru Nanak's first act after his enlightenment was to take a low caste Muslim as his sole companion, emphasizing thereby that anyone who wanted to join his path had completely to shed all caste prejudices. That is also why while organizing local Sangats he wanted them to meet together and run langars so as to eat together and share their food with the poor. For him this was the path to establish the brotherhood of man. The Guru not only recommended work and sharing of incomes but also deprecated the amassing of wealth. He says, "Riches cannot be gathered without sin but these do not keep company after death."21 "God's bounty belongs to all but men grab it for themselves."22 Just as in the Indian religious systems of his times monasticism, asceticism, celibacy and ahimsa went together with the acceptance of the caste ideology in the social field, similarly, in Guru Nanak's system all such ideas and institutions were rejected and instead a concerted effort was made to establish the brotherhood of man and give religious sanction to the life of the householder, the need of work, production and sharing, and the acceptance of all kinds of social responsibility. We have seen that the Gurus' experience of God being "Love" and their description of God being "Protector" (Raakbaa), "Just" (Adli), "Benevolent", "Helper of the weak", "Shelter of the Shelterless", "Destroyer of the Tyrant" enjoins a clear responsibility on the god-men to toe that line, namely, to live a religious life while accepting full social participation and responsibility. It is in line with this wholly radical religious thesis that the Gurus changed the entire methodology and the direction of the spiritual life. "The God-centred' lives truthfully while a householder."23 The God-man has to be the instrument or the soldier of God in this world.

The acceptance of full social responsibility has other implications too. Everything that militates against an honest and righteous discharge of a householder's life has to be tackled. It is in this context that Gurus recommended the rejection of asceticism, monasticism and celibacy and the acceptance of a householder's life of work and sharing of wealth, and the elimination of caste distinctions. But, there is one thing more which most of us have failed to understand. In the life of man there are not only social pressures but there are also what modem life calls political pressures. Evidently, both are problems of living in a society. These societal problems the modem man has artificially divided into three sections, economic, social and political. In actual life these three kinds do not occur separately, nor can these be segregated to be dealt with separately. The religious man is confronted with all of them and it becomes his religious duty and responsibility to tackle them and to resist and react against injustice and evil forces whatever be the quarters from which those should emanate. It is obvious that socio-political problems cannot be solved individually or by mere preaching; these can be dealt with only by a properly and religiously motivated society. It is equally plain that in order to counter and resist evil political pressures it may at some time become necessary to use force in aid of a righteous cause. Here it is important to note that Guru Nanak as the prophet of this new religious thesis did three things. He laid the foundations of a society that was to be trained and motivated to react against injustice. Wherever he went, he organized local societies with faith in his system. He chose and appointed a successor to carry on the mission he had started. His was not a religion where the object was just personal salvation as an end in itself, or the salvation of a few. His was not a Math or Khankah for a few seeking only spiritual attainments. Guru Nanak taught, as was exemplified by his own life, that the spiritual man has a social mission as well. For that very reason it was he who clarified another principle of his religion, namely, his stand regarding Ahimsa. He says, "Men discriminate not and quarrel over meat eating. They do not know what is flesh or non-flesh and what is sin or non-sin."24 In this and other hymns he exposes the cant of non-meat eating, which was based on the principle of Ahimsa. He adds that there is life in every grain of corn or food we eat. In the context of Indian religions, this explanation was extremely necessary for a society for which he contemplated the course of action as indicated in his hymns. For, resistance to aggression or oppression cannot at times be done without the use of force. Therefore, for the execution of the religious mission of Guru Nanak it was essential to create a society, appoint a successor, and clearly eliminate the religious sanction to the curb of Ahimsa in the socio-political field. Thirdly, Guru Nanak clearly identified the socio-political problems of his times. The greatest problems were the tyrannical barbarity of the invaders, rapidly of the rulers, the corruption and misrule of the officials," and the hypocrisy and greed of the Mullahs and priests. On the-issue of cruelty, loot and murder by the invaders, he even criticizes the local rulers for their unpreparedness. Nay, he even complains to God for allowing the weak to be tyrannized by the strong. Very often the logic of this criticism has been missed. Guru's criticism was not an empty rhetoric. In fact, Guru Nanak was clearly laying down the new ideology for high society and identifying the tasks to be accomplished by it. It is in this light that we have to understand the institutions of succession, its continuing even after the doctrinal base had been finalized and the scripture compiled by the Fifth Guru, and its closure by the Tenth Guru only after the creation of the Khalsa. The Sikh does not pray to God for Moksha, but he prays for millions of hands to serve Him. This religious thesis of the Gurus, as well shall see, is entirely different from the earlier Indian religious systems like Vaisnavism, Nathism and Vedantism in vogue in those times. Therefore, the Gurus by their personal examples and martyrdoms established the validity and the practicality of their religious system. In the absence of it, Sikhism could hardly have been understood, much less followed. In fact, Gurus' spiritual experience of God being all Love involves logically and correspondingly total responsibility towards all beings. In the Gurus' system it is simply impossible for the religious person and his society to avoid responsible reaction against injustice wherever it may occur. Sikhism accepts the "idea that specifically designated organized bands of men should play a creative part in the political world destroying the established order and reconstructing society according to Word of God."25 Guru Nanak, thus, laid the foundations of the doctrines of Miri and Piri that later fructified in the form of the Harmandir Sahib and Akal Takhat. This doctrine of Miri-Piri or Saint-Soldier is so radical in the Indian context that Sant Ram Dass of Maharashtra had to be explained by the Sixth Guru himself that he was pursuing the religion of Guru Nanak and that his sword was for the protection of the weak and the destruction of the tyrant. Similarly, the anti-asceticism and the householder's life of Guru Nanak looked so odd to the Naths that they questioned his very claim to be following the religious path. But, the Guru's reply to them is very revealing of his new thesis because he asserted that it is the Naths who did not know even the elementaries of the spiritual path.

What we wish to emphasize is that it is not just incidental, but it is the very logic of Guru Nanak's system that involved on the one hand the rejection of monasticism, asceticism, celibacy and Ahimsa and on the other hand led to the creation of an organized and disciplined society that accepted total social responsibility. It is in this context that we should understand and interpret the history of the Guru period. We shall revert to this point at the close of our discussion. At present, let us give a brief outline of the three religious systems, namely, Vaisnavism, Vedantism; and Nathism, that were prevalent in the time of Guru Nanak. These systems, the Guru clearly found incongruous with his spiritual experience and he clearly rejected them and simultaneously started his own Panth in pursuance of his mission.


It is a generally accepted view that Bhagvatism arose as a non-Vedic cult which was for the first time included in the Hindu Complex as an alternative mode of Moksha in the Bhagvad Gita which is admittedly an eclectic compilation. The system is ritualistic and involves (i) visit to the temple, (ii) selection of material for worship, (iii) worship of the deity, (iv) muttering of the Mantras, and (v) Yogic meditation. Similarly, the worship of Hari involves (i) remembering and repeating the name of Hari, (ii) constant worship with devotion, (iii) salutation and resorting to the feet of Hari, and (iv) surrender of the soul with devotion. Two things are significant about this Bhakti; it is entirely ritualistic without any reference to socio-moral conduct. Secondly, it was accepted as only an alternative mode of Moksha which was given a low priority. In fact, the Bhagvad Gita does not prescribe a unified system. Apart from its different modes of Moksha being unintegrated into one unified whole, the metaphysical position is also quite incongruous because the dualism of Yoga and the pantheism of Upanisads exist side by side with the concepts of Vedic ritualism and mysticism. It is, thus, believed that the Gita was more concerned in bringing variant systems within the Hindu fold than with their integration into a systematic whole; and that the permission of Shudras and women to the path of devotion was allowed because the Buddhist had admitted them to their monasteries without discrimination. This is supported by the fact that the Gita gives full sanction to the discriminatory rigidity of the caste system. It says that the Lord created the four Varnas with their separate specified duties and that it was more meritorious to do, even though inefficiently, the duties of one's own caste than to do, even though efficiently, the duties of another caste. "The Gita brought about a compromise between the worldly life of allotted duties and the hermit's life of absolute renouncement." "On the one hand we purify our minds by non-attachment and yet, on the other hand, we continue to perform all the ritualistic and other duties belonging to our particular caste or state of life, i.e., the prescribed stages of four ashramas."26 Both in the Bhagvad Gita and the system of Ramanuja, Bhakti meant only Upasana or 'just meditation with a contemplative union with God as the goal. This Bhakti does not involve a devotional or personal love as later in the time of Sandiliya or the Bhagvat Purana.

Later arose the theory of Avtarhood, namely, that God incarnates Himself in order to save man. This is a Vaisnava contribution to the complex of Hindu systems. It is believed, as in the eclectic character of Bhagvad Gita, that the doctrine of Avtarhood is only a way of absorbing heterodox and variant cults by declaring their gods to be the incarnations of Vishnu. Accordingly, founders of even dualistic systems like Sankhya and Jainism were also declared avtaras. In the long run twenty-three avtaras were declared, including Lord Rama, dwarf, man-lion, tortoise, Rsabha, Kapila, and others. While this doctrine enabled the absorption of heterodox creeds, and made the new entrants to accept the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmanical ideology of caste, it could evidently never make for the development of a coherent or unified religious or metaphysical system prescribing a uniform or integrated methodology or goals.

The next development in the course of Vaisnavism is the period of Sandilya and Bhagvat Purana. Alvar Saints appeared in the South and Saints like Tuka Ram, Ramanand, Chaitanya, Mirabai and others arose in the north, west and the east of India. Dr. Tara Chand believes that this new development which took place, quite often in the lower sections of the Hindu society, followed the influence and impact of Islam which was I non-hierarchical.

Though there are other exponents of Vaisnavism like Nimbarka, or Madhva who is a dualist, Ramanuja is considered to be the best of them. His system is pantheistic, Brahman being both manifest and unmanifest. The individual souls and the material world are the body or the attributes of Brahman. He accepts the presence of ahankara and explains human activity virtually on the basis of Sankhya. For him Ishwara exists in five forms, (i) As Narayana or Paravasudeva, wearing jewels and ornaments, he lives in Vakuntha on a throne surrounded by Sesa (serpent), Garuda and other delivered souls, (ii) As in four forms including that of Vasudeva to enable men to worship him, (iii) As in the Avtaras, fish, tortoise, swan and others, (iv) As the soul of each being even when it goes to heaven or hell, (v) As in the idols kept in the houses. Souls are of three kinds, (i) eternal souls like that of Garuda, (ii) the delivered souls, and (iii) the bound ones.

In his system Bhakti is integrated both with ritualism and Jnana Yoga which are also its essential components, It is significant the Ramanuja considers both Vedic ritualism and Brahm Vidya of Upanisads as of equal importance and validity, so much so that ritualistic acts have to be practised even by a Jnani. It is important to note that his Bhakti is open only to the three higher castes. To Sudras only the system of surrender or Prapatti is open. The caste ideology and the ideas of pollution are clearly accepted and practised. Brahmans only can be priests for the purpose of idol worship. The concept of pollution is so important that if while cooking or eating one's food another person casts his glance on it, the entire food has to be thrown away. Celibacy is recommended and women are considered sin-born. They are, therefore, not admitted as Vaisnavas.

In the Bhagvad Purana, nine modes of worship are suggested. These are all formal and ritualistic like listening to the praise of God, repeating the name of God, image worship, etc., without any insistence on socio-moral activity. Padma Purana prescribes seven modes of worship: (i) imprinting of marks on the body and forehead, (ii) repeating mantras, (iii) drinking water used for the feet of the idol, (iv) eating food offered to the idol, (v) service of the devotees, (vi) fasting on designated days of the lunar month, (vii) laying Tulsi leaves at the feet of the idol.

Both Vallabha and Chaitanya accept Bhakti as the sole method of Moksha. In the former system the modes of worship are all formal like singing the praises of God, Arti, image Worship, etc. Householder's life is allowed but the devotee visits the temple of the Guru for worship of the idol at fixed intervals. In the case of Chaitanya, Bhakti is an extremely emotional affair, involving ecstatic dancing and singing. While Chaitanya's devotees were from all castes, even Muslims, his followers, except for Bairagis, observed the caste system regarding cooking and other matters. It needs to be clarified that Karam Yoga meant only ritualistic acts and not socio-moral deeds. In fact, because of the general insistence on celibacy, socio-moral activity is virtually excluded. Maitra, who had made a detailed study of the ethics of all Hindu systems writes that a common feature of the doctrine of the ideal life is "the conception of the ideal as a negation or at least as a transcendence of the empirical life proper and that this state is thus a super moral spiritual ideal rather than a strictly moral idea." It is transcendental state of deliverance from all struggles of life. It is generally and essentially a state of quiescence."27

In sum, Vaisnavism has seven fundamentals. Its scriptures, as of all other Hindu systems, are the Vedas and Upanisads. It lays down the doctrine of avtarhood which is a Vaisnava contribution to the Hindu religion. The ideology of caste is accepted fully as also the idea of pollution. Its methodology of worship or devotion is clearly formal, ritualistic, contemplative, or intensely emotional without any reference to so do-moral life. Hooper, who has made a detailed study of Alvar Saints says that moral character is hardly a strong feature of their Bhakti. The reason for it is obvious. The entire approach is other­worldly and for liberation from the tangles of life. Consequently, this is also the reason that except in the case of Vallabhacharya, celibacy is the rule and the position of women is distinctly downgraded. Ramanuja denies Vedic studies to women. They were not allowed to mix with men for devotion nor allowed to become nuns. Shankradeva, a liberal saint, says, "Of all the terrible aspirations of the world, woman's is the ugliest. A slight side glance of her captivates even the hearts of celebrated sages. Her sight destroys prayer, penance and meditation. Knowing this the wise keep away from the company of women."28 He did not allow women to join even the religious functions of men. For she was deemed to be a temptress. Murti writes about Shankradeva that he was interested only "In establishing religious freedom and fellowship rather than social overhaul. To trouble about the improvement of social conditions, perhaps, deemed to him as little profitable."29 Sixthly, Ahimsa is prescribed as a cardinal rule for all Vaisnavas. Seventhly, the goal is union with or merger in God or Brahman, though ritualistic duties are prescribed till the end of one's days. There is one more point for mention. In Hinduism the sexual or tantric method is accepted as an alternative system of Moksha and a saint like Rama Krishna also accepts its validity.


Vedantism is a very mixed concept. Basically, Upanisadic thought is the Vedantic thought. This system which is mainly opposed to the earlier Vedic ritualism (Purva Mimansa) is in itself very variant. It can form the basis of materialism, antheism, monoism, i.e., of the world being the emanation of Brahman or of the world being just illusory and Brahman alone being real. That is why later philosophers like. Shankra, Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka and others have all given divergent interpretations of the Upanisads. Because of the short space available, it will not be possible to indicate all the diverse views on the subject. We have already stated the views of Ramanuja, Vasisht Advaita. We shall here describe briefly the Upanisadic thought and the Vedanta of Shankra which is the most popular Vedanisc system.

It is necessary to note that the Upanisadic thoughts were not meant to be a religious system. These comprise teachings meant only for a small section or an elite most of whom had withdrawn themselves to the seclusion of the forest. The search was for an intuitional, blessed and ineffable mystic experience of unity or identity with Brahman. With the knowledge of it, they say, everything becomes known. Similies of a river merging into the sea, of a seed growing into an oak tree and of a whole of which everything is a part are given. This fundamental reality is not personal like God of theists to whom we pray with devotion and love. It is this that has led to the concepts of "That thou art", "I am Brahman", and of Katha Upanisad saying, "He who perceives diversity in this world suffers the death of all deaths", and of Brahman alone being real the rest being all false and illusory. Upanisads, thus, contain divergent and contradictory thoughts without any attempt to reconcile them into a coherent system. As to methodology, it is primarily meditational with the ideal of four ashramas. The last two ashramas of Vanprastha and Sanyasa are basically other-worldly and ascetic, involving disconnection with the delusive secular life. The final achievement is the result of one's own effort and not the gift of God or his grace. The Jivan Mukta has no role to play and is indifferent to all actions whether good or evil. The distinction of good and evil is transcended and it is a liberation from the conditions of worldly existence.

Later the authors of the Upanisads also accepted the validity of Vedic ritualism and its social commands regarding caste. As such, they became a component of the overall Vedic system and gained scriptural sanctity as a limb of the Vedas. Therefore, for any serious consideration of Vedanta, the above­noted factual position about the Upanisads, on which the various types of Vedanta are based, has to be kept in view. Hiriyana writes, "The diversity of teaching noticed in connection with the theoretical teaching of the Upanisads has its reflex in their practical teachings, both in regard to the ideal to be achieved and the means of achieving it."30 For example, "one Upanisad alone mentioning three such different means of attaining immortality devotion to truth, penance and vedic study and ascribing them to three specific teachers."31 Secondly, it is also clear that the Upanisads and the sanctioned social system of the period give clear approval to the caste system. The Chhandogya writes that "the wicked are born again as outcasts, dogs or swine." "The Brihadaraniyaka (VI. 2, 15-16) gives a similar account. The rules of punishment in Grih sutras and Dharama­sutras are grossly discriminatory."32 It must be noted that "the rules of punishment are largely based on caste consideration, so that for having committed the same offence, a Brahman may pass unscathed, but a Shudra may even receive capital punishment."33 "The period of Sutras witnessed the gradual hardening of the caste system in general and the deterioration of the position of Vaishyas and Shudras in particular." "The Shudra was denied the privilege of Sanyasa (renunciation)."34 "We see in the Dharam Sutras the beginning of the formal theory of defilement resulting in the taboo of all contact on the part of a pure man of the upper castes with an impure man, namely, a member of the lowest caste."35 "The Dharam Sutras show that the caste distinction has outstripped its proper limits and has even invaded the field of civil and criminal law."36 Evidently, the Upanisadic mystic system, though other-worldly and meditational in its approach, accepts the ritualism and the caste ideology of the Vedas.

Shankara's View

Gaudapada and Shankra pursue that line of thought in the Upanisads which considers world to be just an illusion and Brahman alone to be real. Gaudapada writes, "The manifold universe does not exist as a form of reality nor does it exist of itself." "Having attained to non-duality one should behave in the world like an insensible object."37 All diversity according to Shankra is false (Mithya). Therefore, to work while accepting the phenomenal existence of the world is sheer Avidya. The goal is to realize the truth of Brahman alone being real and to deny the world. Ishvara and individual souls are parts of Brahman. Man is ignorant since he does not realize that all change in the world is without any meaning or validity, thereby denying the very basis of all socio-moral life. Shankra says, "I am not born how can there be either birth or death for me? I am neither male nor female, nor am I sexless. I am the Blessed peaceful one, who is the only cause of the origin and dissolution of the world."38 All changes in the world are due to Maya which is neither real nor unreal nor related to Brahman. All methods of devotion and worship are fruitless, the goal being the Absolute and not Saguna, or qualified Brahman, God or Ishvara which is a lower stage to be transcended by the Jnani. In fact, the path of devotion; he says, is for persons of narrow or poor intellect. Since he cannot deny the scriptural character of the Vedas, he says that the path of ritualism or sacrifices is prescribed out of compassion for persons of low and average intellect and it can gain for them only heaven. As in Sankhya Yoga, withdrawal from the illusory adjuncts of Maya is suggested. Starting with Vairagya and dissociation with the world, the mystic achievement can be made only as a Sanyasin or renouncer of the world, giving up all works good or bad and as one who is unwilling to accept even the grace of God. The method prescribed, as in the Upanisads, is of Vedic study, reflection and meditation. The aim is to realize, "I am Brahman (Abam Brabm asm;)." It is an intellectual realization accompanied by Anubhava. But the Jivan Mukta has no role to play in life. Swami Sivananda writing about the two modern Jnanis, Kalkot Swami and Mowni Swami, says that they were unconscious of the movement of their bowels and the Sevadar (attendant) had to wash their bottoms."39 "Such a Videha Mukta who is absolutely merged in Brahman cannot have the awareness of the world which is non-existent to him. If his body is to be maintained, it has to be fed and cared for by others. The Vidheha Mukta is thus not in a position to engage himself for the good of the' world. "40 For them, self-realization breaks the chain of causation and the world of experience appears false. Even the idea of God being a lower stage has to be transcended finally, for "God" is only the most subtle, most magnificent, most flattering false impression of all in this general spectacle of erroneous self-deception."41 No wonder Zimmer says that "Such holy megalomania goes past the bounds of sense. With Sankara, the grandeur of the Supreme human experience becomes intellectualized and reveals its inhuman sterility."42 Such is Shankra's monoism for which world is Mithya.


Nathism was one of the prevalent religious cults in North India in the time of Guru Nanak. He criticized it quite severely. Nath Yogis are Saivites and Saivism has the longest religious history, being pre-Vedic. Pasupata is the oldest Saiva system. Nath Yogis are a part of the Lakula group that developed from the Pasupata. Gorakh Nath is the chief historical organizer of the Nath Yogis. He appears between 11th and 12th centuries A.D. The system involves asceticism, renunciation, Yogic methodology with emphasis on Hath and Mantra Yogas, and the worship of male and female deities. The goal is liberation from the misery of the world through Kundalani Yoga and final union with Lord Siva. Though Nathism is a theistic system, its entire approach and methodology are of Yoga where the aim is primarily to gain power. Both before and after the union the Nath has no interest in the world. Nathism is a monastic system. Each Nath is linked to a monastery headed by a Guru, or a Pir if he is a Muslim. Naths are also called Kanpathas. They are initiated into the group in a rigid ritualistic manner. Their ear lobes are split for the wearing of Mundras. The Nath takes three vows: to remain celibate, not to accept any employment or earn his living, and to sustain himself by begging, and to observe Ahimsa. The Nath goes barefooted on pilgrimage to sacred Hindu places and to Nath monasteries where images and pictures of Hindu gods and Siva in the form of Bhairon are worshipped.

The Naths do observe some caste distinctions. In theory, only twice born are initiated but in practice all except a few low castes are accepted. Hindu Naths do not eat with Muslim Naths nor do they go to the houses of Muslims or of lower castes for begging. The worshipping of the deities, the cooking at monasteries is done by Brahmins generally. At Dhinodhar monastery higher castes are given uncooked food. Other castes are fed at the monastry hall except low castes and Muslims who are given food outside in the open. Women, except widows, are not admitted and Naths do not sit or eat with them, even if they were Naths.

The Nath Yogi is a typical ascetic who rubs ashes on his body as a symbol of death to the world from the misery of which he seeks liberation. Secondly, Naths have faith in ritualism. Certain months are auspicious, Mantras are used at the time of initiation and for daily and other use, because these are considered to have mystic potency for spiritual advancement. Fasting is also considered efficacious. May be because of the black colour of Bhairon, black buck, snakes' and black dogs are venerated. Animal sacrifices at the temple of Bhairon are practised. At the annual fair of Devi Pattan on one day 20 buffaloes, 250 goats and 250 pigs were sacrificed. Blood mark is applied to devotees. At places Linga and Yoni are worshipped. Naths have belief in Hindu gods and goddesses, good and bad spirits, auspicious and inauspicious days, etc. Nath Yogis mainly use Mantra Yoga and Hathyoga or Kundalini Yoga along with Pranayama. Their cheif religious texts are Gorakh Sataka, Gorakhsa Paddhati and Hath Yoga pradipika. These prescribe yogic and meditational practices, asanas, repetition of mantras, stages of progress in raising Kundalani through the Nadis, chakras, etc. By the repetition of mantras 21,600 times a day a Yogi could gain liberation in year or so. The goal is to reach through Kundalani Yoga the top of the head as Sahashara achieving thereby blissful union with Siva and eternal release from the world. The Naths also believe in the combination of male and female energies (Nadi and Bindu) to achieve liberation. For this, sex practices called Vajroli, Sahjoli, or Amroli, conducted in the company of a woman are suggested. About Naths, Briggs concludes in his book, "'The essence of Nath Yoga is physical exercise and manipulation, quite mechanical. If it is charged against the exposition found in the earlier pages that it is overburdened with interpretations on too Iowa plane, it must be said in reply that both the practices and the outlook of the Yogis confirm this point of view… The high religious value to man-woman relations was insisted upon. The first Chaitanya Sahajya movement confirms this point."43 Even otherwise it is necessary to indicate that the use of the sexual method has been clearly indicated in the ancient Indian literature and materials. Datterya, who is a Hindu deity, is one of the chief deities worshipped by the Naths. He is considered an avatara of Visnu, a Jnani and Paramhansaj "Puranic accounts depict him as always in ecstasy, surrounded by women, drinking wine and indulging in sex."44 Hindu Tantras are supposed to be a fifth Veda for Kalyuga. Ghurye believes, "Fundamentally the Yogis represent the oldest school of Indian asceticism."45 "The Yogis are the residual of the ancient Saivite sects."46 The Nath cult, we conclude, is in direct lineage from the oldest pre-Vedic and Vedic traditions through the Saiva system of Pasupata and Kapilkas, with both of which all its essentials are common. It is noteworthy that everywhere asceticism or monasticism, whether Hindu, Saiva, Vaisnava or Buddhist, at some point leads to male and female symbolism and consequent erotic practices which are accepted as a means of salvation. Quite often these degenerate into licentious practices. Where a religious system does not harness creative energies to life-affirming and virtuous deeds and processes the danger of degeneration is obvious.

Nathism is, thus, a life negating and ascetic system which calculatedly avoids social responsibility and prescribes renunciation and withdrawal from the world which is considered a place of misery.

Comparison and Conclusion

We have given an outline of Sikhism and of three Hindu systems prevalent in India in the times of Guru Nanak. We have selected the three Hindu systems because scholars ignorant of the Bani and the thesis of Gum Granth Sahib have confused Sikh doctrines with those of these systems. We shall now make a brief comparison of the essentials of Sikhism with the essentials of the three Hindu systems. For the purpose, we regret, some recapitulation will become unavoidable.

The religious experience of the Gurus is that God is Love. He is the Ocean of Virtues and is deeply interested in the world. The world, thus, becomes not only real but also the arena of spiritual expression and development. Fourth, the system is a monotheism. Fifth, virtuous deeds in the world are the sole measure of man's religious growth and assessment, for, higher than truth is truthful living. Sixth, the householder's life, in all its social aspects, thus, becomes the forum of religious activity involving full social responsibility. Seventh, the idea of the brotherhood of man is alone compatible with the idea of the fatherhood of God, logically involving equality between man and man, man and woman, and a fair distribution of God's wealth among His children. Consequently, the need of work, social participation, and reaction and resistance against wrongs, both as an individual and as a society become part of one's religious duties. Therefore, the goal is neither Moksha, nor merger in, or blissful union with God as an end in itself, but to be the instrument of His Attributive Will directed toward the creation of the kingdom of God on earth (Haleemi Raj). Since there could be occasions when the use of force in pursuit of a righteous cause becomes inevitable, the doctrine of ahimsa as an invariable rule of religious conduct has been rejected. The conclusion is that there can be no socio-moral progress without the spiritual growth of man and there can be no spiritual growth in isolation without its simultaneous expression in life. As a model, the role and life of a Jivan Mukta, are epitomized in the lives, deeds, struggles and martyrdoms of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Nanak, we find, was the first man of God in the East to proclaim and found a religion with an inalienable combination between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. Hence his radical thesis and its logic involved a clear rejection of asceticism, monasticism, renunciation or withdrawal from life or any segment of it. In pursuit of his mission he also rejected the idea of avatarhood, ritualism, the caste and Ahimsa, both in theory and in practice. And, he positively created and guided a society that should as a religious duty attempt to combat the evils and to solve the social problems of life.

In contrast, Vaisnavism recommends asceticism, renunciation, withdrawal from life and celibacy. It accepts ritualism, Ahimsa, the caste ideology and the idea of a woman or married life being a hurdle in man's spiritual growth. Socio-moral participation and responsibility are recommended neither for the seeker nor for the Jivan Mukta, neither as a methodology nor as a goal. Formal and ritualistic image worship, meditation or emotional singing and dancing are the means of attaining Moksha, involving union with or merger in Brahman. The doctrine of avtarhood is fundamental and, may be on this account, the metaphysical or ideological concepts are quite variant and even conflicting. The Vasisht Advaita of Ramanuja is pantheistic. In sum, we find, that the fundamentals of Vaisnavism are opposed to those of Sikhism.

As in Vaisnavism, the ideological concepts in Vendantism are quite variant, this being the position in Upanisads too. The essentials of Shankara's Vedanta, which is the dominant view, are also in contrast with those of Sikhism. Sankara calls Brahman

"Sat-Chit-Anand", a quietist concept, against God being love, a dynamic concept, in Sikhism. Against monotheism, Shankara's monism implies the world being an illusion (Mithya) and worldly activity of no spiritual value. The system being life-negating, it recommends celibacy and Sanyasa. Woman has been called the gateway to hell. The final realization of ''aham brahm asmi" is the result of a contemplative effort and not of any grace of God. These ideas are considered heretical and egoistic in Sikhism. Therefore, Guru Arjan rejected the hymns of Bhagat Kanha who proclaimed, "I am the same, Oh, I am the same". Sankara accepts both the caste ideology and the value of Vedic ritualism because he concedes that the latter can gain heaven for the seeker. Sikhism calls ritualism useless and caste immoral. In Vedanta there is a clear dichotomy between the spiritual life and the empirical life; in Sikhism such dichotomy is considered a negation of both. The Vedantic Jnani is wholly inactive, but in Sikhism he is the active instrument of God's Will. The contrast between the two systems is conspicuously evident.

The Gurus have criticized no system more severely than Nathism and its ways. This ascetic cult withdraws completely from the world which the Naths call a place of misery. Nath discipline is purely ritualistic, ascetic, Yogic and formal. They make caste distinctions both in the matter of admission to the cult and in the service of food, etc. Some of the Nath practices are quite abhorrent. Their goal, by the raising of Kundalani is a blissful union with Siva. The meanings of "Sahaj" and" Anhand sound" are very different in Nathism, from that in Sikhism. Both Nathism and Vaisnavism accept the validity of the sexual method for the achievement of liberation. In Sikhism there is not the faintest suggestion of the kind. Guru Nanak's observation that the Naths did not know even the elementaries of the spiritual path, clarifies categorically both the glaring contrast between the two systems and the completely radical nature of his thesis and mission.

Having given a brief outline of the four systems, let us now record the views of some Western and Indian scholars about Sikhism. They write: "the term founder is misleading for it suggests that the Guru (Nanak) originated not merely a group of followers but also a school of thought, or a set of teachings." "It was the influence of Nath doctrines and practice on Vaisnava Bhakti which was primarily responsible for the emergence of Sant synthesis". "This is precisely the doctrine which we find in the works of Guru Nanak."47 ''The indigenous elements in Sikhism are largely those customs of the tribes of Jats, who made Sikhism their own and the marginal elements are there of the Nath Yogi tradition, which with Vaisnavism Bhakti was primarily responsible for the Sant synthesis."48 "The teachings of Nanak do not have a direct causal connection with the later growth which should be understood, largely in terms of historical events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."49 "The Sikh Gurus who compiled the Guru Granth were marked by the genuinely noble and emancipated trait of appreciating and assimilating all that is valuable in other religions. In this sense, Guru Granth Sahib is not a religious text like a holy Bible or Quran but a treatise on human life and righteous living. Guru Nanak did not seek to build a new religion, etc:" "Even Sikh scholars see the Miri and Pin concept as an inseparable whole in the religious order. Non-Sikhs have come to see a basic religion-politics linkage in Sikhism and deduct the root cause of the current crisis in Punjab to this."50 "To the extent Hinduism has been influenced by Vedanta, either traditionally or in the modern version of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, it has a tendency to subsume all religions as different aspect of one Large Religion…of which Hinduism is a subconscious if not an overt model. And, of course, in this Religion the closer a person or a doctrine is to the Advaita Vedanta closer to Truth is he or is assumed to be." "But where it comes to the Indians belonging to religions which originated within India, such as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, many a Hindu regard these as downright unpatriotic or unspiritual, or both, if they wish to maintain their distinct identity from the Hindus. Distinctions are just not considered a mark of high enough vision and are mere appearances."51 "When dealing with the beliefs, rituals practices of the Sikhs-be they religious or political-it is always worth-while to constantly remind ourselves that we are fundamentally dealing with the peasantry and the world-view of this social class has historically always been very different from the other social classes."52

Seen in the light of our discussion and analysis of Sikhism and the three other systems, we find that the above-noted observations of some scholars display a singular lack of understanding of the essentials of Sikhism and of the other three religious systems. This ignorance, we believe, is primarily due to their failure to understand the fundamental thesis of Guru Granth Sahib, namely, an inalienable combination between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. Guru Nanak was the first prophet who broke the dichotomy that existed between the two lives in all the Indian religious systems. It has been asserted and accepted that the institutions of asceticism and monasticism are the specific contribution of Indian religions and culture to the world culture. This dichotomy was not only broken ideologically and a contrary ideology embodied in the Sikh scripture, but it was consistently practised and clearly proclaimed. Further, this doctrine was externally symbolized and institutionalized in the close and common location of Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takhat, the installation of two flags at the common compound between Harmandir Sahib and Akal Takhat, and the two swords worn by the Sixth Guru. The chief fundamentals of Sikhism were not only opposed to those of the earlier Indian traditions but there was really no trace of them in those systems. It is, therefore, evident that this sudden and radical change in the essentials of the Indian religious doctrines as emphatically brought about by Guru Nanak and the other Gurus could only be spiritually revealed. For, there was nothing new in the environment to cause such a revolutionary response. Such being the thesis of the Gurus, it is sheer naivety to apply evolutionary, materialistic or sociological methodologies in trying to interpret the Sikh religion. Such studies could only suggest self-contradictory inferences. Hence our stress that the study of a religion requires a discipline of its own. Sikhism believes that there is a higher level of Reality which not only reveals itself to man but also operates in history. Without the acceptance of this concept, no revelatory religion or its history can be studied much less understood and correctly interpreted. The study of Sikhism and the three other contemporary systems clearly leads to the above conclusion.

Notes and References

  1.   Guru Granth Sahib, p. 722
  2.   Ibid., p. 1
  3.   Ibid., p. 459
  4.   Ibid., p. 1412
  5.   Swayas Patshahi DAs
  6.   Guru Granth Sahib., p. 294
  7.   Ibid., p. 930
  8.   Ibid., p. 930
  9.   Ibid., p. 830
  10.   Ibid., p. 828
  11.   Ibid., p. 26, 1091-92
  12.   Ibid., p. 418
  13.   Ibid., p. 955
  14.   Ibid., p. 15
  15.   Ibid., p. 8
  16.   Ibid., p. 62
  17.   Ibid., p. 730
  18.   Ibid., p. 962
  19.   Ibid., p. 473
  20.   Ibid., p. 1245
  21.   Ibid., p. 417
  22.   Ibid., p. 1171
  23.   Ibid., p. 1376
  24.   Ibid., p. 1289
  25.   Michael Walzer, Revolution of Saints, p. 1
  26.   Hiriyanna, M. Essentials of Indian Philosophy, p. 55
  27.   Maitra, S.K., The Ethics of the Hindus, pp. 244, 263, 265­-266
  28.   Murthy, P.V.S., Vaisnavism of Shankradeva and Ramanuja, p. 232
  29.   Ibid., pp. 201-203
  30.   Hiriyanna, M., Outlines of Indian Philosophy, p. 72
  31.   Ibid., p. 72
  32.   The Vedic Age, Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, p. 500
  33.   Ibid., p. 479
  34.   Ibid., p. 513
  35.   Ibid., p.516
  36.   Ibid., p. 515
  37.   Zaehner, R.C., Mysticism Sacred & Profane, p. 155
  38.   Zimmer, H., Philosophies of India, pp. 462-63
  39.   Swami Sivananda, Spiritual Experiences, pp. 222-23
  40.   Ibid., p. 220
  41.   Zimmer, H., op. cit., pp. 426-27
  42.   Ibid., p. 463
  43.   Briggs, G.W., Gorakhnath and Kanphata Yogis, p. 522
  44.   Ghurye, G.S., Indian Sadhus, pp. 34-35
  45.   Ibid., p.115
  46.   Briggs, op. cit., p. 218
  47.   McLeod, H. Evolution of the Sikh Community, p. 5
  48.   Ibid., pp. 5-7
  49.   Sikh Studies, Editor, Juergensmeyer, Barrier, Berkeley, pp. 15, 21
  50.   Narayanan, V. N., Paper read at a Conference held by Council for World’s Religions at Sri Nagar, July 1988, pp. 5-9
  51.   Narayanan, V.N., Paper read at a Conference held by the Council for World’s Religions at Sri Nagar, July 1988, pp. 5-9
  52.   Uberoi, H.S., Paper read at Berkeley, Feb. 1987, p. 28

Source - Essentials of Sikhism by Daljeet Singh