Women in Sikhism
By: Gurbachan Singh Talib
Women who had many equal privileges with the menfolk in Vedic India were reduced to a position of utter subordination during the time of the lawgivers. In the codes and institutes laid down in the dharmasastras they were given the status of sudras. They were declared to be intrinsically impure and unfit, hence ineligible, even for listening to the recital of sacred texts and receiving religious instruction or initiation. The inherent attraction of the female was considered to be a temptation to sin, and man had to remain on guard all the time. Woman was maya, illusion; “nature had designed her for the enjoyment of man” and she had “no other function than to serve him.”
With the Muslims came pardah, the veil, and zananah, confinement of womenfolk to the interior apartments. The female became a greater liability for the male of the invaded populace who, weakened economically, had not only to feed his female dependants but also to be ready to protect their honour and chastity in those troubled times. This, among other causes, social as well as cultural, led to the practice of female infanticide, as also of child marriage. The state of a widow was the most pitiable. Polygamy was permissible for man, but a woman could not remarry even after the death of her husband. The smrtis enjoined upon the widow to practise sahamarana, lit. simultaneous death, commonly known as sati, by burning herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. Where concession was made and the widow allowed to live on, being pregnant or having infant children, for instance, she remained ostracized from society, submitting herself to rigorous discipline of self-denial.
With the advent of Sikhism appeared a liberating force in Indian society. Affirmation of the dignity of the human being, male as well as female, was central to Guru Nanak’s teaching. His mystical vision of the immanence of the Creator in all of His creation was concretized in a forceful enunciation of the gospel of equality. Guru Nanak said that all creatures were equal before God and that to make distinctions among them on the grounds of birth or sex was sinful. For women especially, he had many bold and sympathetic words to say. Quoted most often in this respect are verses from Asa ki Var, a long composition sung in sangat in the morning service. “Of woman are we born, of woman conceived; to woman engaged, to woman married. Women are befriended, by woman is the civilization continued. When woman dies, woman is sought for. It is by woman that the entire social order is maintained. Then why call her evil of whom are great men born?”
In another stanza in Asa ki Var, Guru Nanak rejects the prevalent superstition of sutak, according to which a woman giving birth to a child remains in pollution for a given number of days, depending upon the caste to which she belongs. Pollution is not in childbirth, says Guru Nanak “Greed is the pollution of the mind; lying the pollution of the tongue; looking with covetousness upon another’s wealth, upon another’s wife, upon the beauty of another’s wife the pollution of the eye; listening to slander the pollution of the ears. The pollution in which they commonly believe is all superstition. Birth and death are by Divine Will; by Divine Will men come and go” (GG, 472). As against celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommended grhastha, the life of a householder, in which husband and wife were equal partners. Fidelity was enjoined upon both. In the sacred verse, domestic felicity was presented as a cherished ideal and conjugal life provided a running metaphor for the expression of love for the Divine. Bhai Gurdas, poet of early Sikhism and authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, pays high tribute to womankind. “A woman,” he says (Varan, V.16), “is the favourite in her parental home loved dearly by her father and mother. In the home of her in-laws, she is the pillar of the family, the guarantee of its good fortune. . . Sharing in spiritual wisdom and enlightenment and with noble qualities endowed, a woman, the other half of man, escorts him to the door of liberation.”
To ensure equal status for women, the Gurus made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in sangat, holy fellowship, and pangat, commensality. According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, Guru Amar Das disfavoured the use of veil by women. He assigned women to the responsibility of supervising the communities of disciples in certain sectors, and preached against the custom of sati. Sikh history records the names of several ladies such as Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur who played a leading role in the events of their time and left their imprint on them.
In the tumultuous decades of the eighteenth century when Sikhs went through fierce persecution, the women displayed exemplary steadfastness. Their deeds of heroism and sacrifice are to this day recounted morning and evening by the Sikhs in their ardas. “Our mothers and sisters,” they repeat every time in their prayer, “who plied handmills in the jails of Mannu, the Mughal governor of Lahore (1748-53), grinding daily a maund-and-a-quarter of corn each, who saw their children being hacked to pieces in front of their eyes, but who uttered not a moan from their lips and remained steadfast in their Sikh faith—recall their spirit of fortitude and sacrifice, and say, Vahiguru, Glory be to God!”
Even in those days of severe trial and suffering, Sikhs were guided in their treatment of the womenfolk of enemy captured in battle by the highest standards of chivalry. They showed towards them utmost respect. In AD 1763, for instance, one of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s generals, Jahan Khan, was defeated by the Sikhs at Sialkot and a number of his female relations and dependants fell into their hands. “But” says ‘Ali ud-Din, in his ’Ibratnamah, “as the Sikhs of old would not lay their hands on women, they had them escorted safely to Jammu.” Another Muslim chronicler, Ghulam Muhaiy ud-Din, vituperates the Sikhs in his Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi, yet he does not fail to notice the esteem they had for women. “They (i.e. the Sikhs),” he records in his book, “look upon all women in the light of mothers.” This is how a Sikh was defined by Bhai Gurdas a century earlier. He said, “A Sikh casting his eyes upon the handsome womenfolk of families other than his own regards them as his mothers, sisters and daughters.”
Such being the respect for womanhood among the Sikhs, monogamy has been the rule for them, and polygamy a rare exception. Female infanticide is prohibited. The Rahitnamas, codes of conduct, prohibit Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practice. As for sati widow-burning, Scripture itself rejects it.
In a sabda (hymn) in measure Suhi, Guru Amar Das says, “Satis are not those that burn themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre; satis are they, O Nanak, who die of the pangs of separation (GG, 787)”. Stanza follows: “They, too be reckoned satis who live virtuously and contentedly in the service of the Lord, ever cherishing Him in their hearts”. “Some”, continues the sabda, “burn themselves along with their dead husbands: [but they need not, for] if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive.” As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati, Sikhism permitted remarriage of widows.
In the present-day democratic system in India, women as a whole have been rid of many of their disabilities. They all enjoy political franchise and many new opportunities for advancement have opened up for them. Sikh women have shown enterprise in several fields and are among the most progressive in education and in the professions such as teaching and medicine. In the Sikh system, they are the equals of men in all respects. They can lead congregational services and participate in akhand paths, uninterrupted readings of scripture to be accomplished within forty-eight hours. They vote with men periodically to elect Sikhs’ central religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers their places of worship.
1. Sabdarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
2. Baig, Tara Ali, India’s Women Power. Delhi, 1976
3. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society, Portland, Oregon, 1974
4. Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge, 1994
Source - Concepts in Sikhism, pp. 596-600