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The Sihk Tradition


Discovering the true nature of the sacred reality that informs the Sikh tradition is no mean feat in the modern age, particularly given the relative youth of the faith, and its strong ties to the older spiritualities commonly known as Hinduism as Islam.

With regards to the first part, to enable the process of understanding, a modernist may find herself confronting her own world view of religious faith, which is often inculcated with beliefs which equate the essence of faith with the brick and mortar of worldly institutions. Religion, therefore, is often seen as synonymous with institutional regimes that adapt and control human expression.

In regards to the second quandary, a more than fleeting effort is required in order to distinguish Sikhism from what may be seen as its ‘parent’ faiths. In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is perhaps helpful to pursue knowledge of both the historical development of the tradition in its proper historical context, and to perform a hermeneutical analysis of its spoken and written aspects for the purpose of comparison.

In any event, it is critical to the understanding process for one to step outside the bounds of one’s traditional point-of-view in order to gain knowledge of the social reality of another. In the case that one should attempt to gain true understanding of another’s world-view - and in our particular case a religious world-view – it behooves the knowledge-seeker to not only abandon her own prejudices (in as much as such a thing is possible), nor only to simply assume the sincerity of faith and belief among contemporary proponents of said view; in order to avoid the trap of modernist ideology, it is also often necessary to assume a sincerity of faith and belief among the faith’s founders. Without such a leap of - dare we say - trust, one may run the risk of engaging in an analysis that instead assumes that the essential reality of an institutionalized religion is one of social control for the benefit of institutional authorities.

The history

The nominal founder of the Sikh tradition as a unique system of faith, sacred understanding, and practice is the 15th century guru Nanak – a man who grew, lived and passed-on amidst the social settings of the region of the Indian subcontinent that is today known as the Punjab.

In practical terms, this setting provided for exposure to a fairly diverse range of faiths and beliefs, not the least of which was the Sant tradition of Hinduism, and the Sufi tradition of Islam. The influence of both is perceptible in the poetic writings of the Guru, which express his conception of the ultimate reality [Streng] in terms of a supreme, transcendent yet immanent, infinite and indescribable god; to quote the Mul Mantra, composed by Nanak and recited daily by ritually devout Sikhs, “There is a Supreme Being, the Eternal Reality. He is the Creator, without fear and devoid of enmity. He is immortal, never incarnated, self-existent, known by grace through the Guru. The Eternal One, from the beginning, through all time, present now, the Everlasting Reality.”

Through the Mantra, one is provided with a concise elucidation as to the Sikh conception of the divine, and one may also perceive its similarities to the understandings developed by Hindu and Islamic philosophers vis a vis Brahman and Allah respectively; all three conceive of, or have conceived of, the ultimate reality as a personification – a being beyond being; the Supreme Being is eternal, immortal, creator, omnipresent yet not bound by the boundaries of material reality.

What sets the Nanak’s point of view apart from that of Hindu or Islamic scholars is not necessarily his vantage relative to the ultimate reality, but rather his view of how knowledge of the sacred and divine should be used to guide action in the day to day reality of material existence. The divergence in thought can be seen as a difference in opinion with regards to orthopraxic conduct rather than a sharp contrast in the essences of their respective orthodoxies. Whereas Islamic orthopraxy finds its foundations in the Five Pillars, and Hinduism has developed a myriad of potential orthopraxia ranging from devotional worship of images to personal meditation to dutiful conduct, Nanak formulated a conception, expressed in modern times within the sacred scriptures of the Guru Granth Sahib, that strove to de-emphasize visibly ritual actions:

“Man is led astray by the reading of words;
Ritualists are very proud.
What availith it to bathe at a place of
pilgrimage, if the filth of pride be in the heart?”
(Macauliffe 1909, 1:272-3)

“Make mercy your mosque and devotion
your prayer mat, righteousness your
Meekness your circumcising, goodness
your fasting, for thus the true Muslim
expresses his faith
Make good works your Ka’bah, take truth
as your pir, compassion your creed
and your prayer.
Let service to God be the beads which you
tell and God will exalt you to glory.”
(VarMajh 7:1, Adi Granth 140-1)

Through these two passages, one may perceive the Guru’s view that elaborate or strict, ritual orthopraxia should take a decidedly secondary roll next to correct thought and intent. The “means to ultimate transformation” [Streng] is thus strongly argued to be a matter of internal transformation.

This, of course, is not to say that contemporary Sikhism is devoid of ritual or that the religion itself is somehow non-orthopraxic. Rather, it would be correct to say that sacred rituals are comparatively few in number, and that orthopraxic action is largely said to be the natural outcome of correct understanding and the correct volition that follows from it. Those rituals that do exist are quite important however. The Mul Mantra, for instance, is a perfect example of what Frederic Bird would describe as a constituitive ritual; through its very recital – particularly within the presence of other Sikhs – one very explicitly participates in the Sikh social reality by reaffirming one’s place within it.

The Means to Ultimate Transformation

Though the aforementioned orthodoxy and orthopraxy certainly serve - in the Sikh context - as Streng’s “means to ultimate transformation”, one would likely at this point be understandably confused by the lack of a defined rationale that lay behind their expression. Do they find expression by Sikhs simply for fear of punishment is they do not?

Though it may be tempting to ascribe the defining rationale for religiously correct Sikh conduct to a fear of powers divine or temporal, it would not prove true of the case of faithful Sikhs who are educated in the intricacies of their religion. The ‘problematic in the human condition’ [Streng] that is defined by Nanak – and which thus is held-to by faithful Sikhs nearly by definition – might by illuminated in terms of the metaxy; it is a term used by Eric Voegelin and derived from the works of Plato and the ancient Greek language to describe the tension between the human and the divine, resulting from the gulf which separates them. To be brief, Nanak’s position is one which corresponds roughly to that of Hinduism; existence is characterized by an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, which is ended only through one’s reunion with God; the separation from God is thus the ultimate problem facing all living creatures.

If one accepts this as the case, or at least accepts it as the case as understood by Nanak and his students, then the source of orthopraxic conduct and orthodoxic viewpoint in the Sikh tradition is not the fear of punishment for non-conformance, but rather a desire to overcome the eternal cycle of striving – of metaxy – that characterizes humanity’s immanent existence. Sikhism, in essence, seeks to redirect human energies away from the striving for material goods, and towards a settlement of the true source of all striving – the separation from Supreme Being – which can only be overcome through the proper, internal transformation.

This then is the sacred reality that informs Sikhism; God is all and more, human existence is characterized by an ongoing cycle of birth, striving, death, and rebirth, the thing that humanity truly strives for is reunion with God, and the means towards the accomplishment of such a reunion is provided through the wisdom of thought and action handed down by the Gurus and set forth in the Guru Granth Sahib. Thus, if one would seek to understand the social reality of Sikhs, their actions, and their understanding of themselves, it would first be useful to gain a firm hold over this fairly unique point of view, and use it as one’s guide towards deeper comprehension.


Amore, Roy C. and Julia Ching. “The Sikh Tradition” in Willard G. Oxtoby (ed) World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. Pg. 199-315.

Bird, Frederic. “Ritual as Communicative Action” in Jack N. Lightstone and Frederic Bird (eds.) Ritual and Ethnic Identity: A Comparative Study of the Social Meaning of Liturgical Ritual in Synagogues. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1995. Pg. 23-52.

Streng, Frederick J. “Creation of a Community through Sacred Symbols” from Understanding Religious Life (3rd edition). Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985. Pg. 43-61 + notes (1 page)

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