|From woman, man is born; |
within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
|Guru Nanak, Raag Aasaa Mehal 1, Page 473|
These are words that were uttered by the founder of Sikhism, Sri Guru Nanak Dev in about 1499. So for Sikhs from that period, there has been compulsion to treat women as equals and gender discrimination was not allowed. However, high principles set by prophets and religious leaders have always been very difficult to implement and put into practise. In this respect, equality for women has been a difficult right to actually achieve in reality.
In Sikhism, the Holy Scriptures have clearly stated that the Sikh woman has always been regarded as an equal with man and has all the rights and privileges enjoyed by a man. She is considered to have the same soul as man and has equal right to grow spiritually. The Sikh woman is allowed to lead religious congregations, to take part in Akhand Path (the continuous recitation of the Holy Scriptures), to perform Kirtan, to work as Granthi (priest) or a preacher and to participate freely in all religious, cultural, social, political and secular activities.
Glorious history of women
Sikh woman have played a glorious part in Sikh History and have proven themselves as equal in service, devotion, sacrifice and bravery. Examples of their moral dignity, service and self sacrifice are and will remain a source of inspiration. Women are the backbone of the history of the Sikhs, their culture and tradition yet there is little written about this huge contribution by the Sikh women to the great history of this religion.
Man and woman are two sides of the same coin - the human race. Man takes birth from a woman and woman is born of a man. This system is interrelating and inter-dependent. A man can never feel secure and complete in life without a woman. A man’s success depends upon the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him and vice versa.
The first woman to be remembered in Sikhism is Mata Tripta Ji, the mother of the first, and founder Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. She meditated while carrying the child Nanak in her womb, and brought him up with love and tender care trying to protect him from his father Mehta Kalu’s wrath for being solitary.
Bebe Nanaki Ji, the elder and the only sister of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, was a highly intelligent, spiritually awake, and pious lady. It was she who recognised the divine light in her brother and envisaged his mission of life before anyone else could perceive it. She didn’t treat him just as a brother, she respected him like a Guru for the whole of her life. She supported her revolutionary brother for the whole of her life who had come to redeem people from misconception and superstitions.
Mai Bhago, (Mata Bhag Kaur) the sole survivor of the battle of Khidrana, i.e. Battle of Muktsar (29 December 1705), was distressed to hear in 1705 that some of the Sikhs of her neighbourhood who had gone to Anandpur to fight for Guru Gobind Singh Ji had deserted him under adverse conditions. Finding the men she persuaded them to find the Guru, to apologize for leaving Anandpur while it had been under attack and seek his permission to be reinstated as Sikhs. She led and guided these Sikhs to find the Guru and they all fought in battle for the Sikh forces. She was taking a lead and fighting at the war front when other women in the world were denied their basic rights; such was the confidence instilled by the Sikh Gurus in the women of the region.
Mata Gujri ji (1624 -1705) was the wife of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur; the mother of the tenth and last human Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh and the grandmother of the four Sahibzade. Her role in the development of the Sikh faith has been crucial. She was the wife of a supreme martyr; mother of a brave saint-soldier; and the grand-mother of four amazing children who all attained martyrdom at the ages of 6, 9, 14 and 18 years. She had been close to the two younger sahibzade and took up their guardianship in the flight from Anandpur under a promise of safe passage to Punjab. Imprisoned in the Thanda Burj of Sirhind with her youngest grandsons Zorawar and Fateh Singh, she attained martyrdom, at the age of 81 years, when she was told of their execution.
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 (Sanskrit texts on religious and legal duty) women were given the status of sudras (the lowest of the four castes). 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 men to women was considered to be a temptation (for men) to sin and so rather than blaming themselves - women were blamed and men 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.” Another interesting aspect of this line of reasoning (a have your cake and eat it to philosophy) was to prevent wifes from killing husbands who treated them like they were dogs, the ritual of Sati (burning alive on thire dead husband's funeral pyre evolved. A wife's Karma (her actions in past lives) was blamed for her husband's death. Before the advent of Sikhism and the additional efforts of by some of the British Viceroys, Hindu wives rightfully lived in mortal fear of her husband's death and widowhood itself (outside of Sikhi) ended any enjoyment of life for the Hindu wife (a practice that lasted well into the last century. Those widows who missed being burned alive were not allowed to wear colorful clothing, participate in revelry and their jewelry was broken or taken away, they were shunned like pariahs and never allowed to remarry.
With Muslim rule
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 a liberating force, was injected into Indian society. Affirmation of the dignity of the human being, female as well as male, 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 the Asa ki Var, Guru Nanak rejects the prevalent superstition of sutak, (a belief prevalent, in the first half of the last century among much of Hindo society) 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)
Instead of the common Hindu belief in the value of 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, the poet of early Sikhism and an authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, pays high tribute to womankind. He says (Varan, V.16):
- “A woman 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 the noble qualities, with which (the Creator) has endowed her, 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 not only men, but 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.
Heroism and sacrifice of Sikh women
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 beautiful 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), The Sikh Scriptures reject it.
- “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)
A 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 shabad, “burn themselves along with their dead husbands: [but they need not, for] if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive.”
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, but as of yet they have not been allowed to participate in the institution of the Panj Piares and the Panj Piares' duties in the Pahul ceremony.
Quotes by Scholars
- Equality of women
- Primary Beliefs and Principles
- Sikh Beliefs
- Mai Bhago
- Chali Mukte
- Battle of Muktsar
- A Critical Analysis Baldev Singh Ph.D.
- 1. Robert O. Ballou : The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 237-241.
- 2. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, translator : The Meaning of Glorious Koran, Mentor Book, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario, 1924, p. 53, Surah II, 223-228.
- 3. Kanwaljit Kaur : Sikh Women, Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1992, p. 96.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Guru Granth Sahib : p 73.
- 6. Ibid. : p. 1268.
- 7. Prof. Prabhjot Kaur : Women's Liberation Movement and Gurmat, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 1997, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, p.76.
- 8. Guru Granth Sahib, p.788.
- 9. Ibid., p. 787.
- 10. Kanwaljit Kaur : op. cit., p. 99.
- 11. Alice Basarke : Where Are the Women ?, Current Thoughts on Sikhism, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1996, p, 265.
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Ibid.
- 14. Ibid.
- 15. Sabdarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
- 16. Baig, Tara Ali, India’s Women Power. Delhi, 1976
- 17. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society, Portland, Oregon, 1974
- 18. Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge, 1994
Above adapted from article By G. S. Talib
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