SUFFERING: THE SIKH UNDERSTANDING, EXPERIENCE AND RESPONSE

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THE SIKHS- A FEW WORDS

The Sikh faith originated in the Indian sub-continent. Guru Nanak [b.1469], the founder of the faith spent over twenty years traveling far and wide to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Iraq, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Tibet and in between spreading his message of love and prayer. He and the succeeding nine Gurus established several communities where the believers lived, in a shared quest for spiritual fulfillment, as mutually supportive fraternity(s) of endeavor, equality, faith, affirmation, trust, service and charity.

Sikhs today, almost twenty two million globally, are resident in almost all the continents. Even though majority of the Sikh population continues to be in Punjab, India, they have sizable populations in Australia, U.K., U.S.A, Canada, Malaysia, Thailand, and East Africa.

Sikhs are amongst the earliest immigrants to the US from the South Asian region. One early immigrant who came to the US in 1899 at the age of one, recently died in CA at the age of 103. Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh, was member of the US Congress in 50’s/60’s. Around 500,000 Sikhs now living in the US are recognizably productive and law abiding members of the American society.

Sikhs have, in their relatively short history, have had their experience of suffering – persecution, ethnic cleansing, repression, discrimination et al. They also have experienced a great many successes including a vast kingdom in North West India, the last one to be annexed by the British in consolidating their rule over the sub-continent.

The primary Sikh scriptural resources include Guru Granth Sahib[1], the living Guru of the Sikhs. It contains the compositions written by the Sikh Gurus as also by some Hindu and Muslim saints of the time. Almost all the compositions are written in poetry and set to Ragas. The Dasam Granth[2]contains the writings of the tenth Guru and several scholars, poets in his court.

THE FAITH AND ITS BELIEFS – BRIEFLY

The Sikhs believe that there is but one God – creator, doer; kind, benevolent, caring, loving, sustaining; fearless, just, forgiving. His creation is real and not illusory and everything works in His will. Human being, endowed with ability to make personal choices, has been given a unique position among God’s creation.

In Sikh metaphysical thought God is both transcendent and immanent. In this non-dualistic approach evil has no separate existence. The faith is life affirming and persuasion is for a life lived purposefully, active, involved, responsible, sharing, caring, ethical, prayerful. Even though all humans emanate from the same light, they are born in different circumstances determined by their karma.Depending on their karma, they are endowed with their inherent instincts as also the starting points and some pre-destined rewards or suffering in their lives.

The human body is infused with life when God places soul in it. God concurrently endows the human with individual will which is limited by human faculties and therefore effective to things phenomenal. The individual will alienates man from God and also becomes a potential source of conflict between men including at individual and collective levels. The negative tendencies of individual will are considered the source of all evil and suffering in life. Yet in spite of all its negative propensities, individual will is capable of leaning towards God through conscious effort. Our choices, our effort, our actions thus are important determinants of our fate.

The Sikh scripture is replete with references to suffering. At one place four manifestations of suffering are identified – separation, hunger, agony of death and disease. At another place three types of ailments – arising from body, mind or doubt – are mentioned. There are extensive references to suffering inherent in certain societal mores resulting in institutionalized practices that cause untold pain and deprivation to the affected group.

Given the limitations of any classification of this vast and complex human experience, for our purposes today, we will focus on the enigmatic, random suffering: spiritual, moral and physical that may seem so much a part of our lives. But first we will look at the Sikh view on suffering, our own or of others, selectively caused by humans on others.

SOCIETAL ILLS AND SUFFERING

Why and What?

There is so much suffering that individuals, groups, communities may have to bear because of factors related to prevailing, dominant societal mores. Instances of such factors are:

  • Differential treatment meted out to those with different religious, political or cultural persuasion;
  • Religiously sanctioned intra-faith and inter-faith discrimination
  • Apathetic, corrupt, oppressive, unjust governance apparatus;
  • Pervasive inequities and inequality;
  • Prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating and so on.

Examples of such suffering are not lacking in history or in the contemporary world. The magnitude and intensity of suffering can be gauged from the well-documented accounts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the last [20th] century; the plight of women under Taliban; the centuries old discrimination against the lower castes in the Indian society; the continuing deprivation of a number of original peoples across the world; the contrasting images of opulence and degrading levels of poverty across the globe; the horrid slaughter of the innocent – Sep.11 being a telling example – and so on.

The Sikh View

Sikhism is very strongly against religion being used for or providing cover for social or political dominance. Nanak was concerned about ethical purity and commitment to universal and humanistic values. In his social philosophy, social and human concerns and purposeful action for such concerns was the test for true religiosity. The Sikh view on societal ills is rooted in these fundamental premises

We will briefly refer to some of the societal ills of the times that caused tremendous suffering, pain and isolation on the affected and the Gurus sensitivity and response to such practices.

 CASTE HEIRARCHY

The ancient religiously sanctioned Indian practice of stratification of the society along caste lines had resulted in consigning the members of lower castes to live in sub human conditions, performing menial work from generation to generation, denied education and even the right to worship. Nanak strongly opposed the practice and his life is full of demonstrated belief to promote equality. Guru Gobind Singh’s nash doctrine introduced at the time of creation of the Khalsa made repudiation of caste and acceptance of all humans as one, a component of Sikh baptismal. Categorical rejection of caste system by the Sikh Gurus and Sikh institutions alleviated such suffering for millions and changed their lives. Even though some caste connections have survived in the Sikh society, they are not degrading or constraining type.

WOMEN’S STATUS

The place of women in the society was another such practice. The Gurus gave them equal status; encouraged their education; prohibited them from covering their faces in congregation; repudiated the practice of sati, promoted widow remarriage; rejected the belief that only male incarnation can achieve liberation; and gave them leadership roles in Sikh dioceses and full, unfettered participation in worship. Sikh women did find their voice early but I will hesitate to assert that cultural change has kept in sync with the persuasion.

LINGUISTIC HEGEMONY

The Gurus also freed their followers from the linguistic and cultural hegemony created by the practice of allowing only the elitist upper castes to learn Sanskrit, the language of scriptures by writing and preaching in the spoken tongue. The result opening the bliss of singing God’s praises to each and every one. It did relieve people’s exclusion from the domain of the clergy at the time. However with the spread of Sikhs and Sikhism in distant places, the problem may need revisiting.

INTER RELIGIOUS ACCEPTANCE

The life and teachings of Nanak are possibly a very unique experiment in inter religious relations. He had numerous dialogues with leaders of all persuasions during his extensive travels.[3][4]Of his two traveling companions, one was a Hindu and the other Muslim. His message to all was to be good practitioners of their own persuasion. The Gurus included the writings of some Hindu and Muslim saints in the Sikh scripture. The Sikhs revere these as much as the writings of the Gurus not inhibited by the usual religious parochial limitations. Nanak was also against religious debates turning into conflicts of civilizations – crusades, jihads – aimed at political hegemony. The Sikh rule, when it came, was marked by absence of inter-religious conflict or conversions.

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE, JUSTICE AND SUFFERING OF THE INNOCENT

The issues of social involvement, equality, justice, freedom of conscience were important in the teachings of Nanak and his successor Gurus. The Sikh persuasion is that social evils must be confronted and suffering of the people alleviated. The believer should not be an idle by-stander but be involved pro-actively on the side of righteousness. Injustice, oppression, discrimination at the societal level must touch the conscience of all. In the ideal social environment no one causes any body to be afraid nor is anyone fearful[5]and the ideal rule is where the rulers are just and modest.

In the group of compositions by Guru Nanak known as babarbani the hymns are outpourings of a soul touched by the horrible suffering inflicted on the hapless civilians, men, women and children, which he witnessed, in the battles between the invading forces of Babar and the ruling Lodhi Afghans. He was also deeply troubled by the insensitivity of the officialdom and clergy to the problems of the people. His canvas is the larger social and historical perspective of moral decline, political corruption, injustice et al. In a way the destructive role of Babar seems to be seen as an unwitting instrument of the Divine will to punish the errant Lodhis.[6] The Guru’s rage at the suffering of innocent, weak and helpless directed even at God is a poignant expression of Sikh response to suffering of the innocent and the helpless.

 

The Gurus defended these principals, two of them by accepting death as alternative: one for refusal to comply with discriminatory, selectively imposed, punitive monetary demands upon the congregation and the second to protect forcible conversion of Kashmiri Brahmins.

DENIAL AND AUSTERITY INDUCED SUFFERING

Before we move on, we want to touch on one more aspect. As a life affirming faith, Sikhs are enjoined to not choose the path of denials, austerities, renunciation or asceticism. Ritualism, superstition etc are not commended. Here are some annotated quotes from the holy Granth:

  • Why do you go searching Him in the woods when He dwells within you
  • Fasting, pilgrimages, staying thirsty, hungry or unclad does not earn merit
  • The Lord is not realized by rituals, austerities, continence or pilgrimages
  • Omens, good and bad, affect only those who do not remember the Lord
  • By not eating you only cause pain to your body
  • Remembering the One renders all penance(s) unnecessary
  • Austerities may constrain the physical and celibacy restrain it but the mind’s fancy is allover
  • To think that a holy dip will wash away, always, all one’s wrongs, sins.

THE PERSONAL/WORLDLY SUFFERING

Apart from suffering caused by determinate reasons, there is so much more to human suffering which bears no barriers and quite often the causes for which are elusive if not totally unfathomable. We now turn to this relatively inexplicable personal/worldly suffering

Universal

Suffering, says Nanak, is universal. We may think that we alone are the victims of suffering, but when on looking around, we find sorrow in every home. Lost in love and attachment of material world no one seems content. In fact every one is beset with their personal woes and even the monarch of mighty kingdom is not happy. It seems one is born to live in pain and pleasure till one’s death. It must be Thy writ, says the Guru, that pain and pleasure exist together and both bind our lives.

Why and what?

Sikhs believe that during transmigration the soul carries over certain instincts and its balances of good and bad karma that result in the pain and pleasure in our life. The choices that we make thus have an abiding effect. Even as we crave for comfort and happiness, we should realize that God created pain along with pleasure in our lives and we should be accepting of suffering, as God’s will.

Individual will or ego is considered a major contributor to human suffering. It is susceptible to evil instincts and tendencies. The beings acting in egotism, bound by pleasure and pain, keep on committing sins. The craving to satisfy worldly desires does not diminish and continues to create tension in our lives. Entangled in attachment with mother, father, spouse, and children; with religious rituals; with vocations; with businesses; with wealth; with the whole world, we live and perish in this bondage.

Separation from God is the greatest suffering and all other sufferings arise from our being forgetful of Lord. As one engages in worldly pleasures, suffering starts and all sorts of ailments begin to descend. Spiritual ignorance, false ego, duality, and the feelings of selfhood delude man’s intelligence and create doubts. Doubts give rise to tension, indecision and anxiety. This troubled condition is not easy to cure and is not dispelled by mere talking. Like the deer wanders about in the forest in delusion seeking the source of musk, the individual also keeps suffering chasing false dreams.

The fear of the unknown, death and disease is another cause for suffering. The Guru says that one does not know of the future but if one sensed the torments ahead, one would not relish the joys of the present.

Prayer is important to find peace, for healing, to get strength to tolerate suffering and its consequences. Concentration of mind is a pre-requisite to eliminate mental tension. Contemplation on the divine Word helps to dispel doubt, eradicate sinful tendencies, conquer egotism, dispel fear and transport one to a state of celestial peace.

To share with others is commended. When interests are altruistic, thoughts and actions transcend to become universal and promote humility. Pursuit of learning alone does not bring equipoise unless one can control desires. The society of virtuous helps cultivate temperance and non-attachment with the worldly. This helps lead to contentment, altruistic tendencies and moral goodness.

The faithful are enjoined to recognize that in His will, pain andpleasure come together and that humans cannot run away from either but must exercise balance in dealing with both the states. The persuasion is to absorb oneself in prayer, live in peace and amity, perform one’s worldly duties and yet remain detached. The battle is fought within and if one wins that struggle, there is no more to win.

SPIRITUAL GAINS?

Spiritual gains of suffering come from ability to make something good come from it. Perhaps some of it is inevitable. As Raja Sir Daljit Singh says ‘the years have sped their way with their joys and sorrows. The sorrows that came have in particular subdued attachment and aversion and to some extent cleared the mirror of mind for the perception of truth.’[7]

Bhai Veer Singh believes that learning to live in acceptance of God’s will can be the highest spiritual gain from suffering and identifies four stages in this progression:

  • Accept that the pain and separation are result of karma
  • Finding oneself utterly helpless, take the suffering as God’s will
  • Trust that God is every one’s friend and that in this pain may lie some good
  • And thus reach the stage when living in His will becomes a joyous experience, a journey of hope.[8]

Suffering as it touches our inner life can have a moral significance. Suffering comes to all. Rich and privileged are not spared. Thus whereas a state of happiness may make a man drift away from the Divine, pain and suffering may teach humble acceptance of one’s limitations, seeking Divine strength for patient endurance in prayer.

SUFFERING RELIEVED!

Relief from suffering is like a heavy weight lifted – it brings forth a sense of joy, celebration, peace, thankfulness, comfort, optimism, restored honor/dignity, security, fearlessness etc. The experience of emerging from a state of suffering is poignant, relieving, reassuring, renewing and the buoyant human responses have found lyrical expression in the Granth. As a sample, I have picked some metaphors used by Guru Arjan in the hymns included in ‘Dukh Bhanjani Sahib – prayer for the eradication of suffering’. Sample these:

  • Joy – happy heart bursting into a blossom
  • Celebration – (like) the bliss of heavenly music
  • Peace – sleep restored, my mind calm, tranquil
  • Thanksgiving – travails of my birth and life accepted
  • Comfort – gone the hot blistery wind
  • Optimism – anxiety gone, heart brimming with expectation
  • Honor – dignity restored –God to the rescue of His slave’s dignity
  • Power – oh to have subdued the mighty
  • Protection – death and misfortune can’t come close
  • Fearlessness – mind and body comforted, afraid no more

GURBANI PRAYERS RE SUFFERING

Recitation of Sukhmani, composed by Guru Arjan, is believed to relieve sorrow and suffering, bring harmony and fulfill desires. A very popular prayer, in rag Gauri, the composition is marked by its lyrical quality. Consisting of 24 cantos – each canto having 8 hymns of five couplets each, its recitation takes upwards of an hour. It is not uncommon to come across several groups of devotees, especially women, meeting on a regular basis for a recitation of the prayer. The opening couplet of the prayer says – remember, remember God and let joy descend, your anguish and agony gone. The prayer ends on a similar note – one, in whom the Divine Name and love of the Lord abounds, his heart will become the abode of God. Agony of the cycle of birth and death relieved, he will attain liberation —-.

The prayer dukh bhanjhani sahib referred earlier is also called ‘The Protective Hymns.’ It is a short prayer, taking about fifteen minutes to recite. Very touching, uplifting, devotees often recite it or listen to it when seeking Divine support in sickness or other trying situations.

Three more compositions in the Granth relate to personal suffering in a direct manner. Alahnian, Nanak’s compositions in rag Vadhans proclaim the sovereignty of God’s will, bring home the reality of death and encourage the devotee to accept its inevitability. Customary sorrowful singing and wailing is deprecated and the believers are advised ‘not to sing dirges of loss and sorrow but to ponder over the Divine play’.

The compositions by Arjan entitled birhare in rag Asa deal with the longing inherent in separation, in being apart, not together. The term birha means separation and the hymns laud the everlasting true love [of the Lord]. The lyrical expressions reflect our own inner feelings. Sample: ‘ I cannot put in words the ecstatic joy and fulfillment running through my being when I get a glimpse of Thee.’

Another anthology of hymns prescribed as part of a Sikh’s daily observance is shabad hazare – again providing expression to a devotee’s pangs of suffering due to separation from the Divine. The lyrics deeply inspire love for God.

SIKH SUFFERING IN HISTORY

Sikh history demonstrates a continuum of suffering. The martyrdom of the fifth Guru Arjan was followed by a period of strained relations with the satraps of the rulers at Delhi. The Sixth Guru suffered a long period of incarceration in the Gwalior fort. Conditions under the rule of Aurangzeb became intolerable for the Hindus and the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur accepted their plea to take up their cause that resulted in his choice of death by decapitation rather than submit to conversion to Islam. In the period that followed, the tenth Guru Gobind Singh lost two sons in battle and his other two infant sons were bricked alive. Sikhs inspired by their religious teaching to resist and if need be fight oppression came increasingly in conflict with the tyrannical regime. The first half of the 18th century was a very trying period for Sikhs when, in the see saw struggle Sikh men, women and children were killed in thousands.

Sikh pursuit of the ideals of freedom and justice has been at their considerable personal suffering. They were in the forefront of Indian freedom movement and constituted over four fifth of those who lost their lives in the struggle. It is also significant that the first immigrants from India to North America were over 90% Sikhs who in late 19th/early 20th century came here searching for personal freedom and to promote the cause of independence for their motherland. It is a different matter that they learnt in time that their wishes could not be horses.

Sikhs were the only community to organize continuous peaceful protests against curtailment of civil liberties by Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency Rule in Seventies and thousands were arrested and imprisoned. Of the 140,000 protestors detained, 60,000 were Sikhs[9]. Subsequently in 1984, thousands of Sikhs were killed following Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her Sikh security personnel. Even Sep. 11 aftermath became a scary experience for Sikhs. They were intimidated, harassed and even suffered one dead. Suffering, like for some other groups, has been a significant part of Sikh historical experience.

SIKH RESPONSE TO SUFFERING

It is difficult to characterize what may be specifically Sikh response to suffering. I am therefore falling back on historical experience and some other instances as illustrations of the way the Gurus and the community handled suffering.

Perhaps the best examples of Sikh response to suffering can be found in the writings and life of the Gurus. Guru Arjan’s life is an example in submitting to extraordinary pain and torture as God’s will. On the banks of river Ravi in Lahore, in the heat of May/June, the Guru was put through torture of sitting on a hot plate while scorching sand was poured over his bare body under the orders of Emperor Jehangir. A Muslim saint, Mian Mir, whom the Guru had asked earlier to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple, was very distraught at seeing what was being done to the Guru. He sought the Guru’s permission to intercede[10] with the authorities in Delhi but the Guru answered by continuing to recite ‘Sweet is Thy will to me, gift of Thy name Nanak seeks of Thee.’

Guru Amar Das, when his hour was near, told those around him that he would not appreciate anyone crying on his passing; his persuasion was for them to sing God’s praises for therein lays the liberation for all.

Guru Har Gobind when offered to be released from incarceration would not leave until the others in detention were freed. Finally the authorities accepted that all those who could hold on to the Guru’s raiment could depart as his entourage. The Guru threw an oversized shawl over his shoulders and the 52 princes [who were the others detained] found their way to freedom. “There remains, in the historic fort at Gwalior, a shrine — where a Mohammedan Fakir sits in hallowed memory of some great one of whom he only knows the name – bandi chhor

[deliverer of freedom]

”, says Puran Singh.[11]

Guru Gobind Singh when his all his four sons were lost in one day consoled his grieving wife saying, “ what if four are gone away, thousands [Sikhs] are there to stay”.

Prayer and altruistic activity mark the remembrance of painful episodes by Sikhs. For example the Sikhs offer cooled drinks to the passers-by on the occasion, in mid summer, of Guru Arjan’s martyrdom. Sikh prayers remind them thatGod’s name provides succor in all suffering. In their daily prayer Sikhs ask for fortitude and strength to live in God’s will and seek well-being of all the mankind.

Bhai Veer Singh, the savant poet philosopher says, ‘In pain, beseech the lord; in happiness, be thankful to Him and when mind is relatively calm, remember His name[12].’

Historically the Sikh response to suffering arising out of societal ills has been one of activism using persuasion and peaceful means. They however have not shied away from taking to arms in self-defense or for just causes.

In the contemporaneous world I have witnessed some things that in some ways may be symptomatic of Sikh response to suffering. Sikhs were disproportionately impacted by the death, destruction and dislocation caused by the partition of India in 1947. Even though almost half the total Sikh population became destitute and homeless overnight, within two decades Punjab became the richest state and Sikhs among the economically advantaged. Their writings and art of the time do express nostalgia for what was but little rancor and generally is optimistically inclined.

Next it is a fairly common observation that there is hardly any Sikh ever seen begging – in a society where poverty, infirmity and exploitation have forced so many to do it. Not that there are no poor or handicapped Sikhs, nor that they are spared exploitation.

I may also share an experience in my visit to India earlier this year. I went visiting one of my aunts whom I had not seen in over a decade. I found on arrival that she was in deep agony suffering from intestinal cancer. It was good I visited her because she was gone the next day. At her funeral service, a sant running an institution for the destitute children was among those who eulogized her. He said that some days back he received a call from her family late at night that she wanted to see him. He did not understand why but when he reached he was taken to her. She apologized for having inconvenienced him but said she just wanted to hand him something and she gave, wrapped in a piece of cloth all her jewelery for the school.

And then there is the notorious Sikh response when they are caused hurt or suffering. Many of them may not wait for the courts, much less the divine justice!

I may however say that in their hour of peril or pain, as individuals or as a community, the Sikhs turn to the Gurdwara – recognition if it is needed that the ultimate Sikh response to suffering is seeking strength and resolve through prayer.

Thank you for your time and patience and I pray that God helps, guides and motivates us all to do our wee bit to reduce pain of the suffering and work for  – sarbat da bhala– well-being of one and all.

Farmington, CT

Sep. 30, 2002

 
*The author is a former Principal, COO & CF&AO of the largest independent provider of pre-hospital health care services in Connecticut. Earlier, he was Professor, Chair Operations Management and Dean, Administrative Staff College of India, Bella Vista, Hyderabad; consultant to the United Nations and several multilateral organizations; Chief Planning & Evaluation, Department of Defense Production; Leader Tech Team (First Secretary), Indian High Commission in the UK; Colonel, Indian Army &c. 
 
Actively involved with Connecticut Committee for Inter-religious Understanding, The Inter-religious Eco-Justice Network and several other organizations, he is also a past president of Connecticut Sikh Association. He has been working for several years on sharing information about the Sikh faith, culture, and values in the contemporary setting with the larger American community through participation in discussion groups, conversations, seminars, media appearances and writing.
 

He can be reached on phone at (860) 673-6381 or by e-mail at [email protected]. His address is 65 Lido Road, Farmington, CT, 06085.


[1] Initial compilation, Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Nanak, 1604. Compositions of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the   ninth Nanak added by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Nanak.

[2] Compiled by Bhai Mani Singh, after passing away of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, authorship of specific texts still not fully established.

[3] For numerous instances of such conversations see Puran Singh, The Book of Ten Masters, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 1995

[4] Also see sidh gosti in Guru Granth Sahib

[5] Tarlochan Singh in The Sikh Perspective of Human Values, Gurnam Kaur (Ed.), Patiala, 1998

[6] The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Patiala, 1995, p.238-41, vol. I

[7] Raja Sir Daljit Singh, Guru Nanak, Guru Nanak Mission Society, Ludhiana p. xv

[8] Bhai Veer Singh, Gurmukh Sikhya [Punjabi], New Delhi, p.116-7

[9] Sangat Singh, The Sikhs in History, Uncommon Books, New Delhi, 1999, p. 361

[10] Macaulife, The Sikh Religion, Vol. III, p. 99

[11] Op. cit., p.87

[12] Op. cit., p. 149

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