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In Sikhism, ideas about wealth, poverty, and social justice are closely connected. To understand why these concepts matter for ethical behaviour, let's look at some key beliefs of Sikhs and the social and economic structure in 15th-century Punjab. We'll also touch on how the idea of social justice has influenced the Sikh society in Punjab, India, and beyond.

Our exploration starts with Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who emphasized ethical values. For instance, when discussing the roles of kings and administrators, Guru Nanak pointed out issues like greed, sin, falsehood and lust. He metaphorically described the rulers as tigers and officials as dogs, highlighting a lack of consideration for the well-being of the people. This perspective reflects Guru Nanak's concern for justice in a world filled with moral challenges.

Socio-economic Structure of Punjabi Society

The Sikh tradition developed in a society where people were divided into castes based on their birth. In this system, your social status was determined by the caste you were born into, and there was little interaction between different caste groups. The wealth and power in the country was controlled by high caste groups like theBrahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.

The Sikh Gurus strongly criticized the caste system because they saw it as promoting exclusivity and inequality. The Shudra caste, also known as untouchables, faced complete exclusion from the  society. They were even denied the right to worship at temples and forced to live in separate areas.

Rejecting the caste system and its values, Guru Nanak expressed,‘Nonsense is the caste system and nonsense is the grandeur of name and fame arising of it. All creatures are under the protection of the same one God.' [GGS: Vaar Sri Raag].

Oneness of God

The main idea of Sikhism is the belief in one God. This is clearly stated in the Mool Mantar and other writings by Guru Nanak. It teaches that everyone, no matter their background, is created by the same God. Everything in the universe, seen or unseen, represents the Divine and follows the Divine Order. This means that Sikh institutions like the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (holy book), gurdwara (place of worship), sangat (group worship), and langar (community meal) all share the central message of the oneness of God.

Wealth and Poverty in Sikhism

Let's explore how wealth and poverty are viewed in the Sikh tradition. To understand this, we first need to look at the Punjabi words for these concepts.

In Punjabi, wealth is called "maya," which can mean money, wealth, the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, illusion, magical power, a bubble, deceit, or mere show. According to Bhai Kahn Singh's Mahan Kosh (Encyclopedia of Punjabi Literature), a "mayadhari" is someone who worships wealth and sees it as their own.

In Sikhism, the idea of maya or wealth has two dimensions: material wealth and the illusion that portrays the world as both real and temporary. The Sikh Gurus strongly disapprove of attachment to material wealth and the greed for accumulating more. Guru Amar Das, for instance, emphasizes that "the worshipper of maya/wealth is utterly blind and deaf." This suggests a condemnation of those who prioritize wealth over spiritual values in Sikh teachings. 

Thinking about how holding onto wealth can be harmful, Guru Amar Das describes it as a dangerous she-serpent that clings to the entire world. Those who serve this serpent end up being consumed by it. [GGS:510].

Guru Nanak also strongly criticized the accumulation of wealth, suggesting that it is only possible through unjust and high-handed actions. He believed that wealth, stained with sins, doesn't accompany the hoarder after death.

A well-known story in Sikh tradition involves Guru Nanak meeting a wealthy man named Duni Chand. This story highlights Guru Nanak's concern about greed . Duni Chand, proud of his riches and aspiring to become the richest man in Lahore, met Guru Nanak. The Guru gave him a needle and asked him to keep it and give it back in the next world. Nanak challenges him, questioning how he plans to take this small item to the afterlife, emphasizing the futility of amassing riches. The tale unfolds as Guru Nanak urges Duni Chand to share his wealth with the needy, embracing charity's transformative power.

Does Sikhism discourage making money? Let's explore this by examining the idea of poverty.

In simple terms, "poverty" or "gareebi" in Sikh teachings doesn't just refer to being economically poor. Instead, it's often used to symbolize humility. When Sikhs talk about being "gareeb" or poor, they mean being humble and meek. Guru Nanak even proudly describes himself as "gareeb" and "maskeen," emphasizing his humility and reliance on the divine: 'I am poor and humble, relying solely on your Naam (divine name).'

Guru Arjan also adopts the term "gareeb" for himself, expressing that the true support for the humble lies in the divine: 'For me, the meek one, the only true Support art Thou, O, my true Guru.'

So, in Sikhism, it's not about discouraging wealth creation but rather promoting a humble and meek approach to life, recognizing the importance of spiritual values over material wealth. 

The Concept of Social Justice in Sikhism

Understanding the concept of "dharmsal," a place for doing good deeds, is key to grasping the ideas of social justice and responsibility. The term itself is a combination of two words: "dharam," referring to religious, ethical, and social duties, and "sal," meaning a place of residence.

According to Guru Nanak's teachings, as expressed in his hymn Japji, the earth is considered a dharmsal established by God in the vast universe, and human life is seen as the highest form in God's kingdom. In Sikh beliefs, the doctrine of dharmsal guides everyday behavior. It emphasizes earning a living through honest and hard work and being willing to share one's earnings with others.

Guru Nanak emphasizes this point, stating that those who work honestly for their sustenance and are ready to share with others have discovered the true path. This teaching encourages a life of integrity, diligence, and generosity as essential components of one's daily conduct.

The notion of honesty and hard work 

The story of Malik Bhago and Lalo beautifully illustrates the importance of honesty and hard work in Sikh tradition. Once, Guru Nanak stayed with Lalo, a carpenter from the low caste. The village landlord, Malik Bhago, disapproved of Guru Nanak staying with Lalo because of his low social status. To address the issue, Malik Bhago invited Guru Nanak for a meal, but the Guru declined the offer. Unhappy with Guru Nanak's refusal, Malik Bhago summoned him again. This time, Guru Nanak went to Malik Bhago's mansion and explained why he had declined the meal:

‘Look, Malik Bhago! I am happy to stay at Lalo's house and eat his food which is earned with honest and hard work, while your food contains the blood of your workers who tirelessly work on your fields day and night.'

Guru Nanak really liked spending time with an honest and hardworking carpenter. He once said, "I prefer to be with the humble folks, even if they're considered low-caste. I don't care about being with important people. God's kindness is on those who take care of the less fortunate."

Guru Nanak smartly used ideas from both Hindu and Muslim traditions to talk about justice in all aspects of life. He emphasized the concept of haq halal, which means doing things right according to Islamic beliefs, especially in how we earn money. He strongly warned against taking what rightfully belongs to others, comparing it to Muslims eating pork and Hindus eating beef.

These teachings of the Gurus are still relevant today for Sikhs. Sikhs are known for being hardworking and successful in businesses, both in Punjab and around the world. The rise of wealthy Sikh individuals can be explained by their dedication to ethical principles like working honestly (kirat karo), remembering the divine (naam juppo), and sharing with those in need (wand chhako), as well as following the concept of haq halal.

The Gurus wanted the  people to become prosperous, so they built new towns like Amritsar, Tarantaran, and Kartarpur. They welcomed traders, craftsmen, and shopkeepers to settle in these towns. Thanks to this plan, Amritsar and Kartarpur became successful places for trade and business.

A faith that supports righteous actions 

In Sikhism, the world is seen as God's home, a sacred place to do good and follow the right path. Sikhs believe in actively participating in society and working for social justice. The Gurus, especially Guru Nanak, disagreed with the idea of withdrawing from society, as some yogis did, and instead praised those who lived among people and worked towards the ideals of dharmsal.

While Sikhs are encouraged to create wealth, they are taught to do so through ethical means. The Sikh code of discipline, known as Rehat Maryada, strongly opposes practices like gambling, emphasizing the importance of earning a living through honest work (kirat karni).

A key concept in Sikh tradition is daswandh, where individuals set aside one-tenth of their earnings for charitable purposes. This practice has made a significant impact, even in the Sikh community in Britain. Over two hundred gurdwaras in the country have been built with voluntary contributions. In Southall, a new gurdwara, claimed to be the largest outside India, was opened on the festival of Vaisakhi through community donations.

Gurdwaras play a crucial role as places for Sikh religious and cultural activities. They focus on teaching ethical values to young Sikhs and encouraging conversations between people of different faiths. Additionally, Sikhs living abroad support various educational and healthcare projects in Punjab and India. Through these efforts, Sikhs understand the concepts of wealth (maya) and poverty (humility or gareebi).

*Based on an article written by Sewa Singh Kalsi, published in SikhChic.com on 7th June 2010

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