For many Sikhs, one of the most common points of confusion is the way in which we think about ourselves in relation to Waheguru. It is not uncommon for new and old Sikhs alike to grapple with the implications a panentheistic worldview has on our sense of self. This is made even more difficult for those of us born/brought up/living in the west (North America, Europe and Australia) because we are surrounded by a culture which has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy, and in many instances it could not be further away from the position of Sikh tradition on the same matter. In this instance, that is certainly the case. The manner in which human beings (and all life forms, really) are conceptualized relating to God is diametrically opposed to how we are taught to view ourselves before Waheguru. In this post, we want to draw the reader’s attention to the sovereignty of Sikh thought when compared to its western counterpart on the topic of one’s true identity as a human in this universe.

To begin, it is important to understand what the west’s general position is on this subject. In the simplest terms possible, Judeo-Christian philosophy proposes a version of monotheism where there is remains an immovable barrier between God and the universe. The galaxies, solar systems and planets are creation while God is the creator, in the same way as a table is created by a man or woman. The table is designed by the human and the universe is designed by God, but the two remain separate and their existence does not overlap. This idea eventually led to the view of the universe as comparable to a mechanical clock (“the clockwork universe”), where everything operates predictably governed by natural laws and physical constants and where human beings (you, myself and everyone else) are nothing more than organic, biological machines born into a hostile world in which we are constantly struggling to ensure our survival. Some of this has also been covered in a previous article, on the relationship of the Sikh Gurus with Waheguru.

Sikhi does away with this notion and puts forward a very different proposition: that there is no barrier between creator and creation to begin with. As Sri Guru Granth Sahib tells us, “The Creation is in the Creator, and the Creator is in the Creation, totally pervading and permeating all places.” In this view, the existence of the universe is intimately tied with Waheguru. God is not an entity seated on a throne watching the events unfold in the universe from up high. Quite the contrary, Waheguru is the singular essence permeating every aspect of our reality. Nothing exists outside of Akal Purakh (Timeless Being) because there is nothing but this Oneness in existence. God then is not an overlord sitting in the heavens watching your every move as you fight to survive in a chaotic, often times cold world. Waheguru is instead an inexplicably powerful creative entity which is eternal in existence and infinite in its grandeur, but at the same time, so close, so warm and loving, and so intimately understanding of the human condition and emotion that it guides every beat in our hearts and every breath through our bodies.

To understand this conceptual shift in practical terms, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib employs various metaphors and analogies to drive home the point. Perhaps the simplest metaphor used in Gurbani is that of waves rising from the ocean. We are told on multiple occasions that “The expanse of this creation is Your work, O God, my Lord and Master, Life of the entire universe, united with all.. Countless waves rise up from the water, and then they merge into the water again.” One way to understand our connection with Waheguru is to compare it with the ocean and the waves. The ocean is but one, yet it gives rise to countless waves, over and over again. A wave is formed, rises up, remains distinguishable from the rest of the ocean for a certain period of time, and then drops back down and is absorbed into the greater body of water from which it originated. This is similar to our relationship with Waheguru. It is almost as if we are all individual waves in the Ocean that of Oneness. We were formed in the womb of our mothers, 'rose up' at the time of our birth, remain distinguishable from the rest of the Ocean (at least from our perspective) for the period of time that makes up our life, and then upon our departure from this world, merge back into the spirit of Waheguru from whence we came.

The tenth spiritual master of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, wrote a piece called ‘Akal Ustat’ (Praise of the Immortal) which contains further metaphors fleshing out this concept. “As sparks flying out of a flame Fall back on the fire from which they rise; As dust rising from the earth Falls back upon the same earth; As waves beating upon the shingle Recede, and in the ocean mingle; So from God come all things under the sun And to God return when their race is done.” The Guru is highlighting the circular nature of existence in maya- there is birth and then there is death; rising up from the ocean and receding back into it; separation from Waheguru and then uniting once more with the Supreme Light. We may feel ourselves separated for the time being, but we must not delude ourselves by being so caught up in this illusion that we forget we must return to the One from which we came. And if we do not forget this, then as the Guru says, “O Nanak, you shall return to your true home with honor.

This leads perfectly into our next example. The Guru tells us “The world is a drama, staged in a dream. In a moment, the play is played out.” Here, our lives, in the world we live in, the world we think is so ‘real’, are being compared to the dreams we experience at night. This is a continuation of the same idea from the previous example, that of the importance of not being caught in illusions. And is there any greater illusion than the world you enter lying on your bed after the sun has gone down? No matter how real it seems, when your eyes open at daybreak you are able to see it for being the figment of your imagination that it is. It is not real because you wake up from it, but do we not eventually leave this world as well? We leave that world lying on your bed every morning when the sun comes up, but we will also leave this world one day lying on our deathbeds. 

But who is doing the dreaming, and if this world and its events (including our lives) really is a drama, then who is doing the acting? “This drama belongs to the Lord; He performs it, and He watches over it.” “In His own play, He Himself is the Actor. He produces His plays with infinite variety.”  This 'drama', this 'dream' belongs to Waheguru. It is being acted out/'dreamt' by Waheguru ("He Himself is the Actor"), and there is no limitation on what Waheguru can and cannot dream, there is in fact "infinite variety". Keep in mind this is an analogy being used to convey an idea; the Guru is not literally suggesting that Waheguru is sleeping the same way we do at night time. But the point being made, in other words, is essentially this: the universe is a marvelous play, the grandest of them all. This play is a dream in the sense that it will one day end but until it does, we are all its characters and Waheguru is the actor.

The link between character and actor is the final lesson here. “The actor stages the play, playing the many characters in different costumes; but when the play ends, he takes off the costumes, and then he is one, and only one.” Every character (life form) in this play (the universe) is being played by Waheguru, the sole actor. This is the cornerstone for the Sikh idea of “true identity”. Because if we are characters and Waheguru is the actor, then it means that deep down inside, fundamentally, in each and every one of us, Waheguru resides. With this paradigm then, Sikhi teaches us our faces are masks and our physical bodies garbs, that underneath our exterior perceptions of ourselves there is only the One, without fear, without hatred and without sadness. Therefore, when Sikhi speaks of being caught in ego, it is speaking of being caught up in the illusion of the character (our worldly personas) being the true self, and forgetting the actor (Waheguru) underneath wearing the mask and costume. As Alan Watts once said, “the Real You is not a puppet that life pushes around.” The Real You is not a poor-little-me born into a hostile, dark world, rushing from the delivery room to the crematorium and all the while struggling to survive. The Real You, deep down inside, is that singular essence which permeates every aspect of our reality. All our different bodies (costumes) are simply vesicles of perception through which Waheguru, the Eternal Oneness, can act out and experience this Play of Life with infinite variety. And when this dream ends at the time of our departure from the world, when our role in the play is over and the costume comes off, then the ego may be gone but the True Identity remains forever.

A fun practice to try: Next time you're out in public, sitting class, work, the bus stop or anywhere else, try to relax, clear your mind, control your breath and focus your mind on Waheguru. Then, look around at the people surrounding you. Look at them as if their faces are masks and their clothes the costumes in this Play of Life. Focus on the fact that there is only One actor underneath all the disguises, living and experiencing the world through all these different personas. Remember that at the most fundamental level, there is no difference between you or they. Each one of them is the Real You, experiencing the drama of the universe from a unique perspective. And this True Identity will live on forever, in complete bliss and uninterrupted happiness. As Guru Nanak Dev ji put it so eloquently in Japji Sahib, Waheguru is “Beautiful, True and Eternally Joyful.

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