Sikhism: The Post-Modern Religion of the World

Sikhism established and defended human rights along with caste, racial and gender equities


This paper focuses on the characteristics of post-modernism and emphasizes that Sikhism is really the post-modern religion of the world. It also discusses several issues of postmodernism such as human rights, racial and gender equities, multicultural and diversity issues, etc. that are specific to postmodern era and provide solutions from the perspective of Sikhism.

What is the Post Modern Era?

DrSandhu (29K)There has been a chain of interlinked eras marked by special characteristics and special names. Numerous and varied classifications have been presented from the historical viewpoints. But for brevity's sake and for our purpose here, I would like to identify only three major eras namely: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. The main thesis of this paper is to demonstrate that Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism, even though born in pre-modern era, was far ahead of time to present religious and spiritual solutions to our present day postmodern problems.

Pre-modern era, between fourteenth and seventeenth century, is also described as the renaissance period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activities. Cartesian-Kantian or modern era, encompassing eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is generally characterized as an era of rationalism, characterized by "individual subjectivity, interiority, and self-subsistence autonomy" (Downey, 1993, p. 746).

There seems to be no consensus about the beginning of the postmodern era. I venture to propose that the post-modern era began on October 24, 1945 after the Charter of the United Nations was signed at San Francisco in USA. After the colossal havoc, death and destruction caused by two world wars, it became quite clear that humans are not necessarily rational and the future of the whole humanity is doomed.

In the twentieth century more people died than all people put together in the previous centuries. Even at the cusp of the new millennium, September 11, 2001 tragedy caused by terrorism and current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the stunning reminders that humanity is in peril begging for survival. The prevalent world plight is reminiscent of Guru Nanak's words, "Jagat jalandha rakhle aapni kirpa dhar, "God! Please save this world, it is on fire."

Characteristics of Postmodernism and Attributes of Sikhism

In this section, I would like to discuss some unique features of postmodernism and propose that they are characteristically different from the previous era of modernism. I would also like to introduce Sikhism and describe some of its basic tenets as introduced by Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Since the central theme of this paper is to argue that Sikhism is the religion of the postmodern world, many lines from the Shri Guru Granth Sahib, will be cited to prove this point. Furthermore, I will present all information under various subheadings. These subheadings are intended to highlight postmodern concepts, followed by quotes from the Sikh scriptures.

1. Reality Transcends Sensual Experiences

Post-modernism has questioned the empirical methods of the modern era to search for the absolute reality. It contends that ultimate reality can never be found through senses and scientific instruments. According to a postmodernist, reality cannot be determined objectively, it is more complex than meets the eye.

Expressing a similar view from the perspective of Sikhism, Virk (2000) wrote, "Since the reality is trans-empirical, it cannot be known through sense experiences in the way in which empirical/ scientific knowledge is gained. Reality is comprehended through intuitive experience for it transcends both the rational and the sensory aspects of human experience" (p. 24).

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, asserted, "Jo dise so chalanhar," "what can be seen, must vanish" suggesting that objective reality is misleading. The supreme truth remains hidden beyond the reach of our senses that are capable of finding only the partial truth. In Sikhism, mysticism is considered a viable approach to gain the complete or the real knowledge.

Mysticism is a reality which is beyond the grasp of our senses. While describing the mystic world, Guru Nanak Dev Ji pointed out that "In this realm, one sees but without eyes; one listens but without ears; one walks but without the feet; one works but without the hands; one speaks but without the tongue; thus attaining life in death. O Nanak, one meets God after realization of the divine law."

Virk (2000) sums up the significance of mysticism pointing out that "the truth scripture speaks about is the direct outcome of the intuitive or mystic experience of the ancient seers. It contains what is borne out by their direct and authentic experience. The mystics seem to be able to attain non-ordinary states of consciousness in which they transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life to experience a multi-dimensional reality which is impossible to describe in ordinary language (p. 26).

According to Lyotard (1984), scientific and rationalist discourses during the postmodern era have lost their legitimacy. For example, quantum physics and chaos theory are some prime examples to demonstrate that so called science cannot make reliable predictions. Truth transcends the obvious.

2. Postmodern Era: An Age of Globalization

Due to a large number of significant technological advances in the postmodern era, the world is rapidly shrinking. Globalization has become the buzzword of this era. Some profound changes are taking place which are distinctly different from the modern era. Clearly, there is rethinking and reconfiguration of ideologies of the previous era. We are living in era of many tensions, confusions, and insecurities. Postmodern era can be described as an era of anxiety.

For this shrinking but volatile world, there is a dire need of one universal religion. As a matter of fact, from the gallery of many religions, Sikhism stands tall and distinct to fulfill this aspiration. Reverend H.L. Bradshaw's words describe adroitly such message of hope,

"Sikhism is a Universal world Faith., a message for all men. Sikhs must cease to think of their faith as just another good religion and must begin think in terms of Sikhism being the religion for this New Age. … The religion preached by Guru Nanak is the faith of the New Age. It completely supplants and fulfills all former dispensations of older religions. The other religions contain the truth, but Sikhism contains the fullness of truth."

After studying Guru Nanak's proclamation that "Hai nain Hindu, Hai nain Mussulman (There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman', Noel Q. King (2002) proposed that between this dichotomy there is a third something, tertium quid about Sikhism. I would like to add that this third something is very unique which is distinctly universal that deals with the whole humanity, not one special ethnic or religious group. As such, Guru Granth Sahib is truly the first interfaith scripture that is replete with universal messages for all humans inhabiting this planet earth.

3. Shattering Myths in Postmodern Era

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) described postmodernism in a nutshell as "the loss of meta-narrative." Meta-narrative here is defined as the myths by which humans organize their lives. In the postmodern era, many previous overarching stories that held civilizations and mindsets intact are deconstructed as governing and authoritative powers. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was clearly a revolutionary iconoclast of myths and hollow rituals. He also deconstructed many beliefs from previous religions such as that the earth is standing on the bull's head. Instead, he provided more logical explanations that not only the earth but also the whole universe is run by God's rules called "hukam."

4. Postmodern Issues and Sikhism

As a result of globalization, post-colonial awakening, technological innovations, and economic concerns, there are several issues that have become a very specific and major concern of the postmodern era. Such issues include global violence or terrorism, racial and gender inequities, diversity and multicultural issues, human rights violations, and eco-violence to a name a few.

I would like to discuss each issue mentioned above and present lines from Guru Granth Sahib Ji to illustrate how Sikh Gurus have already provided answers to our postmodern problems. In this sense, Gurbani is clearly postmodern in nature.

A. Human Rights Issues

At the end of the Second World War (1945), the world community came together to address some of the problems of the humanity through establishment of the United Nations Organization. This organization mainly focused on the issues of the human rights.

A cursory look at the Preamble of the United Nations Organization (1945) will make the readers wonder if many of its lofty ideals have been borrowed from Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The major emphasis on human rights, dignity and worth of the humans, and the equal rights of men and women as advocated in the charter of the UNO, have been the prime and central message of the Sikh Gurus dating back to the fifteen century. It seems that Shri Guru Nanak Ji had envisioned the basic problems of the postmodern humans 500 years ahead of time. Some lines from Gurbani are presented below to prove this point:

"Nanak naam chardi kala, tere bhane sarbat ka bhalla" is one of the much quoted lines from the daily prayer of a Sikh who prays for the welfare of all humans. Social justice, equity among races and genders, compassion for all people, and a voice against oppression are some of the hallmarks of Sikhism. Aval Allah noor uppya, kudrat ke sabh bande, another line from Guru Granth Sahib emphasizes the brotherhood of mankind.

B. Equal Status of Women

Sikhism is perhaps the first and the only religion of the world that has granted equal status to women. In Indian society, like everywhere else, women have been historically oppressed and severely degraded for centuries. A woman was referred as "man's shoe, the root of all evil, a snare, a temptress." (Kaur, 1992, p. 96).

Guru Nanak shattered the myth of implied inferiority and challenged women's second rate treatment. He questioned the rationale for treating women in a degrading manner,

In a woman, man is conceived,
From a woman he is born,
With a woman he is betrothed and married,
With a woman he contracts friendship.
Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born?

Tenth Guru, Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, named women as "kaur" or the crowned princess. Women's movement for equal rights in the postmodern era now, actually has roots in Sikhism.

C. Diversity Issues and Multiculturalism

There is much talk these days about diversity and multiculturalism. Two predominant and major underlying themes of multiculturalism are to promote equity and social justice. Five centuries ago, Guru Nanak preached the whole world as one large multicultural family. He proposed that all human beings regardless of their race, color, caste, and creed are equal.

Shri Guru Gobind Singh's line, " Manas ki jaat, sabhe ek hi pahichanbo" (All humans are equal) is the central theme in the Sikh ideology. According to Guru Nanak, the persons who love all humans as equals, are of the highest kind. Guru Sahib preached that in every heart it is the same God, none else than Him speaks from there. "Sabhe ghat Ram bole Rama bole. Ram bina ko bole re." (Guru Granth , p. 988).

According to Guru Nanak, God does not discriminate people by their sectarian religions such Hindus or Muslims. In response to Kazis' questions in Mecca, whether Muslims are superiors or Hindus, Guru Nanak declared,

Pushan phole kitab no Hindu vadda ke Musalmanoie.
Baba aakhe hazia shubh amlan bajhun dono roie.
(Bhai Gurdas, Var 1-33)

Those are superior who perform superior deeds. Without good deeds, people suffer regardless of their religious background. Guru Nanak also rejected every type of discrimination, whether it was based on the creed, color or caste. "Phakkar jaati, phakkar nao. Sabhna jian eka shao" (AGGS, M1, p. 83).

The following lines can be considered the centre piece of Guru Granth Sahib (page 1349) that highlight equality among all humans, the ultimate goal of multiculturalism,

Aval Allah noor uppaya, kudrat ke sabh bande.
Ek noor te sabh jagg upjya kaun bhale ko mande.

The same reflection of God is in every human. So how could one be recognized superior and the other one as inferior?

D. Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Alcohol and drug abuse are the scourge of the present era. Guru Nanak condemned the use of alcohol in a very logical message,

If one wants to enjoy ecstasy, he should "drink" the name of God,
And that is the way to realize Him. One should strictly avoid alcohol
By drinking which one loses control of one's faculties.
(Guru Granth Sahib, p. 554)

E. Violence and Terrorism in the Postmodern World

I believe that Guru Nanak's message is the most relevant to address the postmodern era's problems of violence and terrorism. According to Guru Nanak, humans have to shed their ego-centrism to combat religious and political conflicts. Leaders and people have to learn to take principled positions on divisive issues. They also have to learn how to self-discipline themselves. In Sikhism, kaam, krodh, lobh, moh, and ahinkar (lust, anger, greediness, attachment, and haughtiness) are considered as five main culprits that lead to problems in life. I believe that these are the same main reasons that cause conflicts at the national and international levels.

Guru Nanak's message is a message of hope. To make this world peaceful, it is important that people practice truthful living. Guru Nanak asserted that "Sachu oore sabh ko upper sach achar. (AGGS, M. 1, p. 62)," meaning that all else falls short of truth, yet, higher still is truthful living. Internal purity and moral conduct are highly prized in Sikhism. In addition, "Sikhism enjoined upon its followers to observe external as well as internal purity, eventually, isnan, customary bath in the early morning has developed into an essential religious practice (Dhillon, 2002, p. 14).

F. Appreciation of Nature and Ecological Considerations

Contrary to many other religions, nature is eulogized in Sikhism. In the following lines, Guru Nanak proposes that not only Almighty has created the Nature, but He also resides in it. Also, He is the Creator of all the forces and laws of the universe and He is responsible for existence of life in everybody.

Appine aap sajio, aapne rachio nau
Dui kudrat sajie kar aasan ditho chao.

(Aad Guru Grant Sahib, M 1, p. 463)

Guru Nanak also proclaimed that this universe is real, not an illusion as suggested by some other religions. "Real are Thy continents; Real is the universe; Real are these forms and material objects; Thy doings are Real, O Lord." Guru Nanak calls the universe as His chamber when he writes, "Eh jag sache ki hai kothri. Sache ka vich vaas." AGGS, M 2, p. 463. Appreciation of Nature as the reflection of God is obvious in Sikhism. Hence, postmodern era's ecological considerations are equally important to the followers of Guru Nanak.


Nobel Laureate, Miss Pearl Buck noted about Sikh scriptures, "I have studied the scriptures of the great religions, but I do not find elsewhere the same power of appeal to the heart and mind as I find here in these volumes. (Miss Pearl S. Buck). From the Foreword to the English translation of Guru Granth Sahib by Gopal Singh Dardi).

I believe that the basic reason for this appeal to the heart and mind, is due to the relevance of Guru Nanak's message to the postmodern problems of the present time.

Also, as Dr. Davinder Singh Chahal (2000) noted, "Sikhism is a scientific and logical religion, therefore, it can be universally accepted by the generations of humanity to come during the Third Millennium, and beyond. A critical analysis of Nanakian Philosophy indicates that both are intertwined with each other as a hand in a glove (p. 7)."

For survival of humanity in these troubling times, Sikhism, because of its universal nature, can be called the religion of the future humankind. Archer's are noteworthy in this context:

The religion of the Guru Granth is a universal and practical religion.
The world needs today its message of peace and love.

I would like to conclude this chapter with Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa's (2002) observations. She claims that Guru Nanak was the first post-modern scholar. He was centuries ahead of his time in his view of language, culture, the natural world and God. In fact, he is the perfect guide for the post-modern person because post-modernism leaves people feeling empty, that life is without meaning. But Guru Nanak takes the deconstruction of post-modernism and then says- see-at the heart of it-there is amazing creative play that we can't comprehend or define, THAT, my friends is God. And if you meditate and be what God created you to be, then it is a natural, human, normal experience to have a conscious relationship with God."


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Dr. Daya Singh Sandhu is a Fulbright Research Scholar, professor, and former chair of the Educational & Counseling Psychology Department at University of Louisville, Kentucky in USA. Presently, he is the Director of Research and a Professor of Counselor Education and Supervision in the Doctoral Program at Linsey Wilson College. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

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