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In Sikhism, maya or wealth is seen in two ways: as material possessions and as an illusion.


Let's delve into the core beliefs of Sikhs and the society of Punjab in the 15th century. Our journey starts with Guru Nanak, whose teachings emphasized ethical values. For instance, Guru Nanak critiqued the rulers and their administrators, likening greed and sin to the king and minister, falsehood to local governors, and lust to deputies who neglect the people's welfare. He described the rulers as tigers and their officials as dogs, indifferent to the people's needs. This reflection highlights the challenges of the time and the need for justice [Guru Granth Sahib: Vaar Majh].


Socio-economic Structure of Punjabi Society

The Sikh tradition started in a society where people were divided into castes based on their birth. This meant that your social status was decided by the caste you were born into, and there wasn't much interaction between different castes. Also, the people with the most wealth and power were usually from the higher castes like Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.

The Sikh Gurus didn't agree with this caste system at all. They thought it was unfair and created inequality. The Shudra caste, also called untouchables, were treated the worst. They weren't allowed to be part of social, economic, or religious activities and were even kept separate from everyone else in their own areas. They weren't even allowed to worship in temples. Guru Nanak strongly opposed the caste system and the values that supported it. He said it was all nonsense and that everyone, no matter who they were, was protected by the same God.


Oneness of God

The main teaching of Sikhism is that there's only one God. This idea is clearly stated in the Mool Mantar and other writings of Guru Nanak. It says that everyone, no matter their background or who they are, is made by this one God. Everything we see and don't see in the world represents this divine power and follows its rules.

So, it's important to know that all Sikh places and practices, like the Guru Granth (holy book), gurdwara (place of worship), sangat (community prayers), and langar (shared meal), all share this main idea of the oneness of God.


Wealth and Poverty in Sikhism

In Punjabi, people call wealth "maya." This word means money, riches, or even the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. It also signifies illusion, the magical power of a deity, or deceit. Bhai Kahn Singh, in his book Mahan Kosh, explains that a person who worships wealth and treats it as their own is called a "mayadhari."

In Sikhism, maya or wealth is seen in two ways: as material possessions and as an illusion. This illusion means viewing the world as real when it's actually temporary. The Sikh Gurus strongly oppose attachment to material wealth and the desire to accumulate more. Guru Amar Das, for instance, teaches that those who worship wealth are spiritually blind and deaf.

Reflecting on the harmful effects of attachment to wealth, Guru Amar Das further states: ‘Maya/ wealth is (a) she-serpent, it clings to the whole world. And so, he who serves her, him she eats [GGS:510].

Guru Nanak expressed his attitude towards the accumulation of wealth in a most disparaging tone, asserting that it is rendered possible only by acts of injustice and high-handedness. He stated that the accumulation of wealth is not possible without sins; nor does it accompany the accumulator after death.

In a well-known story, Guru Nanak met a rich man named Duni Chand, highlighting his concern about hoarding wealth. Duni Chand, eager to become the richest in Lahore, received a needle from Guru Nanak with a peculiar request: ‘Please keep it with you and give it to me in the next world'. Duni Chand paused for a while and then said that one can not take anything to the next world. Guru Nanak looked at him and said that since nothing can be taken beyond this world, millions i.e wealth can not be carried. This was a lesson to share the wealth with needy people and use it for charitable purposes.


The Concept of Social Justice in Sikhism


Understanding the idea of a dharmsal, a place for righteous deeds, is crucial in grasping the concept of social justice and responsibility. The term 'dharmsal' combines 'dharam,' signifying religious, ethical, and social duties, with 'sal,' meaning a dwelling place. According to Guru Nanak's hymn, Japji, the earth is depicted as a dharmsal established by God in the universe, and human life is considered the highest form in God's kingdom. In Sikh teachings, the doctrine of dharmsal guides daily behavior, emphasizing the necessity of earning a livelihood through honest labor and being willing to share it with others.

Guru Nanak says: ‘He who works hard honestly for what he eats, and shares it with others has found the true path..' [GGS:1245]

In an episode depicting the value of honesty and hard work, Guru Nanak from the Sikh tradition once stayed with Lalo, a carpenter of low caste. The landlord of the village, Malik Bhago, disapproved of Guru Nanak's choice of lodging. He invited Guru Nanak for a meal, but Guru Nanak declined. Undeterred, Malik Bhago insisted, and Guru Nanak visited his mansion to explain. Guru Nanak explained to Malik Bhago that he preferred to stay at Lalo's house and eat his food, earned through honest labor. He contrasted this with Malik Bhago's food, tainted with the toil and suffering of his workers in the fields. 

Additionally, Guru Nanak expressed his appreciation for the company of an honest, hardworking carpenter, stating, ‘There are the lowest men among the low-castes, Nanak, I shall go with them. What have I got to do with the great? God's eye of mercy falls on those who take care of the lowly.' [GGS:Sri Raag]

Guru Nanak skillfully applied the doctrine of dharmsal to all aspects of life, drawing upon terms for justice from Hindu and Muslim traditions. He emphasized the importance of haq halal, meaning righteousness in earnings, and prohibited taking what rightfully belonged to others. He expressed this by saying, "Encroachment upon what rightfully belonged to others is forbidden to both Muslim and Hindu, as pork to the former and beef to the latter. The guru or pir can help a person only when he is not guilty of this act which is tantamount to the eating of carrion." (GGS: Vaar Majh)

The teachings of the Gurus remain relevant and instructive for Sikhs in the modern era. Sikhs are known for their diligence, both in Punjab, India, and abroad, where they've gained recognition as successful industrialists and businessmen. Particularly in diaspora communities, Sikhs have shown remarkable ability for rapid economic advancement. The rise of ambitious Sikh millionaires can be attributed to their adherence to ethical principles such as kirat karo (honest labor), naam juppo (remembering the divine), and wand chhako (sharing with others).

The Gurus wanted people to build wealth, so they set up new towns like Amritsar, Tarantaran, and Kartarpur. They invited traders, artisans, craftsmen, and shopkeepers to settle in these towns. This plan worked well, and Amritsar and Kartarpur became bustling trade hubs.

In Sikhism, followers believe that the world is where God resides, and it's essential to live a righteous life and help others. Sikhs are expected to actively participate in making society better. The Gurus disagreed with the Hindu idea of renouncing society and living in isolation. Guru Nanak specifically criticized yogis who lived in forests seeking God. He praised those who lived among people and worked towards social justice. The Gurus encouraged making money but rejected dishonest ways of doing so. For instance, in the Sikh code of discipline, gambling is strongly discouraged as it goes against earning through honest work.

Sikhs believe in setting aside one-tenth of their earnings for charity, known as daswandh. This tradition is evident in Britain where over two hundred Sikh temples have been built through voluntary donations. Recently, in Southall, the largest Sikh temple outside India was opened.

Sikh temples, known as gurdwaras, play a role in teaching ethical values to young Sikhs and promoting understanding among different religions. Additionally, Sikhs living outside India support various educational and healthcare projects in Punjab and across India. This reflects their views on wealth and humility.


*Based on an article by Sewa Singh Kalsi, published in  Sikhchic.com on 20th June 2013


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