Friday, December 28, 2007

Sikhism: The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat) Part Two


The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat) © 1987
By John of AllFaith


Sikhism has not one founder, but ten. Guru Nanak, in the form of ten Gurus, founded this religion between the years 1469 and 1708 (WR 198). By virtue of his realized unity with God, Who is the true Guru, Guru Nanak created Sikhism over a span of 239 years. It is believed that each of the ten Gurus was born 'non-karmic.' In other words, they were born as perfect beings and live sinless lives (GiS 86,87). During these years of establishment the ten Gurus were each accepted as Guru Nanak, not just in name, but in essence. "Each was Guru Nanak; the First Guru Nanak, the fifth Guru Nanak, the tenth Guru Nanak, each was Guru Nanak" (P). It is said that they presented the identical truth, possessed the same distinctive insights into the nature of reality and the way to God, and even held a basic common identity. 'They were candles which have been lit from each other' (WR 198). The ten Orthodox Sikh Gurus [see note 3 below] are as follows:


Guru Nanak 1469-1539
Guru Angad 1504-1552
Guru Amar Das 1479-1574
Guru Ram Das 1534-1581
Guru Arjan 1563-1606
Guru Har Govind 1595-1644
Guru Har Ra 1630-1661
Guru Har Krishnan 1656-1664
Guru Tegh Bahadur 1621-1675
Guru Gobind (Rai) Singh 1666-1708

Indian spirituality has long been based upon the teachings of gurus and Sikhism is often known as the Religion of the Gurus (WR 195). In order to understand Sikhism therefore, we must understand both the meaning of the word "guru" and its somewhat unique application in Sikhism.

The word "guru" is a compound Sanskrit term: gu = darkness and ru = light. It is therefore understood that a guru is one who replaces darkness with light. In other words, it is through the grace of a guru that one attains enlightenment. It also means "heavy" or "weighty" and refers both to the one who removes the student's burdens (of ignorance and karmic debt) [see note 4 below], as well as the difficulty involved in carrying out the discipline to accomplish this. Equally conveyed is the idea that the 'reliever of burdens' is a venerable and respected teacher. The title is applied not only to a spiritual teacher (siksha or diksha) [see note 5 below] however, but also to "any venerable or respectable person, an elderly personage or relative, the elders." It also means, "Great, large, long, extended, important, arduous, excessive, violent, haughty, proud ... (technically, a guru is one who performs the purificatory ceremonies over a boy and instructs him in the Vedas)" [see note 6 below]. There are, as with most Sanskrit words, many definitions. In essence however, a guru is "Particularly, a religious teacher, a spiritual preceptor..." Indian dictionary entries for this word indicate the diversity of Bharat thought on the subject and would make a fascinating study in its own right (SED).

It is precisely because of the inexact meanings of the word that Sikhism developed a more specific definition, although it also added a few applications. In essence, Sikhism defines Guru [see note 7 below]. as "The light which dispels all darkness, and is called JOT (Divine Light)" (SR 7).

The true Guru (Satguru) is God (WR 197; GiS 44). Since mortals require an enlightened person to lead them to God, "Guru Nanak is the embodiment of the Light of God" and is therefore called Guru (SR 262). He was "Murshid-i-Kamek" ('Perfect Master') and "Rahbar-i-Haq" ('Guide to the realm of Truth'). Without such a Master, one cannot "travel on the God-way" (S 53). Likewise, as the nine Gurus who came after him are viewed as non-different from Guru Nanak, they too are Gurus. They are not classified as such due to personal knowledge, veneration or compassion; they are called Gurus because they were perfect channels of the Divine Light ('Jot') which emanates from the true Guru (God). This point is crucial in understanding Sikhism (GiS 94). The tradition is based on the siksha or teachings of God, not upon the wisdom of human teachers and seers.

In essence, the Sikh concept of Guru is simple, as are most of their teachings: The Guru is a Sikh, the Sikh is a Guru; they are both one, but it is the Guru who giveth instruction. He putteth the spell of God's Name in the heart, O, Nanak, and then God is easily obtained (Asa Mohalla 4; quoted in SR 265). The Gurus were not and are not viewed as Divine Incarnations or avatars in the classical Indian sense. Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh warned that, "Whosoever calleth me God may fall into hell" (SR 256). Their role in Sikh society is as bearers and imparters of the Holy Light ('Jot'). The faithful approach them with respect and receptivity to the Light, because it is understood that, "Through him [the Guru], God speaketh Himself" (SR 8).

While modern Sikhism has no living, physical Gurus [see note 8 below], there are, of course, many advanced teachers who train the less experienced in the ways of God. This is essential, because by merely reading the Scriptures it is not possible, according to the Sikhs, to unlock their deeper purports (SoS 2; GiS 41). There is no priesthood of any kind; all Sikhs are equal before God. Any initiated Sikh (a "Singh" or "lion for God") can conduct the ceremonies. Everyone depends on everyone else. In this, Eerdmans says that Sikhism is the most congregational based religious system in India, with the possible exception of Islam (WR 203). I would add that they are among the least hierarchical in the world.

The tenth Guru ended the Guru lineage. Since that time the Sikh community, which continues the faith of Gobind Singh, is itself considered the Guru. Likewise, Gobind Singh proclaimed that after him the Sacred Book, the Granth Sahib, which presents the teachings of the Gurus, would itself become the Guru. Hence, since 1708 it has been known as the Guru Granth Sahib (SR 244). This Scripture is largely the product of Guru Arjan, although the final version was prepared by Guru Gobind Singh. Gobind Singh added the works of the Gurus who were interjacent of Guru Arjan and himself. Guru Arjan's edition is known as the Adi Granth or "First Book of Scriptures." Gobind Singh's writings are recorded in the Dasam Granth.

The Guru Granth Sahib is the focal point of all Sikh ritual and endeavor (GiS 59). Sikhs bow before the Book as Hindus bow before murtis (physical deity forms). Names are chosen for initiates and babies by a random reading of the Scripture. At weddings the bride follows the groom in circumambulation of the Granth four times while songs of duty and obligation are sung by the congregation. Death is commemorated by seven or ten day readings from the Granth and many festivals include two day readings. In short, the Guru Granth Sahib is the center of and reason for the existence of the gurdwara ("Guru's Door") or temple (WR 202, 203; P).

Notes for Part Two

  • Note 3: Some Sikh traditions reject the idea that Guru Gobind Singh was the final Guru. Groups such as the Ruhani Satsang insist that living Gurus are necessary for spiritual survival and attainment (SoS 15).
  • Note 4: 'Karmic debt' refers to past reactions which keep one bound to transmigration.
  • Note 5: Siksha: an instructing spiritual master. Diksha: an initiating spiritual master. This Hindu distinction of grades of teachers is not found in Sikhism.
  • Note 6: The Vedas are the principle Hindu Scriptures.
  • Note 7: Guru is always capitalized in Sikh literatures.
  • Note 8: See also footnotes # 2, 9 and 11.


  • BI: History of British India Under the Company and the Crown, P.E. Roberts,
  • Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Great
  • Britain, 1958
  • CC: Shree Caitanya-Caritamrita, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, translated by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, New York, 1975
  • EDY: Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga, Georg Feuerstein, Paragon House, New York, 1990
  • ER: Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, MacMillan Publishing Co. New York, 1987
  • G: Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Los Angeles, 1973
  • GGS: Hymns From Guru Granth Sahib, Hemkunt Press, New Delhi, 1975
  • GiS: The Guru in Sikhism, W. Owen Cole, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1982
  • GM: The Great Moghuls, Bamber Gascoigne, Harper & Row, New York, 1971
  • GoI: The Gods of India, Alain Danielou, Inner Traditions International LTD. New York, 1985
  • GSK: Gods, Sages and Kings, David Frawley, Passage Press, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1991
  • HBI: History of British India, P.E. Roberts, Oxford University Press, 1958
  • HM: A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature, John Dowson, M.R.A.S., Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979
  • I: India, Madeleine Biardeau, translated by F. Carter, Vista Books, 1960
  • ICS: India: A Country Study, Foreign Area Studies, The American University, United States Government, 1985
  • LoI: The Legacy of India G.T. Garrett, Oxford University, Clarendon Press, 1937
  • LTM: The Life and Times of Mohammed, Sir John Glub, Stein and Day Publishers, New York, 1971
  • M: Mandukyopanishad, Translated by Swami Sarvananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, India, 1972
  • NG: National Geographic, April, 1985
  • P: Based upon private and public conversations with Pramjit Singh at the El Sobrante Sikh Temple, 3550 Hillcrest Rd. between 10/17/91 and 11/25/91
  • PoM: Philosophy of the Masters, Three volumes, Huzur Maharaj Sawan Singh, Radha Soami Satsang, Beas, India, 1972
  • PT: The Peacock Throne, Waldemar Hansen, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1972
  • PWB: The Portable World Bible, Robert O. Ballou, Penguin Books, 1980
  • S: Spirituality: What it is? Kirpal Singh, Ruhani Satsang, Sawan Ashram, Delhi India, 1959
  • SB: Shreemad Bhagavatam, Translated by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, New York, 1976
  • SED: The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Vaman Shivram Apte, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1989
  • SIT: Sources or Indian Tradition, Vol. 2, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, Columbia University Press, New York, 1958
  • SoS: Ruhani Satsang: Science of Spirituality, Kirpal Singh, Sawan Ashram, Delhi-7, India, 1970
  • SR: Sikh Religion, no author given, Sikh Missionary Center, Detroit, 1990
  • SW: The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, Translated by Trilochan Singh, Jodh Singh, Kapur Singh, Bawa Harkishen Singh and Khushwant Singh, Unesco Collection of Representative Works: Indian Series, Samuel Weiser, Inc. New York, 1973
  • WR: Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Wm. B. Eerdmans' Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1982

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