Equality . History . Status of Women in Sikhism

Dr. Harinder Kaur Sekhon.  The author, a historian, is now a Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Centre [sic.] for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Museum and Library, New Delhi.

"Women have great talent, but no genius for they always remain subjective," said Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea.

Greek philosophers thought a "woman is an unfinished man left standing at a lower step in the scale of development. The male is by nature superior and female inferior. The one is the ruler and the other ruled. Woman is weak of will and, therefore incapable of independence of character and position." Such prejudices prevail even today. On the threshold of a new millennium  the status of woman is still to be elevated to that of man.

Against this backdrop it is significant that Sikhism, one of the world's youngest religions, accorded women complete equality with men in all spheres of life over five hundred years ago. This was a remarkable position for any religion in any part of the world to take in the 15th century. In a patriarchal society like that of India, the exploitation and subjugation of women is commonplace. Socio-religious reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries did strive to emancipate women, but with limited success.

In sharp contrast, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh religion made Sikhism conform to enlightened, simple practical, progressive and humane ideals right from its inception. It shunned obscurantism, fanaticism, superstition and religious bigotry which were integral to 15th century India. This refreshingly liberal approach of Guru Nanak encompassed both religion and society.

The secondary status of women was unacceptable to Sikh philosophy. Woman was recognised [sic.] as the spiritual equal of man. Guru Nanak understood and appreciated the unifying role of women in society and worked for their emancipation. Sikh scriptures categorically state that man and woman together make society a composite and well balanced whole: the two are complementary to each other and should not be viewed as a threat to one another. Women as multifaceted personalities had a significant role to play in society.

"Then why call her evil from whom are great men born,

And without woman none could exist

The eternal Lord is the only one, O Nanak

Who depends not on woman." (Guru Granth Sahib, P. 473)

Asceticism and renunciation were not favoured [sic.] by Guru Nanak. Marriage was seen as a sacred institution, a spiritual bond between two equal partners, not merely a physical union of two individuals.

Guru Nanak said that by "living within family life, one attains salvation". (Guru Granth Sahib P.661). A strict moral code of conduct was prescribed for men and women in Sikhism where the duties of both husband and wife towards each other were defined.

Such thinking was revolutionary and far ahead of the times. The superior spiritual and philosophical attributes of women were acknowledged. So was their contribution towards making a happy family the basis of a vibrant, egalitarian, strong society and state. Guru Nanak underscored the fact that intellectually women were at par with men, capable of deep insights and a complete understanding of spiritual matters: undeniably an important link in the achievement of salvation by man.

Bibi Nanaki, the elder sister of Guru Nanak, was a perfect example. The Guru was especially close to her and regarded her as his inspiration and mentor. Nanaki had implicit faith in her brother's ideology and encouraged him in his life's mission and became the first person to be initiated into Sikhism by Guru Nanak.

Another outstanding woman in the early Guru period was Bibi Amro, daughter of Guru Angad Dev. She was highly learned and had a thorough knowledge of Shabads (hymns) composed by Guru Nanak, which she sang in the most melodious style. She was married to Bhai Jasoo, a nephew of Guru Amar Das. Even after marriage she continued with her work of spreading Guru Nanak's Sikhism mainly through Kirtan (the singing of hymns). The impact of Guru Nanak's message through her Kirtan was so profound that Guru Amar Das gave up the worship of Devi (the Hindu Mother Goddess) and embraced Sikhism.

Guru Nanak's ideals were given a practical shape and consolidated by Guru Amar Das (1479 - 1574), the third Sikh Guru. He was a great champion of women's rights who based his concepts on complete gender equality and specified norms for ameliorating the status of women in medieval India.

The institution of Guru Ka Langar or the community meal was given great importance by him. Every visitor was invited to eat food in the langar before meeting the Guru. This was not only a way of extending open house hospitality, but also a way of emphasising [sic.] a deep commitment to the concept of equality. Men and women sat side by side and ate food together prepared by themselves in a common kitchen irrespective of their religious background or social status. Even the Mughal Emperor Akbar who once visited the Guru at Goindwal ate in the langar like any other pilgrim.

Guru Amar Das stopped women wearing purdah (the veil) and did not allow the queen of Haripur to sit in the sangat (congregation) if she insisted on wearing one. He stopped contemptuous references to women as mere child-bearing machines. "Blessed is the woman who creates life", he wrote in the Granth Sahib.

During his pontifications, he made sure women were provided opportunities to lead more meaningful lives which enabled them to actively participate in social and religious affairs. For the propagation of the faith's ideology, he created twenty two administrative units called manjis or parishes. Of these four were headed by women - which was unheard of in those times. In status these four women were equal to modern Bishops because each enjoyed full economic and decision-making powers within her parish or manji. Thus Sikhism had four women Bishops in the late 16th century - a remarkable feat since no other religion could stake such a claim.

Of the 146 persons the Guru trained as missionaries to preach and carry the message of Guru Nanak to the masses, 52 were women. Besides religious instruction, missionaries educated rural people, specially women, the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. These initiatives of Guru Amar Das were remarkable given the prevailing conservative and archaic social climate.

With the creation of Khalsa on the Baisakhi day (1st day of the second solar month of Vaisakh, considered auspicious to begin harvesting of the crop) of 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhism under went a major transformation. The Khalsa was created to instill a fresh spirit of courage and confidence among the Guru's followers. Here again women were an integral part of the celebrations. They were baptised [sic.] and initiated into the Khalsa fold without discrimination. The Amrit (holy water) for baptism was prepared by Mata Sahib Kaur, wife of Guru Gobind Singh. This was a high and rare honour [sic.] extended to her since in other religious beliefs the association of women in ecclesiastical affairs was viewed with extreme disdain.

At the time of taking Amrit a man was given the name "Singh" (lion) and women added "Kaur" (princess) to their names. The suffix "Kaur" is of immense significance as a woman was recognised [sic.] as an individual who need not take her husband's name after marriage. She could use the word "Kaur" after her name from birth to death. The word 'Kaur" is derived from the word "kanwar" - the son of a king. This explanation of Bhai Kahan Singh in the Mahankosh (P 353) is symbolically significant.

Apart from equality in socio-religious affairs, Sikh women could participate in political matters as well, including leading an army into battle. This gave women in Sikhism a sense of enormous self-confidence.

Guru Gobind Singh's widow Mata Sundari played a key role in Sikh history for forty momentous years. She issued Hukamnamas (decrees) to the Khalsa giving directions at a critical juncture and successfully guided the destiny of the Sikh against both the Afghan invaders and various claimants to the "Guruship".

Maharaja Ranjit Singh owed much of his success to the astute statesmanship and diplomacy of his mother-in-law, Rani Sada Kaur. She has been called "the ladder by which Ranjit Singh climbed to greatness in his early years". She accompanied him on his triumphant capture of Lahore in 1799 and urged Ranjit Singh to proclaim himself the Maharaja of Punjab. The house of Patiala too produced some exceptional ladies during the eighteenth Century. The most celebrated of them was Rani Sahib Kaur who personally led her forces into battle and defeated the Maratha Holkar in 1793.

The 20th century continued to witness Sikh women in the forefront in different spheres, especially in India's independence movement. One such notable person was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who joined nationalist politics and the Quit India Movement under Mahatma Gandhi's inspiration. Belonging to the royal family of Kapurthala she was one of Gandhi's closest lieutenants and took a leading part in protest marches which were subjected to ruthless lathi charges in 1942.

Some other outstanding women freedom fighters of Punjab were Gulab Kaur, Kishan Kaur, Amar Kaur, Harnam Kaur, Dilip Kaur and Kartar Kaur. The latter picketed everyday during the Civil Disobedience (satyagraha) of 1930. She was arrested under the picketing ordinance and kept under strict vigilance in jail.

Contemporary Sikh women are making a mark all over the world as academicians, administrators, entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors, poets and painters.

An important aspect of the rights conferred on women in the Sikh faith was that they did not have to fight for their rightful place in Sikh society: they were given their due voluntarily because of the enlightened ideals of the Gurus.



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