Sikhism, Bioethics in

views updated



Origins and Teachings

Sikhism began with Guru Nanak (1469–1539 c.e.), who was born a Hindu in the Punjab, which is still home for the vast majority of Sikhs. The word Sikh means learner or disciple, and today the community numbers approximately 16 million. Nanak was the first of ten personal Gurus. Following the death in 1708 of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, the function of the Guru passed to the scripture and to the community. For this reason the Adi Granth (the Sikh scripture) is particularly venerated by the community.

In the North India of Nanak's day, a popular mode of religion among ordinary people was worship of a God of grace, immanent in all creation and never incarnated as a person or as an idol. This was the Sant Tradition and Nanak provided in his teachings its clearest statement. The presence of God is known through the nam (divine Name), mystically manifested in the beauty and order of the world around us, and one's duty is to meditate on the nam. This may be done by repeating a particular word or mantra, by singing hymns, or by silently meditating. In so doing one grows ever nearer to God, eventually achieving a condition of perfect union. In this union the cycle of transmigration (movement of the soul, at the death of the body, into a new body) is finally ended.

Those who accepted these teachings from Nanak were the first Sikhs. A line of successor Gurus followed him, the same divine spirit believed to inhabit each of them. The first four successors continued Nanak's teachings concerning the divine Name and, in 1603–1604 Arjan, the fifth Guru, collected their hymns and his own into a scripture, adding to it the works of other members of the Sant Tradition. During the time of the sixth Guru, Hargobind, the community attracted the attention of the Moghuls, at that time the rulers of northern India. By this time the community had grown noticeably large and the Moghuls were becoming suspicious of its increasing numbers. This danger receded, but it returned in the time of the ninth Guru, Tegh Behadur, who was executed by the Moghuls in 1675.

The Foundation of the Khalsa

In 1699 Tegh Bahadur's son and successor, Gobind Singh, inaugurated the Khalsa, a new order loyal Sikhs were summoned to join. Membership in the Khalsa was by an initiation ceremony and by a lifelong vow to maintain certain outward symbols, particularly uncut hair. Emphasis on the centrality of the divine Name was retained, but in place of the strictly inward faith taught by Guru Nanak, the tenth Guru created an organization that proclaimed the identify of his followers to all.

The inauguration of the Khalsa was crucial because it laid down for members an explicit code, or Rahit. Tradition records that the Guru promulgated all that the modern Khalsa observes today. In fact, many of the individual items of the Rahit can be traced to experiences that follow the actual foundation. The essential nature of the Khalsa, however, remains unaffected. Gobind Singh summoned loyal Sikhs to join his Khalsa; the Khalsa Sikh was to be known by certain outward features. These conspicuously included the obligation to bear arms and to retain uncut hair. Men were to add Singh ("Lion") to their name and women were to add Kaur ("Princess").

Ranjit Singh, the Singh Sabha, and Modern History

The eighteenth century, a time of much turbulence in the Punjab, was followed by a settled period during the early nineteenth century. Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who became ruler of the central Punjab in 1801, strong government was introduced and during the next twenty-five years, the boundaries were enlarged in three directions. In the southeast, where the British advanced against Ranjit Singh, the border was drawn along the Satluj river, leaving many Sikhs in British territory or in the territory of their client states. Amritsar was not the capital city, but it was confirmed as the principal religious center. Ranjit Singh gilded the two upper storeys of its main temple, converting it into the famous Golden Temple.

His death in 1839 has been interpreted as marking the beginning of a steep decline in Sikh fortunes. In 1849, following two wars, the British annexed the Punjab. In 1873, however, the Singh Sabha (Singh Society) was founded and under its influence, the Sikh community was revived and reshaped. In 1920 the Singh Sabha was taken over by the more radical Akali movement, which was dedicated to the liberation of the gurdwaras (temples). With the partition of India in 1947, the Punjab was divided and the Sikhs in Pakistan moved across to the Indian area. Since then many Sikhs have claimed greater Punjab autonomy. The Indian army assault on the Golden Temple in 1984 led to decade-long demands by many Sikhs for Khalistan, a completely independent state. By 1993, however, these demands had subsided.

The Singh Sabha and the Rahit

The dominant concern of the Singh Sabha reformers was to demonstrate that Sikhs formed an entirely distinct faith and that, in particular, they should not be confused with the Hindus. Special concern focused on the question of how a Sikh should behave. The intention was to show that the ways of the Sikh were emphatically not the ways of the other groups in India.

This required a restatement of the Rahit. According to tradition, Guru Gobind Singh had promulgated the Rahit in all its details, but by the late nineteenth century it had become impossible to determine his words with precision. The Rahit had been recorded for Sikhs in a number of Rahitnamas (Rahit manuals), none of which was entirely satisfactory. Those present at the founding of the Khalsa in 1699 would know what was required of them, and likewise those who associated with the Guru until his death in 1708. Most of the eighteenth century was, however, charged with warfare and persecution, and Sikhs had little time to record the Rahit that had been delivered to them. Ignorant or mischievous people might have corrupted the received Rahit, and the Rahit-namas could only be trusted after a scrupulous hand excised those portions that misled readers and restored those parts that had been lost.

The Singh Sabha leaders made unsuccessful attempts to produce an authentic Rahit-nama. Eventually, however, an acceptable version, Sikh Rahit Maryada, was issued in 1950, and appeals to this written authority are possible. The Sikhs have no clergy and so the publication of an authoritative text was truly significant. The question of orthodoxy, however, remains. Sikh Rahit Maryada represents the Khalsa version of orthodoxy, that is, the insistence on uncut hair; there is no doubt that since the days of the Singh Sabha, this has been the dominant style. There are, however, Sikhs who do not observe this version, preferring to venerate the Gurus and scripture while cutting their hair. They do not observe the Rahit, yet still insist that they are Sikhs. It is here that Sikh identity becomes difficult to define and with it, the whole question of what constitutes Sikhism. The remainder of this article describes Khalsa Sikhism, but it is important to remember that many who call themselves Sikhs are not members of the Khalsa. This applies particularly to Sikhs living outside India.

Khalsa Regulations

Members of the Khalsa are identified by what are called the Five Ks (uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist-band, a sword or dagger, and shorts). Smoking and intoxicants are firmly banned, the latter largely ignored but the former strictly maintained. Khalsa Sikhs are insistent on the right to carry a sword, a feature that enhances their reputation for violence. This reputation is greatly exaggerated. The Sikh should draw the sword (or use arms) only defensively, only when the cause is just, and only when all other methods have failed.

In Sikhism the key term when discussing ethical and moral issues is seva (service). Little guidance is given regarding health, disease, and the environment other than the most general principles. The objective is simply a life of personal righteousness, largely undefined. Seva is primarily considered a duty toward the gurdwara, and consists of obligations performed for the Guru on its holy ground. These include service in the langar, the free refectory that all gurdwaras are required to maintain, symbolizing the equality of all people. The concept is, however, further interpreted to mean genuine concern for the needs of others. According to Sikh Rahit Maryada, every Sikh is required to devote his or her entire life to the welfare of others.

In general, Sikhs are directed to see themselves as distinct from other faiths, particularly from all forms of Hindu tradition. This is the case with funerals, which involve a simple rite. Cremation follows death but all who assemble are required to restrict their lamenting. The corpse is dressed in clean garments, complete with the Five Ks, and the ceremony is conducted while hymns are sung. Such practices as laying the corpse on the floor or breaking the skull are sternly forbidden. Specific ethical injunctions are comparatively rare in Sikh Rahit Maryada, although those that are mentioned are clearly intended to be mandatory. The emphasis is, instead, placed on the duty of the individual Sikh to live a worthy life as circumstances of time and place dictate.

With two exceptions, matters of bioethical concern are not spelled out. Sikhs are left to determine them in the light of their religious faith. One exception is that female infanticide is strictly prohibited. This reflects an earlier period in Punjab history. The second exception is that, strictly speaking, initiated Khalsa members should not eat from the same dish as an uninitiated Sikh or one who has renounced the faith. All other issues, such as abortion, birth control, suicide, and euthanasia, are left to the individual or the family to decide.

w. h. mcleod (1995)

SEE ALSO: Death: Eastern Thought; Eugenics and Religious Law: Hinduism and Buddhism; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Jainism, Bioethics in; Medical Ethics, History of South and East Asia: India; Population Ethics, Religious Traditions: Hindu Perspectives


Avtar, Singh. 1970. Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, India: Punjabi University.

Grewal, J. S. 1990. The Sikhs of the Punjab. Vol. II.3 of The New Cambridge History of India. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Kohli, Surindar Singh. 1975. Sikh Ethics. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

McLeod, W. H., ed. and tr. 1991. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oberoi, Harjot. 1994. The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rehat Maryada: A Guide to the Sikh Way of Life. 1978. English translation of the Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandakh Committee.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib in English Translation, 1984–1991. 4 vols. tr. Gurbachan Singh Talib. Patiala, India: Punjabi University.