Pankaj Jain, on the Huffington Post, wrote recently about the difference between the faiths he categorizes as the “dharma” traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic “religions” – particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately, the way in which Jain compares the two categories is problematic, and in the process, the article misrepresents Sikhism.
For a discussion on what “dharma” means in the Sikh context, see a recent post put up for discussion at sikhchic.com. Below, I will extract several themes from Jain’s article and clarify why they are being inaccurately applied to Sikhism (and inaccurate in general, in some cases).
1. Multiplicity of adherence:
Jain claims that members of the dharmic faiths can adhere to multiple faiths simultaneously (and cites a case of a Sikh who puts a Hindu slogan on his truck as evidence).
How individuals express their spirituality should not be confused with the teachings of the religion. “Sikh” is often translated as “student” – for Sikhism, this refers to being a student of the Gurus, whose teachings are embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib, and only in this.
Sikhs define themselves thus: (a) Believes in the existence of One eternal God, (b) Follows their teachings of, and accepts as their only Spiritual guides, the Guru Granth Sahib and the ten human Gurus, (c) Believes in the baptism (Amrit Sanchar), as promoted by the tenth Guru (d) Does not owe allegiance to any other religion.
Let us also remember that Guru Nanak’s first utterance after being enlightened was “there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”. He did not identify with either of these labels himself, and from childhood, he rejected many Hindu rituals, traditions and observances. He did not adhere to Hinduism but only to the Universal Soul, and so do the majority of Sikhs.
Contrary to Jain’s claims, multiplicity of adherence occurs among the Abrahamic faiths as well, to an extent. Christians regard the Old Testament as part of their tradition, and Islam holds Jesus Christ as a Messenger of God. I’ve also seen a group called “Jews for Jesus”. So, while they may not worship in each others’ spaces, there is much in common among the Abrahamic faiths in what is sacred.
Jain mentions that among dharmic faiths, there are multiple centers/targets of prayer, and cites the ten Gurus of Sikhism as an example.
Sikhs see their Gurus as a linear and singular entity, not ten separate ones. There was only one Guru at any given time, and Sikhs believe that the divine light within each Guru passed from one to another over time. Their teachings (with those of other Hindu and Muslim saints) were recorded in the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib – which is now the only Guru of the Sikhs.
Further, Sikhism is strictly monotheistic – we pray to one God (the same God for all) guided by the teachings in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Gurus themselves did not want to be worshiped.
It’s also inaccurate to simply say that polycentrism exists among dharmic faiths and not the Abrahamic ones. The Christian concept of the Trinity maybe interpreted as polycentrism. Also, many Christians pray to patron saints, to Mary (mother of Jesus Christ), to Jesus Christ himself, and to God.
5. No “organized” religion:
Jain states that there is no formalization of religion among Asian countries. While there is no formal “state” religion in India, it is very Hindu-centric, to the point that non-Hindu faiths – including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – are consistently legally categorized as Hinduism in the Constitution of India, despite decades of consistent protest from Sikhs (the Indian constitution remains unsigned by Sikhs for largely this reason). There is a constant effort by Hindu-centric elements within India to lay claim to faith traditions that are separate from Hinduism. This is often confounded with combining Hindu loyalty with Indian patriotism.
6. “Mythistory” not history:
While Jain states that dharmic religions trace their origin to “prehistoric” times and involve mythology, Sikhism’s origin is with Guru Nanak, born in 1469 (relatively recent history), who received divine inspiration from God. Many events in Sikh history from that date are crucial to Sikhs and are celebrated every year.
Jain claims that there are multiple sacred texts with in dharmic faiths, however, in Sikhism, only one text is of prime importance – the Guru Granth Sahib, which has been Guru of the Sikhs since Guru Gobind Singh died in 1708. It is central to every Sikh religious ceremony and place of worship (Gurdwara) and is considered sacred beyond any other text.
8. Religious rivalry:
Jain claims that “polemic debates among several philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism have rarely turned into violent wars and battles as is the case in the Western religions.”
Unfortunately, one needs to not look more than 30 years back to find examples of religious violence among dharmic faiths. Hindu-centric governments in India engaged in the attack on Sikhism’s central Gurdwara (Harmandir Sahib aka the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India) in 1984, followed by the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984, and over a decade of violence against Sikhs since then. Misguided Sikh extremists also targeted Hindus during this tumultuous period.
While the state-sponsored violence against Sikhs was done under the pretense of suppressing a secession movement, even international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have raised significant concerns about the killings of tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs during this period. The perpetrators of these attacks on innocent Sikhs roam free with impunity.
The existence of popular religious-based right wing groups in India, even today, makes it hard to claim that there is no religious rivalry among the dharmic faiths.