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Religious Studies

The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat)

© Jagannatha Prakasa, 1987 (last updated: March 22, 2017)


Nanak says:
"Sing the praise of God and you shall know the Unknowable Lord" (GGS 13).

Of all the religious systems born in India, perhaps none is so misunderstood as Sikhism. Their turbaned heads, long beards, and the ever-present sword which hangs from their sides creates an intimidatingly exotic mien which few, especially in the West, comprehend. Yet despite this facade, behind their fierce presence, beats a heart of love and justice, a religion of intense joy. Sikhism is a path of bliss, devotion, austerity and determination. It is, in short, the Path of the Masters (S 50).

The discipline of Religious Studies, it seems to me, is vitally important. As the world becomes a smaller place in which to live its cultures and religions are losing their ability to exist as in a vacuum. All too often violent confrontations arise between good-hearted people simply because they do not understand one another and their religions. Religious Studies, as a discipline, can do much to remedy this situation by presenting information to the public which rightly reflects the various Traditions, our similarities and our differences. In this way all may see that 'religion is fundamentally one, though the sages call it by different names,' to paraphrase the Upanishad wisdom.

In this attempt there are two (at least) schools of thought. There are those who approach religions and texts critically, academically. Such people call into question all the traditional doctrines and beliefs, demanding that they be validated by contemporary scientific and philosophical methodology. The other view is that the traditions should be honored, and not subjected an excessive amount of critical analysis from other disciplines. According to this view, religio/spirituality is based on entirely different premises than contemporary philosophy, archeology, science etc. If theories such as natural selection or determinism were subjected to religious criteria, they would not fair so well either (of course with the advent of the new sciences such as chaos theory, it is quite possible that science will confirm the religio/spiritual understandings and dispose of its own soon enough!) note 1.

There is, in my opinion, room and need for both methods of inquiry. As the Hindu Swami Vivekanada so aptly said:

"One thing should be especially remembered here, there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is, the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing [in this case the Mahabharata] is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask? It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas due to ignorance. In this country [India] people think very little of the importance of such inquiries ... But our duty should be to convince ourselves of the truth, to believe the truth only (SV 101, 102).

I am in basic agreement with this statement and, like the Swami, prefer to work from the religious perspective rather than the secular. What follows therefore is my humble attempt to introduce the reader to the Sant Mat, the Path of the Masters, not to do a critical analysis of it. Herein I seek to speak from within the tradition, although as a Jew it is not actually mine. I personally can not accept certain of their basic premises although I seek to understand them. I simply intend to present the tradition as it is.

The Sikh religion is not old by Indian standards note 2. and yet as it reaches into the heart and exemplifies the Truth which is ever-present within each of us, it is, by those same standards, the primordial philosophy. It claims to be "not a blend or reproduction of earlier religions but... a new revelation altogether. The teachings that the founding Gurus gave to this world, they insist, came directly to them from God. The Gurus affirm: This word comes from Him, Who hath created the world" (SR 3).


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 alone 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 note 3. 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) note 4., 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) note 5.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)" note 6.. 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 (Indian) 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 additional applications. In essence, Sikhism defines Guru note 7. 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 Guru (singular). 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 note 8., 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 as well.

The tenth Guru ended the Guru lineage. Since that time the Sikh community, which continues the faith of Guru Gobind Singh, is itself now collectively considered the Guru. Furthermore, Gobind Singh proclaimed that after him the Sacred Book, the Guru 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 Sikh temple (WR 202, 203; P).

Continue to Page Two

Notes for Part One

Peace, Love, and Light!