THE NATURE OF THE SELF
The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat)
© Jagannatha Prakasa, 1987 (Last updated: March 22, 2017)
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Sikhism, as most eastern religions, teaches that the individual (jiva) is something other than the body. According to Hinduism and Sikhism, there are 8.4 million types of beings in the world, half live in the water, the other half is divided between the land and the air. All of these embodied life forms are transient. They constantly pass through the processes of conception, birth, aging and death. Through this process of transmigration the jivas pass from one life form to another, gradually working their way up the ladder of rebirth, until the human form is achieved. In Sikhism, the human form is said to be the highest, and is the only one from which the jiva may attain liberation. This is confirmed in Gurbani (the Divine Word):
This time having born as human being
This is thy turn to meet the Supreme Lord.
Thy other activities will be of no avail at the end,
Seek the company of the holy men
And only contemplate on God.
Set thy mind on crossing the sea of life,
For life is being wasted away
In pursuits of pleasures of the world.
(Asa Mohalla, quoted in SR 253).
Human life is the door to liberation (PoM vol 3, 1). In order to utilize this golden opportunity one must resist the temptations of the material world, especially the tendency to see one's self as a material rather than a spiritual being. Sikhism is the Teachings of the Masters on how to accomplish this. The goal is not the attainment of a Christian/Islamic paradise, nor is it the Swarga or 'spiritual realms' of popular Hinduism. The ultimate goal of life, according to Sikhism, is to merge into the Supreme Soul (nirguna brahman). Sikh writers refer to the Uninterrupted Bliss which one experiences after liberation, however it must be understood that the ego-self is not the one experiencing this Bliss. Once united with the Holy One, all independent existence ceases and one is utterly and eternally reabsorbed into nirguna brahman, the only Reality (SR 254).
THE PATH TO LIBERATION
We have seen thus far that God is both nirguna and saguna, and that existence occurs as a temporal manifestation of brahman through the auspices of saguna. In reality, as explained above, everything is nirguna brahman. Also discussed above is the Sikh view that it is due solely to avidya or ignorance that we perceive ourselves to be distinct from the Whole. In this section I will present the Sikh understanding of how this situation can be remedied and the method by which the individualized jiva can attain reemergence into nirguna brahman.
According to Gurmat (teachings of the Guru), prior to creation nothing existed except God. In other words, as of yet there had been no individuation in the totality of nirguna brahman. When God made Himself manifest, which is to say, when saguna brahman emanated from nirguna brahman, God first formed Himself into Nam, His Divine Name. After this, through or as saguna, He created Nature note 33.. Once Nature was established, He possessed it by His own Spirit. According to Judaism and her two children, Christianity and Islam, God made everything and then rested for a cosmogonical 'day.' Such is not the case here. After creating everything which is (as Brahma), God entered into creation and sustained it (as Vishnu). In this role it is said that God felt delighted (SR 258).
As God is utterly transcendent, it is impossible to know Him. As God is utterly imminent, it is impossible not to know Him. God is manifested by His Name ('Nam'). God and His Nam are identical in every way. Through Nam God sustains the universes. Nam is not a mere noun therefore; It is the Totality of Existence. It is not that God has only one Name, there are a limitless number of Names, Brahma, Vishnu, YHVH, Allah, Ahura Mazda; endless are the Names of God. All these Names are attributes of the Holy One, but none can adequately express the Glory and Majesty of the One Being.
Of all the Names or Attributes of God, according to the Sikhs, the highest is Sat (Eternal Truth). The word Nam is considered a mystic utterance and is often used in practical religious life and meditation. Beyond these, is a word which is given to an individual (Prophet) directly from God. Needless to say, such does not often occur. These are called True Names and are known as Waheguru note 34. or Wonderful God ('Thou art Wonderful'). These Words do not describe an object, but the Totality of Reality, they reflect the nirguna Aspect of God. The Gurus revealed these Names to "sum up mystic power and experiences of His presence all around ... Contemplation or meditation on true Name (Waheguru) is called practicing the presence of God in one's conscious" (SR 259).
By thoughtful repetition of these Names, or any one of them, especially Waheguru, coupled with tap (austerities), one can merge with Nam. This process of chanting is known as Nam Jap (PoM vol 3,3). "These efforts [of Nam Jap and Tap) result in bliss, for remembrance is the essence of happiness. Therefore repeat the Name of the Lord (Gobind) note 35., the essence of wisdom" (PoM vol 3,5). By this method all ignorance, desire, false-ego and care is destroyed and the heart is filled with love, happiness and bliss. Through Jap one's meditations easily and naturally merge into divine trance (Sahaj avastha). Devout Sikhs silently or audibly utter Waheguru constantly (PoM vol 2, 235).
This sadhan (sadhana) or spiritual discipline is specifically known as Surat Shabd Yoga or the "Yoga of the Sound Current" (SoS 17). It is also called Sehaj Yoga or the "easy Path" because anyone, regardless of social or financial conditions, can practice it. Spiritual attainment is the job or concern of the Guru, not the student. The student simply places him or herself in a position which is conducive to receiving the Guru's Grace (SoS 17). If one receives this Grace, at the time of initiation one is given a direct experience of the transcendent Truth. By regular practice (two or three hours a day) this kernel experience can be nurtured into self-realization (SoS 17). This experience is like the bacteria which enables one to create yogurt from milk. Without this ingredient, no realization is possible (S 53; P).
As the gursikh (Guru's disciple) continues his or her sadhana, they pass through five khands or realms of spiritual awakening. These are piety ('dharan'), knowledge ('gian'), spiritual effort ('saram', grace ('karam') and truth ('sach'). The higher realms can only be reached by the grace of Guru and God (GiS 51).
According to the Sikh Missionary Center (Detroit) a simple (yet profound) definition of Gurbani is: "Gurbani is everything" (SR 261). This should no doubt be tempered with the understanding that everything is in Reality nirguna, everything is One. For one who can understand this, Gurbani is everything. There are, according to the same authors, those who maintain that Gurbani is not Nam. Such people, they say, are either misguided and deceitful. The Gurus explicitly state that Gurbani is everything. It is Nam, Guru, Nirankar (God, the Formless One), Nad and Ved note 36.. Any endeavor which leads one closer to God, be that reading with devotion and attention, meditation on any Sabad of Gurbani (Text of Scripture), kirtan of Gurbani (singing of the Sacred Utterances), any endeavor which aims at elevating one spiritually, or more specifically, which invokes the presence of God into one's consciousness, is classified as nam japna or meditation on the Name. Meditation on the Name is the only way to realization and final release (SR 260,261).
The Sikh way to God therefore is simple and effective: It is due to avidya (ignorance) that one identifies with anything other than Nam ('Shabd'). Through spiritual practices such as those mentioned above, one's consciousness is purified and one is gradually elevated to the point of reintegration with the Divine Nam, Who is God, Who is saguna brahman, Who is nirguna brahman. Through spiritual practice (sadhan) one is freed from illusion and I-am-ness ('haumai') and the 'screen of ego' is torn down. With this the five vices of lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego (which is the worst) are destroyed and one realizes identity with God. The wheel of samsara (transmigration) is stopped and such a blessed soul never again enters into this saguna world of delusion and pain. Nam is the 'elixir of life' without which life would have no meaning or goal. Therefore, without Nam there is no happiness, no joy. When Christians recite the rosary or pray to God, that is Nam. When Muslim kneel towards Mecca, that is Nam. When Hindus chant Gayatri note 37. or pray to the trimurti note 38., that is Nam. Without Nam there is nothing. "The tongue that repeateth not His Name, better it be cut out bit by bit" (Funhe Mohalla, quoted in SR 266).
Some Nam is higher than other Nam however. The Gurus were clear that the worship of gods, goddesses, stones, murtis, places of pilgrimage, Samadhis note 39., indeed, the worship of anything within the Creation as a means to salvation is strictly forbidden by Gurmat. Only God, the Formless Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of all is to be glorified (GiS 35). Nonetheless, Sikhs do not insist that this be done within the auspices of their sangats note 40.. They honor all who sincerely seek to worship the One God, regardless of the means employed.
While it is only natural that Sikhs prefer their own methods and religious systems, of all the religions I have examined, and there have been a lot of them, none are so open to other religions and philosophical ideas as the Sikhs. As Pramjit Singh explained to me, Sikhs are not concerned with formalities or organizational membership. God is Great and man is diverse. The Holy One has given everyone a means whereby salvation can be achieved. No one, including the Sikhs, have the right to criticize the sincere efforts of others.
Pramjit further acknowledged that many of the traditional aspects of Sikhism, some of which will be discussed below, are purely the product of Punjabi culture and have nothing to do with self-realization. These cultural elements, as important as they are to any given society, and they are vital to Sikhism, must always be kept within their proper perspectives.
Regardless of the religious systems employed, there are certain basics upon which all agree. As long as one's mind is impure, for instance, it can not know God. Sikhism adds that as the mind becomes pure the soul (atman) will gradually merge with the Supreme Soul (paramatman). This is accomplished by praise and prayer to God with devotion (bhakti). This devotion must be strong enough to transform the egocentric aspects of one's life and cause him or her to surrender fully, step by step, to God. Remembrance of God, with bhakti, is therefore the essence of the Path of the Masters (S 23).
If God is Impersonal, the question naturally arises, "How can one develop bhakti to an Impersonal Cause-Ground?" This difficulty has plagued monism throughout its history, both east and west. As Eliade has explained, "This tendency of monistic thinking to favor unity and oneness at the expense of the particular has confined monism to a minority position in philosophy and religious outlook, both Asian and Western. Even in India, ordinarily regarded as uniformly monistic ... the monistic system of Shankara ... is but one of several competing interpretations of the Hindu scriptures" (ER 57).
The Sikh response to this question is found in a conversation between Guru and Charpat, a Siddha Yogi. The Guru explained that a duck lives in the water. If its wings get wet it will drown. The duck knows this, therefore he never allows his wings to get wet. Likewise, a lotus flower lives in the water, yet always floats upon the surface, never going into the water. Both the duck and the lotus require water for their survival, yet they maintain the appropriate relationship with it. Likewise, physically embodied beings can not exist without maya (material nature), however the wise ones maintain a proper attitude and relationship with it by never forgetting God for a moment. Nam japa is constantly on their minds so they are not deluded by maya's illusions. This requires complete attention and dedication. In order to maintain this proper determination and relationship, Sikhs are very intentional in their life-styles. In Gurbani they find enough information to develop a loving relationship with the Unknowable in His saguna Attribute. Gurbani which is performed absentmindedly is useless. There must be an ever-present vigilance if one hopes to succeed. As their minds become one with Gurbani (Sabad etc.) they enter into communion with It. As this occurs, there is 'bliss and everlasting joy.' In this state the Sikh achieves the 'heavenly elixir' (hari ras) and merges with the Nam (SR 271). Thereby nirguna brahman is attained and one merges with the Infinite.
Furthermore, association with other seekers is vital. The Sat Sangat ('Holy Congregation') forms a vital link in the religious and social life of Sikhs because, "Sat Sangat is the treasury of Divine Name; there we meet God; through the Grace of Guru, one receives there Light and all darkness is dispelled " (Sarang ki Var, Mohalla, quoted in SR 280). Through the Sat Sangat ignorance and egotism is destroyed. It is absolutely necessary for salvation (SR 280,281; GiS 49).
SIKH RITES AND PRACTICES
As mentioned above, there are many cultural aspects to Sikhism which are extraneous to the actual faith, however which are of extreme importance and significance to Sikhs as a distinct people. Kirpal Singh has written that all religious differences are man-man. There is only one universal truth which all religions seek to promote. Religious diversity is the result of culture, narrowness and bigotry. The message of all religions is the same, one universal brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God (S 20,21). As philosophically insightful as such statements are, cultural and religious diversity is vitally important as well. As Pramjit told me, those Sikhs who have taken refuge in the West often find it difficult to live in a society which is so diametrically opposed to life in the Punjab. The cultural aspects of Sikhism help maintain a continuity which is vital for their continued existence as a distinct people. They unite them into a brotherhood of believers and help them maintain loyalty to Guru and Sangat. Chief among these cultural aspects is the Sangat itself of course.
As mentioned above, Guru Nanak condemned the caste system. Since last names were indicative of one's caste, it was not enough to personally oppose the system because one was still judged on that basis. Therefore Guru Nanak renamed his followers in a way which would acknowledge no caste distinctions. All Sikhs adopted the surname Singh ('Lion'). This name disavowed any reference to the caste system and implied that one was a 'lion for God,' or fierce in determination to attain liberation (P).
As with any people, not all Sikhs are fully devoted to their religion. Although Sikhism accepts no caste distinctions, there is a common way to identify those Sikhs who are devout in the performance of their religion. Everyone who is born in a Sikh family is named Singh, but since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, only those who are devout, those who are indeed 'lions for God' typically employ this name. To qualify as a Singh one must be sincere in religion, above social reproach, and observe five cultural practices. These practices are known as the five Ks because Khalsa note 41.. Punjabi Sikh names all begin with that letter:
- kesh: uncut hair. From birth onward devout Sikhs never cut their hair, including their beards. This is indicative of their desire to transcend material nature and attain spiritual realization. The body is not important beyond its role as a vehicle for enlightenment.
- kangha: comb used to keep the hair clean. This comb is kept under one's turban. The practice of kesh should not be taken as neglect for the body, it is cared for as one might care for an automobile, hence the kangha.
- kara: metal bracelet or bangle worn on the right wrist. Since the Sikhs reject all forms of asceticism, they are actively engaged in life. Indeed, unless a man works and supports his family he can't be considered a Singh. When one reaches out his (right) hand to work, the bracelet reminds him of God. By this he is always careful to deal honestly with all men.
- kaccha: knee-length underwear. Sikhs are to be very modest.
- kirpan: dagger. Sikhs reject the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence). They see it as a moral weakness and betrayal of religious requirements. If a Sikh sees a wrong being committed he is duty bound to stop it. Sometimes such righteous intervention requires force. The dagger is not therefore merely a religious symbol, it is a tool, even a weapon, for righteous intervention or self-defense. There is also of course the spiritual symbolism. The dagger cuts through maya or illusion. This application is secondary however. Pramjit told me that sometimes the dagger can cause a problem. As a Singh he can never be separated from his kirpan. When Sikhs travel this is sometimes a problem. Airlines, for instance, will not allow them carry the kirpans on planes. Likewise they sometimes encounter difficulties in stores and other public places. To remedy this, they have developed tiny kirpans, about the size of pocket knives. In this way they can observe their religious requirements and public laws as well. Once the plane lands, they take the kirpan from the luggage and strap it on their sides.
If a Singh violates any of these principles, for any reason, he must be baptized anew in order to reclaim the Singh title. If, for instance, a Sikh goes in for surgery and his hair is cut for that reason, he is no longer a Singh. He must approach the Sat Sangat and be rebaptized. I asked Pramjit how serious it would be if he lost his status as a Singh due to such an eventuality. He replied that what matters is the consciousness, not physical circumstances; but it was obvious from his demeanor that such would be viewed as most unfortunate. On the other hand, I spoke with a thirty year old Sikh who has never been baptized. He wears the turban and observes the five Ks, and yet has never felt the need (or the inner purity) to accept baptism. His devotion to the five Ks is such however that even though he is an expert tennis player, he refuses to remove his turban or kirpan to do so.
The idea of Pauhal may seem alien to Indian philosophy at first glance. When we think of baptism, we tend to think of Christianity. Where did the Sikhs get the idea?
Nam is the source and the means to merge with the Unmanifest One. The Guru is the doorway to Nam, and so by taking refuge of his Grace one achieves liberation. The way to the Guru is baptism (Pauhal or Amrit). Without baptism a Sikh has no Guru, hence no Nam and therefore, no liberation.
God is attained through nam japna, or recitation of God's Name, however without the Grace of the Guru, such repetition is meaningless. As the Gujri Mohalla explains: All repeat God's Name, yet He is not attained but when through the Grace of the Guru God comes to reside in the mind. It is only then one's life becomes fruitful (quoted in SR 263). The Rag Mahalla adds that the world is a fearful ocean of maya (illusion) and only the ship of the Guru can give one safe passage to the other side, where abides God (SR264).
Guru Nanak started this ritual of initiation in typically Hindu style. From Guru Nanak until Guru Gobind Singh Sikh initiation consisted of two parts. First, the Guru's feet were washed. Due to the Guru's touch, this foot-water was considered amrit or nectar. It was then given to the disciple to drink (as Charanpauhal or Caritamrita). The second rite was the giving of Nam, the transcendental experience of the Holy Word.
Guru Gobind Singh instituted the baptism rite which is observed today. Although Guru Nanak rejected all visible forms of worship, temples, rituals and the like, Gobind Singh created the Khalsa or Guru Panth ("community of the pure ones") as the external form of Guru (GiS 68). Actually, he empowered and reorganized the existing body of the faithful. With this change, those who would be Singhs (initiated 'lions of God'), had to join the Khalsa through the rite of baptism. Baptism is conducted by five advanced Singhs in the presence of the Khalsa, "Let it, therefore, be very clear to every Sikh that in order to get into Guru's fold and seek Guru's grace, one will have to get baptized by the Five Beloved Ones. Only then will one's efforts toward spiritualism become fruitful" (SR 264). The rite consists of readings from the Guru Granth, sacred songs, prayers and the preparation of a special solution of water and sugar. The candidates are then sprinkled with this water on their heads and eyes. At this time they are instructed in the rules of Khalsa membership, loyalty, moral conduct and receive Nam.
To be a Sikh is to be a member of a family. It is to follow in the bold, yet humbly devout footsteps of Guru Nanak and his successors. Sikhism is not a religion, but a way of life. It is SANT MAT, the Path of the Masters.
Continue to Notes and References
Notes on Page Four
- Note 33: This is similar to the Upanishadic doctrine that nirguna brahman was first manifested as Om and thereafter established prakriti or nature (M 1). Return
- Note 34: Pronounced "Vaheeguru" (P). Return
- Note 35: The Name Gobind is the Punjabi form of Govinda, Who is Krishna (as a cowherder) or Vishnu. Return
- Note 36: Nad is Nadam or Transcendental Sound Currents (the Shabd) and Vad is Veda or Wisdom, especially Scriptural truths. Return
- Note 37: The Brahmanical prayers: Om Bhur Bhuvaha Svaha, Tat Savitur Varenyam... Return
- Note 38: Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer/Transformer. Return
- Note 39: Tombs of great saints. Return
- Note 40: Communities of Sikh believers. Return
- Note 41: Khalsa Sikhs are those who accept the reforms of Guru Gobind Singh (GiS 68). Return