Sikh Perspective on Friendship: Inside View

Balwant Singh Dhillon

Among the world religions, Sikhism is a relatively young religion. Its view of friendship with the religious other is rooted deeply in the religious as well as historical experience of the Sikh Gurus. Historically, the Sikhs as a community have experienced a varied kind of relationship with the religious other. Irrespective of tension and conflict with the religious other, Sikhs have played a significant role to further the cause of amity, goodwill and friendship. The Sikh ideals and institutions, especially the Sikh way of life, have contributed significantly in determining the Sikh cultural pattern including friendship with those of other faiths. Friendship is a much sought after and cherished value of the Sikhs. How much Sikhism had inherited and in what manner it has contributed to the composite culture of Punjab is a fascinating study, but beyond the scope of this essay.

Geographically speaking, Punjab, the land of five rivers where Sikhism was born and has flourished, was situated on the highway that connected India with the Central and West Asian countries. From time immemorial, countless soldiers, traders, adventurers, travelers, and mendicants of various hues have traversed it. Many of these travellers made it their home. The Punjab was the region where people belonging to ethnicities and cultures including Indians, Greeks, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Afghans and Iranians across time have intermingled and come into direct contact with one another. Here, interaction between the Indian and Islamic culture has been intense and enduring. Since ancient times till the end of the eighteenth century, hordes of invaders traversed the Punjab in search of fortune. Without entering into debate about the ethnic stock of the people of Punjab, we can say with certainty that the majority of them lived in villages and thrived on agriculture. All these factors put together played a major role in the making of Punjabiat, a regional cultural identity.

Even though Punjab was historically a meeting ground for different cultures, due to certain factors it had failed to produce a conducive environment for friendship. The two dominant sections of society, the Hindus and the Muslims, were poles apart. Their attitude, especially their religiously exclusivist outlook, was not conducive for friendship with followers of other faiths. They harbored ill-will and hatred towards each other. The segregation between the two was so sharp that out of hatred or by their social rules, the Hindus had come to despise the Muslims as the Malecchas (unclean), whereas the Muslims looked upon the Hindus as the Kafirs (infidels). Besides the sectarian and communal divide, the caste system had segregated Indian society into different sections. Upper castes enjoyed the privileges, whereas discrimination against the lower castes had legal sanction. Each caste was governed by its own social laws and pursued a pre-determined profession. Social taboos including untouchability were so strong that people belonging to all castes could not sit together, eat together and worship together. All these factors did not favor to further the cause of friendship with the religious other.

Guru Nanak observed that true spirit and ennobling aspect of religion had been obliterated due to the veils of the man-made boundaries of caste, creed, race and meaningless rituals. He responded to the above challenges in a unique and practicable manner. He began his mission on a very revolutionary note, which also underlines the Sikh viewpoint on the issue of friendship. He remarked:

There is no Hindu and there is no Musalman.

It underscores the point that irrespective of religious affiliations, all are equals. Guru Nanak took his message to the people of different lands. He visited the most important religious centres of the Indian sub-continent and West-Asia as well, and entered into a dialogue with a wide variety of religious leaders with the objective to wean them away from the divisive dimensions of religion. He enlightened them regarding the perennial spring of spirituality that is at the core of every religion. Similarly, Guru Nanak took concrete steps to promote mutual trust and harmony among the people that were essential for forging any bond of friendship.

The basic principles of Guru Nanak’s message are the Unity of Godhead and the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind. In fact, these two principles form the bedrock of the Sikh perspective on friendship. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Gurus who succeeded after him firmly believed in the Oneness of God, who is Transcendental as well as Immanent, Creator as well as Prevalent in the creation. The God of Sikhism is free from sectarian affiliations. The following remarks of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru and editor of the Sikh Scripture, are revealing in this context:

Some people call Him Ram, some remember Him as Khuda and some others are devoted to Gusain, and yet others invoke Him as Allah. He is the same Gracious Lord of all. Some go on pilgrimage to the Hindu centers, others go to Mecca; Some do Puja, others offer Namaz, some recite Vedas; others Quran; some wear white, other blue; some wish to go to Sawarg, others Bahisht, some call themselves Hindus, others Muslims. But says Nanak, only the ones, who recognize the Will of the Lord, can know the secret of God.

Obviously, the Sikh God is both Allah and Ram at the same time. He is not the God of any particular race, community or gender. He is the common Father of all human beings. These injunctions point to the fact that no one religion can lay exclusive claim over the revelation of God. Sikhism believes that all paths lead to the same Supreme Being, the Gracious Lord. Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru has expressed the above idea in the following words:

O God! The world is aflame, save it by Thy grace.
Save it, by whatever portal it may he saved.

The idea of the Unity of Divine Being implicitly accepts the revelation of God in other religions as well. Sikhism accepts that God had revealed itself in history from time to time in order to vindicate the cause of righteousness. According to Sikhism, no one nation, race, ethnicity, or community can claim that God belongs to it exclusively. Discord arises when the followers of a faith claim themselves to be the only custodians of God’s revelation and treat others as non-believers. Sikhism does not subscribe to the above view. In other words, Sikhism accepts the plurality of religions, which is an important ingredient to approach the religious other in a friendly and respectful manner.

Among the various names attributed to God in Sikhism, Nirbhau (Fearless) and Nirvair (without enmity) are of great significance for our present theme. Obviously, the God of Sikhism is free from fear and enmity. The Sikh God is the God of justice and righteousness. He is the Lord of the lowly, the support of the support less, honour of the dishonoured, destroyer of earthly tyrants and savior of the downtrodden. In the Sikh scripture there are certain Names such as Sakha, Mit, Mittar, Sajanu, Sajan, Yaar, Dost, Beli, wherein God has been invoked in the form of a friend. For example:

The Lord God is my friend and companion who shall be my helper and support at the end (SGGS, p.32).
O brother! God is my friend and companion (p.41).
O brother! Make God your friend (p.46).
O Lord my friend! Blessed is the land where you dwell (p.46).
The True Lord has been my best friend since my childhood (p.41).
O Lord! If you are my friend then don’t separate yourself from me even for a moment (p.1094).
O Lord my intimate friend! I have just one prayer to make (p.729).
Lord my friend! If you desire I can cut off my head and offer it to you (p.1094).
O God Guru! You are my Father, you are my Mother, you are my Brother and you are my Friend (p.167).

Besides the above there are other injunctions in the Sikh Scripture which has a bearing on the theme of friendship. For example:

When someone who attaches himself to the God then everyone is his friend (p.238).
I have grown weary of making many friends hoping that someone might be able to end my sufferings (p.37).
For an enlightened person friend and foe are the same (p.272).
Those are false friends who do not go with you for even one step (p.238).
Persons whose sight banishes my evil mindedness, they are my true friends (p.520).
Saintly persons are tolerant and good natured; friends and foe are the same to them (p.1356).
Only those persons are my friends who can walk along with me (p.729).
I long for such a friend who can unite me with the God (p.749).
O Farid! There are dozens who say they are friends; but I cannot find a true one (p.1382).
Friendship with a fool never works out right (p.474).
O sinner! No one will be your friend at the end (p.474).
Thieves, adulterous, prostitutes and pimps make friendship with the unrighteous and eat with the unrighteous (p.790).

Injunctions such as these depict both the significance and the value that the Sikh Gurus had attached to the idea of friendship. Sikhism also defines the experience of friendship and underlines some of the norms on which it is build. Accordingly, relationships based on friendship in no way are less significant than those of kinship; friendship is an inseparable, long lasting and affectionate bond which involves sacrifice of one’s own interests. True friendship is a selfless pursuit which can be carried only by truthful living. Thus, true friends are very difficult to find. The company of a true friend results in happiness and bliss. On the other hand, friendship with an ignorant can not last long. Consequently, there is no need to enter into a debate with an ignorant. Evildoers also operate in a circle of friendship, but it is not the ideal model of friendship as its intentions always tend toward ill. However, for an enlightened person, friends and foes are the same. On the ethical plane, this idea of friendship is universal in spirit and humanitarian in its outlook. At the religious level, it transcends communal boundaries and at social level it aims at promotion of brotherhood, equality and solidarity. It lays the contour of true universalism, which is a pre-requisite for entering into a friendship with the others.

The institutional set up of Sikhism, namely the Sangat (congregation), the Gurdwara (religious center) and the Langar (community kitchen) are where Sikh values find practical manifestation. The Sikh principles of equality, brotherhood, selfless service and welfare of the others are not only a dogma, but they are the supreme values to be practiced in daily life. Any person belonging to any faith can join the Sikh congregation without any inhibition. Similarly, entry into the Sikh places of worship, such as the Gurdwaras, is open to all human beings. All the people can partake food in the community kitchen without any distinction of class, creed, caste, gender and race. No distinction is ever made at the time of distributing Karah Parsad in the congregation.

Loving devotion for God so that one may earn His grace is the creedal essence of Sikhism. Sikhs believe that salvation is the ultimate aim of human life, which is attained only through earning God’s grace. It is further believed that a life based on honest labour, service of humankind, and morality in the public square is as essential as praying to God. For a Sikh, love of human beings is equal to love of God. Compassion, justice and forgiveness are the other higher values, which the Sikhs are asked to practice in their daily life. Enmity to none, friendship with all; fear not and frighten not, and goodwill to all have been the ideals of Sikh Gurus and their Sikhs. All these values are essential for cultivating friendship with the religious other.

Sikhism does not repudiate any religious tradition outrightly. The Sikh Gurus were of the opinion that “Does not call that the Hindu Vedas and the Semitic scriptures are false, in fact those who do not contemplate upon them are false.” In that way, Sikh Gurus were accommodating to others traditions, which again is an essential requirement of friendship. There is no doubt that the Sikh Gurus severely criticized the religious leaders of other traditions for their hypocrisy, moral degeneration, and their failure to lead their people on the path of righteousness. But it does not mean that Sikhs harbored ill-will and were intolerant to the people of other faiths. They often exhorted the Hindus to be true Hindus and the Muslims to be true Muslims. The Sikh Gurus advised the people of various creeds that all of humankind were the offspring of the same singular Supreme Being, the Creator of all. Hence, all are equal, and no one is superior or inferior. When a Qazi enquired from Guru Nanak during his visit to Mecca, the premier Muslim shrine, whether Muslims or Hindus were better, he replied sagely that devoid of goodness, both would be equally bad. Obviously, Sikhism believes in truthful living. The natural corollary is that righteous people are favored by Sikhs in the pursuit of friendship.

The Sikh scripture offers a living model of interfaith understanding and co-existence. Besides the hymns of the Sikh Gurus, the writings of the Hindu Bhagtas and Muslim Sufis form an integral part of the Sikh Scripture. These Bhagats and Sufis belong to different denominations, regions, castes, cultures, languages and periods of history. Every word therein is our Guru. Thus, Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the epitome of catholicity, tolerance and peaceful co-existence. It exhibits how in the face of differences we can accommodate each other and live together in a peaceful manner. It beacons the Sikhs that for the sake of friendship with religious others, they can transcend the social, cultural, religious and geographical boundaries.

The Sikh Gurus were highly critical of discrimination against people on religious grounds. The Sikh history is a witness to the fact that Sikh Gurus and their Sikhs wanted to preserve the multi-religious and multi-cultural character of Indian society. The main reason for the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan in 1606 and Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675 was that they came in the way of the Mughal State, which wanted to destroy the multi-religious character of Indian society through its repressive policy. Sikhs have proven to be a strong votary for freedom of worship. All these ideals are key to further the cause of friendship with the others.

In medieval India, society was sharply divided on caste and sectarian lines. Consequently, social equality and justice were distant dreams. The Sikh Gurus denounced the divine legitimacy provided to the caste system. They pronounced that at the Divine court, one’s status is measured only in terms of good deeds. They stood for casteless and classless society wherein everyone enjoys equal rights. According to Sikhism, all human beings are the off springs of the same Creator; hence no one is inferior or superior. “The Lords light gave life to all human beings; how can then one say who is good, who is bad.” Guru Nanak always identified himself with the lowest of the lowly. The message of equality and brotherhood paved the way for corporate life in society. Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master, said emphatically that let us not forget that we are after all the offspring of the same singular Supreme Being, the Creator of all, whose will, wish and law has to be the same for all humankind, however differently it may have been explained in different scriptures. Bhai Nand Lal, a contemporary and poet at the court of Guru Gobind Singh eulogizes him:

Bekasaan ra yaar Guru Gobind Singh
Nasiro mansur Guru Gobind Singh

It is evident that Guru Gobind Singh was a friend of the poor and a savior of the downtrodden. At the social level, the Sikh Gurus revolutionized the whole perspective of human relationship. They took a clear stand on the issue of family and societal life. The Sikh Gurus related family life to the active social life, where one is to lead a detached life while living in the society. Selfless service of the people was elevated to the status of worship of God. Voluntary service is a cherished value of the Sikh way of life, which has earned admiration from the practitioners of other faiths.

History is a witness to the fact that Sikhs happily associated with the people of other faiths. Guru Nanak had no inhibition to visit the centers of the others. He interacted with the Nath Sidhas and the Sufis over spiritual matters. Bhai Mardana, the rebeck player and lifelong companion of Guru Nanak, was a Muslim. According to the Sikh tradition, the foundation stone of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) was laid down by Mian Mir (1550-1635), a renowned Qadri Sufi Sheikh of Lahore. Mian Mir enjoyed cordial relationship with Guru Arjun Dev and Guru Hargoind. Pir Buddhu Shah of Sadhaura was an ardent supporter of Guru Gobind Singh. The Muslim bards have regularly performed Kirtan in the Gurus’ Court. During the Sikh rule, non-Sikhs belonging to different faiths (Islam, Hinduism and Christianity), were appointed to the high ranking posts. Begum Sumroo, wife of Walter Reinhard Somers, an European adventurer who had carved out a small principality of Sardana, near Delhi, enjoyed very warm and cordial relationship with S. Baghel Singh, a leading Sikh chief of late 18th century. Even the British approached her to mediate with the Sikhs in order to sort out some diplomatic issues. During the partition of India in 1947, the life and property of the Muslims and the Hindus of Calcutta had come under serious threat, but it was the Sikhs who played the role of peace makers at that time. The Sikh community exhibited its fellowship and vitality to the world community by serving free food to the participants of the Parliament of World’s Religions in Barcelona in 2004. Recently, in the wake of natural calamities such as the tsunami in the Asian peninsula and the earthquake in Columbia where no Sikhs lived, the Sikh NGOs have organized relief camps to help people.

There are certain historical and theological factors which really matter to Sikhs on their path to building bridges of friendship. The Sikh mission desires eradication of evil from all walks of life. Sikhs are not supposed to enter into compromise with the evil. Naturally, they cannot befriend evil forces. On the other hand. they can take up arms in self defense, to protect the honor of women and to save the defenseless. An ideal man, an enlightened, integrated personality cannot remain silent over the degeneration of social order, for this may result in conflict with evil forces.

From the very beginning, the orthodox elements within the Hindu and Muslim societies were not well disposed towards the development of Sikhism. In the 18th century, due to political and religious factors, the Sikhs suffer considerably at the hands of the Muslim rulers of India. The Sikh reformists of late 19th century desired to get rid of the socio-religious evils that had crept into Sikhism. These reforms have also not gone well with the Hindutava lobby. Some scholars feel that Sikh reformists worked at the behest of British Colonial government. This sentiment resulted in the hardening of religious boundaries, coupled with division of people on communal lines. The partition of India also witnessed large-scale bloodshed, accompanied by communal riots. The Arya Samajists were totally against the reorganization of Punjab on linguistic basis. Later on, the Sikh demand advocacy for greater autonomy for Punjab and inclusion of Punjabi speaking areas into it was labeled as secessionist and resulted in an army attack on Darbar Sahib Amritsar in June 1984. Similarly, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and other cities of India after the murder of Indira Gandhi in October 1984 was a tragic and horrible experience for the Sikh community. The Hindutava elements do not acknowledge the separate religious entity of Sikhism. The Sikh identity has remained misunderstood at international level. In western countries, Sikhs are mistaken as Muslim terrorists, and often are subjected to hate crimes. All of these factors have put serious constraints on the interreligious friendship.

Like any other religious community, the Sikh religious life is also governed by a prescribed code of conduct. Sikhs have been asked to desist from social and religious association with some of the schismatic/heterodox Sikh groups. These injunctions are neither anti-Muslim, nor are they exclusive in approach. One must realize that certain historical, ethical and theological factors are involved in such proclamations. Like the social-religious laws of any other community, the Sikh rahit aims to preserve the doctrinal originality of Sikhism, coupled with furthering the cause of social unity among the Sikhs. Heterodox/schismatic elements within the Panth were working at cross-purposes. The Muslim rulers permitted sale and Consumption of Halal meat only. These dietary restrictions were not to the liking of the Sikhs. Smoking is injurious to health, thus prohibition of tobacco has nothing to do with the Muslims. The Sikh code specifically asks the Sikhs not to enter into sexual relationships with Muslim women. Generally, during war, the chastity and honor of women was always in danger. Because the Sikhs had suffered at the hands of the Muslim ruling class, the Sikhs could have easily targeted Muslim women out of a sense of revenge. In order to prevent this, the Sikhs were directed not to dishonor any women,. While the Sikh code does specifically mention Muslim women as among those whom Sikhs are not to enter into sexual relationships, this does not imply that sexual intercourse with the women of any other community is allowed. In fact, extramarital relationships on the part of men and women is unlawful in Sikhism. Bhai Gurdas, the first Sikh theologian and contemporary of the early Sikh Gurus exhorts the Sikhs not to covet the women of others. He says “Deal with the women according to their age and considers them as of your mother, sister and daughter.” During warfare in the eighteenth century, the Sikh soldiers never indulged in rape and rapine of enemy’s women. They freed thousands of hapless Maratha women who were taken captive in the battle of Panipat in 1765 and were being taken away to Afghanistan as war booty by the Afghans. Injunctions against the use of tobacco, consumption of Halal meat, and ban on sexual relations with Muslim women should not be interpreted that Sikh Gurus and their Sikhs desired segregation from the Muslims.

During their brief history of 500 years, the Sikhs have emerged as the defenders of the downtrodden and deprived. They always have fought for the rights of the have-nots. Religiously, the Sikh are open minded, tolerant and liberal in their outlook. In their worship, they are far less formal and superstitious than many other traditions. Socially, they are the champions of equality, righteousness, justice and human values. They are committed to the welfare of humanity. Selfless service is a unique value for which the Sikhs are known world-over. Economically, they are far more enterprising, forward-looking and hard working. Instead of depending on others, they believe in empowerment. Sikhs are famous for their hospitality, generosity, hard work, adventurous, enterprising and care free life style. At a personal level, they cherish the values of liberty, dignity and self-respect, but at a corporate level, they believe in brotherhood and companionship. They keep high morale even in adversity. Wherever they have gone, Sikhs’ contribution in all spheres of life has been far greater than their numerical strength. Prof. Puran Singh, a great Sikh poet, has beautifully summed up the influence of Sikhism on the culture of Punjab. He says that the whole of Punjab live by the grace of the Sikh Gurus. The youth of Punjab do not carry the habits of a subservient. They even make fun of death. You can win over their loyalty only by love. In that way, mutual respect and love hold keys to friendship. Even a small gesture of goodwill and sympathy on the part of Sher Muhammad Khan of Malerkotla, who opposed the cold-blooded murder of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh, has remained deeply imprinted on the collective Sikh psyche. In spite of bloodshed and turmoil at various stages of Punjab history, the Muslims of Malerkotla did not attract any vengeance from the Sikhs. Among the non-Sikh academia, M.A. Macauliffe, Prof Noel Q. King, Dr. Owen Cole and others who respected the Sikh sensitivity, commanded great respect as compared to the scholars who discriminated against the Sikhs. Similarly, the Christian missionary C.F. Andrews, the Muslim doctor Saifuddin Kitchlew, and the Hindu reformist/educationist Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya enjoyed immense goodwill because they had expressed their solidarity with the Sikhs who were agitating against the British to get control of their shrines.

The Sikh ideals and institutions form the bedrock of Sikh way of life by which friendship with the Divine and fellow human beings is a cherished value. The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh leaders following them have left a rich legacy of friendship with others outside the Sikh tradition. The Sikh idea of friendship knew no bounds, and fought against segregation of society on communal lines. Sikhism is humanitarian and universal in its approach and thus can transcend religious, social, linguistic and regional boundaries. It is not self-seeking, but self-sacrificing in nature. Good will for all and service to humankind is its motive. Even a small gesture of goodwill and solidarity on the part of others has received warm and affectionate responses from the Sikhs. The Sikhs have inherited a rich legacy regarding how one can accommodate the others outside the faith tradition irrespective of differences, no matter whether those differences are social, religious, or political. In order to enter into a long lasting friendship, one has to respect the sensitivity of others, or otherwise mutual trust and goodwill remain a distant dream. Interfaith friendship can play a very useful role in overcoming age-old religious prejudices against one another. Interfaith friendships can pave the way for mutual trust whereby religious communities can join together to get rid of the evils that have engulfed humanity the world over.