‘There is no Hindu or Muslim.’ (Guru Nanak)
Living with Sikhs: A Personal Testimony
In the interests of transparency I am starting by sharing my own relationship to the Sikh tradition and the insights it offers to informed inter-religious friendship. An Anglican by upbringing and a Quaker by ‘convincement’, I first encountered Sikhs in the mid 1970s, through visiting gurdwaras (Sikhs’ public places of worship) in India, while employed in a boarding school in Uttar Pradesh. Of my (mainly) Punjabi pupils half were Sikh. On my return to the UK (to Coventry in the Midlands) once again many of my students were Sikhs. Then in 1979 I was invited to another Midlands city, Nottingham, to carry out post-graduate study of its Sikh population. What I encountered was in fact three Sikh communities, each with its own gurdwaras, and with no inter-marriage between them. Subsequent periods of fieldwork have engaged me with many Hindu, Sikh and Christian communities.
So, for 40 years I have been caught up in both intellectual and social engagement with people of Sikh (and other) heritage and commitment. My inner dialogue between Quaker and Sikh insights was certainly underway in 1980: errors in an early article remind me of the beginnings of this ongoing conversation. The conversation was not only within me but with Sikh friends, among them (now Professor) Dharam Singh, and when I came upon his article I realised that the ripple effect of such conversation was continuing. In India I had become part of one Hindu Punjabi family many years before marrying into another one, and so my experience was not only, at a deep level, of the connections and contradictions between my culturally European Protestant experience and my discovery of Sikh tradition, but also of the complex Sikh/Hindu experience. On a daily basis I live with the resonances and dissonances between, on the one hand, my Christian nurturing and Quaker principles (testimonies) and, on the other hand, the cultural priorities of panjabiat (Punjabiness, see below), whether expressed by those who identify as Sikh, Hindu, or for that matter as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Valmiki or Ravidassia.
Friendship has characterised my three and a half decades of interaction with Sikhs. Indeed, it was the generous hospitality of Sikh families that made my extensive empirical research possible. My presence in gurdwaras and at religious occasions elsewhere was always accepted, and sometimes publicly welcomed (on occasion even with the gift of a siropa, a piece of orange cloth bestowed as a sign of respect), and I have repeatedly felt privileged and honoured to be invited by Sikhs to speak alongside Sikh speakers, and that too sometimes in the sangat (religious congregation).
My work as a writer has been integral to my friendships with Sikhs (and vice versa). It has included co-authorship with Darshan Singh Tatla of two editions of an annotated bibliography of work on Sikhs in the UK and writing on Guru Nanak, Sikhism’s most revered figure, with Gopinder Kaur. I treasure the joy of continuing discovery, as Gopinder and I focused on interpreting for young people the relevance of Guru Nanak’s questions and insights for the twenty-first century. At an earlier stage in my Sikh studies, another writer, Piara Singh Sambhi, had unstintingly offered me his advice. Kailash Puri (a fiction writer and agony aunt) also shared her life story with me in detail as we prepared her autobiography together. Successive expressions of appreciation by Sikhs (‘lay’ and academic) of my publications are also part of this experience of solidarity and goodwill – here I would mention especially Sewa Singh Kalsi (a Sikh Studies specialist), and a schoolboy who emailed me after reading my introduction to Sikhism which, he explained to me, had been prescribed as a class text in his Sikh college in Malaysia. It also allowed me to reconnect with some of my sikh friends. I performed a reverse phone lookup on an old friends numbers, and luckily managed to reconnect with him – and 8 other old sikh buddies! I could’ve just used social media to reconnect with my Sikh friends I suppose. The only thing is, on sites like Instagram I don’t have many followers so people probably find it difficult to find me…I might learn how to get free followers for instagram so that I get more engagement. Anyway, I digress.
Transformation by integration, (not simply through encounter) (see Habito in this volume) is indeed vital to one’s spiritual life. Thus, I have learned from the ‘fine balance’ that for me summarises Sikhism: balance encapsulated in the concept of sahaj (spiritual poise) and in such expressions as sant-sipahi (saint-soldier/ warrior-saint), miri-piri (the temporal and the spiritual), and the emphasis on embracing simultaneously a spiritual path and family responsibilities (grihasthi). I have been more critically aware of the Quaker peace testimony, through considering Sikhs’ commitment to fighting oppression and Guru Gobind Singh’s admission (in his Zafarnamah) that as a last resort it is right to draw the sword. I have been helped to see through other ‘lenses’: for example by the Sikh visitor who asked me ‘Who is your Guru?’ This set me thinking about the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth is or is not my Guru. My Protestant insistence on the word/Word and its meaning has given way to appreciation of a Sikh emphasis on non-cognitive immersion in Gurbani, the Guru’s word as incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib and sung in the congregation. Above all, I have been moved and humbled by Sikhs’ hospitality and graciousness.
My experience has included the opportunity to learn in inter-faith groups – for example the Sikhs and Christians group, organised in the 1980s under the auspices of the United Reformed Church in the UK. The growth of the church can be seen through technologies such as – https://get.tithe.ly/. I witness Sikhs’ commitment to working with civic, faith and inter-faith bodies, as conspicuously exemplified by (for example) the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sevak Jatha with the leadership of Bhai Mohinder Singh.
Based on these experiences, and for the purposes of this paper, ‘friendship’ encompasses a spectrum of relationship that includes deep, long-standing companionship as well as encounters and exchanges in which the participants sense a resonance in their insights and outlook. My illustrations of ‘friendship’ include two examples of compassion and humanity towards previously unknown individuals in their hour of crisis.
My present treatment of Sikhism and inter-religious friendship needs to consider some distinctive features of the Sikh experience. In contrast to the ethnic diversity of other faith communities represented in the current project, the vast majority of Sikhs have a single ethnicity: Punjabi, with family roots in Punjab, a region bisected in 1947 by the Partition of India into two states. It is the Indian state of Punjab (rather than Pakistan’s state of Punjab, where Guru Nanak’s birthplace is situated) with which Sikhs identify more strongly. Not only do over 16 million of the world’s estimated over 25 million Sikhs live here, but this is where most of their revered historical shrines are located. Another key fact (and this is relevant to Sikhs’ sense of themselves and so to inter-religious understanding and friendship) is the fact that in no country in the world are Sikhs a majority. In India, where most Sikhs live, their percentage of the total population (1.87 per cent, according to the 2001 census) is lower than that for the Christian minority (2.34 percent). Although ethnically fairly homogeneous and so firmly rooted in Punjab, Sikhs are nevertheless geographically far-flung as a result of migration that has been underway from the late 19th century to the present. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sikh history is shorter (the first Guru, Nanak, was born in 1469 C. E.) and its literature is much less extensive than is the case for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
The next step is to seek out Sikh understanding of friendship and its purpose, and Sikh vocabulary for friendship. I suggest that ‘friendship’ is often subsumed by, transformed into (and needs to be understood within) the category of family – of kinship. This social reality accords too with some of the scriptural imagery for the relationship between the individual and the Divine (as, inter alia, father and mother). Among other analogies for the devotee in relation to the Divine are the lover longing for the beloved, and the devotee as disciple (sikh) to the Guru. Importantly, too, God is repeatedly invoked as friend. After briefly considering the ‘non-friend’, and the opposite of friendship, and the apparently socially restrictive character of the rahit (discipline) associated with the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, and the rahit of one contemporary minority Sikh group, I will address the wider matter of Sikh friendship with members of other traditions.
Guru Granth Sahib
At the heart of Sikh life is the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture. The word ‘Guru’ serves as constant reminder that the lovingly enthroned and swathed 1430-page volume is understood to be the ‘Living Guru’ in continuation of the line of ten human Gurus. Passages of this text provide the basis of congregational worship, the content of a religiously observant Sikh’s three periods of daily prayer, and the words of the marriage ceremony and the basis of funeral rites. Importantly, it is the presence of the duly enthroned volume that makes a room a gurdwara, and in the solemnisation of marriage it is the Guru Granth Sahib that is witness to the union.
In terms of literary genre, the sacred text can best be described as mystical poetry. For narrative one has to turn to the janam sakhis, hagiographical accounts of episodes in Guru Nanak’s life. Although some episodes are frequently related by preachers and teachers, the janam sakhis do not have the canonical and liturgical standing of the Guru Granth Sahib (or of the anecdotes of Jesus’ life as reported in the four canonical gospels). Formulations of a code of discipline are to be found in successive rahits (codes). These too lack the authority of the Guru Granth Sahib, although the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Discipline), approved in 1950, is widely acknowledged as a guide. Its concern is with such topics as behaviour in the gurdwara, and with life cycle rites, notably the procedure for initiation into the Khalsa (nucleus of Sikhs committed to a strict discipline), rather than with more universal ethical issues.
A potential pitfall has to be negotiated at this point, however: this is a widespread assumption that there are uncontested boundaries between ‘traditions’, combined with the risk of essentialising ‘tradition’ in much the same way that ‘religion’ too has been widely reified. Moreover, in practice, in the Punjabi cultural matrix of Sikh tradition, it is other social divides (notably between castes) that are more problematic to friendship than religious faith or identification. Theologically, the Gurus’ insights unquestionably support friendships between humans of whatever community. With regard to ‘inter-faith’ friendship attention does however need to be paid to the history, colonial and otherwise, of inter-community relationships in Punjab, as arguably this continues to have a bearing for those of all faith communities in India.
Importantly, however, both Punjab’s turbulent history and formulations of a religious taxonomy are irrelevant to the theological basis for friendship. For this one needs instead to focus on ik oankar, as articulated in Guru Nanak’s mul mantar. It is with mul mantar (literally ‘root formula’ or creedal statement), the formulation that is most familiar to Sikhs, that the Guru Granth Sahib opens, and it is the core of the whole scripture. This one being or one reality (often translated in English versions as ‘God’) whose nam (name and essence) is truth, is nirbhau (without fear), and nirvair (without enmity). Since fear and enmity have no ultimate reality, the stage is set for unity and friendship among humans, and the human aspiration is to be attuned to nam (God’s reality within one). This is the theological basis for the Sikh emphasis on respecting other faiths and holding their faithful in high regard. In consequence, the conversion of others from their own religious paths is not a Sikh goal. Instead Sikhs assume that religions guide their adherents to the same point – i.e. union with the divine, via moral life and divine grace. ‘He is my friend, my dear friend, who imparts to me the knowledge of God’. Sikhs have no concept for or strategy of forging friendships instrumentally with the intention of winning converts.
The human goal of union with the supreme reality allows of no hostility between members of religious communities. As the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, stated:
Hindus and Muslims are one.
The same Reality is the Creator and preserver of all;
Know no distinction between them.
The monastery and the mosque are the same;
So are the Hindu worship and the Muslim prayer.
Humans are all one!
Underlying the exposition in the present chapter is the outworking of a tension between the Gurus’ theological insight and the social and political situations through which Sikhs have lived. These include notably periods of invasion and domination by Muslims (from Guru Nanak’s time through to the eighteenth century, the impact of the British Raj, the devastating consequences in 1947 of the Partition of India at its Independence (when violence erupted in Punjab between Muslims on the one hand and Sikhs and Hindus on the other), and most recently the Sikh-Hindu violence from the 1980s associated with the movement for greater Sikh autonomy.
Unsurprisingly, given Sikhs’ strong identification with Punjab, discussion of friendship in a Sikh context also requires acknowledgement of panjabiat (Punjabiness), the norms and priorities of Punjabi society more broadly. Izzat (honour) calls for special mention, as concern with family status and reputation motivates decisions and behaviour. Family honour is enhanced by professional and financial success and finds expression in lavish hospitality. Conversely, izzat is jeopardised by misconduct, especially by (even unsubstantiated rumour of) a daughter’s inappropriate association with a member of the opposite sex. Friendships (both how one conducts oneself and with whom) can affect izzat both positively and negatively. Alliances and factionalism constantly play out in intra-community relations, as illustrated by Sikh politics and the history of many gurdwaras.
Sikh understanding of friendship
It would be misleading to overestimate the Sikh-specificity of Sikh understandings of friendship. In part this is because ‘friend’ carries a meaning that transcends scriptural formulations and cultural assumptions, insofar as friendship’s characteristic features – across religious and cultural divides – include loyalty, mutual supportiveness and the experience of pleasure in each other’s company. Necessarily, Sikh approaches to friendship need (in a social rather than in a theological context) to be seen as part and parcel of South Asian society more generally, and of Punjabi life specifically. Thus it is true of Sikhs (as also of Punjabis who identify with other religions) that the family provides one framework for friendship. Whereas it might be a compliment in contemporary western society to describe one’s spouse, parent, sibling or offspring as one’s friends, the South Asian norm has long been to show one’s affection and esteem by regarding and addressing acquaintances, with whom there is no tie of blood or marriage, as fictive kin. So, a friend of one’s own generation will be introduced to others as a brother (bhai, bhra) or sister (bahin), a valued acquaintance of one’s parent’s age is more likely to be addressed and referred to as aunt or uncle, and a younger person will be called ‘beta’/ ‘beti’ or ‘put’ i.e. son or daughter. Thus, in his autobiography, the philosopher of religion John Hick describes his bemusement during a visit to India at being introduced by a Sikh acquaintance, Kushdeva Singh, ‘as his brother John’ to a succession of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. The respectful forms for ‘brother’ i.e. ‘bhai sahib’ or ‘bhraji’ and ‘sister’ i.e. ‘bahinji’ are frequently used. In this context it is also worth noting that fellow villagers are also regarded as one’s siblings – and so, traditionally, marriage with someone whose family was from the same village would be taboo.
One effect of living in modern western societies, however, is that Sikhs (and others of South Asian background) increasingly adopt the mainstream usage. Thus (often to parents’ disappointment) a younger relative may speak of ‘your friend’ rather than saying ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’. ‘Your’ implies that the relationship is specific and individual rather than with the family as a whole. ‘Friend’, it needs to be realised, can imply not so much closeness and intimacy as a distance that is absent from relationship words, which are felt to convey both affection and respect.
Nonetheless, words which translate as ‘friend’ abound in the scripture. Given that the Guru Granth Sahib is a succession of poetic compositions it is unsurprising that (prosaic) definitions do not feature. In context the scriptural vocabulary of friendship variously evokes companionship and affection.
The ultimate reality, ‘God’ is repeatedly described as a friend. For example, Guru Nanak addresses the Divine as ‘sajan’ when he exclaims ‘Friend, may I always remain as the dust of your feet’. The third Guru, Amar Das declared: ‘O devotees, God alone is my friend, and companion, wealth, beauty, son, father and mother’. The fifth Guru, Arjan Dev declared: tun mera sakha tunhi mera mitu’ (You are my companion, you alone are my friend), and in the line ‘mitu karai soi ham mana’ he addresses God as ‘Friend’: ‘What our Friend wills we obey…he who does all is our true friend’, but Guru Arjan Dev soon shifts to the metaphor of ‘slave’ and ‘Master’. The poet Kabir declared: ‘Kabir, to make many friends in this world is not a source of happiness, only those are happy who attach their affections to the One’. In the same vein, a twenty-first century Sikh is quoted as saying, ‘God is the best companion, closer than family’, a particularly poignant affirmation in view of Punjabi emphasis on the family.
Friendship in reciprocal and unequal relationships, and in relating to the ‘other’
In terms of the Gurus’ teaching, humans are either gurmukh (facing towards the Guru) or manmukh (egoists, preoccupied with their own whims). What is crucial is the direction in which, metaphorically, one is looking. For friendship to be spiritually supportive the orientation of all concerned must be Guru-ward and so God-ward. Such persons will live lives of seva (selfless service) and daya (compassion). One example is Bhagat Puran Singh (1904-1992) who dedicated his life to caring for destitute and disabled people. Moreover, the Sikh is called to be ever ready to protect the oppressed and vulnerable. As military ideology became more prominent (from the time of the sixth Guru, Hargobind), so too did the call to be a sant sipahi (saint-soldier). One example (of many) is Kushdeva Singh’s courageous protection of Muslims fleeing the violence in post-Partition India in 1947.
Another relationship that is central to Sikh tradition is that of disciple (sikh) and teacher (guru), with the etymology of guru frequently being explained in devotional literature as ‘remover of darkness’, even though in fact its root meaning in Sanskrit is ‘weighty’ (so cognate with English ‘grave’ and ‘gravity’).
Relationship with ‘God’
In addition to the many references to God as one’s friend (see above), human relationship with God is also evoked repeatedly in the Guru Granth Sahib by images of lover and beloved. Bhakti (devotion) is at the heart of the Guru Granth Sahib and of the observant Sikh’s existence. As moving expressions of this devotion, biraha and vairag (both meaning the yearning of separation from one’s beloved) pervade the scripture.
My mind and body yearn
but my Lover is far away in foreign lands.
The Beloved does not come home, I am sighing to death
and the lightning strikes fear in me.
I lie alone on my bed, tormented;
mother, the pain is like death to me.
Without the Divine One, how can there be sleep or hunger?
What clothing can soothe the skin?
Nanak says, the bride is truly wed
When she is embraced by her Beloved.
Another, of many examples, is Guru Arjan Dev’s hymn mohan n?nd na ?wai h?wai h?r kajar bastra abharan k?ne (i.e. attractive Lord, sleep eludes me, sighing deeply, adorned, bejewelled and decked out as I am…).
Furthermore, God is evoked as father and mother in, for example, the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev’s often-repeated words: ‘the one Lord is brother, the one is the real friend and the one is my mother and father’... Elsewhere, Guru Arjan Dev said, ‘Thy child has made mistakes and untoward overtures. Thou O Lord art my father and mother’ and ‘As mother, father, offspring, relatives and brothers, says Nanak, the transcendent Lord is our helper’. Elsewhere, Guru Arjan Dev describes the Divine as ‘gracious father’. Gurus Amar Das and Ram Das had employed the same image of God as parent.
Possible relationship to the non-friend, and the opposite of friendship
In exploring the Sikh context for inter-religious friendship it is noteworthy too that Sikh history affords examples of categorising some people as inappropriate for the social interactions that enable friendship. Famously, the rahit attributed to Guru Gobind Singh appears aimed at minimising contact between his Khalsa and Muslims. One rationale for the rahit’s ban on using tobacco and eating halal meat, as well as its prohibition of sexual relations with Muslim women, was the Guru’s intention of socially separating Sikhs and Muslims. While the currently endorsed Sikh Rahit Maryada includes proscription of adultery, rather than specifying sexual relations with Muslim women in particular, it retains the ban on halal meat (as opposed to all meat). Moreover, Sikh Rahit Maryada outlaws contact with members of heterodox groups.
One can detect a continuity between these codes of discipline and the rahit of one currently active Sikh minority group, the Akhand Kirtani Jatha (literally a band of people who sung hymns continuously). Their rahit requires initiated members of the Jatha to eat only food that has been prepared by other initiates and to eat only what has been prepared in and served on iron utensils. Such a principle of social segregation also invites comparison with the varna-based purity concepts in the older Hindu tradition. The discipline of staunch members of the Jatha in fact appears to run counter to the far more widespread Sikh institution of the langar. Dating from the time of the first Gurus, langar denotes the free vegetarian meal that is cooked in the gurdwara premises and shared by all who come, sitting together regardless of caste, rank or religious affiliation.
Inclusiveness of members of other traditions
Regarding langar, one cherished episode is the visit of the Moghul emperor Akbar to Guru Amar Das who issued the instruction ‘pahile pangat pichhe sangat’ i.e. first sit in line and only then come into the congregation. In other words, the Guru prioritised the requirement that all those who came for an audience with him must sit down for a shared meal, with no preferential seating or treatment for those of high rank or caste. In order to appreciate what a radical phenomenon the langar was one has to realise that in Indian society members of different varnas (brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra) observed caste protocols which ruled out dining together or eating food prepared and/or served out by a lower caste person. The langar is a practical expression of the unequivocal thrust of the Gurus’ insights: ‘The Lord lives in the heart of those who consider friend and foe alike’.
While Akbar and the Guru’s followers were indeed from different faith communities (Akbar, eclectic though he was, was Muslim), present-day expressions such as ‘other traditions’ and ‘different faith communities’ all too easily perpetuate anachronistic or empirically unsafe assumptions that are open to challenge. Accordingly, it is misleading to answer the question that heads this section without first asking what is meant by ‘members of other traditions’? What is a tradition? Sikhs are part and parcel of fluid Punjabi tradition in an ambiguous, ever-evolving relationship with ‘Hinduism’. In many ways, thinking in terms of ‘Punjabi religion’ with a number of dimensions (moral, political etc) coheres more readily with the social and devotional dynamics of Punjab. Indic society, and its expressions of religious devotion, are intrinsically fluid, whether one attempts to distinguish ‘religion’ from ‘culture’ or attempts to define ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’ in mutually exclusive ways. Focus on ‘inter-religious’ must not be allowed to obscure just how problematic it is to impose uncritically on South Asian society the western concept of religion, for which there is no one-to-one equivalent in Indic languages. Indeed, contemporary critical scholarship discloses the part played by colonial administration and Western discourse in hardening boundaries in Indian society and applying to its various communities the designation ‘religion’ replete with understandings that developed in the context of European Christendom and Enlightenment. The historian Harjot Oberoi identified the processes whereby a sanatan Sikhism, which was continuous with surrounding ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ practice, was disowned and discredited by reformist Sikhs i.e. the articulate tat khalsa movement with its much more clearly delineated religion of Sikhism. Apprehensive of Christian encroachment by proselytisation of Sikhs, these reformers were themselves deeply influenced by Protestant European discourse and ethics.
One’s approach to debates on the evolution and definition of ‘religions’ in Punjab clearly shapes one’s understanding of what ‘inter-religious’ means, and so what constitutes ‘inter-religious friendship’, as this concept presupposes firm boundary drawing of the sort associated with the tat khalsa and its twenty-first century heirs. In this regard words attributed to Guru Nanak can bear divergent interpretations. Particularly well-known is his dictum na koi hindu na musalman (there is no Hindu, no Muslim), a statement attributed to Guru Nanak as he returned a three-day-long mystical experience of being in God’s presence at the outset of his ministry. Whether these words are interpreted as meaning that in Nanak’s view no-one was a sincere follower of his/her faith, or whether he was dismissing religious labels and identities as unimportant, or indeed suggesting the ultimate indistinguishability of these two man-made categories, he certainly proclaimed repeatedly the insight that integrity (rather than conspicuous religious observance) was the nub of spirituality. He emphasised the irrelevance of religiosity and religious labels to attaining mukti (moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth). On the basis of Guru Nanak’s famous pronouncement, the unimportance of religious labels and divisions to forging friendship appears unquestionable.
At the same time, the history of sikhi has been the ongoing formulation and reformulation of distinctiveness. Two elements in this process have already been noted, namely the early eighteenth-century rahit’s apparent intention of social separation of Sikhs from Muslims and the early twentieth-century tat khalsa’s dismay at Christian conversion of Sikhs to Christianity, and at many Sikhs’ indistinguishability from Hindus. A history of conflict has characterised Sikh-Muslim relations: fighting with Mughals and Afghans and the death of three Gurus at Muslim hands, were followed by (in 1947) the inter-communal slaughter, rape and displacement that ensued the Partition of India and Pakistan.
Yet, in Guru Nanak’s spirit, the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, when compiling the Sikh scripture, had included compositions by the saint-poets, Farid (a 12th century Muslim) and Kabir (of Muslim parentage) as well as verses by other pre-Nanak saints (bhagats) who could be termed ‘Hindu’. Hence Sikhs’ frequent claim that their scripture is unique in including writings by those who were not Sikh (forgetting that the Christian Bible largely consists of Jewish scripture). Moreover, while the spiritual basis of the Sikh community is the Guru Granth Sahib, its geographical and architectural heart is the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple, Amritsar), and this likewise affirms inter-religious friendship. Significantly, its ground plan is described in terms of its openness on all sides to all peoples, and Sikhs relay the tradition that it was the Sufi, Mian Mir, a friend of Guru Arjan Dev (see below), who laid the foundation stone.
Historical cases of Sikh friendship with non-Sikhs
The iconic image of friendship spanning supposed religious divides is that of Guru Nanak accompanied by Mardana, the Muslim who would accompany Guru Nanak’s hymns on his rabab, and Bhai Bala, his Hindu companion. Artists have painted this picture into the Sikh consciousness as a popular calendar print. Sikh affirmation of this inter-religious friendship is what is relevant to our discussion, rather than questioning Bhai Bala’s historicity on the grounds that neither the theologian Bhai Gurdas nor any janam sakhis apart from the Bala Janam Sakhi mention him, or on the grounds that, in any case, Bhai Bala was not of a different ‘religion’ (in the modern sense) from Guru Nanak. Mardana’s historicity is attested by the claims of a continuing line of Muslim musicians to be of his musical lineage. Although Guru Nanak’s compositions in the Guru Granth Sahib do not describe friendships with followers of different spiritual paths, they convey acute, ironic observation of both Islamic and brahminical practice, and while sharply drawing attention to hypocrisy, his tone is wry and compassionate.
Later Gurus too had Muslim friends. Guru Arjan Dev held the Sufi saint Mian Mir in high esteem, and his great grandson, Guru Har Rai, was friendly with the emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Prince Dara Shikoh, a distinguished disciple of Mian Mir. Dara Shikoh was committed to finding common ground between the Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts of the Hindus) and Islam. What is evident in these friendships is the mutual sympathy of fellow questers for a reality beyond externals and communal divides. One also needs to reflect that these friends are individuals of some standing, whether as spiritual master or as royal prince.
It is with Bhai Ghanaiya, the battlefield water-carrier, that we encounter the dynamic of human solidarity between less prominent figures in the very different context of the battlefield. During conflict between the army of Guru Gobind Singh and Mughal soldiers his follower, Bhai Ghanaiya, was rebuked and then highly commended by the Guru for giving water to assuage the thirst of the fallen of both sides.
For many, the supreme instance of interfaith friendship was the readiness of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadar, in 1675, to be executed, thus sparing the Kashmiri pandits (i.e. Hindus of Brahmin caste) from forcible conversion to Islam. This act of ultimate self-sacrifice was acclaimed in the exchange (18 October 2011) between Kiran Kaur Rana and Archbishop Rowan Williams. The question of the extent to which, in 1675, those concerned saw Guru Tegh Bahadar and the Kashmiri pandits as being of ‘different faiths’ in no way diminishes the Guru’s heroic self-giving in defence of the religious freedom of others. Moreover, as history has repeatedly illustrated, friendship between religiously and culturally related communities can be as problematic as friendships spanning more obvious religious and cultural distances.
In the early twenty-first century two scholars of Christian background have paid tributes in their autobiographies to Sikhs whose friendship spanned religious boundaries. Of his friend and co-author, Piara Singh Sambhi, the religious educator Owen Cole reports that ‘he had, he said, many cousin brothers but I was his true brother’. For the philosopher of religion, John Hick, it was the compassionate Sikh doctor, Kushdeva Singh, whose friendship he celebrated  and John Hick related his friend’s courageous protection of Muslims during the violent chaos ensuing Partition in 1947.
Obstacles to friendship
Certainly the inter-communal bloodshed, as thousands of Muslims (on the one hand) and Hindus and Sikhs (on the other) inflicted and suffered painful, humiliating and often deadly acts of violence, was in the mid-twentieth century a frightening challenge to any friendship between them. We have already noted the earlier conflict between the Gurus’ Sikhs and Mughal forces and the formalising of social distance between Sikh and Muslim. However, in the Guru Granth Sahib, there is no suggestion that devotees should distance themselves from others on the basis of communal demarcations. Rather, the Gurus caution against friendship with those who are preoccupied with ego (haumai), lost in m?y? (deluded priorities, materialism), and who are not devoted to God.
In the twenty-first century, Sikhs’ trust of other faith communities is tempered by history and politics. Sikh-Hindu relations are tinged by Sikh apprehensiveness about the perceived expansionism of Hinduism via ‘reabsorption’ and as a result of intensifying hindutva or Hindu consciousness. Sikh voices are heard rejecting the unwanted embrace of their Hindu ‘parent’. With regard to Sikh-Muslim friendship, memories of conflict and historical conquest (see above) are compounded by current anxieties and the irony (since 9/11) of persistent violence towards turbaned Sikhs who have been mistaken for Taliban. There is a widespread suspicion (e.g. among Sikhs in the UK) of the motives of Muslims in allegedly establishing relationships with Hindus and Sikhs (via sexual relations and marriage) with the motive of conversion. Similarly, perceived Christian preoccupation with conversion may on occasion affect Sikh views of friendly gestures from Christian organisations. Christianity was the religion of European colonialism and of the British empire, and Sikh attitudes of distaste for conversion are infused too with admiration and emulation e.g. of educational institutions.
Clearly, ‘[f]riendship is a social fact and therefore cannot be considered independently of the social institutions or reality within which it is practiced’ (Goshen-Gottstein), and the historical dimension of this social reality must be borne in mind. As Rambachan (this volume) has indicated with regard to Hindus, it is the caste-basis of Sikhs’ social structure that tends to cement and divide individuals and families – at least as much as ‘religion’. The majority of Sikh marriages continue to be between members of the same zat (caste) despite often-voiced insistence that Sikhism has jettisoned caste. Regardless of their current economic standing or employment, and notwithstanding the Gurus’ emphasis on the spiritual equality of all, whatever their birth status, families still tend to stereotype others in terms of their zat’s ancestral status and occupation, and whether or not they owned land. Recent research shows some friendships, especially between males, crossing caste divides, while inter-caste marriages are only very seldom risked and often result in one or both spouses being cut off by their parents.
My engagement with Sikhs and sikhi (a Sikh word which Sikhs increasingly use for their tradition) is on many levels, and leads me to concur with the view that ‘friendship outside of one’s tradition…shines a clear light on everything that is still partial in one’s understanding of the other, and, by implication, of oneself’ (Habito in this volume). My scholarship has taken me into historical, textual and theological domains but, being primarily ethnographic (social anthropological), has alerted me to the gaps and mismatches between ‘normative’ religion and ‘operative’ religion, often referred to more colloquially as preaching and practice or rhetoric and reality. In line with an increasing emphasis in the social sciences on reflexivity, I have also pondered the ways in which my research changes me and also impacts on those whose community I happen to be exploring. This led me to seek out the experiences of fellow Quaker scholars in Sikh and Hindu studies and to report their narratives, including friendships with Sikhs. These include (as cited above) the testimonies of Cole and Hick to their friendships with their Sikh ‘brothers’ and Kathryn Lum’s experience of welcome into the langar in Barcelona. But I am unaware of a high-profile example of religiously grounded Christian-Sikh friendship to parallel the example of Mohandas Gandhi and Charlie Andrews offered by Rambachan.
Within the Sikh community the issue of inter-religious friendship highlights the dynamic tension between, on the one hand, the theological universality expressed in the Guru Granth Sahib together with its emphasis on a loving relationship between the Divine and the devotee and, on the other hand, Sikh responses to social and political developments, from the Gurus’ times to the present.
One concern is the gender imbalance in what I have reported and discussed: all the human Gurus and all the other poets whose work is included in the Guru Granth Sahib were men. While some women played significant historical roles, Sikh women authors only began to emerge in the twentieth century. All of the instances, cited above, of friendship between Sikh and non-Sikh were friendships between men. In future efforts need to be made to seek out evidence of friendship between women of different faiths. I have alluded to my friendship and collaboration with two of them, Kailash Puri and Gopinder Kaur, and Owen Cole acknowledges his appreciation of a friend’s (the Sikh educationist, Charanjit Ajit Singh’s) insights.
This paper’s references to Sikh scripture are an indication of the wealth of textual material for continuing exegesis in light of interfaith imperatives. Moreover, ethnographic research could well focus on the reasons for Sikhs (of a range of backgrounds and groupings) participating (or not) in the local interfaith and multifaith groups that have formed in the UK and elsewhere.
AG = Adi Granth i.e. the scripture generally known as Guru Granth Sahib. This is available in several translations. Online it can be consulted at www.srigranth.org
Ballard, R. (1999) ‘Panth, Kismet, Dharm te Qaum: Continuity and Change in Four Dimensions of Punjabi Religion’ in P. Singh and S. S. Thandi (eds) Punjabi Identity in a Global Context, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 7-37.
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Nesbitt, E. (2003) Interfaith Pilgrims: Living Truths and Truthful Living, London: Quaker Books.
Nesbitt, E. (2004) Intercultural Education: Ethnographic and Religious Approaches, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
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Nesbitt, E. and Kaur, G. (1999) Guru Nanak, Calgary: Bayeux Arts and Norwich: Religious and Moral Education Press.
Oberoi, H. (1994) The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Puri, K. and Nesbitt, E. (2013) Pool of Life: The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
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Schmidt-Leukel, P. (2009) Transformation by Integration: How Inter-Faith Encounter Changes Christianity, London: SCM Press.
Singh, D. (1986) ‘Sikhism and Quakerism: An Interfaith Enquiry’, The Friendly Way (Friends Rural Centre, Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh, India), 51-53. Reprinted 1994 in The Sikh Review (Dec), 5-8.
Singh, N-G. K. (1995) The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Singh, P. and Sekhon, H. K. (2001) Garland Round My Neck: The Story of Puran Singh of Pingalwara, New Delhi: UBS Publications.
Takhar, O. K. (2005) Sikh Identity: An Exploration of Groups among Sikhs, Aldershot; Ashgate.
Takhar, O. K. and Jacobs, S. (2011) ‘Confusing the Issue: Field Visits as a Strategy for Deconstructing Religious Boundaries’, Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, 10 (2) 31-44.
Talib, G. S. (1990) 2nd edn. Sri Guru Granth Sahib in English Translation (in 4 vols), Patiala: Punjabi University.
Tatla, D. S. and Nesbitt, E. M. (1994 2nd revised edition) Sikhs in Britain: An Annotated Bibliography. Bibliographies in Ethnic Relations no 8, Coventry: Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick. Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/crer/research/publications/bibliog/bibliography_no.13.pdf (accessed 6 January 2015)
Eleanor Nesbitt is Professor Emeritus (in Religions and Education) at the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. She is widely known for her research and publications in both Hindu and Sikh Studies. Eleanor.email@example.com
 For a detailed report see Nesbitt, E. (1980) Aspects of Sikh Tradition in Nottingham, unpublished M Phil thesis, University of Nottingham.
 For the study of Sikh religious socialization see Nesbitt, E. (2000) The Religious Lives of Sikh Children; A Coventry Based Study, Leeds: Community Religions Project, University of Leeds, available at http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/crp/files/2014/06/nesbitt2000.pdf (accessed 5 January 2015) Aspects of the Sikh, Hindu and Christian studies are discussed in Nesbitt, E. (2004) Intercultural Education: Ethnographic and Religious Approaches, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
 Nesbitt, E. (1980) ‘Out of a Single Fire: Sikhs and Quakers’, Quaker Monthly, April, 59 (4) 75-8.
 Singh, D. (1986) ‘Sikhism and Quakerism: An Interfaith Enquiry’, The Friendly Way (Friends Rural Centre, Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh, India), 51-53. Reprinted 1994 in The Sikh Review (Dec), 5-8.
 Nesbitt, E. (2012) ‘Hinduism and Sikhism’ in K. A. Jacobsen (ed.) Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Volume 4, Leiden: Brill, 573-87.
 Nesbitt, E. (2009) ‘Building Interfaith Understanding: Quaker Testimonies in an Age of Diversity’, Friends Quarterly, 37 (1) 15-27. Valmikis and Ravidassias, who identify variously as Sikh, Hindu and neither, exemplify how problematic it can be to define ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’. See Nesbitt, E. (1990) ‘Pitfalls in Religious Taxonomy: Hindus and Sikhs, Valmikis and Ravidasis’, Religion Today, 6 (1), 9-12, reprinted 1994 in J. Wolffe (ed.) (1994) The Growth of Religious Diversity: Britain from 1945: A Reader, London: Hodder for Open University, and Takhar, O. K. and Jacobs, S. (2011) ‘Confusing the Issue: Field Visits as a Strategy for Deconstructing Religious Boundaries’, Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, 10 (2), 31-44.
 Tatla, D. S. and Nesbitt, E. M. (1994 2nd revised edition) Sikhs in Britain: An Annotated Bibliography. Bibliographies in Ethnic Relations no 8, Coventry: Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick. Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/crer/research/publications/bibliog/bibliography_no.13.pdf (accessed 6 January 2015)
 In keeping with scholarly convention this book, and the present paper, refer to the Gurus without using honorifics such as ‘Ji’ which would be expected in devotional contexts.
 Nesbitt, E. and Kaur, G. (1999) Guru Nanak, Calgary: Bayeux Arts and Norwich: Religious and Moral Education Press.
 Piara Singh Sambhi made a notable contribution, especially for religious educationists, to literature on the Sikh tradition. With his long-time co-author, Owen Cole, he explored Sikhism and Christianity in Cole, W. O. and Sambhi, P. S. (1993) Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study, London: Macmillan.
 An agony aunt is a woman whose column in a newspaper or magazine answers the questions that readers send in, usually about their relationships. Kailash Puri also wrote novels and articles in Punjabi.
 Puri, K. and Nesbit, E. (2013) Pool of Life: The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
 Sewa Singh Kalsi’s publications on Sikhs include (1992) The Evolution of a Sikh Community in Britain: Religious and Social Change among the Sikhs of Leeds and Bradford, Leeds: Community Religions Project, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds.
 Nesbitt, E. (2005) Sikhism A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Schmidt-Leukel, P. (2009) Transformation by Integration: How Inter-Faith Encounter Changes Christianity, London: SCM Press.
 Nesbitt 2000.
 Takhar, O. K. (2005) Sikh Identity: An Exploration of Groups among Sikhs, Aldershot; Ashgate. See http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Guru_Nanak_Nishkam_Sewak_Jatha (accessed 6 January 2015)
 Some historic shrines are in other parts of India and in Pakistan,
 The most popular of these stories flourish in preachers’ homilies and in compilations for children. For an authoritative rendering of one manuscript see McLeod, W. H. (1980) The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English Translation with introduction and annotations of the India Office Library Gurmukhi manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol, Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University. For textual criticism of the janam sakhi corpus see McLeod, W. H. (1980) Early Sikh Tradition: A Study of the Janam-Sakhis, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
 On the rahit literature see McLeod, W. H. (2003) Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 For an online English translation see http://www.sikhs.org/rehit.htm (accessed 6 January 2015). Much of the Sikh Rahit Maryada is also available in McLeod, W. H. (1984) Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 79-86, re-issued 1990 by the University of Chicago Press.
 Co-existing with this is Sikhs’ oral tradition, providing a wider ethical context. (My thanks to Pal Singh Ahluwalia for this point.)
 AG1. In accordance with prevailing scholarly convention, most references to passages in the Guru Granth Sahib are designated ‘AG’, followed by the page in the 1430-page printed volume on which the passage occurs. AG stands for Adi Granth (primal volume), an alternative title for ‘Guru Granth Sahib’. In devotional contexts not only is the volume referred to as ‘Guru’ but also by further honorifics – often as ‘Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji’.
 The primary organizational principle of the scripture is the musical one of raga. These words by the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, are in the section of the scripture that is sung in Gauri Rag. (Rag is Punjabi for raga.)
 Akal Ustat translated by Singh, N-G. K. (1996) The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 8.
 Nesbitt, E. (2014) ‘Sikh Spectrum: Mapping Emotions in the Panth’ in D. J. Davies and N. A. Warne (eds) Emotions and Religious Dynamics, Aldershot: Ashgate, 27-46.
 Nesbitt, E. (2007 2nd revised edn) ‘Sikhism’ in P. Morgan and C. Lawton (eds) Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 118-167.
 Hick 2002: 10
 In the Guru Granth Sahib one word for friend or lover is mitu (cognate with mitra and maitri in Rambachan’s and Habito’s contributions to this volume. Whether it is also related to ‘amity’ I have been unable to discover). The words sakha (m), sakhi (f), too, denote a companion or friend. Sakhi equates to the current word saheli (a female’s female friend, and is used in e.g. Guru Granth Sahib pp 802-3 by Guru Arjan Dev for a ‘fellow-seeker’ (Talib 1990: 1667). The word sajanu (friend, beloved) recurs too. Sikhs also use the word dosti for ‘friendship, affection, love’ and prem (love). Another relevant concept is that of the sadhsangat – company or congregation (sangat) of the righteous (sadh is cognate with the word sadhu). It is also of interest to note (see Gianotti) that the Arabic meaning of the honorific word ‘sahib’ with which Sikhs dignify their Gurus, including their scripture, and most honoured sites, is ‘companion’ or ‘friend’.
 The reason for using speech marks around the word ‘God’ is that some fifty words are used in Sikh scripture for the creative power and single reality that the Gurus proclaim. ‘God’, and sometimes ‘Lord’, are the usual English translations for these words, but these English words are loaded by associations with Europe’s Christian history. While thirty of the words used in the Guru Granth Sahib are unmistakably Hindu (Ram and Hari, for example) and ten (including Allah) are Islamic, some are more characteristically Sikh. One of these is Satguru (the true Guru). Vahiguru (originally a cry of praise for the Guru) is the most widely used equivalent of ‘God’ in modern Sikh usage. But teacher-student is only one of the analogies used for the ineffable Being, the one reality.
 Maru Rag AG 989.
 Ramkali Rag AG 916.
 Gauri Rag AG 181.
 Gauri Rag AG 187.
 AG Kabir slok, quoted on http://www.allaboutsikhs.com/quotations/quotations-from-adi-granth-friends-amp-friendship (accessed 7 January 2015)
 Barnett, J. R. (2011) ‘To What Extent Can Mysticism be Regarded as a Source of Good Inter-Religious Relations?’ unpublished MA dissertation, De Montfort University.
 Singh, P. and Sekhon, H. K. (2001) Garland Round My Neck: The Story of Puran Singh of Pingalwara, New Delhi: UBS Publications.
 Hick, J. (2002) John Hick: An Autobiography, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 212. NB Similar stories of non-partisan heroism are related about courageous Muslims and Hindus.
 G-N K Singh 1996.
 Guru Nanak, Tukhari Chhant, AG as on p 3-4 and 156 of N-G. K. Singh 1996.
 AG 830.
 AG 45.
 AG 51.
 AG 805.
 AG 828.
 See Rahi 1999: 40 for quotations from AG 7, 45, 51, 73, 381, 881, 884, 916, 917, 921, 957.
 See McLeod 1997: 127. This parallels the restriction of commensality between Jew and non-Jew through Talmudic prohibition on eating food cooked by non-Jew (Goshen-Gottstein). However, the detail of the rahit that is attrinuted to the tenth Guru may in fact post-date him. It needs to be borne in mind that (as Pal Ahluwalia points out [personal communication Dec 2011]) the Guru’s entourage also included Muslim companions.
 McLeod 1999: 197.
 Varna (Sanskrit) denotes a class in the four-class, purity-based hierarchy of traditional Hindu society. Paradoxically, this Sikh jatha, which would claim to deny and transcend caste, arguably expresses its integrity in the behavioural idiom of non-commensality that for centuries characterised Hindu castes.
 Pal Ahluwalia outlines the significance of langar at https://elijah-interfaith.org/uploads/media/BP_Sikh.doc (accessed 6 January 2015). Like the anthropologist, Kathryn Lum, in Nesbitt, E. 2010 ‘Interrogating the Experience of Quaker Scholars in Hindu and Sikh Studies: Spiritual Journeying and Academic Engagement’, Quaker Studies, 14 (2) 134-58), Ahluwalia mentions (p 14) the impact on non-Sikhs of a langar in Barcelona in 2004.
 Guru Arjan Dev, Gauri Rag, AG 236.
 See Nesbitt 2005 and 2012.
 See Ballard, R. (1999) ‘Panth, Kismet, Dharm te Qaum: Continuity and Change in Four Dimensions of Punjabi Religion’ in P. Singh and S. S. Thandi (eds) Punjabi Identity in a Global Context, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 7-37.
 See Takhar and Jacobs 2011.
 Mandair, A-P. S. (2009) Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality and the Politics of Translation, New York: Columbia University Press.
 Oberoi, H. (1994) The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 According to the janam sakhi accounts, one day when he went to bathe in the River Bein he was swept up into God’s court.
 This evolving relationship is central to Nesbitt 2005.
 McLeod 1997: 53.
 McLeod. W. H. (1991) Popular Sikh Art, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 91 is an example of one such picture.
 McLeod, W. H. (1968) Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, Oxford: Clarendon, 23-4.
 Both were hindu in the word’s early sense of Indic (and non-Muslim,)
 For example, Bhai Ghulam Mohammed Chand who visited the UK from Pakistan in 2011 to perform kirtan.
 Gobind Marg 2011: 5.
 Cole, W. O. (2009) Cole Sahib: The Story of a Multifaith Journey, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 72.
 Hick, J. (2002) John Hick: An Autobiography, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 209-15.
 Nesbitt 2012.
 Nesbitt, E. (2010) ‘Interrogating the Experience of Quaker Scholars in Hindu and Sikh Studies: Spiritual Journeying and Academic Engagement’, Quaker Studies, 14 (2) 134-58.
 Cole describes her as ‘an eminent member of Britain’s Sikh community and a kind friend of many years standing’ in W. O. Cole (2004) Understanding Sikhism, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, ix.