Sikh Perspective #1

The Guerrand-Hermes Forum for the Interreligious Study of Mysticism and Spirituality

Bhai Sahib Bhai (Dr) Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia


The interpretation on spirituality and mysticism can be wide, varing from individual to individual, from faith to faith. There is a tremendous amount of overlap between the two, whether it is due to the individual interpretation, or generally accepted meanings.

This poses a problem of understanding and responding to the posed questions, as the answers could come from various interpretations of spirituality and mysticism.

It is important to give one’s own understanding of the two subjects, and base the answers assuming this understanding.

Sandra Schneders states that the term ‘spirituality’ has three interellated references: first, to a fundamental dimension of the human being; second, to the lived experience that actualizes that dimension; and third, to the academic discipline that studies that experience. She defines spirituality as ‘the experience of conciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self absorption but of self transendence toward the ultimate value one perceives’. In the Sikh Dharam, this relate to the fundamantal belief in the existence of one and only God, who is with all creation, and within eack living being, the Sikh Dharam way of life to realise and actualize the existence of God, thirdly, the Sikh Scripture, Guru Grant Sahib, the academic discipline wherin all instructions and knowledge are contained.

Spirituality is a persons attempt and commitment to achieve the highest ideal. In the Sikh Dharam, this may be striving to achieve union with God: Kabir-“Ram (God) and Kabir have become one, no one can tell the difference?”

Mysticism is the Immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God, and the experience of such communion as described by mystics. There seems to be a very thin line between mysticism and spirituality. Mysticism believes in the direct realization of God or an immediate contact or union with the divine. Mysticism and spirituality are deeply grounded in the religious experience of their religious traditions.

Mysticism is the science of removing mental limitations. A mystic is one who learns through practice to be able to look behind the veil of limitations and sees more clearly with more senses awakened.

1. Is there an understanding of mysticism and spirituality that grows out of each of the traditions?

Spirituality and Mysticism attempt to answer the following questions; ‘Where have I come from, what is my purpose here, and where will I go after my physical death’? The Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, starts with the ‘Mool (fundamental) Mantra’, or definition of God; The existence and omnipresence of one God is beyond doubt, his name is Truth, he is the creator, he is without fear, and without malice, he is free from the birth-death cycle, is self created, and is realised by the Grace of the Guru. He was True in the beginning, He was True before the ages, He is true in the present, and He will be True in the future. He is finite and infinite at the same time. Man’s knowledge is finite, so it is difficult to comprehend God, and instead of attempting to give a scientific explanation or ‘proof’ of God, Guru Nanak’s explanation is the only God knows about Himself, all attempts to comprehend Him are futile. A mystic would say that God is within and without, in everyone, everywhere, yet also alone, infinite. Since our knowledge is finite, He is difficult to describe.

The Sikh Dharam came into being during the fifteenth century, with the advent of Guru Nanak, and the start of the compilation of the Sikh scripture-Guru Granth Sahib. “Upon Guru Nanak’s advent, the fog of ignorance got dispelled, and the light of knowledge enlightened the whole universe”, so said Bhai Gurdas, who had the privilege and honour of being the scribe for the first edition.

From an early age it is recorded that Guru Nanak had a vision of God and the presence of God in the human soul. His vision of God demanded that he teach people the true nature of God and the presence of God in humanity. Thus, Guru Nanak then began to journey to many countries, and teach people the nature of God; these journeys, four in total, took him to the South to Sri Lanka, East to China, North to Tibet, and West to the middle-east.

Guru Nanak’s great journeys lasted 27 years; he was continually accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, and Bhai Bala, a Hindu. During the journeys, Guru Nanak came to meet numerous people of every shade of faith and background, and amongst them were many religious leaders, spiritualists, and mystics. Guru Nanak recorded these encounters, and further collected the scriptures of many religions and mystics, including Islam, Hinduism, Sufi Saints, Jain, and Buddhists etc.

Guru Nanak said of God: “The Creator is manifested inside every type of creation, stone, plant, animals, birds, human, microbes, etc. He first created the whole creation and then hid Himself inside His own Creation”- everything is God, and God is everything-there is no duality.

Guru Nanak’s teachings were written down in a series of verses. These verses make up the central teachings of the Sikh sacred scriptures, called the Guru Granth Sahib. The core teaching of Sikh Dharam is one truth: that God is one God and is within and present in all of creation, particularly in each human soul. God can be directly realised by an individual by examining his or her soul; this examination is carried out by meditating on the name of God. There is no need of any intermediary crutches, such as rituals, priests, fasting, churches, mosques, or anything else. All other gods originate from the one God, and rather than believing in and following many gods, Guru Nanak pointed this practice to be futile, he taught to believe in the one original creator.
Perhaps the most radical of Guru Nanak’s teachings was the rejection of caste or class. Since all human beings contain God within themselves, organised social distinction and inequalities were totally rejected. The ideal community is one in which no social distinctions are in place at all. Guru Nanak and the succeeding nine Gurus continued to attempt and strive to build a class-free and caste-free society.

It is also recorded that Guru Nanak realised the following truths at a very young age, and these truths are the foundations upon which the Sikh Dharam is built:

  • Naam: The Name. A direct, unmediated experience of God can be attained by meditating on God’s name (Naam); this naam, according to Guru Nanak, is “Ek”, or “One.” human beings can overcome their sinfulness and achieve a mystical union with God by meditating on this name.
  • Shabad: The Word. God is revealed through the spoken word. The Shabad reveals the nature and name of God as well as the methods by which one can meditate on the Name and achieve union with god.
  • Guru: The Teacher. The Name and the Word are revealed through the Guru; knowledge of both only comes through the Guru. The Sikh concept of the Guru is a shade below God, the Guru is the voice of God speaking to humanity. Guru means someone who helps one transcend from darkness (ignorance), to enlightenment (knowledge).

Many years later, the Fifth Guru was to incorporate much of Guru Nanak’s ‘interfaith’ collections into the Sikh Scripture, later to be known as the Aad Guru Granth Sahib. Every shade of mystics and spiritualists are referred to in Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Nanak’s spiritual fundamental building blocks aforementioned, Naam, Shabad, and Guru, were to form the basis of either accepting, criticising, or even rejecting many practices followed by all the main faiths. There is a record of an extensive dialogue between the ‘Siddhs’, mystics with great powers, in the form of question and answer. This dialogue gives deep insight into the accepted spiritual practices of the day, and Guru Nanak’s commentaries and opinion of these practices. Selected, and unaltered writings of Muslims, Hindu and Bhagats (spiritual practitioners), are contained in Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Granth Sahib is truly a work of immense interfaith importance.

The Sikh Dharam inspires individuals to empower themselves with values and virtues, equip themselves with knowledge and wisdom, and thus discover their own potential, and having done so, to be instruments of goodness in the world.

The reason for giving the above background is to enable the reader to appreciate Guru Nanak’s magnanimity in researching spirituality and mysticism from every background, and intrinsically there is a great understanding of mysticism and spirituality within the Sikh Dharam, partly due to the inclusion of the views and opinions of other faiths.

2. How is the relationship between the two conceived?

Mysticism and spirituality are closely connected because both are related to the experience of the inner self. Both require internal purity and discipline. The mystic or spiritual life in its personal and social dimensions may vary according to the dimension of a particular religious tradition.

Within the Sikh scripture, there is much knowledge, instruction, and advice on Spirituality. Most of this consists of absolute belief in the one and only God, and achieving union with Him by way of becoming a deciple of the Guru, serving the Guru by Simran (meditation) and Sewa (service). Simran is more than the mechanical practice of meditation; rather it is acknowledging and feeling the presence of the Guru and God within and without at all moments of time. Sewa is serving God and His creation. There are numerous approaches to Simran and Sewa, one can practice these for spiritual or secular gain, as promised by the Guru, or practice without the aim of personal gain, this aspect is known as ‘Nishkam Sewa’, any possible gain is left to the Guru to bestow on his disciple by way of ‘Kirpa’, or blessing. Within the Sikh Dharam, mysticism may be described as an enlightened person’s affirmation of being able to exist at a certain state, and the instruction and knowledge to achieve that state. That state may have a multiplicity of benefits. Here, there may be an element of ‘risk’, what if, even by following the instructions, one were not able to achieve that state. However, the follower’s faith in the enlightened person now takes over. In Guru Granth Sahib, Sheikh Farid says: ‘Do good to the bad, don’t harbour anger within the mind, (and thus) the body will not have any illnesses, you will gain all goodness’. This may be considered to be mysticism, how can doing good to the bad, and not harbouring anger, lead to ridding oneself of illnesses and achieving happiness? It remains for an individual to test this theory, and see the effects in a practical way. Further the followers level of belief in his Guru, Scripture, and his existing spiritual ‘level’ will have a bearing on how the follower ultimately decides to follow this scriptural passage.

3. What position do they occupy within the overall economy of each of the traditions?

Guru Nanak informed us that spirituality was to form the main makeup of a religious person, giving practical instruction of how to lead a spiritual life. He also emphasized that the aim of religion was not to get engrossed in the pursuit of mystical experience just for the sake of it, as mystical experiences will just happen as the practitioner continues to make progress.

Guru Nanak showed the way of spirituality in a very practical way, in the form of the most celebrated Sikh Dharam mottos: “Kirat Karni”, working for an honest living while remembering God, “Naam Japna”, meditating on God, “Vand Chakna”, sharing one’s physical and spiritual ‘earnings’ with others. Further, there are many commandments within the Sikh Dharam that point the way to a very practical path of spirituality. Some of these are: Getting up in the early hours of the morning, having a bath, and meditating and reciting from the scriptures, keeping uncut hair, not eating meat fish or eggs, not partaking of intoxicants, having no extra-matrimonial relationships. Then there is the discipline of the mind, by focusing the mind on the name of God, discipline of the eyes, by seeing God in all the creation, discipline of the ears, by striving to hear the praises of the Lord as much as possible, the discipline of the tongue, by reciting the name of the Lord all the time with the tongue. There is contained within the scriptures discipline for all parts of the body, as well as the mind. This is one reason that Sikhs do not believe that the Sikh Dharam a ‘religion’, or an ‘ism’, rather, it is a complete and total way of spirituality oriented and practical way of life.

4. Is it preferable to focus upon mysticism or spirituality?

Spirituality or mysticism forms the core of every religion, however, in the Sikh Dharam, spirituality is emphasised much more than mysticism. . In many of the discourses with the mystics, Guru Nanak pointed out that while they (the mystics) were enjoying the benefits of spiritual and mystical experiences, they were not of much use to humanity, since they were living away from the masses, in jungles and mountains. Sikh Dharam practitioners are advised to be married and householders. By far, much more emphasis is given to spirituality than to mysticism. By following the Guru on the spirituality path, the follower enlightens and improves himself, his environment, as well as the rest of humanity, and ultimately merges with the One.

There is a kind of abstractedness about mysticism, synonymous with ‘mystery’. Mystics usually withdraw from society, as indulging in worldly matters is seen by them as wasteful.

Bhagat Trilochan was a contemporary and close friend of Bhagat Namdev (1270-1330). They are two, of many Saints, whose scriptures are included in Guru Granth Sahib. From a young age they had embarked on the Godly path, Trilochan mainly following the mystical path, and Namdev following the spiritual and householder path. Bhagat Trilochan observed that whenever he called on his friend Namdev, the latter always happened to be busy in one worldly affair or another. At last one day, Trilochan could not restrain himself and asked his friend that he always appeared occupied in worldly affairs, how did he find the time to remember the Lord? Namdev satisfied his friends’ curiosity in a very convincing manner and told him that although his hands were engaged in worldly occupation, his mind was ever fixed on Him. For a householder, this was the best way to remember and worship God. Trilochan felt rather satisfied and happy at this answer.

5. What possibilities do we have to appeal to them as ways of advancing relations?

By meeting with, and including the scriptures of people from different religious backgrounds into Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Gurus have shown the way, hundreds of years ago, that one must have dialogue, and continue to do so, with people of varying faiths. Of course, this necessitates personal and group encounters, which leads to improved relations. As a prime example, the Elijah Board of Religious Leaders, has been a catalyst in advancing relations between religious leaders, and then with scholars as well. Various topics have been the subject of past conferences. However, different faiths discussing spirituality and mysticism, on a comparative basis, will lead to the realisation of much overlap between religions at the core, thus facilitating better understanding and respect for each other. Sharing of knowledge empowers others, and creates kinship.

6. Do they make sharing and borrowing between the traditions possible, and are these legitimate, in the eyes of the traditions themselves?

One of my representatives attended the recent (November 2010) Elijah Interfaith Education conference in Amritsar, and reported that, while reflecting upon each other’s religious texts, almost all religions have similar texts on all the main core religious subjects, and that this had led to a sense of humility in the participants, since their own scripture was no longer seen to hold a ‘monopoly’, and greater respect grew for each other’s scriptures, with a programme in the future to have study circles to share and borrow wisdom between the various traditions.

Almost all of the spiritual values such as truth, honesty, goodwill, justice, etc are universal to all the religions. Many of the religious traditions share these values. These values will remain relevant for all the ages and everywhere.

7. What practices may be shared, how can these be shared within this group and possibly beyond it?

The participants will consider many mystical and spiritual practices. It depends on an individual as to how much can be shared, or ‘taken on board’, and one has to consider one’s own, and their religion’s attitude towards sharing. In the Sikh Dharam, all practices, spiritual, mystic, or otherwise, that strive to the goal of achieving union with the Guru, or God, are acceptable. Other spiritual practices, such as those connected with idol worship, are revealed to be futile, and of no value, and even stated as wasteful. The practice of silence has become universally accepted, even amongst atheists and agnostics, this can be encouraged. The participants within this group will have the benefit of personal and group encounters during and beyond the conference.

8. Are mysticism and spirituality significant common ground, between different religions?

Mysticism and Spirituality go beyond ritual, and in many instances ritual may be a small, or significant part of the practice. Those practices that have ritual attached may not necessarily have common ground; however, the core mystic and spiritual practices may find similarities.

9. What questions should be tackled as part of a responsible exposition of these issues within an interreligious context, particularly one associated with leadership?

One cannot be a leader unless one has learned to obey, and a leader who has learned to obey, has the qualification to be able to give commands. Only to give commands, and not obey, is hypocritical. Some of the questions to be tackled may be:

  1. Does my religion allow me to share the knowledge contained in my religion with people of other faiths?
  2. Should my aim, whilst sharing knowledge, be to convert someone to my religion?
  3. How will my religion respond if permission were sought from the hierarchy to give their view on sharing our knowledge with others, or others sharing their religious knowledge with us?
  4. What is the meaning of being an infidel (used by Muslims), heidon (Christianity), patit (Sikh), malaish (Hindu)? Etc etc. How we view the ‘other’ will have a bearing on a leadership within an interreligious context.