Social Justice from a Sikh Perspective
July 16, 2014 posted from LinkedIn
One definition of Social Justice is the desire to create a fair and socially mobile society through wealth distribution, equality of opportunity for personal development and protection of human rights. If we accept this definition, then achieving social justice is the bedrock of the Sikh faith and teachings.
Social Justice and the Sikh Scriptures
The central message of the Sikh Holy Scriptures, Sri Guru Grant Sahib Ji (SGGS) is of humanism and universal brotherhood. It is a source of inspiration for those who seek social justice, the equality of all people, the empowerment of women and of the under privileged. It is for those reasons that the text has remained alive as a guide to all those who value these fundamental principles of humanism and human integrity. The SGGS developed the concept of “Sarbat Da Bhalla” that simples translates to mean the importance of all human live, care for the environment and to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation.
A deeper interpretation of the four core tenets of the Sikh Dharam : kirat kamai (earning an honest living); wand (sharing); nishkam sewa (selfless service) and simran (prayer and contemplation) reveal how the practice of these principles contribute to the achievement of social justice.
Social Justice and the Sikh Dharam
The Sikh faith propagates the importance of self help through work to earn an honest living (kamai) and the desire for life long learning as the first step towards achieving personal development and social mobility. “Kirat Kamai” has a much more profound meaning. Kirat is work that is done with utmost passion, whether it is cleaning the streets, laying bricks or performing surgery. Passion and dedication to one’s profession leads to personal satisfaction, excellence and hopefully, sustained employment and career progression. This however is still not Kirat in its intended meaning. True Kirat kamai is when one works with passion and dedication to earn an honest living while remembering God with every stroke of the brush; laying of every brick and sewing of every stitch on a sick patient. Kirat kamai therefore brings to life the world wide concept of “Work is Worship”. Hard work (including running an honest business (sacha sauda)) helps one to climb the social ladder and provides the means for the most basic needs for survival of food, shelter and warmth.
In simple economies without state controlled systems of wealth distribution to support those not able to earn an honest living, the Sikh tenet of “wand ka shako” (share your good fortune) became a powerful driver in creating sustainable communities. Sikhs everywhere are required to donate at least one tenth of their earnings to charity and other good causes for all humanity. The numerous successful and self sustaining learning institutes, hospitals, eye camps and social housing projects around the world are testament of the durability of the principle of sharing to this day. The sharing of food that is cooked by the community and for the community is one of the most important attributes of the practice of Sikh Dharam.
Social Justice and the Sikh Kitchen
The Langar, or free kitchen, was founded by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It was essentially designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind. “..the Light of God is in all hearts.” (sggs 282). Everyone is welcome to share the Langar; no one is turned away. The food is normally served twice a day, every day of the year. In many parts of the world Sikh Gurdwaras prepare Langar specifically to feed the poor because people can only work and look for social justice when they have a fully belly.
Social Justice and Sikh Service
Irrespective of the wealth of any community, there are always fellow humans who, for whatever reason, suffer disadvantage or economic deprivation. As Sikhs, we are required to do voluntary work in the community without the expectation of any reward or recognition. The core tenet of Nishkam Sewa (selfless service to humanity) encourages Sikhs to apply their manual labour and , or their professional skills to help build loving community life; to assist those less fortunate to improve their health, wellbeing and education so that they can become more active members of a socially mobile society.
Simran (prayer and contemplation) – the forth tenet of the Sikh Dharma helps an individual to meditate and to achieve self actualisation and consciousness of the need to connect with God. Practicing kirat Kamai, wand and nishkam sewa that helps other improve their lives assists an individual to reunite with his/her maker.
Social Justice and Sikh Equality
The promotion of equality has been a distinguishing feature of the Sikh faith since its conception in the late 15 century. In around 1499 when the world offered low, or no status or respect to women, Guru Nanak sought to improve the respect of women by spreading this message: “From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all. O Nanak, only the True Lord is without a woman.” (page 473). Equality and brotherhood of mankind have been emphasised in the sacred Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak says in Japji Sahib: “Accept all humans as your equals, and let them be your only sect” (Japji 28), and Guru Gobind Singh promoted the principle of: “manas ki jat sabhe eke paihcanbo – recognise all of mankind as a single caste of humanity”. Therefore, Sikhs believe that all human beings are equal. “We are sons and daughters of Waheguru, the Almighty”. Sikhs have to treat all peoples of the world on equal basis and without gender, racial, social or caste discrimination.
Social Justice and the Sikh Sant Sipahi
Sikhs are also required to be ready to protect and stand up for the rights of the weak among us; to fight for justice and fairness for all. Sikhs fight for human rights through the concept of “Warrior Saint” and use the term “Sant Sipahi”. Sant is used to refer to a wise, knowledgeable and Dharmic person or a “person with knowledge of God”. This concept was first developed by Guru Hargobind, and later personified in Guru Gobind Singh. The first duty of every Sikh is to be a “Sant” – to be a wise, considerate, judicious and knowledgeable person who has a good understanding of Dharam or religion. A “Sant” should also be a soldier (Sapahi) able to fight and engage in warfare. So the second duty of a Sikh is to be able and ready to fight for a worthy cause and for the protection of righteousness and the weak. Sikhs are taught to be kind as well as fearless. However, a Sikh is forbidden to ever engage in a first attack on any person for whatever reason. Only when all means have been exhausted and negotiations have failed can the sword be yielded in defence of a legitimate and worthy cause.
Although Social Justice is the one of the foundation stones of the Sikh faith, it is human centric. The much wider Sikh principle of Sarbat Da Bhalla, that embraces Social Justice, but emphasises the importance of our duty to the care of the environment and to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation is much more powerful and relevant goal for all humans to pursue in the beginning of the third millennium.