“That one alone knows the Way who earns with the sweat of the brow and then shares with others.”
This dictum of Guru Nanak, (born 1469, the first of the ten Sikh Gurus), lays out the basic economic thought of the Sikhs. It is a society in which labor rather than monkish asceticism is the true expression of spirituality, and in which the sharing of abundance rather than accumulation of scarcity is the basic economic motivation.
The Gurus condemned monks because they felt that they were other-worldly. By contrast, the Gurus promoted the view that God was present in the world.
“Air/Breath is the Guru, Water the Father,Earth the Great Mother. Day and night are two nurses in whose lap the children of earth play. Their good and bad deeds are all done in the Divine Presence. According to their deeds, some move nearer while others wander further away from it. Those who follow the Inner Tutor, their intuition, are liberated, says Nanak, by turning towards these Shining Ones, others also enjoy the fruit of freedom from the chains of self-centredness, the wheel of reincarnation.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.8)
This vision of liberation is based profoundly on how we treat our activity in the world and treat others. It is also tied to the vision of spirituality, of universal grace arising from God’s presence in the universe. “Guru” in Sikh thought refers to the Grace-filled Presence and Love of God within all hearts and all things, which lives within us, as “reflection in a mirror, fragrance within a flower, fire inside wood”. God’s love for us saves each and all. This abundant love, without any meanness, means that God gives to us of His own Presence and Deeds (Nam), as the Word (Sabd), the Inner Tutor (intuition). As this Word is the inscription of being, our minds tend to goodness, truth, reality — our true nature is to seek the truth. “Sikh” means seeker of truth, disciple of the Inner Tutor. The presence of God in each being not only means that God’s love for people is not restricted by race, religion, or gender, but also signals that the creation itself is created through the overflowing of the completeness of God’s Love — Its Names (descriptions of Its activities). Thus, “the earth, the vessel full of resources has been filled by God but once. It depends on the choices of people how much they take from it.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.1190)
For this reason, one of the first acts of the Sikhs as a political entity was to effectively re-distribute the land in Punjab in the late eighteenth century, as landowners were stripped of their title. Title to land was given to those who actively worked the land. Thus, although there was private property, it was balanced by a desire that those who work get the fruits of their labour.
This presence of God in the everyday world means that this world is regarded as the Kingdom of God.
“The world is Yours. You are the Lord of the universe.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.417)
As the brain is part of the body, so that our thoughts change our forms, in the same way
the Word is part of the mind, so that the mind at all times is the Throne Room of God, as the body is His Temple.
“The body is the mansion, temple and home of the Lord within which He has enshrined Infinite Light.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.1256)
In this way, there is a continuum of unity between Creator and creation, the Unity of Being or Oneness of God as Sikhs understand it. Self-centredness places an artificial dam across this flow of life.
Our Inner Tutor guides us from within and without, through serendipity (happy chances in life), in being ourselves, beloved in our unique personal oddities and choices. These choices should not extend to taking the rights of another’s labour as this is tantamount to stealing the Divine Energy in that labour.
“Should cloth be thought of as impure if stained by blood, how can we consider as pure the mind of someone who sucks the blood of humankind?” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.140)
Guru Nanak visited a friend of his, but a rich man insisted that he dine with him and the other holy people that he had invited to a reception. Guru Nanak attended the event, but refused to eat any food. When pressed, he declared that the food being served was dripping with the blood of the poor, exploited people that had made his host so rich. Some accounts elaborate the story further — he broke the bread of his friend, from which came milk, and then the bread of his host, from which came blood. This scene is a popular inspiration for Sikh paintings.
A good life lies in recognition of the link between the deep perfection based on God’s Presence in life, and everyday imperfection based on God taking a chance on us, in giving us meaningful choices, free will. “Creating the beings, Itself provides them sustenance.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 1042) Thus, we are supported in the chance that is life. We strive to flow in love knowing that dams are everywhere, but also that the water itself (Sabd) has a current, is a current (of the Names of God). For this reason, labor is regarded as a sacred activity. For this reason with regard to work the Guru observed that, “None is high or low.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 7) This idea of the dignity of labour makes it a taboo for a Sikh to be unemployed.
In his poems, reflections of the Universal Mind, the Word, Guru Nanak expresses the human longing for wholeness. Guru Nanak spent much of his life teaching through his poems. With his companion, Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak travelled as far as Tibet, Sri Lanka, Baghdad and Mecca to discuss religion with Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. Guru Nanak died in peace at age 70. Nine Human Gurus succeeded him. The tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, proclaimed that the congregation or Guru Khalsa Panth together with the Guru Granth Sahib, the collection of writings of the Sikhs containing the hymns of the Gurus as well as those of Hindu and Muslim saints, and those of no particular religion, would be the eternal Guru for the Sikhs after him.
The message is simple. Keep your focus on the One, Formless, Ever-Present God, living within yourself and Nature. The answers are all within; there is no theology here, as love knows no questions. The image of the saint-soldier (Khalsa) is an archetype in the Mind as the Word (Sabd) is the spring of the Mind. This abundance of Active Divine Love has two implications — first, our own labour is an extension of the Names, the Divine Activities; second, distribution is based on abundance arising from God’s Presence in the world, rather than poverty and scarcity based on Its absence.
Few things symbolise these teachings more easily than Guru-ka-langar. Inside each gurdwara (Sikh house of learning/worship) there is a langar hall. In this place all are welcome to come and eat, whether they decide to later pray or not. The food is vegetarian so that none are excluded from any dishes. There is no charge for the food and drink, and it is all prepared by volunteers. It is also served by volunteers. In the highest seat of Sikh authority, the Darbar Sahib complex, popularly known as the Golden Temple, approximately 100,000 meals are served each day entirely free of charge. Langar is mentioned in the Sikh Reht Maryada or Code of Conduct for Knights of the Order of the Khalsa. Article 21 (a) observes that, “The philosophy behind the Guru’s kitchen-cum-eating-house is twofold: to provide training to the Sikhs in voluntary service and to help banish all distinctions of high and low, touchable and untouchable from the Sikhs’ minds.”
As the world becomes ever more globally interconnected and ever more overflowing with abundance, the deprivation of outcastes in this global human tribe will feel more troubling. The tricks by which global over-production is managed into deprivation as forces of greed and hate on one hand and Love and inclusion on the other, fight within each of us, and all of us.
Ranvir Singh is a UK-based human rights activist and member of Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj.
Gurmat (Sikhism) and The Opening Statement, a Few Words to Change your Life (Asia Samachar, 20 Dec 2020)
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