God Worship and Sikhi

God worship is probably harmless, and may even have some psychological benefits. But Sikhi rejects such worship, or what might be called ‘pooja’. Here's why.


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Think of any religion and one image that immediately comes to mind is God worship coupled with pilgrimages to ‘holy’ sites. Indeed, one might argue that there can be no religion without the worship of a deity and/or visitation to ‘religious’ places. Within each faith tradition, along with everyday routine God worship, on special occasions and festivals, we see literally millions of people travelling large distances to worship God at key holy sites.

Given that most faith traditions emphasise the belief that God is all pervasive, and that God resides within each and every one of us, believer or not, it does seem a little bizarre why one would therefore go looking for him in ‘special places’. I guess the only logical argument would be that through ritual worship, especially in ‘special holy places’, a person is enabled to achieve a heightened sense of spiritual consciousness. The contrary argument might be, who is to know that this is not simply false consciousness?

Now, because Gods and their foot soldiers, namely, benevolent spirits, Angels, Devi’s, Devta’s, etc, do not have physical form, they become manifested through various proxy’s, ranging from grand beautiful buildings (temples, cathedrals, mosques, gurdwaras etc), statues, pictures, objects and symbols. Quite literally, people go looking for God in bricks, mortar, marble and sometimes other physical objects.

In addition to God worship of buildings and artefacts, we also have within most religious traditions the worship of people, who are almost always men! These are invariably people who take on fancy titles (Saints, Priests, Gurus, Brahamgianis, etc) and present themselves as intermediaries through whom ordinary people can be connected with God. Through a combination of effort and divine blessing, these holy men claim to have a direct line to an inaccessible God who resides in Heaven, Swarag, Sach Khand etc.

Whilst God worship is probably harmless, and may even have some psychological benefits, my understanding is that Sikhi rejects such worship, or what might be called ‘pooja’. On the surface, to argue against this basic premise may be seen to reflect an atheistic tendency. But this does not necessarily follow; one can be a believer in the divine without performing the kinds of rituals one regularly sees amongst God worshipers or Pujari.

So what is the Sikh perspective on God worship. Sikhi is not opposed to people visiting ‘holy’ places, but generally speaking this should not be for the purpose of ritual worship, but for engaging with people/congregations, learning, and appreciation of history, culture and tradition. Many of the stories attributed to Guru Nanak reveal his general hostility towards superstition and point God worship.

There is no doubt that Sikhi teaches one to respect others and their life choices, which includes their choice to engage in all kinds of rituals and God worship. What better example than that of Guru Tegh Bahadur, who literally gave his head in defence of a highly ritualistic faith system practiced by Kashmiri Pandits, who were being persecuted by the Mogul rulers of the day. However, there is no doubt that Sikhi rejects the idea of intermediaries. That is why there is so much emphasis on Shahad Guru and Naam.

Though Sikhi preaches plurality of belief and tolerance, on the whole Sikh doctrine renders ritualistic practices, as a means of developing spiritually, to be of little relevance. In Sikhi the emphasis is on engaging with the world and nurturing a practical spirituality in the process. The emphasis is on the path of the householder (grist marag) and not the path of the sanyasi (renunciation).

As demonstrated by the Sikhi Gurus in their own lives, this path of practical ‘truthful living’ encourages one to engage with the world through three core practices, Naam japna (constant reflective and ethical consciousness and learning), Kirat karni (honest living) and wand shakna (sharing one’s wealth/serving others).

Some people will vehemently disagree with the suggestion that Sikhi is generally opposed to worship. For them, even the suggestion that such worship might be of little value would appear to be blasphemous. If one scans Sikh literature, one will see a spectrum of views. But for me the following point that made by the renowned Sikh Scholar, Professor Puran Singh, in his book ‘The Spirit Born People’ is extremely persuasive:

“Work makes us spiritual. Let us therefore give up all worship of God but work. This is the fundamental message of the Guru to man in struggle, to the man bound in body. The worker, the labourer, is the man of honour; the creator of bread is man in spiritual action.”

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)

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  1. When we go to a Gurudwara,and we bow and rub our forehead on the ground before the Sri Guru Granth Sahib,
    would that be considered a ritual, a worship, or simply obeisance,mixed with homage?
    What about the parkarma/periambulation around the Granth Sahib before taking a seat in the Sangat?
    Perhaps your views on this matter, will further clarify your opinions on rituals in Sikhism.
    Bhai Harbans Lal ,a neuroscientist and a sikh scholar, in USA,says Sikhism is not a religion. By any accounts and standards,any theology doctrine, probably qualifies as one, especially if a higher Creator is the pinnacle .Perhaps your views here,will help further our study.
    Many thanks ,always look forward to reading your next article.