Guru Nanak had a vision for a conscious path for all men and women equally. We have not done justice to his vision because one pillar of the society remains weak: The woman in Sikh Path of life. Even though our history produced perfect women role models in the past, the dominant cultural subjugation of women has greatly overshadowed the spiritual reforms of the Guru. Hence Guru Nanak’s vision remains unfulfilled, and the lessons from the life of great Sikh women are forgotten.
Only by acknowledging the problem, committing to the solutions, taking personal responsibility, and seeking the true wisdom from Baani, can we, the women and men of the Guru, restore the principles of the social equality, liberty and justice, he laid out.
Let us look at the status conferred upon Sikh women and the state of Sikh women today, along with some important steps in the individual transformation to a Conscious Sikh Woman.
Status given to women in Sikhi
“In a woman man is conceived; from a woman he is born. With a woman he is betrothed and married; with a woman he contracts friendship. Why say she is inferior, the one from who even kings are born? Without woman, there would be no one at all." - Guru Nanak 
A unique aspect of the social status of women in Sikhi is that we did not have to fight for it. The Guru’s enlightened ideals and efforts offered equal status some 500 years before most women could even dare to talk about or ask for equality. As suggested in the Gurbani, without women, there would be no one at all; they are the source of the physical existence of humanity. Thus, Gurbani explicitly acknowledges their empowerment, dignity, and strength. A woman’s manifestation as a spiritual being as seen by the Guru goes beyond motherhood. For example, approximately one third of the missionaries Guru Amar Das trained were women. Later Mai Bhago served Guru Gobind as a warrior saint.
According to Bhai Gurdaas, Vaar 5, Pauri 16,
· Lok ved gun gyaan vich aradh sarreri mokh duari: From a temporal and spiritual point of view, woman is the other half of man and assists to the door to final liberation.
Thus, In Sikh thought, a woman is an equal partner to a man in the spiritual advancement of all humanity. Even God is depicted as both man and woman.
· Tu mera Pita tu hai mera maata: O Lord, You are my Father, and You are my Mother
· Aapey purakh aapey hee naari: You Yourself are the male, and You Yourself are the female.
Additionally, Gurbani frequently refers to the individual soul as feminine.
· Thakur ek sabbai naar: There is one Lord, and all are His brides.
Reading Gurbani we can easily see that the Guru condemns practices and restrictions that keep women in a position of inferiority. There are several references to condemn cultural practices, such as sati and dowry requirements, that belittle women and consider them as an inferior gender.
On the physical plane, Gurbani explicitly teaches us to hold men and women as equal beings. Indeed, as we strive towards higher consciousness, we must transcend beyond the distinction of man or woman. On a spiritual level there is no male or female. Differences, conflicts, divisions, and duality do not exist.
· Purakh mey naar naar mey purakha bujhho brahm giani : The female is in the male, and the male is in the female.
Let us now see the results of such vision and effort by the Guru in those times.
Some examples of outstanding Sikh women in early Sikh History
Through the radical teachings of Guru Nanak and in a short period of time, Sikh women broke the shackles of subjugation and became the temporal and spiritual supporters of men, and in some cases, even their leaders. Let us visit some of the well-known examples.
Guru Nanak’s view of the equality of women was shaped by his own mother, Mata Tripta, and his sister, Bebe Nanaki. Legend has it that he argued with the Brahmin at his Janaue Ceremony that if his sister was not good enough for the Janeau, the Janeu was not enough for him. It was a very public declaration on the equality of women.
Mata Khivi, the wife of Guru Angad Dev, took charge of the langar and created a new social consciousness for women. Bibi Amro, the daughter of Guru Angad, brought Guru Amar Das to the fold of Sikhism.
Bibi Bhani, Bibi Dani, Bibi Pal and others were in charge of the different Pirhis (the Parishes) established by Guru Amar Das Ji. He assigned 52 women missionaries out of 146 to go to various parts of the country and unfold the glory of Naam. They enjoyed authoritative powers and had jurisdiction in places like present day Kashmir and Afghanistan. All this occurred in the late 16th century, a time when no other major religion acknowledged the equality of the Creator’s creations.
Mata Gujri is a woman in the Sikh history whose inspiration to Sahibzadas in accepting martyrdom over conversion to Islam, is directly responsible for the way Sikhi stands tall today. She holds the position of a wife of a martyr, mother of a martyr, grandmother of martyrs and herself a martyr.
Sikh women also took prominent roles in the military as exemplified by Mai Bhago and the battalion of 200 women who rode from Punjab to Nanded to rescue the Takhat Sri Hazur Sahib.
Then there was the sacrifice of countless Sikh women who held their butchered children in their arms, who were tortured to death, and starved or flayed alive, but who never gave up their faith.
Besides the service, leadership, and bravery of Sikh women, it is appropriate to mention the reverence Sikh men gave to all women.
The Sikh soldiers never exercised proprietary rights over women captured in battle. It is on record that in a battle, the Begum of the Governor of Bassi Pathan fell into the hands of the Sikhs. Sahibzada Ajit Singh, escorted her back to the enemies' camp, but during her time with the Sikhs she was treated as a sister. The numerous examples of chivalry in history have earned Sikh men a reputation even from their opponents. Qazi Nur Muhammad, who fought against the Sikhs, recorded in his Jangnama, "Really, these dogs have great respect for women."
Why wouldn’t they? Their Master, the great Guru Gobind Singh, set the example by asking Mata Sundar Ji to sweeten the nectar of life for a Sikh in the Amrit Ceremony and declared Mata Sahib Deva as the mother of Khalsa.
Sikh women have played a glorious part in history, and examples of their moral dignity, service, sense of duty, self-sacrifice, and persistence will remain a source of inspiration forever.
From this historical perspective, let us now examine the state of the contemporary Sikh woman in today’s society. How is it different than what the Guru envisioned?
State of the Contemporary Sikh Woman Today
As Sikhs we have proved ourselves as a community of heroes in different fields all inspired by our mothers and sisters, grandmothers and aunts.
However, by and large in a Sikh social setup, it is very disappointing to see mostly men dominate the political, intellectual, academic and spiritual scene with women serving in the background, if at all. A conventional Sikh woman plays the traditional role of mother, daughter, wife and sister very well, but her creative potential to nurture the universal consciousness and her spiritual creativity still remain largely untapped.
Are there real equality, liberty and opportunity for a conventional Sikh woman? Have Sikh women been responsible with the status bestowed upon them? Have Sikh men shared their status of equality as described by Guru Nanak?
The answer is a definite “no.” In fact, evils like female feticide, dowry deaths, honor killings and domestic violence still exist in the Sikh community today. In addition, there remains great controversy about women doing Seva in Darbar Sahib.
Personal responsibility cannot exist without liberty, and liberty will not persist without responsibility. Today, most Sikh women hesitate to participate in the foreground. For example, in local Gurdwaras, they have the right to perform all spiritual duties, but few women manage gurdwara affairs, take the hukam, organize events, give sermons, or, as Panj Pyares, lead a Nagar Kirtan. To an outsider, it definitely looks like a male dominated religion and society.
Unfortunately, many Sikh women hide in their comfort zone and do not take steps toward their spiritual fulfillment. It seems enough to care for the children and manage the langar system. While these are extremely important tasks, why should Sikh women be confined to these duties and men denied them?
By throwing away our rights and responsibilities, Sikh women are doing a great dishonor to the Guru himself and to his ideals, visions, and efforts. We need to come forward, exercise our privileges once again, take our due status, and transform ourselves from the Sikh women that we are to the conscious Sikh women of the Guru. Only then, can we guide our future generations to the path of consciousness.
Road to transformation – From the Contemporary to the Conscious Sikh Woman
Indian culture has downgraded women in many ways for centuries: They have been deemed unworthy of education; restricted to being child bearers and housekeepers. In general, the male children have received preferential treatment in all areas of life. Women have been subjected to economic, social, cultural and judicial oppression from birth to death. They were regarded as a source of sin and obstruction to a man’s salvation; they were declared devoid of intelligence.
Sadly to say, Sikhs have succumbed to the ways of Indian Culture rather than the ideals of the Guru. Equality between men and women in Sikhism has become mere rhetoric. The status of the Sikh woman has become one of:
· Low Self Esteem and hence incapable of independent identity without a male figure – a husband or a father or a son
· Inferior in education and hence not rising beyond traditional roles and devoid of leadership qualities.
The worst part is that subjugation has become so much a part of our lives that we do not even acknowledge that it exists.
If Sikhi is to flourish as a Universal religion, a faith of new age, there is a need to break out, untangle the web of culture, and reach to the core of the Guru’s teachings. There is a need for men to step in and do their part. There is a need for all men and women to live a life of consciousness.
A Sikh Man can start with his own family; the first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Next comes a commitment to solve it. Take a sincere look and see signs of subjugation. Encourage the women to educate themselves. Fathers should make sure their daughters are physically, mentally and spiritually given the same opportunities as their sons. Daughters can help their mothers in the kitchen as well as play tablas with their fathers; daughters and wives can participate in Gurdwara meetings with the active encouragement of men. Sikh men can encourage and invite women in the Gurdwara to share services and seva. Through the Gurdwara, which is the center of our spiritual activities, we will become the champions of liberty, equality and responsibility denied not only to Sikh women but to women all over the world.
Men can pledge to fight practices like female feticide, dowry, and honor killings. They can make sure that Darbar Sahib Discrimination ceases. The whole world is looking at these issues and questioning the principles of equality we claim. Know that if you want Guru’s Sikhi to flourish, you have to restore the status of Sikh women. You have to help to make the other pillar strong.
Let us now see how we all, as physical beings and as the soul brides of the Guru, can transform the state of women.
Conscious Sikh Woman – Consciousness is not a part time job
Sikhi or Consciousness relates to the Soul, and is the very essence of our practical life. We have to practice it all the times; seven days and twenty-four hours a day - Aath Pahar; persistently and forever. This is why in Sikhism there is no particular day of the week, time or place marked for worship. Sikhi is not a part-time job!
Aath pahar raam naam vaparo: Twenty-four hours a day, deal in the Divine Name.
The required efforts are constant practice in truthful living, selfless service (Seva), meditation (Simran), detachment from Maya, introspection and education, and living in contentment and compassion, humility and grace.
How do we make room for non-stop consciousness in our life when we are already so busy? It is very simple. Take a look at our lives. Our needs are few, while our wants are almost limitless. We fill our lives with consumerism where the spiritual efforts have no time or space. Gurbani clearly tells us:
· Raaj kaptam roop kaptam dhan kaptam kul garbatah: Power is fraudulent, beauty is fraudulent, and wealth is fraudulent, as is pride of ancestry.
· Maal ke maaney roop ki sobha it bidhi janam gavaaya: You are wasting this life in the pride of wealth and the splendor of beauty.
How does this manner of living inhibit women from becoming conscious Sikh women? We as women spend endless time and resources in enhancing our outward appearance and beauty. What makes us not beautiful is not freckles on the skin or the age lines, but the freckles on our souls and the lines on our hearts. The face will just reflect the light of the soul eventually. We allow the freckles of anger, ego and pride to taint the beauty of the soul bride. We need to work on these blemishes.
· Har ka naam jan ka roop rang: The Divine Name is the Beauty and Delight of His servants.
· Nanak naam vihunniya sundar maaya dhroh: O Nanak, without the Divine Name, the beauty of Maya's illusion or world-appearance is fake.
How beautifully Gurbani tells us about the beauty of a woman, of a soul-bride.
· Nij bhagati seelvanti naar. Roop anoop poori achaar. Jit greh vasse so grah sobha vanta. Gurmukh paayi kine virlay janta: The bride soul engaged in true devotion has agreeable disposition. Her beauty is incomparable, and her character is perfect. The house (body) in which she dwells is such a praiseworthy house. But rare are those who, by becoming Gurmukh, attain that state.
Living in Consciousness - Our Thoughts mold our lives
Our thoughts reflect our words; words manifest as actions; actions shape our lives. Thus, the thoughts we think and surround ourselves will ultimately become our destiny. Thoughts bind us or set us free. That is, she who considers herself free becomes free, and she who thinks she is bound, remains bound. Thus, it is our duty as Sikh women on the path of consciousness to think we are free; that we are equal; and that we are responsible. Introspection to figure out who we really are is needed. Without knowing who we are, doubts and negativity in the form of cultural subservience and inferiority is bound to result. Simply Know that "I am: Jot Saroop".
Man tu jyot saroop hai apna mool pachhan: O my mind, you are the true image of the Divine Light - know your Reality.
We must begin with the premise that we are the manifestation of God. At the same time, we must remember to be humble. Humility is the foundation for consciousness. Humility that teaches equality, not manipulation; humility that teaches us to stand up for ourselves without undue anxiety and to exercise personal rights without denying the rights of others.
Living in Consciousness - Educate ourselves and our children
Knowledge is Power. If we are powerful, we do not need to fight for our place. How do we get this power? Reading is a good start. Culturally, reading is something most Sikh women of Indian origin do not do. It does not make the agenda, when we raise children, tend to the house, cater to our social commitments etc. Some of us spend time watching Indian Soap Operas for 2-3 hours each day, which reinforces cultural subjugation, makes mockery of the Sikhs, and strips them of their identity, values and pride. Why not use that time to read?
We must have a thirst for knowledge and then use reading to quench this thirst. A Conscious Sikh woman must read Gurbani, contemplate on it and practice it. We must draw on its teaching for our actions. In like manner, we must read Sikh history and be inspired by the lives of great men and women. We must read about current issues affecting the world around us. Empowerment is the key! Then we will have the most effective tool to fight any injustice. Then we will have meaning behind the things we say. We will not need to hide behind a man; we will be a capable, knowledgeable and powerful.
Then we will raise our children in consciousness and confidence about themselves as spiritual persons. Only by example can we lead the next generation.
Living in Consciousness - The food we eat and feed
If “We are what we eat” and we are committed to the path of consciousness, we need to look at what we put in our bodies. As women, we not only feed ourselves but our family. As organizers of langar, we feed the community, the world family; thus we affect not only our own consciousness but that of the world around us. As Conscious Sikh women (and men) it is our responsibility to pass to our generations the concept of consciousness associated with food. This factor needs some examination, especially today when the culture of junk and fast food is so overwhelming. As repeatedly emphasized in the Baani, one of the most important disciplines necessary for consciousness is the control of the tongue both for food and speech:
· Jihva suaad lobh mud maato upje anik bikaara: You are intoxicated with the tastes of the tongue, with greed and pride; countless sins spring from these
· Nirmal rasna amrit peeyo : Let your tongue become pure, drinking in the Ambrosial Nectar.
Our aim as true seekers is to purify ourselves of worldly filth by nourishing our body, mind and soul. The food we consume, the source it comes from (honest work), and the manner in which we prepare and partake of it, all affect the body and consciousness.
· Je rut lagge kapRe jaama hoye paleet. Jyo rut peevhe maansa tin kyo nirmal cheet: Clothes stained with blood become impure. O human, if you consume blood of other beings, then how can you have pure consciousness.
· unni duniya Tore bandhana ann paani ThoRa khaaya. They burn away the bonds of the world, who eat a simple diet of grain and water.
On the path of consciousness we must reflect on what we eat, think, speak and do. Otherwise, body and mind will end up becoming a depository of waste instead of consciousness.
Living in Consciousness – Simple lives, nurturing the environment
One of the aspects of living a truly conscious life is to give back to the environment that nurtures us.
· Pavan Guru paani pita maata dharat mahat: Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.
We love, respect and care for our physical parents but forget our spiritual nurturers: the Air, the Earth and the Water, i.e. the environment we live in. Living a simple life; nourishing our bodies with simple food; catering to our needs rather than our wants, has a meaning beyond helping our own growth. We should take from the environment only as much as we need, so there is more for the rest of the creation. By our selfish acts of consumerism, we are not only making ourselves devoid of spirituality, but we are stripping this earth of precious resources to sustain the beautiful creatures of God, including our own future generations.
To grow spiritually also means being Citizens of the World: to give to the creation of God whether it’s the air, water, earth or animals or human beings in it. As women on the path of consciousness, we need to be the leaders in this area. Learn and teach to the world: “Live simply; so others may simply live”.
When we give to the entire Universe with our purity, consciousness, and grace, that would be a mission accomplished. That would be a true tribute to Sikhi.
To do justice to Guru Nanak’s vision we must restore the lost equality, liberty and justice given to women some 500 years ago. It starts at home right now. Acknowledge the fact that there is a problem; commit to the solution. Men have to participate equally. Women have to take on the personal responsibility. Together we have to implement this vision.
Take inspiration from the life of great Sikh women in the history; be a source of such strength that your generations will follow by example.
Bande khoj dil har roj: O human being, search your own heart every day, and you will not wander around in confusion.
Pay attention to the things that are critical to your being as a spiritual person. Live fully before dying.
Fire up your enthusiasm. Fill your life with Naam and Chardi Kala is going to follow.
-Talk Presented at IFCAPS Seminar, Chicago 2004 as a UNITED SIKHS participant
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