Knowledge, or gyana has many dimensions. It starts from identifying the object of knowledge; what is it that we want to know?; How do we know what we want to know?, Who is the knower?; What is known?; and How the validity of the knowledge is to be tested? These questions are central to the history of ideas in the west as well as in the Indic knowledge traditions.
The Sikh Philosophy, in common with the other three Indic systems: Sanatanism, Jainism and Buddhism had its origins rooted in the need to rid the society of the evils of the time and to seek the general welfare of the society. This welfare of the society has been seen as Samaj seva or Lok Sangrah . The term Lok sangrah has been mentioned in the Bhagvad Gita. This concern with social welfare pervades all the Indic knowledge traditions. These knowledge systems have been described as Dharma or religious philosophies. But, to equate Dharma with religion would be too simplistic and western. Dharma, essentially means practices and principles dedicated towards the welfare of all life forms- Jeeva. It must be noted that it is not only the humanity towards which the welfare is directed, rather all other life forms including plants and animals. We have a cycle of 84,000 beings, 8.4 million, which is very close to modern estimates. Our belief systems are worlds apart from the Abrahamic religions where the humans are to see all other life forms as subordinate and have to exercise domination over them. There is a belief in the essential unity of all existence. This can be seen from the various practices like feeding ants, birds, animals during draught or rain.
Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikhs, described the purpose of knowledge was to rid the society of the ignorance that pervaded all the spheres of life. His famous composition- ‘miti dhundh jag chanan hoya, jad Nanak prakat hoya’, means – with the emergence of the true Guru Nanak, the mist cleared and the light scattered all around. It was the fog of suffering and ignorance that got cleared with the emergence of true Guru Nanak. He stands at one end of the bridge, that is Sikhism, whereas Guru Gobind Singh, the last or tenth Guru stands at the other end. The knowledge that they disseminated was shaped by the requirements of the particular time in which they were preaching. It is not to say that their teachings were a sharp departure from the essentials of the other Indic knowledge traditions : Sanatanism, Buddhism and Jainism. It cannot be denied either that each of these knowledge traditions sought to rid the society of the ills surfaced by the corruption of the preceding traditions.
Before exploring the teachings of these two Gurus, it becomes essential to understand the unity that defines Bharatvarsha, as well as the difference between the Indic Knowledge traditions as well as the Abrahamic and Hebrew knowledge traditions. Moreover, the orality of tradition, oral nature of recording and disseminating knowledge throughout the country as opposed to the scriptal nature of civilization in the west has to be taken into account.
Bharat Varsha- An essential unity of knowledge traditions, a man-centered civilization and an oral culture: The Vishnu Purana clearly defines Bharat Khand as an unified Geographical entity. The account of a unified Bharat Varsha has been provided by the Greek Historian Megasthenes. Also, the Arabs always called the area east of Sindhu as Hindustan. Herodotus who wrote The History of the world, had no doubt about the existence of India as a country. The problem with those people who question the idea of India is that they are more familiar with the European states system formed to develop into geographical entities with similar language, similar religion and similar practices. They are more familiar with the writings of John Gilchrist, Ernest Gellner and the like. Inspired by their writings the westernized intellectuals, many of whom were present in the constituent assembly promoted the idea of nation-building, and developing a sense of nationality in India. They ignore the diversity of culture and an essential unity, geographical and cultural that has existed historically.
In this Bharat khand there is an essential unity between the diverse knowledge traditions. The Indian civilization is a man centered civilization. This is in sharp contrast to the God centered civilization which defines the Abrahamic/Semitic and Hebraic knowledge traditions. A god centered civilization is more occupied with the knowledge about god, and the relation between god and men. It focuses on the nature of god , the west had to undergo renaissance, to make it more relevant to the problems faced by the ordinary humans. Reason and Rationality became their watchwords. The Indic knowledge traditions are more concerned with the ordinary problems faced by the people. The Gods depicted like Rama, Krishna have lived very ordinary lives and died even more painfully. In the Ramayana, one can see that Laxman was accused by Sita of having sinful intentions towards her when he did not go save Rama on her insistence. Rama sacrificed Sita in pursuit of Dharma. They are more related to the concerns of the ordinary people. The language used by Buddha, to convey his message was Pali, so that his message could reach the ordinary masses.
We are an oral culture. Unlike the west, where the teachings and the messages are in written form, the chosen form to convey the messages are essentially through quatrains. This practice is common in the Vedas, the Buddhist literature, the Jain literature and the teachings of Nanak and Guru Govind Singh. This practice has been followed across the country. Even the Sangam literature was developed in a poetic form to ensure its smooth and mass dispersal. Guru Nanak composed his ideas in ragas. They were meant to be sung. The Guru Granth Sahib consists of several compositions called Guru Bani which are meant to be sung. This is to ensure that they could be spread easily. There is no dearth of written Scripts. The Ashokan inscriptions are in a written form. Ashtdhyayi Panini’s Vyakrana talks of Lipis.
The Abrahamic, Semitic and the Hebraic traditions talk of one single god. They are monotheistic. They believe that there is one single God. God created the universe and he is outside of it. The Indic traditions are based on the principle of Monism. Though, there are several deities, idols, and gods, but the principle underlying them are same. In our conception, we don’t have a creator outside the creation. The universe is called Brahmand and god is called Brahman. Brahman is nothing but an energized form of matter. And, Bramhand is an extension of the Brahman. Guru Nanak dev ji spoke of ‘ek omkar’, as the essential structure of one formless god.
Having cleared these differences, we can safely proceed to the knowledge tradition propounded by Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind singh, and how they represent a synthesis of the essential elements which are common to the Indic knowledge traditions.
Guru Nanak dev and the marga of Gyan: Starting with the primary epistemological question, as what is the purpose of knowledge, and how Guru Nanak addresses this question. Guru Nanak wrote ‘miti dhundh jag chanan hoya, jad Nanak prakat hoya’. The central message here is that with the appearance of Nanak, the ignorance gets dispelled. Nanak was writing during the 15th and 16th century, at a time when there were massive foreign invasions and people were being slaughtered. The suffering of the people was also because of the wrong knowledge, or avidya that the people practiced. Avidya is not a lack of knowledge, but wrong knowledge. Wrong knowledge further perpetuates suffering. If we look at Sukh and Dukh, a person with the right knowledge can navigate through these issues more effectively, rather than a person with wrong knowledge.
Of the three margas/ways suggested by the Indic traditions: Gyana, Karma and Bhakti, Guru Nanak advocated the marg of Gyana. His writings appeared at the time when there was great suffering among the people, they were being slaughtered at a massive level. They were not united, hence were incapable of fighting. It was only through the right knowledge, or by following the path of Gyana, they could avoid their suffering. He advocated that one should neither get too happy, nor too sad. This would turn a person into a Sthit pragya, a very stable and wise person free from all sufferings. Guru Nanak chose the means of Katha pravachans, to spread his message across the length and breadth of this country. Guru Nanak’s approach of reducing suffering in the world is similar to Gautam Buddha’s analysis of the causes of suffering. Gautama Buddha wrote 2000 years ago. The context was different then. There were no foreign invasions then, people were suffering due to extreme depravities of their way of lives. They were given to the extremes of pleasure, they were highly materialistic. Buddha identified the cause of suffering in desire. He said that desire is the root cause of all suffering, and suffering can be reduced by following the Eight fold path, or the Ashtanga marga. In a way, Buddha’s approach to reduce suffering was a synthesis of Gyan and Karm(knowledge and action).
Guru Nanak gave the concept of ‘ek onkar’ to understand the structure of God. This means one formless god. This understanding is similar to the idea of Monism present in all Indic traditions. The Upanishadic idea of Brahman is also a similar way of looking at God as one pulsating matter of which the universe is a magnified representation. Jainism talks of the presence of jinna(soul) present in all beings, and the one who realizes this becomes a Tirthankara. The Upanishadic concept of Advaitya(non-dualism) is similar to this understanding. Human beings are just a manifestation of God. A perfection of all the attributes will lead one to become a God like being.
Guru Nanak Dev’s Mul Mantra is : ‘ek onkar, satnam, karta purakh, nirbhau, nirvair, ajooni se bhang‘. This means there is only one God . His name is true. He is the creator, he has no fear, no hate. He is omni-present, self born and self-illuminating. Guru Nanak dev ji was all about kindness and sharing all the things with others and seva.
Guru Gobind Singh and a synthesis of Gyan, Karm And Bhakti: Guru Gobind singh ji synthesized the three margas of Gyan, Karm and Bhakti. He composed philosophical treatises Rama avatar, Chandi di vaar, a composition for Durga, a war-like goddess. He even wrote about the abstract concept of Brahman. It is called Akal stut. In addition to these works he composed several treatises like Heer-Ranjha, the famous and powerful love story. He was also an extra-ordinary warrior. He led a war, Khalsa in which 40 people fought a war with an army of 1 lakh.
Guru Gobind Singh mentioned two ways to defend Dharma: Shaastra, and Shatra. He became a great thinker, a great warrior and a great poet. This shows his synthesis of Karma, Gyana and Bhakti. This is not unique to him. Adi Shankracharya, while his commentary on the Bhagvat Puran said that “Gyan yukt karm hi Bhakti hai”. This can be translated as a knowledge inspired by the right knowledge is Bhakti. Sanatan was a combination of Shastra and Shaastra. It got so much involved in rituals that its central focus was lost.
Guru Govind singh’s valour is accounted from the fact that he led an army of 18 Sikhs to fight 40,000 Pathans in the famous battle of Piragarhi. His famous saying was, ’chidiya se mai baaz ladaun tohi Guru Gobind singh kehlaun’, if only I make a Sparrow fight the Eagle, can I be called Guru Gobind Singh. He said one of his Sikh was equal to 1.25 lakhs of other creeds.
He was stabbed by a Pathan and on his deathbed he said that the Guru Granth Sahib will act as the Guru, as all his successors died in the war. He established a martial code for the Sikhs, which is also called Khalsa. This was his approach towards the synthesis of the ways of Gyan, Karma and Bhakti. He marked a shift in Sikhism from Akaal to Khalsa, and from Nirgun to Sagun. From the formless ek Onkar, to the form of the Guru Granth Sahib.