Social Action For Harmander Singh


In trying to find answers to the question as to why faith communities undertake to perform charity and what impact it has on the local and national landscape, the seminar will examine:

  • Contributions from the different faiths
  • How their contribution benefits communities, the local and national governments and other non-governmental bodies.
  • How the resources of each faith are shared with others
  • The importance of sharing to help build strong cohesive communities.
  •  Looking beyond serving one’s own community
  • How good practice may be jointly promoted


Harmander’s view is that his presentation would best be rooted in presenting the Sikh views and precepts [my words]. Indarjit in his posting has suggested a constructive look at the other faith perspectives too in the presentation. My sense is to go with Harmander for the reason that in an interfaith setting such comparative references do not add to the substance because the relative perspectives and positions of each tradition become clear from their respective presentations.

Coming next to the seminar plan, the context seems essentially to be to uncover what faith groups are doing for the common good rather than their own faith communities in the immediate setting of the UK. The first three bullets i.e. contributions by the faith and how these may have benefited communities, governmental agencies and NGOs and their process of sharing need specific information. I have not been to the UK in the last 36 years and as such I am not in a position to offer local examples of Sikh initiatives or participation in social action and would leave that part to your best judgment. However drawing upon my US experience I would be hesitant to stake the claim that in the Diaspora, Sikhs have been an active force in social action – this obviously as a result of our small numbers, newness to the society, concentration on identity issues and the post Sep 11 mistaken identity generated insecurities.

What follows is a brief on our related theology, historical experience and examples from India [and elsewhere] and may help to explicate the faith position on societal issues and social activism implicit in the last three questions. I hope you find it useful.


The Sikh precept has very clear markers regarding human social responsibility. Believers are persuaded that a devotee has to be a man of the world and a man of God, a saint and a soldier [sant sipahi] at the same time. This implies that it is not enough to understand and espouse the moral and ethical principles but one has to live by them in the real world and indeed be ready to defend what is righteous.

Some idea of the concern of the Gurus about the societal issues can be had from the following examples:

  • They preached that true religiosity is in being self reliant, support self and spare some for the needy. Earnest endeavor and sharing was at the core of their ethos.
  • They were deeply troubled by institutionalized discrimination inherent in a caste based society and strongly advocated equality of all human beings
  • They condemned the treatment meted out to women and questioned how could the progenitor of exemplars and leaders be thought of as lowly?
  • They lamented that the religious leadership was actually interested in amassing worldly possessions and did not inspire trust, spoke untruths, engaged in petty squabbles and committed grievous hurts to people.[1]
  • At another level kashatriyas who were traditional protectors of the societal mores, had abjured their role[2] and those whose job was to administer justice had turned corrupt and would do anything for graft.[3]
  • While the rulers forgetting their roles and responsibilities had turned into butchers,[4] lay citizens were content to be apathetic, almost blind in ignorance and dumb like effigies filled with straw.[5]
  • In Babarvani the Guru commented that if one beats up his equal, it might not be a cause for grievance– — (but) if a tiger mauls herding cattle, the Master must answer[6]– the innocent and weak must be spared. Even though he seems to chide God for not showing compassion when the suffering screamed in pain, the answer is obvious – it is for the humans to resist individually and collectively all that may ail the society.
  • Guru talked about a vision of an ideal society and called it halemi raj – ruling through humility, modesty and service [seva]. With truth as its foundational principle the inner working of this society is not oppressive, coercive or degrading of the dignity of the individual. Gursikhs [True followers of the Guru] are its pace setters, exemplars, role models as well as mentors for others to be better citizens.
  • Guru Gobind Singh in spite of all that he and his companions endured at the hands of Aurangzeb is gracious, kind and compassionate and says ‘if only you were gracious enough to come to the village of Kangar, we could then see each other face to face. Come to me so that we may converse with each other, and I may utter some kind words to thee.’ [Zafarnama verses 58, 60]


The Gurus variously related these precepts to temporal living for the individual, family, local community and their web of relationships. Sikhs are guided to see God’s light in all and therefore judge not others; endeavor to develop morally, ethically and spiritually; relate to his environment in a state of inner harmony and be productive and constructive members of society contributing to amiable relations.

Each house is a dharamsal – a cradle for prayer and cultivating righteous values. The family supports itself by honest and earnest endeavor, gives some for the common good.

At an extended plane all the activities are carried out in and as a part of the totality of our surrounding ecological environment. This world and this life are important and we should bring the two in harmony to comprehend inter-connectedness between God and nature, attain inner peace and experience the ecstatic beauty and joy in divine dispensation.

The contours of Sikh activism, its scriptural basis, the way Gurus responses influenced and defined it has two facets –

  • A proactive urge to blunt the ill effects of institutionalized societal discrimination and ameliorate human condition through encouraging social equality, self-reliance, sharing and seva;
  • A reactive response to not give in to oppression or injustice but to resist it through non-violent means even if it means making supreme sacrifices and if all else fails resort to limited use of force to obviate the immediate cause of dissonance.


The mnemonic expression deg, tegh, fateh, going back to the Guru’s time, inspired Sikh living. The word deg carries the connotation of general benevolence, tegh of protecting the good from evil and fateh of victory in this righteous endeavor. This twin concept of charity and valor and the supplication for sarbat ka bhala [well being of one and all] gives expression to the Sikh prayer that their day should be filled with deeds to secure the well being of all.

Gurus promoted seva to help the devotee to grow spiritually even as one works for the betterment of others. Seva must be an expression of love, not of pity or reciprocity for as the Guru says ‘one who is good if good is done unto him and not otherwise, does not love but only trades in love.’[7]

Gurus also instituted Daswandh, an obligation, similar to tithes that provided the much-needed resources to support collective seva for the common good by the Gurus.

Unlike ritualistic feeding of Brahmins considered as daan [charity] that was decried by Guru Nanak feeding the hungry is – parupkar – altruism, a value highly commended.

In dharamsal where the devotees used to gather every evening to sing God’s praises and share a community meal, none was excluded or not made welcome. Association of women signaled involvement of children and families. Building of bathing pools, shared food in langar and encouragement of sporting activities strengthened the social bonding and the importance of spirit of sharing, seva, community hygiene and physical fitness in religious life.

Characteristic features of dharamsal from the beginning included providing shelter and food for the needy and wayfarers. Thus in addition to seva by individuals at personal level and of their own volition, Gurus gave impetus to collective seva by the community in supporting projects and services for benefit of the people and Gurdwaras became nodal points for organizing such activities.

The Gurus had to make tremendous sacrifices to secure freedoms, security and safety of the people. Guru Arjun when forced to act against his beliefs chose to face gruesome tortures and die rather than submit. Guru Hargobind and successor Gurus maintained a retinue of armed followers to protect the nascent community and others from oppression by officials, raiders and foreign invaders. He transformed Sikh activism to take to armed defense in the face of force. Guru Har Krishan contracted small pox tending to the sick in Delhi and died. He was just eight years old. The ultimate sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur to protect the right of Hindus to practice their religion is possibly the only one of its kind in religious history. With Guru Gobind Singh Sikh resolute activism saw its culmination. The Khalsa had a visible identity and purpose. Ranjit Nagara sounded loud and clear that the Sikhs were determined to protect what was righteous and resist what was not with the use of arms, if needed. The call of Guru Nanak that ‘step onto my path with your head in your hand if you desire to play this game of love – once on, care not for what any one says but hearken the call’[8] was understood and internalized by the Sikhs.

A chronicle from that time shows that apart from making sacrifices for shared humanity some Sikhs had imbibed the message of treating friend and foe alike even as the Imperial army frequently invested them at Anandpur.  After a day of skirmishes as the weary sun was going down, an old Sikh, Kanhaiya was tending the wounded of both sides and ministering sips of water to the thirsty. Seeing this, the Sikhs were upset and asked Guru Gobind Singh to stop Kanhaiya from comforting the enemy. The Guru asked them to call him and ask – why? Brought before the Guru, Kanhaiya humbly said ‘Lord you told us to recognize all human race as one.[9] When I go tending the wounded and I look at them I see your image in each of them. If you pervade in all, I see only you and no enemy!’

Banda abolished zamindari and declared cultivators as owners of land. His injunction for troops was strict observance of rules of conduct laid down for the Khalsa of not using tobacco, drugs or intoxicants and not committing theft or adultery. This brought him the goodwill of vast majority of population.

There are many recorded anecdotes about the way Sikhs conducted themselves. We will cite a couple that reflect on our subject:

  • James Browne, who was an employee of East India Company recorded that the Misaldars were not rigid about their levies and accepted what the farmer could pay of the moderate rent mostly in kind. The cultivators were thus treated with empathy and never molested by their soldiers.
  • A Brahmin girl was forcibly abducted by Mir Hassan Khan the Chief of Jalalabad. Sikhs under the command of Baghel Singh rescued the girl but her parents refused to accept her back because she was considered defiled. The Sikhs warned that the property of any one who discriminated against the girl would be confiscated and given to the girl. They also gave the girl title of ‘Daughter of the Khalsa’.

During the half-century of Sikh rule the Sikh social activism received State patronage and it thrived as well as diversified. Sikhs had earned a lot of goodwill through their sacrifices and conduct. As the ruling elite now they displayed the sagacity to be non discriminatory, just and generous. It was a period when for a short while the society did not need reactive activism from them – it was ensured through governance.

Sikh activism since seems to have been hit by the recognition that under the new political dispensation, being small in numbers and with limited resources Sikh’s ability to espouse social causes and to make a difference in the social arena was severely constrained. The sacrifices they made during the various causes did not help their becoming participants in the mainstream political or social conversations. They turned inward in a self-critical mode, not quite sure how to position themselves in and engage with the emerging social milieu. What we witness today is a legacy of what transpired before.

Over the centuries Sikhs have continued to channel most of their offerings in the name of the Guru to the Gurdwaras. Experience however seems to suggest that Gurdwara, as an institution has not been able to deliver upon the promise of dharamsal underpinning the integrated concept of socially responsible involvement inherent in the Guru’s teachings and praxis. Whereas the Gurus displayed deep sensitivity to serve continuing as well as emerging needs, in more recent times most of the funds have begun to be used up to pay those providing liturgical services and langar; with the bulk of capital expense being incurred for construction of ostentatious Gurdwaras to the neglect of societal problems and needs.

One reason is that Gurdwaras presently do not afford any opportunity for community to consult internally and the sangat is not in the loop on decision processes.

Thankfully in India there is a growing sense of buoyancy among Sikhs and they are now more visibly engaged in eradication of social evils and improvement in the condition of their fellow beings. I am quite impressed with the range of Gurdwara based programs like hospitals and schools that I have seen grow over the last two decades. Sikhs have also responded to the problems arising from the 80’s to develop activist forums and their help to disaster victims has been quick and visible. There are several other initiatives that are reassuring that Sikh activism is reviving.

Situation relating to the Diaspora however is not as comforting. Their involvement with issues of social concern is only marginal, if so. Their main focus has been to establish Gurdwaras and organize Sikh camps for the youth. In recent years some initiatives to reach out to the mainstream gained urgency because of post Sep. 11 experiences. There also have been some projects to establish Sikh chairs in a few universities, exhibitions of Sikh art and artifacts at some well-known galleries and film festivals. The core issues that remain the concern of social activists have not witnessed Sikh involvement as a faith group. The reasons for this phenomenon are the same as in the Indian situation, only a bit more pronounced. At the individual level too Sikh giving has found its way more to India than to local causes ostensibly in a nostalgic bid to reconnect with their roots or possibly because of other pragmatic considerations. There too most of contribution is intended for religious projects with only a small portion going for other socially relevant initiatives.

We do have problems in our social activism at the present time. This lapse possibly does not seize our attention weighed down as we are with internal identity issues and growing alienation among the youth. We also are still struggling to figure out how to position ourselves as a minority to be able to effectively engage the mainstream as a faith group on issues of broader social concern. In the process we are turning inwards, with a hunker down mentality talking more about what the Gurus said and did rather than trying to carry their example and mission forward. We have to move beyond ruminating. We can recall our acts of social responsibility a million times in our ardas – it will not enable us to engage effectively in causes that are of importance in today’s context. That ability will only be enhanced if we talk about what is impeding us presently to become more engaged and involved as a faith group. Once we are able to think through I have no doubt we would succeed in repositioning ourselves as concerned social activists very quickly and effectively. Sikh transition from ruminating to talking will not come easy. Walking is not a problem once they get to know the way – if at all they will have to be dissuaded from plunging headlong!

[1] moorakh pandit hikmat hujat sanjai kareh pyar –[M I p.469], qadi kurh bol mal khaaye, brahman nhave jia ghave –[M I p.662]

[2] khatriyan te dharam chhodiya [M I p.663]

[3] qazi hoe rishvati vadi laike haq gavai [Bhai Gurdas, Varan 1/30]

[4] kal kate raaje kasaai dharam pankh kar udhriya – [M I p.145]

[5] andhi rayat gian vihooni bhaah bhare murdaar – [M I p.469]

[6] je sakta sakte ko maare ta man raus na hoyi —- sakta seeh mare pai vagai khasme saa pursai [M I p.360]

[7] changey changa kar maney mandey manda hoey, aasaq ahu neh aakhiey jeh lekha vartey soey  – Var Asa, Slok M II, p.474

[8] jo tho praem khaelan kaa chaao sir dhhar thalee galee maeree aao eith maarag pair dhhareejai sir dheejai kaan n keejai – Slok Varan te Vadhik, M I, p. 1410

[9] manas ki jat sabh ekay pehchanbo – Dasam Granth

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