The terrorist attacks of Sep 11, 2001 in New York and Washington DC have brought into the focus of public consciousness the relationship between religion and violence. The events have generated a public debate on what may or may not be considered an appropriate response to a, real or perceived, deep sense of grievance felt by a faith community because of actions, dominance or apathy of forces controlled by leadership of a different faith persuasion.

Two pertinent observations must be made, however, at an early stage of our discussion. Firstly it should be recognized that adherents of all the major faiths have been alleged to have perpetrated acts of terrorism in the last fifty years or so. Examples are Baadar Meinhof in Germany; Red Brigades in Italy; Action Directe in France; and various groups in Peru, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Japan, Ireland, India, Philippines, Middle East, Eastern Europe etc. Secondly it also needs to be acknowledged that almost all the faiths encompass a range of often contradictory, even incompatible precepts and practices. In fact every religion contains elements that contribute to peace or war though in varying degrees. Thus any notion of monolithic religious stereotypes would be misleading. 

In this article we will discuss the Sikh perspective on freedom, peace, justice, conflict and related issues as gleaned from the Sikh scriptures and some examples from the Sikh history. Before we delve into that, however, we will briefly review the Christian and Islamic positions on the doctrine of just war/jihad. These concepts have been the subject of extensive discussion in the aftermath of September 11 incidents.  


 Many early Christians were Pacifists and that view is variously supported even today. Christianity, however has permitted societies to take up arms to establish justice or to protect the innocent under the ‘Just War’ doctrine – formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and subsequent theologians.  The major points of the doctrine cover justification for and rules for war. In brief these are[1]:

  • Just cause to confront real danger, protect innocent lives or secure human rights. 
  • Right intention, not retribution or aggression.
  • Declared by authority responsible for public order (revolution allowable). 
  • Issue of justice clear on one side; overall good outweighs expected destruction; action of last resort. 
  • Noncombatant civilian and nonmilitary property not attacked directly and indirect damage to them minimized. 
  • Proportionality in the use of force to avoid excessive damage. 

The question of civilian casualties became a major moral issue in the Second World War primarily because of indiscriminate bombing of London, Dresden and Tokyo and the use of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Vietnam War reinforced the voices of protest further. Significantly, with regard to Sep11 incidents, the United Methodist Church, President Bush’s denomination took the position that ‘ war is not an appropriate means of responding to criminal acts against humanity’. Likewise the World Council of Churches, made up of 342 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, said that ‘ we do not believe that war, particularly in today’s highly technologized world, can ever be regarded as an effective response to equally abhorrent sin of terrorism’. 


The concept of Jihad in Islam has two dimensions. The first and according to several theologians the primary persuasion, is for effort by an individual, at personal level, to redeem oneself. The second is the concept of holy war against others. Even though Prophet Mohammed was a military leader at times, the passages in Koran that justify combat are said by Muslim scholars to involve self-defense for early Muslims. A proper authority must declare any such holy war or jihad. Killing the innocent is strictly forbidden in the Hadith, the authoritative tradition from the Prophet and his successors[2]

In the wake of Sep 11 incidents, the 56 nation Organization of the Islamic Conference resolved that ‘ such shameful terror acts are opposed to the tolerant divine message of Islam, which spurns aggression —- and prohibits killing of the innocent’. Similar views were also expressed by a number of Muslim speakers in the various assemblies subsequent to these incidents. 


The historical experience of Sikhs has had its share of conflict, violence, persecution, sacrifices and martyrdom. The contributing factors may be variously identified as prevailing political chaos; corrupt state apparatus; oppressive and apathetic rulers; pervasive inequities and inequality; cultural alienation; degradation in moral values and religious beliefs; alien dominance/oppression etc. Unfortunately even as men have continued to engage in distracting arguments pernicious strife has persevered in rearing its head in all ages.[3] [4]

 Guru’s Time and Age 

Guru Nanak in his compositions has commented extensively on the state of society of his time and sufferings of the people. The Guru laments that – truth is rare; spurious values, conflict, ignorance and disharmony prevail[5].  

At the same time the people are seen to be apathetic to the state of affairs the subjects blind in their ignorance are like effigies filled with straw[6]. The response of ordinary citizenry seems to be guided by the instinct to survive through conformity[7]. They don’t mind even hypocrisy like praying the Hindu way at home while outside they cite the rulers scriptures and follow their life style[8]. Their behavior inherently is indicative of a sense of insecurity and fear of discrimination for belonging to a different faith. 

The functionaries of the state are corrupt and will do anything for graft[9]. The rulers have turned butchers and righteousness has taken to wings[10]. The protectors of faith have abjured their role[11].  

The religious leadership does not inspire trust and the men of learning, engaged in petty squabbles, are actually only interested in worldly possessions[12]. Not only that those who wear the sacred thread, to curry favor, ply the knife over their own people[13] and both qazis and brahmins speak untruths and commit grievous  hurts.[14]

The unwelcome effects of alien influence on culture, language and way of life are a cause of deep concern and are poignantly described by Guru Nanak[15]. The alien influence is seen to be discriminatory, extortionist, culturally pernicious and inhibiting religious freedom. Babar and  his band (of sinful revelers) are seen to have  hastened from Kabul on their exploits of sin and  extortion[16]. The Guru expressed his deep anguish that even as the Mughals became cruel agents of death, did God not feel any compassion for the innocent victims[17]?

The Guru’s Persuasion 

In a world such as this what should a believer do? For guidance we turn to the scriptures to try and collate such of the Sikh beliefs and postulates that may influence relevant choices. A fundamental Sikh belief is that God is dynamic doer – karta purakh, His creation is real and He is immanent in His creation[18]. This world is His visible manifestation[19] and intended by God to be a place for virtuous deeds and moral action[20] A believer therefore should be a devoted unassuming person of action whose earnest endeavors are altruistic[21]

The Gurus caution the Sikhs to guard against five evil propensities viz.: kam, karodh, lobh, moh and ahankar  – concupiscence, wrath, covetousness, attachment and pride. Control over these urges would help in bringing about a more tranquil state of mind and at the same time make a person sensitive to the shared needs of the society. All these propensities seem to arise from one common factor which is very difficult to satisfy, desire – trishna [22]. These propensities have great influence over human conduct. Thus their regulation is not an easy task but at the same time if the believers’ behavior is even marginally affected by this teaching, the cumulative impact upon societal harmony may be expected to be considerable.

 The social order must promote equality. The concept of equality in Sikhs draws its basic inspiration from the belief that all human beings emanate from one common father[23]. Thus any distinction because of class, caste, economic status, gender etc. is not accepted. Men are asked to look for the Divine light in others, not their caste because caste distinction does not exist in God’s court[24]. On the status of women, the Guru questioned how can we speak ill of women who mothered all the upholders of our social order (leaders/kings)[25]? Guru Amar Das encouraged women to shun wearing veils, to take up leadership roles in the diocese – manjis – and denounced the custom of sati. This break from the rigid social mores of those times created the potential to free vast sections of population from continuing to suffer the humiliation and privation they had endured. 

The poor and the under privileged must be looked after for those who feed off their labor cannot claim clear conscious[26]. The Lord punishes those who look down upon and exploit the poor[27]. In fact virtuous is the life of those who earn their livelihood through their effort and share what they have[28]. To usurp what rightfully belongs to some one else is sinful for all[29]

The human incarnation is an opportunity for the jiva for achieving unity with the creator – the ultimate goal in Sikh’s spiritual quest. Love of God and His creation is important to achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and death[30]. One’s heart has to awaken to love to be emancipated[31]. 

Those who love God are not vain and do not inflict violence on others[32]. Guru Tegh Bahadur commends neither to be afraid nor to cause fear to any body[33].  Thus violence and intimidation in social transactions is prohibited. 

Sheik Farid suggests shunning revenge altogether almost in the manner of turning the other cheek and not causing pain to any one[34]

Acceptance of differences in approach and working through them is recommended[35]. Men should be gentle in their choice of words and avoid rancor for there is affinity between love and genteel dialogue[36]. In any case courtesy and humility of approach is not only generally more acceptable, it is also an essence of merit and virtue of a person[37]

Sikhs are enjoined to accept responsibility for their actions and not blame any body else for their karma.  Recompense for good or bad that men do, they must obtain themselves[38].  

Forgiveness has a place of importance in this matrix of human acts of omission and commission. The way one may teach the child how not to repeat errant behavior while forgiving the past errors is considered divine and greatly lauded[39]. God is the epitome of forgiveness. Kabir says where forgiveness is, God is[40]. The Gurus sing paeans of praise of God for His acts of forgiveness. God has been true  to His nature and has not bothered about the devotee’s  merits or demerits[41].  

The concept of equality was carried further as a moral factor in conflict situations. The Guru believed that if a mighty one overpowers his equal, it may not be a cause for grievance— (but) if a tiger mauls herding cattle, the Master must answer[42]

Those in leadership role must be held accountable. Their decisions must be made after thorough deliberation and should be able to withstand moral scrutiny and tests for justice and being equitable.  Those who rule must be seen to be just[43]. Control of the five propensities, kaam, karodh, lobh, moh and ahankaar is lauded in leaders[44]. The ideal in Sikhism is humility and caring in a ruler under whom all may live in peace and harmony[45]

Violence therefore has no place in this setting. At the same time Sikhs are persuaded not to shy away from righteous action — and be determined to right the wrongs, fight to win[46]. Inaction being the result of a deliberate choice by the individual is not commended in the face of tyranny, coercion, and exploitation or in pursuit of a righteous cause. Guru Gobind Singh described his own mission as to resist tyranny and to promote justice and righteousness[47]. Guru Nanak clearly forewarned the Sikhs that if they wanted to tread the path of Lord’s love they must be prepared to give up life without demur[48]. Giving up life for a worthy cause is approved[49]. Guru Gobind Singh also says if all other devices fail, recourse to use of force as a last  resort is fair and just[50].

The tenth Master vested the guruship in spiritual matters to Adi Granth and in temporal matters to the Khalsa Panth, to succeed him. The temporal authority was to be exercised by the institution of – panj  pyaraas – the elect five. 

Perfect is the Divine justice[51]. God extends divine protection to His devotees[52]. A true devotee sees God’s light in all and therefore judges not others[53]. He instinctively cultivates an open fraternity where none is a stranger or inimical to one another[54]. It is only then that the Sikh daily prayer asking peace and prosperity for one and all[55] may be considered answered.


From the above analysis the following important factors would appear to significantly influence the decision parameters on the subject issues: 


  • Strife environment is abiding 
  • Societal dissonance continues to manifest itself in varying mixes and degrees
  • People’s responses may be apathetic, conformist or collaborative for reasons of security/survival/comfort 
  • Administrative machinery may well be corrupt, inefficient and capricious 
  • State policies may be repressive
  • Cultural heritage, way of life, traditional values, religious beliefs may be threatened
  •  Oppression of civilian population, outrages against women and pillage may happen.

Persuasion Related 

  • Be an active participant in life; withdrawal, denial not commended  
  • Control the evil propensities 
  • Make no distinction and accept no discrimination because of class/caste/gender/faith persuasion etc. 
  • Exploit not the poor, share and to every body their due  
  • Love and reach out to all fellow beings
  • Inflict not violence or create fear
  •  Seek justice, not revenge; cause no pain 
  • Respect differences in approach: be mild of manner; gentle of words; humble of behavior 
  • Accept responsibility and consequences of your actions 
  • Forgiveness is divine; give forgiveness and reform a chance 
  • Use of force between equally powerful may be allowed but immoral if force preferred option against the weak 
  • As leaders ensure justice and create a sensitive, empathetic and benign administrative apparatus 
  • Do not hesitate in getting involved in a virtuous cause; use force if all else fails. Victory is important in a just cause 
  • Decisions are to be collective through an institutionalized process 
  • God is supreme and protects all; His justice and beneficent rule is ideal

To summarize the Sikh canon allows, for settlement of conflict, the use of force only between equals or otherwise only in pursuit of justice, not revenge, and that too as a last resort after all other options have failed. The struggle should spare the innocent and their property.


We will now look at a couple of examples from the Sikh history to look at the Sikh response to conflict situations where force was used. The conflict between Guru and the State was not for personal or political reasons. The issues involved were gross, pervasive and continuing violations of the basic human rights and freedom of the people. There was a short period of understanding developed between Guru Hargobind and the Mughal ruler. A similar situation also developed during the later phase of the struggle waged by Guru Gobind Singh. The periods prior to these episodes were marked by continuing and even escalating pursuit of oppressive policies culminating in martyrdom of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur and finally in armed conflict. 

The period following the Gurus saw the rapid rise of Sikh power. This period presents a murky picture in which there were instances of egalitarian measures like distribution of land among peasants by Banda Bahadur[56] (4) to the abdication of ideal of equality and collective responsibility by the Sikh Sardars hastening to build independent kingdoms[57] (5). Yet the Sikh soldiery earned grudging admiration even from the enemy. To quote Qazi Nur Mohammad, ‘in no case would they slay a coward, nor would they put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the wealth and ornaments of a woman—– there is no adultery among these dogs nor are—- given to thieving  —-.’[58]

During the Misl period, the custom of taking decisions collectively by the Sarbat Khalsa passing resolutions called Gurmattas, decrees of the guru, continued; though modified progressively to decision taking by a gathering of jathedars. In 1809 Maharaja Ranjit Singh ended the custom of political Gurmattas[59]. The institution of collective decision processes can be said to be still evolving.   

An extensive analysis would be needed to test the recent unrest in Punjab against the postulates identified above. It cannot however be denied that the militancy by the Sikh youth was neither their first, preferred response and given the apathetic pace of political reform nor possibly the last. 


 The above postulates define the broad boundaries within which active participation of the believers in furtherance of a righteous cause may develop, grow and culminate. To become something of a doctrine, however, any guidelines will have to be discussed, debated, elaborated and agreed upon by the community and its leadership and the decision criteria as well as decision processes more clearly identified. Given a globally dispersed presence of the Sikhs, thought will also have to be given to possible responses by the community in widely diverse settings and circumstances.  

Given the back drop of contemporary global spread of inter religious conflicts, the kind of strife being witnessed today may become the defining characteristic of the initial decade or two of the twenty first century. Such a possibility is quite real because of the vast inequalities, alienation levels, economic dislocation, cultural disparity and political oppression not just along ethnic and geographic lines but also along religious followings. In this environment committed and persuasive advocates can easily convert problems of right and wrong to those of good against evil. To avoid this from happening the faith leaderships will have to think clearly, stay ahead of the curve and guide their flocks. 

Our Gurus taught us that religion is not something unrelated to our societal behavior. They made tremendous sacrifices in pursuit of ideals of justice, freedom and equality. Our collective judgment on the issues of right and wrong, good and evil, will determine if the world we are living in is getting any closer to halemi raaj.


New Delhi, Dec 7, 2001       

  • [1] – From the US Roman Catholic bishop’s 1983 letter  ‘The Challenge of Peace’. 

[2]– Ostling, Richard N, Associated Press in Hartford Courant, Oct 20,2001.

3 – kaleh buree sansaar vaadey  khapiye – (M I p. 142)

4 – quotes in italics are from Sri Guru Granth Sahib,annotation conveys the broad meaning 

[5] sach  kaal koor vartia kal kaalakh betaal – (M I p.468)

[6]andhi rayat gian vihooni  bhaah bhare murdaar -(M I  p.469)

[7]neel vastra pehr hoveh parwaan (M I p.472)

[8]antar pooja parhe katebaa sanjam  turka bhaai -(M I p.471)

[9] – qazi hoe rishvati vaddi laike haq  gavai (Bhai Gurdas, Varan1/30)

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

[11]khatriyan te dharam chhodiya (M I p.663)

[12]moorakh pandit hikmat hujat sanjai kareh pyar -(M I p.469)

[13]chhuri vagain tin gal taag -(M I p.471)

[14] qadi  kurh bol mal khaaye, brahman nhave jia ghave -(M I p.662)

[15] – in Basant  Hindol (p.1191)

[16]paap ki janj lai  kabloon dhaaiya joree mangai daan ve laalo -(M I p.722)

[17]aape dos na deyi kartaa jam kar  mughal chadhaia, eti maar paiye kurlaane tain ki dard  naa aaiya (M I p. 360)

[18]eh jag sache ki hai kothri sache ka vich vaas

[19]yeh Vis sansar jo ham dekh rahe prabhu ka roop hai –

[20] –  hukme dharti sajian sachi dharamsal

[21] – aap tare sagle kul taare (M I p.662)

[22]vade vade raajan aur bhooman ta  ki trishan na bujhi

[23]ek pita ekas ke hum baalak

[24] – jaano jot neh poochho jaati aagey jaat neh hai (M I p.349)

[25]so kiyon manda aakhiye jit jamme raajan

[26]jo rat peevey maansaa tin kiyon nirmal  cheet (M I p.140)

[27]garibaan uppar jo  khinje daarhi, parbrahm saa agan meh saari (M V  p.199)

[28]ghaal khaye kichh hathoon dei, Nanak raah  pachhane seh (M I p.1245)

[29]haq  paraaya Nanakaa us sooer us gaaey (M I p. 141)

[30]jin prem kiyo tin hee prabh  paiyoman re kiyon chhute bin pyar

[31]jin antar preet lagi so muktaa

[32]jis man maaney, abhiman na  taanko. hinsa lok visaarey

[33]bhai kaahu ko det neh, neh bhai maanat aan (Slok 16)

[34]Farida je tu maaran  mukiyan tina naa maare ghum, aapane ghar jaaiye paer  tina dey chum— Je tu priya di sik heeao na thhaey  kahi daa(Slok Farid p.1384)

[35]raah dovain ik jaane soi  sijhsi (M I p. 142)

[36]gandh preeti mithe  bol (M I p.143)

[37]mithat neeveen nanaka, gun changaiyan tat (M I p.470)

[38] – manda changa aapna aape hee kita  paavna (M I p.470)

[39] – pichhle avgun baksh leye prabh  aage marag paave

[40] – jeh khimaa teh aap

[41] – prabh apnaa birdh samaareya,  hamra gun avgun naa beechariya -(M V p.623)

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

[43]raaje chuli  niyaon kee (M I p.1240)

[44] – raajaa takht tikey ginee bhai  panchain ratu (M I p.992)

[45]sabh sukhaali vuthiyaa eiho hoyaa halemi  raaj jeeio (M I p.74)

[46]de shiva bar mohey shubh karman te kabhoon neh taroon —- nishchai he apni jeet  karoon  (Dasam Granth)

[47]dharam chalaavan sant  ubhaaran, dusht sabhan ko mool udhaaran –(Dasam Granth)

[48] – jo to prem khelan kaa chaao sir dhar tali  gali moree aao (M I p.1412)

[49]maran neh mandaa lokaa  aakhiyeje koi mar jaaney (M I p.579)

[50]chu kaar az hamah heelate darguzasht  halaal, ast burdan b-shamsheer dast -[Zafar Nama]

[51]pooran niyaon kare  kartaar (M V p.199)

[52]santan ke karaj aap khiloaya (M I p.783)

[53]jee jant sabh tis de sabhna ka soiye, manda kisno aakhiye je dooja hoye (M III p.425)

[54] – na ko bairee nahe bigaanaa sagal sang hum ko ban aaiyee (M V p.1299)

[55]sarbat daa bhalaa – ardas

[56] – Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Jul 1993, Editorial, p.21 

[57] – Kaur, Madanjit, The Concept of Human Rights in Guru Nanak Bani in ‘The Sikh Perspective of Human Values,’ Punjabi University p.86 

[58]– Quoted by Dhanoa. Ibid., p.89

[59]  – Cole, W. Owen, The Guru in Sikhism, DLT, 1982, p. 77 et.seq


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *