Guru Nanak [b.1469], the founder of Sikh faith and the succeeding nine Gurus established several communities where the believers lived, in a shared quest for spiritual fulfillment, as mutually supportive fraternity(s) of endeavor, equality, faith, affirmation, trust, service and charity. Sikhs today, almost twenty two million globally, are resident in almost all the continents.
The Sikh faith is life affirming and persuasion is for a life lived purposefully, active, involved, responsible, sharing, caring, ethical, prayerful. Even though all humans emanate from the same light, they are born in a variety of circumstances, endowed with certain inherent instincts and their pre-destined share ofsuffering [dukh] and rewards [sukh] as determined by their prior deeds [karma].
The human body is infused with life when God places soul[atma] in it. God concurrently endows the human with individual will[haumain] effective to things phenomenal. This human faculty causes men to differentiate between themselves and God creating a subtle psychological barrier alienating man from God and also become a potential source of conflict between men including at collective level.
The Sikh scripture recognizes a number of evils that cause human suffering. Lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride/ ego[ kam, krodh, lobh, moh, ahankar]are frequently mentioned as major human weaknesses. Even though the wayward individual will [haumain] is not included in the five it is considered the cause of all evils and the persuasion is to subdue its negative influences.
SUFFERING DUE TO SOCIETAL FACTORS
Individuals, groups and communities have often been victims of suffering because of prevailing societal environment and factors such as apathetic, corrupt, oppressive, discriminatory governance apparatus; pervasive inequities and inequality; prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating; attitude to differences in political, religious, cultural persuasion and so on. Examples of such suffering are not lacking in history or in the contemporary world.
The Sikh persuasion is that social evils must be confronted and suffering of people alleviated. The believer should not be an idle by-stander but be involved pro-actively on the side of righteousness. Injustice, oppression, discrimination at the societal level must touch the conscience of all.
Suffering says Nanak, is universal. In fact every one is beset with their woes. Seeing the entire world in pain is saddening. It must be His writ that pain and pleasure exist together as part of our living experience.
Haumain is considered the main cause of suffering. Man suffers pain by practicing sin in ego. Separation from God is the greatest suffering and all other sufferings arise from it. While attachment to God is sought, human attachments are considered a bondage that causes so much tension. The craving to enjoy fruits of desires causes suffering.
The fear of the unknown, death and disease is another cause for suffering. One does not know of the future but if one sensed the torments ahead, one would not relish the joys of the present, says Nanak. Spiritual ignorance, false ego, duality, and the feelings of selfhood delude man’s intelligence and create doubts. Doubt creates tension, indecision and causes anxiety.
One should grasp the contradiction that life is not only suffering but also joy. One should accept suffering as God’s will[hukam]. Prayer is important to find peace, for healing, to get strength to tolerate the suffering and its consequences. Concentration of mind is a pre-requisite to eliminate mental tension. Contemplation on divine word helps.
To share with others is commended. When interests are altruistic, thoughts and actions transcend to become universal and promote humility. Pursuit of learning does not bring peace unless one can control desires.
Learning to live in acceptance of God’s will can be the highest spiritual gain. Suffering as it touches the inner life of man can have a moral significance and can lead a man to learn that in the face of suffering one can be helpless and patient endurance helps.
WHEN SUFFERING IS PREFERRED
As a life affirming faith, Sikhs are enjoined to not choose the path of denials, austerities, renunciation or asceticism. Ritualism, superstition etc are not commended. But endurance of suffering and even martyrdom for a righteous cause is an important part of Sikh history and martyrs have been held in high veneration in the Sikh tradition. Guru Arjan submitted to extraordinary pain and torture of sitting on a hot plate while scorching sand was poured over his bare body under the orders of Mughal Emperor Jehangir. He achieved martyrdom. So did Guru Tegh Bahadur for his unwavering stand on freedom to practice respective faith traditions by Hindus under Aurangzeb.
PRAYER AND SUFFERING
Recitation of Sukhmani, a prayer composed by Guru Arjan, is believed to relieve sorrow and suffering, bring harmony and fulfill desires. It is not uncommon to come across several groups of devotees, especially women, meeting on a regular basis for a recitation of the prayer. The opening couplet of the prayer says – remember, remember God and let joy descend, your anguish and agony gone.
The prayer Dukh Bhanjhani Sahib, also called ‘The Protective Hymns’ is very touching, uplifting. Devotees often recite it or listen to it when seeking Divine support in sickness or other trying situations.
Relief from suffering brings forth a sense of joy, celebration, peace, thankfulness, comfort, optimism, restored honor/dignity, security, fearlessness etc. These complex human responses have found lyrical expression in the Granth.
RESPONSE TO SUFFERING
Sikhs have had their share of suffering and persecution. But the Sikh history also bears a testimony to the Sikhs emerging whole in their faith and in many ways stronger and more vibrant.
In the contemporaneous world Sikhs were disproportionately impacted by the death, destruction and dislocation caused by the partition of India in 1947. Even though almost half the total Sikh population became destitute and homeless overnight, within two decades Punjab became the richest state and Sikhs among the economically advantaged. Their writings and art of the time do express nostalgia for what was but little rancor and generally is optimistically inclined.
It is a fairly common observation that there is hardly any Sikh ever seen begging – in a society where poverty, infirmity and exploitation have forced so many to do it. Not that there are no poor or handicapped Sikhs, nor they are spared exploitation.
There is also the notorious Sikh response when they are caused hurt or suffering. Many of them may not wait for the courts, much less the divine justice!
In their hour of peril or pain, as individuals or as a community, the Sikhs turn to the Gurdwara – recognition if it is needed that the ultimate Sikh response to suffering is seeking strength and resolve through prayer.