Birth, life, death & beyond: the Sikh perspective
THE ETERNAL QUESTION
The question as to from where we have come, what are we doing here and where we are going has intrigued the human mind through the ages. All faiths have tried to answer it in a manner, which fits in with their spiritual, moral and ethical philosophy, and how they viewed the Creator, the creation and mans relationship with both. While looking at the Sikh postulates in regard to these questions, we will also briefly look at a news item and two recent articles published in the US with a view to relate our understanding to contemporary human experience and social responses.
CREATOR AND THE CREATION
We live and are part of a world, which is challenging, difficult, tough, hard, and at times, painful and yet life affords a tremendous amount of accomplishment, joy, happiness, and satisfaction. Much of what we see and experience is always changing. So are we ourselves. We can understand the why and wherefore of certain incidents, occurrences and experiences but some happenings just cannot be explained. The best among us have marveled at the extraordinary complexity of the workings of the universe and have been awe struck even to comprehend the qualities and attributes of the Creator of such a perfect, stable, enduring and sustaining universe.
The Creator is dynamic doer, self- created and eternal. In the Sikh faith, we believe God to be both transcendent [nirgun] and immanent [sargun]. Whenever it pleases God in His transcendental conscious state, He wills [hukam] and individuation [haumain] results. Haumain, under the influence of three gunas, causes all kind of creation. Thus Hukam is the source of all creation and God is immanent in all that He creates. Underlying all the diversity in creation is one element i.e. God Himself, the ultimate Truth and Reality – sachiara. All the creation is in His will and nothing abides outside of that, 
Our life’s journey besides being subject to God’s will is subject to the laws of karma or awa gawan as the Gurus have often called it. In the Sikh cosmology this law operates under the larger umbrella of God’s will and God’s grace – nadar. The Guru’s concept of the law, the way it works and what may help obtain deliverance from the cycle of birth and death differ both in substance and detail from the traditional Indian thought.The doctrine of karma and rebirth is not accepted by the Semitic faiths but the basic tenet that everybody has to reap the consequences of their deeds under God’s moral governance is accepted almost universally.
LAW OF KARMA
Karma in a literal sense means action. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism [Punjabi University] identifies three connotations of the word viz:
- Act, action or deed
- Fate, pre-destination stemming from one’s deeds
- Divine grace or clemency
Avtar Singh avers that the interpretation of the word in Gurbani is dependant on its context and has identified four contextual meanings:
- Law of retribution or consequences of action
- Rituals, liturgy, and ceremony e.g. karam kand
- Grace or mercy e.g. karam hovai satgur milai
- Moral action e.g. karam dharam sagle khovai
The karmic law basically envisages that actions and experiences in one life influence future lives. All actions have causes and therefore in turn they entail consequences. The action is not only a physical act; even a thought, word or deed, known or unknown is a form of action. So is inaction because understandably it is theresult of a deliberate choice made by the individual. All the organs of the body, both physical and mental , keep the human being busy in accumulating karma even when inactive. Any karma on its own is neither good nor bad. Karma is deemed virtuous or sinful depending on the motivation behind each action.
All actions are inspired by desire. Our mind ceaselessly wanders from one desire to another. The urge to satisfy desires, trishna, is very difficult to subdue. In fact, every satisfied desire seems to give rise to ever more and more desire. The Guru says that the craving for evermore could not even be satisfied by those who achieved vast estates and kingdoms. As such our mind keeps us busily engaged in accumulating karma, in thoughts, words or deeds.
The choices that we make, the actions that we perform, and the thoughts that we harbor on a day to day, continuing, basis in our life are referred to as kriyaman karma. These are the karma for which we individually or collectively made the choices and as such these actions are within the possibility of our control if our decisions are well tempered. The traditional Indian fatalism, which negates the element of personal initiative, is not accepted in the Sikh faith. Some of the kriyaman karma we reap in this birth and some of these get added to the accumulated, unfructified karma from the previous births, which are called the sanchit karma. Those karmas, which have fructified are called pralabdha. Our present existence is based on these. The human incarnation is the result of virtuous pralabdha karma. Our fate and destiny in this birth is largely determined by the pralabdha. When pralabdha finishes, an ordinary life ends.
In the Sikh scripture kirat applies to cumulative effect of actions performed during successive births, almost similar to sanchit and pralabdha karma. The consequences of kirat must flow and cannot be effaced by anyone Recompense for good or evil that we may have done, we must obtain ourselves, nor blame any one because we have to bear the consequences of our own actions.
HUMANS IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS
Among all the God’s creation human being is a central figure and the other animal species sub serve them. A human comes into being when God infuses light into the body. This light, which we also call the soul, emanates from the Eternal. Through life’s ups and downs, the soul remains tranquil. The soul [atma] is subtle and pure. It is subject to awa gawan. The relationship between atma and the God [Paramatma] is likened to the sun and its rays. The soul separated from its source longs to rejoin the Creator.
The individual soul, under the influence of three gunas, may be discretely identified from an infinite variety making it possible for its continuity through the cycles of birth and death per its karma. Haumain distinguishes the individual soul from God. The different shades of haumain distinguish one soul from the other and create our karma distinct from one another.
The human body is composed of the five gross elements . God put a trace of everything when making the human body. At the same time God gave this body, within which His light resides, the ability to act. With the immanent presence of God, the body is like a temple and must be kept pure and clean. The body needs nourishment for its sustenance. Sooner or later the body desolates and the soul has to find another body, be it what it may in its continuous striving per its karma.
Somewhere along the continuum of body and soul comes the mind and is variously conceived as their joint product. and is on the one part gross and on the other divine. The gross part being that like the body, it is made of five elements. And divine being that it is cast in the likeness of the Eternal light. The mind comes into being when the body is inhabited by the soul. The mind inspires conscious outward activity when it receives stimuli through the sense organs. It is a doer and it also is discriminative and therefore critical of itself. Tossed about by doubt, desire, hope, despair, delusion, anxiety, fear and several other powerful emotions, mind’s counsel is more likely to be self-serving and those who heed it become – manmukh – egocentric. One can win over the entire universe if one can control one’s mind.
We come and go as He likes and birth and death happen under His will. The human birth is an important milestone in the progress of a soul to achieve union with the Supreme Reality. The fortunate are born as human beings. One may have spent several incarnations in other life forms before the opportunity of the human birth. The Guru says that God created eighty four lakh life forms, but bestowed high privileges on the human being and if the human being fails at this stage, then he will be back to the cycle of births and deaths and exhorts us that the [human] body that the gods pray for [and you have got it], spend it [life] in the service of the Lord.
The law of birth is karma. All humans are born in different circumstances determined by their karma, and not essentially equal, some are born beggars and some hold vast courts.We all carry our baggage and depending on our karma, we are endowed with our inherent instincts as also our starting point and some pre-destined rewards or suffering in our lives.
WHAT IS THE SEARCH
What are we looking for? The question may beget different answers from different people in different states of mind at different times. Broadly however, we may find that human beings have been searching for an understanding of the process of life, its larger purpose and their individual role in the society. They crave that their life should be a morally, ethically and spiritually enhancing experience which brings them closer to feel the underlying unity of this abiding creation, taste its real bliss and partake in joyous appreciation of the mysteries and miracles of life. Those who believe in awa gawan, seek emancipation – mukti, or freedom from the cycle of birth and death; because surely the possibility of another life is bondage. Ultimately all of us search for a way to live, which may help bring us closer to the Creator, and yet is not in denial of life itself.
THE GURU’S WAY
For such a living, the Gurbani says, one has to actively use one’s physical assets to constructive effort while keeping the mind focused on the Lord. Service, especially selfless service – nehkam- is highly commended for achieving union with God. In fact the suggestion is to curb the desire for any reward. The Guru’s persuasion for the Sikhs is to ask of the Lord to give them the opportunity to serve the saintly, be in the company of the enlightened, and be immersed in remembrance of God’s name. One can be emancipated from consequences of one’s actions if one completely surrenders oneself to the Guru. Those who are immersed in holy Truth, they are freed of transmigration.
Shabad or word is also the path to overcome the cycles of rebirth. Reflective meditation on the Shabd is important to reach closer to God. To achieve salvation, one has to reflect, ponder and live Guru Shabd.
Loveis important to achieve unity with God. One cannot even think of freedom from transmigration without love of the Lord [and His creation] in our hearts. It is necessary for one’s heart to awaken to love to be emancipated. This feeling of love can be so strong as to subsume any desire for riches or even mukti.
Sikhs are persuaded to not run away from righteous action. Inaction in the face of coercion, tyranny, and exploitation is not commended. Whilst one must accept the Bhana or God’s will, one must resist and work for removal of injustice, discrimination and exploitation of the weak and the under privileged. In fact the Sikhs pray that God should grant them the courage and fortitude not to shy away from righteous action. So even as we come into this world as per God’s will and our destiny is significantly influenced by our past karma, it is our good fortune to be born as human beings. God has given us the ability to make our choices and we must endeavor to live our lives in a manner, which is in harmony with God’s purpose, and participate actively. We are enjoined to live a householder’s life; to work and earn for our family and give some to the needy and deserving. We should seek the company of the enlightened. We are told that austerities, self-denial and renunciation do not help; nor do rituals and superstition inspired actions to mollify gods. The important thing is to try living in God’s will, serving the community, engaging in altruistic activity, treating all as His children and, in the midst of and with other people, remembering God. We must never be short on honestendeavor and must retain our sense of – chardi kala– optimism. We should understand that no one can fathom His ways and we must keep faith. He wants the good of all, is kind, forgiving and full of love and if we live our lives in His path, we will be blessed with His grace.
The Sikh philosophy believes that death is not the end of man .The ideal of perfection which ends the cycle of transmigration has to be attained living in this worldand till that stage is reached the individual keeps progressing or regressing on the path to merging with the Lord. There is no heaven or hell, it is all here, in this world. What is important is the way you live your life, the choices you make. In fact any place where the righteous reside, where people join in harmony to serve God’s purpose is heaven
Guru Nanak himself asks: what is it that one can place before God which will provide the person a glimpse of His abode and what is it that one can say which may invoke a loving response from Him and then answers the question himself by saying that meditating and reflecting on God in the ambrosial hours of the morning is such an action.
The Gurus emphasize that even if one were to live for ages, earn a good name and praise from their fellow beings, the person may not get any recognition in His court unless the person is blessed with God’s grace.In fact salvation can only be achieved through God’s grace.
LIFE RAISES QUESTIONS
This search is universal and abiding. People from all faiths ponder over these questions not just because they are interested in the cosmology of their faith[s] but also because life’s experiences can be so compellingly intriguing that we all, ever so often, can but only wonder. I have just been looking at the cover page of the Sher- e Panjab weekly, issue of August 3, 2001, which came in today. The main story is titled – neki badle mot – death for being kind, with a large picture of a young New York resident, Rupinder Singh who in his goodness offered a lift in his car to some American way farers and one of these persons murdered him and disappeared with his car. Rupinder was the son of S. Sulakhan Singh, treasurer of the Richmond Hill Gurdwara and had just graduated from St John’s University. He and his family by all accounts were considered kind, virtuous and Guru ke sewak. It is a gruesome tragedy but can we fathom the reason? Is it for us to know why God made it happen to such people? Is it for us to conclude that kindness is bad? Is it for us to ——-?
I also want to share the story of David & Nancy Guthrie who live in Tennessee and who by all accounts are regarded as God fearing and upright people. [Time dated July 16, 2001 “When God Hides His Face” by David Van Biema]. Guthries’ friends sometimes compare them to Job [The Book of Job – The Bible] who was upright, blameless; yet was put to severe hardships in his life. Job did not understand why, but after all his protests, trials and tribulations finally chastened, Job, says to God “My ears had heard of You; but now my eyes have seen You” and he surrenders his grievance.
Guthries have a recessive gene, which in extremely rare cases may cause their child to be born with Zellweger Syndrome, a condition for which there is no cure or treatment. This happened & they lost the daughter who lived seven months. David got a vasectomy but again, rare as it is, in 11/2 years Nancy got pregnant. The baby, a boy this time, was due on 16th Jul 2001 and was, per the tests carried out, expected to suffer from the same gene defect. Why again, why in spite of vasectomy, why them? Van Biema talks about these questions and the responses of the people involved in his story.
On learning at their daughter’s birth that her sickness had no cure or treatment, Guthries prayed “God, our hearts are broken, but we have faith in You”. The daughter lived through seven months of suffering. At her memorial service one guest characterized the occasion as a “victory” for Gutheries who had emerged with their faith intact. Many of their friends see them as singled out in a good way. David thinks, “It is a situation with lessons to learn.” Nancy says “I think He has something significant He wants to do with it through me, if only just in my heart”.
Gutheries have for seven years met with a group of believer friends every Sunday night who have been a great source of strength to them. The group concluded, unlike the harsh Calvinism, that their plight was not evidence of sin and what God does may be not about them but about something that they are not able to comprehend. Nancy acceptingly says, “I don’t think God is obligated to relate His reasons to me”. She thinks perhaps she can learn some obedience, as Jesus did. She also believes “God’s thoughts are perfect” and that belief in miracles or avoiding the problem through an abortion would be indicative of tendency to seek comfort rather than live the moral challenge God seems to be willing. She writes “in the darkest of days, we’ve experienced a supernatural strength and peace—– we often cannot see the hidden purpose of God. But we can determine to be faithful and keep walking toward Him in the darkness”.
Another article by Lata Mani in India Tribune of March 10, 2001, makes the following interesting observations about the traditional Indian concept of karma.
- Karma has mostly come to be associated with passivity, smugness and resignation — [instead of being] a guide to dharmic action
- Karma cannot be the burden of individuals alone – it interweaves closely with collective karma
- The evaluation of karma as good or bad subscribes only to their worldly assessment – and belies – spiritual basis
- [It] has failed to assist in providing the ground for ethical conduct
And goes on to suggest “ to deepen one’s awareness of the environment in which one lives — [be] fully present member of the human community — commit to life and the earth — [to a future] built on harmonious inclusivity and interdependence.”
Doesn’t it resonate in our hearts that even as we cannot always understand what and why of life’s encounters, the message by the Gurus covers the panorama of life, its complex interdependencies, and lays out for us a moral and ethical path which will spiritually advance us. The path answers the universal quest of seekers and is as true today as in the Guru’s times and before. The relevance of the Guru’s path is there to see when we ponder over the experiences and observations in the contemporaneous examples we have seen. In the real life setting, the Guru’s teachings are practicable now as they were then and thus there is hope for us all to make ours into a better world if we live by them. Can we ask for more, for verily, the Satguru, with His glance of Grace, can show us the way to achieve mukti while living a lifewith our share of laughter, sport,fineries and food?
Sher Singh – Philosophy of Sikhism, SGPC, 1993
Surinder Singh Kohli – Yoga of the Sikhs, Singh Bros, 1991
Bhagat Singh Hira – Semitic Religious Thought and Sikhism, National Book Shop, 1992
Jodh Singh – A Few Sikh Doctrines Reconsidered, National Book Shop, 1990
Taran Singh[ed] – Sikh Gurus and the Indian Spiritual Thought, Punjabi University, 1994
World Wide Web – a number of sites
August 1, 2001
 – For a different and more comprehensive treatment of the subject the readers may see ‘The World ans Maya in Sikh Cosmology’ by Wazir Singh in ‘Sikh Tradition: a Continuing Reality’, PanjabiUniversity, 1999, an anthology of selected papers published in the Journal of Religious Studies by Bhatia & Spencer.
 – In the ancient Indian thought, all the creation is subject to three influences or modes – guna.These are Rajas [Rajo], Tamas [Tamo] and Sattva [Sato]. Each of these modes represents a distinctinfluence in shapinghuman instincts and nature. The qualitative influences are:
- Rajas: worldly passions and desires; greedy, lustful, alluring; source of all activity; produces pain
- Tamas: jealous, envious, ill tempered, groping angrily in ignorance; resists activity, apathetic, indifferent
- Sattva: Self-illuminating; producer of bliss, enlightenment; ascetic; potential consciousness, causing pleasure
 –hukmai andar sab ko bahar hukam na koi [M I p. 1]
 – The references in parenthesis are from Sri Guru Granth Sahib, unless otherwise indicated.
 – Avtar Singh: Guru Gobind Singh Theory of Karma in Bhatia & Spencer, ibid
6 – In traditional Indian thought karam indris and gyan indris.
 – vade vade rajan aur bhuman ta ki trisan na boojhi [M V p. 672]
 – Nanak paiye kirat kamawana koi na metanhar [M I p. 791].
 – manda changa apna, aape hee kita pavna [M I p. 470]
 – dosh na deejay kahoo log, jo kamavan soi bhog [M V p.888]
 – hey sarira meria Har tum main jot rakhi ta tu jag main aaia [M III p.921]
 –eh sarir— sache ki wich joti [M IV p.309]
 – atma adol na dolai [M p.87]
 – suraj kiran milli [M V p .846]
 – Traditionally believed to be wind, water, earth, fire and ether.
 – panch tat mil eh tan kia [M I p.1038]
 – mere karte ik banat banai, is dehi vich sabh vath pai [M III p.1064]
 – eh sarir sabh dharam hai, jis andar sache ki vich joti [M IV p.309]
 – eh mana panch tat te janmia [M I p. 415]
 – mana tu jot sarup hain. [M III p. 441]
 – ihu mana karma ihu mana dharma [M I p. 415]
 – man jite jag jeet [M I p. 6]
 – jaman marna hukam hai bhane aavey jaaye [M I p. 472]
 – bhai parapat manukh dehuria, gobind milan ki eh teri baria [M V p. 11]
 – dulabh deh pai wadbhagi [M V p 183]
 – kai janam bhae keet patanga [M V p. 176]
 – lakh chorasi jon sabhai, manas ko prabh dei vadiai; is pauri te jo nar chuke, so aaey jae dukh painda [M V p. 1075]
 – jis dehi ko simrai dev, so dehi bhajh har ki sev [Kabir p. 1160]
 – karmi avay kapda [M I p. 2]
 – ik upae mangte ikna vada darbar [M I p.16]
 – haath paon kar kam sabh, cheet niranjan naal [Slok Kabir p. 1376]
 – seva kart hoey nehkami; tis ko haut parapat swami [M V p. 286/7]
 – kahu phal ki ichha nahin bachhe [M V p. 274]
 – aisi maang Gobind te, tehl santan ki sang sadhu ka har naama jap param gate [M V p. 1298]
 – kaht Nanak eh jeeo karam badh hoi, bin satgur bhete mukat na hoi [M III p. 1128]
 – jo sach raate tin bohr na phera [M III p. 798]
 – avagaun mitai gur sabadi aape parkhai bakashi laia [M I p .940]
 – Nanak sabd vichariai paia guni nidhan [M I p. 59]
 – satgur no sabko vekhda jeta jagat sansar, dithai mukat na hovaia jichar sabad na kare vichar [M III p .594]
 – jin prem kio tin he prabh paiyo [Dasam Granth]
 – man re kiyon chhute bin pyar [M I p.60]
 – jin antar preet lagi so mukta [M III p. 122]
 – raj na chahun, mukat na chahun, man preet chran kamla re [M V p. 534]
 – deh shiva bar mohe, shubh karman te kabhoon na taroon [Dasam Granth]
 – baikunth nagar jahan sant wasa, prabh charan kamal ridh mahe niwasa [M V p. 742]
 – pher ke agge rakhiai jis dissai darbar, monhaun ki bolan boliai jit sun dharai piyar, amrit vela sach nao vadiayi veechar [M I p. 2]
 – je jug chare arja hor dosuni hoe, nava khandan vich jaaniai naal chale sab koe, changa nao rakhae ke jas kirat jag le, je tis nadar na aaveyi tan vaat na puchhe ke –[M I p. 2]
 – nadari mokha dwar [M I p. 2]
 – Nanak satgur bhetiye poori hovai jugat, hasandeyan khelandian pawandeyan khawandeyan viche hovai mukt [M V p.522]