The Religion of the Sikhs, by Dorothy Field, , at sacred-texts.com
We have seen that on the one hand Sikhism has its source in a movement within Hinduism, and that on the other it owes something to the foreign element of Muhammadanism. It will now be possible to look into this a little more closely. How far the doctrine of the one Supreme God, as proclaimed by Nānak, was the direct result of Muhammadan influence, it is difficult to say. We have seen that in Nānak's youth he was greatly interested in Persian writings and in the doctrines of Moslem saints with whom he came in contact. Probably much of his protesting zeal, of his fury against idolatry, of his bitterness and violence against those with whom he did not agree, was the result of these excursions into Islām. But while fully acknowledging this we must be careful not to attribute the Sikh doctrine of Divine Unity solely to the influence of Muhammadanism, for such doctrine had always been present within Hinduism. The saints and.
reformers who preceded the Sikh Gurus, and to whom the latter were so much indebted for the very phrases used in their hymns, were mostly Hindu, or, if Muhammadan, had been largely influenced by Hinduism. Their declaration of the Unity of God was part of a natural Hindu development.
Monotheistic Thought grows from Polytheism.—From the very earliest times in the Rig Veda 1 a tendency to monotheism may be noticed. One god is frequently chosen from the rest of the pantheon and exalted in some particular hymn till he becomes supreme and infinite, all lesser deities being but his servants and emanations from him. The acknowledgement of some such secondary beings in no way conflicts with monotheistic doctrine, for in Catholic Christendom or in Muhammadanism the existence of angels and archangels is admitted. This tendency to raise first one god and then another to the position of Supreme Deity gradually gained ground, but with the ascendancy of the Brahman priesthood it was counterbalanced by another development. Out of the more general polytheism of the Vedas a mystical and subtle philosophy arose, by which God became the neuter World-Soul, immanent in
matter. He thus lost the attributes of personality and could only be expressed by negation and realised by meditation. This pantheism finds full expression in such texts as the following, which represents the spirit of the Vedānta: 1
But such doctrine left little room for the personal devotion of man to God; moreover, it was esoteric, demanding mystical understanding and philosophic insight. It was jealously guarded by the priesthood in mid-India.
Persists during Pantheism.—In the out-lands, however, reactions against this pantheism were continually taking place; returns to monotheism, or the belief in the personality of God and in the possibility of approaching Him with prayer and devotion. These movements frequently arose in the warrior caste and they asserted the rights of the laity as against those of the priesthood.
Forms the Vishnuite Churches.—The greatest of them all was the development of Vishnuite theology, which originated in the soot of the Bhāgavātas, who first evolved the theory of Bhakti, or passionate devotion of man to God.
[paragraph continues] Another reaction of a different kind against the Brahman priesthood was that of Buddhism, which, instead of returning to belief in a more personal God, introduced a greater agnosticism, emphasising the necessity of right action as against dogmatic belief, subtle philosophy, or elaborate ritual. Ritual had gradually been evolved by the Brahman priests, who felt that their teaching could only be upheld in this way, since for the multitude their philosophy could have but little meaning.
Partial Victory of the Priests and Pantheism.—All these reactions, whether monotheistic, or agnostic, made for simplification, and endeavoured to lesson mysteries and banish ritual. One by one, however, they were mastered by the priestly influence, which, while yielding something, always contrived to win a three-part victory. Thus the Vishnuite Churches, which originated in a monotheistic reaction against pantheism, a rebellion of the laity against the priesthood, became gradually an orthodox part of Hinduism, with all its ritual and much of its mystical philosophy super-added. In the same way Buddhism was partly absorbed and partly expelled.
Monotheism borrows Fervour from Islām—It will thus be seen that monotheistic doctrine had never been absent from Hinduism, though it belonged less to orthodoxy than to particular movements of reform. Where the later religion
of the Prophet came into contact with Hinduism it helped to fan the flame of monotheistic devotion, and to give it exclusiveness and proselytising zeal. The Hindu Bhāgats 1 or saints, who preceded Nānak, show to a considerable extent this influence of Islām, especially perhaps, the greatest of all, Kabīr, 2 who when a child had been adopted by Muhammadans.
The Older Reformers quietistic.—Speaking generally, however, there was not sufficient combativeness among these earlier reformers to lead to the formation of a powerful new religion. They were too deeply imbued with poetic mysticism—with the spirit of quietism and toleration—to have much sympathy with aggressive ideals. No doubt they protested vigorously against idolatry, formality, and caste tyranny, but in practice they did not break away too violently from the religion of their country. Kabīr, for instance, far from defying Brahmanic traditions as to the eating of meat, would not permit so much as the plucking of a flower, whereas Nānak deemed all such scruples to be superstitious, and openly allowed the eating of all kinds of flesh food except that of the cow.
The Sikhs energetic.—Again, regarding caste, the vigour of Sikh teaching did actually succeed in breaking down age-long barriers, and in reclaiming a vast out-caste population. In Nānak, then, all the reformative tendencies within Hinduism were combined, and he associated with them a greater amount of intolerance than had any of the previous reformers. In other words, he borrowed more from Islām than his predecessors had done.
Enmity of Islām.—It was natural, however, that this zeal of the Sikh Gurus should come into contact with the same element in the religion from which they had borrowed, and that antagonism between the two should arise, even had not political enmity provided an immediate cause. The fact that Nānak was originally very friendly to the Muhammadans was soon forgotten; bitterness arose between the followers of the two religions, persecution by the one being largely accountable for the magnificent martial development of the other.
Consequent Reaction towards Orthodox Hinduism.—This state of affairs naturally induced something of a reaction on. the part of the Sikhs towards orthodox Hinduism—a reaction which has gone on until this day.
Inconsistency with Hinduism.—We have seen, however, that Nānak rejected certain conspicuous features of the religion of his country,
and that, therefore, however much he may have borrowed in the matter of doctrine, his religion remains distinct and complete in itself, and is not in any way dependent on association with Hinduism.
37:1 The Rig Veda is one of the oldest literary productions in the world, some parts of it dating from as far back as two thousand years before Christ. It is called by Sikhs the "white" Veda.
38:1 Vedanta (lit. Veda's end) is a term applied to various Hindu works, commentaries on the Vedas, which set forth this Hindu pantheistic philosophy.
40:1 The word Bhāgat is derived from a Sanscrit word Bhakti = love or devotion.
40:2 It has been suggested that Kabīr was influenced by Christianity. It is curious that a sacramental meal has boon found among the observances of his followers, but this may by the remains of Muhammadan Sufism.