Sikhism And Women — A Review by Prof. Prabhjot Kaur
Edited by Raj Pruthi & Bela Rani Sharma
Published by Anmol Publications (P) Ltd., Delhi, 1995, ISBN 81-7488-087-9
Pages: 277 ; Price: Rs. 375/-
Sikhism And Women edited by Raj Pruthi and Bela Rani Sharma is the first book of its kind on the subject to be published in India. In U.S.A Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh has dealt with the subject almost on similar lines. The book is a welcome step towards the understanding of a vital issue relating to the female population of the Sikh people. The book comprising twelve chapters, “…is an attempt to highlight not only the role of Sikh women in Indian society, but also the multidimensional aspect of Sikhism and Sikh women.”
Out of the twelve chapters, five deal exclusively with the treatment of the female principle in Sikh sacred and traditional literature. The rest of the seven chapters are devoted to Sikh philosophy, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and their response to the social and religious milieu. One chapter is reserved for the Sikh struggle for Independence. Our limited purpose here, however, it to review the chapters on women in Sikhism.
The chapter, Women and Life in Sikh Religion, amply illustrates that the present-day movement in favour of women can be understood in proper perspective, only if studied in relation to the treatment of the female principle in Gurbani.
In the chapter, Guru Nanak on Women, the writer takes up the compositions of Guru Nanak to study the bride and mother image — the two most predominant images in Gurbani. Whereas the mother image focusses on the creative and nurturing aspects of the Transcendent, the bride image develops the nuance of intimacy in the human relationship with the Divine. The bride (devotee) in Guru Granth Sahib seeks union with the Divine, and does away with all kinds of dualism, which is seen by feminists as a major feature of patriarchal thought which has subjected women to all kinds of oppression. The feminist philosophy attempts to demolish the dualism that underlines the alienation of the masculine from the feminine, the bride in Guru Granth Sahib is portrayed at the centre of the universe, and does the same. The fact that the male Gurus identify themselves with the female re-affirm the situation where male-female duality, which violates the wholeness of human nature, is overcome and the significance of being human is established. Man and woman are the same as human beings sharing the same human anxiety and human hope.
Guru Granth Sahib does not debase the human body. Female activities are assigned a higher value, a transcendent value. The bride’s necklace, jewels, clothes, overseeing wedding arrangements and daily activities like churning of the milk are all imbued with spiritual significance. The Sikh view posits the female (human as well as animal — kokil, harni, nagin, machali) as the one who has insight into the Transcendent One and who possesses spiritual refinement to pursue spiritual activity. Through her intense love, she is able to establish a free and non-authoritarian relationship with the Divine. Liberation by the bride (devotee) is thus achieved not against, but through her relationship with the Groom (God). Western feminist scholars have voiced their regret over the structure of patriarchal law in The Old Testament where only male heads of the family are addressed directly. Guru Nanak’s bridal symbol, however, suggests freedom from patriarchal mediums. Without anyone standing in-between, the bride directly addresses and seeks union with the Transcendental Groom. She is an independent person free to think and reflect upon herself and her relationship with the One. The world over, the feminine identity is equated with maternal instinct, and women without a son have least standing. But the bride in Guru Granth Sahib is a complete autonomous person, who may choose to be a mother as well.
The chapter, Women in the Image of Durga, deals with Chandi Di Var in which an ancient theme from mythology has been taken up. Out of myriads of gods and goddesses, it is the image of goddess Durga that has caught the fancy of Guru Gobind Singh. He does not worship or invoke Durga, but she is for him a literary metaphor, validating the female experience in the society, aesthetics and religion of the Sikhs. The choice of Durga means unequivocal acknowledgement of women’s power in society. Strong and courageous Durga is without a husband or a lover. She is independent, powerful and needs no male company. She charges with full fury single handedly into the ranks of demons. Well equipped and deadly armies do not frigthen her. At the request of male angels and gods, she is ready to quell evil. Her aggression is healthy and her anger purifying. This affirmation of female power by the Guru shows the positive attitude towards women in Sikh speculation.
The rest of the three chapters deal with the female principle in Sikh literature. Compositions of Bhai Vir Singh, the renaissance Punjabi writer, stand the scrutiny of the writers. One chapter is devoted to the discussion of the poem Jiwan ki Hai (What is Life?), which gives expression to the Sikh existentialism through the question posed by the young woman protagonist. A young woman going to the lake alone, at any conceivable time, confronted with the question — what is life ? — finds the answer from the deep waters of the lake — that cheerful attitude towards life is the essence of all fruitful living. The point that the writers want to bring home is that the Sikh poet thought it proper to have a woman protagonist and not a male sage, a prophet or even a male voice. The usual pre-eminence of the male is reversed here. The young female questions and envisions the Transcendent. The writers compare Western existentialism, which holds the world as finite, to Sikh existentialism where the world holds infinite possibilities and takes on transcendental dimensions. Most of all this indeed is shown to be understood and communicated by a female, who appears before us in the sight of a young woman and not as a daughter, wife or mother.
Under the title, Sikh Morality and Women, the writer takes up a novel by Bhai Vir Singh, who once again chooses a woman to be the principal character, who personifies Sikh virtues. Sundari is free to gallop freely in jungles all by herself or in the company of brave Sikh men. She is a picture of self-assurance, courage and defiance. The novel is not a passive comment on the position of women. It is a call to action and provides a role model. Sundari questions, “Why don’t women ever join action to uphold righteousness ? If they haven’t so far, why should I not be the first woman to fight courageously like my brothers ?”
She has the power of self-determination, and takes her own decisions. Her moral consciousness is typically feminist in its awareness of violence, pain and victimization of women. She makes a plea to her Sikh brothers, “It is my prayer that you know your women as equals and not subordinates. In the Shastras, woman is written down as Sudra, but our ten Gurus have praised her. Do not forget my request, respect women.” The novel is about a woman, addressed to women. It is remarkable that an author in the late nineteenth century establishes the importance and sovereignty of women.
Another book by Bhai Vir Singh, Rana Surat Singh, has also been taken up under the heading, Bhai Vir Singh on Women. Here the poet chooses a female who accomplishes a mystical journey through Sach Khand (Realm of Truth), accompanied by a female companion. The story is related not to a man, but to a woman, the mother of the protagonist, Rani Raj Kaur. The Rani has all the qualities cherished by a modern woman — intelligence, firmness, wit, far-sightedness, wisdom, and education. She is fully accomplished in state-craft and can rule very capably. Yet, she is totally disengaged from the affairs of the state and immerses herself in the “worship” of her love, Rana Surat Singh, which ultimately sublimates into the love for the Divine and Rani Raj Kaur takes a mystical flight to Sach Khand, the final stage of spiritual development. That love is so intrinsic to Sikh mysticism, is shown. The writer compares the Sikh mysticism to the mysticism defined by William James, where he says that physical technique and drugs are equally valid approaches to a mystical state. Bhai Vir Singh, through the depiction of Rani Raj Kaur, denounces all physical and chemical methods and practices in entering a mystical state. He reiterates that love is the only path leading to a mystical state.
The most striking feature of the epic is that Bhai Vir Singh has chosen a woman to depict the mystical journey. The writer compares and contrasts the situation saying with Judith Baskin that “…in Rabbinic Judaism no woman is deemed capable of any direct experience with the Divine,” while here, following the Sikh tradition, the most direct experience with the Divine is rendered through a female (Rani Raj Kaur). She is accompanied by a female and the experience is also related to a female (Rani’s mother). The place of women in Sikh society is vouchsafed in Sundari, while Rani Raj Kaur, an embodiment of all virtues, stands for the bride in Guru Granth Sahib, embelished with thirty two qualities.
In all, the editors of the book have made a commendable effort in collecting the valuable articles and putting them together in a book, which will prove to be a pioneer work in the field of women studies in Sikhism. A more careful proof-reading would have eliminated a good number of spelling mistakes that have crept in. The reader would certainly have liked to know the names of the learned writers who have contributed the articles.