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Sikh Women: Beauty, Valor, and Revolution.

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In 1499, hundreds of years before the full equality of women was established anywhere else, Guru Nanak said:

“From woman, man is born;
within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.”

To understand why such a concept as “women’s equality” was such a big deal, we need a little context.

Guru Nanak lived in northern India among Hindu religious/cultural values and Islamic rule by the Moguls. Because the Hindu way is quite open with spirituality, various texts speak both lowly and highly of the woman’s position in society. Despite these differences, for the Sikh Guru’s, a few common practices among Hindu’s really got under their skin.

  1. Sati: the act of a living wife burning herself alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. As with many cultural traditions, it stems from a story regarding Hindu gods and goddesses.

Guru Nanak, as well as other Guru’s, abhorred this practice, as seen in this passage of the Guru Granth Sahib:

By burning oneself, the Beloved Lord is not obtained.
Only by the actions of destiny does she rise up and burn herself, as a ‘satee’.
Imitating what she sees, with her stubborn mind-set, she goes into the fire.
She does not obtain the Company of her Beloved Lord, and she wanders through countless incarnations.”

Other common practices the Guru’s spoke out against and reforms made at the time included:

  • Equal education for men and women
  • Female infanticide (to be fair, Muhammad spoke against this as well)
  • Avocation of widow remarriage
  • No distinction between men and women of the Khalsa order. All wear the 5 K’s. All called to defend the oppressed.

While Islam had taken strides in its early years to increase the standing of women in society, old traditions of subjugating women and considering them second class or weaker citizens remained. This ideal was propogated by twisting Quranic verses which point out the greater power/ability of men (Quran 4:34), and unequal inheritance rights. By molesting the intention of these verses, women were viewed more as property than partners in the home.

From Guru Amar Das, in the Guru Granth Sahib:

“They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather they alone are called husband and wife, who have one soul in two bodies.”

In many religions at the time (and in most social settings), it was not only improper for a women to sit in congregation on the same level as men, but unheard of for women to lead in any capacity in society–especially religious services.

The Guru’s fixed both of those problems.

“Come my sisters and dear comrades! Clasp me in thine embrace. Meeting together, let us tell the tales of our Omnipotent Spouse (God). In the True Lord are all merits, in us all demerits.” –Guru Nanak

Sikh women sit on the same floor, on the same level as men (not behind them or in segregated, “lower” sections), during services. Sikh women also often lead in congregational readings of the Guru Granth Sahib, lead prayers, carry out ceremonies, serve as Granthi (custodians in the gurdwara), and even fight along side their Khalsa brothers in combat. Sikh women are considered “the conscience of men” and enjoy every right men do as their partners in life.

One of my favorite stories about the valor and tenacity of Sikh women is that of the Battle of Anandpur. Click the link to read the story. Basically, about 100 GurSikh women, after having served in the fort as nurses to the Sikh men, took up arms after all but 10 of the Sikh warrior men had died defending the fort. The Sikh women, having taken the Guru’s Amrit and being Khalsa themselves, told the men who worried that the enemy would rape and dishonor them, “Brothers, do not worry about us. The enemy cannot enter the fort while we are alive.”

I’ll let you find out what happened. It’s worth the read.

Freedom also comes with responsibility, but from what I’ve read and seen, Sikh women have no problem with this task. Whenever I look at my own daughters, how independent they are and how passionate they express themselves, I think about these brave Sikh women. The Guru’s recognized that society cannot move forward without all of its components moving as one and with one purpose. Indeed, how can we come to a spiritual awakening as a species when we still wrestle with social pains? The Sikh answer of full equality for all mankind offers a worthy solution.

 

 



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Shanu Kaur

posted September 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm


Guru Ji would’ve directed the quote to men because at the time it was the men who had the power over women in society. Try and understand the times – women were veiled, rarely seen or heard and even less likely to be seen in a place of worship. When a man died, she was placed (alive) on his funeral pyre.

Also, when reading translations, try to bare in mind that they can’t be entirely accurate and so when translating to english it has to be in a way that english speakers can relate to. The Gurmukhi doesn’t actually mention the word ‘His’.



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Gurdeep

posted September 10, 2011 at 2:49 am


Hi Nikki.. translations are one mans word trying to potray what guru meant and when readers read it.. sometimes the understanding depends on the readers judgements.

According to my limited understanding.. The Guru gave more honour to a woman then a man.
Man has no existence without a Woman and he is so so so dependant on a Woman and is so weak that it can not live without one. the wordings were said in context to the Mughal traditions when mughal kings had plenty of wives who were treated like a property.
and the guru ji said in this context that u r so dependent on woman… u need her at all times, even if one dies u have the necessity to get anothr 1 then why O man do u disrespect her??

Hope i made it somewhat clearer with my limited kmowldge and accept my apologies if i dint make any sense.

Thanks



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_JSH_

posted September 9, 2011 at 6:50 pm


There have been quite a few (gender biased) traditions that were condemned by the Gurus, like Sati, Purdah, inequality in society, restrictions to visit religious places (sadly present even till today in several places in India).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Sikhism



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Kiran

posted September 9, 2011 at 6:24 pm


Niki, it’s highly problematic translating one language into another. The original statement does not use a possessive pronoun in that quote:

“Bẖand mu▫ā bẖand bẖālī▫ai” =
woman dies, woman searched for

It’s against Sikhi, to claim or view women as the property of men. In Sikhi, women are women of their own accord. In this particular poem, the Guru was addressing specifically the way women were being dealt with by men, who considered and treated women as being literally “polluted stuff” due to menstruation, child-birthing, lactation, etc. Perhaps, there are plenty of other traditions that have said women are not “polluted stuff”, however, I’m not aware of such traditions during the Guru’s times, so getting folks to understand that women are not polluted was a pretty big deal for folks of that time. There are limitations with trying to understand texts apart from their historical and literary contexts.



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Niki Whiting

posted September 9, 2011 at 5:51 pm


“Gurus directed this towards them, to understand and clean up their act which was due to whatever past tradition.”

That makes sense. I know very little about this tradition, and nothing of the quote’s context.



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_JSH_

posted September 9, 2011 at 5:43 pm


And to “women”, the Gurus gave them the same 5Ks, the same stature, motivation, courage, access to religious places, so they didn’t have to ask, for whats theirs, from any man.



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_JSH_

posted September 9, 2011 at 5:38 pm


For the simple reason that, “Men” were wrong when they did not consider women as their equals. Thus, Gurus directed this towards them, to understand and clean up their act which was due to whatever past tradition.



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Niki Whiting

posted September 9, 2011 at 5:24 pm


But see, the Guru *didn’t* advise women in that way (I don’t know for sure, some one please correct me if I am wrong). A male guru is writing to men about women. This comes up in tradition after tradition. Men writing to men about the practice, mentioning women as objects in relation to men.

I think everything Andrew has mentioned in this post is great. The Sikh tradition seems far more progressive than most. But I do not think his quote at the beginning is all that awesome. My standards for my own being are set quite a bit higher. However, in the religious world, women still have to take what they can get. It’s sad that the argument is: at least the men aren’t encouraged to set fire to women.



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_JSH_

posted September 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm


“He seeks another woman”. Likewise, Gurus encourages widow remarriages (so “She seeks another man, when her man dies”), instead of burning the hell out of her, which was the original practice in India. I couldn’t find the asymmetry you are trying to point to.



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Niki Whiting

posted September 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm


The opening quote is problematic. “When HIS woman dies” “He seeks another woman” Plenty of traditions say ‘yay women, we honor them because we come from them’ yet women are still male property. Women are not women of their own accord, they are women in relation to men. I’m not saying this negates all the other cool stuff that is present, but I want to point out the limitations of this ‘progressive’ stance on women.



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