Sikh means student and Guru means teacher, yet in common stereotypes about Sikhs, education is never mentioned in a positive way.
Guru Nanak the founder of Sikh religion was the greatest teacher ever born. The mass education he started brought about a profound social, religious and political revolution in its wake.
How did our Gurus do it? Besides the divine grace, we examine the education delivery means employed by them to spread their message. These methods include role of teachers, poetry, music, repetition, letters, learning in a class, learning by questioning, use of native language, graphics and many others. We will find that modern education technology is learning about the role of many of these only now and we can improve our secular education system by borrowing from the methods used by the Gurus.
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Sikh means student and Guru means teacher, yet in common stereotypes about Sikhs, education is rarely mentioned in a positive way. Guru Nanak the founder of Sikh religion is one of the greatest teachers ever born. The mass education he started and carried out by the nine Gurus who followed him, brought about a profound social, religious and political revolution in its wake.
How did our Gurus do it? Besides the divine grace, we examine the education delivery means employed by them to spread their message. These methods include use of native language, poetry, music, repetition, use of letters, role of teachers, learning in a class, learning by questioning, graphics and many others. We will find that modern education technology is learning about the role of many of these only now and we can improve our secular education system by borrowing from the methods used by the Gurus.
Guru Nanak was indeed one such visionary and a teacher. He was inspired by Waheguru Himself. The divine vision and education process that Guru Nanak provided, transformed a society that was in spiritual and moral darkness. He questioned faith in multiple Gods, the caste system, empty rituals, dominance of the clergy, gender inequality and the bigotry of the rulers. He provided a simple path based on faith in one God, equality of all, compassion, contentment, high moral conduct and truthful living. He and the nine Gurus who followed him, produced a society that was enlightened, one that worshipped one loving God and was committed to truthful living, liberty, justice, dignity and equality for all.
A religious, social and political transformation at such a scale was unprecedented. How did Sikh Gurus do it? In this paper we will examine some of the methods of education delivery that Sikh Gurus employed. We may be surprised to find that the modern society has discovered many of the same methods after years of research, trial and error and there are many others with which we still need to catch up.
To better define the scope of this paper, we consider that the field of education has three main components; (a) Knowledge to be delivered (b) Methods used to deliver the knowledge and (c) Methods used to measure the success of this process. In this paper we will concern ourselves mainly with (b) the methods used to deliver the knowledge.
The education delivery used by the Sikh Guru Sahibs has following significant components. Many of these are enshrined in Gurbani
- Use of Mother Tongue
- Poetry, Rhymes, Singing and Music
- Listening and Practicing
- Graphical Presentation
- Use of Letters
- Role of Teacher/Mentor Group
- Role of Class (Sangat)
- Learning by Questioning
- Role of Practice
- Getting rid of social biases against learning
We will now consider significance of each of these elements and see how our Guru Jis implemented these through Gurbani and real life teachings.
1. Role of Mother Tongue: When Guru Nanak Dev Ji came to this world, religious teachings were imparted either in Sanskrit or Persian. This limited the spiritual learning to Brahmins and Maulvis. Guru Ji, instead, adopted the language of the people to write Gurbani. Guru Angad Dev Ji perfected the Gurmukhi script so that common people could learn Gurbani and other religious knowledge without the help of the priestly classes.
It is now well recognized that early education should be in mother tongue of the child. Waiting for a child to learn another language, before knowledge can be imparted, will severely delay the learning and hurt the development of brain in the formative years.
This issue has important implications for the Sikh children growing up in the western world. Unless a child has a bilingual upbringing (in both Punjabi and English), the early education about Sikhi should be given in English as that tends to be the primary language of the child. Gurmukhi and Punjabi should be taught along with as a second language. When child has acquired sufficient proficiency in Gurmukhi/ Punjabi, shift can be made to Punjabi.
It has to be realized that language is not just script and words, it includes with it the social and cultural context. Dr. IJ Singh has rightly argued for the need to produce an English translation of Guru Granth Sahib that reflects the culture and social context of the Sikhs in the diaspora.
In India, many parents are making a mistake by enrolling the children in English medium schools. While learning English is important in the modern world, without bilingual upbringing in the early years (0-5) we can hurt the intellectual development of child, by starting his education in a language other than mother tongue.
2. Use of Poetry, Rhymes and Singing: Our Gurus were blessed with the gift of writing poetry. Gurbani they wrote is a marvelous piece of literature in its own right. Poetry and rhymes make learning fun, evoke the emotions and make it is easy to absorb the central message.
Our Gurus prescribed Keertan as a major medium of worship. In Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Gurbani is organized in 31 Ragas. Poetry and rhymes help develop the so called associative memory and make it easy to remember the facts. Singing makes repetitions a much more pleasant experience and enables the message to be imbibed subliminally.
Poetry and singing can be an important part of secular education as well. I grew up in India. In our elementary school, we learned the multiplication tables by singing them. It made learning them fun and easy to remember. Recent renaissance of Punjabi music tells us that there is no dearth of poetic talent among Punjabis and Sikhs. Some of that needs to be channeled towards education. Imagine how much fun learning would be if the classes ended the often boring lecture with the students singing the facts taught in that lecture!
In the US there is a Science Song Writers association that promotes writing songs for learning science. For more details see http://www.memory-key.com/improving/strategies/everyday/singing-memory.
3. Listening and Practicing: Hearing is a physical phenomenon. Listening on the other hand is mindful hearing. Listening is very important in gaining the knowledge.
Gurbani lays a great emphasis on Listening and Practicing (ਸੁਣੀਐ ਅਤੇ ਮੰਨੀਐ). It is well known to educationists that listening improves the mental focus, while practicing builds the actual skills. Both of these are required for learning.
4. Repetition: In Sri Guru Granth Sahib, each message is repeated several times often in different contexts. Repetitions help in memorization and to deepen the understanding. This helps in imbibing the message in one’s life. Aristotle said “It is frequent repetition that produces natural tendency.”
Memorization and reflection on the repeated ideas has many positive implications for our brain development also. Memorization involves making neuron connections. When a message is repeated in different contexts, additional connections are formed reflecting those contexts. These additional connections help in recalling the message more easily.
5. Graphical Presentation: Modern graphical tools were not available at the time of Guru Sahibs. In many instances they used the language brilliantly to describe their thoughts graphically. There are several examples from Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Bani e.g.
ਗਗਨ ਮੈ ਥਾਲ ਰਵਿ ਚੰਦੁ ਦੀਪਕ ਬਨੇ ਤਾਰਿਕਾ ਮੰਡਲ ਜਨਕ ਮੋਤੀ ॥
ਧੂਪ ਮਲਆਨਲੋ ਪਵਣੁ ਚਵਰੋ ਕਰੇ ਸਗਲ ਬਨਰਾਇ ਫੁਲੰਤ ਜੋਤੀ ॥
ਸੋ ਦਰੁ ਕੇਹਾ ਸੋ ਘਰੁ ਕੇਹਾ ਜਿਤੁ ਬਹਿ ਸਰਬ ਸਮਾਲੇ ॥
ਵਾਜੇ ਨਾਦ ਅਨੇਕ ਅਸੰਖਾ, ਕੇਤੇ ਵਾਵਣਹਾਰੇ ॥ ਕੇਤੇ ਰਾਗ ਪਰੀ ਸਿਉ ਕਹੀਅਨਿ ਕੇਤੇ ਗਾਵਣਹਾਰੇ ॥
A picture is worth thousand words. Benefits of graphics or graphic language in communicating knowledge cannot be overemphasized. This benefit is well recognized by the modern educationists as well. It is because of this that the early childhood books are full of colorful pictures. Pictures from Hubble telescope of galaxies and stars have helped increase the understanding of the cosmos among the masses. Microscopic pictures of bacteria and other microorganism are helping to educate people about the health issues.
6. Quantification: Guru Sahibs were very aware of assigning even quantitative qualities to their subject of worship. Of course for Waheguru it was always, zero, infinite, priceless or indescribable e.g.
ਸਰਗੁਨ ਨਿਰਗੁਨ ਨਿੰਰਕਾਰ, ਸੁੰਨ ਸਮਾਧੀ ਆਪਿ ॥
ਤੁਮਰੀ ਗਤਿ ਮਿਤਿ ਤੁਮ ਹੀ ਜਾਨੀ ॥
ਅਮੁਲ ਗੁਣ ਅਮੁਲ ਵਪਾਰ ॥
Quantification is an important aspect of education. Gurbani does not ignore it.
7. Use of Letters: Guru Sahibs have emphasized the importance of letters.
ਅਖਰੀ ਨਾਮੁ ਅਖਰੀ ਸਲਾਹੁ ॥ ਅਖਰੀ ਗਿਆਨ ਗੀਤ ਗੁਣ ਗਾਹ ॥
ਅਖਰੀ ਲਿਖਣੁ ਬੋਲਣੁ ਬਾਣੁ ॥ ਅਖਰਾਂ ਸਿਰਿ ਸੰਜੋਗੁ ਵਖਾਣਿ ॥
Cavemen used graphics to convey information. Humanity later evolved to use of letters. Letters form the basic elements of reading and writing.
Guru Sahiban have emphasized the importance of learning these in the 15th century, when most people were illiterate. There were no printing presses either.
Guru Sahiban were also well aware of the limitations of the letters. Letters (for that matter any media) simply do not capture the greatness and glory of the God almighty. It has to be sensed by the soul itself.
8. Need of a Teacher: Gurbani emphasizes the importance of a teacher for spiritual education.
ਗੁਰੂ ਪਉੜੀ, ਬੇੜੀ ਗੁਰੂ, ਗੁਰੁ ਤੁਲਹਾ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਉ ॥
The Guru is the Ladder, the Guru is the Boat, and the Guru is the Raft to take me to the Lord’s Name
ਕਾਲਰਿ ਬੀਜਸਿ ਦੁਰਮਤਿ ਐਸੀ ਨਿਗੁਰੇ ਕੀ ਨਿਸਾਨੀ ॥
ਸਤਿਗੁਰੂ ਬਾਝਹੁ ਘੋਰ ਅੰਧਾਰਾ ਡੂਬਿ ਮੂਏ ਬਿਨੁ ਪਾਣੀ ॥
Without proper knowledge/guidance, even the most well intentioned efforts can be worthless. In these Gurbani lines, Guru Ji illustrates this with example of a farmer who not having proper guidance is tilling and seeding a dry field. Even after all the hard work he is going to be disappointed.
Teacher should be selected with care.
ਗੁਰੂ ਜਿਨਾ ਕਾ ਅੰਧਲਾ ਚੇਲੇ ਨਾਹੀ ਠਾਉ ॥
Having a proper teacher is obviously very important for secular education as well.
9. Importance of Classroom/Sangat: Gurbani lays great emphasis on company of those who are also trying to gain enlightenment.
ਵਡਭਾਗੀ ਮਿਲੁ ਸੰਗਤੀ ਸਚਾ ਸਬਦੁ ਵਿਸਾਹ ॥
Participating in Sangat teaches one the importance of cooperation and team work. Through the teamwork one not only reaches the goals much faster but also opens up new opportunities. Modern education realizes this aspect very well. In the US classrooms cooperative learning is highly emphasized.
Gursikhs pray for the company of other Gursikhs, just as good students seek admission to good universities.
ਤਿੰਨ ਕੀ ਸੰਗਤਿ ਦੇਹੁ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਮੈ ਜਾਚਿਕ ਕੀ ਅਰਦਾਸ ॥
Picking up improper company for pursuit of knowledge can be disastrous (e.g. party town colleges/universities in the USA). Many students in such places can start using drugs or alcohol under peer pressure and can ruin their lives and careers.
ਬਗੁਲਾ ਕਾਗ ਨੀਚ ਕੀ ਸੰਗਤਿ, ਜਾਇ ਕਰੰਗ ਮੁਖਿ ਲਾਇਐ ॥
Participation in class increases commitment, improves focus, allows us to learn about other perspectives on the issue and enhances learning.
10. Learning by Questioning: Guru Nanak Sahib was a great teacher. He made people learn great lessons by making them ask questions or examine their own actions. There are several examples of these methods in Sakhis from his life e.g.:
- The Janeau Ceremony
- Haridwar Sakhi
- Incident at Mecca
- Wealth of Duni Chand
Critically examining the knowledge is an important part of learning. Questioning encourages a “growth mindset”. The education departments in most of US states are presently implementing new education standards called “Common Core”. An essential element of Common Core methods is that students are encouraged to ask questions and discover the answers. They explore different ways of solving the problem. Guru Ji was far ahead of everyone else.
11. Learning by Practice: There are several Sakhis from lives of our Gurus, which emphasize learning by practice. An example is that of Bhai Lehna Ji who later became the second Guru, as Guru Angad Dev Ji. Bhai Lehna Ji, before he met Guru Nanak Sahib, was a devotee of Vaishno Devi. He came from high caste Hindu family. Besides giving Bhai Lehna the spiritual knowledge, Guru Nanak Dev Ji also taught him the dignity of labor.
He made him work in the fields. Bhai Lehna went to the fields with nice white clothes. Guru Ji asked him to carry a bale of hay on his head to the village. The hay was wet and soil was dripping out of it. This soiled his clothes. Normally this kind of work was done by low caste Hindus. But Guru Nanak Dev Ji wanted Bhai Lehna to experience the labor first hand. Similarly once he asked him to retrieve some utensils from dirty sewer. Bhai Lehna Ji did this with a smile.
Guru Gobind Singh ji once refused to take water from a wealthy Sikh, who had never done any labor with his hands.
All these sakhis point to the need for practicing what we believe and preach. Only by doing things we learn the value of education.
In the diaspora many well to do Sikh/Indian families don’t let their children do any summer jobs. The purpose of these jobs is not only earning money, but also learning new skills and practicing the ones already learned. These jobs are a valuable part of the education for life.
12. Everyone Can Learn: One of the greatest blessings that Guru Sahibs bestowed upon humanity was that everyone is created by the same supreme power and that everyone is equal and has the same potential.
This implies that by proper effort everyone can learn. For ages, the high caste Brahmins had exploited the lower caste people by telling them that they are not fit for learning. They made it difficult for them to learn by making them “untouchables”. The Education was imparted in Sanskrit, and means to learn that were not provided to the lower caste people. Guru Sahibs broke that barrier and provided education in the language of the people. Guru Angad Dev Ji perfected the Gurmukhi script so that everyone could learn.
Stereotypes play a very negative role in education. They lower the self-esteem of the class of people they are directed at. Even in western world, these are not uncommon. One of the stereotypes in USA is that mathematics or computer science learning is not for the girls. This is even sometimes believed by the parents and that hurts education of the girls. Other stereotypes include that Blacks and Hispanics cannot learn. Again this is as far from truth as it can be. But if Blacks and Hispanics believe this, they will not learn. Sometimes teachers in the classroom ignore Black and Hispanics for the same reason, further hurting their education and learning.
In India, some people use crude jokes to portray Sikhs as too incompetent to learn. Unfortunately some of us believe that. We need to learn the message of our Gurus. If we look around, we will find that it is the hard work of Sikh scholars at the agriculture university that is now feeding a large part of India, that the inventor of fiber optics is a Sikh and that a company started by a Sikh is transforming the field of optical communication around the globe and many more such examples.
Opposite stereotypes are also damaging. In US it is often quoted that Asians are designed for math and science. This puts too much pressure on Asian children and can limit their quest for learning in other fields. In Punjab, Sikhs are often told that they are designed to be the best soldiers. Again this can limit their ability to explore other fields of knowledge.
Equality of learning extends to all fields of human endeavors. What is important is the appropriate effort combined with Grace of the Guru. Guru Angad Dev Ji propagated the tradition of langar, not only to emphasize equality but also that sewa through physical labor is for all and not only for lower castes. He also prescribed physical fitness for all. He did not limit it to the warrior class alone. He used to have the young children participate in games and wrestling. Guru Gobind Singh Ji on one hand had many scholars and poets in his court. However at his time, Indians were considered too meek to fight the Mughal rulers. Guru Gobind Singh Ji changed that. He said
“ I will have the sparrows defeat the hawks, only then I will deserve the name Gobind Singh”
The rest is history. He completed the mission started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. But we should remember that we are Sikhs, the perpetual students. Our education and learning must continue, following the principles laid in Gurbani from our eternal Guru, Guru Granth Sahib Ji and lessons from lives of our Guru Sahibs.
In conclusion, the methods of education delivery enshrined in Gurbani and Sakhis from lives of our Gurus
About the Author
Gurinder Pal Singh is Chairman of Religious and Education Committees at the Sikh Gurdwara San Jose. He is among the founding directors of Guru Nanak Khalsa School, San Jose and Chardi Kalaa Foundation. He is regional coordinator for Sri Hemkunt Foundation Keertan Darbar for the Western region.
He holds a Ph.D degree in Physics from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India and M.Sc in Physics (Gold medalist) from Punjabi University Patiala. He has worked as a scientist at Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany and IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. He recently retired as Principle Engineer from HGST Company of Western Digital Corporation. He holds 13 patents and 36 publications in fields of Science and engineering.