Sep 112013


Is there a tradition of reconciliation and non-violent forms of struggle within the Guru Granth Sahib and within Sikh history and institutions?  While the martial tradition has played an important role in Sikh history, are we over-emphasizing this in our contemporary communities, institutions, and identity?  In this regard, what does the Guru Granth Sahib teach us that may address the needs of Sikhs today as a cultural and demographic minority, and what role should Sikhs play in making the modern world a more just and peaceful place for all people?

In my presentation, I will discuss the traditions of debate, reconciliation, and humanism exemplified in the life and writings of Guru Nanak Devji and eventually inscribed in the Guru Granth Sahib.  In particular, I will discuss the importance given to the virtues of love and respect for all traditions, and to the imagery of the Sikh as a bhagat or disciple within Gurbani. I will also discuss institutions created by the Gurus to promote peace and justice. Finally I will discuss how and why I believe we should revive and celebrate the spirit of reconciliation as a core element of Sikhi to be aspired to in every aspect of our lives.

Video of presentation:

 Body of paper


The Guru’s Method:  a Praxis of Peace for the Contemporary World.

Paper for Guru Granth Sahib Conference
San Jose Sikh Gurdwara
San Jose, CA
Sept. 14, 2013

By Dr. Sangeeta K. Luthra


Guru Nanak the Pilgrim

Guru Nanak the Pilgrim

This paper proposes that a culture of peace was a central tenet in the traditions of the Gurus and hence should continue to be for Sikhs in contemporary times.  By “praxis” I mean a complex of social practices and habits of mind and body that are self-consciously fostered by a cultural or religious tradition and that eventually come to define it.  In this paper, I will explore the following questions:  What is a culture of peace?  What was the Guru’s method for promoting a culture of peace?  How does this apply to Sikhs today?  Are Sikhs today actively promoting a culture of peace? Can we have peace and harmony without reconciliation? If we pursue a culture of peace, how will we as Sikhs, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and a community benefit?   Finally, how may our role in the world community improve through a renewed commitment to a culture of peace?

Until very recently, talking about peace, non-violence, and reconciliation felt taboo to me growing up in the Sikh community in the United States.  But I believe more Sikhs are articulating an agenda of peace and non-violence today.  My interest and desire to speak and write about this question evolved over the last 10-15 years, and I will begin this paper by sharing 3 short auto-biographical moments which shaped my thinking around the question of a culture of peace in the Sikh tradition.

A personal journey: 
 San Jose, CA 2008About 7 years ago I attended a community function in San Jose to celebrate Vaisakhi.  One of the keynote speakers spoke about the image of Guru Gobind Singhji in the minds of modern Sikhs.  His message in brief was that while Guruji was obviously known to us as a valiant warrior, we rarely heard or thought about Guruji as a statesman.

The speaker then went to describe the Zafarnama, a letter in which Guruji justifies his desire to reach a truce and a greater understanding with Aurangzeb.

In spite of the battles Guruji had engaged in and all of the losses he endured, he felt that it was appropriate and necessary to seek reconciliation and peaceful coexistence with his “enemy.”

In the stanzas below from an English translation of the Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singhji explores both the appropriate uses of violence as well as the need for dialogue and reconciliation.[i]

In 1707, Guru Gobind Singhji wrote,
“I had, perforce to join battle with thy hosts,
And I too fought with the muskets and arrows as best I could” (21).

“When an affair is past every other remedy,
It is righteous, indeed to unsheath the sword “(22).

In these memorialized stanzas, we find the oft-quoted justification for battle and in which violence is the choice of last resort.

But as we read further, we see Guruji as statesman:

“Come to me that we may converse with each other,
And I may utter some kind words to thee” (60).

“It is incumbent upon you to recognize the God,
For He told you not to create strife in the world” (65).

“Shed not recklessly the blood of another with thy sword,
Lest the Sword on High falls upon thy neck”  (69).

“He is who Creates all – from the feeble ant to the powerful elephant,
And is the Embellisher of the meek and Destroyer of the reckless” (73).

As I read the Zafarnama, a document  that presents the theological, ethical, and practical perspectives of the Guru, I began to the Guru’s desire for balance between war and peace.

Listening to this presentation on Guru Gobind Singhji,  made me grapple with my own understanding about the martial tradition in Sikh history, and the need to re-visit a balance between an ethics of self-defense and an ethics reconciliation and a culture of peace.

New Delhi, February 1995: A second experience that was critical to my understanding about a Sikh culture of peace was paradoxically connected to the violence in the Punjab at the height of the Khalistan movement. In 1995, I was living in New Delhi engaged in field research for my doctoral dissertation in Cultural Anthropology.   My research focused on non-governmental organizations engaged in poverty alleviation programs in unauthorized settlements (slums) in New Delhi.   In the process of fieldwork on initiatives like literacy programs, women’s empowerment, micro-lending and income generation, I came across a community of Punjabi Hindus in South Delhi who had migrated out of the Punjab during the mid and late 1980’s – at the height of the Khalistani movement.

When I first realized that this particular settlement was populated with Punjabi speakers I was surprised.  I did not associate Punjabis with such poor settlements as this one was.  Most of the poorer settlements or “Jhuggis” are populated by people from the poorer states of Bihar, Bengal, and tribal areas.  As I got to speak to residents in this settlement, I began to ask why they left Punjab.  To my dismay, they described an atmosphere of intimidation and sometimes violence directed particularly at Hindus and at anyone that criticized the Khalistani movement.  The women I spoke with described not being able to wear saris and bindis or sandoor in public.  They no longer felt safe so they decided to leave their jobs, businesses and ancestral homes to move out of Punjab.[ii]

I was shocked and disheartened by these accounts.

Growing up in the United States in the 1980s I had become accustomed to lectures at Gurdwaras about the ways in which Sikhs were victims of the Indian government and indirectly of a growing Hindu “chauvinism.”  My own family living in Delhi and Indore had suffered during the anti-Sikh riots after PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination.  And of course we, along with Sikhs around the world, were all shocked and deeply saddened by the death and destruction that came out of Operation Bluestar.

I had never thought about the impact of the conflict in Punjab on non-Sikhs. But, meeting these people, and hearing about their migration from Punjab was a watershed moment for me.  It made me question the nature of Sikhism in the modern world.  I began to ask myself (and others):  How should Sikhs live with others – Hindus, Muslims, Christians?  What exactly is the link between the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the decision to use force and violence to achieve political ends?  To what extent did  the Khalistani movement represent the values of our Gurus?

The issue of intolerance exhibited by Sikhs towards others and the appropriate use of force/violence by Sikhs became a nagging question for me. I began to re-examine Khalistani ideology and the impact it has had on the contemporary Sikh identity and communities around the world.  Not all of that impact has been bad, but in my view it has had mixed results.  In my view, the Khalistani movement led Sikhs to over-emphasize a culture of martialism and move away from the culture of peace.  For me that move is also a move away from the heart of SGGS and the Guru’s legacy.

Chandigarh, November 1996:  On a visit to my Thayaji’s  home in Chandigarh, I saw a reproduction of a painting of Guru Nanak Devji, titled “the Pilgrim,”  (see front cover).

The image struck my heart and my imagination.  I had never seen a representation of Guru Nanak Devji such as this one.  Guruji is depicted as powerful and dynamic, as an explorer, student, and bhagat of the world who is seeking out different peoples and engaging them in dialogue about the world and the divine.

The image invoked the Siddha Goshti – dialogues with Siddhas – that Guru Nanakji had engrossed himself.[iii]  It was the first time I thought about Guruji as an active and engaged person seeking out others in the spirit of learning and peace.  In particular it brought home to me the idea that Guruji had a method designed to help Sikhs engage in peaceful ways with others.

As I contemplated the imagery, I began to think about the importance of this model for Sikhs in the contemporary world.  Guru Nanak Devji was a Bhagat on the move,  a devotee of Waheguru, and a seeker of love who looked outwards as well as inwards.  Through his travels and interactions he embodied 3 key values for Sikhs that very much apply to  living in the modern world:

The first is a desire to learn about other cultures while maintaining a sense of one’s own identity or what we today describe as multiculturalism.  The second is the use of dialogue and debate as tools for engaging other traditions.  And the thirds, is a focus on justice, harmony, and respect for all humans, or an egalitarian ethos.

The Guru’s Word:

Guru Nanak Devji’s commitment to engagement with people of other traditions and to an egalitarian ethos was continued by his successors.  Guru Arjan Devji in particular was instrumental in promoting a multicultural and egalitarian worldview among Sikhs as he embarked on the difficult work of compiling the SGGS.  This process has been analyzed in great detail by Dr. Pashaura Singh in his study, THE BHAGATS OF THE ADI GRANTH SAHIB: SIKH Self-DEFINITION AND THE BHAGAT BANI .  Dr. Singh says the following about the process and logic of including the Bani of 15 bhagats into SGGS.[iv]

The process of selection of the Bhagat Bani highlights both exclusive and inclusive aspects of Guru Arjan’s editorial policy.  In other words, the selection logic favours those poems of the Bhagats that stress nirguna religiousity and social equality, and are in general conformity with the Sikh Gurus’ line of thinking. …

…Thus the Gurus were deeply concerned with cultivating a particular Sikh view of true teaching, practice and community by way of editing and commentary on the received tradition of Bhagat Bani. … (p. 190).

Here I ask the reader to focus on Dr. Singh’s description of the “editing and commentary” that the Gurus engaged in.  In a skillful and respectful engagement with the Bhagats of the Bhakti tradition, the Gurus provided their Sikhs with a clear method and model for practicing peace in the contemporary world.  Dr. Singh concludes with the following observation:

…the presence of Bhagat Bani in the Sikh scripture provides an excellent example of the catholicity (universality) that promotes mutual respect and tolerance for diversity of belief and practice. [v]

Why should Sikhs study and understand this process today?

The 15 Bhagats included in the SGGS were from all castes, and both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds.  In the time of the Gurus the Bhakti tradition was iconic for its message of love and devotion. The inclusion of Bhakti Bani in the SGGS represented the Gurus’ unique contribution to the Bhakti tradition by also focusing on the virtues of engagement, dialogue, and pluralism. By extolling these characteristics, the Gurus offer a clear model for how Sikhs today should engage with people of other traditions in the spirit of sharing and learning rather than in a spirit of fear or isolationism.    Dr. Pashaura Singh defines the Bhagat as one who is engaged in Bhakti which is itself a term derived from the Sanskrit term “Bhaj” which means “to share.” [vi] Sharing requires openness and willingness to give and to receive. In other words, Bhakti is a form of worship that highlights the importance of spirituality as relational or expressed through relationships and sharing with the Divine and with other humans.

The Gurus were carefully crafting a message and way of living and being in the world that was in line with their theological vision:

…belief in one, formless God (nirguna), basic equality of all human beings (egalitarianism), doctrine of the Word (Shabad), spiritual discipline of nam-simran, doctrine of God as immanent in human heart, mind and soul, company of saintly people, and true inner religiosity…[vii]

Women and girls, mothers and daughters, sisters and wives
Finally, and most importantly to me, the Gurus were meticulous to exclude certain Bhagat Bani which they deemed derogatory towards women and what in feminist terms would be described as misogynist.[viii][ix]   The Gurus’ feminist/humanist stance was perhaps one of the most radical of the times, and in my view is a legacy to be wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced by Sikhs today.  It is also in my view a key element to reclaiming and promoting a culture of peace within Sikh communities and more broadly in the contemporary world.

Anthropologists have found that cultures that promote peaceful engagement tend to have greater gender equality, and the status of women tends to be higher within the society – this has been shown in the cross-cultural  date and research on gender roles and statuses.[x]  In particular the work of anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has explore the relationship between women’s status and levels of violence against women and in general in society. [xi] [xii]

As I noted above, the de-valuing of women is directly against the words of Guru Nanak Devji and of the SGGS.   Unfortunately in our community gender inequities still exist at levels that are unacceptable.  Issues like boy-preference and female feticide are a real problem that are a result of a complex cultural and social process of de-valuing of girls and women.  While many of us may not have directly experienced or witnessed this prejudice against women in our families, there is a lot of sociological data to suggest that this is the case in India, and in Punjab and among Sikhs.  In his study of female feticide in North India, Dr. Sunil Khanna illuminates the various social and economic factors including the status of women that have led to the rise of this disturbing and dangerous trend. [xiii]

Finally, I believe there is a link between the de-valuing of women to a growing focus on Sikh martial traditions in particular in the period during and after the Khalistani movement.  But this is a question that is complex and needs further exploration in different contexts including in the Punjab and India versus in the West.  While the martial tradition has clearly played an important role in Sikh history, culture, and identity, it is imperative that we ask: are Sikhs today over-emphasizing the martial tradition in our communities, institutions, and identity?  What are the hazards of continuing to make the martial identity a key marker of Sikh identity and ethos?

A culture of peace: reevaluating the martial tradition for the contemporary world.
Thus we see, that the Gurus relationship with the Bhagat Bani is a model that Sikhs today can apply in their everyday lives and in particular in terms of their relationships with non-Sikhs.  The true Sikh is expected to engage the Divine  and the human realms in what I have called a culture of peace.  In my view the Gurus offered us a praxis of peace by modeling the following virtues:

1)   Egalitarianism – the belief that all humans are fundamentally equal and to be respected regardless of caste, creed, and gender.

2)   Dialogue – engagement and exploration of other traditions in a respectful way even when one is being critical.

3)    Reconciliation – rational discourse, understanding, and synthesis of best practices.  Reconciliation is a habit, a state of mind, which enables us to promote peace.

In addition to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Gurus promoted peace through their innovation of various social and cultural institutions.  All of the Sikh institutions:  Sangat, Pangat, Kirtan, Sarovar, Seva, Gurdwara, and of course the Khalsa are social spaces in which the Gurus social revolution took shape and each of these embodies the Gurus method of peace.



In the mid-19th century Anthropology made its mark as a discipline because it began to seriously study societies that been for a long time derided or ignored by “civilized” peoples.  In particular, anthropologists studied the earliest and oldest forms of human society – sometimes described as tribal or band societies – which were/are often viewed as inherently inferior and irrelevant for human progress.  By the early 20th century anthropologists provided the data to challenge these assumptions and defended the view each human culture as unique and valuable.  In my classes I often ask my students to look at these “humblest” of societies and think about what we can learn from them.  In many ways, I was attracted to the field of anthropology because of the Sakhis I read as a young girl about Guru Nanak Devji’s life and travels.  Guruji was a pioneer in understanding and promoting humanism and multiculturalism, and he inspired me to do the same.

Today the human community faces grave problems.  Although we have “progressed” tremendously in terms of our material culture, we are living in a world with more poverty, pollution, and violence than humans have ever seen or experienced in our approximate 400,000 years on the planet.  Warfare and armed conflict are in fact becoming more common and more destructive than ever seen in human history.  We are not only destroying our communities, towns, cities but the very planet itself  – the “jahaz” on which we are traveling in this vast universe.

Sikhs today can have a greater impact on the world through an emphasis on Seva and a culture of peace, than they can through armed conflict.  If we don’t choose the path of peace, we will face hostility from those outside of our tradition, we will not be part of the solutions our world needs, and most importantly we will not be living in the Gurus’ way.

Guru Nanak Devji spoke out against cruelty, violence, and injustice and promoted peace through the practices of egalitarianism and reconciliation.  Sikhs today must think about how revive that tradition in order make the world a better more peaceful place not only for our “Sikh Panth” but for all humanity.

Nanak Nam Chardi Kala, Tera Bhana Sarbat Ka Bhala!
References List


Juergensmeyer, Mark.          Terror in the Mind of God:  The Global Rise of Religious Violence. 3rd Edition, University of California Press, 2001.



Khanna, Sunil K.                    Fetal/Fatal Knowledge: New Reproductive Technologies and Family-Building Strategies in India.  Wadsworth/Cenage Learning, 2010.


Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley.            Fighting for Faith and Nation:  Dialogues with Sikh Militants.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves.          Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. 2002. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

Sandy, Peggy Reeves.             “Rape Prone versus Rape Free Campus Cultures,” in  Violence Against Women,Vol. 2 No. 2, June, l996, pp. 191- 208.


Sankaran,  Lavanya   “The Good Men of India.”  New York Times, October 19 2013.


Schomer, Karine.       “Kabir in the Guru Granth Sahib:  An Exploratory Essay.”  In Sikh Studies:  Perspectives on a Changing Tradition,  edited by Mark Juergensmeyer and N.G. Barrier.  Berkeley:  Berkeley Religious Studies and Graduate Theological Union, 1979.


Singh, Pashaura.        The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003.


Zafarnama.                 Translation,


[i] Zafarnama.   English Translation,


[ii] There were a number of organizations that have noted the rise of Punjabi Hindu

migration out of Punjab during this period – late 1986-1990’s.  One is a report by

Global Security

Other sources have discussed this:  Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley.   Fighting for

Faith and Nation:  Dialogues with Sikh Militants.  University of Pennsylvania Press  1996.



[iii] Singh, Pashaura.     The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 18.



[iv] Singh, Pashaura.     The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 190.



[v] Singh, Pashaura.     The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 191.

[vi] Singh, Pashaura.     The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 1.

[vii] Singh, Pashaura.    The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 13.


[viii] Singh, Pashaura.   The Bhagats of the Guru Granth.  Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 10.


[ix] See also the work of Karine Schomer on this topic.       “Kabir in the Guru Granth Sahib:  An Exploratory Essay.”  In Sikh Studies:  Perspectives on a Changing Tradition,  edited by Mark Juergensmeyer and N.G. Barrier.  Berkeley:  Berkeley Religious Studies and Graduate Theological Union, 1979.


[x]  Sanday, Peggy Reeves.  Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. 2002. Cornell: Cornell University Press.


[xi] Sankaran, Lavanya.            “The Good Men of India.” New York Times, October 19, 2013.


[xii] Sandy, Peggy Reeves,  “Rape Prone versus Rape Free Campus Cultures,” in  Violence Against Women,Vol. 2 No. 2, June, l996, pp. 191- 208.


[xiii] Khanna, Sunil K.               Fetal/Fatal Knowledge: New Reproductive Technologies and Family-Building Strategies in India.  Wadsworth/Cenage Learning, 2010.


Author Bio

Sangeeta ProfileDr. Sangeeta Luthra is a cultural anthropologist and educator.  She has taught classes in cultural anthropology, gender studies, and cultural studies in public and private universities.  Her primary research is on women’s empowerment, workplace literacy, micro-lending, and sustainable development with a special focus on non-governmental organizations in urban northern India. Her research interests are women’s development and empowerment, feminist theory, cultural politics of development, and most recently Sikhs in the diaspora.  She has published her academic research in Oxford University Press and Stanford University Press.  Her writing on diasporic Sikhs has been featured in SikhChic and Punjabi Beat Magazine.  She is also a member of the editorial board of The Sikh Love Stories Project.

In addition to teaching and research Sangeeta is an active volunteer.  Since moving to the Bay Area in 2002, she has been an active volunteer and fundraiser in local South Asian cultural associations. She has been an advisor to the Kaur Foundation since 2010.  From 2009-2011, Sangeeta served in her local PTA as Parent Education Chair. In 2004 and 2012, she helped organize voter registration drives for the Bay Area South Asian community.

Currently Sangeeta is teaching at Santa Clara University as an Adjunct faculty in the Anthropology Department.  She lives in Los Altos, CA with her husband and two daughters.

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