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A Sikh Perspective on Violence

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At the time of Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) Sikhism was clearly a religion of peace.


No one is my enemy
No one is a foreigner
With all I am at peace
God within us renders us
Incapable of hate and prejudice


Guru Nanak


Guru Nanak proved to be a significant prophet of change who initiated, caused and introduced an objective and universal vision of human rights in the sixteenth century Punjab, which Sikhs live by all over the world in society today. With this awareness began the construction of a new society based on an objective system of moral values, social justice and individual rights, which resulted in the emergence of the Sikh path to meet the historical challenges of the time.


The evolution of the Sikh view


From the time of the fifth Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev, Sikhi became increasingly revolutionary, but only in response to oppression and attempts to suppress minority communities living within India. The sixth Nanak, Guru Har Gobind, thought that military action would sometimes be needed to promote the cause of justice and protect the innocent from attack. The tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, gave the Sikhs the mission of fighting against oppression and formed the Khalsa. Guru Gobind Singh made it clear that military action was to be the last resort, but emphasised that it should not be avoided if proved necessary.


If all other means fail, recourse to violence and war as the last resort is fair and just.


Zafarnama-Guru Gobind Singh (Tenth Nanak)


Clearly, violence is not just a physical thing, and there are three ways of responding to violence:


  • Firstly, we could witness acts of violence and become a silent spectator or become depressed at our inability to cope with the situation.
  • The second scenario is to observe the act of injustice but run away, pretending nothing happened or denying the truth.
  • The third option is considered the Sikh way, which is to acknowledge the state of affairs, stand up to the truth and do something about it.


A last resort


Violence itself does not have great significance in Sikhi. It is more about using every possible resource to avoid confrontation and maintain peace. Violence is considered the option after the last option.


At Sunday School and in community workshops I grew up listening to stories through which it was constantly reiterated that to turn a blind eye or walk away from a situation in which someone or something was being taken advantage of was very unSikh-like. I never really understood or valued what that meant until I reached secondary school and was bullied every day in the playground for my colour, my height and my long hair. Was this part of the violence or injustice that I was taught to stand up against? Why was it then that those around me in no way felt obliged to help me?


One who does not frighten anyone, and who is not afraid of anyone else, says Nanak, listen, mind: call him spiritually wise.





In the face of evil you can't stand by and do nothing


It was then that Guru Nanak's principle of sanctioning the use of force for a righteous cause gave me hope and strength to seek help and not blame myself for who I was or the predicament I found myself in. Thereafter, reference to the words, 'You need to be cruel to be kind,' were suddenly not as alien to me as I reached university.


It was both the duty and responsibility of religious people to resist aggression and brutality. Guru Nanak's spiritual system involved the use of all available tools including reason and judicious use of force for the purposeful progression of humans.


In Guru Nanak's time Babar invaded India and brought much carnage, destruction and humiliation to the Indian people. Guru Nanak was a witness to Babul's massacre at Ennead (now in Pakistan). In his great vision on the destiny of nation, Guru Nanak raised his voice in divine indignation at Babar's invasion. He lamented the loss of nation and deplored the brutality of the invaders and unpreparedness of the local Afghan rulers. He went to the extent of voicing a protest to God, as the guardian of man, for allowing the weak to be oppressed by the strong.


In doing so he was in fact clearly laying one of the basic principles of his religion. It is implied that in the vision of Guru Nanak, if in any field of life there is aggression or injustice, the religious man cannot remain neutral; he must react in a righteous way. Sikhs are not expected to walk away from problems or troubles and are in fact invited to act as saint soldiers in life. In the home or in a social setting the community must address issues and offer positive answers based on the truth regardless of personal interests. This is the logical corollary to the householder's life he advocated. Therefore, the traditionally created barriers of socio-political segments and religious particularism were deemed artificial and were, once and for all, broken for the religious man.


The Guru's existing social system and the oppression of the political set-up provided the Sikhs with a meaning for their existence and motivated them to change their attitudes and life values and brought them awareness of their self-respect, human rights and social responsibilities.


Relevance today


A clear example of this was after 9/11. I was part of a team invited by Scotland Yard to voice their concerns about mistaken identity and hate crimes and 'race relations'. The first person to be killed in the USA as a result of a hate crime was in fact a Sikh husband and father called Balbir Singh Sodhi who was attacked at his petrol pump by a group of young Americans. Immediately a campaign was set up worldwide.


At this meeting, much to the surprise of the inspectors involved, our concerns were not to assist Sikhs or protect them alone as a result of the violence but to set up a hate-crime reporting line for all minority communities, especially Muslim and Hindu brothers and sisters. A community-led effort was initiated to act as volunteers at mandhirs, mosques and gurdwaras alike. As a teacher, I was part of a team of youth workers going out educating schools, youth groups and teachers about restoring trust and refusing to pay attention to messages or scenarios of hate and violence disseminated by the media and other groups.


It is fair to say that the concept of the Just War does appear in the Sikh faith and is Dharam Yudh, meaning war in the defence of righteousness. In such a war:

  • the war must be the last resort – all other ways of resolving the conflict must be tried first
  • the motive must not be revenge or enmity
  • the army must not include mercenaries
  • the army must be disciplined
  • only the minimum force needed for success should be used civilians must not be harmed
  • there must be no looting, territory must not be annexed, property taken must be returned

This is similar to the ideas contained in the western Just War theory. Sikhs also believe that treaties and cease-fires must be honoured, places of worship (of any faith) should not be damaged, and soldiers who surrender should not be harmed. The crucial difference from Just War theory is that Sikhs believe that, if a war is just, it should be undertaken even if it cannot be won.


The Guru's use of a liberative and restorative aspect of violence to rupture history and its established power system created a new way of life with determined 'spirit-born' people in a radically recognized environment.

Gurbhagat Singh


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