Sikhism and war

Exploring the link between religion and war from the point of view of the Sikh faith

As a producer, I like to spend a great deal of time researching current programming on television stations across the Global TV networks. The most publicised trend of recent years has been that of reality television. The power of this genre and its content has been proven this past week from my otherwise timid home county of Hertfordshire.

If you are unaware of the incidents that I am writing about perhaps you have been hiding away in some cave, in which case I would like you to invite me over so that I too can escape from the mind-numbing “entertainment” that passes for terrestrial television these days. But the entire debacle got me thinking about the stories that weren’t making the news headlines as a result, stories which all too often get relegated to inch-long columns beside advertisements for injury-claims legal firms.

One such story was the recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. This was undertaken I must hasten to add, with the compliance of the Somali Govt who felt the need to stem back the surge of Islamists in the south and west of the country.

There was plenty of news coverage initially, but there has been little reporting of the clashes and conflict that followed. From my position of basic ignorance of African politics, I understood that this was a conflict that once again involved religion. Talking to friends I was met with the relatively popular idea that religion was the chief cause of war. If this was the case, I was asked, how did it affect my life as a Sikh?

The Sikh Way of Life has long been identified with that of martial warfare. The reality is something quite different. For a Sikh, the ideal is to be a Saint-Soldier: a being that is of the utmost respectability and compassion, but whose strength of character and bravery is unquestionable.

However, this is not as simple a concept to realise as one might first think. For example, the latter description evokes an ideal of standing up for what is right. But who are we to decide what is right? As a Sikh, am I to take a viewpoint of matters with rose-tinted Sikh glasses? It seems there are more questions than answers, but as all good Sikhs know, our basis of Sikh understanding is the Guru Granth Sahib, the revered Guru and scripture since 1708, to which we pose all of our questions.

From the very beginning, Sikhs were taught that on occasion, use of force was a necessary part of life. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh Way of life, in praise of the Almighty stated that, “As you (the Lord) choose and as it pleases you, we wield the sword and take life.”

In this particular stanza, Guru Nanak had described differing elements of life in relation to God. To battle and to destroy was an occurrence that for better or worse was an element of life that could not be shied away from. It happened as God willed it. We as people go to war when we see fit and are able to take or not take life on the battlefield. But the cause of the war itself seems almost immaterial. Today it is a dispute over land, tomorrow an act of vengeance.

I have interpreted the Guru’s words here as such, that the end result is the same: death. It should be noted that war and soldierly deeds like other issues which involve death are heavily intertwined with fate and destiny in Sikh philosophy. This does not absolve the soldier of his commitment and acts, but is part of the bigger picture where the endless cycle of life and death continues unabated.

Guru Nanak’s successors to the Gurgaddi (throne of Guruship) were the Light and soul of Guru Nanak himself, merely in a different form. Focusing on the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur is where we can find further depictions of the Saint-Soldier relationship.

Guru Tegh Bahadur had been a vociferous soldier in his youth and was skilled in the use of weaponry. In the late 17th century, by which time he had been installed as the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was approached by pandits of Kashmir. They requested the Guru to speak on their behalf to the Mughal emperor Aurungzeb under whose rule countless forced conversions to Islam had been taking place. The Guru agreed to do so, well aware of the repercussions.

In court the Guru’s position of spiritual authority over so many people of the land was brought into question and he was asked to convert to Islam, prove his spiritual supremacy or face capital punishment.

The Guru chose both of the latter options, declaring that although he did not believe in that which the pandits did, he would defend there right to believe it. This epitomises the Saint-Soldier relationship: righteousness is not defending Sikhs or their interests, but to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights of all people. As the Guru showed, use of force was not merely the ability to wield a sword. In the Guru Granth Sahib we read Guru Tegh bahadur’s words where he describes the spiritually awakened, the Saint as “That being who does not frighten anyone, and who is not afraid of anyone else…”

Sikhs do not battle to defend Sikhs or Sikh concerns. They resort to force, whether through battle or personal sacrifice, to defend the fundamental freedoms that all humans look to have. War is a part of life from which we have not and probably will not escape. Even if for a few days we become preoccupied with the comparatively irrelevant events of a television programme in leafy Hertfordshire.