Sikhism is an Indic religion with around 25 million followers, the majority located in India’s Punjab region but also some in the West in the form of a substantial diaspora (converts to Sikhism are virtually non-existent).
It was founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak, born into a Hindu family in modern-day Pakistan, who basically created a sort of reformist movement combining elements from both Islam and Hinduism. Guru Nanak, like many young Hindus of his time, studied classics of Islamic literature in Arabic and Persian. To him, Islam was the dominant civilization and exercised a definite soft-power.
Many specialists say that Sikhism didn’t become a separate “religion” until Guru Arjan, the fifth of the ten gurus, first compiled the Sikh’s main set of sacred scriptures, the Adi Granth (“First Religious Book”). This book would later become the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS), which itself would be literally worshiped as a guru later on (more on this below).
The GGS is basically a compilation of religious hymns from the gurus themselves, but also more ancient Sufi and Bhakti (the Hindu equivalent of Sufism) poets, such as Kabir Das, who died in the 15th century. In total, it contains around 1430 ang or pages.
The GGS is written in seven languages, including Sanskrit and Persian, and in a difficult script, to the extent that virtually no average Sikh can read the original (unlike the Qur’an read by tens of millions of Arabic-speakers directly and completely memorized by millions even outside the Arab world). Its process of authentication and canonization are dubious, but let’s not focus on that for now.
We’ll not analyze here the historical Sikh persecution of Muslims either, from Ranjit Singh’s Empire in the Punjab (1799-1849) to the Partition riots or their role in the modern Indian Army and its oppression in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.
What we’ll look at is their claim of being monotheists and if this claim is credible.
Strong Stance Against Idol-Worship
What Sikhism took from Islam is supposed to be the monotheism, and the GGS is indeed full of critiques against Hindu idol-worship.
For instance, in ang 479 we read from Kabir:
You tear off the leaves, O gardener, but in each and every leaf, there is life.
That stone idol, for which you tear off those leaves – that stone idol is lifeless.
In this, you are mistaken, O gardener.
The same Kabir says in ang 1371, condemning it more explicitly:
Kabeer, some buy idols and worship them; in their stubborn-mindedness, they make pilgrimages to sacred shrines.
They look at one another, and wear religious robes, but they are deluded and lost.
Kabeer, someone sets up a stone idol and all the world worships it as the Lord.
Those who hold to this belief will be drowned in the river of darkness.
Kabeer, the paper is the prison, and the ink of rituals are the bars on the windows.
The stone idols have drowned the world, and the Pandits, the religious scholars, have plundered it on the way.
Guru Nanak himself very often condemned idol-worship, and quite in strong terms, for example we read in ang 556:
The Hindus have forgotten the Primal Lord; they are going the wrong way.
As Naarad instructed them, they are worshipping idols. They are blind and mute, the blindest of the blind.
The ignorant fools pick up stones and worship them.
But when those stones themselves sink, who will carry you across?
Guru Arjan, the fifth guru we mentioned earlier, says in ang 1160 :
Those who call a stone their god
their service is useless.
Those who fall at the feet of a stone god
– their work is wasted in vain.
We could quote many other parts from the GGS which condemn idol-worship, and also from other Sikh sacred texts.
Take Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama, part of the Dasam Granth, a collection of authoritative Sikh scriptures: Guru Gobind Singh was the tenth – and last – guru of the Sikhs, having been executed on the order of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb because of the insurgencies he launched.
Guru Gobin Singh wrote this letter in poetic Persian where he basically says that Aurangzeb’s actions aren’t respectful of Islam (the reader would himself decide if a Sikh guru has the legitimacy to make such claims).
In the 95th couplet we read:
My fight is with the [Hindu] hill princes,
It is them I kill and slay,
For I oppose worship of idols,
And ’tis to idols they pray.
If we take a more literal translation, Guru Gobind Singh in fact writes in Persian “man but-shikan” (من بت شِکن), “I’m the idol-annihilator,” and “but-shikan” is a title which keeps triggering Hindu nationalists as it was the title given to Mahmud of Ghazni, the 10th century Turkic invader of India who was perhaps the single most vilified Muslim conqueror in the whole of Hindu historiography, as he “opened the door” for the later Muslim warriors.
Hindu nationalists also claim Sikhism as a “branch” of their religion, something Sikhs themselves passionately refute. So a Sikh guru proclaiming that he fights Hindus because he’s an idol-annihilator might go against that Hindu appropriation of Sikhs as well.
Guru Gobind Singh is important not only for being the last guru, but also for having transformed Sikhism into a military order (Khalsa) and also for mutating the GGS itself as a “living guru,” which would lay down the path for the idolatry to come, as we’ll see.
But now we’ve seen that Sikh authorities definitely stand against idol-worship.
But does that make it monotheistic, as Sikhism is defined by both its practitioners and “neutral” academics? We’ll see that their concept of God might refute this idea.
The Attribute of Having… No Attribute
In Islam, Allah has many attributes. Many heretical groups reduced or nullified His attributes, such as the Muʿtazilah or, even more radically, the Jahmiyyah. Muslim scholars vigorously fought and refuted these groups.
Believing in a God without attribute in fact practically makes the “believer” a sort of agnostic (what to even worship?). This is a problem for Sikhism.
We have first two define two terms, nirguna and saguna. Nirguna means “without attribute” while saguna means the opposite, i.e., “with attribute” (or “qualities,” “definitions,” etc.). It’s terminology found in the metaphysical school of traditional Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta: nirguna Brahman is the “Absolute Reality” transcending space, time, and definition or attribute, while saguna Brahman is the “defined” deity, the one the believer can “approach.”
This gave some complex intra-Hindu debates, as Adi Shankara in the 8th century, considered the greatest Hindu philosopher of all times, favored nirguna Brahman in a “non-dualist” approach while Ramanuja, in the 12th century, favored saguna Brahman in a “dualist” approach, saying that a deity without qualifications, qualities, or attributes, is a “dead” deity, an “useless” being which might please “intellectual” Brahmins but can’t really be worshiped by the masses.
It’s a technical, metaphysical discussion which is not of much interest, but we should know that Ramanuja is considered the spiritual father of the Bhakti movement, the “Sufi-like” popular devotional movement of medieval Hinduism, and Bhaktism, which invested God of all sorts of attributes precisely to make him “closer” to the masses, would later give rise to Sikhism.
So, how did Sikh gurus view this nirguna against saguna debate? Very confusedly!
In ang 211, Guru Arjan, the fifth guru, says:
You alone are the Doer, the Cause of causes.
You are the Support of all beings and creatures.
O God, You are my power, authority and youth. You are absolute, without attributes, and also related, with the most sublime attributes.
We read in ang 250 that “he Himself is formless, and also formed; the One Lord is without attributes, and also with attributes.”
So, how is the average Sikh supposed to approach God when He’s with attributes and without attribute? It’s no wonder that you rarely hear a Sikh claiming to worship God, but talks of the “guru” instead, in the same way you rarely hear a Christian claiming to worship God, focusing on Jesus (‘alayhi as-salam) instead.
Contrast this with the pristine, pure, and simple idea of Tawhid in Islam!
Erotic Union with God and Auto-Deification
Because of the faulty Hindu conception of God, in order to respond to the “attribute-less” God of the metaphysicians, the Bhakti authors, in their devotional poetry, began to ascribe to Him attributes which are insulting. Sikhs developed erotic poetry in order to symbolize “the union with God.”
As an an offshoot of the Bhakti movement, Sikhism didn’t escape from such polytheistic blasphemies.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, thus says in ang 21:
The Lord abides within the mind of the Gurmukh, who merges in the Lord’s Union, through the Guru.
If I surrender my body like a bride, the Enjoyer will enjoy me.
Do not make love with one who is just a passing show.
The Gurmukh is ravished like the pure and happy bride on the Bed of God, her Husband.
In ang 737, the fifth guru, Guru Arjan, says:
My mansion is lofty and elevated.
Renouncing all other brides, my Beloved has become my lover.
The sun has risen, and its light shines brightly.
I have prepared my bed with infinite care and faith.
My Darling Beloved is new and fresh; He has come to my bed to enjoy me.
We can again multiply the examples, but how is such eroticization of the “union” of the soul with the “divine” an expression of monotheism? Isn’t that insulting to God to be compared to the “husband” of the soul, itself getting “enjoyed” in “the bed”? Are we then surprised that the average Sikh barely speaks of God?
Also, such “union with the divine” makes himself God, as Guru Nanak says in ang 930 “one who knows the mystery of the One God, is Himself the Creator, Himself the Divine Lord.” Or as he says in ang 943, “that humble being who is imbued with the Immaculate Naam [Name of God], O Nanak, is himself the Primal Lord, the Architect of Destiny.”
That’s hardly “monotheism,” and in fact is Shirk even worse than that of Christianity.
Bibliolatry, or Book-Worship
As we said earlier, Guru Gobind Singh, the last human guru, before his execution said that the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) will now be considered the Sikhs’ final guru or, more precisely, as Sikhs themselves put it, “the living guru.”
You have to keep in mind that Guru Arjan says in ang 1149 that the “Guru is Himself the Savior Lord, the Lord of the Universe” (another “monotheist” utterance!). The GGS being considered a “living guru,” it’s thus no surprise that the Sikhs eventually transformed it into a sort of idol, what specialists call “bibliolatry.”
In his book Hindu Philosophy Popularly Explained: The Heterodox Systems, first published in the 1880s, Hindu scholar Ram Chandra Bose writes about the Sikhs’ “book-worship.” The author notes that Muslims “never converted [the Quran] into an object of worship,” writing in pp. 360-362:
The Adi Granth has been systematically worshiped in a beautiful temple consecrated to it ever since the day when Guru Govind refused to nominate a successor, and gave his disciples to understand that if they, in a worshipful spirit, bowed to or prostrated themselves before their sacred scriptures, they would see their Guru therein, if not from an earlier period.
Govind’s utterance on the subject ought to be given in his own words, specially as it is the foundation of that Bibliolatry or Book-worship for which the Sikhs are famous all the world over. When requested to appoint a successor the dying Guru said : — “ As the nine kings before me were at the time of their death setting another Guru on their throne, so shall I now not do ; I have entrusted the whole society (of the disciples) to the bosom of the timeless divine male. Whoever be may disciple, he shall consider the Granth as the form of the Guru, and whichever disciple wishes to have an interview with me, he shall make for one rupee and a quarter, or for as much as he is able, Kavah prasad (a sweetmeat made of flour, sugar and clarified butter, offered to a saint and then distributed among the devotees); then opening the book, and bowing the head, he will obtain a reward equal to an interview with me.”
The Adi Granth has a shrine as splendid as any the foremost deities of the Hindu pantheon can boast of, and one of the most graceful, if not superb, temples in India (…) under the main dome the Granth is spread open on a silver stand overlying with brocades, and hundreds of Sikh worshipers, men, women and children, enter the sacred building by the door facing the causeway, prostrate themselves before the open volume, present suitable offerings, and go round the narrow circular corridor by which the sanctuary is surrounded. There are flights of steps leading to the second floor from which a comprehensive view may be secured through beautiful openings of the whole scene, the band of musicians and songsters engaged in chanting the praise of the holy book, the muttering priests ready to receive the offerings and bless the offerer, and the processions of devotees going in and coming out with evident satisfaction, if not with blessed hearts and purified consciences. When at night the book is supposed to be tired of the devotions lavished on it, it is carried with due solemnity to a neighboring house, which may be described as its dormitory, and within which it is supposed to sleep on a splendid bed ! No other book, so far as our limited knowledge extends, has such exuberance of homage lavished on it or is so systematically and so devoutly worshiped.
The Sikhs thus made an idol out of the GGS, their “living guru.”
It’s thus no wonder that, within Sikhism, there have been some dissenting individual voices and even whole reformist movements, such as the Nirankari sect in the mid-19th century, rising against mainstream Sikhism’s idol-worship.
We can clearly see that Sikhism is not monotheistic, and witness Islam’s dominating superiority over this confusing belief system.