SIKH REHAT MARYADA: The Code That Defines Us

IJ Singh | New York, NY

Why do we have one? Do we even need it? Couldn’t we live without it? The questions are challenging and provoking. The idea, however, is to start - not a fight – but a conversation. So put on your thinking caps and pugrees. I didn’t dream up these questions. Good people, Sikhs and non-Sikhs, ask them everyday, not only about the Sikh Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada) but the many similar codes that are basic to the many religions around the world. The Internet is abuzz with such challenges every day. My focus is obviously on Sikhi and its fundamentals, even though I’ll refer to the reasoning of some non-Sikh and secular traditions as well. When such questions surface, as they do with awesome predictability, some rough and ready answers come to mind. To wit: This is our tradition and it is sacred, and to question it is to profane it. Or: This is what the Gurus gave us. How dare we try our puny little intellect around it. These close all conversation on the matter. To shut down communication means a person has been silenced, but not that he has been persuaded. This then wouldn’t be consistent with the values of the Gurus. And all the way on the other end of the spectrum is the extreme view: This Code is what some bright Sikhs thought up, in a different time and place. The world has changed. It may have been good then but no longer. Look at how many Sikhs don’t follow it – particularly when it comes to Kesh, the long unshorn hair. Isn’t it time to change it, if not to jettison the whole kit-and-caboodle? Even those who carp continue to hold that Sikhi is a beautiful spiritual practice and path. The core purpose of spirituality is to set us free. Why then should we be bogged down by a man-made set of practices that we fondly label as requirements of the faith? All we need to do is to recognize the universality of the spirituality of the faith so that differences between people vanish. Spirituality enables us to see the humanity in all and transcend distinctions of caste, creed, color race, gender, national origin, even culture and language. When such differences vanish, we become one with the teachings of Sikhi. Maanas kee jaat sabhai ekai pehchhaanbo (Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh, Akal Ustat, Kabit 15, p. 17), which means: All belong to the one race of humanity. Aval Allah noor upayya kudrat ke sabh bande (Guru Granth Sahib p. 1,349), which means: First, Allah (God) created light then, by His creative power, he made all human beings. We can then celebrate the idea of Na ko baery naahi begaana (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1,299), which means: I have no enemies, and I know no strangers. In this view, the defining question is: Does spiritual awareness mandate a code of conduct? Isn’t such a code self-limiting and self-defeating strategy for spirituality? Why not let everyone go for what turns them on in the manner that seems suitable to them, as long as universal connectivity remains the direction and goal? This takes me to the heady days of the 1960’s when I came to this country. The mantra then was “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” In time, the many that lived it discovered its shallowness. The goal was good, but the practice risky, scattered and often clueless. Let’s take a more expansive view. With eyes wide open let’s step into the minefield of the Sikh Code of Conduct, called the Rehat Maryada. Laws don’t come out of thin air. Long-standing habits of a community become traditions, habits of the heart, and then get enshrined into law, particularly if the practices appear to be under siege. What is a Code for? I referred briefly to the spiritual core and raised the issue of why shouldn’t everyone follow his or her muse in how to define nature and to worship an ineffable creator. Am I mounting a defense of the existing Sikh Code of Conduct? Yes and no. Religions serve mankind in many ways but the one idea that dominates in most, if not all, is the one of life after death. But if religion is going to dominate our waking hours, surely then it should connect more with my earthly existence and provide me more meaning in it. If there are to be any codes of religious conduct, they have to be lived here on earth, not in the after-life when we are dead. And that’s my take. The human, a bright and intelligent creature, is much too frail to survive beyond minutes after birth, without the help of a nurturing person. That no man is an island is a truism beyond the literal meanings of John Donne’s poetry. Even the muscularly and intellectually gifted individual best survives and thrives in packs and tribes. Civilizations and cultures can never be built by one person alone. Times of solitude are essential, but neither physically nor psychologically are humans equipped to handle life totally alone.


The smallest earliest grouping we form is that of a family, the largest would be the supranational conglomeration of countries, nations and continents. Let’s revert a moment to the smallest unit of civilization – a family. Even this unit must evolve a set of rules that members respect and will follow. These control how we treat each other in the intimacy of a family’s small circle. There then we have unwritten rules of behavior – a tacit code of conduct. We ignore it at our own peril. We generally obey it because our survival depends on it. True that humanity’s success stories became clearly more obvious as mankind learned to form cohesive groups larger than nuclear families and tribes. Only then could larger entities like neighborhoods, villages and towns, and finally nations, come into being. But where did these values come from that united people into such large coherent groups? This is where religions have a place. Exactly how religions began in human societies and projected a sense of their purpose remains problematic. Human society’s formative theoretical framework posits three models: 1. Wishful thinking. 2. Intellectualism (Cognitive model). 3. Social glue. Wishful thinking rests on the need to identify some force for all the good and bad acts of nature that people see, such as shooting stars, lightning and thunder. Cognitive thinking tweaks emerging knowledge and the rational process to explain how the world functions, and that process continues without end. In the social glue model, any idea or action that promotes cohesion in a people was considered sacred, hence the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. There is, at least in the United States, a hybrid fourth model in place. And that is American civil religion – a non-sectarian faith, but one that draws its sacred symbols from the nation’s Christian history. It becomes the national cohesive force promoting models of integration and assimilation - the “American Way.” The Bully Pulpit then belongs to the elected President while the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of rights become the sacred scriptures. These sacred documents then become the Code of Conduct of this civic religion. Now we come to the skating on thin ice. In my view, religion’s primary purpose is not so much to prattle about how life will be after we are dead, but how it should be lived here and now. Keep in mind that how to make a life and how to make a living are two very different matters. The former is the domain of religion. For the latter, one finds the appropriate vocational training at a university or similar place. Every religion is, by definition, a way of life for a people, so there must be rules to the game. This essay today is crafted to incite the dialectic on and about our written and unwritten code of conduct. Surely these are matters that deserve rethinking, clarification, rewriting and re-editing. I sometimes argue that we should look at the worldwide presence of Sikhs as the thousands of runners at a marathon. If I rate the runners from one to ten, with one being those who will run the race in record time, and ten being the also-rans or those who might never finish, they still are all on the same path though not at the same place at the same path at any given time. Sikhs, on their journey of Sikhi, are similar. Some live the requirements of the faith to the nth degree and are closer to one in ranking. Others, nearer ten, are like fellow travelers. Most of us are somewhere in between. We need to treasure them all and nurture them towards a higher level, if they so desire. I point out that fully seven of the Ten Commandments that are the core of Judeo-Christian systems speak of right conduct in societal issues, not of heaven or hell after death. In Buddhism, the eight-fold path speaks of how to live here on Earth. Much of Sikh teaching is focused similarly – on truthful living and on community service in this world. Religions to be lived well on Earth have to develop rules of fair conduct between neighbors, a sense of self and an ethical framework. The spiritual life – keep it in mind – is to be lived in this messy, noisy, confusing and competitive world, not in some idealized heaven sitting next to the prophet. The idea is to live here and discover the divine that is to be found within us, Mun too jot saroop hai apnaa mool pahchhaan (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 441), which means: O my mind, you are the embodiment of the Devine Light; recognize your own origin. Religion, thus, becomes the most potent force in creating communities. And communities have rules – a code of conduct. They also have some power to enforce the rules. The power has waned now but used to be fearsome not too many centuries ago. Rules of conduct mean that families and communities will develop lines distinguishing themselves from neighbors. It is rightly said that good fences make good neighbors. Privacy requires them, rules mandate them, but fences must not hermetically seal neighbors from each other. Yet, fences, sometimes, tend to become tight seals and impenetrable walls. Fences, at best, are made up of codes – understood, even written, and not with a mechanism of enforcement but with kindness.


Fences exist between nations as they do between friends, even relatives. Religion is often the glue that binds a people. There is no guarantee that people of the same religion will get along. Witness the number of sects that exist in every major religion. Look at Bangladesh, a country of Muslims that violently separated from Muslim Pakistan to become an independent nation. Or explore the long historical conflict between Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews to assimilate. Christianity has so many sects that one loses count. Orthodox Communism, which I would label a quasi-religion, could not hold the diverse people of the former Soviet Union together when it collapsed in 1989. Think of the bloody record of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, which seem to agree on little, except their hatred of the West. Rules and enforcement are two related items. Nations of the world are trying to evolve common ground in these matters through the United Nations. Most civilized nations have functioning civil and criminal judicial systems. Religions may or may not have an effective system in place at this time. No system is perfect nor is any constitution – that is why they continue to get amended as necessary. Witness the most recent history on proposed gun laws, or revisit the 1965 issue on civil rights in the United States. Institutions that shape our lives, and therefore us, are family (parents), school (education), church (religion) and state (government). We need a closer examination of these and how they collaborate to give us a whole greater than the sum of the parts. Don’t base your actions on how many people follow the code and how many don’t. Remember that religions are for imperfect people who are on a path. Abandoning the whole code of conduct is like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Who should do the amending? Those who live and die by the rules? People must not be goaded to act in a hurry or react in frustration. Amending comes from consensus building that takes more time and patience than we seem to have. A national conversation is the goal here. There should always be one in place – an ongoing reality. And that’s what we need – like yesterday. I acknowledge, with pleasure, the assistance of Kamaljeet Singh Dogra in preparation of this essay. _________________________ The author, Inder Jit Singh, is an anatomy professor at New York University. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, The Sikh Review, and is the author of five books: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias; The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress; Being and Becoming a Sikh; The World According to Sikhi; and, the latest, Sikhs Today: Ideas and Opinions. He can be reached at Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.

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