Harmony – perspectives from the Sikh Dharam

In this essay, Bhai Sahib (Dr) Mohinder Singh shares his understanding of what constitutes a harmonious way of living from a Sikh perspective. Harmony, he explains, can "re-energize and regenerate our relationships, interactions and the ways in which we can work together". Whilst representing a balanced state, harmony is also a dynamic force.

Preamble

To understand any concept, it often helps to think about its opposite. The simplest way to understand harmony is to imagine a piece of music being played off beat or out of tune.  One would get a sense of inadequacy, of things not tying together and not going anywhere.  A state of harmony would instead give one a feeling of wholeness, connection and direction.  From a Sikh faith perspective, this comes by educating the mind to live attuned to the spark of the Divine which resides in each of us.  It has practical implications because it determines the kind of values and virtues we embody and put into action.  Today, successive environmental, social and economic crises have opened our eyes to the consequences of a narrow, self-serving human mindset. It is dawning on us that, as interconnected and interdependent global villagers of this 21stcentury, we need a new consciousness to carry us forward.  As I reflect on the faith teachings which have guided me over the decades, it seems that our neglect of the principle of harmony is the underlying crisis we must attend to.

The Sikh dharam – a brief overview

The Sikh dharam emerged over five centuries ago in the Punjab region, now spread across modern-day India and Pakistan.  The faith took shape under the spiritual direction of ten consecutive Gurus, who lived between 1469 and 1708. Along with neighbouring Afghanistan, the Punjab was the historical gateway to India by land.  Between the 11th and 16th centuries, it had seen as many as 60 incursions, by invaders of Turkish, Arab, Persian, Afghan and Mongol descent. A Sultanate was established in Delhi, which was led by a succession of Muslim dynasties ruling over a largely Hindu population with growing numbers of converts to Islam.  India also suffered repeated invasions by figures such as the notorious Timur Lane who, each time, left the Punjab plundered and pillaged.  When the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469, the Afghan Lodhi dynasty ruled from Delhi.  As its power crumbled, Guru Nanak witnessed the brutal invasions of Babur, a descendant of Timur’s, who founded India’s Mughal dynasty in 1526.  Mughal rule continued across the period of the ten Sikh Gurus and ended some fifty years afterwards.

It was not only disharmony through physical violence and upheaval which characterised the world which Guru Nanak inherited.  As well as thirsting material and political power, rulers were also driven by religious zeal or believed there was religious sanction for their wanton looting and destruction.  Guru Nanak noted the abuse of religious and political power on both sides of the Hindu/Muslim divide and attitudes of apathy and passivity amongst ordinary people.  Moreover, the religious oppression and forcible religious conversions which were exerted by rulers went against a respect for the God-given phenomenon of diversity which is part of the human and natural world.  For Guru Nanak, the ensuing hypocrisy and helplessness were symptomatic of a deeper disharmony within the self which was being manifested:

Kal kātīrāje kāsāī, dharam pankh kar udriā…

This dark age is like a knife;

Rulers are like butchers, treating their subjects with gruesome cruelty

Dharam – the practice of all that is good and right – has fled on its wings.

Falsehood is rampant over the land; under its darker-than-dark veil of night

The clear moon of truth has disappeared from view; its face is nowhere to be seen. [1]

Gurū Nānak here uses the word dharam to describe a way of living in harmony with the spark of God which resides in every human and which religions are supposed to nurture.  The word dharam, as well as meaning a particular ‘faith’ (e.g. the Sikh dharam) suggests an inherent order, a right way of being or an intrinsic property something holds e.g. the dharam of water is to flow, the dharam of the sun is to shine.   Likewise, humans have a shared spiritual identity, characterised by the virtuous properties of the spiritual self, which we are meant to mobilise.  As Guru Nanak saw it, dharam was everywhere evaporating as society got engulfed by forces rooted in the worst of human nature.  His response was a path of compassionate and courageous action out of which the Sikh faith was founded.

Nine further Gurus guided the growth of the Sikh faith, across times of peace, oppression and war.  Sikhs note how they demonstrated courage, commitment and sacrifice to build internal and external peace and how they advanced the principle that religious and cultural diversity is to be respected as a God-given phenomenon, especially when people faced religious persecution or were being coerced into religious conversion.  Rather than separating out ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ roles, the Gurus taught the need to integrate prayer, hard work and service to others into the rhythm of one’s daily life in order to achieve harmony.  Thus, a spiritual consciousness went hand in hand with a social and environmental consciousness.

The Sikh Gurus also engaged with people of contrasting social, cultural and religious backgrounds and emphasised good governance, in the minds of ordinary people and of those who ruled over them.  When the tenth Guru created the Khalsa order of initiated Sikhs in 1699, this gave rise to a code of practice which has become a measure for the Sikh way of life.  The Gurus taught that, more important than the label of being a Sikh, or the accumulation of one’s theoretical knowledge, is how one lives day-to-day and moment-to-moment, conscious of the impact of one’s thoughts and actions and of the legacy one will leave for others.

The teachings of the Sikh Gurus were expressed in a way that communicated to people of varied social, cultural and religious backgrounds of the time. They were then organised and preserved in a volume of scripture which was first compiled in 1604 (at this same point in history, Shakespeare was writing his literary works in England and work had commenced on an authorised English translation of the Bible).  A century later, in 1708, the last of the ten Gurus instructed Sikhs to revere this scripture as their perpetual Guru. Thus, we address this body of teaching with a title, as Guru Granth Sahib Ji (‘Guru’ means enlightener, ‘Granth’ means a compilation of writing, ‘Sahib’ indicates eminence and ‘Ji’ is a mark of respect). This is the source of most of the quotations I refer to.  Translations are often a poor substitute for the original and any verses have been paraphrased into English.

The Guru Granth Sahib Ji includes verses from Hindu and Muslim saints and reflects the keenness of the Sikh Gurus to engage in inter-religious dialogue, thus fostering harmony with different religions.  The contents of the teachings focus on several key themes, including the need to: recognise God’s Oneness which pervades creation’s diversity; identify the values and virtues which characterise our shared spiritual identity as humans; actively put these attributes into practice to make a difference in the world, rather than reclusively withdraw from it, with the poignant awareness that our stay here on earth is finite; embrace human life as a unique opportunity – on a longer journey of our spirit over many existences – to resonate with and merge with God by kindling the spark of God within.

Theme 1: Harmony and disharmony in a spiritual and social context

Sach kāl kūrh vartiā, kal kālakh betāl

Bīo bīj pat lai gaye, ab kio ugavai dāl?

There is a famine of truth, we have lost integrity of character

Falsehood prevails; in this scenario we ourselves have become fake.

Out of sync with the Divine spark inside us, we live as phantoms

Tarnished by the darkness of this age of spiritual ignorance and neglect.

To be aware of God’s Oneness is like a bounteous seed, which generates inner virtue

Some have planted this wholesome seed and left this world with honour;

Caught in a warp, we fragment the One, or separate the sacred from everyday life

Once the seed is split, how can it then germinate? [2]

The relationship between our social condition and internal human condition is a key theme in Sikh teaching, particularly in the spiritual ballad known as Asa Ki Var, from which the above lines are quoted.  Sung in the early hours of the morning, its tone is hopeful and heartening.  It encourages us to harness those qualities which help us live harmoniously ‘in God’s image’.  Yet, as the above quote portrays, we can slip into living as a mere shadow of this ‘true’ self i.e. as a hypocrite.  Out of sync with the Divine spark inside us, we become phantoms, vulnerable to traits such as duplicity, hypocrisy, arrogance, greed, apathy and fear, and to social forces which make such traits the norm.  Consequently, it is not easy to remain untarnished by this negativity which prevails in such a scenario.

This verse reminds me that the starting point for social and environmental harmony is our ability to live as ‘whole’ persons (by engaging together the mind, body and spirit) and to recognise that we too are part of a whole, i.e. part of creation which is infused with God’s presence.  A little humorously, the verse informs us that our spiritual growth cannot stem from a ‘split’ seed (which, in the original Punjabi, is the dāor split pulses used in cooking), i.e. we cannot find true harmony in a state of disconnection from the life’s sacred source.  As a person of faith, I would name this source as God.

It follows that I would then see virtues as properties of the latent spark of God inside us.  They include, to use the original Sikh scriptural terms: dayā (compassion); sat (truth, purity and integrity); santokh (contentment); nimratā (humility) and; prem (love).  They also include the quality of being nirbaou (not succumbing to fear) and nirvair (not succumbing to hatred).  When we learn how to support these dormant attributes to germinate and grow, they emit their fragrance in the way we think and in the social world we share we others.

To activate and practice these various virtues marks, as I see it, the ‘gold standard’ of being human.  Indeed, the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji encourage us to see these virtues as a form of capital or currency, which we are to use, invest and spend; this constitutes our ‘true business’ during our stay on earth and the only ‘wealth’ our spirit takes with it when the time comes to depart

Dhanvant nām ke vanjāre

Sānjīkaroh nām dhan khātoh gur kāshabad vichāre… 

Rich are those who travel to this world to trade in nām, the Divine Name

Partner with them, earn the wealth of nām, reflecting on the Guru’s word.

Abandon fraud, deceit and malice, see God as always within you.

Trade in and accumulate this true wealth, and you shall never suffer loss.

Use and spend it; this treasure is abundant and cannot be exhausted.

Says Nanak, you shall then go back to God’s court with dignity and honour. [3]

From a Sikh perspective, to neglect to mobilise and exercise such virtues leaves us in a state of unpreparedness and disharmony from human life’s greater purpose.

Theme 2: Harmoniously aligning the mind, heart and spirit or soul

In many languages, we find different words and concepts to conceive the centres within our human anatomy which are involved in thinking, feeling and deciding our responses. In everyday Punjabi, one might talk about one’s ‘dil’, or heart, not wanting to do something.  Or one can attribute this instinct or feeling to one’s ‘man’ (rhymes with ‘sun’).  this refers to the mind, the faculty which perceives the world through our senses and gives us our individual identity.  In villages of the Punjab, one might sometimes hear one talk about one’s ‘rū’ or spirit not wanting to do something, even if it is something rather mundane like drinking tea.  It is evident that the human soul, heart and mind all contribute to the rationality we establish to take actions. This indicates that across human cultures, we have different ways of expressing the instinctual, insight-led or values-led thought processes by which we reason and rationalise.

Today, science is revealing some grains of truth in the way humans have traditionally referred to such thought processes.  We are discovering that the heart itself has a small brain.  With its own intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters, the ‘heart brain’ is able to communicate with our ‘head brain’ and influence how we think and decide.  Positive and rejuvenating emotions bring about a harmonious and coherent flow of communication between the heart and head which benefits the entire self. This uncovers the way that the mind, with all its remarkable technical and intellectual capabilities, needs some source of guidance and grounding for our overall wellbeing and for establishing equipoise and harmony.

In Sikh teaching, the manor mind, whilst blessed with the capacity to reason, is also prone to being undisciplined, changeable and vulnerable to the power of haumai, the selfish ego.  Haumai is necessary for our survival.  However, when left unchecked it allows the traits associated the ‘phantom’ self (as depicted in the opening quote) to take hold.  The mind then becomes a storehouse of negative thoughts, capable of harbouring jealousy, malice, arrogance, of belittling and ridiculing others, and becoming lost in the love of materialism.  And so, the scriptural teachings, like a companion or friend, urge us to overcome haumai’sgravitational pull.  This, we are informed, is by recognising, nourishing and listening to the spirit residing within us, i.e. the ātmā which links us to the supreme spirit or ParamātmāGod.  We become harmonious by activating our ‘true’ identity, rather than being limited by the ‘false’ identity of the ego.

Theme 3: Harmony as a dynamic integrative and generative principle

It is a paradox that, as humans, we share the same biological functions, such as breathing, digesting, or experiencing the world through the senses we are equipped with. Yet, depending on social and cultural exposure in life, we may adopt different and changing habits, tastes and attitudes.   Furthermore, as the Gurus saw it, irrespective of our social or cultural background, our character traits as humans will differ, depending on the degree to which we align ourselves to the virtues of the spiritual self or slip into the hold of haumai.  From a Sikh perspective, then, harmony involves liberation from internal obstacles in the battlefield of the self; it requires cultivating the heart of sant (‘saint’) and the alertness, skill and courage of a sipāhi (‘soldier’). Just as the skill of a driver is tested in emergencies, a harmonious mindset does not involve undisturbed peace; it enables us refocus and rebalance when changes unexpectedly occur in our internal or outward condition.

This dynamic quality I associate with harmony is reflected in music.  Like the verse quoted at the opening of this essay, the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib are lyrically composed and musically expressed. Kirtan, the singing of the scriptural verses, is an essential Sikh practice.  It involves the interplay of language, melody and rhythm.  Usually, this involves using traditional stringed instruments or the modern-day harmonium, plus drum percussion provided by the Indian tabla,and the singing of the scriptural teachings in their original form.  Thus knowledge and wisdom (giān), notes (sur) and beats (tāl) are brought to work together in order to dialogue with the mind, move the heart and engage one’s whole self to bring about some inner enhancement or transformation.  The teachings are thus to be practically experienced and absorbed, more so than just silently or intellectually contemplated.  Listening to kirtan, I am drawn to ask, is harmony then about stillness?  Or is it about discovering a still point of cohesion, insight and renewed energy amidst the interplay of different elements.

In the leadership role entrusted to me of serving Sikh faith communities and advancing civic and interfaith engagement at local and global levels, particularly through the Nishkam group of organisations which I oversee, the analogy of music speaks volumes about the potential for good which can be mobilised across individuals, networks of people, groups and organisations with different origins, identities and affiliations.  The grandest of European orchestras remind me that musical harmony does not involve uniformity or sameness but the cohesive movement of diverse instruments with diverse attributes and traits.

One of stories associated with Tansen, a legendary musician of 16th century India, tells of how he devised a certain rā(a melodic framework in Indian classic music with distinctive musical motifs). Its effects were so powerful, that a range of different instruments, which had been laid out together and tuned to the same frequency, began to play of their own accord.  Indeed, this extraordinary account reveals the generative as well as integrative power of harmony, when diverse people find synergy between themselves. Practically, it can re-energize and regenerate our relationships, interactions and the ways in which we can work together.  This leads me to see harmony as a dynamic force, whilst at its core, it is a balanced state.

Theme 2: Harmony as a state of oneness, balance and order

The teachings and practices of the Sikh faith direct us to a state of ‘sehaj’ or natural equipoise, and of ‘liv’, or continuous connection with God. Sikhs will also explain ‘liv’ is a state of resonating with nāmNāmis an everyday Punjabi word for ‘name’.  It is also a word we use scripturally to name or identify God’s presence in the world:

Āpīnhai āp sājio, āpīnhai rachio nāo

Duī kudrat sājīai, kar āsan dittho chāo

God Himself created Himself,

He then created nām (the word of God) to dwell in everything.

Secondly, God brought Nature into being

Seated within it, He beholds it with delight [4]

From this we are informed that nāis God’s first creation (because nāboth identifies God and also is the force or energy of God’s presence, nāand God are One).  God’s second creation, then, is kudrat, nature or the created world.

It follows that the principles of harmony are reflected in the natural world, from the orbit of the planets to the microscopic levels of life of earth.  Indeed, as HRH Prince Charles underscores in his book entitled Harmony, we have much to learn from ‘Nature’s grammar’.  As Sikhs, we might see this as one aspect of dharam, the way everything is ordered and balanced in the world.  Yet dharam also carries the sense of a more cosmic, infinite ‘grammar’ or what I might call God’s divine order.  This reinforces our understanding that, as well as being an aesthetic, technical and scientific principle, harmony is, crucially, a sacred one too.

Whilst helping us to recognise harmony and balance in nature and the cosmos, the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji also return their focus on the human mind. They depict the state of an enlightened or liberated person, who is able to reach a point of inner equipoise and equilibrium by transcending the effects of different emotions which, ordinarily, pull us apart in different directions and also spin us out of balance:

Sukh dukh dono sam kar jānai, aour mān apmāna….

One who remains unaffected by pleasure or pain, honour and dishonour,

And one who remains detached from joy and sorrow, realises the true essence of life;

Renounce both praise and blame; transcending them, seek instead the state of liberation.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji states, to reach this state of equipoise is not an easy game;

In fact, rare are those elevated souls who achieve it. [5]

Metaphorically then, this state of balance and equilibrium promotes harmony within the inner consciousness.

Theme 4: A note on Harmony and education

The word ‘Sikh’ means a ‘learner’ or ‘disciple’ and hence the education of the mind underpins the teachings and practices which form the Sikh dharam.  As we have seen, harmony from the Sikh perspective is a process, a practice or way of being, where we continuously draw on our inner reserve of spiritual qualities to respond to the world and to shape the world with others. Harmony characterises the nature of thoughts and actions which flow from us, moment-to-moment, when we are able to recognise our own latent divinity and mindfully battle the traits of haumai which may cloud over this spiritual identity:

Man tūjyot sarūp hai, āpnāmūl pachhān…

My mind, you embody the divine flame

Recognise and realise your true essence [6]

The Sikh Gurus impressed upon people in all domains of life, from the classroom to the shop floor, from places of worship and places of learning to the offices of government and courts of emperors, that knowledge and learning were to no avail if they did not lead to this recognition and instead served as tools for the worst of human nature.  It is my hope that in this present unfolding century, we will move away from the exploitative use of knowledge, which has fuelled many sorts of social crises, and from mechanistic and functional views of education which can be traced to society’s industrial age.  In a new age of unprecedented diversity and interconnectivity, I hope the Sikh faith is able to contribute to education’s need to foster inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue in ways that help us to recognise – and importantly, act upon – our common humanity.  It is this vision which underlies the work of the Nishkam School Trust, of which I am a patron.

Conclusion

In this essay, as a practitioner of the Sikh dharam or faith, I have tried to share my humble understanding of the ingredients of a harmonious way of living.  It involves our sincere and practical effort to foster integrity of character, to embody spiritual virtues such as compassion, purity, contentment, humility and an abundance of love.  Disharmony, which is characterised by hypocrisy, exploitation and deceit, leads ultimately to multiple forms of material, social, environmental, psychological and emotional disorder and destruction.  From a Sikh perspective, harmony needs to be embraced in all spheres of life, from the secular to the sacred.  Our dedicated perseverance can then become a magnet for divine grace.  For Sikhs, this attraction of grace is harmony’s crowning quality.

 

[1]Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 145

[2]Asa Ki Var, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 468

[3]Guru Arjan Dev, Rag Sarang, Guru Granth Sahib p. 1219

[4]Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 463

[5]Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 219

[6]Guru Amardas Ji, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 441

 

Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia is third in line of Sikh spiritual leaders of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ). Bhai Sahib holds two Honorary Doctorates for service to religious faith propagation, community service, education and research. He holds nine Chairmanships, and an equal number of Trusteeships; four Directorships; and three Patronships of different Organisations. In the intra-faith context, Bhai Sahib is the Chairman of the British Sikh Consultative Forum for the past nine years (representing over 80 Gurudwaras and other Sikh organisations). He has had the privilege of conserving many historical places of worship / sacred shrines in Kenya and India. He is the first British Sikh to be awarded the title of ‘Bhai Sahib’ by the Jathedars of the five Takhats, jointly with the President of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee.

Photograph: Maureen Barlin

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Scroll to Top