Gurbani – A Sikh Solution to Female Feticide

It might partly be the scarcity of female voices and public female faces in the Sikh community that makes Nikky-imagining_the_fetus.jpgGuninder Kaur Singh’s so distinctive and refreshing. But in addition to her position as one of the few public female voices in the Sikh community, her original and creative work is really what makes Ms. Kaur-Singh so refreshing. As we have discussed in the past, in the context of “Relocating Gender in Sikh History,” the vast majority of Sikh history has been written by men. And thus, despite their best intentions, for the most part, women’s voice in Sikh history has been non-existent. It is silent.

In this realm of mostly male voices, Ms. Kaur-Singh has taken an original position on a much-needed project: to explore a feminist perspective in interpreting Gurbani. Many translations of Gurbani have been written, some of which are quite good, and others that are quite lacking (in terms of staying close to the feeling of the original shabad and being easily understandable for today’s audiences). One of the most popular translations today, if not the most popular, is Sikhi to the Max. It’s heavily used in gurdwaras, at weddings, and by individuals at home. And in this translation, the divine is interpreted as He/Him/Lord. Not only is this archaic, it creates a framework of masculinity that limits our understanding of Waheguru. The Sikh conception of gender embraces as well as goes beyond gender.

In a piece we discovered recently, Ms. Kaur-Singh contrasts current practices of sex-selective abortion with the place of the feminine within Gurbani. In a chapter of “Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture,” Ms. Kaur Singh orients readers with the history of sex-selection in Punjab. She then goes on to show how Gurbani holds the power to turn today’s practices on their head. In a few short pages, we are treated to a celebration of the feminine, reminded that our spirituality can focus on our source (the physical allegory of which is the mother) rather than its current infatuation with the end, and given a gender-neutral interpretation of excerpts of Gurbani which resonate as closer to a truer meaning than some other more widely used interpretations today.

Historical layers

Historically, sons have been important in South Asian culture, and phrases such as “May you be the mother of a hundred sons!” were common blessings. (p. 121) Historical coincidences of Mughal and British rule reinforced such patriarchal notions. Mughals introduced purdah while the caste system subjugated women to their husbands and considered them a source of pollution. It was against this background that the Gurus wrote their bani. Later, the current of masculinization continued as the British contributed Victorian morals and theorized a martial race into Punjab’s cultural fabric, glamorizing a hyper-masculine ideal. And finally, the Green Revolution relegated women to non-economic domestic work, where before they had worked in the fields and contributed to the family income. This historical process has left many practicing Sikhs content to leave the revolutionary feminism of the Gurus’ bani on the Guru’s pages, instead of bringing it alive for our entire community. Ms. Kaur-Singh’s work, for me, helps to bring alive the Guru’s revolution.

“In spite of its centrality in Sikh life, the feminist import of Sikh scripture has not been recognized, and as a result the literary symbols and social reality of the community exist in opposition. The vital poetic images revered on the Punjabi soil need to be concretized in Punjabi habits and customs. We must explore Sikh literature and utilize its fetal imagery to end gender-specific feticides.” (p. 124)

Imagery in the Guru Granth Sahib

“Female Feticide in Punjab and Fetus Imagery in Sikhism” highlights imagery of the womb and the feminine in Gurbani. Where Indian literature considered a menstruating woman polluted, Guru Nanak rejected this idea, writing “How can we call her polluted from whom the great ones are born?” The Guru Granth is replete with images of the womb, in various contexts. It is celebrated as the matrix for all life and living. “[T]he womb becomes a vital space for the Divine, and the fetus functions as a symbol for cultivating Sikh morality, spirituality, and aesthetics…affirm[ing] the category of birth that feminist theologians, philosophers, and psychologists find so critical.” (p. 124-5)

Embracing the source

The focus on the fetus “reinforces the generative power of the mother. She is the maternal continuum, one who retrieves the primacy of birth over death, and reaffirms the union of body and mind.” In this way, Sikh scripture highlights our source instead of having a narrow focus on the where the end of life leads. The Guru Granth Sahib Ji states, “[Y]ou yourself are born of the egg, from the womb, from sweat, from earth: you yourself are all the continents and all the worlds.” (p.127) Thus, the Guru Granth celebrates both our physical as well as metaphysical source.

This focus on our source is often lost in today’s conversations regarding Gurbani, which often focus on our present, future, or political past. Our source, where we come from, is integral to our identity- it is where our roots come from and informs much of who we are today. Ms. Kaur-Singh’s revival of it is a much-needed and powerful message. By highlighting how the Gurus celebrated motherhood and revered women as the source of creation, she celebrates the feminine and re-orients readers to our source.

Some Concluding Thoughts

In some way this is what differentiates Ms. Kaur-Singh’s work from all other works by academics on Sikhi. While others use sociological or historical methodologies, Ms. Kaur-Singh uses Gurbani as her prism into understanding Sikh theology and history. It is the work of a ‘lover of Gurbani’ and the Guru’s message that drives her activism and research – calling for Sikhs toexplore the Guru’s gift of Gurbani – to learn lessons from their past, draw inspiration in their present, and find solutions for their future.

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5 Responses to “Gurbani – A Sikh Solution to Female Feticide”

  1. […] See the rest here: Sikh literature combats female feticide […]

  2. […] a cesspool of social ill’s. The most repulsive of which has got to be the whole deal with female foeticide. Even now thinking of how or where begin to comment on the matter, is just boggling. How do you […]

  3. Tula says:

    I really enjoyed reading your insights and learning from your interesting and informative article. – Tula