Sikhi: A Nonconformist’s Religion

Guest blogged by Gunita Kaur Singh

Being a nonconformist builds character, but only when it is exercised within a certain framework of values. A prime example of this lifestyle is embodied within the Sikh religion.

Gunita's father

Gunita’s father

Sikhism is very progressive for it allows the practitioner freedom from dogmatism, hence distinguishing it from other religions. However, it is encouraged to use said freedom for the purpose of enhancing a Sikh’s devotion to God and truthful living.

Guru Nanak was a definite nonconformist during his time because he spoke out against the subjugation of women to men, the anthropocentric concept of God, and the prominence of ritualism. The release from these binding ideals gives a Sikh the freedom to live her life as she wishes; even in simply viewing God as the universe itself, a Sikh must still appreciate and value God, but she has the ability to do so in the manner which is most personal and ideal for her mindset. This is the best example to depict nonconformity within a values framework.

Alan Keightley had said, “Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.”

Nanak realized this because a central idea which he would teach seekers of his knowledge was that we belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to us. This notion helps to emancipate individuals from the confinement of bodies, and transcend into spirit form. It also tells us that we never have to be marginalized to institutions or authoritarians.

This idea is so original because when other religions focused on physical rituals, Sikhism has always said that it is your internal commitments that count.

However, within this freedom, a Sikh still must not defy the principles of honesty, sharing and meditation.

Henry David Thoreau is renowned for posing the question, “What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected … compared with the discipline of always looking at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”

The Ten Gurus would definitely respect the posing of this question because it advocates going against the grain and not accepting things at face value. When Guru Nanak rejected the practice of rituals, it wasn’t because he deemed them tedious; it was because he came to the conclusion that they served no purpose; such acts cannot truly be indicative of someone’s devotion to God.

When Thoreau asks us to be “seers,” he is asking us to look beyond what we are told and think for ourselves. Nanak did just that.

Society has always had a way of detaching individuals from their true selves as we become more exposed to the mindsets of others. Our ideas become corrupt due to our affiliation with society as a whole. The act of resigning is a nonconformist idea, for you’re withdrawing yourself from generally accepted and mechanistic lifestyles.

For example, the ‘Indie’ film genre named as such, for it is independent of the more popular studio culture. When people in society deviate in a similar manner, they generally reject things such as materialism and certain impure social elements. Often times, people choose to go into seclusion, in which they reject convenient amenities like modern shelter.

Guru Angad sat in a room locked from outside near Khadur, Punjab, and meditated on God’s Name without any distraction or interruption. This is significant because he made a choice to distance himself from society, but in doing so, decided to use it as a chance to enhance his personal values.

This instance reflects another quote of Thoreau, which is: “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature, and has his senses still … I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude …” Thoreau’s most prevalently reiterated point is the value of leading a life of simplicity. He has tremendous faith in the notion that an individual who leads a simple life will be the one to garner the most contentment.

The Gurus also embraced this.

“The millions are awake enough for physical labour; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion … To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake.” This is one of Thoreau’s most profound assertions.

It is comparable to Guru Ram Das Ji’s instructions in the Guru Granth Sahib: “One who calls himself a Sikh of the True Guru shall get up early morning and meditate on the Lord’s Name … Meditating on God, all misdeeds, sins and pains shall go away.”

Guru Ram Das is best known for implementing structure into Sikhism. So, in order to be truly awake, these patterns of meditation and refinement need to be practiced.

In Christianity, a mere “confessional” will eradicate your sins, but Ram Das knew that discipline is a key component to attaining salvation. While Sikhism gives tremendous amounts of freedom, discipline is still principal.

Because “the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind,” as proclaimed by Thoreau, proactive individuals must be able to make a conscious effort in choosing what to acquaint themselves with and where their priorities should lie if they are to reject conventional lifestyles. The Gurus were able to do this because they exercised a thoughtful dedication toward both the realization of truth, and truthful living, which Nanak said were the key ingredients to enlightenment.

Punk philosophy is concerned with the value of the individual, and how modern society places unfair and ludicrous restraints on them. Being a nonconformist in the Punk sense entails deeming these absurd restraints negligible: respecting the respectable standards, tolerating the tolerable ones, and breaking the unfair ones.

Guru Nanak said in 1499 that “it is a woman who keeps the race going” and that we should not “consider woman cursed and condemned, when from woman are born leaders and rulers.” He saw the subjugation of women to be unjust, and subsequently made an effort to reform women’s place in society.

Guru Amar Das also condemned the wearing of the veil and female infanticide. He spoke against the custom of sati, and permitted the remarrying of widows. Out of 146 missionaries chosen, the Guru appointed 52 women to spread the message of Sikhism, and out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the preaching of Sikhism, four were women.

This progressiveness is a very Punk idea because it revolves around equality and also pushing the social norm.


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38 Responses to “Sikhi: A Nonconformist’s Religion”

  1. punkette says:

    so Sikhi is like Punk? i thought Punk was about commodifying rebellion and selling it to the masses?

    • parmjit singh says:

      Perhaps you thought a tad out of context. Great article gks, thank you.

    • Gunita says:

      Definitely not what the spirit of Punk is about! Just because something gets commercialized (take the keffiyeh for example – and what is originally represented) doesn't mean that at it's core it didn't originate to benefit the human spirit and society in a fundamental way.

      • punkette says:

        that's a very idealistic view of what punk is/was all about. as someone who has been involved in the scene i would say it is more about self-indulgent nihilism and individual ego satisfaction. i don't think that's what sikhi is about.

        • Gunita says:

          Any complex culture has a wide spectrum of components. There's the aspect of Punk filled with crusty gutter-dwellers and there are also Buddhist Punks (Noah Levine/Brad Warner) and those with PhDs like Greg Graffin. Neither extreme is an accurate reflection of the core of the subculture. Instead of vehemently defending punk as something nihilistic maybe you can try and see the connections between how Sikhism asks you to reject unfair social norms just as Jello Biafra does.
          Peace.

          • punkette says:

            where was i "vehemently defending punk"? i don't think there's much about punk that's worth "defending" at all. it seems like you're the one in a defensive posture. now you're comparing the teachings of Guru Nanak with Jello Biafra? That's probably what i take issue with.

  2. Pavita says:

    Very creative article, and an innovative way of thinking about Sikhism. I agree with your idea that any complex culture has a wide spectrum of components.

  3. jesse says:

    Very well written Gunita. Your parallels are insightful.

  4. Princy says:

    Gunita, great piece of writing – as usual. You don't see the things from the typical narrow viewpoint.

  5. ilene kaur says:

    i love the idea that "we belong to no one, & no one belongs to us." i read a great book about christian spirituality recently which says that the path of faith frees us from the need to impose our will onto others… i think this is something beautifully expressed in gurbani & something i love about sikhi. "what do we know of what will happen hereafter? whatever pleases Him will come to pass. there is no other Doer except Him" (sggs 154). i think a big part of the punk movement (in my understanding), & of many other movements like it, is their emphasis on cultivating ethical individuality. in sikhi, this is expressed in the shabad i quoted… through Guru's grace we are freed from the need to "belong to," "do," or "be" anything. i choose to "be" a Sikh just like some people choose to "be" punk, but ultimately those are all the will of God. letting that be & accepting Guru's hukam is such a powerful feeling… the feeling of "being" who you truly are. it's a beautiful article, Gunita ji.

  6. East Coast says:

    If Sikhi is the same as punk then I guess we don't need to listen to Gurbani anymore. We can just listen to the Sex Pistols.

    • Princy says:

      You are so missing the point. Who says we shouldn't listen to Gurbani? Sad that this is what you came away with after reading the article.

      • East Coast says:

        Why don't you tell me what the point is then? I don't see much common ground between the values espoused by Gurbani and the values espoused by punk rock.

    • Gunita says:

      Did you even read my post? "Guru Ram Das is best known for implementing structure into Sikhism. So, in order to be truly awake, these patterns of meditation and refinement need to be practiced."

      Clearly I never said that anything traditionally Sikh like reading Gurbani needs to be supplanted with something else :( I am astonished at how hostile some of these comments are. Isn't this a place for respectful, Socratic discussion instead of making bizarre claims and connecting dots that don't exist? Punk has shaped my political core and Sikhi my spiritual core, both help me to be the best version of myself every day. Goodness, can't anyone appreciate that without assuming that I am trying to belittle Sikhism and its remarkable values? I value constructive criticism tremendously, but perhaps you could try infusing some of the "constructive" part into your feedback. It would be really appreciated.
      Peace.

  7. Sher says:

    Sikhism – non-conformist religion, well, it's a classic oxymoron as to be identified as a Sabit Surat Sikh (as per the SGPC definition, with HIS unshorn hair, turban, kara, kaccha..) is nothing but personification of conformism.

    Dictionary meaning of Conformism: the act or practice of conforming, as to social convention, religious orthodoxy, or established political belief, — conformist, n., adj.

    • East Coast says:

      Punk rock is just as conformist. How many punks have you seen with blue spiked hair? Or a black leather jacket with a band's name written on it? They have uniforms just like any other group.

      • Gunita says:

        A culture is more than its physical attributes. I don't wear "black leather jackets" because I'm vegan and respect all life. Sikhism is what taught me about equality in the first place. Just as a Sikh can be a Sikh with short hair and a punk can be a punk with a sweater vest, it's your values that matter most. I happen to see parallels between the the two cultures, I respect that you don't, but I joined TLH because I wanted constructive feedback, not bickering. Please respect that.

        Peace.

        • Sean says:

          “What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected … compared with the discipline of always looking at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”
          ….."This idea is so original because when other religions focused on physical rituals, Sikhism has always said that it is your internal commitments that count"

          Gunita talked about this in the quotes above. Anyways I feel like a lot of importance is being placed on uniform and attire here. Just like you said, a "confessional" is not going to eradicate anyone of any sins. The same way a uniform can never define anyone. I'm beginning to think uniforms are what people are started to define themselves by. When someone's purpose isn't readily identified by their uniform they choose not to wear are scrutinized by everyone that does wear it. I used to wear a uniform, and even though I never did any of the things that my uniform was for I felt more connected to the cause. Now I don't wear a uniform and I feel less connected even though I represent everything the uniform was supposed to represent, which is unfortunate.

        • Sher says:

          Sorry Gunita but your assertion "Just as a Sikh can be a Sikh with short hair.." is wrong. We know very well that a Sikh with shorn hair is called a patit. Read SGPC definition of Sikh and you would agree with me that to be identified as a Sikh in this age, one has to conform.

          • Maddie says:

            I am amazed at how much hostility is going on here. It is absolutely possible to disagree with a post without belittling it, or calling it "wrong."
            If people keep an open mind and think outside the box, they can see that Gunita has some innovative and interesting thoughts.

          • Sher says:

            Maddie, I did not call her post wrong but just one line that a person with short hair can also be a Sikh.

          • Princy says:

            I agree with Maddie – to tell someone they are "wrong" for expressing their opinion is a little scary. Members of the SGPC are just people – like us – but they believe they have the power to tell people how they should think and behave. They are not a paragon of virtue. The SGPC is the same group which perpetuates gender discrimination among Siks. I don't have much respect for this group. While I think there should be some obvious guidelines of conduct, I try and adhere to the wisdom that our Gurus have shared with us. Remember a Sikh is a student, so we are all at different stages of commitment and spiritual evolution.

          • sanehval says:

            This reminds me of a religion I learned about in school called Hinduism in which one has to conform to being a brahmin man to be "a good Hindu".

          • Sher says:

            Hahaha! Really? i bet the school you had gone to would have closed down soon after you passed out, such trash thinking

  8. East Coast says:

    Sikhi certainly has the potential for progressive action, but how often does it really meet that potential? How are women actually treated in Sikhi?

  9. Paramjit says:

    It is understandable that our instinct is to be sensitive about a subject matter where the correlation isn't obvious. However there are beautiful and true sentiments presented here which, if we keep an open mind, we can be inspired by.

  10. ilene kaur says:

    i think that, during the time in which sikhism was born, its inception represented many values related to nonconformity– just as punk did when it came about. while (as East Coast discussed) these values may or may not be implemented today (such as women not being allowed to do path/kirtan in Harmandir Sahib, & other clear violations of the Gurus' imperative of equality today), i do believe that in its context sikhism is very much a movement of nonconformity as Gunita Ji suggests. Guru Nanak Dev Ji deviated from societal norms at every turn– including women in his table fellowship, speaking out against the traditions of ritual that were so entrenched in his era, and speaking the words "na koi hindu na koi musulman" during a time in which religious differences were regarded as highly relevant to how people were treated in society. Guru Gobind Singh Ji embodied his belief in nonconformity when he gave Sikhs the names Singh and Kaur, showing his lack of regard for surnames that represented caste, an institution used to stratify society in ways that he saw as unfair and unimportant. Guru Gobind Singh Ji also told the Sikhs to be "niara," specially identified– different from other people, not conforming to what mainstream society dictates. i think this might be what Gunita Ji is referring to when she characterizes Sikhi as a nonconformist's religion. it's definitely true that anything can be turned into a system of conformity– even systems like punk which seem to be based on the premise of nonconformity itself. my belief, though, is that the Gurus were nonconformists, creating and advocating a niara way of life for a different kind of people– a people who didn't need rules of purity and pollution or systems of caste and gender to show them how to live. that's what i love about Sikhi and what inspires me to live a different kind of life.

  11. Not holier than thou says:

    Gunita – excellent post. Very insightful, very out of the box. I will respond to the TWO key thoughts of your post: the non conformst attributes of Sikhism, and the comparison to punk.

    The founding values of Sikhism were VERY non-confomist to the prevailing norm. Equality, respect for women, voice against peresecution, rejection of caste system were ALL non conformis thoughts. They were NOT NEW. thoughts. But they surely were agianst the grain of the societal construct of the time.

    As for comparison to punk, it is totally appropriate as it pertains to non conformism. Every comparison has its limits (i..e., there are dissmilarities too, espeically as you go granular). Those who are contrradicting you in their comments are obviously focussed on dissimilarities. Let them,

  12. East Coast says:

    wow, some mad defensiveness going on here, vehemently defending the connection between…Sikhi and punk? OK. If that's what you need to tell yourself.

    My position is that, if you actually look at them beyond the most abstract generalizations, Sikhi and punk are not really emphasizing the same thing. I have yet to be convinced otherwise. But I am a Sikh, and as such am willing to listen to other points of view. With that I'll let my contribution to this thread rest.

  13. soft target says:

    it seems like there is a lot of talking past one another going on here without really addressing the underlying issues being raised. i think there legitimate points have been raised on both sides; there is no "right" or "wrong" here, it is really a matter of perspective.

    for me the main question here is what does punk add to sikhi that sikhi does not already have by itself?

  14. Harry says:

    Soft target- I think you misunderstood…Gunita is not saying that punk adds anything to Sikhi. She is just saying how both movements began by going against the grain.

  15. Citizen Singh says:

    This was a great piece. You should write here more often!

  16. Meeta Kaur says:

    This was a pleasure to read, Gunita. Keep it up!

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