The status of woman in relation to that of man in religious context is often discussed. Adherents of all faiths present a picture that shows that the woman enjoys the same status as man in their respective faiths. This article discusses the subject in the context of the Sikh faith based on the teachings as contained in the Sikh scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS). Its contents are called Gurbani, the Guru’s word.
Somehow whenever the status of women is discussed it is done with a defensive mindset by the Sikhs probably because followers of the other faiths do so. The verse from the Gurbani “So kio mandaa aakheeai jit jamahi raajan” meaning “how can one who gives birth to kings be looked down upon”, is often quoted.
It would be appropriate to refer to the woman as one who conceives, nurtures the fetus and brings into this world a new life and acts as the teacher. We should also appreciate the sensitivity of the fair sex. Sikh history also shows considerable contribution of women in various fields.
The verse mentioned above is from the following Slok of Guru Nanak:
ਭੰਡਿ ਜੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਨਿੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਮੰਗਣੁ ਵੀਆਹੁ ॥
ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੋਵੈ ਦੋਸਤੀ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਚਲੈ ਰਾਹੁ ॥
ਭੰਡੁ ਮੁਆ ਭੰਡੁ ਭਾਲੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਹੋਵੈ ਬੰਧਾਨੁ ॥
ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ ॥
ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੀ ਭੰਡੁ ਊਪਜੈ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਝੁ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਹਰਾ ਏਕੋ ਸਚਾ ਸੋਇ ॥ ੧੪੭੩
One is conceived in and born, from a woman, a woman is sought for engagement and marriage;
by contact between man and woman generations continue;
if the woman dies another is sought; through the woman are relations secured;
How can the woman who gives birth to kings be looked down upon?
The woman is born from a woman, none can be born sans woman;
The eternal Lord alone came not from a woman(M: 1, SGGS, p 473).
Continuation of life is not possible without the woman. Perhaps it is because he forgets the real importance of the female that the Sikh male tries only to explain lack of gender discrimination in the Sikh faith. Needless to say the status of the woman given in Gurbani is unique amongst all religions. According to the Semitic faiths the woman was created from the man’s rib (Old Testament – Genesis 2:22). In Hindu thought she is just the other half of the body of the man – Ardhaangni. Not so in Sikhi:
All women and men were created as part of the world-play;
You made them all, and made them well O Lord (M: 4, SGGS, p 304).
Both are good and the woman is mentioned first. If woman was created first the Creator alone knows.
The question of the Creator’s gender is also a subject of discussion. He is clearly shown as a male in Semitic scriptures. In Hindu faith both gods and goddesses are worshipped. According to Devi Mahatmyam, a collection of 700 Slokas on Durga and forming part of Markandeya Puraana, Durga is always available on call to help the devotees. According to Gurbani the Creator has no gender. Guru Nanak describes the Creator in the Sunn (still) state before creation came into being:
ਸੁੰਨ ਮੰਡਲ ਇਕੁ ਜੋਗੀ ਬੈਸੇ ॥ਨਾਰਿ ਨ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਕਹਹੁ ਕੋਊ ਕੈਸੇ ॥੧੬੮੫
The Creator sat still in meditation; hard to describe;
it is neither woman nor man (M: 1, SGGS, p 685).
This would seem to contradict the following description of God as the only male and all others as females:
ਇਸੁ ਜਗ ਮਹਿ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਏਕੁ ਹੈ ਹੋਰ ਸਗਲੀ ਨਾਰਿ ਸਬਾਈ ॥ ਸਭਿ ਘਟ ਭੋਗਵੈ ਅਲਿਪਤੁ ਰਹੈ ਅਲਖੁ ਨ ਲਖਣਾ ਜਾਈ ॥੩੫੯੨
There is only one male in this universe; all others are females;
Is present in all bodies but is still detached; He cannot be described (M: 3, SGGS, p 592)
This description of the relationship between the Creator and the creatures is based on the female characteristic of longing for the beloved when he is away and represents the sensitivity of the female as discussed below.
Gurbani describes the roles of both genders without any bias. This is done by identifying the characteristics and roles of both as two wheels of the life-carriage. In physical strength man is stronger, in emotional strength woman is unmatched. Man can do hard jobs; the woman does not get bored with repetitive jobs and so on. Physically woman needs man’s protection and reverse is the case for emotional support. For procreation they have their roles e.g. both parents are required for life to evolve but the mother alone nurtures it:
ਮਾਤ ਪਿਤਾ ਸੰਜੋਗਿ ਉਪਾਏ ਰਕਤੁ ਬਿੰਦੁ ਮਿਲਿ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਕਰੇ ॥
ਅੰਤਰਿ ਗਰਭ ਉਰਧਿ ਲਿਵ ਲਾਗੀ ਸੋ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਸਾਰੇ ਦਾਤਿ ਕਰੇ ॥੧॥੧੧੦੧੩
The fetus is formed by the union of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm;
Positioned head-down in the mother’s womb the fetus is conscious of God who sustains it (M: 1, SGGS, p 1103).
By the great miracle of nature, before the baby is born, the mother gets milk in her breasts to feed the newcomer:
ਖੀਰ ਅਧਾਰਿ ਬਾਰਿਕੁ ਜਬ ਹੋਤਾ ਬਿਨੁ ਖੀਰੈ ਰਹਨੁ ਨ ਜਾਈ ॥
ਸਾਰਿ ਸਮ੍ਹ੍ਹਾਲਿ ਮਾਤਾ ਮੁਖਿ ਨੀਰੈ ਤਬ ਓਹੁ ਤ੍ਰਿਪਤਿ ਅਘਾਈ ॥੧॥ ੫੧੨੬੬
When the baby feeds on mother’s milk alone and cannot do without it;
The mother remembers to feed it and it is satisfied (M:5, SGGS, p 1266).
During upbringing of the child the mother acts as the teacher and the father the provider as part of truthful living. Gurbani advises the child:
ਮਾਤਾ ਮਤਿ ਪਿਤਾ ਸੰਤੋਖੁ ॥ ਸਤੁ ਭਾਈ ਕਰਿ ਏਹੁ ਵਿਸੇਖੁ ॥ ੧ ੧੫੧
Make wisdom your mother, contentment the father;
and truthful living the siblings (M: 1, SGGS, p 151)
In the process of growth the child makes natural mistakes and some times shows anger. The mother and father address these with their respective chracteristics, the mother of tender love and the father also being harsh when needed. These are taught by Gurbani in the context of God acting as mother and father. First the mother:
ਸੁਤੁ ਅਪਰਾਧ ਕਰਤ ਹੈ ਜੇਤੇ ॥ ਜਨਨੀ ਚੀਤਿ ਨ ਰਾਖਸਿ ਤੇਤੇ ॥੧॥ਰਾਮਈਆਹਉ ਬਾਰਿਕੁ ਤੇਰਾ ॥ ਕਾਹੇ ਨ ਖੰਡਸਿ ਅਵਗਨੁ ਮੇਰਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ ਜੇ ਅਤਿ ਕ੍ਰੋਪ ਕਰੇ ਕਰਿ ਧਾਇਆ ॥ ਤਾ ਭੀ ਚੀਤਿ ਨ ਰਾਖਸਿ ਮਾਇਆ ॥੨॥ਕ ੪੭੮
The mother overlooks whatever faults the child commits;
O Lord I am Your child please relieve me of my faults: Pause:
If the child comes running in rage, even then the mother overlooks (Kabir, SGGS, p 478).
And the father:
The way the child naturally makes mistakes time and again;
the father advises it, reprimands it but then embraces it;
Similarly God forgives past mistakes and shows the way for the future(M: 5, SGGS, p 624).
The confidence which the child reposes in the mother because of her love is also brought out in Gurbani. Whenever it wants to convey inner feelings of what it loves, longs for, what disturbs it or it enjoys it tells the mother. These given by the fifth Guru are at pages 716 and 717 of SGGS, in Raag Todi.
ਮਾਈ ਮੇਰੇ ਮਨ ਕੀ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ॥॥ My mother I love this, p 716.
ਮਾਈ ਮੇਰੇ ਮਨ ਕੀ ਪਿਆਸ॥ My mother I long for this, p 716.
ਮਾਈ ਮਾਇਆ ਛਲੁ ॥ My mother maya is deception, it worries me, p 717.
ਮਾਈ ਚਰਨ ਗੁਰ ਮੀਠੇ ॥ My mother I enjoy being at the Guru’s feet, p 717.
ਮਾਈ ਮੇਰੇ ਮਨ ਕੋ ਸੁਖੁ ॥My mother I am contented, p 717.
The sensitivity of the female gender is also brought out in history. We know that the first person who recognized divinity in Guru Nanak was Baybay Nanaki, his sister. She was the first Sikh of Guru Nanak. She was also the one who moderated their father whenever he was annoyed with his son for the latter’s ‘strange’ ways.
In Panjab a daughter addresses her father as Babul out of affection. This expression is used in the songs connected with the wedding and are mentioned in Raag Soohi in SGGS, which deals with such issues. This word is not heard being used by the sons. The tender love and the pride the daughter has are not matched by the sons. In fact it is recognized that daughters uphold the honor and respect of their families more than the sons do. For the daughter her father has all the virtues. Gurbani displays this in the devotee’s love for God, the father:
ਬਾਬੁਲੁ ਮੇਰਾ ਵਡ ਸਮਰਥਾ ਕਰਣ ਕਾਰਣ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਹਾਰਾ ॥ ੫੭੭੮
My father is all powerful, the Lord can do any thing (M:5, SGGS, p 778).
Sensitivity of the mother was also brought ot when the mother of the Khalsa, Mata Sahib Kaur, felt it was necessary to add sweetness a to the Amrit being prepared by the tenth Guru on Baisakhi of 1699 CE and added puffed sugar wafers (Ptaasaas) to it. This sweetness symbolized the saintliness added to valor making the Khalsa saint soldiers.
There are many examples of women who made significant contributions to Sikh history. Mata Tripta was Guru Nanak’s mother and guide. Mata Sulakhni Guru Nanak’s wife encouraged the Guru in his pursuits and looked after their sons during the Guru’s long sojourns away from home. Mata Kheevi the second Guru’s wife contributed towards establishing the Langar or community kitchen. Mata Ganga wife of the fifth Guru gave full support to the Guru in establishing and serving the institution of the Sadh Sangat as we see it now. Mata Gujri wife of the ninth and mother of the tenth Guru gave support to the younger sons of the tenth Guru when they were being subjected to immense pressure that they withstood with courage, ultimately embracing martyrdom. Mata Jeeto (Ajit Kaur) the tenth Guru’s wife guided the Khalsa after the Guru’s ascension from this world.
Maaee Bhago motivated the forty Sikhs, who had earlier deserted the Guru at Anand Pur Sahib, to fight for him at Mukatsar. Sada Kaur fought along with her son-in law Ranjit Singh to establish the Sikh kingdom. Rani Jindaan (Jind Kaur) led the Sikhs’ resistance tot annexation of the Punjab which was delayed by about 100 years after the rest of India had been annexed.
Except for the aspect of goddess worship in Hinduism women of other faiths have a status lower than man. For example the Bible says:
Likewise, ye wives be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives (1 Peter 3:1).
The Quran tells men:
Your wives are a tilth for you, so go into your tilth when you like, and do good beforehand for yourselves, and be careful (of your duty) to Allah, and know that you will meet Him, and give good news to the believers (Quran 2:223).
Tilth means cultivated land.
Gurbani does not envisage unequal status to woman and man but asks them to be in harmony. According to Gurmat husband and wife are two bodies but one soul – two souls that merge with each other to become one:
ਧਨ ਪਿਰੁ ਏਹਿ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਨਿ ਬਹਨਿ ਇਕਠੇ ਹੋਇ ॥
ਏਕ ਜੋਤਿ ਦੁਇ ਮੂਰਤੀ ਧਨ ਪਿਰੁ ਕਹੀਐ ਸੋਇ ॥੩॥੩੭੮੮
Wife and husband are not those who just live together.
Only when the two are same in spirit are they are called husband and wife (M: 3, SGGS, p 788
According to Vishnu Smriti a Hindu woman should die along with her husband by burning herself on the husband’s funeral pyre, this is referred to as the practice of Satee or being virtuous:
Now the duties of a woman (are) … After the death of her husband, to preserve her chastity, or to ascend the pile after him (Vishnu Smriti, 25-14).
This was not only unjustified but also became a social evil because the relatives wanted the woman to die so that they could grab her husband’s estate. The third Guru taught thus:
ਸਤੀਆ ਏਹਿ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਨਿ ਜੋ ਮੜਿਆ ਲਗਿ ਜਲੰਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਸਤੀਆ ਜਾਣੀਅਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ਜਿ ਬਿਰਹੇ ਚੋਟ ਮਰੰਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ॥੧॥੩੭੮੭
Virtuous wives are not those who burn themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre;
Those truly are virtuous who die due to the blow of separation (M: 3, SGGS, p 787).
Generally speaking it is only man who is thought to violate the fidelity between spouses. While Gurbani also says that it also points out that certaim women do the same. Using the metaphor of Akk, Neem and Toomer that look good at first sight but are bitter, man is told:
ਪਲਕ ਦ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ ਦੇਖਿ ਭੂਲੋ ਆਕ ਨੀਮ ਕੋ ਤੂੰਮਰੁ ॥ ਜੈਸਾ ਸੰਗੁ ਬਿਸੀਅਰ ਸਿਉ ਹੈ ਰੇ ਤੈਸੋ ਹੀ ਇਹੁ ਪਰ ਗ੍ਰਿਹੁ ॥੨॥੫ ੪੦੩
At first sight you are deceived by the good looks of Akk, Neem and Toomer;
Remember, company of another’s spouse is like that of a snake (M: 5, p 403).
Gurbani also castigates a woman who wears provocative apparel or make-up to entice other men. This make-up is exemplified by the color Sooha or bright red and is called evil in Gurbani:
ਸੂਹੈ ਵੇਸਿ ਦੋਹਾਗਣੀ ਪਰ ਪਿਰੁ ਰਾਵਣ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਪਿਰੁ ਛੋਡਿਆ ਘਰਿ ਆਪਣੈ ਮੋਹੀ ਦੂਜੈ ਭਾਇ ॥੫ ੭੮੫
A woman who exhibiting herself provocatively goes to partner another’s husband is unfortunate;
Leaving her husband she is attracted by another (M: 5, SGGS, 785).
Similarly on clothes:
ਬਾਬਾ ਹੋਰੁ ਪੈਨਣੁ ਖੁਸੀ ਖੁਆਰੁ ॥
ਜਿਤੁ ਪੈਧੈ ਤਨੁ ਪੀੜੀਐ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਚਲਹਿ ਵਿਕਾਰ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥੧੧੬
Such clothes please but create frustration;
That are tougt on the body and create vicious thoughts (M: 1, SGGS, p 16).
The naming pattern of males and females amongst the Sikhs is interesting; the names are gender-neutral. There are both boys and girls with the first name like Gurpreet, Mohinder, Prabhjot, Harpreet, Joginder and so on. The male name ends with Singh meaning a lion while that of a female with Kaur meaning a prince (not princess).
In India the expression Joroo da Gulaam (Wife’s servant) is commonly heard. It is a good thing if this means that the husband listens to the wife. However the expression also represents a man doing this for his weakness to lust. Gurbani cautions against this:
ਮਨਮੁਖਾ ਦੈ ਸਿਰਿ ਜੋਰਾ ਅਮਰੁ ਹੈ ਨਿਤ ਦੇਵਹਿ ਭਲਾ ॥
ਜੋਰਾ ਦਾ ਆਖਿਆ ਪੁਰਖ ਕਮਾਵਦੇ ਸੇ ਅਪਵਿਤ ਅਮੇਧ ਖਲਾ ॥
ਕਾਮਿ ਵਿਆਪੇ ਕੁਸੁਧ ਨਰ ਸੇ ਜੋਰਾ ਪੁਛਿ ਚਲਾ ॥
ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਕੈ ਆਖਿਐ ਜੋ ਚਲੈ ਸੋ ਸਤਿ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਭਲ ਭਲਾ ॥ ੪ ੩੦੪
The self oriented are controlled by their wives and they please them;
Being stupid and of soiled conduct the man obeys the wife;
It is because of lust and impure mind that the man asks the wife what to do next;
One who follows the guru’s instructions is truly good (M: 4, SGGS, p 304).
Man and woman should therefore lead a balanced family life.
Let us therefore say that woman and man have equal importance in practical life. Life is incomplete in the absence of the other.