Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sikh Unitarian Universalism

In 1858, the Unitarian magazine and review 'Christian Reformer' ran a section on the religious aspects of India, in which the author introduces Guru Nanak amidst a belligerently unapologetic justification of colonial rule. As far as I can tell, this brief confluence of the two traditions exhausts their degree of interaction for years to come. Primarily due to cultural and linguistic barriers (I suspect), Sikhism has remained largely unintelligible to and unexplored by Unitarian / Universalists.

This need not be. In a hastily inchoate fashion, I have outlined certain central tenets of Sikh spirituality below:

i) Simran: Meditation on and remembrance of the divine through prayer and introspection (naam japna), in an effort to overcome the temptations of the ego (lust, anger, attachment, greed, pride) and live in awareness of the Holy. The disposition should be cultivated individually and collectively - singing hymns of praise (kirtan) in fellowship (sangat). The scripture says: "Meditating, meditating, meditating in remembrance, I have found peace" [202].

ii) Human Equality: Among caste, gender, religion and ethnicity, as symbolized by the ritual of community kitchen (langar). The scripture advises: "Look upon all with the single eye of equality; in each and every heart, the Divine Light is contained" [599].

iii) Thoughtful Worship: Self-reflective practices of spiritual value (for baptized Sikhs, the five articles of faith or kakkars) that discipline the religious subject, as opposed to empty ritualism (e.g. sacrifice and penance), superstition and idolatry. Rejecting the Brahmin priest's sacrificial cotton thread, Guru Nanak opined: "Make compassion the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist. This is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on me" [461].

iv) Anti-Asceticism: Religion must encourage its followers to achieve union with God while engaged in worldly affairs (familial duties, relationships, occupation and education), by guiding them in the way of an honest and respectable livelihood (kirat karni). The scripture reads: "Those who understand the Lord’s Court, never suffer separation from him. The True Guru has imparted this understanding. They practice truth, self-restraint and good deeds" [1234].

v) Seva: Selfless service in the gurdwara and community at large, including sharing the fruits of one's labor with others in need (vand ke chakna) so as to work towards the common good of all (sarbat da bhalla). Rendered through physical (taan), mental (maan) and material (dhan) means. The scriptures explains: "One who performs selfless service, without thought of reward, shall attain his Lord and Master" [286].

vi) Gurprasad: Earning God's grace through good and righteous deeds, which attunes the individual to the will of the divine. The scriptures recount: "Having created the creation, He watches over it. By His Glance of Grace, He bestows happiness" [6].

vii) Waheguru: Neither male nor female, God exists both transcendently (nirankar) and immanently (sagun), filling darkness with light (gu-ru) - the Beloved, the teacher, the merciful and wise. The Mool Mantar reads: "One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By Guru's Grace."

Even this truncated description should make clear that similarities between Sikh theology and Unitarian Universalism abound. Resonances include:

i) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning within the self and among the community through reason, meditation and prayer.

ii) Affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

iii) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic principle in adjudicating meaningful worship and appropriate congregational activity.

iv) The call to social transformation through pragmatic involvement in the daily struggles of the disenfranchised, with the goal of building world community based on peace, liberty and justice for all.

v) Cultivating an appreciation and reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

So why encourage these two conversation partners? In my experience, Sikhism offers Unitarian Universalism a wealth of spiritual resources - including prayers (bani), hymns (kirtan) and stories (janamsakhis) - and a rich history of proclaiming the goodness of God and humanity in the face of brutality and oppression. Further, the Sikh concept of God deepens unitarian gestures towards a non-anthropomorphic monotheism that attends to human limitations and the power of language to write into being. Conversely, Unitarian Universalism presents Sikhism with a progressively inclusive venue for human flourishing that takes change seriously - ever refining the community's dedication to freedom, reason and tolerance. And it is precisely this latter element that bridges the two traditions: "Troubles are removed, when one meets with the Holy ... Adopting an attitude of tolerance, and gathering truth, partake of the Ambrosial Nectar of the Name." [261].

I hope to further explore this terrain in the future with mind, heart and soul alike.

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Rachel Stevenson said...

How do UU's go about making connections to sikhs.. and by this i mean in a social action/ interfaith sense. reading about sikhism is great but what if we were to come together as two faiths to do two types of work, social action work which is important to both of our groups and at the same time interfaith work by creating open dialouge for both faiths. But where do we go to meet sikhs and to make this happen?

Erik Resly said...

Your question is a great one, Rachel. No matter how much we read, everything comes down to relationship.

I would recommend that you search for the local Gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) and simply show up. Here are some guidelines about best practices: http://sikhism.about.com/od/gurdwaras/tp/Gurdwara.htm