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Karma, Equality and Sikh Discrimination

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

Article 5 – Equality and non-discrimination 

  1. States Parties recognize that all persons are equal before and under the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.
  2. States Parties shall prohibit all discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee to persons with disabilities equal and effective legal protection against discrimination on all grounds.
  3. In order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, States Parties shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.
  4. Specific measures which are necessary to accelerate or achieve de facto equality of persons with disabilities shall not be considered discrimination under the terms of the present Convention.

INTRODUCTION

The five beloved (Panj Piyare) ones who administer Khande di Pahul should not include a disabled person, such as a person who is blind or blind in one eye, lame, one with a broken or disabled limb, or one suffering from some chronic disease. – SGPC Rehat Maryada

The practice of equality is seen as an integral part of Sikhism. Many Sikhs believe that this right ought to be exercised unconditionally so as to oppose all forms of oppressive and discriminatory social constructs, such as, social class, external appearance, and gender among others.

They are quick to point to the example of their Gurus who were especially strict, for example, in their condemnation of and efforts towards eradicating the discriminatory caste system of Hinduism, which was considered the very epitomisation of inequality. Sardar Jasleen Singh emphatically declares that the “superficial caste system was rejected by Guru Nanak along with the inferior status of women, and he replaced it by equality for all [1] (bold, underline ours).

This paper, on the other hand, will argue that Sikhism, by its own practical standards, fails to fulfil such an impracticable right because of the inherent problems associated with its implementation.

This will be done by examining the well-known Sikh ritual called Amrit Sanskar (Nectar Ceremony), or Khande di Pahul (Ceremony of the Double-Edged Sword), in order to show that Sikhs are guilty of paying empty lip-service by exercising double standards and consequently discriminating against, and thus marginalising, their own co-religionists.

THE DISCRIMINATORY KHANDE DI PAHUL

No one can escape the consequences of one’s deeds or Karmas.

Khande di Pahul, also known as Amrit Pahul, is an important baptismal ceremony which admits the initiate with formal rites into the Khalsa Panth (pure; movement, path). [2] In the case of this research, however, we are not concerned so much with the ceremony’s significance as we are a particular part of the ritual which seems to violate the “equality for all” claim.

Specific details regarding the ritualistic procedure have been explained in a number of works. Arguably the most important in Sikhdom is the current Rahit Maryada, or the official Code of Conduct, published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Prof Avtar Singh gives the following short historical summary of its development and publication:

A sub-committee of Sikh conduct conventions (rahureet) was set up with its terms of reference prescribed to consolidate the rules for the individual Sikh and the Sikh’s Gurdwara (place of worship). The report was submitted on 1st October, 1932 by Teja Singh, convener of the committee. Various bodies of the Sikhs considered this report and suggested some amendments and finally the report was approved in the year 1945, that is, after about fourteen years’ of its submission and was subsequently published by Shiromani Gurdwara Committee. [3]

Although the professor clarifies that the Rahit Maryada “does not attempt to lay down all the detailed principles of the Sikh ethics for the obvious reason that its role is mostly explanatory and in the ultimate analysis the Adi Granth is the final and complete guide”, he, nevertheless, recognises and acknowledges both the scale, magnitude and grandeur of the project, as well as its universal acceptance and importance within Sikhdom:

One is indeed impressed by the number of persons consulted and the dynamism of its compilers for whom the main consideration appears to have been to judge whether or not any particular traditions was in conformity with the general tenets of Sikhism. …
A fruitful result of this long and important work by the committee is that we have now a code comprising of thirty seven pages of text laying down general principles meant to guide the Sikhs in the performance of their organisational duties. …

The Sikh Rahit Maryada, which is the result of the above deliberations by the Sikhs themselves, by virtue of the above principle, occupies a highly respected place and validity in Sikhism. [4] (bold ours)

In fact, according to the following prominent Sikh scholars, the significance of the Rahit Maryada is such that Prof Nirbhai Singh, for example, declared:

What is the status of Sikh moral conduct (rahit maryada)? The tradition of rahit maryada is derived from the Guru Granth but ethos, customs, conventions, and the norms of rahit maryada are institutionalized. These norms are primarily derived from the eternal values of the Sikh Scripture, but other historical factors also play their vital role. It is application to divinity (eternity) that reflects in history. [5] (bold, underline ours)

Whereas Prof Harnam Singh Shan emphasised that since its approval in 1945, the Code has been “accepted as an authoritative manual and regarded as the standard guide for the WHOLE COMMUNITY [6] (bold, underline, capitalisation ours).

In turning, then, to the details of this ceremony as found in the SGPC’s Rahit Maryada, we are confronted by the following problematic clause:

b. The five beloved (Panj Piyare) ones who administer Khande di Pahul should not include a disabled person, such as a person who is blind or blind in one eye, lame, one with a broken or disabled limb, or one suffering from some chronic disease. … All of them should be committed Amritdhari Sikhs with appealing personalities. [7] (bold, underline ours)

The Panj Pyare are not to be one-eyed, [or] bald. – Damdami Taksaal’s Gurmat Rahit Maryada

While describing SGPC as “the premier statutory Body of the Sikhs” who “have the general approval of the theologians, head-priests of Sikh Seats of Authority, called ‘the Thrones, takhats, and Sikh congregations in various parts of India, and other parts of the world, such a Malaya, Canada, Burma, U.S.A., and Africa”, [8] the well-known Sikh scholar, Sirdar Kapur Singh, also delineates the organisation’s “Rules and Regulations” for said ceremony by repeating:

None of the five, who have to prepare and administer the Amrit, should be physically defective, such as, one-eyed, lame, blind, paralytic, or suffering from any unseemly, serious or chronic disease. They should all be of good physique, good health and good bearing. [9]

Similarly, in its own uniquely distinct Gurmat Rahit Maryada, the Damdami Taksaal unequivocally declares that “[t]he Panj Pyare are not to be one-eyed, [or] bald” because:

From those that we get initiated from – we take some of their virtues as this is what they invest in the Amrit, that is why someone of high Sikhi discipline is to be sought to get initiated from.”

What this effectively implies is that a person with a particular impairment or one who is naturally bald, cannot be considered in Sikhism to possess “high Sikhi discipline” and, therefore, can never be of the Panj Pyare. In addition, to make certain that these officiates fit this criterion, the Jathedar [10] questions them individually during which they “face the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Jee and reply humbly that with the Guru Jee’s blessing … I am physically complete, fit and healthy …. After the questioning is over – if all are suitable, one Singh becomes the Granthi Singh and the rest join the Jathedar in becoming Panj Pyare”. [11]

Prof Waqar Ihsan-Ullah Ahmad of Middlesex University in Britain has conducted extensive research into the issue of race, health and social care. He cites:

Impairment is defined as an imperfection or loss of function of an organ or limb. Disability refers to the stigma attached to individuals who have impairments and the consequent marginalization and discrimination experienced by people with impairments (Oliver 1990; Swain et al. 1993).

In light of this definition, the fact that “a whole class of people (with impairments) … systematically disadvantages them compared to the mainstream of society” vis-á-vis the Amrit ceremony is a proof of “disablist marginalization”. [12]

Thankfully, such marginalisation has not gone unnoticed by other more conscientious Sikhs. For example, in his article published on the Singh Sabha of New York Inc. website, Mohan Singh laments:

The current Sikh Maryada (the Code of Sikh Conduct) is a document that reflects no compassion for the disabled and sick. It denies the physically disabled the rights to perform the duties of high importance. A faith that prides its stand on the rights of others is now perpetrating injustice on its own.

Unfortunately, indifference to the disabled is institutionalized by a prescribed code of conduct. From what seems to be evident, the Sikh Maryada not only promotes, but also requires this attitude. (bold, underline ours)

In reply to Mohan’s email inquiring over this injustice, this “premier statutory Body of the Sikhs”, viz. the SGPC, callously responds:

Mohan Virick ji,

Waheguru ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru ji Ki Fateh

Thank you for your email.

According to the code of Sikh Conduct and conventions (Section six) Page 34. The five beloved ones administer ambrosial baptism should not include a disabled person such as a person who blind, lame, one with broken or disabled limb or one suffering from some chronic diseases. We should obey the Sikh code of Conduct. [sic]

Regards.
In charge,
Internet Office,
SGPC, Amritsar.
(Reproduced unedited)

What more is there to be said? Sikhs are expected to “obey the Sikh code of Conduct”; period. In other words, Sikhs are expected to marginalise the disabled and those suffering from chronic diseases and, thus, discriminate against them. So much for “equality for all”.

As can be imagined, Mohan is unimpressed to say the least and correctly observes:

This note has many disturbing flaws besides its language skills. If this practice is indeed enshrined in law, our progressive faith contravenes the very universal United Nations Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. …

This is a basic premise in all civilized societies that no one is denied any rights based on physical disabilities. [13]

The United Nations (UN) has a human rights body called the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which has ratified a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention’s preamble includes:

(h) Recognizing also that discrimination against any person on the basis of disability is a violation of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person …

(p) Concerned about the difficult conditions faced by persons with disabilities who are subject to multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, property, birth, age or other status.

All States signatories to this Convention, including India which signed on 30 March 2007, are, therefore, subject to the following criteria:

Article 5 – Equality and non-discrimination 

  1. States Parties recognize that all persons are equal before and under the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.
  2. States Parties shall prohibit all discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee to persons with disabilities equal and effective legal protection against discrimination on all grounds.
  3. In order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, States Parties shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.
  4. Specific measures which are necessary to accelerate or achieve de facto equality of persons with disabilities shall not be considered discrimination under the terms of the present Convention. [14]

However, far from prohibiting or eliminating all such forms of discrimination against the disabled community, Sikhism is guilty of actively promoting it while hypocritically espousing the opposite view.

What is more, given that the SGPC administers the Golden Temple, the sanctum sanctorum of Sikhdom, situated in Amritsar, one wonders whether the Indian government is aware of this incriminatory law, and, if so, whether it has taken any steps towards holding the SGPC to account?

Given that the Amrit ceremony comprises a series of peculiar rituals which include, among other things, “each petitioner … required to fix his gaze, with open unwinking eyes, into the open unwinking eyes of the Amrit administering officiant” it could be argued that only an Amrit-administering officiant with fully functioning eyes would be able to fulfil this condition and, thus, properly fulfil the baptismal rites. However, this argument is self-defeating because if such a disability is not considered an impediment for the petitioner, then the same must also be true of the officiant. That is to say, if baptism is not hindered by a blind or one-eyed petitioner staring unblinkingly into the eyes of the officiant, then the same would be true for the officiant, thus, rendering this condition meaningless.

Moreover, during the administration of the Amrit, the officiant is required to “dip his right hand into the bowl and pour about an ounce of Amrit into the cupped right hand of the petitioner, which the petitioner should hold up with the out-stretched left hand as its base”. [15] However, given that a person without a right hand is presumably not barred from becoming baptised, the suggestion that the officiant must necessarily have a right hand for the proper completion of the ceremony is again self-defeating.

Further to this, if it be argued that these are unimportant formalities that can easily be overlooked, then why not amend the offensive tenet altogether by expunging those discriminatory clauses?

In order to be consistent, it would have to be concluded that any Sikh who does not possess the ideal physique required to properly fulfil the rites of the Amrit ceremony in toto can never have the opportunity of becoming one of the Panj Pyarai.

But, what was the original reason for including and advocating such a rigid and inflexible rule which not only positively discriminates against disabled or chronically ill persons, but also directly opposes what many Sikhs constantly peddle as one of their religion’s most important laws: the right to equality? If this is a continuation of the Khalsa tradition established by Gobind Singh, then such a right is certainly negated in this regard. Either equality in Sikhism exists as an absolute rule for all people of all times, or it does not and people with impairments, even if they could under more equitable circumstances fulfil these stringent conditions to the best of their ability, must be marginalised and discriminated against.

Being a physician, Mohan not only questions how SGPC understands the vague term “chronic diseases”, but also highlights the potential pitfalls and confusion that would invariably result from enforcing a tenet that rests on such ambiguously broad language:

What about the many Hazur Sahib Granthis whom I saw as patients in Canada? They had hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Have they then, violated Section 6 of Sikh law by administering amrit illegally? Or are hypertension, hyperlipedimia, obesity and diabetes exempt and not chronic diseases? What then is the list of chronic diseases that debar a Sikh from the ambrosial duties? Is there such a list, and where is it kept? Am I a co-conspirator as a physician, for staying silent about their chronic diseases while they administered amrit? Do those baptized by the disabled Jathedars need baptism again? [16]

KARMA, DISABILITIES AND DISCRIMINATION

God has destined us from the very beginning for certain Karmas. We cannot escape them.

But, a question that begs to be asked is this:

Why is it such a concern that the Five Beloveds “all be of good physique, good health and good bearing”, [17] with “appealing personalities” [18] while being “physically complete, fit and healthy”? [19]

A clue to this answer exists in the Damdami Taksaal’s Gurmat Rahit Maryada which states that “those that we get initiated from – we take some of their virtues as this is what they invest in the Amrit”. [20] What this effectively implies is that any Sikh deemed to be physically incomplete and unhealthy with unappealing personalities, i.e. a bad physique and/ or bearing, cannot be considered virtuous enough to invest in the Amrit.

Why?

The answer is as disturbingly revealing as it is depraved and troublesome. According to Sikh theology, physical and/ or visual impairments, illnesses and other ailments are the consequence of bad karma accrued from unrecollectable sins committed in some previous life for which the guilty party is made to suffer in the present.

Describing it as “the moral law of causation”, Prof Surinder Singh Kohli explains that:

Whatever one did in his previous birth, that makes his present life. Whatever the seed of actions is sown in the body, the harvest is reaped accordingly. As one sows, so shall he reap. It is futile to slander others for the actions done. The fault lies in one’s own actions. Good actions not only bring the appreciation in this world, but also in the presence of the Lord. Bad actions lead towards misery. Bad actions are like a field of poison. [21]

Sohan Singh explicates this unjust concept further:

The doctrine of karma is the principle of causation applied to mind and morals. The general principle, of course, is accepted by all religious systems – you shall reap as you sow, as the saying goes, but the doctrine of karma has an astonishing sweep and depth. The effect of a man’s deeds are operative not only in this life, but in life after life. Your deeds will determine your future life, until you achieve your liberation, if you attain moksa in this life, you are free from the cycle of births and deaths. Your present life has resulted from what you did in your previous lives; what you do now will determine your next life. Again, your deeds are seeds, some have probably sprouted and yielded their effects, other will lie dormant, until like the recessive genes, they meet with suitable conditions to unfold their effects. …

[A] karma or deed is like a seed and what plant will come out of a seed will depend on what the seed is. But a plant’s health depends on its environmental conditions. So while a man’s karmas are bound to bear fruit, the particular shape and form of the fruit will depend on what may accidentally happen to him. One of those accidents could be that he might meet a guru or Teacher, who would help him to burn out the evil effects of his past karmas, or to telescope them into a short span of time. [22] (bold, underline ours)

Whatever one did in his previous birth, that makes his present life. Whatever the seed of actions is sown in the body, the harvest is reaped accordingly. It is futile to slander others for the actions done. The fault lies in one’s own actions. … Bad actions lead towards misery. Bad actions are like a field of poison. – Prof Kohli

But, Sohan’s evaluation is incomplete. In the last paragraph, he fails to point out that there are some seeds that are predetermined to grow into plants that will remain unchanged regardless of the surrounding environment and conditions. In other words, karma necessitates, for example, that an incurable lifelong disability was always going to occur no matter what. Hence, a person’s circumstances in life can have no bearing whatsoever if said person has planted a karmic seed that sprouts and yields its effect in the form of irreparable and permanent impairments which are either congenital or acquired incidentally over the course of one’s lifetime.

Trilochan Singh’s explanation of the “theory of karma” [23] is, thus, more nuanced than Sohan’s in this respect since he differentiates between the spiritual level and what he calls “the level of Nature or animal existence”:

The burden of our sins, the taint of karma, the weight of all the past can be thrown off, by diving deeper into truth, by the grace of God, and by leading a purer and nobler life. This life, the human life, is an opportunity for this freedom to rise or to fall into the pit. There is no determinism in our fate, if we rise above the level of Nature. At the level of Nature or animal existence, we no doubt reap what we sow, but at the spiritual level of existence which can be reached by moral and spiritual efforts and illumination, man attains his freedom. It is freedom not only from the wheel of karma but also from birth and death.

However, while acknowledging that “[a]t the level of Nature or animal existence, we no doubt reap what we sow”, Trilochan is wrong in making the contradictory claim that “[i]n Sikhism, the law of karma according to which we reap what we sow is not inexorable”. As argued above, the manifestation of the “taint of karma” in the form of physical impairments at the “level of Nature or animal existence” cannot be anything but inexorable. Even if “the Guru’s word erase [sic] the blot of thousands of evil deeds of the past, and the greatest sinner can become the greatest saint”, [24] Trilochan nevertheless recognises a level of inexorability in his acceptance of “[t]hose who lead a purely temporal life at the level of the sense, [and] ‘their deeds follow them and they reap what they sow'”. [25], [26]

Kulwant Singh makes it clear that “[e]vil and wicked deeds cannot escape Divine wrath and Divine retribution” to the point that “[n]emesis always catches up with the sinners and the wicked”. He continues:

God’s moral law is just, inevitable and irrevocable. No one can escape the consequences of one’s deeds or Karmas. Final settlement of the accounts of one’s deeds settles all aberrations and contradictions. Moral law has the longest arm and catches the wrong-doers at the end of their tether. …

Deeds, good and bad, are carried forward like figures in the accountant’s ledger and ereditside [sic] of the final balance sheet decides human destiny. Gurbani passes the final verdict:

Falsehood shall come to an end, O Nanak and truth shall ultimately prevail.
As the man sows so does he reap. Such is the fold of actions.
Leaving comely raiment and beauty in this world, the man departs.
Man himself obtains the fruit of his bad and good deeds.
One may issue one’s heart-desired commands here, but he shall proceed by the narrow road hereafter.
All-naked when he goes to the hell, he, then looks very hideous indeed.
He regrets the sins, he committed.
[27] (bold ours)

As Kohli succinctly puts it:

God has destined us from the very beginning for certain Karmas. We cannot escape them. [28] (bold ours)

Prof Kohli, in fact, divides karma into three categories:

Sanchit, Prarabdha [29] and Aagami. The Karma, which is ripe for reaping is called Prarabdha. The accumulated Karmas of the past are Sanchit, and the Aagami or Kriyamaan Karmas are the present Karmas, when the good are to be performed and bad to be avoided. ‘Sanchit Karma’ manifests itself in the form of character. The chain of births and deaths ceases only on the exhaustion of ‘Prarabdha Karmas’. [30]

In this regard, the manifestation of said impairments seems, therefore, to be a form of Sanchit Karma which must occur inexorably.

Whatever the case, what is indisputable according to this law is that any form of worldly suffering is the result of one’s karma. Jaswinder Kaur Dhillon states:

It is further held that human beings enjoy good fortunes or suffer woes only according to God’s hukam determined by their good or bad deed (Karma). [31], [32]

Dr Nirbhai Singh too associates sorrows and suffering to karma:

The past karmas performed in this world play a significant role as the matrix of sorrows and suffering. These are not a priori ideas that one inherits from the past. It is the matrix that we carry from the past. [33] (bold, underline ours)

Trilochan Singh attributes the classification of sorrows into five categories to Guru Nanak:

Guru Nanak differentiates the following types of sorrows: (1) Sorrow of separation from the beloved ones (2) Sorrow of hungry stomach (3) Sorrow of tyranny and death (4) Sorrow of bodily ailments (5) Sorrow of mental and spiritual disease. [34] (bold ours)

While Kohli views that “life on earth is full of three kinds of suffering and pain”, he states that in the Sikh scripture, the three types of suffering, which he classifies as: “Adhyatmik, which is due to intra-organic psychological causes and includes all physical and mental sufferings. The second is Adhibhautika, which is due to extra-organic natural causes like men, beasts, birds, thorns etc. The third is Adhidaivika, which is due to the supernatural causes like the planets, elemental agencies, ghosts, demons, etc“, are called “Teen Taap”, which can also be interpreted as:

Aadhi (ailments of mind), Biaadhi (ailments of body) and Upaadhi (ailments caused by illusion). [35] (bold ours)

In other words, body ailments and mental and spiritual diseases are forms of sorrow which inevitably materialise due to the guilty person’s past karma, thus, again proving inexorability. As Harnam Singh puts it:

But this is a fact that the actual Karma determines the stratum of the society the age and the surroundings with the abundance or otherwise of the good things of the world, including health, illness etc. of the body in the next birth, but the thoughts which a person thinks in one life, determine his character …. [36] (bold ours)

Harnam, in fact, asks the profound rhetorical question of “[h]ow … we account for all this diversity and dissimilarity” where there exists “an amazing range of differences between man and man” to the point that “some are healthy, others are sickly …. Some see the light of the day in a smiling home with broad acres surrounded by love and warmth; while others are born in the midst of squalor, poverty, ignorance and the lowest strata of the society. In the life’s voyage; all along the same accidents of chance and freak [sic] meet us at every step”? He answers:

The only theory, which supplies the answer giving the greatest measure of satisfaction is that of the Karma Philosophy (taken with the transmigration of soul). All apparent inequalities and inequities are resolved by the theory that the actions of the man in a previous birth have determined his subhav, character and the span of life in the present existence as well as the surrounding and the family of his birth.

It offers solution for every act of injustice between man and man. [37]

In a revealing and detailed evaluation on this entire subject, Dr Sukhbir Singh Kapoor poses the following damning questions:

Why is a child born blind when he has yet done no harm to any one? Why people suffer from nasty diseases when they are honest, religious and are of high character? Why righteous people have to die on the altar of their religious beliefs? Why God-loving and God-fearing people have to suffer? [38]

Before venturing an answer, he echoes the position of the scholars already cited in this paper that “as explained by the Sikh Gurus … we live a life of cause and effect, and consequences of all actions are bound to happen”. He, then, reiterates the Sikh belief:

God runs the universe on the basis of ‘Natural law’ which is not subject to any change. We all reap whatever we sow. Bad actions bring sorrows and good actions bring happiness.

Waheguru is a moral God and has made humans responsible for their actions. Humans enjoy freedom in drafting and executing their own plans, and are bound to suffer when they go wrong.

Your present life has resulted from what you did in your previous lives; what you do now will determine your next life. Again, your deeds are seeds, some have probably sprouted and yielded their effects – Prof Sohan Singh

Since this natural law is not subject to change, the inexorable nature of the karmic theory necessitates, therefore, that “bad actions, committed both separately and collectively with others, have corrupted the whole fibre of human life, and have left multitude of evils which effect [sic] other members of their own family, the society they live in and also the succeeding generations. These may manifest themselves as hereditary or family diseases, deformities, early deaths, poverty and hunger” (bold ours). These evil actions must be punished because the “[a]ctions of people, unless punished and consumed, go from life to life”. Hence, the reason why “Karmas must bear full cycle of their consequences, except when they are pardoned by the grace of God”.

What would the good doctor, therefore, have to say of children who suffer from lifelong physical and/ or visual impairments?

[H]uman themselves [sic] are responsible for their own miseries. We come into this world and God immediately switches on the button of ‘automatic mode of living’ (cause and effect; […] you reap whatever you sow) attached to our lives. We live and die within the ambit of God’s laws ([…] everything is bound by God’s laws and there is no one above His laws). If now we ask God to remove sufferings then we are asking him to suspend the application of ‘Natural law’ and the universe will cease to be a moral universe. [39]

Little wonder, given such an unjust weltanschauung, that rebirths are seen in a negative light and as signs of imperfection. Prof Avtar Singh details:

Thus, rebirth, seen from another angle, also signifies imperfection of the one who is born again. Since perfection would lead to the termination of this cycles of births and rebirths, the rebirth is sometimes viewed as a punishment for having failed to realize the goal. It has, therefore, a negative aspect also. … Negatively, it characterises the earlier failure to realize the final. [40] (bold ours)

Bad actions, committed both separately and collectively with others … may manifest themselves as hereditary or family diseases, deformities, early deaths, poverty and hunger.

Given that rebirths are generally perceived to be a punishment for failure, it stands to reason, thus, that imperfections in the form of said impairments and deformities constitute even clearer signs of punishment for sins committed in past lives.  Hence, those who exhibit these negative external indicators are not considered to have sufficiently “good bearing” and “appealing personalities” to “invest in the Amrit” from which the initiate can then “take some of their virtues”; and for this reason they have been barred from being accepted into the elite group of the Panj Pyarai who are allowed to administer the Amrit.

Moreover, if the sufferer is made to feel imperfect and sinful for these impairments, then not only could this bring about feelings of guilt and shame, but could again lead to incidents of discrimination and marginalisation. In fact, with regards the latter, there exists evidence to support the contention that disablist discrimination occurs due to the belief in the theory of karma.

KARMA, SIKH CARERS AND THE DISABLED

But this is a fact that the actual Karma determines the stratum of the society the age and the surroundings with the abundance or otherwise of the good things of the world, including health, illness etc. of the body in the next birth, but the thoughts which a person thinks in one life, determine his character.

Studies on ethnicity, disability, chronic illness and social care by leading researchers in the field have highlighted the problems experienced by minority ethnic disabled and chronically ill people and their families vis-á-vis their religious beliefs.

For example, Prof Waqar I.U. Ahmad found that “[f]or some (especially Hindus and Sikhs), association of disability with notions of retribution for past sins created numerous problems”. [41] S. Katbamna, P. Bhakta and G. Parker elaborate by recognising that “[m]any female carers across the four communities drew on their respective religious beliefs to find explanations for their relative’s disability and why the responsibility of caring had fallen on them”. What was of significant note was the difference in attitudes between Muslim carers and their Sikh and Hindu counterparts:

[W]ith the exception of a few male Pakistani Muslims, male carers rarely mentioned their religion to account for their relative’s condition or impairment. Many Muslim female carers believed that everything, including illness and impairment, was under the control of God. In some carers’ judgement, God had absolute authority over everything and even the skills and knowledge of health professionals were powerless to surpass what God had intended ….

While Muslim female carers accepted disability as ‘God’s will’, Hindu and Sikh female carers’ attitudes towards disability were based on the notions of reward and punishment or karma. Some carers … felt that they and the person being cared for were being punished for some past misdemeanour. (bold ours)

For example, one pessimistic and seemingly despondent Sikh mother says of her 17-year-old physically disabled son:

God still hasn’t forgiven me and forgiven him … only I know how I have struggled to bring him up. He’s 17 now, there’s been very little improvement in him. [42] (bold ours)

A more recent report prepared on behalf of the Appearance Research Collaboration and published by The Healing Foundation analysed ‘BME Community Views to Facial Disfigurement and Visible Differences’. The focus group study explored “the role of the family, reactions from others, social exposure, cultural differences” among “four South Asian communities” that included the “Indian (Punjabi) Sikh”.

The report found that ‘Disfigurement’ had a range of definitions “from ‘ugly‘ to any abnormality or unevenness in the colour, shape or features of the face and included scarring and amputation” which “could be either congenital or acquired”. What was of significant note vis-á-vis our research was that:

Participants frequently felt that disfigurement or visible differences were associated with or indicative of mental and/or physical disability, or indicated ‘poor’ character: the latter particularly so if the visible differences looked as if they were acquired during a fight or accident. (bold, underline ours)

This association between disfigurement or visible differences and mental and/or physical disability is precisely the reasons given against those who do not have “good physique, good health and good bearing”, “appealing personalities” and are not “physically complete, fit and healthy”.

The report found that religion was the “predominant causal explanation of visible difference that cut across the different religious beliefs”. It was found that in terms of individual culpability:

The individual’s, or the mother’s past actions, were believed to be responsible for disfigurement. Blame was attributed to the individual’s Karma (action/attitude in previous life), the mother, an accident or as a result of fighting. (bold ours)

Gurupal remarked that his mother felt his impairment was because of sins in a past life.

With one older Sikh male reasoning that “that child is paying for their karma”. [43]

Further research conducted by Waqar I.U. Ahmad et. al. again found that for some Sikh “families their child’s impairment was associated with the sins of a previous life” which “reflected the response of the wider Sikh community, even if the parent did not agree with it”. It is completely understandable why parents would reject the Sikh soteriological position that their children’s impairment was a consequence of their sins. After all, which morally conscientious parent would accept that their innocent child is, in effect, guilty of sins so terrible as to justify their sorrow and suffering? Only bigoted blind followers with a twisted moral code would accept the notion that a child, which does not possess the full faculties of reason and comprehension, deserves to suffer for misdemeanours from unrecollectable past lives.

The researchers quote:

Jagjeet’s mother [who] explained that other people in the Sikh community believed that she was being punished for past life sins:

“It’s like the olders (sic), you know, they assume that I’ve been punished for something that I must have done, something wrong in my past life.”

It is not surprising that most of the Sikh young people themselves did not usually believe this account of disability; it would have been potentially damaging to their idea of themselves. Sometimes tensions occurred in the family because of it. Gurupal remarked that his mother felt his impairment was because of sins in a past life:

“I think my mum found it very difficult to accept the fact that I was disabled when I was born, because she thought it was a sort of punishment from God, like she had done something bad and that’s why she had a disabled son.”

He, however, did not agree with this:

“Look, I am what I am and God has made me the way I am and there’s nothing I can do to change that, so we just accept me for myself and don’t sort of like bringing religion into it because religion has got nothing to do with it.”

Muslims usually took a more positive view. [44] (bold, underline ours)

Although we completely empathise with Gurupal’s frustration and his appeal to reason, the sad reality, as we have shown, is that Sikh theology is to blame for this discriminatory and blameful attitude. We have already quoted Sikh scholars who argue that since “no one can escape the consequences of one’s deeds or Karma” and because “rebirth is sometimes viewed as a punishment for having failed to realize the goal”, these impairments are only the results of karmic seeds planted in a previous life which have “sprouted and yielded their effects” in the present one.

CONCLUSION

The individual’s, or the mother’s past actions, were believed to be responsible for disfigurement. Blame was attributed to the individual’s Karma (action/attitude in previous life), the mother, an accident or as a result of fighting.

When all is said and done, what is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn vis-á-vis the inexorable and infrangible law of karma?

Sikhism’s belief in the transmigration of souls includes the acceptance of the law of karma being all-pervading. Dr Surjit Kaur elaborates:

We may perhaps justify the imperfections in the world by referring to the theory of Karma. The question that may arise here is, what karmas would one attribute to the imperfections found amongst animals, plants and inanimate nature? According to the Sikh philosophy, which believes in the transmigration of the soul, the soul does not merely acquire human form. It also transmigrates into animals, plants, trees, rocks and mountains.

Which means this soul has taken the form worms [sic] and insects for several lives, the form of elephant and fish for several lives. He has been bird and snake for several lives. Similarly he has acquired the life of trees several times. This soul has several times also taken the form of stones and mountains. Thus we reap the fruit of our karmas not only while we are in human life but also while in plant or animal life. This would explain why animals have imperfections and why they suffer. [45]

Hence, it can be inferred that since animals are not exempt from suffering these external imperfections, then ipso facto the same is also true of children, adults and the whole of humanity. As we have argued, Karmic seeds sown in past-lives can manifest themselves, either congenitally or during the course of life, as imperfections of a permanent nature in the form of physical or visual impairments.

We have further argued that Sikhism’s baptismal ceremony of Amrit Pahul positively discriminates against the disabled and those with said impairments. Given that Waheguru established the inexorable law of karma as the mechanistic cause for these impairments that serve as the underlying reason for this discriminatory marginalisation; hence, Waheguru is responsible for this discrimination and is to blame for this injustice.

Sikhs who peddle the unjust notion of “equality for all” are in a veritable catch-22 situation because they must either accept that their religion is discriminatory towards the disabled and, therefore, reject equality in the absolute sense, or endeavour to address our accusations that Waheguru is at fault for establishing, through the divinely-led Khalsa Pant, the unjust rules of the Amrit ceremony and the law of karma. For them to remain silent by burying their heads in the sand will only be interpreted by their opponents as acknowledgment and admittance of these allegations.

Finally, and as alluded to in the introduction of this paper, there might also be a case of Sikhism again [46] employing double standards if its condemnation of the caste system of Hinduism is predicated on the idea of karma. And there certainly seems to exist a strong case for such an accusation given that:

Guru Nanak rejected the doctrine of a heavenly sanction of varnashram and the past Karma philosophy as justification of compartmentalisation of humanity. His refutation of caste was basic as well as final …. The whole fiber [sic] of Sikhism rests on the elimination of caste, what is assumed to be the result of one’s good and bad karma, actions. [47]

In fact, Sardar Jasleen Singh reveals:

Hinduism contained a few appealing aspects, but the only ideal that Sikhism and Hinduism agreed upon was their belief in karma, the accumulation of good deeds. Sikhs believed in this in order to get closer to God. Hindus, on the other hand, believed that karma would help them ascend the ranks of the caste system after reincarnations, and would eventually lead them to release from the cycle of life. This superficial caste system was rejected by Guru Nanak along with the inferior status of women, and he replaced it by equality for all. [48] (bold ours)

Hence, it seems clear that Sikhs are guilty of exercising double-standards for following in the footsteps of their Gurus and condemning the karma-driven Hindu caste system whilst all the while upholding their own karma-driven practice of discrimination and marginalisation.

What more can be concluded except that Sikhism does not uphold “equality for all”; rather it discriminates against those with impairments highlighted in this research. Muslims, on the other hand, are able do unreservedly condemn the Hindu caste system for all the same reasons as the Sikhs, i.e. for fostering an environment of injustice, discrimination and marginalisation, but without being exposed in the same way precisely because of their rejection of the right of “equality for all” as impracticable, inherently unnatural and, thus, not approved by God.

How true is Gajindar Singh in saying that:

Any group or section claiming racial superiority is as ridiculous and blameworthy as those who cringe at their inferior status. [49]

We hope the irony of this statement will not be lost on those who have considered our arguments carefully.

Subhanakallaahuma wa bi hamdika, ash-Shahaadu al-Laa ilaaha illa Ant, astaghfiruka wa atoobu ilayka.

[1] S. J. Singh (2007), Sikhism, (Institute of Sikh Studies; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, vol. IX, Issue 3, July-Sept/ 539 NS; accessed: 17 Nov 2011).
[2] According to Harnam Singh:

Anyone who claims to be a Sikh but does not want to be initiated by this ceremony, may be a candidate (Sewak) but he can not be called a Sikh.

See: H. Singh (1955), Sikh Religion Karma and Transmigration, (Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana), p.160.
[3] A. Singh (1996), Ethics of the Sikhs, (Punjabi University, Patiala; 3rd ed.), p.139.
[4] Ibid., pp.139-140.
[5] N. Singh (2003), Sikh Dynamic Vision, (Harman Publishing House, New Delhi), p.238.
[6] D. Singh, K Singh (1997), Sikhism – Its Philosophy and History, (Institute of Sikh Studies, New Delhi), p.210.
[7] SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee), Amrit Sanskar (Ceremony of Khande di Pahul), (Sikh Reht Maryada; accessed: 15 Nov.2011).
[8] Fn.1: Sikh Rahitmaryada (Punjabi), published by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Sri Amritsar, 1950, pp. 1-9.
[9] S. K. Singh (1993), Sikhism: An Oecumenical Religion, (Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh), pp.194-5.
[10] SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee), Jathedar, (Sikh Reht Maryada; accessed: 15 Nov.2011):

Literally, jathedar means, ‘a captain’. In Sikh parlance it means a Chief of a band of Sikh volunteers who have enrolled themselves into a unit for whole time service in the cause of the Panth, or Sikh objectives.

[11] Damdami Taksaal, The Provision of Amrit & the selection of the Panj Pyare, (The Official Website; Rehat Maryada – Page 7; accessed: 15 Nov. 2011).
[12] W. I. U. Ahmad (2000), Ethnicity, Disability, and Chronic Illness, (Open University Press, University of Michigan), p.1.
[13] M. Singh (2001), At Least For Decency, (Sikhe.com; accessed: 19 May 2013).
[14] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (United Nations Enable).
[15] S. K. Singh (1993), op. cit., pp.199-200.
[16] M. Singh (2001), op. cit.
[17] S. K. Singh (1993), op. cit., pp.194-5.
[18] SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee), op. cit.
[19] Damdami Taksaal, op. cit.
[20] Ibid.
[21] S. S. Kohli (2006), Guru Granth Sahib Speaks-1 Death and After, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p.75.
[22] L. M. Joshi (2000), Sikhism, (Publication Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala), pp.164-5.
[23] Ibid., p.77.
[24] Fn.49: Guru Granth, p. 1195.
[25] Fn.48: Ibid, 1183.
[26] L. M. Joshi (2000), op. cit., p.76.
[27] K. Singh (2006),Spiritual Insights in the Adi Granth – A Personal Response, (Institute of Sikh Studies; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Vol. VIII, Issue 2, April-June/ 538 NS), pp.23-4.
[28] S. S. Kohli (2006), op. cit., p.77.
[29] Harnam Sigh attributes these two categories of Sinchat and Prarabdh karma to Hindu philosophy. See: H. Singh (1955), op. cit., p.75.
[30] S. S. Kohli (2006), op. cit., p.78.
[31] Fn.38: Guru Granth Sahib, pp. 1130, 1349, etc.
[32] D, Singh (2004), Guru Granth Sahib among the Scriptures of the World, (Publication Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala), p.124.
[33] N. Singh (2003), op. cit., p.252.
[34] L. M. Joshi (2000), op. cit., p.79.
[35] S. S. Kohli (2006), op. cit., pp.96-7.
[36] H. Singh (1955), op. cit., p.112.
[37] Ibid., pp.1-2, 4.
[38] S. S. Kapoor, M. K. Kapoor (2005), The Sikh Ideology – A Conglomeration of Fundamental Philosophical Issues, (B. Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh, Amritsar), p.197.
[39] Ibid., pp.197-8.
[40] A. Singh (1998), Philosophical Perspectives of Sikhism, (Publication Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala), p.89.
[41] W. I. U. Ahmad (2000), op. cit., p.6.
[42] Ibid., p.19.
[43] H. Williamson, J. Hughes, H. Naqvi, E. Williams (2008), Focus Group Data Analysis of BME Community Views to Facial Disfigurement and Visible Differences, (The Healing Foundation; August), pp.126,128-9.
[44] W. I. U. Ahmad, K. Atkin, Y. Hussain (2002), South Asian Disabled Young People and their Families, (The Policy Press and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), p.5.
[45] S. Kaur (2010), Sikh Perspective on Modern Scientific Technology, (Institute of Sikh Studies; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, vol .XII, Issue 4, Oct-Dec/ 542 NS; accessed: 17 Nov 2011).
[46] In our refutation of Bijla Singh, we argued in the article titled Awakening the Sleeping Guru Granth how Sikhism’s condemnation of Hindu idol-worship while at once affirming divinity for Sri Guru Granth Sahib was a clear case of double-standards.
[47] G. Singh (2010), A Call to Unison, (Institute of Sikh Studies; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, vol. XII, Issue 1, Jan-March/ 541-42 NS; accessed: 17 Nov 2011).
[48] S. J. Singh (2007), op. cit.
[49] G. Singh (2010), op. cit.

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