Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal’s (University of Birmingham) statement at Fourth bi-lateral Catholic-Sikh Dialogue (Nishkam Centre, 15th June 2013)

Catholics and Sikhs: Service to humanity as a contribution to peace: 

A Sikh Perspective on service as a contribution to peace

The Sikh Dharam has come a long way in a short space of time. From the message that Guru Nanak preached over five hundred years ago it has now sprung into a cohesive and powerful religion, which still retains diversity within it and contributes to the wellbeing of society. For most Sikhs their religion is a journey on this earth which provides them with an opportunity to achieve liberation and connection with God, through high moral conduct, active service and truthful/righteous living.

World – God’s abode

Guru Nanak, in the Japji Sahib, describes the earth as a ‘dharmsal’ – the abode of God. The term dharmsal itself is composed of two words: dharam which denotes religious, ethical and social obligations, while sal means a place of abode. The Sikh Dharam provides Sikhs with knowledge on how to live in this dharmsal, but most importantly provides and describes the duty which one must fulfil if a connection and union with God is to be achieved. For example, there is a need ‘to carry out the Will of God’ on this earth by living according to values such as social justice and responsibility and engaging in active service and righteous actions, which will  contribute towards the general welfare of the society, but most importantly personal liberation.

Liberation and this connection with God is achieved if we recognise that it is our duty to serve others and make a difference in the world we live.  To serve others requires true sewa, which ought to be undertaken selflessly, without desire (nishkam), with no thought of getting any reward, material, or indeed spiritual in return.  Sewa must be done because a Sikh wants to serve Waheguru and not for personal gain.  If sewa is done with these notions in mind then one can eradicate ‘haumai’, ego, which is the cause of all pain, suffering, and conflict, and lead an active, worthy life in God’s presence.

Guru Nanak emphasized that true holiness and enlightenment is not achieved through renunciation of the world and becoming an ascetic or recluse. Instead, he laid out three fundamental principles to enable spiritual growth and facilitate moral and ethical living: nam japna (meditation on God’s name), kirat karna (honest work) and vand chakna (giving to those in need). These activities, internal and external, emphasize an individual’s social responsibility to ensure the well-being of society:

Of all religions, the best religion

Is to chant the Name of the Lord and maintain pure conduct. (GGS, p. 266)

Individual conduct therefore is very important in Sikh philosophy. True holiness and enlightenment is not achieved through denial or performing rituals or repeating God’s name in a ritual manner. Instead, throughout the Guru Granth Sahib there is an emphasis on sincere worship, altruism and sewa, which are difficult to achieve due to ego and self-centeredness (haumai) inherent among human beings. Guru Nanak stated that no achar (true moral character) can be built without the sincere worship of the Ik Oankaar (One God) and His Name while living within this world:

The lazy unemployed has his ears pierced to look like a Yogi.

Someone else becomes a pan-handler, and loses his social status.

One who calls himself a guru or a spiritual teacher, while he goes around begging – don’t ever touch his feet.

One who works for what he eats, and gives some of what he has

– O Nanak, he knows the Path. (GGS, p. 1245–6)

Qualities such as wisdom, truthfulness, justice, temperance, courage, humility, contentment and love for humanity, are essential for moral living and spirituality.

Truth and contentment govern this body-village.

Chastity, truth and self-control are in the Sanctuary of the Lord.

O Nanak, one intuitively meets the Lord, the Life of the World; the Word of the Guru’s Shabad brings honour. (GGS, p.1037)

Guru Nanak further wrote:

All virtues are Yours, Lord, I have none at all.

Without virtue, there is no devotional worship. (GGS, p. 4)

The decay within society at the time of Guru Nanak was a result of a decline in spiritual awareness. The gurus’ challenged this and the Guru Granth Sahib is replete with instructions on how to achieve ultimate union with God. Many of these instructions focus on performing good deeds. These deeds centre on the three fundamental principles mentioned above: nam japna, kirat karna and vand chakna. For a Sikh these define how to live morally and ethically in a society that is equitable and provides opportunities for all.

Kirat karna: earn a living by honest means. Work is essential for the individual, the family and society as a whole. It does not matter what the work is, provided that it is honest and not against the teachings of the Gurus. Sikh dharam says that it is not wrong to be rich provided that the money is gained honestly and shared. It is wrong to live your life just to make money for yourself.

Finally, vand chakna: share everything in charity with people who are less fortunate. Sikhs should live their lives on the principles of generosity and self-sacrifice.  Bhai Gurdas[1] said a Sikh: ‘feels happy by giving to others’.

Anyone who does sewa selflessly becomes a complete person in the eyes of the Guru and will lead to liberation from the cycle of birth death and re-birth.

These fundamental principles ground a Sikhs view towards life and work. A Sikh cannot be a passive spectator but an active participant in the struggle for social justice. The Sikh Gurus strongly rejected the notion of sannyas (renunciation of society) and Guru Nanak particularly reprimanded the Yogis who preached and practised sannyas and sought God in the forests. He praised those who lived amongst people and contributed towards achieving the ideal of dharmsal.

A place in God’s court can only be attained if we do service to others in this world… Wandering ascetics, warriors, celibates, holy men, none of them can obtain moksha without performing sewa.

Thus, in Sikh teachings the doctrine of dharmsal sets the agenda for daily conduct. It means that one must earn his/her living by honest and hard work and be prepared to share it with others. As Guru Nanak says: ‘He who works hard and honestly for what he eats, and shares it with others has found the true path’ (GGS, p. 1245).

Haumai and the Five Vices

Although the qualities for ethical living are highlighted, the Guru Granth Sahib elucidates the difficulties that one encounters to achieve the state of achar – true moral living. To achieve achar a Sikh has to overcome haumai (ego – I-I). Guru Nanak, in his composition Japji (GGS, p. 1) identifies haumai as a feeling of individualism/self-centeredness, which is reinforced by five vices:

Within this body are hidden five thieves: they are kam (lust or desire), krodh (anger), lobh (greed/covetousness), moh (attachment), and ahankar (ego or pride). They steal away the nectar within us, but we fail to realize it because of our ego and no one hears our complaint. (GGS, p. 600)

According to Guru Nanak detachment from worldly possessions is essential:

Abandon love of family and of all affairs. Leave aside love of the world; it is a waste of time. Forsake worldly love and superstition, brother, it is all a waste of time. (GGS, p. 356)

When individuals become attached to worldly possessions, haumai and the accompanying five vices encourage unethical behaviour and prevent individuals from realizing God which in turn prevents release from the cycle of rebirth:

Acting in egotism, selfishness and conceit, the foolish, ignorant, faithless cynic wastes his life.

He dies in agony, like one dying of thirst;

O Nanak, this is because of the deeds he has done. (GGS, p. 260)

The Gurus argued internal actions, such as nam simran are essential in the quest to overcome haumai:

Remembering the True Lord in meditation, one is enlightened.

Then, in the midst of Maya, he remains detached.

Such is the Glory of the True Guru;

in the midst of children and spouses, they attain emancipation.

Such is the service which the Lord’s servant performs,

that he dedicates his soul to the Lord, to whom it belongs. (GGS, p. 661)

Through worship desires/vices are controlled, and if sat (truth) and humility (nimrata) is practiced then one can become virtuous and achieve spiritual liberation because ‘One who becomes Gurmukh knows only the One. Serving the One, peace is obtained’ (GGS, p. 113), and recognizes that in the end they will have to face God on their own.

Once this has been achieved the morally good person would rise above haumai and begin thinking about the greater good of all and how he/she can do this:

Those who have the Treasure of the Nam within emancipate others as well as themselves. (GGS, p. 52)

The Gurmukh, while remaining dead, is respected and approved.

He realizes that coming and going are according to God’s Will.

He does not die, he is not reborn, and he does not suffer in pain; his mind merges in the Mind of God.

Very fortunate are those who find the True Guru.

They eradicate egotism and attachment from within.

Their minds are immaculate, and they are never again stained with filth. They are honoured at the Door of the True Court.

He Himself acts, and inspires all to act. (GGS, p. 1,059)

Overall, to become an individual who is not attached to material and worldly possessions it is necessary to have to live a good life, which is guided by external and internal actions. Through the internal action of nam simran ‘lust, anger, egotism, jealousy and desires are eliminated’ (GGS, p. 1389).

The external action of sewa is essential for ‘those who search for a seat in God’s court’ (GGS, p. 26). Throughout the Guru Granth Sahib, and in the Ardas (concluding prayer) the importance of good deeds/conduct and service to mankind is stressed. Individuals are encouraged to perform sewa (good deeds) and to be concerned with the welfare of all because of the universality of humanity. Notions of superiority and inferiority become invalid because all human beings are viewed as equal.

By eradicating and focusing on good actions, individuals contribute to their spiritual progression and the well-being of their community. However, good actions in themselves are not enough to enable one to spiritually progress; one must perform these deeds without any sense or any expectation of reward or any sense of ego

Selfless Service (Sewa)

So let us now look at the concept of sewa – service, with no desire for reward and what it means:

True worship consists in the meditation of God’s name.… There can be no worship without performing good deeds.


There can be no worship without sewa (GGS, p. 1013).

This sewa can take three forms: through the body (tan), through our mental faculties (man) and materially (dhan).

Sewa using the body (tan) was not only sanctified by the Gurus, they also institutionalized it, that is, service in Guru ka Langar (the Guru’s free community kitchen) and serving the sangat (congregation) by preparing food and cooking food, feeding the sangat, washing the sangat’s used dishes and cleaning the sangat’s shoes to name a few.  All of which you can see taking place today in the gurdwara.

Sewa using one’s mental abilities (man) for the wellbeing of the community, the society we live in and humanity per se is essential.  This mental sewa can take the form of organisational, educative, communicative, technological, theological or philosophical knowledge.

Sewa through material (dhan) means contributing dasvandh (a tenth of one’s income) to charitable causes. The Sikh is specifically urged to direct sewa at the poor.  However, this 1/10th doesn’t need to be money it can be time or knowledge.  Also there is no minimum or maximum you give what you want.  When banks start asking is this before or after tax they miss the point completely.  Thus, if we focus on the concept of sewa it is evident service to others and service to the Guru, when done with a loving heart, with no desire for reward, is not merely an act of ‘charity’, but an act of establishing a sense of spiritual kinship with others, which eventually allows one to break the bonds of ego and frees the soul.

The Sikh Dharam provides Sikhs with knowledge on how to live in this dharmsal, but most importantly a sense of duty which one must fulfil if a connection and union with the Creator is sought.  You have to serve others if you want to serve God.  It is through this duty that one can make a difference in the world we live.

True sewa as per the Sikh scriptures ought to be undertaken selflessly, without desire (nishkam), with no thought of getting anything: material, or indeed spiritual reward in return. It must be done because a Sikh wants to serve Waheguru and not for personal gain.  If sewa is done with these notions in mind then one can eradicate ‘haumai’, ego, which is the cause of all pain, suffering, and conflict, and lead an active, worthy life in God’s presence which can ultimately lead to liberation, since liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and union with God (sahaj) is the ultimate goal in the Sikh dharma. However, the goal of liberation is not an easy one to achieve and ultimately depends upon God’s grace, and the key obstacle to achieving liberation is haumai. Liberation is viewed humbly as a blessing, rather than sought out as a motive.  Sewa is an essential part of a continuous life process to achieve liberation because a self-centred approach has been replaced by a God-centred approach in life, which realizes God within all.

Conclusion: ‘dharam nibhaona’

Thus, in Sikh teachings the doctrine of dharmsal sets the agenda for daily conduct. It means that one must earn his/her living by honest and hard work and be prepared to share it with others. The Sikh dharma places an overwhelming emphasis on social activism, and this brings to mind the Sikh concept of “dharam nibhaona” i.e. doing one’s duty as required by different human relationships in different situations and socio-political spheres. In any relationship and situation the concept of dharam (dharma) requires a person to act and behave in a certain way, and this dharam provides stability in human societies; when there is no dharam, there is chaos and conflict: ‘Where God exists there is no selfishness, where self exists there is no God.’

Thus, a Sikh cannot be a passive spectator but an active participant in the struggle for social justice. Every person needs to work for peace and the well being of society; especially those who are in positions of power and authority so that we have a world, which is grounded in democracy, non-violence, peace, self-identity, family life, hard work, advancement, and human rights.  Such a world/society is achieved by living according to dharma. For Sikhs this requires the inculcation of values, such as selfless service, compassion, tolerance, love, contentment, humility, equality and welfare for all – at all levels of society: family, state and social, so that the individual can achieve a balance between material ambition and spiritual well-being, which will not only ensure personal, spiritual upliftment and eventual liberation through selfless service, but also the advancement of all humanity because by following the path of truthful conduct, selfless service and righteous action to achieve liberation and union with God, we can strive for a world which is free from oppression and injustice.

[1] Bhai Gurdas Ji (1551 – 25 August 1636) was the original scribe of the Guru Granth Sahib and a companion of four of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Arjan dictated the Guru Granth Sahib to Bhai Gurdas Ji.

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