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Family In Sikh Thought And Practice

Guru Nanak stressed the way of the householder as the ideal pattern of life for the seeker of liberation, rejecting the ascetic alternative. His successors upheld the same ideal of normal family life, expressing it in their own lives as well as in their teachings. The third Guru, Amar Das (1479–1574) proclaimed: "Family life is superior to ascetic life in sectarian garb because it is from householders that ascetics meet their needs by begging" (AG, p. 586). To understand the family relationships, caste and gender issues need to be addressed from the Sikh perspective.

In Punjabi society, family life is based upon broad kinship relationships. Every individual is a member of a joint family, a biradari (brotherhood), a got (exogamous group), and a zat (endogamous group). Like most other Indians, Sikhs are endogamous by caste (zat) and exogamous by subcaste (got). Descent is always patrilineal, and marriages link two groups of kin rather than two individuals. The cultural norms of honor (izzat) and modesty play a significant role in family relationships within the framework of patriarchal structures of Punjabi society. The Gurus employ the term pati that essentially refers to the core of a person, encompassing honor, self-respect, and social standing.

Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus emphatically proclaimed that divine Name is the only sure means of liberation for all four castes: the Khatri (originally Kshatriya, warrior), the Brahmin (priest), the Shudra ("servant") and the Vaishya (tradesman). In the Gurus' works, the Khatris are always placed above the Brahmins in caste hierarchy, while the Shudras are raised above the Vaishyas. This was an interesting way of breaking the rigidity of the centuries-old caste system. All the Gurus were Khatris, and this made them a topranking caste in Punjab's urban hierarchy, followed by Aroras (merchants) and Ahluvalias (brewers). In rural caste hierarchy, an absolute majority (64%) among the Sikhs are Jats (peasants), who are followed by Ramgarhias (artisans), Ramdasias (cobblers) and Mazhabis (sweepers). Although Brahmins are at the apex in Hindu caste hierarchy, Sikhs place them distinctly lower on the caste scale. This is partly due to the strictures that the Sikh Gurus laid upon Brahmin pride and partly to the reorganization of Punjabi rural society that confers dominance on the Jat caste.

Doctrinally, caste has never been one of the defining criteria of Sikh identity. In the Sikh congregation, there is no place for any kind of injustice or hurtful discrimination based upon caste identity. Sikhs eat together in the community kitchen, worship together, and share the same sacramental food in the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). However, caste still prevails within the Sikh community as a marriage convention. Most of the Sikh marriages are arranged between members of the same endogamous caste group. Nevertheless, intercaste marriages are now taking place frequently among the professional Sikhs in India and abroad.

The Sikh Gurus offered their vision of gender equality within the Sikh community and took practical steps to foster respect for womanhood. They were certainly ahead of their times when they championed the cause of women with equal access in spiritual and temporal matters. Guru Nanak raised a strong voice against the position of inferiority assigned to women in contemporary society: "From women born, shaped in the womb, to woman betrothed and wed; we are bound to women by ties of affection, on women man's future depends. If one woman dies he seeks another; with a woman he orders his life. Why then should one speak evil of women, they who give birth to kings?" (AG, p. 473). Guru Nanak brought home to the harsh critics of women the realization that the survival of the human race depends upon women whom they unjustifiably ostracized within the society. Guru Amar Das abolished the prevalent customs of "veil" and sati (self-immolation) by widows, and permitted widows to remarry. He further appointed women as Sikh missionaries. Indeed, Sikh women have equal rights with men to conduct prayers and other ceremonies in the gurdwaras.

The Gurus were addressing the issues of gender within the parameters set by traditional patriarchal structures. In their view, an ideal woman plays the role of a good daughter or sister, a good wife and good mother within the context of family life. They condemned both women and men alike who did not observe the cultural norms of modesty and honor in their lives. In this context, the images of immoral woman and unregenerate man are frequently encountered in the scriptural texts. There is thus no tolerance for any kind of premarital or extramarital sexual relationships. In particular, Guru Nanak was deeply anguished over the rape of women when Babur's army invaded India in 1526. He employs the Punjabi phrase "stripping of one's honor" to describe the rape of women by the Mughal army. In fact, rape is regarded as a violation of women's honor in the Punjabi culture. It amounts to the loss of family honor, which in turn, becomes the loss of one's social standing in the community. The notion of family honor is intimately linked with the status of women in Punjabi society.

Two Sikh men in India wear beards and turbans, visible signs of their commitment to their faith. ARVIND GARG/CORBIS

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsSikhism - The Origins And Development Of Sikhism, Family In Sikh Thought And Practice, The Anand Marriage Ceremony