Sikhi | Basic Concepts


Sikhi | Basic Concepts

by Daljīt Singh

What follows next is the philosophical overview of the basic concepts and teachings of Sikhi, with many appropriate examples from Guru Granth Sāhib, where it is necessary, on the following subjects:

1. The Concept of God
2. The World
3. Haumain (Ego)
4. Deliverance from Ego
5. Goal
6. Gurmukh or the Ideal Man
7. The Path and Discipline
8. Sikh Bhakti & Society

1. The Concept of God

At the very outset we should like to say one thing:

Obviously, it is not possible to deal with all aspects of Sikhism in one article.

We shall, therefore, confine ourselves only to the essentials of Sikhism, and highlight only those aspects of it that clarify and underline the point of view which we wish to express.

The Sikh Gurus are uncompromising monotheists. In the very opening line of the Guru Granth, God is described by Guru Nānak as:

By the Grace of the Sole One, Self-existent and Immanent, the Creator Person, without Fear or Un-conditioned, without enmity or Un-contradicted, the Timeless Person, Un- incarnated, Self-created and Enlightener.

God is never born. The becoming world is His creation, and not his emanation; nor is it identical with Him.

We shall first indicate, briefly, the kind of God that is envisaged in Sikhism:

In their hymns, the Gurus described God in numerous ways, referring to His social, political, aesthetic, metaphysical, ethical and other attributes.

But a few aspects of God need particular mention. These will enable us to understand the significance, origin and objectives of the Sikh tradition, institutions and practices.

(1) Creator:

God is the Creator. The universe is His creation.
The very concept of a Creator-God implies a universe as different from Him.
The universe is in time and space. It is changing and is governed by fixed laws.

The Creator is different from the creation, which is limited and conditioned.
As Creator, God is Free. He is not determined by any laws known to us.

He is not the material cause of the universe. But, no independent Prakriti is assumed.

"God created the world of life, planted Nām (Immanent God) therein, and made it the seat of righteousness." “He creates all, fills all, and is yet separate."

There are many hymns in the Guru Granth which mention that God was there even before He created the Universe, He being Transcendent:

"He is the Sole-creator. There is no second one."
"God was by Himself and there was nothing else."

"In the region of Truth, God creates perpetually, and watches His creation with a Benevolent eye. He is happy about it, and deliberates over it, directing it with His will."

God is Ever-Creative. This gives an idea of God, His creative activity, and the cosmological aspect of His creation.

(2) Transcendent and immanent:

God is both Transcendent and Immanent.
He is both in the universe and outside it.

While time, space, and change are features of the becoming universe, God is Eternal, Self-existent. He cannot be conceived or explained in empirical terms. He is beyond space and beyond time.

The Gurus have cautioned us against the inadequacy of human logic to comprehend Him. He is Entirely Different, or 'Wholly Other':

"When there was no form in sight, how could there be good or bad actions?! When God was in the Self-Absorbed state, there could be no enmity or conflict."

That state of God is to be envisaged in terms of space-lessness and timelessness. The nature of God transcends all known categories of thought. The Creator of these limited categories cannot be judged by them.

The Gurus call Him Unfathomable, Indescribable and Ineffable:
"The mind alone can know Him." He is transcendent.

The immanent aspect of God has been variously described

as His Will that directs the universe, His Word that informs the universe, and His Nām that not only creates the entire universe but also sustains and governs it.

"God creates the universe, takes His abode in it and sustains it."

God creates the universe and becomes Immanent in it, being at the same time Transcendent:

"He that permeates all hearts is Transcendent too."
"Having created the world, He stands in the midst of it and is separate too."

This Immanence of God is only a symbolic way of expressing God's connection with the world. When the world was not there the question of His Immanence did not arise. When "there was no form, the Word (Immanence) in essence abided in the Transcendent God."

The Immanence of God is important. It emphasises the spiritual and meaningful character of the universe and life's capacity for relationship with God.

His Immanence indicates God's Love for His creation. This immanence gives relevance, authenticity, direction and sanction to the entire moral and spiritual life of man.

It also emphasises God's capacity for revelation, His nearness to man and His deep and abiding interest in the world.

All theistic systems assume His Immanence. For, where God is only Transcendent and Unapproachable, all moral and spiritual life would become pointless.

God's being both Transcendent and Immanent, does not mean that there are two parts, stages, or phases of God. It is the Transcendent God who is everywhere in each heart, place and particle. It is He who is both Transcendent and Immanent.

"The same God is Saguṇa and Nirguṇa, Nirākāra and self-Absorbed (Sun Samādhi)"
Saguṇa and Nirguṇa are created by Nām." "He is the One, both Nirguṇa and Saguṇa."

The Gurus repeatedly emphasise that He is One and we only give Him different names.

It would be highly inappropriate to confuse the Gurus' concept of Saguṇa and Nirguṇa (One Transcendent cum Immanent God) with the Vaiṣṇava meaning of these terms or with the idea of Īśvara. These Vaiṣṇava concepts of phases, or stages, have been clearly repudiated by the Gurus' concept of one God.

(3) God of Attributes:

The Gurus call God the 'Ocean of Attributes, Values and Virtues.' This aspect of God is of importance in indicating the spiritual and moral trends and the character of Sikhism.

A God of Attributes lays down the ideals for which man has to work. Its significance has often been missed:

"He is always Benevolent."

"You are my Mother, You are my Father, You are my Protector everywhere."

"He relieves the sufferings of the downtrodden; He is the Succour of the succourless"

"God is eyes to the blind, riches to the poor, Nānak, He is the Ocean of virtues.”

This Attributive aspect of God not only links God with the universe, but it establishes beyond doubt the character and direction of God's Will.

This leads to four important conclusions:

First, attributes and values have relevance only in a becoming or relative world. Because all perfection is static and all qualities are relative.

A God of Attributes has, thus, a meaning only in relation to the changing world of man. Evidently, for the expression of attributes, a changing universe is essential and becomes an integral part of the creative plan of God.

God and the universe are, thus, closely linked. It is impossible to think of a God of Attributes in the absence of a changing world. That is why when God was all by Himself, the question of 'Love and devotion or good or bad actions', could not arise.

Secondly, and this is the most important inference, virtues and attributes emphatically indicate, apart from the standard of ethical values and moral life,

the direction in which spiritual efforts should be made. These point out the purposes for which the Will of God works.

Thirdly, it indicates the continuing interest of God in man and the universe:

This gives authenticity to life and the universe which is as we shall see, decried or down-graded in many other religious traditions.

In addition, there is the benevolent character of God. Not only is He the Creator and Sustainer of life, he nurtures and develops it with loving care. He has also been called the Enlightener (Guru or Guide) of man.

"He rewards your efforts and acknowledges your deeds."
"God rewards all efforts to become divine."

It gives a pre-eminent meaning to life, and optimism hope and confidence to man in the achievement of his ideals. Man is given a clear direction in which he should move. In addition, he also knows that there is someone to guide and help him with love.

Lastly, it gives primary validity and spiritual sanction to the moral life of man.

For, in many other systems, it is deemed to be an entanglement. At best, some systems accept it as the preparatory method of purity for the spiritual life to be attained.

But, in Sikh theology, this attributive aspect of God gives a clear priority, primacy and spiritual character to the moral life of man:

This is the reason that in Sikhism moral life is of basic importance both for the seeker and the Gurmukh. For, if God is the helper of the weak and the ocean of virtues, the spiritual person has to shape himself likewise.

(4) God has a will:

Everything is governed by His Will.
"Everything happens within the ambit of His Will."

A God of Will naturally pre-supposes that He wants the universe to move not chaotically but in a system and with a Purpose. Just like the

Attributes of God, God's Will too can be exercised only in a changing world and towards a goal. The very idea of a Will implies a direction and an aim. This, too, re-emphasises the same points as stated in regard to a God of Attributes.

The direction is governed by the Attributes of God and the Purpose, as we shall see later, is to evolve a higher consciousness in man. This concept is central to Sikh theology.

But, a God of Will does not at all mean a predetermined world, because God is Creative and Free; and all movement in life is towards a creative freedom.

(5) God does not incarnate:

God has been mentioned as one who never takes birth, nor takes form:
"God alone is the One who is not born of a woman."

The Gurus have definitely decried belief in the theory of incarnation. In order to dispel such ideas, they have stated that He created countless Brahmas, Śivas and Viṣṇus:

"The Formless, One, alone, Nānak, is without fear; many are Rāmās as the dust of His feet, and many Krishnas. Many are their stories and many are the Vedas.”

The idea that God never takes the human form has distinct implications:

First, it shows that God is 'Wholly Other'. For a God that is Transcendent and Unknowable, the question of His taking the human form does not arise.

Secondly, all pantheistic implications, as flowing from the idea of incarnation, are repudiated.

Besides, the concept has 3 other corollaries too:

The first is that man can never become God, and that God and man are not identical.

Secondly, it indicates that the aim of spiritual effort is not merger in God, as under some other systems, but to be in tune with Him.

This has a crucial significance in determining the human goal, and in showing that the entity of man is distinct from that of God. The two can never be one, though man can be His instrument.

Thirdly, it shows that spiritual activity does not stop after the final achievement. The superman has a role to perform in carrying out the Will of God.

Consequently, so long as the universe is there and the Will of God is in operation, the activities and duties of the superman continue endlessly.

(6) God of Grace:

God has been called Gracious and Enlightener.

A God of Will and a God of Grace have a meaning only in a becoming world wherein alone His Grace and Will can operate.

These aspects of God also emphasise His Personal character:
Grace implies that God's Will is free, undetermined by any outside law.

In addition, it also stresses the Love and Benevolence of God towards man. For, a Gracious Being can bestow His Grace only on something other than Himself.

It has been repeatedly stressed that all final approval of man is an act of God's Grace: "O Nānak, the intellect is of no avail, one is approved only by His Grace."

A God of Grace dispels the idea that the world is determined. His activity is, therefore, incomprehensible except in terms of His Grace or Freedom.


The Sikh Gurus have given the word Nām, a distinct and significant meaning, which is far different from that of the mere 'Nām' or psychic factors as understood in the traditional literature.

"Nām sustains all regions and universes, all thought, knowledge and consciousness, all skies and stars, all forces and substances, all continents and spheres.

He, on whom is His Grace, is yoked to Nām and he reaches the highest state of development."

“Nām is the Creator of everything."

"Nām gives form to everything, and through Nām comes all Wisdom or Light."

“Nām is the 'Nine Treasures' and Nectar (Amrit).”

From the above verses it is clear that the Gurus do not use the word Nām in any restrictive or limited sense. They refer to it as the Highest Power, creating, informing, supporting and working the entire universe.

The highest state of man is mentioned as the one when he lives and works in tune with God or Nām. Therefore, God and Nām are Real, Eternal and Unfathomable. It means that God and Nām are one and the same.

Nām may be called the immanent or the qualitative aspect of God, working and directing the manifest world of force and form.