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Mysticism in Sikh Religion

Jun 3, 2018
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 18 min.

Mysticism is a vital part of the perennial philosophy. In all the major and minor world religious traditions, mysticism has a definite place. The mystical quest is an integral part of Indian religious tradition. In Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak in fifteenth century, it has an important place. The study of mysticism has a long historical background.

The traits of mysticism, found from the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, are distinct in nature, essence, discipline and goal from those of eastern and western origin. The practical aspect and social role of Sikh religion associated with mystic quest has a great relevance in the present context. Basically, the secular and spiritual aspect of life have been combined to bring social change and salvation. Sikh mystical approach is fundamentally based on the axis of Nam, inculcation of virtues, truthful living and spiritual emancipation while discharging social responsibility. In Sikh mysticism, the importance of the Guru, Grace of God, collective worship, social concern and family-life are essential features. Here the goal is not that of individual liberation but that of collective redemption.

Man becomes a pulsating centre of action by submission of his will to the Supreme Reality. Following the Divine Will is the key concept of Sikhism and has been commended both as the first great step on the path of spiritual quest and the final achievement of a life of devotion. The message of Sikh Gurus is valid for all those who have an urge to break open their ego-shell and unite themselves with that Consciousness, which is like a shoreless ocean. This indeed is the essence of Sikh mysticism.

The scope of the paper will be limited to the following aspects of mysticism and Sikh religion :

1. Mysticism, its meaning and definition.

2. Comparative mysticism in world religions.

3. Sikh religion and mystical experience.

Mysticism of Sikh Gurus.

4. Historical development of Sikh mysticism.

5. Distinctive features of Sikh mysticism.

6. Life style of a Sikh mystic.

7. Conclusion and new direction.

(1) Now let us try to analyse the various aspects and distinctive features of mysticism starting with its meaning and definition:

Mysticism is religion in its most concentrated and exclusive form. It is actually the main motive force in religion. The establishment of a direct bond and union between man and God is possible only in a developed and heightened mystical state. Mysticism is a fundamental concept; it is the perennial source of spiritual and religious inspiration. Mysticism is the intuitive experience of man. It is the surest and greatest source of personal rapport between man and God just like between a child and his father. Mysticism is, in fact, a quest for the unknown, a direct apprehension of the Real through immediate experience and inner contact. Dr. Paul Brunton has described Mysticism as a mode of life which claims to bring us nearer to God than do ordinary religious methods. It is a technique which seeks to establish direct communication with God through interior contemplation.

Evelyn Underhill writes “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in a greater or lesser degree or who aims at and believes in such attainment.” It has been the eternal quest of mankind to find the one Ultimate Truth, that final synthesis in which all partial truths are resolved. It may be that mystic has had a glimpse of this synthesis. In the true mystic there is an extension of normal consciousness, a release of latent powers, and a widening of vision, so that aspects of truth unplumbed by the rational intellect are revealed to him. In the religious mystic there is a direct experience of the Presence of God, e.g. “Gur mere sang sad a hai nale, simar simar Prabh sada samale” (GGS.,). Though he may not be able to describe it in words, though he may not be able logically to demonstrate its validity, to the mystic his experience is fully and absolutely true and brings complete certainty to him. He has been “there”, he has “seen” and he “knows.”

Not only mystics have been found in all ages, in all parts of the world and in all religious systems, but also mysticism has generally manifested itself in similar forms wherever the mystical consciousness has been present. Because of this it has sometimes been called the Perennial Philosophy. Out of their experience and their reflection on it’ have come following assertions:

(1) This phenomenal world of matter and individual consciousness is only a partial reality and is the manifestation or creation of a Divine Ground in which all partial realities have their being.

(2) It is of the nature of man that not only can he have knowledge of this Divine Ground by inference, but also he can realize it by direct intuition. Superior to discursive reason is the knowledge, which the knower gets by this experience of union or contact between knower and the known.

(3) The nature of man is not a single but a dual one. He has not one but two selves, the phenomenal ego, of which he is chiefly conscious and which he tends to regard as his true self, and a non-phenomenal, eternal self, an inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within him, which is the true self. It is possible for a man, ifhe so desires and is prepared to make, the necessary effort, to identify himself with his true self and so with the Divine Ground.

(4) It is the chief aim of man’s earthly existence to discover and identify himself with his true self. By so doing, he will come to an intuitive knowledge of the Divine Ground and so apprehend Truth, as it really is, and not as it appears to our limited human perception. Not only that, he will enter into a state of being which has been given different names, eternal life, salvation, enlightenment, etc.

The essence of mysticism is summed up by Dr. Dewan Singh: “Mysticism is an intuitive feeling or insight, having as its source and basis an immediate awareness of the one spiritual principle underlying all life and the universe, which as a result of direct experience of union with the Divine Being, brings about a complete reversal of values and a re-awakening of the whole self and personality of the mystic into a supreme blissful fulfilment.”

(2) Comparative mysticism in world religions:

Religion arid mysticism are virtually synonymous. The attainment of mystic conciousness is the goal of religion. This conciousness is the light that guides man. Religion is the art of true living. It leads us onto the road of real existence where there is harmony between reality and us. Mystical experience in various mystical systems is, generally speaking, identical and similar because the fundamental truths experienced by mystics in different times and places are the same. Certain collective tenets of mysticism are not confined to any one faith or religion and are roughly universal. Mystics hold that:

(a) God is not to be located in any particular place, church or temple, but that his spirit is everywhere present in Nature and that Nature everywhere abides in it “Aapene Aap Sajw Aapine Rachio Nau, Dui Kudrat Sajiai Asan ditha thao” (GGS, pp. 463)

(b) God abides inside the heart of every man as the sun abides in all its myriad rays. “Jaise puhop me bas hai, Kasturi mrigmahi TaisehiHariman basat hai…(Ibid.,)

© It is perfectly possible for any man, who will submit to the prerequistic discipline to enter into direct communion by contemplation or meditation. Silent aspiration (ajapa jap) thus replaces the mechanical recitation.“Vm boleyan sab kuchh janda.. (Ibid.,)

(d) Mystic practices ultimately lead to the deVelopment of supernormal faculties and extraordinary mental powers or even strange physical ones, as the gift of God’s grace “Prabh ke simran ridh-sidh nou-nidh, prabh ke simran gian dhian tat-budh.” (Sukhmani)

The practical justification of religion is its advocacy of the good life, philosophy, knowledge, confidence which give better life, but the practical justification of mysticism is its advocacy of the best life. (Sada Vigas, Bliss, progression). As against the discursive philosopher, the mystic lives more intensely, feels more deeply, acts more forcefully, realizes more profoundly, suffers more patiently and loves more passionately. The mystic does not merely conceive but also realizes, in sentiment and action, the unity of life. This is the distinction between philosophy and mysticism. Bertrand Russell coined a new term “mystical metaphysics” which exalts mysticism above science, religion, philosophy and metaphysics.

(3) Sikh religion and mystical experience:

Mystical experience according to Robert S. Ellwood is an experience in a religious context. It is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experience as an encounter with the ultimate Divine Reality in a direct, non-rational way which engenders a deep sense of unity, and of having lived during the experience on a level of being other than the ordinary. The mystic is a person completely changed. By this experience he gets a new and higher life. In the opening lines of Asa di Var, Guru Nanak says “Balihari Gur Apne deohari sad var, Jin manas te devte kiye karat na lagi var” (countless times a day hail unto the Guru, whose transmutational spirit has changed mortals into God-like saints). The inner experience of a mystic changes his whole attitude of life. The mystic speaks as if he were being dictated by some hidden source. Guru Nanak says, “Jaisi mai avai khasam ke bani taisra kari gian ve Lalo” (just as the Lord’s Word comes to me, the same I reveal).

All spiritual knowledge is a becoming, a shaping and a transformation. Knowledge of God is limited by our capacity to receive Him. We must be in love if we are to know what love is: we have to be a musician to know what music is; similarly we must be God-like, if we are to know what God is. The best expression of belief and faith is the divine love. A question was asked to the Guru and the reply was: “Mile sakhian pucche kaho kant nishani; ras prem bhari kuchh bol na jani” (you ask me what is the mark of Lord. He is all Love, the rest he is ineffable). The mystic’s love spontaneously acquires an ethical attitude. On the spiritual level, it is ecstasy, vision, rapture and trance e.g. “Nam khumari Nanka Chari rahedin rat” (the intoxication of Nam continues day and night) and on the ethical level it is compassion, charity, humility and “Garibi” i.e., self-abnegation. (Nam bij Santokh Suhaga rakh Garibi ves) MaIce Name of God thy seed, contentment thy leveller and humility thy garment. (Adi Granth, 595).

Every mystical experience is something unique in itself. At the same time it is universal in quality. Mystical states have certain marked characteristics. The mystical experience, in its most essential nature, is a profound realization by the experient spirit of the utmost nearness of the Divine Being or Divine Presence, a proximity borderingon the ineffable feeling of unity and oneness of Godhead permeating all beings and non-beings, existence and non-existence. The final stage of mystical experience is ineffable. It certainly hides something as in the words of “Be-khudi be-sabab to nahin Ghalib Kuchh to hai jis ki pardadan hai” (O Ghalib ! this ecstacy is not without cause. There is something in it which it reveals not).

Mysticism of Sikh Gurus:

The focal point that needs emphasis is the Sikh Guru’s personal experience of the Divine. It is this experience that leads to the extinction of all worldly desires. It takes one beyond the realm of time and space and all its attendant limitations. Negatively, it gives one release from sorrow and suffering, release from ignorance and doubt. Positively, it produces bliss, beautitude and external peace. Since it is a state of timelessness, it is a state that has no beginning, no end, no growth, no decay. And since this consciousness transcends time, of a necessity it also rises above the level of cause and effect for these terms signify nothing but events that occur earlier and later in time. This personal experience of the Divine, often called “religious experience” is what philosophers call “mystic experience.” In Sikh mysticism, communion with God is the hallmark of the mystic or Gurmukh. The Gurus have made emphatic statements that their mission is God-ordained.

Guru Nanak and other Gurus have clearly stated that what they utter is the Word of God and not their own. They also emphasize that God can never be comprehended by the method of rational thought. Hymns of Guru Granth clearly show Guru’s sense of deepest love and devotion to God, a continuous search and prayer for the Grace of God and His “Wholly Other” character.

The hymns in the Guru Granth lay down a strictly monotheistic system and show that God and mystic are two distinct and separate entities; In their hymns, the Gurus describe God in numerous ways, refering to many of His social, political, aesthetic, metaphysical, ethics and other attributes. But there are seven significant aspects of God in Sikhism.

(1) God is the Creator.

(2) God is both Transcendent and Immanent.

(3) God is Ocean of Attributes, Values and Virtues.

(4) God has a Will. Everything is governed by His Will.

(5) God does not Incarnate.

(6) God is Gracious, Enlightener.

(7) God is Spirit, Pure, Fathomless and Limitless.

Sikhism has often been called the “Naam Marga” or “Wismad Marga.” It is communion with God, not with Nature, but through nature by means of intuition. “Naam” may be called the immanent or qualitative aspect of God. Accordingly “Naam” is the Creative and Dynamic Immanence of God, the Reality sustaining, working and directing the manifest cosmos.

“The Self-Existent God manifested Himself into Naam. Then came the creation of the universe. He permeates it and revels in His Creation.” Theworld being real, creative work and virtuous deeds are of fundamental importance. The Guru contemplates God by word, thought and deed. Human birth is a precious privilege. Earth is the true field for the practice of righteousness.

Having explained the ideas about God and the reality of world and life, the Gurus have described:

(a) the existing state of man and the causes of his pain and problems.

(b) the right path for his spiritual progress and the solution of his difficulties.

© the goal of man and the characteristics of the ideal life. The word “Manmukh” (self-centred person) indicates the normal state of man in which his self-will and animal propensities dominate, and “Gurmukh” (God-centred or mystic) describes the Ideal man or the highest level of mystic achievement and conciousness. The progress from “Manmukh” to “Gurmukh,” constitutes, in away, the entire story of Sikh Mysticism.

(4) Historical development of Sikh mysticism:

Guru Nanak’s very first doctrinal declaration was “There is no Hindu and no Mussalaman” which was a polite way of saying that religious distinctions had no meaning or validity. He thus created a new faith, a new dispensation, a new religion. Time was quite ripe for such a mystical tour-de-force. He had a direct rapport with the Supreme Being and the Truth was intuitively revealed to him as a divine grace which descends upon only a few “chosen ones.”

Guru Nanak did not follow any mystic tradition. In fact, Mysticism has no tradition. There is no historical continuity in the sphere of mystic thought. It is always new and fresh whenever and wherever it appears. It is always a new phenomenon or revelation. Therefore Sikhism is not only an Original, Distinct and Independent faith but also an Autonomous, Complete, Dynamic and Revealed Religion.Some of the mystical concepts of Guru Nanak such as the Sabad, the Nam, the Guru, and the Hukam, according to McLeod, are concepts originally evolved and explicitly developed by Guru Nanak. The greatest religious achievement of Guru Nanak and his chief merit as prophet and founder of the most modern religion is his unique organisational and nation-building quality. Cunningham emphasizes:

“It was reserved for Nanak to perceive the true principle of reform and to lay those broad foundations which enabled his successor Gobind Singh to fire the minds of his countrymen with a new nationality, and to gire practical effects to the doctrine that the lowest is equal with the highest, in race as creed, in political rights as in religious hopes.”

All the Sikh Gurus from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh were unique mystics, world teachers and saviours, with a remarkable capacity of laying broad foundations and everlasting institutions. We find unique mystical concepts in Japuji Sahib, Asa di war, Sidh Goshti, Sukhmani Sahib, Anand Sahib, Maru rag solhe, Salokas M 9, Jaap Sahib and other Bani.

(5) Distinctiye features of Sikh Mysticism

The concept and doctrines which prescribe the human goal according to Sikh ism are as follows :

(a) Righteous deeds alone basis of assessment.

(b) Higher than Truth is Truthful Living.

© Harmony With the Will of God.

(d) God-conscious man’s link With Naam.

In Sikhism the goal is of creative and moral activity and therefore spiritual life and moral life are virtually synonymous and coextensive. All training for spiritual life or for seeking God’s Grace is through moral life. The highest attainment in Sikhism, is to become God’s instrument in making every human being God-centred. It is the creative state from which altruistic activities start. Service of mankind both precedes and succeeds the mystic achievement. The ideal of Sikh mysticism is not merger in God but only a link or union between the mystic (Gurmukh) and the Creative Immanence of God (Naam).

The salient characteristics and role of a Gurmukh or mystic are as follows:

(a) He is godly, the ocean of all virtues, pure and truthful.

(b) He carries out His Will.

© He is the servant of God and man.

(d) He partakes actively in all fields of life. .

(e) He aims to make all others God-centred.

The Gurus have prescribed three principle modes of discipline which are laid down as a code of conduct to be practised throughout the course of mystic’s lne.

(1) Company of God-centred persons. (sadh-sangat)

(2) Moral life or service of mankind. (sewa)

(3) Prayer and rememberance of God. (simran)

The spiritual practice recommended by Sikh Gurus is called “Surat Shabad Marg”and “Naam Marg” or Sehaj Marg. Surat, meaning consciousness is the integrated awareness in which the three components have merged their identity, namely:

(a) The instinctive subliminal perception,

(b) The sensory intellectual consciousness,

© The super-sensous mystical intuition.

All the Sikh Gurus have given us insight into the nature of the Ultimate Reality, vision of the Supreme Being and depth of knowledge through their mystic consciousness. The Sikh ideal for a man is spiritual enlightenment, the way to which passes through definite stages of consciousness and activity on various levels. These stages are indicated by Guru Nanak in Japji:

First stage: The plane of Righteousness (Dharam Khand) is that of natural consciousness.

Second stage: The plane of Divine Knowledge (Gyan Khand) is that of intellectual consciousness.

Third stage: The plane of spiritual Effort (Saram Khand) is that of volitional consciousness.

Fourth stage: The plane of Grace (Karam Khand) is that of moral activity an action which owing to its intrinsic goodness as a value, is, for the self-will, irresistable.

Fifth stage: The plane of Truth (Sach Khand) is that of spiritual realization or union;

The spiritual life of a Sikh gains, after a steady discipline, contemplation and negation of self-hood, the true consciousness of reality and he lives in the temporal world just as the lotus flower lives in a swampy pond.

“Jaise jal me karnal niralam, murgai naisane

Surat sabad bhov sagar tariye, Nanak Nam vakhane

Rahe ekant eka man vasiya, asa mahi niraso

Agam agochar tkkh dikhaye, Nanak tanka daso” (Ibid., p. 938.) .

(As the lotus thrusts upward and does not drown in water, as the duck swims and does not become wet while swimming, so can we cross, safely and unaffectedly, the ocean of existence by attuning our minds to the word of Guru and the holy Name of God).

He suffetsan utter transmutation of self, yet. self-realisation (apachina) is not the goal of a Sikh. It is only the beginning of his mystic life. A Sikh mystic leaves rapture and ecstasy far behind, to reach the goal which is identification of the human will with the Divine Will. In this sublime state, God is there and the soul is in God. Mystery is no more. Problems vanish. Darkness is dispelled and everything is flooded with Divine Light. The soul becomes in thought and feeling, absorbed in God.

6. Life style of a Sikh Mystic:

The most prominent and essential1ivine attributes are contained in the Sikh basic creed, “Mul Mantra”, which constitutes seven aspects that are also applicable to Brahatllgyani’s living. These seven aspects are:

(1) Ek Onkar Unity

(2) Sat-nam Truth

(3) Karta-purkh Creation

(4) Nirbhau-Nirvairo Equality

(5) Akal-murat Beauty

(6) Ajooni-saibhang Freedom

(7) Gur-Prasad Grace-Culture

These seven are the values dear to’ a Gurmukh and he promotes the same in his living.

1.Unity: A Gurmukh inculcates the attitude of non-duality, a manifestation of the Divine spirit or Reality.

2.Truth: He acts truthfully in thought, word and deed.

3.Creativeness: His approach to life in all matters and walks of life is constructive.

4.Equality: All men are equal to him, all pleasure and pains are same to him. He does not change or waiver under their impacts.

5. Beauty: He always displays undying and eternal beauty of mind and spirit, in behaviour and attitudes and in his idealism.

6.Freedom: He is never a slave to anybody. He is virtuous and creative.

7.Culture: He is undersanding but is humble, graceful balanced and sweet.

The above seven-unity, truth, creation, equality, beauty, freedom, and culture, are the idealistic aspects of the activity or “Karma” of the Gurmukh in the worldly life. The Guru Granth aims at producing a Sikh, Khalsa or a saint-soldier of the concept of the Mul-Mantra which is possible to develop through the path and discipline of Naam.

7. Conclusion - The New Direction:

As a result, some general conclusions about mysticism and Sikhism become apparent. Religion and mysticism are virtually synonymous. Religion, at its highest level is mysticism.

Sikhism being a religion of spirit envisions not only a new dynamic relationship amongst men, but also a new kinship between man and God. Guru Nanak evolved his own distinctive approach which may be termed as spiritualist-secular mode of thought. Sikh Gurus as prophet-mystics have a life-affirming and ethical attitude towards the world. They were emphatic in asserting love as the primary element in their mysticism. The Creator is basically and primarily a God of Will, Love and Grace. In Sikhism mystical state is not transient but a permanent state of bliss, beautitude and joy.

Nanak bhagta sada vigas - Japji 8-11

Naam khumari Nanka charhi rahe din raat (Ibid.,)

The prophetic or activistic mystic’s experience is fundamentally dynamic. His realisation of Truth is by living Truth. This realisation directs him to live a creative existence. He becomes a creative wire for the creative flow of energy and love. The prophetic mystic insists on the elimination of egoism as the crucial step for gaining mystical experience.

Guru Nanakcreates a new way of life known as “NaamMarg.” Sikhism is a gospel which the Gurus have conveyed and illustrated through their own lives. Their message is not an idea but an ideal realised, not a static thought but a dynamic and creative activity, not mere words and wishes explained but deeds done, not a precept but a practice, not a myth or parable but a truth lived in flesh and blood. There is nothing like knowing God because in the case of EverCreative God, to do His Will is the only way to know Him. In Japji Guru Nanak asks the question “How can one be a truthful being ? or How may one get enlightened ?” and replies “Through following the Divine Will.” This is the essence of Sikhism. The mystic knows His will and carries it out the ideal is to establish the kingdom of God on earth and make everyone God Conscious.

This ideal is central to the mystic system of the Gurus.

(Aap Mukat, mukat kare sansar)

One who is liberated, liberates others

(Nanak te mukh ujle keti chhuti naal - Japji)

Their faces shine with Divine Light and they liberate several others.

Prayer and the mystic experience are the two modes of communion with Him. This communication is as natural as for a child to talk to his father. It can take the form of an inner dialogue The elan of love and life that flows in the veins of a prophetic mystic gives rise to the blood of martyrs, to the steel of the sword of the soldiers, to the deep devotion of the saint, to the service of the suffering and to the divine embrace that soothes, heals and redeems all men within a single fold. Every Sikh prayer ends ‘with the words “Sarbat da bhala” (May God bless the entire humanity). This is the prophetic mysticism of the Sikh Gurus, the religion of God’s Will leading to an integrated life of creative love and freedom on a global level. Finally man becomes a pulsating centre of action by the submission of his Will to the Supreme Reality. Following the Divine will is the key concept of Sikhism and has been commended both as the first great step on the path of spiritual quest and the final achievement of a life of devotion. The message of Sikh Gurus is valid for all those who have an urge to break their egoshell, and link themselves with the Universal Consciousness, which is a shoreless Ocean; This indeed is the essence of Sikh Mysticism. “Nanak leen Bhayo Gobind sion Jion Pani sang Pani.”

by Sikh Institute

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