Many historians see Guru Nanak, born in a medieval patriarchal society, as a social and religious revolutionary who boldly went ahead to destroy existing social and religious practices. The new order he established challenged, among other institutions, the treatment of women by society. His verses are testimony to this. Let’s begin with a bird’s view of the social norms concerning women preceding and during Nanak’s times.
During Muslim rule, women suffered the most. They were taken away by the rulers, raped or made to do menial chores. To avoid all this humiliation, the girl child was either killed at birth, making infanticide a common practice, or else married off at the age of five or six, making them unhealthy mothers. Adult women were neglected and, if they became widows, forced to commit sati or cut their hair and wear unattractive clothes. Remarriage was prohibited. There was a pronounced desire for sons in the patriarchal setup and women’s status was denigrated. They were wrapped in a subservient psyche and dependent on father, brother or son. The Vedas propounded it, Manusmriti enhanced it, and the Mughals drove the final nail by introducing the purdah and polygamy. Guru Nanak, who grew up in such times, was close to his sister Nanaki. He and the Gurus who came after him empathised with women. Guru Nanak defied the norms of his time, telling women to denounce the purdah and discontinue the practice of sati. He asked them to sit with the men for satsang, and attend his sermons and the singing of divine hymns. Men would bring the rations for the langar (communal kitchen), women would cook and both would serve the congregation.
“Ek Aumkar, sat nam, karta purakh….” Guru Nanak envisages the divine in the form of the numeral one, shattering the prevalent social interpretation of God as the father in various forms. Breaking this centuries-old paradigm, he also creates a new space for the divine to be experienced—one beyond any categories. Being transcendental, this numeral one thus removes the patriarchal stratifications and provides the basis for a balanced spiritual study.
According to the Guru Granth Sahib, both birth and death are to be celebrated, for the womb or garabh is the source of life. The primal source of procreation is all-nourishing and free of patriarchal implications. Being aware of the oppressive patriarchy in north India, the Gurus, in their verses, rubbished the practice of women being called unclean and inferior during various phases of life. In the scripture Asa di Var, Guru Nanak writes: “Bhand jamiye bhand nimiye / bhand mangan viah / band hove dosti / bhande chale rah / jit much sada salahiyeti (A woman bears and conceives / we bow to the woman form / whom a man marries and befriends / why should we call her inferior / of whom emperors are born?)”
Guru Nanak often called himself the almighty’s bride. This trend of recurring feminism in Guru Granth Sahib was picked up by the other Gurus. The prayer Anand Sahib written by the third Guru, Guru Amardas, begins with “Anand bhaiya mairi mayee / Satguru main paya (O mother! I am in bliss / on finding the Divine Lord.)”
A Sikh girl with a sword, just before performing a martial art drill at a religious procession.
The last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, put his seal on the issue of non-gender by creating Singhs and Kaurs in the same breath—Singh for male and Kaur for female. This did away with the compulsion faced by women to adopt either their husband’s name or their father’s. Now, they were to simply write Kaur. People from multiple castes, religions and genders drank amrit from the same bata (utensil).
Guru Nanak elevated woman’s status not only socially, but also theologically, by running maternal metaphors throughout his Bani. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the Gurus repeatedly express their attachment to the divine as an infant’s attachment to breast milk: “Sada sada hum chohre tumro / tun prabh hamro meeta / Nanak barak tum mat pita / mukh naam tumaro kheera (Forever I am your child, Lord / you are my friend / you are mother and father, says Nanak / and your name is milk nectar in my mouth.)” Woman is not diefied; it’s her womanhood that’s worshipped.
Down the generations, Sikhs could not grasp the progressive approach of the Gurus and dragged women back to Vedic times. It started with an aide of Guru Gobind Singh, Bhai Chaupa Singh, who reversed the directions of the Gurus and insisted that man be worshipped by woman and that woman keep fasts for the well-being of their husbands. Chaupa Singh Rahitnama (official edict of Chaupa Singh) brought in many new dos and don’ts. Amrit was denied to women, contrary to what the 10th Guru had ordained. Women could now only hear the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib, not conduct public recitations. Men and women were segregated. Women’s status plunged again into the dark well from which Guru Nanak and his successors had pulled it out. The process was completed with the return of purdah and sati during the regime of Punjab’s Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Several of his queens underwent sati.
After annexing Punjab, the Britishers also added to patriarchal culture by looking up to the martial persona of Sikh men. Today, the patriarchal practices are stronger than ever. There are no Sikh women granthis in this multi-million-strong community. Women’s kirtani jathas have to face discrimination in the community. At prominent places of worship like the Harmandir Sahib, women are not allowed to render sewa or kirtan. They are not even allowed to touch the golden palanquin on which the Guru Granth Sahib is carried into the sanctum sanctorum every day. This serves as an example for other gurdwaras across the world.
Today, parents look upon the son as a symbol of social security. Property has been handed down the generations from father to son. There are very few examples of women who refuse to bring dowry to the husband’s house and equally few examples of women divorcing their spouses disregarding the social sentiment. This patriarchal culture fed the boom of female foeticide in Punjab. By the time the alarm bells began to ring, the gender ratio had been depleted sharply. Why don’t Guru Nanak’s verses tunnel through the damaging perspectives of the Sikh psyche?
Gender justice has to be practised at all levels of the community irrespective of the discriminatorily assigned roles. If Guru Nanak could take up the banner of feminism in the 15th century, why are Punjabis scared to do so 550 years later?
(Reema Anand is an author and documetary filmmaker)