Sikh Dharma and Equality

“Jai Guru Nanak ji” – Artwork by Navya


In India, during the time of the Sikh Gurus, the caste system was a prevailing organizing feature of society. In this system, Hindus were divided into four main groups or classes based on their occupation: Brahmins (scholars); Kshatriyas (warriors); Vaishyas (merchants/farmers) and Shudras (workers). 

The Sikh religion is free of any caste, creed or sect. When Sikhs take the Amrit of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, they all become Khalsa and the children of Mata Sahib Kaur Ji and Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The Gurus felt very strong about equality and never considered anyone superior or inferior.

Guru Nanak called himself “Jan Nanak” (slave Nanak). People who feel themselves superior do not understand Guru Nanak’s basic teachings of humility and equality.

In Sikhism, other faiths and paths are accepted and embraced. Sikhs believe that the Truth is always One. There can be many sources for it. The Guru understood this and He found no difference in the light of God He saw shining in the Bhagats and Saints in His day. That is why the writings of Hindu and Muslim saints are included in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. 

~Resource:  Living Reality (1994) by Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Khalsa.


Langar at the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Nicolas Mirguet via Flickr Creative Commons.

The 3rd Sikh guru, Guru Amar Das ji, proclaimed that no one would be allowed into his presence until that person had eaten in the Guru’s Kitchen, or Guru ka Langar. During the Guru’s time, Langar was a wonderful service of feeding everyone, to make sure that they had their basic need for food taken care of before seeing the Guru. But with his proclamation, Guru Amar Das also had an additional goal in mind. When you eat in the Guru ka Langar, everyone sits on the same level, on the floor or ground and everyone eats the same food. This practice ensures that each person coming to see the Guru would be reminded that they were neither above nor below anyone else.

Equality of all people is one of the primary principles of Sikh Dharma introduced by the first Guru, Guru Nanak. From his first utterance after his moment of liberation, Guru Nanak taught that, as there is only One God, then we are all equal, regardless of how we worship. He was a visionary in the way he encouraged people to rise above any socially imposed limitation.

“(Guru Nanak) gave a very clear message in his first message when he said, ‘Ek Ong Kar.’ He gave the equality. We are all creatures of one Creator.”
~Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan, March 30, 1997, Los Angeles, CA

Guru Nanak was also a social revolutionary in the way that he addressed the rights of women. At that time women were treated like property, but Guru Nanak elaborated on his concept of equality by unequivocally declaring that women are equal to men.

Guru Nanak, Asa Di Var

Bhand jammee-ai bhand nimmee-ai bhand mangan vee-aahu.
From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.

Bhandahu hovai dostee bhandahu chalai raahu.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.

Bhand mu-aa bhand bhaalee-ai bhand hovai banDhaan.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.

So ki-o mandaa aakhee-ai jit jameh raajaan.
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.

Bhandahu hee bhand oopjai bhandai baajh na ko-ay.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

Guru Amar Das extended the importance of treating women with equality even further by declaring that women should not veil their faces (Purdah) in public. He also banned female infanticide and the practice of voluntary or forced self-immolation of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband (Sati), and encouraged widows to remarry. It was during the reign of Guru Amar Das that women were included in the “Manji and Piri” programs of spiritual stewardship, where Guru Amar Das chose 146 leaders, of which 52 were women, to carry the light of Sikh Dharma teachings to people far and wide.

When the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh formed the Khalsa (those who live in purity of consciousness), he made no distinction between men and women – expecting both to live with the same discipline. At that time many women even fought and died on the battlefield in equal roles of leadership with their male counterparts. It has been documented that women also proudly wore turbans, along with the other 5 K’s at that time. In current times many Sikh women have bent to social pressures to abandon their commitment to wearing a turban or wear them furtively, as small black wraps hidden under their colorful chunnis (scarfs). Only after young Sikh women of the West, upon the inspiration of the Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan, began proudly wearing larger white turbans have we seen a resurgence of the bold women’s turban being worn by women of Eastern origin. The full equal rights of women in Sikh Dharma continue to expand as we leave behind the archaic patriarchal social model of the Piscean Age and more Sikh women are empowered to demand equality.

Sikh Dharma began in India, which has a strongly Hindu-oriented social structure. From its ancient origins,  Hinduism has evolved with a rigid caste system. But Guru Nanak specifically instructed his Sikhs not to accept the caste system. Sikhs are encouraged not to use family names that are associated with particular caste groups and, instead, to use Singh (for men) and Kaur (for women). No one is thought to be of greater or lesser value because of the family into which they may have been born. There are no practices or rituals in Sikh Dharma that may only be performed by a person of any particular birth. All activities are open to all people.

“(Guru Nanak) said you are to be equal, you have no power to differentiate between the black and white between the Mohammedan and Hindu, between the Christian and a Buddhist, between the tall and the short, between having the long hairs and the short hairs, you have absolutely no difference and you cannot preach difference and thus you cannot rule and others cannot be ruled.”
Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan April 13, 1969

Guru Ram Das, the 4th guru, designed the most sacred of Sikh temples, the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) with four doors, each facing one of the four cardinal directions, to signify that the temple, and the path of Sikh Dharma, is open to people from all places and origins. Race and ethnicity are also not recognized as being of importance. In fact, there are no differences that limit or elevate anyone in Sikh Dharma. Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa as a way for all of us to have the opportunity to transform ourselves – to live in excellence and rise to our highest vision of our destiny, regardless of where we began this life. As we are all the same in the eyes of God, then in that Divine vision, we all have unlimited potential, we are all equal; we are all One.

~ Pritpal Singh Khalsa, Sikh Dharma International –