In Conservation: Sikhism, Islam, and Hinduism
Published on The Washington Post.
By Vineet Chander, Valarie Kaur and Najeeba Syed-Miller
One week after the Sikh shootings in Oak Creek, Americans have learned more about the Sikh community, many for the first time. A brief introduction to Sikhism has caused people to wonder about the relationship between Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Each religion is a distinct tradition with unique sets of beliefs, practices and values, and at the same time, all three have coexisted for many hundreds of years in the South Asian region of the world. India is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and the birthplace of Hinduism and Sikhism. Of course, it has often been a complex, difficult and troubling history. But we have also seen moments of solidarity between these communities. We recall the slogan some of our grandparents used to sing in India: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isaee! Hum Saray Hai Bhai Bhai! “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. We are all brothers (and sisters).”
In the U.S., Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs share similar challenges in our pursuit to live, work, and worship in caring and safe communities. Hindu and Muslim Americans across the nation have reached out to Sikh neighbors to express their grief and support. In that spirit, we three authors – a Hindu American chaplain, a Muslim American peacemaker, and a Sikh American advocate – engaged in a conversation about the similarities and differences between our faith traditions.
How We See God
Vineet: Hinduism is the oldest of the three faith traditions, made up of diverse practices and beliefs that all approach the divine differently. In fact, Hinduism itself is so diverse that it is difficult and even misleading to categorize it using Western frameworks like “monotheistic” or “polytheistic.” Still, most Hindus say that, ultimately, they believe in one Supreme Being who is both transcendent and imminent. Some Hindus emphasize God’s oneness with the universe, seeing the divine in everything and everything in the Divine. Others emphasize God’s distinct personality and form, seeing Him as our divine parent and us as His eternal servants. Hinduism also recognizes the presence of devatas (often translated as “demigods”), celestial beings who manage the affairs of the cosmos. Hindus see devatas similar to angels or partial manifestations or energies of the One Supreme. Hindu teachers often speak of God as a great flame from which small sparks (all beings) emanate. In this sense, Hinduism holds that the divine is inconceivably one with His creation and yet always infinitely more vast and powerful. Hinduism suggests that Divinity can thus be manifest in the natural world, and that an important part of spiritual wisdom is learning to recognize it.
Najeeba: Muslim merchants traveled there as early as the 7th century, and by the 12th century, there was a more structured and organized presence of Islam in India. As a Muslim, I believe in the divine presence of God. Often you might here this referred to as Allah, which simply translated into English means “The God.” Islam is founded on the belief in tawhid, or the oneness of God, a monotheistic divine entity with no particular form and not in the image of a person. The Koran describes God as the light of the heavens and of the earth. God is also described with 99 attributes including the one we as Muslims call upon before any act, “the Most Merciful.” Muslims follow a tradition of prophet Muhammad that states, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” God is viewed as deeply connected to the spiritual consciousness of humans and accessible through prayer. Even the plants and trees of this Earth are considered as part of the forms that adore God according to the Koran. Oneness of humankind emanates from the belief in one God, and the diversity of humankind under the umbrella of a common humanity. The basis for relations with other humans is mercy. Prophet Muhammad said “God does now show mercy to those who do not show mercy to others.” The holy book of the Muslims is the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad are the hadith, which are important sources for religious understanding. Muslims share with Christians and Jews many common prophets, from Adam to Jesus who is viewed as an important prophet but not the son of God. Muslims also highly value education; prophet Muhammad instructed Muslim women and men to pursue knowledge from “the cradle to the grave.” Thus, individual Muslims are also encouraged to learn for themselves and insure that they are always intellectually and spiritually improving themselves throughout the course of their lives.
Valarie: Sikhism is the youngest of the three religions. The Sikh religion was born in 15th century Punjab (now northern India and Pakistan), a rich meeting place for Hinduism and Islam that oversaw the rise of devotional (bhakti) traditions on either side of the Hindu-Muslim divide: Sufi Islam called for inward love for Allah, and Hindu Bhakti traditions advocated personal devotion. The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, established a new devotional tradition based on direct loving devotion to one divine, Ik Onkar, and a commitment to social justice. As a Sikh, I see God as infinite, formless, creative, without fear and enmity, timeless, and self-existent. The unity of all that we know – human and divine – forms the basis of all of our relationships. “God’s in the self and the self is in God,” says Guru Nanak. “The fire is put out through knowing the One is within and without.” God is called by hundreds of names in the devotional poems of our scripture: Vaheguru, Hari, Allah. Through constant remembrance of the Divine, we silence the ego, realize mystical union beyond language and thought, and experience the interconnectedness between self and all. The experience is mukti, liberation: the feeling of freedom and ecstatic bliss when “the breath sparks and the sky thunders.” It produces an unending flow of compassion for all beings, fulfilled through seva or divinely-inspired service.
How We Pray
Vineet: Hindus engage in spiritual practice (called sadhana) in a variety of ways. They engage in ritual worship, formally in temples or informally in their homes. Such worship may involve reciting prayers or chanting sacred mantras, observing periodic fasting, or offering gifts in charity to the less fortunate. In addition, Hindus may practice their faith through study of sacred texts, through regular meditation and introspection, and even (or, we might say, especially) through performing their day-to-day duties in a selfless and generous spirit, in a way that uplifts themselves and others. While Hindus may occasionally emphasize some of these practices over others, most Hindus see them all as interconnected pieces of a singular, cohesive engagement with their faith. One of the most often misunderstood Hindu practices, at least in the West, is the use of visual representations or icons of the divine. Many Hindus (though not all) believe in connecting with God through forms, called murtis, considering them to be manifestations of the supreme in tangible forms that we can relate to and render service to. This allows Hindus to focus their meditation, have a more personal exchange with God, and to express their devotion to Him through rituals.
Najeeba: Ritual prayer is prescribed five times a day and in addition, zakat, or alms giving to the poor are key practices at the core of a Muslim community. Muslims may worship communally at the masjid, and congregational prayer accompanied by a sermon are regular features in the life of a Muslim community held on the designated Jum’ah of Friday of every week Muslims perform rituals of fasting during the month of Ramadan which is our current 30 day spiritual exercise in self-regulation and avoiding of food, anger and arguments during the day light hours. Muslims also avoid consumption of alcohol or other intoxicating substances with the understanding that clarity of the mind is important to utilize the gift of aql or reason to make good decisions in life. Muslims are always concerned about their internal state as it relates to honesty, good works and kindness to others. “Every act is but its intention,” is a teaching of Prophet Muhammad and so reflecting on why one is doing even good acts becomes important so that one’s ego is not inflated. Contemplative practices such as dhikr (ritual chanting), dua (supplication) and other spiritual practices are utilized to bring one’s higher self into consciousness and work to reduce the ego. Family is the organizing unit of a Muslim community and honoring mothers, fathers and the elderly is considered a righteous act.
Valarie: Sikhs pray together in houses of worship and learning called gurdwaras [doorways to the divine] where we recite and sing devotional songs or shabads from our scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. Through music and poetry, we meditate on the name of God in order to taste the bliss of divine union. In our devotion to the divine, Sikhs wear five articles of faith, including kesh (uncut hair), meant for women and men equally. Men traditionally wrapped their long hair in turbans. Some women wear turbans too, but most simply cover their heads with headscarves when praying. Our faith teaches equality between women and men and people of all classes and backgrounds. Our tenth leader requested us to drop our surnames (a marker of social status), and instead, embrace a shared surname: all women adopted the last name “Kaur” and men took the last name “Singh.” “Sikh” literally means ‘to learn,’ calling us to learn our whole lives.
How We Serve
Najeeba: Muslims are constantly admonished to perform sadaqa or charity for people within our community and for those who are not Muslim as well, especially for neighbors. The teaching regarding neighbors is not only for Muslims, it extends to the greater community whoever they may be and the circumference of neighbors is considered nearly one’s whole city by some scholars. According to the Koran, Muslims must give charity to many categories of individuals including: the poor, the needy, orphans, widows, those traveling and without homes. Charity is in many forms, it can be in actual money or comfort. Prophet Muhammad instructed Muslims that “The doors of goodness are many… removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms–all of these are charity prescribed for you.” He also said: “Your smile for your brother is charity.” Inherent in this structure of offering charity is to also ensure that those who are in the situation of potentially being abused must also be given justice in terms of their rights. Many second generation Muslims in the United States have become engaged in civil rights work, environmental justice and social work projects because of the emphasis on caring for those who have little access to resources or power to change their circumstances for the better.
Vineet: Hinduism has traditionally championed extending charity and justice to others as an inseparable part of living a life of dharma. Classical texts, such as the Upanishads and the Gita, describe that one the fundamental virtues to aspire towards is the awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Thus, these texts teach, the wise share in the joys of others and work to alleviate their suffering. More recently, the saints of the Bhakti movement—a movement of spiritual and social reformers renewing Hinduism’s devotional tradition, spanning from the 12th century to the modern day—have echoed these sentiments, and have even taken them further. “The truly devout Hindu,” one teacher declared, “is known best by this quality: he cannot tolerate the suffering of another.”
Valarie: Sikhs often recite the line from scripture: “Truth is higher than everything else; but higher still is truthful living.” We express our devotion through living an honest life of service to all. Sikhism has three pillars in our practice: Naam Japna, remembrance of the divine; Kirat Karna, earning an honest living, and Vand Chakna, sharing all resources with society. Every gurdwara serves langar, a free communal meal open to all people, and this practice encourages a commitment to divinely-inspired service or seva. A new generation of Sikh Americans is engaging in seva through various forms of service: making films, running social action campaigns, becoming lawyers, public servants, scholars, and more. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Oak Creek, Sikh Americans organized vigils, worked with law enforcement, and in a time of grief, found the courage to call for an end to hate and violence – not just against our community but all people.
What Inspires Us
Vineet: I draw my inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita (a sacred Hindu text which means “the Song of God”). The Gita is a dialogue between Arjuna, a great prince, and Lord Krishna, who is revealed to be the Supreme in human-like form. Throughout the text, Krishna teaches about dharma, one’s right way of living. He suggests that one should perform activities in a spirit of service and detachment, and especially emphasizes love and devotion as the essence of all religious practice. In the Gita, Lord Krishna displays his awe-inspiring majesty as the creator of all that is. And yet, he asks us to choose to be his instruments in this world. I am struck by this beautiful and seemingly paradoxical reality– that we can be so humbled and small before the Divine, and yet so radically empowered to reflect his love. In my own life and work, I aspire to be an instrument of this love, compassion, and justice in all that I do.
Najeeba: I am a peacemaker, a Muslim and an American. Deeply embedded in my beliefs is the saying of prophet Muhammad that Muslims were commanded to “make peace,” with others and that we are to be a mercy for others. In every facet of my life I seek to make peace between people and to save human lives, my faith guides me in the Koranic injunction that to save one human is as if one saved all of humanity. Thus, whenever violence occurs, I find ways to make peace between people and to contribute to my country, my neighborhood and my family. Fidelity to my nation is also a key belief for Muslims, when one takes an oath, adhering to it is a central tenet of Islamic teaching and for me the basis of my commitment to my country. With Vineet and Valarie I share a love of South Asian cultural heritage and the many common values we share as Americans to work together to build stronger ties between all communities with peace at its heart.
Valarie: The Sikh ideal is the warrior-saint: one who walks the earth devoted to God and committed to fight injustice in all forms. In the 17th century, a Sikh woman Mai Bhago became the first female warrior-saint and led Sikhs who had abandoned battle back into battle herself: she became the warrior-saint she was waiting for. Inspired by Mai Bhago, my modern-day sword and shield is film and law: using storytelling and advocacy, I am grateful to be able to fight and serve my community alongside my fellow Sikhs and Americans.