I think a word about Material Culture is necessary here because historically in western academia this has been overlooked. The received opinion today is that our universities were originally church institutions and heavily influenced by a Judeo-Christian focus on doctrine and texts, rather than how a religion is lived out or experienced by its belongings. In the 1980s, a scholar of religion called Ninian Smart outlined what he described as a Dimensional Approach, which promoted use of a multi-pronged approach in the study of religion, one of which was the dimension of material culture. This Dimensional Approach is the way religion is now studied, and it is used primarily to overcome the dangers of Western Ethnocentrism. Particularly the Indic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, to name the three major ones) are highly iconographic, India being a highly aesthetic and visual culture whereby religion is done, and belonged to, rather than thought about and believed in (though naturally all religions have an intellectual dimension). Material culture – art, iconography, music, food, architecture etc – is extremely important as an enabler and determiner of ritual and praxis, and often defines or explains the emotional aspects of a religion. So, if we neglect it and merely focus on Doctrine or Texts we will miss important insights into a religion. I’ve written about material culture in Western Christianity elsewhere, but I would like to share my thoughts regarding material culture in Sikhism.
Sikh material culture is particularly fascinating because it is not only part of a matrix of a broader Indic devotional theme (it is, at its very core and essence, Punjabi in character, and indeed it is impossible to think of the Punjab without thinking of Sikhism, or vice versa) and many aspects of art and music in Sikh contexts are instantly recognisable as Indian devotional material; and also unique because it reflects the very distinctive character of the Sikh community. Sikh music and poetry deserves seperate study, but in this post I shall focus on Sikh Art and what it can tell us about the Khalsa tradition.
To recap a bit, becoming a Khalsa Sikh is somewhat analogous to undergoing Christian baptism, though one shouldn’t press the analogy too far as there are important theological differences. During the Khalsa ceremony, sweetened water, armit is taken, and this signifies a renewed committement to the Sikh and specifically Khalsa ideal instuted by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1699. The clothing and material culture of the Khalsa identity has become what we would normally associate with the “standard” Sikh image; most famously the baring of the Five Ks: five articles of faith that Khalsa Sikhs wear at all times: uncut hair, iron bangle, cotton breaches, wooden comb, and finally a dagger, the later symbolising the readiness to defend the helpless, an important concept in what has become to be known as the “Sikh Martial Tradition”. Over the decades, particularly since the colonial era in India, there has been a crystallisation of Sikh identity so that these symbols have become synonymous with Sikhism, though there are other branches of the religion which do not bare five Ks (from the perspective of the Khalsa, they would not be true and proper Sikhs – a discussion for another time).
As with all Indian religions, Sikhism has a rich artistic and aesthetic heritage. Sikh images are not , by in large, icons designed or intended for devotional purposes, the way they would be in Hinduism. The founders of the Sikh religion, most specifically Guru Nanak, strongly discouraged the praying to images and other signs of empty ritual, encouraging his followers to seek release from samsara by meditation on the Name (nam) and the Word (shabad) of God.
Guru Nanak’s teachings on the emptiness of vedic ritual – which always involves the veneration of icons – serves as an important distinction between Sikhism and Vedic Hinduism. Thus images in Sikhism, while some clearly evoke the religious iconography of India are designed to bear witness to the relationship between the Guru and God, firstly, and secondly, the relationship between the Guru (and God, the True Guru) and the Sikh community. They contain (from an Indian perspective) familiar symbols which are designed to be “read” by the viewer, symbols which are part of a wider indian (or even Asia) religious aesthetic.
Here, by way of example, I’m going to examine the religious representations of the Gurus before moving on to look at some images depicting the Sikh community.
The images of the early gurus (Guru Nanak and his immediate successors) frequently show the Gurus in the classic meditative pose instantly recognisable as the pose of the renouncer communing with God. Frequently they is accompanied by symbols of meditation and communion with God. We can see this pose in Buddhist and Hindu iconography as well: the image of the serene mediator is a deeply ancient Indic motive which is perhaps one of the most enduring images of India, and indeed, through Buddhism, the whole of Asia. Nanak and his early successors lived in a time of relative religious tolerance and exchange of religious ideas under Emperor Akbar, the Muslim ruler who controlled the Punjab at the time of Guru Nanak. Thus the early Gurus were relatively free to focus the central goal of Sikhism: the meditation on the Name of God. Sikh images depicting this time show the Gurus, primarily in meditation and communion with the Divine, or, still in his meditative pose, looking outward at the viewer, his hand raised in Blessing. Most of the images of Guru Nanak regardless of era, show him accompanied by musicians (music being an extremely important aid to meditation), and holding prayer beads, the traditional paraphernalia of the Indic mystic.
In this contemporary (1992) image of Guru Aran Dev, by Amrit KD Kaur Singh, classical Indian iconography and symbolism is used (again we see the symbols of mysticism and communion with God with the lotus flowers and prayer beads) but the aim of the picture is to convey the authority of the later Gurus. Guru Nanak, in his “blessing” pose, is situated above Guru Aran Dev, surrounded by a complex abstract patterns symbolising the heavens, or (depending on your perspective), his release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. I am thinking here of the similarities in this motive with the mandala patterns of Tibetan Buddhism.
What is interesting is the shift in imagery – though the “resting” image is still discernible even for Gurus who were martyred, such as this one of the 9th Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadar:
While passive is not the right word to apply to these images, this is the Guru “at rest”, the Guru focused on the main task of the Sikh, the relationship with God. This is so even for Gurus which met violent deaths, such as Guru Tegh Bahadar (9th Guru). It is, in part, the image of the Indic renouncer, a motive seen in both Hinduism and Buddhism, as shown by common depictions of various renouncers and vedic Gurus. Note the similarity in the pose when compares with this image of a Vedic Guru Adi-shankaracharya with the classic pose of the Buddha:
However, there is a second vein of Sikh Art which focuses on the crystallization of a separate Sikh community – defined in part by a sense common suffering in the face of persecution – with a different sort of symbolism. In a sense, this type of Sikh Art it symbolizes a type of “liberation theology”. So, instead of seeing traditional images of the guru-in-meditation or guru-in-benediction, the “guru at rest”, from the 18th Century onwards the representational art depicts the Active Guru: the guru whose pose is looking after his people with a “watchman’s eye” fixed on the horizon or, if he is depicted in a room, the door! He is no longer depicted in the classic meditative pose, but one at rest, hand on his sword, with one leg propped up. In particular one calls to mind the images Guru Gobind Singh, who instituted the Khalsa and who was largely responsible for the formation of Sikh martial identity, as in the picture below:
Though relaxed, we cannot say that this picture is one of serenity. Guru Gobind Singh has his eyes turned towards the door of the room, a hand on his sword, and looks at any minute ready to “leap into action” in defence of the oppressed. It is altogether different from the images of serene meditation one normally associates with depictions of Guru Nanak. From the Sikh perspective this is no contradiction, for the Divine flame which animates all the Gurus is the same, it is merely the social and political circumstances which called for different responses to their environment. Guru Nanak and his four early successors operated in peace time, but from the time of Guru Harobind, the 6th Guru, onwards, the Sikhs were in the sphere of war in the face of Muslim aggression. Indeed, since the 18th Century we can find depictions of Martyred Gurus with similar Khalsa imagery employed; even though Khalsa was not instituted until 1699. This picture of Guru Harobind is indiactive of this phenomenon, clearly indicating how Sikhs themselves view the eternal nature of the Khalsa ideal, or to put it more accurately, the Khalsa as the crystallization or expression of an eternal truth:
I am struck here by the similarity in the pose of Gurus Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh and the Chinese Buddhist depictions of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. In contrast to the traditional image of the meditating Buddha or bodhisattva, she too adopts a similar “relaxed but ready” pose, because she is said to leap into action to aid those in need. Arguably, this pose is an important Asian symbol of the readiness to aid the oppressed. That of course, is the essence of the Khalsa ideal – it is not so much a martial tradition, not to take up arms for personal gain, like the roadside brigands (who are as prominent in the Indian imagination as the Renouncer-Guru), nor for the expansion of a religion typified by Islamate jihadist aggression; but one which demands action in the face of injustice. The martial idea shares the idea of compassionate intervention with the Christian Just War theory, rather than with jihad.
A final point worth noting is that this sort of 18th and 19th century “martial depiction” of the Gurus (for want of a better term) often also contains the image of a bird of prey – a hawk or a falcon. Hawks were long the symbols of the moghul elite, as seen here in this picture of the Emperor Jahangir:
Thus it would seem strange they are included in Sikh images of the later gurus. However, the hawk is an important place in the martial narrative. During the initiation of the first Khalsa Sikhs, the narrative explains that five sparrows drank drops of armit water which had spilled, and turned into hawks, symbolising the paradigm shift from from defenseless to defenders. In addition, the hawk is in many cultures a symbol of vigilance and foresight, as well of temporal authority. The Khalsa then takes ownership of a symbol of an enemy’s aggression and authority and transforms it to a symbol of the Guru’s authority and Sikh liberation theology