Overcoming Kaam: Sikhism and homosexuality

January 11, 2010

in God Made the Rainbow, Religion

God Made the Rainbow is a segment promoting an inclusive spirituality for all. For other articles, visit God Made the Rainbow here.

Sikhism as a religion was founded about 500 years ago, and as such, it is one of the youngest of the world religions. The religion originates from the northern region of the Indian Subcontinent known as Punjab, a region now shared between India and Pakistan. The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469, and the last of the 10 living Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh, died in 1708. The Sikh scriptures are contained in a volume known as the Guru Granth Sahib, and it consists of the teachings of contemporary Hindu and Muslim saints as well as those of the Sikh gurus. The Guru Granth Sahib is a Guru in its own right and it is accorded the same level of respect amongst Sikhs as that given to the living Gurus.

Sikhism believes in tolerance, equality and acceptance of all people, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality. Sexuality is deemed to be something which is part of the natural human state. However, excessive sexual desire is referred to within Sikhism as ‘lust’ or ‘Kaam’, and Kaam forms one of the Five Thieves of Sikhism (the Sikh equivalent of the Seven Deadly Sins in Christianity). Kaam is seen to be a destructive force and one which needs to be overcome. Sex outside of marriage is discouraged within Sikhism, although no reference is made to that within the Guru Granth Sahib. Furthermore, the Guru Granth Sahib makes no specific reference to homosexuality, although it considers all of nature to have been created by God’s grace. As the scientific world has now come to accept that homosexuality can be found in the natural world, and Sikhism accepts science as being compatible with the faith, it is possible to argue that Sikhism is accepting of homosexuality.

One of the corner-stones of Guru Nanak’s teachings was that of ‘Grishti Jeevan’, or ‘living the life of the householder’, and life within a family unit is highly encouraged, as is marriage. A monogamous relationship within marriage is seen as the Sikh ideal. The Sikh marriage ceremony is comprised of a hymn of 4 verses known as the ‘Laavan’. Each verse is read aloud, and the couple walk around the Guru Granth Sahib whilst the verse is repeated in song. At the end of the fourth verse and circumambulation, the couple are married. The four verses of the Lavaan are non-gender specific. The only references made to gender are of the two human souls of the people entering the marriage as being the bride and God as being the bridegroom, and so the use of gender within the Lavaan is solely metaphorical. Although the Lavaan was composed over 400 years ago, the practice of Sikh marriage by following the Lavaan was only institutionalized in 1909 when the Anand Marriage Act of India legalised the ceremony. Prior to that, the Hindu ceremony of circumambulation of a fire was the only legally recognized marriage ceremony for Sikhs in India.

It would be wrong to assume that the Guru Granth Sahib has failed to mention homosexuality due to the ignorance of the Sikh Gurus to such activity. Islam was well-established in Punjab by the time that Guru Nanak was born, and the Quran makes explicit reference to homosexual activity. In fact, there were openly-homosexual and well-known holy men in the Indian Subcontinent at the time that the Guru Granth Sahib was being compiled. The fact that the Gurus did not discuss homosexuality in the Sikh scriptures suggests that such issues were inconsequential in a spiritual belief system where a direct relationship with God is paramount and that Kaam is a destructive force to all people, regardless of sexuality.

As the Laavan are non-gender specific, it is theoretically possible to have a same-sex marriage within the Sikh religion. There have been a number of edicts in recent years by the Jathedar (Head Priest) of the Akal Takht (the temporal base for the Sikh religion in Amritsar) which have prohibited the consecration of same-sex marriages in Sikh places of worship, but there is a long history of such edicts being ignored by the Sikh community in India and globally. It should be noted that the Sikh religion does not believe in a priesthood system due to the emphasis on a direct relationship with God in the absence of any interceder. Another interesting thing to note is the fact that the Jathedar has felt it necessary to make such an edict in the first place – if the Laavan were gender specific and if homosexuality was prohibited outright by Guru Granth Sahib, such edict would be pointless.

Although Sikhism is a liberal religion, Punjabi culture is extremely conservative. This has lead to instances where some Sikhs hold conservative views which stem from Punjabi culture but which the individual has come to believe to be a part of Sikhism. An area where this disparity is evident is that of sexuality, with Punjabi culture being very homophobic whilst Sikhism believes in tolerance of all people. Gristhi Jeevan, or living the life of a householder, applies equally to same-sex relationships as it does to heterosexual relationships. There are no barriers to maintaining a family lifestyle within a same-sex relationship, for example, by adopting children. Same-sex marriages are possible within Sikhism, but due to the possible reluctance of Sikh places of worship in consecrating such a marriage, a monogamous relationship is to be preferred as an alternative.

If you would like to find out more about Sikhism and its approach to homosexuality, as well explore the dichotomy between the Sikh religion and Punjabi culture, please feel free to visit Sarbat – the online resource for LGBT Sikhs.

Jay Singh is the moderator of Sarbat.net.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Samandal February 1, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Wonderful article!

“It would be wrong to assume that the Guru Granth Sahib has failed to mention homosexuality due to the ignorance of the Sikh Gurus to such activity.”

I live in an area of North America that has the largest population of Indians outside India. My Sikh friends and acquaintances are among the kindest, friendliest, and most helpful people one would ever meet. Most of them are very accepting and non-judgmental.

From a Baha’i perspective, I think it would also be wrong to assume that Baha’u’llah (the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith) failed to mention homosexuality due to his ignorance of such matters. In his Kitab-i-Aqdas (Most Holy Book), Baha’u’llah explicitly forbade pederasty, but Shoghi Effendi, the First Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, is presumed to have interpreted this (in a letter written on his behalf) to imply a general prohibition on all forms of homosexual activity. He did not, however, wish Baha’is to treat the words written by his secretaries as possessed of the same authority as his own letters: they are authoritative for the person to whom they are addressed in the situation in question, but they were not intended to establish general principles universally applicable to particular situations.

There is at least one established Baha’i community and a new Baha’i movement (the Unitarian Baha’i Fellowship) that welcome gay and lesbian singles and couples. In the latter case, the theological point of departure is entirely distinct from that of the more widely known Baha’i International Community based in Haifa. Gays and lesbians who wish to become Baha’i without living in the closet or allowing, accepting, condoning, or enabling toxic, abusive, disrespectful, non-honoring attitudes and behaviors to continue now have viable Baha’i alternatives to choose from, should they wish to do so. The choice is entirely theirs to make.

For further information, please see:

http://unitarianbahai.org/

Thank you so much for your excellent coverage of this issue.

http://samandal.wordpress.com

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sarah February 7, 2010 at 2:02 am

Thanks for your input, I didn’t know there was an affirming Baha’i fellowship. I’m currently looking for other contributors to do other blog posts for God Made the Rainbow – if you or aayone you know is interested, let me know. :)

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Santo Denfip September 5, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Fantastic post!

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sarah August 9, 2011 at 1:21 am

If you are not a spammer, contact me from my home page with further details.

– Sarah

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Gurjot September 4, 2013 at 1:01 am

Maybe I read over this too quickly and misunderstood and if I have please forgive me. But what I picked up is the mentioning of homosexuality being something Sikhism is accepting. Sikhs do not discriminate against people that are homosexual, I am a Sikh and I do know people that are homosexual but their choice if sexuality is not going to give me a bad image of them. We are God’s children, are we not?
But I want to make one thing clear. Sikhs THEMSELVES are not(should not be) homosexual and if they are correctly following Sikhi Rehat(rules of conduct) and following the Guru’s hukam then this should not be a problem to start with. It is written in Gurbani about the beauty of Husband and Wife and how they are essentially one soul in two bodies. Sikhism practices and believes that how God made is perfect and we will not do anything to change it. The same goes for sexuality. Sikhs shouldn’t have the problem of being homosexual(not saying that is a problem for other people but for Sikhs it would be). I don’t mean to offend but it is not natural, in Sikhism, for women and women to be married and for man and man to be married. Scientfically, if you place two homosexuals (ManxMan or WomenxWomen)on a deserted island and two hetrosexuals(man and women) on a deserted island and come back 100 years later, you will find a pile of bones on one island and a thriving population on the second. If a Sikh were homosexual, they are getting involved with Kaam and in the end that’s not what we are created for. If people were homoseuxual in the beginning of time, our race would be extinct. Husband and Wife in Sikhism are to be each others campany(Sangat) in reaching the Guru and to pass Sikhism onto their children as well.

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Diane Griego June 19, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Dear Gurjot, thank you for your honest post. Of course it will be ignored by the creator of this site and those who condone immorality but know your version of what Sikhs believe is the truest here. But just just as other naive and weak minded people pleasers many will sucuumb to political correctness out of fear of rejection. Christians believe just as Sikhs in regard to homosexuality for the same logical reasons and wonder why the millions who have died from HIV Aids in the U.S. is never spoken about. San Francisco alone has had approximately 23,000 HIV deaths yet they force not speak of those deaths either. I loved your so simple island reasoning and along with the horrific statistics and facts about the homosexual lifestyle you would think anyone with simple compassion and common sense would know that this choice is only destructive for our society. And every statistic proves it.

I pray that your faithful understanding of what your God intended for man and woman is passed on and that the next generation is not easily swayed by political correctness and the pressure to be liked or accepted by this world. It takes courage and love to speak truth while evil lurks all around us.

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Manish September 13, 2013 at 10:53 am

Hi Sarah,

First of all, Hats off to you !!

The article is beautifully written and very accurate.

While reading above, as soon as my mind started wandering to have doubt about how well homo-culture was known at that times, your further details cleared all my doubts.

The 4 “Lavaans” refer to marriage of a human soul with God. These are not gender specific. Gurbaani overall has single motive and that is to attain salvation i.e. get out of the vicious circle of incarnation (birth and death).

Gurbaani does not focus on any hetrosexual or homosexual feelings.

The person “Gurjot” is either ignorant or another homo-phobic. Please ignore him.

Thank you.
Keep up the good work!!
Manish (name changed as I am another closeted Gay Married Sikh).

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sarah September 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Many thanks for your message Manish. I hope that one day it will be as easy to be a gay Sikh as it is to be a gay Christian (in many denominations). :)

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Biri Singh February 4, 2014 at 4:59 pm

please see the following post “In my view why a Gurmukh should not be a homophobic”
http://www.sikhnet.com/discussion/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=10199&e=0

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sarah February 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Hi Biri, your link is login-only!

Sarah

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Nav July 12, 2014 at 1:32 am

Thank you so much for this post!

I was born into the sikh religion and until recently, I had not appreciated the beauty of sikhism.

Most articles regarding the sikh faith that are written by non-sikhs usually dont have the vast knowledge as this one!

Being a sikh I have wondered whether homosexuality was accepted, and it didnt make sense for it not to be because if God chose homosexuality to exist, how could it be wrong? No one chooses a certain gender as a love interest.. its what we are born with.

And it is true that people of punjab are extremely conservative, my parents originate from their and I see it from them.

Overall I really enjoyed in reading your article!

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