sikhism

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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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