Guru Gobind Singh: A Great Proponent of Religious Diversity

On January 5th, as we celebrate the birthday of our tenth Nanak – Guru Gobind Singh, let us reflect upon the life and teachings of this great messiah and a fearless Asian leader, who changed the course of history in many ways. His life truly is a telling story of an invaluable legacy.

The prophet lived at a time (1666-1708) when religious fanaticism in South Asia was at its height. It was endlessly posing a grave threat to the human spirit of freedom and liberty. Acceptance of pluralism and multicultural life was in peril.

Those with faith practices different from those of misguided rulers were persecuted and the religious places of one religion were replaced with those of others. Guru’s great-grand-father, father, four sons and countless followers were put to death by the powers.

It was a dark, grim and ominous period in human history. The innate human desire for individual expression and diversity of belief was severely curtailed.

From his childhood Gobind took the ways of interfaith promotion and broke the social barriers to its practices.

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Contrary to established practices of initiating a child by the faith of his forefathers, a renowned Muslim saint, Syed Bhikhan Shah, was given this honor. The saint was inspired by Divine Light to make his way to the Guru’s birth place, Patna in East India. He was sent there to bless the day-old Gobind, and to pronounce him divine messiah of the time.

Throughout his life, Guru Gobind Singh worked tirelessly to restore society’s confidence in the time-tested human values of unity in diversity, freedom of faith practices, justice and compassion. He challenged the ruling and dominant powers with perseverance and determination. With equal might he challenged the wide-spread religious bigotry of self-appointed contractors of heavens.

The Guru’s defiance of political and antagonistic cultural onslaughts extracted a heavy price. His both parents and four sons faced martyrdom right in front of his eyes. However, his commitment and resolve didn’t weaken despite enormous hardships. He founded and led an army of those committed to serve the divine mission, and be partisans of truth and freedom in the unholy strife.

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To spread his message of a perfect egalitarian society based on one-ness of God that celebrates diversity in all of its myriad forms, he said:

As out of a single fire arise millions of spark; but all of them merge back into the same fire. As out of same dust arise millions of dust particles; but all of them merge back into the same dust. As out of a single ocean arise millions of waves; but all of them merge into the same water. So from God’s form, emerge all creation, animate and inanimate; and all of them are in equilibrium with the same Creator. (Akal Ustat, Chhand 8).

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Guru Gobind Singh believed that the differences among humans in terms of color, appearance and ethnicity were due to God’s creative process; all human beings had a moral responsibility to cherish and preserve this sacred creativity. He emphasized the unity of human spirit despite many apparent distinctions. He said:

All human being are one and the same, although there is a deception of differences. (Akal Ustat, Chhand 86. l.)

Guru Gobind Singh was a champion of human rights. He advocated freedom of culture, religion and thought for every individual. He explained that the differences in our outward appearance, clothes, customs and practices are attributed to the choices that only we make:

Many are gods or demon, or celestial musicians. There are heavenly tribes and the learned people or the artists. They may be seen as people of different religions as Muslims (citizens of Islamic nations) or Hindus (natives of Indian subcontinent). They all look and act differently, but their apparent differences are due only to the influences from their countries and cultures, or in the clothes they wear. (Akal Ustat, Chhand 86. l. 3)

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We can thus appreciate that self-righteousness which comes from dividing the world into us and them had no place in Guru Gobind Singh’s vision. His sacrifices made a great difference and diversity was preserved throughout Indian sub-continent.

Santokh Singh, a great historian of India rightly observed.

Were Guru Gobind Singh not there at the critical junction of South Asian history, there would have been all uniformity; the diversity would have taken wings. In favor of one religion, the others would have been destroyed and their holy places smashed. Sin would have replaced the virtues. (Bhai Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash).

The worldview of Guru Gobind Singh is all inclusive.

Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh’s ideal of appreciation for diversity as a pivotal feature of all human activity is also an American ideal.

We must never forget to defend it. On this day of Guru’s coming, we take pride in its celebration.

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About Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal

Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal, Emeritus Chairman, Department of Pharmacology-Neuroscience, U. of North Texas Health Science Center, works with many national and international organizations serving science, religion, media and civil society including United Nation Association and World Center for ThanksGiving. Guru Nanak Dev University recognized him with Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) degree, and Anandpur Sahib Foundation by Order of Nishan-e-Khalsa. His writings on Sikh issue appear regularly in Sikh and interfaith media.

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