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Religions originating from the Indian traditions reflect a respect for life, and adopt practices that call for causing no harm to any living being. Similarly, these religions often take an ascetic path in achieving the liberation that can be found in their religion. In Jainism, this is reflected by the concept of ahimsa, the principle of non-violence, and their taking of the path of renunciation. Sikhism, on the other hand, is focused on active engagement with the world, and even fighting to protect their faith if need be.
Both of these religions developed as a reaction to other religions from India at the time of their conception. Hinduism and Islam influenced Sikhism, and Jainism formed among those that were beginning to see Hinduism as putting too much focus on worldly pleasures.
The practices of these two religions show the divergence in the path of belief on what actions to take as a response to the realities of this world. Unlike other South and East Asian traditions, there is no passive acceptance of life in Sikh theology, meaning that personal effort through performing good actions is an important aspect to the Sikh discipline.
To create one’s destiny, you must take charge of your own life. There is an aspect of free will within the Sikh doctrine that is not as evident in most Asian religions that focus on the ascetic form of worship. There is a balance between worship and righteous life where one earns their living through honest means and sharing what one earns with others.
“Sikhism rejects both begging and withdrawal from social participation”.
This contrasts with the complete withdrawal from normal daily life that can be found in the ascetic path that is taken in Jainism. To completely fulfill ones duty and worship Akal Purakh (God), you must be active and engaged with life and the community. The value put upon human life in Sikh theory is essential to understanding their use of war and fighting that is found throughout Sikh history. Service to people means service to God. This service must be of one’s own free will and only done so without the expectance of reward. “The world is divinely inspired, the place that provides human beings with the opportunity to perform their duty and achieve union with Akal Purakh”.
This high value on life is what drives the notion of fighting for their faith and for the pursuit of a peaceful state of humanity as the violation of human rights was seen as a very serious moral offence. They do not seek to create unnecessary war or conflict with other faiths, because the taking of human life without reason is unacceptable. Sikhs only take up arms as a last effort of defense after trying other methods of peaceful negotiation, and that is when drawing the sword in defense of righteousness is justified. As Sikhism is concerned with uniting humankind and views humanity through a pure altruistic sense, dedication is placed in defense of human rights and resisting injustice. This is where the belief in one Supreme Being, Akal Purakh, comes in.
The belief that everyone is the same and differences among people are meaningless because people are all creations of Akal Purakh is why it is important for Sikhs to establish unity among humankind. In order to understand why those of Sikh faith believe in the use of weaponry in religion, it is also important to know the history in which it was formed. The development of Sikhism was influenced by the state in which Punjab was in at the time. Due to the Indian state of Punjab being at the geographical center where the Middle East, Central Asia, and India intersected, there were many religious influences at play from invasions by Hindus and Muslims. Through these interactions with Sufi Islam and Hindu communities, the Sikh tradition came to develop and define itself into a new religion with concepts taken from Islam and Hinduism.
At the time of Guru Nanak’s birth, the Punjab was under Muslim control, but came to establish a community that eventually evolved into Sikhism under the Mughal Empire. The development of the Sikh tradition was significant because of the culture of Punjab divided between Islam and Hinduism. This also played a significant role in the warrior and fighting element found within the religion. To keep their faith intact from Hindu and Muslim attacks, Sikhs came to defend themselves with weapons and this was kept as an important aspect to their religious doctrine, something that most other Asian religions do not do.
Sikhism’s growth from a peaceful community left alone by the Mughal empire quickly was pushed into a system of militancy and separatism due to Emperor Akbar’s and Guru Arjan’s death. It is through the next Guru’s direction, Guru Hargobind, that the Sikh community took to defending themselves against the Mughal’s hostile actions by arming themselves with weaponry. This new emphasis of defense and militancy in their tradition did not mean that they were letting go of their ethical and spiritual values, rather, they were simply doing their duty as a Sikh to protect their faith. The murder and execution of several of the gurus helped to cement this belief in pursuing freedom and human rights and creating a just society. Their use of weapons for defense does not contradict that, but helps them to reach their goal of peace for humanity.
The practices of active engagement with the world and the taking up of arms in Sikhism differ greatly from the practices central to the Jaina path, which is one of renunciation of worldly things, asceticism, and a strict forbiddance of causing harm to any living being. The concept of Ahimsa, non-violence, is based on the reverence for life in Jainism, and is one of the most important aspects of the Jaina path. In complete contrast to the Sikh path of seeking justice and acting in defense of their faith, Jainas will not take part in the harming of any living thing, going so far as to carry brooms with them as they walk so as to not step or sit on any bug. Similarly, when faced with violence, they take a pure pacifistic position, allowing the violence to happen without defending themselves in any way so as to not cause harm.
One could name it as ‘turning the other cheek’. This is not simply because life is especially revered, but because non-violence is equated to the renunciation of activity and it is only through that that one can transcend the physical reality and achieve liberation. It is the Jaina belief that all life forms have an eternal soul known as jiva. Any act of harm, whether intended or not, results in some form of karmic bondage that ties the soul to the physical world. It is impossible to escape this binding karma if one is committing good or bad actions because good karma still attaches one to this life. Thus, to break this bondage, one must cease to commit actions pertaining to the physical world, leading to cessation of activity, good or bad. Detachment through self-discipline and restraint is what leads to purifying the soul, and this all is connected to the principle of ahimsa. One controversial practice is that of Sallekhana, where one starves them self to the point of death, which is then celebrated as a complete detachment from this world.
It is not that Jaina belief speaks of their disinterest with the problems of the human world, but rather, these practices reflect an understanding that human suffering is real and the only way to change that is through the renunciation of the physical world to reach that enlightened reality through our souls and find peace. Jainism and Sikhism work in contrasting ways in dealing with the problems of human life, such as injustice and violence—one through detachment and non-action, and the other through active engagement and egalitarianism. Although these are very different ways of confronting the reality of violence and suffering in the world, both religions show an acknowledgement of these issues and how to deal with them in life within their doctrines.
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