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This essay will be examining the role and status of women in Sikhism and whether they do indeed play a special role in religious life. I personally believe that women do play a special and even important role within religious life, from my own experience at least within my own religion (Sikhism).
Nevertheless the role and status of women in Indian society has been somewhat ambivalent. While women enjoyed a high status in Vedic society as equal partner of man in all walks of life, her position deteriorated in the years to come.
In later Vedic periods women were relegated to the background and came to be treated as inferior to man with her role confined to the four walls of the household. Manu, the first codifier of the Hindu law, wrote:
“From cradle to grave, a woman is dependant on man- in childhood on her father, in youth on her husband and in old age on her son.”
Her position suffered a further setback as a result of frequent invasions and subsequent establishment of Muslim rule in India and the introduction of Purdah and other rituals.
However, it goes to the credit of Guru Nanak Ji and the successive Gurus who not only restored to Indian women the position and dignity which they had lost over the centuries but also condemned those who described them as inferior to man. In the Asa Di (a long composition) Guru Nanak Ji observed:
“It is from women, the condemned ones, which we are conceived and it is from her that we are born…Then why denounce her from whom even kings and great men are born?” He also gave singular honour to his sister Bebe Nanaki to become his first woman disciple, and accepting his path, the first to adopt Sikhism.
This was a great tribute to women by Guru Nanak Ji.
Guru Amardas Ji blessed woman kind with so much respect that he considered them worth preaching his religion, and for that he established the Manjis and Cradles. Such respect was not granted to any women in medieval times by any other religion. He also forbid women to attend the religious assembly in veil (pardah). He had vehemently opposed Sati, the immolation of women upon their husbands’ funeral pyres, and also condemned the dowry system and female infanticide.
Guru Amar Das Ji appointed women to be preachers and missionaries, realising, no doubt, that in Muslim influenced areas of the Punjab especially, women would not be allowed to speak to men who were not members of their family. But beyond the practical expediency lay the principle that women could preach the Sikh message.
When the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji blessed his Sikhs with nectar, he ordained that Sikh men should men use the word ‘Singh’ and Sikh women should apply ‘Kaur’. These two words ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ were to be used at the end of the name of a particular person. Thus Guru Gobind Singh Ji granted equal status to both women and men, as well as maintained their respective individualities. Till today the words ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ are accepted in Sikh religion as a tradition. The word ‘Kaur’ can be explained in detail. ‘Kaur’ the word used at the end of a name of a female has been compared to the word ‘Kanwar34’. In a king’s house, the eldest son ‘Kanwar’ is respected as a king only. Maybe that is why women are given equal respect as men in Sikh religion. No doubt, in medieval age, women were considered as a ‘bite of bread’ which could be swallowed in or discarded. The fact that women were initiated into the newly formed Khalsa, it should not therefore be called a brotherhood as it is open to women as well as men.
There were no women Gurus, it is true, but we must remember the conventions of the day which must have constrained the Gurus, and note also that the Gurus’ wives often played significant roles in the development of the Panth. Many women gave their contribution to Sikhism. This essay will now highlight some of these women and their unique contribution to Sikhism.
* Bebe Nanaki is the first women to accept the religion started by Guru Nanak Ji and she is considered as one of the prominent women of the world. Bebe Nanaki helped her brother monetarily for buying his first Rahab for recitation of Kirtan.
* Mata Sulakhani looked after her sons carefully and waited for her husband during religious journeys of Guru Nanak Ji. She never put any obstacles in the missionary work of her husband. Rather she agreed to what he said. The silent dignity of Mata is a matter of pride for all woman-kind.
* Mata Khiwaiji is associated with langar. Guru Nanak Ji started the tradition of langar at Kartarpur Sahib. Mata Khiwaiji devotedly worked for this tradition.
* Mata Gujri was the consort of the ninth Guru and mother of the tenth Guru. She had immense patience. She was the only women in the Guru family who saw the martyrdom of her husband and grandsons. She always encouraged and inspired her grandsons to adopt the path of Sikhism. She always told them to face cruelty with dignity and to never lose their religious feelings and always tried to boost their morale.
* Mata Sahib Devan kept guiding her descendants and teaching them the principles of life. During her lifetime after the death of her husband Guru Gobind Singh Ji she used to get a special vision of Him from His blessed arms.
* Mata Sundri was an embodiment of Sikh ideals. In Amritsar, she started a Taksal to let people know the meanings of the divine verses of the Gurus which are by Bhai Mani Singh. She guided the Sikh nation for a long time
In all, the Sikh women not only preached the high and moral values, rather they created new ideals and highlighted and established them. Even in domestic practical life, the Sikh women displayed these qualities. By preaching Sikh ideals, the women related to and blessed by the Sikh Gurus not only expanded the field of the religion but determined an idealistic lifestyle also. These women have enjoyed a great respect. The Gurus did not maintain any discrimination between men and women enjoy great respect in Sikh religion and have a status that is full of pride.
Spiritual equality has never been denied to the Sikh woman. However, social attitudes often lag some way behind the teachings of the great religious preceptors and this is certainly true of the status of Sikh women.
In conclusion, in Sikhism there is complete equality between sexes. Women can visit a Gudwara, conduct service, lead Sikh armies, vote in elections and claim all rights enjoyed by Sikh men. In England women can often serve on the management committees of gurdwaras, women presidents and secretaries are to be found in a number of them. The Sikhs call a wife as Ardhangi (better half). There is no restriction on their education or movements as long as they follow the Guru’s instructions. It is on record that Guru Amar Das appointed women as missionaries of the Sikh faith. Guru Tegh Bahadur once remarked that women of Amritsar were nearer to God than men because they ‘accepted God’s will readily’ as compared to their counterparts who were ‘jealous and cunning.’
If the role of women in Sikhism is compared with other religions the following can be said. The belief that women were naturally “weaker” and “inferior” to men was also sanctioned by god-centred religions such as Christianity. In the Bible, for instance, God placed Eve under Adam’s authority, and St Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. Similarly, according to traditional Hindu custom, a virtuous woman is considered to be one who worships her husband (pathivratha) and derives great power from her virtue to protect her husband and herself. As for Judaism, although Orthodox Judaism sets limits on the religious and social roles of women in the Jewish community, reformed Judaism allows women to participate on equal terms in synagogues and, in many instances, to hold high office within the community. For example, from 1969 to 1974 Prime Minister Golda Meir held the highest public office in Israel, and in September 1972 Sally J. Preisand became the first female rabbi in the history of Judaism.
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