Sikh Missionary Society
Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Charity No: 262404
Rule of Law
Sikhism & Rule of Law
It has been said that Guru Nanak’s mission is true for all times and
places. Therefore, Sikh thought should continue to relate to the needs
of the 21st century society in all spheres of life.
It has been long argued that Sikh central institutions like the
Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) should set up standing
panels of Sikh scholars to research Gurbani to seek answers to modern
questions arising from rapid developments in social, economic, science
& technology, constitutional and legal fields. Continual research
(in Sangat) would also appear to be the guidance of the Guru e.g. one
definition Sikhi: that Sikhi is the study of and meditation on the
Guru’s teaching (Sikhi sikhia Gur vichaar). The Guru did not prescribe
any fixed code for the Sikhs but laid down the guiding principles for
interpretation in relation to different times and places. The
Guru-Panth approved Sikh Reht Maryada too can be updated by the
Guru-Panth as guided by the Bani in Guru Granth Sahib.
It is with the above in mind that I am always on the lookout for Sikh
research, which relates to modern issues. A paper written by the
renowned historian, Dr J S Grewal some years ago with the heading “The
Rule of Law and Sikh Thought” (Off print from Journal of Sikh Studies,
August 1984) is of interest, because, the Rule of law is one pillar of
any modern democratic system in which power is vested in the ordinary
people (last week’s Spectrum “Sikhi & Democracy” refers). According
to Dr Grewal, the rule of law “assumes the supremacy of impersonal law
over personal discretion and arbitrary use of power. In its
constitutional aspect, though it is not inevitably egalitarian, it
carries an echo of democratic action and legislation.” Therefore, it is
necessary for the research student of Sikhi to identify those aspects
of Sikh thought and tradition which relate to the “rule of law”. It
becomes necessary to identify the relevant Sikh socio-political
Perhaps Dr Grewal should have mentioned that one danger in doing this
and similar research is that subconsciously, Sikhi can be “tailored” to
a researcher’s own biases. In other words when seeking Sikhi answers to
modern questions, no attempt should be made to interpret Gurbani so
that it seems to agree with what may be fashionable thinking today.
Those in the interfaith area or interfacing with the establishment
carry a responsibility to ensure that the independence of Sikh thought
should be the underlying postulate when researching Sikhi and Sikh
Guru Nanak’s Bani shows clear understanding of the socio-religious
systems of his times. Asa di Var is just one example of this fact. Guru
Nanak identified himself with the common people, with the “lowliest of
the low”. He empathised with their suffering and sensed their need for
just institutions and just laws. And so he set about laying the
foundation of a new system for the New Age, which took into account the
needs of the common people.
To quote Dr J S Grewal, the rule of law “assumes the supremacy of
impersonal law over personal discretion and arbitrary use of power.”
Therefore, we look for those ideas and socio-political institutions in
the Sikh tradition, which may relate to the modern concept of the rule
of law. Accotrding to Dr Grewal, the most important of these are the
idea of equality and the twin doctrine of Guru Granth and Guru Panth.
Although, he does not mention “miri-piri”, it may be assumed that the
Guru Granth (piri) and Guru Panth twin track approach to the whole life
ideology of Sikhi, led to the development of the traditional Sikh
institutions which stressed equality and collective responsibility.
Guru Nanak Sahib aligned himself with the ordinary people; with “the
lowliest of the low”. No matter what the background of the people, they
could follow Guru Nanak’s path. For this reason the universality of
Guru Nanak’s message for humankind was “the obverse of his idea of
equality.” All human beings are equal before One Creator and they are
equal before the Guru. Sangat and langar symbolize that equality. As
these institutions developed, the Guru personality began to be replaced
by the Guru Bani (Guru’s Word) in Guru Granth Sahib. As the Sikhs
became more directly linked with Bani and, collectively, as Guru
Sangat, assumed the role of the person Guru. The Tenth Guru personality
(same Guru Jyot (Light) in the tenth human forms) completed the process
and removed the Guru person completely. There was no place in this
system for intermediaries like Masands, gurudoms and derawadis.
The temporal power was with the Guru Sangat or Guru Panth empowered to
interpret the Guru Bani in Guru Granth Sahib and to direct the affairs
of the Khalsa Panth. This was the Sikhi version of “democracy” and rule
of (impersonal) law which applied equally to all. Yet, the rights of
the individual were respected and protected as were those of non-Sikhs.
Development of the Dal Khalsa institution strengthened the military
position of the Khalsa. The clash between the egalitarian Khalsa Panth
and the authoritarian and oppressive state, which was increasingly
interfering in Sikh affairs, was inevitable. The Panth was finally
victorious after a long and bloody struggle, which required massive
sacrifices. The Sikh organisational discipline based on central values
of human dignity and equality before One Creator withstood the test.
The Khalsa subscribed to a code of conduct based on Gurbani teachings
as interpreted by the Guru Panth.
However, according to Dr Grewal “the inheritance of a noble and
comprehensive ideal of equality and collective responsibility, which
had a kind of potential to develop into a kind of “rule of law” was
lost in the rapid process of erecting kingdoms and empires… the Sikh
resurgents of the late 19th century had to discover their inheritance
Rediscovering our Sikh inheritance is a continual process involving
research of Sikh tradition, interpretation of Gurbani in the context of
current issues, and promotion and implementation by Sikh independent
Please acknowledge quotations from this article
Articles may be published subject to prior approval by the author
Return to the top of the page.
Copyright (©)2011 by Sikh Missionary Society (U.K.)
All Rights Reserved.