Sri Guru Granth Sahib Towards Making a New Civilization

Copyright © Dr. N Muthu Mohan



The theme of civilization has been made prominent by western scholars in the most recent times. This is associated with the popularity of Samuel Huntington’s article, later a book titled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1). Interestingly, the Anglo-American politicians, also the military experts, have contributed much to popularize the terms “ Clash of Civilizations” in the aftermath of 11th September 2001. In the book of Samuel Huntington as well as in the articles pro and con published on the theme, there is a conspicuous absence about Sikhism and the civilization of India is referred with a blanket term ‘ Hindu Civilization’. That naturally cannot stop us in any way to discuss about Sikhism in terms of civilization, because we do believe that Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sacred Scripture of the Sikhs indeed contains in itself a socio-cultural model that could lead to the making of a new civilization. The present paper attempts to substantiate the above contention.

Guru Granth Sahib and Defining a Civilization

Samuel Huntington’s book contains certain number of definitions of civilization, however, a curious reader would find that Huntington has not taken any special effort to define or redefine the concept of civilization or discuss the basic features of a civilization. On the other hand, Huntington just makes use of the already existing definitions, even popular views about civilization, that too rudimentarily or partially. Quoting the anthropologists, sociologists and historians, Huntington defines civilization as “the most enduring of human associations” identifiable in terms of “blood, language, religion, way of life etc”, however, “religion as the central defining characteristic of civilizations”(2).

Although we do not have much to contradict the quoted ideas on civilization, we do want to continue the discussion on civilization in a few other points that would take us deeper into the problem of civilization. A civilization differs from a culture in a particular way that the former contains the material aspects of living organically connected with the spiritual or ideational aspects. In our view, a civilization must synthesise the spiritual and temporal aspects of collective human existence. It must be a conscious attempt to avoid fragmenting, dichotomize, and hierarchies the society.

A civilization western or Hindu, as it is named by Huntington, to be called as civilization, needs to be evaluated on this ground. How much the material and the ideational are united in the western or Hindu civilizations? How much the civilizations are creative and synthetic? Is there any principled unity between the extremes in the quoted civilizations?

Hinduism in many of its variations is a religion of otherworldliness and its literatures are abundant with ideas negating the worthiness of earthly living. The ascetic who has renunciated the world is the ideal figure in Hinduism. The Vedic-vedantic core of Hinduism philosophically celebrates the Nirguna Brahman and evaluates the world as Maya, an illusory entity. It distinctly dichotomizes the reality into paramartika and vyavakarika. One can rightly bring to our notice that Hinduism does have a social philosophy and advocates a social structure in the form of caste system. The unjust caste order advocated by Hinduism does not worth the word ‘civilization’ as it is the most discredited and scandalized form of the Hindu living. The caste order of Hinduism reminds not its civilized dimension, but on the other hand informs us the uncivilized or barbarian dimension of Hinduism.

Similarly, when we take up the term ‘Western Civilization” for scrutiny in similar lines, one finds another set of difficulties to make it fit to the definition of civilization. It is noteworthy even at the outset to find that Huntington has not named the western civilization in terms of any religion, although he does not hide the fact that the Christian religion is behind the history of western civilization. Huntington does not agree to identify western civilization with modernity, however enumerates the characteristic features of western society not altogether beyond the pale of modernity, namely the separation of spiritual and temporal authority, the rule of law, social pluralism, individualism etc (3).

We do have certain amount of respect to western values, particularly to west’s contribution to the making of democracy and concern for human rights. We consider it worth the achievements of science and technology in the west. However, we cannot remain uncritical to the west regarding the poverty of spiritual values the west has acquired along with its enduring interest in temporal successes for the last 300 years. It has to be reminded that during the entire 20th century the western scholars themselves have made so many fundamental critiques addressed to the western industrial culture, particularly from the point of view of human values and human existence. The Existentialist and phenomenological philosophers have left a big corpus of criticism targeting the core values of the western civilization. The total message of those criticisms is basically against the absence of unity between the spiritual and temporal values. The west is criticized for it has traveled excess on temporal lines bereft of humanism.

It is at this juncture, we return to our initial definition of civilization that it must organically unite the spiritual and the temporal, and look into Sikhism and the Sikh Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib from that point of view.

The act of laying the foundations of a new religion by Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikhs, comes to realization not merely as an outcome of spiritual intentions but as an alternative to the general crisis both in temporal and religious realms of the then society. Guru Granth Sahib depicts the comprehensive situation without any ambiguity.

  • “The Quadi speaks falsehood and eats filth

  • The Brahmin, guilty of much cruelty

  • Makes a show of ritual bathings

  • The Yogi, blind and misguided

  • Knows not the true practice

  • All three are at one in bringing harm to the people” (GGS,662)

  • “Avarice is the king

  • Evildoing his minister

  • Falsehood is his revenue factor

  • Lust is the councellor always consulted

  • The subjects are purblind and thoughtless

  • Who foolishly obey these evil rulers” (GGS,468-469)

  • “The people wailed in their agony of suffering

  • Didst Thou feel no compassion for them

  • Thou who art the creator of all?

  • If a powerful foe molest one equally powerful

  • Little would be there to complain

  • But if a ferocious tiger falls upon a herd of kine

  • Then must the Master be called to account” (GGS, 360)

    Possibly, this was the moment of truth, moment of a new revelation, birth of a new religion, of a new social order (4). One cannot distinguish in the quoted lines where is the spiritual quest and where the temporal interest. The Guru’s pains are both spiritual and temporal or in other words, civilizational.

    The Guru was not for another set of truth but stood for in search of a truthful living. The Guru was not for one another means to achieve mukti or atmajnana but deeply in search of an ethical and just living. Gurmukh is asked to opt an active life of intense devotion and committed social justice. Guru Granth Sahib intensifies both the components of the total life, the spiritual and the temporal, thus creating a new mode of living. The asocial sanyasin way of seeking egoistic salvation is out rightly condemned and by way of annihilating the ego, the art of achieving sahaja is proposed. If sahaja marks the spiritual end of the Gurmukh, critique of casteism, gender inequality, political despotism etc marks the temporal end of Sikhism. Both the traits, not in their isolation, make together the ideal of Guru Granth Sahib.

    The metaphor of playing the game of love widely celebrated in Guru Granth Sahib, in fact, erases the boundaries between body and soul, male and female, transcendent and immanent etc. All these and others immensely speak in favor of constructing a new civilization. Multiculturalism and the debate on Civilization

    In the 80s and 90s of 20th century, the theme of multiculturalism was widely discussed in the world forums and it was overwhelmingly appreciated by people who were particularly fighting for safeguarding their cultural identities. The fact that every country in the world has become culturally and religiously pluralistic makes the recognition of the cultural rights of the people into an imperative for cordial coexistence of people.

    The Canadian federal cultural example was studied by scholars to make it a relevant model peaceful co-living. The UNO and other world forums went for propagating the idea of multiculturalism and it was seen as a new development in realizing democracy in terms of culture (5).

    Huntington’s book on Clash of Civilizations, unfortunately, does not pay enough attention to the theme of multiculturalism and his coinage of the term ‘civilization’ seems to be challenging the spirit of multiculturalism that is emerging, and worse still, wants to replace the idea of multiculturalism with that of civilization. Huntington is inclined to place the concept of civilization as a fresh version of the earlier American idea of ‘melting pot’. Often the multicultural articulations of cultural or religious groups in each and every country are rephrased by Huntington as ethnic conflicts and tribalism. More fundamentally, Huntington’s discussion of “Clash” of civilizations sees the entire world and every country as a field of cultural and religious conflicts.

    We do not think that the concepts of civilization and multiculturalism should necessarily exclude the other and should perceived as opposites or binaries. We reject the dichotomic approach. A civilization could very well be conceived as following the principles of multiculturalism through which the civilization truly becomes rich and concrete. A civilization without multiculturalism would be reverting to colonialism.

    The Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, renders a wonderful combination of civilizational and multicultural dimensions of a society. The Sikh Gurus lived in and interacted with a multicultural and multireligious world that they recognized this fact deeply. Consequently, Guru Granth Sahib too registers this fact. Variety of Saints religiously, regionally and linguistically different are found articulating their religious experience in a unique way in Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Granth Sahib is a great work of dialogue of variety of voices, however, reconciled and synthesized in a specific way. It is true that there is a strong critical trait in Guru Granth Sahib but ultimately the Scripture strives to synthesize the differing voices into one.

    Guru Nanak traveled through the many streets of the known world then and got introduced with the saints of various teachings, also met the people of different regions and their existential problems. Names and attributes of Gods of various linguistic families, Arabian, Persian, Sanskrit and Dravidian, the ways of worship and living of diverse people were known to the Gurus and the Gurus duely recognized them. Even the so-called dregs of society came under the humanizing spell of the Gurus. The Gurus always preferred to be with the lowest of the lowly. Guru Granth Sahib is a civilizational construction with a unrelenting commitment to the oppressed and exploited. Guru Granth Sahib does not attempt to offer another philosophy of otherworldly solace but energies the masses and calls them to a dynamic living. Civilization and multiple cultures are reconciled in Guru Granth Sahib without sacrificing the critical spirit. It is not a proposal of clash or conflict but a grand conception of friendship, love and community.

    Guru Granth Sahib and the Construction of A Community

    Civilization is not worth its name if it does not aim to construct a community. To be a member of community cannot be the birth right, and it must be founded on equality, friendship and common commitment.

    A society of caste order cannot be called a community because it is founded on graded inequality as Ambedkar says.

    The Guru was categorically against caste system and Guru Granth Sahib does not recognize the Shastras, that advocate caste, as holy books. Guru Nanak refused to wear the sacred thread on his body by which he decided to remain ever with the casteless. The Guru asserts,” Vain is the pride of caste and vain the pride of high station, because only the Lord alone gives the real eminence to everyone” (GGS, 1330). Bhai Gurdas informs, “Guru Nanak has abolished the differences among the four castes” (Var 1:23). The One God, the collective kirtan, the langar and the common title of Singh and Kaur are aimed to abolish the caste system and construction of the community.

    Constructing a community with the fatherhood of God was an ideal all along in the Bhakti thought. I can witness that the Tamil Saivite and Vaishnavite hymns of early medieval period did have such an ideal. However, with the development of feudalism, the Bhakti movements failed in their attempts to achieve the ideal. On the other hand, Bhakti itself became institutionalized into temple and mutt cultures. The Siddhas, the Sants and the Sufis appeared criticizing the failing ideals of Bhakti and they turned their focus towards internal purity and non-ritual approach to religion.

    The Sikh Gurus appreciated the efforts of the medieval mystics, but they felt a strong individualism in the attempts of the mystics. The Gurus understood that the construction of community is the irreplaceable aspect of Bhakti and Bhakti had to be revisited taking along the critical spirit of the mystics. The collectivism and popular emotional spirit of Bhakti were, thus, revived in Sikhism, having readdressed the issue of curbing individualism. Interestingly, the Gurus did not absolutize the annihilation of individualism as it is used to be in some earlier systems.

    Again a moderate approach is opted and the extremes of individualism are checked recognizing the social dynamism of individual initiatives. Guru Granth Sahib says, “Egoism and devotion are to each opposed, Abiding not together” (GGS,560).

    Guru Arjun says,” Those caught in egoism are verily dead; Those whose egoism is dead are truly alive” (GGS, 374). This being the case, however, the Guru states that in egoism beings come into existence, get differentiated into many and so it is the source of change and development.

    It is the very principled state of the Guru that individuality should not be abolished but it has to be molded into a community. The Guru would declare,” Haumai is the malady and Haumai is the remedy”. This is a complicated dialectics that shows the genius of the Guru.

    The dynamism of individuality to differentiation and creativity should be preserved and should be poured into the common pool of collectivity, thus making it a real social force for emancipation and advancement. The measured dialectics of individuality and community is the path of constructing a new civilization.

    At times it seems that Huntington’s celebration of individualism as the unchecked fundamental value of western society fails to make a community, thus fails also to make a civilization.


    Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture, contains the very principled stands of making a new civilization. Its idea of civilization organically unites the spiritual and the temporal, multicultural and civilizational aspects, and the moments of individuality and community. The organic unity we have referred does not mean absolute identity of the differing moments, but it is a dialogical process that contains the creative rupture. That also guarantees its dynamism and endurance.


  • 1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Penguin Books, 1997.

  • 2. Ibid. P. 42, 43, 47.

  • 3. Ibid. P. 70-72.

  • 4. N.Muthu Mohan, Essential Postulates of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala, 2003. Pp. 4-5.

  • 5. Javier Perez de Cuellar, Our Creative Diversity, UNESCO/Oxford & IBN Publishing, 1998.

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