(This article is by guest writer Jasmine Morris. For a short bio, see below.)
One of the focuses of spiritual naturalism is to help others and ourselves experience as much relief from suffering as we can. More specifically, most spiritual naturalists focus on relief from suffering brought about by trauma, the ego, or religious intolerance. But what about suffering that occurs as a result of social inequalities? Especially social inequalities based on nationality, race, color, and caste.
“As a spiritual naturalist,” I asked myself, “ what can I learn from my religious traditions in regard to social empowerment or upliftment”? Below of is a summary of what I came up with inspired by established practices in one of my religious traditions: Sikhism.
What were the Sikh Gurus views on discrimination?
I think it’s important, before I dive into it, to set the context in which the Sikh Gurus were speaking and acting. For those who don’t know, Sikhi originates from a region in South Asia known as Punjab (which is now split between Pakistan and India). And if anyone is familiar with South Asian society, they’ll know that it was (and still is) heavily influenced by Brahmanism. Though Brahmanism is an ideology that encourages its practitioners to discover ultimate reality, it also upholds discriminatory systems such as casteism, untouchability, sexism, and nationalism. It is the same ideology that the Buddha during his lifetime worked to oppose.
The Gurus not only rejected these ideas, but also opposed the whole notion that some groups of people are born inherently higher than others. To them, action and your lifestyle is what determines what makes you “pure”.
“What good is social class (caste) and status? Truthfulness is measured within.” Guru Nanak, Ang 142 of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib
But instead of just talking or singing about it with others, they wanted to create spaces where people of different backgrounds could intermingle (bringing down caste divisions) and where social equality could be lived out. As a result, the Gurdwara was created.
Since the time of Guru Nanak, Gurdwaras (literally meaning “gateway of the guru”) have served as a gathering place for the Sikh sangat (congregation) as well as those who do not affiliate themselves with Sikhism. There are multiple components to a Gurdwara, but I’ll just be focusing on the ones that are relevant to this article.
The Nishan Sahib
The Nishan Sahib is a triangular Sikh flag/standard which is flown on a pole outside of all gurdwaras and other religious Sikh premises.
Not only does it signal to the observer that you have arrived at a Gurdwara, but it’s also supposed to serve as a sign to all seers that this is a place of refuge, welcoming, physical nourishment, and spiritual nourishment (for some). It is held in high regard in the Sikh community, and apart from Nishan Sahib seva, is never taken down.
Langar is the community kitchen that appears in every Gurdwara. Meals are free and served to all regardless of background. One of the requirements of langar is that everyone must sit next to each other on the floor (unless you’re disabled) and that there cannot be a space reserved for different groups of people. While it is a helpful resource for the poor, it also originated as a protest against the caste system and the notion that some people are “untouchable”. Karah prasad (a sacred, sweet delicacy) is also supposed to be prepared or donated by people irrespective of their backgrounds.
The tenth guru in Sikhi named Guru Gobind Singh established an order called the Khalsa. The Khalsa (meaning the “Pure Ones”) is a group of initiated Sikhs who are expected to have the courage, will and strength to fight against oppression (especially when a group of people are defenseless). Simultaneously, an initiated Sikh also has the responsibility to pursue knowledge, wisdom, and grow spiritually.
Guru Gobind Singh declared that all men who were initiated into the Khalsa would be given the last name ‘Singh’, meaning ‘lion’, and all women who were initiated would be given the last name ‘Kaur’, meaning ‘heiress’. This is significant since in a Brahmanical society such as India, a person can often tell what another person’s caste is by their last name and will discriminate against them based on it. On top of this, Guru Nanak in the Sikh scriptures states that his followers shouldn’t even ask another about another’s caste.
“Recognize the Light within All, and do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter. Pause.” Guru Nanak, Ang 349
Khalsa members oversaw the Gurdwara, making sure that they continued to be safe spaces for all regardless of background. That is, until they were forced to give up management of the Gurdwaras due to increased persecution by the Mughals in the eighteenth century. This then resulted in them yielding Gurdwara control to mahants (custodians who belonged to Brahmanical-influenced sects of Hinduism). And even after the Mughal empire fell, the British empire replacing it upheld Brahmanism and backed people in leadership positions like the Mahants in order that Indians might not unite to overthrow the British.
This resulted in Brahmanism (especially casteism) and Brahmanical practices seeping into the Sikh community and is still an ongoing issue in the Sikh community today (as shown by the creation of caste-based Gurdwaras in some areas and the insularity of most Gurdwaras in the West).
So what can Spiritual Naturalists do?
Even though SN does not have clergy or a single place of worship, I encourage spiritual naturalists to individually become their own Khalsa, hoist their own Nishan Sahibs, and establish their own spaces of social upliftment and equality. And this does not require you to go out of your way and create a “house of worship” to bring together the marginalized and privileged (putting them at a level playing field). I think the following quote from Jay Forrest’s “Spiritual Naturalism: Spirituality within the Bounds of Science” says it best:
“The interconnection of all things means that, what we are nearest to we influence the most. That means we should do the most good to those we have the most influence over” Jay Forrest
The safe space could be your home, a religious congregation in which you hold a leadership role, any other organizations where you hold leadership positions, or your online spaces. We all have different religious (or non-religious) traditions we adhere to, and I’m pretty sure you can take inspiration from yours as I have tried to do with mine. Though we may not be able to protect all our fellow humans from the prejudiced ideas and actions of others, trying will always be better than silence and compliance.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
BIO: “An undergraduate student, Jasmine Morris was raised as an evangelical, until doubts would cause her to abandon her faith and embrace critical thinking. Bringing a unique perspective to conversations, she describes herself as a spiritual naturalist living a Sikh inspired lifestyle. When she’s not studying world religions and humanism, she finds herself journaling, watching documentaries, or maintaining her platforms (and the ones of those she works with). This is her second post on SNS. Her first is titled “Spiritual Naturalism and Sikhism.”