Sikhism . Comparative Articles . Gurmat and Dhamma

Dr Kanwar Ranvir Singh

If you go to the Golden Temple one of the most interesting things you will observe are some Tibetan pilgrims who come to pray there, bowing down at each of their steps. These people are Buddhists who may belong to one of the numerous sects of Tibetan Buddhism, who regard Guru Nanak as Guru Rinpoche. Guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet and they regard the Guru as a reincarnation of the precious one, ‘Rinpoche’.There are many teachings in common – the middle path of living, the importance of congregation called sangam/sangat, the importance of meditation, the individual’s responsibility for their destiny, even the archetypal images of the warrior monk, in Gurmat the saint-soldier tradition.

Sikhs equally have great reverence for Buddhist teachers. It is a matter of no small pride that a Sikh escorted the Dalai Lama to India when he exiled Tibet. Indeed, Punjab, the Sikh homeland, was formerly called Gandhara, the home of Mahayana Buddhism. This goes back to a period when the Dhamma was revered by almost half the people of the world.

The main difference is that whereas the Buddha-nature is held to All Pervasive but people must make efforts to realise it, the Guru-nature is also All-Pervasive but reaches out to everyone. It is a matter of effort against Grace. However, in reality the difference is perhaps a matter of emphasis since the Mahayana tradition lays a special stress on compassion inherent in the universe finding expression in the figure of the Bodhistavva. On the other hand, the Sikh tradition also speaks of the need to choose; otherwise, there is no gift of life, and Universal Amazing Grace is not a gift, but an imposition. 

There are portions of the Guru Granth Sahib which have close relations with Buddhist thought. For instance, many of the sloks of Baba Kabir are strikingly similar to Zen koans. Moreover, while he condemns the practise of hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), he speaks highly of the ‘bald heads’. These may have been shaven Buddhist monks. After Buddhism rose to ascendancy in India, the brahmins (Hindu priests) worked for its elimination through massacres of monks, conversion of Buddhist meditation centres into temples, claiming that Buddha was an incarnation of the god Vishnu with the implication that to revere Buddha one must also revere Vishnu, adoption of some of its teachings such as vegetarianism (unknown to the Hindus who composed the Rig Veda which mentions the sacrifices and eating of horses), and corruption of its techniques such as tantra. 

Similar patterns may be seen today with regard to the Sikhs. Attacks on Golden Temple, genocide of Sikhs, targeting of amridharis, creation of myth of Dusht Daman and Hemkunt Sahib (the alleged Hindu rishi who was reborn as Guru Gobind Singh), adoption of principles such as the removal of caste restrictions and, in particular, langar the Sikh communal kitchen, and continual claim that Sikhs are hair-keeping Hindus established to protect Hinduism from Islam through military means which is a distortion of the purpose of the revelation of Khalsa as vanguard of new world order (Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj). At best, the Sikh may be an individual seeker for escape from the world or mukti in which case Khalsa is interpreted as ‘pure’ – Khalis. This, of course, destroys the raj of the Khalsa, the world-transformation which is integral to the Sikh unity of Meeri-Peeri, universal spirituality and spiritual revolution. The present attacks on the Sikh faith shed light on the elimination of Buddhism from Indian soil, and equally the history of Buddhism provides a warning to Sikhs about the techniques which may be marshalled against them. 

The destruction of Buddhism in India means that many of the obvious and interesting parallels such as use of terms like “sunnya” (the Void), “nirvana”, “nau nidhs” (nine jewels) have not been explored by the Sikh scholars whose lens are coloured by the jaundiced eye in which the Dhamma was misrepresented in India. There may be even more not so obvious parallels. For instance verses of Gurbani state, “The responsibility of humankind is to walk along the Royal Road of the Law – this message is sent with His sacred horse and proclaimed as the Guru’s Word by beat of drum” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji: 142). 

The wind horse (lung da) of Tibetan Buddhism is a horse which brings happiness and good fortune, which is symbolised by the jewel of its back, wherever it goes. This jewel or mani is the philosophers’s stone that transforms people from lead to gold, from self-centred to Life-centred. God and God’s Name is considered as the jewel in the Sikh tradition as the Law is in Buddhism, but in both traditions, Buddha/Guru-bani or Guru’s Word is also the philosopher’s stone, and also the sangat or fellowship. In the sangat one comes to realise the nine jewels of meditation. 

The image of the wind horse is printed on prayer flags which as the wind blows sets the horse in motion carrying prayers for happiness and good fortune to the ten directions. It is interesting in this connection that Guru Gobind Singh is depicted in iconography riding a blue horse, with a white hawk on his arm. One difference between Gurmat and Buddhism is the clear monotheism of the Gurus as against the agnosticism or even atheism of some proponents of the Dhamma. “All the Buddhas created by Thee, proclaim Thee.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.6) It is often said that Buddha was an atheist, but from a Sikh perspective it may be argued that he was simply silent about the existence of a God or not, since he regarded it as irrelevant to his method.


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