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The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat)
© Sat Kewal Singh (John of AllFaith)*


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Sikhism, like most eastern religions, teaches that the individual (jiva atman) is something other than the body. According to Hinduism and Sikhism, there are 8.4 million types of beings in the world, half live in the water, the other half is divided between the land and air (the physical heavens). All of these embodied life forms are transient. They constantly pass through the processes of conception, birth, aging and death. Through this unending process of transmigration the jiva atmans pass from one life form to another, gradually working their way up the ladder of rebirth, until the human form is achieved. In Sikhism, the human form is said to be thehighest, and is the only one from which the soul may attain liberation. This is confirmed in Gurbani (the Divine Word):

This time having been born as human being.
This is thy turn to meet the Supreme Lord.
Thy other activities will be of no avail at the end,
Seek the company of the holy men
And only contemplate God.
Set thy mind on crossing the sea of life,
For life is being wasted away
In pursuits of pleasures of the world.

(Asa Mohalla, quoted in SR 253).

Human life is the door to liberation (PoM vol 3, 1). In order to utilize this golden opportunity one must resist the temptations of the material world, especially the tendency to see one's self as a material rather than a spiritual being. Sikhism teaches the soul how to accomplish this. The goal of the Sant Mat is not the attainment of a Christian/Islamic paradise, nor is it the Swarga or 'spiritual realms' of popular Hinduism. The ultimate goal of life, according to Sikhism, is to merge into the Supreme Soul (nirguna brahman) and cease from individual existence. Sikh writers refer to the Uninterrupted Bliss which one experiences after liberation, however it must be understood that the ego-self is not the one experiencing this Bliss. Once united with the Holy One, all independent existence ceases and one is utterly and eternally "reabsorbed" into nirguna brahman, the only True Reality (SR 254).


We have seen thus far that God is both nirguna and saguna, and that existence occurs as a temporal manifestation of eternal brahman, through the temporary auspices of saguna. In reality, as explained above, everything is nirguna brahman. Individual existence is but a dream state to be awakened from.

Also discussed above is the Sikh view that it is due solely to avidya or ignorance that we perceive ourselves to be distinct from the Whole. In this section I will present the Sikh understanding of how this situation can be remedied and the method by which the individualized jiva can attain reemergence into nirguna brahman.

According to Gurmat (the teachings of the Guru), prior to creation nothing existed except God. In other words, as of yet there had been no individuation in the totality of nirguna brahman. When God made Self manifest, which is to say, when saguna brahman emanated from nirguna brahman, God formed the Divine Self into Nam, or the "Divine Name." After this, through or as saguna, He created Nature note 33.. Once Nature was established, God possessed it by His own Spirit. According to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God made everything and then rested for a cosmogonical 'day.' Such is not the case here. After creating everything which is (as saguna Brahma), God entered into creation and sustained it (as Vishnu). In this role it is said that God felt delighted (SR 258).

As God is utterly transcendent, it is impossible to know Him. As God is utterly imminent, it is impossible not to know Him. God is manifested by His Name (Nam). God and His Nam are identical in every way. Through Nam God sustains the universes. Nam is not a mere noun therefore; Nam is the Totality of Existence. It is not that God has onlyone Name, there are a limitless number of Names, Brahma, Vishnu, YHVH,Allah, Ahura Mazda; endless are the Names of God. All these Names areattributes of the Holy One, but none can adequately express the Gloryand Majesty of the One Being.

Of all the Names or Attributes of God, according to the Sikhs,the highest is Sat (Eternal Truth). The word Nam is considered a mysticutterance and is often used in practical religious life and meditation.Beyond these, is a word which is given to an individual (Prophet)directly from God. Needless to say, such does not often occur. These arecalled True Names and are known as Waheguru note 34. or Wonderful God ('Thou art Wonderful'). These Words do not describe anobject, but the Totality of Reality, they reflect the nirguna Aspect ofGod. The Gurus revealed these Names to "sum up mystic power andexperiences of His presence all around ... Contemplation or meditationon true Name (Waheguru) is called practicing the presence of God inone's conscious" (SR 259).

By thoughtful repetition of these Names, or any one of them,especially Waheguru, coupled with tap (austerities), one can merge withNam. This process of chanting is known as Nam Jap (PoM vol 3,3). "Theseefforts [of Nam Jap and Tap) result in bliss, for remembrance is theessence of happiness. Therefore repeat the Name of the Lord (Gobind) note 35.,the essence of wisdom" (PoM vol 3,5). By this method all ignorance,desire, false-ego and care is destroyed and the heart is filled withlove, happiness and bliss. Through Jap one's meditations easily andnaturally merge into divine trance (Sahaj avastha). Devout Sikhssilently or audibly utter Waheguru constantly (PoM vol 2, 235).

This sadhan (sadhana) or spiritual discipline is specificallyknown as Surat Shabd Yoga or the "Yoga of the Sound Current" (SoS 17).It is also called Sehaj Yoga or the "easy Path" because anyone,regardless of social or financial conditions, can practice it. Spiritualattainment is the job or concern of the Guru, not the student. Thestudent simply places him or herself in a position which is conducive toreceiving the Guru's Grace (SoS 17). If one receives this Grace, at thetime of initiation one is given a direct experience of the transcendentTruth. By regular practice (two or three hours a day) this kernelexperience can be nurtured into self-realization (SoS 17). Thisexperience is like the bacteria which enables one to create yogurt frommilk. Without this ingredient, no realization is possible (S 53; P).

As the gursikh (Guru's disciple) continues his or her sadhana,they pass through five khands or realms of spiritual awakening. Theseare piety ('dharan'), knowledge ('gian'), spiritual effort ('saram',grace ('karam') and truth ('sach'). The higher realms can only bereached by the grace of Guru and God (GiS 51).


According to the Sikh Missionary Center (Detroit) a simple (yetprofound) definition of Gurbani is: "Gurbani is everything" (SR 261).This should no doubt be tempered with the understanding that everythingis in Reality nirguna, everything is One. For one who can understandthis, Gurbani is everything. There are, according to the same authors,those who maintain that Gurbani is not Nam. Such people, they say, areeither misguided and deceitful. The Gurus explicitly state that Gurbaniis everything. It is Nam, Guru, Nirankar (God, the Formless One), Nadand Ved note 36..Any endeavor which leads one closer to God, be that reading withdevotion and attention, meditation on any Sabad of Gurbani (Text ofScripture), kirtan of Gurbani (singing of the Sacred Utterances), anyendeavor which aims at elevating one spiritually, or more specifically,which invokes the presence of God into one's consciousness, isclassified as nam japna or meditation on the Name. Meditation on theName is the only way to realization and final release (SR 260,261).

The Sikh way to God therefore is simple and effective: It is dueto avidya (ignorance) that one identifies with anything other than Nam('Shabd'). Through spiritual practices such as those mentioned above,one's consciousness is purified and one is gradually elevated to thepoint of reintegration with the Divine Nam, Who is God, Who is sagunabrahman, Who is nirguna brahman. Through spiritual practice (sadhan) oneis freed from illusion and I-am-ness ('haumai') and the 'screen of ego'is torn down. With this the five vices of lust, anger, greed,attachment and ego (which is the worst) are destroyed and one realizesidentity with God. The wheel of samsara (transmigration) is stopped andsuch a blessed soul never again enters into this saguna world ofdelusion and pain. Nam is the 'elixir of life' without which life would have no meaning orgoal. Therefore, without Nam there is no happiness, no joy. WhenChristians recite the rosary or pray to God, that is Nam. When Muslimkneel towards Mecca, that is Nam. When Hindus chant Gayatri note 37. or pray to the trimurti note 38.,that is Nam. Without Nam there is nothing. "The tongue that repeatethnot His Name, better it be cut out bit by bit" (Funhe Mohalla, quoted inSR 266).

Some Nam is higher than other Nam however. The Gurus were clearthat the worship of gods, goddesses, stones, murtis, places ofpilgrimage, Samadhis note 39.,indeed, the worship of anything within the Creation as a means tosalvation is strictly forbidden by Gurmat. Only God, the FormlessCreator, Sustainer and Destroyer of all is to be glorified (GiS 35).Nonetheless, Sikhs do not insist that this be done within the auspicesof their sangats note 40.. They honor all who sincerely seek to worship the One God, regardless of the means employed.

While it is only natural that Sikhs prefer their own methods andreligious systems, of all the religions I have examined, and there havebeen a lot of them, none are so open to other religions andphilosophical ideas as the Sikhs. As Pramjit Singh explained to me,Sikhs are not concerned with formalities or organizational membership.God is Great and man is diverse. The Holy One has given everyone a meanswhereby salvation can be achieved. No one, including the Sikhs, havethe right to criticize the sincere efforts of others.

Pramjit further acknowledged that many of the traditional aspectsof Sikhism, some of which will be discussed below, are purely theproduct of Punjabi culture and have nothing to do with self-realization.These cultural elements, as important as they are to any given society,and they are vital to Sikhism, must always be kept within their properperspectives.

Regardless of the religious systems employed, there are certainbasics upon which all agree. As long as one's mind is impure, forinstance, it can not know God. Sikhism adds that as the mind becomespure the soul (atman) will gradually merge with the Supreme Soul(paramatman). This is accomplished by praise and prayer to God withdevotion (bhakti). This devotion must be strong enough to transform theegocentric aspects of one's life and cause him or her to surrenderfully, step by step, to God. Remembrance of God, with bhakti, istherefore the essence of the Path of the Masters (S 23).

If God is Impersonal, the question naturally arises, "How can onedevelop bhakti to an Impersonal Cause-Ground?" This difficulty hasplagued monism throughout its history, both east and west. As Eliade hasexplained, "This tendency of monistic thinking to favor unity andoneness at the expense of the particular has confined monism to aminority position in philosophy and religious outlook, both Asian andWestern. Even in India, ordinarily regarded as uniformly monistic ...the monistic system of Shankara ... is but one of several competinginterpretations of the Hindu scriptures" (ER 57).

The Sikh response to this question is found in a conversationbetween Guru and Charpat, a Siddha Yogi. The Guru explained that a ducklives in the water. If its wings get wet it will drown. The duck knowsthis, therefore he never allows his wings to get wet. Likewise, a lotusflower lives in the water, yet always floats upon the surface, nevergoing into the water. Both the duck and the lotus require water fortheir survival, yet they maintain the appropriate relationship with it.Likewise, physically embodied beings can not exist without maya(material nature), however the wise ones maintain a proper attitude andrelationship with it by never forgetting God for a moment. Nam japa isconstantly on their minds so they are not deluded by maya's illusions.This requires complete attention and dedication. In order to maintainthis proper determination and relationship, Sikhs are very intentionalin their life-styles. In Gurbani they find enough information to developa loving relationship with the Unknowable in His saguna Attribute.Gurbani which is performed absentmindedly is useless. There must be anever-present vigilance if one hopes to succeed. As their minds becomeone with Gurbani (Sabad etc.) they enter into communion with It. As thisoccurs, there is 'bliss and everlasting joy.' In this state the Sikhachieves the 'heavenly elixir' (hari ras) and merges with the Nam (SR271). Thereby nirguna brahman is attained and one merges with theInfinite.

Furthermore, association with other seekers is vital. The SatSangat ('Holy Congregation') forms a vital link in the religious andsocial life of Sikhs because, "Sat Sangat is the treasury of DivineName; there we meet God; through the Grace of Guru, one receives thereLight and all darkness is dispelled " (Sarang ki Var, Mohalla, quoted inSR 280). Through the Sat Sangat ignorance and egotism is destroyed. Itis absolutely necessary for salvation (SR 280,281; GiS 49).


As mentioned above, there are many cultural aspects to Sikhism whichare extraneous to the actual faith, however which are of extremeimportance and significance to Sikhs as a distinct people. Kirpal Singhhas written that all religious differences are man-man. There is onlyone universal truth which all religions seek to promote. Religiousdiversity is the result of culture, narrowness and bigotry. The messageof all religions is the same, one universal brotherhood of man under theFatherhood of God (S 20,21). As philosophically insightful as suchstatements are, cultural and religious diversity is vitally important aswell. As Pramjit told me, those Sikhs who have taken refuge in the Westoften find it difficult to live in a society which is so diametricallyopposed to life in the Punjab. The cultural aspects of Sikhism helpmaintain a continuity which is vital for their continued existence as adistinct people. They unite them into a brotherhood of believers andhelp them maintain loyalty to Guru and Sangat. Chief among thesecultural aspects is the Sangat itself of course.

As mentioned above, Guru Nanakcondemned the caste system.Since last names were indicative of one's caste, it was not enough topersonally oppose the system because one was still judged on that basis.Therefore Guru Nanak renamed his followers in a way which wouldacknowledge no caste distinctions. All Sikhs adopted the surname Singh('Lion'). This name disavowed any reference to the caste system andimplied that one was a 'lion for God,' or fierce in determination toattain liberation (P).

As with any people, not all Sikhs are fully devoted to theirreligion. Although Sikhism accepts no caste distinctions, there is acommon way to identify those Sikhs who are devout in the performance oftheir religion. Everyone who is born in a Sikh family is named Singh,but since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, only those who are devout,those who are indeed 'lions for God' typically employ this name. Toqualify as a Singh one must be sincere in religion, above socialreproach, and observe five cultural practices. These practices are knownas the five Ks because Khalsa note 41.. Punjabi Sikh names all begin with that letter:

  • kesh: uncut hair. From birth onward devout Sikhs never cut theirhair, including their beards. This is indicative of their desire totranscend material nature and attain spiritual realization. The body isnot important beyond its role as a vehicle for enlightenment.
  • kangha: comb used to keep the hair clean. This comb is keptunder one's turban. The practice of kesh should not be taken as neglectfor the body, it is cared for as one might care for an automobile, hencethe kangha.
  • kara: metal bracelet or bangle worn on the right wrist. Sincethe Sikhs reject all forms of asceticism, they are actively engaged inlife. Indeed, unless a man works and supports his family he can't beconsidered a Singh. When one reaches out his (right) hand to work, thebracelet reminds him of God. By this he is always careful to dealhonestly with all men.
  • kaccha: knee-length underwear. Sikhs are to be very modest.
  • kirpan: dagger. Sikhs reject the doctrine of ahimsa(non-violence). They see it as a moral weakness and betrayal ofreligious requirements. If a Sikh sees a wrong being committed he isduty bound to stop it. Sometimes such righteous intervention requiresforce. The dagger is not therefore merely a religious symbol, it is atool, even a weapon, for righteous intervention or self-defense. Thereis also of course the spiritual symbolism. The dagger cuts through mayaor illusion. This application is secondary however. Pramjit told me thatsometimes the dagger can cause a problem. As a Singh he can never beseparated from his kirpan. When Sikhs travel this is sometimes aproblem. Airlines, for instance, will not allow them carry the kirpanson planes. Likewise they sometimes encounter difficulties in stores andother public places. To remedy this, they have developed tiny kirpans,about the size of pocket knives. In this way they can observe theirreligious requirements and public laws as well. Once the plane lands,they take the kirpan from the luggage and strap it on their sides.

If a Singh violates any of these principles, for any reason, he mustbe baptized anew in order to reclaim the Singh title. If, for instance, aSikh goes in for surgery and his hair is cut for that reason, he is nolonger a Singh. He must approach the Sat Sangat and be rebaptized. Iasked Pramjit how serious it would be if he lost his status as a Singhdue to such an eventuality. He replied that what matters is theconsciousness, not physical circumstances; but it was obvious from hisdemeanor that such would be viewed as most unfortunate. On the otherhand, I spoke with a thirty year old Sikh who has never been baptized.He wears the turban and observes the five Ks, and yet has never felt theneed (or the inner purity) to accept baptism. His devotion to the fiveKs is such however that even though he is an expert tennis player, herefuses to remove his turban or kirpan to do so.

The idea of Pauhal may seem alien to Indian philosophy at firstglance. When we think of baptism, we tend to think of Christianity.Where did the Sikhs get the idea?

Nam is the source and the means to merge with the Unmanifest One.The Guru is the doorway to Nam, and so by taking refuge of his Graceone achieves liberation. The way to the Guru is baptism (Pauhal orAmrit). Without baptism a Sikh has no Guru, hence no Nam and therefore,no liberation.

God is attained through nam japna, or recitation of God's Name,however without the Grace of the Guru, such repetition is meaningless.As the Gujri Mohalla explains: All repeat God's Name, yet He is notattained but when through the Grace of the Guru God comes to reside inthe mind. It is only then one's life becomes fruitful (quoted in SR263). The Rag Mahalla adds that the world is a fearful ocean of maya(illusion) and only the ship of the Guru can give one safe passage tothe other side, where abides God (SR264).

Guru Nanak started this ritual of initiation in typically Hindustyle. From Guru Nanak until Guru Gobind Singh Sikh initiation consistedof two parts. First, the Guru's feet were washed. Due to the Guru'stouch, this foot-water was considered amrit or nectar. It was then givento the disciple to drink (as Charanpauhal or Caritamrita). The secondrite was the giving of Nam, the transcendental experience of the HolyWord.

Guru Gobind Singh instituted the baptism rite which is observedtoday. Although Guru Nanak rejected all visible forms of worship,temples, rituals and the like, Gobind Singh created the Khalsa or GuruPanth ("community of the pure ones") as the external form of Guru (GiS68). Actually, he empowered and reorganized the existing body of thefaithful. With this change, those who would be Singhs (initiated 'lionsof God'), had to join the Khalsa through the rite of baptism. Baptism isconducted by five advanced Singhs in the presence of the Khalsa, "Letit, therefore, be very clear to every Sikh that in order to get intoGuru's fold and seek Guru's grace, one will have to get baptized by theFive Beloved Ones. Only then will one's efforts toward spiritualismbecome fruitful" (SR 264). The rite consists of readings from the GuruGranth, sacred songs, prayers and the preparation of a special solutionof water and sugar. The candidates are then sprinkled with this water ontheir heads and eyes. At this time they are instructed in the rules ofKhalsa membership, loyalty, moral conduct and receive Nam.

To be a Sikh is to be a member of a family. It is to follow inthe bold, yet humbly devout footsteps of Guru Nanak and his successors.Sikhism is not a religion, but a way of life. It is SANT MAT, the Pathof the Masters.

Continue to Notes and References

Notes on Page Four

  • Note 33: This is similar to the Upanishadicdoctrine that nirguna brahman was first manifested as Om and thereafterestablished prakriti or nature (M 1). Return
  • Note 34: Pronounced "Vaheeguru" (P). Return
  • Note 35: The Name Gobind is the Punjabi form of Govinda, Who is Krishna (as a cowherder) or Vishnu. Return
  • Note 36: Nad is Nadam or Transcendental Sound Currents (the Shabd) and Vad is Veda or Wisdom, especially Scriptural truths. Return
  • Note 37: The Brahmanical prayers: Om Bhur Bhuvaha Svaha, Tat Savitur Varenyam... Return
  • Note 38: Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer/Transformer. Return
  • Note 39: Tombs of great saints. Return
  • Note 40: Communities of Sikh believers. Return
  • Note 41:Khalsa Sikhs are those who accept the reforms of Guru Gobind Singh (GiS 68). Return

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* Sat Kewal Singh (John of AllFaith) © 1987 (Last updated: September 15, 2017)

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