Sikhism and Same-Sex Marriages
by J. Singh
January 2005, the Jathedar (Head Priest) of the Akal Takht in
issued an edict denouncing same-sex marriages and urging the worldwide
Sikh community not to allow such marriages to take place at any
Gurdwara. Same-sex relationships were condemned as being anti-Sikh,
with the concept of same-sex marriages originating “from sick minds”
and being “anti-human”.
At the same time, the Canadian Prime Minister cancelled a visit to
Amritsar and the Golden Temple because of his belief that the Sikh
were attempting to control Canadian politics. How did a political
issue in Canada lead to the issuing of an edict by a religious
institution halfway across the world? Why did that religious
institution feel the need to issue such an edict in the first place?
And what is the impact of that edict upon the worldwide Sikh
The Akal Takht, or the ‘Seat
of the Immortal One’, was established at the time of the 6th
Sikh Guru (Guru Hargobind Ji) as the primary seat of temporal
authority from where ‘hukamnamas’ or edicts were issued providing
guidance to the Sikh community as a whole. The Jathedar of the Akal
Takht is meant to be a spiritual leader without control or influence
from any outside, politically motivated sources,
although since the 1920s the position has been one appointed by the
Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the committee
responsible for the management of Gurdwaras in
and other north Indian states. The SGPC itself is an organisation
elected by the Sikhs of northern India.
The Sikh marriage was
institutionalised in 1909 by the Anand Marriage Act of India. Prior to
that time, although the Sikh marriage hymns form part of the Sri Guru
Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Scriptures), marriages of Sikh couples
usually followed the Hindu model of marriage, namely the
circumambulation of fire, as that was the only legally recognised form
of marriage for Sikhism in India at that time. The Sikh marriage
hymns, or Lavaan, were composed by the 4th Sikh Guru (Guru
Ram Das Ji) and they are non-gender specific. The only references made
to gender are those of God as the bridegroom and the human souls of
those who are entering into the marriage as the bride.
Marriage is deemed to be the blending of the human soul with God, and
not specifically marriage between a man and a woman. In that respect,
there is nothing that would prevent a same-sex marriage taking place
within the context of Sikhism.
appears that this fear was paramount on the minds of the Jathedar of
the Akal Takht and the SGPC when the edict regarding same-sex
marriages was given. If same-sex marriage were not possible within the
Sikh religion, then it would not have been necessary to issue such an
edict in the first place.
Canadian connection to the edict stems from the fact that it is home
to one of the largest Sikh communities outside of
Sikhs have been living in Canada for over 100 years now, with almost
300,000 Sikhs living in Canada as of the 2001 census,
and in January 2005, there were 6 members of the Canadian Parliament
who were Sikh. Towards the end of 2004, the proposed legislation
regarding same-sex marriages was being debated in the Canadian
Parliament. It was a subject which had aroused the interest of the
general public, and various inter-related issues were being discussed,
such as whether such marriages would have to take place in religious
places of worship.
member of the Sikh community in
Canada were concerned that
they may have to allow gay marriages to take place in gurdwaras, and
so they lobbied the SGPC and the Jathedar of the Akal Takht as to
guidance on this subject. Unfortunately, no debates or discussions
took place on the legitimacy of same-sex marriages within Sikhism, and
this resulted in the issuing of the edict. It should be noted here
that the eventual Civil Marriage Act which made same-sex marriages
legal in Canada did not apply to religious places of worship where
same-sex marriage was contrary to that religion’s beliefs.
Jathedar of the Akal Takht and the SGPC also declared that the Sikh
Members of Parliament in
Canada should vote against
the proposed legislation as it was an issue which affected the Sikh
community and which should be seen to be more important than petty
Following this pronouncement from the Akal Takht, the Canadian Prime
Minister Paul Martin cancelled his visit to Amritsar, and although he
never gave official reasons as to why he cancelled at such short
notice, some commentators believed that it was directly related to the
the issue of Indian-influenced attitudes to homosexuality into
context, it has to be noted that homosexuality is illegal in
under the Penal Code introduced by the British Raj in the Victorian
To that extent the edict should, in my opinion, be viewed as a product
of its environment. It is an order given by a religious institution in
northern India upon a subject matter deemed illegal and immoral in
that conservative country in order to provide guidance as sought by a
small number of Sikhs in a liberal Western country.
question as to the impact that the edict should have on the worldwide
Sikh community is a complex one given the apparent authority vested
within the Jathedar. The Jathedar of the Akal Takht has issued edicts
in the past which have not been recognised or accepted by Sikh
communities in other countries and sometimes even those within India
itself. The most notable recent issues which have caused rifts within
the Sikh diaspora are those concerning the use of tables and chairs in
langar halls (open kitchen) and the Nanakshahi calendar.
Many gurdwaras in the West
have chosen to ignore the edict issued in 1998 which prohibited the
use of tables and chairs when partaking in langar (the free communal
meal served in gurdwaras), and continue to use them due to their
The Nanakshahi calendar, the new Sikh calendar implemented by the SGPC
in 2003, has divided Sikhs around the world who believe that the Sikh
calendar should remain unchanged as it has done since the time of the
living Gurus and follow the northern Indian Bikrami calendar as used
by the Hindus. In fact, the issue has divided Sikhs in India itself,
with some important Sikh communities outside of Punjab continuing to
use the old calendar and refusing to adopt the new calendar.
Therefore, it should be noted that the edicts issued by the Jathedar
of the Akal Takht are not always followed by the Sikh communities
outside of northern India, and that there is a precedent which
suggests that the Jathedar of the Akal Takht and the SGPC do not have
the authority which they believe or hope they hold over the worldwide
There is also a precedent
for personal interpretation of the Guru Granth Sahib on issues which
are not directly dealt with by the Sikh Holy Scriptures. One such
issue is that of vegetarianism. Although a large number of baptised
Sikhs are strict vegetarians and the food provided in gurdwaras is
vegetarian, the only edict issued by any of the Gurus regarding diet
was that by the 10th Guru (Guru Gobind Singh Ji)
prohibiting the consumption of sacrificial meat (i.e. Halal or Kosher
meat). Vegetarianism appears to be something which is of personal
choice to Sikhs, and the provision of vegetarian food at the gurdwara
is so that people can partake in it regardless of their dietary
requirements. It is not something that was followed strictly by the
Sikh Gurus, with some Gurus openly hunting animals or eating meat.
shouldn’t be deemed that the Gurus have overlooked issues which are
not directly dealt with by the Sikh Holy Scriptures. Rather, the Gurus
should be seen as having considered those issues as inconsequential
and insignificant for the religion to give any guidance upon, and that
it should therefore be a matter for personal interpretation. It is
well documented that homosexuality existed in India
at the time of the Gurus, and that there were well-known gay saints or
religious men who were alive at the time of the Gurus and who were
known to the Gurus.
is a democratic religion. One of its founding principles was the
creation of a religion without a priesthood system and where followers
would be able to seek guidance directly from their Guru, whether
living or in the form of the Sikh Holy Scriptures, without the need of
a third party to interpret those teachings. Sikhism therefore promotes
a direct relationship between humans and God, with no intermediaries.
The religion is one which believes in tolerance, equality and
acceptance, and those appear to be qualities that followers of the
religion sometimes lack when tackling contemporary issues.
the Akal Takht issued an edict prohibiting the practice of same-sex
marriages in gurdwaras, the issue is far from dealt with in the west,
and as can be seen above, not all such edicts are adhered to by Sikhs
in the west or within India itself. Sikhism also allows for personal
interpretation of the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib as there is
no official priesthood system in place. 2009 will see the 100th
anniversary of the Anand Karaj becoming legally recognised in India.
Who knows how long it will be before same-sex marriages within Sikhism
will become accepted rather than just theoretically possible?
MARRIAGE HYMNS (LAVAAN) by Guru Ram Das (4th Guru)
pp.773 - 774
English Translation by
Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, MD; Phonetic Transliteration by Dr. Kulbir
Singh Thind, MD
soohee mehlaa 4.
Sohee, fourth mehl.
laav parvirtee karam drirh-aa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
In the first round
of the marriage ceremony, the Lord sets out His Instructions for
performing the daily duties of married life.
barahmaa vayd Dharam darirhHu
paap tajaa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
Instead of the
hymns of the Vedas to Brahma, embrace the righteous conduct of
Dharma, and renounce sinful actions.
dharam darirhHu har naam Dhi-aavahu simrit
Meditate on the
Lord's Name; embrace and enshrine the contemplative remembrance of
pooraa aaraaDhahu sabh kilvikh paap gavaa-i-aa.
Worship and adore
the Guru, the Perfect True Guru, and all your sins shall be
sahj anand ho-aa
vadbhaagee man har har meethaa laa-i-aa.
By great good
fortune, celestial bliss is attained, and the Lord seems sweet to
jan kahai naanak
laav pahilee aarambh kaaj rachaa-i-aa. ||1||
proclaims that, in this, the first round of the marriage ceremony,
the marriage ceremony has begun. ((1))
laav satgur purakh milaa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
In the second round
of the marriage ceremony, the Lord leads you to meet the True Guru,
the Primal Being.
bhai man ho-ay ha-umai mail gavaa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
With the Fear of
God, the Fearless Lord in the mind, the filth of egotism is
paa-i-aa har gun gaa-i-aa har vaykhai raam hadooray.
In the Fear of God,
the Immaculate Lord, sing the Glorious Praises of the Lord, and
behold the Lord's Presence before you.
har aatam raam
pasaari-aa su-aamee sarab rahi-aa bharpooray.
The Lord, the
Supreme Soul, is the Lord and Master of the Universe; He is
pervading and permeating everywhere, fully filling all spaces.
antar baahar har
parabh ayko mil har jan mangal gaa-ay.
Deep within, and
outside as well, there is only the One Lord God. Meeting together,
the humble servants of the Lord sing the songs of joy.
doojee laav chalaa-ee anhad sabad vajaa-ay. ||2||
proclaims that, in this, the second round of the marriage ceremony,
the unstruck sound current of the Shabad resounds. ((2))
laav man chaa-o bha-i-aa bairaagee-aa bal raam jee-o.
In the third
round of the marriage ceremony, the mind is filled with Divine Love.
sant janaa har
mayl har paa-i-aa vadbhaagee-aa bal raam jee-o.
Meeting with the
humble Saints of the Lord, I have found the Lord, by great good
paa-i-aa har gun gaa-i-aa mukh bolee har banee.
I have found the
Immaculate Lord, and I sing the Glorious Praises of the Lord. I
speak the Word of the Lord's Bani.
vadbhaagee paa-i-aa har kathee-ai akath kahaanee.
By great good
fortune, I have found the humble Saints, and I speak the Unspoken
Speech of the Lord.
hirdai har har
har Dhun upjee har japee-ai mastak bhaag jee-o.
The Name of the
Lord vibrates and resounds within my heart; meditating on the Lord,
I have realized the destiny inscribed upon my forehead.
jan naanak bolay
teejee laavai har upjai man bairaag jee-o. ||3||
proclaims that, in this, the third round of the marriage ceremony,
the mind is filled with Divine Love for the Lord. ((3))
laav man sahj bha-i-aa har paa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
In the fourth
round of the marriage ceremony, my mind has become peaceful; I have
found the Lord.
subhaa-ay har man tan meethaa laa-i-aa bal raam jee-o.
As Gurmukh, I
have met Him, with intuitive ease; the Lord seems so sweet to my
mind and body.
laa-i-aa mayray parabh bhaa-i-aa an-din har liv laa-ee.
The Lord seems
so sweet; I am pleasing to my God. Night and day, I lovingly focus
my consciousness on the Lord.
fal paa-i-aa su-aamee har naam vajee vaaDhaa-ee.
I have obtained
my Lord and Master, the fruit of my mind's desires. The Lord's Name
resounds and resonates.
thaakur kaaj rachaa-i-aa Dhan hirdai naam vigaasee.
The Lord God, my
Lord and Master, blends with His bride, and her heart blossoms forth
in the Naam.
jan naanak bolay
cha-uthee laavai har paa-i-aa parabh avinaasee. ||4||2||
proclaims that, in this, the fourth round of the marriage ceremony,
we have found the Eternal Lord God. ((4)(2))