ARTICLES

Sikhism and Same-Sex Marriages

 Article by J. Singh

3rd October 2007

 

In January 2005, the Jathedar (Head Priest) of the Akal Takht in Amritsar 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”.[1] At the same time, the Canadian Prime Minister cancelled a visit to Amritsar and the Golden Temple because of his belief that the Sikh clergy in Punjab 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 community?

 

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[2], 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 Punjab 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.[3] 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.

 

It 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.

 

The Canadian connection to the edict stems from the fact that it is home to one of the largest Sikh communities outside of India. Sikhs have been living in Canada for over 100 years now, with almost 300,000 Sikhs living in Canada as of the 2001 census[4], 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.

 

Some 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.[5]

 

The 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 politics.[6] 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 edict.[7]

 

To put the issue of Indian-influenced attitudes to homosexuality into context, it has to be noted that homosexuality is illegal in India under the Penal Code introduced by the British Raj in the Victorian era[8]. 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.

 

The 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 Western sensibilities.[9] 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.[10]

 

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 Sikh community.

 

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.[11]

 

It 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.[12]

 

Sikhism 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.

 

Although 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?

_____________________________________

 

APPENDIX 1

SIKH 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

 

ਸੂਹੀ ਮਹਲਾ

soohee mehlaa 4.

Sohee, fourth mehl.

 

ਹਰਿ ਪਹਿਲੜੀ ਲਾਵ ਪਰਵਿਰਤੀ ਕਰਮ ਦ੍ਰਿੜਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

har pahilarhee 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.

 

ਬਾਣੀ ਬ੍ਰਹਮਾ ਵੇਦੁ ਧਰਮੁ ਦ੍ਰਿੜਹੁ ਪਾਪ ਤਜਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

banee 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.

 

ਧਰਮੁ ਦ੍ਰਿੜਹੁ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਧਿਆਵਹੁ ਸਿਮ੍ਰਿਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਦ੍ਰਿੜਾਇਆ

dharam darirhHu har naam Dhi-aavahu simrit naam drirh-aa-i-aa.

Meditate on the Lord's Name; embrace and enshrine the contemplative remembrance of the Naam.

 

ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਗੁਰੁ ਪੂਰਾ ਆਰਾਧਹੁ ਸਭਿ ਕਿਲਵਿਖ ਪਾਪ ਗਵਾਇਆ

satgur gur pooraa aaraaDhahu sabh kilvikh paap gavaa-i-aa.

Worship and adore the Guru, the Perfect True Guru, and all your sins shall be dispelled.

 

ਸਹਜ ਅਨੰਦੁ ਹੋਆ ਵਡਭਾਗੀ ਮਨਿ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਮੀਠਾ ਲਾਇਆ

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 the mind.

 

ਜਨੁ ਕਹੈ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਲਾਵ ਪਹਿਲੀ ਆਰੰਭੁ ਕਾਜੁ ਰਚਾਇਆ

jan kahai naanak laav pahilee aarambh kaaj rachaa-i-aa. ||1||

Servant Nanak proclaims that, in this, the first round of the marriage ceremony, the marriage ceremony has begun. ((1))

 

 

 

ਹਰਿ ਦੂਜੜੀ ਲਾਵ ਸਤਿਗੁਰਪੁਰਖੁ ਮਿਲਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

har doojrhee 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.

 

ਨਿਰਭਉ ਭੈ ਮਨੁ ਹੋਇ ਹਉਮੈ ਮੈਲੁ ਗਵਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

nirbha-o 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 eradicated.

 

ਨਿਰਮਲੁ ਭਉ ਪਾਇਆ ਹਰਿ ਗੁਣ ਗਾਇਆ ਹਰਿ ਵੇਖੈ ਰਾਮੁ ਹਦੂਰੇ

nirmal bha-o 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.

 

ਹਰਿ ਆਤਮ ਰਾਮੁ ਪਸਾਰਿਆ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਸਰਬ ਰਹਿਆ ਭਰਪੂਰੇ

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.

 

ਅੰਤਰਿ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਏਕੋ ਮਿਲਿ ਹਰਿ ਜਨ ਮੰਗਲ ਗਾਏ

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.

 

ਜਨ ਨਾਨਕ ਦੂਜੀ ਲਾਵ ਚਲਾਈ ਅਨਹਦ ਸਬਦ ਵਜਾਏ

jan naanak doojee laav chalaa-ee anhad sabad vajaa-ay. ||2||

Servant Nanak proclaims that, in this, the second round of the marriage ceremony, the unstruck sound current of the Shabad resounds. ((2))

 

 

  

ਹਰਿ ਤੀਜੜੀ ਲਾਵ ਮਨਿ ਚਾਉ ਭਇਆ ਬੈਰਾਗੀਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

har teejrhee 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.

 

ਸੰਤ ਜਨਾ ਹਰਿ ਮੇਲੁ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਵਡਭਾਗੀਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

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 fortune.

ਨਿਰਮਲੁ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਹਰਿ ਗੁਣ ਗਾਇਆ ਮੁਖਿ ਬੋਲੀ ਹਰਿ ਬਾਣੀ

nirmal har 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.

 

ਸੰਤ ਜਨਾ ਵਡਭਾਗੀ ਪਾਇਆ ਹਰਿ ਕਥੀਐ ਅਕਥ ਕਹਾਣੀ

sant janaa 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.

 

ਹਿਰਦੈ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਧੁਨਿ ਉਪਜੀ ਹਰਿ ਜਪੀਐ ਮਸਤਕਿ ਭਾਗੁ ਜੀਉ

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.

 

ਜਨੁ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਬੋਲੇ ਤੀਜੀ ਲਾਵੈ ਹਰਿ ਉਪਜੈ ਮਨਿ ਬੈਰਾਗੁ ਜੀਉ

jan naanak bolay teejee laavai har upjai man bairaag jee-o. ||3||

Servant Nanak proclaims that, in this, the third round of the marriage ceremony, the mind is filled with Divine Love for the Lord. ((3))

 

 

 

ਹਰਿ ਚਉਥੜੀ ਲਾਵ ਮਨਿ ਸਹਜੁ ਭਇਆ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

har cha-utharhee 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.

 

ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਮਿਲਿਆ ਸੁਭਾਇ ਹਰਿ ਮਨਿ ਤਨਿ ਮੀਠਾ ਲਾਇਆ ਬਲਿ ਰਾਮ ਜੀਉ

gurmukh mili-aa 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.

 

ਹਰਿ ਮੀਠਾ ਲਾਇਆ ਮੇਰੇ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਭਾਇਆ ਅਨਦਿਨੁ ਹਰਿ ਲਿਵ ਲਾਈ

har meethaa 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.

 

ਮਨ ਚਿੰਦਿਆ ਫਲੁ ਪਾਇਆ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮਿ ਵਜੀ ਵਾਧਾਈ

man chindi-aa 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.

 

ਹਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭਿ ਠਾਕੁਰਿ ਕਾਜੁ ਰਚਾਇਆ ਧਨ ਹਿਰਦੈ ਨਾਮਿ ਵਿਗਾਸੀ

har parabh 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.

 

ਜਨੁ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਬੋਲੇ ਚਉਥੀ ਲਾਵੈ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਅਵਿਨਾਸੀ ੪॥੨

jan naanak bolay cha-uthee laavai har paa-i-aa parabh avinaasee. ||4||2||

Servant Nanak proclaims that, in this, the fourth round of the marriage ceremony, we have found the Eternal Lord God. ((4)(2))


[3] See Appendix 1, the English Translation to the Lavaan

[5] section 3 of the Civil Marriage Act 2005, which states that “It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs”

[8] section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 states that “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

[11] http://www.sikhs.org/guru1.htm at paragraphs 14 and 15

[12] http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/S/Sarmad/index.htm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarmad  and http://www.apnaorg.com/columns/majid/col2.html re the Saint Sarmad (a follower of Mian Mir, the Sufi Saint who laid the foundation stone of the Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar)