The Manipulation of Gurbani and the Sikh Gurus for Gender Politics
A few weeks ago, someone posted an intentionally provocative tweet regarding Guru Nanak Dev Ji (intentionally provacative in that it was explicitly done to attract controversy, as seen by the image macro that accompanied it). This led to many inappropriate abuses and slurs aimed towards the individual, as well as ardent defenders of the meme (as seen below in an image that contains the tweet, some prominent community activists included).
I see the tweet as a stupid and puerile attempt to elicit attention, and don’t care to engage with it beyond that as I don’t think it has much intellectual grounding to stand on.
However, some time after, Juptej Singh wrote an article for Baaz News Org where he elaborated on his personal thoughts regarding it. With regards to its content, he at first decried it for its superficiality but then at-length chose to bolster its fundamental argument; that the first 10 Sikh Gurus did not conform to standard conventions of gender identity, exhibited “gender fluidity”, and thus “transcended gender”.
The article, however flowered in language of rapprochement and careful scrutiny, is extremely flawed and careless in its treatment of Sikh scripture in the name of diligent intellectual inquiry. In many ways, its superficiality exceeds that of the original tweet itself. This is my response to the claims made specifically within the article as it pertains to the argument regarding the Sikh Gurus, bolstered with a shoddy analysis of Gurbani that is alarmingly common by other writers on various Sikh intellectual platforms (most of them based in North America, with what I’d classify as a leftist/progressive ideological outlook).
The Genderless Divine
One of the arguments employed in the article is that the Divine in Sikhi is not conceived of as being male (or having a gender). This is absolutely correct, as evidenced by various descriptions in Gurbani. Although some of the names for the Divine often employed by Sikhs are masculine (“Akāl Purakh”), these names are one of many descriptors, and as Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh points out, feminine phrasing for the divine is also common in Sikh liturgy, such as the Ardas offered to “Sri Bhagauti Ji Sahai”.
Without getting too deep into theology and metaphysics, if Parmatma is fundamentally genderless, the Atma of every individual person (regardless of physical gender) is as well — another core teaching of Sikh spirituality. However, that does not mean that gender does not exist — as we do have physical forms [biological sex], which in Sikh tradition are acknowledged to be legitimately gendered accordingly via an accepted binary. That these genders are to be treated equally, and have no bearing on the spiritual equality of the atma inside, does not preclude their very existence as genuine social constructs that correlate to physical realities. This is seen in just generic tradition and linguistics, and further within Sikh institutions, like the Manji-Pir system and Singh-Kaur for the Khalsa.
A further complication comes in with the Sikh theological belief that the Sikh Gurus were the sacred physical manifestations of Akāl on this Earth. Juptej uses this belief to argue that if Akāl is genderless, so to must have been the Gurus — yet this is fallacious. Acknowledging the Gurus were divine in their very form does not change the physical circumstances under which they came to this Earth. For example, Akāl means “timeless”, a key attribute of the Divine as mentioned in the Mool Mantar; but it would be odd to say that any of the first 10 Gurus’ physical human forms were timeless, and say, existed in the present day. In the same manner that the Gurus were born in the 15th-16th century, they were also born into male bodies. This is an accepted fact as per the entire corpus of Sikh literary tradition, and it’s a hard-sell to play with the technicalities of their divinity solely to try and make the claim that they “transcended gender” solely to make a point for modern politics.
The 11th Master — Guru Granth & Panth
Another argument Juptej employed in his article flows as follows:
We spend so much time arguing back and forth over what Guru was, we do not stop to think about what Guru is. Would the current conceptions of masculinity/femininity also be attached to Guru Granth Sahib Jee or the broader body of the Khalsa Panth? If not, why would they apply to the 10 human incarnations of the Guru, seeing as they are the same Jot (life-force)? The idea of gender has changed wildly throughout different times and different cultures. Do we account for this when we ascribe gendered labels upon the Gurus? Do we even believe that they, in all their revolutionary glory, would still be subservient to the social construction?
This is why I believe to simply say Guru Sahib was genderqueer is missing the point. They were far beyond the grasp of gender.
As Bhai Prahlad puts it, the 11th and eternal Sikh Guru is of a non-human form; the dual-form of the Guru Granth Sahib as well as the Khalsa. However, to relegate this legacy to a 1:1 comparison of a specific human attribute (in this case, gender) to then claim that the human Gurus were “subservient to” that attribute is a misnomer. As mentioned above, Sikh literature doesn’t ambiguate as regards to the gender of the physical form the Gurus took upon this Earth; in fact, Juptej implicitly acknowledges this with the translation “the Baba (respected male figure, referring here to Guru Nanak)”.
Although it is true that the “idea of gender” has changed wildly throughout different times and different cultures, we don’t see any specific examples of that type of deconstruction within the span of Sikh history. In fact, as mentioned earlier via the Manji-Pir system and Singh-Kaur, the solidification and acknowledgement of male and female genders is socially built into Sikh institutions. Norms of masculinity and femininity have indeed evolved, but this does not mean that such norms did not exist — in fact, traditional Sikh canon conveys the exact opposite. In the vaaran of Bhai Gurdas Singh (dated to the early 18th century), one of the poetic terms used in reverence for Guru Gobind Singh is “Mard-Agambra”; which quite literally means “the man without parallel”. This term finds usage even today in Punjabi folk songs to convey a masculine admiration of the Guru, in particular highlighting his warrior qualities. Similarly, although it is true that the collective body of the Khalsa Panth is not of one gender, various historical texts including the Gurbilas, Panth Parkash, and Suraj Prakash, attribute various physical features of Singhs who have joined to the Khalsa to masculine glory (example here), some of these attributed to sayings by the Gurus themselves.
Although one can argue that the trends that dictate these norms have morphed over time(for example, Singhs wearing earrings used to be considered masculine, something that conflicts with modern day Khalsa male norms), it at the very least shows that given how even contemporary gender norms were used to convey certain concepts, and that “gender labels” are in no way taboo or alien to Sikh praxis. Erasure of this for the sake of placating modern trends which question the very idea of gender is indeed an innovation on the part of the author, and not grounded in genuine understanding of how such norms have evolved in the Sikh historical context.
The Female Voice in Poetry
The main theological argument that Juptej uses in the article to claim that the Gurus exhibited “gender fluidity” stems from analysis of Gurbani wherein the 1st and 5th Gurus takes the voice of a female lover. Juptej’s analysis proceeds as such:
In fact, we see the Gurus take on different gendered identities in various shabads.
The thirst of separation can only be quenched by the presence of both roles that Maharaj inhabits here. Both the feminine and the masculine divine.
All this being said, I do still believe the initial tweet was highly reductive. It is not enough to understand that gender fluidity may exist within Bani, therefore within the Guru. We must look at the conditions in which this took place to come across with a more complete understanding.
Guru Sahib was not just gender-bending, they were gender-transcendent.
Gender, at the time, was harsher than even caste distinctions. Women were treated as property in the most literal sense of the word. Despite this, Guru Sahib openly assumes the role of the female and bestows that role onto the sangat around them and every person who sings their shabads to this day.
This line of argument is reminiscent of a similar article from KaurLife published by Japjyot Singh who argues that these shabads are evidence that the Gurus exhibited gender fluidity and “became” female via their composition:
we assume that ਗੁਰੂ ਸਾਹਿਬ (Guru Sahib) exclusively identified as male, especially within our modern conception of masculinity, then how could They have possibly written from the identity of the “ਸੁਹਾਗਣਿ” (Suhaagan)? In other words, how could they have adopted the identity of a “female” lover awaiting their “beloved husband?”
They became the ਸੁਹਾਗਣਿ (Suhaagan = bride). Their longing for their Beloved was as raw, emotional, passionate and romantic as any partner awaiting their lover. Thus, given Their context, They used the example of a loving wife awaiting her beloved husband — but They Themselves adopted the identity of the female lover. This example of ਸੁਹਾਗਣਿ (Suhaagan) is one that moves beyond just the feminine understanding — it becomes one that is now associated with all souls, regardless of their physical being. ਗੁਰੂ ਸਾਹਿਬ (Guru Sahib’s) identity is steeped in Oneness, so much so that adopting gender became a fluid, living process.
Both of these arguments are severely limited in the understanding they show of Gurbani, literary context, and the Gurus’ meaning behind the Shabads, and in my opinion come out to be grave distortions of said Gurbani for the purpose of affirming the concept of gender fluidity vis-a-vis the Gurus themselves. At best a mistake made by a very rough-shod reading of the text; and at worst intentional manipulation of the text to form a certain narrative. But perhaps we can deconstruct this by looking more closely at the specific instances that are used to as a justification for this interpretation, where the Sikh Gurus write from the perspective of a soul-bride pining for a divine-groom. The fixation on the metaphor of “soul-bride” to argue for an entirely genderless conception of Sikh social concepts is one oft-used by Sikh Research Institute, as seen in their report on Sikhi & Sexuality:
In this way, there is a common understanding of a genderless reading of Bani, such that all individuals place themselves into the role of the bride before IkOankar. The understanding of this metaphor is commonly accepted, except in the “one light in two bodies” imagery.
Bani can be interpreted in a multidimensional fashion, in both literal and metaphorical ways, and this excerpt must be dealt with similarly. From one angle, this could be a worldly literal description of the union between a husband and wife, but metaphorically it is a genderless understanding of the human condition, which would transcend across all sexual orientations and/or genders.
Certainly, the analogy is intended to convey a universal spiritual truth, of the nature and passion of love for the divine. But it’s extremely flawed to derive social truths, especially about the Gurus’ personal gender identities, from it. I can pinpoint three primary reasons for thus:
One major flaw to this argument we can ascertain from the broader context of Gurbani. Although he used the analogy beautifully and expanded upon it, Guru Nanak Dev Ji was in fact not the first [chronological] writer to employ the female voice in his poetry; Sheikh Farid was. We also find many shabads by Bhagat Kabir where he adopts the voice of a bride pining for her beloved. This illustrates two key points. This shows how this specific poetic device was already being employed in Sufi and Bhakti traditions much prior to the Sikh Gurus. That the Gurus chose to write their own bani with it (and include the bani from these bhagats in the Guru Granth Sahib) certainly suggests that it found favorability as a poetic metaphor, but was not a uniquely Sikh device, let alone a means to signal some type of revolutionary Sikh upending of gender. If one believes that the Sikh Gurus “transcended gender” because of their usage of this poetic device, so too did Kabir and Farid, and given its ubiquity, perhaps other Bhakti and Sufi writers. Yet this interpretation of Kabir and Farid being “gender-fluid” is entirely absent among the diverse groups of Kabirpanthis and Chishtis who would have been their ardent followers (for that matter, the Gurus’ supposed gender fluidity also finds no mention in the broad canon of traditional Sikh interpretation).
We can go beyond the scope of sacred poetry to drive home this precise point further. The Guru taking the voice of a “suhagan” may be a revolutionary revelation to Sikh think-tanks and activists in the 21st century West who screen English translations to find an “aha!” moment to vindicate their own personal politics, but lacks that politicized meaning to even lay readers of Punjabi poetry. Traditionally, it is very common in Punjabi poetry, songs, and folklore, for men to assume a woman’s voice, either as a writer or singer. If you were to ask many of these male artists if they “became female” in these moments or identified as gender-fluid because of it, they would treat it as an absurdity. What this illustrates is a uniquely beautiful feat of Punjabi culture (and in addition, Sikh culture), where poetry can transcend the physical gender of the reciter. To use this as a means to interpret the artists as “gender-fluid”, is in fact enforcing a Western norm and expectation of gender onto the art (and in the broader context, Gurbani).
To illustrate the point, at length:
And many more. This rich trope is still used by many modern Punjabi artists!
Let us now move past gender alone. The suhagan is one of many in a broad toolkit of poetic devices that the Gurus employed to help illustrate spiritual concepts. Social relationships, mythologies, everyday life occurrences, and nature all are but small parts of the tapestry the Gurus use to weave beautiful images of something so otherwise abstract and hard to wrap our heads around.
Two natural relationships that the Gurus seem to have honed on in are those of the “chaatrik” (pied cuckoo bird, “rainbird”) and “bhavra” (bumblebee). The chaatrik is viewed as the symbolic celebrator of the monsoon season, as its chirps and songs fill the air as the skies pour down rains aplenty. The analogy of the ecstasy the rainbird feels upon witnessing the monsoon is used by the Gurus several times as a metaphor for the spiritual contentment singing Waheguru’s praises brings. Similarly, the single-minded focus of the bhavra on the flowers it pollinates inspires the Guru to write about how one’s attachment should be towards Waheguru.
It feels vulgar to even do this for the sake of argument, but these shabads can be distorted and manipulated in the same way the articles in Baaz and KaurLife do. When the Guru writes from the perspective of a bumblebee or bird, do we point to it as proof that the 10 Sikh Gurus “transcended species”, that the Guru actually “became a bumblebee/bird” while composing these shabads, that these shabads are evidence of species-fluidity in Sikhi? Would we offer this as a concrete piece of evidence that the Sikh Gurus were otherkin?
No, we don’t — because it would be extremely reductive, overly reliant on the English translation, and almost explicitly manipulating the meaning of the shabad to wishfully project a social implication that does not exist. Yet this is exactly what Juptej (and others) accomplished in the Baaz article that purports to expand the span of supposedly constructive and intellectually stimulating Sikh thought.
I believe the arguments given have comprehensively rebuked the claims made by Juptej Singh and others, which (in my opinion) attempted to create an arbitrary fuzziness over the gender of the human Gurus that was never there in historical and traditional Sikh understandings, and is informed less by an honest exegetical reading of Gurbani, and more by the imaginations of modern Sikhs in the West who feel the need to validate contemporary surrounding sociopolitical movements by applying them to the Gurus’ lives and identities. I do agree that such conversations cannot and should not be muzzled solely because of their perception as “blasphemy”; that metric has been used to silence many other salient discussions regarding nuances in Sikh tradition. I would also agree that there is a need to transcend the shoddy mechanisms of engagement found on social media, whereby trolls hurling vituperative abuses as well as people with nothing to offer but one-liners muddle engagement to its worst possible low.
However, both of these caveats don’t change how I feel about the fundamental frivolity of such discourse, particularly in the way it tries to superficially mine Gurbani translations for slanted sociopolitical commentary. As a one-off thought or forum post, fair game— yet this line of thought was presented as profound enough to warrant publication in a paper that purports to do “original reporting for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora”, and has antecedents in organizations regarded as genuine Sikh think-tanks by many. We all rail about how certain aspects of historical Punjabi culture obscured the beauty of Sikh praxis, which is fair. But it seems like many Sikhs in the present day need to hold a similar mirror up to recognize that we do not live in a cultural vacuum just because “it’s literally [current_year]!”. We owe it to our sacred traditions and scripture to give it a more rigorous intellectual treatment beyond just folding it into a sheath to cover whatever politics we personally deem favorable at the moment. When we get that kind of intellectual honesty and due diligence, perhaps we can then talk more about having constructive intellectual conversations in Sikh spaces.