This week Sikhs are celebrating the spring festival of Vaisakhi; a day on which the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh tested the readiness of the infant Sikh community to stand on its own without further Gurus.
We recall how, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, the Guru came out of a tent and asked for volunteers who were prepared to put their life on the line defending the principles of Sikh teachings. Sikhs readily came forward and, discarding any previous allegiance to caste, took Amrit or baptism as the first members of the Khalsa or community of equals. The Guru then asked them to give him Amrit. Master and disciple were one, and the line of living Gurus ended. Sikhs were told that in future they should follow the teachings of Sikh scriptures as they would a living Guru. The teachings or principles that the Guru considered so important can, in essence, be summed up in two words: responsibility and equality.
Responsibility means earning by honest effort and helping the less fortunate. It implies a duty to stand up to the bully, whether in the school playground, the office or workplace It also includes a requirement for Sikhs to speak up, as the Gurus did, against social injustice and political oppression. Opposing injustice requires courage and commitment and two of the Sikh Gurus lost their lives in pursuit of this ideal.
The other requirement emphasised in Sikh teachings, is belief in the equality of all members of our human family, including the dignity and complete equality of women. On that historic Vaisakhi day, the Guru took gender equality a step further by giving women the title ‘Kaur’ or ‘princess’, emphasising not only their dignity and worth, but also that they were individuals in their own right and did not have to take their husband’s name.
Today, these concepts are widely accepted and we rightly have legislation against discriminatory behaviour. But I believe there is a danger of legislation sometimes being used to enforce sameness and undue conformity, when the one fact of life is that we are all different. The message of Vaisakhi today is, that while working for equality of respect and opportunity for all, it is important that we also respect the rights of those who question, or choose to differ from, transient social or political norms.