Amid patriarchal customs in India, a more egalitarian spiritual path began developing in the sixteenth century. Its founder was Guru Nanak. He and his successors, the Sikh Gurus, opened significant ways to empowerment and respect for women.
Guru Nanak was a spiritual and social reformer. After having a transformational experience of God, he saw God in everything. He taught people that God pervades everywhere, in all beings, all places, and that distinctions between castes, genders, and religion were created by humans, not by God. He rejected the idea that women are sources of spiritual pollution, and he perceived marriage as an equal partnership. He challenged men to explain how women can be considered inferior when they are the ones who give birth to kings. In his inspired hymns, he personified God as the beloved Husband and the devotee (whether male or female) as His bride. For instance, he sang, “She who, night and day, abides with her Beloved, obtains truth and goes to sit in her own Home.” [Guru Nanak, Guru Granth Sahib p. 689]. Guru Nanak clearly dismissed the notion of women’s being unable to attain God-realization.
Guru Nanak’s elder sister, Nanaki, was his devoted disciple and stood up for him against their father’s criticism of his mystical leanings. Khivi, wife of Guru Angad, the second Guru, became a famous model of Sikh hospitality and loving service to all. When her husband became the Guru, he gave her the duty of supervising the free langar. For a woman to shoulder a responsibility outside her own home was very rare in those times. Mata Khivi ensured that only the best ingredients were used in the langar and that everyone was treated with great courtesy. From her example, loving hospitality became a hallmark of Sikh culture.
Mata Khivi’s daughter Amro became a very effective preacher of Guru Nanak’s message. It was her preaching and singing of the inspired hymns that drew Amar Das to Guru Nanak’s path, and then he became the Third Sikh Guru. To help liberate women from oppressive customs, Guru Amar Das ordered an end to the terrible practice of sati, forbade child marriage, and discouraged women from veiling their faces. When the Guru organized Sikhs into districts, he appointed many women as district leaders. They carried religious responsibilities and were also empowered to take independent administrative decisions and collect revenues.
Such women-empowering actions continued throughout the histories of the Sikh Gurus, and Sikh women became very strong. The most famous empowerment occurred when Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Sikh Guru, created the Khalsa—the order of people pledged to fearlessly stand on the front line against oppression, protecting the weak of all castes and creeds from cruel tyranny. In contrast to older Indian customs in which women were not even allowed to enter places of worship, women as well as men were initiated into the Khalsa. In addition to developing their inner strength, a number of women became skillful horseriders trained in weaponry in those difficult times when Sikhs were being attacked by both Hindu hill chiefs and Mughal rulers. One of the women so empowered was Mai Bhago. Forty of Guru Gobind Singh’s men had deserted him when his citadel at Anandpur Sahib was under long siege and the situation seemed hopeless. When the deserters returned home, their wives refused to accept them. Mai Bhago rounded them up and led them back on horseback to intercept the Mughal troops who were pursuing Guru Gobind Singh. Under her leadership, they fought so bravely that they routed the Mughals. All forty Sikhs were killed in the battle except for Mai Bhago, who was wounded. Guru Gobind Singh allowed her to remain with him, dressed in men’s clothing, as one of his bodyguards. After the Guru passed away, Mai Bhago moved to South India, where she lived in deep meditation for the remainder of her life.
Such great women have been honoured with gurdwaras built in their names. Another supremely empowered woman in Sikh history was Mata Gujri. During the early years of her long life, she was the staunchly supportive wife of the Ninth Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, who was martyred by the tyrannical Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb when he stood up for the right of Kashmiri Hindus to practice their own religion. She was also the mother of young Guru Gobind Singh, whom she carefully raised to take on his father’s role as the Guru of Sikhs. As Guru Teg Bahadur’s widow, she was a pillar of strength for the sangat. She was also the loving grandmother of Guru Gobind Singh’s four sons, all of whom were martyred for the sake of dharma. When Guru Gobind Singh’s party got separated as they were leaving Anandpur Sahib, Mata Gujri and the two younger sons were captured and imprisoned in an open tower in the December cold. Mata Gujri was 81; her grandsons Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh were only 9 and 6 years old. Every day when the boys were called to the Mughal court, she encouraged them to remain faithful to the religion of their great ancestors who had sacrificed their lives in support of the mission of Guru Nanak. Bravely refusing to give up their faith, the young boys were cruelly bricked up alive. Her duties finished, Mata Gujri died the same day.
To today, Sikh women and men as well take great inspiration from the stories of such empowered women who devoted their lives to Guru Nanak’s egalitarian, non-sectarian mission. In modern times, we have also seen examples of such powerful women. At Gobind Sadan’s interfaith communities, the founder Baba Virsa Singh encouraged great respect toward women and appointed many strong women to manage the communities. Being very practical as well as open-minded, once he told me confidentially, “Always work with women. They are the ones who get things done.”
One of our great models at Gobind Sadan was Bibi Jaswant Kaur. She had the rare ability to sing all the hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib in their true raga forms. Her father had arranged for her to be trained in classical kirtan by the best ragis in Amritsar, and she was the only known surviving student of her legendary teacher Bhai Taba Ji. She led a strictly disciplined life according to spiritual patterns set by Guru Nanak, and her voice remained extremely powerful and thrilling up to her death at the age of 90.
May the Sikh Gurus’ encouragement to women to develop their inner strengths and selflessly serve God’s mission continue to inspire people everywhere, so that God’s kingdom may manifest on earth.