Virtues in Sikhi | 1. Wisdom


Wisdom, as a fundamental virtue, plays a key role in the ethics of the Sikhs. The terms which are generally used to denote wisdom and the wise man are gian and giani respectively.

But other terms such as mut, mun, budh and bibek budh are used also to convey the ideal of wisdom or the sense of discrimination.

What is wisdom? Which knowledge should be considered wisdom? Can we call such person a wise man as does not live his wisdom, in the sense that his actions do not reflect his wisdom?

These questions are important in order to understand the nature and the scope of wisdom: Guru Nānak shows keen appreciation of the need to explain wisdom as he understood it.

He, therefore, takes up this question in “Japji”, a composition in the Ādi Granth. The problem is examined in great detail from various aspects.

Guru Nānak shows wisdom to be “a comprehensive point of view as indicated in the actions of a man.” He lays down 3-fold steps for the cultivation of wisdom and then these steps are further seen to deal with the various aspects of knowledge.

The 3 steps are: suniye (hear) manne (reflect), and ek dhyān (concentrate, assimilate or synthesise). Let us analyse these three steps and find out their contents.

(1) Suniye (hearing), as a way of acquiring wisdom, occurs first. What should a seeker hear about? In reply to this question, Guru Nānak devotes 4 separate stanzas to it.

(a) The first stanza dealing with it requires the person to hear about

(i) the lives of the realized persons and
(ii) the various aspects of the world.

(b) The second stanza includes the hearing by the seeker, of

(i) the contents of higher consciousness, such as that of gods, and the mystery of higher consciousness within himself,

(ii) He hears of the various experiences of the higher consciousness such as those recorded in the Śāstras, Smṛiti and the Vedas.

What is the effect on man of all this hearing? Guru Nānak says that this hearing lead to the expansion of the consciousness of the seeker himself. It also lifts him above evil and suffering.

(c) In the 3rd stanza. Guru Nānak requires the seeker to hear about the moral principles and learn about such fundamental moral qualities as wisdom, contentment or purification:

He hears about virtues which ought to be cultivated by the perfect man.

(d) In the 4th stanza the seeker hears about the practical application of wisdom by the various leaders. He learns how these leaders helped others and guided persons at times of difficulty.

We are now in a better position to say what forms the contents of these 4 aspects of knowledge of which the seeker hears and learns about.

We have found that the programme of hearing includes:

learning about the world and the man and recognizing higher consciousness in others and within one’s own self and knowing about the moral principles and their practical application in the lives of those persons who have lived wisely and guided others.

A critical question may be posed here. Is it enough for the seeker to hear and accept all the preceding knowledge on the testimony of someone else?

Is the seeker not required to reflect on all that he has heard? Would not this reflection help him in the transformation of his understanding and make him a wise man?

Guru Nānak shows his concern for this requirement and devotes to manne (reflection) an equal number (four) of separate stanzas in continuation of the above statement on suniye.

The term manne is traceable to the Sanskrit word manana, meaning - reflection.

(2) As already stated, reflection, as the second-step of wisdom, now occupies the attention of Guru Nānak. The problem is analysed in 4 stanzas, as follows:

(a) In the first stanza about reflection. Guru Nānak cautions the seeker that the process of reflection cannot be stated completely and that anyone who promises to make such a description would have to concede the inadequacy of his attempt later.

This failure to describe the whole process of reflection stems from the fact that the possibilities involved in reflection are vast and infinite. After this initial observation, however, Guru Nānak proceeds to describe the process of reflection.

(b) The 2nd stanza tells us that it is through reflection that awareness, mind and intellect are fashioned and sharpened. The seeker is then able to realize the true nature of reality and thus avoid the wrong path.

At another place in the Ādi Granth Guru Amardas refers to this disposition to discriminate between reality and falsehood as bibek budh. This awareness of the path ensures that the person after death does not go through the process of transmigration.

(c) In the 3rd stanza about reflection Guru Nānak says that this reflection removes all the hindrances from the path of the seeker. A man of reflection receives great honour. All his waywardness and hesitation is gone. He now walks on a straight path.

And here the Guru makes a very important observation. He says that this man endowed with reflection does not break away from the social context. He continues to perform moral acts (dharam).

(d) In the 4th and last stanza dealing with reflection we are told that this man of reflection realizes salvation. But the Guru promptly adds that the person now engage himself in altruistic activity.

The reflection has shown the seeker that one spirit runs through all. The whole of humanity may now appear to him as one family:

He, therefore, takes up the task of helping the entire family of mankind. He, not only realizes the ideal himself, but helps all others with their task. His activity becomes saturated with the aim of helping others.

He indeed is a wise man, a man of knowledge. The wisdom lies in the depth and comprehensiveness of his realization and is indicated in his altruistic activity.

(3) We now come to the 3rd aspect of this knowledge, namely, Ek Dhyān which may be rendered as single-minded contemplation. It indicates the assimilation and synthesis of the knowledge acquired both from hearing and reflection.

It may be interesting to mention here that this treatment of wisdom has a remarkable similarity to the notion of wisdom and knowledge in Vedanta:

Maṇḍana Miśra (8th century), who is credited with being perhaps the oldest and the most systematic expositor of Vedanta, regards hearing (śravaṇa) and reflection (manana) and direct self-­realization (nidhi-dhyāsana) as the three aspects of knowledge.

However, there is some difference with respect to the content of the two aspects, namely suniye and manne. Knowledge about the world occupies an important position in Sikhism, whereas in Vedanta, this knowledge appears to be characterised as inferior.

The approach of Sikhism is not dogmatic:

It does not view wisdom in an authoritarian manner. Sikhism provides a person with an occasion to grow through reflection on all the problems of the world, morality and the higher consciousness.

It may also be appropriate to point out here that in Sikhism the virtue of wisdom synthesizes both the knowledge of the world as well as the spiritual knowledge and thus attains a fusion or synthesis with realism in the context of suniye (hearing), manne (reflection) and Ek Dhyān (contemplation).

We may also allude to the great importance accorded in Sikhism to practice as a necessary constituent of wisdom. Guru Nānak says:

“Rare in the world is the man of wisdom who reflects on wisdom
and rare is the wise man in this world who practises this wisdom.”

Similarly, Kabīr says, “If you have wisdom, destroy your evil and discipline your body.”

He then uses the analogy of the battle ground and remarks that a hero is one who actually displays his powers and skill in the combat. This clearly establishes that wisdom in Sikhism is considered to be inextricably linked with practice.

This view of wisdom has some similarity to the one held by Socrates, that knowledge is virtue.

However, it should be pointed out that, according to Socrates, a person who knew good would also choose good and hence the dictum ‘knowledge is virtue.’ This may be seen to embody a statement of psychological fact.

The view here stated in respect of Sikhism is that a wise person ought to indicate his wisdom in his actions. The precept in Sikhism is normative and not positive, or semi-psychological, and in this it is seen to differ from the Socratic dictum cited above.

Finally, we may turn our attention to another requirement in connection with wisdom: The correct attitude of the seeker of wisdom ought to be that of open-mindedness and receptivity.

According to Guru Nānak also a man may acquire wisdom when he says to himself that he does not know and thus slays his ego. The Guru says that “knowledge and self-examination is possible only when one has slain the narrow ego within him.”

Guru Nānak further clarifies this point in another passage saying:

How can one instruct the one who says that he knows?
He who considers himself as having crossed the sea, how can one tell him?

This aspect of the Sikh view of wisdom may be seen to have some resemblance to the Socratic notion of wisdom. We may say that this open-mindedness alone is the correct attitude of receptivity which is so very essential for a progressive view of wisdom.