Virtues in Sikhi | 3. Justice


Virtue of justice (niaon or tapāvas) is touched upon in various ways in Sikhism and is considered to be an important virtue in terms of its impact on the self as well as on social relationship.

At times the virtue of justice is referred to in terms of social equality:

This is seen when Sikhism seeks to ensure equality by rejection of the caste system which had come to be regarded as a symbol of inequalities, whatever might have been the original idea behind this social division.

The Gurus recognise that justice without social equality is meaningless:

It is this virtue whereby a man regards other men as the social equals in all respects - an important characteristic of social relationship.

Second, the virtue of justice also consists in:

(1) Respect for the rights of others and
(2) Non-exploitation of others.

We may first discuss the respect for the rights of others as a characteristic of justice:

(1) The ethical requisite of respect for the rights of others is epitomised in the declaration of Guru Nānak that “to deprive others of their rights ought to be avoided as scrupulously as the Muslims avoid the pork and the Hindus consider beef as a taboo.”

Just as the two communities consider the above as most serious taboos on religious grounds, similarly, they ought to consider the transgression of the rights of others as a serious moral offence.

He adds to it that “the Guru stands by thee if thou usurpest not one another’s due.” He further says, “none goes to heaven by mere talk but emancipation is by living the truth.”

So we may say that sat, or truth, in social relations, in the sense of justice, is the characteristic of the person who does not violate the rights of others.

A person must renounce the attitude that others are for the promotion of his ends. To treat everyone’s right as sacred is a necessary constituent of justice as averred by the Guru in the passage cited above.

The virtue of justice as conceived by the Sikh Gurus has universal application even though they appear to address themselves to the Hindus and the Muslims directly as in the above passages.

In a similar spirit the compiler of Premsumārag lays down that “one ought to be just. One ought not usurp others’ share. There is no worship like observance of justice.

We may note that the keenness of the compiler to stress the sanctity of this virtue leads him to place it even higher than worship:

He perhaps considers the respect for the rights of others as the practical expression of all that one may realize in worship. This indicates the high regard in which this virtue of justice is held in Sikhism.

Even in the case of enemy property the said compiler requires the Sikhs to apply the same norm of inviolability. He says that the same norm of justice ought to be applied even to the property of the enemy in war and the “Sikhs should not plunder the enemy.”

Bhai Kahan Singh, in his commentary on this stanza, attempts to clarify the passage in question saying that it does not lay down the precept that if there is anything belonging to the enemy army that also should not be taken possession of.

Bhai Kahan Singh is of the opinion that the injunction under discussion only lays down “the belongings of the public in the enemy sector” should not be plundered as it is unbecoming of a warrior to plunder the common public and cause them injury.

Whatever is the merit of this commentary and clarification, in itself, it may be the result of the peculiar conditions of the battles of those days when a distinction was made or was possible to be made between the property of the ruler and the ruled or that of the enemy force.

While seeking to apply it to the present times we may say that the victor should not violate the lawfully acquired property rights of the people at large in the vanquished sector.

(2) We find also that the Gurus speak vehemently against exploitation of one by the other.

The Mughals were the political rulers at the time of the emergence of Sikhism:

Historically we know that while some individual Mughal rulers are world renowned for possessing the virtue of justice, some, at times, showed relatively less respect for this virtue of justice in terms of non-exploitation of the Hindus, the Sikhs or even the Muslims.

It is possible that a powerful man may come to accept the notion that everything belongs to him and thus display a remarkable absence in him of the virtue of justice.

Occasionally he may also twist the concept of justice to assert that it entitles powerful men to have a right to be treated differently:

It is in this sense that Thrasymachus, the Sophist lawyer, seeks to define justice in Plato’s Republic when he says, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger,”' or “Justice is the interest of the ruler and the stronger.”

Socrates takes up the cudgel to show this definition to be unacceptable and dismisses it just as he had done the two other definitions of justice.

We may see that by declaring it to be a necessary virtue for both the Muslims and Hindus, who were then the ruler and the ruled respectively, the Guru is seeking to show that it is wrong to hold on to the position taken by Thrasymachus.

Thus the Sikh view of justice may have some affinity to the one held by Socrates when he says that “justice is the excellence of the soul and injustice the defect of the soul.

At another place Guru Nānak calls this exploitation of the others as “devouring men.”'

The underlying idea is that some people like to impress others with their compassion for living things by calling themselves vegetarians, but when it comes to the exploitation of other men, the same people would know no limits:

This is called “devouring the whole man in the night or the darkness.”

The point Guru Nānak establishes is that exploitation of man is no less than carnivorousness. A just man would not exploit others even if he has the means and opportunities for doing so.

Third, justice is also understood in a legalistic sense in Sikhism. In this sense it represents an impartial disposition of the person who dispenses justice in deciding various legal cases.

The usage of justice is indicated in the writings of Bhai Gurdas. He traces the state of justice during the various world-cycles:

He says that during the three world cycles, preceding the present one, the virtue of justice was universally practised. This was indicated in the deciding of cases in an impartial manner.

He then laments that in the present age justice is not administered in an impartial manner. At present only those can get a favourable decision who bribe for it.

Similarly, in Premsumārag, justice is generally used in its legalistic sense and identified as a virtue of the ruler or king.

The compiler of this code says that in the dispensation of justice one should not give any undue favour to members of one’s own religious or social group.

The version of Premsumārag, edited by Giani Randhir Singh, contains a similar stringent requirement of justice to be observed in the dispensation of justice by the administrator:

He says that “before the Divine, the ruler would not be questioned about his worship or obedience, but the primary enquiry would be about the state of justice in his domain. He would be asked as to who had to suffer the rigour of unjust pain.

The ruler, therefore, ought to be vigilant to dispense justice carefully. He should always bear in mind and ensure that none under him suffers unjustly.

If any powerful individual persecutes the weak, or causes them any injury, the ruler ought to haul up the wrong doer and hand him over to the weak, so that, whatever wrong the former has done to the latter, the same may be done to the former.”

One may refer here to the duties of the guardians in Plato’s Republic in respect to this dispensation of justice and note some similarity.

The same compiler, further lays down that

“the above cannon of justice ought to be applied in all cases irrespective of the parties involved in any dispute:

The case may be against the administrator’s own son, brother, mother, wife or minister. But the administrator of justice ought not to give any weightage to the fact of his being a close relation of the accused. He ought to decide the case in an impartial manner.”

We may see that the compiler is seeking to use moral force to ensure the impartial dispensation of justice in legalistic sense.

In view of the fact that the administrator has the power to misuse his position, the compiler is seeking to bind him down by a moral principle, namely the virtue of justice.

The compiler appears to have been influenced directly by the teachings of Guru Nānak in the Ādi Granth where the Guru advocates the virtue of justice in its legalistic sense and makes it to be the principal characteristic of the ruler or the administrator.

 The virtue of justice is also used in the sense of self-regulation by the administrator or the ruler:

In this meaning of justice the compiler of Premsumārag prescribes that “the ruler also ought to subject himself to the same cannon of law and justice” as is applicable to others.

Bhai Kahan Singh in his commentary on this provision says, “This means that the evils for which the ruler punishes the subject, should also be avoided by himself.”

This injunction may be understood in the sense of self-regulation on the part of the ruler or it may also be interpreted as an attempt to universalise the application of justice and the extermination of any exceptions in this regard.

A reference may be made to one more sense in which justice is understood in Plato’s Republic:

Socrates shows there that “in an individual, justice is a psychological balance.”

Since this balance is necessary for a truly human life, justice turns out, as Socrates had thought, to have an intrinsic value for the individual. It is the psychological state necessary to lead human life fully and well.

In Sikhism this aspect of psychological balance is not treated as a virtue of justice. It is, however, sought to be covered in the treatment of temperance.

Here attention may be called to the fact that what we have termed ‘psychological balance’ in the case of Plato is spoken of as equipoise (sehaj) in Sikhism:

Equipoise may come through the regulation of different passions like concupiscence, covetousness, ire, attachment, delusion or pride. It is dealt with in our examination of the need for regulating different passions or propensities.

So we may say that while the importance of this psychological balance is recognised in Sikhism, it is not referred to as justice. Justice, as we have seen here, generally characterises a disposition indicated in social relationship.

In addition, justice entails a self-conquest or ego-transcendence in the sense that a person acting justly claims no exception for one’s own self:

This ego-transcendence is seen from all aspects of his conduct, namely respect for the rights of others, non-exploitation of others and equality.

It is a disposition which facilitates the conquest of ego (Haumai) which is an important aspect of self-realisation and Moral Standard (supra).

We may conclude with the observation that justice is the most fundamental virtue but the realized self goes beyond mere justice and is guided by universal love. Justice is the lowest form of altruism and the ideal self rises higher and realizes universal love.