Virtues in Sikhi | 4. Temperance


The virtue of temperance or self-control (sanjam) also finds a place in the scheme of the Sikh ethics. The virtue is regarded both as moderation and as regulation or direction of the lower by the higher.

Guru Amardas poses a question in regard to the nature of temperance. He asks, “What shall I seize upon and what shall I abandon, for I know not what to do?

In the subsequent lines of the same passage, while referring to temperate persons, he says, “Truth is their temperance, this is the deed they do.”

He then clarifies that mere fasting and ascetic practices are not temperance. He also reiterates that “truth and temperance are the only true deeds.” Let us examine these two aspects of temperance, namely as conduct of moderation and as regulation of the lower by the higher.

We find that in many passages Guru Nānak rejects an extremist code of self-control prevalent among some ascetics:

This code required the seekers to exercise a kind of violent self-control of the various sense organs. Guru Nānak identifies this technique as Hatha Yoga which is rejected by him:

Hatha Yoga is a discipline involving various bodily and mental controls, but central to them all is the regulation of the breath.

We may find that “the traditional meaning of the word Hatha is (1) violence, force (2) oppression, rapine,” and it is used adverbially in the sense of forcibly, violently, suddenly, or “against one’s will.”

It is in this sense that “this form of yoga is sometimes called forced yoga.”

The techniques of this yoga are given in the texts Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā and Śiva Saṁhitā. The techniques include an elaborate system of various controls and purifications which are described as Hatha Yoga.

This system of violent self-control is not accepted in Sikhism. Guru Nānak says, in this regard,

“In vain I practised contemplation, austerities and self-discipline and in vain I controlled my sense-organs through Hatha Yoga, but the Ideal meets one spontaneously or in equipoise.”

But while an extremist code of asceticism as an ideal temperance is rejected in Sikhism, moderation in different spheres of life is stressed:

We may say that the approach in Sikhism to the problem of temperance, in the sense of moderation, is that of a layman. It is in this sense that eating less, sleeping less and talking less is stressed by Guru Nānak and others.

This eating less or sleeping less is considered to be a disposition of moderation, choosing between the extremes of too much of eating and too much of rest on the one hand and complete fasting and not resting at all on the other.

Guru Nānak, in reply to the query of the Siddhas, says, “I sleep a little and eat a little. This is the quintessence I have found.

In a similar tone Bhai Gurdas writes that “a Gursikh eats less, sleeps less and talks less.”

There is yet another instance in a sermon called Sākhi Guru Amardas Kī: Here Guru Amardas extols the virtue of temperance in the sense of moderation. He says,

A person ought to eat only when he is very hungry, talk only when there is need for it, and sleep when he feels very sleepy.

The Guru perhaps feared that this counsel for moderation might be misinterpreted as a counsel for asceticism and he, therefore, promptly adds to the above sermon

that this is a virtue of moderation and should not be misunderstood as a counsel for asceticism or physical torture of the body.

We may, therefore, say while the technique of extreme and violent self-control is rejected in Sikhism, temperance, in the sense of moderation, is regarded as a virtue.

In this it is seen to have some affinity with a similar view of temperance held by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics. It is explained by Aristotle that

“moderation in respect of certain pleasures and also, though to a less extent, certain pains is temperance, while excess is profligacy.

But defectiveness in the matter of these pleasures is hardly ever found, and so this sort of people also have as yet received no name; let us put them down as ‘void of sensibility.’”

Since in Sikhism also an attempt is made to reject profligacy as well as ‘void of sensibility’ as the proper dispositions, we can discern some affinity in this regard between the two views.

We may revert here to the idiom used very often by the Gurus in connection with temperance. It is called sat sanjam or sach sanjam (truth temperance).

It is possible that by using the idiom sat sanjam or sach sanjam, Gurus have tried to convey that temperance is a virtue in which sat regulates or predominates the other aspects of the individual.

Here sat is understood to be used by the Gurus in almost the same sense in which it is used in the Sānkhya School in Indian Philosophy.

It may be added here that etymologically the word sattva is derived from the word sat.

It may also be stated that in the Sānkhya School, the modes, namely sattva, rajas and tamas are regarded as three contending modes in a man.

According to the Sānkhya

“the sattva element is what produces goodness and happiness. It is said to be buoyant or light.
The rajas is the source of all activity and produces pain.
The tamas resists activity and produces the state of apathy and indifference. It leads to ignorance.”

It is observed by S. Radhakrishnan that the doctrine of the guas has great ethical significance:

We are told that in devas (gods) the sattva element predominates while the rajas and the tamas are reduced.

Now, in Sikhism, we may say that - without accepting the specific nature of these modes or the belief that all activity is a lower category –

when the Gurus use the idiom sat sanjam or sach sanjam they could well be referring to this general principle of regulation or direction of the lower by the higher, namely sat.

We do find the reference to the modes by the Gurus here and there in the Ādi Granth, which is an evidence of their intimate knowledge of this tenet.

So it is possible that the Gurus by the use of this idiom might have been referring to the general principle of temperance in somewhat the same sense in which Plato uses it in Book IV of the Republic, when he interprets temperance as being the master of one’s self:

Plato explains there that

“the human soul has a better principle, and has also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be master of himself; and this is a term of praise.”

In a similar manner the Gurus might have sought to convey a more general principle of temperance by the use of the idiom of sat sanjam or sach sanjam.

Therefore, broadly speaking, we may say that temperance is a virtue which has both the negative and the positive aspects and in its being a direction of the lower by the higher it is both repressive as well as permissive.

The great need for this virtue today in the sense of moderation is stressed by Brumbaugh in view of, what he calls, “dangers of intemperance latent in our advanced technology.”

The virtue of temperance lays down the general principle, both in the sense of moderation as well as in the sense of direction of the lower by the higher.

It is in this sense that temperance has an important role to play both in the personal lives as well as in the national or global relations of the entire human family.