In the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji states: “From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.” (Ang 473). Since the 15th century when Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji began his teachings, Sikhi in and of itself has promoted equal rights for men and women in a time when society deemed women as being less than. Promoting the idea of equality through the principles that indicate that the souls of both men and women are the same, giving them equal opportunity in partaking spiritually and have the chance to achieve salvation, allows women to play a prominent role in promoting the religion and helping it to develop.
Throughout each Guru Ji’s time spent on developing the religion, women were able to play a role in conveying the messages of Sikhi as well. Women served as backbones of Sikhi at the time and even now, laying the foundation of equality in the form of governing in the religion.
During the time of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the Hindu caste system played a prominent role in his family’s life until Guru Ji decided to challenge the standards set by it and the ritualistic ideals that it was composed of. In Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s path of re-evaluating set principles in society that impeded on actual spirituality, his sister Bebe Nanaki Ji served as an important figure, not only as an elder sister, but also as the person who is believed to be the first Gursikh. She was the first to realize her brother’s “enlightened soul” and the ability to inspire and facilitate change.
She provided endless support and protection from their father Mehta Kalu. She went on further to help introduce another aspect to the development of the ideas and principles that are the basis of Sikhi today: singing hymns accompanied by the rabab. Being Guru Ji’s first follower, she was devoted to the cause and the message.
During Sri Guru Angad Dev Ji’s time, his wife, Mata Khivi Ji established traditions that are practiced today worldwide: langar (free kitchen) and Seva (selfless service). A process initially started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji was institutionalized by Mata Khivi Ji making it a practice in all gurdwaras. She vowed to uphold humanity above the other virtues and prejudices that interfered.
As an embodiment of the spirit of collective good, Mata Khivi Ji was able to implement the idea of equality regardless of gender, race, economic status, or caste. By nurturing the tradition further, Mata Khivi Ji was able to implement equality in the congregation of those eating food together as one. By implementing langar it diminished the prescience of different castes eating in separately and challenged the set standards. The very institution of langar was designed in a way that everyone sat on the ground as equals enjoying the same meal; it became an institution that wasn’t inspired by predetermined socio-economic status. Mata Khivi Ji’s efforts to institutionalize a much-needed practice plays a fundamental role today in explaining what Sikhi is in a way that isn’t just words, but action.
In the time of Sri Guru Amar Das Ji, the change that transpired immensely was conveyed by his daughters leading a change in perception. Although Guru Nanak Dev Ji had laid the basis that men and women deserved the same rights, women still lived suppressed by men and lacked the capability to freely practice religion. All across various religions in both Punjab and India, women were considered unclean and unfit to practice religion, so they were separated from that.
Due to this being a problem that was growing in severity, Sri Guru Amar Das Ji introduced the Piri System in which 52 women had the ability to become spiritual leaders that would guide women through the Sikh doctrines and traditions. The Piris were women who aimed to spread the Guru Ji’s message and the Nam among women. The most admired leaders of this movement/system were Sri Guru Amar Das Ji’s daughters: Bibi Bhani, Bibi Dani, and Bibi Pal.
Resilience, solidarity, and equality were what these three sisters and 49 others inspired in a time where everything stood in their way.
During the time of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, his wife Mata Gujri took admirable strides as a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, leader, and martyr. As she grew up, she presented herself with grace, courage, dignity, sacrifice, strength, persistence, and a true commitment to Sikhi. She supported her husband Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji on his endeavors; meditating for years up to the time he left to Delhi for an inevitable death marking him as a martyr. She showed immense strength following his death and organized different aspects for the Panth following it ranging anywhere from making langar or administering the army by building their courage before the battle. She admirably contributed to raising her son Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji to be the father of the Khalsa after the martyrdom of her husband. As a grandmother of the Chaar Sahibzade, she endured their shaheedi (death) while in warfare or being bricked alive while they were still young, yet remained resilient enough to remind them to remain steadfast in their faith in the face of conflict. And lastly, a martyr; having been imprisoned with the younger two grandsons, she experienced their death first hand and still chanted the name of Waheguru with no complaints of the outcome. She lived till the end in the fulfillment that the faith in her family remained intact. By the end her mission had been fulfilled.
During the time of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji one if the most notable occurrences was the creation of the Khalsa and with that came Mata Sahib Kaur. Following the creation of the Khalsa Panth also came with recognizing Mata Sahib Kaur as the mother of Khalsa. Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji once said, “She will be the mother of a great son who will live forever and be known all over the world,” and that still holds true today. Mata Sahib truly encompassed the meaning of equality for women through challenging the quo and even going into battle to fight for Sikhi and what it stood for. Overall, she was composed of humility, love for humanity, devotion to God, resilience, and strength.
Within Sikhi and the principles laid out in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, it created sense equality and deemed to overcome the ideals of women being inferior or not upholding the merit to practice religion to a certain extent. The women of Sikhi, since 15th century, have facilitated change in perspective in multiple aspects that are pertinent today. Women in Sikhi taught me where I stood in my religion. It taught me to be courageous, resilient, persistent, and confident when faced with adversity. It taught me to vouch for equality. And most importantly it taught me I mattered.
Upneet Aujla is a Houston-based writer.