The Right to Be Human

April 15, 1989 |

Categories: Sikh History

The 5th Annual Sikh Studies Conference on July 8-9, 1989 was sponsored by Wayne State University and the South and Southeast Asian Studies Center of the University of Michigan.  The event took place at Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan.  The topic of the 1989 conference was “The Sikh and Human Rights in the 15th and 16th Century”.  Scholars were invited to submit proposals for their papers with abstracts.  This article by Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji was accepted for presentation at the conference.


Human rights do not happen automatically.  They begin when a person is born and says, “I am a human being.  I empower myself with human rights by experiencing my human being-ness.”

What is a human being?  What does it mean to be human?  The word “human” is derived from “hu” which means light, and “man” which means mind.  “Being” is the experience of life in the now.  A human being experiences the radiance and the expanse of his heart and mind in each moment.  We experience human being-ness through connecting with our Self.  We empower ourself with the Light of the Creator by listening to, repeating and then becoming His Word, His sound, His shabd, His bani, His song.      

Guru Nanak lived and shared a technology of the shabd, so all beings could experience their human right to BE.   The ones who experienced that technology could not, cannot and shall not be oppressed.  From the 15th century up until the present and into the future, humanity has an example and a teaching to be truly free.  Oppression can never conquer us.  We can only experience oppression when we do not experience our right to be human.


Remembering Our True Identity

We are born in innocence and radiance, and as we grow our attachment to the world and all its seductions increases.  As a result, we forget who we are and where we came from as we identify more with the world than with our soul and our Creator.

In the first watch of the night (in the first part of your life), O my merchant friend!  By God’s order you were put into the womb.  With your body upside down, you did tapasia and prayed to your Master, 0 my merchant friend.
In the second watch of the night, O merchant friend, the human being forgets God’s meditation.
Says Nanak, in the third watch, the being’s mind is attached to wealth and youth.
~ (Siri Rag, Guru Nanak pahairay, page 74 Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

To remember our true identity, Guru Nanak gave the discipline of Nam Japna, chanting with the tongue, and Nam Simran, remembrance through the breath, mentally.  The purpose of rising in the Amrit Vela, two and one-half hours before the sun rises, is to remember that before the sun shines upon us in this life, we live in the heart of God, in the Light of the Being.  Remembering our true identity as a human being frees us from both the inner oppression of our mind’s desires and limitations, and from other people’s desires imposed upon us.

Sorrow and suffering do not touch the one who has the support of God’s Name.
~ (Siri Rag, Guru Arjan, page 44, Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

Our true identity is God, the Creative Intelligence.  It is our knowledge, our protection, our power.  It is stronger than the desires of the mind and more powerful than the might of the oppressor.  We can go through the hardships and the attractions of this world with a conscious choice of how we want to interact with both.  That is the power of Sat Nam, our true identity, which is the infinite Truth.

O my mind, chant Sat Nam, always Sat Nam.
~ (Dhanasri, Guru Ram Das, page 669, Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

In the Company of the Holy

As human beings who have not realized our true identity, we feel oppressed, sad, lonely, lowly, unloved, abused and poor. We feel like failures, without purpose in life. We live in fear and that makes us seek revenge.  We feel like victims. We experience that events happen to us, rather than we create our own situations.  Everyone has the right to experience his human being-ness, but we do not know how.

Guru Nanak sat in his radiance, in his Self-realization, experiencing his human being-ness, and he vibrated the song of God’s remembrance.  He sang his longing for love and union with God.  Other people came to nourish their longing souls, to learn of their human rights, and they fed on the light of Guru Nanak.  He vibrated, and they were healed.  He sang, and they could experience their own thoughts, feelings and longing.  This is the power of the Sadh Sangat.  Everyone who gathers in the company of the Sadhu, the saint, the disciplined one, will experience their own human being-ness.  We become self-empowered through the Word, the teachings and the presence of the realized human being.  In this way, the vibration of God’s Light incarnate was and is spread through the Guru.

One who seeks to be ever in peace, O brother, is to associate with the saints, by the instructions of the Guru.
So chant only the highest vibration of Nam, and in the company of the disciplined ones experience liberation.
~ (Basant, Guru Nanak, page 1182, Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

Society often segments itself into factions when one group or one ideology proclaims its superiority over the others.

The outward manifestation of oppression upon the individual begins when the oppressor tries to force the individual into submission with such strategies as discrimination, segregation and slander. What keeps a person from being oppressed is the realization that “I have the right to be a human being, in the way in which God expresses Himself through me.” 

To practically give each person the opportunity to experience equality with all others, Guru Nanak fed all without discrimination.  Guru Nanak sat everyone down at his “table” regardless of their differences.  He did not preach the Oneness of God.  He lived it, and he taught it through his song.  He saw only their human being-ness because he saw only the One in everyone.  He saw the One in everyone as he had experienced it himself.  Thus, through langar and pangat*, each human has the opportunity to first experience and then share human rights, just as Guru Nanak did.


Guru Nanak himself was taken prisoner and made to work as a slave for the cruel Mughal emperor, Babar. Such was the emperor’s cruelty to the inhabitants of Saiyidpur, that Guru Nanak could only pray to the Creator for His mercy:

This age is a knife, kings are butchers; justice has taken wings and fled.  In this completely dark night of falsehood, the moon of Truth is never seen to rise.  I have become perplexed in my search.  In the darkness I find no way.  Devoted to pride, I weep in sorrow.  How can I experience liberation, says Nanak.
~ (Var Majh, Guru Nanak, page 145, Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

Guru Nanak was in Saiyidpur when Babar’s army came and plundered it.  People were killed and property destroyed, but Guru Nanak and his student, Mardana, were taken and imprisoned. The Guru was made to carry loads on his head, and Mardana was made to look after the horses.  The governor of the jail, Mir Khan, saw that the Guru’s bundle was raised above his head without any apparent means of support.  Mardana was playing the rebek while the horse was freely following behind him.  Mir Khan immediately reported this to the governor who came to see the Guru.  Guru Nanak had been given a hand-mill to grind the corn, as were the other prisoners.  But what the emperor saw was the mill grinding the corn by itself as the Guru sat in deep meditation.  The Guru then started reciting a shabd, with the following meaning:

Noone can kill him, 0 Kind One, whom you preserve.  How can Your praises be numbered?  You save countless beings.  Preserve me, O Beloved, preserve me.  I am Your slave.  My True Lord pervades sea and land, the nether and upper regions. You saved Jaidev and Nama, Your beloved saints.  You saved those on whom you bestowed Your Name.  You saved Sain, Kabir and Trilochan who love Your Name.  You saved Ravidas, the tanner, who is considered among Your saints.  Nanak, who is without honor or family prays:  Release him from the world ocean, O Lord, and make him Your own.

Historians say that the emperor, upon hearing Guru Nanak’s words, fell at his feet and exclaimed that God appeared upon the Guru’s face!  The emperor granted Guru Nanak a gift.  The Guru wanted nothing for himself, but he requested that all the Saiyidpur prisoners be released.  The emperor immediately complied, and their property also was restored to them.   The prisoners would not go, however, without the Guru.  They all returned to Saiyidpur.  Guru Nanak uplifted the emperor’s consciousness on other occasions as the Guru sang shabds.  Each time many people benefitted from the transformation of the emperor’s heart.

The story of Guru Nanak and Emperor Babar shows how self-empowerment through the shabd frees the mind from fear and softens the oppressors.  Guru Nanak tuned into his divine Self, sang the divine song and radiated divinity, thereby liberating himself and others from oppression.  His Godliness was so powerful that even Babar, who had shown no love or compassion for humanity, was transformed by the power of God’s Light.  Guru Nanak realized that what was happening was God’s Will, and tuning his mind to that Divine Will, Guru Nanak’s Word became God’s Will.

Through the power of the shabd, the human being vibrates God’s will.     As Guru Nanak spoke from his experience of His Divine Nature, so too any human being with a tongue can vibrate the Guru’s Word to experience what the shabd says.  The Word does exactly what it says.  It lives its own Truth.

Through the Word the human being experiences self-empowerment of His Divine Nature, and thus like Guru Nanak overcomes and ends self-oppression.  Through the Sadh Sangat, the company of the disciplined ones, the oppressed human being is freed.

Let us look to the story of Bhai Lalo and Malik Bhago.

Though Malik Bhago, a wealthy landlord, was having a feast for all holy men, Guru Nanak desired to eat at the home of a poor man, named. Lalo.  Malik Bhago’s ego could not stand the rejection of his invitation and questioned the Guru for the reason.  Taking a piece of the bread of Lalo in one hand and the bread of Malik Bhago in the other, Guru Nanak squeezed both the breads.  The bread of Bhai Lalo, who earned out of honest labor, yielded milk, and the bread of Malik Bhago, who earned by exploiting the labors of others to get his wealth, dripped blood.  For Malik Bhago, the lesson was clear.  His inner oppressive greed stood before his very own eyes.

Guru Nanak then recited a shabd, and Malik Bhago fell at his feet.  Malik Bhago went home and started distributing his wealth among the poor and vowed to live a life of love, devotion and service. And Lalo, whom he had formerly looked upon as an outcast, he now began to consider as a respected elder and friend.    

Not only had the Saint, Guru Nanak, given Malik Bhago the opportunity to change his behavior and free himself from the oppression of his own mind, but also, he gave him the experience of his own Light.

This in turn freed many other people from Malik Bhago’s oppression.  Guru Nanak had refused the food of an oppressor, though it was sumptuous, and opted for coarse bread instead.  He stood for human rights by refusing to dine with an oppressor.  He uplifted the consciousness of the oppressor, and he freed the oppressed and then created more freedom and human rights for those whom Malik Bhago would serve in the future.              

This story teaches the double lesson of earning one’s living honestly, without exploiting others, and the power of the sadhu, the man of God, to empower others with their own right and the ability to be human.

People, in the name of religion, in the Name of God, impose their minds on others.  Rituals and beliefs of all kinds separate human beings, classify them as lower class, condemn them to hell and justify the slaughter of innocent people.  Thus, it was during Guru Nanak’s time, and it continues today.

Guru-ka-langar and the pangat* chip away the walls of social status, sexual discrimination and religious fanaticism.  Everyone needs to nourish their bodies. The Guru provided the most nutritious and delicious meals to lure the prejudiced minds and oppressed masses into giving up their oppressions.  They were made to sit together, dine together and share food to overcome their limited views.  The food they ate was cooked with love and the vibration of the Holy Nam.   The food nourished their souls along with their minds and allowed them to experience, if only for that time, the power of the Oneness of God through the human being.

Langar became the example and experience of equality and fellowship among all people who came to the Guru’s House.  The langar created a place for service, where people could give of themselves, empower themselves with selflessness to spread human rights through the pangat*.  The idea of the langar was that all food and water come from God, belong to God, and therefore, in the Name of God, we serve and receive them.

The langar removed the great oppression of hunger, of untouchability, of food-eating rituals which excluded certain people from sharing in it.  In one common langar, the food of God was made available and free to all human beings.  The idea was that none would be oppressed with hunger, with prejudice, with loneliness.  The Guru, the Guru’s House, the Guru’s people and all who come are treated as one family in the Name of the One Creator.

Bhoomia was a thief who ran a free kitchen where all saints and travelers were fed.  But people were afraid of him, and no one had the courage to speak against him.   When Guru Nanak went to Dacca, he was sent to Bhoomia’s kitchen, as all holy men took their meals there.  When the Guru arrived there, Bhoomia implored him to eat his food, but Guru Nanak refused.  He said, “Your food is saturated with the blood of the poor.  You steal to feed people.”

So here was a man who was serving human rights on the surface and oppressing other people at the same time.  It looked good for him to serve all the holy men.  Guru Nanak’s words went deep into Bhoomia’s heart and sparked his divine light.  Bhoomia could not give up thievery at that point but promised Guru Nanak that he would not rob the poor or do harm to others, and that he would always tell the truth, and not allow the innocent to suffer for his sake.  When Bhoomia did try to steal again, he honored his word made to Guru Nanak.  He even put back the money and jewels and eventually ended up giving up stealing.  He was transformed and started living in true human nature.  He continued running his free kitchen empowered by his own light, inspired by the saint.


A nation is as strong as its weakest human being.  The Sikh nation started with Guru Nanak, a self-empowered, self-realized human being, whose link of light and love was to his Creator, the greatest power of all.  Guru Nanak, in experience of his own infinite potential as a human being, empowered others through his radiance and knowledge.  The company of such a one, and the habit of listening and reciting the Divine Shabd, was the beginning of Sadh Sangat.

Guru Nanak was the seed of the nation in which being human is the foundation of human rights. The seed planted itself in the soil of humanity where people were longing to be freed.  The Sadh Sangat become the place where everyone, equally, had the opportunity through the Name, to sprout their humanness and connect with their soul.

In the Guru’s House, all of humanity was given the opportunity to empower themselves with the Light, to keep their bodies (the temple of the soul) pure with wholesome food and to help others to do the same.  The sangat and the pangat* offered liberation from self-rejection created by social prejudice. 

The individual human being became part of a community based upon “the right to be the light.” They became strong and self-accepting and spread this freedom to others through service.  The langar was the greatest tool for this.  One only had to have the need for food for the experience of the Guru’s Light and love.  One did not need to believe in a faith, be of a particular social status, live righteously or have anything at all to give. In just coming to sit and eat with everyone, people of the Guru’s time had to overcome individual and social oppression.  They became distinct and unique from this act alone.

Those who had further realizations and embraced the Guru’s way were the leaves of the Sikh National Tree.  The seed of Guru’s Word in their hearts spread deep roots of commitment to being human, and soon the trunk of compassion and service to all humanity allowed the nation to flower and fruit.

Oppression could not break the tree.  The beautiful people leaves were burnt and crushed.  Human fruit was smashed and wasted. But the pain of oppression could not even dent the continuing trunk of self-discipline and service to all.

Guru Nanak manifested his Light in five different bodies during the 15th and 16th centuries.  As Guru Angad, the free kitchen expanded from Kartarpur to Khandur Sahib.  More and more people began contributing their time and money to the langar.   The 1angar became a central place for all to put their focus as a community effort.  It kept people’s minds on the Guru and their support in the Guru’s “human rights” fund.  The powerful hold of social pre­ judice and religious intolerance was steadily weakened with Guru Nanak’s technology.

The experience of the Light forces one to spread the experience, as the light of the sun, by its very nature, spreads its rays.      So, the Sikh Nation grew through the times.  Guru Amar Das, feeling humanity’s desperate prayer for freedom, sent out twenty-two men and women to establish dharmsalas in different places.  Through the dharmsalas human rights spread as more and more people came to live, study, hear the Guru’s Word and service in the Gurdwara, in the langar or to sit in the pangat*.

In every house is a dharmsala; where there is kirtan there will always be happiness.
~ (Bhai Gurdass, Var 1, Pauri 27)

The langar at Goindwal took on a new force.  Guru Amar Das made the langar the gateway to see the Guru.  People had to give up their prejudice to sit in the pangat*, and having been able to do so, were “human” enough to have the darshan of the Guru. They had to acknowledge the equality of all humanity, though they may not have had the inner experience of “One God” ‘for themselves.

A crystal power center of Spirit, service and honest work drew humanity to Ramdaspur (Amritsar) during the time of Guru Ram Das. Now all humanity could be physically healed, mentally disciplined through Guru’s Word, spiritually enlightened through selfless service in the Name of God and be at the center of trade and commerce.  As the Sikhs became prosperous the langars and dharmsalas expanded to serve more humanity.  The Guru’s Bani vibrated all day and night. The holy nectar tank healed the wounds of the body, mind and soul.  People came from near and far, drawn by the possibility of freedom from oppression.

The ultimate expression of humanity lived in Guru Arjan Dev, the personification of the Creative God.

Says Mathura: there is no separation between the Guru and God.  Guru Arjan is manifesting the Lord Himself.
~ (Swayay in praise of Guru Arjan Dev, page 1409, Siri Guru Granth Sahib)

To protest against oppression, he sat on the hot plate and showed humanity that his persecution was not oppression at all.  Guru Arjan gave Mian Mir the vision of the Guru, himself, pouring the hot sand over his own head, and the Guru sitting coolly and calmly, while being fried alive.  Guru Arjan was liberated from oppression to the extent that he and the oppressor became one.

They were the One God creating both the torture and the ability to rise above it.  Thus, Guru Arjan set the example of supreme liberation, supreme compassion and supreme stance for human rights by his sacrifice.  How can any Sikh ever think that he is oppressed by anyone, after his very own Guru demonstrated the power, the way and the “right to be the Light?”  A Sikh and his Guru are one by the power of the shabd.

As was in the time of Guru Nanak, so it is today.  Individual and social pressure and oppression continue.  The technology of Guru Nanak lives.  When practiced, it creates the same self-empowerment which Guru Arjan Dev ji demonstrated.  We have only to look to the example of all the great Sikhs who have come before us to witness the practical power of Guru Nanak’s technology. Oppression can never touch the one who realizes his right to be human, who has the experience through his own identity as the One.

To believe, feel and experience the total creative consciousness, one has only to experience the conception of life and the three aspects of it which are God in pure form, God in active form and God in experienced form (creation) which is the first Word He spoke: “Ek Ong Kar.”  It means that man and God are one Light, just as clay is clay although it can be in different shapes.  And so are the shapes of mankind.

Those who offer themselves at the altar of freedom of the inner being with the radiance of the outer being, and sacrifice, rise above time and space into the perpetual memory for mankind, and give their example deep understanding and guidance that the human light of every man born — white, black, brown or yellow or from the East, from the West, from the North or from the South — is the basic experience of life which we see through the tree of life, as Guru Nanak showed, “God is One; life is one.” God has no limit; He is Infinite, so life is infinite.  We cannot be oppressed, destroyed or shattered because we are a light.  The Source is One; the rays are many.

With the spirit — the soul — the phoenix shall rise from the ashes, and the man on the cross will sacrifice and resurrect again with the spirit of God.  And the man sitting on the hot plate will smile at the oppressor and certify the victory of the spirit.  It is a continuous saga of courage and surge of human rights and excellence.

In keeping up, man has proven that he can be a subject of tyranny, treachery and betrayal and yet be the spirit and light of God and the song eternal.  “It is not the life that matters; it is the courage that you bring to it”.

Those who took courage as a tool and put their heads on the palms of their hands to walk into the street of love through the lanes of liberty, shall always shine as stars on the skies of freedom where the One God smiles.  The loud laugh heard through thunder and the whisper of the drop of rain falling in grace and blessing nurture mankind to its freedom and place through the excellence of human rights.

The right of the human to be the light of God and the lamp of wisdom do not vary by tragedies.  The torch of freedom cannot be blown away by torture and treachery.  Governments, authorities the “rulers” — who have broken the rule of human rights, have always fallen into the darkness and into the pages of history.  Love of liberty and the rights of humans always have excelled and become victorious.

May the victory of many reign through its own human rights. Blessed are those who have sacrificed themselves and kept the light of freedom of mankind burning for the glory and excellence and peace unto the Infinite.

Wahe Guru ji ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru ji ki Fateh!

*Pangat:  people of all religions who sit together to eat

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