Sikhism & Ageing

Sikhism & Ageing

Gurmukh Singh OBE

This article looks at “ageing and spirituality” from a Sikh perspective under two headings:

1. Preparation for and coping with faith in advanced age.

2. Norms to be followed for caring of Sikh elders.

1. Preparation for and coping with faith in an advanced age

1.1 Sikh concepts of Udham, Ghaal, and Nadar*

(* For further reading: Booklet in Panjabi, Udham Ghaal & Nadhar by Guru Nanak Mission, Patiala.)

Sikh spirituality is based on constant God awareness (Naam simran) while living an active life of a householder.

There are three peculiarly Sikh concepts, which relate to Sikh spiritual progress and well-being. The first is udham, which is timely initiative and action; the second is ghaal or intense and sustained effort; while the third component is Nadar or Divine Grace, sought through daily prayer in humility. Udham and ghaal give the Sikh the will power to act when his or her duty or righteous conduct (dharam) demands it. The Sikh code of conduct (rehat), or the Sikh way of life, is based on the Sikh concepts of udham and ghaal. These are the pre-conditions for treading the path of Sikhi (Sikh way of life). However, achievement of the ultimate objective of human life depends entirely on Nadar (literally: look of compassion) or Divine Grace invoked through constant God awareness Naam simran). The main aim of human life is to acquire a state of equanimity and equipoise (sehaj anand), reached while living an active life.

According to Sikh teachings, the goal of human life is achievable here and now and at any stage in life, without waiting for the hereafter. Indeed, the total stress of Sikh thought is on this moment, this breath, which should not be wasted. The hands and feet remain active while the mind remains focused on God consciousness.

The Guru’s teaching is that this is possible while living an active life. There is no place for opt-out ideologies or asceticism in Sikhism.

These three components of the Sikh way of life, Udham, ghaal and Nadar, prepare the devotee for the challenges to be faced in all stages of life. These are the ingredients present in the lives of all great Gur-Sikhs, the true followers of the Guru’s path, who are remembered by the Sikh tradition.

1.2 Sikhism: A faith of optimism and hope

Sikhism is a faith of optimism (Chardhi kalla) and of hope during all stages of life. No one is regarded as beyond redemption.

Sikh teachings in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scriptures, show the path to a complete life system from birth to death. The Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Reht Maryada) based on the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, gives guidance regarding the spiritual and physical disciplines, which need to be observed to attain the ultimate goal of human life.

The spiritual well-being of an individual is important. It is achieved and maintained through an understanding of the relevant guidance in the Guru’s Word (Gurbani) embodied in Guru Granth Sahib. The ultimate purpose of life is achieved through constant God awareness so that the falsehood of duality (duvait) between the One Timeless Creator Being and the created is removed by seeing the Creator in all creation. The falsehood of duvait is due to false pride in self or egotism (haomai). The stage of bliss or sehaj anand is achieved through God’s Grace (Nadar), a concept unique to Sikhism. God’s Grace or Nadar can redeem the most evil person at any time in life and free the being from the cycle of cause and effect and the cycle of life and death.

There is hope for all during all stages of life to return to the path of righteous and truthful conduct. In Sikhism, no sinner is beyond redemption. According to Sikh teachings, the cycle of “karma” can be broken at any time with the Nadar of Waheguru, the Wondrous Giver of Knowledge.

Inner detachment, while living the full life of a working householder, and service and sharing, are the other main pillars of the Sikh faith. Such a life style teaches one to accept God’s Will (Hukam razaee) in all situations; empowers the devotee to shed the fear of death, pain and loss. One acquires the will to control lust, anger, greed and vanity and the soul is freed from material attachment. A state of equanimity and contentment is achieved through inner detachment while living a fully participative life.

There are constant reminders in the Sikh teachings that no time must be wasted and one should start God remembrance (Naam simran) from the earliest possible age. The more the delay in following the path shown by the Guru, the Giver of Knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to achieve a life of complete harmony with the creation and the Creator. Nevertheless, the stress of Sikhism is on God’s Grace (Nadar), which gives hope to all at all stages in life. It is the one constant throughout life. That is the reason why it is said that those who follow the Guru’s path never age (Gurmukh budhay kadday nahi..); they remain active and positive in a spirit of unyielding courage to the end.

It is the positive, life affirming spirit of chardhi kalla, which has produced a long line of great elderly Sikhs in the Sikh tradition, who showed unyielding courage against impossible odds. [Many examples can be given of great Sikh scholars, generals, reformers and achievers in all walks of life from the times of the Gurus to the present day.]

Sikhism teaches a simple, clean and healthy life of moderation. Excessive eating and sleeping are not good for health and prevent an individual from living an active life. Smoking and addiction to alcohol and drugs is totally forbidden.

The stress of Sikh teachings is on an active working life so that one continues to contribute to society through the diverse roles as a family person and as a full participant in community life to the end. At different stages of life a Sikh contributes physically, mentally and economically. So far as possible, a Sikh should not be a burden on society. And so a Sikh is prepared during his or her lifetime to cope with all challenges of life including those of advanced age.

1.2 Coping with faith in advanced age

The Sikh Code of Conduct, the Sikh Reht Maryada, derived from the Sikh teachings in Guru Granth Sahib, gives guidance on the physical discipline a Sikh should follow for spiritual advancement. The five Sikh articles of faith, called the Five “K”s, and the daily religious routine are prescribed. These are the aids to physical and spiritual well being of a Sikh and ensure constant spiritual alertness through focus on the Guru’s Word.

However, it needs to be remembered that, according to Sikh teachings, spirituality is not based on any ritualism. Subject to physical ability, the ultimate purpose of this life is the achievement of a state of spiritual contentment through God remembrance (Naam simran) and inner detachment. Naam simran is the cure for all pain and suffering. The Code is not prescriptive but a practical guide allowing flexibility where age or any other physical or mental handicap limit full compliance. [However, Sikhs would oppose any restrictions imposed by the state on the right to practise own faith or the right to own religio-cultural identity.]

Not all Sikhs would have followed the life path as shown by the Guru in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scriptures. Yet, the experience of Sikh community workers is that most Sikhs born in Sikh families are generally aware of the main teachings of the faith. Elderly Sikhs can be helped to regain their faith and hope: that the Guru – the Giver of Knowledge - through his Nadar (Grace) shows the path to all regardless of age. Historical and contemporary success stories can be recited to show great Sikh achievements in advanced age. Life can be changed through the Guru’s teaching and God’s Grace. Naam is the cure for all pain and suffering. Naam (literally Name) describes the spiritual manifestations of the Creator Being. In Sikhism. the Name Word is “Waheguru” – the Wondrous Enlightener or Giver of Knowledge”, the repetition of which invokes the Divine Spirit within each soul and frees the mind from worldly thoughts and physical pain. Sin, sorrow and suffering test a man but his true support through all the challenges of life is his complete faith in God and prayer for His Grace (Nadar).

Gurbani (Guru’s Word) constantly reminds the devotee about the aging process and the urgency for the human mind to focus on the Timeless Creator Being. A sense of God awareness also gives the individual a sense of freedom from the worries of the aging process and hope in advanced age. The fear of death is replaced by equanimity and blissful contentment. Those who have faith in God’s Will (Hukam Razaaee) are not afraid of death. Says Kabir, “Death, of which men are afraid, gives me nothing but joy. It is through the gate of death that one may unite with the Lord of Bliss. SGGS p.1365)

2. Norms to be followed for caring of Sikh elders.

(Based on guidance for health care personnel in Riverland, Australia by S. Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP)

2.1 Guidelines for the health and other allied services.
2.1.1 General

Sikhs, who have lived their lives according to Sikh teachings, are likely to remain active to a very advanced age. It is important that their way of life is respected and they are allowed to remain in an environment in which their daily routine is not disturbed.

Many elderly Sikhs came from the villages of Punjab, in northern India. Generally they have a poor understanding of the English language. This is particularly true in the case of women. It is important, therefore, that effective communication is established and maintained between the patient and the health professional.

The presence of a close relative in some cases; e.g. for women their husbands, and for the elderly, their carer (son or daughter), may make the patient feel comfortable and may also be of benefit to the health professional. However, the relative should not be used as an interpreter other than for matters that are general in nature. It is important that the clients can clearly understand their options to be able to make informed decisions.

A caring attitude and a genuine desire by the service personnel to understand and serve the patient according to his/her particular requirements e.g. regarding faith and cultural aspects, goes a long way to put the patient at ease and to develop mutual trust and understanding. Remember that each person is an individual with his/her own likes, dislikes, preferences and religious convictions.

2.1.2 Interpreters, faith guidance and nursing care

The language (mother tongue) of a vast majority of the Sikhs is Panjabi. For general matters the gender of the interpreter may not be important, but for matters of a personal and delicate nature, however, a gender appropriate interpreter must be used.

Gender appropriate staff must be used for nursing care involving handling, close contact with the client, changing, bed baths, treatment and examination of a personal and delicate nature and any other procedures that may require body exposure.

Amritdhari Sikhs (male or female Sikhs who have taken and maintained the Sikh Baptism) will have particular needs to maintain their code of discipline and this should be discussed with them. They should not be asked to be separated from their five articles of faith: kesh (hair), kangha (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword), kashehra (special shorts) and kara (iron bangle). If for some reason this is absolutely necessary it should be discussed with them before hand.

Sikhs who maintain their hair unshorn need to care for their hair. If the patients are unable to care for their hair themselves, this must be discussed with them or their relatives and they should be assisted as necessary.

The patient may need privacy when they are engaged in prayer or are caring for their hair. They may not want to be seen without the head covering (turban, keski (smaller version of a turban) or a headscarf), especially in a shared room. Some Sikhs like to spend time in prayer in the early morning and in the evening after a bath. Their needs should be discussed, understood and accommodated, and they should be assisted in maintaining their discipline and daily routine. People may also prefer to listen to their religious music (kirtan) at other times. This should be encouraged and will help them in their mental and physical well-being.

Generally, staff and community workers caring for elderly Sikhs need appropriate education and training to understand the Sikh way of life, some aspects of which have been mention in the first part of this article. Where there is need, faith guidance and counselling service should be made available.

2.2 Terminal illness and death

There are no obvious special requirements for terminally ill patients except that they need to be cared for and nursed with particular sensitivity. Where possible, arrangements should be made for Sikh religious volunteers or paid workers, and religious personnel from the local Gurdwara to visit them from time to time.

Sometimes the question is asked, “How should a patient be informed of a terminal illness?” There is no simple answer to this; each situation will be different. Be guided by those close to the patient. Understanding and acceptance of their situation by the patient can vary according to their spirituality and mental outlook. Generally, people with true understanding of Sikh teachings are much better at discussing their illness frankly and accepting their situation more readily. The general experience is that religious Sikhs remain calm to the end, and, sometimes even comfort those they would be leaving behind!

There are no specific protocols for the handling of the deceased, except that the body must be given due respect. The Sikh Rehat (Code of Conduct) should be respected; that is, that none of the five Kakaar (Articles of Faith) should be removed, even from the deceased body. Guidance should be sought from the family or appointed relatives/friends. Family and friends may read the verses from the Sikh Scriptures or repeat/ chant the words Satnaam and Waheguru (Sikh Names for the Creator). Although not encouraged, some older women may display uncontrolled grief.

2.3 Death

(Note: The following general notes are subject to the guidance given in the approved Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Reht Maryada), a copy of which should be kept by those concerned.)

A Sikh, who has lived his or her life according to the Guru’s teaching, is prepared for and accepts death as inevitable at some stage in life, and as the Will of God (Hukam Razaee). Wailing and outward display of too much grief is discouraged. At the time of grief Sikhs are encouraged to find peace and comfort in the recitation and understanding of Gurbani (the Guru’s Word) and meditating on Naam by reciting “Satnaam, Waheguru” – the True Name of the Wondrous Enlightener). There are relevant passages in the Guru Granth Sahib, which, when read with understanding, can provide comfort and consolation to the grieving. However, there may be display of uncontrolled grief, particularly by ladies attached to non-Sikh traditions.

The dead body is treated with respect until the final rites and cremation, which take place as soon as possible. The 5 Kakaar must be maintained on the body to the end. Sikhs usually cremate their dead, although, if the circumstances demand, the body can be disposed off in any other way. The ashes are dispersed in flowing water. After the cremation, Guru Granth Sahib is read from beginning to end, generally at the family’s home. There is no fixed period in which to complete reading the Scriptures, but, traditionally, it is soon after cremation. The family is encouraged to read the Scriptures themselves or listen to the recitation by someone else as much as they can. The reading is followed by the final ceremony, generally also at the family’s home. The reading of the Scriptures with understanding or listening to them being read consoles the grieving relatives and friends. The ceremony that follows may be considered as the conclusion to the main grieving period.


Coping with old age is an increasingly important area due to the ageing population in the Sikh diaspora. This is an initial collation of relevant Sikh thought; others would wish to add and amend as they see fit. Relevant Gurbani quotations are readily available and can be given in any presentation where appropriate.

As well as the spiritual principles of Sikhism, it will also be useful to mention some role models e.g. Guru Amar Das Ji’s Guruship period was from the age of 72 to 95 years (from 1552 - 1575). During this period Guru Sahib consolidated the Sikh institutions set up by Guru Nanak Sahib and Guru Angad Dev Ji and gave the Sikh Panth the organisation to emerge as the Khalsa Panth by 1699.

Great elderly Sikhs include Baba Budha Ji, Baba Dip Singh Ji, Mata Bhag Kaur (popular as Mai Bhago JI), and in recent times, Baba Fauja Singh, the marathon runner, setting world records at the age of 90 plus. These GurSikhs exemplify the Gurbani quote, “Gurmukh budhay kaday nahi

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
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