Diet in Sikhism
In Sikhism, only lacto-vegetarian food is served in the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free. The general consensus is that Sikhs are free to choose whether to adopt a meat diet or not. Sikhs, once they become Amritdhari (baptised) via the Amrit Sanskar (baptism ceremony), are forbidden from eating Kutha or ritually-slaughtered (Halal, Kosher) meat because it transgresses one of the four restrictions in the Sikh Code of Conduct. According to the Akal Takht (Central Body for Sikh Temporal Affairs), Sikhs are allowed to eat Jhatka meat. Other dietary Sikh practices include Sarbloh Bibek, which translates literally to "all-iron lifestyle", and consists of the use of only iron utensils and strictly eating food prepared by the Khalsa (Sikh community).
Akal Takht ruling
The Akal Takht (Central Body for Sikh Temporal Affairs) represents the final authority on controversial issues concerning the Sikh Panth (community or collective). The Hukamnama (edict or clarification), issued by Akal Takht Jathedar (head priest or head caretaker) Sadhu Singh Bhaura dated February 15, 1980, states that eating meat does not go against the code of conduct (Kurehit) of the Sikhs; Amritdhari Sikhs can eat meat as long as it is Jhatka meat.
Disagreement with the ruling
Some religious sects of Sikhism—Damdami Taksal, Akhand Kirtani Jatha, Namdharis, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha and the 3HO—believe that the Sikh diet should be meat-free. The reason for the disagreement with this ruling is that these sects had many Vaishnav converts to Sikhism who were staunchly vegetarian.
The Akhand Kirtani Jatha dispute the meaning of the word "kutha", claiming it means all meat. However, in mainstream Sikhism this word has been accepted to mean that which has been prepared according to Muslim rituals.
Guru Granth Sahib
Sikh intellectuals believe that the issue of meat and vegetarianism is addressed in one section only of the Guru Granth Sahib:
The fools argue about flesh and meat, but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom.
What is called meat, and what is called green vegetables? What leads to sin?
It was the habit of the gods to kill the rhinoceros, and make a feast of the burnt offering.
Those who renounce meat, and hold their noses when sitting near it, devour men at night.
They practice hypocrisy, and make a show before other people, but they do not understand anything about meditation or spiritual wisdom.
O Nanak, what can be said to the blind people? They cannot answer, or even understand what is said.
They alone are blind, who act blindly. They have no eyes in their hearts.
They are produced from the blood of their mothers and fathers, but they do not eat fish or meat.
On the view that eating vegetation would be eating flesh, Guru Nanak states:
Punjabi: ਪਾਂਡੇ ਤੂ ਜਾਣੈ ਹੀ ਨਾਹੀ ਕਿਥਹੁ ਮਾਸੁ ਉਪੰਨਾ ॥ ਤੋਇਅਹੁ ਅੰਨੁ ਕਮਾਦੁ ਕਪਾਹਾਂ ਤੋਇਅਹੁ ਤ੍ਰਿਭਵਣੁ ਗੰਨਾ ॥
O Pandit, you do not know where did flesh originate! It is water where life originated and it is water that sustains all life. It is water that produces grains, sugarcane, cotton and all forms of life.
On vegetation, the Guru Granth Sahib described it as living and experiencing pain:
Look, and see how the sugar-cane is cut down. After cutting away its branches, its feet are bound together into bundles,
and then, it is placed between the wooden rollers and crushed.
What punishment is inflicted upon it! Its juice is extracted and placed in the cauldron; as it is heated, it groans and cries out.
And then, the crushed cane is collected and burnt in the fire below.
Nanak: come, people, and see how the sweet sugar-cane is treated!
- Page 143 Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji
The first Sikh Guru—Nanak Dev—said it was pointless to debate the merits of either not eating or eating meat in the context of religion, as maintaining a strict diet does not make one blessed or elevate one to a superior status over another, spiritually or otherwise. Being a member of a religion incorporates not only one's dietary customs, but the entire way in which devotees govern their lifestyle. He advocated a lifestyle consisting of honest, hard work and humility, focus and remembrance of God, and compassion for all of humanity. These three key principles take precedence over one's dietary habits.
Within the gurdwara, the Guru ka Langar (Guru's community kitchen) serves purely lacto-vegetarian food because the Langar is open to all. Since people of many faiths with varying dietary taboos, and since Sikhs accept these restrictions and accommodate people regardless of their faith or culture, the Sikh Gurus adopt vegetarian food for Langar. Meat was included in langar at the time of Guru Angad, but was discontinued to accommodate Vashnavites. The exception to vegetarian langar today is when Nihangs serve meat on the occasion of Holla Mohalla, and call it Maha Prashad.
Sikhism argues that the soul can possibly undergo millions of transformations as various forms of life before ultimately becoming human. These life forms could be a rock, vegetation, or an animal. Sikhism does not see a difference between these types of existence, however the human has a privileged position compared to other life forms. In terms of the Sikh view of karma, human life is seen as being most precious, and animal, vegetable, and mineral all viewed as being equally below human life. Therefore Sikhs view eating an animal is the same as eating a plant or mineral.
The Sikh code of conduct on the Sikh diet (Rehat Maryada)
According to the Sikh code of conduct or Rehat Maryada, Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free. The general consensus is that Sikhs are free to choose whether or not to include meat in their diet.
In the Rehat Maryada, Article XXIV - Ceremony of Baptism or Initiation (page 20), it states:
The undermentioned four transgressions (tabooed practices) must be avoided:
- Dishonouring the hair
- Eating the meat of an animal slaughtered the Muslim way (Kutha)
- Cohabiting with a person other than one's spouse
- Using tobacco.— Sikh Rehat Maryada
Sikh intellectual views
I. J. Singh states that throughout Sikh history, there have been many subsects of Sikhism that have espoused vegetarianism. However, this was rejected by the Sikh Gurus. Sikhs consider that vegetarianism and meat-eating are unimportant in the realm of Sikh spirituality. Surinder Singh Kohli links vegetarianism to Vashnavite behaviour. Gopal Singh, commenting on meat being served in the langar during the time of Guru Angad Gyani Sher Singh—who was the head priest at the Darbar Sahib—notes that ahimsa does not fit in with Sikh doctrine. W. Owen Cole and Piara Singh Sambhi comment that if the Sikh Gurus had made an issue on vegetarianism, it would have distracted from the main emphasis of Sikh spirituality. H. S. Singha and Satwant Kaur comment on how ritually-slaughtered meat is considered a sin for initiated Sikhs. G. S. Sidhu also notes that ritually-slaughtered meat is taboo for a Sikh. Gurbakhsh Singh comments on how non-Kutha meat is acceptable for the Sikhs. Surinder Singh Kohli comments on the "fools wrangle over flesh" quotation from the Guru Granth Sahib by noting how Guru Nanak mocked hypocritical vegetarian priests. Gobind Singh Mansukhani states how vegetarianism and meat-eating has been left to the individual Sikh. Devinder Singh Chahal comments on the difficulties of distinguishing between plant and animal in Sikh philosophy. H. S. Singha comments in his book how the Sikh Gurus ate meat. Khushwant Singh also notes that most Sikhs are meat-eaters and decry vegetarians as daal khorey (lentil-eaters).
Historical dietary behaviour of Sikhs
There are a number of eyewitness accounts from European travelers as to the eating habits of Sikhs. Although there is no prohibition on Sikhs eating beef, it is clear that Sikhs avoided eating it as a mark of respect for their Hindu neighbours. To initiate Muslims into their mysteries, one traveler said the Sikhs would prepare a dish of hog's legs.
According to Dabistan e Mazhib (a contemporary Persian chronology of the Sikh Gurus), Guru Nanak did not eat meat, and Guru Arjan thought that meat eating was not in accordance with Nanak's wishes. This differs from I. J. Singh's research that states that Guru Nanak ate meat on the way to Kurukshetra. According to Persian records, Guru Hargobind (the 6th Guru) ate meat and hunted, and his practice was adopted by most Sikhs.
The proud elephant is inedible and none eats the mighty lion.
Goat is humble and hence it is respected everywhere.
On occasions of death, joy, marriage, yajna, etc only its meat is accepted.
Among the householders its meat is acknowledged as sacred and with its gut stringed instruments are made.
From its leather the shoes are made to be used by the saints merged in their meditation upon the Lord.
Drums are mounted by its skin and then in the holy congregation the delight-giving kirtan, eulogy of the Lord, is sung.
In fact, going to the holy congregation is the same as going to the shelter of the true Guru..
Many Sikhs keep Sarbloh Bibek. Sarbloh means all-iron and Bibek meaning conscious principles. Sikhs who follow this practice eat from iron bowls and iron plates only. According to Sarbloh Bibek, food must be cooked in iron cauldrons or other iron utensils while reciting Gurbani or Simran (meditating). Sikhs traditionally use sand to clean the iron utensils, but today Sikhs speed up the process using a mixture of dishwashing soap, sand, water, and a steel wool soap pad.
Another key aspect to maintaining Sarbloh Bibek is that Sikhs must only eat food prepared by other Amritdhari (baptized) Sikhs. Amritdhari Sikhs are also not to eat Jootha food (previously eaten food) from non-Amritdharis.
Sarbloh was used by Guru Gobind Singh to prepare Amrit during the Khalsa initiation ceremony in 1699. The Khanda (a double edged knife or sword) was also made of Sarbloh. To this day Amrit Sanchar ceremonies are conducted using a bata (bowl) and Khanda (sword) made of sarbloh.
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