The Journey of Life
The four rites of passage in a Sikh life are birth, amrit or initiation, marriage and death.
Following the birth of a baby, a mother takes her child and karah parshad to the Gurdwara where it is prepared and a thanksgiving ceremony performed, during which some amrit (sugar and water) is placed on the baby’s lips. The Guru Granth Sahib is opened at random and the first letter of the first hymn will be used as the initial letter of the baby’s name.
Initiation is extremely significant for Sikhs and usually takes place on physical maturity. For boys, five elder Sikhs lead the ceremony which involves stirring amrit in a bowl with a khanda before having it sprinkled in their eyes and hair. It is at this point that a young male Sikh can adopt the 5Ks – Kesh, Kangha, Kara, Kachera and Kirpan.
It is expected that a Sikh man will marry a Sikh woman. Often marriages are arranged and there is an engagement. Marriages are performed in the Gurdwara and the four marriage vows (Lavan) are read from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
The hymn sung at a funeral is the same as one sung before bedtime. The reason may be that death is little more than a sleep before we awaken to a new world and that sleep is a small death in which we can glimpse the preoccupations of our life.
Sikhs can either cremate or bury the body (particularly at sea); the main thing is to treat it respectfully. There is belief in heavens and hells to reward goodness and punish evil. Following these experiences a person may have another opportunity to achieve freedom from self-centredness and self-doubt and live in acknowledgement of the One. The Gurus use names and ideas common to different traditions, e.g. Azrael for the angel of death and the bridge over hell (Islam) as well as nirvana (Buddhism) to describe unity of being.
Each ceremony combines the mysteries and impulses of death and sex. The naming of the new-born infant by the Guru Granth Sahib and the parents is a puzzle to the labours of love the soul will be involved in before it departs once more. Pahul involves accepting death (offering your head) for spiritual re-birth with new parents in the House of the Guru.
The true marriage of a Sikh is the marriage between the soul and the Spirit. The Lavan refers to this ascent in the four rounds. The path to the One is not from A to B. For The One is not apart from us; we have to turn ourselves around to face the Being who was always with us.
The spiritual journey is from the nightmare-phantasy of the ego to the beautiful reality of the here-and-now. “Wherever I see, there I see You” (Guru Granth Sahib: 205). It starts and ends in the same place, yet each time you are standing in a different experience because of the round. Therefore, the circuit around the Guru is used, rather than a straight walk. For a Sikh, it is not the case that the One is not here, but is there. Rather, the One is everywhere. The two humans re-enact a play of this spiritual journey. The Groom leads for the Gurbani usually signifies the One as the personal Groom and the Guru-Sikh as the bride. The Gurus adopt the voice of the bride, the seeker, but also, In Truth, the sought. Yet the couple are not just acting a play. They are making a commitment to this journey by enacting it – they are taking their first steps together. About human relations, the Guru comments that “only those are married who are One Spirit in two bodies” (Guru Granth Sahib: 788). Without making this journey to the One the centre of their life path together (just as Guru Granth Sahib sits at the centre of their marriage rite), they cannot be One. Rather the egos will always drive them into a wild dance, together and apart. The Anand Karaj is equally about spiritual union between soul and Spirit, the affirmation of physical life – sex leading to new life within this committed mini-sadhsangat, the physical-spiritual foundation of the Guru Khalsa Panth, but also the death of ego, which is a prerequisite for physical and spiritual wedding.
Finally, the death prayer is Kirtan Sohila, which is also the Sikh bedtime prayers each day. It lasts only two to three minutes. There is a link between sleep and death, the smaller rest and the greater. The important point is that the first of the prayers which comprise the Sohila is about the marriage day, between soul and Spirit. When will that day – the day of death and marriage – come?