Q: I am wondering what is the difference or similarity between Hinduism and Sikhism in understanding of god.
A: Let’s face something important right from the start: Talking about God is always a precarious exercise. After all, in trying to do so, we finite humans are attempting to express some truths concerning a being that is by definition beyond our categories of understanding. “God,” no matter how you conceive of him is not just a little more powerful than you are, but his power is in a category all its own; he is not just wiser than you are, but his wisdom is a quantum leap greater than yours. So, everyone who speaks or writes about God is, in a sense, in a pickle, because he or she must always use finite words and categories to apply to God, recognizing that they are never quite going to fit.
I am stressing this point because in the particular comparison-and-contrast question you are asking, it would be just plain unfair to say that “this” is the Hindu concept of God and “that” is the Sikh concept, and here is where they overlap or clash. In fact, in both (as in all) traditions the descriptions of God have a certain fluidity to them, so that it is almost more accurate to talk about “trends” in their views of God, rather than straightforward descriptions. Add to that the perpetual reality of Hindu thought being spread all along the conceptual spectrum, and it is no surprise that our discussion has to confine itself to the most obvious patterns.
Hindu beliefs on God can superficially be divided into two fundamental groups: the personal and the impersonal. The personal side focuses on Hindu deities with their names and their particular mythologies, while the impersonal one tends to recognize God as the all-encompassing reality far beyond all human categories. The former is most clearly associated with the bhakti schools of devotion to a personal god, such as Shiva or Krishna, while the latter manifests itself most prominently in the mystical form of Hinduism that finds spiritual fulfillment in the union of Atman and Brahman. To return to the point I made at the outset, the personal form of Hinduism tends to sacrifice abstractions concerning the gods for the sake of being able to communicate about them, while the impersonalists tend to stress God’s ultimate incomprehensibility.
However, Hinduism--always ready to find mediating ground--is not necessarily prepared to leave it there. Why not entertain an understanding of God that both stresses his personal nature and his basic incomprehensibility? As long as it is possible to say some things about God, such as that he is good or wise, surely we can also add that he is personal, recognizing all the while that we are extending our language beyond finite understanding. Such an approach would have been advocated by the influential medieval thinker Ramanuja, and it was also true for the peaceable Sant movement, which flourished in the Punjab era in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
This is where Sikhism enters the picture. Rather than thinking of it as promoting a radically new understanding of God, we should see it as stressing one particular conception of God as it arose out of Hinduism. This is not to say, of course, that it did not offer challenges to prevailing ways of thought, but it did not place itself outside of the prevailing spectrum.
To be more specific, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, referred to God primarily as “The True Name” (Sat Nam) or just plain as “The Name.” This is the purest expression of God because it demonstrates how God’s reality is not captured by any single word or attribute. His true name is simply that: his true name. The same thought is carried forward by contemporary Sikhs who speak of God as “Ekankar,” which may sound like a name at first, but really is not. It means literally “the One and Only One,” which makes it a designation of God, but not a proper name.
In general, if we were to attempt now to lay out a pure Sikh understanding of God, what we would get would look very similar to the Hindu impersonalist tradition. As we have seen already from the use (or rather: lack of use) of genuine names, Sikhs place God outside of the constraints of human thought and language. He is beyond all limitations of being while at the same time being present in all beings. With the qualifications we shall mention below, it is not unfair to classify the Sikh notion of God as pantheistic, viz. that God is identical with the totality of all being.
But here’s the hitch: As hinted at already, the Sikh view of God does not eliminate his personhood. Even though, strictly speaking, he stands beyond all categories of thought and language, among the attributes that God that we can approximate with our minds and feelings is God’s love. In fact, salvation in Sikhism is finally a result of one’s fully experiencing God’s love. Guru Nanak and the Sikh scriptures (the Adi Granth) from time to time speak of God with the names of various Hindu gods, such as Ram, emphasizing the fact that God, though beyond our comprehension, can nonetheless be experienced in personal love. So, to summarize what we have said so far, the Sikh conception of God dovetails with one particular niche of Hindu thought, namely the segment that on the one hand understands God to be above all of our levels of understanding, but also leaves room for a personal, experiential side.
Still, there remains an important distinction to be emphasized. Hinduism, on even its more abstract levels, has generally adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward statues. The Hindu sage knows that God, not being subsumable under any human expressions, cannot be contained by a statue, but recognizes that on an elementary level, the temple deities will lead the common people to a greater awareness of God. Sikhism, however, is not happy with such a pedagogical compromise. Statues are not just imperfect, but are misleading because, rather than pointing people to God beyond the deities, they wind up enticing the people to look at the statues as though they were the gods themselves. Thus Sikhism is adamantly opposed to the use of statues or similar devices. However, in all frankness, it has to be said that the treatment of the Adi Granth in Sikh temples today is very similar to that of statues in a Hindu temple (bowing to it, presenting offerings in its presence, decorating it, and putting it to sleep and waking it every day).
So, if God is beyond all thought and language, how does one even talk about him? As long as one is merely exploring one’s own thoughts on the subject, it seems as though there really is no rational way one can do so. After all, why should your speculation be any better than mine? Why think that Nanak had a better understanding of God than his Hindu or Muslim contemporaries? If God is truly incomprehensible, then anything anyone might say could be true or false--who knows? I might sound horribly profound if I tell you that I am about to disclose to you truth that is beyond language, but my profundity is really an illusion because I’m really saying something self-contradictory: “This sentence discloses truth beyond language.” If it does, then it does not.
Let me suggest that the only way we will be able to speak meaningfully about God is if God has first of all disclosed himself--in nature as he created it and in subsequent revelation from him. He himself must have accommodated himself to our finite ways of thinking and then let us know what we should know about him. The initiative belongs to him, as he made himself known to us in our terms. If we start with our own terms seeking to find God, we will only get lost in his infinity.
My closing thought on this question, then, is this: it is one thing to delineate the similarities and differences between Hindu and Sikh understandings of God. Feel free to throw in other religions and philosophies as well, if you like. It is quite another, though, to come to a rational conclusion on whom we should actually believe in this discussion. One person’s speculative assertion is as good as another’s. However, the Christian idea of God seeks to base itself on a historical revelation. The Old and New Testaments are not just collections of people’s thoughts on God, but they are records how God has personally made himself known in events of history as well as through historical persons. As you continue to think through various ideas of God, I ask you to keep this claim in view as well.