Just War – A Sikh Perspective

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On 28 February 2016, Jay Singh-Sohal was invited to speak at Oxford University on the topic of Just War – A Sikh Perspective.

Below are his remarks as delivered at Somerville College.



Just War – A Sikh Perspective

Oxford Univeristy, 28 February 2016

My thanks for the invitation to speak here today.

The particular focus at the moment is on terrorism, and specifically Islamism – we are exposed to this daily on the news and in world events.  The global jihad organisations like al Qaeda and Islamic State propagate threatens our way of life.

It is a JUST WAR to counter their aggression and acts of violence.  I wholeheartedly because this – as a practising Sikh my faith guides me in my duty to do so.  And it’s led me to serve as a British Army Reservist…

So today I’m going to give an overview on the Sikh perspective to Just War.  I’ll talk about the development of the faith and the Khalsa, before a brief overview of qualities it shares with Christian Just War principles.  We’ll end with one of my films to show how this shared belief manifested itself when 130,000 Sikhs signed up to fight for Britain during the Great War.

It’s a lot of ground to cover in 15 minutes – there’ll be some readings, but I’m providing breadth to give opportunity for direct Q&A later.

To begin, the Sikh faith was founded in 1469 in NW India by Guru Nanak – it was a movement that questioned all the prevailing practices of Hindus and Muslims, including caste and gender discrimination.

It came at a time when India was subjugated by the tyranny of the Mughal regime.  The saintly – Bhakts and Sufis – were persecuted and so fled from society to live in isolation leaving the masses without spiritual guidance.

Guru Nanak sought to reconnect man to the path of devoting oneself to God, forsaking ego, shedding their slavery to maya or illusion – and combating lust, anger, greed and attachment.  To do so meant not becoming an ascetic and renouncing the world but fighting to control the self – mentally & physically.  The Guru preached that this could happen through a simple lifestyle based on: worshipping God, earning an honest living and sharing ones wealth with those less fortunate.

The Guru travelled far and wide in his quest to connect people from all walks of life to the simple message of living in accordance with the will of the Lord.  Often he would face enemies or evil doers, but although armed and with his faithful companion – Guru Nanak would tell Bhai Mardana to stand down, the fight he was waging was one of discourse.

Subsequent Gurus added to the character and definition of what it meant to be a Sikh.  For example, the 2nd Guru created the institute of langar, a free communal kitchen open to all regardless of background and the concept of seva or selfless service took hold.

All Gurus and their followers maintained uncut hair and donned a turban to show they were independent, regal and willing to stand up for their beliefs.  This in the face of continued oppression by Mughal rulers and the Brahmins alike.

Indeed when the fifth Guru was martyred by Emperor Jahangir, his son the 6th Guru Hargobind codified the martial creed in order to defend Sikhs – and the beliefs of others, by raising a standing army.  The Guru fought defensive battles against the Mughals, and in defiance of the rulers carried two swords – Miri and Piri, and built a throne or Akal Takht from where edicts of governance were issued.

Khalsa: Subsequent Gurus maintained this – but in 1699 the 10th Guru Gobind Singh cemented the core mission of disciples to stand up for righteousness and uproot tyranny by creating through an initiation ceremony the Sikh brotherhood (or Khalsa Panth).

The spiritual streak of Guru Nanak was militarised creating warrior saints to fight for truth and justice; fusing ying and yang or miri and piri into a powerful polity that actively sought to inspire and lift up the downtrodden, meek and weak.

The Khalsa – meaning pure –adhere to a discipline, which includes:

  • To observe prayers three times a day (morning, evening, & night)
  • Keep on their persons the 5 K’s at all times
  • Not eat meat, consume alcohol/intoxicants, cut hair or engage in sexual relations with people other than their spouse.

Kirpan: One of the 5 K’s – the Kirpan – is the symbol of Sikh Just War theory.  All Khalsa must carry it at all times.  It is a dagger of no minimal size.  The blade is curving backward as if to avoid bloodshed, but the sharp edge means if it must be wielded it will surely land true.  Kirpa means mercy while aana means honour.  In carrying the Kirpan, Sikhs never forget that they are privileged to uphold their own and the honour of all others.

The 10th Guru gave his mission statement in his autobiography Bachitar Natak; that he came into this world to: spread righteousness, protect the saintly and weak, and to destroy evil doers.  This mission was passed on to the Khalsa.

Guidance to Khalsa conduct was given in scripture and rehitnamas.  In the Zafarnama emphasis is placed on dialogue and diplomacy, but with the weight of armed force to back it up if needed.  The Guru writes in it that: when all other means have failed then it is right to draw the sword.

It was the power of baptism into the Khalsa – that gave the devotees the zeal, confidence and moral guidance to stand for a just cause and fight if necessary.  Whether it be the Mughals, the Pathans, the Hill Rajas or later on the British during the Anglo Sikh wars.

To recap:  War for Sikhs first means fighting their vices and not being caught up in illusion or maya.  When initiated as Khalsa it becomes their moral duty to fight for the freedoms of others.

We will now turn to Sikh scripture for two readings that guide us accordingly.

The first is spiritual – and alludes to the war of the mind, fighting against and controlling our vices in order to realise God.

The second is temporal, and gives the highest aspiration any soul can fulfil when seeking the Creator – being a martyr for a just cause.  It is the Sikh national anthem.

Reading 1:

Blessed and auspicious is the soul who in this world through his mouth and in his mind fights the war of righteousness;
The transient body, which will not persist forever; through His praise climbs the boat and crosses the world ocean.
Make this body an abode of forbearance and enlighten it with the lamp of intellect;
and taking the broom of knowledge in your hand sweep away the rubbish of cowardice.


Reading 2:


Supreme Lord, grant me this boon,that I may never falter in performing righteous actions.
When I fight my enemies may I not be intimidated by them, may I be victorious.
That I may instruct my mind to continuously crave to utter Your praises.
And when my mortal life comes to an end, may I die fighting fiercely in battle.



Christianity: Saint Augustine (b. 354 AD) first offered a theory on war and justice – saying some wars are necessary to amend an evil.

Saint Thomas Aquinas added that a just war:
1) needs to be waged by a legitimate authority
2) have a just cause, and
3) have the right intentions.

These beliefs can indeed be seen as a universal truth, as they are also found in Khalsa principles.

With the development of the modern Westphalian order came 7 principles of just war:

  1. Last Resort: The use of force can only be used after all peaceful means have been exhausted
  2. Legitimate Authority: A war can only be waged by a state
  3. Just Cause: it needs to be in response to a wrong suffered, or in self-defense with the objective to correct a wrong
  4. Probability of Success: A nation cannot enter into a war with a hopeless cause
  5. Right Intention: The primary objective must be to re-establish peace. The aim of the use of force must be justice
  6. Proportionality: States must avoid disproportionate military action and only use the amount of force absolutely necessary
  7. Civilian Casualties: Innocent citizens must never be the target of war

The moral justifications for a war are expressed in jus ad bellum; whereas, the moral conduct of the war is expressed in jus in bello. This continues to guide us in the military today.

All bar one of these principles are found either in Sikh scripture, in the Khalsa code, or through historic lessons, particularly with how the Gurus themselves had conducted battle and diplomacy.  The one that isn’t is that of statehood – a western ideal.  But the Guru does offer a democratic model for legitimate authority, that of the Akal Takht.

Conclusion: All life is sacred and binds us to God, so compassion must always be expressed to living things.  But when a tyrant presents himself or the freedom of any person or life of any being is threatened, the Sikh cannot stand idly by, he or she is compelled to act for sarbat da bhalla meaning the benefit of all.

This must be with the word of God on their tongue and with thoughts to doing the right thing in their mind – it does not necessarily mean taking the law into their own hands or enacting violence: but the balance against anyone suffering or likely to suffer must be addressed in the best way possible.

Film:  We get some idea of how religious thought and scripture inspired Sikhs to act during the Great War when thousands of Sikhs signed up to fight for Britain.  They were all Khalsa and adhered to the Guru’s code.  In their letters home we get a glimpse of their thoughts to the war and how their faith inspired them and informed their decisions.

[Watch: Indians in the Trenches]

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