We do not have to dive into the more nuanced study of Sikh philosophy to understand why images, statues/idols, or indeed any form of pictorial representation of the Gurus or God is prohibited. The holiest text of Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, begins with Japji Sahib, a thesis and a collection of hymns composed by Guru Nanak, the first Guru. In many ways, it is the foundational text upon whose shoulders the Sikh philosophy rests. It is the first baani of Nitnem as well and is said to contain the essence of Sikhism. The text clearly states—
“Thapia na jaye kita na hoye, aape aap niranjan soye…”
This roughly translates to: “He cannot be installed nor shaped, for He is the formless one.” This naturally raises the question: how can there be a picture (motion picture or otherwise) of an entity that is deemed as formless and omniscient?
Sikhism’s View on Depiction of God & the Gurus:
In Sikhism, God is beyond depiction and beyond understanding of the human mind. If we try to portray God in a painting, for example, then we would be effectively displaying one minuscule aspect of a multi-faceted entity. It would be an effort to bound something that is limitless. Therefore, to depict God in a picture is an impossibility, and any attempt to do so counts against the basic tenets of Sikhism.
But one might ask us that the ten Gurus themselves are not the manifestations of one God but only his messengers. It would seem that it should be okay to have illustrations or paintings of Gurus. In fact, if one were to visit a Gurdwara or rather any house of a Sikh person, we would find illustrations of the ten Gurus. They are commonplace on calendars, religious paintings or even in books. So why is there a debate around a practice that is so commonplace and is regularly adhered to by many devout Sikhs?
The answer will take us back into the historical roots of Sikhism and how it grew.
History Behind the Pictures We See Today
In the 16th and 17th century, when Sikhism was a growing religious movement, it saw an influx of people from different sects or religions. Those people brought with them their own customs and traditions. Although Sikhism prohibits idolatry, superstitions and rituals such as fasting, ritual purification or veil for women, many continue to practice them. As they say, old habits die hard.
The boundaries of religion in the Indian subcontinent were quite nebulous in that era. For instance, it was also the time of the Bhakti movement, which had many similarities with the teachings of the Gurus. Another phenomenon was the conquest of India by Islamic rulers, which introduced the ideas that were hitherto underdeveloped. Among them is the idea of one-true God.
Gradually, the thin boundaries between religion hardened and concrete sects were formed. The practices were diluted slowly as the idea of what it means to be a Sikh took hold, but still, some of them were passed down through generations in one way or another. Historians cannot proclaim that there was a single interpretation of Sikh religious scripture during that time. The cohesion of ideas that we see today happened much later, as an aftereffect of political developments and social turmoil in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
One of the first illustrations of Guru Nanak can be found in the B-40 Janamsakhi. It is set apart from other similar texts because of the inclusion of 57 illustrations. These were the initial stages of Sikh art. Later, Shobha Singh— a painter— created many portraits of Sikh Gurus as in the 20th century as part of an art gallery in Parliament.
Consolidation of Sikhism’s Belief System:
Few things bring people together more easily than a common adversary they all detest. In the 19th Century, the British were rapidly gaining strongholds in all parts of India. This resulted in the advent of Christian Missionaries in large numbers and they were able to establish a robust base with help of the government. It was also the time that witnessed many reformist movements such as Arya Samaj.
As a reaction to rapidly changing sociological dynamics, the Sikh community laid down the road to consolidate their belief system. In 1873, the Singh Sabha was formed. It was composed of three different movements, but the most influential one was Tat Khasla. Their aim was to remove pluralistic aspects from Sikhism, to set it apart from other religious denominations. To strengthen Sikh cultural boundaries, they began to remove all non-Sikh iconography from Gurdwaras and prohibited conduct of seasonal fairs within Gurdwara premises. In the 1920s, Akali Movement came to the fore and with the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925, management of all the Gurdwaras was relayed to Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).
Today, Sikhs have created distinct cultural practices, but Indian society remains diverse. There is a large-scale exchange of cultural values. There is still an ongoing effort to move Sikhism away from any sort of pictorial representation of divinity. For example, no actor can portray a Guru on the silver screen, as is clear from the legal cases that attempt to ban any effort to do so. But as far as paintings are concerned, they continue to be made, distributed and revered. It is perhaps a matter for the theologians to debate and to agree upon a uniform set of rules.