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Fetus Imagery in Sikhism

August 31, 2010

While strongly condemning social inequalities such as caste and class prevalent in the Indian society of their times, the Sikh Gurus came out heavily against gender inequality too. Their compositions in Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Sikh scripture, illustrate their egalitarian world-view.

SGGS is the holy scripture of Sikhs and plays a central role in their lives. For the Gurus to have included compositions in SGGS addressing issues of gender equality, especially criticizing issues that demeaned the role of women in society, hailing the word in the text as truth, and according eternal Guruship to the text has ensured that Sikhs do not leave sight of the goal of gender equality. However, the low female-to-male sex ratio in Punjab (pointing to female feticide in the state) tells a different story, a story that weaves through the posts in this blog. Recently I came across an article that tells us of a story that was meant to be but still is not.

“The land (Punjab) where female fetuses are being aborted is also the land of Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth, which resonates with powerful fetal imagery … Guru Granth is sheer poetry … its fetus imaginary leads us to the origins of life, to the world around us, and most significantly, to the mother’s body in which fetuses are lodged. This literary symbol has tremendous potential to activate our imagination and sensibility and to transform sexist attitudes and practices.” [123]

This is the central theme of the article “Female Feticide in the Punjab and Fetus Imagery in Sikhism” by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh in which the author, reading the scripture through a feminist perspective, draws our attention to the fetal imagery in the Sikh scripture. This post is a summary of her article. (Unable to articulate her points in a simpler or better manner than she has done in the article, I have relied more on quoting her directly than on truly summarizing the article.)

The Guru granth offers us multivalent womb imagery. … the womb becomes a vital space for the Divine, and the fetus functions as a symbol for cultivating Sikh morality, spirituality, and aesthetics. Indeed, this textual body takes female genealogy very seriously, and affirms the category of birth that feminist theologians, philosophers and psychologists find so critical [125].

Nikky illustrates the above by identifying four aspects of female genealogy — menstruation, conception, gestation, and lactation — that  appear in the scripture in both literal and metaphorical forms.

Menstruation: In the Indian society haunted for centuries by the fear of gaze, touch and speech of a menstruating woman, Nanak reprimands those who stigmatize a blood-stained garment as polluted [sggs 140] — Acknowledging menstrual bleeding as a natural process, Nanak asks; “How can we call her polluted from whom the great ones are born?” [SGGS, 473].

Conception & Gestation: Unlike the Aristotelian doctrine, Nanak recognizes equality of both father and mother in the creative process – the total equality and unity of semen and blood [SGGS, 706, 872, 989] – womb is not just an oven but a source of life

Post-birth pollution: “In medieval India, any home with a new birth was considered toxic for forty days, and only the performance of elaborate rituals would bring it back to normality.” – Nanak condemns such notions of pollution [SGGS, 472]

Lactation: Mother is seen as source of physical and psychological sustenance — feeds the fetus and nurses the infant — Gurus compare the intensity of saintly devotion to that of an infant’s love for the mother’s milk — Sikh scripture is intrinsically written in “white ink”, observes Nikky.

While noting the mother-centeredness of the scriptures and positive expression of motherhood in it, she also clarifies that she does not equate womanhood with motherhood,  that she does not restrict her conception of woman as a reproductive machine or to the domestic world.  The article highlights the potential of SGGS to transform the sexist attitudes of a society; it also laments how far the society is still from achieving the desired goal and from tapping the potential that SGGS offers:

But as usual, the mother’s body so boldly expressed and affirmed in the verses of the Gurus is repressed or deleted in male hermeneutics. Sikh communal memory retains the paternal relationship but casts away the idyllic mother-child dyad. Translators abort the feminine import of Sikh scriptures —- Such a lack of attention has serious consequences — the (Sikh) community suffers terribly — Both in India and in diasporic communities around the world, sexism festers in Sikh homes. It is extremely incongruous that Sikhs, who respect their scripture so reverently, are utterly oblivious to its celebration of the female principle. When the fetus is so strikingly honored, how could they be practicing consistent female feticide? Evidently, Sikh scripture treasures the fetus and the feminine; Sikh society aborts them both. How can a community that so reveres its sacred text pay such little heed to its words? Something is terribly out of joint.

Something is terribly out of joint, indeed.

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Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh. 2009. Female Feticide in the Punjab and Fetus Imagery in Sikhism. Chapter in the book Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. [pg: 121-136] Oxford Univ. Press
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