NĀM JAPAṆĀ, - KIRAT KARNĪ, VAṆḌ CHHAKAṆĀ, i.e. ever to repeat God's name, to be ready to engage in the labour of one's hands and to be willing to share with others what one has gathered may be said to be the triple principle underlying Sikh ethics and way of life. This swiftly enunciated three-way formula meant conjointly to form a single edict affirms that a Sikh should ideally be a man of a sensitive spiritual and moral conscience, always ready to put his hand to the wheel and never shying away from his duty. Actions of a morally oriented individual are directed not solely towards achieving his own welfare, but towards ensuring the good of society as a whole. By linking nām japaṇā to the other two precepts, Sikhism declares that the basis of wholesome living is God-centeredness, compulsions and obligations of physical existence notwithstanding. At the same time, striving for spiritual well-being of the self alone with dependence on others for subsistence is not a worthy ideal, nor is it correct to give free rein to one's acquisitive nature without regard to the needs of others. For a Sikh the ideal life is that of a house-holder who, with the name and fear of God (and of God alone) always in his heart, earns his livelihood by honest labour and shares his victuals with the needy. In Sikhism, the way of the hermit or recluse is not approved.

         Nām japaṇā or nām simaran, literally means to recite and repeat the name of God. God's names are myriad, but the one accepted among Sikhs is Vāhigurū or Vāhīgurū, which is the gurmantra, Gurū-given formula, they receive at the time of receiving the rites of initiation. In practice nām japaṇā takes two forms. One is participation in worship in the saṅgat, i.e. believers gathered together to express or seek unity with God through singing and hearing His praises. The other way is that of private meditation, with or without the help of a rosary. The two methods are not exclusive of each other; they are complementary and a Sikh is expected to use both. Attendance at saṅgat is as important as contemplation in solitude. "Repetition of God's name erases doubt and delusion," says Gurū Arjan (GG, 814), and "expunging grief, pain and fear, it produces happiness everlasting" (GG, 456). But mechanical repetition of Name is not enough. One has to realize the Divine as a reality and be in harmony with Him. As Gurū Amar Dās, Nānak III, has pointed out: "Everyone repeats ‘Rām, Rām', but merely uttering ‘Rām' from one's lips will not suffice; it is only when by the Gurū's grace Rām abides in the heart that one gathers fruit" (GG, 491); and again: "Everyone has 'Hari, Hari' on his lips, but very few have Him in the heart; they in whose heart the Lord abides, O Nānak, achieve mokh/mukti or liberation" (GG, 565). Nam simaran, if it is to, lead to union with God, depends on three things. The first is knowledge of the true nature of God as both nirguṇa (ineffable, abstract principle) and saguṇa (manifest, with attributes, knowable). This comes through a correct understanding of the Gurū's word. Knowledge must be accompanied by faith in the compassionate nature of God and in the guiding ability of the Gurū. Finally, nām simaran itself is a Divine gift depending on nadar or God's grace. To refer to the Sukhmanī, "He on whom God through His favour bestows understanding, O Nānak, receives (the gift of) Hari-simaran (GG, 263).

         Kīrat karnī or to work to gain one's livelihood, besides signifying preference for gṛhastha or normal householder's life, has a moral value. Kīrat, in Punjabi, is not any work; it means labour of the hands, it means ghāl or hard, honest work and honest calling. Says Gurū Arjan: "Kīrat kāmavan sarab phal ravīai harī niratī — remembering God with devotion and earning one's living with honest labour is fruitful ever" (GG, 816). Kīrat kārnī is necessarily based on dharma or righteousness, and excludes exploitation of others. Bhāī Gurdās (d.1636) insists on dharam dī kirat (Vārāṅ, I, 3; VI, 12; XL, II). Gurū Nānak himself condemned exploitation in very strong terms. He says: "If a garment is stained with blood, 'it is considered to have been polluted. How can then they who suck the blood of men be reckoned to have a pure mind?" (GG,140). At another place he says: "To appropriate what by right is another's is like eating hog for one (a Muslim) and cow for the other (a Hindu)" (GG,141). The story in the Janam Sākhīs about how Gurū Nānak preferred to eat the coarsest, but hard-earned, fare in the home of a poor carpenter to rich viands at the banquet of a wealthy nobleman itself underscores the value of honest labour. Kīrat is central to the Sikh concept of sevā or self-abnegating deeds of service. In sevā no task is considered inferior or degrading; in fact the humbler the task the more honourable it is for the Sikh engaged in sevā. No calling is considered low or mean in Sikhism, which totally rejects the caste system.

         Vaṇḍ chhakaṇā is perhaps best rendered into English as "sharing with others what one eats or earns." Gurū Nānak observes, " Do not put faith in one who styles himself a spiritual teacher but goes about begging. He alone, O Nānak, knows the way who lives by the labour of his hands and shares his earnings with others" (GG, 1245). These principles constitute the basis of the Sikh institutions of Gurū kā Laṅgar (community kitchen) and dasvandh (tithes), setting apart of the obligatory one-tenth of one's earnings for communal purposes. The central concern of the Sikh as a householder, viz. kīrat karnī, is on the one hand associated with and conditioned by nām japaṇā (says Kabīr in one of his verses included in the Gurū Granth Sāhib: " Let your body be engaged in work, but your mind must always be focussed upon God"), on the other, kīrat, sanctified by nām, must fulfil the mandatory injunction of vaṇḍ chhakaṇā to the exclusion of both exploitation and hoarding. Life regulated by the triple principle of meditation, work and social responsibility is, according to Sikhism, the means for an individual to fully realize his potentialities and to contribute towards the continuation and progress of society.


  1. Śabadārth Srī Gurū Granth Sāhib . Amritsar, 1969
  2. Jodh Siṅgh, Gurmat Nirṇaya . Lahore, 1932
  3. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism . Lahore, 1944
  4. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs . Patiala, 1970
  5. Nripinder Singh The Sikh Moral Tradition . Delhi, 1990

W. Owen Cole