The Sikh philosophy on the purpose of our lives, the mind, and mental health

Sikhism and the purpose of our life

The Game of Life as described in Gurbani is the journey that the soul takes from being blessed with a human life all the way up until the ant sama (end of the game) where the soul returns back to Vaheguru, where it is decided whether the soul is to enter back into the game (into joona), i.e into birth and death, or whether it will merge back into its Creator forevermore.

When we are in our mother’s womb, our soul is connected to Vaheguru, and it is at this time that the game of life and its rules are explained. Vaheguru tells us that we are going to be sent into the world to play the game for a short time (an amount that is allocated from the beginning and does not increase or decrease even an iota) Our end mission is to find Him in the midst of Maya, whilst living a householder’s life, to find Him while we are living, so that at the end of our life we can return to Him and merge into him forever.

When we are born we enter into Maya (even our body is maya “eh sareer sabh mool hai maya”) and we are disconnected from Vaheguru. We forget the things we were told by Vaheguru, and we become attached to the world. First our mother’s milk, then slowly other things take our attention toys, siblings etc.and as we grow older, work, acquiring riches, relationships etc. (Pehla pyaar laaga than dudh, Ang 137). All the while we forget about our Father, who is giving us each breath (Aape Karta Kar Kar Vekhe Dendaa Saas Giraaha Hai, Ang 1055, and we forget what our purpose was for coming into this world.

With Vaheguru’s Grace we are fortunate to be given reminders of our purpose through meeting a Pooran Guru (SGGSji) who teaches us about the Game and helps us to find our way back, and to have the opportunity to sing His praises and do Vichaar of Him in the Saadh Sangat.

The Game of Life is very simple, yet very hard to implement (“Jan nanak eh khel khatan hai”, Ang 219), and many people believe that it cannot be in their kismat to win the game. Guruji, however, says that the very fact that we have been given a human life means that we have already received a great blessing and that this is our chance to meet him (“eho teri bareeya”).

Sikh practices

The path of Sikhi that has been given to us in the teachings of SGGSji has been described as “khaneyo thikhi valoh niki” (sharper than a sword edge and finer than a hair), and its subtle essence can sometimes elude us. In SGGSji Guruji talks again and again about how over lifetimes and lifetimes religious practices and rituals have taken humans away from the path of Truth. Guruji talks about practices that were common practice in India (and continue to be in all parts of the world), thought of as methods to attain religiosity or spirituality such as starving oneself, adopting religious postures, wearing religious robes etc. however do not lead to union with God.

Sometimes even within Sikhi, because the path of Truth is so subtle, we can lose our way and become engrossed in practices that don’t take us closer to the Truth. We can begin to become preoccupied with performing religious practices ritualistically, and forget why we were performing these in the first place. Guruji says that the highest karam is naam japna, reciting Vaheguru’s Name (sarab dharam meh srist dharam, har ko naam jap nirmal karam). This is the practice by which one progresses on the spiritual path, and ultimately union with Vaheguru is attained.

The Mind and Tregun

It is not easy to progress on the spiritual path and to obtain the peace that Gurbani talks of, without an understanding of the key players in this Game of Life. Vaheguru created Maya, which has three qualities that our minds get entrapped with and take us away from the path of Truth. Rajo gun, Tamo Gun and Sato Gun (“Rajo gun tamo gun sato gun keheeye eh teri sabh maaya” Ang 1123) are these three qualities.

Rajo Gun comprises of hopes, wishes, desires, anxieties, worries.

Tamo Gun– Anger, greed, lust, attachment, pride, slander, jealousy

Sato Gun– compassion, contentment, humility, tolerance, moral control (this is a quality of Maya too as you cannot get to Vaheguru with these alone, without the practice of Naam Simran, however the more the mind enters into this quality of Maya as opposed to the others, the closer it’s getting to the path of Truth)

The way in which these qualities exert their effect is through our thoughts. In our day to day lives, our mind is often bombarded with thoughts from each of these qualities- Hatred, Jealousy, Anxiety etc. The Punj chor (as instructed by Vaheguru as part of the game) give us these thoughts and thereby keep us entrapped in Maya. We have been given a tool in this game to help us to avoid becoming entrapped in Maya. The tool is the Gurmantar Vaheguru “Vaheguru Gurmantar Hai Jap Haumai Khoee”. We use this in order to avoid our mind getting entrapped in thoughts, and to take our attention inside our body, which is where Naam is hidden (Dehi Andar Naam Nivassi, Ang 1025) . As we are able to overcome these thoughts, we are able to cross over the world ocean (“vichaar maare tare taare ult joon naa aveyee”, by killing the thoughts, you are able to cross over and won’t come back in birth and death, Ang 687)

As more and more of our breaths are spent reciting Vaheguru’s Name with full attention and without being taken away into thoughts, the closer we get to attaining Naam. As our mind/attention is able to separate from thoughts, it can begin the internal journey toward Vaheguru, the journey of peace in this life and thereafter.

Some other players in the game include Chitar Gupat and Dharamraj. Chitar Gupat are with our minds for the whole of our lives. They record where our breaths, precious jewels, also described as our wealth in Gurbani, is being spent (Chitar Gupt Sabh Likhde Lekha, Ang 393)i.e. In rajo gun, tamo gun, sato gun or Nirgun (the shop of Salvation, i.e. when we experience no thoughts whilst reciting gurmantar ). At the end of our life, this record is presented to Vaheguru and it is on the basis of this that our next destination is decided.

Sikhism and Mental health

When we are experiencing extreme sadness or extreme anxiety, this is a sign that our mind is being heavily bombarded by the punj chor, and that they are exerting a great deal of force in the Game. They are successfully keeping the mind in Tre-gun (as per their role in the Game as instructed by Vaheguru) and are winning the Game. A mind controlled by the punj experiences a lot of pain (Dukh) and is not in peace. For example, a mind that spends a lot of time in Rajo gun will experience anxiety, which at its most difficult can develop into an anxiety disorder, characterized by any/all of the following symptoms: excessive worry, panic attacks, difficulty with sleep, muscle tension etc.

However at any time, regardless of for how long or to what extent a person has struggled with difficult thoughts and feelings, the Gurmantar can be used as a tool to take the mind beyond the three qualities of Maya and we can attain peace in our minds. This does not happen instantly. Guruji talks about the path of Sikhi being “sehaj da marag”, a path that takes time and patience. As we do simran and begin to be able to bring our scattered attention/mind to a single point to focus on the sound of Vaheguru being recited, we begin to experience peace. This may start with the experience of peace for even the briefest moments. The moment that the mind is able to listen and focus on the sound it Vaheguru belong recited is the moment that the mind is not being overcome by thoughts. As the practice of this increases, these moments of peace occur more often and we begin to feel a sense of control over the mind. We learn that we have the ability, with Guru’s Grace to turn our attention away from difficult thoughts and feelings, and we are able to create an experience of peace within.

Western approaches to mental health

The practice of Simran, i.e. using the Gurmantar as a tool to bring the mind to a single point, is described in Western terms as a form of mantra mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a meditation practice that has taken the Western world by storm. It was popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man who spent time learning meditation from Buddhist teachers, and is now advocated as a first-line treatment for a range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety.  There is a growing body of evidence to support its effectiveness and there have been studies demonstrating neurological changes in areas of the brain involved in psychological-wellbeing in those who practice mindfulness.

As Sikhs, we are fortunate that this tool is inherently a central part of our spiritual practice. In order to maximize the effect of this tool, during the day time, while we go about our daily tasks/ work commitments, we can try and repeat the Gurmantar out loud or in our minds, trying as much as possible to maintain a focus on it (alongside work). “Haath Pao Kar Kaam Kar, Cheet Niranjan Naam, Ang 1357”, and then take as much time out as we can to do Naam Simran, where we maintain a sole focus on the Gurmantar, reciting with our tongue and listening to the sound, all the while ensuring that our mind keeps its full attention on the Gurmantar. The more we do this, the better the mind will get at ignoring the mental chatter/thoughts brought to the mind by the punj, and the more we will experience those moments of peace, and feel better equipped to deal with the challenges that life inevitably brings.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to write any comments below or to contact me via my contact form with your thoughts/questions.

4 thoughts on “The Sikh philosophy on the purpose of our lives, the mind, and mental health”

    1. Thanks for your question Har. As a Sikh I believe that SGGS tells us about the path of Truth. What it is, the benefits of it, how to walk on it, obstacles that bhagats and saints have faced, and how to overcome them. I believe that it contains the answer to the existential question of ‘what is the purpose of our lives?’ and the one who embarks on fulfilling this purpose experiences peace in this world and hereafter. I hope this answers your question

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