Dr. Harvinder Singh Sahota and Dr. Sulekh C. Jain have in their scholarly letter mentioned tolerance, working together and studying both Jainism and Sikhism. That’s a praiseworthy example of co-existence and learning from each other. They have given some solid examples of how Jains and Sikhs helped and promoted each other.
The two religions have outstanding achievers and no doubt they are proud products of Mother India.
However, the scholars wanted to establish that both the religions have very much in common, but I beg to differ. Actually, the two religions are poles apart. There may be some common points, but they overshadow the main tenets, teachings and practices.
Jainism is totally based on Ahimsa (non-violence) to the extent that Jain monks put a covering on their mouth to prevent even a tiny insect from being killed when they open their mouth to talk. In contrast, Sikhism, mainly as promoted and popularized by some of the great Sikh Gurus such as Guru Hargovind, Guru Tegh Bahadur and the last, illustrious Guru Gobind Singh, is more combative. That doesn’t in any way mean that they are not peace-loving. However, they have always aggressively – and rightfully – fought for justice, their religious, cultural and social rights, for freedom from exploitation, and against oppression, forcible conversion, and expansionism, using all kinds of weapons.
There have been dozens of rajas and maharajas among the Sikhs, the warrior class, unlike Jains that did not covet thrones or wage battles to expand their ‘kingdom.’ They were, and are, basically, merchants.
The five Ks for every Sikh includes kirpan (dagger), a weapon, and denotes that Sikhs are a warrior class, bravely ready to face battles against enemies – in those days the Mughals. Essentially, Sikhs made up the army of Hindus to protect them from tyranny of the Mughals. Practically every Hindu family, mainly in Punjab, sent their eldest son to join the Guru’s army as his Sikh (shishya – disciple.) There was no Ahimsa involved – the core of Jainism.
Other significant dissimilarities between Sikhism and Jainism are idol worship, Guru and caste system. While Sikhs do not have idols – they adorn pictures of Gurus, not idols – Jains have idols of their Tirthankars all over in and outside their temples. The Sikhs have no living Guru (the last one was Guru Gobind Singh and he ordered his followers to regard Guru Granth Sahib—the holy book) as their Guru, after he was gone. The Jains have their living Gurus, senior monks, though they are not Tirthankars – the last, 24th, was Mahavir.
Orthodox Jains are strictly vegetarians and imbibe no alcohol – according to their religion. There are no such restrictions for Sikhs, many eat meat (jhatka) and many drink. Their women normally don’t.
Jainism boasts of predominantly ascetic traditions, unlike Sikhism. A branch of Jainism, Digambars, don’t give equal status to women maintaining that they have to be born again as men to attain liberation (salvation.)
Jains apparently don’t have a caste system; the Sikhs do have something akin to that like Gur Sikh, Jat Sikh, Ramgadhiya Sikh, etc. The ‘real’ Sikhs do not tolerate ‘other’ Sikhs such as Namdharis and Sahajdharis and also Nirankaris. Some ‘other’ Sikhs had to build their own Gurudwara (like in Pittsburg, California, named Shri Guru Ravi Dass Temple). This latter Gurudwara is basically supposed to be for ‘lower caste’ Sikhs who were, probably, not comfortable, or tolerated, at other traditional ‘real’ Gurudwaras, I know that traditionally ‘high class Sikhs’ like Gur Sikhs do not normally marry among ‘other’ classes of Sikhs. The Jains also prefer to marry among Jains, though it’s not strictly followed by both the religions.
Jainism has two distinct major branches – Digambar and Shwetambar – also several sub-sects with major and minor differences. However, all these are regarded as Jains and do not violently fight with each other.
I am afraid that the so-called similarities of and closeness of Sikhism and Jainism in school and college courses would paint a misleading picture of the two religions and perpetuate wrong studies of these two great religions – great in their own right but poles apart in reality.
And the basic reality is that both these religions – Sikhism and Jainism – were once regarded as part of the great multi-faceted and multi-dimensional Hindu religion with dozens of branches different in sizes and shapes and colors. For getting their own separate identity and political position they drifted further from Hinduism. Jainism was granted a separate minority religious status (non-Hindu) only during the last few years. During the time of Guru Hargovind Singh (17th century) Sikhism assumed a political identity.
The Indian Supreme Court in 2005 had ruled that Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists are part of broader Hindu fold, as they are Indic religions and interconnected to each other, although they are distinct religions. The Government of India awarded minority status to the Jain community in India, on Jan. 20, 2014.
No disrespect meant for either religion or their followers, I just wanted to add my ‘two cents’ to an interesting ‘academic’ discussion.