Sikhism is widely understood and celebrated as san egalitarian religion. This follows from its interpretation as a challenge to the caste schema of Hinduism as well as readings which suggest its gender equality. This paper explores the intersection of caste and gender in Sikh society in relation to Guru Nanak’s tenet that Sikhs be householders. Nanak’s view that householding is the basis of religious life and spiritual liberation—as opposed to the caste Hindu framework in which householding relates only to the specific stage of life in which one is married and concerned with domestic affairs—was one of the most important social and ritual reforms he introduced. By eliminating the need for an asceticism supported by householders, or in other words the binary framework of lay and renunciant persons, Nanak envisioned the possibility that the rewards of ascetism could accrue to householders. For Sikhs living at Kartarpur, the first intentional Sikh community, established by Guru Nanak as a place of gathering and meditation, Nanak’s egalitarian ideals were practiced so that women and members of all castes were equal participants. Guru Nanak’s model for social and ritual life presents a radical challenge to the hierarchies and exclusions of Hinduism, and yet, contains within it the basis for ongoing caste and gender disparity for Sikhs, since most Sikhs continue to arrange their householding around caste endogamous marriages and social and domestic arrangements which privilege men. Taking the position shared by a number of Sikh ethnographic informants, and supported by a number of feminist scholars, that the realization of an equal Sikh society remains incomplete, I juxtapose the continued acquiescence to caste and gender with the vision of an ideal and socially just society put forward by the Gurus.
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