Azrael and Satan in Sikh scriptures
If the Sikh political leadership had decided to trust Jinnah’s promises, Sikhs and Panjab would be found in Pakistan rather than India. Faced with this reality scholars of religion might interpret Sikhi as a form of Sufism rather than struggle to place it within Indian Hindu traditions. Such are the historical accidents on which big narrative stories are based.
Yet within all narratives are hard to ignore statements that threaten to undo the larger story that is being told. In the Guru Granth Sahib itself two characters are mentioned that seriously undermine the attempt to place it exclusively within the Hindu tradition. These characters are Azrael, the angel of death, and Satan.
The persistent reference to the four Katebs — the books of the Abrahamic religions, often taken to mean the Torah, Psalms, New Testament and Qur’an — occurring, for example, in the morning prayers as well as in the wider body of the Guru Granth Sahib suggests that we should consider the possibility that confirmatory or additional information about these characters is being provided in the Guru Granth Sahib. (An alternative view is that the four Katebs refer to the scriptures of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians — people of the book.)
It is interesting that scholars in the West deal with this counter-evidence to their evolution of Hinduism model by simply ignoring this evidence, pretending that it does not exist. Hindu leaning Sant Babas may explain away this evidence by noting that it is metaphorical. This is definitely an improvement. However, it is unconvincing insofar Hindu characters are taken as, to some extent, more real. It is inconsistent — illogical — to assert the Azrael, the angel of death — is a metaphor, but Chitra-Gupta, spirits that record good and bad actions are real. For references from the Guru Granth Sahib I will use the abbreviation GGS.
Perhaps recalling the story in the Book of Exodus 12:23, when the angel of death passes over the houses of the Jews in Egypt, “Azrael, the Messenger of Death, is the friend of the human being who has Your support, Lord” (GGS:724).
People are caught unaware by death. “Azrael, the Messenger of Death, has caught me by the forelock, and yet, I do not know it at all in my mind. 1. Pause” (GGS: 721). This is particularly significant as ‘Pause’ in the translation marks the chorus line of a hymn. Therefore, it is this line that contains the central message. The verses are elaborations of this theme. The forelock referred to here recalls its mention in the Qur’an 96: 15–16.
Our worldly possessions and longings are of little consequence when we die. “When Azrael, the Messenger of Death seizes you, what good will these be to you then?” (GGS: 723)
Azrael’s function appears to involve punishment also. “Azrael, the Angel of Death, shall be appointed to punish them” (GGS: 953). The punishment is not pleasant. “Azrael, the Angel of Death, seizes and tortures them” (GGS: 1019). The method of torture is explained. “Azrael, the Angel of Death, shall crush them like sesame seeds in the oil-press” (GGS: 315).
Azrael appears to have a particular function in relation to the bridge over the fire of hell. In the Qur’an this is called As-Sirat. In the Zoroastrian Gathas it is called the Chinvat. “The bridge over the fire of hell is difficult and treacherous” (GGS: 793). Again, “The bridge to hell is narrower than a hair; haven’t you heard of it with your ears?” (GGS: 1377). It may be crossed. “One who realizes the Inner Tutor attains heaven. Azrael, the Messenger of Death, does not cast him into hell” (GGS: 1094).
This seems an account that is both internally consistent in terms of the function of an angel of death and also consistent with what is written about him in the Torah, Book of Tobit and Islamic scriptures. How about Satan?
Guru Nanak warns, “You may observe the thirty fasts, and say the five prayers each day, but Satan can undo them. Says Nanak, you will have to walk on the Path of Death, so why do you bother to collect wealth and property? 4. 27 Do not think that your Husband Lord can be obtained by mere words. You are wasting this life in the pride of wealth and the splendor of beauty. 1. Pause.” (GGS: 24) Here, the benefits of ritual practice may be undermined by a heart that clings to the created, rather than Creator. Satan plays a role in this, trying to tempt people away, through small steps, to slip away from the way of God. In this way he is the debater figure of Satan in the Book of Job, one who wishes to demonstrate to God that the obedience of Job is apparent and not heartfelt.
Again, “He sees the terrible, awful wilderness as a city. Gazing upon the false objects, he believes them to be real. Engrossed in sexual desire, anger and egotism, he wanders around insane. When the Messenger of Death hits him on the head with his club, then he regrets and repents. Without the Perfect, Divine Guru, he roams around like Satan. 9.” (GGS: 708) In this passage we see the insanity of preferring created over the Creator and the emotional states that generates in us — lust, anger and self-idolatry. This is regarded as Satanic.
Satan is an active force for evil. Talking about the systematic rape of women during the Mongol invasions of the Subcontinent, “The Qazis and the Brahmins have lost their roles, and Satan now conducts the marriage rites, O Lalo. The Muslim women read the Qur’an, and in their misery, they call upon God, O Lalo. The Hindu women of high social status, and others of lowly status as well, are put into the same category, O Lalo.” (GGS: 722)
Satan’s evil is not simply seen in such dramatic instances, but also in the day-to-day evil which we encounter. “Thieves, adulterers, prostitutes and pimps, make friendships with the unrighteous, and eat with the unrighteous. They do not know the value of the Lord’s Praises, and Satan is always with them. If a donkey is anointed with sandalwood paste, he still loves to roll in the dirt. O Nanak, by spinning falsehood, a fabric of falsehood is woven. False is the cloth and its measurement, and false is pride in such a garment. 1. Thieves, fornicators, prostitutes and pimps, all in mutual friendship are bound. The wicked associate with each other, and together eat and drink. They know not the essence of devotion (attributes of God), ever in Satan’s company living. A donkey rubbed over with sandal-paint, will still roll about in dust. Evil the measure and in wearing evil take pride. Says Nanak, those that spin evil (falsehood), evil is their wearing” (GGS: 790).
What these situations have in common is that people are turning the wrong way — from Creator to the created; from the company of the good to those who practice evil. “He has 7,000 commanders, and hundreds of thousands of prophets; He is said to have 88,000,000 shaykhs, and 56,000,000 attendants. 1 I am meek and poor — what chance do I have of being heard there? His Court is so far away; only a rare few attain the Mansion of His Presence. 1. Pause| He has 33,000,000 play-houses. His beings wander insanely through 8.4 million incarnations. He bestowed His Grace on Adam, the father of mankind, who then lived in paradise for a long time. 2. Pale are the faces of those whose hearts are disturbed. They have forsaken the guidance of scripture and follow Satan. One who blames the world, and is angry with people, shall receive the fruits of his own actions. 3. You are the Great Giver, O Lord; I am forever a beggar at Your Door. If I were to deny You, then I would be a wretched sinner. Slave Kabir has entered Your Shelter. Keep me near You, O Merciful Lord God — that is heaven for me” (GGS: 1161). This passage shows an interesting blend — reference to Adam as the first human on one side and to the cycle of reincarnation through 8.4 million lifeforms on the other, an interfaith bridge between Abrahamic and Indic traditions. In this case, hell, mentioned previously, could be the cycle of reincarnation and heaven as freedom from this cycle — mukti.
Whether someone has played with these satanic arts or not, the answer is the same. Keep on devotion to God. Fear of God will eat up all other fears, and Love for God will become Love and Compassion for all, including yourself. Love by its Nature is offered; it may be rejected and then there is nothing but regret, tragedy and loss. The Nature of Life is growth and the Sikh is always a ‘learner’, learning by doing Life, always growing. But Life by its Nature cannot be imposed. It is the gift of the Generous, Compassionate and Forgiving God who wishes us to live and be victorious. Disobeying God one can choose to self-destruct in which case there is only bitterness, anger and regret.
“Cursed is the life of such as write out God’s Name and sell it as incantations. Those whose crop (devotion) is ruined, what harvest shall they have. Those without truth and modesty in the hereafter honoured shall not be. To indulge in disputation is to lose sense — such is not the way of wisdom. By wisdom is the Lord served, by wisdom is attained honour. By wisdom are books interpreted, by wisdom is dispensed charity. Says Nanak, there is one sole path to God (devotion) — all else is Satan’s prompting” (GGS: 1245). No one will ever regret loving too much, and God Is Love. “Jin Prem Kio Tin He Prabh Payo.” — ‘only those who love know and live God-Life.’ God’s love for you is greater than powers of hate, but will you choose Love or hate?
At the end of the day there is one reality. Though there may be several paths to One Reality, that does not make many realities, but only One. The true heaven is the court of God, and what is there — shaykhs and prophets, etc. backing up the glorious scenes mentioned elsewhere in Gurbani. These spirits are real. It is not empty.
I do not believe that Guru Nanak ever set out to confuse people. If he did not mean Satan, there was no need for him to use the term. If he wanted to say that all this was just superstition, he could have — he condemned the idea that women were inferior very simply. What people adore in Gurbani is its simplicity, as it is for the common people. Satan is used sparingly, in an Islamic context.
Satan in Islamic thought was envious of God’s love for humankind. The only way he could spoil it was by encouraging them to lower themselves, i.e. debase themselves through doing evil. The Sufi masters would encourage people not to waste time pondering the evil intent of Satan, which is what he wanted — to waste time from worship of God, but equally felt no need to deny his existence. Rather awareness of evil intents could help the true seeker avoid all negative behaviours, whether from people or spirits, distractions and slipping away from the Love of God and love flowing through you.