Role of Chair Holders in Sikh Studies: A systemic view Dr. Raghbir S Basi

* Read the Introduction to this Feature
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Establishing Endowed Chairs in Sikh Studies offers a unique opportunity to fill a void in academic leadership. Chair holders are provided a unique “seat at the table” in the hallowed halls of academia. The universities, especially the well established ones, are embedded in the past, anchored in the present and beacons for the future. As such, University Chairs are a time honored means of advancing the exposure of Sikhism to one and all.

Professorship at a University entails three interrelated, but distinctly focused duties: i) teaching, ii) research and iii) service (to the university and community). This paper focuses on the second and third, namely research and community service. The perspective offered is not that of a scholar in the field of Sikh studies but that of an educated person who is a Sikh.

Introduction:

The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City held an exhibition in 2006 entitled: I See No Stranger; Early Sikh Art and Devotion. Its design was impressive and innovative. Upon entrance, the first image to greet a visitor, etched in very bold letters on the front wall was:

ekOngka

It was striking and meant to have a lasting impact. Its imprint is still very clear in my mind’s eye. It made me proud to be a Sikh.

Message: There is only one God; The eternal true creator of all reality/humanity.

Thus proclaimed Guru Nanak, clearly and manifestly; his vision of the One universal God embracing all faiths. It was a vision which was inclusive of all faiths where they touch upon the mystical Oneness of God. For him, all beings are created by the same universal God. He espoused mystical unity in the spirituality of all religions.

St. Francis had said that time is three dimensional: past, present and future. What we are in the present is a product of our past. What we will be in the future will be a product of the present. Therefore, we must take a glimpse at our past to understand what we are at the present. Then, we need to think through what we need to do in the present to transition to what we want to be in the future. It is in this context that I offer some thoughts, perhaps controversial, on what role the chair holders in Sikh studies might play to help the Panth move toward a bright sustainable future– a fiercely equalitarian and just social order under the blessings of One Universal God.

A Glimpse of our past

The Ten Gurus

The mystical message of One Universal God has not changed over time, but the Sikh religion has evolved. Over the span of the lives of the ten Guru’s and Guru Granth Sahib, it has transformed significantly. “A Light Moving Across Time,”* a passage from the Exhibition Guide of the 2006 Rubin Museum display, outlines the phases in its transformation as follows:

“Sikhs interpret guruship as a single light of realization that moves from one Guru to another in succession. The historical circumstances of each of the ten Gurus, from the first, Guru Nanak (d.1539), to the tenth, Guru Gobind Singh (d1708), were different, and each made distinct contributions to the young faith; but from the first transmission of the guruship, from Guru Nanak to Guru Angad, there was a belief that a single flame of enlightened awareness was being passed.

During the period of the succession of Gurus, the Sikh (community) evolved in three phases, each stage bringing Sikh identity into sharper focus against the backdrop of Indian society.

Phase One

Guru Nanak (1507-1539)

The followers of Guru Nanak gathered around the Guru for guidance and to cultivateinner devotion. Many, but not all, lived as part of a community, maintaining households and treating work as a form of divine service. Donations in cash, offerings, or service were made in exchange for communal meals.

The community was indifferent to distinctions of caste or creed and attracted many outside the privileged classes. They gathered morning and evening to sing hymns of praise (composed in the vernacular language of Punjabi) and to meditate.

Phase Two

Guru Angad (1539-1552) Guru Ram Das (1574-1581)

Guru Amar (1552-1574) Das Guru Arjan (1581-1606)

 

The relative peace and prosperity of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign in the second half of the sixteenth century allowed for a phase of consolidation and growth. Guru Angad, Amar Das, Ram Das, and Arjan made communal forms of worship and practical social service hallmarks of the faith that continue to this day. The Sikh Panth grew in number, and with each Guru new centers were established. This expansion called for bonds to unite the faithful.

Visits to sacred sites, festival days, ceremonies to guide death, birth, and marriage in the absence of a Guru, and administrative structures all served to maintain cohesiveness.

Competing claims for legitimate succession of the guruship arose. Partially in response to these claims, compositions that were recognized as the words of the true Gurus were compiled, giving form to the Adi Granth (Primal Text) in 1604. Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, retreated from liberal policies toward non-Muslims and targeted Sikhs for harassment. In 1606, the Mughals gave Sikhism its first martyred leader, Guru Arjan.

Phase Three

Guru Har Gobind (1606-1644)    Guru Har Krishan (1661-1665) Guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708)

Guru Har Rai (1644-1661) Guru Tegh Bahadur (1665-1675)

The third phase is ushered in by the assumption by Guru Har Gobind of the twin swords of piri miri—“piri” signifying spiritual authority and “miri” temporal authority. In reaction to the execution of Guru Arjan, Guru Har Gobind rallied Sikhs to defend their faith. After the period of the Gurus Har Rai and Har Krishan, the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was brutally put to death by the Mughals while on a mission to plead for tolerance, not for Sikhs but for Kashmiri Hindus who had sought his aid. In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh took a definitive step in transforming the Sikh Panth into a new cohesive and militarized body by introducing baptism into a brotherhood of the Khalsa (literally, pure). Unity and equality were reasserted within the Panth, and initiates to the Khalsa were required to maintain signs of appearance that distinguished them from others– the five K’s (panj kakke): kesh (uncut hair kept neat under turbans), kangha (comb), kirpan (small sword or dagger), kara (steel wrist band), and kacch (breeches).

This remarkable succession of spiritual leaders culminated in the transfer of the temporal power of the Guru to members of the Panth itself and the spiritual authority of the Guru to the Adi Granth, which then became the “Guru Granth Sahib,” the eternal living Light. (Note: Dates given here indicate spans of guruships.)

The contributions of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, deserve special mention. Baisakhi day in 1699 is a highly significant milestone in the transformation of the Sikh religion. On this day, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the concept of baptism. There is no written record of the ceremony, but the popular belief is that those who accepted baptism into the order of the Khalsa (the pure ones) would partake in the holy nectar and abide by the five Ks. The nectar symbolized Piri and the five Ks symbolized Miri.

Nihangs

The five Ks were not picked arbitrarily; each has a distinct, symbolic, and practical origin and purpose. Unshorn hair (Kesh) and Kirpan (sword), were signs of high status and respect at the time. Also, under the mughal rule of Aurangzeb, (Aurangzeb order 1692) no non-muslim could keep uncut hair, ride a horse, or keep weapons. They were thus also acts of defiance and independence. Finally, the most enlightened ascetics of the day (Sadhus) kept unshorn hair, and that fact was also not lost on Guru Gobind Singh and his desire to temper the fury of the sword. A comb (kangha) was essential to keep long hair untangled. The heavy steel bracelet (kara) and the specially designed knee length breeches (kachha) were part of the military dress of the day. Thus, the 5 Ks were the military dress of the Khalsa and provided the Khalsa an independent marshal spirit and a distinctive identity, somewhat like the then ruling Muslim and Rajput elites.

It should be noted, however, that although Guru Gobind Singh encouraged all Sikhs to partake in baptism and become members of the Khalsa, doing so was not made mandatory. Those who partook in baptism were termed “Keshdharis” and became part of the order of the Khalsa, the front line soldiers and defenders of the faith. Those who did not were termed “Sehjdharis,” slowpokes. However, all those, including Sehjdharis, who accepted the teachings of Guru Nanak were Sikhs: Only those who partook in baptism became members of the Khalsa.

Under the leadership of Guru Gobind Singh, the Khalsa took up in earnest the task of defending the faith against Mogul Tyranny and, in that cause, fought many battles. Others who believed in the message of Guru Nanak supported the Khalsa. They included the Sehjdharis as well as people who were otherwise Hindus or Muslims or disciples of other religions but believed in a broader identity of God. Many of the Khalsa were killed. Rightly so, the Khalsa was honored, admired and respected. In times of conflict, they were even revered.

At the same time, Guru Hargobind’s assumption of the twin swords of Miri and Piri, which signified the separation of temporal authority from spiritual authority, where taking hold with the sangats. The succession of Gurus from the sixth through the tenth culminated in the transfer of Piri to the Guru Granth Sahib and Miri to the Sikh Panth.

To be sure, Sikhism has been transformed over time and its evolution has allowed it to not only survive, but flourish. Guru Nanak’s message of One Universal God was inspiring and launched a peaceful revolution. His pedagogy was Socratic and changed people’s perceptions through discourse, dialogue, and social action. Guru Nanak had a unique way of starting discussion to make his point. He would do something unconventional and when others questioned his behavior he would start the discourse by asking them the reasons for the convention. This gave him an opportunity to listen to their point of view and question the basis for their beliefs.

Nanak showed particular disdain for meaningless rituals in any religion. Which sikh child has not heard the story of Guru Nanak’s pilgrimage to Haridwar, a citadel of Hinduism, and his visit to the holy ganges ghat? He witnessed Brahmin priests pouring water towards the rising sun as part of their morning dip in the ganges. It was meant to reach the sun! Nanak faced away from the sun towards Kartar Pur in Punjab and started pouring water. When the onlookers asked him why? He replied that he was watering his fields in Kartar Pur. They mocked saying, how can the water reach Kartar Pur? He replied; if your water can reach the sun millions of miles away, surely my water can reach Kartar Pur which is just a few hundred miles away! That started the discourse with the Brahman Pandits.

Guru Nanak painting by Jaswant Singh

Nanak’s peaceful revolution was obviously successful and the subsequent Gurus followed it and expanded upon it. Guru Angad sought to expand it by sending Masands to other states in India, including Delhi. Masands were missionaries/ representatives of the Panth whose job was to spread the teachings of Sikhism in their areas and to send the offerings made by the local Sangats to the Gurus twice a year (on Baisakhi and on Maghi). He dispatched about two dozen Masands, including more than half a dozen women, to various parts of the country. The inclusion of woman as Masands in the 16th century is notable, because in the then prevailing social milieu in India, woman were mostly confined to the four walls of the home. Unfortunately, over time these Masands became corrupt. Guru Gobind Singh suspended these missions and abolished the Masands. The point is that when this maryada became dysfunctional, he abolished it. And because the societal context had changed in view of the Mughal tyranny, Guru Gobind Singh gave up the peaceful path of Guru Nanak and took up arms to protect the Panth from annihilation. The changed strategy was the best way to cope with the changed environment at that time.

During the last 100 years or so, however, societal contexts have undergone further dramatic shifts in India and abroad. The threats that the Panth faces in India are not armed but more insidious and less overt. Abroad, they include socio-cultural challenges to break the “glass ceiling” in various power structures. Sikh Maryada, therefore, needs to evolve to successfully cope with the prevailing societal environments both at home and abroad.

Sikh Gurus were highly rational and progressive. We need to bring that rationality and progressive orientation back into the Panth, especially Miri. It should be recalled that on the Baisakhi day 1699, after baptizing the first five volunteers from the Sangat, Guru Gobind Singh turned the tables and asked the “five beloved ones” to baptize him. What an ingenious way to publicly bestow the Miri power on the Sangats. The manifestation of Miri and Piri for the average devotee since then, however, has been dictated by shifting juxtapositions of power between the various constituents of the Panth. And thereby hangs a tale.

Sikhism as a system

Systems theory provides a useful frame work for “fundamental analysis”. The institutionalization of a system transforms its goal from particular mission(s) to survival. Along with this transformation comes elaboration in structures, processes, practices and rituals. Such elaboration serves to help the system cope with the dynamics in its task environment and to protect the interest of the power holders as the system seeks to enhance its survivability.

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Gaddi passed on to the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs were asked to seek guidance from it directly. They were asked to read the Granth Sahib, understand its teachings and act upon them in their daily lives. The Granth is a very big compendium. If one wants to read the Guru Granth Sahib without stopping, it takes about 48 hours; interpreting it and understanding it is another matter. It is difficult and time consuming for ordinary working people to interpret. What followed, therefore, was a rise of the Granthis to recite the Granth and relate it to lay people. It is easy to imagine the invention of dogma and practices by these protectors of the faith for self serving purposes.

Harimandir 1908 under the control of Udasis with sadhus sitting in meditation

Devotee centers spread and the heads of Gurudwaras came to be known as the Mahants. They wielded increasing power. In the ensuing years, more and more Sehjdharis and others took baptism and the Sangats became large. The faith expanded greatly during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th century. At the same time, the Mahants continued to grow in power and its natural corollary, corruption, made an appearance. Corruption, especially in the use of public offerings for private use, became so systemic and endemic, that Sangats revolted. Agitation against the Mahants became wide spread and morchas were held in protest. The abusive reign of the Mahants came to an end in 1925, when, responding to the demand of the Sikhs, the British Raj enacted the Shromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) Act to regulate the management of the Gurudwaras. Over the past almost a century, the SGPC has had time to institutionalize its own structures and processes and practices of uses and abuses.

Under the aegis of the SGPC, Panthic structures and processes and their corollary practices and rituals have continued to proliferate. At present, there are literally thousands of Gurudwara centers, five takhts (structures), with the head Granthi of Harmander Sahib sometimes equated with the Pope.

The patronage of the SGPC has prompted the Khalsa to become the protector and interpreter of Sikh theological doctrine and, over time, has elevated the Khalsa to the de facto representative of Sikhism. Indeed, this correlation is so strong that Sikh identity has come to be based on the 5 Ks and in particular, the turban and beard. This perception of Sikh identity being tied to turban and beard is seen as reality not only by the non-Sikhs but also by the Khalsa, especially most of the Granthis and Gianis, who regard Sehjdharis as second class members of the Panth, at best, and non-Sikhs at worst. The fundamentalist Khalsa are not willing to accept any deviation from the practice of the 5 Ks, which seems to have been reduced in modern times to “turban and beard.” Ludicrous as it may seem, the present Prime Minister of India, Sardar Manmohan Singh, was recently accused of not being a sikh because of his trimmed beard.

Detailed practices have been developed for the recitation of the Granth; Path, Akhand Path and the like. Even the practices of caring of Guru Granth Sahib have evolved into elaborate rituals. How to dress it is an art by itself. There are all sorts of practices and rituals which the devotees are obliged to observe in order to be acceptable members of the Panth.

When I was a young boy, only about 50 years ago, entrance to a Sikh temple did not include the ritual of dipping your feet in water. This was the case even in the takhts, including the Harmander Sahib and Anandpur Sahib. Now, of course, in both these places and many others, though not all, the ritual of dipping one’s feet in the water canal in front of the entrance to the Gurudwara is observed. By going around the water canal, one can avoid taking one’s socks off. I heard recently that some Granthis are thinking of outlawing socks inside the temples. It occurs to me that feet covered by socks are cleaner inside a temple than feet dripping with water. I fail to understand the reason for this relatively recently introduced ritual. It seems to be a ritual devoid of any spiritual purpose; a ritual for its own sake; perhaps to show the power of the Granthis.

It is time that Sangats reassert the prerogative over temporal authority (Miri) given to them by the Gurus, including Guru Gobind Singh. Without the transfer of Miri to the Panth, Rehat Maryadas will become increasingly disconnected with their environments and, indeed, their adherents. Systems must adapt in the context of their changing task environments. Those which refuse to do so become destined to extinction.

Spirituality viz-a-viz Religiosity

May I take the liberty to make a distinction between spirituality and religiosity? To be sure, this typology is an artificial one but nevertheless, I think, a useful one. Spirituality centers on core principals and beliefs: religiosity centers on core practices and rituals. In theory, practices and rituals should emanate from principles and beliefs. But as religions evolve, including Sikhism, the focus often shifts from principles and beliefs to practices and rituals. Over time, practices and rituals come to supplant fundamental principles and core beliefs. Today, religiosity seems to have supplanted spirituality. This is true in practically all the worlds’ religions, and Sikhism is no exception. Quite contrary to the spirit of the teachings of the Gurus, the focus in Sikhism has shifted from spirituality to religiosity with the Sikh identity reduced to “turban and beard”. This identity is too superficial to impart any spiritual message. It does not inspire people to become involved, and instead drives them away. The result is that Sikhism is becoming increasingly devoid of its original mission and is becoming exclusive. We are stuck in the mud of hollow symbolism and ritualism, an ironic fate for a religion whose very purpose was the removal of such aspects of religion from spiritual growth.

Sikhism desperately needs a refocus on Guru Nanak’s original vision of One Universal God of all creation/humanity. It needs to disengage from its presently perceived identity with “turban and beard” and exclusivity, and return to the original vision of One Universal God and inclusivity. In sum, Sikhism needs to “fast track back to go forward”. Principles given in the Guru Grandth Sahib are core of the Sikh faith and, therefore, sacrosanct. The practices, however, or Rehat Maryada need to be living affirmations which get updated with changes in societal environments. The 5 ks are part of Rehat Maryada and, therefore, not Sacrosanct. The Gurus specifically entrusted the Sangats with the responsibility to keep Rehat Maryada updated in consonance with the changing societal contexts.

This does not mean that the Khalsa should not be held in high esteem. There is no question that the Khalsa are a first and foremost part of Sikhism. But they are not the only “true” Sikhs and believing otherwise is a perversion of Guru Nanak’s original message and, indeed the intent of Guru Gobind Singh when he established the Khalsa.

courtesy of The Langar Hall

Sikhism today is in decline; signs of the degradation of faith are all around us. Ninety percent of our teenagers and young adults trim their hair and beards. That is the case not only abroad but also in India. Most of them are missing from the congregations because they do not feel welcome and at times are treated condescendingly as second class members of the Panth. This attitude of some of the Granthis and the Khalsa is turning them away from Sikhism.

Most Sindhi Sehjdhari believers in Guru Nanak’s message have already abandoned the Sikh faith and are a loss to Panth. Presently, the Harijans are in the process of becoming followers of Bhaghat Ravi Das and are separating from the Sikhs. Labanas are also in a separation mode. Who knows, which other sub-sect of the faith next would feel looked down upon by the Khalsa and head for the exit!

Therein lies the real tragedy of Sikhism today. Ironic and equally tragic are the scolding’s by some of the lecturers directed at the Sehjdharis to become baptized Khalsa, which they equate with being a true Sikh! Some Gurudwaras are already finding it difficult to attract the young. Different devices are used to elicit their participation in hearing the Nam. Hymns that are recited from the Granth or sung by the Gianis are simultaneously translated into English and splashed on a big screen that everybody can see. But this device is not proving to be effective. Other devices are also being tried. All this reminds me of the waning days of the horse and buggy carriages. The builders were busy making them shinier and better looking carriages in the face of onslaught by the rickety ford automobiles. By not recognizing the changing environment they were working hard, but toward their own demise.

The context today has changed from the time of the Guru Gobind Singh, especially outside India. To be sure, western societies are now catching up with India, where diversity has long been the norm. In the West, diversity is beginning to be not only tolerated, but accepted. Still this acceptance remains limited. “Social salad” is beginning to be accepted over the “melting pot”. Yet the social salad ingredients must meld with each other–different colors, but compatible taste (form)! The Khalsa form embodied by the “turban and beard” is so different than others practiced in western societies that it is likely to continue bumping against the “glass ceiling”.

Thus, the Khalsa is perceived as being difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the prevailing social context. Canada is, arguably, one of the world’s societies most welcoming of diversity. In Canada, each minority community is encouraged to nurture its language and customs. Many Sikhs have settled in Canada, with Vancouver and Toronto as their major population centers. The Punjabi language is taught in schools where Punjabi people form a significant minority. Punjabis are highly successful in various walks of life-professionals, businessmen, management, academics and virtually all other areas. Sikhs hold high positions in provincial and federal governments. It should be noted, however, that the most powerful political figures which depend on popular support, are Sehjdharis: i.e. former Premier of BC, Ujjal Dosanjh; former federal ministers, Herb Dhaliwal and Ujjal Dosanjh, as well as many more in business and other vocations. To the best of my knowledge, to date, not a single Khalsa has ever been elevated to a significant power position in any country in the western world.

Whereas some three hundred years ago a distinct elitist Khalsa identity served as an advantage in the eyes of the then prevailing social order in India, in the context of the changed world today, this identity has become a disadvantage. An identity that is inspiring in thought, but melds in form with the “social salad” is more likely to succeed and develop. Such a melded identity, inspiring in thought, but similar in form, will come to be not only accepted but prized in the future. The only persons for whom “turban and beard” identity may continue to be an advantage are the Granthis, just like the clergy in some other religions.

The October 28-November 3, 2009 (vol 5 issue 29) edition of World Sikh News remembers “25 years after 1984 genocide” under the caption: Deafening Silence. It reads:

“A quarter century ago, India’s rulers watched hordes of marauders seeking out, looting, raping and burning alive thousands of Sikhs, 25 years later, justice is being proactively denied. The assault is still on. Then, through annihilation, now through assimilation.”

This observation is accurate and poignant. But the question we should ask ourselves is: “what makes assimilation possible?” I am afraid the answer is embedded in our fixation on a one-dimensional focus on “turban and beard” exclusivity. It is this fixation which is condescending to the Sehjdhari youth and others, and which fosters a willingness to consider attempts at assimilation by other faiths. Rather than glorifying these outward symbols to the exclusion of basic principles, while respecting the Khalsa, we need to focus on the undeniable strengths and uniqueness of Sikhism: One Universal God and inclusivity. It is inclusivity which is the magnet that attracts and will make Sikhism the beacon of a progressive religious philosophy that it is. Hinduism has exploited inclusivity well over the centuries. But Hinduism has an Achilles heel; its caste system, which tends to relegate all others below the Brahmins into a lower social status. Sikhism, on the contrary, has a pregnant strength: its fraternity of equality among all Sikhs—equality of all partaking in langar, which knows no distinctions of caste, creed or status, is its most telling manifestation.

One Universal God and the practice of social service with compassion towards everyone should be the message of Sikhs. Were that the reality, we wouldn’t need to fear assimilation.

Chair Holder’s Role

My definition of a professor is one who “thinks otherwise”. Chair holding professors are an even more elite group of people and hold the most prestigious title that can be bestowed on a professorial rank position in a university. The holders of such positions, therefore, should do even more “out of the box” thinking and make original contributions to the understanding and development of their chosen field, Sikh Studies.

The chairs, individually and collectively, in their research and community service need to focus on such “out of the box” thinking and become vanguards in the “fast track back to move forward” campaign. They can focus on research about how the current dogma and rehat maryada got created. Which parts serve the original vision and which are designed to simply serve the self interest of the power holders? Which practices and rituals are meaningful for realizing our One Universal God spirituality and which ones are not? Which stories and rituals are counterproductive? How must those that do not support Sikhism be changed, and the like.

Here I have focused on the Rehat Maryada issue. There are other equally important issues which deserve attention by the chair holders. I.e. the question of separation of religion and state in Sikh politics; the balance between self focused energy for public recognition and cooperation focused energy for public welfare, etc. Such applied research and widespread circulation of the findings would be impressive examples of community service.

courtesy of The Langar Hall

One can hope that Sikhism would evolve in pursuit of an all inclusive One Universal God spirituality and shed layers of exclusivity wrapped around it over time by our own religious leadership. During the decade of the 1980s, lot of Granthis and the orthodox Khalsa, which by that time had full control over the management of the Gurudwaras, were abusing their temporal authority. By the nineties, the Sangats had grown intolerant, especially in North America. An edict by the Head Granthi of Harmandir Sahib that dining rooms in Sikh temples cannot have chairs and tables and that everybody must sit on floor mats to eat langar helped catalyze this intolerance. Whereas in the rest of the world, especially in India, Sangats seemed resigned to accept the edict, many of those in Canada decided to oppose it and take matters into their own hands. In the struggle for control of Gurudwara managements, swords were unsheathed, guns were fired and police were called to intervene more than once. Eventually, the Sangats have wrested control of managements in the majority of Gurudwaras and practices are changing to keep pace with changing times. Both Keshdhari and Sehjdhari members have the right to vote. In the dining halls of most of the Gurudwaras chairs and tables as well as floor mats are available. One can sit to eat langar wherever one is most comfortable.

Evolutionary transformation of Maryada, which is already taking place sporadically in Canada and the US, might serve the Panth well. However, such change is mostly unpredictable. History is replete with the demise of systems, including civilizations and religions. So rather than the slavery of evolution, I, for one, would prefer the freedom of teleology.

Purposeful research and community service by the endowed chairs could provide the intellectual basis for such a hopefully teleological reformation. Typically, professors have their own research interests. Also, most professors are not necessarily social activists. So maybe, institutions like the Sikh Foundation, the Sikh Review and other likeminded entities, can become the vanguard of a well thought out purposeful campaign to reform Sikhism. Leadership should come from both Keshdhari and Sehjdhari Sikhs. Such a purposeful campaign will be challenging. But the challenge must be taken up with some urgency. Time is not on our side, especially in India.

If such a reformation campaign is not launched soon, I’m afraid the Gurudwaras will become rather empty places in a few short generations. I do realize that myths have a place in religion. Also that Gurudwaras serve a social purpose and are places for people to get together. And they are used for ceremonies connected with Marriages, Bhogs, Antam ardases and the like. But, devoid of spirituality those ceremonies lose their authenticity. Hollow symbolism becomes meaningless and people lose interest. Only timely concerted purposeful thought and action can assure that Sikhism does not get relegated to the dust bin of history.

Jathedars

Punjab presents a special challenge and opportunity. Most Granthis, aided and abetted by the SGPC, have developed a stranglehold on both Miri and Piri of the Sikhs in the name of the Khalsa. Some Granthis in Gurudwaras seem to be becoming more and more power hungry. In addition to interpreting Gurbani for the devotees, they have also usurped the temporal authority of the Panth. Or one can say that the Panth has abdicated the temporal authority which was bestowed upon it by the Gurus and has handed the same over to the Granthis. The result is that control of both Miri and Piri by the Granthis has led to increased abuse of that authority and corruption, especially in the use of public offerings of funds for private use. Some Granthis seem to be racing against time to catch up with the notoriety of the Mahants for the usurpation of spiritual as well as temporal authority of the Sikhs.

The Granthis need to discharge the authority and responsibility of interpreting the Guru Granth Sahib (Piri) in terms of One universal God and the basic principles of Sikhism. But they should hand over to the Sangats the temporal (Miri) authority and responsibility in terms of the practices of Rehat Maryada. The Sangats are more likely to keep them consistent with the changing task environments in which devotees live and work. They are thus in a better position to know what accommodations, if any, need to be made in the Maryadas in order for the Panth to remain steady and grow.

It’s not clear, however, whether or not the Granthis are cognizant of their duty and enlightened self interest to hand over the Miri power to the Sangats. In order to wrest temporal power from them, therefore, the Panth will need to be prepared to mount a thorough campaign. It would be a challenge of the highest order because those in control will use all the means at their disposal, including governmental machinery, to retain their power. Can you imagine the opposition that the present SGPC would put up if someone tried to expand the electoral rolls to include the Sehjdhari Sikhs for voting in the election of members to its management board? But the challenge must be mounted. The struggle will be long and, perhaps, bloody!

Both the Keshdharis and the Sehjdharis must be enlisted under the guidance of the educated Sikhs and the chair holders can play a critically important intellectual role. At the end of the day, the message of One Universal God and practical social service for all will be an inspiring one for everyone, including the visiting labor from other states. The opportunity to become part of the reformed forward looking all inclusive just and fiercely equalitarian Sikhism might prove too good to be missed, especially by the outside labor who want to stay in Punjab permanently. Thus, the present challenge in Punjab of the Sikhs becoming a minority can be turned around into an opportunity for others to join the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Sikhs. And remaking revitalized Sikhism based on One Universal God spirituality and genuinely equalitarian and compassionate temporal living can become a magnet to inspire one and all around the world.

Demagogic leaders of our world seem bent on using the fundamentalist tendencies in some religions to annihilate others. It is high time to invite all the people to gather around the One Universal God spiritual inclusivity of various religions. The Ik Onkar theology of the Sikhs can provide a perfect fit, if we can put our house in order and rise to the occasion! What an opportunity for Sikhism (a religion of learners) to issue a clarion calls for the mystical unity of all religions with the rich diversity of their paths for salvation to gather around the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity.

Post script

The year is 3010: a flash back

Sikhism: a religion started by Guru Nanak in Punjab in the early sixteenth century with the vision of One Universal God in our entire universe. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, gave the devotees a new form. Those who took baptism were asked to wear the 5ks- i) unshorn hair, ii) comb, iii) a steel bracelet, iv) breeches, v) sword and came to be known as the Khalsa. Over time the identity of Sikhs became tied to no: I- a turban covering the head and full beard. Slowly that identity became archaic in the context of the changing prevailing environment. Toward the 21st Century, the young people abandoned adherence to the “turban and beard” dogma in droves and began to drift away. The Sikh leadership of the day failed to adapt the temporal living maryada to the changing environment. By the year 3000 there was hardly a turbaned and fully bearded Sikh to be seen and the Kahlsa identity withered away. The remnants that have survived are the Bhangra dance and the salwar kameez dress.

There are still isolated small communities of Sikhs who are followers of Guru Nanak scattered around the world. Their vision of One Universal God still remains an inspiration for others.

 

 

* Exhibition Guide, I SEE NO STRANGER, Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011. Section 3 www.rmanyc.org.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Mohinder Singh says:

    I just wanted to say brilliant article by Dr Raghbir Basi.
    Very forward and open minded. His vision is an inspiration.

    Regards
    Mohinder

  2. Gurcharan Singh says:

    Dr Bassi has brought up a very difficult question focussing on ‘diadvantage of Khalsa identity’ and ‘launching a reformation process otherwise our gurdwaras would become empty places in a few generations’.Kesh are a gift of the Guru
    and a confirmation of our beliefs and loyalty .Our sentiments and long history of sacrifices made for them cannot be set aside easily. Now that world over Keshadhari Sikhs are seen, can we not become steadfast and endure situations? These issues need also to be pondered over.
    No doubt Sehajdharies known for love for the Guru and basic Sikh principles need to be given due respect.
    Gurcharan Singh