Sikhs Today: Ideas and Opinions by I.J. Singh
A review by Jessi Kaur
Title: Sikh’s Today: Ideas and Opinions
Author: I.J. Singh
Like a breath of fresh air wafting through the mind, I.J. Singh’s new book “Sikh’s Today: Ideas and Opinions”, addresses Sikh community’s contemporary and historical issues with concise common sense that is evident only in people with uncommonly superior intellects. Like most of his writings, Sikhs Today is filled with penetrating insights and compelling ideas.
One wonders how does someone whose “day job” is that of a Professor of Anatomy at NYU finds time to be such a prolific author and essayist. Rarely have I seen a scientist with deep spiritual moorings, or an expert on body parts who shows such wisdom in un-bodily matters! Ever since his first book Sikhs and Sikhism, A View with a Bias, Singh has addressed issues head –on with a voice of reason that is both devoted and erudite
Singh’s writing is characterized by twinkling wit, fresh perspectives, and sound judgment. In person IJ is the same; his eyes twinkle as he mischievously turns every comment into a humorous paradox and every compliment into a self- deprecating statement. He is thought provoking and scintillating in person as he is in his books.
Sikhs Today is an eclectic collection of essays whose subject matter is as varied and vast as Singh’s capacity to comment on both the venerable and the ridiculous in the Sikh community, all the while drawing comparisons from other world religions, communities and leaders. The comparisons serve to both illuminate and contextualize Sikhi within contemporary times and current social milieu.
Singh tells us that as a writer the single idea that has allured and enthralled him is to be on a journey from “being a Sikh to becoming a Sikh”. (Also the title of his third book) Many of us are Sikhs because of the accident of birth; I.J.Singh as we have witnessed via his writings, has become an informed and inspiring Sikh. Imbibing and sharing Sikhi has become the purpose of his life. He encourages us to do the same as Sikhs and seekers: to find a purpose that is bigger than the self and leaves the world better than we found it.
Singh would like to see the continuation of the world view of Sikhi as vast as the Gurus intended it to be. Guru Nanak laid the foundation of a nation without barriers; subsequent Gurus made seminal contributions to that vision, and on Vaisakhi 1699 Guru Gobind Singh took the final step towards establishing “an egalitarian nation with democratic institutions of accountability, transparency and participatory self governance.” Vaisakhi and Amrit are milestones on that journey, and not the final destination, he contends.
A man of letters himself, Singh bemoans the scarcity of bookshops that cater to those that thirst for books on Sikhi, but then points out that reading is a not a pleasure that many Sikhs have taken to in a big way. Nor have Sikhs spent their time and money on educating themselves or the world about their religion. Their focus lamentably has been on marbleizing their gigantic gurdwaras, and when it comes to leisure activities the Sikh culture has become associated with bhangra, boozing and extravagance. He would like to see our gurdwaras become centers of education and learning as they were meant to be. Or else folks will go where they find hope and comfort and that may well be a church within walking distance of any township in Punjab. Given that “Sikhism refuses to beguile people with promises of unmatched pleasures in the here and the hereafter if they join the faith, or frighten them with eternal wrath of God and damnation if they don’t”, the onus falls squarely on us to share Sikhi, “a beautiful system on how to design a life.” Singh wants us not to rely upon SGPC or any other Sikh organization with its limited reach, but take control ourselves. He calls for a rebranding of Sikhi and is optimistic that a new Singh Sabha movement will surface to energize the community.
Singh is not afraid to question the importance of Sikh traditions and rituals – even exploring the significance of the daily repetition of Nitnaym. While he remembers nostalgically the nagar kirtans of Punjab, he debunks continuing practices in which the original meaning and purpose is not served. Singh’s relationship with the Guru is very personal as it was meant to be for all that follow the path. He scoffs at the proxy Akhand paaths where someone else is paid to perform prayers. He also defends his right to do away with the appendage “Ji” attached to the name of the Guru on the ground that Gurus themselves adopted the more intimate pronoun “tu “ rather than “tusi” in many of their communiqués with Akalpurakh. “Raj karega Khalsa” is interpreted by Singh not as a prophecy of territorial conquests but a call to achieve victory in the battlefield of the mind.
Singh encourages us to cut the umbilical cord that ties us to Indian culture and colors our practice of Sikhi. He makes a foray into deteriorating social customs citing as an example the giving and receiving of gifts that are judged by monetary value and not the sentiment of the giver. The new trend at weddings and other celebrations of a request for gifts that are “not boxed” is exposed for what it is – a blatant demand for cold cash. No, I.J., you are not a “curmudgeon” for reminding us to find gratitude and pleasure in receiving gifts.
“Telling Truth to Power” is the Kohinoor in this brilliant collection of essays. Singh’s razor sharp intellect dwells lovingly upon the Zafarnama that Guru Gobind Singh wrote to Aurangzeb. What made the Guru call it a letter of victory after he lost everything he had – his four sons, his father, his mother, his fortress? The explanation is both original and immediately resonates – it is so characteristic of the psyche of the founders of Sikhi that one wonders how come no one ever thought of this before?
Sikhs Today is a collection of essays that will be read with joy and pride. Singh does tend to meander a bit, but it is all informative and the reader that indulges him will be suitably rewarded. I would have liked to see an essay on lavish weddings and the continuing practice of dowry which goes against every principle of Sikhi and puts an ominous burden on low income Sikhs whose ripple effect is seen in female infanticide. I hope to see it in the next round. A helpful glossary at the end of Sikhs Today demystifies Sikh terminology to the uninitiated.
Buy the book, gift it, read and re-read it; pass it on to your friends and children. Thinkers like I.J.Singh are rare in any community. In the Sikh community he is unparalleled.
Jessi Kaur is the author of two highly acclaimed children’s books: Dear Takuya and The Royal Falcon. She produced the first ever Sikh centric multicultural musical based on The Royal Falcon. Her third book The Enchanted Garden of Talwandi that derives its inspiration from a janam sakhi of Guru Nanak will be coming out in 2013.
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