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So Large a Tent


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So Large a Tent

On My Mind / Columns

Date: Nov 17, 2008

By I.J. Singh - The past often looks rosy. Or so we think when we step back into the past, when childhood seemed innocent, and homes and neighborhoods idyllic.

Many modern commentators on Sikhism, too, seem to fall into a similar time warp, but they do have a point.

When the Gurus walked the Earth, Sikhs seemed idealistic and unmatched in the pristine purity of their faith. The message of the Gurus attracted both Hindus and Muslims – members of the two dominant religions of the day in India. Even during the immediate post-Guru period, our gurdwaras were teeming with both Muslims and Hindus.

Our relations with non-Sikhs were largely non-controversial and non-confrontational. I say this despite the many armed conflicts in history with either Hindu or Muslim foes, where many of our allies also came from the same two religions.

Remember that at the end of Guru Nanak’s life, his Hindu followers wanted to cremate him the Hindu way, Muslims honored him by wanting to bury him by Islamic rites. Each community erected a monument to his memory and both markers still exist in a unique tribute to the founder of Sikhism.

Having come from a mostly Hindu background, Sikhs remained culturally closer to them. Hindu-Sikh mixed marriages were common and no one labeled them as interfaith unions - they were not known to endure two different religious rites and wedding vows.

In gurdwaras no distinction was ever made between a Sikh and a non-Sikh. It was not uncommon to find Muslim or Hindu musicians, wearing caps or scarves, performing keertan (singing of the liturgy) or conducting a reading from the Guru Granth. Often non-Sikh artists and performers came to gurdwaras to showcase their talents and pay their homage to the Gurus who were unexcelled patrons of classical Indian musicology.

No function in the gurdwara, and no office in it, was ever closed to our non-Sikh brethren. Large communities of people, such as the Sindhis, were Sikhs to all intents and purposes, except they rarely took on the banaa (external visage) of the Khalsa, with the long unshorn hair.

Absolutely everyone was welcome in the gurdwara – irrespective of their religious label, or whether one was a recognizable Sikh or not.

Less than 40 years ago, the eminent thinker Kapur Singh opined that the religion of Punjab, even of Punjabi Hindus, was Sikhism, whereas, Hinduism was merely the culture of all Punjabis, no matter what religion they professed. Unmistakably, every religion of the world, when in Punjab, has been touched by the faith and practice of Sikhi, and by the universality of Guru Granth. This is true of both Hinduism and Islam, perhaps even Christianity.

Now, things have changed at an alarming pace.

Look at any gurdwara in India or abroad and there are hardly any Sindhis or Punjabi Hindus that come by; certainly ragees and lecturers who are non-Sikhs or non-recognizable Sikhs are more rare than hen’s teeth.

It may never have been quite as edenic as I described it here, but it was never as hellish as it seems to have become. There is more than a grain of truth in what was. Why and how has it changed? That’s my mandate to explore today.

Let me start with a set of givens. The message of Sikhism and of Guru Granth is entirely inclusive and there is not a line in it to justify excluding those who come to it. And a good starting definition derived from the Guru Granth is that a Sikh is anyone who calls himself or herself one. It is not mine or anyone else’s business to judge another, so we should refrain from labeling people as good or bad Sikhs.

All those who call themselves Sikh then are on the same path, though not always at the same place on the path. This includes the amritdhari who lives the life of one, also the amritdhari who falls considerably short; the sehajdhari who lives the lifestyle that he should, and the one who does not; and also one who merely looks like a Sikh and yet is unaware of any of the requirements of a Sikh life; and the one who is an apostate and proudly flaunts it.

The house of the Guru and Guru Granth are for sinners, not only for perfect Sikhs. So it is best to not judge others lest we be judged.

So what is now driving so many non-Sikhs, and some who do not quite look like Sikhs out of the Sikh circle? There are perhaps as many reasons as there are analysts but let’s probe a few.

Let’s come at it a tad tangentially.

Christianity now has over 250 denominations and sects; many refuse to recognize the others as Christians. Some disallow their members to attend services in the other’s church or marry someone from another denomination. Many variations exist in Christian practices worldwide. Yet, they all derive their inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus.

Sikhism is now 500 years old, and we should not expect less, however much we regret it.

With time, perhaps some divisive interpretations of the message are inevitable in living traditions. All living things and organizations, even those that originate from the same starting point, show change; to some it is for the better, others find them regressive.

During the first 300 years of its history, there were not yet clear cut distinct lines drawn between Jewish practices and their Christian adaptations and modifications. There was also a very strong movement “Jews for Jesus†that celebrated Jesus as the Jewish Messiah that the Jews were waiting for. The movement, now considerably smaller, still exists. From that time on, Jewish and Christian thought have diverged considerably and progressively, and now it would be asinine for one to claim that Christians are Jews simply because Jesus was one, or that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Similarly, one can argue for overlapping of Hindu and Sikh practices in the early years, but over the last century, largely due to the rise of the Singh Sabha movement as well as a better educated clergy and laity, it would now be very shortsighted not to recognize that the two religions show a growing divergence in theology and its interpretation, and consequently in their practices.

This process of erecting fences between Sikhs and their neighbors has been further hastened by domestic Indian as well as international political realities.

When India became independent in 1947 Punjab, the Sikh homeland was essentially partitioned into two nations. Sikhs bore the brunt of the economic loss as well as that in human lives. The great majority of Sindhis, who straddled the divide between Hinduism and Sikhism, were lost to Sikhs. For the first time in a millennium Hindus – the large majority in a free India – felt the power that comes with freedom. Each community became engrossed in its own realities; fences between them were a natural corollary.

The successive governments of free India learned to cater, even pander, to the majority that was Hindu to capture their vote banks. (Remember that politicians value head-counts dollars.) In this power ploy, minorities became further marginalized. This is not the time or the place for an exhaustive exploration of these divisive political realities, but the events of 1984 when the Sikh minority was targeted, and those of Godhra, and others like it, that were aimed at Muslims and Christians, were a predictable result. (The killings at Godhra by Hindu mobs, in 2002, appear to have been organized and abetted by the government in power at that time and claimed several thousand Muslim lives.)

How would minorities react when they see themselves so besieged? Obviously, they circle the wagons to protect themselves. The result: an inevitable alienation from others, though it is contrary to the message of Guru Granth.

In the diaspora, too, Sikhs remain an even smaller minority than in India, even though there are almost a million in North America alone. Our turban and long hair attract the most attention. More so in the past, but even now, we are sometimes challenged by prospective employers on our bearded and turbaned visage. Sometimes the attention is grossly negative, particular post 9/11.

The Sikhs appear divided between those who continue to follow the dictates of the faith and those who have chosen to abandon them, whatever their reasons for doing so. Ideally, this should not become a divisive matter in the Sikh community particularly where the gurdwara is concerned, for it historically remains equally open to all.

The problem arises when the spokesmen for the community, who have abandoned the markers of their faith, are unable or unwilling to defend the practices of the faith when they represent us to the outside world. And then that impacts the whole community.

If then these people are not given an equally visible place in community leadership they see it as discrimination and an insult. The other side of the argument is that a minority, finding its practices under siege, wants to put on the stage, in the gurdwara and the world, only those who at least look like role models.

I would tell my turbaned brothers, and also on the other side of the divide, those not so attired, not to be so thin skinned. Let’s see if we can work through this.

How to resolve this is the question. Either all those who wish to potentially lead us from a gurdwara agree to defend the teachings of what is our code of conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada) even if they personally fall short of it, or the conflict will continue to escalate. If they can openly support our historic teachings and religious requirements in spite of any personal failings of their own, then there should be no reason for conflict between those who are keshadhari and those who are not.

If such a modus operandi seems impossible, then what?

A not so attractive, but perhaps inevitable, alternative again comes to me from the Jews. They are divided largely into Conservative, Orthodox and Reform congregations that have fundamental differences in what a Jewish lifestyle is. Hence, the respective synagogues of the three are separate, yet when a question arises that is important to the whole Jewish nation, most of them speak with one voice. This does not mean that even on matters of substance they do not differ; for example, there exist Jews that do not approve of a Zionist state of Israel.

Much as we dislike the idea of sects within Sikhism, they do exist; just look at Namdharis, Radhaswamis and followers of Yogi Bhajan, for example. All religions acquire some with time.

I can see with time our diaspora Sikhs fissuring along a line that separates those that are keshadhari, whether amritdhari or not, and those that are not recognizable Sikhs, whether they are sehajdhari or apostate. Or perhaps, it would be a tripartite segmentation: amritdharis, keshadharis but not amritdharis, or unrecognizable Sikhs, whatever their reasons for it.

Perhaps then we will also be able to work with each other in matters of discrimination in the work place, and even have some gurdwaras that are happily intermixed.

The umbrella or tent of Sikhism is large and capacious enough to accommodate all those who are on the same path, no matter where on it they are at a given time. And this is how I see the message of Guru Granth and Sikh historical tradition.

The author, Inder Jit Singh, is a professor of anatomy at New York University. He is on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, 'The Sikh Review,' and is the author of four books: 'Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias,' 'The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress,' 'Being and Becoming a Sikh' and 'The World According to Sikhi.' He can be reached at: ijsingh99@gmail.com

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