Title: Beyond Boundaries
Author: Devendra Singh
Published by: Hemkunt, New Delhi, 2009
Price: Rs 300/-
The author took to Journalism subsequent to completing his Doctoral research work on ‘The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Sikhism’ at BHU and has had extended experience as a journalist with the news media including Pioneer, Indian Express and the Gulf News. It does indicate his early interest in trying to grasp the intricacies of Sikh thought. The book is based on his dissertation for the Ph.D.
The title of the book was eye catching. The sub title – ‘a search for unlimited powers of mind along the path of Guru Nanak’ – was even more intriguing. I had pondered over the complex paradigm of atma, munn, homai, buddhi, chith et al and did wonder if at last I was going to gather some insights that would explain to me the mysteries inherent in the message when the Guru says munn toon jot saroop hai apna mool pachhan or munn jeetai jagjit. Endowed with a vagrant mind that seems to revel in its grass hopper kind of inconstancy, I liked the prospect of finding ways to uncover the power of mind within the pages of this book.
Explaining his conceptual frame, the author broadly looks at the dynamics of societal change and its consequential creation of competitive pressures that weaken the existing social ethics and behavioral norms leading to increase in corrupt and oppressive practices by the power elite. It is at times like that when the existing ruling and religious order get degenerated that a prophet shows the way to a new vision of social order for regenerating the society. Such were the times Guru Nanak lived through and the book is a case study of the Guru’s message. [p. 19]
Recapitulating the universal, non-ritualistic and inclusive character of Sikh religious beliefs, the author rues the irony that ‘The priestly class gradually added ritualism to the teachings of the Gurus. Sikhism, as we see it today, became as sectarian and ritualistic — as any other religion.’ [p. 21] He cites lack of total Sikh agreement on SGGS as the Guru and definition of who is a Sikh indicative of Sikhi’s straying from the Gurus persuasion and proposes to build these shifts into his enquiry. The conceptual frame also envisages unfolding ‘the Sikh Guru’s ideology along with other timeless traditions of that time — [some] in practice for nearly five centuries — various holy men paved the way to establish a social order based on timeless values — this social order seems to have drifted from its fundamentals. So there is a need to shift our focus on the ageless value system for our individual growth, purposeful living and peaceful coexistence.’ [pp.22-25]
I am at a bit of loss here. There seems a shift from the billed search for the unlimited power of mind along the path of Nanak to an undefined critique on the contemporary state of Sikhi – not quite understandable but I read on.
While reviewing the timeless traditions, the author looks at the Indian Bhakti movement, the Sufi tradition and the European searches during the Middle Ages and renaissance period. In a pretty extensive recapitulation of the development of Bhakti movement he adduces that the Bhagats ‘remained protestors whose actions were more a lament over their helplessness than a rebellion against the system.’ [p. 29] As he explores the decline of social structures he goes back and forth in history and cites the early Sultanate for being highly prejudiced that caused the entire Hindu social structure to become static and inert. Some insights suggest that choice to convert to Islam could have been for possible economic gain to some professions than due to caste as a decision factor. India of the time was poor – politically, socially and religiously. Thus it was ripe for a message of change.
Guru Nanak ‘raised voice against the wrongs being committed in the society. He condemned the rulers, fought for social justice and showed a way for spiritual uplift.’ [p. 56] The author defines the Sikh ideal society as where people are humble and charitable and where personal conduct is more important than customs or rituals. Citing Guru Nanak’s verse – Sach Varath Santhokh Theerathh Giaan Dhhiaan Eisanaan Dhaeiaa Dhaevathaa Khimaa Japamaalee Thae Maanas Paradhhaan – he explicates that the Guru stresses the timeless values – truth, contentment, spiritual wisdom, meditation, kindness, forgiveness – to establish a social order rooted in human dignity, equality, kinship and liberty.
To translate their vision into practice Guru Nanak established sangats accessible to all seekers as a core institution and added langar as an instrument for charity. He also named a successor. Continuity helped in nurturing the new institutions and the compilation of the Pothi by Guru Arjun made Sikhi a ‘full-grown socio-religious order’ that took up arms against the state after execution of the fifth Guru. Citing Dara Shikoh episode, the author concludes that ‘the Guru [Har Rai] felt that any opportunity of fighting militarily with the state should not be missed.’ The author takes us through the coming of Aurangzeb, the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, creation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh and his battles to finally his nomination of Banda to’carry on the mission.’ He sums up the Guru period saying ‘Gurus had established a society of their followers, imbibed with the consciousness of social equality and religio-political freedom, but freedom from political oppression and religious dictation’ was assigned to the Khalsa to achieve.
The development of humility, equality and kinship is seen as an outcome of the institution of sangat. The sangat exercised executive, legislative and judicial powers. At the apex were the panj pyaras, a body of five elect – thus making the sangat a democratic body in its method of working. The kinship of sangats helped the Sikhs through their struggles that finally led to the formation of Khalsa Raj.
From then to now – the story is different. Sikhs are divided by castes. Rituals dominate our worship. Proxy reading like akhand paaths is considered an act of piety deserving of merit. Pilgrimage centers abound and are flooded with devotees seeking to be blessed. All Sikhs are not equal any more. Values are universal; symbols of physical appearance are not. Many jobs are not turban compatible. Sikhs are subjected to prejudice and discrimination because of their appearance. The Sikh movement is losing its appeal. Sikhs are neither practicing nor propagating the Guru’s message. The risk is that as identity is being given up by the youth, the faith should not go if identity goes. Indictment of the SRM is rather strong: it undermines the importance of Guru Nanak and SGGS; ignores the interfaith spirit and universal character of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus; it has made appearance the basis of being a Sikh and their conduct.
In chapter before the last, the writer discusses enlightenment. Sikh quest is for unity with the divine. In order to reach Absolute God one has to first connect with the God within – satguru. This is achieved by meditation. It subdues homai, controls conscious mind from straying and enables redirecting thoughts to start receiving divine teachings – shabad – achieved through Guru’s grace. Thus mind is illumined by divine light that is source of infinite power.
Devendra Singh is to be commended for his choice of a complex theme to explore. His grasp of the rise of social consciousness in Sikh thought and its expression through institutions the Gurus developed is well founded. The difficulties arise when he attempts to interpret the ups and downs in macro Sikh historical experience as consequential to fidelity to timeless values that the Gurus encouraged.
The concerns he has expressed about the contemporary state of Sikhi have been the subject of significant deliberation and have also been well documented. While the debate has gone on, in practice, the rituals have gained in ascendancy alongside the increase in trend for giving up on bana – the former sanctioned by the orthodoxy and the latter, decried. Most of those who have given up on bana seem to have been more motivated by comfort zone factors rather than for conscientious reasons and significantly are as much into defending rituals as the orthodox, if not more.
The theme about uncovering the power of mind using the path of Nanak constitutes the core of Sikh thought for spiritual development. The author seems to have explained meditation in terms of Present Moment Awareness. This paradigm would benefit by expanding on the multiplicity of blends of virtuous living and piety that the Gurus have indicated as leading to the state of mana bheyaa pargaassaa so that the transformative character of the experience is more clearly recognized.
All in all, the canvas the author has chosen is very wide. It covers at least three themes – each important and extensive; though the trio does not really get woven into a composite that brings the intended message home. The writer is well versed about Guru’s teachings and Sikh history. He seems well aware of Semitic and Hindu traditions. He has respect for Hinduism though in a couple of places it reads like an apologia and not necessarily relevant. His use of anecdotes adds to readability of the book.
I hope he continues to write because we do need writers with not only the facility of the pen but also the resolve and the courage to move beyond the recycling of what has come down by tradition to tackle difficult themes that try to answer questions that the youth are askance about. Devendra Singh shows promise. I wish him well!
New Cumberland, PA.
Camp: New Delhi,
10 May, 2011