Let me first of all congratulate my young friends who have participated in this year’s competition and the finalists who have shown their mettle here in the last few days. Great credit is also due to the local and regional organizers who facilitated their participation and the hemkunt parents who have been akin to the soccer moms contributing to the success of this competition. It is indeed the support and vision of Hemkunt Foundation and your collective synergy that has made this a premiere event for our youth to develop a better understanding of the Sikh ethos.
Thank you also for asking me to be here among you all and giving me an opportunity to share some thoughts. I have been here for the last couple of days listening to you all and trying to take in what you may be thinking. I heard words like excel, activism and the like. I also could sense the depth of your feeling for your identity. You undoubtedly seem seized of the tensions inherent in connecting our inspiring past through an uncertain present to an unknown future. Your outlook conveys a sense of buoyancy, optimism and is therefore reassuring.
You are an important group for as future leaders your collective thoughts and actions will influence the destiny that may await Sikhs in the next half-century and longer. Considering this I thought that I will try and draw you out to explore answers to two questions – one what is it that is important about being a Sikh and the second as to what may be important for a Sikh to do, given this moment in our history.
IMPORTANCE OF BEING A SIKH
Our Gurus placed their Sikhs at a pedestal saying that – guru sikh sikh guru hai eko gur updes chalaey – Guru is a Sikh and a Sikh the Guru for they both carry forward the message of the Guru [Asa M IV, p.444]. Guru Gobind Singh also said – khalsa mero roop hai khaas, khalsa mein hoon karoon nivaas – Khalsa is my favored image and in Khalsa do I dwell. The Gurus wanted us to be the virla Gurmukh who are above mere talk about God – kahan kahāvan ih kīrat karlā. kathan kahan tė muktā gurmukh koī virlā [Sri Rag M V, p. 51] and nyaras [jab lag khalsa rahai niara —] – distinguished and distinct. The doctrine of miri-piri inspired us to sense sovereignty down to our individual level – a fitting complement to being one in 125000 [sava lakh]. This free, independent, buoyant, resurgent character of Khalsa stood out to all observers who witnessed the Sikh struggle of the 18th century play out.
Thus envisioned being a Sikh must be a mark of something beyond being an observant religious person. A Sikh is persuaded to live among real people in the midst of real problems and pursue his spiritual growth in concert with those around him. His temporal quest is not isolated from his spiritual quest. Their blending at the individual and corporate community level challenges a Sikh be a good social person who does not arouse idle curiosity because of appearance, being ritualistic or having magical powers but to nurture an enduring image of merit as an exemplar and a source of strength. No doubt the Gurus also gave us the visible identity that they did – a token reminder of importance of being a Sikh.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR SIKHS TO DO
History tells that we lived by this inspiration and early on in fitness with the needs of the times this inspiration found expression in our values of valor propelling us into position of power. Our recognized heroic legacy became a part of our self-image, gave us a larger than life profile that we liked and believed in.
Starting from that pedestal the question that we need to ask of us is what are the public perceptions about us to day? If we did that a likely answer may be that while our own sense of self-identity has gotten more sharpened it would seem that in the public domain our image is getting increasingly blurred.
You could ask as to what makes me think that way. Let me explain. Things are changing. There is transformation in all societies and traditional images do not command the same currency they once did. Besides we are living in information age. Getting public attention has become very competitive and all segments of society are vying with one another to maintain and spruce up their public profile. We on the other hand have been rather complacent and it seems the activist and gregarious in us is giving way to the insular and inward looking propensities.
The fact is that in the Diaspora people know little about us and possibly have no compelling reason to learn about us either. We can explain it away as the fallout of an alien environment. But let me also share another experience a couple of years back in CT. I noticed that an Indian family had moved into a house close to ours. Thinking that I would ask them if we could help in any way I knocked at their door one morning. A young lady opened the door. She and her husband both computer professionals, were from Tamilnadu and had recently moved to the US. We talked briefly and I invited them to visit with us. She was glad to accept and as I was about to leave she hesitatingly asked if I was ‘a Buddhist or something?’ This was a bit of a shocker because that was the time when Sikhs were getting so much media attention for helping Tamils after Tsunami; Surjit Singh Barnala was the Governor of Tamilnadu and Prime Minister of the country she had recently come from was a Sikh. Yet she clearly had never pictured a Sikh in her mind!
Then there is the recent incident of Dera Sacha Sauda that seems to point to a couple of other problems. The proliferation of deras with overwhelming Sikh following by itself is reflective of something seriously amiss in the way we have managed the Gurdwara-sangat relationship. But the cavalier manner of GRRS’s caricaturing a venerated episode in Sikh history suggests that we are seen as fair game. Our vulnerabilities can be gauged by a whopping 85% of respondents to a well-known TV Talk Show poll seeing Sikh response as obdurate even though we had the active support of religious leaders of all communities.
Even as I share these thoughts with you I am conscious that lack of interest as well as respect for the other is pervasive. We are possibly no better. Yet I feel concerned that perceptions about us seem so vague that public opinion is easily swayed to our disadvantage. We should not forget that perceptions of our identity as a religious group influence our placing in society and if we neglect or fail to bring clarity to that perception we risk being subjected to unmerited prejudice and even increase our vulnerabilities to be run over by a zealous mainstream or caricatured by a Baba in search of media attention.
That is why I think that the important thing for us to do is to refurbish public perceptions to showcase the virlai and nyarai in us as relevant to the worlds we live in. My sense is that the twin precepts of ‘engage and excel’ brought Sikhs and Sikhi dignity in the past and possibly should help again at this juncture.
If we look at the lives of Gurus we would find how assiduously they tried to engage all. Guru Nanak traveled for over twenty years with his message of love and devotion and talked to people of all persuasions, in distant lands and among alien cultures and left them all with an empathetic understanding of his missionary.
If we go a bit deeper we find the Gurus using the tongue and metaphor that their audiences could relate to. Their sublime messages packaged in lovely verse were delivered to blissful music. They encouraged us to avail of the medium best suited to our circumstances and situation in life to connect with the divine – likhiye, padhiye, veechariye,seva keejai, gaviye, suniye, japiye or any combination thereof – as long as we did it as part of the community of believers and towards common good. The sangats were a model of intra-community complex of engagement.
If we further extend our search to the interfaith setting it is difficult to find a more pro-active stance than that of the Gurus. Compositions like sidh ghosht are eminent examples in confident, courteous and coequal conversations on very difficult theological issues across persuasions. Gurus also included the writings from other faiths that were in conformity with their thought in Guru Granth Sahib thus encouraging Sikhs to get past the religious boundaries and engage the hitherto uncharted interfaith territory in their spiritual search.
Gurus also said that ‘jab lag duniya rehiye nanak kichh suniye kichh kahiye’ – for long as you live listen some and say some [Dhanasri M I, p. 660]. Thus there is a trail of pointers they provided on the essentials of effectiveness in engaging. Engage with the sangat and with others, one and all without any distinction; engage with life and living environment, in totality. Translating it to our lives it would mean that while we must intensely engage within we should also engage effectively with all those that interface with us. Both are equally important.
What we are doing here, the series of events leading up to this finale, is an example of engaging within. So are our participation in the Gurdwara programs; our cultural activities; our social gatherings and our other intra community exchanges. If we look closely we would find that internal to our Panthic living there are many areas that are in need of attention starting from the apex Sikh institutional structure, management of Gurdwaras, divisions over rehat maryada, status of women, Sikh scholarship, transmission of Sikhi and the like. There indeed is a lot that needs attending as far our internal engaging goes.
There are so many ways in which you can engage within the community. In particular participate in seva. If you notice seva is commended by the Gurus and they made it part of the tradition of dharamsal. The Gurus personally set example by performing seva. The Sikh Rehat Maryada includes seva both in individual’s personal living as a Sikh and also in their corporate Panthic life. In other words Sikhs are expected to perform seva individually in any areas of their personal choice as also participate in collective seva that may be taken up by the community.
The most common starting point for engaging within is the Gurdwara but do explore other possibilities. As more Sikh projects are launched opportunities to get involved are becoming more diverse. Even now there are a number of active online discussion groups, on line magazines and interesting web sites. The cyber world offers tremendous scope for bringing many who otherwise may be withdrawn into active engagement. It also is as yet to move beyond a mere source of recycled information to a real aid to learn. May be some of you will launch some creative initiatives in that direction.
Likewise there are a number of activist groups that need support of persons with professional skills for their projects. So researchers, professionals and creative among you can pick your preferences. Get involved, improve what is and take up new projects. There is a lot that needs to be done. If you have ideas and the enthusiasm turn your activism to help bring some resolution to the more tenuous problems that face us.
Let us now turn to engaging with the other. It is a vast and varied area. Some initiatives however may deserve priority due to the multiplier effect that they may provide. For example increased media coverage should help facilitate spread awareness about Sikhs and Sikh causes to a wide cross section of the community. Academia come next in this respect. Interfaith and multicultural events provide access to large audiences. Participation even as audiences in sporting events, political rallies, town meetings, TV talk shows and the like has a potential to enhance acceptance and thus help in extending awareness.
A word or two about important modes of engagement may be helpful here. Getting media interested is very difficult. They have heavy demand on their time and resources and therefore the story line offered must have some news worthiness or some element of uniqueness or a potential shared human interest. Thoughtful initial broaching helps in avoiding the standard ‘we will get in touch’ response.
The academia is more driven by demand or plain economic considerations. Any faculty interest in the subject certainly is an added help. To encourage introduction of Sikh studies besides faculty availability the courses offered must be able to draw students. This is not easy because as experience in India has shown, religious education does not seem to open up worthwhile career options for those who may have pursued Sikh studies. This is a major problem that is not capable of an easy fix unless our perceptions of the value of religious education undergo a significant change.
The answer to me seems to lie in encouraging Sikhs to seek religious studies for extending their personal understanding of their faith. If you look across various universities, colleges and seminaries offering such programs you would find that most of the participants do not take up the courses offered to improve their job prospects. Most of them are driven by an urge to learn and noticeably the core student profile consists of practitioners of the faith itself, many who do not seek credits but had joined to add to their learning. We, youth included somehow do not seem to attach much merit to learning about Sikhi by going to school. Try to break with this inhibition. Ask if possible, for choice of a project that relates to Sikhi in your college courses. It might get some faculty interested and serve as a catalyst for adding books on Sikh thought, history etc to the library. Draw books on Sikhism from libraries for, as you perhaps know libraries dispose off books that fail to attract readership to free up shelf space.
Another important related area is the Sikh depiction in school textbooks. We are familiar with the problems that have experienced in books approved by the NCERT in India. In the US we went through the book review process in CA a couple of years back and presently North Carolina is in the midst of a similar review. I had a quick look at some of the texts for N Carolina before coming here. It is the same sad story. One of the books lists Hinduism and Buddhism as the only religions originating in India. The book does show picture of a Sikh male but charts on the page raise the question as to what is seen in Sikhism that is common to Hinduism and what with Islam. Sikhs do find mention as a group who killed Muslims and were killed by them when India was partitioned and who invited wrath of Indira Gandhi to use troops when peaceful means failed in 1984. Clearly the authors seem to consider that the only points of interest about Sikhs are their faith being an amalgam of Hindu and Muslim teachings and their militant ways.
The review process needs very rigorous work and I know that Hindus have a layer of volunteers for initial review with professors in religion and history working in a coordinated manner globally and back up legal help if needed. Jews and Muslims are similarly organized. Only among us is the initiative left to individuals or local groups who end up making presentations when public hearings are held – too little and too late in the process. I would hope that some among you will get involved for even a minor change in the Sikh presentation in school books is likely to be more beneficial in the long run than major initiatives to disseminate information on Sikhs and Sikhism.
For interfaith events and multi cultural shows it is prudent to prepare a few well-rehearsed items for a start. These can be presented at short notice and with experience improved and innovated. It is also helpful to prepare for a few table displays with easy to read and crisp poster messages. These come in handy at all events – conferences, cultural shows or interfaith gatherings. A related area is preparation of audio visual aids like documentaries that is very helpful as an information tool or for a thematic presentation. I am sure there are many Valerie Kaurs among you whose works we will see in the days to come.
To excel means to do extremely well, shine, outshine, stand out, surpass and outclass. Simply put excellence is a state that is out of the ordinary and gets noticed for its added quality dimension. Sikhi is a path leading to excellence. Khalsa, the pure conveys that. So does virlai and the same thought underlies the one in 125000 litany.
The Guru’s lives and their works are replete with examples of excellence – a script to best suit writing of gurbani; intricate bandish like partal; innovative instruments like sarinda, taus; Mata Khivi’s langar and kheer; institutions of manji, panj pyarey, Gurus Granth & Panth; sacrifices; martyrdoms; valor in battle et al.
Gurus expressed appreciation of well-bred horses, elegant falcons and good sporting activities. They resolved the conflict of values saying that wealth, fineries, delicacies, rites, beliefs and deeds of the prayerful are blessed; homes, mansions, palaces of those are blessed where the needy and saintly are welcome to seek shelter; and horses and saddlery of those is blessed that the virtuous can avail – tin ka khada paida maya sabh pavit heh jo nam har ratey, tin ke ghar mandir mahal sarai sabh pavit heh jini gurmukh sevak sikh abhiagat jaey varsatey, tin ke turey jeen khurgeer sabh pavit heh jini gurmukh sikh sadh sant chadh jaatey, tin ke karam dharam karaj sabh pavit heh jo boleh har har ram nam har satey, jin kai potey pun hai se gurmukh sikh guru peh jatey. [Sorath ki Var M IV, p. 649/16]
The Sikh thought therefore does not look askance at excellence. Any direct or implied castigation is of those who may be slaves to evil propensities and haumai or those with apathetic lack of motivation – andhi rayiat gian vihuni bah bharey murdar – in the manner of unseeing, ignorant multitude, living off carrion [Asa M I, p. 469].
Sikh experience also indicates that Sikhs excelled at whatever they sensed as the Guru’s desire or may please the Guru. There are several instances of Sikhs offering the very best among horses, arms, various articles of personal adornment and the like to the Gurus. The same thought runs through in their willingly making extreme sacrifices when resisting arbitrary and unjust regimes. Likewise seva for the Guru is a continuing example of excellence in action. Kirtan tradition is another example.
However in spite of a supportive theology and inspiring history excellence across the broad range of life’s pursuits has somehow eluded Sikhs. Could it be that they have not been able to break from their early mode of valor that they idolized or that such understanding made their vision of virlai or one in 125000 one-dimensional – limited only to making sacrifices, martyrdom etc? I think that the life affirming, activist, miri-piri paradigm that the Gurus preached would not permit of such a narrow interpretation.
Gurus wanted their Sikhs to live a life complete in its fullness, ethically and morally above reproach and rich in accomplishment. All of you therefore must aim to excel in whatever you choose to do. Be good Sikhs. Experiment and go where your motivation takes you but exercise that freedom carefully and responsibly.
Recognize also that you can share or bequeath only what you have or what you can influence. Excellence enhances that surplus within your control that not only makes you feel good about yourselves but if inspired by Guru’s teachings also could enlarge the resource that benefits the society.
Remember it is possible to excel in all vocations. Gurus did not condemn or commend any as of higher social or spiritual value. They recognized all that was done well – be it the mashkis serving water to the valiant or a rangrheta doing something out of the ordinary. So do not ignore or belittle anything well done because in your judgment the task was mean or simple or the person was of lowly origin or not as religiously observant as you would have liked.
Both engaging and excelling are ultimately dependant on your personal level of awareness. Education is key to both. The product of education is learning. A Sikh’s life is a journey in search of constant learning. Learning should lead to understanding the essence – gian. The Gurus urged us to try to move from vidya to gian – a high spiritual stage that may bring liberation – mukat nahin bidia bigian [Ramkali M I, p. 903].
Gurus also have alluded to a nexus of the divine Word with the letters or words that are a tool to any learning. The remembrance of naam and God’s praises is accomplished through word. It is through word that knowledge is gained and awareness of divine attributes dawns – akhari naam akhari salaah, akhari gian geet gun gaa – says Guru Nanak in Japji.
In spite of emphasis on learning in Sikh thought Sikhs traditionally have not shown any deep interest in education. It is possible that this was a cause for their gains to be short lived when early on they were able to enjoy spells of power and in recent times achieved economic prosperity that they could not hold on to. So I would ask you to pursue your education diligently and try to apply in life what you learn in school. Set high goals and be competitive. Do not give up early and settle for the easy.
Let your education include Sikhi as a subject of interest – ponder over Sikh precepts so that you learn how these come together to form a universal, humane, inclusive theology that can provide answers to many questions and doubts that beset the minds of modern men. Hopefully this veechar will also lift you spiritually and then the collective knowledgeable, thoughtful and mature YOU would bring a renewed sense of optimism, orderliness and spirit of seva that transforms our prayer for sarbat ka bhala – well being of one and all – to reality through our engagement supported by the resources generated through our excelling as a community.
Let us thus throw up a new breed of youth who bring us recognition in the variety of diverse areas of human endeavor. Let us show the world that we are men and women of many parts, not just good soldiers and farmers. Let our examples show that the Sikh spirit beckons the challenging and difficult. That it is humane. It is compassionate. It is adventurous. And it is competitive. Let us lift ourselves from the comfort of mediocrity that we seem to be getting used to.
We will then be worthy of the confidence Gurus reposed in us, as we will be carrying their mission forward. So as I finish I ask you again to ponder over the questions – what is important about being a Sikh and what is important for a Sikh to do. Do it in your own time. Seek and find your answers. Talk to others. Develop a consensus and move your shared activist resolve together. My hopes are pinned on you. My best wishes and prayers are with you. Satgur sadaa sahai hoe.
Edited text of keynote address delivered at 19th Hemkunt International 2007 at Orlando, FL, on August 5, 2007.
New Cumberland, PA