Mar 282016

IJSingh-300x287Terms Of Engagement Revisited

— I .J.  Singh

Religions become universal when they speak of the human condition and connectivity that transcends racial, national, ethnic, gender, psychosocial, and economic barriers and stereotypes.  By weighing in on such inequities in these matters, religions become eternal.  Then they are no longer just for the time or place when they were first enunciated. Then they remain relevant to people and their lives even centuries later.

It is true that most religions, much of the time, teach about a reality that lies beyond words and concepts and from this understanding they allow us to derive a lifestyle that is harmonious, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and progressive. Most religions have also discovered that defining a precise code for micromanagement of ethical conduct where every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted is a minefield, invariably leading to heightened, even violent disagreement between neighbors.

I had talked about some of these matters a while ago but our world has changed as has our perspective. Hence this updating today.

The New York Times of February 18, 2007 featured an article that started with the August 2006 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey asked American churchgoers to identify issues that their clergy talked about in their sermons. What could be simpler? But many, if not most, of the topics had little to do with heaven, hell or everlasting life; in fact, they addressed matters with more immediate concerns – issues of this life, the here and now.

What type of questions claimed the focus of the clergy and religious teachers?

Ninety-two percent of respondents said their clergy delivered sermons on hunger and poverty, 59 percent spoke on abortion, Iraq rated 53 percent, same sex issues were the subject for 52 percent, environment 48 percent, evolution and intelligent design drew a rating of 40 percent, the same number applied to matters of death penalty, 24 percent reported that stem cell research was talked about, while immigration was the subject of clerical preaching for 21 percent of church-going Americans. This data comes to us from a 2007 survey; surely issues of immigration and economic inequality have defined an important niche since then. Just give an ear to the current political debates.

This is a ten years old survey, and offers quite a pot purée. The priorities and the numbers may have changed since, particularly now that we are in the middle of a highly charged election season in the United States. Surely the general focus on contemporary issues remains. I am also fully aware that this brief summary is at best incomplete.  It doesn’t mention Jews, for example; I am sure they do not miss out on such topics and concerns. This quick recount also doesn’t tell us about the variety within the Christian experience — from the most conservative Christian fundamentalists to the most liberal humanists. But that kind of esoteric variety, important as it is, is not my focus today. What I wish to highlight is that churches are exploring issues that impact the daily lives of their flock and the structure of society.

Surely, these matters need and deserve honest exploration and an ever ongoing national conversation. I am also aware that such topics occupy a central defining place in the current presidential political contests in both the Democratic and Republican parties. I also clearly see that over the past six months most hopefuls in the Republican presidential campaign are focused less on constructive parsing of these and related issues and more on an abusive verbal war of words with those they disagree. Perhaps time will cure them of such shenanigans and skull-duggery but I am not that optimistic.

Look again at the issues that I have briefly listed. These are matters of considerable importance in today’s world; many have changed over the past few years and will continue to evolve.  Some of them, like stem cell research or the Iraq war, were of no concern only a few years ago, while others, like disease, hunger and poverty, have been with us forever.

Keep in mind that since they are an integral part of the greater American milieu, North American Sikhs would share the concerns of the larger society, specifically immigration and education, as well as hunger and poverty. In addition, however, as a relatively new visible minority, Sikhs would also have a stake in job rights, social and legal equality under the law, matters of interfaith relations, as well as the unfortunate sequelae of 9/11.

Not that they are unique to Sikhs, issues such as alcoholism, female feticide and infanticide, questions of caste and clan, spousal abuse and dowry system also demand attention. How to preserve, nurture and transmit our identity and heritage would unquestionably remain on the front burner.

How do we define an equal place at the table of this society remains the very obvious central theme.

Yes, religions speak of eternal values that give us an ethical framework in which to navigate our complex lives.  But to do this successfully, mundane matters of life that the Pew survey explored cannot be ignored or set aside.  Our eternal values must engage with the everyday concerns that drive our ordinary but often desperate lives.  I know that such issues evolve and mutate, our knowledge base and technical skills, too, shift and progress, while answers change.  And surely, at times we will make mistakes and rue the path we have chosen.

We are exploring today some ideas that define the terms that frame the engagement between religion (faith) and life. Religions need to provide us a guiding process, not give us answers etched in stone. It is then that religions work, as T.S. Eliot says, “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.”  What we never want to do is to disconnect the evergreen teachings of religious truths from our contemporary life. If that happens, religious teachings become empty rhetoric, while their practices and traditions are reduced to meaningless, fossilized rituals.

But then, why is it that I have rarely, if ever, heard any conversation on most of these issues within any gurdwara?   Are we Sikhs living in a different universe?

March 22, 2016



Jan 012016

BEYOND CHAMKAUR: Wars, Battles & Memories

I.J. Singh

IJSingh-300x287Around us the world, particularly the Christians are busier than a bee celebrating Christmas.

These are intriguing times for Sikhs across the globe as well. We celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh whose stewardship of the then 200 years old Sikh movement was transformational. He put the finishing touches to the Sikh message. Guru Gobind Singh fought many battles with the forces of that time that were inimical to Sikhi – the Islamists of the day aided and abetted by Hindu chieftains and satraps who were intolerant of the universal but unique message of Sikhism.

Another seminal event continues to connect us to those times – Chamkaur, where the two older sons of Guru Gobind Singh were martyred in battle. Days later the two younger sons were in custody of the Muslim rulers and were sentenced to death.

Many historians, as well as some kathavachaks, look at this as a “lost” battle. For better than 300 years Sikhs worldwide have been commemorating the siege and “fall” of the fort of Chamkaur in December 1705. Our local gurduaras are now in the midst of elaborate commemorations.

And that’s the way most, if not all, historians – Sikhs or non-Sikhs — have looked at it as a historic fall and setback to the Khalsa led by Guru Gobind Singh. My take is more nuanced and different.

History tells us that Anandpur was besieged by an overwhelming force of the Imperial troops and their Hindu ruling allies. Anandpur was vacated by Guru Gobind Singh on the night of December 5th and 6th accompanied by his family and four sons, because the besieging forces had falsely promised the Guru safe passage. The column of Sikhs and their Guru was attacked enroute. They reached the Sirsa River which was in spate. The Guru and his two older sons, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh with a small retinue of Sikhs successfully forded the river and reached Chamkaur on the evening of December 6th. But in the process they got separated from the two younger sons, Zorawwer Singh, barely 9 years old and Fateh Singh who was almost 7, and also their grandmother, the Guru’s mother. Such was the chaos of battle.

History tells us that there were few Sikh warriors with Guru Gobind Singh when he arrived at Chamkaur. With the Guru were his two older sons. The Imperial troops, egged on and abetted by the local Hindu chieftains, saw an unparalleled opportunity to deliver a final lethal blow to the Sikh movement. And they seized the moment. Carpe diem, as they say.

The battle raged fiercely. The numbers of fighters on each side were grossly mismatched. The Imperialist enemy forces were larger than the Sikh defenders by a magnitude. This meant that from within the fort Sikh fighters emerged in groups of five one sally at a time, to engage the enemy and they fought until martyred. Then a new Sikh fighter emerged from the fort to carry the battle forward. Thus, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, the two older sons of Guru Gobind Singh, attained martyrdom.

Days later, because of the perfidy of their attendant Gangu Brahmin, these young boys barely 7 and 9 years old, along with their grandmother were in the custody of the Nawab of Sirhand. At a trial in a kangaroo court where they pointedly refused to recant their faith, the two were sentenced to death and bricked up alive.

This, in a nutshell, ended four promising young lives. These events have become defining markers of Sikhi and the worldwide Sikhs, a nation without borders, has always commemorated the day with intense emotional connection to it. We hear these details at every gurduara across the world every year, and we rue the callousness of those who wielded power. In fact, the four sons – martyrs all, are specifically remembered at every Sikh prayer.

Do these events mark a historic defeat and setback for the Khalsa and Guru Gobind Singh as many historians posit even while they charitably underplay it and gloss over it?

Most readers know the details so I will not touch them any further. Today, I aim to offer you a slightly different perspective on it. My take today is not a tear jerker at all.

These weeks, sermons in gurduaras repeat the message of a setback in Sikh fortunes by the fall of Chamkaur. Just days ago we heard a good one along these lines and then when at home those close to me took the same direction as well, they jolted awake my contrarian instincts.

Why didn’t Guru Gobind Singh and his few surviving Sikhs set up a stand like the small unit of barely 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi 200 years later? In this every Sikh perished in a historic battle with Afghani hordes and won top honors and medals for courage?

Think a moment with me. The war of life offers us a plate full of battles. Ergo any significant war is likely to be composed of many battles.

A good commander will see the whole vista that is the sum of many parts; the larger scene of many possible or active fronts, as well as the particular battle being fought at that specific time; weigh the resources at his command and the relative strength of the enemy. Visualize the long-term repercussions of a contemplated action, and order a strategic change of tactics that allows a resifting and retooling of energy and tactics. Look at any major war and the shifting fronts and tactics that often dot the landscape.

This is how battles are defined and conducted. And I would say that this is what the Guru did, considering that he had only 5 Sikh fighters left with him and they were surrounded in hostile territory by hordes in the thousands. A suicidal mission would have been dramatic but then what …perhaps unproductive.

Allow me to illustrate my view with a trivial but tangential detour and not so dramatic an example to buttress my argument. About 50 years ago I was a student and, like most students, perpetually short of funds. So I looked for a night job. When I appeared for the interview the boss looked askance at my turban; this was a time when I was perhaps the only man with a turban in that part of the United States.

The minimum pay scale then was $1.50 an hour. Without explanation or pause he offered me $1.25. I was flabbergasted but desperate. I did not have the wherewithal to mount a legal challenge, nor was there any community nearby to offer solace, comfort or encouragement. So I accepted the illegally lower wage but kept my turban. My job was to precisely mix chemicals in 50 gallon drums to process thousands of color films every night. (This was way before digital cameras.)   Two weeks later, my boss realized that I was a reasonably educated graduate student and knew sufficient chemistry as well. He promptly doubled my salary and all turned out well.

My justification: It seemed wiser to shift tactics than to engage in a head on battle for which I lacked resources and was unprepared. I felt in my heart that my gentler tactics would work out.

If Guru Gobind Singh shifted tactics at Chamkaur the only question is this: Was the Guru successful in the long run? On that, history offers us an unqualified and resounding “yes.”

Sikhi survived the events at Chamkaur. In fact it was emboldened. Within a few years Sikhs had liberated Punjab from the Imperialists and established a governing system where the people were sovereign and self rule prevailed.

No one can argue with the truism that we all must die, no matter how virtuous, strong or admired in life. But how long does the world, even our most intimate kith and kin, remember us? Perhaps a day, a week, a month or a year; sometimes at memorial meetings for colleagues at the office it may be as little as thirty seconds. In the larger scheme of things these remain merely the blink of an eye.

It has been over 300 years since the happenings at and about Chamkaur and how well do we remember the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh? Every year without fail! The past is a prelude to the future so how long will we continue to remember them? I would say as long as there are Sikhs – through the end of time, I would guess. Let these four sons of the Guru remain our inspiration – yesterday, today and tomorrow. There was no compromise, merely a resourceful shifting of battle grounds and tactics. And this is the question that life often drops in our overfilled inbox.

Now Chamkaur and its history are embedded in the Sikh DNA. There could be no better outcome?

The danger of ignoring such lessons and opportunities is that one can win battles while losing the war.

December 22, 2015


Feb 192015

Is Sikhism Turning Into The Superbowl?

February 3, 2015 by I.J. Singh

I. J. Singh


I.J. Singh

As a moderately devoted fan, each season I spend many a fruitless hour in front of the TV watching American Football.

It is not a game I play at all or understand all that well.  I have been watching it sporadically for better than five decades, but have made little attempt to learn its intricacies.  Even the fundamentals mystify me; then why do I watch it so incessantly.

The television culture promotes spectator sports.  Get your bag of popcorn or potato chips, a six pack of beer or soda, with the remote in hand plop yourself in a comfortable chair in front of the tube, and let your fingers do the walking.

It doesn’t have to be an addiction to football. Other pastimes that I can personally pursue with a modicum of skill and pleasure, such as tennis or squash, would do just as well.  I can then survive or pursue anything or any activity – from the debacle in Iraq and Syria to the “American idol” without moving a major muscle or possessing any measurable skill.  A minimal engagement is demanded of the body or mind.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable then to label such a life largely “a spectator sport?”

What higher duty defines citizenship than participation in the political electoral process of his or her neighborhood, city, state and country?  But news reports tell us that citizen participation continues to decline, while the numbers of so called experts and talking heads on the tube proliferate exponentially.

In a nation of believers, what clearer calling can there be than to participate in matters of one’s religion?  Again, statistics tell us, church attendance keeps falling even while the numbers of those who profess a belief in their religion keep climbing.  There is a growing abyss between professed belief and its practice. So, both our religious as well as civic life may be on the irreversible path of becoming not much more than a spectator sport.

I am embarrassed to admit that my “aha” moment that life was being inexorably reduced to a spectator sport happened not because of some talking heads on television, but while sitting in a gurdwara listening to a pretty good sermon.

I can see that complex ideas are at the core of our civic and religious lives.  It is not difficult to discern how the complex administrative hierarchies of religions evolved and that they exist to assist the followers in their voyage of self-discovery. But haven’t the professionals of religions reduced the disciples to the role of passive followers, nay, spectators of their own faith?

Let me draw my evidence largely from my own faith — Sikhi – though I believe that most of the older established religions are not much different in this matter.  The longer they have been around more is the rot that seems to have set in.

Most people visit their favorite places of worship, sit through the sermon and liturgy, pay the requisite donation, and come home feeling smug that, once again, they have been absolved of their sins.  The visit next week will wash away whatever new grime we/they accumulate over the week.

When good Christian friends of mine argue that the return of Latin mass would be good, I wonder what they mean, because they understand not a word of Latin.  When they insist that only an ordained priest can consecrate the bread at Communion or say the Mass, I wonder if it further diminishes the ordinary follower.

In these matters, Sikhs are no different.  But it was not always thus.

Not so long ago, a Sikh religious service at someone’s home was put on hold for several hours because the performing granthi had been inordinately delayed, and a pastoral alternative was not easily available.  I suggested that we could function just as well without one, and that there was no function that only the clergy could perform while a lay Sikh – man or woman — could not.  But people looked at me as if I had committed blasphemy or, at the very least, a grave social faux pas.

I remember that, not so many years ago, in small community gurdwaras, particularly, outside India, the entire service was conducted by lay people; there were no professional granthis or ragees available.  Now I see that speakers and ragees (liturgical singers) at gurdwaras are, more often than not, professionals.  They do their job and the congregation sits through another day of service.

I wonder if many in the audience (I hesitate to label them a congregation or sangat) remember even one line of a hymn that was sung, or the theme of the sermon!  Sometimes I am tempted to poll the outgoing congregation at the end of the service and ask them exactly such questions.  But my friends wisely dissuade me from such foolishness.  Also, I wonder how I would answer, if the questions were asked of me, and that stops me cold.

However, the gurdwara thus becomes the domain of the granthi and no longer a place of the people.

Sikhism tells me that a gurdwara comes alive into existence when Sikhs of the Guru collect to have a conversation with the Guru — perhaps once in the early morning and once in the evening nearer supper time, sometimes more often.  Joining a Sikh religious service then becomes and remains an inner dialogue of the mind and heart, but one that surely changes a Sikh’s persona.

Remember that where Guru Granth provides the treasure trove and the direction, the keertan (liturgical music) and kathaa (discourse) provide the technology for a Sikh’s path.

But I look around in our modern gurdwara and many in the congregation sit silently.  Are they lost in their own thoughts and travails or is it that they may not understand what is being sung or said.  Perhaps they do not speak the words, for they know not the language or what the words mean.  Predictably then, the mind wanders elsewhere. How then can there be dialogue and engagement with the Guru?

The only aspect of the Sikh religious service that has not yet gone the way of a spectator sport is the community meal (langar) served at the end of each service; it is still largely prepared by volunteers.  But the volunteers are few — far fewer than the number of the attendees — and in many affluent gurdwaras, I see a growing trend of catered meals.

Also, our gurduaras mostly function by a management model that solicits or encourages minimal, if any, input and participation by the sangat.  For the average gurduara goer, matters of gurduara management remains a black box – better left unopened.

In the 1960’s there was great turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church.  Prior to that period, the Mass was always in Latin.  Clearly, for the average believer there was more magic and mystery than understanding to the Roman Catholic rites.  The result was the emergence of the Mass in the vernacular.  That was the doing of Pope John XXIII. Then came the time of Benedict XVI who preferred Latin and thus majesty over understanding.

Are we Sikhs going to wage similar battles, between the immigrant-Punjabi Sikh who viscerally rejects the use of any language but Punjabi in the gurdwara, and those who have grown up outside Punjab or are from varied ethnic backgrounds?  This might seem shocking, but it is true.  I have been at the receiving end of such edicts and demands at many gurdwaras in North America: they brusquely commanded that only Punjabi be spoken within the gurdwara premises during services. (I hope to deal with this another time.)

Come to think of it, ordinary Sikhs in the modern gurdwara have very little to do.  Most Sikhs never even learn the names of the Gurus in sequence, nor do they know how to recite the basics of our liturgy and service or its purpose.  The reason is simple:  every meaningful activity is performed by the clergy and the average Sikh just sits as a silent spectator, hardly ever a participant.  And all this is happening in a religion, which has no formal requirements or need of an ordained clergy because it is indeed a religion of lay people.

Since any religion is, in the final analysis, a way of life, it is self-evident that it has to be a “Do It Yourself” model of activity. The onus, thus, is on the follower.  Whence all the ministers, priests rabbis, mullahs, granthis and pandits – shamans all?

Though born a Hindu, Guru Nanak was equally tolerant of Hinduism and Islam, and just as equally dismissive of the foibles of both.   Had there been a sizeable distribution of followers around from other faiths like Christianity I am sure his attitude would have been equally inclusive or dismissive of their ways as well.

A widely told parable from his life speaks of a time when Guru Nanak was challenged by a Muslim Qazi to prove his open-mindedness by participating in Muslim prayer at the local mosque.  Nanak agreed, but at the stipulated time during prayer declined to stand with the local satrap and the Qazi.

When asked to explain, Nanak’s response blew his questioners away.  He reminded them that their minds were not on God – one was rehashing in his mind a business deal for the purchase of some Arabian horses, the other was preoccupied with the fate of a newborn calf at his farm who might have wandered off near an unguarded well.   To them, like to many, religion had become a ritual and a spectator sport.

Watching someone else run a marathon is not going to endow anyone with the skill or the fortitude to complete the run.

A building does not a gurdwara make; it is people who transform the building into a gurdwara.

How then is ordinary human clay to become a Sikh in our modern gurdwaras?

Now for a bit of tautology:  Religions define a way of life.  When we reduce religion to a spectator sport, what then does life become?


February 2, 2015





 Posted by at 7:49 pm
Mar 212014


I.J. Singh

This column today is not a requiem for anyone in particular.

There are a few “givens” in life.  One that stands out is that we all, each of us, like all that are born will die.  There is no escaping it hence the question that Guru Granth challengingly posits: “What footprints will you leave in the sands of time (“Eh sareera merya iss jug mey aaaye ke kya tudh karam kamaaya,” p 922).

Is it any wonder then that there comes a time for everyone – kings and paupers both – to take stock of life and to try and fashion a legacy that would outlast our transient flesh.  It becomes our last and lasting chance to have a say in how the world – friends, foes and Father Time — will value us.  This is how I see the efforts of many of the presidents of this country to establish libraries or other institutions in their names as soon as they are finished with the highest office that a nation can bestow.

At birth each of us inherits a world with its share of good, bad and the ugly.  We enjoy and treasure the technology and progress that is the legacy of millennia of humans who preceded us.  In the bargain we also get the disease, pestilence, wars and destruction that people have wrought for ages, and their fruits.

We would rather be remembered as good and talented people who left the world a little better than when we came into it, no matter how puny our world is. Taking stock is just as necessary to individuals as it is to businesses, and, at times, just as frustrating, even painful.

But we are humans — fallible, incomplete and weak.  If there is a bit of the divine in us there is also a little of the devil in each.  If to err is human, surely some are more human than others.  All religions teach that only the Creator is perfect.

Hence, the overpowering human compulsion to construct legacies that burnish our persona, enhance our virtues and bury our failings. If only life were that simple. Be careful: anything that can be burnished may also be tarnished.

Let’s revisit some extraordinary people who seem breathtakingly extraordinary in their successes and failures.   Let’ look at the obsessions of a few movers and shakers of the world to explore how fate treats them.  What would their legacy be?

Former President Lyndon Johnson has been center stage in the news recently.  His critics remind us that his life’s mission has become a casualty of the Vietnam War that mushroomed from the misconstrued Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  His daughter and other defenders point to the Johnson sponsored extraordinary social legislation which made revolutionary progress possible in the United States.  It was a continuation of FDR’s vision of the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, upended restrictive immigration policies, and put Medicare into place.  In more ways than one he changed America for the better.  Yet this shining image of the man must coexist with the tarnish to his reputation by the Vietnam War when we examine his visage.  These are two sides of the same coin; one cannot be voided by the other.

This mixed record most likely resulted from Johnson’s fear that withdrawal from Vietnam would diminish his place in history as being the first president to have lost a war.

Similar quirks of character condemn Richard Nixon.  He had the broad vision and the will to act – recall his opening the door to China, and navigating his way out of the Vietnam War.  But forget not his misadventures of Watergate that destroyed his presidency and much of his legacy.

I mention in similar context two icons of the Conservative Right in this country: Ronald Reagan, no matter how revered, deserved considerable tarnish for his Iran-Contra policies; the other icon, Margaret Thatcher of Britain is now being tarnished for her advisory role and possible collusion with Indira Gandhi of India on the latter’s disastrous policies on Sikhs in 1984.  Those events still cast a long shadow on India and its place in the modern world.

I look at the almost 67 year old history of independent India.  Of the many who led the country in those years only three earned international recognition or respect: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister; his daughter Indira Gandhi who was also the most authoritarian and dictatorial of India’s leaders; and now Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh, the first non-Hindu in India’s history to hold that august office, who became Prime Minister in 2004.

Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were respected but not trusted in the international arena and with good reason. At one time Indira Gandhi also suspended India’s parliament and reigned as a despot by fiat. Also, Indira’s ill-thought misadventures in 1984 brought the country to the brink of fragmentation.  The results still haunt us and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

But the Indian power structure still remains in the control of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in a process that has turned participatory democracy on its head.  In place now are cronyism and nepotism at their best.

So, what’s there to treasure or burnish her legacy?

Now nearing the end of his public life Manmohan Singh, too, must weigh the scales of luster and tarnish that will define his place in history.  Manmohan Singh, unlike most heavy weights in the political world is a quiet scholarly man of unquestioned personal integrity and competence, but like most, if not all of us, he is not immune to wondering what his legacy would be now that his day in the sun is almost done.

Gideon Ranchman recently reported that at a press conference where he announced his retirement next year, Manmohan Singh predicted (or should I rephrase  it and say that he hoped?) that “history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media.”  This is what usually comes out of the mouths of failed politicians at their nadir.  Yet, history will surely credit Manmohan Singh with transforming modern India and revolutionizing its economy.

Manmohan is undoubtedly worlds apart from the past and present crop of political leaders of India but he remains a totally puzzling proposition.   His most important work of lasting value in nation building was done as finance minister, before he was anointed Prime Minister.  India was then at the verge of economic collapse.  In an uncharacteristically bleak and honest message to the head of the government then, Manmohan Singh said that “We must convert this crisis into an opportunity to build a new India.”  And the fact is that he did.

Here is a Sikh, internationally respected for his personal competence and integrity, riding a corrupt dysfunctional nation    Here is a turbaned Sikh representing the world’s largest functioning democracy, and negotiating treaties with the likes of France when France does not let turban-wearing Sikhs live there in peace, and India itself continues to deny for the past 30 years even the most rudimentary justice to its Sikh citizens.

In the decade of the 1980’s several thousand Sikhs – men, women and children – across India were killed in a pogrom that is best labeled attempted genocide.  It was not possible to mount such an offensive without the active collusion of the Indian political leaders of that time.  Despite over ten official government inquiries that came about only because of public outrage, today, 30 years later, justice remains both illusive and elusive.

The current Prime Minister of the country, Manmohan Singh, has offered no solace — nothing more than an anemic apology and advice to Sikhs to forget the past and move forward. Never once did he raise his voice for justice, not only for his own people but for all Indians. In fact at the International Human Rights Forum in Vienna (June 24, 1993) he offered the bald faced lie to Sikhs and the world that “…he being Sikh finds no abuses of Human Rights of Sikhs much less any minorities in India.”

Perhaps Manmohan Singh needs to speak with his daughter who works for Amnesty International that has catalogued India’s sins exhaustively.

The only visible good to Sikhi that this Sikh, Manmohan Singh, has done is to strut around in the international corridors of power looking like a Sikh with a turban on his head; that, too, is no small achievement.  So, I don’t minimize this.

During Manmohan Singh’s tenure deserving Sikhs have emerged in India’s public space: The man steering India’s economic progress is a Sikh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia; in this decade for the first time not one but two Sikh Generals commanded India’s vast army, Generals J.J. Singh and now Bikram Singh; India’s face of public diplomacy has been a Sikh, Hardip Singh Puri.  These are not small measures of progress in India where society is increasingly defined by corruption, nepotism and cronyism.  He has transformed the nation economically but on his watch it has descended the depths of a corrupt society faster than at any other time in recent history.

Manmohan Singh, bright and personally uncorrupted as he seems to be, good of intention as he certainly is, rides the nation like a jockey not in command of his steed and that’s the most charitable view that I can offer.

You see, some events continue to tip the scales of luster or rust, burnish or tarnish.                                         

March 15, 2014

 Posted by at 9:22 am
Jan 052014


Guru Gobind Singh Ji has a very special place in the hearts of all Sikhs. He is a father figure for all of us and a great source of inspiration. His teachings and his exemplary life is in fact very relevant to all of us here in America in the 21st century.

In an age of celebrity worship, it is hard to find real heroes to inspire us. Guru Gobind Singh Ji provides us with a shining idol, a real superhero, for us to look up to and emulate. In this fast moving and confusing materialistic society, he shows us a core set of values and the foundation of a lifestyle that can help us to navigate our way and make our lives meaningful.

Guruji has defined for us the framework for living a full and meaningful life that is integrated and balanced. He gave us the image of Sant-Sipahi or spiritual warrior: combining some of the best attributes of the saintly spiritual person: faith, compassion, contentment, self-restraint; with the qualities of a great warrior: valor, dynamism, persistence and courage. We have to integrate the best of opposite polarities that we all have within each one of us.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji, transformed the Sikhs, who were a relatively passive peasant community into a brave freedom loving people who shook the powerful Mughal empire, and played a major role in India’s struggle for freedom against the British and who are now a thriving entrepreneurial community around the world.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji taught us that we must stand up and fight for righteousness and justice. Under him, Sikhs took up arms and became powerful warriors. Sikhs have developed a strong military tradition and have excelled during World War II, and during India’s wars against Pakistan and China.

I do think that the image of Sikhs, and even our own self-image, sometimes overemphasizes this martial or military aspect. Note that in Sant-Sipahi, it is Sant that comes first, then Sipahi. The spiritual and moral message of the Gurus is the foundation of the Sikh lifestyle. In pahul ceremony of “amrit chhakna”, the central part is that the panj pyaras give the  gift of Naam to the initiate. Naam japna and nitnem are the primary requirements of an amritdahri’s lifestyle.  Even in the midst of  key battles, Guru Gobind Singh Ji asked his soldiers to gather around and sing Asa-di-vaar kirtan during a lull.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji did not condone violence; armed struggle was used only as last resort. He makes this very clear in Zafarnama – when injustice goes too far and all other means have been exhausted then, he says, it is righteous to use the sword. In fact at that point it is one’s duty to act.

Under Guru Gobind Singh Ji, Sikhs never initiated a conflict, only responded to attack. He never tried to conquer any territory or create a state.

The Sikh Gurus spoke up against social and political injustice and practiced what we would today call nonviolent activism. As such, those in power often saw them as a threat. It was only after two of the Gurus, Guru Arjan Dev, and Guru Teg Bahadur offered the supreme sacrifice and were martyred that Guru Hargobind Singh and Guru Gobind Singh led the Sikhs to take up arms and defend themselves, after all nonviolent means had clearly been exhausted.

The Kirpan has become an important symbol for Sikhs, reminding us of the importance of standing up for righteousness and placing a very strong value on courage and determination. It does not stand for aggressiveness or violence. We call it kirpan, instead of the usual Indian word for sword, which is “talvar”. Kirpa means mercy, the kirpan of a Sikh is an instrument of mercy to be used only to protect the weak, only for righteous causes.

While Guruji fought against the oppression of the Muslim emperor, he never exhibited any hatred or anger towards Muslims or did anything in a spirit of revenge.

Guruji’s father was executed when he was a child of ten. His four sons were killed, two of them in battle, and the other two cruelly executed. He spent much of his life fighting against the Muslim rulers. And yet, he never stopped teaching us to see the light of God in every human being:
“Mans ki jat sabh eko pehchanbo”
(See all humans as being of one race/caste)

He was always ready to forgive. Love and forgiveness are a key theme in his writings:

“Daya chhima kar preet”
(Practice compassion, forgiveness and love)

And “Jin prem kiyo tin hi prabh payo”
(Love is the only way to find God)

GuruJi teaches us that you can lead a spiritual life and pursue life’s main goal of tuning into the Divine spirit of Waheguru within ourselves, while at the same time you can be fully engaged in an active life, be successful in your field, and be fully involved with your family.

“Re man aiso kar sanyasa”

As a sant sipahi or spiritual warrior, the most important battle that a Sikh wages is an internal one, a constant struggle against the internal enemies of Kam, krodh, lobh moh and ahankar (lust, anger, greed, obsessive attachment and pride), to work on and overcome ones own weaknesses.

Naam Simran is the core of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s teachings. In jaap sahib, he weaves this long beautiful song around hundreds of different names and attributes of God.  Akal Ustat is a compelling composition that is all about the glory of God.

The establishment of Sri Guru Granth Sahib as our living Guru by Guru Gobind Singh Ji was a beautiful gift to us. The concept of Granth and Panth, wherein the Granth Sahib provides us the eternal spiritual guidance, and the Panth: the body of Sikhs acting together and in consonance with the teachings of the Granth Sahib, represents the Guru and can make decisions. This  concept provides a unique framework for Sikhi for all time. It avoids the structures of church and priesthood, which have been the bane of organized religion because they end up pursuing their own vested interests and distort the original concept and purpose of the religion’s founders.

This is very analogous to the democratic framework of a constitution and the electorate. Just like democracy, the Sikh framework of  Granth and Panth can be messy and it is often misused, but it is also resilient and has the capacity of self correction and recovery.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji had a multifaceted personality with amazing strengths in many areas. In short time of 42 years in this world, it is incredible how much he accomplished.




 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Oct 162013

I. J. SinghFOES & FRIENDS: Betwixt & Between

I.J. Singh

Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with many Sikh institutions in the United States; not too intimately but closely enough to see their blemishes, wrinkles and warts.  I have seen them through their good days and bad.  And I include here a fair sampling of gurduaras as well as non-gurduara bodies such as SALDEF (nee SMART), Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, SikhRI, MBSK Foundation, and a couple of Sikh Art & Film groups.

Let it be clearly said that they serve their cause excellently.  Some are almost entirely funded by private resources of one individual, family or a small group; others also draw on their attractive programs to raise public donations.  Money, after all, is the lifeblood of service, no matter how meritorious.

People donate because they believe the cause deserves it.  Gurduara is the basic Sikh institution and, no matter how dysfunctional it may appear, funding rarely suffers.  Gurduaras offer the basics — keertan, religious service and langar, so donors come in all sizes and shapes.

Some institutions exist to burnish our public image.  They are mostly outer-directed to present to the non-Sikh world the richness of the Sikh message; the aim being an equal place at the table for Sikhs and Sikhi in this complex society.  With one exception, for the institutions that I have named here, because of their eye catching societal mission, donations and resources continue to pour in a steady stream.  Theirs is a sexier mission to frame it bluntly.

The one exception in the list above is Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI).  Its mission is the internal development of the Sikh community particularly in the diaspora.  It means that the spotlight is on Sikhs outside Punjab and India with the goal of developing and cementing their connection to and understanding of Sikhi – the language, history, teachings and traditions. The idea being that the better (more informed) Sikhs they become, the more productive citizens they will be.

So far so good!  Sounds like Utopian goals for an ideal existence that every Sikh would support.  But nothing comes without a string attached. SikhRI’s funding by the larger Sikh community as well as acceptance of its excellent programs remains somewhat problematic.

Over a decade of existence a variety of imaginative SikhRI programs such as Sojhi, Webinars, Sidak, Sneha, Workshops and Lectures held worldwide have caught the imagination of young Sikhs and educated professionals.  Yet, SikhRI continues to limp along on financial resources far less than its creative programs demand and deserve.

Sojhi, for instance, is a laboriously developed program that emerged from the blood, sweat and tears of Jasmine Kaur and Harinder Singh.  It gives us a lesson by lesson, lecture by lecture curriculum for teaching and learning Sikhi just as a school would have an academic program to teach history or science.  It has grade levels like any school does; it has guidelines on how to teach and how to train teachers.    And it comes with standards on how to monitor student progress.  It’s the model that students face in studying arithmetic or biology, for instance.

It’s exactly what we need.  So where is the rub? Let’s see what the community response has been and why?

Obviously financial support would not be expected from non-Sikhs.  But I also expect less financial support here from Sikhs than for the other Sikh institutions that I named.  Why?

In my view two major reasons account for the financial penury of SikhRI.

SikhRI focuses on matters that are internal to the community.  We don’t easily see that the better informed Sikhs are the better representatives of Sikhi and would be the better accepted in this society.  Such a connection is not so easy to grasp.

The second truism is that some Sikhs respond angrily/negatively about the content of some SikhRI programs or are unsure of it. Frankly, I am not surprised.  Let see why.

If I explain to a Sikh congregation that yes the Guru Granth repeatedly asks for the boon of applying “the dust of the feet of Gurus to the forehead,” but it does not mean this literally.  Instead it is asking us to walk the path of the Guru.  Gurbani is poetry and has to be interpreted keeping in mind the allegories, analogies and metaphors that we encounter.  What is being advocated here is a state of mind.  But we all know that there are many who translate gurbani literally.  So it is but natural that some listeners would react negatively to our formulations.

If I insist that engagement with gurbani requires more than bowing the head to the Guru Granth; and that it requires reading and cogitation on the word. If I say that Guru Granth is not to be worshipped but reverently read and integrated into a life why should I be distressed that some people react not too kindly to my words?  After all I am standing their lifetime of habit on its head. Remember that our readers come with passionately held positions that will be equally passionately defended.

True that we cannot water down the message here because the crux of our core mandate is to connect Sikhs to their teaching, history and tradition.

Forget not that all across this country there is a plethora of gurduara based Sunday schools that have for years been teaching a modicum of Punjabi language skills and Sikhi in a mélange of history and mythology. Their unspoken response to the SikhRI initiative is likely to be: “We founded and taught gurduara Sunday schools for years and produced your generation of good Sikhs.  Now you want to tell us we don’t know what we are doing and that we should get out of your way?”

Quite naturally the gurduara teachers feel besieged by SikhRI that may appear to be dismissing their activities as misleading distractions.  It is not enough for SikhRI to merely argue that this is not their intent.  My purpose today is not to cavil about who is right and who isn’t.  The merits of the argument are not the issue; perception is important here.

The inter-generational divide has been around as long as mankind.  It is not easy to bridge but it is critical to our future that we attempt to put a link in place.  Why did I pick up this matter today? Because not only does it have ramifications for SikhRI but it is equally important to our gurduaras and the future of our community in the diaspora.

Briefly, I am suggesting that SikhRI initiative is one of a kind that deserves a welcome and serious hearing.  On the other hand the community’s history of involvement is important and needs to be valued.  Together the two hold great promise for the way forward.

Impassioned differences sometimes can enhance understanding; they are not always harmful.    Witness the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics (New York Times, October 15, 2013).  Of the three economists who share it, Robert Shiller predicted in 2005 the coming housing bubble and its danger to the economy while his co-nobelist, Eugene Fama, says “I don’t even know what a bubble means.  These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning.”

Keep in mind that, no matter the subject, be it banking, chemistry or religion, if a lesson doesn’t raise a little storm in the listener’s mind then the session is likely wasted.  It is like casting a pebble on still waters; if it raises no ripples then was a stone even cast?  The same relationship holds between an idea and the mind of the student.

Reasoning thus I see that the so called foe may not be my enemy.  We may be allies on the same side of the issue since both want to enhance understanding of Sikhi and celebrate it.  What we need is to trust the other even though we each come from a different path, place and mindset.

If we can tolerate each other and grow together we will enrich ourselves and Sikhi at the same time – and that’s a given.  Rejecting or abusing each other is not Sikhi.  We have to treat such dissonance as the storm in a tea cup that it is and maintain the high moral ground for it’s going to be a long never-ending ride.  We will have to learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable and to work through our disagreements with goodwill and the patience of Job.

But in the meantime be assured that fund raising for SikhRI would remain harder.  And that’s the cross that SikhRI will have to bear.

But this too shall pass.

October 17, 2013

 Posted by at 8:22 pm
Oct 122013

(Nishaan (Nagaara) Issue IV, 2012 Pages2-4, 2012)Editorial


I.J. Singh

The spell of the past is always enchanting, sometimes empowering. Is it a prison or can it set us free? History never leaves us.  It makes us what we are, so it is ever with and within us.  And we continue to make history every day.

Today, I focus on how we interpret some of the reality that surrounds and shapes us.  Perhaps close to two out of 25 million Sikhs live outside the Punjab and India, with as many as almost a million making their home in North America and the UK.  Keep in mind that Sikhs of India and those in the diaspora are living in very different worlds: the context is different as is the language, culture, music, cuisine, social mores, etc.  My purpose is to briefly explore Sikhi in North America and India, to see how the two continue to evolve while emerging from common roots but impacted by very different social and cultural realities.


A thoughtful analysis of Sikh presence in North America by Gurinder Singh Mann, one of the few US based academicians of Sikh Studies, traces the Sikh community from our beginnings in Stockton in 1906 to the 2012 shooting of Sikhs in the gurdwara in Wisconsin.

Horrendous as the shootings were they were neither unique nor rare in this society.  I will not list the plethora of mass shootings and killings of unarmed people by crazed killers with easy access to guns.  Keep in mind that we have seen more fatalities on the streets over the past decade than all the American soldiers killed during the same time in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As victims we do not stand alone in the more than 200 year old history of this nation. Just Google the matter; it will open your eyes.  The truth is uglier than we think. We know this was once a country of Native Americans with a rich culture before the Pilgrims, other Europeans and slaves created these United States, but in the timeline of history this is young nation of less than 300 years.

Note that Sikhs have had a remarkable presence in North America for more than a century; for instance, they worked on the Panama Canal in 1903-04. But it was different country then.  The Asian Exclusion Act prevented Asians from owning land or becoming citizens.  Interracial marriages were against the law and Indians could not bring spouses from the home country.  (Many Sikhs settled in California and so, many of them married Mexicans, instead.)  Remember also that most of these Sikhs were poorly educated, if at all; farming jobs often at subsistence wages was how they made their way.

They struggled mightily.  Their primary goal was one of free people everywhere:  independence from serfdom, the right to vote and own property.  Their struggles have been well documented by scholars and, in time, they prevailed.  However, they did not neglect India’s struggle for independence from the British and contributed memorably to it.

Notwithstanding myths created by Hollywood and its oaters, the West was not opened by the likes of John Wayne alone: Italian, Chinese and Sikh laborers had a hand in it. It took almost half a century for the discriminatory laws to change – only in the mid-20th century.

After the Second World War, Sikhs started arriving in the USA as students and professionals, first in a trickle and then a mighty stream when immigration quotas were set aside in the early 1970s to be replaced instead by qualification and ability.  These Sikhs are the founders of the Sikh communities and the over 200 gurduaras that adorn this country’s landscape today.

The progeny of this generation is the product of Sikhi but more connected to this culture, language, cuisine, even music, or habits of thinking than to any values or worldview rooted in India. Inevitable, wouldn’t you say? But it surely sets up tension and gap, not easily spanned between immigrant parents and their progeny.  Again inevitable!  All immigrants face this reality, no matter where they came from; we are neither alone nor the first.

Immigrants create institutions to capture the sights, smells and sounds of home that may be thousands of miles away.  For their progeny the home is different, as are the sights, smells and sounds. Christianity has traveled the globe and now has over 250 denominations and sects, some will say over a couple of thousand (it depends on how you are counting).  The Jews, too, show a wide variety in their understanding of the faith; some sects refuse to recognize variants of their faith and label them as heretics.  The way Christianity is practiced in America is not the same as it is in Italy, France, Germany or Haiti.  My comments here apply pretty much to all existing religions – from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, to myriad other faiths of mankind.

With time and travel interpretations come to differ and seemingly contradictory practices take hold in differing cultures.  In the final analysis it is the culture, language, cuisine, music and the habits of the heart that give structure to communities, religions and nations.  Don’t forget that it is religion that is often the binding glue that unites people as a community.

With that in mind I would include human movements like Communism or Socialism and even strident Atheism in my list of religions.  In this, my definition of religion is more expansive.

Such is the history of all religions and of all people.   Even as offshoots of the same stream, many rivulets, sects and denominations arise from a single stream and then continue to diverge as they travel along.

When did humans embark on their earthly journey?  Unfortunately to this questions there are as many, if not more, answers as there are religions. Humans now inhabit every continent. Science tells us that we broke off from the Chimp evolutionary line perhaps 5 million years ago.  A primitive human (Homo Habilis) dates from about 2.2 million years ago; Homo Sapiens may have appeared about 250,000 years ago.  Mitochondrial DNA and fossils indicate that the first humans originated in Africa some 200,000 years back. The Biblical date of Creation, 6000 years ago, finds no scientific support and is best metaphorically interpreted.

Modern evolutionary biology points to a single source in Africa for the origin of human populations.  But now thousands of years later what makes us into the many unique populations are matters like language, culture, geography, climate, cuisine and history.  They formed and shaped us, and continue to do so, if ever so slowly.

I offer you equally simple ways to look at such transformations of religions.  I look at Sikhism, its pristine message and its progressive worldview, way beyond the narrow interpretations of reality of many other faiths of mankind.

In the final analysis a man’s religion is an individual’s choice.  What I mean is that religion provides a lifestyle governed by a set of behaviors and rules, much as a family, a community or a nation is.  A code of conduct delineates a community or a population group from others: neighboring communities who may be like us in many ways but also unlike us in some critical detail.  It is like fences between neighbors that are absolutely essential, but they must never become walls that shut neighbors off from each other.  Yet, it becomes very much an individual onus how to interpret a particular directive or doctrine of one’s community or religion.  How I should obey a particular recommendation or a specific ukase is such that I have to make my own choice about it.

Simply stated, I suggest an experiment.   Invite some followers of the many existing religions – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Sikhi, or a lesser known brand.  Now ask each person of a given faith: “What it means to you to be what you are – a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh or what have you?” I am certain even in the face of a preponderance of agreement among the members of the same religion, there will emerge subtle differences in how the individual members of the same faith will answer.

In other words, the answers will be specifically personalized by each member.  Some individual practices, feelings or expectations of a religion will reveal telling differences.  Yet there will be enough commonality for them to embrace and stay under the same label.

I can bet that Sikhs born and raised in the Punjab and those now growing up in the diaspora will show subtle but unmistakable differences in matters that some may find critically more important than others. Where the differences emerge from is not so difficult to discern.

I submit that Sikhs of India and those in the diaspora are living in very different worlds: the context is different as is the language, culture etc.  I illustrate my view by a self-evident example.

Today, better than 90 percent of Sikhs exist in the country where the religion arose – India.  The value system and the governmental structure differ from that of, say Great Britain, Canada and the United States, in major ways.  The expatriates interact with Judeo-Christian communities and spiritual traditions, while Sikhs in India are more intimately impacted by Hindu society and to a lesser account by Islamic presence.

Think, for a moment, of the Shromini Gurduara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the premier Sikh elective body in India.  It came into existence during the British colonization of India and was created under British law.  India is now independent but the law defining the scope of the SGPC still exists.  This means that since its formation in 1925, for over a century, this organization acts under charter and authority of the government of India.  I know of no other religion anywhere that is subservient to a secular government!

The SGPC, in many ways makes crucial decisions for Sikhs, how to define them under law.  To the Indian Sikh the hand of the government in Sikh affairs may or may not be galling but to Sikh living outside India it is both unwanted and unwarranted.

Another example:  the Indian Sikh is materially affected if there are quotas for recruitment into the Indian armed services, education institutions or job opportunities.  To a Sikh living abroad those issues have meaning but the more critical reality is how to deal with similar matters where they live, for instance in American society where laws are different as is the process of how to deal with them.

The issues are similar for Sikhs anywhere or everywhere: whether they are of jobs, housing social justice, and the killings of 1984.  The question always is how to change the existing institutional framework to recognize an equal place at the table of society for all, including Sikhs. The growing divergence between Sikhs in India and Sikhs abroad comes from the societal and governmental institutions, the culture, language and the legal framework that exists or can be constructed to respond.

That is why I am absolutely wonderstruck at the institutions a new generation of young Sikhs in the diaspora have founded such as the SALDEF (Sikh-American Legal Defense & Educational Fund), Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI).  They exist to help create for the Sikhs an equal place at the table of this complex society.

The first two are largely dedicated to legal issues ranging from bullying in schools to hate crimes, job discrimination and recruitment into the US Armed Services.  The primary mission of the United Sikhs is to aid the larger community (Sikhs and non-Sikhs) during disasters like floods, earthquakes by aid and medical missions etc.  SikhRI has a unique mission of internal development of the community.  It recognizes that Sikh immigrants are often poorly informed of the fundamentals of their own faith and, therefore, inadequate representatives of their rich faith. The better Sikhs they are, the better citizens they would become.

Unquestionably, if Sikhi is to remain vibrant and universal it must find roots outside the soil, culture, language, cuisine, music, people and worldview of the Punjab and India.  If Sikhi is to remain eternal its message must speak to us today as it did to countless others 300 to 500 years ago.

That’s why I find that India-based Sikhs and Sikhs abroad are on a divergent path – but that’s the way to adaptation and progress without compromising the fundamentals. It is also necessary to keep in mind that we remain branches of the same tree and the same roots. The connection has to be nurtured; it should never sunder.

How best to define this path?  In my view by creating several semi-autonomous regional, national and, finally, supranational organizations that collectively focus on three realities: (1) think globally, (2) act locally and (3) always nurture the fundamentals.



 Posted by at 6:43 pm
Sep 202012

Sri Guru Granth Sahib – A brief Overview

Jessi Kaur

On September 1, 1604 Sri Guru Arjan Dev completed the compilation of Adi Granth and installed it in Sri Harimandir Sahib. This was a very significant event in Sikh history that gave us two important institutions. Harimandir Sahib became a special center for Sikh congregations and a tradition of unique reverence for our scripture was established.

In 1708 when Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of Guruship and proclaimed the Adi Granth as the future Guru, he created a new paradigm for his followers. The concept of the Guru as a spiritual teacher was now expanded to include the Gurus’ teachings as the living guide and Guru.

The enhanced definition of the teachings as the Guru, although not formally instituted thus far, was implicit in the writings of the earlier Gurus. Guru Ram Das had foreshadowed the establishment of Bani as the Guru when he stated in Raag Nat:

Bani guru guru hai bani, vich bani amrit saare Gurbani kahe sewak jan mane, patakh guru nistaare

Sri Guru Granth Sahib 982

The Bani is Guru, and Guru is the Bani. Within the Bani, the Ambrosial Nectar is contained

When the devotee adheres to the teachings, the Guru manifests and saves the follower

While in the Indian tradition, the Guru was always viewed as a living person, the Bani or the Word as the

word of God was not a foreign concept in the western traditions.

John 1:1 (New American Standard Bible)

Dhur ki bani aayee Tin sagli chint mitaee

Sri Guru Granth Sahib.m.5 page 628

In Judaism, the Old Testament represents the creative act as the word of God (genesis1:3; Psalm32:9)

Sri Guru Granth Sahib, too, equates the Word or the primal sound with the Creative Force.

Keeta pasao Eko kavao

Sri Guru Granth Sahib; Page 3

The entire Universe was created with one Word

In the 1430 pages of the scripture, the newest revelation that came to Guru Nanak, the Sikh Gurus that followed him, and several Hindu and Muslim saints that preceded Guru Nanak, is recorded as the Word of the Creator.

In Raag Tilang, Guru Nanak states;

Jaisi mein aavey khasam ki bani taisra kari byan vey lalo

As the Word of the Lord comes to me, so I have stated O lalo

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with

God, and the Word was God.

In Sri Guru Granth Sahib Guru Arjan Dev in Raag Sorath


The Bani emanated from the primal Lord, it eradicates all


The hymns and verses in Sri Guru Granth Sahib cover six centuries of saints from different regions and traditions. To name a few, Jaidev and Sheikh Farid lived in the 12th century, Namdev and Trilochan in the thirteenth century, and Kabir also pre‐dates Guru Nanak and lived in the fourteenth century. The Sikh Gurus span from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. Amongst the castes represented in Sri Guru Granth Sahib are Brahmin (Ramanada), Vaishya (Trilochan), Jat (Dhanna) Sadhna ( a butcher), Ravidas (a cobbler) and Kabir (He was the illegitimate child of a Brahmin widow who tossed him away; he was found and raised by a Muslim weaver). Saints representing the two prominent religions‐ Hinduism and Islam‐ find place of equal reverence in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

In establishing Sri Guru Granth Sahib as an embodiment of the Guru and including the Word that was revealed to saints and poets of different castes, faiths, regions, and times, Guru Arjan Dev, the complier of the scripture, and Guru Gobind Singh, who established the scripture’s spiritual authority, gave many strong messages that are extremely relevant to our times. Caste, creed, religion, time are irrelevant in the sphere of spirituality. The Word is timeless and continues to be revealed through the centuries to saints and sages of different social orientation. No matter to whom it is revealed, in what language, dialect or under what social conditions, the true Word bears the same message. In every revelation it resonates the same strain. No matter where it emanates, it deserves the same respect.

The word in Sri Guru Granth Sahib comes to us expressed in poetic devotion. It is set to musical compositions – raagas and meters. With the exception of the Jap Ji and the Sawayyas and Saloks at the end, the

entire Sri Guru Granth Sahib has been classified into raagas and raaginies. Furthermore, instruction is given regarding the beat, and in the instance of certain compositions (Vars), the tune in which the verses are to be rendered is also stated. There are 31 raagas in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The origin of some of them is attributed to the Gurus. A change of tune and meter is indicated by “partal”, perhaps because often the verses contained in these compositions make the switch to multiple thoughts.

Guru Nanak pioneered the tradition of singing the hymns. Legend goes that he would ask his companion Mardana to play the rabab (a string instrument) while he channeled the Word in mystical verses. Guru Arjan Dev encouraged the tradition of vocal and instrumental music amongst the Sikhs. The legend goes that when Satta and Balwanda the musicians of the Guru’s court, arrogantly refused to sing, Guru Arjan Dev sang the verses himself and encouraged the sangat to learn to sing and play instruments as well.

The rich musical heritage of Sri Guru Granth Sahib has a lot to offer scholars who choose to explore the source, structure and significance of its raagas, meters, beats, and partals, but it is the core message of the scripture that is of paramount importance and relevance to our inner journey and emancipation from this world. Music is secondary to the teachings, and is to be looked upon only as a tool for maximizing the joy of chanting.

Raaga vich sri raag hai je sach dhare pyar

Sri Guru Granth Sahib M.3 page 83

Amongst the raagas, Sri Rag is the best only if it inspires love for the true one

Sorath sada suhaavni je sacha man hoay

Sri Guru Granth Sahib M.1 page 642

Sorath is beautiful when the mind is imbued with the Truth

First and foremost Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a repository of spiritual wisdom and mystical experiences of saints‐ poets who recount the ecstasy of the union with their Beloved. While it explores the theories of the origin of the Universe, only to say that the Creator alone knows the time and origin of the Universe that has been created and destroyed many times; debunks meaningless rituals, renunciation, austerities and self‐ mortification as spiritual practices; in its quintessential teachings it offers a road map on how to live in divine consciousness and evolve to our purest essence while living as a householder.

On the second‐to‐last page of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Arjan Dev compares the scripture to a platter and tells us what it holds:

Thaal vich tin vastu payeo sat santokh vicharo Amrit naam thakur ka payeo jis ka sabas adharo Jo ko kave je ko bhunche
Tis ka hoye udharo

Sri Guru Granth Sahib M.5 page 1429

Upon this platter three things have been placed Truth, contentment, reflection
Also on the platter is placed the nectar of the Naam

The foundation of everything

The placement of Truth as the number one ingredient on this spiritual offering (platter) is significant. An intimate relationship with the True Creator and practicing integrity at all levels is the beginning of the

spiritual journey. Without contentment there is constant agitation and pain on the road to nowhere. Self‐reflection and thoughtful exploration speeds up the engine of self‐discovery. Without the conscious awareness of the Naam, none of the above can exist.

It is not a co‐incidence that Guru Nanak’s moolmantar defines the One manifested reality of the Creator as the only Truth that is, was, and shall abide. It is also significant that above all virtues Guru Nanak places the virtue of living truthfully.

Sacho ureh sab ko upar sach aacha

Sri Guru Granth Sahib M.1 page 62

Truth is high, higher still is truthful living

There is one Creator, formless and faceless who is present and visible in every particle of creation. Everything that happens is according to the Will of the Creator that is synonymous with Naam, the essence of this bountiful, beautiful energy. Our existence is transitory but real. We are here to evolve to the purest consciousness that we emanated from. We are challenged by five vices that have also been placed within us by the Creator: lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego. Life is a playground in which we have to vanquish the vices through applying the Guru’s teaching to our lives. This is ultimately possible only through grace, but individual effort to inculcate goodness is stressed. Compassion is the cornerstone of spirituality, and forgiveness a trait of the Divine that we must practice. Nothing is born and nothing dies. It is all a play. There are many galaxies beyond our planet and solar systems. We cannot fathom the fathomless one; we can only praise, adore, worship, and seek guidance. Prayers are heard. However we reap what we sow. And,

therefore, it is foolish to condemn anyone or play the blame game. Life is a continuum, and until we get it, we will keep coming back to learn our lessons.

As the custodians of a scripture that has a message for all of mankind, it is our responsibility and duty to share it with the world to bring about a better understanding of the Truth. We can only preach or share what we have imbibed and practiced. Are we ready for the challenge?

 Posted by at 6:02 am
Sep 082012

Guru Nanak’s Message for today’s Flat, Interconnected  World


Inder M. Singh

Chairman, Chardi Kalaa Foundation





Five hundred years ago in Northern India, Guru Nanak preached a beautiful universal message of faith, love and truthful living. His message was not meant for a particular religious or ethnic group. He addressed all humanity.

In this talk, I would like to look at his teachings and life in the context of the current global environment and the challenges that face us, and see what kind of insights and prescriptions he offers to us in today’s flat, interconnected world.

Long before jet travel and the World Wide Web, Guru Nanak set out to do the next best thing – he physically traveled much of the world on foot and by boat, for many years, making four epic journeys known as “Udasis”.  He journeyed west through Mecca and Baghdad, north to Afghanistan and Tibet, East as far as Assam and South all the way to Sri Lanka. There have been no more than a handful of people besides Guru Nanak and Marco Polo who are known to have traveled through so much of the pre-Industrial Revolution world. Everywhere he went he “networked”, in current parlance, with a wide range of spiritual seekers, scholars and leaders of many different faiths and sects.

We will see how Guru Nanak’s message and values, formulated hundreds of years ago, are truly in tune with the modern notions of an egalitarian, democratic society which values individual freedom and dignity, coupled with personal responsibility and social awareness. His revolutionary universal approach to the conflicting religious movements of his time provide a compelling roadmap for the promotion of interfaith engagement and mutual respect, and for overcoming the barriers that divide humanity in today’s global environment.

Guru Nanak’s message focused on the core principles of spirituality, which are at the heart of most faiths.  He proclaimed faith in one loving and just God who creates and nurtures all living beings. God as described by Guru Nanak is a formless, all-pervading  spiritual force shared by all religions, who is beyond our human limitations of fear, hatred or greed. We should focus on the shared essential elements of all faiths rather than the more superficial differences that separate them:

ਸਰਬ ਧਰਮ ਮਹਿ ਸ੍ਰੇਸਟ ਧਰਮੁ ॥
ਹਰਿ ਕੋ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਿ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਕਰਮੁ ॥

Of all religions, the most exalted
is to worship the Lord and do good deeds.

People of faith can emphasize the shared values of different religions, and work together towards a better world.

The main goal of human life, according to the Guru, is spiritual growth that leads to awakening the Divine within ourselves and ultimately, to achieve a Unitive consciousness, a state of being in tune with naam, the Universal Spirit of God. Such a naam-conscious being sees the Real-self, which is the common divine spark within all, and is one with God and His creation.

Guru Nanak taught that we are all are children of the One Divine Creater. People of faith should recognize the Divine Light in every one. So long as someone fails to see the Divine in others, and holds feelings of hatred or contempt in his heart, he will never be able to fully experience the Divine Presence within himself.

He declared that social ranks based on religion, race, gender, class or caste, were meaningless and hatred, discrimination or ill-treatment based on such labels was immoral.

Although the primary focus of Guru Nanak’s teachings is spiritual, the path he preached is a balanced, integrated one that combines internal, spiritual enlightenment with an active, engaged life.

Divinely inspired beings can and should be a force for good in society, according to Guru Nanak:

“Brahma gyani parupkar umaha”

The Enlightened God-conscious person takes delight in doing good deeds for others.


Guru Nanak’s message was carried on through nine Gurus who followed him. They led the evolving Sikh community through the next two tumultuous centuries, and in the process they have provided powerful real-life examples of living by the principles taught by Guru Nanak as well as how to apply them to a range of different challenging situations.

Sikhs believe that all ten Gurus represented the spirit of Nanak and spoke with his authority. The quotations I am using here are by Guru Nanak himself, or in some cases by one of the Gurus who followed him, and whose words are enshrined in the Sikh scripture –  the Guru Granth Sahib.


Today’s Flat, Interconnected World – Challenges and Opportunities


Our world has been shrinking since the industrial revolution with improvements in transportation and communications. But more recently, the world has become dramatically flatter and much more interconnected with the end of the cold war, economic globalization and the widespread adoption of the Internet and web technologies, including social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. We are at a major transformational period, which is full of both opportunities and challenges for humanity.

Freer global trade, more efficient use of capital and labor across national boundaries, widespread access to knowledge and greater opportunities for innovation have all led to a global economic boom, which may be easy to forget in the midst of the current economic crisis.

This has provided a great opportunity for the parts of the world that had been left behind in the industrial revolution to start to start catching up with the industrialized West. Millions of people in the emerging nations like China and India are being raised out of poverty and joining the middle class. At the same time the advanced nations are facing a crisis as their workers have to compete in a global labor market.

People in even the poorest and most remote parts of the world have much greater access to knowledge, and to information about the rest of the world. This is leading not only to greater economic opportunity and empowerment, but also greater social and political awareness.

We see this in the growing protest movements against totalitarian and corrupt governments, such as the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

Increased mobility and immigration is leading to societies becoming more heterogeneous than ever before. Demographic trends in developed countries leading to lower birth rates and aging populations are leading to increased immigration into many of these countries. In the past, most people lived in societies that were fairly homogeneous. With the rise of pluralistic societies around the world, religions and cultures have come into conflict in many ways. We see a rise in fundamentalism and religious bigotry, as well as a backlash against immigration and the inroads by foreign cultures. The rise of global Islamic terrorism, and the post 9/11 responses to it confront the world with one of the biggest challenges of our time.

In addition to religion, differences based on race, culture and language continue to cause conflict around the world. Pluralistic societies appear to be the future of mankind, but we still have a lot to learn about resolving the differences and conflicts between the different sections of society. Women, not exactly a minority, representing as they do half of all humanity, continue to face severe discrimination and mistreatment in large parts of the world in spite of recent advances in the western world.

Economic disparities and the potential shortages of critical natural resources such as oil and water loom as additional areas of potential global conflict.

The rapid pace of economic growth in China, India and other emerging nations is putting more pressure on our planetary environment, and exacerbating the threat of climate change.

Now let look at how Guru Nanak’s message addresses many of these issues.


Interfaith Dialog and Understanding


With the rise of pluralistic societies around the world, religions and cultures have come into conflict in many ways.  Different faiths have to learn how to get along through greater interfaith dialog and understanding. Instead of exacerbating the divisions by taking narrow-minded, divisive approaches to each other’s faiths, people of faith should be able to join hands in promoting fairness and justice around the world and be a force for world peace,

Interfaith dialogue and cooperation have been a key part of Sikhi since the time of Guru Nanak, long before the birth of what is now called the interfaith movement.

At a time when the environment in India was full of conflict between Hinduism and Islam, he laid the foundation for the Sikh faith with a universal message for all humanity, emphasizing equality for all, independent of race, creed, caste or gender.

He taught that all are created by the same one God, whether we call him Raam, Allah or by any other name.  “See the Divine Light in all,“ was his message. “There are no strangers or enemies.”

It is said that he started his mission with the message that “there is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman”.  A popular couplet from the time of Guru Nanak illustrates the love and high regard of both Hindus and Muslims for him:

Baba Nanak shah fakir Hindu ka guru Musalmaan ka peer

Nanak the holy man Is the guru of the Hindus and the pir (or spiritual teacher) of the Muslims.


The Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture is a unique example of this univeralist attitude. It includes hymns written not only by Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus, but also compositions by both Hindu and Muslim religious thinkers, as well as writings by inspired beings from different social backgrounds including those considered by Hindus to be untouchables. It is the only scripture, which includes and sanctifies texts of people belonging to other faiths, whose spirit conformed to the spirit of Sikhism.

The holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple at Amritsar has four doors, each facing a cardinal direction, to indicate that all are welcome. The cornerstone of the Golden Temple was laid by Mian Mir, a celebrated Muslim Sufi saint.

An example of religious tolerance unparalleled in history was the personal sacrifice of Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru after Nanak, who gave his life to protect the right of freedom of religion for the followers of a religion other than his own.  Aurangzeb, the Muslim ruler at the time went on a crusade to convert all his subjects to Islam by force, starting with Kashmir. Threatened with forced conversion to Islam or facing death, a delegation of Kashmiri Hindu religious leaders approached Guru Teg Bahadur. The Guru took up their case before the Muslim emperor, and accepted martyrdom, refusing to convert to Islam. The event was the seed of the process that led to the downfall of the Mughal empire, and made possible the survival of Hinduism in India.

The Guru Granth Sahib condemns vilifying of the religions of others

bed kateb kaho mat jhuthe, jhoota jo na beechaaray

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran are false.  Those who do not contemplate their scriptures  are the ones who are false.”


Addressing Conflict and Discord


The world at the time of Guru Nanak was very different from today, but there was no shortage of conflict between different religions as well as between ethnic and social classes.

As we will see, his response to these conflicts as well as to injustice, social inequities other issues has much to teach us today.

He advocated a principled life, one that is directed not only to personal spiritual growth and salvation, but also to being an active, contributing member of society and a positive force for the welfare of the community. A Naam-conscious person, one who follows the path shown by Guru Nanak, sees the universal Divine light in all. Such a person is incapable of hatred, discrimination, or being judgmental of any individual or group based on race, caste, gender, religion, nationality, wealth or social status.


na k] b{rI nhI ibgana sgl s;ig hm kxu bin AaeI .1.

j] pRB kIn] s] Bl mainX e[h sumit saWU t[ paeI .2.

sB mih riv rihAa pRBu e[k{ p[iK p[iK nank ibgsaeI .3.8.


I see no stranger, I see no enemy – I get along with everyone. || 1 ||

Whoever  God has  created, I accept as good. This is the sublime wisdom I have obtained from the Holy and Wise. || 2 ||

The Divine Light of God is pervading in all. Beholding Him, Nanak blossoms forth in joy. || 3 || 8 || (SGGS p. 1099)



The Naam-conscious person overcomes his own haumai or ego and is not is not driven by anger or a desire for revenge. He can be a force for peaceful resolution of conflicts through amity and discussion rather than violence:


PrIwa bur[ wa Bla kir gusa min n hDaie .

w[hI r]gu n lgeI pl{ sBu ikCu paie .78.


Fareed, answer evil with goodness; do not fill your mind with anger.

Your body shall not suffer from any disease, and you shall obtain everything. (SGGS p. 1381)


He is motivated towards acting for the welfare of others, in other words,  for social causes.


bRhm igAanI prxupkar xumaha .

bRhm igAanI k{ h]ie su Bla .


The God-conscious being delights in doing good deeds for others.


The God-conscious being acts in the common good. (SGGS pg 273)


Following the path shown by Guru Nanak, enlightened Naam-conscious beings would address many of  today’s global challenges by working for global fairness and justice, equality and freedom for all, and for tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The best approach to resolving conflicts would be through dialog and debate instead of the use of force.

Of course this doesn’t always work. There is evil in the world. Many people in positions of power are driven by other negative drives. Guru Nanak also showed us that we must be willing to stand up to evil and injustice.

Social activism and combating social and political injustice has historically been an essential part of Sikhi. Guru Nanak did not turn a blind eye to political repression or consider it outside the realm of religion, but undertook political protest through his writings, speaking out against the cruelty of rulers. He wrote a number of passages about the Mughal invasion of India by Babar, who became the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty which ruled much of India for over two centuries, and he described the brutalities that he personally witnessed. He condemned exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful and spoke up for fairness and justice for all. Individual freedom, including freedom of religion, was an important right for which Guru Nanak and Gurus after him carried on a major struggle.

The fearless and outspoken criticism of injustice and tyranny by Guru Nanak and the Gurus who followed him was seen by the rulers as a threat. Guru Nanak and Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, underwent imprisonment at the hands of the Mughal emperors, while Guru Arjan and Guru Teg Bahadur, the sixth and ninth Gurus, were executed at the orders of the rulers. They demonstrated, through these magnificent examples of personal sacrifice, the application of nonviolent protest to address social and political injustice.

Peaceful protest based on principle, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices can be a powerful means of political transformation. This has been successfully demonstrated in recent history by Mahatma Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

However, there are times when all peaceful attempts fail and force is the only solution against evil and injustice. Few would argue that evil wrought by Hitler should have been opposed only through peaceful protest. The actions in Bosnia and more recently in Libya provide additional contemporary examples of necessary use of force by the international community.

After the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh decided that the time had come for the use of force to oppose injustice and tyranny. He declared that when all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword. In fact, it would be immoral and cowardly to submit without a fight.

Guru Gobind Singh transformed the Sikhs, who were a relatively passive peasant community into a brave freedom loving people who shook the powerful Mughal empire, and were able to put a stop to the recurring invasions of India by Muslim invaders from the west.  They also played a major role in India’s struggle for freedom against the British.

It is important to emphasize that Guru Gobind Singh did not condone violence – armed struggle was used only as a last resort after all attempts at peaceful resolutions failed. He makes this very clear in his composition Zafarnama – when injustice goes too far and all other means have been exhausted then, he says, it is righteous to use the sword. In fact at that point it is one’s duty to act. Under Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhs never initiated a conflict, only responded to attack. He never tried to conquer any territory or create a state.

We have seen that the Sikhi answer to dealing with conflict, discord and injustice provides three approaches:


  1. Resolve conflict though discussion and debate, based on mutual respect and goodwill. Naam-conscious beings who see the divine light in all can play a major role in bringing this about this kind of resolution.


  1. Peaceful nonviolent protest is called for when those in positions of power and authority are driven by their haumai, and are not amenable to solutions based mutual respect. This requires commitment and personal sacrifice.
  2. When all else fails, armed struggle against injustice and tyranny, and in defense of liberty is called for.


Inequity and Discrimination


Recognize the Divine light of God in each individual, and treat all equally without discriminating against anyone based on race, caste, religion, gender or social position. This is one of the most basic teachings of Guru Nanak. This revolutionary concept hit at the very foundations of caste bound Indian society.

Where Hindus justified the caste system based on religious texts, Guru Nanak emphasized that there are no such distinctions in the eyes of  God.

jaNhu j]it n pUChu jatI Aag{ jait n h[ .1. rhaxu .


Recognize the Lord’s Light within all, and do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter. || 1 || (SGGS p. 349)


The Sikh scriptures declare that all men, and women for that matter, are created equal – like pots of different sizes, shapes and colors fashioned from the same clay by God, the Cosmic Potter:

Avil Alh nUru xupaieAa kuwrit k[ sB b;w[ .

e[k nUr t[ sBu jgu xupijAa kxun Bl[ k] m;w[ .1.

maoI e[k An[k Ba:it kir sajI sajnhar{ .

na kCu p]c maoI k[ Ba:d[ na kCu p]c ku;Bar{ .2.

sB mih sca e[k] s]eI its ka kIAa sBu kCu h]eI .



In the beginning, Allah created the Light; from that light, He has created all mortal beings.

From the One Light, the entire universe welled up. So who is good, and who is bad?


The clay is the same, but the Cosmic Potter has fashioned vessels  of many kinds.

There is nothing wrong with the pot of clay – there can be no error by the Potter.

The One True Lord abides in all; by His power, every thing is fashioned. (SGGS p. 1349)




Alleviation of poverty in the world


One of the most welcome results of Globalization and the flattening of the world has been the rise of the emerging nations like China, India, Brazil and others, and the reduction of the income disparity between the advanced nations of the West and the rest of the world. Millions of people are being raised out of poverty and there is a growing middle class.  At the same time the advanced nations are facing a crisis as their workers have to compete in a global labor market.

However in both the advanced and the emerging nations, the gap between the rich and poor has been increasing over the last several decades.  Worldwide, the bulk of the wealth is increasingly concentrated in the top few percent of the people, while large numbers struggle for economic survival. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has found echoes in many countries around the globe, is a reaction to this.

Guru Nanak taught that simply amassing money is foolish and, if obtained by exploiting the weak, positively criminal.  The true use of wealth is to help create a fairer and more contented society. It is a message for all of us in today’s turbulent economic times.

Compassion and charity are important values promoted in Guru Nanak’s compositions.

Gail Kaie ikCu hThu w[ie .

nank rahu pCaNih s[ie .1.

One who works for what he eats, and gives some of what he has in charity

– O Nanak, he knows the Path. (SGGS p. 1245)


In his travels, he preferred to visit with the poor and humble rather than the wealthy who came proudly with offerings for the Guru. In his own words:


nIca A;wir nIc jait nIcI hU Ait nIcu . nanku itn k{ s;ig saiT vidAa isxu ikAa rIs .

ijT{ nIc smalIAin itT{ nwir t[rI bKsIs .4.3.

Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very meekest of the meek. Why should he try to compete with the great?

In that place where the lowly are cared for- there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down. (SGGS p. 15)



Gender Inequality


Women, representing fully half of all humanity, continue to face discrimination in many parts of the world. The feminist movement has done much to address gender discrimination in western societies, but women in much of the rest of the world still face very serious problems including violence, illiteracy and many kinds of economic and social deprivation.

It is being increasingly recognized that better education and economic empowerment of women can play a major role in raising the economic level of impoverished  areas of the world, as well as lowering birth rates, which is an important factor for addressing climate change.

Several centuries ahead of the feminist movement, Guru Nanak spoke out against gender discrimination in the highly male dominated environment of India. He confronted established orthodoxy with the radical assertion that women were worthy of praise and equal to men.

Guru Nanak taught that God is beyond gender and can be worshiped as both Father and Mother.

tum mat ipta hm bairk t[r[ .

tumrI ikRpa mih sUK Gn[r[ .

You are our mother and father; we are Your children.

In Your Grace, there is so much joy! (SGGS p. 268)


Both men and women are infused with the same Divine light. Instead of being denigrated and mistreated, woman should be cherished and respected:

B;id j;mIA{ B;id in;mIA{ B;id m;gNu vIAahu .

B;dhu h]v{ w]stI B;dhu cl{ rahu .

B;du muAa B;du BalIA{ B;id h]v{ b;Wanu .

s] ikxu m;wa AaKIA{ ijtu j;mih rajan .

B;dhu hI B;du xUpj{ B;d{ baJu n k]ie .

nank B;d{ bahra e[k] sca s]ie .


We are born of woman, we are conceived in the womb of woman.

We make friendship with woman; through woman, future generations are born.

When one  woman dies, we take another one, we are bound with the world through woman.

Why should we talk ill of her? From her, kings are born.

From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

O Nanak, God alone can exist without a woman.

(Guru Nanak in Asa Di Vaar, pg. 473)  


Guru Nanak and the Gurus who succeeded him actively encouraged the participation of women as equals in worship, in society, and on the battlefield. They encouraged freedom of speech and women were encouraged to participate in any and all religious activities including reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. The practice of sati or widow burning and female infanticide were forbidden and remarriage of widows was encouraged. Remember all of this was going on in the midst of the male dominated Muslim and Hindu societies in India hundreds of years before the feminist movement in the West!

Sadly, Sikh society has not been able to fully overcome old cultural traditions and live up to the ideals of gender equality taught by Guru Nanak. Sex selective abortions driven by a desire for male children are driving down the sex ratio in Punjab. It is encouraging to note that all Sikh religious organizations including the Akal Takhat have spoken up against this practice.


Environmental issues & Global Warming.


Rapid economic growth in the emerging nations and rising standards of living are increasing the deterioration of the environment, and adding to the threat of climate change. While these issues were not of significant concern for society at the time of Guru Nanak and thus were not explicitly addressed by him, it is clear when we look at his life and teachings that the Sikhi position supports active participation in the environment movement.

Guru Nanak himself was a great lover of nature. In his poetry he loves to talk about the beauty of nature, often seeing in it the reflection of God as the wondrous artist who has painted the marvelous natural scenes on a cosmic canvas.

In  Kirtan Sohila, the Sikh bedtime prayer, there is a beautiful verse by Guru Nanak describing his vision of how the whole universe is constantly worshiping the Creator in a majestic colorful ritual with lights and music, using the imagery of the famous Hindu Artee ritual performed during the worship of idols in the temple of Jagannath Puri.

ggn m{ Talu riv c;wu wIpk bn[ tairka m;dl jnk m]tI .

WUpu mlAanl] pvNu cvr] kr[ sgl bnraie PUl;t j]tI .1.

k{sI AartI h]ie . Bv K;dna t[rI AartI .


Upon that cosmic platter of the sky, the sun and the moon are the lamps. The stars and their orbs are the studded pearls.

The fragrance of sandalwood in the air is the temple incense, and the wind is the fan. All the plants of the world are the altar flowers in offering to You, O Luminous Lord. || 1 ||

What a beautiful Aartee, lamp-lit worship service this is! O Destroyer of Fear, this is Your Ceremony of Light.

|| (SGGS p. 13)


Guru Nanak taught that the purpose of  human life is to grow achieve a state of union and harmony with God and His creation. An essential component of spiritual growth is learning to live in tune with the divine Hukam.  Hukam is a complex term that covers the will of God,  as well as His order or laws that govern all of creation. The goal is to live in a state of carefree bliss, in harmony with the earth and all creation.

Guru Nanak’s vision is a World Society comprising God-conscious human beings. To these spiritual beings the earth and the universe are sacred; all life is part of a Univeral Unity.  We are all connected. According to Guru Nanak the reality humans create around themselves is a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth – the external environment of human beings – is only a reflection of the instability and pain within humans. The increasing barrenness of the earth’s terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans..

Guru Nanak advocated a highly disciplined life with a focus on spiritual progress, while remaining engaged fully in the world around one and upholding one’s responsibilities. Inherent in this personal discipline is a simple life style, free of greed, selfishness and possessiveness. The emphasis is on mastery over the self and the discovery of the self, not mastery over nature, external forms, and beings. Sikhism clearly teaches against a life of conspicuous, wasteful consumption. The Guru recommends a judicious utilization of material and cultural resources available to humans.
Sikhism opposes the idea that the struggle of the human race is against nature and that human supremacy lies in the notion of “harnessing” nature. The objective is harmony with the Eternal – God – which implies a life of harmony with all existence.




In conclusion, I would like to share the words that end the Sikh ardaas or community prayer.

Nanak naam chardi kalaa, tayray bhanai sarbat ka bhalaa

These words invoke four principles that will stand us well in today’s flat, interconnected world:

  1. naam – get in touch with the Universal Divine Spirit in all of us.
  2. Chardi kalaa – an attitude of hope and optimism, and a can-do spirit, free from anger or hatred.
  3. Tere bhaane – live in harmony with the Divine Order, with nature and with each other

Sarbat ka bhalaa – pray for, and work towards, the common good of all.


 Posted by at 6:31 pm
Feb 012012

By Dr. Inder Mohan Singh

j[ suKu w[ih t tuJih AraWI wuiK BI tuJ{ iWAaeI .2.

Je sukh deh ta tujheh araadhee, dukh bhee tujhai dhiaa-ee.

When you bless me with happiness, I worship You gratefully. Even in pain, I reflect on You. || 2 ||

j[ BuK w[ih t iet hI raja wuK ivic sUK mnaeI .3.

Je bhukh deh ta it hee raajaa dukh vich sookh manaa-ee.

If You give me hunger, I still feel satisfied; I celebratee (Your Will), even in the midst of sorrow. || 3 ||

[SGGS p 757, Guru Ram Das]

This simple but beautiful little verse from Gurbani, written by Guru Ram Das Ji, shows us a key principle by which to lead our lives and deal with both positive and negative experiences.

As we lead our daily lives, we are constantly tossed around by the waves of this ocean of material existence or Maya, this bhaujal, this stormy ocean, that we inhabit . We constantly experience ups and downs, and our experiences, both good and bad, affect our state of mind.

“Kabhoo jeearaa oobh chalat hai, kabhoo jai payaalay”

kbhU jIAza xUiB cztu h{ kbhU jaie pieAal[ .

Sometimes, the soul soars high in the heavens, and sometimes it falls to the depths of the nether regions.

[SGGS p 876, Guru Nanak]

These experiences, these ups and downs, can weaken our faith and move us away from God. Or, if we follow the simple principle shown to us by the Guru in this verse, we can use these same life experiences to help us to grow spiritually, to strengthen our relationship with God, and to lead a life of chardi kalaa.

It may be more obvious that pain and misfortune can shake our faith in God, but good fortune and successes can be even more insidious.

“Dukh daaroo sukh rog bhayaa” as Guruji tells us in Rehras Sahib – happiness can be a disease and pain can be a medicine….

Let us look at the effects of both sukh and dukh more closely:

What are some of our reactions when we are blessed with good fortune? Let us say we achieve some success in our profession or business, gain some kind of recognition, or we get to buy a new house or car, or we are blessed with a child.

Typically, we take pride in our achievement and take credit for our good fortune. We convince ourselves that we got something that we deserved. Our own ego is strengthened. We may even look down upon others who are not as fortunate as we are.

Ego or haumai is one of the greatest obstacles on the path of spiritual growth. Gurbani states emphatically that haumai is the enemy of Naam – both cannot inhabit our minds at the same time.

hxum{ nav{ nail ivr]Wu h{ wuie n vsih iek Oaie .

Ego is an enemy of the Name of the Lord; the two can not dwell in the same place.

[SGGS p 560, Guru Amar Das]

Furthermore, we feel that since this was so great, we need more of whatever made us happy – we yield to greed and hunger for more and more. We raise our expectation as to what it takes to make us happy, making it harder to obtain real satisfaction or fulfillment. Worse, instead of counting our own blessings, we compare ourselves with those who have more and indulge in envy.

We get more and more entangled in the cause of the “sukh” or happiness, spend much of our time in enjoying it, getting more of it, or preserving it, whatever the “it” may be, often becoming slaves to it, and waste more and more of this precious life in the pursuit of this ephemeral “happiness”. We fall in love with the gifts with which God blesses us, and in the process we distance ourselves from the generous Giver of these gifts.

wait ipAarI ivsirAa watara .

I fall in love with the gifts, but I forget the Giver.

[SGGS p 676, Guru Arjan Dev]

To make matters worse, the more worldly belongings or successes we have, the more we get enmeshed in preserving them, and we are terrified of losing whatever we have obtained.

vd[ vd[ j] wIsih l]g .

Those who seem to be great and powerful,

itn kxu ibAap{ ic;ta r]g .1.

are afflicted by the disease of anxiety.

[SGGS p 188, Guru Arjan Dev]

Guruji shows us the way out of all these traps that surround “sukh”:

j[ suKu w[ih t tuJih AraWI

When you bless me with happiness, I worship You gratefully.

The solution is deceptively simple – we must cultivate an awareness of God’s blessings. Whenever anything good happens that makes us happy, we must make a point of thinking of Him and thanking him for his manifold blessings.

Remembering God in a spirit of gratitude when good things happen helps us to appreciate our blessings and cultivate an attitude of contentment or “Santokh”. It fosters humility and saves one from the trap of ego or “haumai”. It helps to strengthen our faith in God and reinforces our relationship with Him.

As we get in the habit of remembering God and thanking Him for His blessing each time something good happens to us, we enjoy the blessings but at the same time, we don’t get quite as enmeshed in them – we develop a certain level of detachment from the items that made us happy. Maya will not have a corrupting effect on a person who always thinks of God in a spirit of gratitude when he is blessed with worldly gifts such as wealth, success or fame.

Let us now look at dukh or sorrow.

In spite of all our efforts in the pursuit of happiness, things don’t always go our way, and misfortunes, failures and pain hit us, often when we least expect them.

It is easy to react to misfortunes with anger and bitterness, and to feel frustrated and helpless. We come up with reasons to blame others or to blame God, and we alienate ourselves from His Divine presence within us.

Guruji tells us the alternative – in the face of misfortune as well, think of God and lean on Him:

wuiK BI tuJ{ iWAaeI .2.

Even in pain, I reflect on You. || 2 ||

Take all your troubles to Him in the form of prayer.

jIA kI ibrTa h]ie su gur pih Arwais kir .

When your soul is feeling sad, offer your prayers to the Guru.

[SGGS p 519, Guru Arjan Dev]

If we put ourselves in God’s hands, relate to Him as a child to a parent and put our faith in Him, then He will take it upon Himself to take care of us. He will either remove the cause of our suffering, or He will give us the spiritual strength to cheerfully accept His Will.

Sometimes, our prayers appear not to be fulfilled. We may be praying for something unreasonable, or God, our Divine Parent, may know what is really right for us better than we do, even though we do not understand it.

As we approach our Divine Father with our problems as innocent, trusting children in this way, then even the most difficult of situations are not able to hurt us.

ja kxu musklu Ait bN{ D]eI k]ie n w[ie .

When you are confronted with terrible hardships, and no one offers you any support,

lagU h]ie wusmna sak iB Bij Kl[ .

when your friends turn into enemies, and even your relatives have deserted you,

sB] Bj{ Aasra cuk{ sBu Asraxu .

and when all support has given way, and all hope has been lost

icit Aav{ Xsu parbRhmu lg{ n ttI vaxu .1.

-if you then come to remember the Supreme Lord God, even the hot wind shall not touch you.

[SGGS p 70, Guru Arjan Dev]

Praying to God when things don’t work out the way we would like, reduces our sense of frustration and helplessness. Prayer shifts our attention away from anger, one of the five cardinals “demons” within ourselves, which can have a very destructive effect on the body, mind and spirit. Prayer in the face of adversity protects one from developing pathological responses to personal bad experiences – instead, these negative experiences can actually help us to grow stronger spiritually, and we can learn to say, like the Guru:

j[ BuK w[ih t iet hI raja wuK ivic sUK mnaeI .3.

If You give me hunger, I still feel satisfied; I celebratee (Your Will), even in the midst of sorrow.

In either case, in the face of sukh or dukh, in happiness or sorrow, if we practice the principle of

j[ suKu w[ih t tuJih AraWI wuiK BI tuJ{ iWAaeI .2.

When you bless me with happiness, I worship You gratefully. Even in pain, I reflect on You.

this will strengthen our faith and help us to build a special relationship with God. Instead of letting the ups and downs of our existense through us off balance, we can actually leverage off them to remind us of God’s presence in our lives, and to grow emotionally and spiritually. We start to recognize the hand of a greater power in our lives, feel part of something larger than ourselves. It strengthens our faith that our Divine Father is always watching over us, the more we believe this in our hearts and put ourselves in His hands, the more our Father will take care of our needs and keep us from harm.

 Posted by at 7:17 pm