The title posits Sikhi as being a dual process.
Being a Sikh is seen as no more than an accident of birth that is taken for granted and requires no more than a passive acceptance of an inherited belief system within a given cultural context. It provides a legitimizing worldview and serves as a “survival kit.”
Becoming a Sikh, however, is an active developmental process and involves a life-long apprenticeship to the Guru. It involves questioning the very basis of one’s acquired beliefs that leads to transformational change.
Against the backdrop of his own journey in Sikhi, the presenter will attempt to share his understanding of the message of the Guru Granth Sahib and how divine intimations from the Guru have shown him the way to negotiate and reconcile the dual processes of Being and Becoming a Sikh.
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Body of Paper
BEING AND BECOMING A SIKH
Background and Context
Spiritual journeys are never ending, and rarely progress in a straight line. They are more like a downward meandering spiral into the core of one’s being, bringing us back to the same spot, again and again, only to reveal a deeper shade and meaning of the Truth that is always present.
The Truth, at some level, is already homogenized in us, much like butter in milk and flint in wood. The implicit knowledge of our connection to the Universe around is embedded in us. It takes constant “churning” to bring it forth.
Such, indeed, has been my journey with my Guru – so far. Over the years, I have discerned a similar process playing out in my own development as a Sikh, fueled by an ongoing inner dialectic that can best be described as Being and Becoming A Sikh.
The philosophical notion of Being and Becoming is an old one, going back to Plato. In this narrative, I wish to use Being and Becoming as a concept to capture the fundamental difference – and a dynamic tension – between being born a Sikh and becoming a Sikh.
To me, the difference between Being and Becoming can be summed up as the difference between acquired belief and authentic faith; between meaning and experience; between passive internalization and active absorption; between acting on handed down cultural scripts and writing one’s own story.
What I wish to convey is that birth alone does not a Sikh make, that there is a transcendent quality to becoming a Sikh that involves making conscious choices.
To frame this in Sikh parlance, Being and Becoming a Sikh reflects the divergence and ongoing conflict between the limiting and circumscribing demands of our empirical self and ego consciousness (Haumai) and the compulsion of our Spirit (man toon jot saroop hain) to soar and be freed from the very restraints that tether us to our Haumai.
This tension and dialectic between Haumai and Hukam actually symbolizes the human condition.
Being and Becoming a Sikh means to live in the balance between these two seemingly antithetical positions. We are – whether we know it or not – constantly crossing the boundary between Being and Becoming, going back and forth, creating another space that overlaps the two but exceeds the previous.
Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges
I have borrowed a framework from organizational change management called Theory U to explain the developmental process inherent in Being and Becoming a Sikh. My motivation in doing so stems from my conviction that the onus to revisit and re-examine the tenets of Sikhi is squarely on the individual Sikh. Instead, we have abrogated this right to a new breed – Guruduara Granthis, so-called Sikh theologians and Katha Vachaks.
There is simply no mandate for an ordained clergy to act as intermediaries, arbiters or interpreters of Sikhi. As has been rightly pointed out, “What is needed is “not years of schooling or clergy for its interpretation, but an open mind and a willing heart”.
I also believe it important to continually explore and re-examine the basic tenets of the faith in the language and the world-view of the times in which we live. It is in this spirit that I have attempted to represent the developmental process of Being and Becoming a Sikh in terms of the lingua franca of the day – Science and Business.
The U process is based on a concept called Presencing, first developed by Peter Senge in his pioneering work on Learning Organizations, The Fifth Discipline. A blend of two words, “presence” and “sensing, “ Presencing stands for a heightened state of attention that allows individuals and groups to shift the inner place from which they function. When that shift happens, an individual – or group – develops the capacity to operate from a future space of possibility that they feel (“presence”) is waiting to emerge. Being able to facilitate that shift is, according to Senge and his colleagues, the essence of Leadership today.
“Sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility—acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.”
Since it emerged around 2006, Theory U has come to be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, as a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being – connecting to the more authentic of higher aspects of our self.
I have attempted to adapt the model to explain the journey of a Sikh, which requires a similar shift – from a Manmukh to a Gurmukh. It is an archetype of the human journey.
The U process is so called because of the shape of the journey. In order to get to the deepest point of transformation, indicated at the bottom of the U, it is necessary first to go down the left side.
There are 3 phases labeled Sensing, Presencing and Realizing and 7 gestures, signifying milestones in the journey.
I. SENSING: Seeing Ones Own Seeing and Transforming Perception
a. Haumai, the Blind Spot or The Ego System (KuR di Paal)
In tracing the dialectic between Being and Becoming a Sikh on the U Curve, our starting point is Haumai located on the upper left side: this equates to Being a Sikh by birth.
Being a Sikh by birth means being a Sikh by habit. Adherence to an inherited belief system provides us with the formality of being a Sikh. Our assertion, made quite freely, that we are Sikhs by birth must be viewed as no more than the conditioned reflex of a believer trained to accept cultural myths and authorized beliefs – and often with a vested interest in preserving and perpetuating the status quo.
This is not to suggest that belief is without value. Belief systems help us translate and affix meaning to the external world, making it possible to navigate through life. They also provide the necessary glue to hold communities together, making social life possible.
But here is the paradox: the very conditioning process that ensures our survival in the external world also thickens and coagulates our Haumai at the same time – effectively shutting off our capacity to experience our true source or Reality. Gurbani alludes to this in various places.
This conditioned self that Gurbani calls Haumai, is our blind spot, the KuR di Paal that Guru Nanak refers to early on in the Japji. In Gurmat terms, Haumai is the blind spot that accepts Reality as it is presented to us – immediate and unmistakable. It limits our awareness. More importantly, Haumai or the process of individuation, also signifying our symbolic existence, also impels us into a self-centered narcissism, obscuring Hukam and our true purpose.
But it appears that we are wired to have Haumai. Indeed, Haumai is fundamental to Creation.
The malady of Haumai was instilled in humans. SGGS: 1140:16
A Sikh by birth, then, is primarily a product of genetic and cultural conditioning that is contained and driven by a strong sense of Haumai. Beliefs, rituals, mythic structures, prevailing stereotypes are important support structures for Haumai. Preservation of the status quo is indispensible.
Haumai-laden, we become a Manmukh, inured to a Haumai based existence.
Ensnared in this transitory drama, they (Manmukh) have lost their moorings; they are neither here nor there. SGGS: M3: 29:2
b. Suspending or Jigyasa
Fortunately for us, the Guru offers hope and a way out. Our affliction (Haumai) carries the seed of its own remedy.
Haumai is a chronic affliction, but its remedy lies within it. SGGS p.466: 5
The term Sikh offers some clues: Becoming a Sikh means being a student or a disciple and that implies a developmental process that involves a life-long apprenticeship to the Guru. It requires that we look at the world with fresh eyes, that we drop habitual ways of thinking. It requires the boldness of questioning of the very basis of one’s acquired beliefs.
Transforming Perception or Seeing Your Own Seeing becomes the basis for change. The term in Punjabi is Jigyasa – which stems from the Sanskrit root curiosity and denotes desire for knowledge.
To Question is to Quest. Where Socrates deemed an unexamined life as not worthy of living, Guru Nanak admonished us in a similar vein, calling it an animal existence, “Mool na bhujan āpṇā, se pasūā se dẖor jīo.”
The awakening of what we call Jigyasa in Punjabi or Questing becomes the basis for change and enables REDIRECTING inwards.
c. Redirecting or LIV vs. DHAT
Gurbani tells us that two orientations are available to us: Liv and Dhat. “Liv ḏẖāṯ due rāh hai,” (GGS p 87).
A Haumai based existence (or an ego system) is fueled by fear and anxiety, characterized by what Gurbani refers to as Dhat or Dhaturbazzi – the vicious cycle of our daily grind (rat race) that snares us into this worldly web of existence (Maya), causing us in turn to lose our inner bearing and spiritual compass.
Becoming a Sikh is to heed our inner voice, to heal our fractured connection to Reality. Our Haumai driven Dhaturbazzi needs to be offset and balanced by cultivating the capacity to see through the veil of Maya (Seeing Our Own Seeing).
This is the journey of PRESENCING and begins by REDIRECTING our attention inward. Redirecting is the movement downward on the left hand side of the U curve and represents this inner journey.
In Gurbani, this process of inversion is represented by the term Liv that stands for an anchoring of our existence in inwardness – or inner centeredness.
We become Gurmukhs by remaining externally driven (engaged with the world) but internally centered.
d. Letting Go/Haumai or Suniyeh, Manniyeh
Becoming a Sikh is radical and profound change that is transformational. This transformation requires work, a deep inner and private practice that should be rooted in a broader social practice (Sangat). It is a lifelong apprenticeship to the Guru.
According to the developers of the U, “the foundational capacity of the U is listening. Listening to others. Listening to oneself. And listening to what emerges from the collective. Effective listening requires the creation of open space in which others can contribute to the whole.”
This is very similar to Guru Nanak’s insistence on developing this capacity (which he calls suniyeh). Guru Nanak’s core teaching rests on the cultivation of attentive listening (Suniyeh).
Although listening is self- evident to most of us, Guru Nanak’s repeated emphasis (almost a tenth of the Japji) begs the obvious question: are we not listening already, or, is there another kind of listening that Guru Nanak wants us to cultivate. If so, what might that be?
Ordinary hearing is passive, inattentive and shrouded by our inner mental chatter, filtering out most of what is heard. We hear what is agreeable and that only serves to reinforce our habitual patterns. Attentive listening, on the other hand is a dynamic process, requiring a quiet and open mind.
Listening, for Guru Nanak, is the foundation for spiritual formation and growth, leading ultimately to communion with Naam. Naam becomes the journey as well as the goal.
Gurbani is very clear – and insistent – that the “ears were attached to our bodies so that we could listen to the Truth.” [GGS: 922] All other hearing is but “falsehood blowing around in a gust of wind; only listening to the Word of the Guru can be deemed successful.” [GGS: 577].
In the Japji Sahib, Suniyeh is followed by Manniyeh, which literally means “by believing” or “being firm in” or “being held in one’s mind.” If Suniyeh emphasizes listening as the means, Manniyeh can be thought of as complete absorption or immersion in the sabaḏ (the Word).
This practice is popularly called Naam or Naam Simran and is the discipline or practice recommended to activate the power of listening or attention (dhian).
The allegory of a goldsmith using an alchemical process to transform baser metals to gold, beautifully illustrated in the 38th PauRi of the Japji, points to Guru Nanak’s foundational message on how to transform our “manmukh” nature into that of a “gurmukh” by aligning to Hukam.
A Sikh cultivates his inner environment through the application of Guru Nanak’s recommended spiritual technology of attentive listening and immersion in Sabad (Word), “Gurmukh āpṇā man māriā sabaḏ kasvatī lāe.” (GGS p.87).
The cultivation of inner virtues (devotion) listed in the 38th PauRi is what gives a Gurmukh the necessary purity of motive, integrity of action and autonomy to transcend dogma (‘Mannai mug na cẖalai panth’), materialistic bias and narcissistic self- obsession (Haumai).
In other words, a Gurmukh pulls away from the lure and pull of established mental patterns – exemplified by our attachment to instinctive behavior such as “Kām,” “Kroḏẖ,” “Lobẖ,” etc. and moves towards the call of Hukam through the practice of the discipline of Naam.
This is, indeed, the process of becoming a truly cultured and integrated personality, a necessary condition for a successful life. This central teaching has been amplified and explained by succeeding Gurus in no uncertain terms. It is only from this existential fulcrum that a truly fulfilling, purpose-driven life is possible.
II. PRESCENCING or NAAM: IK OANKAAR
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE U
Here is what the developers say about the transformational experience at the bottom of the U:
On that journey, at the bottom of the U, lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility: our Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of Presencing is that these two selves-our current self and our best future Self-meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other. Once a group crosses this threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.
In Gurmat, this is Naam – the process, the practice and the destination. Here is where a Sikh, through the practice and inversion transforms from a Manmukh to a Gurmukh by apprehending directly the truth of Gurbani, “Man toon jot sarūp hain, āpṇā mool pacẖẖān.”
There dawns an awakening that there is a remarkable power (Naam in Gurbani) that runs through everything and is latent in the individual well.
Outwardly, a Gurmukh life may appear conventional, but inwardly, a very different consciousness is now at work. A Gurmukh does not live simply for individual goals or accomplishments – biological, social, political or economic – but is inspired by a higher or larger purpose, and acts as an instrument of Hukam to create a new “social blueprint” or social order that is characterized by Halemi Raj.
III. REALIZING or HUKUM
We have seen that it is by turning to the Guru that we obtain the discernment of naam, the key that unlocks the secret of Hukam. In fact, Hukam and naam are synonymous in Gurbani.
Once an individual goes through the proverbial eye of the needle at the bottom of the U, an awareness of Hukam, labeled on the upper right of the U, surfaces. One discerns a deeper and more extensive source of Reality that is largely insulated from direct human experience or comprehension.
There is also the discernment that Hukam is also the creative or regulatory agency that operates at all levels of existence. In today’s terms, we could, perhaps, think of Hukam as the spiritual impulse that drives evolution of the species, regulates the natural order, establishes the moral and ethical framework, and exists in us as the sense of self.
This impulse or drive can be seen as the intersection of the formless God (nirgun) and expressed in Time and History as creation (sar guṇ).
Although Hukam is ultimately beyond the comprehension of the human intellect, it lies within the range of human experience. There is embedded in us another knowing or understanding that surpasses the intellect and it is to this mystical faculty that we must turn to understand Hukam.
This knowledge, (also called a priori knowledge by western philosophers) is with us from birth in a dormant state (forgotten, or Vismaran) but can be brought to surface by the process of recollection (Simran).
Hukam is the Future that is seeking to emerge.
Becoming a Sikh, then, involves a deliberate choice and a fundamental shift in focus and orientation: from being a believer to a seeker of Truth; from claiming Sikhi as a birthright to becoming a student – as the term Sikh implies. It requires stepping outside the margins of acquired belief and embarking on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, traveling on the path of metamorphosis bringing about an inner change in orientation from being a Manmukh to a Gurmukh.
An authentic Sikh life can thus be likened to a lifelong alchemic process of apprenticeship to the Guru where psychological lead (manmukh) is cast in the mold of love to become spiritual gold (Gurmukh).
In constructing the picture of an ideal person in Gurmat – a Gurmukh – we have seen that by choosing the right orientation (‘liv’ vs. ḏẖāṯ) and invoking the power of attentive listening (also referred to as ‘dhian’), a Gurmukh’s consciousness finds its inner center where the writ of Hukam becomes clear.
Hukam becomes the lighthouse – providing clarity of purpose and direction as it guides us across the sea of life. We also discovered that the practice of attentive listening cultivates a Gurmukh’s inner environment (consciousness) so that virtues like compassion, contentment and service can flower and bloom. Combined with ‘bhao’ – the self-regulating restraint and discipline that manifests as inner devotion and love of God – these form the foundation and the roadmap of a Gurmukh’s life.
A gurmukh, then, is guided by Hukam as it plays out in our individual lives and acts out of a sense of Dharam – duty and righteousness – and is imbued with inner devotion in service to society and love of God.
Experiences like ‘vismaad’ (awe and wonderment), ‘bairāg’ (inner withdrawal) and ‘biraah’ (separation), are feelings that Gurmat views as necessary components of spiritual formation. These experiences – or feelings – should be viewed as markers on the road to becoming a Gurmukh – a goal that we should all aspire to.
What is new and unique about a Gurmukh is a fundamental change in the structure and process of identity formation. A Gurmukh identity is not frozen or stuck in some semblance of a given “social” character. A Gurmukh identity is fluid and mobile, more susceptible and adaptable to change, more open to variation.
A Gurmukh identity is not based on any “belongingness” to the tribe. It is not tribal. It is universal in that it is committed to similarities as much as differences.
A Gurmukh identity is not totally a part or apart from the inherited culture. A Gurmukh is at once new and old, traditional and modern.
I would like dwell on some of the implications of this. While it is the individual who is wrestling with himself, this is by no means something to be done isolation from the world.
I have not dwelt on the right side of the U – which is the social manifestation of a Gurmukhs action. The implication is that personal mastery (as represented on the left side of the U) must, after passing through the bottom switch to the right side. In other words, spiritual formation that does not find social manifestation is just narcissism.
A Sikh must be a socially active Renunciate.
Ravinder Singh Taneja
About the Author
Ravinder Singh spent his formative years in Singapore and Delhi and has lived in the U.S. since 1976. He graduated from the Simon School of Management at the University of Rochester. He has worked with multinationals in Singapore, London and New York and currently works for a Financial Services company.
His consuming passion is Sikhs and Sikhi – in all its flavors and dimensions. He is the founder and convener of the Talking Stick, a weekly online colloquium devoted to a dialogue around Gurbani that appears on the online magazine, Sikhchic.com. Ravinder has served as the Executive Director of the Sikh Research Institute and is currently on its Board of Directors. He is also on the Editorial Board of Khoj Gurbani an online crowdsourcing platform that aims to provide Sikhs with educational resources. He moderates a weekly online discussion on Gurbani and Gurmat.
Since 1997, he has lived in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife, Harjit, and his daughter, Simran.