Applying The Message Of Sikhi – To Ourselves
S. Ravinder Singh Taneja
The Guru Granth Sahib is a living and eternal Guru (Sabad Guru) whose message of Oneness – IK – is universally applicable. As flag bearers of this message, Sikhs have an obligation to spread the seeds of Guru Nanak’s revolution of the mind across political, cultural and religious boundaries. Sikhs must engage in an honest and collective introspection to gauge their own assimilation and embrace of Sikhi and assess their commitment to serve as foot soldiers in Guru Nanak’s cause. This paper has a two-fold purpose: one, to share some personal reflections on our current state and two, share the outline of a newly launched project “Young Minds: Sikh Global Leadership of the Future” aimed at seeding young minds with the message of Sikhi, preparing the soil for global leadership of tomorrow.
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GURMAT BASED SIKH GLOBAL LEADERSHIP
Ravinder Singh Taneja
Sikhs regard the Guru Granth Sahib as the Living and eternal Guru (Sabad Guru) and rightly believe that its message of Oneness – IK – is universally applicable. Sikhs certainly have an obligation (in the spirit of Guru-Chela) to spread the seeds of Sikhi across political, cultural and religious boundaries, especially in the highly divisive environment of today. How to share the message of Sikhi globally is a challenge. Sikhi remains, for the most part, relatively unknown and Sikhs are a tiny minority wherever they live, always adapting and adjusting to the dominant social and political structure. Sikhs have also experienced a long period of colonization, which has colored their worldview and distorted their own understanding of Gurbani, not to mention the fact that Sikhs have lost intimacy with their mother tongue – obstacles in any honest projection of the Guru’s message.
Here I wish to point out that before we consider spreading the Guru’s message globally, Sikhs require collective introspection and self-analysis to gauge their own assimilation and embrace of Sikhi and their commitment to serve as foot soldiers of Guru Nanak.
The argument I make is that if we wish to spread the message of Sikhi across political and cultural boundaries, then we need to first personify that message. This, I believe, is the most effective way of applying Sikhi universally.
I would also like to offer the outline of a newly launched project, “Young Minds: Sikh Global Leadership of the Future” that is aimed at seeding young minds with the message of Sikhi, preparing the soil for global leadership of tomorrow.
The memory of Guru Nanak that persists in the popular consciousness is best captured in a ditty that is sung even today: “Nanak Shah Fakir, Hindu ka Gur, Mussalman ka Pir.” The Guru is remembered as a universally revered spiritual teacher, whose appeal cut across ideological, religious and cultural boundaries. Guru Nanak is also remembered as a gentle, soft-spoken mystic who sang his way into the hearts of the people, but an iconoclast who called out the humbug in religion. He was also a fiery critic who raised his voice against social inequities and a political activist, who was not afraid to take on the Establishment and dared to speak truth to power. Sikh tradition celebrates the coming of Guru Nanak as the descending of Divine Light on Earth to dispel the mist and fog of spiritual ignorance in Kali Yug – the Age of Darkness. Nanak’s appearance was to be the beginning of a new Way (Tisar Panth) that was based on his mystical experience of IK or ONENESS.
As inheritors of Nanak, the icon of universality, and as standard bearers of his message, it is only natural that Sikhs should feel pressed to answer the call of how to apply Guru Nanak’s universal and timeless message in the world today?
To my mind, this is putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps a more appropriate starting point would be to first reflect on the current state of affairs in the Sikh world. Some pertinent questions come to mind.
Why, despite our global presence, has Guru Nanak’s compelling, universal message remained largely unknown? How did Guru Nanak’s WAY shrink into another narrow ideology or ism, competing for space with others thought systems? How have his flag bearers, the Sikhs, allowed themselves to be painted in not so flattering an image – despite the good they do? What of Guru Nanak himself? Why has a universal teacher been reduced to a reformer or a synthesizer of competing ideas?
These are broad but foundational questions that Sikhs have to reflect on collectively. But there are, I believe, more important personal questions as well that we need to confront: what sort of Sikhi am I living, and what is my personal relationship with the Guru? Is my Sikhi sheer happenstance or am I a Sikh by choice? Is Sikhi center stage in my life or is merely an add on?
Even the most optimistic view of Sikh reality today would be hard pressed to deny that our institutions are in a shambles; that we lack moral leadership and a structure to address issues of global concern. It is also undeniable that our colonial past continues to fetter us in many ways, impacting our mind-set, culture and identity. We are living a derived culture, residing at the edges of power with no real leverage. In the process we are out of tune with the Guru’s real message.
Clearly, we are not ready for prime time. There is a process of self-development that has to be engaged in, both at the individual and social level.
Where does one begin?
The Gurmukh Ideal
It would be worthwhile to re-visit Guru Nanak’s ideal: a Gurmukh. A Gurmukh forms the foundation on which an ideal society would be based. Let’s examine the Gurmat ideal for clues on the foundations of an ideal society and the world at large.
At the very outset of the Japji, Guru Nanak states that the proper end of human life is to become a “sachiara“, which literally means one who wears or adorns the Truth: our lives must become personifications of the Truth (Sat Nam). The deeper implication, of course, is that there is a way of life that is worthy of living, and another, less desirable mode of existence. Our central responsibility as humans is to fashion a life that is worth living – with purpose, meaning and dignity. To personify the Truth is another way of saying that we must learn to imbue our lives with the qualities or virtues expressed in the Mool Mantar.
How does one achieve such a life?
Guru Nanak’s answer is that we must attune our lives to the “Hukam” of the “Razai.” In common idiom, this means that the Truth of the Mool Mantar (here equated with God as “Razai” or the Owner of the Will) expresses itself in its Creation through “Hukam” – variously understood as Order, Command, Writ or Will. It is to this Divine Will that we must conform in order to become “sachiara” or embodiments of Truth.
This is Guru Nanak’s construction of the Gurmat ideal – described variously as Sachiyar, Gurmukh, Saňt, Bhagat, Gursikh, Jan, Sevak and Brahmgyani in Gurbani. For our purposes, we will use the term Gurmukh, literally, one facing the Guru or being Guru-oriented.
A Gurmukh is a composite and integrated personality, combining knowledge, action and devotion. Of the two ways, or orientations available to us, “Liv and Dhat” a Haumai (ego) laden life or a Manmukh life is fueled by Dhat: that vicious cycle of our daily grind (rat race) that snares us into the worldly web of Maya (constant change) causing us to loose our inner bearing and spiritual compass. Becoming a Gurmukh is to heed our inner voice, to see through the veil of Maya. A Gurmukh balances Dhat with “Liv” or the movement inwards and cultivates his inner environment through the application of Guru Nanak’s recommended spiritual technology of attentive listening (Suniyeh) and immersion in the Shabad (Word).
By choosing the right balance (‘Liv’ vs. ‘Dhat‘) and invoking the power of attentive listening (also referred to as dhyana), 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.
The practice of attentive listening (dhyana) also cultivates qualities like compassion, contentment and service can flower and bloom. Combined with the self-regulating restraint and discipline that manifests as inner devotion and love of God (bhau) – these form the foundation and the roadmap of a Gurmukh’s life.
The cultivation of inner virtues (devotion) is what gives a Gurmukh the necessary purity of motive, integrity of action and autonomy to transcend dogma (‘mannai mug na chalai panth’), materialistic bias and narcissistic self-obsession (Haumai). 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.
Outwardly, a Gurmukh life may appear conventional, but inwardly, a very different consciousness is at work. A Gurmukh does not live simply for individual goals or accomplishments – biological, social, political or economic – but is committed to a higher or larger purpose, namely, to act as an instrument of Hukam to create a new “social blueprint” or social order that is characterized by “Halemi Raj.”
This is Guru Nanak’s ideal person, a model that we have to emulate. This central teaching was amplified and explained by succeeding Gurus in no uncertain terms, and eventually institutionalized as the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh.
Sikhi: World View
Here it would be especially pertinent to ask, “What sort of world did the Guru envision?
In his essay, “The Global Vision That Was,” Dr I.J. Singh makes the point that, Guru Nanak’s message of “hopeful faith tempered with reason, gender and caste equality” was institutionalized by his successors and sealed by Guru Gobind Singh in the institution of the Khalsa, giving Sikhs “democratic institutions of accountability, transparency and participatory self-governance.” Drawing from Gurbani, Dr. Singh suggests that the pact that binds Sikhs is no ordinary one and quite unlike the modern nation-state that is bound by ties of blood, or race and contained in a geographical or territorial boundary. While others may be bound by blood-ties, caste affiliations, or political power, Sikhs have a covenant with Waheguru that “pervades all.”
Sikhs, he concludes, are a nation without borders — a global community founded on the bedrock of institutions of Sangat, Langar and Pangat.
A true manifestation of the notion of E Pluribus Unum!
This is the uniqueness of Gurbani, its universality and applicability to every corner of the world. But for Sikhs to spread this message, they have to become Gurmukhs first.
The KhojGurbani Project
With the Guru as Guide and Mentor, KhojGurbani (KhojGurbani.com) was launched on Vaisakhi of 2014 as an online portal, with the aim of becoming a one-stop resource for anyone wishing to deepen and enrich their relationship with the Guru. KHOJGURBANI’s guiding philosophy rests on the conviction that every Sikh must commit to a lifelong apprenticeship to the Guru by engaging in a holistic, collaborative and social model of learning that includes inquiry, thought, contemplation and discernment.
Through the established kinship of Sangat, KhojGurbani hopes to leverage available technology and collaborative learning models to work towards a common, shared purpose: namely, the creation of a new corpus of knowledge to further our understanding of Gurbani. Specifically, KhojGurbani hopes to generate synergies between Sangats globally to the development of a commentary on the Guru Granth Sahib, a contemporary translation as well as the compilation of a Gurmat dictionary.
One initiative that has come about is the KhojGurbani Project or Young Minds: Sikh Global Leadership of the Future. It aims to create a collaborative educational framework to provide Gurmat training to children ages 6-18. The goal is to create an ongoing pipeline of contemporary Gurmukhs: the ideal person that Guru Nanak gave us as a model.
A cadre of Sikhs who are grounded and trained in Gurmat, as they are in contemporary science and technology – Gurmat theologians and academic scholars rolled into one. We need such a nucleus of trained people to revisit and re-interpret the eternal Truth of Gurbani in the light of our current understanding. This is an undertaking that successive generations must take on and is implied in the concept of Gur-Chela and Guru Panth. No theology can hope to sustain itself if it does not address contemporary concerns. This suggestion, of course, is not new, nor is the idea exclusively mine.
How is this different from existing training?
The KhojGurbani Project is of the view that education and educational systems should take the lead in questioning, and if necessary, raising controversy over foundational questions of the future of our planet: what kind of future should we strive for? The educational system today unhesitatingly and blindly serves the dominant socio-economic model: a high-tech corporate capitalist model that relies on individualism, competition, consumption and competition. The system is teaching skills that will help students adjust and adapt to a society of large corporations, bureaucracies and institutions.
But is it offering alternatives?
Like Guru Nanak, Sikhs must ask and challenge existing orthodoxies – political, economic and religious. Can we instill the wisdom of a Gurmukh in our children so that they can survive – and thrive – in this structure without being coopted by it? Can they ask the uncomfortable questions? Do students have the capacity to envision another kind of future, one where a fulfilling life is possible without being so dependent on technology?
Guru Nanak challenged the elites of his time – the Yogis, Brahmins and Mullahs and condemned the political and economic corruption and exploitation that he witnessed. Can we create Gurmukhs to follow in his footsteps?
The prototype is to identify five Sangats across the globe that will volunteer five families with children in the desired age range. As of this writing, there is interest in Boston, MA, Columbus OH, Brisbane, Australia, Chicago Il.
The key will be to deliver to the 6-8 year old (or the appropriate age group) relevant Gurbani based material. For each age group, the outcome or expectation will be pre-defined. In the case of 6-8 year olds, memorization of Bani, identification of the Gurmukhi alphabet and Saakhis will be central components.
Each day, the participant will receive the relevant package and be expected to spend no more than 15-20 minutes. The package will, with the help of the volunteer parent, incorporated seamlessly into the child’s regular homework. The aim is that the process should appear seamless to the child.
Incentives will be provided according to age. For instance, a 6 year old might be incented to complete memorization of particular Banis in a certain time frame in return for a gadget that appeals to their age group.
This process will continue until the child is ready to go to College. Between the ages of 6-8 and 18, the expectation is that there will be greater assimilation of Gurbani and Gurmat. Along the way, our hope is to also develop a broader framework that could help children with tutoring, coaching and mentoring with their regular, conventional education. This will have the beneficial effect of also creating a pool of Sikh adults who can function as mentors and tutors.
The objective of the project is to ensure that by the time a child has turned 18 years of age, he/she should have completed one reading of the Guru Granth Sahib with a line by line understanding; memorized the 5 Banis; have the ability to perform Kirtan understands the Sikh leadership model. In addition, the child should have received ongoing development in extracurricular skills: both in sports, training in arms and public speaking ability.
These boys and girls – our contemporary Gurmukhs – should invite the attention of the best institutions in the world and be able to pick and choose their desired professional training.
One beneficial by-product of this process is that adult parents, who may not be that well versed in Gurbani, will also get an education as they help their children.
If we can fire up even a small handful of kids, imagine the global impact!
The purpose of this Project is to reclaim Sikhi in its pristine purity by creating a new body of knowledge and new approach in understanding Gurbani that will serve as a counter to the subjective identity formation that Sikh children experience around the world because of being a minority. Gurmukhs are not created overnight, nor can future generation of Sikhs produce Gurmukhs if they do not engage with Gurbani daily and incessantly.
That is what this Project hopes to accomplish: to fill the world with contemporary sages who will look beyond their bellies and work in the service of humankind.
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.