Aug 072017
 

I. J. Singh

Abstract

All existence is the visible expression of Hukam and defies comprehension.

Hukum, central to most religions, often implies micromanagement by the Creator. Life is really the one breath we are engaged in at any given moment.  The breath that preceded it is the past; the breath yet to be taken is the future, never guaranteed.  The breath we are in defines the present; that alone is life.  Accept gracefully whatever happens — it is not in the realm of the impossible. Stop worrying and start living; treasure the moment that stands between life and death. This promises constant renewal in life. Look not to an imaginative string of past lives, and cyclical births for transferring responsibility to unknown others.

The Creator created systems for life to exist and evolve, allowing us considerable free will to rewrite our own narrative. We live and die by a complex interaction of genes and environment. Which of life’s battles to fight and from which to walk away? This, the most difficult to see as the determinant of sanity and survival, is the wisdom of Hukam and sets the trajectory of our lives.

Hukum: Accept the unexpected turns of life — pain and pleasure — as two robes in the wardrobe.


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HUKAM: What it is & What it Aint?

I.J. Singh

Abstract

All existence is the visible expression of Hukam and defies comprehension.

Hukum, central to most religions, often implies micromanagement by the Creator. Life is really the one breath we are engaged in at any given moment.  The breath that preceded it is the past; the breath yet to be taken is the future, never guaranteed.  The breath we are in defines the present; that alone is life.  Accept gracefully whatever happens — it is not in the realm of the impossible. Stop worrying and start living; treasure the moment that stands between life and death. This promises constant renewal in life. Look not to an imaginative string of past lives, and cyclical births for transferring responsibility to unknown others.

The Creator created systems for life to exist and evolve, allowing us considerable free will to rewrite our own narrative. We live and die by a complex interaction of genes and environment. Which of life’s battles to fight and from which to walk away? This, the most difficult to see as the determinant of sanity and survival, is the wisdom of Hukam and sets the trajectory of our lives.

Hukum: Accept the unexpected turns of life — pain and pleasure — as two robes in the wardrobe.

Introduction

How do I perceive the meaning of “Hukam” — a defining expression in Sikhi, nay, in pretty much all religions? I also refer you to the exposition of Hukam by Hew McLeod, in Punjabi University’s Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, 1996.

Hukam is Arabic for Order or Command. In English, Order has two meanings: Directive or edict, also systematic organization, as opposed to random disorder.

Hukam in Sikhi embraces both concepts: Edict or Command, but also organized structure.

In popular usage Hukam implies micromanagement of the creation by the Creator – that nothing happens without divine, precise control over all creation.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not mean that an all-pervading Creator controls each and every move that I or anyone will make. That He/She keeps precise, detailed tabs on every one’s shenanigans – yours and mine, ranging from the hopelessly evil or banal to the sometimes decent. I have difficulty ramping up serious fealty to these formulations. I refer you to Mark Twain’s “Letters from The Earth” for a rib tickling parody of such ideas.

I grant that it is reassuring to envision a Creator exerting precise control of our individual lives with every “T” already crossed and every “I” dotted. No one action then, not even a breath, is mine to perform, because it is already predetermined to be or not. Yet, our lives remain unpredictable – not only the seminal moments of birth and death, but minutia of our existence as well.

If the Creator is a micromanager, then nothing that I do is my doing, nothing is my fault; no way can I be held responsible or stand trial for any wrong I may do or contemplate.

Wouldn’t a micromanaging Creator become a free-pass-out-of-jail card? And our relationship with him becomes a bartering system – entirely transactional. Can we negotiate? “You (Creator) forgive me and I promise to recite so many (?) Sukhmani Sahibs every day for so many(?) days.” Sounds familiar? Very human?

How Sikhi Defines Hukam?

On page 1, Guru Granth engages with ideas of Hukam. How is Truth to be attained – veil of falsehood torn asunder (“Kiv sachiara hoyiyae kiv koorae thutae paal”) — asks Guru Nanak; his answer is the next line: By walking the Way of Hukam (“Hukum rajai chalnaa Nanak likhyaa naal.”).

The next stanzas tell us that all existence is the visible expression of Hukam. It transcends all description and nothing exists outside Hukam. The laws of cause and effect are an aspect of Hukam. The Creator in his fullness is beyond human comprehension, so too, is Hukam, which is the revelation of Akal Purkh., Hukam is a mystical experience that cannot be fully elaborated. Thus, Hukam gathers into a single principle all of God’s activity.

Notwithstanding Hukam, in fact, at some level we recognize that within the larger system that remains mysterious, humans have considerable free will. If there were absolutely no choices open to us, then Guru Nanak would not have said “As you sow so shall you reap (“aapay beej aapay hee khaahu” Guru Granth p. 4). Nor would Guru Granth advise us to live well and joyfully by our own honest efforts (“Uddam karendia(n) jio too” p. 522) or to resolve our own affairs/needs by our own efforts (“aapan hathee aapnaa aapay hee kaaj savareeyae.” p. 473).

Do not rue the results, nor lose the self in pride and pelf, but be at peace with life. Why? To live another day through both defeat and triumph. Engage with the present to experience Hukam. The goal here is to make honest choices, do the best with them and accept cheerfully what life offers in return.

What does it mean to live in the present?

Keep in mind that in Punjabi and related Indic languages, the word for both tomorrow (the future) and yesterday (the past) is the same – kull.

We largely live in an imaginary past, pining for an unknown but rosier future; the present is then lost between these enduring passions. This is the crux of our misalignment — our existence between utopia and dystopia.

How then to redirect the mind towards the present?   In Thailand, Buddhist monks meditate on dead bodies (corpses) to refocus on the present.  This is meant to enable them to come to terms with the transitory nature of our puny, but not pointless, existence, indeed of all life.

Undoubtedly, the past is loaded with regrets, the future just as full of worries that might or might not be. With our obsession with the past that needs to be buried and the future yet unborn, we overlook the present. Our paradigm shifts only when we accept that what will be will be, and our focus needs to turn to the present moment, not the moment that is now in the past, nor the moment that is yet to come. Discard worry by accepting Hukam; whatever happens is not in the realm of the impossible, so why worry when anything happens (Guru Granth: “Chinta ta ki keejiyae jo anhoni hoye” p. 1426).

And then a most challenging and meaningful citation (Guru Granth p. 660) can hold us — that we are creatures of one single breath only (“Hum aadmi hae(n) ik dami….).  This tells us bluntly that life is really the one breath that one is engaged in at any given moment.  The breath that preceded it is already in the past; the breath yet to be taken is the future, never certain, never guaranteed.  Only the breath we are in defines the present; that alone is life.  It is best then to live in the present to its hilt in that single breath that defines it.  In fact, to me the idea of “Hukam” or divine will that pervades Sikh teaching means exactly that — living fully and productively in the moment.

Our existence remains limited to the one breath in the present moment of time. Is it that easy?  Not really, but it is essential.

XXX

In Punjabi and related languages, the word “Admi” for a human can be parsed as “Aa” and “Dum” where Dum means breath and Aa stands for both the first primal number, One, as well for an invitation “to come”.  So, admi speaks of a creature of one breath — the singular reality of a single breath.  I am not a linguist but I wonder if the Biblical“Adam and the Punjabi Admi are related terms that come to us from shared linguistic and philosophic antecedents.

Briefly Hukam asks us to stop worrying and start living by a realignment of our lives to become alive to the reality of the moment that stands between life and death – in other words, we need develop a relationship of deep trust with the unknown, the unseen.

Walking in Hukam frees us of guilt, misplaced hubris and pride. Every moment then is a new dawn – the start of a new day. It effectively clears the slate for the future – the next moment – to write anew.

In short, the directive of Hukam becomes living life fully, honestly, and purposefully — to live in the present, to live fully in the moment. Hence the promise of constant renewal in life.

But People Will Be People

Thoreau bewailed human existence as lives of quiet desperation. What does it mean to accept the Creator’s Hukam? If a confession of helplessness, it is then not willing acceptance of what is but more like swallowing a bitter pill, because no alternative exists.

Then we cavil; Well! It’s God’s will that my lottery ticket didn’t pan out – perhaps next time. But an underlying thought tortures us: Why my neighbor won the lottery and I didn’t? Surely God knows, as I do, that my neighbor is a no-good jerk; and God knows as I do that I am a good person. I regularly attend services at gurduara and say my requisite prayers, I feed the homeless, so on and so forth. … ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

And then an easy way out of the dilemma appears — lean on an imaginative string of past lives, cyclical birth and so on and on…of the Creator’s mysterious ways for transferring responsibility to unknown others. Hindu mythology certainly helps, doesn’t it? As does literal interpretation of such references in the Guru Granth.

A Possibly Reasonable Alternative

A more rational explanation exists. A benevolent Creator created the systems in which life exists and evolves. (A version of intelligent design!) He/She allows us considerable free will to rewrite our own narrative. We live and die as per the laws that govern us on Earth. Our lives are shaped by a complex interaction of our genes and the environment – our nature and nurture. And despite the many who pretend to read the past and foresee the future, life remains a mystery; a box, fuller than Pandora’s, that delivers pain, suffering, even death. This box also bestows on us heavenly delights and unequaled success. Unearned and uninvited come the many defeats, as do life’s triumphs. Like manna from heaven, they are best not seen as entitlements or earned.

Hukum, then, becomes a state of mind. It determines how we engage, in Shakespeare’s words, with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” An ancient prayer goes, “O God grant me the courage to change the things that I can change, the serenity to accept what I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.” The third clause is crucial.

Which battles to fight and from which battles to walk away with grace. This, the most difficult to see as a governing commandment of life, is a major determinant of our sanity and survival. It is the wisdom of Hukam and sets the trajectory of our lives.

To live with equanimity means to accept the unexpected turns that life offers — pain and pleasure, success and defeat — and see them as two robes in the wardrobe that each of us wears interchangeably (“Sukh dukh doey dar kaparay pehrey aaye manukh” p. 149). Guru Granth also advises that much in life is beyond our design, so accept it with good grace as the essential reality — whatever pleases (the Creator) is the good deed (“Jo tudh bhavae saayi bhali kaar” p. 3). As a popular adage goes: Que sera sera.

Thus, we cultivate positive lives without obsessing its downturns. And to face life with a realistic but hopeful and positive stance.

Sikhi takes this issue head on.  A plethora of citations can be mustered but I drive home my point with only two.  The Guru Granth (p. 922) pointedly challenges us with “Eh sareera meriya iss jug meh aye ke kya tudh karam kamaaya” (What footprints will you leave in the sands of time?) and then it adds (p. 1102,) “Pahila marn kabool kar jeevan ki chhudd aas” (Accept first the reality of death and abandon all hope of endless life).

How then to leave the world? An iota better would be plenty!

ijsingh99@gmail.com

2017

 


About the Author

I.J. SINGH came to the United States in 1960 on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He received a PhD in anatomical sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School (now Oregon Health Sciences University), and a DDS from Columbia University. He is a professor emeritus of anatomical sciences at New York University. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the Sikh Review (Calcutta) as well as Nishaan (New Delhi), and writes a regular internet column on Sikhi

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