Prof. Nirinjin Khalsa
Today we see power structures erecting separatist ideologies along nationalistic, religious, ethnic, and racelines, escalating hate rhetoric and acts of violence, particularly aimed at our Sikh brothers and sisters. These divisive and harmful ideologies question the Unity and brotherhood of mankind that was revealed byGuru Nanak and enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib which recognizes all of creation as One – IkOngKar. Guru Nanak states “the highest yogic order is to see the brotherhood of mankind; through conquering yourown mind, you conquer the world.” (Sri Guru Granth Sahib 6) This interconnected perspective based on anexperience of ego-loss is the foundation of Sikh ethics. It encourages us to practice love-in-action asWarrior-Saints who have the courage to stand against injustice and defend those in need for the freedomand equality of All.
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Interconnected Ethics: Living as Warrior-Saints for the Freedom and Equality of AllAcross Centuries, Cultures, Religions and Continents
When discussing how we can apply the timeless and universal message of Siri Guru Granth Sahib across, time, space, cultures and religions, here and now, in today’s world – it becomes important to acknowledge how the Sikh teachings shape our own lived experiences. I was born and raised a Sikh in the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy) Sikh Dharma community with Harbhajan Sikh Khalsa Yogi Ji’s emphasis on experiential knowing. Since 2000 I have been studying Gurbani Kirtan and the jori-pakhawaj with 13th generation exponent Bhai Baldeep Singh who honored me as the first female exponent of the Amritsari-Kapurthala Baaj. I have attended classes, spent time with and interviewed his Grand Uncles, Bhai Gurcharan Singh, Bhai Avtar Singh and son Bhai Kultar Singh. From 2010-2011 I traveled throughout Northern India as a Fulbright fellow, interviewing the extant memory bearers of the Gurbani Sangeet paramapra, hosted by Dr. Gurnam Singh and the The Gurmat Sangeet Department at Punjabi Univeristy Patiala. My graduate study with Dr. Arvind S. Mandair at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor expanded my horizons in Sikh Studies through its history, philosophy, language and culture. Now as a professor of Sikh and Jain Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I teach an upper division undergraduate course “Sikhism: Warrior Saints” where students visit multiple Gurdwaras in the area, attend Baisakhi and Guru Nanak’s Birthday at the LA Convention Center, sit in on Sunday school classes and get to know the lived aspects of Sikhi by interviewing community members. Students also are given opportunities to perform seva both at the Sikh Gurdwaras as well as with the Khalsa Peace Corps’ “Share a Meal” program where they make burritos on a food truck which they then serve to the homeless around Los Angeles. Additionally, students gain first-hand experience of aspects of Sikhi by performing a forty-day practice of their choosing (ie. nam simran, nam japna, meditation, seva, veganism/vegetarianism or relinquishing one of the five drives: kam, krodh, lobh, moh, ahankar.) For example, when a student chooses to work on their ego (ahankar) they begin to recognize their own self-centered tendencies or desires and move towards a mindset that acknowledges the self in relation to all others. Such a relationship is characterized by love for one another, a love that sacrifices the ego-self. It is this core concept of egolessness that offers a dynamic ethical paradigm based on the interconnectedness of life. By observing the symbiotic relationship between perspectives and practices, between thought and action, between mind, body and spirit, students experience first-hand how Sikhi offers ethical and moral guidelines for living in the world.
Timeless Universal Message
The wisdom enshrined in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib therefore is not meant to only be read, recited, sung, and studied, but is meant to be experienced, practiced and LIVED – today – here and now. The Siri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) conveys a harmonious vision beyond boundaries, borders, and divisions. It encapsulates the interconnected nature of this harmony through its materiality, musicality, authorship, language, script and content. It aligns pan-Indic spiritual insights and wisdoms, from multiple religions, regions, languages, faiths, and castes. Within the Siri Guru Granth Sahib this diversity is harmonized through a common text (SGGS), a common script (Gurmukhi), a shared musical language of raag, and a common message clearly conveyed by Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi Ji’s who said “If you can’t see God in All, You Can’t see God at all.” This popular phrase clearly illustrates the “Interconnected Ethics” revealed by Guru Nanak Dev Ji as IkOngKar, that we are ONE, a revolutionary concept that was continued by the succeeding Sikh Gurus, enshrined in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, and imprinted in our hearts and minds. Guru Nanak states “the highest yogic order is to see the brotherhood of mankind; through conquering your own mind, you conquer the world (man jitai jag jit)” (Siri Guru Granth Sahib 6). This interconnected perspective based on an experience of ego-loss is the foundation of Sikh ethics. It encourages us to practice love-in-action as Warrior-Saints who have the courage to stand against injustice and defend those in need for the freedom and equality of All.
The Sikh notion of the Warrior Saint began with Guru Nanak. He taught a revolutionary mode of living in the world through a saintly mindset that renounces ego-centric behavior, recognizes our shared humanity and allows us to serve others with mutual care and respect, while also living the life of a householder – willing to stand against inequality, segregation, and discrimination. This ethical mode of living in the world offers a response to the separatist ideologies currently being erected along nationalistic, religious, ethnic, and race lines, escalating hate rhetoric and acts of violence, particularly aimed at our Sikh brothers and sisters.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s socio-religious intervention in the early 16th century promotes an ethical paradigm based on an interconnected oneness that resists religious and social inequality and communal violence. Guru Nanak Dev Ji paved the way for the 5th Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji to transcend social, religious, and linguistic divisions by compiling the Adi Granth, a musico-poetic scripture unlike any other – with first-hand expressions of divine experience from the Sikh Gurus themselves, from their disciples, court musicians and sants of differing religious, ethnic, linguistic, and social backgrounds. The 10th Sikh Guru further transgressed socio-politico-religious norms by proclaiming that the Adi Granth scripture would henceforth be the eternal, living Guru of the Sikhs, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji, recognizing the faulty nature of human authority, that can lend itself to unethical behavior, removed any possibility of ego-posturing in relationship to the Guruship. He ceased the lineage of human successors and instead invested the sovereign authority of the Guruship into the Guru Granth, the Shabd Guru. This act effectively displaced human authority that is subject to time and space, and invested it in the eternal Word as Guru that each Sikh can embody within their self, through the practices of nam jap, nam simran, and gurbani kirtan. In this way the Siri Guru Granth Sahib as Shabd Guru offers a radical mode of sovereignty that unifies rather than divides, that is not subject to laws of succession and infighting. It is an authority that itself contains the tools towards one’s own liberation from the ego-dominated self towards a path of Love. This revolutionary notion of sovereignty allows us to live as Warrior Saints who, through conquering our selfish ego-centered minds and behavior, recognize the shared humanity of all beings and stand courageously for the equal rights and freedom of ALL. Guru Gobind Singh poetically expresses:
|“All men are the same though they appear different.
The bright and the dark, the ugly and the beautiful, …
All human beings have the same eyes, the same ears,
The same body build composed of earth, air, fire and water.
The names Allah and Abhekh are for the same God; …
The same is referred to in the Puranas and the Quran.
All human beings are the reflection of one and the same Lord.
Recognize the whole human race as one.”
Guru Gobind Singh, like the Sikh Gurus before him, led by example, recognizing the interconnected nature of the hukam at play within the world. Even after his great-grand father, father, sons and disciples had been martyred for taking a stand against religious persecution and forceful conversion at the hands of Mughal rule, he understood the importance of fighting for justice without vengence, greed, pride, attachments, hate or enmity. Instead he fought so that those of all faiths may live and worship freely rather than submit to an oppressive unjust rule.
Relevance of Guru’s Message in Today’s World
While the world has changed much in the last 500 years since the time of the Sikh Gurus, there are many things that remain the same. People continue to struggle against unjust power structures. Due to the pervasiveness of fear and hate rhetoric, we continue to see boundaries erected along nationalistic, religious, ethnic, and race lines, separating ourselves from our shared humanity and causing acts of violence.
In the US there have been many hate crimes particularly aimed at our Khalsa Sikh fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers, grandfathers, and sons, whose identity with their turbans and beards visually represent to an un-informed public, terrorism, fear, and distrust rather than the Khalsa attributes as given by Guru Gobind Singh which represent contentment, acceptance, honor, strength, justice and Equality for all.
Thousands of hate crimes have been inflicted upon Sikhs since September 11, 2001 when terrorists flew their airplanes into the twin towers and the media continually showed Osama Bin Laden, with his turban and beard, as the epitome of evil – the enemy. Since then there have been countless hate crimes against Sikhs who continue to be targeted as terrorists, due to their own turbans and beards. Rather than responding with hate and rage the Sikh community has
called for greater education about who Sikhs are, with prayers for unity and with forgiveness in the heart.
A few days after September 11th, a Sikh man Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered outside of his gas station in Phoenix, Arizona by a man who killed him out of rage and hate because he perceived him as the “enemy.” After this horrific crime, Balbir Singh’s brother, Rana Singh Sodhi began working with activist Valarie Kaur to spread the Sikh message of Revolutionary Love and forgiveness, even for your opponents or enemies. While serving a life sentence, the killer agreed to speak with Rana Singh over the phone. In the spirit of Sikhi, Rana Singh offered him forgiveness.
We recently commemorated the 5th anniversary of the horrific shooting at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin when on August 5, 2012 a white supremacist opened fire on the Sikh sangat during a Sunday Gurdwara service, killing six people. We keep Paramjit Kaur Saini, Suveg Singh Khattra, Ranjit Singh, Katwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, and Sita Singh, and Baba Punjab Singh, now paralyzed, in our prayers and hearts.
After this atrocity, Harpreet Singh Saini, who had lost his mother Paramjit Kaur in the attack, worked with the Sikh Coalition, to pass a resolution that the FBI’s national hate crimes database would finally track hate crimes against Sikhs. His testimony in front of the US Senate demonstrates the Sikh capacity to stand with courage and love in the face of enormous tragedy, loss, and grief.
“He killed my mother, Paramjit Kaur, while she was sitting for morning prayers. He shot and killed five more men –all of them were fathers, all had turbans like me. And now people know all our names: Sita Singh. Ranjit Singh. Prakash Singh. Suvegh Singh. Satwant Singh Kaleka. This was not supposed to be our American story. This was not my mother’s dream… Senators, my mother was our biggest fan, our biggest supporter. She was always there for us, she always had a smile on her face. But now she’s gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion?…I want to tell the gunman who took her from me: You may have been full of hate, but my mother was full of love.”
This eloquent proclamation of love from a young Sikh man who had just lost his mother exemplifies how Sikhs continue to respond to these hate crimes. Rather than giving in to hate, anger, revenge, and fear Sikhs continue to stand with strength, courage and compassion.
The Sikh Gurus teach us how to live in Ik OngKar, with Nirbhao & Nirvair. How to be fearless warriors who also do not cause fear. How to be without enmity, to have no enemies and recognize our shared humanity. The warrior saint concept can serve as an ethical model for us all – to not vilify the other, but to act with compassion, grace, dignity, and understanding, even in the face of hostility and adversity.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji in this shlok instructs:
Jo to praem khaelan kaa chaao || Sir dhar talee galee maeree aao ||
If you desire to play this game of love with me, then step onto my path with your head in hand, and do not heed public opinion.
(Siri Guru Granth Sahib,1412)
The Sikh perspective that we must first conquer the ego-centered-mind to serve others underpins the warrior-saint tradition that calls us to stand against injustice and defend those in need; whereby serving others we serve the Divine interconnected whole. The Sikh Gurus teach us that the root cause of injustice and oppression is our haumai. That our selfish desires build walls between you and me but never make us truly happy. They teach that our desires are thirsts that can never be quenched while our minds beg for more, blind to the gifts we have already been given. It is our selfish nature that obscures our recognition of the Divine Light within ALL and
separates us from our humanity.
Psychoanalysis teaches us that the separation from the greater whole causes a deep existential pain, lack or void that the ego tries to fill by creating an economy of exchange that treats others as objects that can be used, bought, or sold. This existential grief and pain is then externalized, expressed as an economic lack, that can only be fulfilled through accumulation and oppression and that can only be solved by vilifying and hating the other rather than looking within one’s own mind, heart and self. Today we see this existential cum economic grief and pain projected onto precarious minority communities worldwide. From the killing of Srinivas in Kansas and the shooting of Deep Rai, a Sikh man in Kent, Washington who were both told “go back to your country,” to the bomb threats at Jewish community centers and fires and shooting at mosques, to the most recent killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville who, though concerned about the potential violence that would occur, decided to follow the path of love and protest the hateful white supremacist rally. She offered her heart and head to stand against social inequality and injustice, and was killed by a motorist full of hate and rage.
The Sikh teachings, enshrined in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, offer an ethical model to train our bodies and minds to live as warrior Saints who have the courage (“cor” is the latin root for heart) to give of one’s head, to give of one’s ego, to stand against injustice and defend those in need, for the Freedom and Equality of ALL. The 5th Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji in Sukhmani Sahib gives a formula for how humans can remove their inner turmoil, pain, and sorrow to find peace, love and acceptance. He instructs:
Replace self-centered thought, speech and action
With love for All
By meditating on the Divine Unity of Creation
Our Pain and Sorrow Depart
And Peace dwells in our hearts and mind
We perform good deeds and selfless service for Others
Because we see no separation between our self and others
Once we are able to recognize the Divine Light that shines within ALL
We are then able to treat enemies and friends alike
And to peacefully accept whatever happens
The path of the Warrior Saint is not an easy one, it is difficult. The Siri Guru Granth Sahib instructs us to stand tall in the face of darkness, so that ALL may live in Chardi Kalaa! As a reminder to lead by example, I offer the “Song of the Khalsa” sung at the end of every 3HO Sikh Gurdwara, before the Anand Sahib:
Many speak of courage
Speaking cannot give it
It’s in the face of death that we must live it
When things are down and darkest
That’s when we stand tallest
Until the last star falls
We won’t give an inch at All
Stand as the Khalsa
Strong as steel, steady as stone
Give our lives to God and Guru
Mind and Soul
Breath and Bone
Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa! Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh!
 I also teach courses on Hinduism, Jainism, Yoga and a Master’s Comparative Mysticism course in which students practice Engaged Learning.
 (Dasam Granth 51)
 Testimony of Harpreet Singh Saini before the UNITED STATES SENATE Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Committee on the Judiciary on “Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism” September 19, 2012.
 “Song of the Khalsa” written by S. S. Livtar Singh Khalsa.
About the Author
Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D. is Clinical Professor Sikh & Jain Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California where she teaches a highly popular course “Sikhism: Warrior Saints.” Professor Khalsa received her Ph.D in Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Michigan in 2014 on “The Renaissance of Sikh Devotional Music.” She has conducted extensive ethnographic research throughout Northern India, interviewing the remaining memory bearers of the Gurbani Kirtan parampara and was honored by 13th generation kirtaniya Bhai Baldeep Singh (grandnephew of Bhai Avtar and Bhai Gurcharan Singh) as the first female exponent of the Amritsari-Baaj on the jori-pakhawaj. Her ongoing research investigates diversity in the Sikh Diaspora particularly as it relates to gendered and institutionalized norms within the devotional sphere.