Sep 112013


Towards what kind of life did Guru Nanak call his Sikhs?  And what kinds of lives should we live today?  Drawing from Guru Nanak’s bani, this paper argues that justice-oriented ethics must be at the fore of Sikh-American thought.  In this post-9/11 and post-Oak Creek era, we cannot miss the opportunity to build Sikh values into an American future while rising to the challenge of the good life posed by the Guru Granth Sahib.  On the bedrock of the shabad, let us build new institutions promoting service and equality so that we may be better Sikhs, while serving the American and global communities in which we find ourselves.

Video of Presentation

Body of Paper

FLIPPING OUT: A Sikh Response to a Traumatic World[1]

Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Ph.D. [2]

 As a Sikh, husband, father, historian, and activist, I’ve been struggling for the last few years on how to address and resolve the effects of living with trauma.  2012 marked not only the hundredth groundbreaking anniversary of the first Gurdwara in America –at Stockton, California—but also the saw a horrific murderous rampage at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Gurdwara.  In 2014, we are memorializing three decades since the summer Battle of Amritsar, also known as Operation Blue Star, and the fall pogroms that slaughtered thousands of Sikhs throughout India.

To deal with the effects of trauma like this Sikhs look to bani.  How fortunate are we to have the first-hand compositions of a man like Baba Nanak, who himself lived through a most traumatic transition in history: the invasion of the Mughals and their subsequent founding of a new empire in India!  Baba Nanak’s experiences with God’s immaculate words persisted through such trauma, and became the bedrock for the way of life that we Sikhs profess.  Indeed, we are so lucky to have a record of Baba Nanak’s thoughts of and experiences with the divine presence.  We can look to see how he may have explained and reconciled traumatic happenings in our own lifetime.  Surely, many of Baba Nanak’s contemporaries would have used the idea of the decrepit age, or Kaliyug (literally, “Dark Age”), to explain these traumatic events.  And sure enough we see Baba Nanak also invoking this ancient Indian concepts to explain the evil of the day – what religion scholars call theodicy:

The counterfeit is confused with the genuine, none really knows what is authentic.

The blind are appointed leaders – such is the mystery of the Dark Times! (GG 229)

In the Kaliyug, Baba Nanak concedes, everything appears upside down, topsy-turvy, and inverted!  Elsewhere he writes,

The sweet: they call bitter. The truly bitter seems sweet.

Those who slander the pious abound in these Dark Days. (GG 229)

We could easily misread the inversion that these excerpts speak of as a mainstream “Indic” view of Kaliyug.  But Baba Nanak was no typical thinker, and he did not merely ascribe to the prevalent thought of his day.  He was a prophet of God whose key contribution to South Asian Indian religion is overturning its assumptions.

So let us take a deeper, more careful look at what we can learn about how to respond to trauma’s effects in our own lives.  One particular composition in Ramkali rag (GG 902) stands out as we think about living in this “dark” age, and I think articulates a uniquely Sikh response to the times.  It begins by challenging us to see the “age” from a larger perspective than we typically do:

The same moon rises, the same stars shine, the same sun burns.
The earth is the same, the wind blows no differently,
Where does the eon seem to change?[3]

Everything is the same from age to age.  The sun shines no differently.  Where does this “dark age” take hold?  Perhaps it is not a divine phenomenon, or a cosmic one, or a natural one.  Perhaps it’s just a human construct.  What would the implications of that be?  What are the signs of the dark age’s tumult?

Renounce your fixations in life.
For the sign of darkness is this: the corrupt prevail. (rahao)

That cheaters and frauds win is a key sign of the Kaliyug.  We need to relinquish our ties to such false ways of this world if we are to seek something better.  The Guru asks us not to play the game of life by the common rules of the day.  In the next three verses he mesmerizes with simple words that carry a profound message: the seeds of this dark age nowhere apparent but in human hearts:

We’ve never heard it arrive in the region!  We don’t see it on pilgrimage.
It’s not complained of when donors give patronage, and it’s not raised a house to dwell in.

The honest find ruin.  There is no austerity at holy sites.
Those living by the Naam are defamed – these are the signs of the dark age.

The masters will find ruin – for what should servants fear?
When the master is put in chains, he will die in the servant’s hands.

From where did this “dark age” arrive?  Where should we seek its source?  There is no one place from which it haunts us, and yet we see its apparent effects.  Some will suffer at the social inversion of these twisted times and others may seem to benefit.  But these times mark a break with the past:

Utter what is virtuous, for darkness descends.
The effects of the past three eons are gone, and God is the only source of virtue.

The past is past.  According to the ways of medieval Indian Brahminism, which Baba Nanak rejects, some residual karma from previous eons should be of benefit to whose who live today.  Baba Nanak counters that this is not true, only divine grace can save us now.  And I think this is actually a source of hope for those who are disenfranchised.  A close reading of this hymn reveals that the inversions of the “dark age” are most threatening to those who have the most to lose.  Those at the top of society (the chiefs, the Brahmins) are most anxious about what the inversion means and entails.  It is possible that Baba Nanak here captures and responds to the laments that were circling in higher-class Hindu circles.  In the next line, we see the turn to a Muslim law system that replaces a Hindu one, and how it may irk some members of Indian society:

The age is a liquor pitcher: justice via sharia and the Qazi is the judge.
The bani now replaces Brahma’s Veda, conduct is what earns us glory.

Several centuries of Islam’s influence on Indian polity and legality seems to have continued to make the legacy of formerly powerful members of Indian society extremely uncomfortable.  A total new social order based on Muslim jurisprudence and personal law (sharia) had replaced the old Indic ways of law-giving.  This, however, does not appear to trouble Baba Nanak’s followers.  If anything, it is an opportunity for a new dispensation based on a new revelation to take hold, replacing the old ways.  Major interpreters of this verse take Baba Nanak to be saying that the Guru’s bani has replaced the Vedas.  Thus the new Sikh dispensation at Kartarpur provided the Guru’s followers with stability and hope in a time when even among Muslim rulers there was a great shift from the Afghan Lodi Sultans to the Central Asian Mughals.  The Brahmin’s authority, based on worship without dignity and sincerity, has lost its relevance in this tumultuous age.  The people need more from religion:

How can there be worship (puja) without honor (pat)?  Austerity (sanjam) without truth (sat)?  What use is your thread (janeo) without virtue (jat)?
You may bathe, wash, you make don sacred marks, but there is no purity (soch) without integrity (such).

Bible (kateb) and Quran pervade in the dark age,
Left behind are the Brahmins and Puranas!

Nanak says, God’s name is known as Merciful (Rahman) now.
Know the Creator to be One. (7)

The invocation to the Qur’an’s verses is the Bismillah – “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful (al-Rahman) and Kind (al-Rahim) – and Baba Nanak draws on this.  In the new reality of the day, there are sacred religious practices – formerly the Brahmin’s territory – greater than the practice of Naam.

Here Naam cannot just mean “God’s name” and cannot simply refer to chanting practices because Baba Nanak is completely rebuking the empty practices of the past.  Naam here must incorporate the bani, above described as replacing the Veda, and karni, which refers to life lived in accordance with bani.  Amidst all of the changes in the human realm, or society, the languages we use to talk about the divine have changed, but the divine reality persists ever unchanged.  Which is why the so-called “dark age,” in which the Brahmin’s authority is exposed to be meaningless, is actually a mercy for the sincere practitioner.  We have returned to where we began in this composition: at the consciousness of the unchanging cosmic perspective.

And it is this unchanging cosmic perspective with which the practitioner must connect in order to live a proper life amidst the traumatic realities of the day—then or now.  For Baba Nanak critiques the practices of religious obligation for the very reason that they only work at a superficial level and what we need is a deeper connection.  A Sikh life, however, does not merely hold that deeper connection is achieved through an internal practice of meditation and reflection.  Just as God is expressing God-self throughout creation, the pious practitioner will find the possibility of reflecting God’s grace through all her actions.  In other words, connection with the Naam requires living out the ethics contained in bani.  It is both “spiritual” and “ethical”.  The two are not separate.  In the next verse Baba Nanak writes of responsibility: who is to blame for this supposed “dark age”?  He says that if we possess everything we need to pursue our religio-ethical obligations, then we are to blame:

Nanak says: all virtue comes from the Naam, above which no rite can reach.
Who is to blame if what you seek is already at home? (8, 1)

From a Sikh perspective, there is no place to go to seek the divine.  No religious authority, no pilgrimage site, no special practices can bring us closer to God.  This is the antithesis of medieval Indian Brahminism in which the Brahmin is the medium, there are lists of pilgrimages to attend to, and there are myriad rituals prescribed of varying degrees of complexity to bring the individual in touch with the divine order.  There are rules to follow in that system; rules upon rules.  Only certain segments of society – male society, that is – can participate.  And, by the way, access to the divine order is going to cost you material wealth.  According to a mystical, unseen reality to which the common man does not have access, Brahminism says, money can be exchanged for religious favors.

Not so in Baba Nanak’s cosmology.  We have all we need to access God.  He even names it above: not just worship (puja), but honor (pat); not just austerity (sanjam) but truthfulness (sach); not sacred threads (janeo), only virtue (jat); there is no purity (soch) without integrity (sach).  That is to say that all of the things that the religious specialist said he could provide – worship, austerity, sacrality, and purity – are based fundamentally on things already God-given – honor, truth, virtue, and integrity.  All of these things come from inside of us and can be enacted by us in the life of everyday householders.  We need no middle-man (and Brahmins were men) between God and us.  We can just start on the path as the Guru shows the way.  This is a basic premise of Sikh life.

Kaliyug hasn’t inverted the world order.  We have.

If anything, the “dark age” is just a set of conditions that have revealed life as it should be, and revealed God as God is.  That is Naam – the experience of seeing God as God-self, the experience of that and the entire life that we can build in response to that experience.  All of this comes out of our deepest relationship with the divine realm.  If we have everything we need in the form of religious obligations that come out of our heart, out of a deeper pre-existing relationship with the Most Deep, then who are we to blame for the upside down nature of the world?

Again, Kaliyug hasn’t inverted the world order: we have!  What needs to be flipped is our viewpoint.  What needs inverting, then, is our perspective on the world.  Society appears topsy-turvy because its members are caught up in a whirlwind of self-centeredness, not God-centeredness.

And so this contemporary global moment, this Sikh moment, may seem to be inverted, upside-down, and flipped.  Populaces are polarized.  Parliaments can’t agree.  Pluralism seems like a dream.  Intolerance deepens.  Inequalities grow.  Even decades of strides in civil and human rights are checked by bigotry and mistrust.  People are targeted for how they look.  Everything looks like Kaliyug, this indeed must be the dark age!

But how should we as Sikhs address it?  Baba Nanak saw societal changes he lived through as opportunities to see the world anew.  So what are our opportunities?

The fortunate among us who have access to certain information technologies may be experiencing some thing like information overload.  As one of my professors used to say, today we know less about more than ever before in human history.  For us, information shortage is not a problem – but how do we make sense of all this information?  One innovation that responds to this problem in contemporary education circles is the idea of “flipped classrooms”.  Whereas classrooms have become spaces that disseminate “knowledge” (or really just information), we see that it is not the best use of the community’s time to just deliver monologues.  Student attention spans have always been lower than the lecture-model assumed.  Engagement with knowledge in learning communities is much more important than simple reception.  And through recorded lectures that students can view online, instructors can efficiently “deliver” all necessary information.  This frees up class time, and space, for discussion, interaction, and deeper engagement.

When I use this format in my classes students hear less of me in class and, I hope, pay more attention to how they receive the day’s assigned reading, ask questions, and most importantly build knowledge together through the classroom milieu.

Similarly, libraries are no longer just dusty repositories of books, but public spaces where engagement can happen.  Computer servers can contain more information than most libraries can hold but libraries can provide portals of access to that information as well as professional guidance on how to begin making sense of it and seeking other forms.  Of course, libraries are among the institutions forced to juggle resources to stay relevant.  But the radically tumultuous age also provides an opportunity for library professionals to demonstrate their indispensability.  Libraries will not die—even servers take energy to maintain and digitization has its shortcomings.  Libraries will, however, change and adapt.

Have religious institutions heard this same call?  Or will religious people continue to pretend that the world is upside down, that the age is a dark one, and that aside from shutting our eyes in the lull of meditation and hymn-singing, we have no real responsibility to change or adapt?

“Who is to blame if what you seek is already at home?”  We have no one to blame if we have the knowledge of this problem and the solution in our hands.  We are to blame for the world’s conditions, and we are the hope for bringing a revolution.

The world is not flipped, and maybe our institutions need flipping.  Maybe by attending to Baba Nanak’s message, we realize that our core institution needs flipping.  I’m talking here about the Gurdwara: what would a flipped Gurdwara look like?

I think the question requires us to ask what do we do at the Gurdwaras we have built?  Fulfill our purported spiritual needs by outsourcing religious piety to trained professionals, and fill our bellies with langar?  Is there anything more that the Gurdwara can offer?  In the diaspora, is it a place to play our culturally patterned politics of the homeland, to assert our cultural baggage?

In the Puratan Janam Sakhi, Baba Nanak is constantly inverting Mardana’s expectations.  In their travels, after they are turned away from a particular village where they have been paid no attention, Baba Ji and Mardana travel to a town where they are very well regarded, all their needs are met, and the townsfolk are attentive to their message.  Baba shocks Mardana by seemingly cursing the whole town by saying, “May this place be uprooted and destroyed.”  You could imagine Mardana’s shock.  “Some justice you’re advocating here, Babaji.  We just came from a place that paid us no heed.  Arriving at this caring place, you’re cursing it?”  Baba’s wisdom has a perfect opening now: “If these townsfolk are forced to scatter,” he explains, “they will take their good ways with them.  Let those other folks stay put.”

Populations of the Sikhs are scattered the world over.  Let us not be so insular as we were when we took roots in these places.  Let us spread God’s care and Baba Nanak’s message of goodness through our actions, not just words.  The global Sikh population, they say, is twenty-five million.  That may seem like a lot, but it is about a third of one percent of the general population.  The next largest religion on the list of world religion’s, Buddhism (with half a billion adherents), possesses twenty times the number of Sikhs.  Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism count billions of people.  In India as a whole we are not even two percent of the population and hardly make a majority in our own home state.  In America we are 0.17%.

Perhaps we are already outperforming our numbers.  But let’s aim higher.  Let us go beyond the Gurdwaras and imagine a different kind of Sikhi.  Let us pour divine grace, mercy and care into the world.  Let us take langar out of our kitchens and into the streets, alleys, slums, and encampments.  Instead of just listening to kirtan and chanting the divine names, let us enact what we profess.  Let us reject the model of paying religious professionals for nursing our religious rites, and let us empower congregations to find their own interpretations and enact their own pieties.  Let us work and serve alongside members of other faiths.  Let us get outside the Gurdwara and export some of our greatest values and traits.  Otherwise, who is there to blame when we return to our homes and abodes unchanged, unaltered, uninspired?  Those, indeed, would be dark days.


[1] I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Chardi Kalaa Foundation for the opportunity to present a version of these remarks, and to the sangat of Gurdwara San Jose where I delivered them.  We need more wonderful opportunities like this to obliterate the divide between ivory tower and Gurdwara!

[2] Dr. Gill serves as Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of the Center for Equality and Justice at California Lutheran University.  He teaches a regular course on Sikh traditions there and has published widely on Sikh studies, especially on the life and works of Bhai Gurdas Bhalla.

[3] Unless otherwise stated, all references from the Guru Granth Sahib come from the Ramkali composition of page 902.

Author Bio

Gil_Rahuldeep_2013_3Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University where he has launched an Asian Studies Minor, served as Associate Director for CLU’s Center for Equality and Justice, and will serve as the Center’s Director beginning in 2014.  In addition to offerings in Christianity, global religions, and Indian thought, he teaches a yearly course on Sikhi and has twice won Diversity Professor of the Year since he joined the faculty in 2009.  He encourages discussions in his classes, broadens students’ perspectives, deepens their appreciation of diversity, and inspires them to be more understanding and compassionate.  His translations of Bhai Gurdas’s seminal vars will soon be published, along with an introduction to the Sikh savant’s life and contribution.  Gill has a bachelor’s degree in Religion from the University of Rochester and a masters and doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is currently studying the Sikh congregations of California. Follow him on Twitter (@RahuldeepGill).

 Posted by at 12:34 pm

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