Monday, November 14, 2016

On Being a Sikh - Simple things that try to explain why the Sikhs are so different

In the recent past, a lot of people have posted pictures of Sikhs distributing food or tea to people otherwise stranded, or of Sikhs sending food to areas affected by natural calamities. Some others have shared how the Sikhs are less than 2% of the population but contribute a lot more to the national exchequer and are a major part of the Indian Defence Forces.

And many of my friends have very kindly sent these to me. I am grateful to them. But the thing is, these pictures don't tell us anything new. This is how we have lived. This is who we have always been. The world is just noticing this now. And honestly, its a little embarrassing for us to be recognised or praised for what we have always been. The Sikhs can't brag about it. Its just our way of life. When my son was very young, we got talking about religion and he asked me why he was not a Sikh if I was a Sikh. I kissed him on the forehead and said, "Sikhi Saukhi nahi (ਸਿੱਖੀ ਸੌਖੀ ਨਹੀਂ )." ( It is not easy to be a Sikh).

Many, many of you have asked me what makes the Sikhs the way they are. I am, here, trying to answer that, as humbly as I can. While the post itself is brief, it is the result of many years of introspection. The question was first posed to me by my friend, who finished reading a book by Khushwant Singh and asked me, "What makes you Sikhs the way you are? What do you do so right in raising your children?" God knows I have tried to answer her a lot of times, and failed miserably every single time. Here is one more effort.

  • Sarbat ka bhala / सरबत का भला 
You cannot imagine how early, and how completely this is fed into our heads. In the army, there is a very popular slogan - Sabse pehle Desh, Uske baad Unit, aakhir mein khud. The Sikhs are literally born with that idea.

ALL of our scripture, all of our discourses, every single one of our stories, point to the idea that so long as even one is in danger, we are all in danger. So long as even one is poor, we are all poor. It is put into the prayer 3 times a day. It is actioned in the langar 24*7. Every single Gurudwara, before it completes its building, will have a dispensary, where very accomplished doctors will come and offer either free or heavily subsidised service. They will run programs for the poor, irrespective of religion or caste.

One of the first hymns we hear is " देह शिवा बर मोहे इहे, शुभ कर्मण ते कबहुँ न टरौ " (O Lord, grant me only this boon, that I should never shy from doing a good deed.) In my house, the key stand has this quote with a picture of Guru Gobind Singh. So this is the last thing you will read as you leave the house - Shubh Karman te Kabhun na Tarau. It is by design. I am the only Sikh in the house, but its still the last thing you will read as you leave the house, so that when you leave the house, you leave with the thought of doing a good deed.

There really is NO concept of "them" in Sikhism. Nothing in our scripture speaks about differentiation on any basis other than justice. The ONLY villain in our books is someone who is troubling others or denying them their honest due. There is no image to hate. Seriously. We only hate lies and injustice. That's a very powerful idea. We have nothing else to hate!! 

  • मीरी पीरी की तलवार (the sword of riches and spirituality)
If you are not a Sikh, this can be a little hard to get. This concept means that your might, and power, will never be without a spiritual base. You will never raise your hand except to protect the downtrodden. You will never use power for anything except the common good. It comes from the Gurus, who did become reasonably powerful in the Punjab region, but also understood that power can corrupt. So the Gurus ensured that we all understood the spiritual component of strength. And of all the Sikh concepts, this one, imho, was totally brilliant because it ensured that we remain humble in the face of great power and wealth.
  • No fear of Death
When you open your eyes (I mean, as an infant), and you hear hymns like " जो तौ प्रेम खिलन का चाव , सिर धर तली गली मोरी आओ "(If you want to participate in the sport of universal affection, you must come as if you are already beheaded)  and "इत  मार्ग पैर धरीजै , सिर दीजे कांड ना कीजे। " (If you step on this path, you may lose your head, but you must not show your back)

OR this:
देह शिवा बर मोहे ईहे, शुभ कर्मन ते कभुं न टरूं
न डरौं अरि सौं जब जाय लड़ौं, निश्चय कर अपनी जीत करौं,
अरु सिख हों आपने ही मन कौ इह लालच हउ गुन तउ उचरों,
जब आव की अउध निदान बनै अति ही रन मै तब जूझ मरों

Grant me , O Lord, only one boon: That I should not shy away from doing a good deed.
That I shall not fear when I go into combat. And with determination I will be victorious. That I may teach myself this creed alone, to speak only of Thy (allmighty lord Waheguru) praises. And when the last days of my life come, I may die in the might of the lord. (Die fighting, as against, die as an old person)

What do you expect? Then they tell us stories of the 4 Sahibzadas, of the many, many people who gave up their lives for the sake of justice, Banda Singh Bahadur ji, Baba Buddha Singh ji.... and any love you have for your mortal remains just vanishes in thin air.

We are fed on such a fertile feed of stories, hymns and prayers that focus on the fact that you may not be alive, but you must, at all times, be just and brave. They put it in the Ardaas - 3 times a day we hear this. Honest to God, we have no fear of death if it means to die in the path of justice. And as I tell The Other: "You should be very scared of someone who is not afraid to die."

In teaching children that it is ok to die if its for a good cause, we raise adults who are truly fearless. Its a very, very powerful way to live - to not value your breaths, but to value what you stand for. It cannot be explained. Or taught. You just have to inherit it as part of your growing up.
  • मन नीवा ते मत्त उच्ची 
This literally means - Let your ideals/intellect be high and your heart be humble.
But translated, it means: Do not Brag. Do not think, for a moment, that you are responsible for any good that you are doing. It is the will of God being done through you. (मेरा मुझ में कुछ नहीं, जो कुछ है सो तेरा ) - Nothing in me is mine, it is all of the God.

So this doctrine, repeated often enough, relieves us of any grandiose self concept that we might have. If nothing is mine and I am just an instrument, what's with the pride?

  • जो बोले सो निहाल, सत श्री अकाल 
Whether you are sending off your daughter to her marital home, or sending a child to war. Whether you are saying goodbye to your dear departed father, or celebrating the success of a friend, you will always do it with the same words - "He is blessed who utters these words - Only the Timeless One is the Truth". And you will always utter these words with a strong, powerful voice. Grieving has no place in our tradition. Nor does jubilation. At all times, we remember that we are all in it together, and we are all just instruments of Truth. I was so amazed to see this at my own father's funeral and at the doli of a cousin. There were no tears. There was just quiet strength. A lot of it.

  • The Egalitarianism
Again, this can be hard to get if you are not a Sikh. But you cannot tell the gender of the person by their first name. Every single Sikh name can and is used by both men and women. The Gatka is learnt by both boys and girls. While you are dreaming of a female pope , a female Mahant, or a female Imam (What?!). Sikhism has already had its highest administrative seat been taken by a woman. TWICE. The Gurus knew that egalitarianism does not come easily to human beings. So they ensured gender and race parity by ensuring that all Sikh men will have the same surname - Singh, and all Sikh women will have the same surname - Kaur. We are a long way off from effecting this - but the Gurus tried and by and large, its a very egalitarian society.


The thing is, these and a lot of other Sikh ideas, they are necessary, to make us who we are. Because essentially, there cannot be a lot of Sikhs. The Sikhs will always be a minority. We understand that, and in all humility, we accept that. We have no goals to go to except doing good. We have no aspirations except to be humble in the face of success, and we have no fear except the fear that we may not live up to our ideals.