by Birendra Kaur, Ph.D.
c/o Institute of Sikh Studies, # 959, Sector 59, SAS Nagar 160 059, Punjab.
(Paper presented at a seminar organized by Sirdar Kapur Singh Memorial Trust
at Ludhiana on 13th-14th August, 1999)
The common usage of the word 'culture' is: customs and civilization of a particular time, place or people. But Guru Nanak's concern was for all people, of all places, and for all times, as is evident from the fact that he traveled far and wide, in spite of there being no means of conveyance comparable to the ones we enjoy today. Surely, his aim was not to spread the culture of his native land, but to bring home the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, to one and all alike. He is known to have adopted the dress and cuisine of the lands he visited. He even used words from various languages in his compositions. He, thus, aimed at bringing all humanity closer together, irrespective of culture, language, or religion; he envisaged the entire humanity as one.
Sikhs - in common parlance - connote Punjabi Sikh. Punjabi culture and Sikhism are considered inseparable. But, fortunately, as per Guru's aspirations, with people from different nationalities converting to Sikhism, we must be able to see the difference between culture and religious values.
A Sikh is not enjoined to wear only kurta pajama or salwar kameez, or dance only bhangra, or have preference for saag and makki di roti, or even speak Punjabi, for that matter. A Sikh from Italy, speaking Italian, having preference for pizza, and wearing the dress of his / her land is as much a Sikh of the Guru as is a person born in a Punjabi Sikh family. Rather, the former could be more dedicated to the Guru?s teachings as he/she has converted after contemplating Gurbani, as compared to a Sikh by birth who may easily be ignorant of Sikhism altogether.
Thus we can say, what the Gurus carved out for people is religious identity, irrespective of the culture to which one belongs. Therefore, while every Sikh will have a similar approach towards life, no matter to which part of the world he/she belongs, he/she is free to keep the culture of his/her native land, as long as the cultural practices do not come in conflict with Sikh principles. The only criterion for food and dress being :
Baba hor khana khush khwar [SGGS:16]
"Friend! to taste of other than these is to ruin the bliss - Such gormandizing as produces torment to the body, And fills the mind with foul thinking".
Sach khana sach pehnana tek Nanak sach kit [SGGS:44]
Saith Nanak: Those that truth have made their prop, Holy is their food, holy their wear.
As for language, knowledge of Punjabi is not a pre-requisite for being a Sikh. Many a times, even Punjabi-speaking people may not necessarily understand Gurbani, which includes words from other languages, such as, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit, etc. So to follow the Guru, be it a Punjabi or a non-Punjabi Sikh, one has to attune one's thoughts and deeds to the principles of Gurbani, which one may learn through any language. The stress is on the Word, but not any particular language. Gurmukhi script was introduced to reach the common man who was denied access to Brahmin's Sanskrit. Today we can communicate the Guru's message to people the world over only through their own language. Once attracted to Gurbani, they show a keen interest to learn Punjabi. The importance of knowledge of Punjabi for a Sikh is dealt with later.
Dangers From Within: We mostly talk of dangers to the Sikh identity from outside agencies; but what about the dangers from within? It is the hollowness from within that can have more devastating consequences for the Sikh identity. So, before we proceed to consider dangers from outside, let us view some issues that pose a threat from within: Drinking Sikhs have become the norm; convertible Sikhs, with hair cut and trimmed beards, believe they look like Sikhs; shaven Sikhs are considered modern and liberal; soon, smoking Sikhs, too, might become fashionable. Such developments are the result of our casual attitude towards such issues. Because of the general wave of acceptance of such behaviour, youngsters - or even elders - do not feel the need of projecting the true Sikh image. A concerted effort should be made to correct these misconceptions.
The growing trend of apostasy among Sikhs is not entirely to be blamed on the male. The women and girls are equally responsible, if not more, who, out of complete ignorance of Sikh heritage and values, go to the extent of declaring this preference for shaven partners in marriage. Sikh girls with simple and natural looks are a rare sight; they are unable to free themselves from slavish mentality, merging the liberated status the Guru gives them, with the horde mentality of the masses. Mothers cut hair of young ones for their own convenience. Therefore, education and awareness of women is of utmost importance as we know that education of one woman means educating the whole family.
Today, we women hold our heads high for the contribution of Sikhism. Women of yore in every sphere, be it service, leadership, or sacrifice. Nowhere else does a woman enjoy such a respectable status as in Sikhi. The Guru has lovingly called us 'Kaur', which means a crown prince - i.e., on whom lies great responsibility. Have we ever pondered as to what are our responsibilities towards enhancing the Sikh identity, as we comprise 50% of the Sikh population? Our only sincere efforts these days are directed towards seeking exemption from wearing a helmet. The government has already exempted Sikhs from wearing a helmet. Just as a Sikh man without a turban cannot claim exemption, why should Sikh women not wearing a turban/dastar claim exemption? But the Sikh women today do not even wish to cover their heads with a dupatta. Even if some do, it is impossible to retain it while on scooter. If we are so serious about what the Guru bans us from, how about doing what the Guru asks us to do? Why are we using religion, when style and convenience are our only concern?
Mostly, we compare words and expressions from Sikhism with those from other religions, as if trying to make Sikhism more meaningful. But, in the process, we sometimes distort the real concept. For example, calling jathedar Akal Takht the Pope of the Sikhs means that he can dictate terms to the entire Sikh population whereas, according to Sikh ethos, he is only a mukh-sewadar of Akal Takht, and enjoys no such power as the Pope. Similarly, granthis cannot be called priests as there is no priestly class in Sikhism. Every individual can perform religious functions, and there is no intermediary required for communion with God. Also, langar is not free kitchen.
When we adopt these terms, foreigners fail to see the true picture of our faith and may take it as just another religion without any originality. Thus, terms and institutions such as khanda, panth, granthi, jathedar, langar, sangat, pangat, Guru, etc., should not be translated, but maintained as such, and explained in their right perspective. We should work on getting more and more of these words introduced into authoritative dictionaries, just as many Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist words have already been. This alone will convey the uniqueness of the Sikh faith.
Out of a silly complex, many a Sikh families insist upon their children to speak and learn only languages other than Punjabi, considering it to be an inferior language. Such a trend can prove fatal in the long run. But, since Gurbani is composed in Gurmukhi script, its propagation is of utmost importance, and efforts must continue, at community as well as individual level, for the same. Words used in Gurbani should be incorporated into present-day written and spoken Punjabi. Gurbani grammar should form a part of the Punjabi curriculum in schools. Translation of Gurbani into different languages should be done from the original text; translation of a translated text may be a step farther from the original. Only scholars well-versed in Gurmukhi would be in a position to bring out better and better translations in other languages in future. Each scholar may be required to gain thorough knowledge of at least one more language, Indian or foreign, apart from Punjabi and English, so that he/she may be able to bring f
orth worthwhile translations of Gurbani.
The process of issuing a hukamnama needs to be reviewed; the entire Panth should be able to decide on an issue. For example, the hukamnama on the langar issue led to the division of the Panth. Such an issue could have first been taken up at the local level where people were objecting to it, and the point brought home to them through discussions. As it is, Christians have also started serving food in the Churches on tables. Our shifting to the tables will destroy the essence of langar, which entails many value systems and is not mere feasting. Seminars to solely discuss this process, of deciding an issue that affects in entire Panth, are the need of the hour.
Any decision regarding the Panth should be taken in light of Gurbani alone. For example, the Nanakshahi calendar is to fix the dates of gurpurbs so that they may be included in the international calendar of important dates. Today, Christ's birthday is known virtually to everyone. Why not our Gurus' birthday too? Calendars are society's system of naming time for convenience and uniform reference. The calendars do not change the course of the moon or the planets, which is as per Almighty's Will. And as per Gurbani, every moment is as auspicious as any other.
Tithi-var seve mugadh gawar
Whatever the Perfect Lord Himself does, that alone happens. The omens attached to these Lunar and Solar days create double- mindedness and duality. Without the True Guru, there is pitch darkness. The omens regarding the days, Lunar and Solar, only the fools and idiots observe.
Thus, being unable to dissociate from the traditional calendar too is a cultural taboo, which is not in line with the universalism of Sikhi. The Panth, comprising of sant-sipahis does not have to bend to the whims and fancies of those who do not follow the Rehat Maryada. Unity among all is desirable and should be strived for, but not by compromising with Guru's ideals.
Every Sikh, and especially public figures, political or religious, are in a position to either enhance or malign the Sikh identity. It is, therefore, every Sikh's prime duty to follow Sikh principles in word and deed.
Dangers From Without: The media project a very degrading picture of the Sikh identity. The Sikh characters in movies and TV serials, without exception, are always shown as comic or stupid or dumb. Lampooning of Sikhs is widespread on the Internet. The print media regularly carry humiliating articles on beard, and project the shaven man as the 'complete man'. They only exhibit their own ignorance and lack of common sense, as Nature knows best and does nothing in vain. But the young minds of Sikh boys as well as girls, get influenced by the media hype, and thereby get a complex about their identity. Only those well-acquainted with Sikh tenets can withstand such onslaughts.
Pseudo-scholars are keen to carry out research on Sikhism to prove their preconceived and biased notions. They would like to prove that Gurbani is not authentic; martyrdom is not a Sikh trait; Sikhism has nothing new to offer; Guru Gobind Singh deviated from Guru Nanak's path; 5 Ks have nothing to do with the Vaisakhi of 1699, but were introduced by the Jat converts, along with militancy; and so on. We have to be ever alert to defeat such nefarious designs, as they strike at the very roots of Sikhism.
Brahminical forces, who represent the supremacist and casteist sections, will like to suffocate Sikh identity to death with their fraternal embrace. They are over-anxious to claim Sikhism as a sect of Hinduism, and include the Sikh Gurus in the list of their rishis and munis. We must be able to see through their diabolism. Certain groups which project themselves as Sikhs, but in reality are not, confuse the people at large about Sikh identity. Their belief in a personal guru is a departure of a serious nature from Sikh ideology. And, in order to prove their point, they distort Sikh ideology, history and practices. A Sikh according to the Reht Maryada is :
Any human being who faithfully believes in (i) One Immortal Being, (ii) ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Guru Gobind Singh, (iii) Guru Granth Sahib, (iv) the utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus, and (v) the baptism bequeathed by the Tenth Guru, and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion, is a Sikh. [SGPC, Rehat Maryada, Section I Chapter I, Art. I]
It will not be wrong to say that Sikhism is the only religion where every individual enjoys similar status and, therefore, none can claim to be a sant or guru. He need not bow to another fellow-being, and no fellow-being can exploit him. Thus, such sects as have personal gurus blur the boundaries of Sikh identity in a very subtle manner. Their blow is strengthened by active government and anti-Sikh support. And as long as our leaders bend to their demands, at the cost of Sikh principles, or run to them for support, Sikh identity is at stake.
Conclusion: The danger to Sikh identity stem mainly from two quarters which need immediate attention: to be able to view culture as distinct from Sikh identity. Whereas we value Punjabi culture, we must also - as Sikhs - be able to project a religious identity so that Sikhs from all over the world, especially new entrants into the Sikh fold, many identify with us, and we with them. Culture holds together communities in a particular geographic area, which Sikhism strives to hold together the entire human race. (2) To bring about maximum awareness among masses about Sikh ideology so that we may truly become Guru's Sikhs and be in a position to combat onslaught of any nature to Sikh identity.