The Numbers Game: T. SHER SINGH
It's Not Our Racket
Thursday, August 2, 2012
When I was in Grade 8, our regular class teacher, Brother Johnson, contracted jaundice and had to be quarantined in the nearby Holy Family Hospital for several weeks.
Orphaned, as if, for those weeks, we were tended during the period by a string of substitute teachers. Even as pre-teenagers, we noticed that we were the losers in the school’s desperate attempt to implement stop-gap measures. In desperation, the Principal himself - Brother T.A. Comber - took us under his wing temporarily.
Though a strict disciplinarian, he was a likeable teacher. Wise, witty and charming, impeccably dressed even in his cassock, and truly caring, he delighted us during the few hours he was able to steal away from his administrative duties to spend with us every school day.
I remember that he was a story teller. Everything he taught was centred around a parable, either a biblical one or of his own making. Or a metaphor, an analogy, an example.
One of them was a recurring one. He came back to it often, drew lessons from it, and got us to debate its implications. No wonder it has stayed in my mind ever since, and often wells up to the surface of my thought processes.
He cited the example of the shepherd and the flock of sheep he has to tend every day, rain or shine. He is alone, always alone, they a multitude, always a multitude. The fact that they outnumber him does not give them greater legitimacy. Or strength. Or righteousness.
The shepherd is never overwhelmed by the odds. He accepts his lot. He protects the sheep, he makes sure they are fed and healthy and safe, he shelters them. Even when they misbehave, or appear ungrateful, running off on their own romps and frolics.
And amidst it all, he finds time for himself. He communes with nature, adjusts his routine according to the seasons, plans ahead, deals with the vagaries of the environment … and, when the situation warrants it, fights off the wolves, even at great personal peril.
Br. Comber drew a slate of lessons from this simple scenario.
Responsibility. Leadership. Accountability. Commitment. Loneliness at the top. Peer pressure. Adversity. Preparedness. Success and failure. The spiritual journey. Contentment. Self-sufficiency. Excellence. Being part of an elite corps.
Identity. The cost. The rewards.
And the trials and tribulations of being a minority. Always a minority.
Those free-for-all discussions from 1961 -- God! That’s half-a-century ago! -- come to mind instantly when I hear Sikhs fret over their numbers. There is concern - and it’s a valid one - over slippage of our practices into the very mire we were pulled out from by our Gurus. And hence a loss of numbers of those who understand Sikhi or apply it to their lives.
There are others who dream of a promised land, and of a golden era when our numbers will swell, the world finally appreciating what Max Macauliffe had said when introducing the Sikh Faith, in its full glory, to the West in 1901:
“ … it would be difficult to point to a religion of greater originality or a more comprehensive ethical system."
I share neither the doomsday prognostications nor the outlandish dreams, though I endorse Macauliffe’s words and sentiments with no reservations or qualifications.
Given the vagaries of life, the ups and owns of history, and the vicissitudes of the laws of evolution, I have no difficulty in accepting the fact that we are a minority, that we’ve always been a minority, and will probably always remain one.
I would go even further: I believe we are designed to be a minority, that we are meant to be a minority, that it is in our very DNA.
I am reconciled to the fact that Sikhs are shepherds, always shepherds, and will never be sheep.
Everything in our teachings, each and every message - express or implied - that shapes our psyche is geared to this fact.
Let me give you a whole list of reasons why I believe this is true. Not an exhaustive list. And not in any particular order.
1 Guru Nanak, our founder, never went around proselytising, never working at “increasing” the numbers of his Sikhs. He wanted Hindus to be better Hindus, to practice their faith in its pristine beauty by shedding the rituals and superstitions. He wanted Muslims to be better Muslims, to practice their faith in its pristine beauty, without the rituals and superstitions. He tore down falsehoods, never the faith. And, more significantly, never said, leave your faith and follow me.
It guaranteed that those who would follow him home would remain a few. The rest he wanted to continue along their own paths, but with a cleaner and firmer commitment.
2 Those who chose to follow him and the succeeding Nanaks, were to be students, learners, pupils, sikhs. Sikhs! They were to be perennial students, and it is as humble disciples - not priests and clergy - that they were to show the way, not through words and dogma, but by example … and “truthful living”.
3 The famous story of Nanak “cursing” all good people of the land to be uprooted from their homes and be scattered to every nook and corner of earth, reinforces this point. They were never to stay home and work at swelling numbers: they were to become ambassadors, missionaries and crusaders, if you will, each one, and show the world’s communities by living amongst them … by example. Not as conquerers or invaders, but as sevadaars. Not as sheep, but as shepherds.
4 From that point on, every aspect of Sikhi - cultural, social, psychological, physical - reminds us that we will, by sheer definition, be different, and will stand out as one or a few amongst many.
5 Guru Gobind Singh, in completing the sculpture of the renaissance man and woman in the Sikh, anticipates that he/she will be one amidst a legion of others. Hence, each Sikh is sava lakh … an army of one!
6 Each Sikh is required to be nyaara … to stand out, not through some kind of idiosyncrasy or quirk, but by being outstanding.
7 Each Sikh is to take on a unique name - Singh or Kaur - to stand out, not blend, in the crowd. So that in a list of a hundred names, the one Sikh will never be lost. A minority but with more power than any majority.
8 Each Sikh is a Sardar or Sardarni. This honorific, granted to each and every Sikh - while it is only used by other communities for chieftains, commanders, rulers, landlords - presupposes that he or she will be the shepherd, not one of the sheep.
9 The Five Kakkaars are meant to emphasize identity. The shepherd can be spotted amongst a hundred sheep. His job is not to blend by dropping on all fours and hiding amongst the sheep, but to be visible for miles … to scare the wolves away.
And so on and so forth …
Then, why fret over being a minority?
Guru Gobind Singh anticipated the challenges we would face as a minority and has guided us through his political pronouncements. The right to practice one’s faith will not last long, he tells us, if it is left to the whims of the majority. It must be bolstered with power, real power. How does one get power? It is not doled out by those who have it, merely because in an ideal world it should be shared fairly and equally. To enjoy power, one must be strong even while on the spiritual path, and be willing to take … yes, demand and take! … your fair share of power, not simply wait for it to be given. If left to the goodness of the majority, it’ll never be given …
Strength? What is strength? In Sikhi, it is physical, and mental, and spiritual.
We have many guidelines that help us understand the role and mandate of the shepherd.
The Sikh concept of having the strength and power of a shepherd is unique: munn neevaa(n), mut ucchi. That is, a shepherd is empowered by wisdom grounded in humility.
There’s more. Being alone is no handicap. You don’t need numbers. You don’t need power over others. All you need is power over yourself. Conquer thyself, says the Guru, and you’ve conquered the world.
With all of this wisdom behind us, why do we then still fret over numbers? Our history tells us, nay, our present tells us, that our minority numbers have never been a hurdle for us to be shepherds. Whether we like him or not, the Prime Minister of India … of 15% of humanity - is a Sardar. How and why it happened is besides the point. He is. Despite all odds, all opposition, all detractors.
He’s the shepherd. Over a billion sheep.
Our task is to produce more Manmohan Singhs. Better ones, if we don't like this one, and many more of them. Once there are several around, they in turn will give birth to a Ranjit Singh. Our work is cut out for us: we need good shepherds, not more sheep.
I also find that because we are programmed as a minority, as shepherds, not as sheep, we flourish and thrive when we are in that role.
Here’s but one example: I was in Texas a few months ago. Sikhs living in the remotest of communities rule the roost. And are solid Sikhs, living in the full glory of the faith and doing extraordinary things for the community at large.
Similarly, they always fare well in isolation, no matter where they are. It brings the best out of them.
In Southall, England, though, or Brampton, Canada, or even Punjab … where we don’t get to practice our shepherd skills, we lose the edge, the sharpness, the finely honed gifts of our Gurus.
Think about it.
I don’t mean to suggest that all of us need to isolate ourselves in Mount Forests around the world. But we do need to understand ourselves, our strengths, our gifts and blessings, so that we can benefit from them optimally wherever we are.
I believe it is fundamental to our being Sikhs that we always be standing on the sharp and narrow of the blade.
It improves our quality. Which is what ultimately matters, not numbers.
Conversation about this article
1: Yuktanand Singh (USA), August 02, 2012, 11:31 AM.
I do not like this article! Too many great lessons in it make it difficult to write a comment. Can't speak for others but I generally miss everything except whatever dominates my thinking at present. It takes several readings of great articles like this one, to collect a different nugget at a later date. For now, "You don't need power over others. All you need is power over yourself", almost says it all.
2: Yuktanand Singh (USA), August 02, 2012, 11:38 AM.
As one of the moderators on Sikhnet discussions I am forced to scan most of the messages. Someone posted a link to "Quest of the Delta Knights" from youtube today. While checking that link for appropriateness, I could not help noticing the end, how it may be pertinent to us in various ways. "Pearl: "Hay, didn't you guys use to roam the country side defending the weak or something like that?" Frank: "We pretty much got it distilled down to pancake breakfast now." Their weather-stripping the screen, to stop leakage of sadness from the movie not reaching the audience, is an entirely separate topic.
3: Harman Singh (California, USA), August 02, 2012, 8:36 PM.
I was daunted at first by the length of this article, but I am so glad that I took the time to read and reflect upon it. It was the best part of my day today. Thank You!
4: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), August 03, 2012, 3:07 PM.
An extremely refreshing article, as usual. I agree, with the title of Sardar(ni), last name Singh/Kaur, 5 kakkaars and the wealth of Guru Granth Sahib, we are programmed for great deeds. It is up to us to live up to our potential.
5: Ravneet Sangha (Jalandhar, Punjab), August 07, 2012, 11:08 AM.
I am so happy I took time out to browse the site and then to come to this and I so enjoyed it. I like the fact that it explains everything and clears the air. I wish we could spread it further ...