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The Five Kakkaars
or, How To Spin a Controversy Out of Thin Air

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

An established and respected scholar on religion, with an excellent track record of writings on Sikh teachings and practices, Professor Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh of Colby College in Maine, U.S.A., has recently attracted criticism -  fireworks! - on the Internet.

Presumably, it is for something she said in a recent lecture in India, to the effect that the five articles of faith of Sikhism ultimately stem from gurbani.

To readers who tend to take such statements literally, this statement has been interpreted as meaning that the five kakkaars can be traced to actual directives in the Guru Granth. 

Of course, such edicts aren’t there.

The report of exactly what she said comes to us second-hand.  Since the critics have, not surprisingly, failed to find the specific evidence they’ve set out to find in the Guru Granth, they have jumped to the conclusion that the good professor is here making an entirely unwarranted leap of faith through an exercise of shoddy scholarship.

One critic even went so far as to damn all academicians of Sikhism everywhere, with the summary judgment that all such “professors” are cut from the same cloth and disconnected from the real message of Guru Nanak.

That the fur would fly on such a matter is not entirely unexpected; after all, this is a question that has divided teachers and followers of Sikhi alike for as long as Sikhi has been around, but none quite so vigorously as recently in the diaspora. The question cuts to the heart of Sikhi.

There are many staunch defenders of the faith and its requirements, including these five articles of faith, who assert that one cannot be a Sikh without them.

Then, there are just as many who insist that these requirements, if that’s what they were, existed for a different time and place. They usually connect their codification in the Sikh maryada to the needs of a movement involving a necessary war against the tyrants of the time - something akin to an army’s need of a uniform. The world has changed, they say, and such symbols hold no meaning or relevance today.

And between these two positions are the majority of Sikhs who see being a Sikh as a life-long journey of seeking and learning, and becoming a Khalsa as a choice involving taking on the full discipline of the faith when personally ready to do so.  

My biases on this issue are a matter of record, even though readers may differ on exactly what they mean. I am not going to delve into clarifications today. I intend to present to you a factoid or two and related questions to dissect and debate.

History is clear that at the dramatic conclave on Vaisakhi 1699, around 80,000 Sikhs came to Anandpur in response to the call from Guru Gobind Singh. This is where the Guru initiated the first five Sikhs into the Order of the Khalsa. The codification of the five kakkaars, including the unshorn hair, stem from that event.

About 20,000 Sikhs, including the Guru himself, became Khalsa over the next few days. From this modest beginning, a new nation was founded.

However, there is no evidence, direct or implied, that the Guru berated the recalcitrant 60,000 that they were no longer his Sikhs and should thereafter get out of his face!

The fundamental question is: What was the need for the Guru to institute a new order of the Khalsa within the Sikh faith?

Some suggest that this was the need of the time and the Khalsa army was needed for the battles that lay ahead.

It is this presumption that I want to question today.

By 1699, the year of the first Khalsa Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh had already fought most of his battles with the Mughals and Hindu tyrants who plagued the region. Sikhs were already both battle-ready and battle-tested.

Guru Gobind Singh fought very few battles after 1699. The few that he did were fought with the larger Sikh army beside him, not by the Khalsa alone. Thus, even after he founded the Khalsa, his army consisted of - in addition to the Khalsa members - un-’baptized’ Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus.  It was this larger army that fought at the side of Banda Bahadur and, later, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Where then was the need to create a special army of the Khalsa?

To me, that fact alone would reject the suggestion that the Khalsa was primarily founded to serve as an army.

Why do I say that? Simple … because it was not needed. That explanation just doesn’t hold water.

The alternative, the real raison d’etre, would have to be something else.

Could it be that Guru Gobind Singh saw the development of the Khalsa as a logical progression of  the spiritual movement that started with Guru Nanak and the community had now come to a level of mature fruition?

Are we missing that in this debate?

Could it be that those reading Nikky Kaur’s remarks may have tripped over their literal meaning, and missed out on her analysis that the spiritual core of the Khalsa is but a continuation of the ideals laid out by the preceding nine Nanaks, as enshrined in the Guru Granth.

Sure, even a tooth-comb will not uncover references to a karra or kesh, to a kanga, kirpan or kacchhera in the Guru Granth.

Perhaps what Nikky Kaur is telling us is that the idea of each Khalsa codification lies in the very pages of our scripture.  Her words as reported, incomplete as they may be, deserve thoughtful analysis.

Nikky Kaur's  thinking is obviously laid out in her writings.  Wouldn’t it be better to probe her major works, including The Feminist Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (1993) and The Birth of the Khalsa (2005), before villifying her words or dismissing her scholarship? 

Traipsing through them may help clear up some of the confusion, I would think.  

One caveat: I’m afraid none of her writings are light, Friday evening, fire-side reading! They demand careful reading and considerable contemplation.

In the meantime, attacking scholars willy-nilly will not get us anywhere useful. 

 

ijsingh99@gmail.com

August 3, 2011 

Conversation about this article

1: Gur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), August 03, 2011, 5:54 AM.

The development of the Khalsa was a military need of those times. Those who don't agree to it, contradict the visionary power of the Tenth Guru. All the five K's are designed as part of a warrior/rebel's uniform. How does accepting this simple fact kill or diminish the visionary spirit of the Khalsa?

2: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), August 03, 2011, 7:12 AM.

The Guru Granth says that those who are without the Guru's Grace are unfortunate ones. Guru Gobind Singh ji introduced khande baate di pahul, wherein a Sikh takes amrit from the Punj Pyaras. Nikki Guninder Kaur Singh is right in making her comments.

3: Balbir Kaur (Mohali, Punjab), August 03, 2011, 12:26 PM.

I have been following the internet gladiators for some time, my main motivation being to keep an eye on my husband - they're almost all men, almost all retired, you might already have noticed. My (girl-) friends and I often gossip about these chatter groups and have come to the conclusion that, but for some notable exceptions, they mostly fall withing two groups. The first we've named "The Vehla Singhs" - tired and retired, financially comfortable, with all the time in the world, nothing to do, nowhere to go! The second group we've named "The Short-Cut Gang". Demographic wise, they have much in common with the Vehla Singhs. However, what sets these apart is their intellectual laziness and dishonesty. They don't want to do anything, because they don't have the inclination, the ideas, or the mental wherewithal. But they have opinions on everything. Their classic stance is: you don't need external symbols to be a good Sikh; all you need to do is be a good Sikh on the inside. The only problem is: having discarded the external discipline because of one reason or the other, they forgot about the 'inside' bit as well! More on this later, I've got to go ... I just heard my Vehla Singh return home. He's going to be making a bee-line for his scotch, and then he'll sit down to opine on the issues of the world on the internet!

4: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), August 03, 2011, 12:45 PM.

Sikhi is Miri-Piri, Bhagti-Shakti, strength and spirituality. Guru Nanak himself was the founder of the Khalsa - when he challenged Babar, he laid its the foundation. Guru Gobind Singh only formalized it. On the flip side, the word 'Khalsa' is introduced in gurbani at ang 655 as a spiritual being - "those become Khalsa who know the Lord's loving devotion.". So it is inconceivable to separate the military aspect from the spiritual aspect. A Sikh is a spiritual warrior and the 5 Ks are his uniform to fight the evil within and without. So what the Professor is saying should be pretty straightforward to understand. So where is the controversy here?

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 03, 2011, 1:30 PM.

Balbir ji, what a delightful mail. Don't you realize that your Vehla Singh is tackling all the major problems of the world while letting you tackle the ordinary, pedestrian, day-to-day, mundane affairs. The scotch, I'm sure, helps him with the onerous task of addressing each of the world's problems every evening. No wonder his kind know so much more than our learned professor! Look forward to your next offering.

6: Dyal Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), August 03, 2011, 5:20 PM.

I think the dialogue in the chat groups would enjoy a marked improvement in quality if each participant first read a book or two, cover to cover, on the topic in question or by the person whose thesis is being challenged. I have found from experience that investigating the facts, and then investing some time and thought into what one has read, greatly improves what then pours out of one's mouth, or spills from one's pen or mouse. I recommend these steps highly. On the other hand, if a person has neither time nor inclination nor talent to go through these necessary pre-requisite stages, then I would advise him/her to stick to things such as Bollywood fare, the weather, or the latest news about Paris Hilton, and not venture beyond.

7: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 04, 2011, 8:13 AM.

I feel it is just not possible for any person who is not steeped in a life of spirituality to fathom the wisdom of Guru Gobind Singh in creating the Khalsa Order. It was incredible farsightedness on his part; the fact that Sikhs are thriving today, centuries later and against heavy odds, with a separate and identifiable identity, is largely due to that single, remarkable act.

8: Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.), August 04, 2011, 8:17 AM.

I agree with Dr. I.J. Singh ji that Nikky Kaur's presentation at the Guru Nanak University must be debated only after her presentation is thoroughly studied. In the absence of the detailed report available of her presentation at Amritsar, one must read her book, "The Birth of the Khalsa (2005), before arrivng at any conclusions - as I.J. Singh has already emphasized. I bought that book from Amazon.com and have read it twice. My hunch is that her Amritsar presentation is based on much of the material included in that book. She made a similar presentation at the last conference held at the University of California at Riverside. That paper is published in a book edited by Dr. Pashaura Singh. Meanwhile, I appreciate Dr. I.J. Singh who has given a balanced overview of the pros and cons with respect to the Five Kakkaars that have been universally accepted as Sikh Articles of Faith for centuries. He has presented the range of views presently held, and then enunciated what makes sense. Those who are serious might look further into the supporting historical events, which we otherwise take for granted and rarely study. Such exploration would be a positive contribution as Dr. I.J. Singh submitted. The current debate, as it is presented in some of the chat groups, appears to be not very honest and is certainly devoid of any effort in researching the facts. It is simply disruptive. It is based neither on facts from history nor historiography; rather, it is couched in the emotions of the warring groups who merely want to impose their respective opinions by merely quoting powerful but unsupported hearsay stories.

9: Balbir Kaur (Mohali, Punjab), August 04, 2011, 8:51 AM.

Back to my Vehla Singh ... My friends and I marvel at this strange development in our lives: the appearance of the Vehla Singhs and the Short-Cut Gang in our very midst. It's a rag-tag collection of retired men who spent much of their working lives in government service of one kind or the other, with little time for family or faith. Some served in the police and the military and either participated in or turned a blind eye to atrocities committed against innocent Sikhs during the recent, troubled decades. They carry a lot of guilt with them, and don't know how to handle it ... so they now lash out against their own, because they think it makes them feel better. It doesn't. That's why they drown their sorrows and numb their minds in alcohol and drugs ... it is an epidemic that is destroying our immediate circle. It pains us to no end, watching our lions come home in the winter and then go about frittering away what we think could be the best years of their lives. Now is the time they could turn to study and introspection, or travel and discovery. Instead, the internet has become the village Bohr tree, where they hang around together interminably, gossiping and haranguing, and getting increasingly grumpy and grouchy with each other. They try to out-do each other by googling everything under the sun and then claiming expertise and authority on every subject imaginable. What they gravitate to the most, however, is Sikhism, because it rankles them the most in their quiet, lonely, sober moments and they don't know how to deal with their demons in any meaningful way, other than criticize and tear apart everything. We as their wives are helpless, as we watch them make fools of themselves. Are others in the same boat as we are? Would love to hear from fellow-suffering sisters, wherever you are, and find out how you're coping with all of this.

10: H. Kaur (Ottawa, Canada), August 04, 2011, 9:51 AM.

I too am concerned about some of the stuff being thrown around in/by internet groups. I share Balbir Kaur ji's concerns because I see a number of the same type here in our circle. It reminds me of the 1970's when the CB (Citizen's Band) Radio was the latest toy and every Tom, Dick and Harry was glued to one. It added nothing to society ... just provided our men-folk a toy and a distraction for a few years. And they went really silly over it. The internet chat room is no different, and it appears I have lost my husband, for the second time in our life, to something like this ... deja vu! And then there's the Vehla Singh here in town - fits your description exactly: a busy-body, retired from government service, and now turned to the strangest of theories and interpretations about Sikhism. I see him on the internet from time to time spewing the strangest rubbish I've heard ... and yet, he is humored by others who, like him, are lost in a haze of self-important and, not infrequently, self-induced stupor. When I questioned him once about it in the gurdwara, he dismissed me by muttering something to the effect that women wouldn't understand these things. And, you know, he's one of the guys quibbling over Dr. Nikky Singh. Frankly, I think it's because she's a woman!

11: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), August 04, 2011, 10:24 AM.

Guru Gobind Singh initiated the Punj Pyaras at the First Amrit ceremony, as the foundation of a new panth, raising them collectively to the level of the person of the Guru himself, and then knelt before them, seeking their collective blessing to be the sixth Khalsa. It was the Guru's intention to end the personal Guruship after him. Our ten Gurus were divine souls. So, practical training had to be imparted under to cultivate the requisites of Guruship in the Panth. Therefore, Guru Sahib embodied the highest ideals in the Panth. In my humble opinion, the raison d'etre for the Punj Pyare ceremony was neither to create a distinct outward form, nor to raise an army to fight the Moghuls of anyone else in particular. It was to carry on the spiritual movement started by Guru Nanak.

12: M.K.S. (New York, U.S.A.), August 04, 2011, 1:19 PM.

Balbir Kaur ji: Your posts were witty, humorous and very relevant. I enjoyed them thoroughly. Would you be so kind as to publish an article on this topic on sikhchic.com?

13: Jai Kaur (Canada), August 04, 2011, 11:11 PM.

The lack of critical thinking skills displayed by some of the posters here is seriously worrying! To all those who are amused at Balbir Kaur's post, do you actually understand the gravity of what she has revealed? I quote ... "Some served in the police and the military and either participated in or turned a blind eye to atrocities committed against innocent Sikhs during the recent, troubled decades ..." Are you seriously amused? Is this all fun and games to you? Are we meant to have sympathy for these men and their indulgent wives?

14: N. Singh (Canada), August 05, 2011, 8:25 AM.

I think Balbir Kaur ji's post raises some interesting questions. My concerns are not around the actual issue raised by I.J. Singh ji's article but rather towards how far does a wife's duty towards her husband go? If we are arguing that in Sikhi women are equal to men then they also have equality in thinking and acting. If a woman, such as these women mentioned by Balbir Kaur ji, knew or suspected that their husbands were complicit in these atrocities, why did they not leave them? Why is divorce or separation not an option when you know or suspect that your husband is guilty of a serious crime against your conscience, against society and against God, even if sanctioned by the state? If you do not leave him, are you complicit because you are benefiting from the fruits of his ill-gotten labour? I suspect my post won't be very popular because though I am not questioning the institution of marriage, I am questioning the role of women in Balbir Kaur's position within that institution ...

15: Balbir Kaur (Mohali, Punjab), August 05, 2011, 8:25 AM.

Thank you, MKS, for your kind words and your suggestion. I am not a writer. The only reason I decided to say something is because I'm worried about my husband and those like him, as they thrash about, wasting their lives away and, at the same time, attacking everything in sight, without rhyme or reason. It's a deep malaise, and they seem to have no idea what they're up to, except living from day to day, stupor to stupor, angry e-mail to angry e-mail. I'm not sure if I have anything useful to add ... but I promise to give it more thought. [EDITOR: We'd love to hear from you in greater length. You have touched a number of issues - those that form focus of Dr. I.J. Singh's article, and those that go beyond. We agree - your thoughts as expressed in your postings beg for a longer piece. We'll be glad to edit and assist anything you send to us, if it is necessary, before publishing the piece. Hope you will comply with the request.]

16: Manjit Kaur (U.S.A.), August 05, 2011, 11:21 AM.

This thread has certainly become very deep. Balbir Kaur ji has opened a new door to what we here in the western world have known to exist but never knew the depth of the reality. One has to agree with Jai Kaur too, and that is the reason why Balbir Kaur has our full attention. As encouraged by the Editor, we need Balbir Kaur to shed additional light on these Vehla Singhs and the Short-Cut Gang.

17: M. Kaur V. (New York, U.S.A.), August 05, 2011, 6:57 PM.

I agree with MKS in saying that Balbir Kaur ji's piece was humorous and insightful. She brings forth a much-needed dialogue on the subject as is evident by the responses. However, if she has high-lighted a problem within our society, let's not shoot the messenger please. Unless she chooses to tell us, we don't know what transpired between the Vehla Singhs and their wives during those troubled decades. If Balbir Kaur ji is brave enough to speak her mind today, let's hear her and not berate her in any way.

18: N. Singh (Canada), August 06, 2011, 12:24 AM.

I apologize. I would be interested in hearing some more from Balbir Kaur if for no other reason than in the hopes of finding a small iota of peace in this whole nightmare that has engulfed our people for the last few decades. Perhaps this will be a small step in helping us understand ...

19: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 06, 2011, 4:58 AM.

"Fareeda mai jaani-aa dukh mujh koo dukh sabaa-i-ai jag/ Ooochay charh kai daykhi-aa taan ghar ghar ayhaa-ag" [GGS:1382.4] - "O Farid, I thought that I was in trouble; but the whole world is in trouble. When I climbed the hill and looked around me, I saw this fire in each and every home."

20: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), August 06, 2011, 6:15 AM.

Finally - a voice. Thank you, Balbir Kaur ji, for writing. I never married a Punjabi man because of my fear that I would end up with a member of the Vehla or Short-Cut Gang. Balbir ji: you should consider writing a book and title it - "Shame".

21: Kamaldeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), August 07, 2011, 6:08 AM.

"...How To Spin a Controversy Out of Thin Air." The title says it all, really. The topic has a brilliant premise, but where it is languishing at this moment is not what I expected. With respect to comment #20, I take exception to it, especially since I am a Sikh of Punjabi origin. As we all know, none of the five fingers of a hand are the same. It is sad that the commentator has more then likely been exposed to a small set of bad men in her life and now wrongly feels that due to her (somewhat limited?) experiences, that it is okay to tar everyone with the same brush. I would request the moderator to reject comments of this nature going forward as it does nothing but insult, alienate and aggravate people with no positive outcome. sikhchic.com is the last place I would expect to give prejudiced people a platform to air their aberrant views. Let sikhchic.com continue to be the exemplary website that it is, with its brilliant articles and intelligent comments and commentaries.

22: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), August 07, 2011, 9:00 AM.

Sorry, Kamaldeep Singh ji, but I choose to love the men who stand up and give their heads to the true Guru - I do not love the men who remain seated, to see what will happen next. I love Sardars who look kingly, godly and feel fearless - not look like the local gurdwara committee members. We women should celebrate Bibi Bhani Day just to celebrate her lovely fortune.

23: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), August 08, 2011, 7:21 AM.

Kamaldeep Singh ji: Sikhism is not a philosophy of passivity, negativism or inaction. Manjit Shergill has taken the right course of action in avoiding men who prove to be a negative experience for her.

24: Sunny (London, England), August 09, 2011, 3:19 AM.

I often silently lament the lack of female participation and hence female perspective on these very forums/ topics, etc. Balbir Kaur's comments have certainly touched a chord that was aching to be touched. I would love to see a follow-up article by her!

25: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 09, 2011, 1:55 PM.

This has evolved far from the intended topic but into a very interesting, stimulating and satisfactory exchange and conversation. This is an area that has been long neglected and deserves our engagement for long into the future. So please don't abandon it but build on it. This should become transformational for us. Much appreciated.

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