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What Is A Head Worth?




History tells us that in the sixteenth century, Ignatius Loyola decreed that henceforth all priests of the Jesuit order must wear a collar. He also promulgated a special code of conduct for the clergy. Why? Apparently, Ignatius wanted to organize a special cadre of people devoted solely to serve the church and its flock.

He called it the "Army of Christ". This army of shepherds was to guide and lead the flock of believers. The uniform and the code defined the army. Those who joined this army pursued a higher calling than the laity.

What was India like around that time?

A predominantly Hindu country, it was ruled by Muslims. Hindu society had always been caste-ridden in which over half the people were denied their humanity. For instance, women and people of lower castes could not read the holy scriptures and were denied access to most professions and trades, etc. In that society, food was deemed defiled if teven he shadow of a lower caste person fell on it, and molten lead could be poured into the ears of such a person should he hear the sacred scriptures.

Female infanticide was common and widows were routinely burnt at the pyres of the dead husbands in a Hindu rite called sati. The upper castes were corrupt, the priests sold religious indulgences; the brahmins were little better than charlatans, the ticket sellers for a dubious passage to heaven, but above all, the guardians of their own privileged lifestyles. The people were powerless, under the heel either of their own corrupt upper caste brahmins or the ruling Muslims.

The Muslims were intolerant of other religions, and by special taxation and other humiliations, waged a full scale effort to islamize India. For instance, a non-Muslim could not bear arms or ride a horse except by special permission and paid special taxes for weddings and funerals.

History also tells us that on Vaisakhi Day (around mid-April) 1699, the Tenth Guru, Gobind, appeared before a congregation of 80,000 at Anandpur in Punjab. He flashed a naked sword and demanded a head. Some followers slipped away, many looked away. What kind of a Guru asks his followers for such a sacrifice?

This Guru did, not once but five times. Each time, a Sikh stepped forward.

History also records that from this modest beginning, Guru Gobind Singh created the mighty Khalsa nation. He dubbed them "lions", each equivalent to 125,000 ordinary men; each a king among men or a princess. His Sikhs were to have the valor of a lion and the grace of a princess.

After he created this new Order, the Guru knelt before these first five initiates and was in turn initiated finto the Khalsa, and transformed from Gobind Rai to Gobind Singh. By this act, he set himself, not as a ruler of a nation or the General of an army, but another soldier of the Khalsa.

In this unique gesture, the leader acknowledged his debt to his own people - every leader is so indebted but few remember.

This incident deserves a special place in the annals of human history, management of large organizations, corporate hierarchy and leadership training. It was a rare process and technique to teach a downtrodden and powerless people the idiom of empowerment.

It turned India's feudal society on its head. The lesson was not lost either on his Sikhs who cheerfully followed Guru Gobind Singh through the hell of pain, suffering and war, nor was it lost on the Hindu and Muslim elite of the society whose comfortable thrones were rocked by the Sikhs and who declared perpetual war on the Sikhs.

I call this a perpetual war because even now, three hundred years later, in the twentieth century, India's feudal, brahminical ruling classes resent the assertive sense of self and of power that the Guru bestowed upon his Sikhs. And therein lie the roots of the Sikh struggle for autonomy in India today.

History also tells us that where his followers had offered their heads, Guru Gobind Singh did not lag behind. He led his soldiers like a good General, not from a comfortable bunker but by being alongside them. He laid on the line not only all of his worldly possessions but also his family including minor children and ultimately his own life as well.

He looked at the miracle of his creation of the Khalsa and attributed it to the Khalsa, without pride or conceit. God's work was done, he said. He gave his Khalsa a special code of conduct, a specific uniform, and distinctive symbols.

The Khalsa was destined to be an army of winners, fearless and pure, in service to God and Man, in pursuit of righteousness. Unlike Ignatius Loyola's army, this "pride of lions" of Sikhs was to have no professional clergy, nor was there to be any sheep or shepherds. In this nation of soldiers of God, there were to be none who were more equal than others. Henceforth, every Sikh who was a Singh or Kaur was to be in uniform as a saint-soldier. There was to be no higher calling for some and not for others, as Loyola had envisioned. The code of conduct applied equally to all, including the Guru and he himself remained answerable to the directives of his Khalsa.

Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa but the foundation stone had been laid by the iconoclast Nanak who challenged authority most boldly and by his followers who were martyred for the right to live with dignity. Guru Nanak found a demoralized nation of jackasses but by his teaching and by the examples of his followers, the spark of self-respect was lit; the process of transformation of a jackass into a lion had begun.

Two hundred years later, by the time of Guru Gobind Singh, it was time to awaken the sleeping lion; the jackass had been metamorphosed. Only then did Guru Gobind Singh give the lion a new uniform and a code of conduct.

Guru Gobind Singh created an egalitarian order but for the ordinary follower he did not make the job any easier. If there is no clergy with binding ecclesiastical authority, then each Sikh has to cultivate and heed his own conscience. Each Sikh must hone his own intellect and plumb the depths of his own faith.

Guru Gobind Singh recognized that each one of us has a constant battle to fight and the enemies are not necessarily out there. In all the battles of life that must be fought, no battlefield is more important than that of the mind. On that Vaisakhi day three hundred years ago, Guru Gobind Singh staged the lesson of life: In everything you do and in each moment of your life, live honestly,  so that you can put your head on the line. In whatever you do, do it so that you can live and die with dignity.

Now three hundred years after Guru Gobind Singh, is there anyone asking for a head?

When a business associate suggests that a little greasing of the palm could smooth the way for your project or when a prospective employer hints that a job or a promotion could be yours if you appear without your Sikh uniform, why should you resist? If the road you take is less than straight and narrow, why does it matter? If social life could be easier without the long hair or the Sikh uniform, why not take the easy road? Why look to the road less traveled by? Haven't times changed?

Guru Gobind Singh is not asking for heads now, or is he?

Yes, three hundred years have passed. Guru Gobind Singh no longer appears in person at the job interview, flashing a naked sword and asking for your head.

Mysterious are the ways of the Guru, and many are the people that he uses as his instruments. Now the question is framed differently, the flashing sword is replaced by the prospect of social isolation, economic disaster or harassment at the job or in the neighborhood. The instrument of the Guru is the affable man or woman behind the desk asking all these awkward questions. The instrument of the Guru may be the nice person having a cup of coffee or pleasant conversation with you. The intent of the questions is the same, only the form is different.

The question is asked a hundred times a day and in a myriad ways. Three hundred years later, once again the Guru wants your head. Many will slip away, just as they did three hundred years ago. Many more will look away, just as they did then.

The question is: How are you going to answer the call? 


[This essay for first published as a chapter in Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias, by I.J. Singh,1998. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.]

April 13, 2010 

Reprinted From: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias by I.J. Singh  1998.  The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Conversation about this article

1: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), April 13, 2010, 9:54 AM.

I love the way Dr. I.J. Singh has applied the lessons given by Guru Gobind Singh at the Vaisakhi of 1699 to current reality. Yes, these questions of morality and honesty are asked every day and often the human selfish mind wins. I often ask myself (although usually AFTER the task; wishing later that I did it BEFORE) how my Guru would want me to react to this situation, and then the inner voice unfortunately responds: "negative" and that's when I know that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a Sikh of the Guru.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), April 13, 2010, 12:32 PM.

Our task is made easier by Daulat Ram ji in his book 'Sahibe Kamaal'. I'll let him talk for us in his own words, as he describes graphically the prevailing condition of 'Bharat' then. I quote: "Their existence was like the flickering light of a dying lamp. This flickering light was about to be extinguished by the storm of intolerant fanaticism let loose by Auragzeb when Guru Gobind Singh ji shielded it with his hands and saved it from extinction. The sad plight of the Hindus was evident from the fact that even in one family various ways of diverse religious practices were followed. While one worshipped Ganesh, the second prayed to the Sun, the third was a devotee of Shiv ji, the fourth a votary of Vishnu, the fifth, the follower of Ram, the sixth devoted to Bhairo, the seventh worshipped Hanuman, the eight admired Krishan Leela (amours), the next was a Vedanti, and so on. And added to this emaciating division was mutual animosity and hatred. Thanks to these fissiparous tendencies, the Hindus had no common language. Their religious books were different. There was no unanimity on any religious issues. They were not united in any one thing. How could there be any feeling of oneness, mutual sympathy and patriotic feeling among them? There was no social intercourse and fellow-feeling among the Hindus. Disunity, friction and animosity were rife. The religious structure was in disarray and loose. The South had no love for the North (still hasn't). The Hindus of the North had no truck with the denizens of the South. Both of them were unconcerned about the Eastern people. And none of them had even a single practice in common with the West. No one trusted the other." These were the ashes when Guru Gobind Singh, wielding his Sri Sahib, transformed all of that cacophony with a single stroke of genius. The new phoenix had risen from the ashes. Aren't we proud yet?

3: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 5:10 AM.

As mentioned by I. J. Singh, Ignatius created an "Army of Christ." On the other hand, Guru Govind Singh Ji created an "Army of God." After 311 years of creation of the Khalsa, being a Sikh (with turban and uncut heir), one has to face a lot of challenge in daily life - on the road, school and jobs - because Sikh leadership fails to teach the world about Sikhi. In the days of Guru Ji, there were no easy means of communication available to spread the massage, but still on the great day of Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind invited tens of thousands to create the Khalsa. Now there are so many means available through the media, but still we cannot teach others what is Sikhi.

4: Dupinder Kaur Sidhu (Carteret, New Jersey, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 9:53 AM.

Great article. Correctly stated that as Sikhs we have to answer the Guru's call due to the prospect of social isolation and harassment everyday. We have to stand up strong against it and stay true to the Guru. Also, being in a country where we are a minority, education about Sikhism to the mainstream society is critical. The above comments by Gujender Singh mention that as well. One opportunity is to take advantage of the parades by our community. I have been going to the Vaisakhi parade in New York City for the last few years. I love being there with the community and it's great to see young Sikhs so involved in it. I always look for floats which inform non-sikhs about Sikhism/ Khalsa/ Vaisakhi. But unfortunately there is nothing informational in the parade. The NYC parade is on in a couple of weeks and there is no better place than Broadway in New York City to tell people who Sikhs are. Let's hope that few people walk away knowing about Sikhs, Sikh principles and the Sikh uniform this year.

5: Arvinder Singh Kang (Oxford, MS, U.S.A.), April 15, 2010, 8:41 AM.

I'm glad we have educators like Dr I.J. Singh. History diluted with folklore is usually debated on the periphery of the idea unless the gist of the chapter is reinterpreted in the context of the current time. Dr. I.J. Singh does that translation beautifully. One of these days, I will have to come to New York just to meet with you.

6: Pushpinder (Chandigarh, Punjab), April 15, 2010, 12:39 PM.

I thought only listening to saakhi(s) from my grandmother was how you learned about Sikhi! Whenever I went to my naanke - my maternal granparents' at Anandpur Sahib ... but ...

7: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 16, 2010, 8:41 AM.

Thank you, Arvinder. It would be my pleasure to meet with you. I also enjoy your occasional essays, even though you have taken a sort of a break from writing these days. I hope you get back into writing - and really soon. My e-mail is at the bottom of every column of mine. Kindly contact directly on that.

8: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), April 19, 2010, 2:23 AM.

IJ's article is yet another engaging writing. Perhaps my understanding would be way short, but it is clear through gurbani that if one has to follow the path of Sikhi then he should be prepared to practice the truth. Guru Sahib's calling for five Sikhs, no more, no less, is perhaps a direct indication of killing the five taste buds which lead us astray. Many of us would be practicing this and am sure there would be different measures of success too. Unlike other communities and religious followings, the Sikhs have not learned to share progress and strengths within and then project a society built on the Guru's teachings. We must all introspect and learn to share our abundance in building the community and make it stand out just as the Guru desired, through our actions, thoughts and appearance.

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