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Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued From Last Week …


  Earlier, you had suggested that Sikhs should think about “operationalizing and exporting Sikh universals” in order to contest hegemonic universals of dominant societies, whether this is in the context of the pan-Hindu Indian culture or the Christian-Secularism of the West?

What exactly do you mean by “operationalizing and exporting Sikh universals”?

A   First of all, let me say that I don’t like the term ‘universal’ at all, even though I continued to use it in my Specter book.

In hindsight I would have preferred to use the term ‘singularity’, but this would have complicated things too much, so I continued to use the term ‘universal’ but in the process I also shifted its signification somewhat as I will make clear.

Let me begin by defining what a universal is, and how I have used it.

As I understand it and use it in my book, a universal is something -- maybe a concept, an idea, a feeling, etc -- that can be shared across different cultures and languages. It can be exported beyond the domain in which it originates.

So, for example, Christians have exported the idea of “God’, or ‘religion’ beyond its origins in the Middle-Eastern and Graeco-Roman context; Western secularists have exported the idea of democracy beyond its European and American context, Buddhists and Hindus have exported the concepts of dharma, karma, meditation, yoga, even Gandhi-ism, etc., beyond India. I could give lots of other examples.

My point is that translating into a new language has never been an irresolvable problem for any of these cultures. Concepts which originated in one language have firmly taken root and flourished in totally different linguistic, cultural and especially ETHNIC contexts.

You can gauge this success by the fact that terms such as yoga, karma, etc., can be found in the English dictionary -- and remember that the dictionary is a repository of words and concepts that are concurrent in the Anglophone consciousness.

So these foreign words and concepts, despite their foreignness have become rooted in a different soil. But to take root in a new soil, a concept must alter the relations between itself and other concepts that are native to that new soil. To take root in a new soil is therefore to alter relations between the words and concepts of a new culture.

So basically translation is not a simple and transparent process. As much as it involves adjustment and integration in a new soil (i.e., accepting the conceptual rules of the new language and culture), it also involves resisting the new soil (resisting the rules of the new culture and language, especially where these rules require the surrender of a concept’s difference, that is to say, a surrender of its sovereignty).

The seed dies in the new soil if its sovereign difference is absorbed and made exactly the same as the new soil which receives it. In order to live on, to take root and survive, the seed has to alter the composition of the new soil. The soil isn’t removed. It is simply re-shuffled in a way that makes it conducive for the seed to grow in its new environment.

If it manages to grow, the new flower will be able to share its essence, its scent, with the new culture, thereby enriching that culture without threatening it.

This is one way of thinking about what is involved in translation.

It is also precisely what I am trying to do in ‘Religion and the Specter of the West‘. Much of the text of this volume comprises an intellectual resistance against the cultural hegemony of new soil (such as Western culture, whose metaphysics is a major component of its soil) or the older cultural soil of India which has been dominated by Hindu metaphysics.

These two different soils threaten to suffocate and strangle minority cultures by asserting their own absolute universality and counteracting the potentially universalizing aspects of the minoritarian culture (those aspects that a minor culture might be able to share with a majoritarian culture).

The analogy shouldn’t be exaggerated but it does help.

Now let’s consider the case of Sikhi(sm). I have a firm conviction that Guru Nanak did not want his message to remain confined to a narrow ethnic context. His message may have emerged within a Punjabi soil. Indeed, the teachings of every great spiritual master begin their lives in a particular language.

But the message of Guru Nanak is such that it was meant to be shared by all humanity. It was meant to be translatable, exportable to different cultures. If the janamsakhis can be relied on, Guru Nanak himself travelled widely beyond his native Punjabi. There is of course a lingua-franca that was shared by many cultures across the northern subcontinent, but there are also indications that the Guru may have gone much further than the borders of this lingua-franca.

So to be able to converse and get his message across to non-Punjabis he would have had to either speak in their language or most probably improvise linguistically where necessary. I just can’t envisage him going to the trouble of teaching Punjabi to non-Punjabis.

I have another firm conviction. I think the message of Gurbani is such that is has the power not merely to be understood and comprehended, but to actually be re-experienced, beyond its Punjabi context.

That’s where the true power of a universal concept lies. Experiences carry beyond their original contexts.

The question, though, is how?

Now, one school of thought says that universals can only travel if they are grounded in metaphysics (meaning that they must point to something beyond this world which is a world of time -- i.e. universals must be grounded in something like eternity). This is what Christian and Hindu metaphysics tell us in different ways.

I beg to differ.

My own understanding of universals is very different. As I use the term, a universal must be based in this time and space, in this world. It must be based in life, the element of which is temporal experience. A true universal arises from and is grounded in our sensible relation to the world. It cannot be grounded in transcendent entity or law.

Rather, the true universal is intimately related to our aesthetic sense which can be shared by all humankind but also by non-human entities in the organic and inorganic world.

  Can you tie this idea down to Sikhi?

A   In ‘Religion and the Specter of the West‘, I discuss various examples of universals that are pertinent to Sikhi, but the one I focus on is the concept of shabad-guru.

This is an extraordinarily significant term.

Its obvious meaning, of-course, is that the bani is the Guru and the Guru is bani. Which means that bani carries sovereign authority.

But the implications of shabad-guru go well beyond this and point to the notion that anyone can experience what the Gurus experienced, that their experience is open to all humanity, providing that each of us learn the practice of self-surrender, or learn to ‘kill’ the ego.

At various places in the book I elaborate that shabad-guru is a universal because it works both conceptually and affectively. And, moreover, because it refers to a principle of sovereign experience, it goes beyond being a narrowly ‘religious’ term.

Remember that the term ‘religion’ reflects a shallow universality modeled on Christian metaphysics or ontotheology.

Rather, shabad-guru goes well beyond the narrow meaning of ‘religion’. In fact it radically subverts the Western religion-secular binary in the sense that it points to a disenchantment or secularity that the West alone claims access to.

Because of its connection, on the one hand, to ego-loss and the mechanism for achieving ego-loss, and on the other hand its intimate connection to language (shabad) as poetic consciousness (chapters 4 to 6) which is the mark of divinity and true secularity, it is universal in the true sense.

And in the true sense, a universal is marked by paradox.

In this way shabad-guru can appeal to and be experienced beyond the Punjabi domain, by all humanity, etc., because it also connects to a shared humanity through our shared mortality. In the book I explain the connection between ego-loss, language and mortality.

Thus the impact of shabad-guru is both secular and religious, but equally, non-secular and non-religious.

It is a paradox.

In other words, it cannot be encompassed within the language of Western metaphysics / theology which is responsible for setting up the oppositional binary between the secular or religious.

It represents the uniquely Sikh way of going beyond secularism and the strictures of the nation state. Again, you have to delve into ‘Religion and the Specter of the West‘, and into the books that I am currently working on, to really understand how this works.

So, to come back to your original question: To operationalize shabad-guru is to release it from the traps of Christian and Hindu hegemony and allow it to create new relations with whatever soil it encounters and sets roots in.

To ‘operationalize and export’ means: don’t just be satisfied with the place on the shelf provided for it by the West. Don’t blindly worship it like a totemic object like most Punjabis do.


Do that which the Gurus wanted you to do with it.

Experience it and allow your own self to be transformed by it.


Continued Next Week …

June 18, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 18, 2014, 9:56 PM.

We get a crystal clear message from our scripture that the glory of Sikhi lies in its universality. It brooks no sectarianism. It is not confined to any particular group of people, but is of all people of all ages. There is an injunction by Guru Arjan in "Suraj Parkash", recorded by the poet Gian Singh: "sanskrit ur turkan bhashaa / iss meh likh layvayh budhrasaa / sabh upar eh pasrae dhaaee / jim jal par su chakintaa paaee". That is, "the wisdom of the Gurus in the scripture should be translated into Sanskrit (Indian language) and Arabian and Persian (Muslim languages considered "foreign") so that this wisdom spreads over the whole world as oil spreads over water". Guru Nanak wanted his message to go to every nook and corner of the world in the same way it had spread during his lifetime.

2: Aryeh Leib (Israel), June 19, 2014, 8:17 AM.

"DO SOMETHING WITH IT. Do that which the Gurus wanted you to do with it. Experience it and allow your own self to be transformed by it." Exactly. That's what I was waiting for. This, in a nutshell, is the message of Gurbani. No historical, geographical, or ethnic context. A call to action as the universal of what to do with this human form.

3: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 19, 2014, 11:04 AM.

The whole world has access to the True Guru. "Satgur no(n) sabh ko vaykhdaa ..." [GS:594]. But mere access does not bring salvation, we need to contemplate and apply the message to our lives. Guru Nanak, when replying to questions by the Siddh yogis, very specifically said that gurbani (The Word) was his Guru. It is true that the human Guruship ended with Guru Gobind Singh, but Shabad as Guru continues into infinity.

4: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), June 21, 2014, 3:46 PM.

Arvind's description of Sikhi as universal brought to mind how Guru Nanak described Guru Wisdom on page 150 of the Guru Granth Sahib. He wrote: "The Guru is the ocean, and all His Teachings are the rivulets meant to irrigate and nourish the whole earth. Bathing in them, glorious greatness is obtained by everyone." It is sad to see that we began to erect walls around the Guru Shabad, and then began to decorate those walls with flowers and identities to begin worshiping those very walls that hide what is behind them.

5: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), June 22, 2014, 9:39 AM.

Sikhi is the fatherhood of the One All-pervading Waheguru and the brotherhood/sisterhood of mankind. It was raised to unite people and make them one. True Sikhi is the personification of the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib.

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part XXII"

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