Kids Corner

Image above: from painting by Pardeep Singh, from "Journey with The Gurus," by Inni Kaur.


Am I a Sikh? How Much?
Part II





Continued …

Part II

Who were those who were first to be called ‘Sikhs’ and when did the term come into literature?  When did the noun and adjective usage, as we know it today, come into existence?

I have not searched much, and certainly someone could write a thesis research project to investigate this particular point more thoroughly. However one may cite the following:

Bhai Gurdas wrote extensively in his 16th century compositions on who is a Sikh; let me quote only one verse:

To be a Sikh is to tread on a sharp and straight path -- It’s like walking on the blade of a sword, through a dark, tight alley.” [Vaar 11:5]

Modern sensitivity, as we know it today, arose only a century ago. Colonial powers wanted to count communities for electoral powers through head counts. The Sikh matter was spearheaded by the premier Sikh organization, Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). 

SGPC undertook to define a Sikh for the purpose of census and for the purpose of a manual being prepared for those taking initiation of khande di pahul. The terms as we use them today were mostly developed then.

This was not unique to Sikhs. It was becoming a trend with all communities on the subcontinent who came under pressure to define their constituents.

SGPC invited representatives of all shades and opinions for long deliberations. Like with all other religions, particularly the minority religions, Sikh scholars and  politicians introduced Sikh definitions.  The first draft was then debated by sub-committees and the community for the next fifteen years or so. 

I was included in the deliberations through my colleagues in the All India Sikh Students Federation at the time when the consensus was eventually solidified into a published text. The text was certainly not without a touch of self-centeredness and some missionary zeal but, with only few exceptions, everyone was on the same page and content.

There was a genuine effort to preserve both the noun “Sikh” and the adjective “Sikh”. With very few exceptions, the effort was welcomed by all Sikhs of that age and time.

SGPC succeeded in providing the best yet definition, part of which defined a “a Sikh” and the other part defined “Sikh.”

“A Sikh” was one who was committed to be a Sikh and did not claim affiliation to any other religion.

In contrast, ‘Sikh’ was defined in terms of one’s faith to live by such sacred beliefs that were incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib.

Like in the times of the Gurus, the Sikh leadership and the Sikh organizations then began to court all those who defined themselves Sikh. Those were the populations who would help swell the Sikh ranks and fill the voter banks. They would donate resources for the growth of the Sikh communities. They filled the population ranks of Northern India and were spreading out around the world. 

Poets and writers alike were describing both East and West Punjab to be the land of the Gurus, meaning the overall populations followed Guru Nanak for the health of their body and soul.

Most often quoted is the description by a famous Sikh thinker who himself was attracted to Sikhi after frolicking with Buddhism for a while. Professor Puran Singh used to say,”Punjab na Hindu na Musalmaan, Punjab jeenda Guraa(n) dey naam te.”

It meant: “Punjab is neither Hindu nor Muslim; Punjab lives in the name of the Gurus.”

The Punjab he referred to, is today populated by over 300 million people.

But within three to four decades, all began to change. Punjab and India was partitioned and the Sikhs were driven out of Pakistan to settle in a newly-created India India, as well as abroad.

With an overwhelming majority of Hindus at 80%, India claimed to be a secular country and quickly it abolished electoral representation overtly based on religion.

[At the same time, the Constitution lumped Sikhs under the general rubric of “Hindus” -- over the loud protests of Sikhs, who being a mere 2% of the population, were conveniently ignored.]  

The only place where the Sikhs were to play the voting game was to manage properties and wealth associated with the Sikh gurdwaras.

The politicians would now divide the Sikh communities into voting banks for the control of gurdwara properties. They would use the weapon of definitions to eliminate those who might differ with them. They would even ask the county’s court system to disqualify segments of the Sikhs that they wanted to disfranchise.

Thus, we dismembered the definition of “Sikh” into a two-tiered concept. Now, we have gotten used to the term over the few decades. We are becoming accustomed to employing it so haphazardly and irreverently to suite our selfish intentions.

During the process, I fear we have lost a clear grasp of why I, for example, am now hesitant in responding to the simple question, “Are you a Sikh?”

*   *   *   *   *

Bhai Mani Singh accepted martyrdom to help us remember our commitment. He was the granthi of Harmandar Sahib and jathedar of the Akal Takht, and was martyred while protecting our sacred institutions three centuries ago.

A Sikh youth, Bhai Hakikat Rai, similarly followed Bhai Mani Singh’s footsteps.  

There were many more.

In those days, history reminds us, the term Sikh designated not those who belonged to narrowly defined groups designed to exclude others from sharing power, but those whom the rulers of the land had marked out for scalping
their skulls.

Yet, the good souls who were thus marked for the ultimate sacrifice, responded with “We are not worthy of Sikhi!“

Every Sikh responded to the executioner in a single, united voice: “I must accept the Sikh identity; not as something of which I am worthy, but as something to which I aspire in the presence of my Guru. You put me to death because I say I am Sikh. I hope that you find me worthy - not that much in name, but in my capacity to stand by my beliefs.” 

Bhai Mani Singh and thousands of others who gave their lives for their steadfastness to Sikhi were actually following the footsteps of their mentors like Guru Arjan and Guru Teg Bahadar, the very two  who endured extreme suffering to protect their belief in universal religious freedom and human rights.

The Sikh scripture supports this allegiance as follows:

Dismember me, joint from joint, if you will, but I shall not pull my limbs away. Even if my body falls, I shall not break my bonds of love with Thee.” [GGS:484]

If today we recaptured the martyr’s creed, it would add quite a new quality to our thinking of our belief and brags, and perhaps to our mode of living. It may clarify a little more for us the full import of the term "Sikh," which to the martyrs and real-life protectors of human rights, evidently meant much more. 

*   *   *   *   *

I attempted to investigated certain facets of the evolving history to understand the use of the adjective “Sikh”; and have discovered some quite startling examples.

To cite one, there is the instance from the life of Guru Arjan, the Fifth Master. 

He was once asked to reward a bard who had wowed the congregation with his kirtan, by gifting him a coin on behalf of each Sikh in attendance. Guru Sahib offered him four and half, explaining that the half represented himself, Guru Arjan.

When queried by the sangat -- four-and-a-half only? -- Guru Sahib explained he was counting each of his predecessor Gurus as full Sikh and himself but half a  Sikh because he had not reached the level of spiritual evolution required of a Sikh!

To help you appreciate his message, let me remind you that Guru Arjan compiled much of the Guru Granth that we esteem today as our eternal Shabad Guru.

Thus, he was the one who set in stone the theology that we live by. His labelling  of himself as ‘half a Sikh‘, although an instance of extreme humility, was nevertheless meant to convey a deep message for our future guidance. He was constructing a scale with which we were to measure our Sikhi.

*   *   *   *   *

We can also turn to our Scripture to seek guidance in this matter.

Guru Gobind Singh ji asked us in no uncertain terms, in his last sermon which was delivered on October 20, 1708, that we are henceforth to surrender ourselves to Guru Granth Sahib for guidance, whenever in doubt or seeking an answer.

But I am petrified over what our Eternal Guru will tell me as to what it means to be a Sikh. It is bound to be onerous, I fear.

As a way around my timidity, let me ask instead what my Guru would say in another but a similar situation.

There were many Muslims who regularly came to the Guru’s presence to seek guidance. If any one of them wanted to claim himself a Muslim, the Guru would recite:

It is tough to be called Muslim; if one is truly Muslim, then here’s how you may be called one: First, savor the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let let your pride of your possessions be scraped away. Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, put aside the delusion of life and death. As you submits to God's Will and surrenders to the Creator, you are rid of selfishness and conceit. And when, says Nanak, you are merciful to all beings, only then shall you be called a Muslim.” [GGS:141]

Our founder, Guru Nanak, went into a great deal of theology to counsel his Muslim followers. He sang: 

Let mercy be your mosque, faith your prayer-mat and honest living your holy book. Make modesty your circumcision, and good conduct your fasting. In this way, you shall be a True Muslim. Let good conduct be your holy Kaaba, Truth your spiritual guide, and good deeds your kalma prayer and chant. Let that be your rosary which is pleasing to God’s Will. O Nanak, then God shall preserve your honor.

To take away what rightfully belongs to another is like a Muslim eating the forbidden pork, or a Hindu eating forbidden beef.

Our Guru, our Spiritual Guide, stands by us only if we do not commit bad deeds. By mere talking, people do not earn passage to Heaven. Salvation comes only from the practice of Truth. By adding spices to forbidden foods, they are not made the sanctioned ones.

Says Nanak, from false speech, only falsehood is obtained.

There are five prayers and five prayer times of day; they have five names. Let the first be truthfulness, the second honest living and the third charity in the Name of God. Let the fourth be goodwill to all, and the fifth the praise of God. Repeat the prayer of good deeds, and then, you may call yourself a Muslim.

Says Nanak, the false ones obtain falsehood and only falsehood.”

Guru Nanak’s sermons to the Muslims - not unlike the ones he gave to the Hindus -- are meant to help us draw parallels within our own lives, within our Sikhi. The lessons were directed to us as well, those who took a path different from the Hindus and the Muslims ... into Sikhi.

Continued tomorrow …

[Courtesy: The Sikh Review. Edited for]
July 20, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai), July 21, 2013, 4:01 AM.

It is ironic. We believe in the Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru - the all powerful enlightner. We do not define a Sikh / Khalsa as one who believes in the Guru.

2: Kamaldeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), July 21, 2013, 2:02 PM.

The albatross of definition is never far from Sikh thought as we cannot seem to deal with this issue effectively. What is really sad though is how we have overlooked the fact that this topic only really gained ground once the British had started on their plans to divide and rule. And long after the Partition of Punjab and india -- the culmination of that policy -- almost 70 years later we are still looking at the topic through Western lens and have sadly fallen for it, hook line and sinker, resulting in us tying ourselves up in endless knots needlessly, as this article demonstrates. Dharma is flowing, mystical and transcendental in nature, and people then, as they do now, freely follow others at the same time. This is particularly the case in India as many know. Problems will arise when we try to pigeon hole and compartmentalize, as we create a concrete fortress around it, ultimately excluding everyone, deliberate or not. By way of example, what would one say about the Brahmin yogi who lingered after the sangat had departed at amrit vela to speak to Guru Nanak to clear his doubts? A Sikh is one who places his faith in The Guru, The Teachings, and the Sangat. Rab Rakha.

3: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 22, 2013, 1:03 AM.

The basic definition of a Sikh from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh must certainly have been one who places his/her faith in the Guru, their teachings and the sangat. The same definition stands true forever. The Guru Granth Sahib is our Eternal Shabad Guru.

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Part II"

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