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Is Diwali Our Cup of Tea?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 107

RAVI SINGH

 

 

 

Reflecting on the recent Diwali celebrations at various gurdwaras in Southern California, I found myself questioning what we as Sikhs are doing celebrating Diwali.

The only answer I could find to the question seemed to be culture and tradition. Over the past week I have seen many debates regarding this question. It would seem worthwhile to consider the popular reasons we celebrate Diwali at gurdwaras.

One of the main bases used to rationalize celebrating Diwali in gurdwaras is the following shabad by Bhai Gurdas:

Lamps are lighted on the night of the divali festival.

Stars of different variety appear in the sky.

In the gardens the flowers are there which are selectively plucked.

The pilgrims going to pilgrimage centres are also seen.

The imaginary habitats have been seen coming into being and vanishing.

All these are momentary, but the gurmukhs,

With the help of the Word, nourish the gift of the pleasure fruit.   [Vaars:19]


If only the first verse is read by itself, one can see why Sikhs would think gurbani supports the celebration of Diwali. However, a growing number of Sikhs are reading beyond the first verse, as they should, and realizing there is a context that arises, providing a different picture.

In the shabad, various practices are mentioned ranging from lighting lamps on Diwali to picking flowers for worship, to the performance of pilgrimages -- and all are dismissed as superficial and momentary. In the last verse the Word is extolled as being the exclusive source of empowerment for a gurmukh (loosely translated as one who follows the Guru’s teachings).

The fact of the matter is that Diwali has no significance for Sikhs, yet we celebrate it as if it is our own holiday. Our continued celebration of Diwali is slowly leading to attribution of the holiday to Sikhism along with Hinduism and Jainism. The celebration of various Hindu holidays is one reason among the many that Hinduism is slowly subsuming the Sikh identity. In fact, a Google search of the words “Sikhism Diwali” yields several websites, some run by Sikhs, that say Sikhs celebrate Diwali, but our significance is different.

Even worse yet, one such result even goes as far as saying: “Two Punjabi social festivals which were incorporated into Sikhism by the Gurus are Visakhi and Diwali”. (http://www.sikh-history.com/sikhhist/events/diwali.html).

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but none of the Gurus to my knowledge incorporated Diwali into Sikh practice.

At best, history shows Sikhs gathered during Bhai Mani Singh’s time on Diwali to discuss matters of panthic importance and not to celebrate Diwali. Whereas, nowadays Sikhs gather at the gurdwara just to eat delicacies and light candles, in a mela-like fashion, which in itself is problematic, but won’t be addressed in this piece.

Perhaps it is time to take a serious look at why we celebrate Diwali and consider the implications of our actions, as well as ways we can bring ourselves closer to the vision the Gurus had for us.

Celebrating Diwali as a gesture of of solidarity with our Hindu neighbors can no longer stand in the face of logic and reason. If solidarity was truly a reason, why do we not celebrate holidays like Ramadan to show solidarity with our Muslim neighbors? And why don’t Hindus celebrate Sikh holidays in their own places of worship. After all, isn’t solidarity a two-way street requiring both parties to express a mutual respect for one another’s traditions? Wouldn’t recognizing the holidays of other cultures and religions and wishing them well be enough to show solidarity and oneness?

Beyond solidarity, a lot of people insist we must celebrate Diwali in gurdwaras on the basis of culture and tradition. Their reasoning is even extended to other holidays such as Rakhi or Lohri, with the idea that these are not religious holidays; they are cultural and therefore acceptable to celebrate. Their reasoning is repeated with such conviction that one would think, the history and the very nature of the acts involved in celebrating the holidays have ceased to exist or have no bearing on the existence of the holiday itself.

Such thinking is contrary to the traditions established by Guru Nanak which mandate that we examine our practices, both religious and cultural to ensure they make sense and bring us closer to Waheguru. In this sense, our celebration of Diwali at gurdwaras is a particularly troubling sign of a failure in this regard and has lead to cultural stagnation. We are so caught up in the inertia of culture that we don’t even attempt to examine the basis for these things.

And to make matters worse we make efforts such as the one now being made to rebrand Diwali celebrations as Bandi Chhor Diwas.

Our efforts in trying to justify the celebration of Diwali are misguided and subversive as to our Sikh identity. First and foremost, there is no evidence to show that Bandi Chhor Diwas falls on the same day as Diwali, which renders any attempt to rebrand it misguided. These actions in and of themselves are an attempt to generate an alibi. The subversiveness however is more subtle and lies in the subject of a new dialogue in which those who dare to challenge culture are branded as being misguided and/or separatists.

The gist of the argument is that by excluding the celebration of something, which isn’t proper to celebrate in a gurdwara in the first place, these individuals are attempting to separate Sikhs from established tradition and culture.

What we need to ask ourselves is this: How is it that we’ve come to label those who seek to discover/realize more fully the identity bestowed upon us by our Gurus as separatists?

Are we slaves to tradition and culture, or are we Sikhs of the Guru that try our best to follow gurbani even if it goes against what is popularly considered tradition and culture?

If this debate sounds vaguely familiar, there is a reason; all one would have to do is look back to Sikh history where the Gurus, as well as a long line of martyrs and scholars defied long-established culture and traditions, by applying reason, logic, and gurbani. In the same way, the panth needs to come together to consider whether we are to be a faith guided and governed by the Guru or a panth guided by traditions and culture.

 

THE ROUNDTABLE OPEN FORUM # 107

What're your thoughts on the aforesaid? Please post your comments and opinions in the space provided herein below.

 

 

[The author is an entrepreneur based in Californa, USA.]

November 9, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), November 09, 2013, 9:34 AM.

Everyday is a celebration. People need celebrations in their lives. Vaisakhi and Diwali are pre-Sikh celebrations, just as December 25 related "x-mas" was a pagan celebration of the winter solistice. Sikhs should celebrate the days that are important to them: for example, marking the the births/contributions of the Bhagats and Gurus, and commemorate historical days such as Gur Gaddi diwas, Khalsa sehajna diwas (the day the first amrit sanchar happened), shaheedi of the Four Sahibzadas, etc., etc.

2: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 09, 2013, 9:56 AM.

Every religion/culture has something good to offer to all humanity and certain celebrations (for whatever good reason) need to be celebrated by humanity - this is what binds us together. We should always try to find good in one another and celebrate -- instead of always focusing on "No", let's try, "Why not?" In all that we encounter, there's something common that makes us feel good and proud about the great sea of diverse humanity we are surrounded with. Just to share some of our joyous moments of this year's Diwali, in particular, we enjoyed a host of sweets and loud fireworks and now we all are off to the gym to pay the price. Happy Diwali to each one of you. If it's not our cup of tea ... maybe it's our cup of coffee!

3: N Singh (Canada), November 09, 2013, 10:26 AM.

The author has hit the nail on the head when he says that Diwali was used as an excuse by Sikhs, at Bhai Mani Singh's behest, to gather together at a time when Sikhs congregating was outlawed. I think it is time to disassociate ourselves from other people's religious practices and forge a culture and traditions of our own, free. I think a mature, thinking and independent nation brings its own thoughts and customs to the table, not someone else's. Also, for those Sikhs who feel strongly aligned with our Hindu brothers both in thought and customs, which in itself is not wrong, should be encouraged to give some serious thought to the following: If Sikhi is to survive in its undiluted form, then there needs to be a renaissance and this cannot happen if we are carrying deadweight along with us. All this does is hold us back and create the type of problems we have been facing over the last 60 years. Encouraging someone to leave a religion to which they have no allegiance is not against any principles in my mind. People are free to embrace Sikhi as seekers, as beginners, even if they don't meet the rehat maryada fully, but they are not free to change it to fit their own version of what they think it should be.

4: Gurtej Singh (Wellington, New Zealand), November 09, 2013, 10:41 AM.

Very cogent concluding paragraph. The only problem is that challenging something can only come from reading and enhancing our knowledge. Instead of reading and understanding gurbani, unfortunately majority of us have reduced ourselves to idol-worshiping of Guru Granth Sahib.

5: N Singh (Canada), November 09, 2013, 11:42 AM.

Also, I am distressed when I think that this festival is celebrated only days after one of the most traumatic events in Sikh history, the November 1984 pogroms. I find it disturbing that Sikhs are more concerned with eating sweets and lighting fireworks instead of honoring and respecting the memory of those who died during those three nights. Not only have we failed to relocate and support the widows and children of 1984 but we now laugh in their faces by gorging ourselves on sweets and food. If nothing else, this festival should be boycotted by all Sikhs until justice has been provided. There are ample days in the rest of the year to light fireworks, candles and eat sweets. I think all of India needs to hang its head in shame as a nation on this day because history will judge it -- and us -- harshly for deserting our own, especially women and children.

6: R Singh (Canada), November 09, 2013, 12:07 PM.

The author is absolutely correct. We have become petulant kids who must have their patakas (firecrackers) and mittha-ee (sweets) at all costs. This time around it was even more heart-breaking to see Sikhs showing this supposed self-imposed solidarity, when everyone of us could and should have collected all the money blown up into smoke, and loads piled up as fat on our hearts, and shown some caring towards those who died for no fault of theirs, and tried to wipe the tears off the faces of widows and drug-addicted kids in the 'widow colonies'. The choice is between wasting resources on flimsy celebrations, or turning every celebration to celebrate our humanity, or what is left of it!

7: Kirpal Singh (Wellington, New Zealand), November 09, 2013, 12:33 PM.

Let us consider the significance of the gur-shabad, "bin thael dheevaa kio jalai' during a festival of lights (Diwali). In the last few days I received a number of 'Diwali Greetings' messages from several contacts. They all in essence reflect sharing of joy, happiness and goodwill, without being bothered by any historical or religious significance of the day. Historically, there are many reasons as to why this day is celebrated in many countries with indulgence in varieties of ways, such as cleaning and white-washing houses and purchasing of new clothes and house-hold items (particularly in India); exchange of gifts; bringing kith and kin and friends together; and offering of prayers to invite joy, happiness and wealth in life. The Sikhs predominantly celebrate the 'Bandi Chhor Divas' (to commemorate the welcome given to the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind Sahib, in Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar) with abundance of gurbani, kirtan and kathaas to bring joy and enlightenment. Gurmat prescribes that in order to dispel darkness (ignorance) we do need to burn oil in a 'diva'(the human body) so as to create divine light to the blissful spiritual path. Guru Nanak says that let the gur-shabad be the oil; and love of Waheguru be the wick in the body; and the lighter be the understanding and contemplation of the truth in gurbani. Such enlightenment will help one in receiving bliss of Waheguru, which in turn will prepare one to serve humanity; and thus be welcomed in Waheguru's dargah as well. The full shabad is as follows: "The Undeceiveable is not deceived by deception. He cannot be wounded by any dagger. As our Lord and Master keeps us, so do we exist. The soul of this greedy person is tossed this way and that. ||1|| Without the oil, how can the lamp be lit? ||1||Pause|| Let the reading of your prayer book be the oil, and let the Fear of God be the wick for the lamp of this body. Light this lamp with the understanding of Truth. ||2|| Use this oil to light this lamp. Light it, and meet your Lord and Master. ||1||Pause|| This body is softened with the Word of the Guru's Bani; you shall find peace, doing seva. All the world continues coming and going in reincarnation. ||3|| In the midst of this world, do seva, and you shall be given a place of honor in the Court of the Lord. Says Nanak, swing your arms in joy! ||4||33||" So the need is to read, recite, contemplate and act on the gurbani -- that is, live gurbani -- in order to enjoy the divine light and celebrate the real Diwali at every moment.

8: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), November 09, 2013, 2:59 PM.

It is quite common for Sikhs living in England to wish each other "Merry Christmas" on Christmas Day. Sikhs are broadminded and are not affected or influenced by such celebrations. In our origin, we have broken away from Hinduism by rejecting its beliefs and practices, but if one billion of them celebrate Diwali, then it is difficult not to get carried away if you're surrounded by them where you live! We celebrate our gurpurabs, etc. Too many celebrations means too much laddoos! This is no diet for a saint-soldier.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 09, 2013, 3:24 PM.

We organize special diwan in our gurdwaras on Diwali, Christmas and celebrate New Year! That doesn't make us anything but a Sikh. From Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, 240 years! There is not a single reference about diwali in Guru granth Sahib. Time and again, gurbani says: "sukar, kukar gardab". This is what we are! We encompass all humanity.

10: N Singh (Canada), November 09, 2013, 3:57 PM.

Lastly, I would like to know when and how did the word and term 'separatist' become a slur? The Oxford dictionary defines a separatist as "a person who supports the separation of a particular group of people from a larger body on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender". So what exactly is wrong with this and why has the term been hijacked by those who would use it as a stick to beat anyone who differs from their status quo view of life (namely being stuck to Hinduism and India)? I thought Guru Gobind Singh had created the Khalsa roop so that we would 'stand out' from the rest of the giddarrs living in India. When did we become like everyone else, following their customs and practices instead of living independently and freely?

11: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), November 09, 2013, 11:26 PM.

Most of the religious communities define their basic faith in one sentence. The Sikh masses are also entitled to get the basic definition of their faith in simple terms. This will enable them to understand and practice their faith a little better.

12: Jaspreet Singh (USA), November 09, 2013, 11:57 PM.

I always try to reason out this issue. Leaving aside the other regional/local gurudwaras, I am left with the image of Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, which is illuminated for Diwali. Why is that done? How was that tradition established? I understand that this was actually done for the first time when the Sixth Guru Sahib arrived back in Amritsar from Gwalior, the date apparently close to, or on the day of Diwali. I am very sure this question will always pop up whenever Sikhs try to figure out the significance of Diwali for them. Further, over hundreds of years, I believe Diwali has also acquired some "Punjabi" significance as well, related to the time of harvesting the crops, just as Vaisakhi. In that scenario, it is hard to see it as a Hindu-specific occasion.

13: DJ Singh (USA), November 10, 2013, 11:35 AM.

The Mool Mantar emphasizes One Universal Truth, One God. Diwali represents the triumph of good over evil. Bandi Chhorr divas represents celebration of freedom. As stated in comment #2 by Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia, seek out moments to celebrate humanity. Celebrate with prayer. Do not gamble or consume intoxicants. Participating in a celebration implies respect, not necessarily conversion. Mia(n) Mir laid the foundation stone of Harmandar Sahib. Should he have refused?

14: Kulwant Singh (U.S.A.), November 10, 2013, 7:08 PM.

We don't celebrate Diwali. We celebrate Bandi Chhorr Diwas.

15: Tejinder Singh (Houston, Texas, USA), November 10, 2013, 9:18 PM.

What is the historical evidence that shows Bandi Chhorr diwas falls on the same day as Diwali? Even if it falls on the same day as Diwali, the celebration levels far exceed any other Gurpurab celebrations. And we don't even celebrate all Gurpurabs which have far exceeding historical significance. I don't see in my local gurdwara a big celebration on Eid, Christmas, or other Hindu festivals.

16: Harinder (Punjab), November 10, 2013, 11:12 PM.

There are a lot of religious festivals celebrated all over the world ... from Christmas, to Id and Deepawali. All dedicated to the respective deities. There is no common festival which the people celebrate of the ONE GOD who loves them all, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Sikhs must celebrate Vaisakhi as a universal festival of Waheguru who loves all his children in whatever name they worship him.

17: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), November 11, 2013, 12:37 AM.

Sikhs used to gather at Vaiskahi and Diwali since the time of Guru Amardas. It was also the day of release of Guru Hargobind Sahib from Gwalior Fort. We celebrate Bandi Chhorr diwas instead of Diwali.

18: Jasbeer Singh (India), November 11, 2013, 2:20 AM.

Educating elders of the family about "Diwali" and "Bandi Chhorr diwas" is useless as they won't change as they have lived their entire life celebrating Diwali (its not their mistake entirely, its been passed to them). However, we can educate ourselves and we can pass this knowledge to the coming generations, to eradicate the practice of worshiping "Lakshmi", literally, "Maya". Switch on the light bulb of knowledge in your home ... it will spread light in your home and around, and remove darkness. Or are striving to do otherwise?

19: Dr Harinder Pal Singh (Patiala, Punjab), November 11, 2013, 6:38 AM.

An issue has been created out of a non-issue. Joie de vivre is the Khalsa spirit. Take the day as a celebration of life only. Gurdwaras are lit, so are homes. Sikhs do visit the gurdwaras and recite gurbani (not hanuman chalisa). What's wrong with it? Enjoy the celebration per se, not the motive. I think the next issue would be over New Year's celebrations and why should Sikhs celebrate it. We are becoming parochial - just what the founders of our religion never wanted us to be.

20: R.S.Minhas (Millburn, New Jersey, USA), November 11, 2013, 10:07 AM.

Thank you, Ravi Singh ji, for your observations. It is astonishing that Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhorr like Diwali with lamps, candles, crackers and sweets. Diwali has become a social festival. All these pleasures are difficult for any child to resist. It is boom time for businesses and bonus time for workers. So with a variety of food, entertainment and economics all mixed up, a euphoria is created. Combine that with a trip to the gurdwara, it covers almost all bases. If possible, many would not mind a Diwali every quarter. But seriously, Bhagat Kabir ji on page 970 of Guru Granth Sahib says about the One: "jaani jaani re raja ram ki kahani / antar jot raam pargaasa gurmukh biralai jaanee" - (Sikhitothemax translation: "I have come to know the story of my Sovereign Lord. How rare is that gurmukh who knows, and whose inner being is illuminated by the Lord's Light?")

21: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 12, 2013, 12:56 PM.

# 19 - Harinder Pal Singh ji: We are just busy bodies for fun. Go and enjoy yourself. You won't become less holy. Just don't eat too many sweets. Daily eating is a ritual. We should stop eating. Just to throw another spanner in the works, a new controversy is being generated where "Sukhmani Sahib" is being treated as a ritual. It is like saying, "Why are you swaying while kneading the 'atta'. 'atta gundhi hilde ku-an pye -aye!'

22: Jaideep Singh (Sydney, Australia), November 12, 2013, 4:38 PM.

Thanks, Ravi Singh ji. Certainly a much needed topic to debate and get some perspective on where things are heading (unfortunately). If we just discuss the langar tradition, I don't think Guru Sahibs would approve of the 'noisy langar halls, with gossip galore, (even colourful language), more a free-meal family outing, not to mention the amount of food wasted'. I wonder why aren't gurdwaras arranging 'Meals on Wheels' for the homeless like the Red Cross and various other charity organizations are doing. How about financial support for the needy, food for the poor and deprived ... with the millions going into the golaks. Why isn't there a leading Sikh charity organization heading the relief work in the Philippines or anywhere else in the world where help is needed?

23: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 14, 2013, 6:37 AM.

If you respect the Guru, you know automatically what is and what is not Sikhi! Diwali is a Hindu festival steeped in Hindu superstition and mythology, so a true Sikh would not have anything to do with Diwali and would like on any other day recite and contemplate gurbani, and pray for liberation from dogma and superstition of all ideologies!

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 107"









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