Saturday, December 26, 2009

A New Day...

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!!

One year ago today, I started this blog - Spirit Of The Sikh - as a way to collect my thoughts, stories, and experiences. And perhaps along the way, some may come across it and offer their comments and ideas as well. Little did I know that so many friends, family, and "gur-siblings" all over the world would take an interest in my posts. For this, I am truly humbled.

All through His grace...

Spirit Of the Sikh has also opened up opportunities for me to write on other forums, all of which have given me a chance to expand my thinking, write more critically, and from time to time...take some criticism too. All of which, I am extremely grateful for.

I'm very thankful for all you have who have commented on my posts , given feedback, challenged me, and motivated me - through comments on the blog, Facebook messages, and face-to-face conversations.

As I look to the year ahead, aligning with my personal goals of doing more reading (literature, history & Bani) and less writing - my posts may become less frequent. You also may see less essays and more poetry (my first love). I'm also hoping to invite some guest bloggers to share their ideas to this audience as well.

Although there are many sites, blogs, and discussion forums raising and defining issues affecting Sikhs today (which is refreshing), few of them connect these issues with a Sikh's personal experience. Much can be learned from this, by readers and writers alike.

In the year to come, I hope Spirit Of The Sikh can help facilitate such introspection...both individually and collectively.

On that note, I would like to conclude this post the same way I concluded my first post exactly a year ago - with a quotation from Prof. Puran Sngh, whose collective works serve as an inspiration for this blog. I found this particularly beautiful. It is from Part I of my blog's namesake, Spirit Of the Sikh:
We of the Punjab, were called to don the robe of the Guru's discipleship. We wear turbans as He did; we keep long hair as He kept. We prefer the colours he liked. We are still alive with the spark he lit in our souls. The torch when lighting another creates its own images. 

We carry the Guru's face. His features, His whole image in our face and form. As I ponder who I am, I knew I am of the Guru.

When Grace Is Refused


A few weeks back, while skimming through the news, I found an interesting report on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent visit to the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Although I didn’t care much for the hoopla around his visit, I did find it interesting that he “offended” Sikhs by refusing to accept parshad or langar.

As I understand it, the preparation of parshad (grace) is unique in that it is ceremonially touched by a kirpan (kirpan bhet), which serves as an indication of the Guru’s acceptance and blessing. It is then distributed to 5 Amritdhari Sikhs representing the Guru Khalsa Panth. A Sikhs’ consumption of parshad displays a submission to the Guru. So accepting parshad is essentially “accepting His grace.” I’ve also been taught that parshad should be distributed after the hukamnama is read, as accepting parshad symbolizes acceptance of the hukamnama.

Now, whether or not Sikhs themselves understand the hukamnama, or even listen to it is another post for another day – but, if accepting parshad is accepting the Guru’s hukam, should a non-believer accept it? Although the Rehat Maryada states that parshad should be offered to everyone equally (as it should), should we be offended if someone rejects it? If a non-Sikh understands the meaning behind our practice and politely refuses it out of respect, shouldn’t we appreciate it instead?

I remember years ago at a Sikh Day Parade in Washington DC, as a handful of us were walking through the sidewalks handing out “Who are the Sikhs” pamphlets and answering questions from onlookers, an elderly BibiJi was darting through the crowd distributing parshad to random strangers. As shocked as I was to see this, it couldn’t compare to the shock on the face of those who received it. Most were not sure what to do with it, or joked about it with their friends, while others were seen throwing it away. I’m sure the BibiJi’s heart was in the right place, but what were we hoping to accomplish by this?

My question is...how can we value our traditions if we don’t even understand them?
And if we don’t value our traditions, how can we expect others to?

Unlike parshad, langar is prepared without such rituals. It is meant to be a “common kitchen” where everyone can participate regardless of beliefs. It is such a central part of our tradition to partake in langar, that I can understand why Sikh sentiments may have been hurt when Prime Minister Harper refused it. Perhaps his administration did not understand the origins behind it, or maybe his handlers in Punjab did not prepare him well enough. But if in fact he did understand the origins of langar and still refused it, then maybe Canadian Sikhs can begin a dialogue with the PM to understand why. Perhaps the Ontario-area Sikhs can invite him to the Gurdwara to “give him another chance.” Seems like a small price to pay for a politician who is clearly interested in the Sikh vote.

Harper’s visit raises another question – do local Sikh communities have a published “Gurdwara Protocol” for non-Sikhs? Does the SGPC have such a document for foreign dignitaries visiting Gurdwaras of historical significance?

When I’ve seen local politicians brought in to our own Gurwdara, they seem to be ushered in while committee members bark commands in to their ear on where they should bow and when they should stand. Often times they approach the podium not having a clue on who Sikhs are or what we’re all about.

Perhaps one of the upcoming Sikh conferences could take on this “one-pager” for non-Sikhs outlining central tenets of our faith as well as basic protocol.

Lastly, how far should we go to accommodate our guests? Essentially…how should we treat VIPs in a place where there is no such thing as a VIP? What if Prime Minister Harper preferred to wear his shoes during his visit? When does a visitor become unwelcome and how do we handle it?

As our generation takes bigger strides to open the doors of the Gurdwara to non-Sikhs, these questions will become more relevant. Perhaps we need to be more proactive and find better ways to prepare visitors so their visit to the Gurdwara can be both a pleasant and educational experience.

I’d love to hear your thoughts…or hear what more progressive sangats have already done.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Remembering a Legend

[In memory of the late Bhai Avtar Singh Ragi: January 8, 1925 - November 24, 2006]


My introduction to Bhai Avtar Singh was in the late 1970's. Okay, to be fair...I was only a toddler and my family was hosting a kirtan at our home in memory of my great-grandmother who had recently passed.

Maybe it was only a coincidence that the famous ragis, Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, sons of Bhai Jawala Singh and 11th generation kirtanis, were passing through Washington D.C. and were available for kirtan seva that morning.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence that my great-grandmother herself enjoyed listening to their kirtan very much. And maybe it was also a coincidence that two of her own sons were in fact named...Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh.

Coincidences aside, it was the beginning of a very special relationship.

I can't say I remember much from that kirtan, but my father did request Bhai Sahib to sing Ab ki baar baksh bande ko and the recording of that shabad has been etched in my childhood ever since.

Two decades would pass before our paths would cross again. This time, through my friend's CD player in his car soon after Gurmat Sangeet (1999) was released. Although I enjoyed listening to kirtan, personally, I preferred a more popular form of kirtan with a faster tempo.

However, being that my friends were big fans of Bhai Avtar Singh and we listened to and sang kirtan together a lot, I was repeatedly exposed to Bhai Sahib's reets (musical compositions)...and eventually, it grew on me. I particularly connected with Mero sundar kaho milay kith galli in Raag Devgandhari and Rattay ishq khudaae in Raag Asa.

With some help, I also learned how to play the latter on the harmonium, by thumbing through Gurbani Sangeet Prachin Reet Ratnavali, a book authored by Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh, wherein they have transcribed hundreds of musical compositions that have been performed in their family for centuries.

I was lucky that Bhai Sahib was well recorded. There was an abundance of tapes, CDs, and MP3s available of professionally-recorded as well as live kirtan. I compiled nearly a full collection of his work and listened to it at every opportunity I had.

After spending years absorbed in his 31 Raagas (2001) CD, I had the great fortune to listen to Bhai Avtar Singh live as he was passing through Chicago on his 2003 North American tour.

The first shabad I heard him sing live was Mohan neendh na aaveh in Raag Bilaval. A soon as he began the manglacharan, my eyes welled up. I'm not sure what it was. Perhaps it was the crackle in his voice that reminded me of a different era, or maybe I was feeling nostalgic of the recording I grew up with, or maybe it was the fact the shabad was sung in the same raag, feeling, and emotion in which my Guru wrote and sung it himself. Whatever it was...I was hooked.

I had the opportunity to listen to Bhai Sahib and his jatha, which included his son Bhai Kultar Singh and nephew Bhai Swaran Singh on the jori, on their two subsequent trips to North America in 2005 and 2006.

Bhai Avtar Singh's last visit was most special to me in that in that I got to hear him perform kirtan while playing the Taus - a traditional string instrument he had not played for decades in favour of the more popular harmonium. It was breath-taking!

Although I enjoyed listening to Bhai Sahib do kirtan at the Gurdwara during his visits, it was the private concerts at people's homes during the week I enjoyed most. Often times I would arrive early before work, right as Asa Ki Vaar would start. In that intimate setting, early in the morning with only a few people present, the experience was magical. Especially with the tanti saaz (traditional instruments), all I would do is close my eyes, and I would feel as though I was in Guru Nanak's darbar - with Bhai Mardana plucking the rabab and baani flowing through the Guru.

I try not to put kirtanis and raagis on spiritual pedestals, but I do have tremendous respect for Bhai Avtar Singh for his 60 years of kirtan seva, his complete mastery of the art, and for preserving the tradition of Gurmat Sangeet.

On a personal note, his kirtan has touched five generations of my family, from my great-grandmother (the matriarch of our family), to my children - who have been listening to Bhai Sahib, even before they were born! What a beautiful link we all share in common...

Although I have listened to all types, Bhai Avtar Singh's style of kirtan, with all the love and emotion he expressed it in, is what I've connected with the most. It has exposed to me the world of gurmat sangeet, which has encouraged me to understand and reflect on baani rather than simply listening to it. All of which (with His Grace) will bring me closer to the Guru.

For that, I am eternally grateful.

I thank Bhai Avtar Singh for helping shape my Sikh experience and thank Waheguru for giving us this rare gem of a man for a wonderful 81 years.

November 24, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Magic of Saakhis


I have always loved listening to saakhis.

All kinds...from stories about the Guru's childhood and their travels, to the tales of courage and bravery of the Khalsa on the battlefield - there is nothing I loved more than to be transported to the era of my Gurus and the heroes of our faith.

Whether it was at home, the Khalsa School, or Gurmat camp, I would take every opportunity I could to listen to a saakhi about Sikh history...my history.

Much of that enthusiasm carried through my childhood, but as an adolescent, I started listening with a more critical ear. I remember once at camp, a teacher shared with us the story of Vaisakhi.

I'd heard the story hundreds of times, but it was one my favourites, so I listened attentively. As he told us about the Guru's call to the crowd that day and finally one man standing and offering his head, he said that Guru Sahib then "brought him in to an enclosed tent and returned minutes later with a sword dripping in blood."

Wait!...What? Sword dripping in blood? Where did this come from? I immediately raised my hand, and the instructor explained that Guru Sahib had slaughtered a goat behind the tent. I never heard this before. Why would Guru Sahib need to fool the crowd in this way? Weren't they shocked enough that he was asking for a head in the first place? Why did this saakhi have to be unnecessarily embellished? I wondered how many other different "versions" of the saakhi were out there.

After much debate on this saakhi with the instructor and friends, I started re-thinking many of the saakhis I grew up with. Unlike gurbani, many of these stories have been passed down generations through oral tradition and have only recently been documented in the last hundred or so years, so how do we know what is fact and what is fiction?

Especially those that border the realm of logic...the ones I was always amazed by. Did Baba Deep Singh really fight in battle with his head in his hand? In Mecca, did the Kaaba really move to the direction of Guru Nanak's feet?

I remember a student asking me at Gurmat camp once why Guru Nanak stopped a boulder with his bare hand if the Gurus were averse to using "magical powers."

Although I started to doubt many of the saakhis I grew up with, it did not shake my faith. In fact, what inspired me most of the Guru's lives were some of their worldly accomplishments - they were artists, poets, soldiers, human rights activists, environmentalists, city planners, architects, businessmen - all while living a productive family life.

The fact that Guru Sahib took a stand against the caste system at age 9 by refusing to wear the Hindu janeeo...this is what amazes me! The fact my Guru directly challenged oppressors like Babar during his brutal invasion and called him out as a tyrant...this to me is the magic of Guru Nanak!

Furthermore, some of these "super-hero" like saakhis that defy reality can be harmful too. Why would we want to make the Gurus larger than life and further distance ourselves from them? Maybe this is why people have resorted to babas and other intermediaries because we have made the Guru so "off-limits." After much thought on this, I stayed away from these "questionable" saakhis at camps and retreats and focused on those that were more logical or could be supported through bani.

Many years have passed and as I've started telling saakhis to my own children, I find myself with a dilemma. Part of me wants to tell the same stories I was told as a kid, so I can see their eyes light up in enthusiasm and amazement, the same way mine did...even if the stories are a bit exaggerated.

Although I've decided to share only those saakhis that seem more realistic and practical, I still tend to "leave a little room." As I've discovered on my journey of Sikhi, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. The fact of the matter is, I wasn't there when Guru Sahib squeezed milk from Bhai Laalo's bread and blood from Malik Bhago's. I wasn't there when he stopped the boulder with his hand. I wasn't there when Guru Sahib asked that his feet be moved away from the direction of the Kaaba...so perhaps I shouldn't let my parameters of logic restrict my understanding of history.

Maybe through simran, further reflection, and learning...my parameters will also change.

We come from a rich and proud history. And as we individually connect with the events through our story-telling tradition, there is likely to be variation in the ways our stories are told. What is more important is that we are able to extract the central message - whether it is equality, truth, justice, or compassion.
I hope that saakhis continue to inspire generations to come and the eyes of Sikh children (and adults) continue to light up with these tales of compassion, courage and heroism.

Because when a saakhi from our history is conveyed with enthusiasm, emotion, and love...it is nothing short of magic!

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Little Outrage


I was really moved by this audio essay from Cecilia Muñoz titled “A Little Outrage Can Take You a Long Way” on NPR’s This I Believe segment.


In her reflection on activism, I connected with the statement about defeats outweighing victories, and how it motivates her to continue her work. Like many of the TLH readers, I too take time out my schedule for service activities. And after serving 100 or so meals at a homeless shelter, I go home feeling good about myself and the good deed I had done. Unlike Muñoz, I don’t stay awake thinking of the 100 or so people who were turned away that day at the shelter, or those who wouldn’t have a place to sleep that night. Maybe this is what separates me from real activists. To me, service has become an event or an activity – for an activist, service is a part of their life...part of who they are. They are constantly looking for ways to serve.

And I agree with Muñoz, “a little outrage can take you a long way.”

Although I don’t believe Guru Nanak was motivated by anger, I do believe he was outraged. Outraged by a society complacent with the rigid caste hierarchy, outraged at the imbalance of justice, and outraged by the barbaric methods of the State to suppress a minority. You can almost hear the outrage, when Guru Sahib describes the horrific events of Babar’s invasion:

eaethee maar paee karalaanae thai(n) kee dharadh n aaeiaa
There was so much slaughter that the people screamed. Didn’t You feel compassion, Lord?

But in the brilliance of Guru Nanak, he managed to channel that outrage in to compassionate activism.

As a child, attending Khalsa school and camps – I would learn about these different facets of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings. But to be honest, I struggled to understand the spiritual elements - concepts like Naam, Kirpa, Jeevan Mukti, all of these were abstract...I didn’t really “get it.” But when I read about Guru Nanak’s history and his activism...that, I got. When Guru Sahib at age 9 rejected the caste system by refusing to wear the janeoo…I got it. When Guru Nanak directly challenged the oppressive ruler Babar, during his invasion in the early 1500’s, and called him out as a tyrant...I got it. When he established the concept of Langar, where no matter what caste, creed, religion, or socio-economic group you were a part of – everybody sat together on the floor to share a common meal, and by doing so shook the very core of the caste system...I got it! It made sense to me. I connected with it.

And now as I’m slowly grasping a bit more of the spiritual elements of Guru Nanak’s message and putting the pieces together – I’ve learned that in Sikhi, spirituality and a connection with God (as essential as it is) it is not an end itself. Guru Nanak, with all his knowledge and piety, did not retreat to the hills and have followers come to him for advice. No, instead...he became an activist, an activist for the defenseless – to create a society based on complete human freedom and equality. Guru Nanak, and the Gurus to follow, were advocates for social justice, culminating in Guru Gobind Singh establishing the Khalsa with the deliberate plan that the down-trodden, even the out-castes, achieve social equality and capture political power.

Based on the examples the Guru’s have set for us, I believe that being an activist is a requirement for a Sikh. But how do we become and foster activists? As a parent, I’m always trying to think of ways I can teach Sikh principles to my children, and I know for many of the customs, rituals, and routines of a Sikh – they will learn it – through camps, through Khalsa schools and other structured learning. But when it comes to activism, such an essential part of our faith...I believe it will only be learned through example.

So perhaps I need to be a little more outraged. Or at least not get too comfortable. Maybe I need to keep a part of me always a little restless...searching for ways I can help a cause. I know there is so much injustice in the world. I know there is so much that would affect me, if I only cared enough to look.

Right now, somewhere in this world, there is a cause that needs my voice, a movement that needs my pen, and a march that needs my feet. Somewhere there is a fist I can raise, a rock I can throw, a fight I can fight, or a compassionate hand I can lend…all I have to do, is care.

This is the example Guru Nanak has set for me. The only question is…what am I going to do about it?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

To The Last Hair, To The Last Breath

A few weeks ago, while at the park with my family, an elderly woman dressed in a sari came over to say hello. After a brief introduction, she said to us “wait here for a second” and called out “Alex…come here!” A little boy with light skin and brown hair ran over to us. The lady in the sari bent down and said to Alex, “See…this is what your grandfather looked like. He wore a turban and had a long beard just like him.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he forced a quick smile and ran back to the swings.

As a dastaar-wearing Sikh, I come across these interactions quite often – some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant, and some downright awkward. But because they happen so frequently, I tend to brush it off and forget all about them quickly. For some reason, this incident stuck with me.

It made me think about the days in Gurmat camp decades ago when the Uncles would scare us in to keeping our kesh or else keshdari Sikhs would become a “thing of the past” and “only be seen in museum exhibits.” I never bought that theory, but the incident in the park did shake me a bit.

Although Sikhi is such a large part of my life, truth is...I really don’t think about kesh much. As a matter of fact, when I lead presentations about Sikhi to Sikhs or non-Sikhs, I make a point to downplay the kesh aspect. Not that it is any less important than any of the other kakaars, but with non-Sikhs, the “mystery” behind the kesh seems to overtake discussions, and we miss some of the most important and central tenets of the faith...equality, self-less service, self-realization, and universality of the message. And even with Sikhs, kesh is made such a focus that many in our community feel that as long as we retain the external image of a Sikh, the rest of maryada and discipline does not apply. It is essentially a “free-pass” and gives us the right to criticize those who do not keep their kesh.

Being the only Sikh boy in my school in the early 80’s was difficult and I always questioned why I needed to keep my kesh in the first place. I was given all kinds of answers – some said it was Guru Sahib’s way of giving us a unique identify we “couldn’t run away from” after the circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahdur’s shaheedi. Some said that hair has traditionally been a sign of saintliness, as many other saints from other religions kept long hair. Others said we should not cut something that grows naturally from our bodies (yes, the finger nail debate would quickly follow), while others gave more “alternative” reasons – that hair served as “antennae” to gather and channel energy from the sun. At a recent seminar I attended, one of the more “scholarly” elders referred to kesh as a “custom” and well, customs after time...do change. I’ve heard just about everything. Strange how I was so consumed with this question throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, but as I’ve gotten older and learned more about Gurmat, I’ve started to wonder less and less about it. Instead, I’m consumed with what I find difficult now – waking up at amritvela, focusing on my paath, being compassionate and forgiving, letting go of my ego, attachment, and anger, seeing Waheguru in everyone...it’s as though keeping my hair is the easiest thing my Guru has asked of me...I mean, I don’t even have to try! And for everything my Guru has given me, isn’t this the least I can do as an expression of my love?

In the end, we all have to come up with our own reason. Personally, I keep my kesh because my Guru has asked this of me...and I accept it as his gift – that’s it. It is neither a symbol nor a custom...it is a part of me...a part of my history. It is what Bhai Taru Singh gave his life for rather than a strand be cut. It is what Sikhs all around the world reflect upon daily in our Ardas, remembering those who gave their lives, “Kesan Suasan Naal Nibaahi” (with their hair intact, to the last breath). Just like a soldier wears his/her uniform proudly because it reflects the principles and tenets for which the country stands...my kakaars serve much the same...it represents the principles and tenets of my faith...equality, justice, service, compassion. And every time I stand before a mirror I am reminded of those principles and the code by which I live. Everyone around me is aware of it too...I cannot run away from it. And if my appearance means I am excluded from joining my co-workers at the bar after work or I’m randomly selected at airports from time to time...so be it. It is an honor and a privilege to bear the image of the Khalsa. And with my Ardaas and His grace, I shall live up to the ideals for which it stands.

Just about everybody I talk to or every article I read about the state of the panth tells me much the same...youth cutting their hair, trimming their beards, moving away from Sikhi etc. etc. Although I don’t ignore the realities of our situation, I don’t dwell in it either...I choose hope instead. I’m convinced through further reflection of our history, our traditions, and inspiration through Gurbani, we (individually and collectively) will reflect the Guru’s love and message. I look forward to a day at the park where a mother will bring their child over to us, lean down and say “This is a Sikh family…if you are ever in need…you can always count on them to help!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Half The Sky


The issue of forced marriages and domestic violence clearly struck a chord with many of the TLH readers. But somewhere deep in the comments over titles, or whether these are Sikh or Punjabi issues, or whether or not we should air our “dirty laundry” in the first place – I feel some of the issues themselves got lost.

In formulating my own thoughts on the topic and trying to build a broader perspective on women’s issues in general, I came across a fascinating article in last week’s New York Times Magazine called “Saving the World’s Women.” The premise of the article is that many of the countries that are disproportionately poverty-stricken and absorbed in fundamentalism and chaos, are also those same countries where women are the least educated and most marginalized. And by focusing (and investing) on women and girls, a dramatic impact can be made to fight global poverty and extremism.

Take the example of Saima Muhammad (pictured above) from Pakistan. Saima didn’t have a rupee to her name, was routinely beaten by her unemployed husband and other family members, and had to send her kids away due to lack of food and other basics. Even her mother-in-law contributed to her troubles by encouraging her son to marry again because Saima was only giving birth to girls. However, after Saima signed up with the Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization, things turned around.

Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.
…Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.
As the economics of Saima’s situation changed, so did the relationship with her family. She now has a better relationship with her family and has earned their respect. It is unfortunate that this is what it took for Saima, and many will never have the golden opportunity Saima had, but it does send a clear message – that although it may seem impossible to break down cultural barriers, economics can change the game quickly.

The article explains case after case of how investment in women’s education and assistance in starting businesses can help impoverished women support their families, communities, and country – “They represent the best hope for fighting global poverty.”

Some of the author’s arguments seem a bit far-fetched based on their evidence. They claim that the “little secret” of global poverty has much to do with unwise spending by the poor-especially men, and that women are more likely to spend on family needs, health, and education more so than men. That could be debated at a family level, but a macro level, I feel we cannot realistically measure this until women hold more offices of power in these countries. But to be fair, this article was adapted from a book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide“, due to be released next month…perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the full book.

What I liked most about the article was that it offered specific solutions and recommendations. It outlined an agenda on what “fighting poverty through helping women” might look like, based on studies by respected economists., more than just “throwing aid” to developing nations. It also explained models that have produced results in other countries. So you may be wondering…(and hopefully I’ll save a few angry responses)…what does this have to do with us? That’s simple:
- The UN has estimated that there are 5 million honor killings a year
- 130 million around the world have been subjected to genital cutting
- 1 percent of the world’s landowners are women
The list goes on and on…

This is not a Punjabi issue or a Sikh issue…this is a human issue. We know how our Gurus (through Bani & history) promoted gender equality, and one of the commenters last week beautifully laid out examples of courageous women throughout our history…from the stories of Mir Mannu’s prison to Mai Bhago and the women who fought alongside her. So if we are to be “activists of the world” why shouldn’t we be at the forefront of this cause? Shouldn’t our Sikh NGO’s work with President Obama’s new White House Council on Women and Girls? Shouldn’t our Sikh institutions partner with organizations like CARE, that works alongside poor women in fighting global poverty? And shouldn’t we create our own organizations that serve as a forum for discussion and activism both for global women’s issues and that of our local communities? And what about the author’s theory on how such focus can address global poverty…doesn’t that affect us? And even if we prefer to believe none of these issues currently affect our Sikh and Punjabi communities – given the proximity of where the article’s examples take place (several references to India and Pakistan) and similarities in culture, should we not be proactive in preventing it? Perhaps by implementing some of the recommendations the article suggests at a micro level, we can mitigate the issues discussed in previous posts on forced marriages and domestic violence.

I don’t believe there is any “silver-bullet” to addressing the issues above, but I’m glad to see TLH and its active readership discussing and debating them. As the Chinese saying goes, “Women hold up half the sky”…the issues affecting women cannot be silenced.

I look forward to hearing other’s thoughts and comments on the linked article!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Wheat Of Compassion


I’ve always enjoyed a good story...and amongst all the depressing news lately of our declining economy, raucous town hall meetings, and corrupt politicians...I often turn to StoryCorp’s podcasts for a quick “pick-me-up." A few months back, I came across a beautiful piece titled “Finding El Dorado.” It’s the story of Gus Hernandez and the unique friendship he developed with Siddiqi Hansoti as a result of the current economic crisis. I was moved by this simple story of compassion and the power of the human spirit. Take a listen…it’s only 3 minutes [link].

This story got me thinking about compassion and what it means to a Sikh. After some brief research, I found dozens of references to Daya (and its variations – Dayal, Dayala etc.) in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Depending on the context, it is loosely translated as compassion, mercy or pity. Several times it is used as an attribute of Waheguru:

miharavaan kirapaal dhaeiaalaa sagalae thripath aghaaeae jeeo
He is Merciful, Kind and Compassionate. All are satisfied and fulfilled through Him.
Other times it is used in the context of an Ardaas:

jath sath chaaval dhaeiaa kanak kar praapath paathee dhaan
Please bless me with the rice of truth and self-restraint, the wheat of compassion, and the leaf of meditation.

But what I connected with the most was how compassion was described as a necessary attribute of the GurSikh:

dhaeiaa kapaah santhokh sooth jath gantee sath vatt
Make compassion the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist.

eaehu janaeoo jeea kaa hee th paaddae ghath
This is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on me.

If this line sounds familiar, it is because it is often associated with the saakhi of Guru Nanak Patshah at the age of 9, when he refused to wear the janeeoo that discriminated him against the rest of humanity. By rejecting it, he rejected the ideology of the caste system that pervaded throughout society.

It’s fascinates me that he cites “compassion” in this act of rebellion. In fact, wasn’t the act itself an act of compassion? Not only empathy toward those who suffered from the rigid caste system, but a genuine desire to alleviate it? Was it not through compassion that Bhai Khanaiya committed the rebellious act of serving water to wounded soldiers of the enemy’s camp? And was it not through compassion that Guru Tegh Bahadur Patshah gave his life for all those suffering religious persecution, and to protect the freedom of choice?

It makes me wonder…in my own small acts of rebellion or activism, have I ever felt such compassion?

After listening to Mr. Hansoti’s act of kindness to a stranger and the examples of compassion throughout our history...I wonder if, outside of my family, I have ever completely let go of my ego and truly been compassionate toward someone else...or if there was a time I could have been more empathetic?

I am convinced that compassion brings us closer to the Guru and helps break the barriers of ego that separate us from Him. As a dear GurSikh friend of mine has said to me, “If there is compassion in your heart, you will never be alone.”

In all my ponderings and analysis of compassion, I’m reminded of a quotation from Saint Thomas Aquinas, where he said, “I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it.” Hoping to “feel”...striving to be a better Sikh...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Ride Home


In my years as a consultant, frequent travel became routine. Waking up early Monday morning, cab to the airport, checking in baggage, waiting in lines, secondary screening, waiting in the plane for takeoff...by the time I reached my destination to start the work day, I was already beat!

But in this mundane ritual of a road warrior, I always took a moment of pause as I reached my destination and exited the airport. I would pan across the sea of yellow taxis looking for something familiar...yes, a dastaar!

Call it "reverse racial profiling" if you will, or maybe this is just my small way of creating some balance in the world - nevertheless, it is always a treat to find a Sikh taxi driver to share a ride with.

Even though we are complete strangers, the taxi driver is immediately my Veer or Uncle, and it is like we are meeting again after many years. We share a common guide and a common experience, and that is enough to bypass all the small talk.

It seems they are just as happy to have me as a passenger as I am to have them as a driver. For me - one who has always been intrigued by the "Sikh experience" - it's a chance to converse with another Sikh about faith, politics, family and everything in between. Also, since many of these Singhs are recent immigrants, it gives me a glimpse in to the lives of my brethren in Punjab and the challenges and struggles they face in adjusting to their new life...neither of which I have much insight into.

I'm sure they enjoy the conversation in the same way, or at least enjoy the opportunity to speak Punjabi and have cultural dialogue with one of their passengers. Some compliment my Punjabi and ask which pind (village) I'm from, while others joke about my poor accent and grammar, asking when my parents came to America...but nevertheless, they are equally proud to see another Singh.

The conversations are light-hearted, friendly, and always seem to end in debate over accepting my cab fare - they insist I don't pay! That only gives way when I repeatedly argue that my fare is reimbursed.

These taxi rides are often informative, where I can find out about local gurdwaras and events, and at other times resourceful. I recall one time, while travelling abroad, after some conversation with the driver, it turned out he was on the management committee of the local gurdwara. After further discussion over the projects I was working on in the States, I found myself at the gurdwara that weekend running a Sikh history workshop for the teenagers.

But one experience stands out the most.

Years ago, I missed my flight at the local airport and needed a ride to a neighboring airport about an hour away. The Singh taking me there was pretty quiet, but half way through the ride he asked me if I knew my paatth "mujabani'' (by memory). He immediately called another Singh on his cell phone, and asked him to call another. Then he handed me the phone.

I have found sangat and enjoyed Sodar in many places over the years, but scattered amongst several taxis across the Tri-State area is definitely a first! That night, I probably would have just rattled through my paatth as soon as I got on the plane. But sharing that experience with the sangat of the airwaves from a moving cab, was truly memorable. His eagerness to use this opportunity with a Sikh passenger to reflect in shabad was inspiring, and made me re-evaluate my own relationship with my nit-nem.

No matter how many people I meet in my professional career, I'm unlikely to meet as many people with such diverse backgrounds as these taxi drivers do. To many passengers, they will be the first Sikh they meet or maybe the only Sikh they will ever meet, so in a sense, they are ambassadors...ambassadors on wheels. And they will share the virtues of Sikhi, if not through dialogue, then at least through their kindness, compassion and professionalism.

My business travel days are mostly over, and I can't say I miss it much. But I do miss the rides and conversations with the Singhs when our paths would occasionally cross. But I rest assure, knowing that in any country I may visit, anywhere in the world, amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy city, I will find a Singh driving a taxi, proudly in his Sikhi saroop.

Then, I will know, that home is never far away.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sikhi Aaj Kal

I’ll admit...Bollywood movies were boycotted and banned in my household as far back as I can remember, so maybe these “religious sensitivity pre-screenings” are common...but the course of events surrounding this new movie is still quite strange...even for Bollywood’s standards. Last week, a new movie titled “Love Aaj Kal” was released, with Saif Ali Khan playing a Sikh as the lead male role. However, shortly before the release, the Punjab Cultural and Heritage Board objected to his portrayal of a Sikh.
Explaining their stand, Charan Singh Sapra, President of Punjabi Cultural And Heritage Board informed a tabloid, “We are objecting on the grounds that Saif is shown with a very trim beard.”
Long story short, after Khan’s formal apology and a paparazzi-filled press conference at Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Dadar – 15 seconds of a questionable scene was cut from the movie and Khan declared he would not portray a Sikh “incorrectly” again in future roles. All smiles, the Punjabi Cultural And Heritage Board gave the movie “two thumbs up” and the green light to proceed.

I guess I should be happy that an organization is concerned enough about the image of Sikhs to raise such a fuss…except for the fact that we’re talking about fantasy-land. My question is…where is the organization that cares about the Sikh image in real life?

This is where I’m supposed to dive in to the failures of the Akal Takht, SGPC, Akali Dal, and all the other historic institutions who seem to be tied up in other pressing issues rather than investing in meaningful parchar and programs to bring wavering Sikhs (especially youth) back to the Sikhi fold...but I’m not going to do that. Too often these institutions are made the scapegoat for all our community’s ills. And frankly, as a Sikh living in North America – I feel our camps, conferences, retreats, civil rights organizations, and educational & developmental institutions have filled the void to move the Panth forward.

Even with such effective institutions, we cannot under-estimate the influence that media and pop culture have on Sikh youth – all over the world, but especially in Punjab and India. This is where we fall short. We have not managed to effectively use these same tools to promote a positive image of Sikhi – both in terms of Sikhi Saroop and Sikh principles.

I wasn’t really feeling the Teri Meri Bas video at first, but I now appreciate the vision and effort to use a music video in conveying such an important message. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are so many talented Sikh artists out there – MCs, singers, musicians, poets, artists, and film-makers…many of whom I’m sure are loyal TLH readers…so this is a challenge to you. A challenge to use your craft in presenting a positive image of Sikhs and Sikhi. A challenge to find creative ways to present Sikh ideals and principles. Personally, I’m tired of complaining about Bollywood and whining over offensive lyrics of Punjabi singers...tired of being on the defense. Let’s call the shots ourselves…and put something out there we can all be proud of!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Armed And Ready

I was very impressed to see this great article (and cool pic!) in today’s Daily Mail. Along similar lines as last week’s post on the Blue Beret Kanhaiyas, it is wonderful to see Sikhs presented in this light…as confident and courageous soldiers in highly respected positions. Equally fascinating are some of the comments to the article which seem to be coming from mostly non-Sikhs, such as “Her Majesty is in safe hands with those two guarding her” and “Very smart they look too.” This is a far cry from the hate you’ll find on some of the military websites and blogs regarding the Sikh Coalition’s “Right To Serve” campaign. I hope this milestone and media attention of the Queen’s new guards will help serve as a stepping stone in this historic campaign here in the US.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lahir 2009: The Movement Has Only Begun

This past Saturday night, twenty artists from all over the country took to the mic in front of a packed and energetic crowd at the University of Maryland for Lahir 2009. It was a powerful evening of remembrance and reflection to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Sikh Holocaust, organized by the DC Sikh Youth.

It was amazing to see teenagers, college students, young professionals, and even a few parents take to the stage and share their thoughts and reflections about 1984, human rights, and justice. Not only did the performers span across generations, but the performances themselves ranged in art form from musical pieces, poetry, and spoken word.

For me, it was fascinating to see how different each of the performers connected with 1984 – early in the show one artist eloquently recited an excerpt from Sirdar Kapur Singh’s 1966 speech to parliament, another tied environmental issues and water rights to 1984, while others shared personal accounts, poetry, dharmik geets, and dhadi vaaran. Regardless of how different each artist connected to 1984...the connection itself was strong...and watching that unfold on stage was absolutely breathtaking!

The evening concluded with G.N.E performing some of their recent tracks in front of their hometown audience. Seeing uncles and aunties “waving from side to side” was definitely a sight to remember.

For much of the last 25 years, Sikhs have been portrayed in a negative light around the events of 1984. We have quietly criticized the media – and while on the defensive – tried to point out inaccuracies about what actually happened...but it seemed we never really had a voice...Saturday night, that voice was heard loud and clear!

This 25th anniversary has produced several projects and initiatives that have helped document the Sikh experience of 1984, and these open mic events have also proved to be a powerful medium to document our story. I hope to see more and more of these events pop up throughout the country and abroad.

As the show came to a close Saturday night…the jakaaray kept going and the audience didn’t want to leave their seats...I kept thinking to myself, the show might be over...but the movement has only begun!

Here, here and here are some video clips of Lahir 2009…
Photos: Courtesy of Japnam Kaur

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Moving The Movement...Lahir 2009

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”(Margaret Mead)

Last Summer, a small group of thoughtful, committed Sikh youth from the DC Metropolitan area came together to form “Lahir” (movement) - a conference organized and run by high school and college students to promote human rights awareness.

There were three themes to the event. Educate, Inspire, and Act. The “Educate” segment consisted of a series of short presentations outlining the history of post-1984 human rights violations in Punjab, based on published documentation from Ensaaf. These presentations interspersed with videos of the victim’s families told the story of grave violations that occurred between 1984-1995 during the counter-insurgency movement - including torture, disappearances, and illegal cremations. The “Inspire” segment consisted of poetry, spoken word, and musical performances along the same theme. In the final portion, titled “Act”, participants broke out in to discussion groups and brainstormed ideas on how the Punjab case can be raised to a mainstream audience and reviewing what other communities have done to highlight their cause. Overall, the conference was a resounding success and launched several new initiatives.

This Summer, the Lahir team has re-assembled and Sikh youth activists and artists from all over the country will again descend upon the Nation’s Capital for Lahir 2009! This year’s format is an all-out ‘Open Mic’ with musical performances, displayed art, poetry, and spoken word. Trailers have been circulating around the internet, providing a glimpse of what to expect.

As I’ve stated in previous posts, I feel the message and tone of our protest of 1984 has evolved little in 25 years, and as a result has yielded little return. The struggle for justice has been minimized to angry slogans and accusatory speeches…much of which has turned off so many of my generation, to a point where any time “1984″ is brought up, the inevitable “rolling of the eyes” follows.

However, a new generation has arrived! And to quote my fellow blogger Maple Leaf Sikh, “the kids are going to be alright.”

A small yet growing group of Sikh youth has emerged…with amazing creative talent and a passion for truth and justice. They have molded the stories of pain, suffering, inspiration, and courage of our last 25 years of history and crafted it into a beautiful mosaic of music, art, poetry, and film. Lahir 2009 will put such passion on display. It will surely be a memorable event...don’t miss out!

Details are as follows:

Saturday, July 18th 2009 - Doors Open @ 6PM!
University of Maryland, Shady Grove Center
9630 Gudelsky Drive, Rockville, MD 20850

There are still a few spots available for artists to perform if you’re interested, contact movethemovement@gmail.com

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ardaas - What Are The Rules?

We’ve all sat through it before...or...stood through it, that is.
As Anand Sahib ends, we stand for Ardaas and collectively reflect on the lives and accomplishments of the Gurus and the 18th century martyrs who gave their lives to preserve our Sikh way of life. Somewhere in between this reflection, and wishing for “Sarbat da Bhala", we take a bizarre detour in to the “ins and outs” of our community.” Yes...I am referring to the lengthy list of births, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and other milestones we find in the middle of our Ardaas.

I’m not sure when this practice started; where a member of the sangat would make an offering to the Gurdwara so an “Ardaas” can be done on their behalf. Birthdays are most common week to week, but I have heard more creative ones - celebrating a new job, new car, first mother’s day, wishing someone well on an upcoming exam, or safe travels for someone’s trip to India. Some even taken advantage of this process, by doing an “Ardaas” on behalf of their business week after week - essentially advertising their local store, while they have the entire community’s ear. I’ve raised this issue to the committee that perhaps there needs to be a better way to handle these “community announcements” rather than during Ardaas...I mean, seconds after we recount the martyrs who were cut limb by limb and scalped, we collectively thank Waheguru for Tinku’s new Benz? It just doesn’t seem right.

So what should we do an Ardaas for? What should be allowed? What rules need put be put in place? Looking at the Guru for guidance, there are many references to Ardaas, but to quote a few:

In Guru Raam Daas Patshah’s Ardaas, he asks to be in the company of those who praise/seek Naam:

thin kee sangath dhaehi prabh mai jaachik kee aradhaas
Grant me their company, God - I am a beggar; this is my prayer.

Bhagat Ravidas Ji, a cobbler and tanner who at the time was considered of low social status only had one request in his Ardaas…His darshan:

sagal bhavan kae naaeikaa eik shhin dharas dhikhaae jee 1 rehaao
O Lord of all worlds: reveal to me, even for an instant, the Blessed Vision of Your Darshan.

Guru Angad Patshah explicitly states in Asa Ki Vaar:

naanak hukam n chalee naal khasam chalai aradhaas 22
O Nanak, no one can issue commands to the Lord Master; let us offer prayers instead. 22

So what does this tell us? Should we really be doing an Ardaas for mundane issues, material things, or trivial matters?

Rather than asking for a bigger house, should we be asking for compassion instead? Rather than asking to ace an exam, should we not be asking for humility? And instead of asking for our problems to go away, should we be asking for the strength and courage to deal with our problems?

Even with such “academic” understanding of all this...in my most troubling of times, I too have asked for such mundane and worldly things in my Ardaas. Is this a measure of how little I’ve progressed on the Guru’s path? Perhaps.

But then there’s another perspective to all this…

One of the many things I love about being a Sikh is there is no priest, intermediary, or holy man that stands between me and the Guru. Although there is a community element to that Sikh-Guru relationship (through Sangat), there is also a deeply personal and individual relationship a Sikh has with the Guru...and I for one, do not like to place any restrictions on that.

I do not belong to a God-fearing religion, but instead, a God-loving religion - and I feel my Guru accepts me for who I am, with all my strengths and weaknesses. And so my dialogue with the Guru should be open, honest, and unapologetic. So if that means in my Ardaas I ask for help in achieving a personal milestone, or for a sick friend to feel better, or for a prisoner of conscience in Rwanda to be released, or offer thanks for a new car...so be it.

Furthermore, I should be able to ask anything and seek guidance for whatever question or challenge I have...as long as I’m willing to seek his Shabad for answers.

To some extent, I still feel my Ardaas is indicative of my relationship with the Guru. And perhaps through seva, simran, and reflection, that connection will become stronger, the gaps in understanding will dissipate, and my Ardaas will no longer be filled with requests, but merely an expression of what my Guru has given me...Love.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Gurdwara's Human Rights Committee?


Play along with me here...imagine this Sunday you walk in to your local Gurdwara - remove your shoes, wash your hands, and as you make your way to the main darbar hall, you read the notices on the wall - “Education Committee holding Kirtan Classes Wednesday Night @ 6pm.” Next to that, another sign “Cultural Committee hosts Punjabi night next Saturday!" Further along, you see “Public Affairs Committee presents Interfaith Meeting on Friday.” Then right before you enter the darbar hall, you see…

Human Rights Committee holding urgent action letter-writing workshop for two Indonesian prisoners of conscience, Sunday after Langar - and don’t forget the “Justice for Darfur” rally this Saturday morning, bus leaves at 8am Sharp!

Whoa! What kind of radical Gurdwara is this? What are the youth up to now? Is this one of those extremist Gurdwaras? Or...is it the kind of Gurdwara Guru Sahib had intended?

Guru Nanak’s mission was based on the fundamental principle of human rights. We see this not only through his Baani, but throughout significant historical events - whether it was speaking out against the caste system and refusing to the wear the janeoo or his challenge of the tyrannical ruler Babar. Even in his ninth form, Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life speaking out for a people whose practices he disagreed with, but supported their right to practice religion freely. He gave his life for the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion. There are several amazing stories of the Guru’s activism in the area of human rights and social justice...but strangely, this subject in the context of current events has now become taboo.

The discussion of human rights in many Gurdwaras faces a lot of resistance. How did this come to be? When did it become so controversial? Where did we lose that link to our history? Rather than work out such misunderstandings through dialogue, we’ve managed to just sweep the whole topic under the rug.

However - Last week I was inspired to attend a “1984 remembrance event” at the local Gurdwara, particularly because there were more youth and young professionals there than I had seen in years. It said to me that our generation has spoken!
The time has come to bring the dialogue of human rights back to the Gurdwara…where it belongs. Rather than periodic events to mark specific occasions, I propose that every Gurdwara start its own human rights committee. Why not? Many Gurdwaras have social committees, cultural committees, and committees that have nothing to do with Sikhi - why not have a committee that is built on the very foundation of Sikhi? And let’s be clear, this would not just be a stage to highlight the case of Panjab, this committee would bring to light the cause of any and every community suffering human rights violations throughout out the world.

How would such a committee work? Rather than re-inventing the wheel, there are models out there that function well. One example is for the Gurdwara’s human rights committee to establish an Amnesty International local group. Monthly meetings could consist of urgent action letter writing campaigns, presentations on high priority cases, and attending local events. By registering your group with Amnesty International, you will receive all the materials you need for your meeting each month. The leg-work is essentially done for you and the cost is next to nothing...all you have to do is participate. You can even start your group on-line and get your activist toolkit today! There are also monthly urgent action appeals and activities designed for school-aged children, in case you want to reach out to the younger kids.

There are many Gurdwara boards out there who are begging the “youth” to get involved in the administration of the Gurdwara; perhaps this is the avenue to establish ourselves. Forming a human rights committee has several advantages - First and foremost is the benefit it will provide for prisoners of conscience and those we speak on behalf of. Secondly, it will provide an incentive for activist youth who’ve been turned away from the factional fighting and poor leadership over the years, to re-engage with the Gurdwara. And equally important, is the clear message it will send to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike - being a Sikh is being an activist - and it is our responsibility as Sikhs to protect the human rights for any individual or community suffering. I believe that if even one Gurdwara is able to successfully launch such a committee, others will quickly follow suit. The only question is...who will be first?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Discontinuous Journey

A few weeks back, an article called Outsourcing Prayers [scroll to the bottom], by Khushwant Singh caught my attention. It discussed how people pay big money to religious institutions abroad to carry out services and prayers on their behalf. This “outsourcing” of prayer helps out the “well-to-do” Americans and Europeans who do not have time for worship, while also benefiting cash-starved churches and the local economy of these remote areas. Several religions were mentioned in this article and Sikhs were not spared:

I sought explanation from the head granthi. He told me people from India and abroad sent money for akhand paths to be followed by Guru-ka-langar as thanksgiving or wish fulfillment. I could not comprehend how prayers recited by someone else could benefit a devotee who paid for them.
There has been much debate in our community on whether paying a professional to do an Akhand Paath on one’s behalf is contradictory to Gurmat. I also remember years ago when the SGPC was “selling” Akhand Paaths on-line. Luckily, outrage from Sikhs all over the world stopped that practice. However, this article got me thinking about Akhand Paaths, and the role it currently plays in our community.

I’ve seen various historical references to when and how Akhand Paaths began. Some say it began during Guru Gobind Singh’s time, where he had five of his Sikhs read the entire Guru Granth Sahib to him, then subsequently did so to mark significant occasions. Others say the continuous reading became prevalent while Sikhs were in the jungles and on the move. I’m not sure of the authenticity of either, but the practice itself was acknowledged by the Panth and defined in the Rehat Maryada.

There are many who debate that Akhand Paaths are simply an empty ritual and should be abolished. Most Akhand Paaths are done without anyone listening and have been minimized to a money-making transaction for Gurdwaras and Sikh institutions. While I understand and somewhat agree with this sentiment, I don’t know if I’m willing to throw out the idea altogether.
Personally, I have fond memories of Akhand Paaths at my home as a child. It seemed like the right way to mark a special occasion, and shouldn’t we be encouraging “Guru-centered” activities any way (even with our imperfections in the way we do them)? Isn’t this better than lavish parties?

Although there weren’t many listeners, I always loved going to our Guru Sahib da Kamra in the middle of the night to listen to Paath. And although I’ve only read for an Akhand Paath a few times, I enjoyed the opportunity to read Baani for an hour or two without interruption, even though my understanding was limited. It didn’t really matter to me that no one was listening.
At the same time, the Punjabi influence at our home did take over and Akhand Paaths became more about entertaining and feeding guests than the Paath itself. And as we got closer to our 48 hour deadline, my parents would nervously discuss bringing in the “professionals” to finish the Paath for us. I remember once being discouraged to participate in the later stage of the Paath, because we needed someone faster. The whole thing just didn’t seem right…

A few years ago, a handful of us (not really youth anymore) Sikh youths decided to do something different to mark one of our birthdays. Rather than our typical dinner outing, we decided to hold a Paath. Only difference was, it would be a Sehaj Paath (Sadharan Paath), or a complete but non-continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. It was structured similar to an Akhand Paath in that we did follow a schedule with assigned times, but it was over a 3 week period, mostly during nights and weekends to allow for maximum sangat. We even marked on the calendar when we would be reciting certain parts of the Guru Granth Sahib that may invoke larger discussion like Sidh Gosht, Babur Baani, Asa Ki Vaar, etc. We chose one house to do the Paath in, and all took turns making meals to share the work.

It was an amazing experience and we all seemed to take something different from it. Some of the novices used the Paath as a way to improve their reading and fluency and with Sangat around following along with pothis, there was time to correct readers on their pronunciation, and re-read lines. Some of the more experienced readers paused every so often to ask for a translation of a line or a Shabad, which would often lead to discussion, and sometimes debate.
As we all gathered for the conclusion of our Paath, it was unlike any other Paath da Bhog I have attended. It took on a different meaning for me. The happiness I felt had less to do with finishing on time…but more so because I had learned something.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel Akhand Paaths should be abolished or anyone should be discouraged from reading Baani, continuously or not - but, I do hope our generation does organize, participate in, and encourage more Sehaj Paaths. I believe this will be more educational and experiential for all involved. And following the “State of the Panth” through camps and several different blogs for some time…it seems like such individual and community reflection is needed now more than ever.

In Sikhi, we have powerful and beautiful traditions, I hope the inquisitive nature of our generation will force us to bring more meaning back to such traditions, rather than just empty ritual…which is what I believe, Guru Sahib had intended.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Common Ground

Years ago, I attended a Sikh retreat far from home - outside of the United States and outside of my “normal crowd.” It was interesting to experience Sikh life in a different country...and I think Bono had it right when he said, “We are one, but we’re not the same.”

The first morning we all woke up at Amrit Vela and joined in Nit-Nem and Shabad Keertan. Everybody was in to it and nobody seemed distracted. It was one of those powerful “Sangat” experiences where you lose yourself and become part of the whole. I loved it! I was so energized after that Deevan and was excited for all the weekend’s activities to come...then came breakfast. It was a little chaotic as we entered the dining hall. Although the meals were vegetarian (God help us if they weren’t), a group of Singhs were arguing with the aunties demanding to see the packaging for the bread. They were convinced that this particular brand of bread had an animal byproduct as an ingredient. I skipped the bread and quickly moved pass, but finding a place to sit became an ordeal in itself. Although there were at least 50 people at the retreat, less than half were eating in the dining hall. I looked around and saw a handful of Singhs back in the kitchen sitting together eating from Sarab Loh bowls, cups, and plates. Another group of Singhs were heading back to their dorms to eat the food they brought, as their maryada only permitted them to eat food prepared by other Amritdharis who followed their same maryada. As for me, I felt like the new kid walking in the cafeteria on the first day of school trying to figure out which group I could fit in to. What happened to that warm and fuzzy feeling I had sitting in the Deevan? Now this Sangat, who couldn’t share a meal together, felt cold and distant.

Turns out mealtime wasn’t the only time we found ourselves at odds. We spent much of the weekend arguing over how many Baanis one should read daily, or whether Raag Mala is Baani, or the authenticity of Dasam Granth, or whether Keertan should only be sung in Raag. We even debated over what colors should be prohibited for Sikhs to wear. Considering I grew up in a Sikh community that still argues over whether keeping “Kesh” is necessary, this was all quite a culture shock. The whole experience was difficult for me to swallow.

I thought to myself…with all the challenges we as a community face in the real world, it is disheartening to see how disjointed and fragile we really are. If we can’t agree on some of the most basic of Sikh principles and practices, how can we really progress as a community?

Mid-way though the retreat, I became frustrated. I mentally checked out and just waited for the whole thing to end.

However - on the last morning, one of my dorm-mates, who I spent much of the weekend arguing with, arose at Amrit Vela to wash his hair and begin his Nit-Nem. He must’ve done this every day, but on this particular morning, it woke me up. Although we both criticized each other’s maryada, I was impressed with his discipline and moved by the way he personally connected with the Guru in this way. And then it dawned on me,

“Who am I to judge or criticize, when he is up at Amrit Vela engrossed in Simran and I am lazily lying in bed.”

There is, after all, one thing we do have in common - and that is the love for our Guru. But our Sangat, experiences, and influence are different. Therefore, there are differences in the way we practice. The way we practice is tightly aligned with our belief, and belief is not something we take lightly. Most are unlikely to change. But does this mean we have to settle for Panthic disunity?

Perhaps.

But I ask, have we ever really been united as a Panth? Only a handful of historical events come to mind where Sikhs from various groups had set aside their differences and shared a common goal - Banda Singh Bahadur’s conquer of Sirhind, and the immediate days after the 1984 Darbar Sahib attack come to mind, but for much of our history, there has been such disparity - even during the Guru’s time. It did not seem to prevent the Gurus from accomplishing their mission, so why should it prevent us?

There are some groups of Sikhs I disagree with, but they do the most amazing Keertan that touches my soul. There are some groups of Sikhs I am critical of, but I envy their sense of discipline. There are some groups of Sikhs I don’t see eye to eye with, but their passion for activism and social justice is inspiring. There are some groups of Sikhs I question, but their preservation of our sacred martial arts and warrior tradition is remarkable. So it begs the question...is it possible for us as Sikhs to embrace our commonalities and dare I say, “learn” from each other’s influences, yet be mature enough to accept each other’s differences…and agree to disagree?

Rather than spending our energy challenging one another over maryada and being critical of each other’s practices...can we instead focus that energy on living up to our own maryada and bettering our self? I, for one, have long ways to go.

I guess I’m starting to see the glass half-full. At this year’s Nagar Keertan, I passed by several aunties and uncles complaining of how chaotic the event was and how disorganized we were. But what I saw were thousands of my brothers and sisters...in different clothes, speaking different languages, some from different cultures, and even with slightly different practices...all marching the same direction. And I can’t help but wonder...rather than fight over our differences, is it possible we can rise above...and celebrate the beauty in our diversity?

On The Shoulders Of Giants

Recently published on sikhchic.com

My father always kept a large collection of "Sikh" books at home, covering all aspects of Sikhi - history, Gurbani, and contemporary issues. I rarely delved in to these books, because the English was so hard to understand - often written by authors from the early 1900's or non-English speakers. But on a hot summer day, while on break - one book caught my eye.

It was a series of essays - easy to read, easy to understand…and most of all...captivating! I read the entire book in one sitting. I was able to relate to it so well, as it spoke about Sikh history's significance in today's society. One essay, titled "What Is A Head Worth" blew me away. Although I heard the story of Vaisakhi Day in 1699 dozens of times, this essay brought it to life for me, and I connected with it in a way I hadn't before. More importantly, the author made it relevant to today...and relevant to me. He explained that 300 years later, the Guru is still asking for our head. And we are being tested every day by our choices and actions the same way Guru Sahib tested his Sikhs on that day. The author concluded the essay with a question that shook me, and I immediately wrote it in my journal.
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?
I was so moved by this book, I did something I never did before...I wrote a letter to the author. This was long before email and commenting on blog posts...this was a hand-written note. I wanted to tell the author how much I loved the book and how much this essay meant to me as a young Sikh discovering my faith. To my surprise, a few weeks later...I received a call.

Sure enough, it was the author. He was appreciative of my note and we engaged in discussion. I couldn't believe a professor and published author would take the time to call me...a mere college freshman. I invited him to speak at a conference a few of us university students were organizing and he obliged. The conference was a disappointment, as it turned out most of the participants were more interested in partying than attending the workshops - very few actually attended his talk. But he gracefully understood and encouraged me not to get frustrated and continue organizing such events...so I did.

As years passed, the author and I lost touch, but we would run in to each other from time to time in various cities - at workshops, retreats, seminars. He was always a featured speaker and it didn’t matter what the topic or theme was - he was always an expert. And each time we would meet, he would mention the letter I sent him as a kid - and remind me that he still keeps it!

I have followed his writings over the years, through his books and his articles on sikhchic.com, and they still captivate me. Often times he titles them with something provocative, as though he may make some controversial declarative statement at the end - but he rarely does, sometimes to my frustration. He instead raises pertinent issues, analyzes both sides of the argument down to the intricate details - and then leaves the reader to make up their own mind. As I've gotten older, I've learned to appreciate this more. As I've seen in Sikh politics and Sikh leadership, we often rush to make declarative statements without the necessary discourse and debate. And we become more comfortable just following the "loudest talker" rather than thinking for ourselves.

Late last year, on a whim - I sent an essay of my own to the author for his feedback. I respect him as a writer and was hoping to develop my own writing. I had rarely shared my essays with anyone else before. He promptly replied with some feedback and encouragement. He also suggested I send my essay to sikhchic.com. With that encouragement, I've continued to write and share pieces - which has been a tremendously reflectively experience and one where I’ve discovered a lot about myself in the process. It's funny, that same person who patted me on the back and encouraged me then as a kid, is still doing the same 15 years later.

I thank Dr. IJ Singh (UncleJi) not only for his guidance and encouragement of me, but for his guidance and encouragement of so many Sikhs of my generation. Although he is a self-proclaimed "gray-beard", he has a knack for connecting with youth activists unlike any other, serving as a trusted mentor and advisor to several Sikh organizations. He has filled the gap as a "visionary" and "thinker" for our institutions, something we as a community often lack.

In one of UncleJi's previous columns, "From Seeds To Flowers”, he poignantly addressed the youth of today, stating, "Sometimes I like to tell them to keep in mind that if they can see farther and act more purposefully, it is because the young stand on the shoulders of giants."

True indeed! I wish UncleJi the best of health, the highest spirits...and most importantly...the strongest of shoulders!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sukhdeep Kaur Receives Zeff Fellowship


Rice University senior, Sukhdeep Kaur, has received the Roy and Hazel Zeff Memorial Fellowship - a $25,000 grant, which will allow her to study issues of human rights and access to justice in areas around the world. The news release states:

A political science and policy studies major with a focus on law and justice, Kaur has a longstanding interest in human rights and justice issues that stems from the violent history between the Indian government and Sikhs in Punjab.

For her fellowship, Kaur will travel to four countries — Chile, Rwanda, Israel and France — to work with minority populations on the issues of access to human rights and justice.

I recently interviewed Sukhdeep and we discussed how she first got involved with human rights. “I knew I wanted to work with law and justice but wasn’t really sure whether to focus on civil rights or human rights,” Kaur said. However, after taking a human rights course her sophomore year and her personal study of the violence toward Sikhs in India in 1984 and subsequent human rights violations, she decided to make this the focus of her field work.

Last summer, Sukhdeep traveled to India where she interned with Ensaaf - concentrating on documentation, consolidating data, and training local staff. She also volunteered at Aman Biradri, working with the Nirvair initiative - focusing on rights for widows of 1984. Finally, she collected data for her senior thesis, interviewing families across Punjab. In her thesis she argued that the Indian courts have been insufficient in distributing justice and how a grassroots movement is necessary. One thing that struck me about her experience in India was the apathy towards human rights from Punjabis themselves. “I was surprised that so few people living in Punjab knew about Jaswant S. Khalra, the issue of mass cremations, or the on-going court cases,” Kaur said.

In Sukhdeep’s three years at Rice University, she not only excelled in her academics, but also in several extra-curricular activities - participating in club volleyball, bike team, equestrian team, and the bhangra team. She is also well-known for her active participation as an instructor and counselor at Gurmat camps throughout the United States. After her fellowship next year, she hopes to begin law school with the ultimate goal of pursuing a career in public policy on human rights and justice issues. Furthermore, she hopes this fellowship will give her better insight to how other countries deal with human rights issues and what can be learned for the case of Sikhs in Punjab.

There are many things that inspire me about Sukhdeep Kaur, but more so than anything else, is her spirit. When asked about the obstacles and challenges she and others faced in India while doing research- lack of support by the government, interference by the police, and the tiring legal process, she said,

The process is meant to deter us. It is meant to deteriorate our hope and strength. But as Sikhs, we cannot give up. We cannot stop fighting.”

Congratulations Sukhdeep Kaur! Guru Ang Sang!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Are We Expecting Too Much?

History tells us that Guru Nanak Patshah created Dharmshalas in Kartarpur where Sikhs would rise early and meet for Keertan, Veechar, reflection, and Guru-ka-Langar. It was a central element to the ideal society that Kartarpur would become. Over a century ago, Sikhs first arrived in North America - working at lumber mills, railroads, and as migrant laborers. They settled their families and chose to establish Gurdwaras (as early as 1908 in West Vancouver, BC and 1912 in Stockton, CA) to preserve both their spiritual and cultural roots in the land far from their history.

Now with hundreds of thousands of Sikhs in North America and the needs of our communities growing, the Gurdwara has expanded the services it offers far beyond its humble beginnings. Many Gurdwaras have Khalsa schools and libraries. Others plan for fitness centers, basketball courts, and healthcare clinics. One of the local Gurdwaras here hosts an annual Panjabi cultural show and mela, with weekly Giddha and Bhangra practices held at the Gurdwara facility itself. The North American Gurdwara has become not only a spiritual center, but also a community center, serving all the needs of the Sikh and Panjabi population.

On the one hand, I like having a Gurdwara as the center for our community’s activity. Although not all people have an initial interest in Sikhi, all these other events and programs at least keep people coming. And even a short “ritualistic” trip to the Gurdwara could develop in to something more. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder…are we asking too much from our Gurdwaras?

With such different and competing interests, leaders fight for position so they can make their agenda the focus, and control Gurdwara resources accordingly. This drives much of the political drama and power struggles that surround our Gurdwaras today. As a result, many programs (such as Khalsa schools) end up mismanaged, poorly resourced, and inefficient. Secondly, with all the programs our Gurdwaras offer, I question - are we taking away from the primary purpose of the Gurdwara…learning Gurmat (the Guru’s way)? How well do our Gurdwaras focus on Simran and Veechar? How well do our Gurdwaras connect the youth with the Guru’s message? What about services for non-Panjabi speakers or introducing non-Sikhs to our faith? What about programs emphasizing Sikh culture - like Gatka or Gurmat Sangeet? Are our Gurdwaras really institutions for learning? If the answer is less than perfect, shouldn’t we re-prioritize and change the focus of our Gurdwaras?

Many Gurdwaras serve small communities in rural areas where limited resources force the Gurdwara to serve multiple purposes. However, in larger communities, where resources are plenty - should we consider separating out our organizations? Maybe create separate Punjabi societies, Khalsa schools, clinics, and even Sikh community centers that focuses on outreach, youth counseling, and seva projects? Perhaps under separate structures and management, these organizations will be able to thrive and meet their goals more efficiently with less resistance. And with our community’s growing needs, why not grow our presence with more diverse organizations?

Thoughts?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Faith and "I"

Good Morning.
I will be taking care of all your problems today.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of your day!
-God

This is what the sign on the wall read at the Salvation Army on the North side of Chicago. Prior to volunteering there, I only knew stereotypes of the homeless and hungry…just what you see on TV. But it didn’t take long for those stereotypes to break down. The people we served meals to were happy, smiling, polite and full of energy. What surprised me most, was their deep sense of spirituality. Not only did I find this in my conversation with folks, but even in their greeting. My standard, “Good morning, how are you?” was often replied with “Blessed” or “In His Grace”, many with bible in hand.

I used to wonder, how could people so hard on their luck, have so much faith? I have seen so many times with family and friends, after they’ve suffered difficult circumstances or loss, God and religion are the first things questioned, i.e. “How could God do this to me?”

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on “faith” lately, as I’ve noticed a growing pattern of Sikh Youth beginning to doubt their belief in God. In my conversations with some of these youth (many of whom come from wealthy backgrounds), I’ve tried backing off the subject of God altogether, and simply asking - “What do you believe in?” And it’s been pretty consistent. Most of their belief lies in achieving materialistic and financial goals - a high-paying job, big house, nice car, admiration and respect from the community etc. I would listen to this in awe, thinking to myself, that’s it? There is nothing else? Nothing deeper?

I’m not implying that poor people are more inclined to be spiritual or more likely to believe, while the wealthy are incapable of it - of course, all of us can think of examples to prove that theory wrong.

But in simplest terms - in order to believe in God, you must first believe that there is something bigger than yourself.

And therein lies the problem…

I wonder…is their doubt really based on any atheist philosophy or scientific theory, or it is just Haumai (I-am-ness). Is it our Haumai that convinces us that we know everything when we really don’t? Is it our Haumai that inhibits us from connecting with the Shabad? Is it our Haumai that prevents us from believing?
In page 346 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Bhagat Ravidas Ji says:

malin bhee math maadhhavaa thaeree gath lakhee n jaae
My intellect is polluted; I cannot understand Your state, O Lord.

karahu kirapaa bhram chookee mai sumath dhaehu samajhaae
Take pity on me, dispel my doubts, and teach me true wisdom.

I believe Waheguru is within everyone, believer and non-believer alike. But the force that connects us to that Waheguru within can be strong, weak, or non-existent depending on our Haumai. A friend once compared this to metal filings and a magnet. If you put a stack of papers in between the two and move the magnet, the filings will only move a bit - if at all. But as you remove the layers of paper, the filings will eventually move the direction of the magnet. And as the layers become less, the force between the magnet and filings become so strong…they will eventually be in sync. Similarly, we must remove the layers of Haumai to be connected with Him.

Thoughts…opinions? I’d love to hear.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Let The Truth Be Heard

Earlier this month, worldwide Human Rights organization Amnesty International released a news article on the plight of Sikh Massacre victims of 1984, still awaiting justice after 25 years. This came shortly after the Delhi Court delayed ruling on Jagdish Tytler, due to the CBI’s inability to produce enough evidence against him. Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, Amnesty International’s South Asia Researcher stated:

“The fact that almost 3,000 people can be murdered without anyone being brought to justice is offensive to any notion of justice and should be an embarrassment to the Indian government.”

"For the Indian government to dismiss these cases due to lack of evidence is farcical. The various agencies responsible for carrying out the investigations failed to carry out the most cursory of tasks – including recording eyewitness and survivor statements.”

As troubling as it is to read this, I was pleased to find that Amnesty International had covered it at all. As many of know, AI, as well as other independent human rights groups and initiatives were either banned or prevented from conducting research in India in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It seems as though there is hope for an independent investigation on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms and perhaps the subsequent disappearances during the counter-insurgency.

Not so fast…in an un-related story, the Tribune reported that Amnesty International has decided to shut down its India operations. The decision is said to have been triggered by continued denial to the Amnesty International Foundation of the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) registration by the Government of India. In a letter to the country offices Amnesty International said,

“The Government of India continues to deny the FCRA registration to the AI India Foundation and our local resources are very insufficient for our survival.”

You might ask - with a corrupt government, poor human rights record, rejection of independent investigations, rejection of the ICC, and an unbelievably strong lobby - what course of actions must Sikhs take for justice? I don’t know… But I do feel our generation has a unique opportunity to present our case to the world in a way the previous generation could not. The material is out there…AI Reports, HRW reports, Ensaaf reports, and personal accounts - but it’s upon us to either let this information lay on shelves collecting dust in law libraries…or to make it known to the world. Let this 25th anniversary of the Sikh Holocaust serve as a call to artists, musicians, film-makers, MCs, poets, writers, educators and story-tellers…the Panth needs you…let the truth be heard!