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.