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.