Sikhs Today ~ a new book by IJ Singh

Reviewed by: Ravinder Singh (Sikh Research Institute)

Sikhs Today: Ideas and Opinions is Dr. I.J. Singh’s fifth collection of essays, marking another milestone in Dr Singh’s personal quest into the “mystery and reality of Sikhism.”

Although a Sikh by default – that is, a Sikh by birth – Dr. Singh discovered the “possessive power” and “alluring beauty” of Sikhi late in life, embracing it with the enchantment that a child might feel in “discovering a new electronic game.”  Except that, unlike a toy or game, he recognizes that Sikhi is not a toy but a force that seizes ones life. A feeling that many of us can relate to!

Since 1994, beginning with Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias, he has tracked and shared his progress on the path of Sikhi by using writing as a navigational tool. Writing, he concedes, is a form of self-indulgence (I would call it ego), but he adds, it is also brutal self-examination that also holds the seeds of ecstasy.

As one who dabbles in writing about Sikhi, I wholeheartedly agree.  I must record my thanks to Dr Singh for having encouraged me to write. It has allowed me to indulge in what John Updike called the writer’s “confessional impulse.”

For those who have followed his progress on the path, the visible bias of an “ordinary Sikh,” evident in the first book, gave way to a sense of pilgrimage in second book, The Sikh Way: A Pilgrims Progress. In the subsequent Being andBecoming a Sikh and The World According to Sikhi, one discerns that the pilgrimage, like all personal odysseys, is never ending, never linear and never to a specific location.

The journey is the destination. Following his own recommendation in “The Journey and the Destination,” an essay written in an earlier work, Dr Singh re-visits the basic tenets and structural underpinnings of Sikhi in the light of contemporary issues and examines how they impinge upon our lives – as individuals and as a community.

In the 30 essays in Sikhs Today, not surprisingly, Dr. Singh returns to a theme that is at once familiar, modern and perennial: Sikhi. As he contrasts the Sikh landscape against our current realities for answers, we find ourselves returning to familiar terrain, only to see things anew and discern deeper shades of the Truth.

Like its predecessors, the book cuts a wide swath, examining the entire range of Sikh experience: from suggestions on how to profit from reading the Hukumnama in Hukumnama: Handle With Care, to the value of spiritual formation inherent in the daily Nit Nayam in Nit-Naym: The Daily Grind or The Way To a Sense of Self, to the moral abyss that stares us in the face in Sikhi: The Global Vision that Was.

As his engagement with Sikhi has deepened, one can discern that his Weltanschauung (or worldview) is more rooted in the framework of Sikh teachings and his concerns broader and societal. What started out as a personal quest (and remains so) with an emphasis on doctrinal matters and issues of identity has evolved into a wider concern for the community and its place on the world stage. Not surprising. A Sikh does not climb the inner mountain alone but anchored in Sangat. Community matters become important, if not paramount.

Starting with Vaisakhi Redux and concluding with Telling Truth to Power the book is a masterly survey of Sikh history, politics, culture and practice.

The Vaisakhi of 1699 is described (quite rightly) as a pivotal moment in our history being the first culmination of a process of nation building that Guru Nanak inaugurated with a revolution of the mind, a dramatic paradigm shift that replaced prevailing modes with a new way of looking at life, one that calls for an expanded consciousness guided by a sense of the sacred in all human activity.

Guru Nanak’s message of “hopeful faith tempered with reason, gender and caste equality” was institutionalized by his successors and sealed by Guru Gobind Singh in the institution of the Khalsa, giving Sikhs “democratic institutions of accountability, transparency and participatory self-governance.”

Here it would be especially pertinent to ask, “What sort of nation did the Guru envision?

Drawing from Gurbani, Dr. Singh suggests that the pact that binds Sikhs is no ordinary one and quite unlike the modern nation-state that is bound by ties of blood, or race and contained in a geographical or territorial boundary. While others may be bound by blood-ties, caste affiliations, or political power, Sikhs have a covenant with Waheguru that “pervades all.”

Sikhs, he concludes, are a nation without borders – a global community founded on the bedrock of institutions of Sangat, Langar and Pangat. A true manifestation of the notion of E Pluribus Unum!

InThe Global Vision that Was Dr. Singh contrasts the collective view of our Gurus with the “limited perspective” of our National and “wannabe International” leaders. Alas if only we could grasp the universal vision of our Gurus and recognize the constricting and myopic vision of our leadership today that tends to confine itself to the “self-limiting boundaries of Punjab.”

We only have to witness the goings-on in most of our Guruduaras to realize how Sikhs continue to keep “close to their hearts their timeless feudal roots.” Witness our dependence on Guruduara leaders and Akal Takht Jathedars to be our “intermediaries, arbiters and interpreters of Sikhi.”

Little wonder, then, that the cultural beliefs and habits of the Punjab (or India, for that matter) continue to inform and color much of our understanding of Sikhi.

A Gordian Knot to Cut offers a way out: the intractable problem (Gordian knot) of our feudal roots and limited vision can be cut with the sword of knowledge– gyan kharag.

Butgyan or knowledge requires the cultivation of certain habits of the mind, chief among them a love of learning and introspective reflection that is not possible without reading, books and the sangat (company) of stimulating minds.

Unfortunately, the habit of reading is not much in evidence amongst Sikhs. Our reading habits, or lack thereof combined with our cavalier attitude towards books draws Dr Singh’s lament in On Books and Bookshops. He contrasts J. Levine Co., the world’s oldest Judaica store in Manhattan, with its “marbled floors, polished and glass cases with blue neon trim,” with the dark and dingy basement of the Guruduara Bangla Sahib, which passes off as the bookshop of one our most prominent Guruduaras.  And that is just the facilities.

I could not concur more: reading is absolutely critical; more so in our TV dominated image culture. Reading develops concentration, imagination, thinking, the ability to “play with ideas” and above all, the capacity for dealing with the nuances of meaning and use of language – in short, it makes for a rich inner life.

All of these qualities are essential if a Sikh is to understand and absorb the meaning of the universal and timeless ideas expressed by the Gurus in poetry and bound by the written word!

On Thinkers, Writers and Public Intellectuals makes a case for the other plank in transcending our constricted views: the need for public intellectuals, those who “in addition to distinction in their own field, show an ability to stitch together widely divergent ideas.”  To be sure, Sikhs have had their share of public intellectuals: Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh, Kapur Singh, Harinder Singh Mehboob, Sant Singh Maskeen and Jaswant Singh Neki are cited as examples.

To this list of public intellectuals I would add Dr. I.J. Singh himself.

In the West, this is a role that Sikh scholars, especially those who adorn endowed chairs in the West, should play in shaping and directing the “dialogue and debate within the Sikh community.”

Alas, most (not all) have failed to step outside their ivory towers and make the transition.

An exception that comes to my mind is Harpreet Singh, currently at Harvard who, apart from being an academic of distinction, is a social entrepreneur and community activist (being a co-founder of the Sikh Coalition).

Outside of academia, Harinder Singh and Inderpreet Singh of the Sikh Research Institute are outstanding examples of public intellectuals in the making.

Even the most optimistic view of Sikh reality today would be hard pressed to deny that our institutions are in a shambles; that we lack moral leadership and a structure to address issues of global concern. Three successive essays, Of Laws & Conventions: Sikh Turban and Unshorn Hair, The Tenth Amendment: A Sikh View and Enforcing the Social Compact (Contract)explore these themes.

Dr Singh surveys Sikh history and to the internal governance of the community and calls for a federated structure of governance, an internal judicial system and limiting the intrusive (dictatorial) tendencies of our corrupted institutions.

The Sikh Rehat Maryada, like the constitution of a nation, “must be revisited in a never ending process,” but he warns, “Changes in settled law are not easily or lightly made.” Holding the Tenth Amendment as an example of limiting the power of the federal government, Dr. Singh suggests that a federated structure for the Sikhs would be successful only if “we the people” realize that it is time to get our “smallest institutions in place and in functioning order, and that means a return to the Guru’s notion of a limited government

Fissures and Fractures draws on Eugene Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning work Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, to suggest that like the Blacks, Sikhs no longer exist “as an entity of common values,” that the Sikh world appears to be headed towards a three way splintering – Amritdhari vs. non-amritdhari vs. non-keshadhari.  This split, he argues, is accentuated by economic vs. urban vs. rural divide – a drift brought about by the emergence of an urbanized, educated class of English-speaking Sikhs, the Transcendent Elite. Will these groups eventually evolve separate Guruduaras, he asks?

Lest I paint too gloomy a picture, not all is lost. Two essays titled, “Young and Wired: Up from the Grassroots, and“Taking the Measure of Sikh presence in North America,” are celebrations of Sikh presence and achievement in the West, particularly North America. The author singles out the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, SALDEF and the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI) as outstanding examples of how dedicated and committed young Sikhs have created valuable institutions.

If we take the dictum that Sikhi is a do-it-yourself religion seriously (as we should) then the onus is squarely on the individual Sikh to continually explore and re-examine the basic tenets of the faith in the language and the context of the times in which we live. We would recognize, also, that there is simply no mandate for an ordained clergy.

Unfortunately, Sikhs, for the most part, have taken the easy way out. In “ When Outsourcing Just Doesn’t Work” Dr Singh laments the prevalent practice of paying for Akhand Paths where an entire reading is sponsored for a fee – much like paying for “indulgences,” a practice that Martin Luther revolted against (hence Protestantism).

Guru Nanak freed us from the suffocating monopoly of the Brahmin and implored us to connect to the divinity within by being self-reliant; instead, we have taken a broad jump into the arms of a new breed of Brahmins: Gurdwara Granthis and so-called Sikh theologians. Life, we are reminded, “is one business where outsourcing just doesn’t work.”

Telling Truth to Power (the title of the last essay) is an obligation for every Sikh.  It is a heady concoction, Dr Singh warns us, and requires “clear-eyed courage,” that can only come with “Sehaj.” This is what Guru Nanak did when he spoke out against the Mogul Emperor Babar. This is what Guru Gobind Singh did when he delivered the Zafarnama to Aurangzeb. And this is the cue for every Sikh.

These essays are not to be read with a view to getting final answers or prescriptions and possession of the Truth. This book – like Dr Singh’s previous ones – is a kind of spiritual or philosophical sing-along for those who are also engaged in their own spiritual quest and are ready to ask uncomfortable questions and explore uncharted territory.

Questing is to question and questions are the measure of a man. As you ask, so you become. It is not important that we find final answers; what is important that we keep the questions alive. The value of Dr Singh’s writings is precisely that he keeps the questions alive for us to ponder.

The book’s primary audience is the Sikh Diaspora and that limits its usefulness and influence.  Perhaps that was by design.


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