No, this is not to pose afresh the proverbial question: Who is the fairest of them all?

As a Sikh I have more than one question in mind: Who are we? What are we? Why we are the way we are? If you find these easy pickings, then I suggest more: Where are we? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we hope to get there?

I am not smart enough to mine the complexities of each, nor foolish enough to try to roll them all into one short essay. They demand a lifetime of exploration. So, today we titillate our genes of curiosity. Let’s map the territory of each by bold brush strokes, and probe a little history for my biases. What better way to start off a new year?

While growing up in India, this bug about the self never bit me quite so hard. It claimed a bigger bite when I came here because there were barely a handful of recognizable Sikhs in New York. And I spent years where Sikhs and others from India were even fewer.

I got invitations aplenty to local churches. They were hoping that I would convert to their cause, so they shrewdly asked me to explain my belief. I hardly ever turned down an invitation, but with a knot in the pit of my stomach because I knew little or nothing about what I professed to be – a Sikh. 

Now almost six decades later it’s time to inventory this life; hence the many questions that seem simple, but are not so simply understood or explained.

How we became what we are?

First some sound bites about modern Sikhi: One of the youngest religions of mankind, it is the fifth or sixth largest faith tradition of mankind, ranking behind Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Its position vis a vis Judaism is open to debate. Arising in Punjab, in the Indian subcontinent, a little over 500 years ago, its final form dates from1699, over 300 years ago. Over 3 million Sikhs live outside India, close to a million are in North America. Around 20-23 million remain in India, less than 2 percent of India’s population of a billion plus.

Briefly, much as cultured Europeans look at the rough and ready North Americans as loud, boisterous, larger than life, since they lack intimacy with Europe’s cultural and historical grandeur; also, much as East Coast Yanks may see Texans as even a grade larger than life, louder and more boisterous; similarly, the cultured Indian mind steeped in India’s gloried past looks at the average Punjabi, and the non-Sikh Punjabi speaks of the Punjabi Sikh as several shades grander and larger than life. Just visit a Bollywood movie to experience my cartoonish projection.

Sikhi is a tradition that is unique, universal, timeless, a thinking person’s belief system, and symbolically most powerfully expressed through its five symbols — articles of faith. Each of these items deserve an essay if not a book, perhaps another time.

Its roots lie in India’s hoary culture and mythological past (both of which find a place in the Sikh narrative) yet there is a clear divide between the Sikh context and larger Indian realities.

How did these stark differences materialize? How did Punjabis and Sikhs evolve so differently from the rest of India, even though, they largely share the same DNA. The answer lies in the socio-cultural and geopolitical realities of the Indian subcontinent when Sikhi arose in the fifteenth century and beyond.

Until the Europeans (mostly British) reached India in large enough numbers by sea to colonize it, for much of recorded history, the easiest inlet into India was the Khyber Pass that connects Afghanistan with Pakistan. This is the likely route for mass migrations from Asia Minor and the Caucasoid mountains into the fertile plains of Punjab. Greeks under Alexander the Great, traders and soldiers of fortune took the same path into Punjab to stay, perish or pillage and return. These petty warlords prevailed because the Indian chieftains rarely mounted a credible united defense; too many sold out or were easily corrupted. Western Punjab now forms much of Pakistan, while Eastern Punjab is the contiguous border state of India.

Undeniably, Punjab, along with the Balkans, has been the busiest laboratory of genetic hybridization in human history. Hybridization undoubtedly produces greater vigor and vitality.

When Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, trod this Earth, Muslims, though a minority, were politically dominant. Islam was turning rabidly fanatical, forcing conversions to Islam, even at gunpoint. Hindus, the majority community, were sharply divided where low castes were little better than slaves. Hindu widows committed self-immolation (suttee), and female infanticide was common.

What do a people need? Economic hope, relief from recurrent invasions, freedom of thought and belief, economic and social justice, accountability, and participatory self-governance. A revolutionary shift in thinking was necessary, but it would span more than one generation. Sikhi, a product of that time, was the means towards these ends.

By the early 1800’s Sikhs were progressing well towards these goals. Ranjit Singh, a Sikh, reigned wisely for almost half a century.

The fall of his empire coincided with the meteoric rise of British power. Hindus and Muslims would not forge a united front with Sikhs, a people who had a clearly defined egalitarian perspective, free from Hindu and Islamic constraints. Fortune favored the British.

Having battled with them over Punjab, the British valued the martial spirit and character of Sikhs who they recognized as a notably pragmatic, practical people. A mutually useful bond developed. Whereas Hindu and Muslim religious authorities had been aggressively dismissive of Sikh practices, Sikhs were encouraged to join the British army and the British were respectful of Sikh lifestyle.

Sikhs from the villages of Punjab rushed to fill the police and British army ranks. The two World Wars burnished their reputation brilliantly. They earned the trappings of Westernization without compromising the Sikh message or practices. 

Events have consequences – The downside.

 With economic hope tied to the British, the emphasis on language and culture changed. It turned more profitable to enroll Sikh children in English speaking schools; that defined the path to professional and worldly success. What happened to Punjabi? It got diminished even though it was the mother tongue of most Sikhs. Degraded with time, it became the language for a good laugh and social banter, not the language of commerce, technology, or any serious exchange, so one rarely picked up a book on history, poetry or philosophy in Punjabi.

The other side of the coin is no better. We learned to use English effectively in our professions and at our jobs, but in English as well, we do not easily pick up a book on history, poetry or philosophy. 

Our relationship with both Punjabi and English became largely transactional. This largely closed the door to a life of the enlightened mind — which remains a goal of the Guru Granth Sahib. 

In pre-British days, the granthi (the officiant at the Gurdwara) was the most world-wise, educated person in the village. As the British consolidated their reign, he rapidly lost his place in the community. With increasing Anglicization of Sikhs, their gurdwaras emptied. Visit any Gurdwara these days. Most people show up for parshaad and langar. The kathaa often fails to connect. Keertan is tolerated because music grabs the soul without impediment, but the hold is transient. I repeat, history has shaped Sikhs as superbly pragmatic. 

Some historical factoids.

During the 18th century, immediately following the Guru period, a popular ditty in Punjabi was “Khaada peeta laahay da; baaki Ahmed Shaahay da.” Roughly, it says that whatever we consume or enjoy is ours, the rest belongs to Ahmed Shah Durrani (aka Abdali). Ahmed Shah invaded Punjab nine times between 1747 and 1767. Every time, his hoards plundered the country and returned to Afghanistan with tons of treasures and hundreds of women slaves. Indians were powerless until Sikhs mobilized action brigades to harass and degrade him. The doggerel mimics the desperation of India then. It also points to the determined optimism of Sikhs, who surely lived in the present, in fact in the moment. Today, 300 years later, it still produces triumphant smiles. The corresponding expression today might be: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Guru Amardas, the Third Founder-Master of Sikhi, established the tradition for Sikhs from across the country to visit the Guru twice a year. At these national conventions, Sikhs jointly resolved issues facing the community. But in 1805, the ruler of greater Punjab, Ranjit Singh, suspended these instruments of self-governance – the conventions of Sarbat Khalsa. Why? Perhaps he was uncomfortable with a possible competing center of power within his domain. When the British entered Punjab, perhaps for similar reason, they continued the ban on the Sarbat Khalsa. Only in 1925, after a titanic struggle that shook the British Empire to its core, Sikhs won the right to convene the Sarbat Khalsa and manage their own Gurdwaras. But then realities were different; we were a British colony. India became an independent, nominally secular nation in 1947-50, but the Indian government, through its parliamentary processes continues to control Sikh institutions. Ergo, a mostly non-Sikh body regulates Sikh religious institutions and their people. Note that no other government in the world dictates a people’s religious practices through non-believers of their faith.

This systemic structural weakness continues to undermine Sikh participatory self-governance. By acquiescing to such political ploys, have we willingly diminished our history, vision, and purpose? We need to undo the existing practice and redevelop a model of self-governance.

From my early teens, a recurring refrain in Punjab was the alarmist alert that “Panth is in danger.” It was always a call to action. Passions ran high for months, followed by a brief respite, and then came another call to action because “Panth was still in danger.” More than a slogan it became a lifestyle. In retrospect, a never-ending reality show a là Donald Trump and his campaigning style?

Intolerant Islam was the danger to Sikh identity in the 15th to early 18th centuries. In the twentieth century, it is resurgent Hinduism flexing its somewhat atrophied muscles. Sikhs still raise the periodic clarion call of danger ahead. Hindutva is the mantra of the day. Now India’s elite promote Bollywood as the gateway to India’s timeless culture rooted in Hindu lore.

The minority status of Sikhs is not likely to change, either in India or elsewhere. Some non-Sikh neighbors will always find the Sikh lifestyle provocative. And we are a pragmatic people as minorities from troublesome lands naturally become.

Sikhi asks that we remain thoughtful and bold on the great globe that is the theater; our survival depends on it. Sikhi promises an integrated life of interiority and exteriority. The connection of the two, the internal and the external manifestations, ideologically inseparable, seems to be fraying, contrary to the Meeri-Peeri doctrine. I need not dwell further on the centrality of this doctrine particularly in Sikhi, given the Five Kakkars and their significance. The externals of Sikhi must be matched by a corresponding interiority, or else we are in a schizoid existence.

Our enemies, minimally, want us to not be such a flaunting presence on the global stage. They want us to tone down our presence, dilute and opacify our message to appear less challenging. Our neighbors want us to act like a regional religion, not an international presence. We are so few.

Looking ahead

Thinking thus, many Sikhs flirt with one of two traps. A faction wants to limit Sikhi to Punjabis only; they want no Sikhs that are racially different, like Black, White, or Yellow and none that speak a lingo other than Punjabi, especially in Gurdwaras. They want none that eat any food other than Punjabi or sway to anything else but pure Bhangra. Another faction wants to banish any Punjabi connection; integration is good but their goal seems total assimilation — an unrecognizable entity. 

In both cases, the elemental pull of the Sikh message no longer remains the defining criterion. To me, both alternatives are undesirable and speak of frantically running away from the seminal idea of a sense of self.

Circling the wagons is a defensive posture. It is neither a panacea, nor a way to the good life. I understand the fear that tempts a minority to isolate and fence itself, but it is not the solution. Sikhs are a minority and will always be so, anywhere and everywhere. What we need is, not so much a hermetically sealed wall around us, but tentacles that interlink us with those outside our ambit. How can we forget the words of Guru Gobind Singh: Manas ki jaat sabhae ekae pehchaanbo (Recognize all of mankind as One) which clearly emphasize an inclusive community?

Fences are important to minorities, much as they are to a baby in a cradle. Fences save lives. But they must not become walls, lest the cradle becomes a prison. Self-created cocoons are suicidal traps.

Critical for each of us is an inner journey, to understand why we are the way we are. To become comfortable in our own skins. When we accept ourselves, others will, too.

What have we become? How have we evolved? Despairing of where we are, many Sikhs blame the British for our ills. I say this is scapegoating. Let’s not blame others for our own cultural myopia. To paraphrase Susan Faludi: “Is identity what we create or what we can’t escape?”

The mirror on the wall prods us towards the process and power of self-awareness.

Insane is he who knows not himself. When he truly understands the self, he knows the Creator “So baura jo aap na pechhanae, aap paehchhanae ta eko jaanae” Guru Granth p. 855).


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