Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sikh Intelligentsia

The sleeping Kumbhkaran of the Sikhs

In Hindu mythology (the mainstay of Hinduism), the giant Kumbhkaran was the brother of the demon king Ravana. Like most giants, Kumbhkaran slept most of the time and it took the clamour of hundreds of drums, trumpeting of wild elephants etc. to rouse him from his slumber.

In the twentieth century, the Sikh intelligentsia collectively, has turned out to be the Kumbhkaran of the Sikhs, so far as Sikh religio-social adavancement as a disinct global community is concerned. In the field of academic and professional achievements, the Sikh community is one of the most progressive in the world. Indeed, in some countries like Australia, the general public assumption is that a reasonably well dressed Sikh (i.e. one who carries the Sikh identity) is either a doctor, engineer or some other well qualified professional.

Except for the very remote villages of Punjab - and there are not many of these left - it is unusual to come across a totally illiterate Sikh man or woman below the age of fifty. Sikhism does not appeal to blind faith but encourages research of Gurbani (Guru’s Word) for spiritual harmony and full participation in worldly activities. Such full participation is only possible through proper education and knowledge of world affairs. Freed from superstition and encouraged by the Sikh doctrine that creation is real (Aap saach, kia sabh saach i.e. He is True and so is His creation.), it is in the Sikh psyche to be participative and materially progressive. Dependence on others (e.g. you will rarely see a Sikh beggar) and illiteracy therefore do not sit comfortably with Sikh teachings. An opt out life style is rejected.

Unfortunately, the materialist aspect takes over if the spiritual aspect of the Guru’s teaching is ignored: that indulgence in worldly materialism alone forgetting the true purpose of this life is false and so is the pride that goes with material attainment. It is in that sense, when the transitional nature of this life is ignored and one forgets death, that this existence is compared to a "mountain of smoke" ("Eh jagg dhooay(n) ka pahaar"). It is in that sense that creation is false if life is wasted in falsehood and the life objective of oneness with The One is not achieved when the opportunity is here in this life, here and now.

Sikhism is more concerned with here and now than with hereafter. However, hereafter is frightening if here and now is ignored!
A high proportion of the Sikhs world-wide are well educated and doing well. Yet, the Sikh community remains disorganised and has not been able to secure the political and social representation it deserves. Educated and professional Sikhs bear a large part of the blame for this state of affairs. It is true that material success leads one away from participation in community matters which require devotion and sacrifice. Material success also leads one away from religion and matters spiritual, unless some personal misfortune, tragedy or revelation inspires one to question the purpose of life. However, while prosperity is an important contributory factor, it is not the main reason for Sikh intelligentsia’s apathy when it comes to participation in community matters.

Sardar Kapur Singh, in his Saachi Saakhi, which is a chronicle of political events leading to the partition of India and the misfortunes of the Sikhs in post-independence India, has shown clearly how educated Sikhs have allowed themselves to be marginalised.

Guru Gobind Singh alerted the Sikhs to the dangers of Brahmanical influence in no uncertain terms. However, Brahmanical proximity and continuous assault on Sikh doctrines through self-styled saants (saints) has ensured that Sikh leadership remained in the hands of those jathedars who support Vedic rituals in Sikh institutions and who support Brahmanical political take-over of India. Soon after the start of the reformist Singh Sabha Movement (formally established in 1873), Sikh intelligentsia were defeated by the Amritsar based retrogressive religious leadership more comfortable with Vedic ideology for selfish reasons. It is that leadership and ideology which, like a giant octopus, has our Takhts and Gurdwaras in its tentacles today. Indeed, Sikh universities, under the same influence, are adopting Vedic language and idiom for explaining Sikh teachings and history. This is one of the underlying reasons for the current ideological divide which has appeared between the Sikhs of Punjab and those living abroad in recent years.

Akali Jathedars, with few and outstanding exceptions, have been selfish and short-sighted individuals. They have certainly lacked the attributes, the courage and sacrifice of the Sikh Jathedars of the eighteenth century who established the Khalsa kingdom of Punjab in northern India in which Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were equal partners. Leadership in the Sikh community has become a vocation and on the death of a leader, his position is openly offered to his heirs! It is not surprising that educated and professional Sikhs have been sidelined over the years.

But the first generation Sikh professionals and academics, concerned for their children, are hitting back. While the Gurdwaras remain mostly in the hands of businessmen or others attracted by Gurdwara funds, a large number of Sikh educational, cultural, service (sewa) and socio-political organisations have been formed world-wide. However, this trend is more in the nature of a highly segmented reaction to what is going on in the traditional Sikh institutions like Gurdwaras, than any co-ordinated effort to give a clear direction to the Sikh movement as a whole. Regrettably, some who have the education, the skills and lead positions have not encouraged professional level teamworking by bringing complementary talents together. Rather, they too, like the jathedars of Saachi Saakhi (S. Kapur Singh), have felt threatened by newcomers. They seem to have no exit strategy to hand over to the next generation.

So the question is if the Sikh Kumbhkaran, the Sikh intelligentsia, is finally beginning to wake up after one hundred years.

Educated Sikhs have been opting out of community affairs for far too long. By default, they have lost control of Sikh institutions and are themselves no longer in touch with their own heritage. Many are beginning to realise that their material achievements come to naught when, due to lack of any code of conduct or common family or community values, their children desert them completely. Indeed, many next generation young men and women, who are no longer under the same economic pressures as their elders, are beginning to reach back for their roots for spiritual continuity and security. A survey by the UK Policy Studies Institute showed that most young Sikhs, while not very clear about their own history and identity, nevertheless, would like to pass on Sikh values to their children.

The revived interest of the Sikh intelligentsia, manifesting itself in diverse and extrovert community activities, is an encouraging sign of a healthy and vibrant community. We need a common direction for our progressive and successful community on the basis of the underlying manstream Guru Granth - Guru Panth Sikh doctrine, and a sense of historical perspective and foresight.

Is another Sikh renaissance nigh? I would like to believe so.


© Copyright Gurmukh Singh
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Gurmukh Singh (UK)

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