Monday, 29 February 2016

Anglo-Sikh Relations: Setting the Record Straight

-         Colonial wrongs, restitution & closure

Due to centuries of Anglo-Sikh relations, the Sikhs and the British people share part of their history as well as their future in the UK. An accurate record of Anglo-Sikh heritage, which also acknowledges colonial mistakes, can strengthen the future of Anglo-Sikh relations. 

There are episodes in Anglo-Sikh history which continue to hurt the Sikhs.

Giani Sohan Singh Seetal’s Panjabi book, “Sikh Raj kivayn gyia(How the Sikh Kingdom was lost) made a deep impression on the psyche of a whole Sikh generation in the 20th Century. Combining prose and poetry, Sohan Singh Seetal, better known as a charismatic  kaveeshar/dhadi (singer of poetic compositions about events in the Sikh tradition.), would recite this tragic story of colonial treachery and Dogra betrayal of trust, after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839;  of how the Khalsa Raj was lost to the British colonial power in 1849.

The legality of British invasion and annexation of Punjab remains in doubt to this day.  

Of all colonial people under British rule, some of the wrongs inflicted on the Sikhs remain unique in Britain’s tainted colonial past, because the British rulers saw the defiant Sikhs as both, powerful allies as well as formidable foes. They had experienced the Sikh prowess in the battlefield during the two Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1849.  These were freedom loving people empowered by the egalitarian ideology of Guru Nanak-Gobind Singh.  Subjugating the Sikhs was the biggest colonial challenge the British rulers had ever faced with any people and they used all sorts of devious and cruel tactics to do that. Yet, the British did admire and reward Sikh invincibility in the battlefield.

One study of such colonial cruelty is the tragic story of Maharaja Duleep Singh and the injustices he suffered throughout his life and even after his death on 22 October 1893!  The last Maharaja of Lahore, the son of the Lion of Punjab, Mahaja Ranjit Singh, lies buried “according to Christian rites, under the supervision of the India Office in Elveden Church beside the grave of his wife Maharani Bamba, and his son Prince Edward Albert Duleep Singh.” (Wikipedia) 

Yet, it was known to the British that the Maharaja had converted back to Sikhism at Aden in 1886. The religious and symbolic  insult felt by the Sikh community is a running sore. 

Only admission by the British establishment of such injustices, so that the record is set straight with some form of restitution would bring about closure to the hurt felt by the collective Sikh psyche. In this respect, the unveiling of Maharaja Duleep Singh’s statue by Prince Charles on Butten Island in Thetford on 29 July, 1999 was a welcome gesture. A Sikh cremation of the Maharaja’s mortal remains would be the next step to assuage Sikh pain.

A Sikh World War 1 memorial at a prominent location in Central London to remember the great Sikh sacrifices for the freedom of humankind in the World Wars is an issue also raised in The Sikh Manifesto,

 There are ongoing efforts to identify and catalogue Sikh heritage items, including those linked with Guru Gobind Singh. Many known items are still missing and need to be traced with the support of British museums and authorities. 

These are some of the steps for restitution and closure of the wrongs suffered by the Sikhs during the colonial period.

Gurmukh Singh 
(Principal UK Civil Servant ret’d)

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
Please acknowledge quotations from this article. 
Articles may be published with acknowledgement.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Common Faith in Our Future

(Note: The following article is based on the author's presentation as the Sikh participant in the Interfaith Panel on environmental ethics at Windsor Castle on Tuesday 14 November, 2006.)

I welcome this opportunity to give the Sikh view in answering the question before us: How can we support each other in the work that we must do with reference to the Earth Charter. The ecological changes due to pollution and overuse of earth's resources are causing much concern. They may not be reversible and threaten life in many parts of the world.  

“Our common future” to which the Earth Charter refers, is only possible with common faith in our future. That means that world faiths need to establish a common understanding based on shared values. Science and technology gives us knowledge of the physical world around us; only faith can change our habits and attitudes. The Charter refers to this conversion as “a change of mind and heart”.

Humanity can be converted to a more caring life-style, if the ecological message coming from Governments and agencies, and the message from religious teachers and preachers to religious congregations, is the same.

(Point 1): Let us accept that religion has an important role to play in cultivating a more caring attitude towards our environment.

I shall now turn briefly to Sikh teachings. Sikhism has a powerful message for humankind regarding ecological issues. 

We are taught by the Sikh holy Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, that: The Creator Being created the air and the environment, which created water and brought life on earth. Nights, days, seasons, wind, water, fire and nether worlds, therein he created limitless diverse species with interdependent modes of life. In the midst of these He established the earth as His temple.  The stability of the earth in the universe and the survival of life on earth depend on the practice of dharam.

In Sikhism, dharam is also the word for faith or religion. Dharam places a duty on all to ensure that diversity is preserved and interdependence of creation is maintained; that the dependence of one on another – and that includes human relationships - is not betrayed. That our neighbours’ rights are respected. Dharam also teaches us to understand God’s law, Hukam or Rzaa.

The Earth is the sacred place where we practise dharam to achieve the ultimate purpose of this life, which is nearness to the Creator Being. We must not desecrate this temple of God. Regrettably, due to self-centred materialism, dharam is something the New Age humankind seems to be moving away from.

(Point 2): Relates to the first point above. There is greater need to practise dharam today; call it religion if you like, and not less.

The Earth Charter provides us with a common framework. It covers a wide range of interrelated topics and not just bionomics and environmental issues. It appears to be a collation of the values shared by all religions. It can be interpreted to accord with the core values of the world religions. There is a need to interpret ancient religious texts (idiom and allegory) in terms of 21st-century issues.

(Point 3): Religious texts should be continually  researched and their idiom and allegory interpreted so that every religion has an ecological message.

(Point 4 is a question for discussion): Can we make the Earth Charter the meeting point of world religions?

Religious teachers and preachers need to place greater stress on human values shared by all religions. Let them actively seek converts to those values.
Sikhism opposes aggressive evangelism in the name of religion because that causes friction between religions.

(Point 5): In order to promote interfaith harmony and common approach to the global challenges, religions need to respect different paths to the same common human goals.

Human equality is taken for granted in today’s society. However, equality of women is a very important aspect of Sikh teachings. The Sikh Gurus appointed women preachers in their own time. Also, equality of and respect for women, may have a direct bearing on population control. I leave that as a thought for further discussion.

Religion teaches us to live simple lives. Regardless of one’s economic position, all have the same right to earth’s resources and to be fed; and the same duty to serve creation without distinction and in humility. Wealth itself does not give any individual, group or country, a superior right to earth’s resources. Affordability alone does not give us the right to use up more than our fair share of scarce resources.

(Point 6): Religion can give guidance to humankind. There is a need for global understanding, that no individual, group or nation has the God given right to use up more than their fair share of earth’s resources.

We also need to examine Western institutions and the main economic drivers more critically in relation to the Earth Charter and religious teaching.

Democracy, by its very nature, concentrates on winning elections. That often means pursuance of short term policies and projects, regardless of the environmental consequences in the longer term.

Economic models and financial institutions take little account of ecological and environmental factors. The stress is on consumerism, larger markets for increased production of luxury goods and services with little regard for the damage being done to the environment and global resources.

(Point 7): Religion needs to make up for some of the shortcomings of our current political, administrative and economic systems. Alternatively, or in parallel, the political and economic systems need to continue evolving to secure the future of the earth.

Sikhism welcomes scientific research and developments which benefit life on earth.  However, it is also the Sikh belief  that God has no equal, nor can God’s creation be emulated. It is human arrogance which leads us to believe that we can emulate what nature has produced over millions of years; that we can restore nature’s fine balance for sustaining life while we continue to use up natural resources at an ever accelerating pace.  

(Point 8): All religions should continue to caution science and technology about new discoveries in various fields and their applications.  The results may be unpredictable, damaging and may not be reversible.

According to Sikh teachings, human beings are at the head of all species. That position makes every human being responsible for looking after the environment which sustains life on earth. In His diverse creation resides the Creator Being, watching over all with joy and satisfaction. 

To serve creation is to serve the Creator.

Gurmukh Singh 
(Principal UK Civil Servant ret’d)

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
Please acknowledge quotations from this article. 
Articles may be published with acknowledgement.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Khalsa: It’s relevance and responsibility in today’s world

(Note: Article commissioned for Akash Newspaper Vaisakhi Magazine 2016.)

Guru Nanak Sahib (1469-1539) meditated on the human condition and the future of humankind. According to Bhai Gurdas[i], the Guru saw a “burning world”. Like the authors of the Earth Charter, five centuries later, Guru Nanak also saw the need for “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” (Earth Charter[ii])

He revealed his vision and mission for the New Age. His mission, as it unfolded over the next two centuries guided by the same Guru Jyot (Guiding Light) in 10 Guru-persons to 1708, laid the foundation for the Order of the Khalsa, the Khalsa Panth.

There were three stages of Guru Nanak’s mission: firstly to contemplate on the qualities of the Creator Being; secondly to interpret these qualities to reveal a God-centred being, the Khalsa[iii]; and thirdly, to show the temporal-spiritual (miri-piri) path of social activism for the Khalsa to follow.

Guru Nanak meditated on the qualities of the Creator Being and described them as: The ONE, all-pervasive  Creator of all universes, with eternal virtues, who does not fear or favor any one/thing, is not against any one, is the embodiment of timeless-ness and deathless-ness, does not take physical life form/does not incarnate, is self-existent; may be known with the guru’s grace/guidance.[iv]

Khalsa is a manifestation of certain God qualities through God-centred beings. The Khalsa is revealed when the illusion between the Creator Being, His creation and His true devotee is removed. The Guru and His Sikh as the Khalsa, become one and the same. Serving God and His creation becomes the pre-condition for reaching God’s holy presence[v].

Thus, like the sculptor who reveals the beautifully proportioned statue from a solid block by chipping away the bits which conceal it, the Khalsa was finally revealed (pragteo Khalsa) by Guru Nanak in His tenth human form as Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) on the Vaisakhi Day in 1699. (The day is celebrated on 14 April each year.). The Sikh Sangat (congregation) of Guru Nanak, had reached institutional maturity.

Guru Nanak set out to create a benign regime of love, humility and justice, the halemi raj, in which no one inflicted pain on another.  The path shown was that of  Khalsa Panth[vi]. The sacrifice demanded for treading the path of God-love and truthful conduct was to accept death while living: complete surrender of ego-centric self [vii].

As a corollary to fearless and truthful behaviour expected of the Khalsa, the Guru prescribed a disciplining and distinct identity for the Sikhs, as well as principles and a code of conduct as constants in a changing world, to provide spiritual stability.

The Khalsa keeps unshorn hair (kesh) symbolising a saintly disposition and completeness of the human body and soul (hair to be covered by a dastar - Sikh turban); wooden comb (kangha) to keep the hair tidy; a steel bangle (kara) representing the God quality of infinity and symbolising discipline and allegiance to the Guru; a sword (kirpan) reminding a Sikh of his duty to  defend the weak, human dignity and honour; and a pair of shorts (Kaccha)  to cover human nakedness, to allow agile movement and symbolising chastity.

The Khalsa provides for all, promotes equality and sharing, sees the human race as one, defends the human rights of all, and defends diversity in a spirit of global unity[viii].  Thus the responsibility of the Khalsa as the  “Army of the Timeless Being” (Khalsa Akal Purakh ki Fauj) was clearly and laid down by the Guru. The Khalsa is taught that: “The Creator Being created the air and the environment, which created water and brought life on earth. Nights, days, seasons, wind, water, fire and nether worlds, therein he created limitless diverse species with interdependent modes of life. In the midst of these He established the earth as His temple. The Earth is the sacred place where we practise righteous conduct (dharma) to achieve the ultimate purpose of this life, which is nearness to the Creator Being. We must not desecrate this temple of God." (Quote from the author’s interfaith presentation at Windsor Castle, “Common faith in our future” on 14 November, 2006.)

The same concepts have a peculiarly modern ring when we read the UN Charter, The Earth Charter and international human rights treaties and instruments.

The Khalsa responsibility to face today’s challenges faced by humankind derives from the egalitarian Khalsa tradition of sharing and serving enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib and evolved over many centuries.

Gurmukh Singh 
(Principal UK Civil Servant ret’d)

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
Please acknowledge quotations from this article. 
Articles may be published with acknowledgement.

[i] Bhai Gurdas (1551 – 1636) Highly respected scholar and first scribe of Guru Granth Sahib.
[iii] Khalsa: Literally, the word means either “King’s own land”, or “pure”. In the Sikh tradition the word means Sikhs (singular or plural usage) directly linked to the Enlightener, the Guru.  Thus, the first part of the Sikh salutation Waheguru ji ka Khalsa  means “Khalsa of the Wondrous Enlightener”. From the earliest Hukamnamas (orders) of the Guru’s, it is clear that the word was used mostly in the proprietary sense; while purity of thought and deed,  truthful and fearless conduct and constant God focus, are the main qualities of the Khalsa. Khalsa is a being with direct bond of love with the Creator Being and needs no mediator.  That is also the sense in which Bhagat Kabir first used the word in Gurbani in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
[iv] Edited from
[v] Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ang 26 (Vich duniya sev….)
[vi] Panth stands for order or sect, as well as for a path followed by adherents of a specific ideology.
[vii] Guru Granth Sahib Ang 1412 (Jao tao prem….)
[viii] Khalsa “Degh Tegh Fateh” maxim refers.