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Interfaith Building A Sikh Paradigm For Interfaith Work: Part 2

Discussion in 'Interfaith Dialogues' started by Admin Singh, Apr 29, 2016.

  1. Admin Singh

    Admin Singh
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    Admin SPNer

    Jun 1, 2004
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    My earlier post on Sikhs, entitled “How Sikhs Made Me Who I Am”, was unplanned. I originally attempted to write on how the early days of Sikhism can produce a paradigm for interfaith work, but the result was what came. This is part 2.

    I am a lover of religious history. This has arisen in me only during my graduate studies, but I have become an adamant supporter of the study of religious history in attempting to understand anything that happens today, religious or not. So in the wake of the August 5th shooting at a Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin, I am reminded of the historical foundations of the Sikh faith.

    As I wrote earlier, I am less concerned with talking about turbans and beards, or explaining that Sikhs love peace and justice. Yes, those characteristics are in all faiths, but as we think about Sikhism after this tragedy, I prefer to think about how Sikhs can contribute to, and renew a paradigm for, thinking about interfaith work. At the same time, we should also rethink our Abrahamic commitments, and move towards dialogue that is more inclusive.

    Context is an essential discussion when talking about nearly every topic in religion. When faced with criticisms about Islam, one of the first considerations is “what about the context?” If the context is unknown, as far as I’m concerned, you see only a sliver of the picture. This is a fundamental necessity in approaching, reading, and interpreting scripture. Any scripture.

    Analyzing the Qur’an outside of the context in which it was revealed is often just talk; indeed, in the case of the Qur’an, even the context of the day and moment it was revealed proves relevant. Outside of that, we must also understand the context we live in. We read, analyze, and at times struggle with, scripture through those lenses as well.

    So what about Sikhism? Though the blogoshpere has been full of commentary on the shooting and talking about Sikh beliefs, discussion on the context from which the faith arose is far less substantial. I am no scholar of Sikh history, but as a lover of South Asia and religious history, there are a few points I feel should be made.

    Sikhism arose in Punjab in modern day North West India. Punjab, as it remains today, was a frontier region, where borders were drawn and rulers changed often. Today, the region of Punjab is partly in India, and partly in Pakistan. Punjab does not equal Sikh, but most Sikhs are Punjabi, and the scriptural language of Sikhism is, you guessed it, Punjabi.

    As any region that sits on a border, inter-cultural and inter-religious encounters are commonplace. People mix and get to know one another, they intermarry and make friendships, but with diversity often comes conflict. Punjab witnessed the onslaught of the Mongols in the 14th century, and Sikhism’s early days saw both an Afghan dynasty and the Mughal emperor, Babur. It is estimated that the population was about half Muslim and half Hindu when Sikhism entered the scene of religious history.

    Guru Nanak (d. 1539) was the founder of Sikhism, and the first of ten living Gurus. The biography of Guru Nanak is not unlike other spiritual leaders and prophets, who carry a message of commitment to truth and a criticism of the spiritual state of society. Guru Nanak aimed to bring people out of their empty ritualistic practice of religion and the Kali Yuga (age of vice), and enliven it with a new spirituality. His story has remnants of that of the Prophet Muhammad, bringing truth in opposition to the jahiliyya (age of ignorance), and that of the Buddha, preferring meditation and seclusion in the wilderness.

    But what about the context? I note that he lived in a society nearly half Muslim, half Hindu. He was both a lover of Hinduism and Islam, but also a sharp critic of the decadence and lack of spirituality that these religions had taken on. One of the beauties of Sikhism, and indeed a feature relevant for interfaith work, is that it holds a clear idea of “the religious other,” something I find in common with my own Islamic faith. Just as the Qur’an speaks of Jews, Christians, Sabians, and others, the sayings of Guru Nanak and passages of the Guru Granth Sahib speak of, and to, Muslims and Hindus. From these passages, it is clear that the society was well acquainted with the religious other, probably much more so than we are with our “religious others” today.

    Sikh scripture encourages Hindus and Muslims to be the best that they can be. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib says, “It is difficult to be called a Muslim; if one is truly a Muslim, then he may be called one. First, let him savor the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let his pride of his possessions be scraped away. Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, let him put aside the delusion of death and life. As he submits to God’s Will, and surrenders to the Creator, he is rid of selfishness and conceit. And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim.” (SGGS, p141)

    No, this is not a sermon of a Sufi sheikh, this is the scripture of Sikhism.

    Early Sikhism promoted unity of believers, not merely newly converted Sikhs. They were unified under a banner of monotheism and sincere devotion to the divine. In a way, Sikhism aims to transcend formal religion in pursuit of ultimate truth/reality, a goal that can be argued for most religions. As a Muslim, the ultimate reality and centrality of la ilaha il Allah (there is no god but God) is akin to the ek Onkar (one supreme reality) of Sikhism, yet the transcendence of this reality still has yet to penetrate the hearts of most believers.

    How then can there be a Sikh paradigm for interfaith work? Firstly, a broader commitment in interfaith work must be embraced. Indeed, post 9/11 the Judeo-Christian bond has morphed into an Abrahamic one. This progression is important, and in the wake of this shooting we should look for new vocabulary to include more people of faith into this fold of friendship, dialogue, and partnership. It is important to recognize that Sikhism is a shining example of a religion founded on principles of pluralism. It entered history in a location of religious diversity and tension. Inter-religious violence was not uncommon, and Sikhism arose partly in response to that. My hope is that the tragic events of August 5th will encourage more to stand up for the ideals that Guru Nanak stood for. May we all put our faith commitments to good use and stand up for something worth while.

    Building a Sikh Paradigm for Interfaith Work: Part 2
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