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For Sikhi to Flourish, Sardarnis Must Lead, Not Lag

Discussion in 'Sikh Youth' started by kds1980, Jun 16, 2009.

  1. kds1980

    kds1980 India
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    Apr 4, 2005
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    For Sikhi to Flourish,
    Sardarnis Must Lead, Not Lag

    by I.J. SINGH

    A friend of mine recently got into some hot water. In fact, it was a bit hotter than hot.

    A discussion had broken out on the Internet on how to interpret some coda in the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct).

    The Code speaks of the need of long, unshorn hair. The discussion started with the question on "Can Sikh women tweeze their eyebrows?" This is something that many Sikh women do.

    My friend opined that the Sikh injunction applies equally to men and women, and if they are Amritdhari, then they must follow the code.

    Someone responded that hers was a knee-jerk response typical of Amritdharis who think they are superior to non-Amritdhari Sikhs. Another person demanded that she produce the exact words and lines of Guru Gobind Singh when he enjoined women to follow such a code. In short, my friend's position was branded unfashionable, unrealistic and obviously behind the times, if not exactly primitive.

    The taunting, hectoring tone that coloured the responses was meant to dominate the listener. It was framed to score points, not to shed light.

    Hence this exercise today.

    Is it true that the Rehat Maryada applies only to men? Well! I can point to a professor or two of Sikh Studies who think so. And I know a number of Sikh men and women who would agree with them.

    A cursory perusal of the Rehat Maryada seems to reinforce this idea. It seems to leave women pretty well out of the discussion, with one glaring exception. It asks - demands - that a Sikh father must marry his daughter to a Sikh man.

    Then why is it that this reasoning doesn't sit well and comfortably with me?

    Why do I resist the idea that the Sikh Rehat Maryada is directed at males only, and women don't seem to have a place in it?

    Let us first digress a moment.

    When in 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote in The American Declaration Of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," did he really mean to leave out the women?

    I know there are legal scholars who view the Constitution as it was written centuries ago and are guided by the intent of the Founding Fathers when they framed the laws. They do not comfortably entertain the possibility of the Constitution as a dynamic document that may evolve a broader view and application than intended at the beginning.

    Yet no one today would interpret the laws so narrowly as to deny women their rights. (I say this with full knowledge of the fact that women won the right to vote in the U.S. only in 1920.)

    The matter of equal rights for women and Blacks seems to have been largely settled in theory, if not entirely in practice quite yet. Surely, the efforts of gays and many other minorities will likely take considerably more time. The point is that struggling to define the meaning of the laws continues, in order to capture the spirit of what was penned ages ago.

    This tells me that the language of laws written centuries ago has to be interpreted, while keeping in mind the culture and context of the times. It serves no purpose - in fact it ill-serves society - when such words are interpreted literally and divorced from the context of society and the times.

    I have illustrated my position with a single issue that has been historically well documented but astute readers can, I am certain, provide many more telling examples.

    Now let's return to the Sikh Rehat Maryada.

    True that it was not drafted centuries ago, but only in the mid-twentieth century. But do not lose sight of the society and culture that produced the document.

    For example, look at the line that asks Sikh fathers to marry their daughters only to Sikhs. My first reaction was that here is a male chauvinistic society at work and a religion in which women have no role, no authority, no voice and no particular duty - no stake, no ownership.

    Is that really so?

    Look at the traditional Indian (including Punjabi) society, irrespective of religion. The model that I describe here is now in retreat and decline, but the majority of Indians still follow this pattern:

    Most traditional Punjabi families are still agrarian, or were so until no more than two generations ago. They remain largely rooted to land. For farmers, land-holdings are paramount.

    If children marry and move about to put down roots miles away, family landholdings would inevitably be divided with each succeeding generation. Progressively smaller holdings would result in a downward economic spiral.

    So what is one to do?

    A joint family system evolved in which intergenerational families stayed together and pooled their resources and talents. At marriage, the bride received a dowry from her parents that would be akin to her inheritance and then renounced all future claims to her ancestral property. The groom brought his bride back to his family home. Now this became the home she belonged to. The groom's family gained a daughter; the bride's family lost one.

    Not unoften, the bride was renamed by the groom's parents. If her husband died, she would often be remarried to one of his brothers. This would keep the landholdings undivided.

    This also meant that the bride followed the customs and ways of the new family she had joined. If they were good Sikhs, she practiced a good Sikh way of life. If they adopted and followed other ways, so did she.

    So if the code of conduct demands that a girl be married to a Sikh, she would automatically raise a Sikh family. Such a provision is not in the Rehat Maryada for a boy because if a boy is a practicing Sikh, whoever he marries will come into the Sikh fold automatically.

    So you see, if the context of existing social mores, culture and time is kept in mind, the wording in the Rehat Maryada is really fairly consistent and not necessarily sexist.

    Times have changed. It would, of course, be far, far better if the text is now rephrased so that modern readers can easily understand.

    Clearly, this also implies that the Code would be retranslated and reinterpreted anew for each new generation.

    Also, in such an agrarian society, sons were more valued, since they made more useful farmers and hunters. Now times have changed. The doctrinal Sikh emphasis always was that girls, too, be valued, but economic constraints and cultural idiosyncrasies did not always permit it.

    Today, there should be no reason not to practice equality in education and opportunities, as well as in rights and duties.

    If we leave women, and that means all mothers, out of the loop of religious teachings and requirements, that indeed would be a disaster. I cannot think of a more effective or pernicious way to consign Sikhi to slow but sure decimation.

    There is also little doubt that the Keshadhari Sikh tradition shows a clear unbroken continuity of over 300 years, from the time of Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. It was clearly not invented by the Singh Sabha, though the latter did play a pivotal role in clarifying it.

    Thus it seems to me pointless to demand that one produce the line and page of the words uttered by Guru Gobind Singh in support of the articles of faith that Sikhs wear.

    Contemporaneous records support that the tradition was codified in 1699. But keep in mind the words of T.S. Eliot that "history has many cunning passages and contrived corridors, and deceives us by vanities."

    Remember, too, that Indian culture has not always valued or maintained written historical records. The oral tradition is all that we can point to, and it is often corrupted by additions, deletions, omissions and inaccuracies.

    (Even then, I point out that the authenticity of Sikh teaching is perhaps the best documented of the major religions; I doubt that a direct challenge of this sort could be satisfactory answered by most.)

    I notice, however, that in spite of these caveats, the tradition of unshorn hair is not seriously questioned. What is often questioned by many is whether we should continue to follow such a tradition today, three centuries later. Or, if this tradition means every hair on the body, no matter where it is, or does it point only to hair on the head for both sexes and also to those on the face for males.

    Can other hair in aberrant places be removed or not?

    I don't think a serious discussion on the matter exists.

    I am not at all offended, in fact I am delighted, that the discussion is taking place on the Internet and elsewhere in public, for that's where it belongs.

    And who should be discussing such matters?

    Of course, the Sikhs!

    What baffles me is that a legal case on whether Sikh women may tweeze their eyebrows or not - a question that started the wheels turning in my head - found its way into the Indian judicial system. Can you imagine debating and parsing the definition of a Jew by the judiciary of a secular country?

    But we have inherited this distorted system from the time when the premier Sikh body (S.G.P.C.) took birth under law and the aegis of the British government in 1925. When India became independent in 1947, it inherited this legal framework which subordinated a religion (Sikhi) to the country's legislature and judiciary.

    And now many Sikhs want an All India Gurdwaras Act, which would only compound the folly.

    We Sikhs have not yet evolved our own elaborate ecclesiastical judiciary that can help resolve such internal matters. It is something that we need to do.

    This tells us that at this time, we have neither the will nor the means to resolve our own disputes and need a monkey in the middle.

    To me, such questions will continue to arise. Answers, too, will evolve; they will be satisfactory to some and not to others.

    Whatever answer one chooses to accept, it certainly does not make one less or more civilized, and never unctuously, self-assertively right. The purpose of discussion should be to shed light and to enlighten both sides, not to engage in thunderbolts of putdowns.

    I remind my readers that a large number of us have, in past years, faced many, many derogatory comments about the long hair and beards that Sikh men wear. If some people challenge our Sikh practice and find it unattractive, that does not render our practice unacceptable or undesirable.

    We need not bow to ignorance or even to different taste. Similar reasoning applies to women who decide not to shape their eyebrows. This does not make anyone primitive - except perhaps the ones who demean the others by such accusations.

    The conversation should continue. Expect not immediate enlightenment on either side. That would be disappointing.
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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    kds ji

    From the article "Someone responded that hers was a knee-jerk response typical of Amritdharis who think they are superior to non-Amritdhari Sikhs. Another person demanded that she produce the exact words and lines of Guru Gobind Singh when he enjoined women to follow such a code. In short, my friend's position was branded unfashionable, unrealistic and obviously behind the times, if not exactly primitive."

    Two reactions. I hope the "hectoring" was not happening here on SPN. And...would this woman please join/post at SPN, if she has not already, because we need more Kaurs here to share their views.

    Thanks for another good read from I. J. Singh :happy:
  4. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
    Mentor Writer SPNer Contributor

    Jul 4, 2004
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    AAD JI,
    ITS NOT SPN....although it shares the "S" in its name...

    IT is well known CSS Forum...where Clean Shaven Sikhs post Gurbani one liners ( the type that we banned at SPN as MISUSING GURBANI through slective one liner quoting)) to support the view that SGGS doesnt support/recommend KESH...or any of the other 5 kakaars...BUT Special treatment is RESERVED for KESH and KIRPAN..obviously !!
    Run by css mods....to each his own...
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  5. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh United States
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    Jun 30, 2004
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    Following is my comment on Sikhchic.com regardging I.J. Singh's essay:

    One more thought provoking essay by Inder ji. But for the Sardarnis to lead, we, the Sardars should be opening the doors for them to enter or to exit and show their potetial to the world. The British realized the asset of the handsome Sikh men when they made them welcome all the guests outside posh hotels around the world; now we, as Sikh men, should use the same asset for the Sardarnis in our society. Female infaniticide is not the fault of the Sardarnis but of our macho/patriarchal way of thinking. Once we embrace and raise our daughters in an equal manner as we raise our sons, then only can we pave the way for our Sardarnis to lead. Without these kinds of efforts, it will just remain hot air as it has been for a long time. Good intentions are only good when followed by actions, and these actions are needed to be taken by us men.

    Tejwant Singh
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  6. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
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    Jul 4, 2004
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    Its not idly said..The HAND that rocks the cradle rules the world...
    Sikhis greatness and resilience in the trying and desperate times of 1708-1808..was a shining example by our women...we REMEMBER THEM in our Daily Ardass..Jinnah ne aapnne bachian de toteh toteh karwa ke gallan wich haar pvaveh...sawa saw mann atta pees ke, chappa roti te gujara kaita..sikhi keshan swaasan nal nibhayee...those Singhannes who were tortured in prisons, made to grind 100KG of atta daily on a subsistence of quarter piece roti, had their infants slaughtered before their eyes and had their cut pieces worn aroundd their necks as blooddy garlandns..THESE were the HANDS that Rocked SIKHIS CRADLE !!and we flourished...
    Its time our sardarnees came FORWARD...and march shoulder to shoulder like Mai Bhagos..
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