HERE & NOW by I.J. Singh: I had recently posted an essay on heaven, hell and related issues; my goal was to focus attention on how, according to Sikhi, life is or should be lived. This column today, like part of a serial, continues the exploration. Most religions expend volumes and pages on arcane and abstruse ideas about life hereafter – what happens after we die. Often there appears to be“other worldliness” to religious thinking. “Where we come from (God?), and where we will go (to God?)” dominates the conversation and frames the dialogue. Mostly what we are asked or required to do in life is for one purpose and one purpose alone – how to earn a place in the choice company of the chosen few, whose sins have been washed away and who now enjoy everlasting bliss after death. In other words, our past has brought us to an opportunity to serve the righteous path; our present life then becomes a sacrifice to the pursuit of a fanciful, but decidedly unearthly or extraterrestrial existence. I recommend that readers explore Mark Twain’s unforgettably delightful number on this whole idea of unearthly eternal bliss in his “Letters From The Earth” for an alternative view. No matter what the religious label, it seems to me without an iota of doubt, that such is the language in which most religious teaching appears to be cast and interpreted. Ergo, we continue to prattle endlessly about things that we do not see and barely feel or even imagine. And we end up diminishing the lives we live everyday. The emphasis shifts then from the reality of here and now to a wishful fantasy of what might be. But the only life we know is here. And on any life hereafter the only influence we have on it is by how we live today. So really there is no escaping the here and now Semitic religions have very complex models of life after death where access to the hereafter is precisely and rigidly regulated. Islam promises us an elaborate system of heaven and many levels of hell. For a fantastically rich literary commentary on the complexity of Christian hell I refer readers to Dante’s Inferno. If Christianity posits a life eternal next to Jesus in God’s court, Hinduism presents us an infinitely nuanced system of eventual justice that is exquisitely calibrated to the sins and virtues of one’s life. Fundamental to this is a dictum in which one’s soul repeatedly takes birth into a higher or lower species of life until it is liberated from this cycle. Hinduism also presents an infinitely detailed model of existence after death – even specifying how long in real time it takes a soul that exits the body at death to reach wherever its destination is. The many models that dot the religious landscape are often not available to those who are not recognized members of that particular belief system. This then is no different from any elitist club with its exclusionary policies, hefty initiation process and fees. Sikhism took birth and flourished in India, in a milieu that was Islamic in political dominance and Hindu in the majoritarian view. It is no surprise then that interpretation of Sikh teaching is, and continues to be, couched in the language of the culture and the context of the times. In interpretation context is all important and, in matters religious, this means the lexicon and lifestyle of a people when particular ideas took shape and became part of the cultural idiom. Hindu practices have evolved a complex system with Brahmin intermediaries to ease our way through the convoluted maze that defines life. The emphasis and goal of life then become propitiating the many gods and goddesses who can do us harm or forgive us, depending on how loyally we carry out the commands handed to us by the Brahmin priests. When one reads Sikh scriptures (Guru Granth) one is left with the unmistakable impression that Sikhs, too, accept the Hindu idea of cycle of birth and death with justice appropriately rendered at every stage, at every toss of the coin. In fact we seem to accept the entire Hindu model, except the obsession with propitiating angry gods and roping in cooperative ones. The centrality of the Brahmin or any priestly intermediary is firmly rejected, but sometimes his practices are not. And then the Granthi in Sikhism gets to usurp the place of the Brahmin. I think this is a misinterpretation of the language of Guru Granth that reflects the cultural realities and context of the 15th to 18th centuries. I have dealt with the issue of the cycle of birth and rebirth, incarnation, reincarnation and transmigration elsewhere, and will not elaborate here. In brief, yes we are very much a part of the biological life cycle in which, after death, we can either become a feeding frenzy for all kinds of worms, or we can end up pushing up roses. In any event, eventually dust we are and to dust we return. But to be looking for one’s ancestors in roaches, toads, birds or lions is not the intent of Sikhi. What Sikhi does is to exhort us to connect to the divine spark that is within each of us and nurture the universal connectivity that unites us all. The prime method advocated seems to be simrun or remembrance of God always in our lives. I can cite you oodles of verses from the Sikh scriptural writings (Guru Granth) in support of the thesis that the only purpose to life is to meditate or connect with God, all else being vanity and waste – absolutely futile. I merely quote one, leaving to my readers to fill volumes with the ones that I have left out. (“avar kaaj teray kitay naa kaam, mil sadh sangat bhaj keval naam” Guru Granth, page 12) If I translate matters literally, Guru Granth even exhorts us to meditate, no matter what else we are engaged in – at work, or at play, awake or sleep. (“Utthdyaa behdiyaa sutyaa sadaa sadaa har naam dhiyaaye Guru Granth, page 594). I wonder what that means. How is it possible to meditate when asleep? Is this even doable? Is this not an absurdity and an affront to common sense? I even know of a group of prosperous Sikh women who get up every morning before daybreak at four, get on a conference call, spend the next hour reciting only one word “Vahiguru” until five and then promptly return to sleep – smugly satisfied they have renewed their connection with a watching angel, if not God himself. The founder-Gurus lived during colorful times. They married and had families to sustain; they founded and steered Sikh communities. They traveled around the known world to propagate their message; they even raised armed militias and waged war when it was thrust upon them. They led a full worldly life. Not once did any Guru ever suggest that a follower walk away from his means of livelihood a la Buddha, turn his back to his or her responsibilities in life, renounce the world and instead start meditating full-time 24/7 – awake or asleep. No Guru ever told a productively employed Sikh to quit his or her job because working for a living would be a waste of time in the eyes of God. Remember that Sikhi speaks of a tripod of its fundamental teachings: an honest living, sharing rewards of life with others and doing both with a mind centered on the Universal Reality. To focus on one and neglect the other two makes for a wobbly unstable tripod. So, now I reread the message of Sikhi and the teachings of our Gurus somewhat differently. I think in a literal rendering of the scriptural writing (Gurbani) we often miss the meaning of the message entirely. Often the context determines the meaning of the same word very differently. We have to approach and reread the Guru Granth from a different mindset to reconcile the many apparently contradictory meanings of language. A paradigm shift is necessary. The command in Guru Granth to meditate” asks me to center the mind. This is crucial to a meaningful life and the dedicated pursuit of any goal or activity, even if it is manufacturing widgets. A centered, focused mind that is not so easily scattered by the multitude of temptations around it and that can experience the universal connectivity that binds us all is the goal here. We have all experienced that sometimes, engrossed in the trivia that often occupy us, the mind merges so seamlessly with whatever it is we are into that even the most mundane pursuit becomes sublime and effortless – pure pleasure. How then to move towards this mindset is the purpose of the daily worship that Sikhi recommends and mandates – the nitnaym. This daily connection to the eternal within is not a bargaining chip for a life in the hereafter. It is not to guarantee a place in heaven but to help make this life sublime. A meditative existence is then defined by a state of mind that steers one through life, with minimal hassle and with the least frustration, even through the provocation that is daily shoveled on our plates in spades. In that mindful state, then, one’s goals are hardly ever out of range or reach (“sayee vast prapat hoyee jis sio layaa hait” Guru Granth, page 74). And then, one learns to distinguish between one’s wants and one’s needs. This distinction between wants and needs is critical to a life at peace within and without. Then one can live a meaningful, productive life -- the meaning of “vich duniyaa saiv kamaayye ta dargaeh baisen paaiyae (Guru Granth, page 26). In interpreting gurbani thus, I feel comfortable shifting the emphasis from the literal -- otherworldly existence that is heard in gurdwaras-- to our lives in the present particularly when I encounter the myriad messages in Guru Granth that speak of justice in the here and now and a meaningful purpose-driven life aimed at a cause bigger than the self. The worldly pursuit and a godly life are not to be sundered or we will be left to a schizoid existence. The two are to be blended and enmeshed in a full life, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That is why Sikhism speaks of a life of meeri and peeri such that the external and internal realities are effortlessly merged. That’s how I interpret this fundamental concept underlying a Sikh life. One need not die physically in order to be liberated. This state of mind – salvation/liberation – is to be earned and enjoyed in the here and now. From the plethora of citations from Guru Granth that support this view; I offer you one – “Live your life in the shadow of God and you will be liberated while alive” (“Prabh kee aagya aatam hitavae, jeevan mukt souoo kahaavae” – Guru Granth, page 275). That’s why we Sikhs call it “Jeevan-mukt.” That’s why we value it. What matters are the goals that we live for and the principles for which we are willing to die with dignity. Let me come at my concern somewhat tangentially. I make my living by teaching at a university. Nearing exam times, students – particularly those who habitually depend on pulling an all-nighter instead of working at the material in a systemic continuous effort -- often get obsessed with exactly what will be on the exam. My usual response is to suggest that if they keep up with the work on a day to day basis, the exam will be just another day in their life. But if their time and energy are expended in pointless worry about the exam then they will likely not do so well, because they would have lost the future (exam) by not putting the present (here and now) to effective use. In the final analysis every religion tells its followers to make a life, not just how to make a living. Every religion, therefore, is designed to be a way of life. A way of life needs to be lived; it is not a spectator sport. The promises and rewards of any religion have then to be earned in our mortal existence on earth. How then can religions push maudlin oversimplified otherworldliness? How can they direct us to neglect the here and now on this earth and instead sidetrack us with pointless pablum and drivel about the hereafter? I submit that, in fact, they don’t. We just haven’t read them correctly or attentively – not enough to get past the metaphors and allegories. We just need to handle the “here and now” in our lives productively and truthfully; the hereafter then, whatever it is, will be no less. And it will take care of itself. . A way of life is for the here and now. One cannot live in this world as if one is not in it.