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Modern Sikhi - What it truely Means

Discussion in 'Spiritual Articles' started by wizesikh, Feb 25, 2008.

  1. wizesikh

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    Nov 9, 2007
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    A Sikh Au Courante

    By: I.J. Singh Wed Jan 09

    We all want to be modern. There is nothing quite so
    distressing as to be told that one is behind the times
    or is clueless about the world in which he or she
    operates. It is worse than being poor, fat or ugly.
    But what is it to be modern? What does being modern
    mean? Let me illustrate my concerns by two little

    Not so long ago, a young Sikh technocrat and I were
    passing the time of day over a cup of coffee. He is a
    bright MBA and a good man but not a recognizable Sikh.
    All of a sudden he blurted out: "We Sikhs have a very
    practical and logical religion with an incomparably
    attractive and modern worldview but our external
    appearance is not consistent with that modern
    framework." He was pointing to the turban and bearded
    visage of the observing Sikh male.

    Another incident is from a few years ago when I was
    single. Some kind friends tried to set me up with a
    Sikh lady in a different town and gave me her
    telephone number. She was a bright, young,
    professionally educated Sikh - a psychiatrist.

    We talked a few times on the telephone. Here, we both
    thought, might be some possibilities. Naturally, we
    wanted to meet face to face to see what kind of
    chemistry might result. We hadn't yet met and didn't
    know what the other looked like. One day, we were on
    the phone chatting about the logistics of meeting,
    when she abruptly inquired: "Are you a modern Sikh?"

    I knew what she was about but decided to play it for
    what it was worth. To me, the antithesis of being
    modern is to be primitive. So, my response turned out
    to be somewhat tactless but not entirely pointless. I
    countered that I never ever left the house without
    clothes, could coherently converse on a variety of
    subjects including religion, politics and sex, and
    knew which fork to use with which plate at dinner;
    therefore, I was not exactly primitive. She thought my
    response was aggressively, if not offensively,
    unresponsive; she had wanted to know if I was
    keshadhari, long-haired Sikh or not. I thought a crew
    cut would not necessarily endow me with the so-called
    characteristics of modernity, anymore than long hair
    would automatically transform me either into a sage or
    a savage. Needless to say we never met.

    I must confess that in both encounters - with the lady
    psychiatrist and the MBA - initially I was somewhat
    taken aback but, upon reflection, realized that
    perhaps this is how most of the world thinks of us. I
    see that many Sikhs also seem to reason similarly;
    that says something for our sense of self and the
    self-imposed psychological burden that many Sikhs seem
    to carry. The question, of course, is less how others
    view us, even though that is extremely important but,
    more significantly, how comfortable we are with
    whatever we have chosen to be.

    My cohorts in both encounters insisted that Sikh
    philosophy and precepts were modern. (Did they really
    know enough of Sikh tradition to so assert or were
    they only mouthing the words? I merely raise the
    question here.) Nevertheless, if I accepted their
    protestations then the unassailable definition of
    modernity for a Sikh would be to understand and live
    by the very modern tenets and postulates of Sikhism.
    And would that not, I wondered, include the lifestyle
    of a Sikh, including one's appearance as one? It seems
    to me a very clear outcome of their logic on the
    modernity of Sikhism.

    But in common parlance - in proposing such a
    conditional definition of modernity implied by my
    friends - we usually mean only the principles of
    Sikhism that should govern our everyday reality -
    trade, family and at most the ethical framework of our
    existence. But in such reasoning both of my friends
    have created a rift between the postulates of Sikhism
    and their historical manifestation in the individual
    Sikh with his articles of faith, including the unshorn
    hair. This dichotomy states that other rules of the
    game - such as the ones that dictate our outer garb -
    are an entirely different matter and perhaps
    irrelevant and immaterial. In this view, the external
    appearance of the male Sikh is not consistent with the
    ways of the world, as we know it, hence not in keeping
    with the times. Seriously, I have come across several
    fresh arrivals from India who said to me: "On the
    phone you leave a different and more modern
    impression. But I see that you look like a traditional
    Sikh, something we didn't expect after so many years."
    I wonder what they were really thinking.

    There are several ways to explore this paradoxical
    situation and many levels of objections to such an
    attitude that seems to select some rules as applicable
    while branding others as extraneous. Qualitatively,
    there are at least two kinds of argument that I can
    muster to dismiss such reasoning.

    One can sensibly suggest that the Sikh appearance was
    not decided by a people after some sort of a
    referendum but was willed to them by their Guru.
    Surely these articles of faith are not at all like
    corporate logos that are redesigned periodically by a
    professional team of consultants after a survey and
    market-analysis of the current trends and fads.

    Now, one can choose either to walk the path of the
    master or not - that choice is always available. But
    to walk while continuing to quibble full force reminds
    me of the adage "faint heart never climbed a
    mountain." (Or was it faint heart never won a fair
    lady, but let's not be sexist.) To sit around and
    second-guess the Guru's intention and how he might
    have decided if he had lived in this 21st century is a
    game with no rules or one where every player makes his
    own rules.

    It reminds me of many students who protest that the
    rules and requirements of the course that I teach are
    onerous, unfair and demanding, but this protest occurs
    during midsemester usually after a harrowing and
    hopeless test and is primarily limited to those who
    are floundering. That's when the rules no longer
    appear convenient or helpful to the learning process
    but loom as a hurdle to their graduating. Students
    look only at the fact that the rules impose hardships
    on them or set them apart from other friends who may
    not be in a similarly demanding program. On the other
    hand, I am aware of the role my students are destined
    to play as health professionals and I must design the
    rules of the game that will prepare them for such
    responsibility. Inconvenient the rules may be but are
    they necessary? If necessary then they are also
    eminently fair. To demand less would not be doing
    justice to the professional choices these young people
    have made in life.

    I am not unmindful of the social isolation and the
    economic repercussions that many Sikhs fear their
    appearance might produce. The other side of the coin
    raises an interesting issue: what insecurities in me
    suggest that life would be so much rosier if only I
    looked like John Doe? If such attitudes reside in me
    and govern my outlook in life it must be difficult
    indeed to look in the mirror. Life has taught me that
    no matter what I look like there will always be some
    who will not like me while there will be others who
    will accept me as I am. For many, I will always remain
    too short or too tall, too fat or too thin, too dark
    or too pale, too this or too that. No matter how smart
    I am there will be millions who will be smarter and
    just as many who will not be. No matter how rich I
    am?. and so on, ad infinitum. Whether it is in
    personal relationship or in social and professional
    interaction there is always a glass ceiling. But is it
    the result of our own inadequacies or those of others?
    Perhaps a little of each.

    If I truly feel uncaged and free only when dressed in
    a particular manner then the problem lies primarily in
    my head, not in others. No one can make me feel small
    without my consent. So to look for an excuse or
    explanation in the demands of society is really not
    meaningful. Also, such demands can never be settled in
    full. My sense of self must be pretty feeble if it
    depends primarily upon my button down collar, wing tip
    shoes, blow-dried hairstyle or, most importantly, the
    opinion of others. I know the requirements of the
    corporate culture but my bonus is finally determined
    more by my production figures and only minimally, if
    at all, by my spit-shined shoes.

    I know full well the pitfalls in taking the road less
    traveled. I also know that Sikhs are a minuscule
    minority in any part of the world, even in the Indian
    culture, except perhaps in Punjab. I know the
    situation is not likely to change. I am also convinced
    that Guru Gobind Singh, when he ordained the Khalsa,
    never had any expectation that there would ever be
    more Khalsa than there are people of other kind in the
    world. We are ordained to remain a minority. We have
    to learn to rejoice in this and not try to
    metamorphose into a brown sahib. For instance, there
    will never be more of any kind of people in this world
    than there are Chinese but that is no reason why
    everyone has to look Chinese or ape their very rich

    The five symbols of our religion, including the long
    unshorn hair, become articles of faith only when their
    magic and historical impact become integrated into our
    lives and embedded in our psyche such that they define
    us. Otherwise they remain symbols that can be
    discarded as and when the spirit moves us. As articles
    of faith they become a part of the self and good
    people will fight and die for them but not abandon
    them. As symbols they will always leave us
    uncomfortable and ill at ease. Symbols have a price;
    they can be bought and sold in the marketplace. As
    articles that define faith they acquire value which is
    often greater than life itself ; they can't be weighed
    and measured in the market, nor do they become
    shop-worn. Then the question of their being with the
    times or not becomes silly as would a question that
    demands to know the price, justification or relevance
    of any part of the self.

    Parenthetically, I wish to leave with you one thought.
    Look closely at these five articles of faith in
    Sikhism. You will see that they have undergone
    transformation with time, some more than others. I
    have attempted a fuller discussion on this elsewhere
    and it is not pertinent here.

    Even though, and perhaps especially because they were
    so few, the challenge for Sikhs was always to remain
    undaunted and to walk the razor's edge of their faith
    with courage, confidence and a smile. In other words
    to live life fully, not by half measures. That was,
    perhaps, the meaning behind Guru Gobind Singh's
    challenging call for a head on Vaisakhi 1699. This is
    maybe the lesson that emerges from the sacrifices of
    Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur and countless Sikh
    martyrs that history has honored. This is what Guru
    Nanak may have meant when he challenged his followers
    to walk with the head in the palm of the hand. I would
    think that to be able to put your head on the line for
    principle is an utterly modern concept that only a
    free people can adopt.

    To live free is to be modern. This implies the courage
    to be distinct and to walk the different beat of your
    distant drummer. Look back, perhaps not so many years
    in your life, and what do you see? During adolescence
    when life was driven by raging hormones, the most
    powerful urge - not always clearly seen - was to
    define one's own self by being different from everyone
    else. (I know that this drive was also accompanied and
    backed by another - to belong to a pack, which emerged
    from the fear of being alone.) The sense of self -
    indeed our identity - developed out of the complex
    interplay of these competing desires and directions.

    We spend our defining years learning to become
    individually distinct. In selecting what we wear or
    carry, we spend our teen years trying to make a unique
    statement. I am my own person, we want the world to
    know. It doesn't matter if the world thinks it's
    ridiculous but dyeing pink a swath down the middle of
    the head makes me unique, so that's what it will be. I
    want to be alone on my path but not lonely, so I look
    for a ratpack that travels together, where each
    enhances the other's emerging individuality. I also
    search for a badge that stamps me as exclusive - a
    limited edition - by joining exclusive clubs and
    secret societies.

    In Sikhism, the Guru gave us the gift and the courage
    to stand out and yet to belong to a rich, powerful and
    eloquent tradition. I can't imagine a more fittingly
    modern idea. The question is how to model our lives so
    that our difference makes a statement. And then the
    question is what kind of a statement do we wish to

    We are an integral part of society and so are
    integrated into it. Being like others defines the
    niche to which we belong - a space that is carved out
    of a shared history. By attaching ourselves to the
    timelessness of a heritage we become free of the
    restraint as well as of the tyranny of changing
    customs and changing times. Would the slavery to fad
    and fashion not make us prisoners of our time? And in
    the process would we not lose the sense of our
    heritage that makes us different and unique?

    It is not always easy, even the concept isn't so easy
    to grasp. But I think the most expanded version of
    being in tune with the times would be - being the
    right person at the right time in the right place for
    the right reason.

    Waheguru ji ka Khalsa
    Waheguru ji ki Fateh
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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    wizesikh ji

    This is very moving commentary. To paraphrase the late John F. Kennedy badly - very often the things that are worth doing are worthy not because they are easy but because they are hard.

    Everyone is on a path. That path is ordained for us. Everyone is where they should be on that path in this particular moment in time. Everyone is where God wants them to be. I hope your thoughts nurture more serious comments.

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