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The 30-Second Elevator Pitch

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by IJSingh, May 28, 2010.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Sep 24, 2004
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    The 30-Second Elevator Pitch

    I.J. SINGH

    You could summarily dismiss my approach today as an attempt at reductio ad absurdum. But hear me out.

    Not so long ago I was listening to a marketing guru advising us that each of us should develop a very short shpiel instead of a long impressive padded resume - a 30-second sales pitch timed to be delivered in sound bites, something that can be started and fininshed within an average elevator ride from one floor to another.

    Then he dared me to instantly create one to convey the principles of Sikhism to a stranger who has minimal interest in it. All I could muster was: "It teaches us how to live and die with dignity while nurturing the universal connectivity that binds us all."

    Later, I saw that I could have responded by repeating the sentence that has become our Sikh mantra - Kirat karo, Vand chhako, Naam japo -- an honest life, shared with others, lived with an awareness of the Infinite within all.

    Let me digress.

    For umpteen years I have taught anatomy. Many books exist but if there is one that could be anointed as the authoritative text, the 'bible' of the subject, it would have to be Gray's Anatomy.

    First authored by Henry Gray, a British surgeon, in 1858, it has, over the past 150 years, gone through many translations and editions, not just reprints - independently in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world.

    There was a time when for a novitiate - the First-Year medical student anywhere in the English speaking world - the first purchase was this book and the course-work a trial by fire for entre into the health professions.

    In recent years, the world has changed. The medical student's curriculum has ballooned exponentially but there are only so many hours in one's life. The available time for teaching has been carved up into many more but smaller pies; now there is far less time to teach and learn anatomy than there used to be.

    There are many more new books now, increasingly abbreviated, to take the place of Gray's Anatomy. Who now depends on Gray's? Only graduate students who are working for their academic degrees; those who teach the subject, and surgeons. To borrow from the language of religion, I would dub them the high priests and clergy (professors and surgeons) or novitiates (graduate students) that are aspiring to the ranks of the ordained ministry in the business of anatomy.

    Much like the laity and their scripture in the religious domain, medical students know that Gray's Anatomy exists and perhaps they salute it in passing, but seldom would one pick it up for independent study. A copy may be ensconced in a bookshelf but it wouldn't come down to be opened and consulted, except rarely as a critically needed reference.

    Instead, students increasingly look for further simplification, even though it might dumb down the message; the detail is frighteningly complex, hence ignored. These simpler texts - from exquisite atlases to coloring books - find increasingly imaginative ways to deliver the message. The idea always is to demand the least possible effort or time from the student.

    There are the smaller abbreviated books, atlases, study guides, decks of flash cards with short snappy questions and answers, compendiums of old exam questions with answers with pithy explanations, even booklets of helpful mnemonics to memorize the sea of anatomical factoids. These are the Cliff Notes of anatomy. Generations of students all over the globe have depended on such stratagems. Often they help cram the material but not necessarily learn it.

    They are not much different from the catechisms that we all look for in the pursuit of religious practice and ritual that define the way for a life of faith, much as mastery of anatomical detail traditionally lays out the way for a physician.

    I have come across a few catechisms, some that are widely distributed by some churches. For the faithful they spell out much detail on how to live a Christian life.

    But the Church and the Bible share a chequered history. Roman Catholic leaders focused on keeping the translations of the Bible out of the hands of the laity from the 11th to the 19th centuries. For the longest time Roman Catholics were not allowed access to the Bible for private use and could not keep one at home. Even now many more depend on Papal encyclicals and a priest's interpretation rather than critically peruse the scripture themselves.

    In this matter, Sikhs are no different in practice even though there never was a bar to a Sikh keeping the Guru Granth at home or reading it. In fact, the Guru Granth, repeatedly and hundreds of times, exhorts Sikhs to read, think, contemplate and thus internalize the message. In the Sikh view, there is no liberation without such active engagement with the Word.

    Don't forget that religious teaching is designed to help construct a way of life. It seems to me self-evident then that private ownership of Guru Granth and its serious perusal remain for the Sikh a requirement and goal. The clergy, if any, exist to assist probing critical analysis, not to exercise control over the contents or availability of the Guru Granth.

    But human that we are, we remain on the lookout for shortcuts. So, we often circumvent the process and hunt for someone to provide us cookie-cutter answers to questions that baffle us, just like in a catechism. That's the likely raison d'être for all the sant-babas that are the bane of our existence. These Sikh sant-babas are in the same genre as all the popular tele-evangelists that dot the Christian landscape. But more about them another time.

    We also have available to us many, many small breviaries (gutkas) derived from the Guru Granth where selected hymns provide us the solace and information that we might need for a specific occasion - be it a birth, marriage or death. The hymns that are regularly read in gurdwaras and religious services in the main come from the middle 300 pages of the 1430 page Guru Granth. This means that the content and the language of the bulk of the Guru Granth remain a mystery, relatively unknown and unexplored. Yet, we do treat the Guru Granth increasingly and superbly as an icon for worship and adorn it royally wherever it is situated.

    The other side of the coin: our lives are busy and time-constrained. And the Guru Granth presents an enchanting but baffling mélange of languages, poetic and musical meters, with multitude of references to poorly understood Indic mythology. Naturally, we look for a simplified message - the shorter and simpler the better, one that is easy on the eyes as well as in our understanding of it.

    'Cliff Notes' or their equivalents exist in just about every discipline; from Anatomy and Calculus to Shakespeare and Zoology. How about a version of Cliff Notes on Sikhi? So let me try my hand at it.

    I suggest that we explore the preamble to the Guru Granth. In translation these opening lines proclaim:

    There is one God; Truth is the name

    Creator of All

    Fearing none; Enemy of no one


    Not begotten; Self-manifest

    Realized by grace.

    These opening lines occur hundreds of times in the text of the Guru Granth, in toto or in part. If this theme is reinforced and reiterated so often, it must be because the ideas here are absolutely central to Sikhi and the religion cannot be comprehended without it. I have often argued that these lines capture the complete essence of the Sikh way of life; all else is commentary.

    Better yet, I offer you the beginning of this preamble that we see as the defining credal statement of Sikh belief and practice. Ik Oankar is the formulation with which the Guru Granth begins.

    "Ik" is the Punjabi equivalent of the Arabic numeral "One" while "Oankar" comes to us from Sanskrit, the root of Indo-European languages. This unique alphanumeric constructed by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, postulates one God, not a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh God, but one that is common to all and embraces all creation including agnostics and atheists.

    If we can see the oneness in the creator and creation, there is then no room left for distinctions in race, caste, creed, gender, color or national origin. The Ultimate reality has no gender, form, race or color. To refer to God as uniquely "He" or "Him" then reflects the paucity of language and its usage.

    So, differences between "them" and "us" vanish. And then, as the Guru Granth says, "I see no stranger" - Na ko baery nahi begaana [GGS:1299].

    To me, then, Ik Oankar becomes the first and foremost teaching of Sikhism. Equality, liberty, fraternity and justice are inherent in it; it encapsulates the Sikh worldview in its entirety.

    In speaking thus, have I then arrived at the ultimate breviary or Cliff Notes to capture and describe the Sikh way of life and its substance?

    Wait just a moment. Let's now use a different lens to explore this.

    Sikhi is a way of life that took ten generations of Gurus two-and-a-half centuries to define and nurture into a complete message. As I said earlier, surely the simple alphanumeric coined by Guru Nanak encapsulates the entire message that Sikhi speaks about.

    This means that this alphanumeric, very thoughtfully and deliberately constructed by Guru Nanak, must have inherent within it layers upon layers of some very complex ideas, concepts and meaning. Keep in mind that this brief notation must address such weighty matters as the nature of God and the human mind and heart; the world around us; as well as our very complex psychosocial realities. These are matters that have occupied humans since the beginning of time. These are issues that are parsed and debated at length within the pages of Guru Granth, and in the lives of the Founder-Gurus.

    If we aim to derive a whole way of life from a single symbolic code it is going to take a lifetime of very dedicated and intricate probing coupled with sophisticated thinking and reasoning to reveal the layers of meaning that inhere in that one compound formulation.

    If the ultimate Cliff Notes of Sikhi come down to a simple alphanumeric -- Ik Oankar - well, it is not quite so simply or automatically deciphered.

    It just might be easier to treasure this alphanumeric in our hearts and minds, somewhat like a mnemonic device or a GPS that can point to and lead us further along a meandering path, while we also continue to visit and revisit the many variations on the theme that reveal to us the substance of this alphanumeric in the 1430 pages of the Guru Granth.

    Keep in mind that Cliff Notes might help one pass an exam but are not going to transform anyone into an excellent anatomist or a great physician. Similarly, becoming a Sikh requires stepping beyond Cliff Notes into the wealth of the Guru Granth. This might even become habit forming and addictive. It would then begin to define a life and its perusal to fill a lifetime.

    Of the Gurus' pining for the state in which the mind is unendingly inebriated with the love of the Creator that unites us all, I offer you only one citation from the myriad to be found in the Guru Granth - "Har(i) kay daas har(i) saytee raatay/ raam rasaain andin maatay" [GGS:744].

    I. J. Singh
    May 21, 2010

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