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The Power of a Uniform

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by IJSingh, Apr 16, 2010.

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  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    The Power of a Uniform
    by I.J. SINGH


    It's Vaisakhi Day ... an opportune time for reflection and introspection for all of us.

    Post 9/11, airports all over America have been swarming with uniformed and armed members of the National Guard. Whether they can effectively identify each and every possible terrorist hell bent on destruction is a different matter. The guards are there to lend an aura of security.

    We know that people who wear certain uniforms serve only one purpose - to protect us. When we see a gun in such a person's hands, we know that it will be used only in our defense. The soldier has taken an oath to risk his or her own life in service od his country.

    I would have to be naive not to know that this behavior is what we expect, but there are times when it falls disappointingly short. Soldiers can turn bad and plunder us instead of protecting us. Police officers can break the law, erasing the line between the police and criminals. When caught, such bad eggs are deservedly condemned.

    If a police officer is suspected of behavior unbecoming of his oath and uniform, society demands that he immediately surrender his gun and badge, which are his power and which he has the authority to use. If convicted of inappropriate conduct, the officer loses both the uniform and the professional identity.

    The son and daughter of a police officer or soldier in the army are not automatically entitled to their own uniform, badge and gun just because their parent had one. The uniform is not inherited; it must be earned. There are minimum requirements, qualifications and intensive training to ensure that those who are entrusted with power and the authority to use it know the limits of that power and have the discipline to use it appropriately.

    A uniform makes a statement that is both strong and eloquent. We instinctively and intuitively draw conclusions about the wearer of the uniform, about his or her training and discipline; our expectations of that person stem from such inferences. Under normal circumstances, I can assume that a person with a stethoscope is a health professional just as I presume that a person in a certain sort of uniform who is wearing a badge is a police officer.

    Rarely would there be any need to question the credentials of a person in the uniform of his or her profession. An imposter is rare and would face prosecution and universal denunciation or censure.

    Similarly, a man with a collar is a priest and a woman wearing a habit is a nun, one assumes. This was the intention when Pope Gregory mandated a uniform for the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. He was creating an "Army of Christ" in service to the church. He labeled this calling a higher one than that of the laity. No matter what the mission or occupation, a uniform proclaims the specialized training, discipline and dedication of a professional.

    When, in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh established the order of the Khalsa, he, too, was creating an army. But this army of God (that is how I view the meaning of Khalsa) was not created to wage aggressive war, conquer territory or subjugate others, but with a single mission - to discipline the mind. The battlefield of the mind was its domain, and Guru Gobind Singh recommended that his Khalsa engage in this battle every day.

    Like armies everywhere, the Khalsa, too, has a discipline, a code of conduct, an oath of affirmation and a uniform. Even its commander - Guru Gobind Singh - himself went through the initiation ceremony and took the same oath of loyalty as was expected of the foot soldiers. In the Army of Christ designed by Pope Gregory, those that joined the clergy were the beneficiaries of special status because their calling was recognized as being higher than that of the lay followers of the faith.

    But Guru Gobind Singh did not limit his army to the clergy; instead, his Khalsa was open to all who wanted to join - men or women. Significantly, no one in the Khalsa, including the Guru himself, had a calling that was any higher than that of the others.

    Being or becoming a soldier, like signing up for a cause, is not a hereditary vocation or avocation. Each individual must take his or her own risks and earn his or her own rank. It is not a business that a parent may leave to a child. Quite logically, therefore, one cannot be born a Sikh, though a person may be born in a Sikh home, to Sikh parents and in a Sikh family. Each Sikh must earn his or her own stripes. The emphasis, then, rightly shifts from being a Sikh to becoming one.

    Now, when I see a Sikh wearing the articles of her faith, I see a person in the uniform of her discipline. My mind rapidly makes a few calculations, just as it does when I see a recognizable police officer. (A recognizable police officer is in uniform just as a recognizable Sikh is.) I know that behind the uniform lie intensive training and discipline, a rigorous code of conduct and an oath that speaks of duty above all else. Again, I know that not all soldiers will live up to the expectations that other people have of them, just as not all priests, nuns, physicians or Sikhs will.

    What is my expectation when I see a Sikh in uniform? Indeed, it should be no different from what I look forward to when I see another professional in uniform. Even though I am prepared for occasional disappointment, from a professional person in uniform I expect training, discipline, dedication, honesty and integrity to his or her cause.

    How, then, can a Sikh in uniform profess ignorance of his discipline - the way of the Guru? The expectations one has of someone who wears the uniform of his calling are different from those one has of a person who is in mufti. Out of uniform, a professional is neither held to the same standards nor accorded the same consideration or deference.

    One brief example will illustrate what I mean. I remember a time when a recognizable Sikh was automatically assumed to be of good character. (Unquestionably, this view of Sikhs emerged from history.) In India 50 years ago, it was not uncommon for people to ask a Sikh to keep an eye on their young child or a young woman who might be traveling alone. People who were traveling about in dark, unsafe areas of bustling metropolises like Calcutta or Bombay late at night were often advised always to find a Sikh cab driver. The widely acknowledged Sikh character was deemed to be sufficient guarantee of safe arrival at one's destination. The only unmistakable way to find a Sikh was, of course, by his uniform.

    I know things have since changed, as have those who call themselves Sikhs. What is the expectation now when one sees a Sikh on the street?

    Are Sikhs the terrorists that the Indian government has successfully made them out to be over the past 20 years throughout the world? Are they the community in which the houses of worship (gurdwaras) are dens of iniquity and legal wrangling rather than places for spiritual solace, introspection, self-discovery and self-development? Is a Sikh the shady businessman who will betray and sell his mother for the quick dollar? Is he the warm-hearted, hard-drinking, loud, boisterous hail-fellow-well-met man-about-town? Would you entrust your safety and that of your family to him?

    What does his uniform proclaim to the world? Is his word his bond? Is he the man who has taken an oath that attaches him to the Guru and who strives mightily to live by it? Each Sikh would have to look within the self to answer this question.

    I hasten to add that a professional's training doesn't end with a person's investiture. Continuing education is a lifelong process and a never-ending requirement of his or her faith. In this matter my views of a police officer, scholar, scientist, banker, baker or Sikh are the same.

    The word "Sikh" derivatively means a student. Hence, Sikhs by definition are lifelong students of the Gurus' way of life. Just as a physician's child is required to earn the right to become a physician, someone born in a Sikh family must go through the training and the process of becoming a Sikh. A person under training, a cadet or a medical student wears the uniform, but society acknowledges that he or she is a recruit, an apprentice in training, not quite yet the maven. H

    He or she earns the stripes only after intensive study, demonstrated dedication and unmistakable skill. T

    That is when the trainee is bestowed with all the rights, privileges and duties of the new calling.

    Should becoming a Sikh be any different?

    Happy Vaisakhi!

    [This article was first published as an essay in Being & Becoming a Sikh, by I.J. Singh, 2003. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.]

    April 14, 2010
     

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