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A Discourse On The Future Of Sikhism

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
A Discourse on the Future of Sikhism

Harbans Singh Bhola*

* Dr. Harbans Singh Bhola is Professor of Education, Indiana University,Bloomington, USA, 47405.
E-mail: bhola@indiana.edu

The conventional wisdom is that the future is unknown and unknowable. It is also believed by many that both the individual and the collective futures of humankind are pre-ordained. Whether there is a pre-determined cosmic order that exists within a time-frame of Eternity, and whether our individual destinies are pre-ordained are indeed questions of what has come to be called "the perennial philosophy". Answers to these questions continue to evade us.

In our material, existential world, however, philosophers of science, historians, futurists, sociologists, and psychologists have brought us the understanding that individual and collective human futures are partly "knowable" and can indeed be significantly shaped and re-invented. At least part of the "collective future" can be surmised by a careful study of current social and technological conditions, and then extrapolating them into the future. A great part of the future is, in fact, open-ended. There is indeed such a thing as human free will, reason, and moral choice. Individuals can and do shape their own futures and design their own individual destinies by making individual choices. Great men and women of history, with their grand utopian imagination, have indeed transformed collective human consciousness and have re-invented the futures of peoples both in the East and the West.

The advent of Sikhism itself is proof that the future can be re-invented. Looking back from our historical perspective, it can be said that Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first Guru of the Sikhs, had indeed changed the future of the people he preached to, and of their larger communities in Punjab (Northern India) of those times. The nine Sikh Guru’s who followed Guru Nanak, continued to shape the future of the followers of Nanak and the country. The tenth and the last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) truly re-invented the future of the Sikhs and Sikhism on a grand historical scale. By creating the Khalsa in April of 1999, Guru Gobind Singh unleashed historical and emancipatory forces that would ultimately bring an end to the Mogul Empire in India, and give India a new future.

As we begin the New Century and the new Millennium simultaneously, it is being widely recognized that the future of the Sikhs and Sikhism is seriously in need of re-invention and renovation. Sikhism is not a messianic religion. We do not wait for a messiah to come to lead us out of despair, nor do we expect a human Guru - - The Adi Granth is the
Guru now and for ever. Therefore, , it is for the totality of the Sikh Sangat (the world community of the Sikhs) to engage in the exercise of inventing a future for the Sikhs and Sikhism. It has to be a grand Global Gurumata, a global discourse in which all the Sikhs, wherever they live, can take part. Together they must learn from the past, reflect on the present, and imagine a future we would want for Sikhs and Sikhism in the Twenty-first Century. Then, we should all - individually and collectively - work for it within the possibilities made clear by our understanding of global context, historical forces, competing interests, and the capacities and commitments of the communities concerned.

Deliberation: The process we have described above should, of course, be lead by the best minds of Sikhism, including both religious and secular leaders. However, to lead is not to exclude. The future of the Sikhs and Sikhism should be envisioned and invented by the community as a whole, including Sikh men and Sikh women, young and old, poor and rich, those living in the Punjab and in India, as well as those living around the world, in the USA and Canada, in England and other European countries, in Australia and New Zealand, in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and several countries of Africa.

The process of inventing a future for the Sikhs and Sikhism will have to be a mixture of the "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches of communication and consultation, from face-to-face contacts, community organization, local, district, state, regional, national discussion and discourses, to international initiatives of coming together and networking on the Internet. This Grand and Global Gurumata should have "a center of responsibility," but should never be allowed to become monolithic. To begin with, it could be a project for The Sikh Review itself. As the dialogue unfolds and expands, it could be assigned to a semi-permanent Foundation to keep the dialogue going, until inventing a Sikh future becomes a personal agenda for each and every Sikh in the world and a picture of a collectively-imagined future begins to emerge. This may take five to ten years to do. By that time, we will be ready for a second round.

Identity: The essential question before us is: Can we keep, for Sikhism, those who have been born into Sikhism? First, keeping the Sikhs for Sikhism, would mean strengthening the convictions among the Sikhs to continue with the five K’s that determine the special physical appearance, and thereby the "presence" of the Sikh as an individual. These five K’s are: Kes, i.e., unshorn hair as a sign of manliness, covered under a turban, which in turn, is a sign of the elders and the respected; Kanga, i.e., comb as a sign of cleanliness of hair and of cleanliness in general; Kara, i.e., the steel bracelet as a reminder for desisting from ever doing anything capricious or corrupt; Kachha, i.e., a short pant-like underwear which was meant to be an attire of decency for daily wear and also a dress for agility to take on the enemy; and Kirpan, i.e., the sword for self-defense against the enemy and protection of the weak from the cruel and unjust.

Flux: Times have doubtless changed since the historic day in April of 1699 when Guru Gobind Singh enjoined upon the Khalsa (his chosen ones) to wear these identifiable signs of a Sikh’s particular presence so that a Sikh could proclaim his total commitment to the Guru for all to see and know. The reality about the five K’s today is that hardly any Sikh would be found carrying a Kirpan (sword). Only the priestly class, while performing ceremonial functions, may be wearing swords. Even in India the homeland of the Sikhs, swords are not allowed in public places, or on trains and planes today. Outside India, for a Sikh to carry a sword in public would be nearly impossible. Kanga and Kara are also not always worn these days by young Sikhs. Unshorn hair and turbans which have come to be the absolute minimum for the Sikh personal identity is also under pressure. We need to raise all these issues and implied questions about the five K’s as part of our Grand and Global Gurumata, in all piety and sincerity.

Second, to keep Sikhs for Sikhism would mean that they partake of the Naam, that is, they read the Holy scriptures, or at least listen to the recitations of the Guru Granth; that they go to the Gurudwara to be among the Sangat (the community); and that they contribute to, and partake of, the "Guru ka Langar" (food from the Community kitchen). The institutions both of Sangat (the community of equals) and Pangat (sitting on the ground in a row): that is, being among the Sikh community, and to sit and eat together from the same Langar (community kitchen) has had far-reaching, near revolutionary, consequences. As we can see the spiritual and the social reformist ideas are combined in these practices we have eluded to. Problems are arising here as well. The Scriptures are becoming inaccessible to the younger generations. Social zeal for equality is becoming lukewarm. We need to know of what is happening to these important obligations and institutions to be able to do what may be necessary.

Commitment: Third, keeping Sikhs for Sikhism will require that Sikhs understand and are committed to the social and moral content of the Sikh philosophy both at the personal and community level. They need to understand the radical reformist in Guru Nanak who dared to "Speak Truth to the Ruler", that is, to chastise the Mogul King Babar in his Asa di Var. We need to understand the moral component of the struggle against the Mogul rulers of the day that created the emancipatory principle and moral "militancy" among the Sikhs, in turn, producing four generations of martyrs from Guru Arjun, to Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh and his four young sons. The Sikhs need to learn of these things, not merely to boast and brag about their Gurus, or to shed tears of anguish, or vent their anger against any community or communities. They need to know the history of these martyrs to fully understand what it means to be moral, to be courageously moral, and what were the roots of spirit of liberty and moral "militancy" among the Sikhs.

Caution: Keeping the Sikhs for Sikhism is not going to be easy. There are dangers to the Sikhs and to Sikhism, both from within and without. Sikh men are choosing to retreat from the typical Sikh presence: the turban and unshorn hair. The other three K’s are hardly a matter of discussion these days. Sikh women are getting their hair-styling done from professional saloons. Some want to marry "cut-surdies", Sikhs with hair-cuts. This is true of Sikhs both in India and abroad. Reading the Bani (that is reciting from the Sri Guru Granth, our Holy Scripture) has become a specialist’s task. Most Sikhs are unable to read the Holy Granth, and few of those who can read, read it with understanding. While Sikhs still show great devotion to the Holy Granth and spend hours listening to the Kirtan (the singing of hymns), their intellectual understanding of the Sikh traditions is truly abysmal.

Dangers from the outside are equally great. In India, the homeland of the Sikhs, being a Sikh used to be an honor. It was a deserved honor as well. That is not so any more. Indeed, after the 1984 Operation Bluestar, assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of a Sikh, and the organized genocide of Sikhs, the Sikh mystique has taken a severe beating. What they have now got is mainly resentment of - and for - the majority community, that is, the Hindus, which has in turn generated a Sikh phobia.

The Sikhs abroad in - U.K., USA, and Canada - are seen by their myopic citizens as oddities, people frozen in their past caught awkwardly in a Western and Westernized cultures! The new icon of the corporate world is a clean-cut man in a business suit, and a well manicured woman in a pent-suit. The Sikhs do not fit in unless the quit their own traditions - and thereby lose their mystique and moral grandeur.

The future of Sikhs and Sikhism is too important to be left to itself to happen while we all passively wait. Nor can it be left to some religious cliques who may be composed of great devotees of the Gurus but who may not be able to participate in any historical, philosophic or intellectual discourse. We must collectively invent a future, design a destiny for Sikhs and Sikhism.

The question is: What is to be done? and who will start this Ball Game of Love: Prem khelan ka chao!


Jun 20, 2009
Soul Jyot Ji,
It seems to me, at first glance, that the doctor is concerned more with the identity (appearance) of Sikhs and not its liberating faith. I understand the loss of cultural identity to be of great concern, but it is not the loss of the faith and its teachings, yet he seems to equivalate the two.
I am concerned that it may be easy to slide from awareness to ego when dealing with identity and spiritual truths with such rigid terms.
With all due respect.