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A Very Human Tragedy By I.J. Singh


Sep 24, 2004
A Very Human Tragedy
I.J. Singh

Let me tell you a simple but true tale of woe. I leave out any hint of the location simply because it is true.

We Sikhs now have almost 200 gurduaras in North America. Who runs them in our name? Who takes care of them and who provides the basic religious service even though it is only once or twice a week – on Sunday mornings and sometimes also Friday evenings?

These are Sikhs, all males, often middle-aged that remain nameless and register only at the periphery of our awareness. They are the granthis; the equivalent of pastors, priests, ministers or rabbis that one finds in the Judeo-Christian traditions that surround us.

Most of them are brought here for only one purpose: to provide the rudiments of a religious service for the Sikh community, to do the right thing at weddings, funerals and occasional celebrations.

How well do they to do the job they need to do?

Their language skills are rudimentary; their ability to navigate the cultural landscape of America non-existent. Their skills in music, singing of the liturgy (keertan) and exegesis of Sikh teachings and history are, at best, minimal. Often they know no language but Punjabi.

When hired they usually get no job description but if they did it might speak of a person who is a scholar at least on Sikhi and somewhat knowledgeable on the faiths of our neighbors. The first requirement is often partially met, the second almost never. In the overly busy lives of the congregation these granthis are reduced to survival wages; their role best described as gofers at
the mercy of management committees, and hardly ever as mentors and scholars in their (chosen?) profession of granthis.

There is little they can do beyond the four walls of the gurduara where they might have a small room of their own. They do not drive, are unable to engage non-Sikhs in conversation. All that they can do is to wait for the weekend to come when the community will walk in for another service. Since many small gurduaras have only one such employee on board there is no one at all to talk to all day – for days.

The wonder is that they don’t get into or get arrested for moral lapses or antisocial behavior more often.

A lovely gurduara in a prosperous neighborhood in a glorious city in North America that shall remain nameless had such a granthi for years. He performed as I mapped out. His congregation seemed satisfied.

Here he was in America, a prisoner of his patrons’ prosperity. Couldn’t go anywhere! He sat there and suffered – Man is not equipped to handle solitude day after day. We in the secular world know that solitary confinement is a worse for the human soul than ordinary confinement
with others in the same boat, don’t we?

His wife and children were in India perhaps waiting for the day that they could join him and grateful for what little money he could send them.

And then his 17 years old daughter in India died and then so did the son.

Perhaps the loneliness got to him.

Some days he would steal a drink. So what you might ask? Priests and rabbis drink. But in the gurduara premises alcohol would never be condoned. And for an amritdhari and a granthi it is absolutely taboo.

Of course he got caught. He tearfully confessed. What exactly to do with him.

The gurduara management did what was expected of it. This was a mortal sin so they cast him out sooner than immediately.

But this poor man that I am talking about had no place to go. He went to stay with someone he knew in the community and offered him a roof over his head. A few days later he got so strung out that he hanged himself in the friend’s garage.

How would you have dealt with the crisis that the man’s life presented?

Don’t forget that in our daily prayer (ardass) we intone the set words that ask for sarbat ka bhala, or betterment for all humankind. We also know the words of gurbani that warn us against judging other too quickly, too well or too harshly.

Could the management have found him some counseling and some cure?

But for alcoholism the only workable treatment would likely be long term talk therapy grounded in the culture around us. And the man couldn’t handle the English language; neither he nor the therapist would likely be able to span the cultural abyss. And such therapy doesn’t come cheap.

Should the gurduara have paid to repatriate him back to India and ended the story there.

Should the gurduara have given him a year’s medical leave and a ticket to India and directed him to get treated – and only then return to his job here?

We all understand very well that he was a trusted granthi – a man of the cloth – a functionary in a Gurduara that is a house of worship. And more is expected of any person in such a position.

But isn’t a house of worship, be it a temple, mosque, church or gurduara, ultimately for imperfect people who are on the path of becoming better. These edifices are absolutely not for perfect people; heaven knows they don’t need any.

Or should we discard imperfect people at the first sign of their imperfections? If that were the criterion perhaps a very few would survive to adulthood – those who were able to hide their transgressions.

I offer you these words today because the answer is not so easy or simple. Many opinions will emerge and just as many will be unrealistic or impractical. What is exactly the wisest and kindest thing to do while remaining true to our noble traditions and values?

(As an aside I recall another granthi in a major gurduara on the Eastern seaboard. He, too, was found hoarding a bottle or two of contraband in his room. He was ousted immediately. But he was educated and his life not so bleak; he survived fine.)

To the best of my knowledge what I have rendered to you is a true account. But don’t get caught up in an emotional tear-jerker. That will do no good. If you wish treat this as a fictional but plausible matter that could happen. The question is how we should act when it does.

Each life is full of both complications and complexities. I have always argued that one should run away from complications, whether they are personal, social or professional, as fast as one’s legs can carry, while embracing the complexities which, in the final analysis, enrich a life.

These are matters that a living community needs to consider.
Oct 21, 2009
Gurudwaras have basic and rudimentary set of principles that are required to be observed. There is no way out. Either one should make a compromise on the practices of discipline and let the seat of virginity of the place be raped by something that is in the state of putrefication or take appropriate steps. I strongly believe like others -anything that is ultra vires social order is to be condemned vehemently. If one is not fit for a job one should prima facie not undertake it ab initio

One need not be sentimental in the area where religion requires strict discipline in a disciplined way as the stakes involved are very high. The degeneration of value system is more dangerous than the cost and benefits of 'human sympathy' for an erring individual. The choice is very limited and offers no other way out; either to compromise on our basic requirements and let the society suffers the pique or let the one who , in which ever condition he may be, causes such a suffering should suffer. Any help or sympathy would tantamount of funding of sickness or the tragedy by the sangat and the way you have explained the situation of particular Gurudwara , it is clear that there would be a resource crunch.

Your essay/story/write up does not require a second thought for me. Human tragedy can never override the spiritual needs of the persons for whom the Gurudwara is meant.[ especially when one is employed]. Had he been employed by some corporate the things might have taken other things into consideration.

World is full of human tragedy and we are not fit to take over God's function. No whinning is required in such cases where one develops personality disorders or becomes neurotic to avoid legitimate sufferings. One should act in present taking future consequences into consideration. One should have common sense to map the reality for oneself and then negotiate life. Seclusion is no alibi for being an alcoholic.

Coming to the question and query, I think, the way out could have been to deport him to India at the set up of Sant Puran singh ji that is very near Amritsar.

Lastly, even if you would have helped him and the problem was peacefully resolved what about the millions other who have to undergo the same fate day in and day out in the process that we call as life. Solving the problem of individual does not amount to the resolution of the problem of humanity that is very well programmed in by God in this set up;Let us not forget that the problems exist for purpose of making one strong and not a weakling. One should not run away from problems and learn to recognize them and tackle them at opportune time. We are in disagreement here.

Survival of the fittest is the basic principle of human evolution though it may look painful.It is impossible to conflate forgiving and forgetting just because he belonged to community. I can only sympathize if it is of any help.

I take your leave pondering ......

Karmi aapo aapni ki nere Ke dur.


Aape beej aape he Khah
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Dec 3, 2011
Well, it becomes pretty clear that he had some major psychological issues that never got addressed.
These very issues are the root of what led him to his problem. The root of the problem was never resolved and this in turn led him to consider suicide.

If sensible action was taken in the first instance such as having some consideration for his general welfare, then he could have been saved from and for his self.


Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Changes need to be made at an even more fundamental level - the way Gurdwara's are run, the selection criteria for a Granthi, how a Gurdwara is used and how much involvement the sangat has in the Gurdwara. Where I used to live, there was one Divan per week but we were always coming and going to the Gurdwara for lessons/discussions.gurmat vichaar sessions etc etc etc. It was never a lonely place! Also the Granthi was highly educated both in worldly terms and in gurmat terms and he did the job for the love of Gurbani. It was a wonderful place to be in the sangat :)


Dec 22, 2009
I think they should have their Families Come w/ them, whereever they go. That Should be a Given, & is Within the Gursikh Lifestyle, as per the 'Householder' bit. That Should be Enforced, & Ensures that whatever Community they Land in, they have the means to their own Indvidual Life, Kids to look after, a wife to Share w/, a Larger Community to be a part of, & mobility as a Free human being, despite being a Granthi.

*I don't Mean 'Despite' in a Negative Sense, I just feel those are the Basic things needed for Any Human Being, in any occupation.
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