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Coming To Terms With A Few Matters Of Faith (Khushwant Singh)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
What does your religion mean to you? I suggest that on religious festivals after performing expected rituals, people should spend a little time — about half-an-hour — in silence and ask themselves: "What does my religion really mean to me?" Hindus could do this on Ram Navmi or Diwali, Muslims
on Eid-ul Fitr, Christians on Christmas, Sikhs on the birth anniversaries of the founder of Sikhism — Guru Nanak.

Let me illustrate the issue. I was born and brought up as a Sikh. I learnt my daily prayers and could recite them by heart. I went to gurdwaras to pray and joined religious processions. I followed this routine in school and college. It was in the seven years in Lahore and my close association with Manzur Qadir that I began to question many of the religious assumptions. He was a Muslim but did not offer Namaz, either at home or in a mosque even on Eid. Neither did his uncle Sleem who was India's tennis champion for many years and preferred living like an aristocrat, rather than a Muslim nawab. Being Muslim meant little to them. Neither bothered to make religion an issue. I did.

When India gained independence, I gained freedom from conformist religion and declared myself an agnostic. Oddly enough, for reasons I cannot fathom, my interest in religions increased. I studied scriptures of all religions, translated a lot of my own and taught Comparative Religions in American universities like Princeton, Swarthmore and Hawaii.

My interest in the subject continues. On Guru Nanak's birth anniversary (November 21) I tried to answer the question — How much of a Sikh am I? And drew up a list of answers. Although I do not practice my religious rituals, I have a sense of belonging to the Sikh community. Whatever happens to it, is of concern to me and I speak up or write about it.

I think that speculating about where we come from and where we go after we die is a waste of time. No one has the foggiest idea. What we should be concerned about is what we do in our lives on earth. An Urdu couplet sums it up neatly:
Hikayat-e-hastee sunee
To darmiyaan say sunee;
Na ibtida kee khabr hai
Na intiha maaloom
(What I have heard of life / Is only the Middle/I know not its beginning / I know not its end).

I have imbibed what I think are the basics of Sikhism as I see it now. I regard truth to be the essence of religion. As Guru Nanak said:
Suchchon orey sab ko
Ooper Suchh Aachaar
(Truth above all / Above truth / Truthful conduct).

I do my best not to lie. It is easier than telling lies because lying requires cunning to cover up lies you have told before. Truth does not require brains.

Earn your own living and share some of it with others, said Guru Nanak.
Khat ghaal kichh hathhon dey
Nanak raah pachchaney sey
("He who earns with his own hands and with his own hands gives some of it away," says Nanak, "has found the true way.")

I try not to hurt others' feelings. If I have done so, I try to cleanse my conscience by tendering an apology.

I have also imbibed the motto: "Chardi Kala: ever remain in buoyant spirits, never say die."
Ponder over it. Try it out.

The sounds and the fury
Sometimes I think my growing deafness may be a blessing in disguise. One is a week before, the other a week after Diwali. The week before people try out the ammunition: on Diwali night they fire off most of it. The week following they expend what remains unused.

Like dogs, cats and pigeons which live around my flat, I am allergic to loud noises made by bursting crackers. I have one advantage over them. Whenever I feel I can't take the noise, I use my hearing aids and a blissful silence surrounds me.

But unfortunate animals and birds have no defence against noise: dogs whine and whimper, cats cringe in corners, pigeons fly about in panic.

The other time hearing aids come handy is when some chatterboxes descend on me. I have to be more deft with my hand movements to take out my hearing plugs and more deceptive in my looks: I have to pretend I am engrossed. When they suddenly stop talking, I quickly slip in my hearing aids and hear him or her say: "Did you hear what I said?" Then, I confess: "No, I didn't hear a word. I am deaf and did not have my hearing aids on. Please repeat." And they do that.

Khushwant Singh is on leave. This column will not appear next week.The views expressed by the author are personal.