Monday, 26 November 2012, Mainly for Sikh Readers...
Seeing the state of the practice of our faith and ‘way of life’, Sikhi today, brings back nostalgic memories of yesteryear (my childhood) when it seemed all so simple and full of joy. I speak of Sikhi in the former Malaya (now Malaysia) where I was born.
Today, professional granthis, raagis, kethakars and Percharaks come and go, with very little rapport with the sangat. No granthi goes house to house to ensure that all is well – assisting in any way he can if any Sikh household was in need of spiritual sustenance beyond the attendance of gurdwara. They used to, in those days. If someone in the community was missing for a number of weeks from gurdwara, Bhai Sahib or Giani Ji, either sent someone or went himself, to investigate. Kirtan in services was normally done by Bhai Sahib with the help of sangat members. Most sangat members could participate in kirtan. Many used to learn from Bhai Sahib. Gurdwara goers used to frequent the gurdwara to consult Bhai Sahib or just drop in for a chat and perhaps a cup of cha. He was always there for advice or just a chat.
Finally, Bhai Sahib/Giani Ji used to be a consultant to the committee, not their servant. He was a Babay-Dha-Vijir (Representative of the Guru), and qualified for that title. I have witnessed a gurdwara committee in Malaysia which gets their granthi to make ‘cha’ for them whenever they have a committee meeting!
Yes, communities were small and everyone knew everyone. There was community spirit and there was help from each other in times of need. Everyone considered it their duty to come to do sewa – every kind of sewa including the making of langgar and cleaning the toilets.
Everyone came to ‘metha-tek’ before going on to work or school.
Gurdwaras were made of wood and most raised one storey high – in most towns in Malaysia as a precaution against floods. The ground floor used to be the langgar area. There was no fuss about sitting on long benches and eating langgar on long tables. These days, (since the ill thought-out HukmNama of eating langgar sitting cross-legged on the ground), eating langgar sitting on tables and chairs is frowned upon. Gurdwaras were simple and felt homely. There was harmony in the sangat/community. There was great love for the Guru and His teachings. There is a saying in Malaysia – When the gurdwaras were ‘kechay’, Sikhi was peki. Now gurdwaras are pekay, Sikhi has become kechee’.
Langgar was simple - Rotian and dhal with sometimes the luxury of a ‘sabzi’. Salad (cucumbers, onion and tomatoes) was a rarity and we delightfully called it ‘dhil khush’, or else there were always pickles (achar), or as we called it jokingly – ‘dhil dukh’! There was of course, always – ‘cha’, the national drink of gurdwaras. Rice, besides ‘rotian’ came later when I was much older. ‘Kheer’ was for very special occasions. The same food cooked at home never ever tasted the same!
These days, langgar is generally cooked by hired help or paid sewadhars, or catered. Luckily, there are gurdwaras where the old practices are still in vogue. Yes, times have changed. Maybe because I am no more a kid, but the old spirit that used to exist in sangats and in gurdwaras does not exist the way it used to. One feels a sense of indifference in sangats. Granthis thought nothing of telling off those who used to talk to each other in sangat, or children making noise or being a nuisance. Children knew how to obey. Today, he would probably get his marching orders if he tried!
I miss my father, Giani Harchand Singh ‘Bassian’ – probably the first government paid Punjabi school teacher in Malaya. He encouraged me to do kirtan and never stopped me if I experimented with old Hindi movie melodies but instead guided me in picking those melodies which were raag based and suitable for gurbani or helped me in modifying them to the spirit of the shabad, or even select the right shabad. In the early days, he even took me to see Hindi movies and discuss them afterwards, remembering that I stayed in gurdwara premises in my young days.
He never burdened me with hours of ‘paath’ but encouraged me in minimal but mindful discipline like doing JapJi Sahib in the morning (mainly on the run as I was always late!), Rehras at dusk before dinner and Sohila before sleeping. For him, Naam Simran was a 24 hours a day exercise – a greater awareness of the present moment; a sense of gratitude for all that had been bestowed upon me including this beautiful life, and His constant presence.
He also encouraged me to do Babay-dha-Paath as it was called those days. Yes, sangat members still did get the granthis to do sehaj paath for them, but there were those who used to set aside time to come and listen to path or even do ‘paath’. I used to do the odd hour of path whenever I could. It meant some leeway from my dad when I wanted to go for a movie or go out to meet friends!
He encouraged me in physical fitness and liked me to join him in any gurdwara of other activities he was involved in – even Granthi Samelans which were held annually. Granthis used to get together for discourses and standardising practices in gurdwaras. And they used to be fun! Have you seen a granthi tug-of-war and other sports? I have! Granthi Samelans also had elements of physical activities. I have participated in a Granthis 100m. dash. Granthi Samelans generally used to take place in Malacca where Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji was based.
No, we were not vegetarians. Bebe Ji cooked a mean chicken or ‘bakra’ curry and that was in gurdwara premises. There was no fuss about meat eating and becoming vegetarians as a Sikh religious practice until after I left Malaysia – which was in the early 70’s.
I miss our affectionate Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji who was revered not only by Malayan sangat but also all the granthis in Malaya then. Firstly these crop of granthis were highly conversant with gurmatt and most had ‘Giani’ qualifications. One, Giani Inder Singh Ji (of Sentul) was even qualified enough and affiliated to a Punjabi university in India, to offer ‘Giani’ classes in Malaya! In fact, if I am not mistaken, my father completed his ‘Giani’ qualification through him! Granthis were not afraid to further their ‘education’ in Sikhi!
Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji played a monumental part in the ‘spirit’ of Sikhi which existed in Malaya in the 1940’s through the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s. He engineered Granthi Samelans so that all granthis had consistent practices in all gurdwaras in Malaya/Malaysia and the sangat was nurtured well in Sikhi principles. Even complaints against granthis and complaints against gurdwara committees were aired at these gatherings and resolved. He also initiated Sikh youth ‘samelans’ from the 1950’s and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.
I was privileged in sometimes joining the travelling ‘jatha’ led by Baba Ji doing Sikhi ‘perchar’ tours through the length and breadth of peninsula Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960’s during my school holidays. Bapu Ji used to do the kirtan. I used to join him and Baba Ji used to do perchar. Gurdwaras, even in small towns, used to be packed when we came. For me it was the opportunity of travelling and seeing Malaya.
The odd jatha from India used to be of very high calibre. I remember legendary jathas like Bhai Gopal Singh Ji, Bhai Angadh Singh Ji, Bhain Tilli Bhai, Sant Raine Dhadhi Jatha. There was a constantly travelling missionary called Giani Phuman Singh Ji – a very learned percharak. There was close comraderie amongst all granthis as they used to get together regularly at samelans and other events. They were always upgrading themselves in Sikhi for the benefit of their sangats.
These days, rather light-weight jathas travel the world and just because they are from India does not guarantee that they are going to present something meaningful or significant. In fact, in more cases the local jatha is probably better than the visiting jathas!
The new crop of granthis generally appear to be more like mercenaries looking for more pay and benefits rather than thinking about the welfare of their sangat. They quickly work out the ‘politics’ of their sangat, and manipulate committees and sangat members to their benefit. In many cases, they can’t be blamed because these days ‘granthi’ is a profession, not a life of dedicated service to the ‘Guru’ and sangat. Granthies want to make as much as they can in the shortest possible time so that they could go back to India and build ‘kothies’ and have a comfortable retirement. The ‘maya’ factor has become much stronger these days.
I remember granthis at granthi Samelans discussing the possibilities of unmarried granthis settling for less income so that ‘married’ granthis and their families could be paid more to look after their families! These older crop of granthis were there to stay and dedicated themselves to their sangat. All of them stayed and finally passed away, in Malaysia.
The partaking of ‘amrit’ was also very different.
Amrit was partaken if one wanted to get married because couples who wanted to go through the Anand Karaj ceremony were expected to be ‘amritdhari’ or told to take ‘amrit’ at the first opportunity. It was more a rite of passage into adulthood rather than the cultish aspect it has now evolved into.
I remember my own ‘amrit sanchar’ very well. Bapu Ji took me to see Baba Sohan Singh Ji to discuss amrit as I had felt I was not ready for it. I was 15 and a favourite of Baba Ji as I did kirtan and accompanied Baba Ji and Bapu Ji on numerous occasions.
The conversation went something like this.
Baba Ji: Beta, your Bapu Ji tells me that you feel you are not ready for ‘amrit’
Me: Baba Ji, I will not be able to handle all the expectations of ‘amrit’ just yet.
Baba Ji: Chal beta. Let us go through all your apprehensions.
Me: I will not be able to do all the Nitnem banis expected of me.
Baba Ji: Can you do JapJi in the morning, Rehras at dusk and Sohila at night?
Me: I already do those.
Baba Ji: Well, we have no problem. As time goes by add Jaap Sahib and Sawayiyay as Nitnem. Occasionally do the full Anand Sahib. In fact you will find that doing Sukhmani Sahib occasionally is also very uplifting. It will help you in your studies and even in your sports! Can we agree on that?
Me: yes, Baba Ji.
Baba Ji: You know what is expected of you and let me assure you that you will get supreme bliss and a sense of well-being every time you do all the banis! Next?
Me: Baba Ji, 5 kekar. I cannot keep all 5 kekar on my person all the time. I love my sports and cannot be lugging around a kirpan, a kachhera and even a kanga in my hair. In fact when I play hockey, I am even expected to take my kara off as it can hurt an opponent.
Baba Ji: Beta, I have one important question for you. Do you have intentions of cutting your hair into the future?
Me: (I was shocked at even being asked that). No Baba Ji, I shall always keep my hair. I am proud to be a Sikh!
Baba Ji: (Smiling, seeing the look of shock on my face.) Then Beta, we have no problems. The other kekars are man-made. They can come off and on as required. They are loving gifts from you bapu – Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Treasure them. Keep them. In fact learn how to wield a kirpan for defence and learn self-defence. Treasure your kachhera – do not go chasing after loose women or any woman for that matter. Wear the kara as your ornament from Guru Ji. Does that answer your question?
Me: Yes Baba Ji! But Baba Ji, I play team sports where I am expected to share drinks with other players. What about ‘jooth’?
Baba Ji: Not a problem. Let me explain something about amrit, beta. Amrit once taken is not easily broken. Once your pita, dhan dhan Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj takes you by the arm, he does not easily give you up! Amrit only breaks if you commit a heinous sin including cutting your hair, engaging in extra-marital sex, eating halaal meat or consuming tobacco – the four ‘bejer-kurahits’. You will come up short many times as you are a human being. But all you have to do is realise your shortcoming, pick yourself up, ask for forgiveness from your father and move on in life. THAT IS AMRIT. Amrit is to give you a sense of belonging – belonging to the family of Guru Gobind Singh. If you want to be part of that family, then take amrit. It is as simple as that.
I saw no possible reason not to partake of amrit. It was more about partaking of it and working with it rather than working at it first and then partaking of it when one felt ready. Let me assure you, I believe 95 percent of youngsters or just Sikhs who would otherwise take amrit will never ever feel ‘ready’ to partake of it. IF I HAD BEEN GIVEN A CHOICE BY SANT BABA SOHAN SINGH JI, I THINK I WOULD NEVER HAVE GOT AROUND TO PARTAKING OF AMRIT. He made the partaking of amrit feel like a rite of passage into adulthood rather than an option of getting into a rigid code of conduct for the rest of my life. Yes, I have fallen short many times but I have never felt that it has ever been broken. I belong to the family of Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj.
I do not think I could go through today’s amrit because it appears more like a prison sentence instead of making one feel liberated. I have seen amritdharies lining up to partake of amrit again because they had to take their kirpans off and put them into their luggage when they took air flights. I know of amritdharies keeping kangas in their pockets because they have no hair to comb any more, and cannot keep the kanga in their dastaars. I have known of amritdharies not going swimming or learning how to swim because they cannot put on swimming trunks over their oversize kachheras. I have seen amritdharies whose hair had to be shaved partially (from the knees or from the chest for ECG’s etc.) retaking amrit because of this necessary removal of hair. I see ‘amrit-giving’ punj pyaray representatives insisting on intending amritdharies being strict vegetarianism when that was never an issue in the past.
Do not get me wrong! I admire those strict amritdharies who keep a rigid discipline – up to five banis in the morning besides Rehras and Sohila; full 5 kekars on their person; strict vegetarians; some even sit cross-legged on the floor to eat their food; etc. but I honestly cannot see a majority of today’s Sikh youth even partaking of amrit with this degree of rigidity. In my day almost all youth partook of amrit. Today, unfortunately, amrit has taken on a cultish ‘feel’ and less and less Sikh youth partake of it. Those who do, have the tendency of becoming rather cultish themselves – like the Akhand Kirteni Jatha or end up being followers of some ‘sant’. They also have a tendency of holding themselves aloof from other Sikhs who, they perhaps feel, are not up to their mark. I miss the ol’ days.
We all dressed in one way. We all wore colourful ‘pointi’ turbans and all wore colourful shirts and trousers, except for the Bhai Sahibs or Giani Jis who wore white dastaars and white kudta-pajamas. Now we have those who belong to one cult or another – wearing round turbans or turbans which look side to side and only in white or blue and wearing medieval looking clothes. There are those to whom the ‘bana’ means bare legs with long cholas. Others have tight pajamas under long ‘cholas’. They only wear dark blue or white. This is all as prescribed by their chosen ‘sant’ or mukhi. Again, let me reiterate, amongst them are some very close friends of mine and some very sincere and humble Sikhs. But, I miss the simpleness of the good ol’ days.
Nostalgic – yes. I was a kid then and today we live in a global village, but I certainly miss those idyllic good ol’ days in pre-Malaysian Malaya. Guys rode to gurdwara on bicycles. Sangat members used to come to gurdwara on public buses. Cars were rare and belonged only to the rich. Punjabi class was vibrant and all Sikh kids attended without exceptions. We played football and hockey in gurdwara fields or fields attached to gurdwaras. We drank water from gurdwara taps and we used to crack jokes with the granthis – they were our friends. Some even stocked soft drinks from their own income for us! Sundays were special because we all went to gurdwara and did sewa and kirtan, ate langgar and eyed the pretty girls! Yes, life was good and Sikhi was a part of us. Today it seems more about practising Sikhi rather than just being a Sikh. It is a changing world and perhaps I am growing old and just being nostalgic!
Thank you to Bhaiji for the loan of the photos. The photos can be seen enlarged on his very interesting blogspot: http://sewauk.blogspot.com.au