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Modern Sikhi - What It Truely Means


Nov 8, 2007
A Sikh Au Courante

By: I.J. Singh Wed Jan 09

We all want to be modern. There is nothing quite so
distressing as to be told that one is behind the times
or is clueless about the world in which he or she
operates. It is worse than being poor, fat or ugly.
But what is it to be modern? What does being modern
mean? Let me illustrate my concerns by two little

Not so long ago, a young Sikh technocrat and I were
passing the time of day over a cup of coffee. He is a
bright MBA and a good man but not a recognizable Sikh.
All of a sudden he blurted out: "We Sikhs have a very
practical and logical religion with an incomparably
attractive and modern worldview but our external
appearance is not consistent with that modern
framework." He was pointing to the turban and bearded
visage of the observing Sikh male.

Another incident is from a few years ago when I was
single. Some kind friends tried to set me up with a
Sikh lady in a different town and gave me her
telephone number. She was a bright, young,
professionally educated Sikh - a psychiatrist.

We talked a few times on the telephone. Here, we both
thought, might be some possibilities. Naturally, we
wanted to meet face to face to see what kind of
chemistry might result. We hadn't yet met and didn't
know what the other looked like. One day, we were on
the phone chatting about the logistics of meeting,
when she abruptly inquired: "Are you a modern Sikh?"

I knew what she was about but decided to play it for
what it was worth. To me, the antithesis of being
modern is to be primitive. So, my response turned out
to be somewhat tactless but not entirely pointless. I
countered that I never ever left the house without
clothes, could coherently converse on a variety of
subjects including religion, politics and sex, and
knew which fork to use with which plate at dinner;
therefore, I was not exactly primitive. She thought my
response was aggressively, if not offensively,
unresponsive; she had wanted to know if I was
keshadhari, long-haired Sikh or not. I thought a crew
cut would not necessarily endow me with the so-called
characteristics of modernity, anymore than long hair
would automatically transform me either into a sage or
a savage. Needless to say we never met.

I must confess that in both encounters - with the lady
psychiatrist and the MBA - initially I was somewhat
taken aback but, upon reflection, realized that
perhaps this is how most of the world thinks of us. I
see that many Sikhs also seem to reason similarly;
that says something for our sense of self and the
self-imposed psychological burden that many Sikhs seem
to carry. The question, of course, is less how others
view us, even though that is extremely important but,
more significantly, how comfortable we are with
whatever we have chosen to be.

My cohorts in both encounters insisted that Sikh
philosophy and precepts were modern. (Did they really
know enough of Sikh tradition to so assert or were
they only mouthing the words? I merely raise the
question here.) Nevertheless, if I accepted their
protestations then the unassailable definition of
modernity for a Sikh would be to understand and live
by the very modern tenets and postulates of Sikhism.
And would that not, I wondered, include the lifestyle
of a Sikh, including one's appearance as one? It seems
to me a very clear outcome of their logic on the
modernity of Sikhism.

But in common parlance - in proposing such a
conditional definition of modernity implied by my
friends - we usually mean only the principles of
Sikhism that should govern our everyday reality -
trade, family and at most the ethical framework of our
existence. But in such reasoning both of my friends
have created a rift between the postulates of Sikhism
and their historical manifestation in the individual
Sikh with his articles of faith, including the unshorn
hair. This dichotomy states that other rules of the
game - such as the ones that dictate our outer garb -
are an entirely different matter and perhaps
irrelevant and immaterial. In this view, the external
appearance of the male Sikh is not consistent with the
ways of the world, as we know it, hence not in keeping
with the times. Seriously, I have come across several
fresh arrivals from India who said to me: "On the
phone you leave a different and more modern
impression. But I see that you look like a traditional
Sikh, something we didn't expect after so many years."
I wonder what they were really thinking.

There are several ways to explore this paradoxical
situation and many levels of objections to such an
attitude that seems to select some rules as applicable
while branding others as extraneous. Qualitatively,
there are at least two kinds of argument that I can
muster to dismiss such reasoning.

One can sensibly suggest that the Sikh appearance was
not decided by a people after some sort of a
referendum but was willed to them by their Guru.
Surely these articles of faith are not at all like
corporate logos that are redesigned periodically by a
professional team of consultants after a survey and
market-analysis of the current trends and fads.

Now, one can choose either to walk the path of the
master or not - that choice is always available. But
to walk while continuing to quibble full force reminds
me of the adage "faint heart never climbed a
mountain." (Or was it faint heart never won a fair
lady, but let's not be sexist.) To sit around and
second-guess the Guru's intention and how he might
have decided if he had lived in this 21st century is a
game with no rules or one where every player makes his
own rules.

It reminds me of many students who protest that the
rules and requirements of the course that I teach are
onerous, unfair and demanding, but this protest occurs
during midsemester usually after a harrowing and
hopeless test and is primarily limited to those who
are floundering. That's when the rules no longer
appear convenient or helpful to the learning process
but loom as a hurdle to their graduating. Students
look only at the fact that the rules impose hardships
on them or set them apart from other friends who may
not be in a similarly demanding program. On the other
hand, I am aware of the role my students are destined
to play as health professionals and I must design the
rules of the game that will prepare them for such
responsibility. Inconvenient the rules may be but are
they necessary? If necessary then they are also
eminently fair. To demand less would not be doing
justice to the professional choices these young people
have made in life.

I am not unmindful of the social isolation and the
economic repercussions that many Sikhs fear their
appearance might produce. The other side of the coin
raises an interesting issue: what insecurities in me
suggest that life would be so much rosier if only I
looked like John Doe? If such attitudes reside in me
and govern my outlook in life it must be difficult
indeed to look in the mirror. Life has taught me that
no matter what I look like there will always be some
who will not like me while there will be others who
will accept me as I am. For many, I will always remain
too short or too tall, too fat or too thin, too dark
or too pale, too this or too that. No matter how smart
I am there will be millions who will be smarter and
just as many who will not be. No matter how rich I
am?. and so on, ad infinitum. Whether it is in
personal relationship or in social and professional
interaction there is always a glass ceiling. But is it
the result of our own inadequacies or those of others?
Perhaps a little of each.

If I truly feel uncaged and free only when dressed in
a particular manner then the problem lies primarily in
my head, not in others. No one can make me feel small
without my consent. So to look for an excuse or
explanation in the demands of society is really not
meaningful. Also, such demands can never be settled in
full. My sense of self must be pretty feeble if it
depends primarily upon my button down collar, wing tip
shoes, blow-dried hairstyle or, most importantly, the
opinion of others. I know the requirements of the
corporate culture but my bonus is finally determined
more by my production figures and only minimally, if
at all, by my spit-shined shoes.

I know full well the pitfalls in taking the road less
traveled. I also know that Sikhs are a minuscule
minority in any part of the world, even in the Indian
culture, except perhaps in Punjab. I know the
situation is not likely to change. I am also convinced
that Guru Gobind Singh, when he ordained the Khalsa,
never had any expectation that there would ever be
more Khalsa than there are people of other kind in the
world. We are ordained to remain a minority. We have
to learn to rejoice in this and not try to
metamorphose into a brown sahib. For instance, there
will never be more of any kind of people in this world
than there are Chinese but that is no reason why
everyone has to look Chinese or ape their very rich

The five symbols of our religion, including the long
unshorn hair, become articles of faith only when their
magic and historical impact become integrated into our
lives and embedded in our psyche such that they define
us. Otherwise they remain symbols that can be
discarded as and when the spirit moves us. As articles
of faith they become a part of the self and good
people will fight and die for them but not abandon
them. As symbols they will always leave us
uncomfortable and ill at ease. Symbols have a price;
they can be bought and sold in the marketplace. As
articles that define faith they acquire value which is
often greater than life itself ; they can't be weighed
and measured in the market, nor do they become
shop-worn. Then the question of their being with the
times or not becomes silly as would a question that
demands to know the price, justification or relevance
of any part of the self.

Parenthetically, I wish to leave with you one thought.
Look closely at these five articles of faith in
Sikhism. You will see that they have undergone
transformation with time, some more than others. I
have attempted a fuller discussion on this elsewhere
and it is not pertinent here.

Even though, and perhaps especially because they were
so few, the challenge for Sikhs was always to remain
undaunted and to walk the razor's edge of their faith
with courage, confidence and a smile. In other words
to live life fully, not by half measures. That was,
perhaps, the meaning behind Guru Gobind Singh's
challenging call for a head on Vaisakhi 1699. This is
maybe the lesson that emerges from the sacrifices of
Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur and countless Sikh
martyrs that history has honored. This is what Guru
Nanak may have meant when he challenged his followers
to walk with the head in the palm of the hand. I would
think that to be able to put your head on the line for
principle is an utterly modern concept that only a
free people can adopt.

To live free is to be modern. This implies the courage
to be distinct and to walk the different beat of your
distant drummer. Look back, perhaps not so many years
in your life, and what do you see? During adolescence
when life was driven by raging hormones, the most
powerful urge - not always clearly seen - was to
define one's own self by being different from everyone
else. (I know that this drive was also accompanied and
backed by another - to belong to a pack, which emerged
from the fear of being alone.) The sense of self -
indeed our identity - developed out of the complex
interplay of these competing desires and directions.

We spend our defining years learning to become
individually distinct. In selecting what we wear or
carry, we spend our teen years trying to make a unique
statement. I am my own person, we want the world to
know. It doesn't matter if the world thinks it's
ridiculous but dyeing pink a swath down the middle of
the head makes me unique, so that's what it will be. I
want to be alone on my path but not lonely, so I look
for a ratpack that travels together, where each
enhances the other's emerging individuality. I also
search for a badge that stamps me as exclusive - a
limited edition - by joining exclusive clubs and
secret societies.

In Sikhism, the Guru gave us the gift and the courage
to stand out and yet to belong to a rich, powerful and
eloquent tradition. I can't imagine a more fittingly
modern idea. The question is how to model our lives so
that our difference makes a statement. And then the
question is what kind of a statement do we wish to

We are an integral part of society and so are
integrated into it. Being like others defines the
niche to which we belong - a space that is carved out
of a shared history. By attaching ourselves to the
timelessness of a heritage we become free of the
restraint as well as of the tyranny of changing
customs and changing times. Would the slavery to fad
and fashion not make us prisoners of our time? And in
the process would we not lose the sense of our
heritage that makes us different and unique?

It is not always easy, even the concept isn't so easy
to grasp. But I think the most expanded version of
being in tune with the times would be - being the
right person at the right time in the right place for
the right reason.

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa
Waheguru ji ki Fateh


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
wizesikh ji

This is very moving commentary. To paraphrase the late John F. Kennedy badly - very often the things that are worth doing are worthy not because they are easy but because they are hard.

Everyone is on a path. That path is ordained for us. Everyone is where they should be on that path in this particular moment in time. Everyone is where God wants them to be. I hope your thoughts nurture more serious comments.