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Sikhism In The 21st Century - The Challenging Road Ahead

Jun 1, 2004
"In the Golden Age of Satjug, everyone spoke the Truth. In each and every home, devotional worship was performed by the people, according to the Guru's Teachings. In that Golden Age, religion had four feet. How rare are those people who, as Gurmukh, contemplate this and understand. In all four ages, the Naam, the Name of the Lord, is glory and greatness. One who holds tight to the Naam is liberated; without the Guru, no one obtains the Naam. In the Silver Age of Traytai, one leg was removed. Hypocrisy became prevalent, and people thought that the Lord was far away. The Gurmukhs still understood and realized; the Naam abided deep within them, and they were at peace. In the Brass Age of Dwaapur, duality and double-mindedness arose. Deluded by doubt, they knew duality. In this Brass Age, religion was left with only two feet. Those who became Gurmukh implanted the Naam deep within. In the Iron Age of Kaljug, religion was left with only one power. It walks on just one foot; love and emotional attachment to Maya have increased. Love and emotional attachment to Maya bring total darkness. If someone meets the True Guru, he is saved, through the Naam, the Name of the Lord. Throughout the ages, there is only the One True Lord. Among all, is the True Lord; there is no other at all. Praising the True Lord, true peace is attained. How rare are those, who as Gurmukh, chant the Naam. Throughout all the ages, the Naam is the ultimate, the most sublime. How rare are those, who as Gurmukh, understand this. One who meditates on the Lord's Name is a humble devotee. O Nanak, in each and every age, the Naam is glory and greatness." (Guru Amar Das, pg. 880)

Here we are in the age of Kaljug, the age of darkness. Where do Sikhs find themselves as a religion and a people and where are they going as the next millennia approaches? Today Sikhs face a host of problems and issues, but instead of focusing on those problems as has been done countless times before, this paper will instead try to highlight some of the key issues and challenges that Sikhs will have to deal with in the very near future.

At this time the Sikh religion is firmly in control of the older generations from Punjab and it's religious institutions around the world are run as virtual extensions of Punjab and the Punjabi mentality. Many issues are not dealt with because they never had to be dealt with in the past and it is always easier to maintain the status quo rather than try to find new answers. What will happened ten or fifteen years down the road when the Sikh religious institutions around the world are run by a new generation which were not born in Punjab or have very little contact with Punjab? A lot of these potential problems that Sikhs will be faced are still in their infancy right now. Either Sikhs can choose to ignore them today as they have been to a large extent, which means that they will become major crises for the religion tomorrow, or they can start planning and trying to develop solutions. We are approaching a major crossroads as a religion which will either see Sikhism become truly a major world religion as the Gurus wished or we will see it wither away and become extinct over time. The choice is clearly in our own hands.

Karl Marx the father of communism once said, "If God manifests in the research institute, then only shall I believe in His existence." There is an increasing belief in the world today that the ideas of "faith" are blind and that "faith" is equivalent to " being blind". The question which should be asked is that does society not also place blind faith in science? Who has seen or touched an electron? Scientists have never actually seen a black hole in outer space, but only theorize its existence based on the bending of light waves of neighboring stars and galaxies.

Can science convey the beauty of a sunset or the smell of a rose or the value of a person? No it can not. All that science can do is to quantify these by breaking them down into various analysis that do not necessarily add up to describe the substance of the whole. A human being is much more than water, minerals and trace elements that make up our bodies. The smell of a rose is much more than the quantity and type of molecules that it releases into the air. God and religion can not be understood by blindly applying the scientific method.

"God is not found by intellectual devices; He is unknowable and unseen." (Guru Arjan Dev, pg.1098)

"He is not obtained by intellectual recitation or great cleverness; only by love does the mind obtain Him." (Guru Nanak Dev, pg. 436)

As science pushes back the frontiers of the known universe can science and logic be used to explain the entire universe?

"So many worlds beyond this worldóso very many! What power holds them, and supports their weight? The names and the colors of the assorted species of beings were all inscribed by the Ever-flowing Pen of God. Who knows how to write this account? Just imagine what a huge scroll it would take! What power! What fascinating beauty! And what gifts! Who can know their extent? You created the vast expanse of the Universe with One Word! Hundreds of thousands of rivers began to flow. How can Your Creative Potency be described?" (Guru Nanak Dev, Japji Sahib)

When Guru Arjan Dev and his scribe Bhai Gurdas finished compiling Sri Guru Granth Sahib in 1604, the technology of the time was limited to paper. Now 400 years later technology has advanced at a blinding pace and it's advancement is continuing at an exponential rate. How Sikhs deal with these advancements will be critical to their survival.

How can technology affect something as timeless and immortal as Sri Guru Granth Sahib? Well the definition of what exactly is our Guru is causing controversy in itself. Do we as Sikhs worship the teachings of our Gurus as our living Shabad Guru today, or do we worship the technology of that message, ie. the physical "book"? Sikhs are very quick to point out to the unfamiliar outsider that may visit a Gurdwara that 'no we are not idol worshippers' because of the way we treat Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara. The standard Sikh response is that we worship and show utmost respect to the wisdom of our Gurus enshrined in the book and are not worshipping the book itself. If we truly worship the message and not the messenger than why is there so much confusion starting to develop over what exactly is the Shabad Guru? Some say that the Guru can only be in book form in it's original Gurmukhi form. That the Guru can only be in one volume, not two or 8 volumes. How do we deal with translations of Sri Guru Granth Sahib into different languages? How do we deal with a CD containing the original Gurmukhi and a English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib? How do we deal with Gurmukhi and English versions of Sri Guru Granth Sahib being transmitted across the Internet?

What is our Guru? A good starting place to start in searching for answers can be found at the very end of Sri Guru Granth Sahib itself in Mundaavanee. Here Guru Arjan Dev Ji writes:

"Upon this Plate, three things have been placed: Truth, Contentment and Contemplation. The Ambrosial Nectar of the Naam, the Name of our Lord and Master, has been placed upon it as well; it is the Support of all. One who eats it and enjoys it shall be saved. This thing can never be forsaken; keep this always and forever in your mind. The dark world-ocean is crossed over, by grasping the Feet of the Lord; O Nanak, it is all the extension of God." (Guru Arjan Dev, Mundaavanee, pg. 1429)

Are Truth, Contentment and Contemplation not contained in two volumes, or on a Gurbani CD or a translation in another language or possibly transmitted across the Internet?

"The Ambrosial Word of Gurbani proclaims the essence of reality. Spiritual wisdom and meditation are contained within it. The Gurmukhs chant it, and the Gurmukhs realize it. Intuitively aware, they meditate on it." (Guru Angad Dev, pg. 1243)

Are spiritual wisdom, meditation and the essence of reality not contained in two volumes, or on a Gurbani CD or transmitted across the Internet or translated into another language?

The Gurus undertook missions to spread their teachings in the native languages of the people they came into contact with. They never believed in the exclusivity of their teachings or in a intellectual elite with a 'sacred' language.

"All the sources of creation, and all languages meditate on Him, forever and ever." (Guru Arjan Dev, pg. 456)

"Now, You are an Arab, now a Persian, now a Turk. Now the utterer of Pehlavi, now of Pashtu, now of Sanskrit, Now of the peoples tongue, now of the language of the gods." (Guru Gobind Singh, Akal Ustati)

Guru Amar Das, the Guru which helped to turn Sikhism into an organized institutional religion by sending Sikh missionaries to the various parts of Asia wrote:

"Enshrine the Lord's Name within your heart. The Word of the Guru's Bani prevails throughout the world; through this Bani, the Lord's Name is obtained." (Guru Amar Das, pg. 1066)

How could the Guru's Bani prevail throughout the world unless Guru Amar Das meant that the message of the house of Nanak as found in Sri Guru Granth Sahib transcends all cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Unlike the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Sikhism does not believe in the idea of a "chosen people", yet we continue to propagate our religion for the most part solely through inheritance. How can Sikhism ever become a major world religion if we stick to this "ghetto mentality"? The Gurus had a true world view of humanity as opposed to a "Punjabi-centric" view that most Sikhs hold today.

"The True Guru, the Primal Being, is kind and compassionate; all are alike to Him. He looks upon all impartially; with pure faith in the mind, He is obtained." (Guru Ram Das, pg. 300)

"The same eyes have they, the same ears, the same body, the same habits, a get-together of earth, air, water and fire. Allah is no different from Abhekha, the Puranas no different from the Quran. All men are made alike. They appear no different to me." (Guru Gobind Singh, Kabitas 71-90, Akal Ustati)

Only by returning to our missionary roots and realizing and accepting that Sikhism must be propagated based on it's virtues and principals as opposed to inheritance can we break free of this "ghetto mentality" which is seriously inhibiting the growth and global propagation of Sikhism.

Like most world religions today, we can see a divergence taking place. On one side you have people who have totally abandoned Sikhism or treat religion like a part time hobby. On the other end of the spectrum you have the development of hard-core fundamentalists with their "exclusive club" mentality, intolerance and attempts at distorting our religious heritage and history to accommodate their own views. Which is the more dangerous and destructive element? Narrow mindedness and intolerance is just as bad or worse than having no religion at all. Religion is not about showing others how devoted and religious a person one is, but actually living by the principles and teachings of the Gurus for ones own sake rather than for the sake of others.

"Whosoever assumes a religious garb pleases not God even a bit. O ye men, understand this clearly in your minds, that God is attained not through showmanship. They who practice deceit, attain not Deliverance in the Hereafter. They do so only to accomplish the affairs of the world and even the kings worship them for their appearance! But through showmanship, God is attained not, howsoever one searches. He who subdues his mind alone recognizes the Transcendent God." (Guru Gobind Singh, Chaupai 53-55, Chapter 6, Vachitra Natak)

The 5K's and physical distinctiveness of the Khalsa are a cornerstone of Sikhism and this will never change, nor should it. What has changed though is the shift in emphasis to the ritualization of our religion as opposed to understanding and applying the spiritual teachings of the Gurus. Sri Guru Granth Sahib has become something only accessible and understood by an elite minority. The majority are happy just to go to the Gurdwara and listen to the hymns and show respect to the "book" without understanding what they hear or read. The shift in emphasis has occurred over time because of a lack of religious education, both on the institutional level as well as the family level. Unless this disturbing trend is reversed Sikhism will become nothing but a religion of empty rituals.

"Kabeer, the paper is the prison, and the ink of rituals are the bars on the windows." (Bhagat Kabir, pg. 1371)

With a shift in emphasis to rituals, religion itself becomes a marketable commodity. We can see this in it's advanced stages in the Christian religion, but Sikhism is starting to follow this same trend. The religious experience itself is being exploited as a financial commodity and a money making scheme. This is clearly unacceptable according to the Sikh doctrine.

"Cursed are the lives of those who read and write the Lord's Name to sell it." (Guru Nanak Dev, pg. 1245)

"The Name of the Lord ó this alone is my wealth. I do not tie it up to hide it, nor do I sell it to make my living." (Bhagat Kabir, pg. 1157)

To help clearly define what a Sikh is and how a Sikh individual should lead their daily life in accordance with the spiritual principles of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Rehit Maryada was developed. A tremendous amount of work and effort went into creating the Rehit Maryada and it has been ratified and accepted by the entire Sikh people as their one and only Official Sikh Code of Conduct and Conventions. It must be realized that unlike Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Rehit Maryada is a dynamic document of Panthic consensus. As such it must be fully representative of the changes in society and take into account the Sikh Diaspora. The current Rehit Maryada contains such comments as:

"A Sikhs daughter must be married to a Sikh" (Chapter 11, Article 1
and "A baptized Sikh ought to get his wife baptized."

What does this mean? Does this mean that a Sikh's son may freely marry a non-Sikh? Does this mean that a baptized Sikh wife should not encourage her husband to also become a Khalsa?

"Nor must a lit lamp be placed beside or a cow got bestowed in donation" (Funeral Ceremonies, Article 19)

How realistic is such a scenario ever occurring outside of rural Punjab? Not very likely.

Because of it's dynamic nature and because the framework has already been laid, the Rehit Maryada needs to be constantly reviewed and updated to reflect current social realities. The Rehit Maryada is the document which every Sikh can turn to as a guide on how the universal spiritual principles of the Gurus found in Sri Guru Granth Sahib can be applied to their daily lives in order to be considered a Sikh and a member of the Sikh community at large. The fact that we have such a document for maintaining uniformity in Sikh practices around the world is a great accomplishment. But we can not rest on our laurels for having completed this great task. Instead the Rehit Maryada must be constantly updated to avoid it's obsolescence. It must be gender neutral, it must be geographically neutral and it must be a source of answers to new social issues and concerns which develop as society changes.

What is the Sikh view on homosexuality? What is the Sikh view of abortion? What is the Sikh view on divorce? What is the Sikh view on abortion? What is the Sikh view on euthanasia? What is the Sikh view on contraception and birth control? The current Rehit Maryada does not contain any answers to any of these questions. Answers to such questions can be found in the Living Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, but every Sikh currently has their own interpretations and views on these topics. It is precisely to avoid such a plurality of views and to foster Panthic uniformity as per the Sikh doctrine that we must rely on the Rehit Maryada to provide us with the answers.

Sikhs always like to talk and complain about what is wrong with other Sikhs, how they do not follow the vision of our Gurus and what they should be doing. There have been plenty of papers such as this which have clearly defined what problems we face or will face and what we should be doing. There is no shortage in that regard. The problem exists in having the collective willpower to enact the necessary solutions.

"Easy is it to utter and cause to utter. But difficult is it to accept Thy Will." (Guru Arjan Dev, pg. 51)

In conclusion it is my firm belief that the solutions to any challenges that Sikhs may face as a religion in the next millennia can only come about if we first start to make changes to our own way of thinking and acting on the individual level. The wisdom of the Gurus and their teachings are something too priceless which we cannot afford to loose due to our own shortsightedness or lack of vision.
Jul 13, 2004
Brilliant article. Religions like Sikhism, Hinduism and Jainism are going to die if they do not promote their religion. Also, they will die if they do not give rulings on such issues as abortion etc. The followers need to wake up before all is lost.


Jul 22, 2004
GurFateh Shri Sandeep Singh Brarji and GurFateh Shri Aman Singhji,

Sat Sri Akaal and Jai Shri Khalsa. Though I am not a Sikh by birth, your article is an eye-opener and can be applied to any religion. The quotes from venerable Guru jis are universal. You talked of two impediments "gheto mentality" and "exclusive club" mentality. This is true for all religions.

"Kabeer, the paper is the prison, and the ink of rituals are the bars on the windows." (Bhagat Kabir, pg. 1371).

"Now, You are an Arab, now a Persian, now a Turk. Now the utterer of Pehlavi, now of Pashtu, now of Sanskrit, now of the peoples tongue, now of the language of the gods." (Guru Gobind Singh, Akal Ustati)

"The same eyes have they, the same ears, the same body, the same habits, a get-together of earth, air, water and fire. Allah is no different from Abhekha, the Puranas no different from the Quran. All men are made alike. They appear no different to me." (Guru Gobind Singh, Kabitas 71-90, Akal Ustati)

Suppose, we apply these cardinal truths and you would find true sikhs everywhere but none armed with 5Ks probably. But you change the tune when you proclaim "The 5K's and physical distinctiveness of the Khalsa are a cornerstone of Sikhism and this will never change, nor should it". So there lies the catch for each and every religion. We give more importance to physical outfits and rituals more than spiritual content. The very outfit many times distances onlookers, who would otherwise like to become a part of the stream. But, this outfit gives a sense of religious identity as well to those who have religious inclination mostly by birth. As I said, it is not the issue confounding and confronting Sikhism alone but it is common to almost all religions.

Kindly pardon me in the Naam of Guruji if anything said or implied is wrong.

With personal regards,



Jul 22, 2004
dear Shri Aman veerji and Arvind veerji

Thank you for your encouragement and appreciation. For some reason, I could not sign in this site and hence the delay. Please do condone this delay.
jai Kalsa
With best regards

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Shabad Vichaar by SPN'ers

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