Standing Logic On Its Head

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Jun 1, 2004
Analogies go only so far. To push them further doesn't serve reason very well, but the temptation is often hard to resist. This is surely true of interfaith comparisons.

We are going to illustrate our concerns by some obvious and some not-so-obvious examples of stretching reason beyond the elasticity inherent in it.
Our thought process in this case started with contemplating the janaeu, the so-called "sacred thread" which upper-caste Hindu males wear diagonally across their torso. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, rejected it and refused to wear it when it was proffered to him in a coming-of-age ceremony when he was around 12 years old.
The thread was not available to any females or to those males who came from the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, the Sudras. The number of strands in the twisted thread varied according to caste - the Brahmin rating more than the Kshatriya and Vaisya. For Brahmins, the thread was made of cotton, for Kshatriyas, it was of hemp, and for Vaisyas, wool. Boys from Brahmin families underwent this rite-of-passage sometime between the ages of five and eight, Kshatriya boys between the ages of nine and twelve, and Vaisyas at a slightly older age.
Nanak's words at that time, which form an unforgettable hymn in the Guru Granth, recognized that the janaeu had become the focal point of a discriminatory and divisive ritual.
Instead of wearing a mere thread, which could break or become soiled, Guru Nanak advised:
Out of the cotton of compassion,
Spin the thread of contentment,
Tie the knot of continence,
Give it the twist of virtues;
Make such a sacred thread
O Pundit, for your inner self.
Such a thread will not break,
Nor get soiled, be burnt, be lost,
Blessed is the man, O Nanak,
Who makes it part of his life.
This cotton thread, for a penny you buy
Sitting in a square, mud-plastered,
You put it around the necks of others.
In the ears some words you whisper, O Brahmin,
And claim to be a spiritual teacher.
With death of the wearer falls the thread,
Thus without the thread he departs from the earth.

The Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, enjoined Sikhs to wear five Kakaars, or articles of faith, among which are Kesh, i.e., long, unshorn head hair, including an untrimmed beard for men, and fully intact hair wherever it appears on the body; a sword (Kirpan); and a steel bracelet (Kara).
Not surprisingly, there are Sikhs who find some of these requirements onerous, perhaps outmoded and unnecessary in this day and age. And they often cast their arguments imaginatively.
Isn't it true, they ask, that the kirpan is required only of Amritdhari Sikhs - those who have been formally initiated into the faith - and not of the many that are not? As a weapon, they continue, isn't it surely overrated in this day of handguns and Uzis? And didn't Guru Gobind Singh decree that Sikhs should wear a kirpan simply because in those days, enemies surrounded them and they never knew when the foe would strike next?
So, according to these doubting Thomases, hasn't the kirpan, worn strapped into its gatra, become our janaeu that hangs as a useless, anachronistic relic around us?
Similarly, for the long, unshorn hair and the turban. Some are tempted to argue that, if it is permissible to reduce the length of one kakkar - the kirpan - from its full size of three feet to a mere several inches, for the sake of practicality and comfort of the wearer, why can't the same be done with another Kakkar - our Kesh - to enhance the wearer's ease and convenience?
And, as some naysayers would further continue, don't some Sikhs who keep kesh believe that, on the weight of this factor alone, they are somehow superior to those who have chosen to cut their hair and discard the turban? So then, they ask, how is kesh different from the janaeu of the Hindus that Guru Nanak rejected?
As for the kara, for some Sikhs who sport one made of gold, isn't it a way to proclaim one's personal wealth (or that of one's parents or in-laws)? For many others, it seems to have taken on a protective guise: much as the wearer of the janaeu was supposedly safeguarded by the Hindu gods and goddesses, the kara is deemed to supernaturally invoke the protection of the Guru. So how is it different from the upper-caste Hindu thread, some would argue?
We think that such reasoning is facile, but false. It pushes the analogy beyond its limits and stands logic on its head. There are some fundamentals being sidestepped here. It must be kept in mind that the significance of these markers is not readily transferable from one tradition to the other.
A major difference between the janaeu and the Sikh articles of faith is that the janaeu, at least to the ordinary follower, promises rewards in this life or the hereafter, and invokes safety for the wearer from various dangers and sources of evil.
Clearly, none of the Sikh symbols possess these putative attributes. While they are indeed powerful connecting links to centuries of Sikh history and the glorious heritage of our Gurus, they do not promise that the wearer will thereby attain nirvana, become privy to special knowledge, or gain divine protection. These primordial distinctions must stay paramount in one's mind.
We readily concede that the kirpan remains both a symbol and a weapon. As the latter, it was considered utilitarian in the era of Guru Gobind Singh, when Sikhs were constantly liable to attacks by omnipresent enemies. Although the times may have diminished its importance as an arm, it endures as a potent reminder of the ever-present need for justice and courageous resolve.
Unlike the janaeu, which serves to separate and differentiate between fellow human beings, the kirpan - which stands for a Sikh's commitment to defend and uplift the oppressed and downtrodden - recognizes the inherent unity and equality of all mankind. These attributes must not be underestimated.
It is also true that many Sikhs who wear long, unshorn hair and a turban have little or no understanding of the meaning and magic of the more than 300 years of unbroken tradition that mandates them, and their lives have little or no connection to Sikhi. The requirement that all hair on head and body be left fully intact is not different for different Sikhs; for all Sikhs, it is universal. In keeping with the gender equality that lies at the core of Sikhi, the injunction applies equally to females.
Unlike the number of strands mandated for the Hindu janaeu, the long hair or turban does not vary with the wearer's social status. In a timeless and universal way, Kesh remains - and will always remain - the pre-eminent marker of the Sikh faith.
The kara is a kakkar commonly worn by most Sikhs, regardless of their degree of personal observance. It symbolizes, among other things, the necessity of righteous action, as well as the wearer's attachment and fidelity to the Guru (like a wedding ring). It is meant to be a simple wristband of steel or sarbloh.
Wearing a kara made of a precious metal, such as gold, *******s its true meaning and reduces it from an article of faith to a showy adornment or item of jewelry.
Simplistic comparisons are easily propounded, but almost always remain of minimal value. These types of analogies, especially in matters of religion, must not be pushed too far or too fast. Even a flexible balloon will surely burst when over-inflated beyond its elasticity.
Symbols like unshorn hair and turbans, kirpans, and karas are too substantial and powerful to ignore. Their connection to who we are and the ideals we must continually strive for is too obvious to miss. These markers are tangible and real. And that is how they serve their purpose and maintain their relevance in our modern, everyday lives.
Remaining ever vigilant that these articles of faith not get debased or morph into janaeus around our necks now becomes our onus.
[Gurbani translation from The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs by Trilochan Singh et al., UNESCO-Orient Longman, 1960, p 92]

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