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The Fallen Amongst Us. Thoughts On Life’s Mixed Moral Compass


Sep 24, 2004
Thoughts on Life’s Mixed Moral Compass
by I.J. Singh & Gurpal Singh Bhuller

Common sense and history tell us that individual humans are too frail to survive. Families, communities, neighborhoods, nations and religions help us thrive; such are the existential threats that face us.


Modern social science further posits that religion is the glue that binds a people. In time the tried and true elements of this glue – traditions -- become sacred. Thus evolve sacred laws -- Canonical ways of a society. A code is necessary for a religious society just as secular laws are to a secular society.

Today, let’s briefly explore the Sikh religious code of conduct.

The unwritten social contract between an individual and his religion holds that in return for the community’s protective shield, members obey the rules. Also that community practices are transparent and apply equally to all without overt bias. In many ancient faiths oral tradition might rule for millennia. In time, a written Code usually emerges.

Sikhs, too, have a written Code of Conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada or SRM) that the community codified in the mid-20th century, a good two centuries after the Guru-period. Many of the practices from which it is drawn are rooted in the unwritten oral tradition; their evidentiary rules less rigorous than we might want. So, in exploring them, keep in view the cultural context and the march of time.

True that input of overseas Sikhs was also sought in the compilation of this code, but it is derived largely from the traditions of Punjab where Sikhi took root, where the overwhelming majority of Sikhs lived then and still does. But Sikh population has expanded exponentially and Sikhs have taken Sikhi to the far corners of the world.

In this wide world, wildly differing cultures, languages and laws impact Sikhs; the result often is an apparent, sometimes very visible, conflict. From the countless possible examples we cite only the issue of the Turban in France or the carrying of the Kirpan at airports etc.

To revisit the existing SRM, we first need a system where the Sikhs conclaves scattered all over the globe have a voice in a transparent system of participatory self-governance, such as the one comprised of 12 community tribes (?) or Misls in the immediate post Guru period.

Such an overarching community cannot be constructed overnight. But it’s a core need today.

Keep in mind that, at present, the election to the only representative body of the Sikhs (SGPC – Shrimoni Gurduara Parbandhak Committee) is subject to the laws of a nominally secular democracy (India). Ergo, the structure and actions 0f SGPC are debated and decided by a predominantly non-Sikh legislature. Also its representation and writ are limited to parts of India, and are not operative worldwide. In the1920’s, this was the only available option; India was a British colony and the SGPC had emerged out of a titanic struggle with the British. India is now an independent republic and such a model is an anathema to Sikhs.

It would also be difficult to rewrite the SRM in Punjab given the flagrantly corrupt and politicized leadership, and the cultural ambience. How the SRM should be revisited by Sikhs both in and outside India remains a seminal question.

A revised SRM should ensure that procedural issues are precisely spelled out. Matters like standards of evidence, access to legal counsel and witnesses, rules of testimony, rebuttal and cross examination, and opportunity to mount a fair and vigorous defense are paramount. Equally critical need is that the judges be steeped in Sikhi – its history, traditions and teachings, and also have a judicious temperament. Then there are

the imperatives of this age like digital gurbani and online-driven gurbani research and even some social issues such as same sex unions etc. There are a plethora of sensible rules that need to govern us that we can import from progressive societies.

In other words, how do we guarantee a fair trial and not a rigged Kangaroo court, in spite of the Indian cultural propensity for the latter? Remember that the Guru is not full of anger but is benevolent, forgiving guiding light towards a better life, and that is the core idea here.

Our world now is a very different reality. Many issues that we merely hint at today deserve independent essays. To steer the readers in this direction is our purpose.

What happens when an individual flouts societal rules? A secular society has laws; a religious community has its list of transgressions and how one may atone for sins, both large and small. Everyone is fallible, no matter the religion, culture, nationality, color, race, gender or age.

Today we aim to p{censored} the vocabulary of transgressions in Sikhi. One of us (IJS) has, in earlier essays, explored institutional framework for an incremental system of social justice in Sikhi, and today we will refer to it in passing.

Many religions, such as Islam or Christianity, categorize human sins into venal or minor and mortal or serious. In minor sins the connection of the believer and the faith is not shattered; the mis-steps become easier to correct and forgive. Mortal sins create a rift that is not so easily spanned. The Sikh Code of Conduct, too, has such a bicameral structure.

In Sikhi parlance, those whose behavior is unbecoming of a Sikh are labeled Tankhaiya or Patit in Punjabi. The former has Arabic roots; the latter comes to us from Sanskrit. Tankhaiya is someone who has been judged guilty and assigned a penalty; Patit points to someone seriously fallen from the normative standard. The term Patit appears to apply to the four cardinal (Bajjar) infractions in the SRM, not to lesser sins. The term kurehit indicates a sin –major or minor.

The closest English equivalent of Patit – apostate --comes to us from Church history; but the transfer to our culture does not sit well; in practice the term “apostate” gives us trouble.

The dictionary meaning of apostate is someone who has abandoned his religion. But it has also acquired some extreme connotations that have no place in Sikhi. For instance, apostasy is a serious offence that often carries a death penalty in many Islamic societies, but never in Sikhi.

Clearly, apostasy has no theological basis in Sikhi as there is no punishment for those who leave the fold of the Panth; anyone is free to enter, re-enter or leave the world of Sikhi. Thus there should be no concept as apostasy or its equivalent in Gurbani.

The words Paapee and Manmukh do appear in Gurbani, but they are in the context of those who have strayed from the path of Sikhi or the Guru’s teachings, but not abandoned Sikhi.

Traditionally, forgiveness is generously offered and usually tied to a penalty of community service for a fixed duration; public confession by the sinner in the congregation drives this process. But there is a caveat: Departures from the SRM like telling a small (white?) lie, a little pilfering in business or a glass of wine would not rise to the level of apostasy. On the other hand, they would if the magnitude changes to pilfering like in a Ponzi scheme at the level of Bernie Madoff who bilked investors out of billions. But, much really depends upon the vision of the sangat of the area; we do not yet have a clearly and precisely defined list to guide us.

The language of Sikhi offers a rich lexicon offering graded definitions of terms like “manmukh, patit, paapi, tankhaaya and doshi” etc. Here manmukh applies to a person who has spiritually turned away from the Guru and his message. Doshi is someone who has been judged guilty, whether in the religious or secular world. Paapi, Patit and Tankhaaya refer to one judged a sinner in religious terms. We leave to readers whether these words reflect a hierarchy of sinful deportment. Today we are not at all aiming at constructing a Sikh Penal Code.

In the Encyclopedia of Sikhism(Punjabi University, Patiala) a patit is a Sikh who commits a religious misdemeanor or transgression, yet does not forsake his professed faith. He may seek redemption and may be readmitted to the communion after due penance. Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha) in his magnum opus, Mahan Kosh states that an apostate is one who has fallen from his faith (“Dharam to digia hoia “). He does not specify by what standards or how far is the fall.

In common parlance, Patit commonly refers to someone who has violated Sikh principals and specifically refers to those who, having been keshadhari before, now have cut their hair.

The SRM does not define what a “patit “is, but it does demand that the four “kurehits” be shunned. These are:

  1. Dishonoring the hair by cutting or shaving. But what about dyeing or tweaking eyebrows – we leave the question to readers for now.
  2. Eating the meat of an animal slaughtered the Kutha way – Halaal as required by Islam,
  3. Cohabiting with a person other than one's spouse. Mind you, SRM is silent on same sex unions, and
  4. Using tobacco. Now often more widely interpreted as a ban on all mind altering drugs including alcohol.
Many Sikhs live at the periphery of the Sikh faith; some of them chose to cut their hair, yet remain connected to Sikh religious culture and its many practices. They oftenresent the commonly applied label of patit, because the label “apostate” carries substantial baggage from the Biblical religions.

Keep in mind that a man who cuts his hair is often accepted within the community as a Sikh of “Sehajdhari” status; literally as a Sikh who is slowly on his path. This is in contrast to the keshadhari Sikh who decided to reject the markers of the faith that he was practicing earlier. But in conversation the distinction gets muddled. In widespread practice it is only this criterion that is used to brand someone a patit.

Speaking of “patit” in ordinary patois reminds us of the infamous “N” word in contemporary Americanese. This change has occurred in less than 50 years but addressing a Black American as “Negro” is now universally condemned, even though the word literally means Black. Words do change in usage and context over time; we need to respect that.

The label of patit has similarly acquired considerable unwelcome baggage. The sehajdhari feels slighted when he should never be diminished. The “patit” still feels entitled to equal membership and recognition within the Sikh community and often resents the loss of place.

The distinction matters but with one caveat. The place of worship – gurduara -- is open to all – patit or sehajdhari, even a non-Sikh. This is important and must never be swept aside. In fact, no activity or service that is part of the gurduara worship should be taboo to anyone who enters a gurduara. We look at the Sikhs somewhat as racers at a marathon. There are some who will finish it in record time, followed all the way down by those who might never reach the end zone. But they are all on the same path, running their way towards the same goal.

As is true with any society of laws clarity is a goal that often eludes us. Look again at the few sins listed as the most serious in the SRM. Apparently it was a much simpler existence in a society that offered fewer temptations and constraints. We listed a few earlier like dyeing the hair, the widespread use of alcohol and other drugs as lubricants of social interaction, and the silence on same sex unions.

There is now hardly a part of the world or a profession where Sikhs are not. They are bankers, investors and hedge fund managers. Some get seduced by financial jiggery- pokery and such “white collar crimes” that are not singled out in the SRM.

Do they get a free pass in our Code of Conduct? Should this be so?

We all know the many amritdhari Sikhs who run liquor stores or service stations where they also sell cigarettes. Without exception their defense is simple: “I run an honest business. I personally do not smoke or drink. I am selling a product that customers want and this is how I put food on the table for my family. I always donate ten percent of my income to the gurduara.”

How about those who have undergone the Sikh rite of confirmation (Amrit ceremony) and now flaunt many vices including the four cardinal ones listed in the SRM? And how about stealing, mayhem and murder, female infanticide, cheating in business – the list is endless. Forget not that the goal of a religion is to make us more productive ethical citizens whose lives are undergirded by a spiritual core.

Many of our community leaders would hang on one or more issues listed here but, like the Teflon-coated, none of their sins stick to them. Many of our less than perfect leaders look at tithing (dasvandh) as the cleanser.

It takes our breath away. Do you think this is sustainable logic or it is just so much sophistry?

The problem remains that issues like these are not listed ad infinitum in the SRM, which was constructed for a different reality at a different time. Times have changed; we seem to have stayed put or even regressed.

How should the Panth today deal with infractions of its code? Let’s float some possibilities. The best, of course, is when the accused himself steps forward to confess.

Infractions that appear to violate the Sikh Code of Conduct (SRM) or the rules of society cannot be ignored. This code asks that the offender be subject to a tankhah or a penalty that is decided and imposed by five Gur-Sikhs -- in other words, it invokes the institution of the first five who were initiated as the Khalsa in 1699. Five ordinary Sikhs sitting in collective authority can render judgment after due deliberation.

Doesn’t that idea remind one of “trial by a jury of peers”? These Five Sikhs should be first instructed on their responsibilities just as a jury would be. Due process and deliberation are the operative concepts here.

Severe transgressions mandate public confession in sangat . The punishment should not be arbitrary or limited only to recitations of gurbani, cleaning shoes of the sangat at the gurduara or service in the Gurus’ free kitchen (langar), possibly while wearing a plaque around the neck confessing one’s guilt.

In just about all religions, including Sikhism, serious violations are punished with shunning or expulsion from community. Given the idea of a “Big Tent” that embraces all Sikhs, good and not so good; we need to reject expulsions etc.

We are all imperfect and fallible. Gurbani tells us so and life reinforces the lesson every day. In looking at Sikhs in the gurduara – for management or in sangat – let’s measure them with forgiveness in our hearts. Searching for the perfect Sikh can be counterproductive; perfect can then become the enemy of the good. Let’s practice a bit of what we repeat in every Ardaas when we remember with respect those who turn a blind eye to the imperfections of others – “Jinaa dekh ke unditth keeta ….”

History and tradition should guide us and not become chains that bind us to the past. The Akaal Takht is too remote and disconnected from the worldwide Sikh communities. Running to the Akaal Takht at the onset of a dispute robs us of self-governance.

The first place for correcting misbehavior in the family is within the family. When the norms of a social contract are flouted the best place for justice is in the community where the transgression occurred and not thousands of miles away in a distant land.

So the first (lowest level) of the Sikh judicial system should arise from within the local gurduara. Where should the judges come from? Obviously, from the local Sikh community.

What should the punishment be?

Again we need not be tied irretrievably to the traditional tankhah. Sometimes an apology might suffice, other times a ban from office for a specified period would do, or a monetary fine; the option of service in langar or similar functions could be alternatives. Community service can be a broad expansive idea with endless possibilities.

Think of a secular society: punishment for crimes run the gamut from death or imprisonment for varying lengths to fine, apology or just plain social service or parole with its reporting requirements of watchful waiting.

We need to be creative in sentencing. The purpose is to rehabilitate, not destroy the sinner.

So, we recommend the following initial procedural step when questionable activity by a Sikh is encountered:

Create a tribunal from the membership rolls of the gurduara that is in trouble to render a verdict. Nothing better, if it is acceptable to both sides. If procedural or judgmental disagreements persist impanel new tribunal derived from the community in a neighboring state or states. If this closes the matter, great; if not, the next step would be an appeal to a national or supranational organization. Akaal Takht should remain the last resort when all other means have failed.

The tribunal structure should depend on the composition of the community. Whether the tribunal members are amritdhari or nor depends on how the community sees itself in the larger scheme of things and the local constraints in which they live. Clearly, at each step of this proceeding the accused has due process, including the opportunity to mount a vigorous defense.

An incremental system of judicial process is not easy but it is necessary and doable. The first step, a prerequisite for the whole interconnected system, is not difficult to envision or create.

People, no matter which faith community they belong to, operate with a mixed moral compass. Keep in mind that Sikhi is a lifestyle that offers second chances.

Let our initiative be driven from the bottom up. It will never work if it is imposed from the top, wherever that top is.

As guiding principles two time worn adages come to mind:The first is “Think globally but act locally.” The second reminds us that “Here but for the grace of God go I.”

August 21, 2015
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