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Tribal Justice And Excommunication

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by IJSingh, Feb 18, 2010.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Sep 24, 2004
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    Tribal Justice<small> and Excommunication
    by I.J. SINGH</small>

    For Sikhs, the idea of "Excommunication" has dominated the news these days ever since this punishment was meted out to Prof. Darshan Singh, a celebrated exponent of gurbani. Mine is neither a defense nor castigation of the man. It is an exploration of the idea of ousting people from the community.

    Humans have a fairly young history on this planet and we still remain very much a tribal people at heart. What makes us "Top Dog" is neither speed nor strength because many other species are far better at those. It is our brain - our mind - that makes us supreme.

    How did people manage to survive and thrive? Primarily, by devising a strong socially bonded society - our tribal system. Our environment was often hostile; the tribe necessarily small, where each member knew everyone else. The enemy was the outsider - often easy to define.

    Tribes had rules and the members lived and died by them. Therein lay safety. In time, religions and kingdoms emerged to create larger tribal units that carried the seeds of much material progress.

    No matter the size, people had to design elaborate systems and laws to differentiate enemy from friend; survival depended on it. This is exactly what states and religions have always done. The first steps then came to define barriers and fences between neighbors.

    But how to keep the tribal members in line? Rules and expectations of ethical conduct evolved concomitant with a system of governance to ensure loyalty to the code of conduct. All the more important to be able to finger the renegade from within the community who fails to conform to the rules of the game. The enemy within is always the more dangerous.

    What then would be the most severe punishment for an enemy from within? It is to be derecognized as a member of the tribe. It is to be shunned by the community or to be ex-communicated and ousted from it. In days of yore, excommunication was sure death. Mercifully, no longer so. But the intent remains unchanged.

    In fact, when pronouncing the severest sanction of eviction from the community, some religious ceremonies require that the prayer for the dead be recited.

    We pride ourselves on our models of justice but, even though it has become significantly more nuanced and complex, our fundamental premise has changed very little. The idea is to no longer recognize the person who has sinned against his own people. Excommunication rhetorically asks: What greater sin could there be than the one of disloyalty to one's own people?

    Thinking thus brought home to me how other religions deal with "heretics" within their own traditions. Not surprisingly, I found little substantive variety in how heresy, disloyalty and blasphemy are now seen.

    It was not always thus; not so long ago, heretics were routinely burned at the stake or otherwise condemned to death. The nature of religious punishment and sanction has changed, primarily because a death sentence is now the prerogative of the state; no other controlling legal authority may impose such ultimate sanction. And governments guard this exclusive power jealously, strictly, forcefully and forcibly.

    Since these days we Sikhs are making so much unwelcome news - defined largely by the climbing decibel level, personal innuendo and emotion - it might be instructive to explore Sikh tradition in juxtaposition to the experience of some larger and older religious traditions.

    Historically, religions have used two different terms: Shunning and Excommunication - and I have trouble clearly delineating the difference between them. It seems that "Excommunication" comes to us principally from the Christian Church, while "Shunning" refers to its cultural antecedents, with or without religious overtones.

    Excommunication primarily implies religious transgression and is the most grave of all ecclesiastical censures; it literally means not in communion or communication. In Christian parlance, this means that the person is no longer to receive communion at the church.

    We might recall that the late Senator Edward Kennedy, after his divorce and remarriage, was not allowed to receive communion in the Roman Catholic Church. This then is spiritual. Other forms of censure, such as shunning, banishment from the church and community, or public damnation may follow. Those who die in a state of excommunication are not to be prayed for publicly - hence neither public prayer for them in a church, nor burial in hallowed ground.

    But as for all sinners, forgiveness and return to the fold on repentance is possible. Witness the example of Galileo who was excommunicated, and later forgiven 500 years later. Depending on the gravity of the issue, a decree of forgiveness may only be granted at the level of the Holy See. This speaks of an elaborate judicial process. Very few Protestant churches use excommunication.

    In Islamic Law (Sharia), an individual or group may be branded *****, meaning non-believer. Even in recent times, we also see honour killings as well as Muslim sinners being stoned or their body parts amputated in punishment handed down by Muslim clergy. Judaism allows the exclusion of an individual from religious community through the Cherem, a solemn ritual equivalent to excommunication. Both Muslims and Jews have a living tradition of religious Courts, even though sects differ in their interpretation and application. The best known Jew to be ostracized was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

    Hinduism, perhaps because of the multiplicity of traditions within it, and Buddhism, do not appear to subscribe to the concept of excommunication. However, banishment and singularly harsh punishment in Hindu society based on infringement of the laws of caste is pervasive and still practiced. One only has to peruse Hindu laws as codified by Manu to see their mind-boggling complexity.

    Religions that have a functioning ecclesiastical system of justice do present a finely calibrated gradation of religious punishment within the general rubric of excommunication or shunning.

    Shunning removes the lawbreaker from the community and its life. This could include varying degrees of social boycott, including not being welcome to shop in the community's marketplace. The degree of shunning, I suppose, depends on the nature and severity of the sin. Shunning thus can be particularly painful to the shunnee, even more so than religious excommunication.

    The Sikh practice on such matters is more complex than it seems, possibly because our religion is so young. But every religion has to have an internal system of conflict resolution. And we do as well.

    The Gurus gave us the rudiments of a good, forward-looking one, but we seem not have valued it or really done anything with it. Let's parse some givens and see where they lead us.

    Guru Hargobind gave us the Akal Bunga. Known through much of Sikh history as the Akal Takht, it has been the site where matters impacting our survival and affecting our existence could be discussed and decided. To the Sikh psyche, where the Harmandar is the epitome of our inner spiritual journey (Piri), the Akal Takht signifies the external world and worldly matters (Miri) for the collective Panth. The two remain inseparably intertwined. Therefore, to me, arguments that Guru Hargobind did not grant us the Akal Takht where justice could be rendered sound silly.

    Two historical nuggets might be instructive.

    Guru Har Rai shunned his own son Ram Rai because he had changed a line of gurbani in deference to Emperor Aurangzeb.

    The second matter speaks of an occasion when Guru Gobind Singh and some Sikhs passed by the gravesite of a respected Muslim, and the Guru saluted it with his arrow. In the traditional Indian culture, that is not uncommon but Sikhs are enjoined to refrain from such acts of reverence to the dead. The Sikhs took exception to the Guru's action. The Guru paid a fine as penalty. He was thus testing the judgment, maturity and independence of Sikhs.

    These examples tell me that Sikhs are expected to design and operate a system of justice that would govern their lives.

    The fact that Sikhs compiled the Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) in the 20th century and also created a new Takht (seat of authority) as recently as 1966, tell me that the collective body of the Sikhs (Panth) has the authority to create institutions for both their spiritual and temporal needs.

    From such reasoning, I conclude that Sikhs can design and refine an ecclesiastical system of internal justice. We have a rudimentary system in place that is largely dysfunctional at this time. Not to fix it would be an abrogation of the rights, privileges and duties as Sikhs that are granted to us by our Founder-Gurus.We now have a panel of five Jathedars who manage the five existing Takhts.

    At this time, two of the five Jathedars do not seem to subscribe to the Rehat Maryada. This would be somewhat akin to a situation in the United States if three or four judges of the nine on the Supreme Court did not accept the primacy of the Constitution as a binding document. This absurdity tells me that our Sikh system of justice is currently broken.

    Nevertheless, even with this sadly imperfect system, over the years we have judged some Sikhs wanting and prescribed varying punishments: Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a much admired ruler of his time; the former Chief Minister of Punjab, Surjeet Singh Barnala; and Professors Piar Singh and Pashaura Singh come to mind. Some Sikhs have been excommunicated - Teja Singh Bhassaur, Prof. Gurmukh Singh, and now Prof. Darshan Singh.

    The first two expulsions were later reversed; the last happened only days ago. I know that this list here is incomplete.

    In Sikh parlance, the person who has been judged guilty is a "Tankhahiyya" - someone against whom a penalty has been levied. In its severest form - that hearkens back to our tribal ways - the writ requires Sikhs to not break bread with the excommunicated, nor marry a daughter to such a person or his son. Apparently this stricture does not apply to marrying one's son to the daughter of the guilty parent. Why? Because in the traditional Indian culture, at marriage, a daughter adopted the customs and the way of life of her husband and in-laws, but the converse did not happen. This appears to be a patently unfair idiosyncrasy of the patrilineal, feudal Indian social reality - needing serious reinterpretation.

    The edict asks the faithful to practice a total social boycott of the guilty person. Clearly, it does not stop the excommunicated from attending religious services at the gurdwara, since gurdwaras are open to all, even non-Sikhs, but probably bans the guilty from a visibly active role there.

    Sikhs are now found all over the globe but those in the diaspora are not represented in the hierarchy of our religio-political institutions in India. They have to be equal partners in the equation, along with the India-based Sikh organizations, such as the Sikh elective representative bodies in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (SGPC) and Delhi (DGPC). Clearly, the writ of these two bodies does not span the whole of India, much less the rest of the world.

    At this time, of course, there are many structural issues with the Takhts and their Jathedars - they owe their positions to the S.G.P.C., which owes its own existence to an act of the Indian Parliament dating back to the Colonial era. This remains an historical anomaly for an independent religion in a free country. The Jathedars, at this time, are a hostage to Punjabi and Indian politics.

    Keep in mind that while we respect the office, we may not always be that kindly disposed towards each incumbent. As an example, the Presidency (in the U.S.A.) is universally respected, the person who occupies it at any given time may not be.

    I can envision the Takht Jathedars acting collectively as the Supreme Court of the Sikhs. The infrastructure needed for such a Rota or the "Sikh Supreme Court" does not exist at this time. In such a theoretical model, how would the Jathedars be appointed and how would they be impeached and removed, if necessary. What authority and independence would they have? What qualifications and worldview? A credible scholar, Dr. J.S. Neki, has raised these concerns in a recent publication. I, too, have debated these inter-related issues in other essays that are available on sikhchic.com and elsewhere.

    It is important that we continue to accept the reality of the existing system while developing the movement for change. Success will come, but not in a day. Yet, we need to evolve our own local and regional institutions - not to challenge the Akal Takht as a competing center of power, for that would be throwing out the baby with the bath water - but because we need them to address our local and regional concerns.

    The Rota of five Jathedars, like the Supreme Court, need not be involved in every petty issue - from local gurdwara membership; local election disputes, to the matter of tables and chairs in local langars. The Akal Takht (in consort with the other four Jathedars) should act as the highest authority only when matters before it are of significance to the larger body of Sikhs worldwide. And then it would act in continuation of what local and regional bodies (like lower courts in secular society) have already considered.

    In this system, I would anoint the Akal Takht as the seat of the Chief Justice, because it would be consistent with our history and tradition.

    In the meantime, I wrestle - along with many readers - with how the concept of excommunication fits in a religion that, at its core, is a forgiving tradition grounded in humility.

    My point is that such systemic changes as I suggest today flow neatly from our tradition; they are not a departure from it, and that the Sikhs worldwide have the authority to institute them.

    We need both short-term answers that would likely not be entirely satisfactory to our problems today, while we continue to work on some long-term solutions.

    It seems to me that, at the end of the day, all justice is tribal, and that's what it should always be, even when we have a tribe that is all over the world. Justice has to operate by rules that the tribe finds fair, progressive, representative and transparent, as well as protective of its interests.


    February 18, 2010

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  3. arshi

    arshi United Kingdom
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    Aug 20, 2009
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    <SPAN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; COLOR: #001f4b; FONT-SIZE: 11pt">An excellent and balanced view of our current problems.<?"urn:[​IMG]
    IJ Singh ji has gone to the root of the issue whilst at the same time proposed ways of handling the situation in the short term and simultaneously searching for the longer term solutions. He has done so in a manner where “he neither defends nor castigates the man”. This is the kind of approach I have been advocating for some time – i.e. efforts to heal rather than inflict more injury and pain. We need more individuals, intellectuals, institutions and media joints to come forward and pave the way for lasting Unity in the Panth.

    He cited the incident where “Guru Har Rai shunned his own son Ram Rai because he had changed a line of gurbani in deference to Emperor Aurangzeb”. I quoted this in another thread (action against those honouring Ragi). However, I found the second incident quite interesting – one I had read or heard about many years and virtually forgotten – thanks IJ Singh ji for refreshing the memory. Each case must be judged on its merits.

    Rajinder Singh ‘Arshi’
    #2 arshi, Feb 20, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 10, 2015
  4. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
    Mentor Writer SPNer Thinker

    Jul 4, 2004
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    In the Malaysian Context (Islamic Society is majority) the Male Tribe is exerting Gender Control via CANING women for extramarital sexual offenses when the men go scott free as it requires five reliable wittnesses while the woman is automatically guilty - much easier to prove guilt ... if she becomes pregnanant !!..
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