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What Shall I Call Thee?

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Aman Singh, Jun 1, 2010.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    What Shall I Call Thee?


    "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet."

    By those words, Shakespeare's Juliet meant to convince Romeo that a name is a contrived and meaningless tradition; that she loves him for who he is and he should not let his family name stand between them; thus trying to persuade Romeo to renounce his surname.

    Like the branch that is a limb of a tree, a person is an extension of a family and a clan and the name is what links a person to a family and in turn take on family or group identity and reputation.

    The people of ancient times gave a single personal name to their new born child. The system of choosing the name varied from culture to culture. The name may express hopes and aspirations as in Emilio (one who is industrious). The name may presage fate of the child as in Cuthbert (famous and brilliant). The name may be rooted in religion as in Abdullah (servant of God).

    In time, many people came to share the same single name requiring a definitive method of identifying who is who. This was achieved by the addition of a second name; and, again, the determinatives of identification varied. Among the Scottish Gaelic and the Norse, the second name was derived from one's father or paternal ancestor as in Mackenzie (son of Kenneth). Parsis of the subcontinent took the name from their trade as in Daruwalla (wine and spirit seller). The Jutts of Punjab chose their clan name as the fingerprint of their identity as in Sangha (settled mostly in Hoshiarpur district).

    By the Middle Ages, the second name was commonplace and acquired an emotive dynastic dynamics. The surname became a matter of pride encouraging the head of the family to keep the surname alive through a line of direct male descendants.

    On the subcontinent, a surname was traditionally determined by the position of the person in the highly structured Hindu caste system which was basically stratified by occupation, with the priestly class (brahmin) at the top. Within a particular caste, there were other criteria of ranking by sub-castes.

    The brahmins, however, were the ones who mastered the Sanskrit language which gave them power on liturgy and interpretation of the vedas and capability to perform Hindu rites and rituals. Ordinary people participated in the ritualism but with no understanding of the vedic utterances. The priest acted as an intermediary between God and the supplicant or devotee.

    Guru Nanak was to challenge the stranglehold of brahmanism who he felt asphyxiated the human spirit. He was to condemn the caste structure that stifled personal growth. He rejected religious rituals and simplified the Word of God in the vernacular of the times that every person could understand. Above all, he championed egalitarianism.

    Two hundred years later, Guru Nanak's message was renewed in a profound way. On Vaisakh day of 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh Gurus, introduced a whole new concept in the Amrit baptism. Before a multitudinous congregation that he had summoned to Anandpur, he baptized five fearless congregants with ties to different castes into a new religious order in a ceremony known as ‘Khande di Pahul'.

    The baptism represented a spiritual rebirth. It required the initiate to renounce surname and family ties; repudiate the faith of his ancestors, and cleanse himself of caste pollutants. The baptized was given a new name of "Singh" or "Kaur" and made a member of brotherhood of equals called the "Khalsa". Henceforth, they were to recognize only one God, carry a torch of truth, defend the vulnerable, fight tyranny and do away with superstitions, fasting, penances and pilgrimages.

    There is no rule on the acceptable age at which an initiate may be baptized. The agrarian culture considered fifteen years as the right age when a boy had acquired the skill and knowledge of of the trades of agriculture and animal husbandry from his father. The general benchmark for the initiate to be administered ‘Khande di Pahul' was that he/she be well versed in the principles of Sikh religion and have the maturity to commit to a life of commitment and discipline.

    Thus, Guru Gobind Singh introduced a novel form of name-giving by requiring the baptized to adopt ‘Singh' or 'Kaur' as their last name. Although the name ‘Singh' is fairly wide spread in India and its usage is common among other groups such as the Rajputs, Yadavs and scheduled classes, it is a mandatory name for male baptized Sikhs.

    The purist and the strict constructionist argue that the names ‘Singh' and 'Kaur' have to be earned and are reserved for those who have been administered ‘Khande di Pahul'. But a reality check will dispel the truthfulness of that notion. It is customary for a newly born son in a Sikh household to be given ‘Singh' as the second name on the birth certificate. Or 'Kaur' for a female. Such practice originates from a deep-seated belief that one born into a Sikh household is a Sikh.

    Such an indiscriminate use of the name ‘Singh' is argued by some to devalue the very essence of Guru Gobind Singh's noble idea of a brotherhood of saintly soldiers. Worse still are those going awry after having rightfully acquired the name ‘Singh' or 'Kaur' by undergoing baptism of ‘Khande di Pahul'.

    Some have chosen to singularize their identity by adding a third name, sort of a surname, as was done by the eminent Sikh poet Giani Gurmukh Singh, who served as Jathedar of the Akal Takht and also General Secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), who in assuming the takhallus ‘Musafir' (nom-de-plume) emphasized his occupation as a poet. Gurcharan Singh, former long serving President of SGPC, added ‘Tora', his ancestral birth place, to his name. Surjit Singh, former Chief Minister of Punjab, chose ‘Barnala' based on a place where he began his legal career. Even Jarnail Singh, a fervent advocate of the Khalsa creed, embraced the appellative Bhindranwale derived from Bhinder Kalan village where he once headed Damdami Taksaal ... and the list goes on and on.

    This urge to appropriate a name to differentiate oneself by occupation or place runs contrary to one's raison d'etre to be baptized a Khalsa. The names ‘Singh' and 'Kaur' that were meant to be neutral and negate ties to family and occupation are increasingly being qualified. By being assigned to a middle name, the splendor and nobility that Guru Gobind Singh embedded in the names ‘Singh' and 'Kaur' has been relegated to lower importance and beheld as an ordinary name.

    May 30, 2010


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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    Aman ji

    This is such a wonderful essay. So sensitively written.

    If I may reply in a personal way...I was not born into a Sikh family and I am not amritdhari. But I am "Kaur" and am comfortable with that because the "gyani" ji at gurdwara said, "You are a Kaur."

    I won't argue. :happykudi:
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