Sikhism in the 21st Century - The Challenging Road Ahead
by Sandeep Singh Brar
"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
"God is not
found by intellectual devices; He is unknowable and unseen." (Guru Arjan
"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
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 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
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)
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:
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
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,
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.
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.
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 Rehat Maryada was developed. A tremendous amount of work
and effort went into creating the Rehat 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 Rehat 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 Rehat Maryada
contains such comments as:
"A Sikhs daughter
must be married to a Sikh" (Chapter 11, Article 18) 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,
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
Rehat Maryada needs to be constantly reviewed and updated to reflect
current social realities. The Rehat 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 Rehat 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 Rehat 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 Rehat 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.