As religious and ethnic minorities are being threatened across the world from groups such as the RSS in India, radical Islamic terror groups in the Middle East and Africa and white supremacist groups in Europe and North America, Sikhs are faced with various questions –
What does this mean for us? How can we survive in what appears to be an increasing hostile world?
One thing is for sure, as a rapidly globalized community our future does NOT lie in Punjab or Punjabi culture. There are a number of factors which leads one to come to this conclusion. First, based on the last census, the proportion of Sikhs in Punjab has been rapidly declining and it is predicted to dip from the current 60% to below 50% within the next 20 years. Second, especially amongst the Sikh heartlands of Majha and Malva, we are seeing a dramatic rise in conversions, particularly amongst Dalit Sikhs to other faiths, especially Christianity and Buddhism. Third, the rapid rise of sects (deras) is leading to fragmentation of Sikh communitites. Fourth, due to rapid increase in drugs and alcohol addiction, coupled with the poisoning of the water supply, dramatic decrease in fertility levels. And last and perhaps most significantly there continues to be a rapid exodus of Sikhs from Punjab to Europe, North America and Australia.
Though the vast majority of Sikhs still live in Punjab, the reality is that, due to a combination of the association with the British Empire and their industrious nature, Sikhs have been rapidly spread throughout the world for the past 100 years. In this regard, we are very much a nomadic people and we live in different cultural contexts, some Islamic, some secular and some in between. For some the displacement of Sikhs from the Punjab is a sign of decline, but for others this can be seen as a strength. However, what cannot be denied is that the uprooting from one cultural context to another does challenge ones sense of cultural, if not religious identification, particularly so as one seeks to or is pressurized to assimilate into the host society culture. And there can be no doubt that Sikhs have by and large ben very successful at doing this, though this in itself creates tensions about Sikh cultural and religious identity, particularly so in relation to outward expressions associated with the turban and beard.
Looking forward, it seems to be Sikhs are at something of a crossroad about how to envisage their future; as a globalized diaspora or as new emergent and relatively independent groups of communities seting root in different parts of the word. Though I am not normally an advocate of the Darwinian mantra of survival of the fittest i.e. those that are able to adapt to the prevailing environmental and social conditions, there is a truism here. Ultimately this will mean that we will need to tolerate plurality within Sikh, or at least find a way of meshing into different cultural contexts. That does not mean that we should do away with fundamental Sikh tenants, but it does mean we should avoid a slippery slope towards our own version of Sharia law as we compete to impress each other with our superior maryada.
The Panth parvanath maryada is often criticised for being ‘minimalist’. Actually that was the very purpose of the document, namely, to establish a principled but broad and inclusive conception of Sikhi. What makes it such an impressive document is its progressive stance on issues of gender, class/caste and social divisions in general, as well as its emphasis on rationality. The rejection of Indian cultural rituals and superstitious beliefs gives it a flexibility and adaptability to reach out into other cultures across the world. Moreover, by investing his authority in the institution of the Panj Piaraay, in effect Guru Gobind Singh Ji gave the Sikhs the authority to amend and develop Sikh docrine in the light of social, cultural and political changes and contexts. Whether one is a religion, company or country, the inability to change, innovate and operate flexibly is a sure path to self-destruction.
In this regard, we could learn a lot of lessons from the oldest faith systems that continue to survive, namely, Christianity, Hinduism and to a lesser extent Jeudaism. We could, for example, learn a lot from the recent pronouncement by Pope Francis 1 when he stated that God was not a “magician with a magic wand”. He continued by stating that God “created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment. The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it… Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” We can, in this profound statement, see what the Church has been doing for centuries, namely, to update their interpretation of faith in the light of the development of knowledge and discovery. The question is, how do we Sikhs respond to the profound discoveries that are being made in a unique period in human history, where within second ideas can be shared across the planet, where the hegemony of vested interests can be easily undermined.
Personally, I feel the Popes pronouncement sits very comfortably with Sikh teachings. We do not believe a loving God will only intervene in our lives if we convince him that he should bless us through begging, ritualistic praying and chanting. We believe in a loving God that does not ‘do deals’ with us, nor does he play games. We believe in a God that is inseparable from his creation, from nature and from our entire destiny. A God that represents a universal truth in the present, past and future. And ss how does God intervene in our lives. Well, as being part of the creation, he intervenes through nature all the time. Quite simply, God we could not breath or even think. And so it is through the gift of life that God intervenes in our lives. It is the blessing of manukhi janam which God was given to us at birth and that is the potential for Budh and Bibeik (learning), for compassion (Daya), for sacrifice, duty, sewa and courage. It is through the nurturing of these virtues that we become an embodiment of God. As bani says, there is no distinction between a true gurmukh and God. They are at once the same.
Some might be thinking, how can I reject the idea of begging, praying and chanting as there are many shabads in Gurbani that advocate this. It is certainly true that the Gurus mention such religious practices, but the important thing is, if we believe that God resides within our very being, existence, then the act of religious penance becomes understood not as an appeal to some external entitly, but to the awakening of our own souls to realise the power of human life or “manukhi Janam” and to become as fully human as can be.
And so in looking for a way forward, I think we should be looking towards Buddhism and Buddhists and Jews if we are to save and spread out great faith/belief system. We need to be comfortable with the idea that not all committed or practicing Buddhists will look or dress like Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Likewise, we should not valorize the outward Sikh identity either at the expense loosing our essence or if this results in pushing people away who might otherwise be perfectly comfortable with the spiritual and social aspects of Sikhi but perhaps not the cultural trappings so much. We can learn from the Jews in relation to resilience and total commitment to education as a means to keep the belief system relevant to a changing world but also to be able to defend our beliefs with intelligence and critical faculties.
To conclude, there can be no doubt that Sikhi is Punjab is in crisis, but that there are also lots of very positive news stories and developments emerging from the rapidly growing Sikh diaspora spread across the continents of the world. Though some will disagree, our essence is not to be found in our physical appearance alone. Yes, we should never compromise on the basic articles of our faith, but we must also realize that appearance and religious rituals alone do not define our Sikhi. Our essence is not to be found in the petty tribalism that we see in the Gurdwara and Jathebandhis today. It can be found in one simple line from the Sukhmani Sahib, “sarab dharan me shraist dharam, har ko naam jap nirmal karam.” To be a Sikh is at once to be very unique (Valakhan/niara) and at the same time to be part of all (sarbat). Because we believe in a God (Waheguru) that recognizes no distinctions of colour, faith or nation, a true Sikh is one who embraces diversity. And since a limitless God resides in each and every one of us and in all life forms, who transcends and traverses the whole universe and beyond, then we must never claim him just for ourselves. Perhaps that is the biggest challenge we all face, but if Sikhs can truly live the message of the Gurus, if we embrace the world the whole world will embrace us.