Thursday, November 21, 2019

Posted at: Nov 3, 2019, 12:45 AM; last updated: Nov 3, 2019, 12:45 AM (IST)

Half a millennium later...

Baba Nanak launched a transformative shift that took over 200 years to fully flower into what is called the Sikh way of life and became a triad of honest earnings, sharing rewards of life with the needy and remaining always connected to the Creator

IJ Singh

A growing circle of more than 2.5 crore Sikhs and non-Sikhs worldwide reveres Guru Nanak. Not a paean of praise, mine is an overview of the transformative agenda that he gifted to humanity and remains timeless.

Historically a mélange of quasi-independent nation-states, each with distinct culture, language, cuisine and music, India was easy pickings for invaders. Its unified identity dates largely from 1947. 

Conversion of natives, often by force, was the predominant focus of centuries of Muslim reign. Hindu society, despite noble antecedents, was hamstrung by decadent religious culture, a divisive caste system and a shamefully degraded place for women. A divided society without a moral compass often compromising with robber-barons. This is what the young Nanak saw.

A paradigm shift

Core requirements for reclaiming human dignity are: an ethical code, freedom of speech, participatory self-governance, transparent accountability, security, economic progress and infrastructure.

 Two choices surface: evolution or revolution. Revolutions are bloody. They change rulers but not as easily a people’s mindset — the product of inter-generational culturally ingrained  habits of the heart. These traditions — the paradigm or default position of the mind — define the self.

Guru Nanak launched a transformative paradigm shift that took over 200 years to fully flower. The path was mine-laden. Muslims, with the connivance of some Hindu rulers, resorted to war to defend their politico-religious dominance. Hindus saw Sikhi as undermining their hold on the people with modern ideas about caste, place of women, idol worship, etc.

The first step was to build a community of the dispossessed. Guru Nanak started a free kitchen (langar) where people would come together, prepare and share a meal irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender. Break bread together, listen to uplifting poetry and teachings with music (kirtan), relate to each other as equals. Learn to live with others, share your lives with kings or paupers, Brahmins or untouchables. In India then, even now, this was/is revolutionary.

Lessons in verse

Nanak’s teachings begin with an alphanumeric of his own design — Ik Onkar. Ik stands for the number One; Onkar is the Creator. If we sense the Oneness of the Creator, there is no reason for a variety of Gods — Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Brand X. That would be a lesser god, not worthy of worship. Nanak’s Creator transcends all descriptions. Ergo, infinite reality can never be captured by our finite mind or language.

This profoundly frames a productive meaningful life in the people’s language as musically rendered poetry. Why? Because, the spoken word, at best, settles in the head, music takes the message to the heart. And what is the mind or the soul but both the heart and the head put together. Poetry — roomful of metaphors and analogies to hold the mind — cast in the timeless raga system of Indian musicology. Music and poetry are interpreted, internalised, integrated, not literally rendered. Guru Nanak, accompanied by a Muslim musician, Mardana, took his message across much of the known world of that time.

Did Guru Nanak start a new faith? Unquestionably! He travelled throughout India, present-day Pakistan and beyond — south to Sri Lanka, north beyond Tibet, east beyond Assam, and west to Afghanistan, Mecca, Turkey, etc. He held dialogues with scholars of many faiths. After four odysseys, he returned to Punjab and founded Kartarpur, now in Pakistan, as the Sikh model of utopia, even now a bustling presence with businesses and traders. Guru Nanak lived with his wife and two sons, preached the Sikh way of life and tilled his farm.

A magical step forward in the development of economically viable infrastructure, not near any Hindu or Muslim religious centre. Never did Nanak recommend that Sikhs go to a Hindu or Muslim place of worship.

Think a moment: If a business closes its doors when its founder dies, isn’t it a failed enterprise? It must outlive its founder to become a movement.

A protracted battle

Rebuilding a people decimated over centuries demands more than hours, days, or years. The many dots to connect, habits of the heart to be re-explored, even replaced. Traditions are never easy to reconstruct.

Times change; newer questions surface.  Sikh institutional development continued under nine successors. Significantly, all Gurus wrote under the name and authority of Nanak. 

As Guru Angad, Lehna succeeded Nanak, and shifted his centre to Khadoor Sahib, now the second urban site in Punjab. He systematised the rules of Gurmukhi — the norma loquendi. Prior to this, Sanskrit was the only medium deemed fit to convey scriptural teaching, hence available only to Brahmins.

Guru Amardas chose Goindwal as his base, creating a third Sikh community without diminishing the lustre of Kartarpur and Khadoor Sahib. He upended the injustice to women, appointed them to leadership positions in Sikhism, encouraged widows to remarry and condemned the horrendous Hindu practice of Sati — self-immolation by widows. He started the tradition of twice-yearly conclaves of Sikhs, to reconnect and confer on issues impacting the community.

Guru Ramdas founded Ramdaspur; that became Amritsar. It remains, over 400 years later, the most important commercial, cultural and educational hub of Punjab. It defines, through its history, the Sikh psyche today.

Legacy continues

Guru Arjan completed the development of Harmandar (Golden Temple) at Amritsar, compiled writings of the previous Gurus, along with his own, added compositions of selected Hindu and Muslim saints and poets, and installed the compilation as the first rendition of Sikh scripture (Adi Granth) in 1604. Amritsar remains the de facto capital of Sikh activities, social, educational, administrative or political, local or international since that time. Guru Arjan was the first Sikh martyr in the cause of freedom of religion. The lesson: One must learn to die before picking up a weapon.

In the 100 years since Guru Nanak, much had changed. Islam had become aggressively fanatic. The Sikh movement, emphasising peaceful coexistence, had acquired heft and visibility. Sikhi’s message: The Creator is not found in seclusion, ascetism or renunciation but within the active worldly life — the two are not mutually exclusive. Guru Hargobind formally enunciated the doctrine of Miri-Piri emphatically merging the internal spiritual life of the mind with the outwardly directed worldly pursuit of action. So, he wore two swords, recognising that a successful human life is one of action (Miri), never torn asunder from its spiritual foundations (Piri). These primary fundamentals of Sikh existence must never be sundered. Sikhs are to be peaceful but not pacifist. He raised a militia to counter any armed warfare thrust upon him, as did every Guru who followed him. He built several townships and even a mosque for the many Muslims in that area. Miri-Piri and Akal Takht that he defined and built are the core of nation building and critical to Sikh worldview. The term nation does not imply geographical lines drawn in sand.

The brief stints of the seventh and eighth Gurus were times of community consolidation and service.

Guru Tegh Bahadur was not a Hindu himself but was martyred for asserting the universal right of religious freedom — for Hindus to refuse conversion to Islam under duress. The underlying principle here: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 brought the transformative change started by Guru Nanak to its mature form. He created the community of Khalsa that changed the face of Punjab into a free outer-directed people at peace with their inner self — the underpinnings of Miri-Piri. He prepared the final recension of the Adi Granth and installed it as Guru Granth. He initiated Sikhs into the Khalsa order, then pleaded that Sikhs initiate him as Khalsa. This novel idea of Gur-Chela in Sikhi antedates the Servant-Leader concept that we encounter in modern academic programmes in management.

The Sikh way of life

In its long path, Sikhs and Sikhi had earned self-governance. Guru Gobind Singh decreed that henceforth, in Sikh praxis, Guru Granth remains the repository of all Sikh spiritual heritage while temporal authority rests in the Sikh community acting in awareness of their spiritual foundations.

A nugget from Guru Nanak’s time unerringly captures the magic of Sikh teaching. It describes the Sikh way of life as a triad of honest earnings, sharing rewards of life with the needy, and remaining always connected to the Creator common to all, regardless of caste, colour, creed, or gender. Note that two of the three are social constructs.

By early 17th century, Sikhs had evolved the traditions of Sarbat Khalsa where community representatives would hold conclaves — like town hall meetings — to parse issues of war and peace or constitutional matters, including traditions, code of conduct, protocols, etc., that may be revisited. The system exists but is degraded by neglect and human inertia.

In any path, where are we at a given point? More critical is the trajectory of the path, then the journey becomes the destination. The journey started with Guru Nanak. It does not end with his mortal life or with ours. This is our onus.

The writer is Professor Emeritus, New York University, New York


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