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When Grace is Refused

by RUBIN PAUL SINGH

 

 

A few weeks ago, while skimming through the news, I found an interesting report on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent visit to the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Although I didn't care much for the hoopla around his visit, I did find it interesting that he "offended" Sikhs by refusing to accept parshad and langar.

As I understand it, the preparation of parshad (literally, grace) is unique in that it is ceremonially touched by a kirpan (kirpan bhent), which serves as an indication of the Guru's acceptance and blessing. It is then distributed to 5 Sikhs representing the Guru Khalsa Panth. A Sikh's partaking of parshad displays a submission to the Guru. So, accepting parshad is essentially "accepting His Grace."

I've also been taught that parshad should be distributed after the hukamnama is read, as accepting parshad symbolizes acceptance of the hukamnama.

Now, whether or not Sikhs themselves understand the hukamnama, or even listen to it, is another post for another day - but, if accepting parshad is accepting the Guru's hukam, should a non-believer accept it? Although the Rehat Maryada states that parshad should be offered to everyone equally (as it should), should we be offended if someone refuses it?

If a non-Sikh understands the meaning behind our practice and politely refuses it out of respect, shouldn't we appreciate it instead?

I remember years ago at a Sikh Day Parade in Washington DC, as a handful of us were walking through the sidewalks handing out "Who are the Sikhs?" pamphlets and answering questions from onlookers, an elderly Bibi ji was darting through the crowd distributing parshad to random strangers. As shocked as I was to see this, it couldn't compare to the shock on the face of those who received it. Most were not sure what to do with it, or joked about it with their friends, while others were seen throwing it away. I'm sure the Bibi ji's heart was in the right place, but what were we hoping to accomplish by this?

My question is ... how can we value our traditions if we don't even understand them?

And if we don't value our traditions, how can we expect others to?

Unlike parshad, langar is prepared without such nuances. It is meant to be a "common kitchen" where everyone can participate regardless of beliefs. It is such a central part of our tradition to partake in langar, that I can understand why Sikh sentiments may have been hurt when Prime Minister Harper refused it. Perhaps his administration did not understand the origins behind it, or maybe his handlers in Punjab did not prepare him well enough. But if in fact he did understand the origins of langar and still refused it, then maybe Canadian Sikhs can begin a dialogue with the PM to understand why. Perhaps the Ontario-area Sikhs can invite him to the gurdwara to "give him another chance." Seems like a small price to pay for a politician who is clearly interested in the Sikh vote.

Harper's visit raises another question - do local Sikh communities have a published "Gurdwara Protocol" for non-Sikhs? Does the S.G.P.C. have such a document for foreign dignitaries visiting gurdwaras of historical significance?

When I've seen local politicians brought in to our own gurdwara, they seem to be ushered in while committee members bark commands into their ears on where they should bow and when they should stand. Often times they approach the podium not having a clue on who Sikhs are or what we're all about.

Perhaps one of the upcoming Sikh conferences could take on this "one-pager" for non-Sikhs outlining central tenets of our faith as well as basic protocol.

Lastly, how far should we go to accommodate our guests? Essentially ... how should we treat VIPs in a place where there is no such thing as a VIP? What if Prime Minister Harper preferred to wear his shoes during his visit? When does a visitor become unwelcome and how do we handle it?

As our generation takes bigger strides to welcome even more non-Sikhs into the gurdwara, these questions will become more relevant. Perhaps we need to be more proactive and find better ways to prepare visitors so their visit to the gurdwara can be both a pleasant and educational experience.

I'd love to hear your thoughts ... or hear what more progressive sangats have already done.

 

December 27, 2009

 

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), December 27, 2009, 8:19 AM.

Needless controversy, I think. Sikhs are becoming ritualistic when Guru Nanak instructed us, right at the outset, to get rid of all rituals. I have simple questions for all of us: 1) Does not the mere coming to the gurdwara mean that one will receive Waheguru's blessing? 2) Does not the mere accepting of parsad mean the receiving of Waheguru's blessings? 3) Does wearing shoes mean that Waheguru's blessings will be denied? The answer is resoundingly, Yes, Yes and No ... respectively! Remember: "Nanak naam chardi kalaa tere bhaane sarbat da bhalla!" ALL will be blessed!

2: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (Sydney, Australia), December 27, 2009, 4:42 PM.

I personally think that this is a stupid 'controversy' raised by a few narrow minded bigots that like to shout their way to victory - perhaps this is one of the rare opportunities they get in life to feel like they've achieved something. Instead of focusing on the positives (optimistic - Chardi Kalaa), we focus on the negatives (pessimistic). There is nothing wrong for a non-Sikh to refuse to partake parshad or langar, it's their choice just as coming to the gurdwara is their and our choice. Instead, we should encourage them, make them feel at home and show them love and respect ... which is the message of Sikhi. I personally say it's wonderful to have the Prime Minister of Canada visit Harmandar Sahib - we should encourage him to come again and to visit other gurdwaras in Canada. These days we've become such ritualistic pigs that we have stopped understanding what Sikhism is about; instead we try to 'protect' our culture and what we know. When did we stop being progressive? I'm sure Guru Nanak would put us in our place right about now ...

3: R. Singh (Canada), December 27, 2009, 5:18 PM.

We have made parshad into a "consecrated" thing with rituals, like touching it with the kirpan. The Guru in Sikhi is the "shabad", and therefore is represented in the Word, which I believe is the symbolical GRACE, and "grace" has to be asked for and received with full respect, it is not imposed. There were ashes of burnt offerings in the past or blood of a sacrificed 'consecrated' animal, but Sikhism rejected those hindu and muslim practices. In Sikhism, it is about symbolically sharing the Lord's bounty. If we keep calling it a 'consecrated' offering for a lack of better vocabulary or merely tying its relevance to whatever it means in other faiths, another person of another faith has the right to refuse it, simply because in those faiths it is not offered to non-believers.

4: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), December 27, 2009, 6:49 PM.

The main reason for this is that Sikhs have failed to teach others about their customs. Specifically, Canadian Parliament members who are Sikhs failed to teach about their values to their colleagues, including their Prime Minister. In April 2009, I joined the Sikh Parade in New York after a lapse of 10 years. During the parade, one American asked me about "what is going on?" I explained to him. I failed to find any literature or flyer in the parade which would inform the public the reason for the parade. This is happening year after year in Punjab, India and around the globe. Sikhs are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in parades and fail to share with their fellow countrymen the meanings and significance of their traditions. In the parade, doing kirtan and jakaaras and speeches in Punjabi is just like staying within the walls of gurdwaras. Similarly, as Rubin mentioned, all the historical gurdwaras - including the Five Takhts - have failed to provide details to their visitors. It is as if Sikhs and gurdwara managements assume that every one knows everything about Sikhs. God bless us.

5: Kanwar (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), December 27, 2009, 8:31 PM.

Rubin Paul ji: What is the history behind Parshad? I believe it is a ritual. Guru Nanak did not care for rituals. He stated God is within you, it is useless go to temples and mosques to pray or look for God. As Sikhs, we have to rise above rituals. Harmandar Sahib is open to every one regardless of their background. Guru Nanak states that the highest religion is humanity.

6: Karminder Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 28, 2009, 2:27 AM.

There is a world of a difference between the word "parsad" and the word "parshad." In Gurmukhi, they are spelt, written and pronounced differently. Both use a different alphabet even for the "s" part. They have different meanings. The word "parsad" is sanskrit and synonymous with "kirpa" or "mehar", in Punjabi meaning blessing. Its Persian version, "karam", is used in Gurbani as well. It appears as the final word in our Mool Mantar as "Gurparsad". meaning God is attained by the blessing of the Guru. The word "parsHad", on the other hand, means a meal or food. We use the word "parshada" for Punjabi bread; "parshada chakko ji" means 'please partake in a meal'. The full name for the offering in our gurdwaras is "Karraah Parshad." The word "Karraah" is clear and definite indication that the reference is to something that is eaten/ consumed. "Karraah", if and when used with "blessing", would become an oxymoron. One will come across numerous parcharaks and granthis saying "GurparsHad" when reciting the Mool Mantar! Why should Sikhs NOT be confused then? The alphabet "s" has two variations in the sub-continental languages (Punjabi included) - "s" and "sh." The former is represented by "sassa" and the latter by "shassha" (or "sassa" with a dot at the foot).

7: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), December 28, 2009, 4:51 PM.

Rubin Paul Singh has raised very pertinent questions about preparing a handout for gurdwara protocol. That is the right step. I will not be offended if non-Sikhs do not accept parshad. We should be delighted with their visit but should never expect them to behave like Sikhs. They have their own faith. If they understand our traditions and then admire them, well and good. If they accept parshad and langar, that is still better. But in no case do we have the right to raise our eyebrows unnecessarily about their particular conduct at the gurdwara. Prime Minister Harper was fully prepared for the visit to the Golden Temple as I have read most of the reports. It was his decision not to accept parshad and langar and we should respect it and should not make too much fuss about it. Rubin, your other report about the Sikh Bibi distributing parshad to non-Sikhs in the Sikh procession and their reaction to it, makes my point clear.

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