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Who Am I?

by RUBIN PAUL SINGH

 

 

This summer at a local gurmat camp, I ran a workshop called "Who Am I?"

It consists of a role-playing exercise where I play the ignorant passerby asking the kids about who they are and what Sikhi is all about. The goal of this workshop is to come up with our own "elevator pitch" - concise yet thoughtful answers to some of the most common questions we're asked.

No matter how many times I've facilitated this workshop, I'm always amazed at how little the campers are able to answer about very basic questions on Sikhi and Sikh practices. It doesn't even matter what kind of camp - from those that follow the Rehat Maryada closely to those who do not - the results are much the same.

In one camp, when the kids were being particularly unresponsive, I veered off my lesson plan of "How we explain our Sikhi to Non-Sikhs", and instead started asking the group of 15-17 years olds about themselves.

What kept them as Sikhs?

What made them want to follow the Guru's path?

Why did they keep their Kesh and Sikhi identity?

Surprisingly, there were still few answers. In every group, there's always one or two who raise their hands and say all the "right things" and perhaps one or two brave souls who object and say, for example, that keeping their kesh is no longer necessary, and, for that matter, neither is organized religion.

Even this perspective I respect because at least they are thinking, reasoning, and vocalizing their opinions. I'm not really concerned about either end of this spectrum, but what does worry me is the vast majority in the middle who appear to be, well ... indifferent.

Out of a little frustration, I finally picked one kid in the back - a fifteen year old boy wearing a patka and asked him directly: "Tell me, why do you keep your kesh?"

After a short pause, he looked back at me and said, "To be honest, I really have no idea."

I feel my parent's generation did the best they could raising Sikh youth in a land and culture different than their own. As a child growing up on the East Coast of the U.S., I was blessed with opportunities to go to Sikh camps. I loved going to camp and being around people who looked like me and shared my struggles. I have fond memories of gathering around the camp fire with all my friends and shouting jakaaray until we lost our voices - I was inspired ... but I'm not sure why.

I grew up participating in kirtan competitions, speech competitions, paatth competitions, and I constantly had the company of Sikh friends, but even in all this ... there was still something missing.

Sometimes I look back at all the people I competed with in kirtan competitions, and those who shouted jakaaray along with me at camp ... most of them aren't practising Sikhs anymore. Perhaps they felt something missing too.

As many of us grow out of adolescence - start to think for ourselves and get exposed to ideas, opinions, and thoughts that we never knew existed - our beliefs get challenged, and it takes a little more than jakaray and first place trophies to keep us rooted in our Sikhi. Much of that external stuff eventually fades away, and we're forced to look within.

Although the cause of our current state is still a bit elusive to me, the solution however, is crystal clear. Whereas my training in Sikhi was largely external - keep your kesh, be proud of your history, and one day you may grow up into a Sikh who reads and reflects on gurbani - essentially, growing Sikhi "outside-in."

I believe the answer is to start with bani - day one, and grow Sikhi "inside out."

I'm convinced that fostering a gurbani-based environment at our camps, Khalsa schools, Sikh Student Associations ("SSA"), and, most importantly, our homes, is the best way to engage with the next generation of Sikhs, so that they can individually and collectively create connections with the Guru.

So maybe this means that if the SSA substitutes one if it's monthly meetings for Gurbani Vichaar, or our camps and Khalsa schools build their lesson plans on reflective exercises around a shabad, and perhaps as we put our sons and daughters to bed every night, we help them find strength and courage in a shabad in the same way they do with a saakhi.

By cultivating that inner relationship with the Guru - through shabad, simran and reflection - I believe the external aspects of Sikhi will fall into place. We will then always be fulfilled and our questions will always be answered.

A friend once said to me, if we want to see our reflection in the lake, the water must be still.

May Guru Sahib bring that stillness in our lives, so that we can realize who we really are. 

 

September 28, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: I.J Singh (New York, U.S.A.), September 28, 2010, 7:38 AM.

A very needed and thoughtful perspective. The lines that really jolted me awake are: "Sometimes I look back at all the people I competed with in kirtan competitions, and those who shouted jakaaray along with me at camp ... most of them aren't practising Sikhs anymore." The "Why and What to do" should be the most disturbing to those who run gurdwaras, etc. If these words won't, then nothing else can or will.

2: Harinder (Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India), September 28, 2010, 10:24 AM.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? These are questions worth pondering.

3: Kamaldeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), September 29, 2010, 2:35 AM.

I think the crux of the issue is that currently Sikhs are only really offering Flash-in-the-Pan classes and incorrectly equating this with a long-term structured teaching model that practically all other faiths provide. If we tackled our career objectives using the short-term cut competition mindset, we probably would not last very long. Please note, I have nothing but praise for people who hold camps, competitions, etc. ... but we need more, a lot more. By way of comparison, simply google on any Abrahamic faith course in your city and see what is on offer. It is not as if we do not have the finances. Stop wasting money on large buildings and teach Sikhi in a method we are accustomed to - short and long-term courses for adults. Enough on the kids already. We never develop any depth of solid understanding because of it.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), September 29, 2010, 7:54 AM.

Who am I? This question would not just bug the kids, although some of them may come up with some refreshing, uninhibited answers because they may not be carrying too much baggage. For others it is just as difficult a question to answer. Gurbani addresses this question adequately: "Man toon jot saroop hai aapnaa mool pehchan" [GGS:441.3] - 'O mind, you are but the embodiment of the Divine Light, recognize your origin!' It is difficult to relate one's personal experience because the question touches every point of one's physical existence and yet leaves the question unanswered. Two books that I have read bring us closest to the fringe. This path must be trudged and remains personal to the holder. Let me share the two books that might help. The first one is "Guru Kalgidhar Chamatkar" by Bhai Vir Singh, and the chapter is 'Pritam Jio'. It really relates Bhai Sahib's own experiences. The second one is from another Brahm-giani, Ramana Maharishi, who also relates his own life-experience. The main thrust of his life-journey starts with the query, 'Who am I?' This is briefly what he says: "I'm not this physical body, nor am I the five organs of sense perception. I am not the five organs of external activity, nor am I the five vital forces, nor even the thinking mind. Nor the unconscious state of nescience that merely retains the subtle 'vaashanas', the latent mental impressions." Thus, summarily rejecting all the above mentioned physical adjuncts and their functions, what are we left with then? 'I am not this; no, nor am I this, or this'. As an example, may I quote a few shabads from the Guru Granth? Bhagat Nam Dev's shabad: "Toon kun ray/ mai jee naamaa ho jee/ aalaa tay nivaarnaa jan kaarnaa patit pavan maadh-o birad tayraa" [GGS:694.1] - 'I am Naam Dayo, Sir/ O Lord, please save me from Maya, the cause of all misery/ O Lord, you are the purifier of sinners - this is your innate nature.' Thus, despite reaching the highest state, Nam Dev still beseeches for His Grace. Guru Arjan's shabad: "Sunhu ray too ka-un kahaa tay aai-i-o/ aytee na jaan-o-kayteek mudat chaltay khabar na paa-i-o" [GGS:999.16] - 'Listen: who are you, and where did you come from?/ You don't even know how long you will stay here, you have no hint of when you shall leave!' Are you suitably confused? If so, I am too, and probably so are the rest. What was the question? "Who Am I?"

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