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In Search of Purity

by JESSI KAUR

 

A "purification ceremony" conducted at Guruvayur, a premier Hindu temple in Kerala, India, has been the cause of a recent controversy in India.

Vayalar Ravi, a Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, had conducted a feeding ceremony for his grandson during which his son, Ravi Krishna, was present. The need for the purification ritual arose because Ravi Krishna is the son of a Christian mother. The fact that his father is a Hindu is not enough for him to be considered a Hindu. Tradition demands that a purification ritual be conducted if a non-Hindu enters the temple.

Vayalar Ravi enjoys enough clout as a minister that the Chairman of the Board of Guruvayur temple proclaimed that Ravi Krishna is a Hindu, based on his paternal lineage.

The proclamation did not hold much water with the thantri (Chief Priest) of the temple, who upholds the belief that a non-Hindu's entry into the temple will make the idol impure. Being the final authority in all matters of the temple, he ordered a purification ritual to be conducted.

In a tirade to the press, the Union Minister blamed "Brahminical arrogance" for this attitude. Ravi belongs to Kerala's Ezhava caste, which is considered one of the "backward" classes. He said that it brought back memories of the days when he was considered an "untouchable".

Was the purification ritual conducted because he belonged to a lower caste or because he married a Catholic? In either case, it is discriminatory and one can empathize with Ravi's chagrin. Any reminder of the time when people of "lower" castes were not permitted to enter the temples cannot but be hurtful and humiliating.

K.J Yesudas, a veteran playback singer, has been disallowed entry into the temple because he is a Christian, even though he professes devotion to Guruvayurappan.

However, foreigners armed with certificates that state their professed belief in the Hindu faith, freely visit the temple on a daily basis!

In 1936, the ban on "lower" caste Hindus from entering  the temple was lifted. But entry was still barred to certain people who were considered "under pollution". These included people who had recently had birth or death in their families, women "at certain times" and those who are "not Hindus".

This resulted in large boards displaying "Non-Hindus not allowed" signs outside several temples in Kerala.

The Chief Minister of Kerala is of the opinion that legislation may be needed to change the debarring of non-Hindus to the temples. But the situation has polarized politicians and pundits at many levels.

Communal undertones are never too distant in any controversy in India. Some people are questioning why women are not allowed in mosques, while others are rightfully saying that if legislation is sought to make the change, it should apply equally to temples of all faiths.

It is a knotty situation with no resolution in sight.

While each religion is free to define the parameters of its faith, it does seem terribly ironic to bar devotees from a place of worship.

I am grateful to our Gurus and to Sikhi for an all-encompassing and inclusive approach to humanity. It was Guru Arjan, the Fifth Master, for example, who invited a pious soul of another faith  -  the respected Muslim pir, Mian Mir  -  to lay down the corner-stone of the Harmandar Sahib. Thus, in one fell swoop, he removed the potential for any Sikh thereafter to suggest that there was any theological basis to exclude anyone  -  I repeat, anyone!  -  from a gurdwara.

It is important to remember that he did this at a time when India was deeply entangled in casteism and the mere casting of  the shadow of an "untouchable" rendered one of a higher "caste" to be considered defiled.

To further emphasize the point he was making, Guru Arjan designed the Harmandar to have four entrances, one pointing in each direction of the compass  -  to signify that its doors were open to everyone!

When I bow down to make my obeisance to the One God of all, I am happy to be part of the human race and have my identity melt into one of being an ordinary devotee.

No more, no less.

Just like everyone else who is there.

[Photo:  Top of this page  -  An aerial view of the Durbar Sahib in Amritsar; Courtesy, The Big Durian. Bottom of this page  -  A view of the causeway, from inside the Harmandar; photo by Saurabh. Second photo from bottom  -  A view of the Harmandar from across the water; photo by Saurabh. Thumbnail  -  detail from photo by Bob Wallace.]  

Conversation about this article

1: Jagdeep Singh (London, U.K.), July 23, 2007, 12:52 PM.

I agree with the message of the article, but I feel that it idealises the reality of caste in the modern Sikh world. Exclusion of Sikhs from Gurdwaras on the basis of caste is a reality in some parts of rural Punjab, and this chauvinism towards Dalit Sikhs is a major stain on our collective conscience. In the diaspora, casual caste bigotry between Sikhs is commonplace, and I am even aware of a significant sect of Sikhs who refuse to eat food that has been touched by non-Amritdharis. So, we should concentrate on the real cancer within us rather than observing the faults of other religions. Sadly, we have taken on some of those ourselves.

2: Baljit (U.S.A.), July 23, 2007, 12:57 PM.

It was an excellent article, but I think that you left out one fact: that the cancer of some caste practices is creeping into certain segments of the Sikh community. Some believe that they are superior to "Jats"; some believe that "Jats" are better. All of this is, in the language of the Gurus, "ignorant" and "silly" and needs to be weeded out of our Gurdwaras and the community a whole.

3: Amrik Singh (New Delhi, India), July 23, 2007, 1:25 PM.

It is a gift from our Gurus that we've been allowed no leeway whatsoever to claim that there is any theological or intelligent reason to believe that any one is higher than another by dint of birth. The fact that traces of the disease remain in some shallow minds or in some pockets of ignorance, is no grounds to flagellate ourselves with any level of guilt. We have been handed the ultimate in ideals, bereft of ambivalence and ambiguity. As a result, no one can possibly claim divine or spiritual support, for example, for the existence of any Gurdwara anywhere which excludes anyone on this basis. We can't blame Sikhi for the moral dregs of society.

4: Ruby Kaur (Oxford, England), July 23, 2007, 2:44 PM.

I don't believe that it is 'self flagellation' to comment on and examine how we collectively fail to live up to the ideals of Sikhi. After all, if we don't do this and criticise the reality of our condition, how can we ever live up to those ideals? Better to criticise and be truthful than be blind for fear of the darkness within us. This is truthful living.

5: Sam Sidana (California, U.S.A.), July 23, 2007, 3:37 PM.

It is a well known fact that Mrs Indira Gandhi was refused entry into a Hindu temple because she had been married to a Muslim. Isn't it the same woman who desecrated the Durbar Sahib? ... Yet, she was never denied entry into the Harmandar, even after June 1984. Therein lies the true message of Sikhi: that a gurdwara ("House of God") is open to all and no one is denied entry. Whether some of us fail in living that message, is beside the point. We have the Guru's gift! We can enjoy it or squander it!

6: Pal Singh (Seattle, U.S.A.), July 23, 2007, 3:41 PM.

I must confess that I feel very disillusioned: references to surreal terms such as "Sikh Khatri", "Amritdhari Sikh Jat", "clean-shaven Sikh Rangarhia", etc. appear regularly in matrimonial ads. Are we regressing 500 years and reverting back to Hindu/Brahmin values? Is it the direction we want to go?

7: Pritpal Singh (London), July 23, 2007, 9:17 PM.

It is a shame that our "leaders" do not follow the teachings of the Gurus. There is still a ban on women and non-Sikhs performing Gurbani Kirtan at the Harmandar Sahib. And, now, special treatment is being meted out to certain people visiting the Durbar Sahib, in Brahaminical fashion. The time to act on these anomalies is now.

8: Sher Singh (London, U.K.), July 23, 2007, 10:29 PM.

I agree with Amrik Singh. We as Sikhs are indeed notorious for such self flagellation. If something positive is written about Sikhism, you can bet that someone will bring something negative into the discussion. The so-called "caste discrimination" alluded to by Jagdeep Singh about some Sikhs not being allowed into Gurdwaras is nonsense. Yes, there are some villages with Gurdwaras where members of one caste may be in control. But this has never meant that other Sikhs cannot worship there ... [But, even if there are some incidents that people can cite where such stupidity may have occured, doesn't the exception prove the rule being celebrated by Jessi and Amrik Singh, rather than dilute it?]

9: Jarnail Singh (India), July 24, 2007, 12:13 AM.

The crooked Deras and Babas have sprung up all over in Punjab merely because we have failed in observing the basics and easiest tenets of Sikhi. Caste practices, even if they are limited to using caste names (instead of "Singh" and "Kaur") or refusal to marry outside the "caste", are the thin wedge. If each one of us puts his/her own and his/her family's life back on track, and stops worrying about the "community" or the world, we'll get somewhere.

10: K. Singh (Northampton, U.K.), July 24, 2007, 4:56 AM.

But we seem to forget the new casteism amongst us, "Jatha'ism": AKJ, Taksal, Nanaksar, Rara Sahib, and the list continues... I'm not anti-jatha, especially the above mentioned ones. Each has a lot to offer, in its own way. The problem arises when we get into, "my jatha is better than yours" or "you're not a good Sikh if you're not part of my jatha"...

11: Gurdeep Singh (Srinagar, India), July 24, 2007, 6:10 AM.

It is the very basis of our religion, that we uphold the core value of respect for all people. Sikhism is a religion where every human being, irrespective of race, gender, religion, etc., is accorded equal respect. Every one is to be given a warm welcome in a Gurdwara. "Na koi bairi nahi bagana, sagal sang hum ko ban aaye ..."

12: Sukhpreet Singh (Bangalore, India), July 24, 2007, 7:43 AM.

It's really interesting to see how when we point the finger at another, the other 4 point back at us! It's human nature to BELIEVE that our religion is better than others. Jatha, no jatha, sikh, non-sikh....humans will be humans...it's tough to walk the fine line preached by our Gurus.

13: Tejwant (U.S.A.), July 24, 2007, 8:18 AM.

Interesting insight into 'purity'. Guru Nanak gave us the tools so we could shed our tribialism and see the world through the pragmatic kaleidioscope built by him. Unfortunately, we have not followed his teachings. He had shown us that purity is found by breaking our ego and getting rid of Me-ism. Till we do that, we will remain in the muck, hoping to become lotuses by some miracle.

14: G.C. Singh ( U.S.A.), July 24, 2007, 11:57 AM.

Some commentators have simply missed the essence of this article: it illustrates that the Sikh Gurus, through bani and real-life examples, have set up a glorious Sikh tradition of universality, inclusiveness and the concept of "sarbat da bhalla", as opposed to other traditions which exclude people based on race, religion, caste or sex. The langar, which is open to all, is a unique Sikh institution and a shining example of this vision. If some amongst us still can't leave the age-oldancient prejudices and Brahmanical baggage of caste, lineage and birth-status, it is not the fault of Sikh religious doctrine, which declares the entire human race as one.

15: Tejwant (U.S.A.), July 24, 2007, 12:25 PM.

G.C. Singh has a point. Gurbani broke all the dogmatic doors. The proof is in the four doors that lead us into Harmandar Sahib. However, it is our tribal mentality that makes us flaunt our ignorance by creating Ramagharia Gurdwaras, Jatt Gurdwaras, etc., etc. Little do we know that it in the same Guru Granth from which we get the tools to become better people, that it says 'sabh Gobind hein' ... "All are God".

16: Kanwal Jit Kaur (Jacksonville, U.S.A.), July 24, 2007, 7:30 PM.

The article once again draws attention to the inherent discrimination underlying Indian society. Sadly, it has also crept into our Gurdwaras. I remember, while visiting the Durbar Sahib during my teens, having to watch from the sidelines the early morning and late night ceremonies ... because, I was told, women couldn't touch the Palki Sahib! And, I was in New York asking for directions to the Gurdwara the other day, and the person asked me to which Gurdwara I wanted to go - the one of the "Labahnas" or some other one! ... Well, I wasn't aware of such distinctions growing up in Delhi and Bombay! And then, one comes across more silliness around the caste system if one wants to go the arranged marriage route. I hope that rational thought and Sikhi will eventually prevail ... I am confident it will! An example in case - the overnight kirtan darbars and aatishbaaji to ring in Vaisakhi - the joie-de-vivre that fills the air with young and old alike, across the board, partaking in the festivities in Delhi, is heart-warming.

17: Harmala K. Uberai (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), July 25, 2007, 10:41 AM.

I don't know what the hoopla is about. In my opinion, the author is not putting down another religion to prop up her own (Sikhism). On the contrary, she is using this example of discrimination to point out that due to the far sightedness of our Guru, such issues were pre-empted. There is no denying that the Sikh bhais are far from perfect. By the same token, on principle, we are a more accepting/all-encompassing religious community, and we do offer "khulle darshan didaar" to all who come to the Guru's door, regardless of religion, caste or creed.

18: Pandit Naresh Pal Manku (Windsor, Canada), July 26, 2007, 6:08 AM.

We are all trying to achieve the ideal society. We fall, we get up and try to walk again on the straight line. Introspection helps us to improve ourselves. Many of the bramanical customs and traditions are not condoned by the Vedas at all. They were developed at a very late stage, and do not hold any merit. But these Hindu priests, with all due respect to them, continue with these practices in Hindu temples. I am not an authority on the Vedas, but I have read them and have not found these discriminatory practices mentioned anywhere. The Smritis are the views of the various writers. If they are consistent with the Vedas, they are correct, otherwise they are not. In any case, the Vedas are the final authority on any issue in Hinduism, controversial or otherwise. And the Vedas do not distinguish or discriminate between castes. They mention only "humans".

19: Harji (Langley, U.K.), July 26, 2007, 12:05 PM.

I would like to remind everyone that Sikhism is an ultra-modern and advanced religion, way ahead of its time. This article reinforces this view and makes me proud to be a Sikh. One of the fundamental problems we have today are the so called leaders and protectors of the panth who, unfortunately, are disorganized, dysfunctional, and lack cohesion. Because of this, we have allowed other pretenders to come through, under false pretences, and attempt to destroy us from within. If only we can unite and become one and follow through on what we've been taught by our Gurus, we will hold sway over the hearts and minds of people everywhere. This is what "Raj karega Khalsa" means and aspires to. Strength & Honour.

20: Jaipal (Newport, U.K.), July 27, 2007, 7:59 PM.

It is common knowledge that some Sikhs do practice remnants of the caste system, though not to the degree or in the ugly manifestations of it as practised by the Hindu community. We have Ramgharia gurdwaras whose constitutions bar non-Ramgharia membership. And, as another example, some jutts will not marry their children into another "caste", and vice versa. Then, we have some "sants" who are building their own gurdwaras and dividing the community further. It is time the international Sikh community formed a global institution to regulate all Sikh places of worship. The present leadership is very indianized and steeped in old, village-style politics and caste affiliations. It is also time that the Sikhs from around the diaspora had full representation within the Sikh decision-making bodies. All roving "sants" and "bhais" that do the rounds in the diaspora should be selected and trained in accordance with the needs and standards of the diaspora, and not the village-levels that our current "leadership" stems from.

21: Pritpal Singh (India), August 02, 2007, 3:15 AM.

In principle, everybody has the same argument to offer: that we do not believe in caste differentiations. But the sad facts cannot be ignored. Our rehni - living - has to change right from the beginning, from the childhood stage. Sure, in reality, society wll never perfectly match the idealism, but then, at the very least, we can demand that our leaders live up to these ideals - if they are indeed "leaders".

22: Gurdeep Singh (Santa Clarita, U.S.A.), August 04, 2007, 10:17 AM.

Jessi Kaur has simply tried to share the feeling of freedom from the man-made caste system and other distractions, through the lens of Sikhi: and she is so right. According to Gurbani, a Sikh seeks the experience of being with the Creator within by overcoming the five primal forces(kaam, krodh, lobh, moh, ahankaar). Religious rituals are condemned by our Gurus. The Sikh is told to focus on overcoming these negative forces, in order to free oneself for the truly loftier thngs in life ... May Rabb be with you!

23: Amandeep Singh (Chennai, India), August 06, 2007, 2:23 PM.

Proud to be a Sikh, is all I can say! Chardhi kalaa ...

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