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Who is Responsible?
Should We Have Icons of Our Gurus?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 132

JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 



I have just returned from a short two-day vacation with my wife in one of the beautiful Swiss mountain valleys (Simmental).

On our way back I had quite a shock which has crystallised my opinion about writing this piece. I had even earlier thought about writing about this subject but had desisted from doing so because I did not want to unnecessarily attract stupid messages from fundamentalists who are prone to verbal violence without understanding an iota of Sikhi or what it stands for.

So, what has made me change my mind?

On our way back home, my wife and I stopped to look for some decorative statues for our rose garden at a shop near Aigle. The owner of this enterprise is a well known photographer who is supposed to know India. His shop complex has a restaurant where we planned to have lunch.

Before going in, I went to wash my hands. Imagine my stupefaction when I found a portrait of Guru Nanak fixed on the door of the men’s toilet for showing that it was a men’s toilet.

Stupefaction soon gave way to extreme anger.

I went to the firm’s office and demanded to see the owner. I was told he was on vacation.

I asked for the manager. I was told he was away for lunch. I explained to the sales person who met us that what they were doing was sacrilege.

The poor man had no clue who Guru Nanak was or what Sikhi is. I asked him how I could contact the owner of his company. He gave me an E mail address to which I have written a message informing them about what I discovered.

I have also informed my personal lawyer and requested him to take immediate legal action to remedy this sacrilege if the concerned enterprise does not remove Guru Sahib’s portrait from that door.

On my return home, I telephoned the sales depot and spoke to the manager who had returned from his lunch break. I informed him about the consequences which might occur if Guru Sahib’s portrait was not removed. He promised to do so without delay.

He assured me that they had no idea whose portrait it was (I believe him on that).

They were just looking for a typical Indian man’s portrait to show a connexion to India since they sell statues and other goods from that country.

Immediate emotions having abated slowly at home, I decided to write about what I consider as a more fundamental issue: the increasing tendency among Sikhs to do image worship by fixing portraits of our Gurus in our homes, our gurdwaras and at other places.

I have always considered this to be against the essence of our Gurus’ thoughts and message.

Do I blame the employee who fixed Guru Nanak’s portrait on the door of the men’s toilet or do I blame ourselves for the fact of rendering the diffusion of portraits of our Gurus so banal that some low paid employee of a small restaurant in a small town in a small country like Switzerland finds such a portrait so easily?

Whence the title of this piece: Who is Responsible?

When I see some Sikhs giving long sermons to non-Sikhs about how Sikhi is totally against idol worship but who themselves prostrate themselves, rubbing their noses in front of portraits of our Gurus, I feel that they have literally understood nothing of Sikhi.

I do not claim to be a theological scholar but from what little I know of Sikhi, had our Gurus been alive to see the plethora of their portraits being venerated by today’s Sikhs, they would have forbidden such actions.

I respect Sobha Singh as a good artist. I also consider that he rendered an extreme disservice to the Sikh fraternity by painting portraits of our Gurus. Firstly, the images of our Gurus in these portraits are pure figments of Sobha Singh’s own imagination, having zero resemblance to reality.

Guru Nanak was a social and religious revolutionary. I cannot imagine him as an ethereal being with half closed eyes and an impeccably groomed beard, as represented in Sobha Singh’s portraits which have acquired iconic status in Sikh households.

For me personally, Guru Sahib represents eternal light. I cannot even think of imagining him as a being with half closed eyes. For me he represents a primal force, the force to combat injustice, bigotry and social inequality, not a detached semi-divine being lost in another world.

What Sobha Singh has painted is simply and purely his own imagination of how he imagined Guru Nanak to be. I have never shared this imagination and do not do so now.

My relation to Guru ji is a personal one. I keep it for myself without any effort to foist it on others by printing endless number of copies of what I perceive to be Guru Sahib’s image.

I cannot understand why the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee or Sikh scholars do not take a clear stand against the vulgarisation of images of Sikh Gurus through the mass printing of their pictures on calendars, diaries or other documents. By not doing this, they are facilitating emotional shocks like the one I suffered today.

However, at no stage did I think of any violence or fanatical reaction to what I perceived as sacrilege, precisely because I consider these portraits as pure figments of some artist’s imagination. The grandeur of my Guru Nanak is untarnished by some fool putting up his supposed image on the door of a men’s toilet. His legacy is a shining light which can never be tarnished by such actions by ignoramuses.

I do, however, deplore the lack of courage of any prominent Sikh scholar, historian or spiritual leader to raise his/her voice against this retrograde practice of venerating portraits of our Gurus. Why does nobody have the courage to say that such portraits should not be in any of our gurdwaras because by displaying them there we are sending out a wrong message to the impressionable minds of many Sikhs? Why are we not laying more emphasis on the immanent nature of our Gurus’ message rather than losing ourselves in false worship of their imaginary portraits?

An essential part of the curriculum at all gurmat camps, theological courses on Sikhi or discourses by Sikh scholars should be about freeing our minds from the onset of such idolatrous practices, fostered by artists painting portraits of our Gurus. Works of art do not require physical representation of our Gurus. There are enough Sikh heroes from more recent times where the portraits could be based on authentic sources rather than purely the artists’ own imaginations.

Having suffered an intense emotional roller coaster today because of what I lived through, I am deeply grateful to Guru Nanak for having finally brought me to the point of putting down my thoughts on paper to share with my fellow readers.

I believe that we all are responsible for rendering banal the images of our Sikh Gurus to the point that they start to represent what some ignorant foreigner considers as the image of a typical Indian looking man. If this is what we want, we should continue to do nothing to educate our future generations about the evil of converting what should be pure works of art for personal consumption into religious icons.

My wife showed me a newspaper cutting from the local newspaper today containing a prominent news item that the company ZARA is withdrawing a T-shirt which had a yellow Star of David printed on the front with navy blue horizontal stripes, resembling attire worn by Jewish Holocaust victims under the Nazi regime.

Just another reminder of why we should never underestimate the extent of human ignorance.

If we do not do something to curb the unrestricted spread of imaginary portraits of our Gurus by educating our youngsters about how such portraits are contrary to Sikhi, we will keep finding ourselves in situations similar to the one I found myself in today.

This would avoid unpleasant confrontations, unless we choose to turn a blind eye and do nothing.

So, once again, Who is Responsible?



THE ROUNDABLE OPEN FORUM # 132

We invite our readers to share their thoughts on the issues raised herein.



[Dr. Jogishwar Singh was with the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) before leaving India in 1984, the year of cataclysmic events for Sikhs in India. With an M.Sc. (Hons School) in Physics and an M.A. in History from Panjab University, Chandigarh, he did his D.E.S.S. at Sorbonne in Paris, followed by a Ph.D. from Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg, Germany. Now a Swiss citizen based in Le-Mont-sur-Laussanne, he is serving as a Managing Director with the world famous Rothschild Group in Geneva, having earlier served as Senior Vice-President, ING Bank, Switzerland and Director with the Deutsche Bank Switzerland.

August 30, 2014
 

Conversation about this article

1: Jaspal Singh (England), August 30, 2014, 5:28 AM.

The writer of this article is absolutely correct about the photo worshiping by many. Not a single image available represents the truly physical form of any of our Guru Sahibs, except Guru Granth Sahib. However, the change has to start from us before we blame the SGPC. When we take out the so-called images from our homes and gurdwaras and stop buying the photos being printed and sold, they will stop printing them because no business will be generated by it. To conclude, I'd say stop buying the images, remove the pictures we have, and spread this message at every possible opportunity.

2: Nav Kaur (Sydney, Australia), August 30, 2014, 5:31 AM.

I have similar feelings when I come across photos of the Gurus on facebook where people are asked to 'press like' for the Guru's photo. There are many impressionable minds that actually think they should be pressing 'like' every time they come across any photos of our Gurus. A new kind of mattha tekna?

3: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 30, 2014, 6:49 AM.

According to Gurbani, our Guru is Shabad Guru and no other. "Bani guru guru hai bani / vich bani amrit sare!" (There is giaan, there is Naam, there is Hukam, there is Shabad and there is Guru, and all these are ONE and the same, Amrit!

4: R.S. Minhas (Millburn, New Jersey, USA), August 30, 2014, 6:52 AM.

Thank you, Sir, for raising the topic. The reaction of the author is totally and completely understandable. First of all, as long as there is a demand, suppliers will step in to mass produce works of artists. So supply is not the only side of the equation. If people are willing to buy the imagination of Sobha Singh, etc., the supply will most likely continue, perhaps even from non-Sikh sources. I would like to hear the author's insights on the reasons for this vast demand. Secondly, can we say a bad reaction to a fake image at an inappropriate place is a derivative of idolatry, shall we say, negative idolatry? It exists because of credence to idolatry first. The Guru's message according to my limited understanding being that idols cannot encapsulate Waheguru. I would still contact a lawyer to get that tile removed, though.

5: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), August 30, 2014, 7:10 AM.

I highly recommend the readers to watch on YouTube: 'Punjabi poetica Ep1: Jaswant S Zafar YouTube' - The recitation of his poem, Nanak. It deals precisely with this topic. Nanak's painting by Shobha Singh and "asli Nanak di tasveer." I agree with the author and the commentators. My answer to "Who is responsible?" -- We are. Many know and reject the idea of pictures in the gurdwara but no one wants to stick their neck out. We have the SGPC but it is run by people that have let us down in every way. However, our role can be in not co-operating with the manufacturers of these images of our Gurus. By simply not buying them. Next, educating our youth through our gurdwaras, and all other means available.

6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 30, 2014, 7:57 AM.

Guru Nanak spent some 25 years during his four Udasis (Journeys) and walked some 50,000 miles on foot. We can't imagine who Sobha Singh had in mind for such a portrait of a well groomed, obese Guru Nanak in an immaculate turban. For Sindhis who venerate Guru Nanak, they have for them an image showing Guru Nanak wearing a 'Seli Topi.' As a child I remember seeing pictures of Guru Nanak with Bhai Mardana and Bala and having a caged parrot for good affect too. The Sobha Singh picture -- re-done by the followers of Nanaksar -- has resemblance to Nand Singh. I have also seen statues of Guru Nanak. There is an impressive painting of a frail Guru Nanak done in Baghdad which probably has the closest resemblance to the original Guru Nanak. All these pictures are freely available in the shops near the entrance of Harmandar Sahib. SPGC is not likely to do anything when they have these pictures/statues selling right at their door step. I agree with Jogishwar Singh ji that there should be a hukamnama from the Jathedar of Akal Takht banning pictures and statues of the Gurus, instead of issuing flippant edicts banning chairs for langars and chairs for elderly who cannot sit in 'beer aasan' in the gurdwaras.

7: P Kaur (New York, USA), August 30, 2014, 8:49 AM.

Thank you so much for bringing attention to a much needed topic. I am in complete agreement with the author and like him wish Sikh scholars and granthis would address this wrong practice and enlighten the sangat as to how nothing could be further from Sikhi than this type of devotion which just fools our minds and souls and robs us of the true Sikh experience.

8: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 30, 2014, 8:53 AM.

I disagree with some of the sentiments expressed by the author in his article. In my humble opinion, having a portrait of the Guru at home or elsewhere, in itself, is not idol worship. Idol worship is something totally different ... involving worship and a resulting expectation from the act. I can understand the repugnance felt by the author upon seeing Guru Sahib's portrait on a toilet door in Switzerland and I commend him for taking appropriate, thoughtful, civil and necessary steps to rectify the situation. One can see that most humanity is decent, compassionate and understanding, as evidenced by the actions of the owner of this restaurant who, upon learning about his inappropriate gesture, immediately agreed to rectify the situation. I also learn from this episode that most humanity, when properly educated about other religions, including Sikhism, lends its respect and reverence to and for the same. So the question for me from this occurrence is not, "Who is responsible?" leading to an automatic fear of idol worship, but "Who should be responsible to tell the world properly about Sikhism?" In my opinion, all of us have that responsibility, given the nature of Sikhi and how we are taught to conduct ourselves in our daily lives. If only the person who sold the portrait of Guru Sahib would have simply commented to the potential buyer the true nature and significance of the subject of the portrait, then I am certain the buyer would have not misused it. I actually admire the artistic works of Sobha Singh and wish more Sobha Singhs would carry on producing increasingly better art.

9: Rup Singh (Canada), August 30, 2014, 9:55 AM.

Interesting experience you had sir, good on you for taking a stand. I believe it was the SGPC who approached Sobha Singh to paint these images. I also think that the SGPC has accomplished its motive of making Sikhs believe these images are of the Gurus when Sikhs get easily offended when they see them in what are deemed inappropriate places and see the disrespect as sacrilege, or when they are revered almost like idols.

10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), August 30, 2014, 3:42 PM.

All we want is that the icon should not be portrayed with the name or description of a Sikh Guru. More than this no one has any control. Gurdwaras in the diaspora and Sikh households in general do not display the pictures of Sikh Gurus. However, whenever the repairs to historic gurdwaras in India are undertaken, frescoes of idols of Shiva, Ram and other Hindu deities appear on walls and ceilings. I am relaying the news in the papers which I had been reading about frescoes because at one one time gurdwaras were in the strangle-hold of mahants (hindu priests).

11: Gurbux Singh (Chatsworth. California, USA), August 30, 2014, 5:19 PM.

As Sikhs, we pray to Waheguru and our Guru is the Shabad. End of discussion. No pictures, statues or idols come into the mix. My understanding is that to pay obeisance to any thing else is wrong. To expect the seller of these articles to educate the buyer on the significance of the article rings hollow. It is wrong to be selling them in the first place.

12: Harinder Singh (Punjab), August 30, 2014, 10:53 PM.

Ideally we should not have icons of our Guru. We are supposed to be focused on the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. However, some people find it convenient to have the crutch of visual, tangible images.

13: D J Singh (USA), August 31, 2014, 5:58 AM.

Sobha Singh painted pictures based on his imagination. The Sikhs believed that the beautiful portraits represented Guru Sahib's image. The artist thus connected the masses with their Gurus. The pictures inspired people to do good deeds. The gifted painter never claimed that the pictures were the exact replica of Guru's image. For he had never physically seen the Guru. But the Sikhs regarded his compositions to be true. Dr Jogishwar Singh also believed that the picture on the door of the toilet represented Guru Sahib's image. He was therefore offended. Being offended does not imply that the author does idol worship. Similarly, hanging an 'alleged' picture of a Guru or of the Darbar Sahib at home is not akin to idol worship. No one is offended when you keep a picture of your family or friends on your cell phone. You are congratulated on acquiring a Picasso. Then why is someone offended by a gifted artist's composition on your wall? Do you keep a copy of Guru Granth Sahib at home? How many copies of the Guru are there in this world? Will you stop the masses from showing reverence to their version of the Guru at home? What about the internet? Are we allowed to hear kirtan or katha in the car while going to work? I do ardaas (wearing shoes) at work and also while shopping. I encourage my kids to do simran while jogging. "Aatth pehar araadhe." Is that wrong? Am I offending someone? "Ko-ee aan milaavai mera preetam pyara ho tis pehi aap vaechaaee." Sobha Singh's talent connected families with Sikhi and kept them out of mischief! His talent stimulated Dr Jogishwar Singh to discuss Sikhi with the storekeeper!

14: Baljeet Singh Grewal (USA), August 31, 2014, 8:16 AM.

The writer of this article has no reason to get offended as this is not our Guru's picture. To me this picture looks like another old man from my village. We need to simply follow Shabad Guru as directed by our Gurus.

15: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 01, 2014, 1:25 PM.

Fantastic article! What we need is to explain via media to stop all imagery of the Gurus. We can replace them with the excellent icons we already have: Ik Oankar and the Khanda. I remember the British film, 'Bend It Like Beckham' which had the iconic portrait of Guru Nanak which was used in the film as a piece of idol worship in the typical 'economic migrant' morbid superstition style.

16: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 01, 2014, 2:59 PM.

Commentator #13 D J Singh ji ... Can you imagine if this was an image or resemblance of Mohammed, Christ or Krishna, etc.! The author is very civilized and educated to complain in the right manner. Why couldn't there be any other imaginatively chosen picture to identify the gender difference? Simple. Things from other faiths are considered exotic, as opposed to reverential, and intellectual dishonesty does the rest.

17: D J Singh (USA), September 01, 2014, 7:53 PM.

Sobha Singh was a celebrated artist par excellence. He was inspired by the life and work of the Sikh Gurus. His timeless portraits of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh have dominated the perception of the masses. Some of these images have acted as guideposts reminding individuals of their Guru's directions, thus aiding in worship and understanding of God. And, symbols like the five kakkars have attempted to keep us Sikhs rooted in the path of righteousness. Nevertheless, Sikhism forbids us to make these images and symbols objects of worship in themselves. The author was offended by the alleged picture of Guru Sahib on the door of the toilet. He promptly contacted the owner and educated him about the religious significance of that portrait for the Sikhs. This action is indeed commendable. Sobha Singh was born in 1901. He died in 1986. His images of the Sikh Gurus are a reflection of his time, culture and perception and not an attempt to show what the Gurus actually looked like. Then, why did the author believe that Sobha Singh's portrait depicted the image of Guru Sahib? A picture is sometimes worth a thousand words. Should artists, web designers, and illustrators be banned from expressing their inner vision in the medium of their choice? Perhaps not. Simply educate yourselves and others that an artist's perception may not be the object of worship in itself.

18: Himmat Singh (United Kingdom), September 01, 2014, 8:25 PM.

The author seems to be right when he says: "What Sobha Singh has painted is simply and purely his own imagination of how he imagined Guru Nanak to be." And then continues: "My relation to Guru ji is a personal one." So, Sardar Sahib, live and let live. If you have your personal image in your heart and mind and do not wish to share it with others, so be it. But do not put others down for what they do in accordance with their way or choice.

19: Daniel Connell (Adelaide, Australia ), September 02, 2014, 5:08 PM.

As a portrait artist deeply inspired by Sikhi, I read this article with interest and would love to contribute a few lines. One of the glorious things about Sikhi, it seems to me, is the still intact, direct and unmediated relationship with God that it encourages, as described so beautifully by Dr Jogishwar Singh. Many of the other religious prophets (including Jesus) have also encouraged this but it has been overtaken through history by political entities and institutional hierarchies. It seems that Dr Jogishwar Singh is drawing our attention to threats to this independent relationship. This is important. This article is ultimately about the power of the image to provoke emotion, both adoration or anger when it is seen as being used disrespectfully as alluded to above by Mr Minhas. A genuine visual artist is interested in this power of the image and can use it to critique power; who has it and why or perhaps to dismantle injustices or challenge inequality. I agree with Dr Jogishwar Singh but in the interest of dialogue I would like to draw a small distinction between works of art and works of design. A work of art is very close to Sikhi, it is an attempt to get closer to God; it is a small step towards oneness. A work of design is an act of making something to serve a purpose other than art, for example to be worn or sat on, or which is made to educate, inform or promote an idea, or be worshipped. In paintings it is often hard to see the difference because they often use the same techniques but for different intents. Sobha Singh's sensitive and wonderful paintings are works of the imagination, of course, and like all works of art speak more about the artist's personal journey of understanding than they do of the subject. I am not sure if they were created to be worshipped or as I assume to reflect his own inner journey of discovery and understanding. His depiction of Guru Nanak as a clean, plump and, more significantly, very fair-skinned old man describes the process of aligning this most loved person with everything that was dignified and valuable in the artist's mind and culture at that time. His images struck a chord with others and perhaps were promoted too. This created a wonderful opportunity for people to have a visual, which can be as innocent as having an image of one's father or mother or loved one nearby. It is a consolation, a grounding reminder, a personal strength, a connection to a community and a memory of love when one feels far from it. Perhaps an image may also act as a sobering check, if our tendency to adore the idols of ego, luxury or money gets out of hand. If an image becomes imbued with magic or an authority akin to worship, then perhaps we need to challenge that as Dr Jogishwar Singh suggests, and herein lies the role of artists to challenge the prevailing, in true Sikh independent style. Many artists have already done this, as a quick Google search can show and this I feel is a good thing. The more diverse images we have the better as each image represents a small insight of some faithful student of God shared with others. Banning images I would suggest simply imprison the power of the image rather than liberate it for good. This will encourage the transformation of other objects or symbols into idols. It is interesting how persistent is this human tendency to make an idol of someone or something. It seems to me that Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus were all very much aware of this human tendency and so encouraged people not to build impediments to a personal relationship with God and yet it happens. The question rising for me from this article is, are there spaces to encourage genuine visual artists to sensitively re-imagine and represent to others their own response to God and the Gurus in a multiplicity of forms? Presenting Jesus as a refugee and with Arab/Jewish features which is more accurate than the common blonde, blue-eyed image, is an example of this. The current pope of the Roman Catholic Church recently commissioned a statue of Jesus as a homeless man; it lies on a bench in a street near the Vatican, the only indication that it is Jesus being nail holes in his feet protruding from a blanket. In middle America the same statue outside a church has caused some Christians to call for its removal while many others have welcomed it as a challenge to Christian complacency and its drift towards communal triumphalism and away from Jesus' most central message of concern for the poor. The most important work of portraits and art is not really about heroes at all; not about claiming territory but about initiating a discussion across difference. I am reminded of the very beautiful and challenging writing of Kabir: "Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat. My shoulder is against yours. You will not find me in the stupas, not in shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals: not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables. When you really look for me, you will see me instantly -- you will find me in the tiniest house of time." Artistic images belong in homes and places of worship because the arts and discussions like this can serve to displace our own current idolatry which comes in many forms. Thank you, Dr Jogishwar Singh, for raising this.

20: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, Connecticut, USA), September 03, 2014, 6:19 PM.

Thank you, Daniel Connell, for your thought-provoking comments.

21: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), September 04, 2014, 6:30 AM.

Messages # 8, 13, and 19 above resonate my sentiments. I would like to add that, first we must avoid issuing edicts, particularly against art, even idolatry. Such edicts only waste our energy with negativity. Spiritual maturity, even maturity in general, cannot be mandated. We can regulate only the maryada in the gurdwaras. We are reminded above that global ignorance of Sikhi and Guru Nanak, particularly within certain populations, still exists outside our own small world. The responsibility lies on us, all of us who come across such people. I would explain to them how certain images, a picture of Jesus for example, can be inappropriate in some places. There is no need to overreact or to curse art.

22: Jaswinder Kaur (Kornwestheim, Germany), September 10, 2014, 7:37 AM.

Today, when i switched on my TV to hear kirtan from the Sikh Channel, what do I see? A hand made portrait -- I think it was supposed to be of Guru Gobind Singh ji. At the time, Aasa di Vaar kirtan was going on. The portrait was hanging above Guru Granth Sahib. It is high time we get together and stop such practices. I will be ringing up the Sikh Channel also.

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Should We Have Icons of Our Gurus?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 132 "









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