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Images below: First from bottom - "Prakash from the Throne", from photo by Bhupinder Singh and Gurvinder Kaur. Second from bottom - "Sangat", from photo by the same photographers. Third from bottom - Sketch of Guru Nanak, by Bobby Singh Sandhu.

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My Guru & I: A Spiral Journey
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 64

by RAVINDER SINGH

 

The following first appeared on these pages in August 2008 as the fifth in a series of articles we had asked a wide variety of personages to pen in commemoration of the Tercentenary (1708-2008) of the investiture of Guru Granth Sahib as our eternal Guide and Teacher.

It is re-published today as part of this week's Talking Stick Colloquium. 

 

 

 

Spiritual journeys are never ending, and rarely progress in a straight line. They are more like a meandering spiral into the core of one's being, bringing us back to the same spot again and again, only to reveal a deeper shade and meaning of the Truth that is ever present. The Truth is already homogenized in us, much like butter in milk and flint in wood.  It takes constant "churning" to draw it out.

Such, indeed, has been my journey with the Guru - so far.

My first awareness of Sikhi came as a seven-year-old listening to my father trace the family history and learning that one of our ancestors became a Khalsa during the time of Guru Gobind Singh, quite possibly at the Baisakhi of 1699. Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story, it made a powerful impression on me. The connection to the 10th Master was a special source of pride.

In Singapore, where I spent my early childhood, Sunday Gurdwara was a weekly ritual.  We kids had to sit through Punjabi class, which at the time felt like undeserved punishment. But the pain of having to endure oorraahs and airraahs was considerably eased by the prospect of jalebis during langar and the afternoon at the beach that would follow. 

Although I did not pay much attention in class, the constant repetition (muharni) of the alphabet must have made an impression on my brain somewhere. Years later, this rudimentary knowledge of the Punjabi alphabet enabled me to teach myself Gurmukhi, opening the door to the many-splendoured and wondrous world of Gurbani.

It was not until I came to Delhi to live with my grandparents that I had my first encounter with Sikhi which came through an accidental meeting with Sant Sujan Singh, a well known exponent of kirtan and katha. He possessed a mellifluous and forceful voice and performed kirtan accompanied by a large jatha playing on traditional instruments like the dilruba in a style that was a unique blend of classical, qawwali and folk elements. The sangat sang along. Kirtan was interspersed by eloquent and moving sermons on Sikh teachings and the life of the Gurus - delivered in beautifully spoken, chaste Punjabi.

I was barely fourteen, impressionable, and becoming vaguely conscious of an inner yearning. Sant ji and his jatha was a captivating presence in their gol puggs (round turbans) and cholas (robes). The ambience of the sangat just blew me away and I became a regular - and eager - participant in the sangat. This association lasted until Sant ji's death a couple of years later in 1970. 

I did not know this then, but much of what I absorbed - Sikh ideology, belief and practice - had strong Nirmala antecedents that could be traced to Sant ji's relationship with his mentor, Baba Nand Singh ji, better known as the founder of the Nanaksar movement.  Baba ji - as he was always referred to - was a product of Nirmala Akharas, having spent time under the tutelage of Nirmala sants like Baba Wadhawa Singh and Baba Harnam Singh Buchowale.

The association with Sant Sujan Singh was transforming.  I became a practicing Sikh, arising early, doing my nitnem and simran before heading off to school. At every opportunity, I would show up at his establishment in Karol Bagh for an opportunity to chat with him. From him, I imbibed a lifelong love for kirtan, and an intensely devotional approach to Sikhi. Above all, he connected me to Baba Nand Singh ji in a mystical relationship that remains central to my life.

When I ponder over how blessed I am to own Nanak as Guru,  I cannot but help thinking of Sant Sujan Singh and Baba Nand Singh ji as links in that spiritual lineage.

At the same time, my schooling in Delhi and later in America (where I arrived in 1976) exerted a different - and opposite - pull on me. Reason became the altar of worship and questioning the mode of inquiry. The influence of Western thought and philosophy encouraged me to be audacious, to question authority, to free myself of self-imposed immaturity.

The clash of Faith and Reason led me into a blind alley for years to come, causing me considerable angst. To make matters worse, there was no sangat around me, making it easier to drift away from the moorings of the traditional Sikhi I had learnt in Delhi.

I shed my Sikh identity and dropped the daily Nitnem regimen.

Marriage in 1983 was the turning point and the start of my journey back.

Unlike me, my wife grew up in a home where all the banis had to be committed to memory and the Japji recited as the minimum daily requirement. Her mother would withhold breakfast until this requirement was met by all the children.

My wife brought with her a BiR of the Guru Granth Sahib which she installed in the only bedroom in our apartment. Sleeping on a raised surface (bed) in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib was unthinkable to her, so she slept on the floor instead.  My suggestion that the Guru would not be offended if she slept on the bed was met with a scowl.

I might add that my wife is a devout Sikh, very rooted in the Punjab. She is also very blunt and will call a spade a bloody shovel.  She was not impressed by my "western" mode of thinking and put me on notice, telling me in no uncertain terms that I needed to show the right measure of respect to the Guru Granth Sahib. She also made it clear that I had gone astray and needed to mend my ways. ("bandeh baNo!"). That was shorthand for telling me to adopt the Sikh identity again. After years of freewheeling, that message was shock therapy.

But her devotion also rekindled feelings that had gone dormant. Listening to her read bani every day inspired me. With her help, I began to learn Gurmukhi and started a daily practice of reading.

That was twenty-five years ago.

Learning to read Gurbani was no ordinary process. The language was very foreign to me, quite unlike the colloquial Punjabi I was used to. The idiom, rooted as it is in the agricultural landscape of the Punjab, was just as unfamiliar. The correct enunciation (ucharan) was also a challenge.

I relied (still do) on commentaries (santhiyas) in Punjabi, English translations, and any recorded katha I could lay my hands on. In order to get the articulation right, I listened to recorded readings of Gurbani. Gradually, I came to understand the text (akhri arth).

Gurbani beckons me, like a lover, to look beyond text into the mystical meaning hidden behind the words; to go past the literal to the allegorical interpretation of bani. The Guru's poetic expressions and captivating melody compels me to read - and re-read - the text over and over again, in an effort to find the "key" or the spiritual sense (antreev bhahv). Yet with every reading, something remains unsaid, making me conscious of the transcendence and mystery of Waheguru.

Sounding the words through different modulations and speed of reading, with pauses at the prescribed place and identifying with the different moods transports me out of myself to an experience that is timeless (Ekstasis). The reverberation connects me to the Divine through the medium of "Nanak, the Guru", because, by his own admission, these words were spoken to him by God (Jaisee me aaveh khasam ki bani).  It leaves me with a heightened sense of awe and wonder (vismaad).

My engagement with the Guru is devotional, exegetic and mystical. Mysterious are the ways of the Guru.

Somewhere along the way, I began to feel inside of me the pull of the Khalsa Rehat and the desire to embrace it. I had sported a "clean shaven" look for close to twenty years, but being mistaken for a non-Sikh (Hindu, Hispanic or Arab) or called lalaji by the hard core Khalsa branch of my family (and I do have a Hindi-speaking branch as well) had always irked me. The trauma of Operation Bluestar made me want to assert my identity. But I did not act on those feelings.

But now, through some magic, a mystical pull and an inner voice that only grew stronger, urged me to become a Khalsa. Towards the end of 1995, another happenstance and chance meeting provided the impetus to make the transition. 

One evening in December 1995, I found myself seated across from a recognizable Sikh on a commuter train in New York, both of us heading home to Long Island.  During the conversation that ensued, I learnt that he had recently published a book on Sikhi, a collection of essays entitled Sikhs and Sikhism: A View with a Bias.

I entertained a rather dim view of most Sikh writers in English. I felt that they were, for the most part, self-styled scholars (usually retired from other professions) of Sikhi, writing sloppy and archaic English and interpreting Sikhi in an idiom that made no sense and connection to contemporary life. I suspected this book to be from the same genre. My response, as I recall, was unnecessarily snooty.

But Dr. I. J. Singh, gentleman that he is, graciously invited me over for a cup of tea, handed me a copy of his book, and asked me to write a review.  Perhaps it was his way of telling me that if you think Sikhs can't write English, how about showing us what you can do! 

This was a turning point and the start of a friendship that I cherish.

Dr. Singh was the catalyst I needed to pull the trigger on becoming a Khalsa. He nudged me, ever so gently, to move in that direction. I remember surprising him by becoming a Khalsa on Baisakhi day, 1996. He was expecting the conversion to happen, but not with the alacrity I showed.

Dr. Singh also introduced me to writing.  By inviting me to collaborate with him on essays and book reviews, he helped open a new creative dimension in my life. For a while, I hesitated, thinking that it was a bit presumptuous of me to write about Gurbani, especially when I was critical of other non-scholars. Nor did I know that I could string a sentence together. But writing, like reading and vichaar, is another way of creating meaning.

An authentic Sikh life is truly a lifelong apprenticeship to the Guru. This journey is best described by the Guru himself in Japji Sahib: it is an alchemic process of self-transformation where psychological lead (manmukh) is converted to spiritual gold (gurmukh).

In this process, the Guru is indeed the Philosopher's Stone (paaras).

 

POINTS TO PONDER

As part of this weeks's Talking Stick Colloquium, please share with us your journey in Sikhi, specifically your relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib.

Has it been easy?

What have been your turning points or milestones, if any?

Has the journey been fruitful? Satisfying?

Have there been any hurdles in your path? Have you overcome them? How?

 

First published on August 20, 2008. Re-published on October 24, 2011.

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Gopi Tejwani (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 21, 2008, 7:13 AM.

It is a great personal story about exposure to the principles of Sikhi. All our traits get nurtured and established in childhood. Great job, Ravinder!

2: Kuljeet (Powell, U.S.A.), August 22, 2008, 4:17 AM.

Great article! I believe that no matter how we were raised, we choose our own path through our education, our beliefs and, ultimately, our personal faith. I feel my faith very deeply, love gurbani and am proud to be a Sikh.

3: Atika (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 22, 2008, 2:49 PM.

Being at an impressionable age myself, the influence of Taneja Uncle's sangat on my thoughts and feelings about Sikhi has been so profound that I can't thank him enough. Having been born in a Sikh family, I wandered around, searching for answers in other religions. I got some answers, but I still did not feel that sense of profound faith and core connection. After coming to the United States three years ago, I re-established my connection with Sikhi. While on this path of spiritual journey (which I have just begun), the catalyst for me has been Ravinder Uncle. His thorough knowledge about Gurbani, his eloquent communication style and, above all, his open-mindedness are cherished by all age groups who form a part of our weekly Gurbani Vichaar sessions. It is truly a blessing to have a mentor like him!

4: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 25, 2008, 7:36 AM.

My good friend Ravinder Singh has said very kind things about me, and I am grateful. What I appreciate more is something that Atika brought out and that Ravinder did not - that is, his growing involvement in a Sikh youth discussion group. In this, I think, Ravinder has added an additional and critically significant dimension to his journey as a Sikh.

5: Poonam Kaur (Dublin, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 27, 2008, 12:16 PM.

Ravinder, thanks for sharing with us your spiritual journey. You are a great source of inspiration for us. May WaheGuru keep you always in Chardi Kalaa.

6: Parmeet Singh (London, U.K.), September 02, 2008, 10:58 AM.

I am touched by the conviction of the author; and the simple language and& concise way he has portrayed his experience.

7: Sahib Singh (New York, U.S.A.), October 23, 2008, 2:45 PM.

Very nice article. Do you have recordings of Sant Sujan Singh ji? I'm really interested in them. Please help me out.

8: Manpreet Kaur (Karol Bagh, Delhi, India), November 12, 2008, 3:41 PM.

I don't know what to say. You are very lucky to have experienced Maharaj ji. I wish I could get someone like your friend to take me back where I belong. I got married to a rajput. I'm not restricted but the practices, beliefs and traditions I grew up with in my parents' house are not here. I miss them. Though I do visit the gurdwara. Earlier, it was a routine, but not any more. My dad is angry with me as my marriage was against his wishes. I wish I could get back to where I belong. I have not changed my religion. But people say that after marriage the religion of your husband is your religion. I even sometimes fight with them, sometimes even yell in anger. I know I'm a Sikhni and will always remain one. My bond with Waheguru is very strong. He knows me and I can talk to him whenever, wherever I feel like it. I know he is with me. I have felt his presence. [Editor: You appear to be strong and blessed. Two things: keep up your simran ... it will replenish your strength, and it will guide you. And remember, there is no reason why you cannot be respectful of your husband's faith and expect him to respect yours.]

9: Gurmeet Kaur (New Delhi, India), December 04, 2008, 1:26 PM.

Thanks for thanking my grandfather, Sant Sujan Singh ji ... and my father, Sant Surjeet Singh ji. I would love to tell him about it and about you.

10: Harpreet singh (Delhi, India), December 25, 2008, 5:45 AM.

Kudos to you, sir, and your spirit. The changes or the transformaton that you have gone through are only because of the divine kirpa of Guru Nanak. And the kirtans you had the bhaag to sit in the Dargaahi Sangat of Sant Sujan Singh ji. Oh aise kirtan han ki jehre naal hi jaange! Thank you.

11: R.P. Singh (India), April 08, 2009, 8:11 AM.

You have been blessed; so can be each one of us. All that is required is just a wee bit of love for Him and He will multiply it thousand fold. All your problems will just disappear.

12: Prakash Singh.Bagga (India), October 24, 2011, 10:27 AM.

I am convinced that my relationship with my Guru is before I came to this world. Everything I possess today is a gift of my Guru. Hurdles are parts of every one's life but when the Guru is with you, these hurdles go away without creating any harm. Overall, the journey has been very fruitful and is still fruitful by the grace of the Guru.

13: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 24, 2011, 11:04 AM.

We need inspirational tales like this! Allegiance to the Guru is a minimal requirement for embarking on the journey of Sikhi.

14: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), October 30, 2011, 5:58 PM.

Besides the writer's emotionally narrated and rich personal account, the readers' responses are equally touching and inspiring. And perhaps with a message. Readers are hungry for personal experience-based connection with the Guru and link between Sikh thought and life's journey; in addition to general practice of expressing esoteric views on Sikhi. There is a need for a shared experience that connects Sikh thought with life lived, pains/gains encountered, challenges overcome, hassles subdued, relationships enriched, contentment enhanced. Sikh thought is spiritually rich and not limited to just connecting with the Creator only. Its reach is deep and wide; meaningfully connected to the journey of life each day. It would be nice to know a specific aspect of the story that inspired each writer. It is a desirable link missing in several other - otherwise generous and complimentary - responses.

15: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), October 31, 2011, 4:21 AM.

All of us go through the two journeys - the one that take us spiralling away from love, and the one spiralling towards love. Is there a person out there who is as tough as Ravinder's wife - I am the type - not convinced - yet.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 64"









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