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Moving Forward -
Or Sliding Backward?
The Choice Is Entirely Ours

T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 

 

 

I was not surprised to see Rajesh Mehta at the gurdwara. I knew he occasionally attended the Sunday morning services, and sometimes even dropped in at other hours.

After the kirtan, we headed for the langar hall together.

We are close friends and there was a lot to talk about and catch-up this time around. However, during a lull in the conversation - it must have been when I was engrossed in lapping up the heavenly daal - the discussion took an unusual turn.

"You know, Sher, I'm a Hindu but I love coming here because the kirtan and being amidst the sangat brings me peace. But I've often wondered: do you ever go to a mandir? Any Hindu temple?"

"Why do you ask, Raj?" I was doing my lawyer thing, I guess - answering a question with a question, to bide time.

"Oh, it just hit me ... I've never seen you at my mandir. And I've never heard you talk about visiting one, ever. So, just curious ..."

"Well," I said, "You know, I have visited the most famous of them all. At Badrinath, in the upper Himalayas. I was in the vicinity - a mere two days' trek away - when I was in Hemkunt, and took a diversion to Badrinath. Have you been there?"

"No, I haven't. You are lucky you had the opportunity!"

I continued quickly, thinking I was on a roll: "And I've been to Hardwar, and Benares, and Gaya ... all major centres of Hindu pilgrimage. And umpteen ones in Bali and Nepal. You know I love visiting any place of worship!"

"No, no!" piped in Raj. "I didn't mean as a tourist. Like me ... the way I pop in here every time the spirit moves me. I wonder if you EVER go to a Hindu mandir the way I come to a gurdwara."

I went quiet, contemplative quiet, not sure what I should say.

"For example, when was the last time you were in a mandir?"

I thought about it and shrugged my shoulders.

Raj: "H-m-mm. So tell me, have you ever been to a mandir in all the years you've been living in Canada? Thirty years, forty years ...?"

I could see where he was heading, and didn't want to go there. I knew he knew the answer, and I wasn't willing to be drawn into a discussion on the issue.

He looked at me and elbowed me gently. "Never? You haven't gone to a mandir here once, have you?"

I shook my head in agreement.

"How come?" I knew this was coming.

"I don't know, Raj. I really don't know ... No particular reason, I guess."

Mercifully, he dropped the subject. We got up and headed for the door.

I was relieved, because Raj is dear to me and I didn't want to say anything that would turn into an argument over religion. Or hurt his sentiments.

Ever since - and its been several months since that exchange - my thoughts have gone back to his question.

I have searched deep into myself for the answer. I too have wanted to know the answer, because it was true - I do not enjoy going to a mandir, except as a tourist! - and it looks like I've subconsciously avoided going to one. It has no spiritual draw for me.

I've struggled long and hard for an honest answer.

And when I found one, it didn't surprise me - even though it took me a while to be comfortable with it. And accept it as the very part of my being. What shapes me, guides me, directs me ... in all that I do.

I haven't dared to share this discovery of myself with Raj because I fear that he may not welcome it, or it may hurt him a bit. I value our friendship too much for me to risk treading on what is dear to him.

But, if I ever have the courage to give him the answer one day, here's what it'll be:  

Well Raj, here's what I think. I think it is easy for you to come to a gurdwara, even though you are a Hindu. Each time you step over the portal of a gurdwara, you step five centuries into the future, and into a world which has peeled off thousands of years of onion layers of ritual and superstition to get to a simple and direct relationship between oneself and one's spiritual needs.

On the other hand, every time I find myself stepping into a mandir, I see myself stepping back half a millennium into the past, leaving behind generations of human and spiritual progress, of all of the shedding of historical baggage that our ancestors have helped to do away with.

Standing in front of the idols and surrounded by the rituals and superstitions, I would feel a stunning sense of betrayal to all that I have inherited and learned since my birth.

I pass no judgement in what you do in a mandir, or as part of your faith and beliefs. But I certainly know for sure that it is not a path that I wish to tread.

It's a choice of moving forward with five hundred years of progress. Or sliding back five hundred years of regression!
 
And rest assured that though I choose a different path than yours, this path requires me to protect YOUR right to practice YOUR faith as YOU deem fit, within YOUR mandirs and anywhere else you choose, no matter who - I or anyone else! - finds it difficult to understand or follow. To defend your right to the death, as did our Ninth Master in Chandni Chowk in the heart of Delhi, and as countless others have done since then and through the centuries. 

It gives me no great pleasure to tell you that my knees simply will not bend, my head will just not bow, before an idol, no matter how beautiful, how tall, how rich ...

I believe that no other entity - man, woman, child or object - can help solve my problems or wash my sins away. There's no prophet or priest, sant or saint, idol or icon, that can bring me prosperity, stave off evil, punish my enemies, get me a promotion, bring me wealth, or guarantee me salvation, etc., etc.

Life doesn't work by proxy for me. There are no interceders for me - not even Guru Nanak or Guru Gobind Singh.

All that I have going for me is the way they have shown, which I have to follow and, if I do what I have to do, I will be able to achieve what they themselves achieved.

Yes, I pray for grace ... but from no flesh or stone or icon.

I need no broker. God - call Him/Her what you will - for me is not hiding behind gimmicks, like the Great and Powerful, Supreme Wizard of the Kingdom of Oz. He is as accessible - as directly and easily - as a father and mother, sister and brother, friend and lover.
 
It's a very personal relationship. Therefore, I need to walk the walk ... myself! I will pay for my wrongs ... and learn from them. I will benefit from the good that I do.

The gurdwara that I go to - and not all gurdwaras fit that bill - facilitates my journey. A mandir has nothing to offer me on the journey I have chosen.

*   *   *   *   *


I am not, and never have been, blessed with the gift of certainty in all the things that I believe in and follow. I know that, more often than not, I'll be wrong and, from time to time, I'll have to regroup with all of my faculties and start all over again.                

Accordingly, what I have stated above is how I feel and what I believe in. Honestly.

I shared it all with a Sikh friend the other day to see if it met the test of the light of the day.

He pounced on me as soon as I finished, and instantly accused me of betraying all that Sikhi stood for - by being intolerant of other faiths.

I begged to differ.

Sikhi demands that I be tolerant - and more! Actually respectful! - of other faiths. Which I am. I revel in the devotion and faith and commitment others show, in their respective ways, to their spiritual path. And get inspiration from it.

But Sikhi at no point requires me to delve in those practices as a show of support or empathy.

The passionate verses of the Bhagats Namdev, Ravidas and other great Hindu souls included in the Guru Granth, drench me in joyful tears and inspire me along my own path, but at no point do I then adopt the very rituals they delved in (and overcame).

Moreover, I do not criticize Hindu - or any other - forms of worship. I do not advocate any opposition to it amongst those who practice them. I neither proselytize nor preach.

Yes, I do try to discern for myself and share with my fellow-Sikhs what is true, unadulterated Sikhi and what isn't - and I try to add to the dialogue for those who wish to know about Sikhi.

And yes, I do tear off the veils of pakhand (hypocrisy) and fraud, no matter which mantle the scoundrel throws on his shoulders - Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew or whatever - but never, NEVER do I give myself or anyone the license to decry another's religion.

Thus, for example, it is no right of mine to question the worship of idols BY Hindus. But I do question when the worship of idols is used as a front for insurance scams by insuring those very idols for millions of dollars.

I do not question the Hindu practice of worshipping a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, but I do take umbrage with charlatans who prey on those very human sentiments to scam millions of dollars from their devotees thus blinded by their devotion.

And so on and so forth.

Someday, I hope, I'll have the courage to tell dear Raj to his face my answer to his question.

In the meantime, I await your judgements ... and continue to hide behind the pseudonym I have assigned him for the purpose of this exercise. 

 

First published on October 19, 2010

Republished on July 10, 2018   
     
 

Conversation about this article

1: Karamjeet Singh Lamba (Ahmedabad, India), October 19, 2010, 8:33 AM.

Very good article. In fact even I have heard some Hindus praising the gurdwaras and finding them better than their mandirs. But naturally many can't say it openly because religion is religion!

2: Kam Singh (London, England), October 19, 2010, 11:19 AM.

I wish you would also turn your attention to the pakhandis who use Sikhi as a scam to rake in money and power.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 19, 2010, 12:01 PM.

"Aisaa parabh ti-agg avar kat laagahu" [GGS:270.15] - "Why forsake such a God and attach yourself to another?" Sher Singh ji, what a lovely Elysian breath of fresh air you have provided in the jungle of glitzy, glittery gods, further embellished by Bollywood to add more garish colour. Guru Nanak went to mosques and Hindu temples without any hesitation and always ended up providing a simple, cutting message recorded in real time for us to follow. No wonder Rajesh Mehta and millions of others like him are drawn to the gurdwara. Guru Nanak always said that if you are a Hindu, be a good Hindu, and if you are a Muslim, be a good Muslim. "Sirr naaanak lokaa paav hai/ balihaaree jaa-o jaytay tayray naav hai" [GGS:1168.14] - "Nanak places his head on the feet of such people/ I am a sacrifice to your Names, as many as there are, O Lord!" I have another story such as Rajesh's, but shall presently keep this comment brief.

4: Bishen Singh (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), October 19, 2010, 1:09 PM.

Kam Singh ji: I don't think the author has spared Sikh pakhandis either. Please re-read carefully, including the following passage - "... I do tear off the veils of pakhand (hypocrisy) and fraud, no matter which mantle the scoundrel throws on his shoulders - Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew or whatever - but never, NEVER do I give myself or anyone the license to decry another's religion."

5: Narinder Singh (Chicago, Illinois, United States), October 19, 2010, 1:21 PM.

How does what the author has seen in mandirs differ from what we see in some of our gurdwaras? I'm sorry to say, but when I step into most gurdwareh today, I don't feel as though I've stepped into five hundred years of progress from the 15th century.

6: Baljeet Kaur (Coventry, United Kingdom), October 19, 2010, 2:41 PM.

I agree with you, Narinder Singh ji. But isn't that what the author is saying? - we can either slide back five centuries into idol-worship and whatever, or work on saving the five hundred years of progress we've been given on a platter, and build on it. I think his is a clarion call to action - you and I need to go to our respective gurdwaras and start holding the committees accountable!

7: Aman Singh (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), October 19, 2010, 2:52 PM.

Are many of us simply missing the point of the article? Just because many of our gurdwaras need reform does not justify any Sikhs to turn to idols or other practices that have NO place within Sikhi. There is no dearth of moorakh Sikhs today - in India as well as across the diaspora - who display hindu idols at their work-places and residences. I personally think it is the most glaring example of stupidity that has taken over many of our people today. They seem to be badgered into thinking that being tolerant and respectful of other faiths requires them to then delve into the very practices which Sikhism abhors. While we protect and defend the right of others to worship as they want, let's not loose our own right to worship the way we want - is what T. Sher Singh is saying, in his sugar-coated message to all Sikhs, but in no uncertain terms, in this article!

8: Gobinder Singh (California, U.S.A.), October 19, 2010, 4:41 PM.

That is so true! I have a Hindu friend and he often comes to the gurdwara, especially on New Year's Eve, Vaisakhi and even Diwali. Another one is a Muslim and even he has been to the gurdwara on these occasions and many other times. Yet, I have never been to a mandir in the U.S. I think a gurdwara, just like the Guru Granth Sahib, is pretty universal and open to all. No matter which religion you belong to, you feel at home and welcomed! Bani recitals and kirtan are spiritual and anyone can easily relate to them.

9: Parminder Singh (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), October 19, 2010, 6:43 PM.

Respect means live and let live. I respect homosexuals' right to be what they are, but it doesn't mean I have to show respect by following their actions. I respect my neighbor who likes to sunbathe in a bikini, but that doesn't mean I have to advocate that to my wife and daughters. I respect my friend's choice not to keep kesh, but that doesn't mean I have to cut my own. There are no deals in respect. If a Hindu comes to a gurdwara thinking he will get some Sikhs to go to a mandir in exchange, then that Hindu has missed all the lovely kirtan's message. Like most Sikhs do as well, unfortunately. The answer to any Sikh's or Hindu's question on such a topic is a reflection of how one treats the Guru Granth - as a Guru or as an idol. Listen to the shabad and also do vichaar on it. One has to understand the shabad and then implementing it in one's life. This is Sikhi and this is how we live our lives in school and at work. My answer to any Hindu would simply be the shabad he probably just heard.

10: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), October 20, 2010, 1:42 AM.

Good educational article. Guru Nanak went all the places of Hindu and Muslims to educate and teach the real meaning of God and humanity. Whereas today Sikhs fail to teach similar things to themselves and non-Sikhs. Guru Nanak used the language of the people and the location.

11: Birendra Singh Huja (Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.), October 20, 2010, 4:28 AM.

T. Sher Singh ji was very wise to reflect and not be reflexive to his friend Raj. In the first few paragraphs of the essay, there are hints of some subtle "ahankar" and not of "Oankar", especially where one reads 'YOU' and 'YOUR in capital letters with the mention of Guru Tegh Bahadar's sacrifice for the right of everyone to practice the religion of their choice. Guru Sahib was but one of the outstanding examples, out of many, due to his stature. The rest of the article reflects cause and effect of his self reliance and his way of leading a life of a good Sikh. I just wish to make a few points: First, most Sikhs descend from Hindus; their ancestors converted to Sikhism. Just as Muslims historically flow from Jews and Christians. As time passes, Sikhs, Hindus and all humanity continue to evolve. Secondly, who is Sikh, Hindu, etc.? All being God's creation and His children, they are all the same. Lastly, the trait of serving humanity ('maanas ki ek jaat') and being humble ('santon ke charno ki dhool' - yearning to be the dust of saints' feet) and yearning to be one with our ultimate love - Waheguru - is the true calling for all of us.

12: N. Singh (Canada), October 20, 2010, 9:02 AM.

Birendra Singh ji: Ultimately we all descended from apes, if you ask the scientists ... if you ask anthropologists, they will tell you that the Hindus are the descendants of the Africans. I'm not sure what the relevance of your comment is to this article vis-a-vis Sikhs descending from Hindus. Even if some Hindus converted to Sikhism, what does that imply? That we should still be like them? Or that we need to move forward like our Gurus wanted us too?

13: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), October 20, 2010, 10:44 AM.

I think the whole concept of place of worship is an over-stretched one. Guru Nanak to the Guru Gobind Singh, none of the Gurus had built a place of worship since they believed that the place of worship is within the human being himself or herself. "Ghar ghar andar dharamsal", meaning that every ghar=house (house=human, being not a physical location) should become a gurdwara. When we become a gurdwara (guru da dwar) by our deeds and thinking, the whole world will bow before you (and I do not imply that in the sense of how it is with babas and sants). The purpose was to purify yourself whether by self-purification or by assistance of others as in the concept of sangat. I kindly direct all of you to Prof. Darshan Singh ji's kathaa on the same topic and a lot of what I said above has been taken from the same. Since many of us have started relating gurdwaras with mere "hazari bharna" and "matha tekna", we are no better than our Hindu friends who have been doing the same for centuries. Many of us have come to a point where we are doing exactly what Guru Nanak wanted us avoid. Let's correct our mistakes and stop using gurdwaras for anything but simran, kirtan and sangat/langar!

14: Malkiat Singh (Amritsar, Punjab), October 20, 2010, 11:17 AM.

Dear Kanwarjeet Singh ji: You are correct, but only partly. You have to keep in mind that our Gurus were practical, down-to-earth teachers and gave us a system of beliefs which are practically sound and well-grounded. Sikhi is build around two edifices - Miri and Piri. You have merely touched on the piri aspect of the gurdwara. It is to address the miri in us that our Guru Sahibs built the Darbar Sahib - an edifice of brick and mortar, a physical gurdwara. But they also reminded us repeatedly to balance it with the gurdwara inside in each one of us. Kanwarjeet ji: we need to be careful when getting into a dialogue such as this one, in that we do not start picking and choosing - albeit subconsciously - those arguments that support our pre-conceived notions, and discarding those that challenge them. It is called 'chaturta' and it is to be avoided, if one is genuinely seeking answers to spiritual questions.

15: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 20, 2010, 3:57 PM.

Instead of locking horns over trivialities, couldn't we follow what Guru Gobind Singh said: "He is in the temple as He is in the mosque. He is in the Hindu worship as He is in the Muslim prayer. Men are one, though they appear different."

16: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, U.S.A.), October 21, 2010, 10:07 AM.

Very nice article! Very touching!

17: Charandeep Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 10, 2018, 9:13 AM.

"Aap aapni budh hai jeti / barnat bhin bhin tohey teyti ..." Every individual defines God as per his/her understanding. But won't it be better if this 'understanding' is based upon common sense as well? Bhagat Kabir has so beautifully defined how idol worship is simply not logical, and cannot hold water, either literally or metaphorically! "The gardener plucks flowers/leaves to offer to an idol. While every leaf/flower has life in it, the idol does not!"

18: Brig Nawab Singh Heer (Retd) (New York, USA), July 10, 2018, 11:45 AM.

Dear Sher Singh ji, a very interesting subject and tackled very well. While serving in the Army, my last appointment was Commandant of Training Institute located in Maharastra, near Pune, in India. It was an institute with a strength of 5000 consisting of all types of trainees and 250 staff Officers, JCOs and men. Traditionally all army units have religious institutes as per religion of troops. So we also had a Gurdwara, a Mandir, and a Masjid. Every Sunday we have compulsory attendance of places of worship by all and officers and JCOs attend all places of religion. As Commandant my duty also entailed to ensure these institutes were kept up well. In my first visit to the Mandir and the Gurdwara, I found a marked contrast: the Gurdwara was kept very well, even when Sikhs' atrength was only 300. The conduct of the gurdwara service with kirtan, recitation of paatth and translation of the Hukamnamah, all were very soothing. However, in the Mandir, too many rituals and stories of Krishna and Radha taking bath proved to be in very low grade in comparison. Next day I called the Pandit ji (Hindu priest) in uniform and gave counseling to him in front of my Deputy who was a strong Hindu. I asked them to prepare a draft speech of by Pandit ji from the Geeta and get it approved one week prior to the Sunday congregation till Pandit ji came up to an acceptable standard. After a month I got approval discontinued when all Hindu officers came to my office and admitted that their Mandir needed to improve for the devotees, and thanked me for their efforts. Now I feel may of our gurdwaras have to further improve to ensure they give the next generation something to carry home in this day and age and across the diaspora.

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Or Sliding Backward?
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