Kids Corner


How To Hear God’s Multiple Voices?
The Silence Of Obedience And Expectation -
Part II








Continued from yesterday …


The Sikh vision provides a profound affirmation of the song of life.

The Guru’s or God’s voice is always a collective endeavor – and collective here resists formulation under any one group, ideology or practice. No group could ever claim to own the truth or the True ones exclusively. The true belong not to a religion, nation nor country, but to a “world-body” not yet imagined.

Sat-sangat, the company of the true is a radical political philosophy in as much as it is a revolutionary religiosity: it means that being a Sikh, i.e., being true, one has to join hands with the other however far afield.

So it is quite clear that the Sikh notion of the One God includes many voices – it is not an exclusive God nor a Jealous God, but a God that incorporates otherness as part of its self-definition: a Sikh cannot be a Sikh without loving the other. However to include the voice of the other is not an uncritical enterprise. What is criticized is when the universal is claimed by one particular people over others.

There is no relativism here, where you have your truth and I have mine. On the contrary, Sikhi fundamentally demands an ethical praxis of relating to the other.

The Sikh scripture then begins by embracing the diversity of creation, and assumes an inter-religious dialogue right from the beginning. This, I think, is unprecedented in the history of religious sacred writing.

What are the implications of this insight?

If we are to speak to someone rather than about something, then the first thing that must not happen is to talk to someone about one’s own scripture as universally applicable, but listen to the voices of the other as possibly constitutive of one’s own truth. In other words, we have to learn how to substitute desire with begging, theology with prayer.

Using Theology or doctrine to make supplication possible is to get things the wrong way round. The Gurus had no interest in theology per se, they were solely dedicated to speaking to the divine from their hearts in praise, song, supplication, petition, and prayer (ardaas).

What we are talking about here is the attitude of the beggar and the disposition of the servant. Begging and seva are genuine according to their origin not their content. The religious seems to be concerned with our ability to beg and serve from a selfless heart and not from formulating prayers that sound like instructions for God, nor from performing “good deeds” mechanically.

As Carse notes, “Begging comes from need, [and as such] only the poor can be beggars.”

We could add that seva comes from those that lack a sense of self-interest, thus only the selfless “nobody” can truly serve. This is a significant distinction in terms of the mode of expression in the Sikh Scripture which is primarily in the form of prayer spoken to someone rather than as a theology of speaking about something - hence the resistance to systematize or theologize its contents as distinct from the poetic need to speak to someone and be heard.

If theology reflects a desire to understand, explain, own and know truth, then begging and serving imply pain, loss, need, necessity, compassion and wonder at the Unknowable. As such Desire reflects a speaking about something – which often leads to speaking for, over, and across others. It is therefore a secondary and dispensable mode. The ego’s desire is always about and for itself.

This infatuation is a blindness to the other and the needs of the moment. Such that when someone desires something from you, it is easy to detect its secondary and dispensable nature, as a parent of two boys I know this well.

But Begging and Serving reflect a “speaking” to someone – and as such represent primary and indispensable modes of engaging with the other; the former concerns our own needs, that latter focuses entirely on the needs of those being served. Both begging and serving are forms of prayer.

When my son, who is hanging on for dear life over a cliff’s edge, cries “Daddy help!!!”, then, he is praying. For in prayer we beg for what we cannot live without, and yet cannot obtain by our own devices. The reason most people do not pray is simply because they do not feel themselves to be that close to death, and thus believe they have time to talk about and ask for things.

Guru Nanak says,

O my mind, do not waver or walk on the crooked path; take the straight true path.
The terrible tiger is behind you, and the pool of fire is ahead.
My soul is skeptical and doubtful, but I cannot see any other way to go.
O Nanak, as Gurmukh, dwell with your Beloved Lord, and you shall be saved
. ||7|| (GGS: 1410, Raag: Salok Vaaran te Vadheek, M1)

That is a moment of prayer, not philosophy. If every situation in life is actually like this rather dramatic picture then one would not think to hard about things, one would cry out for help as a matter of dire urgency.

Carse writes, “What I desire I cannot beg for because my existence is not at stake.” Thus prayer or religious speech is an indispensable mode of communication. When Guru Nanak says we have four days (GGS: 689) to live – our existence is truly at stake, but will we cry for help? Or, will we hide safely behind the comforts of silent obedience? Who would stand publicly as a beggar in a silence of expectation?

In other words, who is truly in love?

Speaking about something or speaking for someone is seen in the desire to name, fix and therefore possess and repeat a message or theology across the world. But what is religious about a statement of belief? Is it merely an attempt to manufacture order before we act?

The religious cannot be sorted out before action, it is integral to every action. What is the use of demonstrating our understanding about God, if we do not act with virtue and engage with others? The outcome will be a desire about something (the commodification of the Guru Granth into an object of desire that people can own, repeat and disseminate world-wide) and not to a life-or-death petition to someone.

The difference between the two is vast.

Sikh praise and petition in the Guru Granth Sahib is a primary mode of speech. It is absolutely vital to cry out to God, that is pray for help, at least acknowledge His Doing as the only Doing. My son demonstrates an absolute helpnessness, and the crucial need for help. Adults rarely cry and pray like children, they are too convinced of the efficacy of their own egos.

Yet the Sikh Gurus constantly refer to their own helplessness, and their utter need and dependency upon God’s grace and will. The Gurus see quite clearly how we all hang on the cliff’s edge of life’s every situation – and most of us don’t cry for help, but struggle vainly on (in blind ignorance).

However, it is not easy to beg, to open up to the vulnerable space of humility for it is far easier to shift to an impersonal space of talking about something. Or in terms of seva, one need only reflect how much easier it is to serve one’s own interests. This is why many people reject the religious. They want proof before they believe – they want the demonstration of one theological truth before they will commit, and this is never answered because, as In life, Carse notes, one cannot “avoid the embarrassment of standing there before [God’s presence] with nothing but a longing heart.”

Another way of  understanding this is that we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice.

[In sikhi it is not really a begging for life as such but for truthful living, for god – which is life, but a life that includes both birth and death: maranai ki chinta nahii jiivan ki nahii aas.]

This is because when speech is prayer it is said in an unmistakeable voice. The difference between my son and Guru Nanak is that my son cries out of fear whereas Guru Nanak sung out of wisdom accepting whatever occurs as God’s doing and that being always “good”: jo tudh bhaavai saaii bhalii kaar.

This fearlessness and trust gave Guru Nanak a new voice, such that his hearing the voice of God was also an acquiring of a voice beyond self interest. In this respect, revelation is not so much about the passing on of God’s Word, as learning what speaking really means, a speaking beyond the selfishness of the I.

This transforms how one communicates to others, which is much more personal, direct and intimate. Sikh revelation demonstrates a mode of speaking more than it delivers us a particular belief system – whose point is to get us to sing about our wondrous and indescribable Lover in collective harmony, rather than proselytise about Sikh monotheism and morality.

Sikh scripture is inclusive and sets up an expectation for a response. It is not an absolute authority that speaks over and silences all: it expects a response and waits to hear a voice that often sings through tears.

What revelation aims at is not content, endless lists of rules and regulations, systems and definitions of what this reality is really about, because this results in taking away the responsibility to suffer the truth as one’s own project. If we were told the answers we would never pray for help in the exam of each situation.

Praying for (God’s) help is necessary to be true. This is not an injunction as something one must remember to do, but arises from an existential wisdom born from the repeated experience of the failure of the ego’s will in contrast to a higher ordinance – eventually, some realize that one has to submit to God’s will – precisely because it is unknowable.

The Sikh Gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib do not explain nor clarify the mystery of things, but awaken us to the mystery.

Walter Benjamin’s astute insight is helpful here: “Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it.” [The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. New York: Verso, (1928) 1998: 31.]

The Guru Granth is a revelation that does justice to the wonder of life – it does not expose its secret. In other words truth is not merely about this or that, but rather concerns a primary and existentially intense mode of becoming. Its poetic begging avoids a philosophical prose that desires to capture the essence of things. The attitude of the beggar is utter humility that arises from an ecstasy of wonder – which works against any possibility that we could ever present ourselves as speakers of absolute truths.

Indeed, there can be no interreligious dialogue with such an exclusive attitude; rather than invite a free response, it demands an absolute silence of obedience.

Second Pair: Silence of Obedience or Silence of Expectation?

By thinking, He cannot be reduced to thought, even by thinking hundreds of thousands of times. (GGS:1, Japji, M1)

These opening lines of the Guru Granth Sahib [similar to the Tao Te Ching] have the Word (of God) as that which cannot be spoken as the Word (of God); i.e., when Guru Nanak receives and gives the Word of God, he is very careful to make clear that this Word cannot be given as the Word of God – highlighting that
revelation must be understood in a very particular way.

When the Guru Granth begins with the notion that the word of god cannot be spoken as the word of god, then there is always a silence that goes along with every word sung and written. This theme of undescribability, or the non-literalness of the Word of God is found even in the Abrahamic traditions.

The truth or the word of god cannot be given without also being qualified in some way or other. This provides an important deconstructive limit to all that is and could be said about its meaning, and denies legitimacy to all potential theologies that would pretend to have captured what scripture really means, whether done by Sahib Singh or Bhai Vir Singh, or me.

For Sikhs, speech (divine or not) cannot lessen the mystery of life. However, ignoring such a limit, believing that speech can capture God or Truth produces a Theology of Sikhism which promotes an authoritarian silence of obedience – as Carse notes, “The Silence of obedience is that form of silence which brings our speech to an end”. 

We defer responsibility to those who have been deemed superior to us. What would initiate a silence of expectation in the Sikh tradition, and thus revive our own voices?

Well, to recall for Guru Nanak, God, Truth, the Way remains a profound open-ended mystery and wonder. When vismaad, or Wah, Wah, Waheguru, is remembered then a silent expectation begins to grow quite naturally – one which humbly opens to hukam more earnestly and freely. In this regard scriptures, to varying degrees and emphasises, can become those kind of texts that do not so much tell us what is real, as expect a response from us to complete whatever it is they are saying.

In other words the mode of scripture is more a silence than a speaking. And that silence is a silence of expectation: God as the Lover is waiting for our response.

Guru Nanak is not an entertainer, he’s a beggar, beseeching God, with the strong implication that we too should beg for God’s truth, guidance and illumination. Thus, if we understand revelation less as hearing a voice and more as acquiring a voice (beyond the ego), then it becomes clear that scripture is also a silence, a patient listening.

But it is a precise kind of silence however, one that makes true speech possible. This is what is required today; not those that shout they have the exclusive truth, but true speakers. Even in everyday interaction, I am in an all too real sense utterly dependent upon the silent listening of the other to be able to speak at all.

Carse argues, “It is not because I think, but because I am heard, that I am.”

Thus how we hear God’s multiple voices, or the voice of the other, is actually crucial to the integrity and transformation of our own voice. In this regard listening and being heard are the foundations of all ethics. This is why Carse argues that “A genuine silence of expectation can occur only when one person listens to another in a circumstance of equal and shared humanity”.

Here the goal is not merely to repeat the speech of those that have gone before us, but to speak in our own voice to someone directly. The silence of obedience on the other hand, produces a speech in the imperative mode that is inherently contradictory.

It is speech meant to end speech. When the King speaks you must be silent; God’s revealed speech is different, He expects our response (Carse). The imperative speaker has no one to speak to, only persons to speak for – or persons whose voice is but an extension of the master’s.

Sikh scripture largely lacks the imperative mode, it does not wield a list of “thou shalt nots”, as I have said, it is not law giving; rather than demanding obedience, it expects another voicing – hence the thousands of songs and raag structure of the Guru Granth Sahib. Where else is the silence of expectation most acute than when lovers communicate?

It should be obvious that the Guru Granth Sahib is a casket of love letters sung to the supreme Person. And all those in love know that the primary mode of that love is an expansive song full of the silence of awaiting a response.

Carse argues speech in the expectant mode is not contradictory but reciprocal. In speaking to you expectantly I do not intend to bring your speaking to an end, but to bring my own speaking to an end – and to bring it to an end in such a way that it makes your speaking possible. The reciprocity consists in the fact that if you do not respond to what I have said, I have not spoken to you at all.

God, Sikh Gurus, Bhagats and Sants want a response, not obedience. They want you to join in the song cries for the lost Beloved. Sacred writing is not given as the Word of God literally because God is always the supreme Listener – enwrapped in the most profound silence precisely to give birth to true speakers.

Just as the shabad tends towards anahad shabad, so too do names tend towards the Nameless. One is not therefore only to listen to scripture for the answers, but respond to the call of God’s silence with one’s own developing and ongoing answers, actions.

How can you truly join in the cultivation of a voice beyond haumai, if you do not yet feel the pain of this lost Lover’s silence? Most people live under security blankets of shallow contentment that allows them to be indifferent and passive observers of life’s various and shocking happenings – and I include myself here, for it is much harder to respect God’s silence with true spontaneous and creative actions, than it is to merely obey in silent deference to the views of those in power.

The true response is always tied to an intervention, an irruption, a new configuration of forces that reflect deep engagement and concern.

As Carse notes: “It is always the case that when someone listens to you with genuine openness you will find a voice to say what you have never been able to say before, and did not know you could have said.”

To be continued tomorrow …


Dr Balbinder Singh Bhogal is the Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies, at Hofstra University, New York, USA.

[Courtesy: Academia. Edited for]

July 18,2017

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The Silence Of Obedience And Expectation -
Part II"

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