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What If The World Is Not A Problem To Be Solved But A Mirror To The Mind?





The Ambrosial Word of God (prabh) is an Unspoken Speech. (GGS:806, Raag Bilaaval, M5)

And we just speak it? We not only speak assuming we speak the truth, we reduce the complexity of life into a sensible and reasonable world.

What of the insensible, and that which escapes our desire and logic? The truth is merely our truth, and the world becomes the ego’s to name.

But let’s pause for a while and imagine a frame beyond good and evil (Nietzsche). It seems to me that the world is not a problem to be solved. Nor is it a puzzle to crack open a secret code. The world is not a place that someone can get an angle on - no siaanpaa(n) [human cleverness] aids. There are no secret passageways that the wise or elite know, no specific techniques that the religious know, no short cuts that the “warriors” know, nor is there any principle such as “scientific reason” that can ground our projects.

It seems to me the world is a place of contestation and coincidence – ceaseless “problems” that never resolve finally, but speak to us in multiple ways suggestive of secret orders and unthinkable patterns of resonance. And this co-inherence of contestation and coincidence, conflict and connection, makes the world a Gift of Undecidability – unspeakably illuminating in its troublesome nature; it is certainly not a place where absolutes can grow – for it is too closely tied to our imaginations, mirroring our desire.

In other words “the world” is something that is in very important ways a gift that is unsayable, unthinkable especially given its layers, complexity and immeasurability. Yet the world is not separate from me – from identities – the world is a mirror. World and Self are complex unsayables - ‘na ko hindu na ko mussalmaan‘ … There is an unremitting interdependency at work, and reflections upon reflections at play …

It seems that we can think “solutions” (theoria, sophia) and then act. Or we could act “solutions” (praxis, phronesis) and let our thinking evolve case by case. The knowledge that derives from thinking is different to the knowledge that arises from acting – no doubt. But, if both modes of being (and there are others), call them intellectual and pragmatic, elitist and popular, idealist and pragmatist, are imbued by the same discourse of identity and modern world politics, then it matters little whether we start with activist movements or pursue academic conceptualization: we need not only to stop thinking and act, but stop doing and being to question. Rahao.

Who is a guardian of sikhi? Can it be guarded? What is it that needs protecting? We need to think and act in radically different ways. First – why do some debates revolve around assumptions that the “Sikh” or “Sikhi” is something that we are all fighting to recall, revive, protect, grow and enrich? Exactly, how is Sikhi being understood?

My fear is that it is being utterly consumed by an identity politics that arises out of the (Western) discourse of multiculturalism – be it the melting pot or the mosaic – which have their genesis in anthropology and colonial narratives of ‘capture’. What if identity is not one (and, further, resists being named)?

I do not think we should follow others in protecting their “rights” and copy their ethnic and nationalistic notions of sovereignty. What if I cannot be a Sikh without the other, without the woman, the stranger, the monster, that is, the immigrant, the refugee, the transgender, the black, brown, the red and yellow? What if Sikhi atrophies the “purer” it gets? What if Sikhi is always an irreducible relation to the Other, to life, to diversity, to otherness, to the undecidable Gift of the Event of the World in each micro-degree of turning?

That essential temporally-changing heterogeneity brings up a profound kinship with all, a profound notion of sovereignty that “defends” diversity as that which promotes life itself. Life’s diversity dies when anyone part of it suggests it can only exist when some other part has to be exterminated first.

“Independence” is a flagrant lie in nature. We as Sikhs are a not a religion, nor a nation, nor a philosophy of one people, one language, one history (echoing the often-violent discourses of the metaphysics of the Abrahamic one). Our traditions are full of very healthy relations to others – such relations constitute our collective wisdom – we are ek-anek, one as many; like the sea with unending waves.

Sikhi is an eco-system – 37 authors from a variety of socio-linguistic and religious backgrounds make up our Guru’s voice in the Guru Granth Sahib. Unlike the Abrahamic One, our ONE is always inclusive of the Other: Many is its other face. Yet because we have a poor grasp of gurbani we immediately fall into more popular and powerful modern discourses: of world, self, nation, religion, exclusive individuality, one vs other, moderate vs extremist, secular modern vs stick-in-the-mud religious.

To be a Sikh I must address the cause of the Other, not only defend and think of my own, recall Guru Tegh Bahadar’s supreme sacrifice.

Maybe the whole project of trying to revive Sikhi is wrong-footed if only “Sikhs” are involved. Perhaps the “project” (?) of Sikhi can only thrive by connecting with people from any and every shade of life. Perhaps operating under the banner of “Sikh” or “Sikhism” is in some ways a hindrance – a prison house of Western conceptual forms.

I act with honesty, integrity, intimacy, honor, beauty and love, not because I am a Sikh following Sikhism (and need to tell everyone that is why I act thusly), but because my very humanity and animality depend upon it.

We need to include the alien in our work. And we need to appeal to others not from the call of Sikhism but from the call of what is required. Join others in projects. Our identity should not be primary. The more we try to maintain it as a priority the more we are likely to displace or fetishize it. We are not Sikhs over others – we are people in lived relations of intelligent care. All people that can remember and feel they are in love treat identity as secondary and the action that love demands as primary.

What else did our ten gurus demonstrate, in their creative transgressions, and critical inclusivity beyond the cultural grammars of their times? – be it cross-dressing attire as satire, or mixing architectural styles where Vedic fire which rises for an elite few is countered by water that descends into pools for all, or making secret mantras public, making divine language the vernaculars, elite learning common, joining jogi with bhogi, sant with sipaahi; reinventing opposed religo-cultural grammars and philosophies anew.

The problem is, of course, love (bhagti / bhakti) as a primary mode of response to the world and to others, cannot be mandated, formulated, nor legislated. This is the problem of religion, and religious truth: I cannot command you to love me; I can only act lovingly, your response is your response in the face of that love.

Yet no one owns an absolute gauge that reveals who is acting lovingly – love is far too deep and mysterious for such crude instruments. That is why the world is ceaseless contestation and connection: samsara – the troublesome and self-reflecting gift.

The Gurus wrote neither political ideologies, nor vast commentaries on their works – as though the answers to life’s problems were plain. Nor did they explain nor define (in the modern sense) exactly what a Sikh is and what s/he should do. No absolute lists, no absolute laws, no absolute injunctions were provided, just songs of love, songs of praise, songs of wonder, songs of yearning, songs of time, pain, loss, separation and the bliss of union.

Yes, there are also context-bound guides (rahits), but these were to help orientate our conduct along the way rather than absolute ‘laws’ beyond time and place.

The point of this argument here moves in the opposite direction of a manifesto or ideology. Love is the only manifesto – and its laws cannot be written, not in specifics anyway, and love cannot exist beyond specific acts. The vision of the Gurus was very demanding and so much more penetrating than the logical squabbles of philosophers, or the heroic passions of the warrior, or the intrigues of the King.

There is no one identity to defend. Life “needs” defending. The Gurus can act to save others as easily as they would save their “own”, and Sikhs understood this even during battle – recall Bhai Kanhayyia. Fear none and inspire none to fear – otherwise love all and inspire love.

Of course, it is too easy to answer the question: what should we do? With “Love all”, the Gurus were not the Beatles, despite Lennon’s imagine and all you need is love. They acted creatively and variously to life’s unfolding challenges. One answer is: “many”.

Many projects by various organizations (SALDEF, Khalsa Aid, Sikh Coalition, etc) – but all should be under the name of an inspired relation to the other, and arise from a source that nourishes all-life. How much are we compromised by an identity politics that requires the frame of a multiculturalism that denies sipahi (soldier) and only accepts (a reformed) sant (saint), that denies our political sovereignty and accepts only our subjugation through religion?

The modern world is a secular world that sits on religion, as a deranged pugilist sits and beats his own donkey. The Christian West’s scapegoat changes (indigenous barbarians, commies, Jews, now Muslims) – but the story remains the same: all are branded as “terrorists”.

A world which will allow a Sikh to be a soldier for the US Army but not a Khalsa for the Guru and sat sangat (“assembly of the true”) is a world that needs questioning, not answering. Sikhs don’t have a tradition of being warriors. That’s a British myth of martial races. The Gur-Sikh is a miir and piir, a sant and sipaahi – and sovereignty is tied to that for the benefit of all, not to a self-interested nation-state that makes soldiers into unquestioning pawns.

Given the important and difficult qualifications above, I have a suspicion that the Gurus never really, nor seriously entertained, the question of what needs to be done – bliss was felt in the middle of torture, and Allah was praised (Guru Arjan’s martyrdom). It is not that a certain problem needed to be fixed but concern was shown more for how to live truly in this moment with these sets of issues, rather than legislate the true way for all time and groups.

That is to say, so much else was at work, beyond the ego’s grasp, and to such an extent something close to sublime indifference and fearlessness seems to emerge, for example, that what is happening is all good: ‘jo tudh bhavai say-ii balee kaar (“whatever pleases You, that is the only good deed,” GGS:3-4, Japji, M1).

In no way can what is being said here be construed to imply an inner worldly solipsism, or an ascetic otherworldliness, or a care-free social negligence. We do not fix the broken branch together again with sticky-tape; we need to water the root to enjoy the fruit.

But what exactly is the root? ‘man tu jot saroop hai / aapana mool pacchaan … “O my mind, you are the embodiment of Light, recognize the root of your own being,” GGS: 441, Raag Aasa, M3). Is the problem merely a broken branch, or a virus covering nearly all the trees? A “beautiful body” does not make a “happy mind”. We have to shift from the measureable to the immeasurable, the seen to the unseen.

That free, utterly open, spirit beyond sukh and dukh, bliss and torture, is hard to grasp, accept, let alone approach. And, this is why perhaps, that those deeply in love come across to us as slightly insane albeit strangely attractive, for it is clear that to them “nothing much matters” apart from that love, that bhagti; the problem of the world is so often reduced to the problem of the self, the I-mind.

The Guru is a strange attractor – a fractal chaos that unravels our egoic misery towards selfless majesty. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Most want common attractions: women, gold, land, power, youth, health, comfort and tech stuff. But who has succeeded in finding pleasure without pain?

I give no apologies if I’ve rambled far into city-averse wilderness – as when things become ‘clear and distinct’, that is ‘black and white’, we desperately need to wonder and wander; wonder if there is a problem (of black and white) and if there is, deeply ponder what its nature really is and we will find it is human, all too human, this duality (dubidha), and wander away from the modern grid of identity and knowledge.

Is all of our thinking about Gurbani circumscribed by Western modernity and its Protestant Christian frames of multifaith identity, church-state split and private/subjective religion? Or, is there something inescapably deep and mercurial about the self, the world – beyond what mendacious presidents, politicians, police, corporate oligarchs, and the parroting of prestitutes say?

Ah, but to wander into the wilderness where “I think” becomes comical, as we step into the mirror of the world where there is no echo/ego. Today, when all what the news media greedily chant is Conrad’s/Kurt’s “The horror! The horror!” (of the genocidal violence in the Congo), 365 days a year, then we certainly have descended into a Heart of Darkness.

Today, in these times, I wanted a counterpoint to the Terror, the Terrorism on every screen, and guess the Guru’s state of mind – for they weren’t anxious and depressed, and were often misunderstood, given their uncommon desire:

Some call him a ghost (bhuutana); some say he’s a demon (betaala).
Some call him a man; O, poor Nanak!
Crazy Nanak has gone insane after the King (saah).
I know of none other than Hari
(God). [(GGS: 991, Raag Maaru, M1).

I know no horror only Hari … no terror, only diivaana – a “crazy love”. Hari is horror but in a way that transcends horror. That is worth pondering, no? In pondering Gurbani we can neither remain silent and withdraw into private chant, nor can we state what it means simply; precisely because its meaning undoes egoic, dualistic meanings.

Gurbani does not make our world better, it destroys our world by granting a new one – the ego is not improved but radically transformed. We thus do not lack eyes to see the truth, but seeing reflects only our ignorance and false imaginings. Hard to dwell in between the treacherous modes of silence and speech.

Sing? Sing! Sing. No – praise; chardi kala.

To dwell with ambiguity, contradiction, complexity, subtlety, or parrot dualistic cravings and complaints of this delusional, selfish and dualistic world of maaya, dubidha and haumai. Not really a choice, we’re caught in betwixt and between. It’s a struggle, it’s life – beyond good and evil.

What if the world can only be solved when the mind comes under the microscope? Mine, not yours? But that is precisely where the rub is – perhaps mind is not individual, like language it can’t be owned independent of others, only short-circuited.

What else did you believe Descartes, the West, told you as the Gospel Truth? Colonization never ended. Not I think therefore I am, but as Fanon and others intimate, I am because I am heard. Relation, not I.

Some Sikhs are silencing themselves – their speaking is a non-speaking (a secular akath-katha, if you like) and thus they make themselves heard only by way of an identity politics that parrot the world, Western world, and its problems …

Yes, indeed, the force of that projection is very strong. But, na ko


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

[Courtesy: Academia. Edited for]
June 29, 2017


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