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What Shall We Do With The Sunday Sikhs?

by FI "PRITHI HARD KAUR"

 

 

Last Saturday I attended a one-day Sikh ‘camp' at my local gurdwara. 

It was a great day and I was deeply touched by the warmth and friendliness of the sangat there, and it was nice to see a lot of new faces too. As usual, I attracted quite a bit of attention and about ten people came up to me during the course of the day to ask why, how and when I had come into Sikhi. 

I am pretty used to this by now since I get asked most times I go to the gurdwara, or at summer camps, or even when a Sardar has run out of his store to invite me back to their family home. (Well, actually, that's not quite true, he sent his wife out to run after me, but the thought was there ...)

However, one thing I'm not so used to, and definitely not as comfortable with, is this common response: "Wow, you make me ashamed to call myself a Sikh!"

This is usually followed by a monologue that makes me feel a bit like a priest sitting in confession with a churchgoer. I hear how the individual was born and raised in a Sikh family but "everything was taken for granted". The "confession" is usually followed by a shameful look and shifty eye contact before another deep breath is taken and I am showered with praise for making all the sacrifices they percieve themselves to be incapable of making.

A slightly more worrying variation on the above scenario is one where I am plucked from the lofty heights of  the priest's pedestal and elevated quite a bit further to a position that would rival Jesus.

In such a situation, a well meaning member of the Khalsa approaches me and brings the "sins" of the community to my feet in the hopes that I might be able to save everyone. I hear how the youth of today have forgotten their spiritual heritage and "Sunday Sikhs" constitute far too much of the sangat. (That is, those who run amok Monday-Saturday but come on Sundays to keep up appearances/ socialize/ gossip). 

Apparently what these individuals need is a Sardarni like me to set them an example and show them what they should be - after all, if a non-Sikh girl could be struck down by the beauty of gurbani and convert, they should damn well make more of an effort!

Of course, this is rather a gross characterisation of the scenario, and luckily I haven't ever met anyone that extreme (least of all at the camp I mentioned, that was purely coincidental). 

However, beyond the silliness, there is a serious point: maybe we need to re-think the strategies we're using to inspire and engage youth and the so-called "Sunday Sikhs". Whilst I'm happy if people can take inspiration from the fact that I chose Sikhi rather than acquired it through the family bloodline, I don't think it's productive to use Sikh converts as guilt-inducing role models, even if the intentions are well-meaning.

In some ways I share the concern of those who feel it is sad to see so many Sikhs for whom Sikhi is just something they ‘do on the weekend'; especially when they view it either as a social occasion or an elitist "Khalsa club" for the select few that make the grade.

But the reason why I think it's sad has little to do with Sikhi specifically, although I genuinely do think it's a shame that people are scared off by what sometimes does come across as elitism and superiority. However, what makes me think most is that many of those who feel no connection to Sikhi don't necessarily do so through lack of education about why they apparently "should" be a gursikh, but because they haven't experienced their own spiritual consciousness and therefore feel no desire to choose any kind of spiritual practice.  Least of all Sikhi, which really is, by the way, viewed by a lot of Sikhs in Britain as an elitist club to which they feel no connection.

So what is to be done? If people aren't feeling the love, then how should we best try and bring "Sunday Sikhs" back into the fold? Surely we have some kind of duty to inspire and uplift?

Well, maybe.

But I think before we go around working out re-conversion strategies or how best to involve others, we really need to look at our own motivations and beliefs about Sikhi so we understand what it is we're anxious about getting people to sign up for.

People often quote Guru Nanak's affirmation that ‘there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim', but I think what we fail to see is that included within the statement is also ‘there is no Sikh.'

Ultimately, we just are brothers and sisters of life or, to use the beautiful phrase of our Gurus, 'Siblings of Destiny'. Our connection to God and our own spirituality comes by virtue of being human, not Sikh. In this sense there is no difference between anyone on a spiritual path, apart from that some of us are aware of our spiritual nature and relationship to God, whereas others are not.

Sikhism is not the way but a way, and even though some may find that Sikhi gives expression to the deepest longings of their soul, the key is not to get worried when others don't feel the same way. You have your path - be thankful for it!

Taking an active role in the sangat and reaching out to those less interested is great, but equally, it makes no sense to get overly anxious to find out that others aren't having our experience and we don't have the means to ... well, make them! We are not all created to grow into the image of the sant-sipahis - saint-soldiers - so often held up for emulation, and I don't think it helps to tirelessly advertise and promote those prototypes. 

Either it is the destiny of someone's soul or it isn't, and one way isn't necessarily better than another.

What does matter is that we provide within the sangat the ideal conditions for everyone's spiritual growth in the way that they need, rather than trying to force the "one-Sikhi-fits-all approach". It is human nature to want to share a good experience and show others what you can see, but I think maybe the challenge in front of us is to find ways of expressing and sharing our spirituality (with those who might be interested) in ways that don't constantly refer back to a specifically Sikh frame of reference.

For many Sikhs growing up in religious families, the gurdwara and everything that comes with it has become part of the scenery, and so extolling the benefits of things that fall into the Sikh structure of worship won't necessarily be productive. What might be more effective however is to show people new ways of looking at spirituality so they can make it their experience rather than trying to make it fit some collective Sikh experience that doesn't even really exist.

 

March 21, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 23, 2011, 7:15 AM.

I don't think this is an exclusively Sikh phenomenon. Other religions assign priests to take up religious obligations on behalf of the community. Sikhi is a "do it yourself" religion, as discussed earlier by I.J. Singh. Putting religious duties entirely on granthis defeats the purpose of our belief system. Many of the congregation define themselves as members of a religion via birth, but they don't apply the philosophy. When these "Sunday Sikhs" come to the gurdwara, I think it would be beneficial if the granthis would select a passage from gurbani and explain to the sangat how they can apply it to their lives. In essence, it would be like a weekly hukamnama. Smaller gurdwaras could hand out gutkas with English translations, so the sangat can follow along. This may encourage them to start reading gurbani on their own.

2: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), October 31, 2011, 10:07 PM.

It's not uncomfortable to stand alone - and not uncomfortable to stand with the tribe. Both are aspects of Sikhi - of learning to be the optimal individual you can be and to respect the tribe or community you were born in, live and work with. How we look is a dress up - to be judged. Gurbani is simple - it will touch any heart and inspire a transformation of mental attitude. The Gurus have carved out a clear path for us and no one need to do much except make time to listen to gurbani - to learn to cope with life.

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