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The Tradition Of Dialogue In Sikhi:
Prof Darshan Singh Challenges The Hinduization Of Sikh Institutions

HARMEET SHAH SINGH

 

 

 





Throughout their lifetime, the Gurus laid heavy emphasis on scholarly and intellectual pursuits.

Compiled in Guru Granth Sahib are writings not only of six Gurus, but also of thinkers and philosophers from various other traditions.

Guru Gobind Singh had a galaxy of 52 poet-scholars in his court.


RELEVANCE OF DIALOGUE

Guru Nanak used dialogue extensively as a means of communication. The Guru travelled extensively across the then known world. He held dialogue with Brahmins, reclusive yogis, siddhas or ascetics who claimed to have achieved enlightenment, and with Islamic pirs. Evidence has surfaced recently of possible meetings with Christian luminaries in Europe. Thus, Guru Nanak held dialogue with the powerful and the commoners.

In May 2010, when the United Nations Security Council sat to discuss intercultural dialogue, then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon made a gripping observation.

"Dialogue can defuse tensions and keep situations from escalating," Ban remarked. "[Intercultural dialogue] could promote reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict and could also introduce moderate voices into polarised debates …At a time when prejudice and hatred are all too common, when extremists seek new recruits through incitement and identity-based appeal, when politicians use divisiveness as a strategy to win elections — dialogue can be an antidote."

This is precisely what Guru Nanak did - and accomplished - and that too in a pre-democracy age fiercely divided by religion, caste and class hierarchies.

As torchbearers of this majestic legacy, Sikhs are expected to carry forward the practice of dialogue. But the current religious leadership typifies a dichotomy.


THE DICHOTOMY OF SHIROMANI AKALI DAL TODAY

The Shiromani Akali Dal is originally a product of a Sikh movement that demanded and won from the ruling British authorities in India control over gurdwaras through a 1925 legislation.

The same party, in 1996, announced itself as a Punjabi party in what was a stunning departure from its Sikh-only foundations.

This secular-religious duplicity has since weighed heavily on Badals' SAD, mainly for its alliance with the BJP that remains committed to Hindutva and for its stranglehold of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).


AKAL TAKHTS AND THE AKALIS

Although an elected body, the SGPC has faced serious accusations of bias. It stands accused of now being taken over by Hindutva forces and suppressing dissent from independent Sikh voices. In other words, critics overwhelmingly feel the party entertains no dialogue for reforms.

Badals' denials aside, two major measures by the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikh temporal authority, have shaken many in the community across the world over the past eight years. Remember, the jathedar or the head of the Akal Takht is an appointee of the Akali-controlled SGPC.

In December 2009, the Takht "excommunicated" professor Darshan Singh, himself a former jathedar, and one of the finest researchers and exegetes of Sikh Scripture and history.

In 2015, the Takht pardoned Sirsa's dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim - now in jail over rape conviction - for blasphemy he had allegedly committed against the Sikhs.

The 2015 pardon, which was later revoked after a large number of Sikhs protested, dented the credibility of the institution severely.

Critics again accused the Badals of attempts to appease Ram Rahim's massive following for vote politics through the Takht's handpicked jathedar.


MEETING THE ERUDITE PROFESSOR

Professor Darshan Singh, the chief of the Akal Takht from 1986 to 1990, was excommunicated by a successor leading a group of five clerics eight years ago.

The professor, now an American citizen based in Canada, has been a vocal critic of the Dasam Granth, a collection of writings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh. He disputes its authorship, saying the compositions are grossly inconsistent with the philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib.

The Akal Takht pronounced Singh Sahib guilty of denigrating Guru Gobind Singh during a religious programme at a gurdwara in New York, a charge the scholar-singer vehemently rebutted as manipulated.

He, however, maintains portions of the Dasam Granth degrade women and promote promiscuity and idolatry.

In their ex-communication order, the jathedars commanded he be given no cooperation for any event in gurdwaras and religious congregations till he seeks forgiveness and is pardoned.

But that hasn't stopped the elderly professor from speaking and singing kirtan. Nor has it discouraged many of his ardent admirers from inviting him to gurdwara congregations from North America to Europe to India and elsewhere. Professor Singh's whirlwind participation belies his falling age.

And strangely enough, the scholar-singer gets a large audience wherever he goes despite his ‘ex-communication‘ by the now Hinduism-infested body. In this era of social media, many Sikhs of diverse age groups listen to him with rapt attention when he sings and explains the nuances of gurbani in his characteristic style.

The phenomenon reflects a sea-change in mindsets of a number of Sikhs, if not everyone.

If his talks in packed halls of gurdwaras across continents is an indication, he's certainly not a pariah, at least for his committed audiences.

As a Sikh, I too was expected to keep distance from him. But then I was haunted by troubling questions.

Does excommunication - fair or unfair - consign all the wisdom and the lifelong intellectual research of the shunned person to the flames? Should it, if it does, within a faith that embraced dialogue with cultures and religions outside?

I am a Sikh by birth and a journalist by profession. Moreover, I have been a student of literature.

Put together, all these aspects require that I must stay inquisitive. I must probe. I must study a variety of critiques.

Three generations of Sikhs have now been raised, listening to the professor's in-depth analyses of gurbani. How can all his study be discarded at the stroke of a pen? I wondered.

So, I met him during his current winter tour of the subcontinent.

At the home of one of his tabla players in Delhi, the professor walked out of his bedroom. He looked tired, apparently from a bout of seasonal illness. But his eyes sparkled the moment I asked him my primary question.


PANTH: IS IT A COMMUNITY OR A PATH?

"What is the present condition and direction of the Panth?" I asked.

The professor looked into my eyes. And in his soft voice, he tested my understanding of the word Panth.

"We should first know what Panth means," he sighed. "The word Panth appears some 60-62 times in  Guru Granth Sahib. But nowhere does it mean community or group or congregation," he said.

But why then in common Sikh parlance Panth refers to the community? In our prayers, in various slogans and in religious discourses, the word alludes to the brotherhood. If it's not that, what else does that mean?

"In Guru Granth Sahib, Panth refers to the Guru's path, the roadmap," he explained. "The Guru has shown the path to the Sikhs to follow. The one who walks on it is Panthak or the traveller. But Panth originally was never described as a coming-together of people."


ARE EDICTS ‘PANTHAK’ OR POLITICAL?

Then how did this deviation come about? Did this deviation digress many of the faithful from the Guru's path?

Prof Sahib then showed a booklet titled "Sikh Rehat Maryada", or the Sikh code of conduct. These codes, published by the SGPC, date back to the 1940s.

On its 51st page, the booklet carried the definition of Panth, with the most revered “Guru” prefixed. So "Guru Panth", in accordance with the SGPC's codebook, refers to an association of practising Sikhs.

"A pinch of poison is sufficient to render a glassful of milk lethal," the professor deplored. "If we understand the difference between the two meanings of Panth, as coded in this booklet and as described in Guru Granth Sahib, we'll then be able to set ourselves out on the right direction."

That's how the erudite professor answered my single question: "What is the present condition and direction of the Panth?"

Essentially, he meant some of our widely accepted 20th-century codes, if not all, have gradually come up as a firewall between the original philosophy as enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikhs. And that's how vested interests hegemonised top religious institutions and, through them, the entire community, he bemoaned.


NO VIEWPOINT IS THE ENDPOINT

Learning is an endless cycle. Accomplished literary researchers develop critical thinking as they synthesise information from various sources.

Their research involves a gigantic effort. And when their reviews land in public domain, more so in religion, they are expected to raise some eyebrows. They did, when Singh Sahib passionately disputed the Dasam Granth.

But, at the same time, he also stoked a serious debate, driving a number of Sikhs to study the Dasam Granth afresh.

His viewpoint may not be the endpoint.

He could be rigidly sticking to the letter - and not the spirit - of the term Guru Panth as defined in the Sikh code. It's possible that the authors of the SGPC manual genuinely intended to consolidate Sikhs as a distinct political and religious identity.

But given the credibility questions swirling around the Sikh faith's most senior clerics today, it's also possible the professor's critique merits a revisit to the 20th-century codes in order to flatten any barricades they might have created between the Sikhs and their original egalitarian doctrine.

So, let’s not excommunicate debate and dialogue, primarily at the institutional level.



[Courtesy: Daily O. Edited for sikhchic.com]
January 15, 2018
 

Conversation about this article

1: G J Singh (USA), January 16, 2018, 4:28 PM.

Prof Darshan Singh is a true Sikh and a very knowledgeable one at that. To characterize him otherwise as the SGPC has done is abhorrent. As far as Rehat Maryada goes, one has to look at the history of how the current one came about. It has a tainted history. Essentially, we went from the religion of Guru Nanak to an organized religion and lost His message. These man-made rules first of all do not convey the essence of Sikhi as taught by our Gurus. Then there is the issue of which Rehat Maryada is the one Sikhs are supposed to follow, seeing that there are dozens of versions of it, partially contradictory to each other. The one issued by the SPGC in its English translation is laughable as it ostracizes non-Sikhs (non-keshadharis and non Amritdharis included) and prevents them from taking part in kirtan or being able to enter the Takhts but then allows them to participate in the langar as equals. I also specially love the edict for wearing a kachhera in these modern times for obvious reasons - I do not wear one. About the Dasam Granth, it has always been problematic when someone has criticized it or have all of the writings not attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, whether it be a Sikh or a historian (Mcleod comes to mind); and all of them had to suffer the antagonism of the Sikhs for saying so.

2: Himadri Banerjee (Kolkata, Benal, India), January 26, 2018, 6:50 PM.

I read Professor Darshan Singh's dialogue with you. It is not only relevant but gives me fresh food for thought. Dialogue is essential but it is respected and undertaken by those who are enthusiastic enough to get rid of many of their socio-cultural barricades of life. It is impossible for those who refuse to learn in life and go ahead forcefully in the twenty-first century.

3: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (USA), January 27, 2018, 11:39 AM.

I absolutely agree with Professor Darshan Singh, although i disagree about his view on the Dasam Granth. That said, the people who should be excommunicated are the Badals and any Sikh with ties to the Congress party of India because of the genocide of Sikhs in Delhi and the Punjab. We have to take back all of our institutions and reclaim Punjab's greatness.

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