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What is Sikhi?
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 29, July 19 - 25





Vaars 6.3 and 12.2 - the subject of our discussion last week - offered us a glimpse into Sikh practice during Bhai Gurdas' time.

Sikhs today may not bathe in rivers (for the most part), but the more observant ones do follow a somewhat similar routine. A reader made note of Tarlochan Singh's book, "Sikhism and Six Hindu Systems," as compulsory background reading on Bhai Gurdas. Thank you. Note, however, that the intent was not to provide an exhaustive bibliography on Bhai Gurdas; but rather to call out the scanty attention he has received at the hands of scholars.

Questions around the mechanics of the practice of Naam Japna/ Simran, particularly in the context of Amrit Vela persist, but there appears to be broad agreement that Naam Simran is not meant to be confined to a particular time of the day, that remembrance should be constant. But, as a reader aptly pointed out, to educe this remembrance from the depths of our being requires us to start the practice somewhere - in this case, the third watch of the night being conducive.

Another reader, while admitting the importance of discipline, cautioned against "religious ferocity" that can lead us down the alley of dogmatic fanaticism and conflict. True. The only way to protect ourselves is to recognize that individual perspective (including our own) is always biased, shaped as it is by divergent life experiences. Individual bias can be corrected only if we consciously solicit the wider perspective of the Sangat through conversation and dialogue.

Conversation and dialogue creates community and compassion where monologue (insisting on our view being the only right view) gives rise to fanaticism. Authentic faith to be inspiring to others must be accompanied by reason.

THIS WEEK - What is Sikhi?

It appears logical to further our exploration of Bhai Gurdas' writings to draw the essence of Sikhi - as he understood it.

Vaar 28 has many references to a Sikh way of life, Sikh conduct, the qualities of a Sikh and it is to this Vaar (28) that we turned for our discussion this week.

Listed below are a few selections from Vaar 28.

PAURI 1: The path is difficult - akin to walking a razor's edge

ਵਾਲਹੁ ਨਿਕੀ ਆਖੀਐ ਖੰਡੇ ਧਾਰਹੁ ਸੁਣੀਐ ਤਿਖੀ |
vaaloah nikee aakheeai khanday dhaaroh suneeai tikhee|
Finer than a hair, sharper than the edge of a sword.

ਆਖਣਿ ਆਖਿ ਨ ਸਕੀਐ ਲੇਖ ਅਲੇਖ ਨ ਜਾਈ ਲਿਖੀ ।
aakhan aakh n sakeeai laykh alaykh n jaaee likhee

Nothing can be said or explained about it and its indescribable account cannot be written.

ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਪੰਥੁ ਵਖਾਣੀਐ ਅਪੜਿ ਨ ਸਕੈ ਇਕਤੁ ਵਿਖੀ ।
guramukh panth vakhaaneeai aparrh n sakai ikat vikhee

Defined as the way of the Gurmukhs, it cannot be attained by a single step.

ਸਿਲ ਆਲੂਣੀ ਚਟਣੀ ਤੁਲਿ ਨ ਲਖ ਅਮਿਅ ਰਸ ਇਖੀ ।
sil aaloonee chataanee tul n lakh amia ras ikhee

It is like licking a tasteless stone but the joy of even the juice of millions of sweet sugar cane, cannot be compared with it.

PAURI 13: Markers (nishani) of a true Sikh - like water: humble, flexible, accommodating and altruistic

ਧਰਤੀ ਪੈਰਾਂ ਹੇਠਿ ਹੈ ਧਰਤੀ ਹੇਠਿ ਵਸੰਦਾ ਪਾਣੀ ।
dharatee pairaan haytth hai dharatee haytth vasandaa paanee

The earth is under our feet but under the earth is water.

ਪਾਣੀ ਚਲੈ ਨੀਵਾਣੁ ਨੋ ਨਿਰਮਲੁ ਸੀਤਲੁ ਸੁਧੁ ਪਰਾਣੀ ।
paanee chalai neevaan no niramal seetal sudh praanee

Water flows downward and makes others cool and clean.

ਬਹੁ ਰੰਗੀ ਇਕ ਰੰਗੁ ਹੈ ਸਭਨਾਂ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਇਕੋ ਜਾਣੀ ।
bahu rangee ik rang hai sabhnaan andar iko jaanee

Mixed with various colours it assumes those colours but in itself it is colourless common to all.

ਤਤਾ ਹੋਵੈ ਧੁਪ ਵਿਚਿ ਛਾਵੈ ਠਢਾ ਵਿਰਤੀ ਹਾਣੀ ।
tataa hovai dhup vich chhaavai thaddhaa virtee haanee

It becomes hot in the sun and cool in the shade, that is, it acts in consonance with its companions (sun and shade).

ਤਪਦਾ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰ ਨੋ ਠਢੇ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰ ਵਿਹਾਣੀ ।
tapdaa parupkaar no thaddhay parupkaar vihaanee

Whethger hot or cold its purpose always is others' good.

ਅਗਨਿ ਬੁਝਾਏ ਤਪਤਿ ਵਿਚਿ ਠਢਾ ਹੋਵੈ ਬਿਲਮੁ ਨ ਆਣੀ ।
agan bujhaa-ay tapat vich thaddhaa hovai bilam n aanee

Though itself warm it extinguishes the fire and takes no time to get cold again.

ਗੁਰੁ ਸਿਖੀ ਦੀ ਏਹੁ ਨੀਸਾਣੀ ॥੧੩॥
gur sikhi di ayho neesaanee ॥13॥

These are the virtuous marks of the Sikh life.

Pauree 15: A Sikh's Conduct

ਪਿਛਲ ਰਾਤੀਂ ਜਾਗਣਾ ਨਾਮੁ ਦਾਨੁ ਇਸਨਾਨੁ ਦਿੜਾਏ ।
pichhal raateen jaaganaa naam daan isnaan dirrhaa-ay

The Sikh awakes in the pre-dawn hour and meditating upon Naam, he bathes and prepares for the day.

ਮਿਠਾ ਬੋਲਣੁ ਨਿਵ ਚਲਣੁ ਹਥਹੁ ਦੇ ਕੈ ਭਲਾ ਮਨਾਏ ।
mitthaa bolan niv chalan hatho day kai bhalaa manaa-ay

He speaks sweetly, moves humbly and practices charity for the well being of others

ਥੋੜਾ ਸਵਣਾ ਖਾਵਣਾ ਥੋੜਾ ਬੋਲਨੁ ਗੁਰਮਤਿ ਪਾਏ ।
thorrha savnaa khaavanaa thorrha bolan guramat paa-ay

Sleeping, eating and speaking moderately he lives in accordance with the Guru's teachings.

ਘਾਲਿ ਖਾਇ ਸੁਕ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਕਰੈ ਵਡਾ ਹੋਇ ਨ ਆਪੁ ਗਣਾਏ ।
ghaal kha-ai sukrit karai vadaa hoi n aap ganaa-ay

He toils to earn, performs good deeds and though successful, never flaunts his success.

ਸਾਧਸੰਗਤਿ ਮਿਲਿ ਗਾਂਵਦੇ ਰਾਤਿ ਦਿਹੈਂ ਨਿਤ ਚਲਿ ਚਲਿ ਜਾਏ ।
saadh-sangat mil gaavanday raat dihai(n) nit chal chal jaa-ay

Singing gurbani in the congregation, he lives his life, all day and night, accordingly.

ਸਬਦ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਪਰਚਾ ਕਰੈ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਪਰਚੈ ਮਨੁ ਪਰਚਾਏ ।
sabad surat parchaa karai satgur parchai man parchaa-ay

He keeps his consciousness merged in the Word and maintains his love for the true Guru.

ਆਸਾ ਵਿਚਿ ਨਿਰਾਸੁ ਵਲਾਏ ॥੧੫॥
aasaa vich niraas valaa-ay ॥15॥
Amid hopes and desires, he remains detached.


Spiritual journeys rarely proceed smoothly or in a linear progression. Instead, they are like a meandering spiral into the core of one's being, coming back to the same spot again and again only to see a deeper shade (meaning) of the Truth which is
already homogenized in us (like butter in milk) but remains ultimately ineffable.

We will find ourselves re-visiting a familiar spiritual landscape.

In considering the citations from Bhai Gurdas, let's consider:

What does being a Sikh mean? Is it a belief system that we inherit by an accident of birth?

Or is it a developmental process, as Bhai Gurdas' writings suggest?

How do we change from being a mere believer (i.e., a born Sikh with conditioned beliefs) to a seeker of Truth?

What hurdles might we experience in living the way Bhai Gurdas is suggesting for a Sikh?

Conversation about this article

1: Harpreet (Texas, U.S.A.), July 19, 2010, 10:09 AM.

Your website is losing its authenticity, at least to me, in terms of what you stand for and what you want others to take from your articles. You often espouse the feeling of 'you-are-a-Sikh-if-your-name-sounds-so' and then want to us to debate on 'Who should be called a Sikh' when you already, it seems, have decided - that a person is a Sikh if he's born into a Sikh family. What is the relevance of this article when you have such a naive attitude and immaturity when your stand makes one believe you want to unite a cult of people, rather towards making the Sikh religion strong and firm on its foundation and principles. Think over it.

2: Balbir Singh (Germany), July 19, 2010, 10:56 AM.

Sikhi is learning true Naam Simran. Naam removes all hurdles and instigates spiritual progress.

3: R. Singh (Canada), July 19, 2010, 2:05 PM.

"Sikhi sikhiya gur vichaar" - Nothing more and nothing less. It is translating the communion with the "shabad" Guru into practical worldly living, in harmony with one's surroundings, where intent is the true measure of Sikhi and the result is recognition of the Truth that permeates the Universe. Unfortunately, all our energies are directed at whipping others to toe our line. We begin with defining the outer form and end with belligerence when confronted with individual pragmatism. Sikhi happens when our vision blots out the darkness of egotistical projections.

4: Izhaarbir (Texas, U.S.A.), July 20, 2010, 3:06 AM.

Sikhi is a Sikh's journey. A Sikh is a learner of gurmat and the seeker of Truth. Sikhi starts with the acceptance of Guru Granth Sahib as your Guru and guide. Then proceeds with reading, listening, understanding, accepting, and applying gurmat. Any further definitions are based on individual biases based on personal levels of connection, progress, and understanding.

5: Jagbeer Singh Khalsa (Birmingham, United Kingdom), July 20, 2010, 4:05 AM.

In many respects I agree with my fellow three co-commentators: 1) R. Singh is right that it all comes back to an open mind and heart when listening to Guru Ji's vichaar. The truth hurts - that's a fact. But in pain lies salvation. But the problem nowadays is that people take experiences from the mundane world ("take a pill and you won't be ill") into the spiritual part of life and think "all will be well soon..." Salvation needs work and work needs an open mind to learn, otherwise there are no skills to work with. 2) Balbir Singh is right in summarizing it into concentration, the immersing into Naam. Where we are going when we ignore God's influence on the world and our life we can observe in every day headlines and experiences. People aren't afraid of God anymore. As with taking a pill to make things better, it is easier to ignore God's role in our life and try to carry on living a lie. But the Truth comes out every time. Last but not least: 3) Harpreet talks from the depth of the heart. Since I converted to Sikhism (I prefer the term "being inspired into ..."), sikhchic was a rich source of information for me to find my way into the the "Sikh World" and my place in things discussed on a daily basis. But for quite a time now I am feeling like Harpreet: There's too much bias towards "being a Sikh" as a cultural trait instead of Sikhism as a universal lifestyle and a foundation for life with God, instead of an appendix to a cultural lifestyle. We are all culturally imprinted - no matter if we are Punjabis, Westerners, Asians, East Asians or whatever. But Sikhi is the foundation we all should base our mutual and common grounds on. But instead of promoting the basics of our faith/ lifestyle (Naam Simran, Seva, Vichaar, Truthful Living), this site more and more succumbs to promoting a cultural imprint (being a Sikh culturally) than promoting a healthy Sikhi lifestyle. I read so many articles here lately in which achievements of people are praised who mostly are - and I know I am causing offense here - Sikh by culture rather than Sikhs spiritually. Don't get me wrong: I have more respect for a "monaa" who has Guru Ji in his heart that for an Amrithdhari who is a hypocrite and fails to live up to principles he/she is preaching. Nevertheless, a Governor (or Senator, I don't quite know the difference, I apologize to be such an ignorant German...) who obviously is clean shaven and doesn't even wear a kara and obliterated his name "Singh", using his family name instead, is making me wonder: are those really examples to follow to inspire all kinds of people to follow Sikhi (*grin* - I finally made it back to the point of discussion)? I really think we all have to rephrase our intentions and means to promote what should be the foundation for all of us (and all of mMankind): Sikhi. Sikhi is basically accepting and embracing God in our life. Nothing more and nothing less.

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), July 20, 2010, 6:02 AM.

Harpreet ji: your comments are puzzling, to say the least. You have either misread or misinterpreted (or both) the spirit behind this week's "thoughts to ponder." Far from endorsing the assumption that Sikhi is a birthright (as you appear to suggest), the question was meant to actually challenge the notion of being a Sikh by birth. In examining Bhai Gurdas' vaars this week, we get a clear sense of Sikhi, not as an inheritance, but a developmental process based on a discipline that we have to adhere to. The Talking Stick is not a bully pulpit with a hidden agenda but an open forum; we are mindful (and respectful) of differing opinions and views. What motivates us is the conviction that only in collective discourse (sangat) can we grow beyond our individual bias. In that spirit, I would dissuade you from railing against imaginary cults (there are none) and invite you to offer your insights from which we might all profit. Thanks.

7: Harpreet (Texas, U.S.A.), July 20, 2010, 8:50 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji: You have got me wrong. I mean one cannot be Sikh just if his name sounds so, or just if he/ she is born into a Sikh family. Being a good human being and a Sikh are also totally different. My above post is in reference to what has been posting recently. Recently also came up with a suggestion-seeking forum, which it seemed by its language that people at definitely did not want to tread on that line, whereby it made travesty of who should be called a Sikh and who should not. If you consider yourself a true and authentic Sikh, not a liberal or conservative or progressive, etc., then you should read that article and let us know what is your opinion about it. Though I am not a keshdhari or a practicing Sikh, but I do have some knowledge and historical sense of how religion can sustain as a religion.

8: Kamaldeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), July 20, 2010, 10:04 AM.

In my mind, this question is essentially a play on the age-old question of who is a Sikh. It was started by the British Raj to 1) Help them pigeon-hole people for statistics. 2) Furthermore, their 'Divide and Rule' policy. Even after they have long gone, we are we still having heated discussions about this. We can discuss the countless options, but I am of the belief that the motivating principle behind them is what is important. A handshake, for example, can mean a thousand things. With respect to the question, to me, being a Sikh means one who has taken refuge in the Guru, the teachings that came through the Guru, and the sangat. As always I include references and point everyone towards the 'Triple Gem' - A Definition of a Buddhist. I have, for want of better word, borrowed and modified it for Sikh needs. It is all encompassing and allows room for maneuvering, depending on where ever one lies on the spectrum. With respect to what a follower faces when they walk the Path that came through the Guru, huge growth and self development would be my response, but not without growing pains. By way of example, I have decided to be honest at all times. I have in the process upset quite a lot of people, as well as got myself into a lot of trouble, but I essentially come out unscathed in the big scheme of things and am discovering that people have a new found respect, even if what you said was not nice. You begin to see things as they really are and develop a deep seated sense of strength and reductions in anxiety. I liken it as going to the gym for the first time. After the first session, one may feel as if they are about to die, but you return, and after a month, you actually like pushing yourself because you are now actually developing. I study the Japji Sahib and was taken by the line: 'Countless liars, wandering lost in their lies' - [GGS:4]. That whole pauri in itself is inspiring.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), July 20, 2010, 9:07 PM.

As per gurbani, Sikhi is gurmat and gurmat is Sikhi, that is what is defined in pauri 1 of 28, by Bhai Gurdas, and this is the explanation of pauri 14 of Anand Sahib by Guru Amar Das. Easy to talk or write about but hard to practice and maintain. Even some of our gurdwaras are not within gurmat. There are quite a few popular rituals which we still follow, as inherited from Hinduism, in these gurdwaras. Pauri 13 also explains another quality and character of the Sikh and Sikhi, which is perhaps more hard for modern generations. This is the same pauri/ shabad, which Prof. Darshan Singh recited after Operation BlueStar to wake up Sikhs around the world. He also recited another pauri of Bhai Gurdas, 'Kuttay raj bahalian ...' and a few more from the Guru Granth, to raise his voice against the crimes of the Indian government and he did shake up the government. He was arrested and sent to the notorious Tihar Jail for several months. He stood tall for all but nobody supported him during his jail term except Maskeen ji. There was no unity because there was no gurmat. In India perhaps Sikhs outside Punjab do maintain Sikhi. For example, there are seven gurdwaras in the main financial city of Gujarat and all are united and closely associated, including the Sikh sangat, they all live like one family. In Bombay there is a team called 'Young Sikh Leaders' ("YSL"), and it wants to bring some reform in the gurdwaras. They are young Sikhs - - and all male members are with dastaar.

10: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), July 22, 2010, 10:48 AM.

The spirit behind the thoughts to ponder was not to ask, "Who is a Sikh?" but to inquire into "What is Sikhi?" especially as seen through the interpretation of Bhai Gurdas. The two pauris make it abundantly clear that Sikhi involves the cultivation of certain qualities, and a particular life-style that requires practice and discipline. Being born as a Sikh is just an accident of birth. The real work starts after that.

11: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas. U.S.A.), July 25, 2010, 9:44 AM.

The "pauri" in the introduction and other "vaars" of Bhai Gurdas provide a good account of his perspective on Sikhi. He captures a clear reflection of the practice during his time. His writings are a simplified version of the collective teachings of the Gurus as now enshrined in the Guru Granth. The main aspects of Sikhi in those days included divine worship, perpetual simran on His name, attending sadh sangat, surrender to His Will. Other significant teachings include: speaking softly and sweetly, Guru/ gurmukh seva, earn one's living, humility, understanding His Word and truthful living. In Vaar 28, he lays out details of the Sikh way of life. He writes about a Sikh's duties, deeds, benevolence, daily routine, benefits of observing Sikhi, which remain true to this day. One can sense the purity of thought, reverence towards the Gurus and Waheguru and the simplicity of devotion. There is no pretension in thoughts, actions or approach. What one reads is what most likely was going on within the Sikhi of those days. The most emphasized, admired and visible feature of Sikhi was its high spiritual quotient both in concept and practice. And this view on the Sikhi remains a constant reminder in many minds of the current followers or those culturally familiar with the faith. In his time the goal and purpose of Sikhi was centered on worship, doing good deeds, developing good character, adopting family life and participating in community building enterprises. He demonstrates uncanny willingness and capacity to respect the boundaries laid out by the Gurus to express Sikh thought, which in itself is appropriately calibrated and confined to spiritual, devotional and surrender realms of our existence. For me, the entire purpose of the religious concept is to contain our wild tendencies and direct our mind with the aim to allow us to pursue adventurous avenues, yet remain within self preserving limits. In capturing the Sikhi of Bhai Gurdas' time, there is a natural temptation to compare the Sikhi of his time with current practices. To succumb to it is like getting on a slippery slope. It is reasonable to say that the basic goal and the foundation of Sikh thought remains close to the Sikhi of Bhai Gurdas' time. It is the Sikhi that we read about, admire and keep emulating in our hearts and in our homes. Because that is the only way a Sikh or any human mind can douse the inner fires that keep flaring to compromise or destroy the inner goodness of human nature. Only the spiritual, devotional and surrendering mind has the capacity to act like water, the only natural element that can destroy itself, and emerge again as rain to continue nurturing life.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 29, July 19 - 25"

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