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Above: detail from painting by Norman Rockwell.

Talking Stick

Minding Your Own Business
The Talking Stick Colloquium #49




Like most people, I wish to be able to live my life as it pleases me, and do so with a good conscience. I don't like being told what to do, much less being told in public.

In truth, however, things aren't quite so simple.

Every so often, our happy equilibrium is disturbed by intrusions - a rude moralist or a moralizing friend, spouse or children or even the boss at work, reminding us of some failure or lack of impeccable behavior.

Recently, a well meaning friend was caught in a similar situation.

He publicly admonished someone - his friend - for serving liquor at a birthday party meant for children, reminding him that such behavior only served to reinforce the mistaken notion that drinking is an acceptable Sikh practice.

Needless to say, the message did not go down well and the reaction was fairly typical: a feeling of outrage at the impudence of a friend bold enough to publicly confront the situation.

Sounds familiar?

This week, let's consider the incident in the broader context of morality, ethics and social norms. How far are we really free to do as we please? And where and how do we draw the line in telling others what to do? What mechanisms does the Panth have today to set and enforce standards of behavior? Is that even possible - or, desirable?

The issue is important and complex. We always live in, and are shaped by, an ethical and moral climate which influences our ideas about how to live and interact with one another and defines much of our sense of identity and self worth.

This climate of ideas and norms sets "standards" for behavior by which we - consciously or otherwise - judge others and are judged ourselves. It determines our emotional response to what is desirable and what is to be avoided.

Indeed, our sense of identity and self worth come from how others perceive and value us.

In the incident involving our friend, there is a clear divergence in how both see what the appropriate standard of behavior is and what the correct - or desirable - response is.

Our friend, an Amritdhari Sikh with a deep and admirable commitment to Sikhi and community activism, sees the situation from the perspective of Sikh canon and tradition: intoxicants (including alcohol) are to be abjured because they are mind altering, cause us to loose our moral compass and encourage socially destructive behavior.

When he confronted the "offending party," another Amritdhari Sikh, he was being guided by the long standing Khalsa tradition that requires a Sikh to willingly admit a transgression and seek the appropriate punishment (tankhah) from the Panth.

The flip side is that our friend's intervention did not have the desired effect; instead, it caused considerable consternation, if not outright anger at what was seen as a public shaming or humiliation.

There are multiple intertwined issues here. One, of course is the consumption of alcohol. But beyond that, and more importantly, is the question of societal norms and mechanisms to enforce them.

On the face of it, alcohol (or any intoxicant) is unquestionably not consistent with a Sikh life. But is it taboo? Taboos are not just scriptural injunctions but must have strong social sanction as well. It is this sanction that is missing or diluted today. Drinking is quite acceptable amongst Sikhs.

Smoking, on the other hand, most certainly can be viewed as a taboo since most Sikhs find it abhorrent. In any social setting, a Sikh with a drink is less likely to draw social opprobrium whereas a Sikh with a cigarette will invite serious displeasure.

I must admit, however, that smoking amongst Sikhs is also on the rise.

The role of Sikh institutions like the Sangat as agents of change and moral enforcement has eroded for a variety of reasons - among them, the presence of a large Sikh Diaspora. 

Panthic traditions, such as the one that our friend invoked, may be difficult to enforce in the West where the prevailing social climate encourages a strong sense of individualism. In our own minds, we remain the best judges of our own best self interest. Aren't we self governing, rational individuals?

Yet, we must also ask ourselves, just how free are we? Don't we override children (for their own good), accept security standards like rules of the road, seat belts (whether we like it or not), and do things that are socially acceptable.

My thought is that what is unacceptable socially at one point of time becomes passé at another - so it is with drinking. This is no defense of drinking; only a suggestion that if we wish to change behavior, we have to address social norms as well.

As with all battles worth fighting, they are all uphill! 


April 4, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 04, 2011, 12:16 PM.

Sikhi and Punjabi culture are sometimes at opposite ends of the spectrum. Amongst Punjabis, drinking is accepted and even encouraged, while Sikhi bans it. Most Punjabi songs are about drinking, women, money and bragging about how strong you are. You can't force someone to behave in a way that they don't want to. Instead of lecturing others, we should learn to lead by example. In regards to the issue between the friends, I think the matter should have been discussed privately between the two. There is no need to publicly humiliate anybody.

2: Amarjit Singh (Ghaziabad, India), April 05, 2011, 4:57 AM.

Brijinder Singh ji: I completely agree with you that Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat are concepts different from Sikh, Sikhi, and Khalsa. Those Sikhs with firm commitment towards Sikhi and maintaining the Khalsa roop are the true gursikhs of the Dashmesh Pita. So, let's rise above Punjabiyat and embrace Sikhi.

3: Jasvinder Singh (Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A.), April 05, 2011, 7:56 PM.

Brijinder, if people are not to be admonished publicly, then Guru Nanak can't be a role model. Sikhism teaches us to be ratetvaan and lead by example for sure. But when an amritdhari becomes a patit, he is accountable to the sangat and not just his private friends. The Rehat Maryada guides us on this. It takes boldness and courage to do what this Sikh did. I think most Sikhs would have taken the easy route and would have said nothing. This is the reason for our difficulties today.

4: B.A. (U.S.A.), April 06, 2011, 5:08 PM.

I'm one who in western parlance would be called 'born again'. I came back to Sikhi about 10 years ago after running away from it during my college days. I consider myself blessed and thank Waheguru for my turn around which was not instantaneous but happened over a period of many years. In my case, I was most influenced by Sikhs who dealt with me, a rebellious and arrogant young man, with love and tenderness when they spoke to me. And as I got to know them better, I was even more in awe of the life they led. These were people who were my peers in age or older - the point being that the age of the person did not matter. During the same period, I got into many unnecessary arguments with Sikhs who, even though were showing me the right things, could not connect with me due to what I perceived as their know-it-all/ holier-than-thou attitude.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium #49"

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