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Above: Principal/ Professor Teja Singh [1894-1958].

Talking Stick

Sikh Missionaries: The Talking Stick Colloquium # 54




The previous two colloquiums, Whither Sikh Scholarship and Sikh Theology were meant to initiate a discussion on the state of Sikh academic scholarship and its potential role as interpreter and disseminator of Sikh (gurmat) theology.

Some immediate and real challenges are readily evident. A critical mass of Sikh scholars in the West is obviously lacking and in India one is faced with a generally unsupportive or hostile environment. Add to that the seemingly unbridgeable gap between theology and academic scholarship – notwithstanding the fact that theologians are affiliated with universities.

Despite these challenges, I believe it is time for Sikhs to consciously create a cadre of Sikh missionaries who are Gurmat theologians and academic scholars rolled into one.

We need such a nucleus of trained people to revisit and re-interpret the eternal Truth of gurbani in the light of our current understanding. This is an undertaking that successive generations must take on and is implied in the concept of Gur-Chela and Guru Panth.

No theology can hope to sustain itself if it does not address contemporary concerns.

This suggestion, of course, is not new, nor is the idea exclusively mine.

But in re-reading Principal Teja Singh’s famous essay, Guru Nanak and his Mission, written in the 1940’s, I was surprised that a similar cause was being espoused nearly 70 years ago. Many of the people I talk to (some of them on this forum) feel the same way.

I was surprised at how contemporary Principal Teja Singh sounded with his observations and recommendations which feel just as applicable to the Sikh world today. I take the liberty of playing back some portions just to underscore our discussion and the need for such a movement.

Sikhs must follow Guru Nanak by becoming missionaries for the Way of The Guru – the Guru Panth. Guru Nanak, “wherever he went he left men behind to carry on his work and deliver his message of salvation, even to those who had not personally heard him.”

We must emulate Sikhs like Bhai Lalo, Sajjan, Gopal Das, Jhanda Badi, Budhan Shah, Devlut, Salis Rai and Raja Shiv Nabh - converts to Sikhi who then preached Guru Nanak’s message in far flung centers - in places like Junagadh, Cuttock Bedar, Johar (Sbahtu), Nanak Mata (Kamaon Hills), Kathmandu, Kabul, Jalalabad, Sri Lanka, Tibet and

Becoming missionaries requires that we put aside our indifference. Principal Teja Singh’s warning that “educated people must also realise that their indifference is fatal to the progress of Sikhism,” must ring a bell. In the scramble for wealth, upward mobility and glitz, (the equivalent of the then “Government Service,” to Principal Teja Singh), the ideal of “self-sacrifice and to make a bold jump for the Guru” has been forgotten.

Reliance on our granthis and preachers to fill the gap is at best unrealistic. Here is Teja Singh ji castigating the then granthis for being “ever ready to turn to the prevailing beliefs of India,” seldom touching “the inner truth to the Guru's word.” He continues, “Our preachers, for want of any deep feeling for the suffering humanity often confirm people in their absurd ways of thinking and acting.”

Sounds familiar?

How, then, do we train gurmat missionaries to combine the art of theology and academic scholarship? How do we combine the ecclesial, where faith, doctrine and dogma are central, with the academic, where faith is not required and religion is studied through the lens of history, anthropology, and sociology? How do we remain faithful to the message and content of gurbani while employing critical tools and disciplines to analyze it?

How do we train gurmat missionaries to be serious practitioners, interpreters of creedal statements and doctrinal positions for the larger community while meeting the demands of a “publish or perish” academic culture?

Where would such training happen? How would we fund it?

This is the challenge and I would unhesitatingly state that it is one where our academics must take the lead and the community must provide them the necessary support.

These are some questions that we should ponder over.


June 21, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 21, 2011, 12:10 PM.

As a Sikh missionary "wannabe" myself, this subject is dear and close to my heart. My hope in all of this is that the discussion will lead to some concrete actionable items and not just fizzle out. I have simply provided a peg on which to hang our comments. I also recognize the limitations of this forum. That said, would welcome your thoughts. Personally, I am trying to work through the World Sikh Council to initiate such a project. But to be successful, we need a buy in from WSC sponsors (the 47 or so Gurdwara members) - something I am working on.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 21, 2011, 8:06 PM.

The other day I was at a marriage function in one of the oldest gurdwaras in Kuala Lumpur that has proudly the largest durbar, nearly the size of a football pitch, with no pillars to block the Guru Granth Sahib in full splendor. It was time to start reading the lavaa(n)), prior to the singing of the hymns by the raagis. The presiding Bhai Sahib recited the lavaa(n) in such a musical, lovely resonant tone that I commented to the president of the gurdwara sitting next to me. He agreed, and said that this was a recently visiting raagi that we have now employed. And added that he was being paid RM 1,500/- (US$500/-) per month - a princely salary to his reckoning, and added that he was not allowed to bring his wife to stay with him. I said this was nearly the salary we paid to our domestic help. I am not sure what are the employment conditions in America or Canada, but here in Malaysia the granthis in general are required to be on duty 24 hours a day and report subserviently to each and every committee member. In addition, the members of the sadh sangat may also require to soothe their troubled minds with spiritual and temporal needs. Under these conditions, when the basic needs are not even met, how do we expect him to perform his religious duties satisfactorily? Even Bhagat Dhanna demanded enough to keep his body and soul together - "daal seedhaa managa-o ghee-o hamraa khusee karain nit jee-o" - and then, goes on to present a list of minimal ration pani [GGS:645.17]: "lentils, flour and ghee - these things I beg of thee!" If you pay peanuts, you're only going to get monkeys. Hope that any missionary effort takes cognizance of these basic requirements in addition to having sound basic education. If you ask any hungry person what is one plus one, he might say: "Two rotis."

3: Manwinder Singh Grewal (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), June 22, 2011, 3:01 AM.

While I feel that making sure Sikhi is known to the world is essential, I feel that the term 'missionary' isn't the correct terminology. I mean no disrespect and yes, Guru Nanak preached Sikhi, but I feel that he preached an open-minded philosophy that became Sikhi. I feel that he wasn't trying to be a missionary but a free thinker that made people ask questions and truly determine what mattered to them. When these people decided that they agreed with these trains of thought, then they too would become Sikhs. I feel that is what is needed first and foremost; an awareness of the faith itself (without the negative cultural influences that can impede).

4: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 22, 2011, 2:35 PM.

Manwinder Singh ji: thanks for your input. I have been reminded (offline) by several friends about the use of the term "missionary," and I have been having a hearty laugh at my own expense! Old habits die hard. Here I am, advocating a re-interpretation but using old, inappropriate terminology.

5: I. Singh (Chelmsford, MA, U.S.A.), June 22, 2011, 3:42 PM.

I just "re-learned" a very important lesson at work today - "Find out what is your customer's problem before you propose a solution for them ..." So how about if we start with a survey of a large sample number of gurdaras and come up with the list of granthis, their qualifications, their needs and wants, their current salary status, insurance, etc. What problems do they face in doing their duty and jobs? How is the relationship between them and the management committees of the gurdaras, etc.? I am of the opinion that in the American context, we really need to have a transparent view of what is our current situation viz a viz the gurdwara and the granthi. Once we are clear about that, then we can start to define what a solution looks like, whether it is a full time Sikh Theological Seminary, a National Sikh Center, a Granthi training school, Granthi retreats and training programs from organizations involved in Sikh education (Sikh Research Institute, for example), etc. Also, in a note long time ago on this forum we were also reminded that before we invest in seminaries and national Sikh centers, we need to start with elementary and secondary schools within the diaspora that inculcate a love for Sikhi and create Sikhs that have a desire to engage with their communities in an official capacity, e.g., granthis.

6: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), June 22, 2011, 4:35 PM.

It would be nice to have a seminary in the West. Maybe something along the lines of a Damdami Taksal. Not just for creating "missionaries", but granthis as well. Then we won't have to import our granthis from Punjab. I understand Richmond Hill Gurdwara in New York is a WSO member. Is there any way the sangat can assist you in persuading the committee members? Also, in regards to funding, I think the best way would be to charge people tuition to enroll. Nothing extravagant, but enough to keep things running. If you really want to create something special, you could obtain certification to confer a degree in Sikh Studies to the graduates, with an opportunity to pursue a Master's and a Ph.D. in the field. In this way, the graduates will be able to teach in universities, and also publish their writings.

7: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 23, 2011, 11:53 AM.

Some excellent suggestions. In talking to people, it seems to me that for starters we should pull together a handful of people who can bring value to this process (like a task force) to brainstorm (over a weekend, perhaps several weekends) to clearly define the problem statement and then figure out a strategy and roadmap. That would require some ongoing time commitment.

8: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), June 23, 2011, 3:07 PM.

Ravinder Singh ji: you have very clearly defined the objectives. I offer my full support in achieving these objectives whenever you feel I may make a little contribution.

9: Harman Singh (California, U.S.A.), June 23, 2011, 8:30 PM.

Waren Buffet once said: You get what you pay for. We pay our granthis next to nothing ($700 a month at the gurdwara in San Jose, the largest gurdwara complex in North America), and expect them to move mountains. Contrast this to the Christian clergy, who not only get first rate accomodations, but also a good pay and medical benefits. It is very difficult to meditate, or preach, on an empty stomach. How about having national guidelines as to the bare minimum granthis/ ragis should be making? As far as standardization goes, a U.S. based "taksaal" for certification of ragis/ granthis is an excellent idea.

10: Devinder Singh (India), June 23, 2011, 11:58 PM.

The basics first. What is your mission? What will be the missionaries mission? What is your vision for their mission? The Bhagat Puran Singh Chair and Baba Buddha chair at Guru Nanak University were both endowed without a vision from the endower (see article on Sikh Studies in India, in, have remained defunct. When one starts with just a hazy notion of wanting to do something, that is the possible outcome.

11: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 24, 2011, 5:26 AM.

To Prakash Singh ji and Harman Singh ji: many thanks for your input and offer to help. Please stay tuned. The Guru willing, we will be working together in some way. The concern over raagis (standardization/ salary, etc.) is the one we are hearing the most about from the World Sikh Council gurdwara representatives. A General Body Meeting is scheduled this Sunday and this will be brought up. I will keep you posted through this forum and other channels.

12: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 24, 2011, 11:56 AM.

Devinder Singh ji: your caution around having a clear vision and mission is appreciated - and something we wish to remain very cognizant about. I personally feel very strongly about articulating the "what" and the "why" and like to challenge my colleagues on the World Sikh Council to ask very simple questions, like, "Why does the WSC exist?" If unable to answer that in 30 seconds or in a couple of sentences, we are in trouble. Similarly, on this initiative, I am already hearing multiple ideas (all related in some way) and we need to zero in on one. Thanks for the pointer.

13: Devinder Singh (India), June 24, 2011, 10:35 PM.

You are in trouble already, Ravinder Singh ji. A wannabe is in the process of becoming (definition of 'wannabe': "Someone who wants to be what they are not"). The initiator is one who has become.

14: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), June 25, 2011, 11:03 AM.

I feel there's no harm in using the term "missionary" in relation to spreading the message of Guru Granth Sahib. At one point, even our Gurs established manjis for this purpose. Thus the objectives of manjis and missionaries are the same. We should focus on the objectives and final results thereof, rather than be overly concerned about the structure of the system at the outset.

15: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), July 06, 2011, 11:40 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji: Are we stuck somewhere?

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