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The Work Ethic: Waheguru-Centered & Purpose-Driven
The Talking Stick Colloquium #61




The caption for this week’s colloquium is borrowed from a banner I saw the other day. It read, “Be Jesus Centered and Purpose Driven.” The concept seemed to me quite applicable to the Sikhi ideal of combining Kirat and Keerat (effort/ striving and worship) in our lives – the subject of our reflection this week.

In our previous discussion on the Way (jugat) or know how of living life, we learnt from Guru Nanak’s admonition to the Nath Jogis that there was no room for idlers, free loaders and social parasites in Sikhi. Guru Nanak’s jugat was captured in the refrain of the sabad, anjan māhi niranjan rahīai jog jugaṯ iv pāīa, which we loosely translated As: to be in the world but not of it.

'To be in the world but not of it' requires a little reflection because it has profound implications on how to live our day-to-day lives.

Our existence is a terrestrial one - brief and fleeting, and in flux. Gurbani speaks frequently of life being a sojourn and this earth being a way station, a dharmsal or a place of learning. Gurbani also speaks of life being an opportunity pregnant with
potential, Ihī ṯerā aosar ih ṯerī bār/ 'this is the time, this is your turn' [GGS:1159] and cautions that to miss out will prove very costly, Ih aosar ṯe cẖūkiā baho jon bẖarmāḏ [GGS:810].

One implication of this is that we are of the Spirit - timeless - but embodied and incarnated in a physical world with an essential and inextricable bond to the natural world. Such a view imparts our existence with a nobility of purpose - to plunge into this world on behalf of the Timeless One and execute Hukam or the Divine Will. We are full participants in an emerging and evolving cosmic drama.

This leads us to this week’s passage from Gurbani. I have deliberately left out the subsequent paurri that follows, in part because of space and in part because I recognize that readers are very gurbani literate, so they know where this is coming from.

But more importantly, the focus is on these two lines because the discussion we wish to have should center around the culture of work and work ethic in Sikhi - and these lines are quite commonly cited to explain the way to engage in the world.


Uḏdam kareḏiā jīo ṯūʼn kamāvḏiā sukẖ bẖuncẖ
Work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labor

Ḏẖiāiḏiā ṯūʼn parabẖū mil Nānak uṯrī cẖinṯ ||1||
With your awareness centered on the Presence, all your worries will fall off

There is little doubt that Sikhi advocates a strong work ethic; indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that for Sikhs, work is worship. As a boy I often heard the saying, mangta kee te man kee, Sikh kee te aaram kee/ "a beggar and self respect do
not go together, a Sikh is never at rest.”

Sikhi rests on a strong ethical and work culture.

The passage extolls the virtue of uḏdam, or being industrious - in contrast to being slothful like the yogis we discussed last week. Uddam is the first requirement; without striving, nothing is possible, not even staying alive.

That we are meant to exert ourselves is pretty obvious from our physical structure and the senses we are gifted at birth. Our evolutionary passage has taken us from being crawling, earthbound creatures, to being four-legged animals who then learnt to stand erect on their hinds and develop their front limbs and toes (especially a flexible thumb) into the wonderful implements they are today.

Traditional explanations of the word uḏdam in the context of this passage have assigned it a rather exclusive meaning as striving on the religious path, as in making the effort for naam-juppna. Part of the reason for this (it seems to me) is the context of the paurri, which follows these two lines (which is not here cited in the interest of space. Readers can refer to it.)


How would you interpret uḏdam?

Would it be reasonable to assume that uḏdam as striving applies to both the secular and the sacred - making a living (kamāvḏiā) and staying centered (dẖiāiḏi)?

More importantly, should we even make a distinction between the secular and the sacred?

This week’s passage suggests that being centered in Waheguru while striving ceaselessly in the world is a tightrope act that requires us to constantly hold the tension between being carried away (losing ourselves in worldly affairs) and becoming a recluse.

Readers, please share from your personal experiences, how you accomplish this.

How do we avoid burn out? Everyone I know appears to working hard, has goals, ambitions and family obligations. But hard work and seeming success has only added to their stress levels and made their lives toxic. What is missing here?


September 26, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 26, 2011, 11:21 AM.

What is needed to have an extraordinary and privileged life as a Sikh on this beautiful earth is complete faith in the Guru first and everything thing else follows. We are bombarded by orders by so many people in our lives and these cause stress and chaos, but when we have the Guru as our teacher, then we not only free ourselves of mindless and senseless suffering, but we are treated with respect by others.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), September 26, 2011, 7:34 PM.

Ravinder ji, what an erudite and thought provoking piece that, in a nutshell, charted the trip that we must complete without being entangled in the cobweb of liturgy. In day-to-day living, we aim for happiness unmixed with sorrow, a life unbroken by death, a health unsaddled by sickness, and freedom unhindered by restraint. Finally, knowledge untormented by questions, and then hopes for harmony with others. A long laundry list indeed, good for pretense for that elusive happiness. Will Rogers, the famous humourist during the World War II era, offered a solution to the President then. "Let's boil the Atlantic Ocean and then the German submarines will come up as sitting ducks and we would shoot them." Now the question was how to boil the Atlantic Ocean. "Well," said Will, "I have given you the principle, implementation is your problem." Deep down we remain tied to 'dhanda' and not 'kirat'. Ravinder ji, you have covered all the wickets. We have all the answers. It is just a matter of getting down to business. Bhai Vir Singh has mentioned elsewhere, "jo tu jannaya hai, kama wee." - "What you have amassed in your kchkol - begging bowl - throw it all away, and start doing. "an rooth naahee naahee, mat bharam bhoolahu bhoolahu" [GGS:1185.6] - "It is not the season to plant other seeds. Do not wander, lost in doubt and delusion."

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 26, 2011, 9:38 PM.

The beauty of Sikhi and living by the Guru's tenets is that because there is no caste, discrimination, superstition, ritual, magic, dogma, etc. that we are tied to, a Sikh has so much spare time for leisure and worship. You can go anywhere on earth and earn earn a good living even where there are millions living in poverty, war and squalor.

4: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), September 27, 2011, 4:29 AM.

The actual word is uddam(u) and is singular. Therefore, it refers to a single effort and this single effort in gurbani is only for connecting oneself with naam(u). So, the meaning of the line under discussion can be understood as making an effort {for naam). 'You shall live and practicing it (naam), you will enjoy peace. O Nanak, by contemplating on naam, you shall meet the Lord and your worries shall vanish.'

5: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 27, 2011, 1:41 PM.

The subject slok of Guru Arjan refers to the third realm of Japji Sahib. As per Prof. Sahib Singh, uddam refers to naam juppna for naam kamaa-ee, so as to live a truthful and happy life. The explanation and comparison by the convenor is totally contradictory. As said earlier, gurbani is addressed to our subtle body - the physical body has nothing to do with it.

6: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), September 29, 2011, 12:41 AM.

There's a distinction in the meaning of the words uddam and uddam(u). The singular refers to naam, the plural to general effort.

7: Balbir Singh (Germany), September 29, 2011, 8:59 AM.

"sagal uddam mahi uddamu bhalaa/ hari ka naam japahu jee-a sadaa" [GGS:266.14] - "Among all efforts, the best effort is this: comtemplating Hari's naam, always." [GGS:266.14]

8: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), September 29, 2011, 10:25 AM.

To Mohan Singh ji/ Prakash Singh ji: with all due respect, may I suggest that we step outside the traditional box and reflect on the questions raised in the write-up. I am aware and have been reared on the explanation that both of you have provided. But I am consciously - and deliberately - challenging the explanation, as I noted in the write-up. Can we be a little bold with our thinking, can we step outside the boundaries of authorized versions, please? More later.

9: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), September 30, 2011, 1:08 AM.

Uddam is one the most prized gifts granted by Him to His creation. In the human realm, its significance is immeasurable. It is one of the key components contributing to whosoever we become, whatever we accomplish. If I may respectfully add, uddam in itself is not the work ethic, as the title may suggest. Outcome, significance and intensity of the work ethic greatly depends upon uddam. Uddam also influences/ promotes our Divine urges and Waheguru devotion. Uddam can influence the work ethic, both positively and negatively. Then, what is uddam? It is an attribute, an inner spirit, that motivates or gives us an initiative to act, move, perform, choose, decide, assert, struggle, fight, overcome ... whatever we believe is important, urgent, overwhelming at that moment, an occasion or a goal/purpose. Uddam simply helps us gravitate towards our selection/ preference. Every thing we do, happens due to uddam. We are born with uddam, and the baby's first cry is its proof and a natural outcome. Uddam intensity varies from from person to person. As we grow, uddam grows naturally till we reach a peak; after which it tends to decline, both in intensity and significance. Unless we become aware of the loss and exert effort to retain or add to it. So we have the ability to increase its level and intensity. Another amazing aspect of uddam is its built-in capacity to oscillate up/ down/ sideways, depending upon the nature of our activities or goals. Uddam gravitates and diligently serves our emotional needs/ urges. In this pursuit, if not checked, it can push us to obsessive levels. We must become aware of this harmful manifestation. Religion, divinity, etc., are our emotional needs/ choices, and uddam helps us in their pursuit. The significance and impact of this prized trait is duly recognized in the Guru Granth Sahib. We must understand the role of uddam in our life, and the Guru Granth is a prime source to learn. It elaborates its role/ significance from the divine and temporal aspects of life.

10: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), September 30, 2011, 8:42 AM.

I feel that gurbani messages are self-explanatory and there is hardly any need for elaboration. The more we elaborate any gurbani verse, the more is the risk of getting distracted from the core meaning.

11: Balbir Singh (Germany), September 30, 2011, 2:57 PM.

"All are within His Will. Outside it, there are none." [GGS:1-9]. Udaam(u) is also within the Lord's Will.

12: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), September 30, 2011, 5:09 PM.

Perhaps I could have explained my motive in hitching the notion of uddam to the work ethic. First, I wanted to link it to our previous discussion on the yogis, whom Guru Nanak reprimanded for being lazy, for not working for a living. Guru Nanak is actually doing more than merely scolding the yogis - he is actually calling laziness morally reprehensible and investing hard work and diligence to earn a living with a moral underpinning. No religion in India had emphasized work to this degree; actually, worldly entanglements have been traditionally seen as a barrier to mukti or salvation. Guru Nanak would have us tangle with the real world. This is a point many of us miss. More later.

13: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), September 30, 2011, 5:31 PM.

Continued from the previous post: the sub-caption of this post was kirat & keerat - two sides of the same coin. Uddam, which was being used in its broadest sense as diligence/ initiative/ industry, is the foundational requirement for any purpose - even for harmful purposes. Therefore, uddam has to be accompanied by the right goals and right purpose, which come from keerat - which can be loosely translated as a form of naam juppna. What I wanted to suggest was that kirat itself can become keerat. More to come.

14: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), October 01, 2011, 12:41 PM.

If we are to consider kirat and keerat, then we don't get any such message from gurbani that can validate that kirat can become keerat. Whereas it is keerat that affects the outcome of kirat as positive, otherwise kirat is wasteful. Doing kirat is inherent and unavoidable, so gurbani tells us that kirat should be accomplished with keerat of the Creator.

15: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas. U.S.A.), October 02, 2011, 1:02 AM.

After sharing views in a slightly longish but canvass-like backdrop of uddam, let me share thoughts on the key topic - "The Work Ethic: Waheguru-Centred, Purpose-Driven". In my understanding of Sikh thought, the approach is different and reads - "The Work Ethics: Family-Centered; Service-Driven (selfless), Waheguru-Surrounded (Inspired); Gurmat (guided) Character." In 2000 years of Christian thought, their teachings have not framed a human mass that is Godly centered and yet temporal within the daily grind. Those who may have experimented were predominantly monks in Christiandom or ash-covered sadhus in the Hindu context. Both concepts have been rejected by Guru Nanak. Each idea may prima facie appear noble and pious, but is a sucker in reality and an emotional lolly pop. We are created to establish own family unit and invest substantial time and effort to perpetuate continuity of the race. The knowledge from Guru Granth Sahib, adopted with enthused uddam, provides Sikhs a character tough enough to lead a life that is family-centered and service-beyond-self oriented. Just add Him as a purveyor and a benevolent/ inspiring caretaker.

16: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), October 02, 2011, 9:00 AM.

Nirmal Singh ji, the last four lines of your message (#15) are inspiring and convey the correct concept of uddam as per gurbani.

17: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), October 02, 2011, 9:15 AM.

Nilvi ji: excellent point. Hence the Guru's insistence on the life of a householder (girhast); and the sanctification of the institution of marriage. Whether you describe it as Waheguru-centered or Waheguru-surrounded does not change the basic premise. Waheguru is everywhere. I differ with your last statement, though: Waheguru is not just an add-on but the primal doer and central to His own play.

18: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 02, 2011, 10:03 AM.

Nirmal Singh ji, you are correct. However, gurbani is in the form of shabads, songs of praise. Instead of one or two words, it is better to narrate the complete shabad with insight, as the line of pause (rahau) will reveal the clear message. Words can be used in any context.

19: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), October 02, 2011, 11:26 PM.

The work ethic in Sikhi must display adherence to two significant attributes: respect for individual dignity and a focus on His goodness endowed in others (followers and creation). Since Waheguru did not create us alike, we should not expect/seek similarities in each other. Let us differ in views and approach, but do so deferentially. These are commonly forsaken attributes in our discourse and we need to bring them back.

20: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), October 03, 2011, 12:47 AM.

I think it would be worthwhile to consider: "The Work Ethic ... Naam(u)-centered and Purpose-Driven."

21: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 03, 2011, 9:42 AM.

In real life uddam and ardaas work together at the same time. Gurbani also says: "bin bolyaa(n) sab kuchh jaanda" - here the gist is that you work sincerely with honesty and loyalty to all concerned, and success will follow: this is the ultimate message of the Guru and Gurbani. Bhagat Kabir also said: "Hath pao kar kam sab chit niranjan naal" [GGS:1376] - 'With your hands and feet, do your work, but let your consciousness remain with the Immaculate Lord."

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The Talking Stick Colloquium #61"

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