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Image below of the dictators: detail from "1984" by The Singh Twins. [Copyright:]


Walking Away From Power




Power is addictive, even more than the best intoxicants that mankind has ever discovered or invented. We all seem to understand that; yet we can’t ever leave it alone. This isn’t a bottle that we can smash so easily.

History provides some interesting lessons. Let me first cherry pick my evidence from our political institutions. Then we can segue to familial and religious matters as well.

Until very recently in the history of civilization, power often emerged from the barrel of a gun, ergo, political institutions were designed, controlled and run by alpha males. That remains true in much of the world even today, although there is an increasing visibility of women in managing power, whether political or corporate. 

Given the chance, women too seem to adapt to the alpha-male worldview of strategy and tactics, perhaps because they are so few and their climb in the political hierarchy so fraught. I offer Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi as prime examples. Will things materially change when the disproportionally low representation of women evens out? I sure hope so. 

There are very few prominent examples of political leaders who opted to willingly walk away from power at their zenith. Emperor Ashoka of ancient Pataliputra and Magadha turned Buddhist when his rule over a vast territory was absolutely unchallenged. He was so touched by Buddhist teachings on non-violence that he disbanded much of his large and much-feared army. 

One could argue that by this action, Ashoka weakened the nation so much that invading Muslim hordes had an easy time conquering, ruling and terrorizing India many centuries later. Thereafter, you can add another two centuries to account for the British rule of India. 

The world’s political stage offers very few examples that capture our imagination for willingly abdicating power, whether they were unchallenged or not. Ashoka was possibly the most notable politically dominant ruler to voluntarily diminish his power without being challenged by any rival.

In this short but selective list, I would inscribe the name of Mikhail Gorbachev in neon lights. Adopting the models of glasnost-perestroika, this ruler of the former USSR opened the state’s institutions, knowing full well that the resulting transparency would rock his power. And it did, to deadly effect. There is also evidence that his hand was forced and his renunciation of power not quite that freely and voluntarily done. But he understood that his people needed to enter a new world of transparency, accountability and self-governance.

Then I think of George Washington. History tells us that this first president of the United States was immensely popular. He served for two terms and a third was offered to him but he refused, starting a precedent that a president would not serve more than two consecutive terms. His example was dutifully followed by most incoming presidents even if they harbored other ambitions, except four: Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant tried but did not succeed, and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who was elected to four consecutive terms.  But after his death Congress passed an amendment that was ratified only in 1951, banning such practice.

In this matter, most political leaders are like FDR; they really believe that the country, without them at the helm, would go to the dogs. They forget that the world existed for untold eons before they discovered power and will continue after they are dead - and die they will, like everyone else. (I am an admirer of FDR for what he achieved.)

Dictatorial tendencies are universal. Is this hubris located in the hormones, driven by testosterone and encoded in human DNA, I do not know.  But most, if not all, people have it. 

All leaders come to power with loud claims and promises of wanting to dedicate their lives to service of the nation and its people; then they work unceasingly to destroy any possible rivals and fill their own coffers and those of their families and cronies. Exceptions just don’t exist.

People want to rule others, perhaps because they are no good at ruling themselves. The colonial powers, after all, didn’t exist to serve people but to dominate them for their own ends or benefit.

The world has seen so many such tyrants that an attempt at an accounting of all would take up many fat volumes and still remain incomplete.

Simon Sebag Montefiore recently provided a long but selective listing of the world’s dictators and their fate from Caligula to Ghaddafi.  In the modern era we often look at Stalin and Mao as poster boys on a list of tyrants. Perhaps we should include Idi Amin of Uganda, the recently dead Ghaddafi of Libya, even the father and son duo of Hafez et Bashir al-Assad of Syria in this ignominious pantheon. They end usually by violent coups, rarely peacefully. It is a rare dictator who can successfully transfer power to his or her progeny.

A list of politicians who love power too well and not too wisely would surely include Jawahar Lal Nehru, free India’s long-serving Prime Minister, as also Russia’s current strongman, Vladimir Putin. I am also tempted to add the late, unlamented Indira Gandhi to the list of these who adored power too much and unwisely, but she still has her loyalists. 

In India, a nominally secular democratic nation, Indira’s hunger for power was so insatiable that when a civil court set aside her election because of her violations of the electoral law, she promptly declared a state of emergency in the nation, dissolved the Parliament, and ruled by fiat. Some years later she went after the Sikhs to pursue her agenda of unchallenged power.

The late (Mahatma) M. K. Gandhi, widely promoted around the world as the patron saint, if not the apostle, of non-violence had perhaps the most imaginative, unusual but stupendously successful take on power - how to grab it and how to keep it.

He was a man of the poor people, he claimed, and never formally joined a political party but his hold on the Indian Congress Party that has ruled India for almost 50 out of its 60 years of freedom was absolutely dictatorial and iron-fisted. His policy vision came only from within himself and did not emerge from national referendums or consultative bodies. He blackmailed those who disagreed by the threat of a fast unto death. 

To be fair to him, unlike most politicians the world over, Gandhi was prepared to die. The result:  He always got his way and, in India’s pseudo-spiritual, passive-aggressive culture, morphed in the public mind into a holy man.

Of the Sikhs contemporaneous with our lives who had tasted power, I see none who was willing to relinquish it. None ceded that he had completed his promised mission and now it was someone else’s turn to bat. 

I mean here all who served us in the public eye - from Gurcharan Singh Tohra who ran the SGPC (Shiromini Gurduara Parbandhak Committee) as a personal fiefdom for decades, Parkash Singh Badal who has dominated Punjab politics for a generation, Zail Singh who became the President of India, or the so many who have become presidents or otherwise led the many Sikh associations and gurduaras in India or outside in the diaspora. Each and everyone had to be cajoled into office and later had to be driven out, unless death intervened.   

These are some of the more exiguous examples; it is not a complete list by any means.

Is there any doubt that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Is this the work of ego, or haumai as Sikhi dubs it?

Not all is pitch black though. A few rays shine blindingly bright.

Emperor Ashoka’s icon, Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince but walked away from the glory, glitter and power when he saw human suffering in his realm.

Sikh history provides some fascinating chapters. The movement started by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469, was led by ten founder Gurus until Guru Gobind Singh, who died in 1708.

What I find absolutely mind blowing is that, ignoring the claims of his own sons, when Guru Nanak handed the torch to his successor, Guru Angad, he also directed him to move his center some miles away to a different township. This makes it a very modern process of transfer of power and authority. Companies and universities strive to do this but if the retiring CEO or Dean stays on even at a lower rank the transfer of power remains somewhat messy.

I hammer home my point by two events in Sikhi.  History tells us that Guru Angad, after his investiture, moved his center to Khadur Sahib. Guru Nanak was still alive and continued to till his land and live in Kartarpur - for how long exactly we do not know. Whether it was days or months, he lived as a Sikh while Guru Angad directed the affairs of the movement. In this period, however brief it may have been, there is no evidence, direct or implied, that Nanak intervened in the judgment calls made by Guru Angad.

The sons of Guru Nanak and of Guru Angad thought the Guruship was theirs by right and that power should come to them by entitlement. But they were rejected.

When Guru Gobind Singh created the institution of the Khalsa in 1699, he invested the five Sikhs with the authority to ceremoniously admit others into the Khalsa brotherhood.  And they did; under their new authoruty, they even transformed Guru Gobind Rai into Guru Gobind Singh. Here then was a totally peaceful, willing and collaborative sharing of power. 

We seem to have forgotten to treat power as it is: fleeting and temporary to be purposefully used and never a matter of entitlement.  Power really lies in the sangat - the people. We The People are and should remain supreme as the preamble to the Constitution of the United States reminds us.

But in our gurdwaras, the mindset is that of politicians who would rather die than relinquish power.

Dictators that are at one time almost universally celebrated are, after a while, just as universally derided and detested. Look at the unfolding Arab world with Egypt’s Mubarak, Saddam of Iraq, Ghaddafi of Lybia, and Syria’s al-Assad.

Power is seductive. Henry Kissinger labeled power the greatest aphrodisiac - he should know. He takes you back to the idea of the alpha male and the T-level as it is euphemistically labeled.

Slippage of power is hard to accept. Look at America; it has been at the pinnacle for almost a century; now reality seems a slippery slope. Nevertheless, some political leaders and analysts continue to think that the term “American Exceptionalism” means that ordinary rules don’t apply to them.

Power arises from ego, and the two continue to feed each other; they remain mutually interdependent.

That’s why Guru Granth tells us (p 466) that the ego is the mortal malady that we have; the next line promises us that the cure, too, lies in the disease (“haumai deeragh roge hai/ daroo bhi iss mahi”).

How then to regard power, riches and worldly possessions becomes a critical issue. What kind of a person can comfortably walk away from power? 

Guru Tegh Bahadar provides some clear directives in Guru Granth (p 633):  “One who in the midst of pain feels it not, remains unaffected by pleasure, affection or fear, and looks alike upon gold and dust. One who is not swayed by slander or praise, nor enslaved by greed, attachment or pride. One who remains unmoved by joy, sorrow or dishonor ..."  

A tall order but this is what the Guru lays out as the ideal.

We may never be able to hold it in the sweaty palms of our hot little hands, but an ideal, like a star to a sea-faring man, can put us on the path and lead us home.


November 11, 2011


Conversation about this article

1: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), November 10, 2011, 8:32 AM.

If our leadership - political and gurdwara - could follow the example of Guru Nanak, we would have no conflict in the gurdwaras and a surfeit of funds to address the community's needs.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 10, 2011, 4:42 PM.

Half of the World consists of abusers and the other half of the abused. There has to be a balance in everything. Power is a good thing because without it there is no order, without which nothing can exist! Humans have only recently grown out of the Neanderthal stage, so the savage and arrogant behaviour of killing to survive is ever-present and fed by the ego.

3: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.), November 10, 2011, 10:10 PM.

We spend at least 15-20 years of our lives in gaining bookish knowledge but fail to read and understand only 1430 pages of the source of life - Guru Granth Sahib. We live under the false impression that bookish knowledge is enough as it helps us earn respectable degrees, find wealth-generating jobs and grab high social ranks. But we comfortably forget the historic fact that Guru Nanak did not hold any degree (like vedi, etc, equivalent to Ph.D. of current times); neither possessed materialistic wealth; nor held any high government or social rank. Still the saints and siddhas of the Himalayas were moved by his teachings and divine knowledge; Malik Bhago (the richest man in the district) begged for his forgiveness and Babar (the emperor of India) knelt down before him in shame. What was the power Guru Nanak had? Don't we have easy access to the same power in the form of Guru Granth Sahib?

4: G. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 11, 2011, 6:49 AM.

Dr. I.J. Singhji: while reading this excellent article I was eagerly waiting for your take on on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala. Keeping all the debate and divided opinions about him aside, he sure is one of the most influential characters of modern Sikh history. Actually he's one whose power deeply affected the power of those mentioned in your article - Tohra, Badal, Gandhi. I am sure being the open minded scholar that you are, you will write about him soon.

5: Harpreet Singh (Delhi, India), November 11, 2011, 11:06 AM.

After reading this great article, two things come to mind. First is the temporary offer of Nawabi to Sikhs in the eighteenth century which no Sikh was ready to accept and the Punj Pyaare ordered Kapur Singh (who used to clean the stables/excreta of horses of the Sikhs) to accept the same. He accepted the same by first touching the tray on the feet of the Punj Pyaare with a request to allow him to continue doing his sewa. Second is about the concept of the Punj Pyaare created by Guru Gobind Singh, which we have totally forgotten or reduced the same to just a formality while taking out nagar keertans. Even Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not adhere to it, thereby the loss of the great Sikh kingdom due to the treachery of a handful of Dogras.

6: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 11, 2011, 1:23 PM.

G. Singh ji: Re your comment (#3) - I have commented briefly on many aspects of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala in my writings but never pulled them all together in a single essay. Parhaps I will soon. Thanks for suggesting it.

7: Jagpal Singh Tiwana (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada), November 12, 2011, 2:41 AM.

Thank you for the brilliant piece. I'm glad to know that you are planning to write a article on Bhindranwale. I am sure only you can give a balanced account of his contribution in spreading the message of the Guru as well as his share in inviting an attack on Golden Temple. Looking forward to the article.

8: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), November 13, 2011, 8:38 AM.

Like always an interesting and thought provoking article from I.J. Very true! Power breeds vices easily, relinquishing it is an exercise that few succeed in. Sikhi's emphasis on controlling one's ego will not only enable one to be at peace with one's self but will also assist one enable one to meet the almighty. We all understand and recognize this truth but lack the will to practice it. This hunger is evident everywhere, in families, in boardroom games, and with the industrialists. Introspection is fleeting and truth is quickly put under the carpet. The good in society must be repeatedly highlighted and can help in containing this unwanted weed. Good should be preached and practiced and here it would always be welcome to put the self before others, only then can it be turned into a wave.

9: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), November 13, 2011, 5:43 PM.

Management members in diaspora gurdwaras are devoid of any spiritual awakening. They are motivated by the impulse of power and, who knows, maybe even wealth. They only know the 'rituals' in accordance with directives from the Akal Takht for the management of the gurdwara. They have planted their members in the sangat to get votes at the time of elections. Guru Nanak said [GGS:1245] said: "gur peer sadaa-ay mangan jaa-ay/ taa kai mool na lagee-ai paa-ay" - That is, "Do not associate with those who call themselves pirs or saints". In case of managements in gurdwaras, it is generally the secretary, treasurer and President, plus a few others at subordinate levels. Also, if one is a treasurer one year, next year he/she is secretary and the third year he/she is president. The faces of the management members remains the same year after year, ad nauseum. The fact remains that management members do not generate love and spirit of selfless service.

10: Harman Singh (California, U.S.A.), November 14, 2011, 12:20 PM.

Dr. I.J. Singh, I eagerly await your article on Bhindranwale. I have done my own research, but have yet to make up my mind. I have often heard people say: He was a Malcolm X when what we needed was a Martin Luther King. Although I see the point they are trying to make, I am not sure if the analogy is fair. Great article! I love the reference from the Guru Granth: haumai deeragh roge hai/ daroo bhi iss mahi. One can write a whole book explaining that alone.

11: B. Singh (Canada), November 15, 2011, 12:13 AM.

Your dissertation on power and its ability to corrupt is very interesting. I was surprised by the story of Ashoka whose act of selflessness in disbanding his army may have inadvertently doomed his people. I think Ashoka is an example of someone who went too far in giving up power. What impresses me about Guru Nanak's and Guru Gobind Singh's approach to power is that they had a fundamental shift in the way they thought about power. Rather than power being a luxury that allows the bearer to live in comfort and to wield without purpose, our Gurus thought of power as a responsibility that came with a mandate to serve those who granted you power over them. Their views on power seem to be very much in line with the ideals of modern democracy. Unlike Ashoka, Guru Gobind Singh didn't give away his power frivolously, rather he seemed to have realized that the time was right to disperse his power as a leader throughout the sangat, with the role of spiritual guide to be fulfilled by the Guru Granth Sahib.

12: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 15, 2011, 5:41 PM.

G. Singh (#4), Jagpal Singh Tiwana (#7), Harman Singh (#10) and others - If you send me a note on I would be happy to share my views on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale via a draft of an essay in preparation. A copy for posting might take some time for it is not ready at this time. Thank you.

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