Kids Corner


Labour of Love





I left the shores of the land of my birth in my early twenties and came to America, a young man with hardly any moorings to speak of. I was nominally a Sikh, with unshorn kesh and a turban on my head which, to be honest, I wore uneasily. I had been raised in Sikkim where a Sikh was a curiosity and the debilitating burden of ‘otherness’, which children feel, even if they can’t articulate, pre-empted any positive sense of identity.

Besides, even though my family was solidly Sikh, I grew up in a time and place when not much thought was given to identity and belonging. My family was staunchly conservative and it was absolutely expected that my brother and I would follow in the path of our forebears and stay tethered to their faith. After all, our father and grandfather were Sikhs; why on earth would we ever consider leaving the fold!

When I left the backwaters of Sikkim to attend college and then found a job in the hustle and bustle of Bombay in the mid-1980s, my sense of identity did not fare much better. Of course I did not realize it at the time, but in hindsight I can clearly see my 20-year old self beset by the jejune mockery of Sikhs, rampant in India against all minorities, on the one hand and the relentless anti-Sikh propaganda of Indian officialdom in the era of the 1984 Genocide, on the other!

Small wonder then, that when I arrived in America, my connection to my faith and identity was, to put it mildly, tenuous.

My embrace of my identity in the diaspora is hardly a unique story. All exiles end up trying to seek out their roots at one point or another. As did I.

Every journey however, is unique and every path is different. Some find the warm embrace of community. Others are inspired by mentors and role models into whose orbit serendipity delivers them. It turns out that I was inspired by the unwitting collusion of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, whose paths I am pretty sure never crossed.

Vic Briggs, born in 1945, is above all else, a musician. He was best known as the lead guitarist of ‘The Animals‘. Held in high esteem by the legendary Jimi Hendrix, who placed him in the same bracket as his contemporaries Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, Vic Briggs went on to have a very successful career as a rock musician and then a producer.

I met Vic Briggs a year or so after arriving in the US, during a visit to my aunt’s house in California. There was a religious gathering at her home and when I arrived, I found a family of Sikhs leading the singing: a middle aged man, his wife and their two daughters. The family was resplendent in white and all of them, including the women, sported impeccable white turbans on their heads. What struck me in particular was the aura of serenity the entire family exhibited.

Vic Briggs had been in the avatar of Vikram Singh Khalsa for a while by then and unlike me, he wore his identity easily. We ended up chatting briefly. I don’t even remember what we talked about. When I returned to New York where I was attending graduate school at the time, that aura of serenity stayed with me. I had always borne my faith, which I had received as my birthright, as a burden. And I had met a man, who had crossed an enormous cultural divide and had so improbably sought out the very same faith on his own accord. A man who seemed to wear his faith easily, with joy and pride.

Thirty years after the meeting I can remember being somewhat inspired, a little bit ashamed and very curious. What possibly might have inspired such a transformation in Vic Briggs? I remember a burning desire to educate myself. I was a graduate student, in upstate New York with no connections to the local Sikh community. Besides, even though I had grown up speaking Punjabi, I had never learned to read and write in Gurmukhi.

I remember feeling very frustrated as I unsuccessfully sought ways to educate myself about my faith. And then, quite by chance, I encountered the Scotsman on the shelves of my university library.

Joseph Davey Cunnigham, born in 1812, came from a family of poets and scholars. In the waning years of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, he served as the assistant to Sir Claude Wade, the British resident at Ludhiana (Punjab), where he came into contact with Sikhs and developed a deep interest in their history and faith. In 1849, he published his work, ‘History of the Sikhs‘, a British account of the Sikhs but written from a sympathetic viewpoint and not the usual propagandist or condescending one.

From the very first few pages, I was hooked. Of course I had a facile understanding of Sikh history, but as I learned about the lives of the Gurus and then the trials and tribulations of my forebears as they faced intense oppression in the eighteenth century and finally the glorious story of the Sikh Empire, I felt my spirit soar like it never had before.

The Irishman, I actively sought out. I had heard about Max Arthur McAuliffe’s ‘The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors’ and was able to acquire a copy during a trip to India. Maculiffe’s rendition of the lives of the Gurus and his translations of gurbani were a godsend to someone who was yet unable to read Professor Sahib Singh or Bhai Vir Singh (both of their works are in Punjabi).

It was the start of a personal journey that continues to this day.

As I learned, I felt an urge to teach. In parallel I had explored a budding interest in Gurmat Sangeet through a few mentors I was fortunate to find and a few years later I found myself teaching young people Sikh History and Gurbani Kirtan, first at the Bridgewater Gurdwara in New Jersey and then the Milford Gurdwara in the Boston area.

The Story of The Sikhs’ - a pod cast I have recently launched -  is a personal milestone for me on the path that started with the chance encounter with Vic Briggs or Antion Vikram Singh Meredith, as he is known now. It is an attempt to distil everything that I have learned and taught over the years into an offering that I hope will be of some use to young Sikhs who are taking their first, faltering steps towards engaging with their faith, as well as to non-Sikhs who want to learn about us. I have chosen the podcast route as the informality of the form and the ability to forge a personal connection with each listener appeals to me. Podcasts are also ubiquitous, accessible and easy to consume.

Season One begins with the coming of Guru Nanak Sahib and ends with the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib. Several more seasons will follow, Insh’Allah, covering the times of Guru Hargobind Sahib to Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the turbulent eighteenth century and the glories of the Sikh Empire.

The first five episodes have just been launched and are available on a variety of platforms. The podcast can be accessed on Itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Podbean and various other directories. Further details are available at of-the- sikhs

Episode 1 : A Prophet Emerges

As Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty overruns the northern part of the subcontinent, he encounters a holy man who fearlessly confronts him and chides him for his cruelty. The name of the holy man is Guru Nanak, who is on the path to establishing a new world religion, Sikhism.

The story shifts to the childhood of young Nanak, a precocious lad of spiritual bent who fearlessly challenges inequality and superstition. As a young man Nanak lays the foundation of an important institution that will go on to define the faith he is to create. Nanak has a spiritual epiphany that gives him a sense of mission and inspires him to set forth on a journey that is the start of a social revolution.

Episode 2 : The Wanderers

With his faithful companion, Mardana the minstrel, in tow, Nanak sets out on a series of journeys that will last for decades and will bring him to wondrous places as he develops bold new ideas and creates the institutions which will ensure their propagation and survival. Nanak fearlessly confronts superstition and ritualism as he travels to the storied places of worship of his time.

Episode 3 : The Darb Al Hajj

Nanak travels to the far reaches of the Eastern Himalayas, where he is hailed as Nanak Rimpoche, an emanation of the Buddhist sage Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim. After his return to his homeland, he dons the garb of a Muslim pilgrim and sets out on the ancient Indo-Egyptian trade route to journey to Mecca. This will be his last great journey and on his return he will establish the town of Kartarpur.

Episode 4 : The Passing of the Torch

Guru Nanak settles down in Kartarpur kicking off a period of institutional development that will last for almost two centuries. The task of giving shape to a new world religion has begun. As the time approaches for Guru Nanak to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, he anoints one of his beloved followers as the next Guru, ensuring that the fledgling faith he has created will survive and thrive.

Episode 5 : The Sanctuary of the Homeless

Guru Angad nurtures the faith that his late Master entrusted him with, giving the gift of music to his followers and creating a new script - Gurmukhi - for the preservation of the sacred writings of the faith. In the tradition of Guru Nanak, he chooses his humblest and most faithful disciple to succeed him as the next Guru, bypassing his own sons.

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February 22, 2018

Conversation about this article

1: I J Singh (N. Bellmore, New York, USA), April 07, 2018, 1:44 PM.

Excellent and inspiring journey on the Sikh path. Well recounted and much appreciated.

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