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Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part XII

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Q   You’ve said that you see yourself as “both a product and an inheritor of the Singh Sabha project“. But at the same time you are critical of their discourse. How do you explain that? 

A   Frankly, I don’t see any problem in doing that.

I was raised by parents who were in every sense typical Singh Sabhias. When my father helped to found a new gurdwara in the early 1990’s in my home town in England, he, along with his community associates, named this gurdwara the “Singh Sabha Gurdwara”.

It was natural for him to do so. His antim ardaas was also at that gurdwara. This is the tradition that I inherited.

But tradition is never a solid, objectivized, concretized thing, that we receive impassively. It is a living, growing, evolving movement that animates our collective consciousness as a community in the sense that it connects past and present to a future that is never quite certain.

The problem arises when the living, growing, conscious aspect of tradition develops around itself a skin so hard, so concrete, that this skin inhibits its natural growth and its forward movement.

When I use the word ‘skin’, I do not mean a physical exterior. Rather, I am referring to ways of thinking that encourage stasis rather than continued movement, continued growth, the ability to continually experience creatively, to experience things anew, which is the essence of life itself.

I think I may have said this already in one of the previous interview sessions: basically, by skin I refer especially to static belief systems as opposed to experience.

In order to shake off, or at least loosen, the debilitating effects of static belief systems, it may be necessary for us to un-inherit what one has inherited. This action of un-inheriting does not mean that one discards what one has inherited. It means: by all means inherit what is handed down, but at the same time remain open to a future that you may not have the power to foresee or predict, but which you may have to deal with.

To remain open to the future means to have the courage and humility to be able to identify a sickness which may have inflicted ‘our’ culture, an illness that masquerades as a self-defense mechanism, but which has gone too far, so that its defensiveness and its tendency to “find enemies everywhere” in fact begins to strangle the very life out of a tradition, by over-policing it.

So, to ‘un-inherit’ means to grasp the aporia of life itself, by identifying and diagnosing the cause of its stasis while remaining within the body of tradition itself.

Think of it as applying a medicine to one’s own body.

My stance, therefore, is one that does not limit itself to an actual formation or -ism. I accept the -ism that we have come to call ‘Sikhism’ as a useful, and even necessary, historical development. But I regard the -ism as a historical formation, as a vehicle that was the product of a certain time and a certain place.

But we no longer exist in that time and space. Today’s time and space is more complicated and so we need to create a new and better vehicle.

Q   The ‘vehicle’? Which is the vehicle and which the … ?

A   What I am saying is that we should not mistake the vehicle for Sikhi itself. The ultimate goal of Sikhi, as I understand it, is the process of realizing or experiencing shabad-guru and of perfecting oneself through its effect on one’s consciousness.

So, I see the old vehicle as “Singh Sabha 1”. Think of this old vehicle as a body armor that is too heavy to operate in today’s world, and too constrictive in the sense that it won’t let the body inside it breathe freely.

At a certain stage in its history, ‘Singh Sabha 1’ was certainly an effective vehicle. But its effectiveness is today thoroughly compromised by the very weapons it uses against its imagined enemies. These weapons were forged from metaphysics derived from Christian theology, and then sold as ‘Sikh theology’ which it equates with gurmat.

Now, while Sikh theology managed to deal adequately with its ideological counterparts in the form of ‘Hindu theology’ and ‘Christian theology’, as an ideology, it could not deal with secularism in the guise of the modern democratic nation-state.

Why? Because the secular/modern and the theological are linked. Indeed, the secular/modern is born out of the theological in the debates between ideologues of Church and State from the 15th and 19th century. And these debates haven’t stopped.

This is what Sikh political elites, and the intellectuals guiding them, consistently failed to deal with after 1947 and why the Akali position was constantly compromised either by a secular Congress or by Hindutva as it is now.

This is why we need a new Singh Sabha – ‘Singh Sabha 2’ – which begins to understand the effect of global capitalism (rather than merging with it as one section of Akalis have done) and how to deal with their extreme minoritarian position in secular democracies such as India or the US (rather than continually project themselves as ‘religious’ minorities and therefore be compromised by Congress, etc).

A ‘Singh Sabha 2’ does not necessarily have to emerge from the Punjabi context. It could easily emerge from a diasporic context also.

The only thing that that would differentiate ‘Singh Sabha 2’ from ‘Singh Sabha 1’ is the understanding that the so called lehar has nothing to do with ‘reform’, as I explained earlier.

The lehar or movement is something intrinsic to Sikhi, to the message of Guru Nanak himself and its two key structuring principles are the concepts of shabad-guru and Khalsa. These two concepts, and hence the lehar of Guru Nanak-Guru Gobind Singh, can grow in soils outside their ethnic origins.

So, I see ‘Singh Sabha 2’ as a project for the future … It is yet to come …

When I said earlier in the interview that a ‘Singh Sabha 2’ must be able to “resist the flows of dominant global consciousness as it keeps the core principle alive”, what this means is that Sikhs today must not be content to simply adopt the designation ‘religion’.

They must also learn to resist the way they have been legally positioned as a purely ‘religious’ entity within dominant nation states. They must resist this positioning because it deprives Sikhs of political status, without sovereignty of their own – only a legitimate nation state is allowed to define itself as sovereign.

It is a double positioning that requires skill and knowledge of the complexities of the liberal democracy. So the kind of resistance I am talking about is certainly not armed resistance (which would be political suicide), but intellectual resistance that questions the structural framing of nation states in regard to minorities such as the Sikhs, a questioning that has legal ramifications.

That kind of resistance should be the task of a Singh Sabha to come, a future Singh Sabha, or what you might call ‘Singh Sabha 2’.

To Be Continued Next Week ...


April 7, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Aryeh Leib (Israel), April 09, 2014, 4:13 AM.

This is truly one of the best discussions I've seen so far. I'm following it avidly, and I very much hope that there are other kindred spirits out there - and that Dr. Arvind Pal Singh isn't someone who's simply "ahead of his time".

2: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), April 10, 2014, 2:29 AM.

This series is very helpful to many of us who are products of Singh Sabha-1. I just received in the mail Arvind Pal Singh's book; I'm looking forward to reading it. It is not an easy read, but nevertheless very much worth reading.

3: Prabh Kirtan Singh (Mohali, Punjab), May 06, 2014, 11:26 AM.

I've been following with interest Dr Arvind Pal Singh's interview about his book. I wish to offer some comments on what he says in his interview. Historically, the Singh Sabha Lehar didn't start as a reform, but was a lehar (Movement) which was an effort to reconnect to the lehar of Sikh Gurus. It never even for a moment tried to 'reform your religion (here Sikhi) which basically (had) become degraded and fallen from original state', as Arvind contends. This lehar was all about understanding, reconnecting with, living and demonstrating to the world what the lehar of the Sikh Gurus was. Singh Sabha lehar is neither christened as, nor is understood as a 'reform' movement that ever aimed at reforming Sikhi. Even if one believes that the results were not satisfactory, or complete, or deficient, or even not long-lasting enough, it does not give us a license to reinterpret its objectives, or even imagine and ascribe some objectives to the lehar which simply were not there. The word reform or sudhaar was indeed used by the pioneers of Singh Sabha, but it was limited to the context of the practice of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus by the Sikhs, and also more specifically to the practice of the teachings in the gurdwaras. To confuse this reform with the 'reform of the lehar of Sikh Gurus' would be naive. While we must examine the end results, or even the lehar itself critically, for that is the way to move forward, but to start this examination with the presumption that the pioneers (elites, as Arvind calls them) accepted the "narrative of reform (so) you accept that your culture is 'fallen' or that it lacks something which it must retrieve" is to start this journey at a wrong place. The sense in which Arvind ascribes 'reform' to the intentions of the pioneers of Singh Sabha was never their objective, intention, or such a thing was never ever attempted by them. This interpretation simply doesn't stand the test of history. Arvind's assertion that the pioneers 'accepted' the reform that was 'imposed on the indigenous people by colonial machine' or that reform was that of the 'lehar or movement of the Sikh Gurus', or for that matter 'reform is equated with the lehar of Sikh Gurus' is too far from reality and looks like an effort to see what is simply not there. I find the stress on etymology of the word 'reform', application of this etymological meaning to this lehar, or an effort to interpret the lehar of Singh Sabha through the prism of reform, or even labeling it as such, as entirely misplaced. A study of the history of origin of this lehar, its growth, the zealous and valiant efforts of the pioneers to preserve and maintain the spirit and experience, both at the spiritual and life-experience level - of Sikhi lehar of the Sikh Gurus, surmounting the challenges at ideological, philosophical and political level to reinterpret (or should I say reform) the Sikhi - all in fact point in the other direction. In my view alluding or accusing the pioneers of Singh Sabha Lehar of making an effort to 'reform' the Sikh Gurus' lehar is not a correct interpretation.

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part XII"

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