By I.J. Singh
Internet traffic tells me of the mind boggling proliferation of Babas and Deras in the countryside of Punjab in India.
Deras (Lit. Centers) are like gurduaras, but not entirely. They preach Sikhi but often with variations that usually don’t hew entirely to the mainstream teaching or the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) as we know it. The Baba is the man who heads a particular Dera shaping and controlling its activities. I have never heard of a woman head of a dera but there may be a rare one around. According to one report there may be 9,000 deras in Punjab today – and multiplying faster than fruit flies. It is not so much the idea but the number that wakes one up like a cold shower on a winter morning.
Deras seem to collect oodles of money. Corrupt management, heinous sexual and drug abuse, along with wild distortions of Sikh practices, doctrines and teachings have been widely and wildly alleged. I concede that accusations do not necessarily prove guilt. But with so much smoke, some fire likely exists as well. And we need to know why and wherefore of that.
Every so often such allegations puncture the veil of secrecy around the deras and make largely unwelcome news. Ergo, most sane Sikhs conclude that deras deserve to be condemned and babas run out of Sikhi.
And I agree. Now with my view on record I want to parse the matter from different viewpoints.
Given that an unbelievably growing number of deras and babas dot the countryside of Punjab and they are ever popular, the question is why? Surely the Guru Granth offers a message that is supremely right in content, immeasurable in depth and entirely complete.
Then why do people gravitate to these imperfect so called “masters” — better yet, pretenders? Here we need some critical thinking, but what is such reasoning and what are its components?
The role of the critical thinker is to ask questions and only truth matters. There are many parts to critical thinking: There are the “Advocates” who make a passionate case deliberately for one point of view or the other. Then there is the “Devil’s advocate” to unearth hidden agendas and special pleading while convincingly embracing contrary positions. And don’t forget “Analysts” who examine parts of a structure or thing to gain better understanding of the whole. Each of the three advocates need to be honest in their cause and dedicated to their purpose. Collectively, this process makes “critical intelligence.” Let’s use it to shed light, not heat on the issue.
As an aside, I ask you to keep in mind that total objectivity doesn’t really exist; we live in a world of different degrees of subjectivity. In somewhat ironic honor of this principle, half a century ago some of us graduate students at a medical school, including I, created a semi-formal fraternity dubbed the “Society for the Lack of Objectivity in Biological Sciences” with the deceptively catchy but accurate acronym “SLOBS”.
Given that Deras and Babas are undoubtedly a social problem for Sikhs why are they so popular? How should we begin to explore the associated Sikh social realities and their problems?
Why do Sikhs frequent deras and babas? There has to be an intensive and extensive exploratory process before we rush to an Alice in Wonderland type of verdict that speaks of “Judgment first and trial afterwards, if at all.” Such an approach trashes the idea of a search for truth.
First we need extensive survey data. Not by simplistic “yes or no” questionnaires but by in depth interviews conducted by trained empathetic interviewers — with questions that expose and lay out prejudices and assumptions that we all have when we divide the world into “us” and “them.”
What do people need that deras and babas provide, even if incompletely and at a cost, but much better than our marble and gold encrusted gurduaras and holier than thou granthis?
This will provide us informed generalizations, even painful specifics about us. We need such data. Let us not just assume that we know. But keep in mind that any community has individuals that don’t always walk in lockstep. And we need to engage and understand these contrarians as well – including those who patronize these babas — false shops of Sikhi.
But labeling them false, as I just did, won’t do. An underlying base of empathy is essential. To get a solid view, we need to hear from the rebels of our community as well and not just dismiss them as irrelevant. They have much to tell us.
There is yet another direction we can come from in order to understand the lure of babas and deras. The human condition and perspective is special.
Humans learn and work best in groups and communities of families, neighbors and friends. Are our majestic marble and gold gurduaras structured to promote such cohesion and communication in communities or are the crowds of worshippers such that the attendees remain individuals without connecting with each other? Is it something like a flock of friends or family sitting in the same room, each person busy with his or her electronic toy trolling a social site? They are not alone but still lonely. As I like to say a sangat of strangers is no sangat at all. They only rob me of my solitude without giving me company.
I know I have made a loaded statement. But think if this is what gurduaras promote these days?
From a life shaped by elders – parents, teachers and successful role models we become conditioned to follow authority in a somewhat vertically stratified existence.
The Sikh Gurus, iconoclastic masters as they were, have been transformed from unparalleled teachers of a worldview into icons to be worshipped. This is so in spite of their teaching. A vertical flow of teaching where the message descends to the follower is not how the Gurus taught. Look at how Guru Nanak taught at Hardwar when he splashed water towards the West as opposed to the time honored way to face east. He taught not by edict but by a conversation.
In a vertical dialogue the message is corrupted, distorted or diminished on its way down but in a horizontal dialogue wisdom results. Certainly, in the last decade of his life when Guru Nanak nurtured a community at Kartarpur his preferred method was horizontal conversation. He and his Sikhs worked in the fields together. They gathered for evening darbar together and lived as a ‘spiritual family’ i.e. Sadhsangat.
There are many more such examples from the other Gurus as well. Sikhi gives us a community in which authority rests in the teachings and in the community (Sangat). Unfortunately we are rooted in the Indian feudal culture; it is as if a life of dependency is coded in our DNA so that we look up to sources of authority for guidance and even for control of our lives — even when the teaching of these fake modern masters contradicts the teachings and practices of the Gurus.
Such thinking clearly conditions us to be seduced by any charismatic figure that walks by. Deras and Babas fill that void completely and fully. Our gurduaras, on the other hand, do not and nor should they.
The traditional cultural framework then may be largely responsible for the reality that we see today. This conditioning is pretty much a universal human reality no matter the religion or nationality but it is the defining trait of the Indian lifestyle, starting with the caste system and including the Indian religious, cultural, social and even political realities.
I would say that Sikhi, having originated and flowered in the Indian culture has become its prisoner even though this is contrary to the message of the Founder-Gurus of Sikhi.
In this matter other cultures display similar behavior; as a parallel just look at the surfeit of tele-evangelists who sell Christianity to the masses for far more than a pretty penny.
What exactly do deras and babas deliver that makes them so popular? Are they doling out cash, comfort, consolation, education, food, love or some other panacea? Is theirs a replay of “Eat, Love and Pray?” Why do so many Sikhs choose the way of the deras and babas? The reasons may be complex and many.
Could it be that in part it is critical how the message is delivered in gurduaras today?
Let me explain from the point of view of an unrelated discipline that I teach. I have taught human anatomy for umpteen years. Simply stated, a textbook of anatomy, say Gray’s Anatomy, has much more information that’s more clearly laid out than in my head. Then why would students come to my class? Because, perhaps, I can connect them to the message in their language and context so that they feel it makes sense whereas their direct interaction with the voluminous textbook may be overwhelming, forbidding, and even obscure.
Do deras and babas relate to the listener and connect what they know of Sikhi with life as it is lived today whereas the listener knows not how to do that and is perhaps baffled by what he reads? Such teaching and communication is an art that some are better at than others.
We need to train granthis to understand their listeners (students – sangat) and communicate the message in that context, something that far too many unfortunately fail to do.
But there is an important, indeed hopeful, silver lining here: The fact that people throng to deras tells us that they are hungry both for the message of Sikhi as well as for companionship and community. The teaching suffers because the methodology, presentation, needs of students and related matters are perhaps being ignored in gurduaras, but not by the deras and babas. Have our gurduaras become too impersonal and disconnected from people and their lives? This is what my cogitation seems to overwhelmingly suggest.
Of course, in the process, deras often provide a corrupted version of the lesson to make it more palatable and easily swallowed. This we must not recommend nor do.
But first we need an exhaustive survey as I suggest here and then we need cooler heads to explore its meaning and devise policy steps that are feasible.
Please! Mine is not a defense of deras and babas; it is merely a plea and a first step in understanding them. We need to understand the enemy before we declare war on it.
As they say: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]