| Karminder Singh Dhillon | Opinion | 21 Jan 2015 | Asia Samachar |
By Karminder Singh Dhillon
Responding to my piece titled Kee Lohraa Aa Gya, Urmela Singh has raised a couple of issues with his thought provoking comment in the readers’ section as follows:
I have always believed that religion and culture are very closely intertwined …therefore if we start stripping culture away from religion, then what will we be left with? If Lohri is a un-gurmat activity, then should celebrating New Year (which almost every Gurdwara in Malaysia does) and birthdays also be deemed un-gurmat activities?
There are two primary issues here. The first relates to the nexus between spirituality and culture. And second is whether ushering in the New Year and celebrating birthdays in a Gurdwara is un-Gurmat.
I think that the second issue is answered fairly clearly in the Sikh Rehat Maryada (SRM). We will have to read Article 4(s) and 4(h) together for this purpose.
Article 4(s) deals with what can and cannot be done in the presence of the SGGS. It reads, in part “… burning incense, lighting lamps, doing Artee, making offerings, lighting jots, ringing bells etc. are not in accordance with Gurmat.”
Article 4(h) in turn specifically deals with celebrations in a Gurdwara. It reads “….in a Gurdwara idol worship, rituals, customs, and acts that are contrary to Gurmat should not be undertaken, nor should the celebrations of other faiths be celebrated. However, it is not improper to use an occasion for the purposes of the propagation of Gurmat.”
In Malaysia Christmas, Chinese New Year, Eid, Divali, Thaipusam, Vesak Day etc. are religious occasions of the various non-Sikh faiths. And they are all also occasions which are public holidays.
Applying Articles 4(s) and 4(h) above, it would be un-Gurmat to celebrate any of these non-Sikh occasions in our Gurdwaras, but perfectly fine if Sikhs made use of the public holidays associated with these occasions to gather in a Gurdwara and did Akhand Paaths, Kirten, Katha, Amrit Sanchaar, Samelans or any other Gurmat activities.
Doing so would be in accordance with the spirit of Article 4 (h) namely that these occasions were being used for the propagation of Gurmat.
In other words, these non-Sikh occasions would be the pretexts for functions in our Gurdwaras where the objective would be purely Gurmat oriented.
BUT LOHREE IS NOT A PUBLIC HOLIDAY IN MALAYSIA.
Asking Sikhs to go to a Gurdwara on Tuesday night does not amount to using the occasion of Lohree as a pretext to propagate Gurmat. It is quite the other way around actually. The Gurdwara is being used as a pretext for celebrating Lohree.
In fact asking a Sikh to go to Gurdwara on Tuesday night because Lohree falls on Tuesday night is to suggest that Lohree is a Sikh celebration – which clearly is not the case.
Another point needs to be noted regarding the spirit of Article 4(h).
Say if Sikhs gathered in a Gurdwara on any non-Sikh occasion related public holidays and in the process performed the rituals or partook in the symbols of those occasions, then obviously it would be un-Gurmat.
LOHRI IS A NON-SIKH FESTIVAL
Lohree, is a Hindu festival dedicated to the sun god and god of fire. That is why Lohree is celebrated on solstice – the day when the sun stays overhead for the longest time – and a bon fire is the centre piece of the celebration.
So in the unlikely event that the Government of Malaysia declares Lohree a public holiday and if Sikhs are going to gather in a Gurdwara on Lohree day and insist on having bonfire, it would be un-Gurmat and in contravention of the spirit of Article 4(h) of the SRM.
As for ushering in the New Year in a Gurdwara, we can apply the spirit of Article 4(h). Most Gurdwaras have kirtan and katha till midnight. Others have Raehsabai kirtan concluding with Asa di Vaar the following day. Some only have diwans on January 1. These are all Gurmat activities and do not involve the rituals or symbols of any other faiths.
I would tend to think that celebrating birthdays in a Gurdwara would fall in the same category as NY celebrations provided no activity contrary to Gurmat is conducted.
RELIGION AND CULTURE
Now for Urmela Singh’s first point, he is correct in asserting that religion and culture are related.
Our Gurus understood this. In the pages of the Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) one would find, for instance Banees titled Ghorian, Sohela, Karheley, Alahniah etc.
Readers would be able to identify these titles with Sikh cultural practices relating to the songs rendered during weddings – a cultural event.
Yet, one needs to appreciate that culture can have negative elements as well.
After all, female infanticide has been part of the culture of male supremacy amongst our ancestors in Punjab. It is still being practiced which is why Punjab has one of the most distorted male-female ratios amongst all the Indian states.
Given that there are more liquor thekas than dhabas in every village in Punjab, then based purely on the prevalence of this activity, one could argue that liquor is part of Punjabi culture too.
The question that arises is therefore this: If and when Gurmat practices are in conflict with our culture, which should take precedence?
As stated above, Punjabi culture is saturated in male supremacy. But Sikh spirituality is centred on equality. We are familiar with Guru Nanak’s seminal statement: Why condemn her, when it is she who gives birth to even the greatest of kings?
Urmela Singh’s question is: if we start stripping culture away from religion, then what will we be left with?
But what would happen if we did not strip negative culture (for example, the fallacy of male supremacy) from spirituality (equality)? The following is the outcome:
Women cannot perform kirtan in the Darbar Sahib. Women cannot be part of the Panj Pyare. Women cannot enter the inner sanctums of takhts. By and large, women cannot be granthis. Women cannot be Akhand Pathees. A very large portion of Sikhs would not want a woman to sing their lavan – either as kirtan or from the tabia even. And the list goes on.
What would happen if we did not strip the culture of liquor from spirituality?
In 2004, a granthi in an American Gurdwara was sent for a three month Alcoholics Anonymous program on Gurdwara expense after members of the Sangat discovered him intoxicated. When I asked the Gurdwara Pardhan how he justified such action, his response was “we all drink.”
He did not use the word “culture” but that was precisely what he meant: “it is our culture, why separate it from our spirituality?
IN ANY CASE LOHREE IS NOT A CULTURAL EVENT
It is rooted steeply in Hindu spirituality. This becomes clear if one examines it origin, purpose, symbols, timing as well as the practice of making offerings into the bon fire.
Just because some people have cut down on the religious elements, replaced the religious mantras with songs and dances, or modified it in other ways does not mean it is no more religious and has become cultural. Some or all of these could be happening due to lack of proficiency in these religious elements amongst the general or younger populace.
Christmas would not become a cultural occasion just because more people thought it was meant to celebrate the birthday of Santa Claus.
Some Malaysian Sikhs have tried to re-invent Lohree as a harvest festival. The cultural festival of harvest for Punjab is Vesakh. Vesakh is Apirl. Lohree is in January.
The Malaysian harvest festival falls on May 31 in Sabah and June 1 in Sarawak for 2015. Both are purely cultural events. Any Sikh Lohree or harvest enthusiast wants to do a bon fire on any of these days? These are Malaysian cultural events aren’t they? We are Malaysian aren’t we?
Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston) writes on Gurbani and Gurmat issues in The Sikh Bulletin, USA. He also conducts Gurbani Katha in local Gurdwaras. He is currently running an Understanding Sohela Class at Gurdwara Sahib Petaling Jaya on Sundays 7 – 9 pm. He is based in Kuala Lumpur. — [ASIA SAMACHAR, 21 JAN 2015]
EARLIER ARTICLE: Read Karminder’s earlier article, KEE LOHRAA AAH GYA, here.