| I.J. Singh | Opinion | 3 Dec 2015 | Asia Samachar |
By I.J. Singh
If asked to provide a Cliff Notes version of the Sikh way of life — the pitch to be no longer than a short ‘elevator ride’, I think most Sikhs would opt for the popular triad: Naam japna, Kirt karni, Vand chhakna.
To wit, an honestly lived life with its bounties cheerfully shared with the needy, and for both of these practices to be driven by an awareness of the Creator in us all.
Note that while naam japna, refers to spiritual discipline, the other two attributes are strictly social constructs that serve to cement a community. This triad of Sikhi then interlinks the spiritual and societal imperatives. These two realities — worldly and the spiritual — must never be sundered. This integrated concept, captured by the meeri-peeri doctrine, remains a fundamental of the Sikh way of life.
I would be hard put to pin down exactly under what circumstances or when these pithy words became the defining markers of Sikhi, but we trace these fundamentals to the teachings of Guru Nanak, at the beginning of Sikhi over 500 years ago.
Even though each of its three legs is equally critical and indispensible to a stable stool, today, I aim to zero in on only one leg — giving and sharing.
In a rough and ready translation, Chhakna is to consume, and the qualifier Vand asks that we do so by sharing life’s rewards with others. Why such a stipulation? That’s the question.
It is self-evident that individual humans are neither strong enough nor fast enough to outrun or overcome the existential dangers that surround us. Survival and progress depend on formation of human collectives and communities of shared bonds.
Modern sociological scholarship tells us that religions are the glue that binds a people into communities with their distinct practices, traditions, cultures, cuisine, music, indeed their identity and ethos. Traditions become sacred because they define community life and provide the underpinnings of survival mechanisms for a people. Distinct practices and traditions also define boundaries between neighboring communities, much like fences between good neighbors. Ideally they never become hermetically sealed impenetrable barriers. This is why and how families, tribes, communities and nations take root and grow.
How to strengthen the bonds of a people within a community?
THE IDEA IS UNIVERSAL
The idea of sharing and caring within families and communities is not new or unique with Sikhi; it is universal and transcends local, regional and social barriers.
Marcus Aurelius, the second century Christian icon reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive.” But this idea, too, antedates his time. It is rightly said that though one can give without loving, one cannot love without giving.
Life teaches us that we owe our successes more to the kindness of friends and strangers than to any efforts or talents of our own. The only way then to even partially repay the debt is to return the kindness to another — a stranger in need. Thus the cycle of gifts – given and taken – continues unabated, much as life does.
Sharing and giving are existential imperatives for mankind, no matter how prosperous or how economically deprived a people and their community. But how do you go about designing a system so that both the “haves” and the “have nots” can see that they are in the same leaky boat. And the boat sails well and safely only when both tend to its needs.
Secular governments use a system of taxation to provide for a people’s shared needs of security, law, education, healthcare, institutions and infrastructure, etc. Religions have a similar system — “tithing” — that is a principle of faith rather than of finance.
Abraham and Jacob are said to have pledged to God one-tenth of their profits (Hebrews 7:1–10; Genesis 14:19–20; 28:20–22). The teaching further asks that we give, not grudgingly; God loves a cheerful giver (Corinthians 9:7).
From tithing religions underwrite a variety of causes ranging from building churches to feeding the homeless, schools and hospitals, missionary work, and printing and distributions of books etc. In Christianity both material and spiritual blessings are promised as rewards.
Most, if not all, religions have some such system in place to meet needs for the common good even though I have briefly touched only the Christian model here.
A prominent feature of Sikhi is the concept of seva, or service; it is a cardinal virtue of a Sikh life. This community service is not to be limited exclusively to Sikhs. It can be rendered in monetary donations or goods and services.
A notable aspect of seva is that it NOT be undertaken in the hope of reward or recognition on earth or in heaven. But human nature, being what it is, one can always hope for earthly rewards or finding fault with the intent of others (envy?) behind any seva. I leave this untouched except to say that the best seva remains one that is done to meet a need, not of the service provider but of the needy where the seva is directed.
The financial underpinning of any and all seva comes from the precept of dasvandh which exhorts every Sikh to earmark ten percent of his earnings for community service. Interestingly, over the past three decades prominent economists and U.S. presidential candidates have argued for a ten percent flat tax to replace our hopelessly convoluted tax structure.
I offer you only four Gurbani citations from the myriad that are available. The Guru Granth urges us to lose the self in service of a cause bigger than the self — aap gavaye seva karay ta kitch paye maan (p. 474). Guru Granth further asks us to follow the honest path of work and seva in this world; therein is the Creator’s approval (Vitch duniya sev kamaaye ta dargeh baesan paaye, p. 26). It goes on to emphasize that in self-less service God is found (Seva karat ho-ey nihkamee. Tis kau hoat praapat suamee, p. 286). And finally, only he knows the true way who earns his daily bread honestly and contributes some to the needy (Ghaal khaaey kitvh hathon dey, Nanak raah pehchhanay saye, Guru Granth p. 1245).
The Sikh Langar is usually labeled an act of seva. It is the free meal that follows every Sikh service in well nigh every gurduara in the world. It is simple and vegetarian so that anyone of any religious or ethical persuasion can easily accept.
The traditional Indian (Hindu) society has been, for ages, divided along hereditary, vertically stratified lines of caste in which the high and low castes would not sit together, never break bread together; not even accept food prepared or served by someone of low caste, and never be caught in a religious service together. These impenetrable barriers had to be demolished and the Gurus chose Langar as the method.
This free meal is prepared and served by volunteers in the gurduara. The larger gurduaras in Punjab may serve as many as 100,000 meals a day. The poor and the rich sit together, as do the high and the low caste. The homeless sit with the robber barons of society and the starving hordes with the overfed. The meal is simple fare to assuage hunger of the needy.
However times are a changing. In the gurduaras of the American diaspora, the menu is becoming increasingly complex and rich; the simplicity is disappearing, the hungry and homeless are nowhere to be found; the repast befits a bash that some cynics refer to as the dollar-buffet. Sometimes the langar is catered.
Yet many avenues for sharing and caring remain. New immigrants arriving at American shores often need mastery of a new language and cultural skills, as well as familiarity with Constitutional history of the United States or Canada.
Perhaps lesser seva is needed within the gurduara and more outside of it in our interactions with the wider community where we make our home. Ultimately our goal is not to assimilate beyond recognition but more to integrate into defining an equal place at the table of this society.
Towards this end our progress is visible but limited and much more is needed.
For instance, the agenda of the Sikh Research Institute is internal development of the Sikh community. Sikh Coalition and Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund (SALDEF) are profitably engrossed with the societal and legal institutions to create an equal place for Sikhs. Institutions like United Sikhs and Khalsa Aid, though small, have been at the forefront of relief efforts in the face of Katrina, tsunami, and earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, and now even Kurdish refugees in Iraq.
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They remind me of our history when during the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Bhai Ghanyya was commended by the Guru for serving wounded soldiers in battle regardless of whether they were Sikh or enemy soldiers. Sporadic efforts at feeding the homeless irrespective of their religion exist and are proliferating. Periodic health fairs also serve people of all religions and backgrounds, but they are few and far between. In educations and health fairs our efforts are minimal at best.
It is also seva when lawyers work at subsistence wages to advance our civil rights. Also there are the unpaid volunteers who run Sunday schools and Symposia to teach the fundamentals of Sikhi in and out of gurduaras across the world. I salute these volunteers and wish there were many more. But these are developmental stages through which we must pass.
In Sikhi sharing shows distinct features that transcend the needs of survival. It becomes an act of Love recognizing the common Creator of both friends and foes. This principle is also reflected in our communal Ardass.
I have heard it said that there are three kinds of givers: the flint, the sponge and the honeycomb. Keep in mind that one has to energetically hammer the flint to get chips and sparks for the effort. The sponge has to be squeezed – the more you squeeze the more it delivers. The honeycomb, however, just overflows with its own sweet kindness.
The question is what kind of givers and sharers are we?
In closing I offer you a few factoids. According to the Arton Capital Major Giving Index, which tracks charitable giving, the typical ultra-high net worth philanthropist donates $25 million over the course of a lifetime — more than 10 percent of net worth. Typically, American households donate $3,000 annually to charity, the report said.
None of us can row the boat alone – certainly not very far and not for long. Vand Chako — Come and let’s share the bounties of life.
Erich Fromm reminds us that “Giving is the highest form of potency” and Bob Hope warns us that “If you haven’t got any charity in your heart. You have the worst kind of heart trouble.”
I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. This article was dated 7 Sept 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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