| Nirmal Singh | Opinion | 5 Jan Dec 2016 | Asia Samachar |
I must admit I am rather sad writing this. We are presently at Delhi. A couple of days back, 25th May 2012, was the shahidi divas of Guru Arjan Dev, per Akal Takht. In our long years in the US, the actual date of a gurpurb did not really matter because we actually celebrated them on a weekend close to the actual date; not really worrying about the calendar – C.E., Khalsa, Nanakshahi, Bikrami or any other. We went to the nearest Gurdwara most of the time and it generally involved a long ride except for a few years towards the end of our stay in CT when we were fortunate to set up a Gurdwara at Southington, a mere twenty kilometers from where we lived.
Not so in Delhi – we wake up to the morning Asa di Var kirtan choki from Darbar Sahib or the streaming nitnem recital from Bangla Sahib. The transmission from Darbar Sahib on the 25th was in commemoration of the shahidi of the fifth Master. Bangla Sahib was on its usual week day routine. The DSGMC Gurdwaras are celebrating the Gurpurb on 16th June. During the day doing my little errands, I passed by a few community Gurdwaras. All quiet except at the Defence Colony Gurdwara where I saw a chhabeel with some Sikhs serving kachi lassi. I remembered that they are celebrating the Gurpurb on Sunday, the 27th May instead of the 25th at Darbar Sahib. A friend who had gone to Bangla Sahib, witnessed the unsavory scene of the sewadars trying to prohibit a devotee from setting up a chhabeel, saying it could only be done on the 16th June.
As I took in these happenings about a day that I had learnt to revere from childhood, I also remembered the kathakar at Amritsar explain in the morning as to why there is no mention at all about the shahidi of Guru Arjan in Sikh annals of the time whereas the event of shahidi of Guru Tegh Bahadur had been documented by Guru Gobind Singh in Bachitar Natak – it was for the reason that this shahidi was for Sikhs! So this is the sacred day that commemorates the beginning of the saga of shahidis and sacrifices so willingly accepted by Gurus and Sikhs for survival of Sikhi.
The shahidi that is being made to fall on two dates 25th and 16th three weeks apart, not because it happened twice but because our leadership in their pursuit of political points, has decided that a continuing public display of the relative strength of two differing groups is in order, no matter if it in some manners may reflect poorly on us and our professed love and respect for the Guru. They have made his date of martyrdom the most visible and divisive bone of contention between the feuding and egotistic religious leaders and our new breed of self appointed reformer scholars. It even has been creating a diplomatic situation because Pakistanis have been refusing visa to the jatha sponsored by the SGPC on the plea that the PSGPC does not plan to celebrate the shahidi divas per the date picked by Akal Takht.
The Calendar Bankground
So what is going on? The problem backs into the Sikh quest for having their own calendar in the same manner as most faith groups have theirs. A calendar is a method to categorize time into periods such as days, weeks, months, years, etc. A Solar year is determined by earth`s revolution around the sun and a Lunar month is the time taken by moon to revolve around the earth. Year, lunar month and day are natural divisions of time.
Most of the known religious groups have their calendars – devised to commemorate a historic moment in their beginning, develop the tradition of periodic religious celebrations and also as a mark of their identity, however nebulous its real impact may be for the highly mobile and dispersed religious communities in contemporary societies.
The Jewish calendar is moon-based with a year of 354 to 385 days duration. The calendar is based on Jewish belief that the universe was created in 3761 BCE.
The Mayan calendar traces its inception to 3114 BCE when they believe Venus was born. It uses a complex five number format. Their anticipated end of the world is Dec 21, 2012 or 184.108.40.206.0 in their notation.
The base year of Zoroastrian calendar is 631 CE. It had 12 months of 30 days. Over time five gatha days were added to the final month and an additional month of 30 days was added once every 120 years to make up the difference between a calendar year and solar year. Except in India, Zoroastrians now follow a new calendar with New Year fixed on Mar 21.
Early Christians adopted Julian calendar designed by Pagan priests under instructions from Julius Caesar circa 50 BCE adjusted so that birthday of Jesus Christ in the year 1 BCE fell on Dec 25. Since Julian calendar was long by about one day every 128 years, Pope Gregory XIII modified it keeping only century years divisible by 400 [e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400] as leap years. This is known as the Gregorian calendar.
Islamic system uses a lunar calendar that repeats itself every 30 years. Months begin with the visible sighting of the new moon. It’s base year is 622 CE when Prophet Muhammad had to flee from Mecca to Medina.
The Bahá’í calendar is a solar calendar, at present synchronized to the Gregorian calendar, with regular years of 365 days, and leap years of 366 days, with 21 March 1844 CE being the first day of the first year.
Vikrama [Bikrami] calendar is followed in Western and Northern India and Shalivahana or Saka calendar in South India, Maharashtra and Goa. The zero year in Vikrama calendar corresponds to 58 BCE and in the Saka calendar to 78 CE. Bikrami calendar follows solar tropical year of twelve lunar months. An extra month therefore is added every 2/3 years to bring the year in line.
The Sikh situation
Most Sikh festivals such as birth, installation and death of the Gurus were indicated by lunar dates termed tithi or thit. Sikhs also observe the first day of each month as sangrand festival. Baisakhi and Maghi are celebrated on sangrand day of these months. A Sikh calendar based on the start of the Khalsa Era in 1699 with year beginning on Baisakhi and following the Bikrami system started some time back. This has been replaced by Nanakshahi calendar that starts from the birth of Guru Nanak. It is a solar calendar with the year length the same as Gregorian calendar and developed by an Edmonton, Canada resident computer engineer, Pal Singh Purewal who has also diligently worked for implementation of his labor of love.
The problem that we are talking about is linked to the Nanakshahi calendar. SGPC initially implemented it in December 1999, despite an Akal Takht directive to wait till a general consensus within the Sikh community emerged on the issue. Later SGPC back-tracked but it finally implemented the calendar with the consent of leading Sikh organizations in March 2003. In the implemented calendar Parkash Guru Nanak, Diwali and Hola Mohalla were to continue to be observed as per the Bikrami calendar and all other events as per the proposed Nanakshahi Calendar.
Resistance to the new calendar by some groups however continued. Consequently executive committee of SGPC agreed to change the birth and death anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev, Gurta Gaddi Diwas of Guru Granth Sahib and sangrands also to be observed as per Bikrami calendar.
The above changes were announced by Giani Gurbachan Singh, jathedar of Akal Takht in January 2010. He claimed that the amendments had been made on the recommendations of a two-member team comprising SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar and Harnam Singh Khalsa, chief of Gurmat Sidhant Parcharak, Sant Samaj on the suggestion of an 11-member committee.
The fallout & its implications
There was widespread disagreement by the proponents with the way the matter was handled and it came to a head preceding the celebration of Shahidi Divas of Guru Arjan in 2011 when SGPC and Akal Takht announced Jun 5th as the date and DSGMC stuck to Jun 16th per 2003 Nanakshahi calendar. PSGPC & AGPC decided to go along with the 16th.
In one of the Gurdwaras in Edmonton, CA the day was celebrated on Jun 5, 2011. Tejinder Singh Lamba, then visiting Edmonton wrote on an internet forum that he talked to Pal Singh Purewal who explained that this Gurdwara had to follow Akal Takht directives per their constitution but the other Gurdwara was going by the 2003 calendar. Significant to note that barring the constitutional constraint the stated implication of Purewal was that the Gurdwaras in the Diaspora were not accepting the Akal Takht decision.
As said earlier, most of the western Diaspora Gurdwaras actually celebrate the festivals on a weekend close to the date though many Gurdwaras may have special service on Diwali and New Year eves. What is it that they want? My sense is that even though Diaspora Sikhs seem to clamor for fixed dates, they actually would like one of the festivals to fall on a day close to Christmas so that the kids do not feel left out of the pervasive festive spirit that they see all around.
We are quite used to the edicts of Akal Takht being flouted by segments of the sangat. The problem is less with the dissent than with the choice of calendar as a test case and the mode of dissent. To me two things seem important. One that choice of any method of protest that places the memory and respect for the Gurus at stake is not right. That Pakistan would deny visa to the pilgrims in the circumstances was expected but that it was allowed to happen only shows how bad we let the situation get. Where and why do we keep going wrong? Most of the stories unfortunately have a repetitive ring of our politics at play.
Those picking the 5th of June talked of Akal Takht advice whereas those picking the 16th were emphatic about allegiance to Akal Takht but maintained that the Jathedar is not Akal Takht! They claimed that the Jathedar had caved in to political pressure. Possibly yes but then the pity is that Gurus had created not a speaking Takht but an institution that had to be managed by men with all their attendant potential for committing mistakes!
If this episode has any lesson, it is the recognition that while sant samaj could be mired in tradition and prone to promote vedantic slants and Akal Takht Jathedar could be amenable to the pressures of politicians; our new breed of cross cultural intellectuals who are plentifully present on all sides of the divide may also be not above promoting their own pet themes in the name of cleansing understanding of Sikh thought and praxis. Examples are plentiful and in the main they suggest a mixture of ideological struggle between orthodoxy, identity and scientific and rationality related world views trying to assert their influence over Sikh thought and praxis.
I may mention that some sects celebrate important festivals on different dates due to differing historical perspectives. In such cases developing consensus has been a drawn out process. As example the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC succeeded in developing a consensus on the date of Easter only in 1997.
In our case we are creating differences in the process of resolving them. I do not think that SGPC or DSGMC and least of all PSGPC or AGPC are symbolic of our new sects. Let us not lose our sense of proportion. If we look at it dispassionately, the calendar is only a sanitation issue, by no means a core issue and should not be used to create permanent schism.
Let us think it through carefully. Are our positions right? Are we helping to steer and position Sikhi so that it can grow, prosper, inspire our youth and help us relate to the world around us in a manner that reflects our respect for the heritage the Gurus bequeathed us? Or is our own sense of inerrancy so strong that we do not care if it seems to put the revered memory of our Gurus in the middle of our squabbles?
Do we want this to continue?
This is an abridged version of the original article, entitled Do We Really Want This to Continue?, published in The Sikh Review (July 2015). Nirmal Singh is a former Business Executive and Professor, Chair Operations Management & Dean Administrative Staff College of India. He is a past president of Connecticut Sikh Association. He is an active contributor at the Gurmat Learning Zone, an internet-based Sikh discussion group. His articles are found here.
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