Redefining Vaisakhi

There is confusion about the Vaisakhi celebration, says JASPAL SINGH, Malay Mail bureau chief for Perak. "In this week's column I give my frank comment on this confusion and redraw the scope of the celebration so that Sikhs and non-Sikhs in Malaysia can have clearer picture of what the celebration is mostly about," he said in a note to Asia Samachar. We share his column which appeared in the Malaysian daily newspaper today.

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| The Malay Mail | Malaysia | 16 April 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Jaspal Singh's column in The Malay Mail (16 April 2016). Its an attempt to get the Vaisakhi narrative back on track.
Jaspal Singh’s column in The Malay Mail (16 April 2016). Its an attempt to get the Vaisakhi narrative back on track.

ON Thursday, April 14, Sikhs worldwide, including 150,000-odd members of the faith in Malaysia, celebrated Vaisakhi.

Vaisakhi is derived from the word Vaisakh which in modern-day Sikh calender, known as the Nanakshahi Jantri, is the second month. The first month is Cheyt which begins on Mar 14.

The Nanakshahi calender came into the mainstream practise in 1999; replacing the old 2073 year-old Bikrami calendar. The Sikh calendar was introduced by a Canadian Sikh by the name of Pal Singh Purewal.

If it is 2016 now under the Common Era, it is 547 years under the Nanakshahi calendar: the zero year starting from 1469 which is the birth year of Guru Nanak.

SEE ALSO: Vaisakhi: Points to Ponder

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It is well-established that April 14 is not a Sikh new year based on the Nanakshahi Jantri.

How it came to be known as a Sikh new year continuous to confound me. The reference to Vaisakhi as a Sikh new year, if memory serves me right, began less than two decades ago.

It seems to have started in the late 1990s as the celebration came to be known among more Malaysians. Perhaps due to the complexity involved in explaining the religious significance of the day, some Sikhs began to claim Vaisakhi as a new year while also saying that it is a harvest festival.

But, Vaisakhi is not a new year and this has been established by the Nanakshahi calendar. As for its celebration as a harvest festival, there is more hype to it than the occasion actually warrants.

In the traditional farming table, the farmers of Punjab have always celebrated two harvest festivals. One takes place in mid January when farmers harvest sugar cane, groundnuts and pulses. This is the winter harvest and is often called Lorhi.

The other is the spring harvest festival when farmers harvest their wheat. This is called the Vaisakhi.

In Punjab, Sikhs hardly celebrate Vaisakhi as a harvest festival although one could still see some references being made here and there to it being a harvest festival.

It is celebrated as a religious event – steeped not in merriment or festivity but with reflection and devotion.

Like Punjab, Sikhs in Malaysia, Canada, the US, the UK and in other countries are also celebrate the occasion as a religious event.

Although Sikhs in Malaysia do celebrate it as a religious event – confining their activities to the Gurdwara – the message that is often given to the non-Sikh masses in this country is that Vaisakhi is a new year and a harvest festival of the Sikhs and Punjabis.

To sidetrack slightly, many Malaysians are still confused with the terms Sikh and Punjabi. Basically, a Sikh is an adherent of the Sikh religion and a Punjabi is a person who is from Punjab.

In Malaysia there are about 170,000 Punjabis of which Sikhs make up nearly 90 percent of the community. The others consist of Muslim, Hindu and Christian Punjabis.

However, on the global scale the population of Punjabis is about 140 million people of which at least half, if not more, are Muslims. Muslim Punjabis celebrate Hijrah as the start of their new year, not Vaisakhi.

The second largest group of Punjabis consist of Hindus and in the third place with about 24 million population worldwide are the Sikhs.

Yet, it is the Sikhs, with their unique religious practices and distinct physical identity, who have become synonymous with the word Punjabi.

Back to Vaisakhi. The primary importance of the day as a religious day is often, and I am not saying always, swept under the carpet. Not many Sikhs explain the significance of Vaisakhi to non-Sikhs.

Oftentimes, I am inclined to think that the reason for such confusion over what Vaisakhi stands for emanates from the fact that a large of number Sikhs never took the effort to understand and embrace the values behind the religious event of Vaisakhi which roots date back to 1699.

In Malaysia not enough effort has been made to disseminate the true significance of Vaisakhi celebration. The significance of Vaisakhi in Sikh religious history is linked to the events that took place during the period of the Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru.

It is in 1699 at the city of Anandpur Sahib that Guru Gobind Singh overhauled the initiation rite of Sikhs in effort to institutionalise the fundamental values of the religion as cornerstone principles of one who calls himself a Sikh.

To actualise his vision of creating a cohesive and principled life for a Sikh, whether as an individual or as a collective group, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the concept and practice of Khalsa.

The word Khalsa stands both for purity in thought and action as well as mental and physical sovereignty of the Sikh. Vaisakhi is alternatively known as Khalsa Sirjanaa Diwas – the day the Khalsa was born.

The Vaisakhi of 1699 has been considered by many scholars as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Sikh belief system introduced by Guru Nanak.

Guru Gobind Singh laid not only the foundation of a sovereign nation of Sikhs but more importantly a spiritual and temporal design of individual and collective action and responsibility.

In doing so, the Guru, among others, abolished once and forever the lingering negative traits of supremacy based on caste and family lineage. He institutionalised the concepts and practices of fairness, equality, consensus-building and culminated a code of conduct and practices for the Sikhs.

On the Vaisakhi of 1699, he introduced the suffix Singh for men and Kaur for women that is practised till today.

A hundred years later, in 1799, Sikhs, who had lived under the tyrannical rule of foreign rulers, rose to become the builders of a Sikh empire that stretched to Afghanistan, the land of their former conquerors.

That is the past glory. Today, the story is different. Sikhs are no more a force to be reckoned with. They are like a spent force: divided on many levels because of contesting interests. But, that is not a topic of discussion for this column.

The point of discussion is to shed light on what Vaisakhi is and what it is not.

It is not a Sikh new year. As for it being a harvest festival, that too is an insignificant, if not outrightly irrelevant, claim.

It is also not a day to celebrate the birth of Sikh religion although the Nanakshahi calendar also marks April 14 as the birthday of Guru Nanak.

What it truly is as well as its importance lies with the events of the 1699 Vaisakhi.

In coming years, it is my fervent hope that Vaisakhi will be a day when Sikhs reflect on the vision that Guru Gobind Singh erected for them. And, that and only that should be the definition and scope of Vaisakhi.

 

[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]

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