Principles & Practices: Big Tent Revisited

Religious communities and centers exist for imperfect people who are on the path with varying degrees of success, sincerity, faith or understanding. We need to nurture the path, not diminish the follower. This is what transforms sinners into saints. - PROF I.J. SINGH

| Opinion | 29 July 2016 | Asia Samachar |


By I.J. Singh

I confess that I am addicted to political debate.

In the exciting but trying reality of present day political passions and campaigns for the upcoming elections in the United States I caught a sane and balanced voice even though it was from the opposite side of the political spectrum than mine.

Talking about the Republican circus and its self-inflicted wounds, very quietly and tersely Paul Ryan made the case for rising above the fissiparous behavior of his political party during this primary season and focusing on the work necessary to unite Republicans for the general election and the task of governance.

(In the interest of full disclosure I tell you that I am absolutely dismissive of the Republican agenda both during the Bush years and their obstructive stance during the Obama years aimed at delegitimizing his presidency. I am not always a fan of Paul Ryan either.)

Ryan, the current Republican Speaker of the House was being interviewed on the tube. He recommended that the post-primary period should highlight the open big tent that exhibits and welcomes the many shades of opinions that exist among Republicans. When challenged that, given the acute fissures and divisions among the hard core Republicans, the dream of a unifying idea may be fiction and phantasy, he responded with what I thought was a surprisingly mature thought – that the core requirement for unity is principles not practice.

And then my mind did a quick spin to the reality of Sikh institutions: How they are structured, how they function and what we expect from them.

Let me try connecting the dots.

A couple of years ago I wrote an essay The Big Tent that looked at the expansive Sikh world as it exists today. I reasoned somewhat as follow:

The world sees Sikhi today as the new kids on the block, even though it has almost 25 million followers and is ranked as the fifth or sixth largest religion; definitely behind Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, but with its numerical ranking regarding Judaism open to debate in some quarters.

The exact hierarchy doesn’t matter for what I have in mind. I point out that, when we indulge in such rankings we count everyone and anyone who opts to be counted in; it becomes unnecessary, if not undesirable, to sit in judgment of how good a Sikh he/she is and by what criteria.

That’s the how and why of a very big inclusive tent.

Keep in mind that religious communities and centers exist for imperfect people who are on the path with varying degrees of success, sincerity, faith or understanding. We need to nurture the path, not diminish the follower. This is what transforms sinners into saints. Teach the principles and watch the practices flower; that’s the idea.

In that earlier essay, I argued that in that big tent we should continue to make, as we do, space for those who are at the core of a religion like the amritdhari who lives the faith in every aspect of his/her life. The tent should also make room for one who is clearly and visibly less than perfect or is barely marginally connected to the faith. And where different faiths intersect in the society, we will encounter some who are best dubbed fellow traveler or, heaven help us, who may run their life with a conveniently mixed bag of practices. This means that when the amritdhari is counted, so is the sehajdhari; regardless of how that category is defined or measured. Also welcome then is the fellow traveler, who remains seriously undecided of where he belongs.

But what are the markers along the way that we need to keep our eye on? Again my mind goes back to current political realities in the United States.

Now that the primaries are over it is time to revisit some questions. Which issues move people and turn them on? Extensive polls and surveys inform us. Clearly the appeal of all candidates — Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (who is no longer a candidate), as well as the 16 Republican opponents that Trump started with — flows from the same issues.

At center stage are concerns like the economy, economic inequality and economic opportunities; honesty and integrity of the electoral system, education and immigration; health care, racial and gender issues, defense, finally our place in this interconnected global world; more recently our dominant position seems to have slipped somewhat south.

How do our putative leaders define the issues facing us; how do they design and propose solutions that fit our society and its structure? That’s where and how the cookie crumbles.

An army of pollsters relentlessly poll the voting public. Ambitious leaders know their success depends on how acutely they connect with and listen to the people, articulate their frustrations and how well do they address their needs. The leaders exist less to command us and more, in fact, as servant-leaders. Polls and surveys inform the people and the leaders where matters stand.

Now think with me a moment. We probably have over a couple of hundred gurduaras in North America. I would venture that most are at least somewhat dysfunctional or underperforming. This means to me that gurduara managers and honchos either are clueless about our needs and wants or use the wrong tools to respond to our concerns.

SEE ALSO: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Root Causes

SEE ALSO: JAGIR: Without guidance, all gurdwaras would be on their own

You might wonder how I dare make such tall claims – or accusations. Just look at gurduara attendance and activities. Gurduaras do not seem to function as academies of education where learning is at the center. And surely that should be their mandate. Most gurduaras seem to run around two core functions: langar and as community social centers. I do not mean to minimize these two activities; they are essential. These two alone are necessary but not sufficient. There is more to a successful teaching and learning academy.

Let me offer some no-brainers.

There must be something missing in our design structure and expectations when we see how many gurduaras have spent fortunes in litigation or institutional violence that necessitated the local police and the law to intervene.

The menu at the langar attracts the most attention, and it is becoming increasingly more elaborate and mouth watering by the day.

How many gurduaras have a functioning library? The operative idea here is “functioning” and I haven’t seen one yet.

Adolescents of both genders have effectively abandoned the place and the services in it. They seem to have no connection to nor any understanding of what goes on inside a gurduaras.

There is almost no connection between life outside the gurduara in our neighborhoods or families with what is presented within the gurduara. It is as if life inside a gurduara and life outside of it are two entirely different entities that exist on different planets.

Yet the building and facilities are increasingly becoming more lavish, expensive, eye-catching, elaborate and expensive. What function do they really serve for life here on Earth except as much needed social centers, and then they may as well have entertainment and games like Bingo on the agenda as well? (In fact, a few gurduaras do.)

Pretty much all gurdwaras have well drafted “Constitutions” to manage the gurduara. And I have never seen one that honestly followed its own bye-laws.

In summary, our conniptions and shenanigans indicate that:

  1. Republications are not the only ones facing a crises of identity and solidarity vs. devolving into smithereens,
  2. I point to a critical distinction in that we Sikhs have abiding faith in the Gurus but not a similar faith in the gurduara or Sikhs, and
  3. When a hammer is the only tool in your toolbox, every problem looks like a nail.

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what the gurduara delivers and what the people need or want. I would recommend that we take a lesson or two from the local political Pundits and structure around us. These days every talking-head on the tube bases his recommendations on some polling data to recommend a direction to a advance socio-political agenda. Have we ever thought of professionally polling Sikhs to explore what problems of living they face, especially outside the Punjabi and Indian cultural ambit?

Have we ever looked for experts to design and conduct a poll or two, try some panel discussions, and then launch an exploratory program or two? Teaching ESL or even Punjabi, for instance, requires a different mindset than the skill to address issues of social isolation, domestic abuse or misuse of alcohol and drugs etc.

Of course, we never think of such matters in our gurduaras. Design a progressive curricular program and activity or is that too much to ask?

I like to think that religions are for imperfect people; so will their practices be. Keep this is mind while we embrace the principles. Never let go of them.

I assure you that in human history no institutions, whether they are nations or political parties, schools or hospitals, families or armies, effectively display or ever will perfect the practice of their principles. There are no exceptions to this rule etched in stone. And the journey is the destination.

Principles and practice are not always the same though both are critically important. Treasure the principles and help the practices play catch-up. It’s an idea that’s never been truer than in the world of religion.

IJsingh-newI.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email:


IDEAS: Revolution, Evolution or Slow Death (Asia Samachar, 16 July 2016)

The four wives of a king: A parable revisited (Asia Samachar, 29 June 2016)

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