Seeking Perfection?

Learning demands that we listen to those with whom we disagree, and search for common ground. That’s how progress takes shape, argues PROF I.J. SINGH. Keep in mind that ideals are like stars to a sailor. They can lead us home but we can never hold them in our sweaty little palms, he suggests

| Opinion | 18 Sept 2016 | Asia Samachar |


By I.J. Singh

We humans like to rate and classify everything endlessly – even our sins and virtues. I don’t know much about religions of others or even my own. But the Roman Catholic Church, for example, seems to sort human failings and sins to the nth degree. Fortunately, Sikhi spares us such extreme accounting, although it often reminds us of our far from perfect nature and ways.

On my mind today is not our lapses; they are too numerous to track, but their inseparable connection to human virtues, whatever their number or divine origin, if any.

In our icons – whether, they be celebrities like Tiger Woods, Madonna or politicians like Joseph Stalin, Richard Nixon or Indira Gandhi, even the Gandhi who went by the euphemistic title of Mahatma, or visionaries like Martin Luther King — what we admire most is their sense of ideals and idealism that comes to us almost as perfection. And then, more often than not, we are left flabbergasted, disappointed and biting our nails. Larger than life figures such as Jefferson, FDR, Jack Kennedy, many that I listed above and countless others — much admired, almost deified by many or equally reviled by others – when we turn to their shortcomings, it turns out that all of them had feet of clay.

Matters don’t seem that much different in the realm of religion. One doesn’t have to go as far back as the Borgias and Medicis to find Popes or preachers who were far from pious. In each and every religion, one can find a conga line of pastors, priests and dubious god-men in the moral cesspool of humanity. For an au courant take on one, explore the sexual scandals within the Roman Catholic clergy that have been making news across the world for the past couple of decades; they have the Christian world in turmoil and show little sign of ebbing.

Rather than condemning a particular religion or its system, they showcase the universality of human failing in every faith system, including Sikhi. As humans, in rare moments of honesty we see some of our own imperfections.  And then we anoint our icons and idols with attributes that absolve them entirely free of such flaws. Yet, sooner or later, sure as death and taxes, the icons fall short of our hopes and expectations.

Recently, a few of us Sikhs were ruing the lamentable state of Sikh affairs particularly the static after Professor Darshan Singh was summoned to the Akal Takht for alleged infractions and summarily ostracized. He had been around the Sikh scene for umpteen years and was largely well respected for his parsing of gurbani. But the debate over his fall from grace with Sikh Religious Authority took a vicious turn well beyond his alleged missteps. Partisans from both sides became relentlessly ruthless in excoriating him even in unrelated matters.

And then discussions went beyond Darshan Singh to others who had been historic icons in Sikhism not so long ago and then fallen from grace.

We usually spare the Gurus but not the Sikhs; of course, this distinction is critical.

Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha) was reviled a century ago for working too closely with the British and the petty rulers in Punjab; such were the arguments mustered to diminish his seminal work on Sikhism, which stands in a class by itself. Bhai Randhir Singh was damned for being egotistical. Professor Gurmukh Singh was excommunicated a century ago to be later forgiven and reinstated posthumously, while Professor Piar Singh was chastised less than thirty years ago. Bhai Vir Singh was deservedly admired, but drew opprobrium for his passionate acceptance of the Dasam Granth, as also his rejection of an equal place for women as punj pyaray.

It can be (Baba) Nand Singh, who was promoted as all perfection by a formidable lobby (Nanaksar), or (Sant) Sujan Singh, a much renowned Keertaniya dedicated to Sikhi — of enviable musical talent and a melodious voice but, by some accounts, an even keener nose for money.

Some have branded Yogi Harbhajan Singh as a charlatan, somewhat akin to the legendary monk Rasputin of Russian history. But like every coin having two sides there is always “the other hand.” We need to recognize up front Yogi Bhajan’s influence for good in an uncertain world. His persona and teaching apparently redirected many lost souls towards the Sikh way of life and a purposeful existence.

We all understand the difficulty in influencing even one person to change his ways and here was one man who launched a life-altering movement that has outlasted his mortal coil here on earth. Perfect he was likely not, except to his acolytes, but some of his followers today are clearly better Sikhs than many, including himself perhaps. This is remarkable and deserves acknowledgement.

Any nitpicking of such iconic Sikhs is usually countered by a smirk: Do the critics view themselves as better Sikhs than them?

My diatribe here absolutely does not mean that I value any of them any less; I continue to learn from their work. But here and there I also strongly disagree with them. Then the questioning of such icons is framed as blasphemy and that becomes the false lesson here.

In the larger discourse in the many religions of mankind, the icons and their acolytes would sooner wish or guarantee a hell for their hapless critics than allow any analytic exchange. On the other hand, the detractors of these heroes remain blind to even an iota of good in them at all.

My thoughts are similar when I think of the legendary scholar Kapur Singh (he really was an original mind) or the historian cum popular writer Khushwant Singh.

What we miss in all this cultural myopia, is that perfect or not, an untold number of men and women now walk the path of Sikhi because of such people as I have listed above – iconic and/or deficient. Our all-embracing approval or total rejection of them becomes akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water.

All of them had feet of clay; that is the human condition. But we either erect impermeable walls around our icons and any chink is then seen as an attack which must be repelled even at the cost of life, limb and truth, or we destroy the icon to smithereens because he/she was found wanting. Anyone so branded is then an enemy that must be destroyed; so first they must be vilified and dehumanized. And the process never stops.

So far I have said nothing that we don’t know. What I am doing is to juxtapose these ideas with some fatally fearsome practices that drive us towards iconoclasty or iconolatry and hinder our musings about perfection.

Readers know that I write columns fairly often. Would every reader agree with me? I hope not and certainly expect not. Disagreements and conversations teach and extend us and that’s how further ideas develop. Learning demands that we listen to those with whom we disagree, and search for common ground. That’s how progress takes shape.

But what would you think when readers get so incensed at some words that they want the author expelled and banished from the journal and the specific journal issue withdrawn and destroyed. Should we quit working together? I would ask them to judge not the person but the work. Issues in discussions must remain open to ongoing civil exchange. That really is the only way to resolve them; act so that they will stay resolved.

Don’t you wish someone could convince Donald Trump of that one idea during this election cycle?

On the other hand, when such destructive processes take root – and they do occasionally – I do not know whether to be baffled or flattered that my critics find me so influential that I must be thrown out of the Sikh world as they sometimes propose.

But I can’t really blame people either. They are looking for perfection and it does not exist in our human world. It is a goal, an ideal and that’s how it will ever remain.

Keep in mind that ideals are like stars to a sailor. They can lead us home but we can never hold them in our sweaty little palms.

I look at Sikhi as a path in which the journey is the destination. Remember that any journey is laden with twists and turns – a non-linear trek. And this journey ends only when life ends.

To me one of the primeval cardinal human virtues lies in words from the daily Sikh prayer (ardaas): “jinha ne dekh kay anditth keta.” They remind us not to dwell on the shortcoming of others. I point to a similar strain in Christian practice when in the Lord’s Prayer they ask: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

A little charity is the idea here because we all need it. Guru Nanak reminds us repeatedly that we are imperfect and in need of forgiveness, compassion, and a reset; it makes the continuation of life and human social structure and institutions possible. That’s the essence of “hum changay buraa nahi koye,” ਹਮ ਨਹੀ ਚੰਗੇ ਬੁਰਾ ਨਹੀ ਕੋਇ ॥ (Guru Granth, p. 728).

This idea is even more powerfully and succinctly highlighted as: “We talk a good game; Our minds are black as sin, but to others we appear unblemished and pure,” (Guru Granth p 85: Galee(N) asee changiya(N) achaari buriya(N); Manuh kasudha kaleeya baahar chitviyah).

ਗਲੀ ਅਸੀ ਚੰਗੀਆ ਆਚਾਰੀ ਬੁਰੀਆਹ ॥

ਮਨਹੁ ਕੁਸੁਧਾ ਕਾਲੀਆ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਚਿਟਵੀਆਹ ॥

Is anyone perfect? Am I perfect? Decidedly not! Would I want to be? I don’t know, but probably not; it may be hard to live with the demanding reality. It might also be dull, and unchallenging; hard on friends, colleagues and family.  Is it even possible? What does it mean to be perfect anyway? Oscar Wilde reminds us that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

The path, therefore, is the critical reality and the journey is the destination.

But in our social constraints, somehow we have painted life’s roadmap for people as a binary choice: as godly virtuous or satanically evil, as black or white; we forget that a productive, well-lived human life has many hues; it has a lot more gray in it than black or white. It is not either pitch darkness or sunshine at noon.

Looking for perfection in people is a risky pastime. That’s why the adage that “perfect is the enemy of the good.”  I am reminded of an American witticism that I learned in my early years here: “No one is perfect except you and I and, about you, I am not so sure.”

The longer I live – with each passing day — the more I see that to err is human and some are perhaps more human than others. Remember that we all have feet of clay. Remember being human is the greatest virtue.

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


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