The giants and dwarfs of time – I.J. Singh

| Opinion | 6 May 2017 | Asia Samachar |

By I.J. Singh

In Webinars and on internet chats about Sikhi, readers respectfully cite the seminal work of Principal Sahib Singh, the legendary translator and analyst of the lexicon and grammar of Guru Granth Sahib.  And then often all hell breaks out when some readers dismiss his work as obsolete and dated, inaccurate, biased, or too dependent on Sanskrit and Hindu sources for interpretations.

I will not defend every word of Sahib Singh, nor will I summarily trash his work. Instead I suggest a different perspective in exploring the past, present and future.

Many of us – mostly rooted in Indian culture — see competing ideas somewhat akin to a freewheeling wrestling match– a duel to the finish — where the loser is pinned on his back and the winner hailed the conqueror, if not the Messiah.  This is the modus operandi of the boxing ring or an arena — or akhara, in Punjabi. This is how many exchanges on the Internet appear to be.

Conversation or dialogue aims to shed light on a topic not destroy opposing spokespersons.  Sikh sites promoting diatribe bother me; I also celebrate them.  Dialogue is a skill somewhat in short supply in our community. All it needs to flower is honest practice along with a little introspection, laced with a touch of humility.

Let’s start with a truism – my axiom for the day.

If today, we can see more clearly and further it is because we are perched on the shoulders of predecessors who worked generation(s) ago.  Were they all giants?  Surely not, but should we automatically dismiss or diminish them?

Judge the past as we must, but do so by the context, culture, language, and realities of those times, not by the yardstick of today.  Remember that the future will judge us just as harshly (or kindly) as we judge the past from our vantage point today.

For example, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who had a lasting liaison with his slave, Sally Hemming. An unquestioned giant of this progressive society if weighed by the standards of his time; complex and weak if judged by today’s yardstick.

Remember that religions emerge in existing communities; then they create new communities, often with identifiable territories.

Every narrative, written or spoken, is rooted in the lexicon, mythology, and cultural framework of its time.  The old and the new then intermix and share much foundational framework – geographical and cultural space, idiom, lexicon, expression, even elements of lifestyle.  We should be shocked, even disappointed, if the practices and traditions of the past, even if they embarrass us today, are missing from our historical narrative.

Yet, we must ensure that the past does not force us into a quagmire when interpreted for living today.

For example, Christianity rejects some but not all that came from The Old Testament and its Jewish roots.  But when it expanded to a non-Jewish world, it embraced the language of its new environs — Latin and Greek along with corresponding interpretations. For example, the title “Christ” meaning messiah or savior comes from the Greek “Christos.”

The unique identity of Christianity was not clearly established for its first 300 years. For example, the day of the Christian Easter was finalized only in the 8th century. Many scholars extend Judeo-Christian commonality of practices and identity to the first 900 years or so.

Thus, during their early development, religions with overlapping borders exhibit mixed ideas and practices.  Such is the reality of most faiths of humanity.

If parables, and Hindu mythology are widely found in Sikh lexicon why should it shock us? If some vocabulary of Sikhi emerges from Hindu roots, why should it upset us? Remember that the origins of Sikhi are closely intertwined with Hindu cultural space and societal practices. Most early Sikhs came to Sikhi from Hindu antecedents, including the first three Gurus.

Also true that Sikhi rejects many Hindu practices totally or partially while accepting some only after major alteration in interpretation. True that such visible mix can lead to some inevitable misinterpretation of Sikhi’s message, even when the neighboring cultures are not willfully corrupting each other. Clearly, we should resist any attempts to diminish the originality of Sikh thought and perspective.

Even though many such examples exist I frame my argument today around one powerful case study.  The opening phrase of the Guru Granth, Ik Oankaar, was coined by Guru Nanak.  I have argued that this powerful alphanumeric carries the entire message of Sikhi; all else is commentary, but we table that for another time.

The self-evident fact that “Oankaar” comes from Sanskrit and is widely used in Hindu practice, mightily riles many Sikhs.  Why? Because the Sanskrit and Hindu antecedents of Oankar apparently seem to challenge the originality of Sikh ideology.  So, some readers push for a novel variation in pronouncing it that is not based on the grammar of any Indic language of the time or place – Punjabi, Hindi, Braj, Pali or Sanskrit, among others.

Yet, we know that in Guru Granth (p. 929 and elsewhere), the word Oankaar is phonetically written to be read exactly as in any Hindu/Sanskrit text.

To many an unwary reader the message appears to promote Hindu pantheon or practices.  Methinks to get alarmed on such matters or beat the drum of internecine war is tempting but it is neither logical nor productive.

We should explore and embrace the originality of meaning and application of the words as used by the Guru-Founders of Sikhi, which is often dramatically different from Hindu practice. Intellectual gymnastics and head games to coin an entirely new fantastical idea or vocabulary are unnecessary.

I don’t mean for my words to seem harsh.  And I happily acknowledge Canada-based Devinder Singh Chahal and his cohorts on the matter of Ik Oankaar even though I passionately disagree in part with their very passionate position.   From civil discourse over time will arise clarity!  

Clearly, we must confront the past to define the future. But we can’t reject the past in toto, unless unimpeachable evidence tells us so.

The past determined what we are and how we got here; the present promises a future based on where we are today; both the journey and the end will remain imperfect, even incomplete. The baton, in our hands now, will soon enough pass on to a new generation.

The stories and traditions of the past enable us to touch history as nothing else can.  History lives through traditions. Also, all historical narrative is chockfull of “cunning passages and contrived corridors,” as T.S. Eliot reminds us.

My plea is not to slap down the scholars of the past, not condemn them for sloppy scholarship, or questionable motives but to celebrate their efforts.  Though imperfect, their work opened avenues for us.  But sometimes in our maniacal frenzy we lose all direction or a sense of who we are; other times we dance triumphantly through yesterday into today with a clear shot at tomorrow.

Mine is not a defense of Sahib Singh or other past scholars of Sikhism, nor is it to castigate and excoriate them.  Sahib Singh, Vir Singh and their ilk are iconic, but not always.  They, and many more like them, were the giants of yesterday.

The future will see us as imperfect, as it should. If tomorrow’s readers don’t catch our flaws, then they are not doing their homework very well.

Just think:  How many time-honored “truths” of life turned out to be false? We no longer honor the idea of a flat earth, and that was the ruling doctrine for untold eons.  An erroneous count of human chromosomes as well as their function, was believed until the mid-twentieth century, but no longer. Such is the narrative in all human endeavors, be it science, sociology, religion, even politics.

Life teaches us that even the biggest giants have feet of clay.  Think of Gregor Mendel, the monk whose pioneering work on smooth and wrinkled peas opened doors to the fundamentals of genetics.  Now we learn that his conclusions were sound but his calculations flawed and suspect.

Wouldn’t you encounter a similar process in many of our newly discovered truths of today?

Disagreements are useful.  Often, they clarify questions.  Shutting down discourse is a bad habit we seem to have picked up from our historical path.  When gurdwaras function as closed shops, and actively suppress open dialogue, they shut off progress.

Our solution to disagreements should not be vilification and blacklisting of those we disagree with. A monolithic, monochromatic narrative is unproductive and unnecessary.

There is one lasting lesson: some humility, a little less hubris, a little more kindness for the past that brought us to the present.  Some honest pursuit of human history would serve us well. Time diminishes all, even our icons.

The giants of yesteryear!  On their shoulders, we stand today, even if they had feet of clay. Our minds explore the past and connect to the future.  That’s how we see far to the end of the rainbow.  But sometimes “icons” appear as dwarfs who cloud our vision and obscure our goals.

If we sunder the links to the past, the present and future in the chain of time will leave us dizzy and dislocated.  More important than the correctness of our conclusions is how we reach them; hold them tentatively.  The process is critical while the journey remains the destination. 

Nothing emerges de novo or in a vacuum.

C’est la vie

I.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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