Are we killing our own culture?

Cultural practices are there for practical reasons, and were wisely continued because it made sense at that time - JAGDESH SINGH on the clash of culture and Sikh values

Opinion | Malaysia | 7 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |

A dear friend and a family member shared an interesting observation on the Malay Muslims at weddings. Over the past decades, it would seem that the Malay culture in Malaysia has evolved rather drastically. His Malay Muslim friend believed that the Malay culture that he grew up with has been overlapped by the culture of his religion. Some refer to this as Islamisation or Arabisation but I think that’s too drastic a generalisation. Nevertheless, the cultural shift is apparent.

Which made my friend and I think that there’s probably the same phenomenon evolving between the colorful Punjabi culture and the rather strong undercurrent of Sikh fundamentalism that’s growing presently. Don’t get me wrong. Fundamentalism isn’t a bad word at all, mind you. Going back to basics can be refreshing.

Firstly, we can all recognise that culture evolves. For many reasons like geography (practices in cold countries won’t cut it here), modernisation (no need to sit on horse when the car is the preferred transport) or assimilation of other stronger cultures (having a Christmas tree or celebrating Halloween). Evolution happens over years and even decades. For us Punjabis here, even our more practiced cultures like wedding practices or death practices differ from the cultures our forefathers practiced when they first stepped on this land after that long arduous journey in sea from India. And our culture continues to evolve.

But what happens when the assimilation of another culture erodes our culture, as we recognise it? What if the Punjabis here don’t practice anything our forefathers brought proudly from India? Is it a bad thing? What if that assimilation is self inflicted? What if the other stronger culture was actually our own drive to wipe out our culture by making our religion the canvas for total absolute change? I don’t have the answers to these questions now.

But the debate is taking place amongst some Punjabi groups. There are many examples and I am, by no means, an expert privy to the details of these debates and arguments. And using only one or a couple of examples would bear the risk of generalizing and tarnishing the actual problem in itself and its root cause. For all I know, all is fine, and I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

Here’s what I think. Cultural practices are there for practical reasons, and were wisely continued because it made sense at that time. Harvest celebration is a good example. Times were tough. Being a farmer on a semi desert was tough. So, celebrating something at that part of the year after a lot hardship made sense. This was proudly brought in by our forefathers when they migrated over here. Some remained farmers, many others survived with other jobs but the proud heritage was maintained by all if not the majority. They all identified with it and it gave them identity. It gave their children identity as we set ourselves apart from the other cultures, and we continued being proud with our uniqueness. It would be a shame for us as a society to allow this culture to die a natural death. But that’s what evolution is all about. If it happens because we’re evolving with our current circumstances now, we really don’t have a choice. It happens and we won’t be the wiser.

But, and there’s always a but, what if this culture dies because it was being killed by few of our own because we think there’s no benefit or relevance from a religious perspective? I think then we’re not doing any good to ourselves as a society. I strongly believe the spirituality of our Sikhi can survive, even thrive in any culture. It’s universal design makes it entirely agnostic to any culture we come from. You could be an African with your unique culture completely different from the Punjabi culture and still seek spirituality as a Sikh. You can practice your culture, celebrate your culture, and still be a practicing Sikh. Both culture and the spiritual aspects of Sikhi can exist together in harmony, in fact thrive in harmony. Only if we let it be. Life is never black and white, nor right or wrong. Life is colorful and we often experience the color from our cultures.

The trick is to not blur the lines between what culture is intended for and the path of spirituality. We often, as Punjabis, make the mistake that only Punjabis are Sikhs by default. And as an extension to this mistake, the traits o our Punjabi cultures are also treated to be Sikh religious cultures and practices. And that’s where the grey area has caused quite the confusion. For example, cultures that promote misogyny, downgrading the fairer sex, even aborting female fetuses certainly isn’t Sikh in nature. In fact it is abhorred by the Teachers of Sikhi.

So where do we go from here? At the same time, Punjabi cultures that promote celebrating diversity, or celebrating hard work and bravery of the warrior can certainly jive with the teachings of Sikhi.

What’s certain is that practicing these cultural practices need to be clearly distinguished from seeking spirituality as a Sikh. And it is entirely up to that Sikh personally to choose which culture makes sense to be practiced and celebrated in her journey as a Sikh. There is no black or white here. Evolution should take its course, and it would evolve our culture when we as a society evolve spiritually as well. And I’m very confident that our evolution as a society is on its way forward. Evolution is never forced upon.

Jagdesh Singh, a Kuala Lumpur-based executive with a US multinational company, is a father of three girls who are as opinionated as their mother

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


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    Dear Editor,

    Lately we have seen preachers in Sikhism, young and old, decrying age old traditions linked to our rituals and wedding ceremonies. There are claims that these customs like Mayaa, Mehndi etc have been imported from other religions.

    My point – these are traditions – which make up the psyche of sikhs nowadays.

    Import of ideas and customs from others,occurs in all communitiesand religions. These enhance and bring colour and gaiety to our ever increasingly rat race lives.

    As long as the core SIKH values are retained and religion is not harmed, why not. Perhaps some of your enlightened lecturers could shed some light here. Many thanks