By I.J. Singh
Take ménage a trois that is not unholy but is fundamental to human survival. Think of the cyberworld dictum of Click, Connect, Collaborate. The world understands Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness as the promise of America. Remember that it’s the pursuit, not the attainment that’s at the core.
If challenged to come up with a pithy but precise soundbite of Sikhi, most of us would likely respond with the historic triad of Naam Japna, Kirat Karni, Vand Chhakna; to wit, a life lived in awareness of the Creator, fueled by honest earnings, and sharing the rewards of a productive life with the needy. Note that the second and third precepts are social constructs that flow from the first, which defines our spiritual underpinnings. Alternatively, I could recommend Sutt, Santokh and Vitchar (or Truth, Equipoise and the intellectual process), a triad that appeals to a life of the mind.
Simply beautiful, wouldn’t you say?
We unendingly reiterate these or similar formulations at Sikh institutions and events. They highlight elemental themes of our individual and communal existence. These are the foundational rocks on which Sikhs have erected a shining historical reality. Now some factoids about gurduara management that we wish were different. Most gurduaras have a Constitutional framework – easily cast aside, rarely ever followed honestly, elegantly, logically or gracefully.
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The American Sikh community is largely shaped by India’s timeless culture and often behaves accordingly. Remember when in the 1970’s India’s supreme leader, Indira Gandhi, suspended the Constitution of India, ruled extralegally by fiat, and promoted her son, though totally devoid of talent, ability or experience, for the onerous responsibilities of her office.
With a rare exception or two, most gurduaras in the diaspora largely mimic her model. They ignore their own laws or traditions, refuse to hold elections, and engage in egregious litigation, corruption, even violence.
When confronted about such malfeasance a gurduara heavy-hitter floored me: “We can’t live by participatory governance and electoral procedures; what if fools, criminals and swindlers win,” he asked? My response, equally unkind, was: “Look around, don’t we have these types already among us? We’ll survive!”
Our shenanigans effectively proclaim that we have neither the sense nor the framework to adjudicate our internal differences and need a legal monkey in the middle – often one who knows nothing of our history, traditions or teachings. Violence, to both people and ideas, unfailingly results, all in the name of Guru and God.
We, the new kids on the block in North America, are not so new after all. Sikh workers helped construct the Panama Canal in 1901-03. Yet we are the new kids because our measurable presence dates only from the 1970’s. Now things seem to be changing at a breakneck pace. Largely because of gurduara troubles that I have hinted at, a new generation is increasingly distanced from our existing institutions.
NARCISSISM, NEPOTISM & NIHILISM
With pun and irony intended, I would like to exemplify many of our gurduara managements briefly through new structural formulations of unholy ménage a trois — three-legged stools.
One triad is structurally framed by Narcissism, Nepotism and Nihilism. This 3-N formula comes from Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and I view its functioning through Indira Gandhi’s governing style that I alluded to earlier.
In this model, any question or suggestion is apriori a challenge to the leader’s sense of self, hence a grave insult, if not a crime. Yet everyone, even the best, must die; who will then replace the one irreplaceable leader, except the leader’s progeny? Ergo, no one dares to replace the one fearless leader except her or his descendent. Surely, such a system is headed for collapse. This is ego run amok – and is rightly labeled narcissism.
The only consistent choice that surfaces without fail is to promote the leader’s handpicked relative, no matter the lack of ability or aptitude. And that is nepotism, or easier yet, “chumocracy.” For a clear application of this, follow the hierarchies that form the structure of the Indian political bureaucracy or focus on President Trump’s inner circle in the USA.
When nothing productive points to a direction or endpoint, the goal then is best labeled nihilism; it implies rejection of all moral principles or constraints. A true nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalties, no purpose and no direction larger than the self. And life quickly becomes meaningless.
IGNORANCE, INCOMPETENCE & INPUDENCE
And then my roving mind settled on another possible replacement model of a three-legged stool: Ignorance, Incompetence and Impudence (arrogance). I don’t know whether to label impudence as the third-leg or the icing on the cake. But that would be mixing metaphors. Ignorance and incompetence overlaid with a shiny patina of arrogance make a deadly set, however wobbly. I need not elaborate this any further; just look at the operational style of our political leaders in Sikh institutions.
What operational design of a tripod would best suit us?
I would recommend that we stick with the tried and true that Sikhi gave us, and work to earn it.
I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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