By Gurmukh Singh | BOOK REVIEW |
Book: SIKHI: The Journey & The Destination | Author: I.J. Singh | Publisher: Nishaan Nagaara, New Delhi (2018); ISBN 978-93-82811-09-1 | Pages: 300 | HOW TO BUY: Singh Brothers, Amritsar; Nishaan, India; or email author at email@example.com
“…..an honestly lived life with its bounties cheerfully shared with the needy, and for both of these practices to be driven by an awareness of the Creator in us all.”(I J Singh: Ch.XXVandChhakna)
The above interpretation of the oft quoted three pillars of Sikhi: Naam japna, Kirt karni, Vand chhakna by Dr I J Singh takes no longer than a short “elevator ride” to explain the essence of Sikhi (preferred to Sikhism). As he explains: “while Naam japna, refers to spiritual discipline, the other two attributes are strictly social attributes that serve to cement the community”. And so, in a nutshell, the theo-temporal twin-track, whole-life approach to Sikhi spiritual-social activism is introduced.
The apt Panjabi adage for such compact expressions is kujjay wich samundar – ocean in a small pitcher! Another example is: “To kill a language is to kill a culture and its people”. Yet another, “The majoritarian [Indian] state structure found it more convenient instead to brand Sikhs as separatists and reframe our differences as treason. Their tools: vilification and historical amnesia.”
“I J”- as he is popularly known in the family due to many years of contact – is read by a diverse Sikh and non-Sikh dedicated readership, no matter how little or how much they know about Sikhi. Personally, I enjoy his turn of phrase combined with a sense of humour e.g. his quotation of an American saying, “If you do not have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu!”. Or just light-hearted play with words, “We have watches attached to our wrists but never seem to have enough time on our hands…”! Or, “..a lawyer is perhaps none else but a modern hit man”! At times he seems to be writing for the American audience. I guess it does not matter while USA is still the global power!
SIKHI: The Journey & The Destination is the latest of his 6 anthologies. It is a collection of 36 essays (300 pages). That the publisher has mentioned 26 essays in his cover note is perhaps a Freudian slip! As mentioned later, some related essays could have been consolidated.
As a non-scholar, I was apprehensive when asked to do a review of this rather longish scholarly collection. More so when I read an earlier review which made me reach for the dictionary a number of times. However, the task was made easier by I J himself when he wrote that the diverse articles are intended for the average educated lay-reader. That sounds like me!
As Sardar Tarlochan Singh (ex-MP & Indian Minorities Commissioner) has written in his Introduction to the book, “In his writings I J Singh borrows liberally from Gurbani and elucidates his point of view with insights from works of westerns literature and scholarship, a rare confluence of oriental and occidental oceans of wisdom. ”Indeed, I read IJ because he quotes from a wide range of luminaries from around the globe, albeit, with an American bias, to augment his views on Sikhi and to complement Gurbani quotations. This is especially essential for diaspora Sikhs and the western readers.
More so due to the preoccupation of the chairs of Sikh studies in the West with their erudite and contesting interpretations of Sikh tradition rather than disseminating the beautiful universal message of Sikhi to wider multicultural audiences.
Some essays are about I J’s experience as an immigrant as he met the challenge of keeping his distinct Sikh identity; an experience I share. Sometimes it was necessary to explain the reasons for the identity at the workplace and at others to defend it physically in the streets! I J came to the US in 1960 when I was getting off a ship at Tilbury in London in the same year. So, we share our experience as visible identity Sikh arrivals at a time when we were regarded as “aliens” in those early days of changing race relations. Not that things have changed that much in some parts of the West even today.
There was external pressure to assimilate.Instead, that challenge became a spur for some to succeed with their Sikh identity intact. However, while I J, by his own admission, considered himself as a Sikh by default, my upbringing was as the son of a Panjabi teacher and Kirtania-parcharak in Malaysia. So, to start with, our approach to Sikhi and Sikh issues is from opposite directions. I J became a keen research student of Sikhi while I had to re-discover the true spirit of Sikhi by adopting a more flexible approach.In the meantime, we have integrated reasonably well in the western plural societies we live in.
I picked up much from I J’s first three books: Sikhs & Sikhism; The Sikh Way; and, Being and Becoming a Sikh. These books are my constant companions on the shelf, heavily highlighted with different colours for the sort of pithy passages like those quoted above. I J has made this task a bit easier in this book by giving most of such passages in italics.
The point from the above is that this review is not without a strong bias due to own background. As I have mentioned elsewhere, doctrinal issues cannot be the topics for popular surveys; nor is a purely pragmatic or self-opinionated approach suitable for such topics.
IJ is a true student of Sikhi. However, some scholarly reviews of his books, misread his approach as pragmatic, which, to my mind, implies some sort of DIY (do-it-yourself leading to do-as-you like) form of Sikhi. I agree with S Tarlochan Singh when he qualifies pragmatism with maturity when he writes in his Introduction, “I J Singh is the most mature voice of liberal Sikhism in the western world. He is clearly in favour of pragmatic understanding of Sikhism.”
It is true that I J explores a topic in depth so as to enable, nay, empower, the intelligent reader to arrive at own conclusion. However, the pointers he gives are clear and do not conflict with what are held to be the evergreen constants, the underlying principles, of Sikhi.
Otherwise, the collective (in-Sangat) interpretation can and should evolve with time and place.
No religious cows should be regarded as sacred and spared the glaring light of progressive interpretation so that religion remains relevant to the needs of the modern society; provided it is not tailored to suit the fads of modernity.
It is difficult to review an anthology of essays without commenting on each and every one of them simply because they are generally supposed to be stand-alone essays. As the author has admitted, the topics are not in any order, but perhaps that is the nature of such collection of essays written over a period of time.However, in this review I am content to make some general comments only while referring to some specific topics.
I J’s general approach to a topic is the same as a person trying to make out objects in the dark by looking through the corners of the eyes until they are located and then to focus on them.In doing so he uses his experience as a scientist and also looks at other faiths and philosophies before exploring the Sikhi view based on Gurbani and Sikh tradition. He will quote the Bible, Shakespeare, Socrates, T S Elliot, even Oscar Wilde to make his case. Such an approach requires patience on the part the reader, which is rewarded in due course when the topic is discussed in the light of Gurbani and Sikhi tradition.
The main difference between this anthology and the earlier collections is that IJ is more confident about reaching conclusions and is taking a deeper and concerned interest in wider Sikh community issues. That comes through, for example, in Chapter II: 1984: Instituitionalizing Evil. In Chapter I about Punjabi language and much more, he laments the neglect of Punjabi making a dire prediction: “To kill a language is to kill a culture and its people”. Educated Sikhs diminish Punjabi because they have never discovered a working relationship with Gurbani and the writings of the Sikh Gurus. That observation/advice is authentic because it is based on I J’s own personal life experience. In addition to the negative impact of Bollywood language and culture, his advice to the “wobbly union of India” is that India “needs to evolve into a different reality that better serves and enriches its diverse components, rather than forcing them into a straitjacket”. (A sentiment I have echoed in own recent English columns in the UK’s Panjab Times.)
A number of essays dwell on familiar themes. Guru Hargobind “elaborated the seminal Meeri-Peeri doctrine” while Guru Gobind Singh’s “mission was critical to Sikh identity and to the formalization of institutions that, thanks to the earlier Gurus, existed in nascent form.” There is little doubt that distinct Sikh identity, the gift of Guru Gobind Singh, has saved Sikhi from assimilation back to the Hinduism. A related topic is at Chapter XXIX: Turban of the Sikhs – one of the best articles in this collection, relevant to contesting interpretations of Sikh tradition.
This chapter gives well-argued response to those who often question every established convention, as also Chapter XXVII : Naysayers etc. A refreshing rebuff to those who like to use the question “kithay likeya?” to nit-pick for no rational purpose (also a topic which amuses younger brother Baldev Singh Dhaliwal of Australia who has written about it). I live in a country (UK) which has no written Constitution. Established conventions should not be questioned lightly nor for the same reasons, the Sikh Reht Maryada. As IJ concludes, “Any changes must be consistent with the fundamentals that remain constant and unchanging.”
A Little EGO May be a Good Thing (Chapter VI) sounds like “svai maan” in Punjabi which is confidence in own being (identity) and purpose in life to be able to pursue just aspirations and objectives. Sikhi encourages such positive approach to life,to which so much is owed by successful Sikhs in the diaspora.
There are informative and educational chapters on Equality & Inequality; Chasing Happiness – the concept of santokh (spiritual contentment) could have been mentioned; Seeking Perfection; The Purpose of Life and Hukam: What it is & What it Ain’t? The latter topic is also discussed later under the longer article: Sikhi: Creation, Evolution & Related Matters. To quote, “The word hukam in Sikh parlance embraces two very different meanings simultaneously. Firstly, hukam is literally an order or a command, and secondly, hukam is a sense of order as opposed to disorder, in a system or natural laws. Hukam, then, becomes the foundation of a creative productive life, lived entirely in the present, in the moment.” The Sikhi concepts of udham, ghaal and Nadar – broadly a combination of own initiative and sustained effort while leaving the rest to the divine Will – are relevant.
And so the reader is taken on a voyage which explores Sikhi under the usual religious topics of soul, meditation, re-incarnation etc to explore why, “ Most Sikh scholars posit that it is a unique and original faith discipline, though a small drop in the large sea of Hinduism and Islam, and not a syncretistic blend of other faith disciplines” That the “allegories, analogies and metaphors… are in the context of the culture when Sikhi arose and took shape, and both have changed over the centuries….effective teaching, no matter the topic, is best delivered so that it resonates with the context and background of the student ” (pp 266-267)
Chapter XVIII – Vaisakhi Redux (whatever Redux means!) is a most refreshing essay covering the many aspects of this traditional topic. A must read.
A clearer direction/view could have been given about a global setup of a Misl type system or a Sarbat Khalsa type system. Procedures and processes need to be explored further. [The Sikh Research Institute (US) is doing some work in these areas as are some organisations in the UK.] Chapter XXX – Of Lawyers & Pastors is scholarly and off-beat take on the principle of Miri-Piri and gives some pointers to the role of the Takhts.
The above gives a flavour of this anthology. Now for some personal observations as a lay journalist in retirement:
Due to the nature of these free-standing articles, there is some unavoidable repetition. Therefore, scope for consolidation of some essays with similar themes should be looked at. Examples are: On The Everlasting Debate on Soul (X) and Reincarnation etc (XXIV); and, the three essays on Sikh Misls, Sarbat Khalsa, and Akal Takhat plus other Takhats, and Gurmattas.
There are instances when one wonders what IJ’s title for a particular essay has to do with the essay itself. For example: Chapter XXVII – Common Sense in Stormy Seas appears to have nothing to do with an otherwise rich essay on hardships faced by a community and a brilliant comparison and contrast between Sikhs and Jews.
As has been mentioned above, from a journalistic perspective, long introductions can distract less serious readers.
The above is no more than a passing glimpse at a collection 36 informative and thought-provoking essays by Dr I J Singh, now a household name in the Sikh diaspora. The book joins the earlier collection on the shelf for continual reading and reference. Maybe even another review.
Perhaps time has come for I J to pick a topic and write a book.
Gurmukh Singh OBE, a retired UK senior civil servant, chairs the Advisory Board of The Sikh Missionary Society UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.