Does being ‘religious’ mean being ‘ritualistic’?


By Dya Singh | OPINION | 

I am often asked if I am religious? More so because I am privileged to do kirtan globally and a certain degree of ‘religiosity’ is perhaps expected of me. I do not wear ‘raagi/granthi’ clothes. I have never worn a ‘bana’. I never saw the need for it. My dastaar shows that I am a Sikh, even an amritdhari. (I like wearing a ‘pajama’ to gurdwara sometimes because it is more comfortable to sit cross-legged.)

The question not only confounds but also bemuses me because my father was a qualified ‘Giani’, a teacher of Punjabi and Gurmatt, and also a Granthi Sahib. I was virtually born in a gurdwara and spent the first 18 or so years of my life living in a gurdwara and being involved every Sunday assisting my father with the ‘service’ – doing kirtan with my father, assisting him to make ‘degh’ and also sewa in the langgar.

I am putting these thoughts down for younger generations to perhaps get a clearer perspective of their choices, of either being ‘religious’ or utilising Sikh life philosophy for their progressive improvement in life. There are choices, because you might feel that being more ‘religious’ is perhaps what Guru Ji wants of you.

Also remember, Sikhi does not encourage a ‘flock’ mentality. Sikhi is a methodology of self-improvement, also teaching leadership qualities and success in life, with a strong spiritual base. ‘Seva lakh se aik ledauun, tebi Gobind Singh naam kehaoon.’ (“One Sikh shall be the equivalent of 125,000, then I deserve to be called Gobind Singh”, says Tenth master Guru Gobind Singh Ji).

Sikhi has always been a ‘way of life’ for me. So, how can I be religious, especially if I do not look upon Sikhi as a ‘religion’? My bigger, more reflective question, is: Does ‘religion’ mean ‘rituals’, ritualistic dressing and ritualistic behaviour?

The question became even more confusing for me because I have had numerous supposed friends/acquaintances over the years who drifted away from me when they partook of amrit and considered me ‘unreligious’ or ‘not religious enough’.

I do get up at dawn but some insist that to be truly ‘religious’, one must get up at around 3am. and do up to five ‘banis’ daily, preferably after a cold water bath or shower. I have tried that in short spurts and found such a discipline quite invigorating but also tiring. But it might be good for some. Anyway, do try that for your own benefit and experience.

I feel, and as advised by my venerable father, that doing just JapJi Sahib in a meditative way at amritvela is enough to ‘connect’ me with my Guru Ji and get me going for the day in a positive manner. Anyway, I do find the hours before the sun comes up to be the most creative and inspiring. Time spent in creating a new rendition for a special shabad, or preparing for some inspirational discourse especially for youth, or research into Gurbani, is further ‘communion’ with my Guru Ji, for me.

I do Jaap Sahib and Sawaiyay as often as I can. I also like to do the ‘full’ Anand Sahib occasionally. The sentiment of the full Benti Chaupayi resonates very well with my spirit and where I do the ‘shoti’ Chaupayi in Rehras Sahib every evening, I love reciting the full Chaupayi occasionally. I read the Asa Dhi Var at least once a month because I love singing it. That keeps me in touch with it. There are times when feeling ‘down’ that I also read Sukhmani Sahib. Doing an ongoing ‘sehaj path’ has become quite normal with me though one sehaj path can sometimes stretch to over two years!

Also, for me, ‘understanding’ Gurbani is a lifelong, ongoing exercise. Gurbani recitation brings about revelations, enlightenment and as time goes by one’s understanding of Gurbani metamorphoses too. Never accept anyone’s explanation of any Gurbani as gospel and, expect your own understanding of Gurbani to change as you progress and develop spiritually in this human lifeform as a Sikh.

All that is ‘not religious enough’ for some of those who hold themselves out to be the full-fledged ‘amritdharis’ and by proxy therefore, ‘dharam-dhe-thekedar’ (self-styled custodians-of-the-faith).

This was compounded further because ‘they’ believe that ‘amritdhari’ means being a vegetarian too. Those who consumed meat fell from grace in their eyes. Generally, these days, the ‘panj pyaray’ teams carrying out ‘amrit sanchar’ ceremonies insist on vegetarianism for ‘amritdharies’ within what they call ‘panthic maryadha’. This is a side-step from the official Sikh Reht Maryada (SRM) of Akal Takhat which allows eating of meat except halaal.

Our ‘elders’ in Malaya/Malaysia, led by no other than Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji, never insisted on vegetarianism and followed the guidelines laid down by our official Maryadha by Akal Takhat.

I shall not venture into the minefield of kakkars and how many banis an amritdhari must read daily!

Besides that, ‘religious’ also appears to mean more ‘ritualistic’. Let me give you a few examples:

  1. I do have the honour and joy of my own little ‘babay-dha-kemera’ and have ‘Babay-dha-Parkash’ at home. I do not like nor prescribe to a mini-palki which looks like a cage around my Baba Ji and I do not have a conventional chaneni. In many countries where the self-styled ‘dharam-dhe-thekedar’ have power, I would be ostracised or my Baba Ji forcibly taken away from me! I am often frowned upon by ‘them’ when they visit.
  2. I do have the honour of holding our own small ‘smagams’ at home sometimes. We do invite sangat occasionally for such programs – even Janam Sanskars, Anand Karajs and Paath Bhogs. From our Babay-dha-kemera we carry Baba Ji to and from, our open play area which doubles as a Darbar Sahib. I do not prescribe to splashing water in front, as Baba Ji is being carried across. It is quite amusing to see the ‘die-hards’ scurrying to the taps for water for the purpose when Baba Ji is being moved!
  3. I do not have a special ‘visram’ place for Baba Ji. I do what my father used to do and ‘all’ gurdwaras in Malaysia used to do in days past. Baba Ji’s ‘visram’ is right where He holds court during the day! Not a specially designed ‘visram qar’ with a Menji Sahib. In days past, at best Baba Ji was placed comfortably in a cupboard normally just behind the altar – in all gurdwaras in Malaysia I knew of.
  4. There were no drums beaten at Ardaas or smapti. There was simple Parkash and Smapti, not the ‘rituals’ we have these days especially with the sangat following and Baba Ji sometimes doing the rounds of the gurdwara before ‘retiring’ to His ‘Visram Qar’.
  5. When at home, I do not tie a conventional kesri ‘keski’. I tie a Malaysian Chinese ‘Good-morning’ towel on my head. I have been told off for that.
  6. I have even been told off for doing kirtan with my beard tied. Apparently, it must be ‘in parkash’ (left untied). I do have a humorous (but quite irritating to the asker) response to that – Do you then put your beard in smapti when you go to bed?

I have the privilege of joining youth and parents at Sikh Youth Australia annual family ‘camp’ in New South Wales every January. It is a great ‘camp’ to attend if interested! It is still held in the same premises. A scenic ‘sports retreat’ about 100km north of Sydney, and has been for many years now.

I missed a few years in the early 2000’s. When I resumed my attendance I noticed that an area in the main hall where we have langar and also other activities was cordoned off as a ‘no-go area’. An area totally wasted and could be put to good use.

The first year I saw that I assumed that perhaps it was an area which was perhaps not safe. The same thing happened the following year and I was quite bemused with the reason given. Baba Ji was downstairs and the parkash and smapti was directly below that cordoned-off area. So, in its wisdom, the management, no doubt forced by one or two disgruntled voices, decided that that would be sacrileges – to have humans walking, sitting and trampling the area directly above Baba Ji!

I am certain there will be readers who will probably agree with that.

Can I then assume that those Sikhs living in flats (think Singapore) are doomed never to have Baba Ji even visit their humble homes let alone the fact that they could not have Baba Ji’s parkash in their dwellings?

The very fact that Darbar Sahib was built below ground level is an indication from our Guru Jis that ‘humility’ is paramount in Sikhi. And they led by example. Guru Amardas Ji is reputed to have answered Sri Chand who chided Him for having such a long beard that it could be used to wipe the dirty feet of saints like Sri Chand!

In short, the more rituals and ‘vehem’ one is involved in and what is today considered the norm, the more ‘religious’ one is supposed to be.

It will appear that the emphasis in the past was to attempt to understand the sacred word within the Guru Granth Sahib and genuinely treating Shabad-Guru as the Guru and refine one’s conduct in life.

ਡਿਠੈ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜਿਚਰੁ ਸਬਦਿ ਨ ਕਰੇ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥

Dithai mukt n hoveyi, jichar shabad n keray vichar’ SGGS, p594.

(One is not liberated by merely seeing Him, unless one contemplates the ‘shabad’).

Today the emphasis appears to be more with the rituals and protocol. (Let me remind that today the complete Guru Granth Sahib Ji is available as an application within I-phones – no rumallas, no smapti/parkash, no rituals, no protocol and sometimes the I-phone ends up in the back pocket of the pants and in all sorts of ‘unreligious’ places.)

So, please forgive me. I am perhaps not ‘religious’ but I love Sikhi and I love my Guru Ji. Shabad is my Guru. ‘Shabad Guru surt dhun chela’ (Shabad is the Guru, my focus tuned in to shabad is the disciple.)

And my Guru is always ‘mere naal’. I can refer to Him anywhere, anytime and at the touch of a button. Modern technology has given me that ability!

I do not deny that ritualism – meaningful rituals, protocol, pomp and ceremony are important to support the ‘shardha’ or faith and belief element of Sikh philosophy, but I also feel that perhaps greater emphasis should be put on understanding Gurbani and the self-improvement aspects of gurmatt through ongoing study of ‘shabad’ – the true Guru, and living this life accordingly.


Malaysian-born Dya Singh, who now resides in Australia, is an accomplished musician and a roving Sikh preacher. The Dya Singh World Music Group performs full scale concerts on ‘music for the soul’ based on North Indian classical and semi-classical styles of music with hymns from mainly the Sikh, Hindu and Sufi ‘faiths’. He is also the author of SIKH-ING: Success and Happiness. He can be contacted at

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



Malaysia: My pilgrimage to Khalsa Land & Gurpuri Land (Asia Samachar, 5 June 2019)

Terminology confusion amongst Sikhs (Asia Samachar, 24 June 2019)


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  1. Very well put my dear Guru ka Sikh I have always admired your way of putting gurbani in the way it should be. Just the way a lay man/woman can understand