By Santokh Singh Bains (Chicago) and I.J. Singh (New York) | OPINION |
We all look for good things in life that please the eye or titillate the senses. The more the better! When they are not necessarily sating a specific need or hunger, then what exactly are they doing? Why are we so driven to such stimulants?
Humans are complex and human pleasures often come from giving more to others, even more than in taking from others. So, the desire to give seems universal. For a living example look at any mother, be she poor as a church mouse or richer than rich. Look at her year old celebrating his first year when he can’t count or comprehend the idea of a birthday gift.
Watch a new mother fawning and crooning over her new baby – an absolute delight to behold, impossible to fully capture or convey in words. Think! Isn’t it true that sometimes the giving of a gift gives us unparalleled joy and supreme delight, more than receiving one? It’s indeed in giving that we receive as a Biblical truism proclaims. Guru Granth points to a similar frame of mind when it reminds us to transcend the self in giving.
ਆਪੁ ਗਵਾਇ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੇ ਤਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਪਾਏ ਮਾਨੁ ॥
Aap gavaaye seva karae taa kitch paaye maan’ Guru Granth p.474).
Yet, the maternal instinct and human mind are such that a sense of owning the paradigm and the beloved creeps in to become the dominant theme. It complicates the giving nature of a relationship by bringing in a level of ownership and control in the exchange. And the relationship becomes, to a greater or lesser extent, transactional. For every quid there must be a quo!
For example, even though, no sane mind would ever downgrade giving to the needy as over-emoting, the complexity of human nature dramatically transforms how we value and categorize our relationships to things, ideas and people.
Look, for instance how good people, no matter their religious label, relate to the peerless history and traditions of their particular religious identity. We make no exceptions here and include all — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists et al, even Brand X, if any. For a believer, the passion often runs deep and defines his/her core existence – often leading us into areas beyond common sense.
Nothing unusual or undesirable in such behavior except when we step into behavior that might, in its deep-seated death-defying loyalty, clash with fundamentals of common sense.
For a moment, let’s focus on our own religious identity – Sikhism or Sikhi. Remember Sikhi is only about 550 years old. Young enough to be one of the youngest and most relevant to our modern existence in a complex world. Yet, it arose in an ancient culture – the timeless mythology of ancient India and its Hindu religious lore; hence some practices have ancient roots. Remember that new religious traditions do not arise de novo in a vacuum. They take life amidst existing culture, language, music, cuisine, traditions and values; some may be valued only if modified, others are best jettisoned. When Sikhi arose in India, the existing cultural context and antecedents were largely Hindu and also Islamic. Many of those old traditions even though irrelevant today persist.
In about 240 years Sikhi had been nurtured into its present form by ten Guru-Founders. From then on (1999-onwards) the traditions and teachings as treasured in the Guru Granth guide the practicing Sikhs worldwide. Naturally the teachings would comment on the existing context to explain, not necessarily to approve,
Naturally, a Sikh would treasure the scripture as holy and he should. Remember also, that Sikhism arose in a sea of Hindu lore that speaks of innumerable gods, goddesses, holy beings and similar entities. We will not enter the debate of how many gods and goddesses exist and how each entity is to be revered, or appropriately respected. Most such matters are for Hindus and technically have nothing to do with Sikhi!
But forget not that most Sikhs came from age-old Hindu lifestyle. A standing joke proclaims that when a new way of behavior clashes with an age-old custom, the result is often less a change of the old into the new but often old ideas re-dressed and reframed as new. Keep in mind that the default position of the human mind is inertia. It does not readily shift unless and until forced to do so.
Surely, we are not the only Sikhs who love going to gurduaras — our places of worship. Often, we are flabbergasted by the shenanigans and rigmarole that define the protocol. Given that there is magic in it that can and will capture the mind, such that any and every matter of critical judgment is banished and readily suspended.
The dictated formality totally overcomes the reality. For example, the Guru Granth is to be escorted to its place at the beginning of an event. Tradition asserts that only male Sikhs may have that honor. A prominent team leads the mini-procession; one man is deputed to lead by sprinkling water ahead of the brief 3 to 4 minutes long walk. During the few minutes of settling down with the Guru Granth at its designated site and for a while afterwards, worshippers continue to hand vestments for the Guru Granth. And there are as many or more who hand new vestments to the officiants — not to keep or use but merely to touch, often for no more than a few seconds, these vestments to the Guru Granth, and then return to the devotee who can now take them back to his own home or business to sell as blessed and holy.
The procession never ends. Surely many devotees now see the Rumalaas (vestments) now as specially blessed. And some like us wonder! The Guru Granth is a book, isn’t it? And it clearly directs us that its sight is never going to liberate us; for that we need to engage with its message (ਡਿਠੈ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜਿਚਰੁ ਸਬਦਿ ਨ ਕਰੇ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥ Dithae mukt na hoveyee, jitcher sabd na karae vitchaar” p. 594). So largely the function, however sober and serene, becomes more of a drama than a transforming experience. The influence of ancient Hindu customs can often be seen during Akhand Path recitations when many Sikhs enthusiastically follow undesirable practices such as: (i) continuous burning of Agarbattis (incense sticks), (ii) continuous burning of Jot (flame) and (iii) keeping water in a Garbi (vessel) to be later used as Amrit.
Where did these unnecessary accoutrements come from? I remind you of inertia as the default position of the mind. Surely many Sikh practices are rooted from and minor modifications of the Hindu past. If every one of the zillion Hindu deities are individually celebrated and clothed, cooled in hot weather and fanned in heat, then why not the Guru Granth as well? If every little deity or a baby has to be fed why not offer food to the Guru Granth as well? If a baby has a wardrobe of clothes, why not the Guru Granth as well. All this, even though it comes to us in the form of a book of ideas.
Surely, most of us have seen each of these ideas practiced at important multimillion-dollar gurduaras catering to our educated elite.
We humans have grave difficulty in relating to ideas, no matter how noble or ignoble. Often, we need to humanize an idea to come to terms with it. Hence the ironic thought that “I don’t know whether God created Man in his own image, but Man has certainly created God in own very human image.” Also forget not the roots of Sikh existence connected to Hindu mythological and historical roots – a connection not always easy to uproot, despite the revolutionary message of the Gurus. The problem lies in the human mind not in the Sikh message at all; the default position of the human mind is inertia, as in Newton’s Laws of Motion.
So where do we stand today?
USED AND UNUSED RUMALAAS: PROBLEM OF PLENTY?
Today, many gurdwara managing committees in India and elsewhere face a serious problem. It is a problem of plenty. Huge stocks of used and unused rumalaas (also known as rumalaa sahibs) occupy too much space in many gurdwara premises and gurdwara managing committees really don’t know how to resolve the issue.
A couple of years back, Sikhs from various countries of the world expressed anguish over a condemnable incident, occurring presumably somewhere in the USA, and involved disposal of rumalaas as trash. The posting went viral. It highlighted thousands of rumalaas being unloaded at a garbage disposal facility. The man, who presumably made the clip, could be heard saying: “This garbage has come from gurdwaraas. The bags are full of rumalaas that the devotees had offered at the gurdwaras with immense faith.”
Sometime back, a gurdwara in British Columbia, Canada, went ahead with saskaar (burning) of a huge stock of old and new rumalaas along with several other religious items like various kakkaars and paintings of Sikh Gurus. At another gurdwara, as many as 30 huge black bags containing rumalaas were brought out for the purpose of burning them. The flames were massive and the fumes awful.
Besides the above-mentioned three instances of the disposal of rumalas, several gurdwara managing committees use various methods to secretly dispose of their huge stocks of old and new rumalaas. These include ways of rumalaas getting back to traders for resale.
Supreme Sikh Society of New Zealand has found a unique way by which old rumalaas are being put to good use. This Sikh organization joined hands with the members of Cook Island, Samoan and other island communities. These members re-use old rumalaas to make art pieces, curtains etc. for use at their own religious places.
About 150 members from Samoan, Tongan, Maori and Cook Island communities had hosted the Sikh community members at an interesting event organized in Mangere on 20th November, 2017. While explaining the significance of rumalas for Sikhs, Daljit Singh of Supreme Sikh Society recommended that the items made out of used rumalaas should be used by island communities only at their holy places or for their holy activities. Cook Island community’s leader appreciated the gesture as a friendly overture between the Sikhs and their communities. He further assured the Sikhs that they would fully respect the rumalaas which would be used at their religious places. At the 2-hour-long event, the island communities presented a sample of how old rumalaas would be used at these communities’ religious places. Gurdwaraas located in Takanini, Otahuhu, Avondale, Papatoetoe, Wellington and Christchurch sent excess stocks of their used rumalaas to Maraes for their proper re-use.
The unique project is being carried out with the support of Auckland Council, Healthy Families, WISE Auckland and Auckland Regional Migrant Services along with several other community organizations.
AKAL TAKHAT MARYADA
Apparently, the Akal Takhat Maryada (section 4, chapter 11, article 17, part c) prohibits the use of rumalaas for making shirts or frocks for children. We don’t know how, when and under what circumstances the Akal Takhat issued the above-mentioned edict. But now the time has certainly come to revisit it and cancel/change this edict. After consulting Jathedars of other Takhats, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) members and some eminent Sikh scholars, the Akal Takhat Jathedar should come forward to replace the old edict with a suitable new one.
In view of the old edict of the Akal Takhat, many devout Sikhs argue that turning rumalaas into shirts, frocks and other dresses amounts to sacrilege (beadbi). We would insist that not to use them towards useful purpose is surely “beadbi.” Or is this something like the example we started with where a fond new mother loads her newborn with truckloads of new dresses that he/she can’t wear. Surely, other ways exist to show one’s love.
SHIRTS, FROCKS & OTHER DRESSES
One way of looking at the problems concerning Sikhs would be to think about what our Gurus would do in such situations. It is said that in the Sakhi dictated to Bhai Nand Lal by Guru Gobind Singh, the Guru had said that no human should remain naked (in the absence of clothes). Everyone knows that millions of people in India and other countries do not have enough clothes to cover their bodies. If we would turn our old Rumalaas into shirts, frocks and other dresses for poor, homeless and other unfortunate people, we would prove ourselves to be good Sikhs.
NEW RUMALAAS AT GURDWARAS
A local Granthi at a gurdwara repeatedly requested the Sangat not to donate new Rumalaas because the gurdwara already had sufficient stock of brand new Rumalaas. But the Sikhs never paid heed to his sane advice and continued to bring bright and expensive Rumalaas from outside, thus causing serious storage problem at the gurdwara. This is the position at numerous gurdwaras today.
HUGE STOCKS OF OTHER ITEMS
Some gurdwaras have excess stocks of various Kakkars, pictures of Sikh Gurus, Chandanis, Chandoyas and Chaur Sahibs. The excess stocks of these items should be sent to smaller gurdwaras. Some devout Sikhs donate huge stocks of groceries to gurdwaras in their respective areas. Instead of feeding poor and homeless people, large quantities of surplus food, butter milk etc. are sometimes thrown away.
The issues we raise today are simple to understand and easier to resolve in the present world where plenty of people – Sikhs and non-Sikhs, would appreciate such largesse for their use. The huge stocks of old and new Rumalaas lying in gurdwara premises is undoubtedly one such problem. While there may not be “one size fits all” solution, Sikh leaders need to discuss this problem and lay out suitable solution(s).
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.
* This is the opinion of the writers, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
BETWIXT & BETWEEN – Amrit Vela (Asia Samachar, 26 Feb 2020)