Time to flip some prevailing ideas

Two central tenants of the Sikh philosophy are the ideas of sharing one’s wealth (vand ke shakna) and selfless service (nishkaam seva). Understanding these ideas as simply as a set individual pious acts is to diminish their significance - GURNAM SINGH

By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |


I think many organisations from all communities and faith groups are doing amazing charitable work across the world during the coronavirus crisis. However, as a Sikh I am especially pleased, but not surprised, by the way the global diaspora community has responded during these troubling times.

Over the past weeks, during the COVID-19, crisis we have seen numerous video clip both social media and international media highlighting the amazing service being provided by the Sikhs throughout the world. In India, where many poor people and migrant labourers have been abandoned by the Indian State, we have seen heroic scenes of Sikhs taking food/langar out of the Gurdwaras, to the people and serving irrespective of caste, race, creed – simply reinforces for me the practical socialist and revolutionary ideals of Sikhi.

You see, two central tenants of the Sikh philosophy are the ideas of sharing one’s wealth (vand ke shakna) and selfless service (nishkaam seva). Understanding these ideas as simply as a set individual pious acts is to diminish their significance. The Sikh path is to combine spiritual and social dimensions of life, so that personal salvation dialectically linked to the salvation of others.

Sharing wealth is essentially an advocacy of a progressive policy of redistribution. As for selfless service, this can be understood as a critique of commodity capitalism, where all human exchange becomes a manifestation of market forces, and an advocacy of what the pioneering social justice scholar Richard Titmuss terms the ‘Gift Relationship’. In this idea, he articulates a philosophy of altruism in social and health policy and, like much of his work, emphasized his preference for the values of public service over private or commercial forms of care.

Perhaps the most powerful expression of what might be understood as a society built on altruism, justice and equality is one the one envisaged in a shabad by Bhagat Ravidas Ji who, having struggled against all kinds of injustice, oppression and dehumanisation, offers a vision of society 300 years before French Revolution and the European Enlightenment. I reproduce the shabad here in its entirety because each and every word carries a powerful message and any attempt to paraphrase would be a grave injustice.

ਬੇਗਮ ਪੁਰਾ ਸਹਰ ਕੋ ਨਾਉ ॥ਦੂਖੁ ਅੰਦੋਹੁ ਨਹੀ ਤਿਹਿ ਠਾਉ ॥ਨਾਂ ਤਸਵੀਸ ਖਿਰਾਜੁ  ਮਾਲੁ ॥ਖਉਫੁ  ਖਤਾ  ਤਰਸੁ ਜਵਾਲੁ ॥੧॥

ਅਬ ਮੋਹਿ ਖੂਬ ਵਤਨ ਗਹ ਪਾਈ ॥ਊਹਾਂ ਖੈਰਿ ਸਦਾ ਮੇਰੇ ਭਾਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

ਕਾਇਮੁ ਦਾਇਮੁ ਸਦਾ ਪਾਤਿਸਾਹੀ ॥ ਦੋਮ ਨ ਸੇਮ ਏਕ ਸੋ ਆਹੀ ॥ ਆਬਾਦਾਨੁ ਸਦਾ ਮਸਹੂਰ ॥ ਊਹਾਂ ਗਨੀ ਬਸਹਿ ਮਾਮੂਰ ॥੨॥

ਤਿਉ ਤਿਉ ਸੈਲ ਕਰਹਿ ਜਿਉ ਭਾਵੈ ॥ ਮਹਰਮ ਮਹਲ ਨ ਕੋ ਅਟਕਾਵੈ ॥ ਕਹਿ ਰਵਿਦਾਸ ਖਲਾਸ ਚਮਾਰਾ ॥ ਜੋ ਹਮ ਸਹਰੀ ਸੁ ਮੀਤੁ ਹਮਾਰਾ ॥੩॥੨॥

Begam pura, ‘the city without sorrow’, is the name of the town. There is no suffering or anxiety there. There are no troubles or taxes on commodities there. There is no fear, blemish or downfall there. ||1||

Now, I have found this most excellent city. There is lasting peace and safety there, O Siblings of Destiny. ||1||Pause||

God’s Kingdom is steady, stable and eternal. There is no second or third status; all are equal there. That city is populous and eternally famous. Those who live there are wealthy and contented. ||2||

They stroll about freely, just as they please. They know the Mansion of the Lord’s Presence, and no one blocks their way. Says Ravi Daas, the emancipated shoe-maker: whoever is a citizen there, is a friend of mine. ||3||2||

(Raag Gauree – Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji – Ang 345) – English translation from Sikhi to The Max

Though one should never underestimate the value of voluntary community service, one needs also to recognise that this can only be a stop gap measure and what really needs to happen, in the mid and long term, is for all nations of the world, but the wealthy ones in particular, to reflect on the actions of these volunteers and radically change their policies. We need to abandon the current economic models that privilege personal success at the expense of a more collective inclusive approach. The prime function of a nation state should to safeguard the health of the people and not the wealth of the few.

What we have seen with the enormous outpouring of kindness and care form almost everybody is the true human spirit that has been for so many decades emasculated by neoliberal economic models. We need to flip the idea that wealth creation is a prerequisite for good health and welfare and to that health of the people is not only a moral imperative but key to economic success.

Despite the terror of the coronavirus, rediscovering our caring side. And for a brief moment we appear to have put aside our prejudices and began to see each other as fellow human beings and not as strangers or ‘Others’. And as car and plane journeys have been dramatically reduced, we are experiencing the sights and sounds of nature like never before!

So perhaps some good might come out of this crisis and we will come to realise what is really does matter for us as, both individuals and as a human race. But if we don’t learn by this experience and change the way we run society, then I shudder to think where we might end up post coronavirus!

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk]

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



The Khalsa mission (Asia Samachar, 15 April 2020)

In our moment of precarious togetherness, let us discover a new purpose  (Asia Samachar, 26 March 2020)

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