At an interfaith symposium a while ago, when asked if I was a Sikh by birth, my first instinct was to respond with an instant yes. Instead, I hesitated. Indeed, I was born to Sikh parents and to all outward appearances was a recognizable Sikh.
A conventional “yes” to the seemingly innocuous question would have sufficed. But I was struck by how deficient – and misleading – that response would have been: the implication being that a being a Sikh was merely an accident of birth, a fait accompli.
Under the circumstances, though, I had to settle for the standard, “Yes, I am a Sikh by birth” response. But the question has engaged my mind ever since because it raised a fundamental concern.
What does it mean to be a Sikh?
I would like to suggest that there is a fundamental difference – and a dynamic tension – between being born a Sikh and becoming a Sikh. It is the gap between acquired belief and authentic faith; between meaning and experience; between passive internalization and active absorption; between acting on handed down cultural scripts and writing one’s own story.
In other words, the divergence between being born a Sikh and becoming a Sikh reflects the conflict between the circumscribing demands of our ego consciousness (Haumai, in Sikh parlance) and the compulsion of our inherent Spirit (Jot Saroop) to soar and be freed from the very restraints that tether us to our Haumai.
Being a Sikh means to live in the balance between these two seemingly antithetical positions. An authentic Sikh life is where this drama is played out, where head and heart are integrated into a harmonious whole.
Being born to Sikh parents is, after all, sheer happenstance, since neither birth nor the selection of our parents requires our consent. Birth merely provides the formality of being a Sikh that requires no more than an adherence to an inherited belief system. Once we are delivered into this world, our milieu ensures that we are indoctrinated, imprinted and shaped by Sikh ideology, belief and practice – we acquire the official insignia of being a Sikh.
The British biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term memes to describe how cultural information (cultural software!) constantly bombards and shapes us. Memes are packets of cultural information that form the building blocks of our mind and culture, much like genes are the building blocks of life. Memes constitute our cultural DNA.
My response to the question, “Are you a Sikh by birth?” at the Symposium must be viewed as no more than the conditioned reflex of a believer trained to accept cultural myths and authorized beliefs – and often with a vested interest in preserving and perpetuating the status quo.
This is not to suggest that belief is without value. Belief systems help us translate and affix meaning to the external world, making it possible to navigate through life. They also provide the necessary glue to hold communities together, making social life possible.
While necessary for our survival in the external world, cultural conditioning does have an undesirable consequence in terms of becoming a Sikh. Paradoxically, the very conditioning process that ensures our survival in the external world also thickens and coagulates our Haumai at the same time – effectively shutting off our capacity to experience our true source or Reality.
Gurbani alludes to this in various places:
The union of mother and father results in our body on which the Creator inscribes the Divine writ and gives it resplendent light. But contaminated by Maya, we lose Divine consciousness. (SGGS: M1: 989:13)
But it appears that we are wired to have Haumai. Indeed, Haumai is fundamental to Creation: The malady of Haumai was instilled in humans. (SGGS: 1140:16)
A Sikh by birth is primarily a product of genetic and cultural conditioning that is contained and driven by a strong sense of Haumai. Beliefs, rituals, mythic structures, prevailing stereotypes are important support structures for Haumai. Preservation of the status quo is indispensible.
Such a life, though, is fueled by what Gurbani refers to as Dhaturbazi – the vicious cycle of our daily grind (rat race) that snares us into this worldly web of existence (Maya), causing us in turn to lose our inner bearing and spiritual compass. We become Manmukhs, inured to a Haumai based existence.
Ensnared in this transitory drama, they (Manmukhs) have lost their moorings; they are neither here nor there. (SGGS: M3:29:2)
Fortunately for us, the Guru offers hope and a way out. Our affliction (Haumai) carries the seed of its own remedy.
Haumai is a chronic affliction, but its remedy lies within it. SGGS p.466:5
Becoming a Sikh, then, is to heed our inner voice, to heal our fractured connection to Reality. Our Haumai driven Dhaturbazi needs to be offset and balanced by cultivating the capacity to see through the veil of Maya; by anchoring our existence in Liv – or inner centeredness. We become Gurmukhs by remaining externally driven (engaged with the world) but internally centered.
Where does one begin? The term Sikh offers some clues: first, there can be no Sikh without a Guru and second, discipleship (Sikhi) assumes no prior knowledge. A Sikh must turn to the Guru with epistemological humility, an open and receptive mind.
For a Sikh, the natural – and logical – place is to turn to the Guru’s message enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib. Since the spiritual journey of a Sikh is a lifelong apprenticeship to the Guru, it follows that an authentic Sikh life must revolve around the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru, as revealed in the Guru Granth Sahib, is to be read, studied and absorbed.
Unfortunately, Sikhs, for the most part, have taken the easy way out. Where Guru Nanak freed us from the suffocating monopoly of the Pundit and the Mullah, Sikhs have taken a broad jump into the arms of a new breed of Pujaris (priests): We have abrogated our right to interpret Sikh teachings for ourselves to Gurdwara Granthis, Ragis, and an assortment of Babas and Sants.
Becoming a Sikh, then, involves a deliberate choice and a fundamental shift in focus and orientation: from being a believer to a seeker of Truth; from claiming Sikhi as a birthright to becoming a student – as the term Sikh implies. It requires stepping outside the margins of acquired belief and embarking on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, traveling on the path of metamorphosis bringing about an inner change in orientation from being a Manmukh to a Gurmukh.
Ravinder Singh spent his formative years in Singapore and Delhi and has lived in the U.S. since 1976. Having with multinationals in Singapore, London and New York, he runs his own management consulting company. His consuming passion is Sikhs and Sikhi – in all its flavors and dimensions. He is linked to Talking Stick (a weekly online colloquium at Sikhchic.com) and Khoj Gurbani. This article was written some time ago.
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