Much of the message of Gurbani is about relationships, be they between human beings, families, animals, plants and nature. However, the most important relationship is the one between ourselves and our creator, Akaal Purak. For a Sikh, Akaal Purakh is everything, as Guru Arjan says, Akaal Purakh is “father, mother, relative, brother. He is the Protector everywhere; why should I feel any fear or anxiety?”
ਤੂੰ ਮੇਰਾ ਪਿਤਾ ਤੂੰਹੈ ਮੇਰਾ ਮਾਤਾ ॥ ਤੂੰ ਮੇਰਾ ਬੰਧਪੁ ਤੂੰ ਮੇਰਾ ਭ੍ਰਾਤਾ ॥
ਤੂੰ ਮੇਰਾ ਰਾਖਾ ਸਭਨੀ ਥਾਈ ਤਾ ਭਉ ਕੇਹਾ ਕਾੜਾ ਜੀਉ ॥੧॥
One of the many tragic outcomes of the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis is the way families have been separated. For some, through social distancing rules, this separation is a temporary arrangement designed to stop the spread of the virus. Though we have seen an explosion in online communication, in reality a virtual encounter across a computer screen can never be a replacement for the real thing; there is something special and humanising about the physical embrace of a mother and child.
And over the past weeks and months we have all been deprived of the priceless hugs that are so important. Daily my two grandchildren Harria Singh (6 years) and Khivi Kaur (4 year) ask “Biji, (when) the germ goes away can we come and stay with you and hug you”? Every time it brings tears to my eyes!
Tragically, for some families, where loved ones have died due to the virus, this loss and separation is permanent; this can and is having devastating consequences for them. And if it wasn’t bad enough to lose a loved one, not being able to be at their bedside during their last moments, or to give them a proper funeral, has simply added to the terrible distress they must be experiencing.
Thankfully, I have not lost any of my immediate family members due to the novel coronavirus. However, on a daily basis, I have been following the death toll rise on media, and in my own way , I, too, have been grieving for each and every person and their loved ones. And so, in some senses, especially because of social media, we have all been affected and I am sure we all have lost somebody we knew, even if they were not directly related.
In a strange and cruel sense, it is only through separation and loss that you realise how precious our human relationships are, and perhaps even what it really means to have feelings as a human being. Some people are better than others at coping with loss, but it would be dishonest for anybody to deny they have not been emotionally affected by the corona virus crisis.
No doubt one day we will be free of the virus, but the question we are all facing now is, how can we cope, especially if we lose somebody close? Well, because of the lockdown, as well as being strong, we need to find new ways to deal with our grief and loss. For sure, our immediate reaction to loss is numbness, a sense of disbelief and denial. This is quite normal, but it is important to move beyond this stage and to start grieving properly.
After the initial shock, grieving involves recalling and sharing your memories of whoever you have lost. At this stage everything will appear confused and you will feel like your world has collapsed. Sadly, there are some ‘Gursikhs’ that will say crying and expressing emotions openly is manmat, but I would have to disagree. Just like laughing when one is happy, crying is a normal and healthy emotion, and I would challenge anybody who said that as a human being, I’m not allowed to express my motions or show how I feel. Indeed, suppressing your emotions is not a sign of strength but weakness, as this often is a result of denial and failure to face reality.
Though all human beings have much in common, due to a range of social, cultural and psychological factors, we might express our loss in different ways. For example, I am normally able to express my feelings, but sometimes it can be hard, especially if I am in shock. The key thing is that we all need time and space to let out our inner emotions. And the grieving process can take days and weeks and along the way you will experience emotional ups and downs. Indeed, you may find yourself laughing one minute and crying the next. You may feel anger and resentment, then guilt and so on. If you don’t let your feelings and emotions out, this could actually be damaging, both to your own health and the health of others.
Of course, excessive grieving may also be unhealthy, especially the kinds of behaviour we see in Panjabi culture where loud weeping and wailing is almost forced on you! But expressing and sharing your emotions and feelings is a good sign. It shows you are not in denial and that you are in touch with yourself and your mind. Some people might be embarrassed or worried about what children might think. But as I said earlier, crying is a natural emotion and if you have got children, unless they are very young, they will quickly pick up from you the signs that something is not right. And it is important that you involve your children in the process of mourning as this is the way they will develop emotional intelligence; Don’t forget, they too have to grieve, especially if the person who has died was very close to them. In our culture, because parents are often busy at work, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, from the extended family, can be just as close as immediate family members.
Whilst many people nowadays live secular lives, during moments of loss and separation, especially death, religion can play an important role in moving from grieving to acceptance and healing. I know some co-called religious people have very strict rules surrounding loss and separation, but personally, I don’t like being dictated to and I do like to connect directly to my Guruji. For me Gurbani and Guru Granth Sahib is my greatest partner from where I get strength to go through my life’s journey. Indeed, though one can never bring back loved ones, at times of great loss, Guruji can be a great source of comfort and strength in order to move on.
I know that some ‘religious’ people, who are perhaps trapped in ritualistic beliefs, can sometimes lose their faith after experiencing a loss of a loved one. They may start to ask why they are being punished by Waheguru, despite all the service (sewa) and ritual worship they have performed? For me, Waheguru does not punish anybody, nor it s/he responsible for suffering; ultimately we have to accept that our destiny is in our own hands and it by discovering Waheguru within ourselves that we can move on. Life is like a rollercoaster. Waheguru put you on this Earth to experience life and to deal with the many challenges. No doubt, along the way, you have good days and you will have bad days; you will experience happiness and you will experience sadness; that’s what makes life worth living.
And so the key to life is not to avoid suffering or happiness or any other emotion, which would be impossible anyway, but to recognise what function these serve and to find a balance. Indeed this state of balance or sehaj avasta, is not just about our emotions, but it includes our mind, our body and our soul. And when we achieve this balance, we can truly be ourselves, feel free and ultimately achieve inner peace. Then we will learn to live in the moment, to accept loss and separation as Waheguru’s hukam or will.
There are two facts that we all know about life and death. The first is that when you came into this world you had nothing and when you depart from this world you will leave with nothing. This is written in Guru Granth Sahib ji. And the second fact is, one day we are all going to die! Once we can truly accept these two truths then we will be truly free from attachments, including attachments with people. But the only way to achieve this state of consciousness is to become attached to Waheguru, which is our true lover for eternity. And that is why in Gurbani all that the Gurus talk about is their attachment to their true love (piara pritam), Akaal Purakh. The intensity of this attachment is beautifully captured in a shabad by Guru Arjan in Maajh Rag (GGS Ji p96) in which he says:
“When I could not be with You for just one moment, the Dark Age of Kali Yuga dawned for me. When will I meet You, O my Beloved Lord?”
ਇਕ ਘੜੀ ਨ ਮਿਲਤੇ ਤਾ ਕਲਿਜੁਗੁ ਹੋਤਾ ॥ ਹੁਣਿ ਕਦਿ ਮਿਲੀਐ ਪ੍ਰਿਅ ਤੁਧੁ ਭਗਵੰਤਾ ॥
Coronavirus has changed all our lives in small and large ways, and let’s not forget, nobody knows what else is to come! As human beings we should use this opportunity to realise, actually our divisions don’t really matter. What matters is how we live, with the planet, with nature, with each other and ultimately with ourselves. Perhaps from of this terrible tragedy, some good can come out. I do hope you feel my thoughts are of some value, but still, if I have offended anybody, then please accept my apologies.
“Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa waheguru I ki fateh.”
Science, religion and the Covid-19 crisis (Asia Samachar, 3 May 2020)
Coronavirus and human suffering (Asia Samachar, 2 April 2020)