If you are passionate about the Sikh faith, then you may want to pick up these five hard-bound books that have just been released.
But expect to be challenged. Sikh thinker Dr Karminder Singh has taken pains to show how so many Sikhs may have got their basic understanding of the faith flat out wrong.
The Malaysian-born writer – a prolific writer and a speaker with a solid command of three languages (English, Panjabi and Malay) – makes no apologies for his hard hitting conclusions.
“My father told me that if what you do does not evoke a response, then you have not done anything worth talking about,” he tells Asia Samachar interview.
The five books just released are:
- The Hijacking of Sikhi (420 pages)
- Understanding Sidh Goshat (271)
- Understanding Anand (162),
- Understanding Asa Di Vaar (289)
- Understanding Nitnem: Jup, Sodar and Sohela. (308).
Karminder retired in April 2020 as a defence ministry deputy secretary general after a 32-year stint with the Malaysian civil service. In the late 1980s, he was the general secretary of Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia
Here are excerpts from the interview.
You are active on the Sikhi lecture and teaching circuit, and have been writing. What is the backstory to these books?
These books are a natural progression to what I have been doing. I have worked on Understanding Gurbani for 30 years. I have spoken in gurdwaras, presented at seminars and conferences, written for magazines and journals, produced videos and operated a website in sharing the messages of Gurbani. These books are another step in this journey.
What do you hope to achieve with the publication of these five books, totalling 1,450 pages?
If readers can come to appreciate the meaningful messages that our Gurus have composed for us within the pages of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib – that would be an achievement. The idea that Gurbani contains messages that must be understood, accepted, believed, inculcated and applied in our daily lives needs to be embraced by us Sikhs. This is the real deal.
The core theme of my books is that Sikhi is a Spirituality of the Self, By The Self, For the Self. Guru Nanak put it this way: Apan Hathi Apna, Apey Hi Kaaj Swareay. If readers can appreciate and embrace this principle in their spiritual journeys, I would have achieved the purpose of it all.
A large majority of Sikhs have outsourced our spirituality to our clergy. Guru Nanak held the clergy of his day responsible for the destruction of spirituality then. He cautioned us against having a clergy class. We have defied his call and have ended up with a clergy that is anti-thesis to Sikhi. Sikhi is now within the control and domain of our clergy.
My books are aimed at putting Sikhi back into the hands of Sikhs themselves.
Please share something about your background: Personal, Family and Professional?
My parents placed a great deal of emphasis on education. I suppose it is a natural family value when both parents are teachers. Debate and questioning was prevalent in the house. In the spiritual realm, reading and understanding the meanings of Gurbani was inculcated by my father in all of his children. My mother had all of her children read the entire SGGS by age 10 or 12. Father explained the meanings of individual words in the verses. He had an impressive understanding of Punjabi, Urdu and Persian and that gave him an advantage when it came to deriving meanings. Our house was ritual-free and blind-faith free. My father ordered parcel loads of books on Sikhi from India regularly and made us read them.
My postgraduate education and living in the USA helped develop thought processes that were anchored in reason, justification and logic as well a critical thinking. These skills helped obtain a deep and contextual understanding of Gurbani. Gurbani is reasoned spirituality – presented within the parameters of logic and reason. Our Gurus were thinkers par excellence.
My Gurbani work is a family enterprise – with my wife and children as well as my siblings deeply invested in what I am doing. There can be no bigger blessing than this.
Who were among the people who had the biggest impact on you when growing up?
My parents, undoubtedly. The values they held, cherished and taught their children were values they acquired from their understanding of Gurbani. They became Gurbani and lived Gurbani. Memorizing banis and shabds didn’t impress them. Reciting more than the other sibling didn’t either. Understanding them did.
Guru Nanak stands at the top of the list.
The spiritual wisdom, devotional brilliance and compassion for nature that defined Guru Nanak has deeply impressed upon my thinking in my spiritual, personal and temporal domains. His courage to think, express and act in accordance with his conscience – in the face of unparalleled resistance from the entire religious, political and societal world – provided me a profile of life that was worthy of emulation. His philosophy shone like a bright torch on the journey of my own life. His convictions towards equality of mankind, resolve towards exposing the corruption within society, and unlimited love for his fellow human beings will shape the thinking of just about anyone who comes to know him through his writings as contained within the SGGS. There was no escaping his influence from the point of that knowing.
How did you learn Sikhi?
The basics were acquired at home. These basics shaped the Sikhi learning process in my adult life as one that was rooted in rejecting unbelievable tales called sakhis; rebuffing ridiculous assertions of miracles; repulsing demands for blind faith; and denouncing narratives and rituals that were clearly plagiarized from other religions.
“Surely this cannot be the Sikhi of Guru Nanak” was a conviction that rooted itself deeply in my mind and became the building blocks of my Sikhi learning. The only way to obtaining answers was to get the source of it all – the writings of Guru Nanak in the form of 927 shabds that were within the SGGS. It became clear quickly that the narrative of Sikhi that was within the SGGS stood in high contrast to the narrative of Sikhi that was preached by our clergy in our gurdwaras, contained in a vast majority of the classical texts, and that which was believed and accepted by a large majority of Sikhs.
I enrolled to learn Sikhi the day I discovered that the Sikhi of us Sikhs was not the Sikhi of the SGGS.
You have rejected some of your earlier works on Sikhi. What led to that decision?
Prior to delving into the messages of Gurbani, a vast majority of the stuff that I had believed to be Sikhi – and preached – was what I now call “hear say Sikhi.” It was a Sikhi that was based on what the clergy – our granthis, kirtanias, parcharaks and kathakars – has preached in the gurdwaras; and what our intellectuals – writers, thinkers and authors – has put out in the published form.
The rejection of my own prior work came as I completed my own study of the entire SGGS – a verse by verse, shabd by shabd, bani by bani understanding of the entire granth over a five-year period. It was clear that virtually all my previous work failed the test of Gurbani. Rejection was the only way out. My conscience would not have it any other way.
And what makes you think you got it right, this time?
Anyone who has delved into understanding Gurbani as contained within the SGGS for himself or herself and by one self would know such without any doubt whatsoever. The messages of Gurbani have an inherent truth within themselves. These truths resonate with one’s conscience. The contrast between clergy-concocted “Sikhi” and SGGS based one is too glaring to ignore.
Anytime anyone makes any claim about Sikhi without the understanding of Gurbani – it has to be wrong – by definition. The converse is, therefore, true.
What was your most profound learning as you went about rediscovering the teaching of the Sikh Gurus?
Firstly, that the uniqueness of Gurbani-based Sikhi was total and complete. But that we Sikhs had broken away from the messages of Gurbani. The outcome was that we had lost the uniqueness of our thought, speech, actions, and value systems. We had lost the uniqueness for our divine-ness, lost the uniqueness of our humanism, lost our moral compass. The uniqueness of our looks, dress and garb – critiqued in Gurbani as vain – became the be all and end all for a majority of us.
The second profound learning was that in breaking away from the messages of Gurbani, we had taken Sikhi back to 1468. And that we had come to stand on the same crossroads that Guru Nanak stood. And that we had taken the very road that Guru Nanak told us not to travel and reached a destination Guru Nanak wanted us to avoid.
In other words, for a vast majority of us Sikhs, Guru Nanak had not yet been born. Our 1469 had not come – in the spiritual sense. We were living temporally in the 21st century. But spiritually we were in 1468.
Rediscovering Gurbani was thus rediscovering the journey, the cross-roads and the intended destination.
Your writing and lectures on Sikhi have evoked strong responses. How have you handled those responses?
My father told me that if what you do does not evoke a response, then you have not done anything worth talking about. Responses are a measure of having moved the audience: at the very least into thinking. Responses mean your views have been noticed, that you are making an impact, that you have done something of bearing. Handling responses is life for people who evoke them. Responses provide the impetus to keep going. The stronger the response, the stronger the motivation to keep at it. These five books are the outcome of that motivation.
When it comes to Sikhi preaching, do you see yourself as an outlier? How has that affected you personally?
The messages from Gurbani pertaining to outliers is that if you don’t fit in spiritually, you are doing the right thing. Bhagat Kabir says of his spiritual journey – everyone is walking downhill, while I am traversing a difficult uphill journey. He further says that he left the crowds behind. That is an outlier defined in Gurbani by Kabir. The journey of spirituality is a journey for those who are unafraid of becoming outliers. The Gurbani word for outlier is Virla. It appears some 160 times across the pages of the SGGS. Sikhs wishing to blend into the downhill going crowds and keep their peace with clergy concocted religion can give my books a pass.
In 420-page ‘The Hijacking of Sikhi‘, you are hitting out the Sikh practices prevalent today. Do you think your messages will make a difference?
They are aimed at bringing about realization that a large volume of the prevalent practices is inserted into our religion by the three groups I call the Hijackers of Sikhi. Over a period of 250 years, these Hijackers systematically and methodically brought back virtually everything that our Gurus threw into the dustbin of spirituality. Mainstream Sikhs have accepted most of these Guru-discarded practices because we did not benchmark them on the messages of Gurbani. How could we, when we had disconnected ourselves from Gurbani. For instance, Gurbani says Sikhi is a spirituality of self effort. But mainstream Sikhs have accepted the notion of outsourcing. We pay people to do our paath, do our ardas for us, do our asking for us, and take care of our afterlife. This is Hijacked Sikhi.
I believe in educating. My messages will make a difference in that they will bring about awareness and an awakening. For those who desire an awakening.
In the same book, you write: “Resistance against the reform by the Hijacker groups was anticipated. Opposition from the dera, taksali and clergy groups was predictable. What was not expected, however, was that Sikh Institutions, Organizations, Academics, and Thinkers would show such high levels of resistance towards efforts of reform….What is equally shocking is that the Sikh masses have shown high levels of indifference and ambivalence in wanting to embrace the true and authentic messages of their Gurus as advocated in the SGGS.” (p369/370). Do you see hope? What will it take to hit home with the masses the ‘true and authentic messages’?
It’s a reflection of how deep the rot is. Of how successful the Hijackers of Sikhi have become. Of how pervasive the hijacking is. Of what the hijackers have achieved. Of how our institutions have been compromised. I use the term “Stockholm Syndrome” in that book you mentioned. It’s a state where the hijacking has gone on for so long that the hostages begin to sympathise with the hijackers. In our case, some of us hold our Hijackers to be “real and true” Sikhs, and our role models.
I would not have invested my time and energy if I didn’t think there was hope. The internet and the prevalence of social media has made it possible for every Sikh to educate oneself of the true and authentic messages and share them with family and friends. There will always be hope as long as Sikhs want to awaken from their spiritual slumber and take charge of their own Sikhi journeys.
All sorts of labels have been thrown at you. Which label/s would you allow to stick on you?
Labels are, by definition, given by one’s critics. The provision of a label is an unspoken admittance – by my critics – of their inability to provide logical, reasoned and justified responses to my views, writings and lectures. It is also an admission that my critics know – deep down within themselves -that the position I am taking and advocating is the correct one, but they are unable to bring about change within themselves for a variety of reasons – chief among which is that their long held beliefs are hard to let go off.
I say the above from my own experience. As I began to understand the messages of Gurbani for myself, they began to contradict all that I had believed, accepted and practiced in my adult life. The initial shock soon turned to disbelief and then into pain. “Does this mean that all that I had accepted all along was wrong?” is a deeply painful question to face. It’s even more painful to realize that the answer is in the affirmative.
Unlearning is a profoundly painful process. Labelling those who advocate unlearning is a response to circumvent this intense pain. But it is a bad response. It’s an unscrupulous response. That is because labelling prevents an honest inner dialogue, an authentic inner debate, a truthful inner contemplation from taking place – processes which are required for unlearning to take place. Again, I speak from my own experience. I went silent for some years to deal with my pain of realization that my previous beliefs were wrong. It was like waking up in an airplane and realizing the plane was hijacked and being taken to the wrong destination. They say the truth is liberating. The truths of Gurbani are both liberating and empowering. They liberate us from the pain of unlearning and empower us to re-learn.
I will suggest that the Hijacking of Sikhi be read first. It provides a framework of the problem. This book tells us what is broken. How it got broken. Who is responsible and why. This book tells us of what needs fixing.
One of the things that needs fixing is the corruption in the translations of Gurbani and the use of such defective interpretations. For instance, the Hijackers of Sikhi tell us that they are true intermediaries of God. To root this claim in our minds they tell us a plethora of sakhis – euphemism for tales that were concocted by the hijackers themselves – of our Gurus appointing them. To establish their fake claims, they quote verses from Gurbani – verses that actually contradict their claims. But they know that Sikhs have lost the ability to decipher the messages of Gurbani or themselves. The Hijackers thus provide distorted and corrupted interpretations in the form of their sermons and in writing.
My other four books interpret the banis of Jup, Sodar, Sohela, Sidh Goshat, Anand and Asa Di Vaar. I suggest that the reader begin with Jup bani. Most of us are not only familiar with this bani, but also familiar with its distorted translations. Readers will thus be able to readily know the difference between the interpretation that they hold, and the Gurbani –framework based one that I have presented.
You have given many lectures and talks on Gurmat. Any particular series that you recommend to the readers of these books?
There is a set of three short videos titled Understanding Ek Oangkar, Understanding The Opening Verse and Understanding The First Salok. The foundations of Sikhi are encapsulated in all these three short portions of Gurbani. I thought it was important that we got our basic right and thus created these videos.
There will be an upcoming set of 12 videos pertaining to 12 common concepts that are used within Gurbani – but have been misunderstood. I am sure the readers of these books will find these videos helpful.
The title ‘Understanding Nitnem: Jup, Sodar and Sohela.‘ is printed with a full stop. There is no full stop in the other 4 books released together. Was it by design? Are you trying to say something?
If all the readers of my books read them with such a sharp focus, I would be honoured indeed. Sohela – meaning bliss – is the final stop in the journey of spirituality that is laid out by Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s spritituality is for the Here and Now. In a spirituality for the Here and Now, there is nothing beyond Sohela. Nothing beyond Bliss. The full stop signifies the final stop on the journey that is Sikhi. It signifies that one has reached one’s goal and destination.
Any other comment?
A whole variety of people need to be thanked without whose support these books would not have been published. They know who they are. May their endeavours be brought to fruit by those who will venture to read these 5 books. Get them if you desire a Gurbani based awakening.
The books can be ordered online or self-collected from local distributors. Readers of Asia Samachar can go to the online store at www.sikhivicharforum.org for the details.
Karminder’s ‘real deal’ in 5 new books on Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 19 Nov 2020)