By Hb Singh | BOOK REVIEW |
“I’m not lying, I’m in the gurdwara!”
“After this I need a bath to cleanse (read: purify) myself.”
“You need to do one Japji Sahib path for what you have just said.”
“We accept unquestioningly any order coming from the Akal Takhat.”
“Baba Ji says so.”
You may have heard the above statements in casual conversations amongst Sikhs. Are they rooted in the teachings of the Sikh Gurus? Are they aligned to Sikh thinking?
Some of the remarks can be explained away without even invoking Sikhi. Plain and simple reasoning will get you the answer. But for some others, you may need to deep dive into Sikh teaching and Sikh history to get the answers. Talking about the Akal Takhat, for example, requires appreciation of Sikh philosophy and history. What was the intent of sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib? When discussing chants and mantras, Gurbani should be the best guide as far as a Sikh is concerned.
But taking a cue from Gurbani is not so straight forward for most of us who are unable to decipher direct the Sikh scripture. Then there is the gap in our understanding of Sikh principles?
Worst still, what if our present understanding of Sikhi is jaundiced? A newly released book, ‘The Hijacking of Sikhi‘, suggests so. It claims that a good many of us have got it wrong when it comes to understanding the basic building blocks of the Sikh faith.
Now, that’s a mighty big claim to make.
In the very opening chapter, author Dr Karminder Singh writes: “Sikhi as it is practiced today, is no longer the Sikhi that was taught to us by our Gurus. It is a spirituality that stands distorted, corrupted and tainted. Its scripture – Gurbani – has been distorted through vedic and puranic slants in interpretations and translations; its history muddled in unbelievable tales or miracles called Sakhis; it’s general conduct dictated by an institutionalised clergy – a group that was soundly critiqued by our Gurus and excluded from Sikhi; and its religious practices consist primarily of those smuggled in from rejected and discarded rituals of pre-1469 faiths. It’s a faith that has been hijacked from its unique path and equally distinct goals.”
Distorted, corrupted and tainted? Practicing what the Guru actually discarded, all in the name of Sikhi? Now, those are pretty damning statements.
So, has the author got it right?
Karminder, a son of a granthi and a sharp mind who has just retired from the Malaysian civil service, admits that he had got it wrong before. He has written extensively on Sikhi since the 1980s. Ask him now and he will tell you to discard his earlier work. Burn them! He tells us why he no longer subscribes to his own writings of the earlier years.
This time, though, he may be onto something. The 17 chapters, running over 420 pages, stitches together his more recent writings, fortified further with argument as to what has gone wrong in transmitting Sikhi for so long now.
FIVE SIKHI BOOKS: The Hijacking of Sikhi (420 pages), Understanding Sidh Goshat (271), Understanding Anand (162), Understanding Asa Di Vaar (289), and, Understanding Nitnem: Jup, Sodar and Sohela. (308).
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. To order, click here (Malaysia) and here (other countries).
To purchase in Malaysia, call Pritam Singh (+6016-2162474) or Jarnail Singh Arshi (+6016-6114397). Price: RM100 for the full set (minus delivery)
Karminder and I are both from Malaysia. And our paths have crossed each other since the late 1980s due to our involvements in Sikh activities. I have in the past disagreed with him on a number of things. Even today, there a few things that I would do differently.
But I highly recommend this, and four other books, that he penned and published recently. I say this as someone who has spent many hours with the author, as a student of his Gurmat classes some years ago, and a fellow seeker of the Sikhi path.
The books are a result of years of deep reflection and constant questioning of the what is the essence of Guru Nanak’s message.
In the book, Karminder claims that the sant class is the ‘ultimate hijackers’ of Sikhi today. Now, doesn’t that puts us in a mud puddle. Every other Sikh seem to have a resident ‘baba’ or ‘sant’. Instead of being the guiding lights in our lives, the author suggests that they are bad company. The book provides us an opportunity to reassess that relationship. It will provide you a fresh perspective and allow you to step back and see how the ‘sant’ class came into the picture. Some will dismiss this exercise outright for their baba knows best. Others may quiver in sheer fear of the baba. “What if Baba ji says something harsh, je Baba ji kooi bachaan keh-de-vay,” they may mull.
But it is time we reevaluate the relationship and see if the ‘love affair’ with the sant and baba is Guru-inspired? On this, Karminder has outlined how the sant and the baba seeped deep into our psyche.
During the Gurmat classes, it was never a one way street. Karminder would run the class, present slides that captured his hours of research and thinking. And some of the students would challenge the presentations, leading to a healthy exchange of views.
True to his style, Karminder does not mince his words, even in the footnotes! In one of them, at page 55, he refers to Gurbilas Patshahi 6 as an ‘ugly book’ and calls out Guriqbal Singh a ‘deviant’ preacher’. What is the purpose of that book (Gurbilas Patshahi 6)? Karminder suggests that its ‘primary contribution’ was to ‘create an institution called the Akal Takhat and make it available for control of the of the nirmalas. It would ‘serve as a tool of religious subjugation, as a headquarters for the clergy and doctrinal control through the issuing of edicts and ex-communication.’
For most Sikhs, we have taken for granted the existence of the Akal Takhat, usually regarded as the supreme Sikh authority. Most Sikhs would shudder to even question edicts that may come their way from the Amritsar-based body, let alone question its very existence. So, when Karminder writes these words on page 55, he is making a damning statement. So, it is?
He is raising some serious questions. To many, the author is a pain in the you-know-where bordering a rabble-rouser.
But let’s face it. Have we really examined the Sikhi concoction handed down to us? Have we stepped back and asked even some basic questions? Why are we doing this? What is the purpose of that? And who decided on them? You know, such queries.
If Akal Takhat is not what has been presented to us all this while, then there are a good many things that we have to relook. A good many things! They impact our lives.
‘The Hijacking of Sikhi‘ is no easy read. But it is an essential read for those who want to examine if they’ve got their Sikh understanding right.
Hb Singh is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist with some experience in dealing with Sikh organisations, both from within and outside.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Karminder talks about what shaped his thinking, and his latest books on Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 20 Nov 2020)
Revisiting death (Asia Samachar, 5 Dec 2020)