The Narcissism of Small Differences

We often shun real interfaith understanding and communication when the Guru Granth could well be the textbook for such i...

While waiting in the anteroom of my Retirement Investment Advisor, I caught the headline of an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.  It was as many OP-EDs are these days – mostly lamenting or celebrating President Donald Trump. His relationship with truth remains problematic but there is never a dull moment with Trump and his tweets. 

The title fascinated me and I am plagiarizing it today, but I’ll recreate a new narrative around it about Sikhs and Sikhi.  The fragmented reality of our Sikh community in North America is not as complex as it is maddeningly complicated.  The body politic of Sikhi in India is largely shredded, troublesome and mind boggling, and this is true to a slightly lesser extent in the diaspora. Every Sikh organization, no matter how minuscule, touts an endless list of enemies that they detest and will not deal with. (I, too, have a place on some such lists, but I carry it as a badge of honor.) It is as if each Sikh outfit has its own easily transmissible highly contagious viral infection.   

Should each minisect be isolated in solitary confinement? For fund-raising each organization comes to us as if it is unmatched in dedication and service – with an aura of the super-pure. Each flaunts its own purity of purpose.  I wonder if a peacock would be quite that vain and arrogant.

I have lost count, but with so many organizations (tribal clans!) it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the singular agenda of each.  Their borders defy clear and unique domains.  Their activities overlap, as does their clientele.

But listen to their shtick.  Humility never touched them.  They cut each other down like crabs preventing other crabs from climbing any higher.  They swell but they do not grow.  Their prominent activities reinforce a newly minted adage: “Most people talk of people; some talk of things; a precious few talks of ideas.” They want to save the world for Sikhi but I wonder how – by destroying each other? 

Some want to ban the English language within gurduara premises; such edicts are increasingly raising their ugly heads in the diaspora.   Others sell bottled water that they claim to have brought from India from some holy(?) river or well. Some also sell packets of dust from a historical gurduara site for distribution!  And there is a growing market in manufactured “dry” parshaad to transport across the world!  Isn’t that lovely? And we preach that this is holier than what you can make in your own kitchen?

My simple mind is baffled!  Why and how does the dust (dirt) and water from 10,000 miles away become holier than that from my local backyard and tap here in New York? And then, we ban chairs within the gurduara hall, lest the old and handicapped find some comfort. Didn’t the Gurus reject such pointless ritualism? Among such newly acquired habits to showcase our dedication are many that blow my mind.

We often shun real interfaith understanding and communication when the Guru Granth could well be the textbook for such initiatives in the world around us. 

Some newly invented behavioral models rate a critical look:  Booing & heckling within the gurduara during the service, disorderly meetings (if any at all.) Voting by blocks based on origin — village, caste, Jat or non-Jat, Ramgarhia, Sodhi, Bhalla, Lubhana, and God alone knows how many more criteria.  And then there’s banning elections in gurduaras.  Worse yet, when an election term is over, refusing to allow new elections and passing the baton to new, freely chosen/elected officers. And let us not forget the physical fights within the gurduaras.

Is this not best labeled as “Tribalism?”

Despite our teachings, which we proudly repeat in most gurduaras every day, women remain unequal. About 40 years ago, in New York, I remember being publicly excoriated because I asked a woman to lead the Ardaas. Why a woman? I was asked by the management. Female infanticide and dowry, though they occur every day, are never talked about within gurduara premises.

I recall a Sikh leader recently addressing the Sangat. He emphasized that the first rule of Sikhi is to obey your parents. I had to wonder if Guru Nanak himself would be disqualified by this criterion.

Our first principle seems to have morphed into vilification and dehumanizing of others with whom we do not agree.

Many are the things we fight about that make up an endlessly fascinating list of trivia, don’t they? “Too many chiefs not enough Indians,” as an American saying goes, tongue in cheek.  Or, is this denial of others ego run amok?  Is this narcissism a level above and beyond simple ego?  Aren’t they really small issues in the larger context of things?

A couple of more revealing habits:  We often recruit volunteers for an endless recitation of specific hymns or passages of gurbani – a thousand times or an unbroken chain of perhaps a million recitations worldwide. Do not forget some who come to the gurduara but instead of attending the program – keertan or kathaa -- they open a gutka (breviary) to continue their reading of something else – something they could have done at home. Then there is a group of young and not so young Sikh women who religiously awaken at 3 AM – Amrit vela, you know – get on a group telephone call and repeat just one word – Vaheguru – for the next two hours.  Then, satisfied with the demonstration of their devotion, they go back to sleep.  

Their reward?  World peace or a place in heaven and enlightenment?  I don’t really know.

We seem to look at a position in gurduara management as a birthright rather than an opportunity for seva.  To be looking for a position of pride and status and never letting go.

This attitude shouts: “Surely, I should be the leader of the gurduara.  See how marvelous is my car, or how expensive my house – like a castle.  And the price of my jewelry.  Surely, I deserve the honor.  Look at me. Ain’t I great?”

Look at me is the never-ending refrain. There is an intensity and passion to our debates, but not much purpose on the Internet by these guardians of our faith.   You would call it ego, I would dub it narcissism resting atop a pile of trivia.

If my column today reads like a rant or controversy on steroids so be it.  Perhaps I should have labeled it:  The Tyranny of Small Differences?  Or Pulverized by Trivia.

IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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