It seems like eons ago now that I saw myself as a middle distance runner. Decades later in New York my fancy turned to running the marathon. I trained awhile though I never attained the time that Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, erroneously claimed to have reached.
Then in the middle of this obsessive phase I was cured of my fancy by a heart attack. But the metaphors from running continue to provide structure to my thoughts even today.
But what has all this got to do with Sikhi – its teachings and practice?
In a very broad classification I see Sikhs as amritdhari, keshadhari and those who are not recognizable Sikhs – often termed sehajdhari. I know many will find this third label too broad and even inaccurate. Nevertheless, all three types are Sikhs at a personal level and I will presently connect them through my analogy to runners at a marathon.
For those who are on unfamiliar territory, let me briefly visit these definitional terms, although my formulations may not satisfy either the purists or those who prefer muddier waters.
An amritdhari is one who has been formally initiated into the ranks of the Khalsa via a rite of passage dubbed an amrit ceremony that emerged in 1699. In many ways, but not entirely, it is comparable to the Confirmation or Bar (Bat) Mitzvah that you see in Christian and Jewish young boys and girls coming of age. By such a rite adults too can signify their willingness to walk a certain path.
I see the debate spewing on the internet as to who is a sehajdhari Sikh and who is not? Is a keshadhari Sikh who is not an amritdhari to be classified as sehajdhari? In other words, on the path as all of us are, but not far enough yet to be labeled a Sikh with equal rights in all matters? How about an amritdhari who sometimes falls off the wagon of the Sikh Rehit that is the mandated code of conduct — much like an alcoholic on a dry spell of reform who occasionally succumbs to the lure of the cup?
The debate never ends. It resurfaces with renewed energy every so often. That, of course, is as it should be, for these are matters that admit no easy answers.
The Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Rahit Maryada) is mandated for those who become amritdhari and this includes the five articles of faith, including the long unshorn hair.
But there are just as many, if not more, Sikhs who wear their hair long but never become amritdhari. Perhaps they find the requirements of the faith too onerous in our modern existence or possibly they never experienced the pleasure of total immersion into Sikhi.
But keep in mind that this is really not the point today.
One of the questions that I posit today is how exactly do we look at a person who is publicly a recognizable Sikh (keshadhari) because of his unshorn hair and turban but falls short when measured by the Code of Conduct.
Then there are some who are Sikhs but sans turbans and unshorn hair. Some recognize them as Sikhs, others do not. The latter aver that without the long hair and turban one is not a Sikh. I do see that long hair managed by a turban have historically evolved into the preeminent article of faith, way beyond the other four – but I leave the why and the wherefore of this to another day.
I see such Sikhs, without the long hair, labeled as sehajdhari by some. But that, too, is not so simple a matter. Historically, sehajdharis were perhaps those who found the public persona of a Sikh with the long hair and turban a tad too uncomfortable or threatening; the assumption always was that in time the sehajdhari would become keshadhari and then amritdhari.
Then there are those who were recognizable Sikhs at one time, for one reason or another, decided to walk away from the public image of a Sikh. I suppose in most established religions when a committed follower walks away from the practices he/she would be labeled an apostate or recidivist.
The problem is that the term apostate comes to us from non-Sikh cultures and traditions, and the term is loaded with much meaning – all pejorative and negative. In Sikh parlance the equivalent term would be patit. Thinking thus diminishes an individual and this likely goes against the spirit and meaning of Sikh teaching, from the times of the Gurus to now. To most of us the distinctions are like red herrings that muddy the waters rather than clarify the issue.
Issues of the definition of a Sikh – who is one and who is not – are now winding their way in the Indian courts, but do not expect miracles. Wisdom will likely not prevail; keep in mind that the only thing common about common sense is that it is so uncommon.
Also keep in mind that the central message of a religion is at its core and it is lived by many, including the mandated Code of Conduct. So, at the core are the keepers of a tradition. But in any society the circle that defines a given religion intersects, and partially overlaps, with other neighboring faiths. So, at the periphery of any faith, where many religions overlap in this manner, mixed practices are inevitable.
In the real world, both those at the core and those at the periphery are important; they enrich the larger society.
This then brings me to my hobby horse today.
I have at times compared the march of Sikhi to a marathon where we see thousands enter the race. Some will complete the distance in record time, others will finish but will never win a medal, and there will be many more that may never finish the race. If the runners are ranked from one to ten, with ten being the gold medalist, a few will be nearer “ten” for they look and live as Sikhs – their external and internal lives are absolutely in sync – meeri and peeri are integrated in their lives. And then at the end of the pack of runners there will be many who are closer to “one,” for they are in some form or another somewhat dysfunctional either in their meeri or their peeri – but they remain, even if ever so slightly, connected to Sikhi.
Keep in mind the assortment of runners that make up a marathon. They are all on the same path but not at the same place at any given time. What gives them a common purpose is the direction of their travel.
We encounter a similarly large variety of trailblazers in those that make up those we call Sikhs, but they are all Sikhs. Anyone who calls himself a Sikh then is a Sikh at a personal, individual level.
My only caveat is when an individual Sikh’s image – his public persona as a Sikh impacts the community’s life, survival, existence or place, such as when he/she speaks or acts in the name of the community; then the corporate, institutional definition applies. Much as the Pope can’t publicly marry, nor then can a Sikh leader publicly reject the Sikh Rehit Maryada even though he may continue to work at changing parts of it. Even then I am not suggesting an absolute here, since much may depend on a given community’s make up at the time. For example, I have seen many gurduaras where the management was or is a productive convivial mix of both amritdharis and non-keshadharis.
If we heed the challenge of Guru Amardas (Guru Granth, p. 922), “Eh sareera merya iss jug me aye ke kya tudh karam kamaya,” in other words, what footprints shall we leave in the sands of time? We have hopefully left the world a better place than we inherited.
Let me continue to borrow further from the language and context of running.
If the march of Sikhi is not always entirely a marathon, it is neither a dash that is to be measured in seconds. Sikhi remains a process of education in which the journey is the destination. For any given individual, the race ends when life does.
For life to continue the baton must pass to a new generation. This is not a new idea but an inevitable one. The Founder-Gurus of Sikhi demonstrated it by passing the baton to successive Gurus from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, and then to Guru Granth as the repository of our spiritual heritage and to the worldwide Sikh community in temporal matters, thus assuring self-governance. Successful families, businesses and institutions do it every day.
That’s why I am not quite so dismissive of the earlier generations of Sikhs who came to North America a century ago. True, not many remained connected to Sikhi. Their priorities were different; they spent their lives winning the rights to citizenship and work opportunities. The next generation erected the over 200 gurduaras that may be arguably dysfunctional today, while achieving financial success and stability so that their offspring could go to the best schools and be able to strut in the corridors of power.
The current crop of young Sikhs is busy defining an equal place for Sikhs at the table of this great society, while developing and nurturing their defining connection to Sikhi. In that struggle they depend on many of their own institutions such as SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh Research Institute which exist outside the ambit of the gurduaras. The first two organizations focus almost exclusively on defining an equal place for us in the legal framework of this society; the third adds a hefty dose of humanitarian activity to its agenda; the fourth organization‘s over arching concern is the internal development of the community so that it rightfully claims that equal place. There are many more Sikh institutions that I leave unnamed simply because there are so many, and you can discover them on the Internet.
I like to remind these young people that in their work they stand on the shoulders of the giants of past generations.
The race is not to the swift as in the dash; nor is it to the untiring marathoner who, too, will go the way of all flesh; it is a relay race instead, and a never ending one.
In a relay race each runner must give his/her all. It is like the truism that a new edition of a book must be better than the old one; that a student in time must excel the teacher; similarly every new generation must surpass the old. Otherwise there is no progress and, at best, the world is left with only a faithful copy.
Watch a good, well oiled, relay team at work. There is an art to passing the baton. Some teams develop the finesse, others continue to fumble.
In the inter-generational baton passing to which I am referring, the hurdles seem less likely to emerge from youthful inexperience, over-exuberance or angst and more from the feudal roots of the old – their refusal to accept that it is time to pass the baton along with their inability to see that the baton will pass whether they like it or not. The baton must pass, and it inevitably will. In a relay race the journey never ends but it becomes the destination.
For instance, I would like to see our gurduaras support, with standing yearly financial grants, some selected initiatives of the next generation.
Not that I will be around to see these ,but I would love to be the fly on the wall to see where this generation of young Sikhs will take the Sikh community in North America forty to fifty years hence, far from its land of birth. (But then would my mind of a fly have such un-fly like concerns?)
My optimism springs from two back-to-back conferences that I recently attended, one two weeks ago, the other last week. One was dedicated to an exploration to the history, magic and meaning of the Guru Granth; the attendees were largely young Sikh technocrats and professionals with some not so young like me. The second focused on restructuring the role and direction of the Sikh Research Institute, and again young people ran with it. Six hours a day of discussion and debates for two full days and these young people stayed alive, awake and engaged. Can you imagine this in a gurduara program today in North America?
The baton is now in their hands and they are running full steam ahead. Will they make mistakes? You bet they will, just as we did. But I remain completely hopeful of the new generation of Sikhs.
September 13, 2012