How To Save The World

From matters of faith, I don't intend to learn how to make a living but I surely do wish to know how to make a life...

I am going to merge two seemingly diverse examples: one from the perils of translation, the other from widely seen Sikh practice to see what we can do to save us from ourselves.

Once a month a few of us - Sikh friends - gather to parse some compositions from Gurbani. On pages 1360-61 the Guru Granth offers one headed "Gatha" by Guru Arjan.  If I label it pretty dense, believe me, I am understating the issue. Naturally, we depend on the existing and available translations.

One verse started with: "Bayd puraan sastar bichaaran/ ekankar naam urdharan/ kuleh samooh sagal udharan."  On the sources that we consulted, this was translated thus:

"People contemplate the Vedas, Puranas and Shaastras; But the one he who enshrines in his heart the Naam, the Name of the One and Only Creator of the Universe, will save everyone."

That started a conversation: what exactly do we mean by the word "kuleh." There was general agreement that it meant "everyone," as opposed to "kul" that might likely stand for family, clan, tribe or caste.

Many lines in Guru Granth seem to suggest that through a God-connected mind, everyone in one's family or clan can be liberated. I could offer you a myriad references in gurbani that, at first blush, seem to say that a self-realized person, a saint, a man of God, will not only liberate himself but will also liberate others of his family, clan or wider circle.

Of the many possible citations, I submit only two to demonstrate that such an interpretation in meaning is not surprising or off the track, even though I consider it erroneous:

"They redeem their generations, and they themselves obtain liberation" -Kul uḏẖārėh āpṇā mokẖ paḏvī āpe pāhi [Guru Granth, p 592].

Or look at this line:

"I myself am liberated, and my companions swim across; my family and ancestors are also saved" -- Āp mukaṯ sangī ṯare kul kutamb uḏẖāre [Guru Granth, p814].

Can it really be so?

And then I am trapped by the Christian message that proclaims from rooftops: "Christ died for our sins" or "Jesus died for us so that we can have eternal life."

I listen and again I wonder: Can this really be so?

Can someone else pay my debts in this life? Can someone else die for my sins? Can someone else atone for the evil that's in my heart or my actions?

For me personally, it would be a wonderful world if someone else could pay and atone for my acts of omission and commission-- my mistakes. My failings are so many and it would be liberating to have a free pass.  But it does stand the whole idea of individual responsibility and righteous living on its head. 

I would opine that a literal translation of these worlds in gurbani would destroy civilization as we would like it to be, even civilization as we know it. The whole system of morality, fair play and ethics would collapse and have no place in society then.

But a way to cancel my debts and numerous missteps in life remains an enticing idea. At a personal level I sure wish that it was possible. How easy then it would be to save the world. One would only have to hire good but needy people to recite prayers endlessly in the name and for the benefit of the donor.

But from a societal perspective it would be a horrendous model -- a real unmitigated disaster.

It might cost more for a Donald Trump or a mafia don to get his slate cleaned than for someone like most of us, but then our pockets are likely not that deep or capacious either. In such a working system I suppose one could try and calibrate one's quota of sins, committed or contemplated, to a slice of one's assets that are budgeted for cleaning up our messes -- much as we regulate our purchases to the outer limits of our credit cards.

Just think with me: If this rendition were to be literally true, surely Ram Rai, the son of Guru Har Rai, would have needed to do nothing to be saved from his sins; nor would the sons of Guru Nanak. Certainly, the virtues of the Gurus would be enough to more than balance out and void the misbehavior of their sons.

If Guru Nanak was advocating that benefits of virtues could be transferred to others or attained by proxy, he would not have declaimed "aapay beej aapay he khaaho" [Guru Granth, p 4]; in other words, 'as you sow so shall you reap.' He also said that "by one's own actions one is nearer or farther from God that is within us all" - karmi aapo aapni ke nerhae ke door [Guru Granth, p 8]. (This line is also credited to Guru Angad.) This, too, would then become a meaningless exhortation.

So, such a literal meaning is not what the Gurus likely had in mind. 

The poetry of gurbani needs to be interpreted in the context of the times, culture and language when it was elaborated. The allegories and metaphors reign supreme; without them we would surely lose both our direction and destination.

What then to make of "kuleh or "kul"?" How to interpret this usage in the poetry of Guru Granth Sahib? How then to celebrate and acclaim the individual who has seen the light? Keep in mind that Sikhi is not a business, an estate or a fat bank account that can be willed to a son or daughter; it can be earned but not gifted. In fact no religion is, nor is any model of ethical conduct.

Sikhi is a path that has to be cultivated by the individual via daily practice of the teachings, along with contemplation and recitation of gurbani. But there is more to Sikhi than the individual path. A parallel emphasis is on the congregation of like-minded seekers.

Truly, the company one keeps is critical. It is for this reason that the savant Bhai Gurdas said, "Kahoo ki sangat mil jeevan mukt hoe/ kahoo ki sangat mil jampur jaat hae." In other words, some company can liberate one; other company will consign one to hell. And, in the words of Kabir, "One becomes the company one keeps"  - Jo jaisī sangaṯ milai so ṯaiso fal kẖā▫e - [Guru Granth, p 1369].

It is through community, communion and congregation - social capital - that societies and nations are built. Keep "social capital" in mind. This is the critical and operative idea here.

So who do you hang out with is the question. This is exactly what the Guru Granth is talking about. I offer you one more citation from the many that gurbani offers: "Those who serve the True Guru, O Beloved, their companions are saved as well" - Jinĥī saṯgur sevi▫ā pi▫āre ṯinĥ ke sāth ṯaray -  Guru Granth, p 636].

Most people know this intuitively. That is why most parents across the world - no matter the culture, religion or geography - want their kids to cultivate good company that offers enviable role models.  We all value role models and iconic figures that we can identify with in our journey through life. If we latch on to a good one, it can be life-saving. In fact we learn more from peers and role models than from books, classrooms and endless lectures. The benefits are life-long and immeasurable.

I believe it is this that Guru Granth is talking about when it speaks of kul - clan and family - that can be saved by an enlightened soul. It is a clan not defined by blood lines but by ideas and ideology that define a lifestyle. 

This takes me to what I heard Condoleezza Rice say in the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia: "We are a nation forged not from common blood but from common purpose." Of course, she was speaking about the nation that is America, but the idea is equally applicable to Sikhi - the nation that the Gurus founded.  In the final analysis, Sikhi promises us a people forged not from common blood but from common purpose. That's why Sikhs are meant to shun distinctions of caste, class, tribe nationality and gender, etc., and seek the company of similarly centered people on the same path - sangat or congregation.

What I am suggesting here is the two-fold path of individual responsibility and the building of a congregation – communion and community.  Historically, Sikhs have valued and talked about “gurbhai,” a kinship of ideas and ideology.  To borrows a label from my friend Harinder Singh, in modern lingo this word is perhaps best translated as labeled “gur-sibling” 

This tells me that no one else can meditate or pray on our behalf to transfer any of the benefits to us. Individual responsibility is not so easily swept aside or traded. Lincoln reputedly said, "I am less concerned about who my grandfather was and more about what his grandson is up to."

My next two homilies come from a different direction but are pointed towards the same end. What makes a good bargain and what doesn't?  I start with two superbly well honed intellects. I want you to know that they are Sikhs who seem to want to practice Sikhi; and they satisfied that they do so. The question is how well do the ideas here intermesh in real life? 

One is a brilliant scientist with an absolutely first-rate track record of research and several lucrative patents under his belt. Recently, he and his wife were most anxious to visit Amritsar in Punjab for a few days.  Why? On payment of a handsome fee, a reading of the entire Guru Granth was to be completed in their names and for their family’s benefit at a premier historical gurduara there. They just had to be there when the last four pages were to be read.  They were willing to a pay a premium above and beyond the usual tariff so that the airlines and hotels would accommodate them.

In many Sikh homes, a reading of the Guru Granth is always in progress. My wife and I, too, follow such practice and it takes us about a year to complete the 1430 page volume. Not so long ago, when we were still new to the neighborhood and it was time to complete the reading, we decided to make a public celebration of it by inviting the community.

That brings me to the second prominent Sikh that I have in mind today.  He is an important mover and shaker; a superbly dedicated Sikh, a visible spokesman for Sikh causes and a successful businessman blessed with the proverbial Midas touch. He wondered if he could join our function to complete his own reading of the Guru Granth at the same time.

We welcomed the opportunity to share our delight but we were not aware that his reading of the Guru Granth was also near completion. When asked, his answer floored us. "At any given time," he said, "we have many readings simultaneously going on in India that we sponsor every year so we can complete one just about any time that we wish to. We have standing contractual agreements with many gurdwaras in India; we send them the fee; they credit the reading to us and pray for us. This is how we accumulate our record of good deeds in this life -- the benefits accrue to us in our prosperity every day."

I was flabbergasted.

Isn't that what Martin Luther railed against? He protested the selling of such indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Isn't this what the Brahmins do every day when they insist that they are the only middlemen who can guarantee that our prayers and payments reach an otherwise unapproachable God? Doesn't religion then become a closed shop -- a commercial transaction?

We tend to forgive such outlandish behavior by those who should know better by pigeonholing it under creative and imaginative rationalizations; to wit: 1) mysterious are the ways of God and these people will change when the grace of God and Guru leads them to do so -- this smacks of the classical pattern of passive-aggressive behavior that appears to be a defining trait of Indian culture; 2) these are different manifestations of devotion (shrdha) that mandate our acceptance and respect, even though such practices clearly contravene the teaching in Guru Granth; any critical aspersions on it are inappropriate; or 3) a miscellaneous box labeled "Where is the harm?"

And then my mind went to the business that I have plied much of my life. I have taught at a university where students usually become physicians and dentists - professions which guarantee them a place towards the higher end of the food chain.  It is the business of education, no matter where and in what, that I want to talk about. Think with me a moment. How do we educate our children to make a successful future?

We enroll them in schools that are the best that we can afford. The children need to complete some assignments that have to be done in class and some that must be completed at home. Home work is not done in class; class work is not done at home. But the two complement each other.

If our child is not doing so well in school we meet the teacher(s) and explore alternative strategies to help the child. We engage tutors; we spend more personal time with home work. We create study teams. Progress is important; success is critical.

Never ever does the thought come to our head that the teacher could read the books and complete the lessons for the child and the benefit will somehow accrue to the child. No parent ever claims that the child has no time for home work (or class work} but that graduation is critical -- so perhaps a teacher, parent, or a hired hand could do the work while the child stays out of class.

Such a suggestion would surely be absurd and summarily dismissed. Why? Because it is only by doing his or her own work that a child will ever learn to read or write or get the training to make a living. The child will likely not survive in this world without mastering some fundamental skills that schooling offers.

From matters of faith, I don't intend to learn how to make a living but I surely do wish to know how to make a life.

How then can I reason that if I am too busy to read the Guru Granth myself or translate its lessons, then someone else -- a granthi, rabbi, minister or priest -- could be paid to do all that scut work and that would sort of grease my way into some kind of heaven with a modicum of "godly" approval. I know that we tend to dismiss our failures along the spiritual path with the sanctimonious "It will come as and when the Spirit moves me or the Guru wills it." 

I ask you: Can we forgive our lack of progress along regular schooling and the professional path with equally glib explanations? Can I say, academic success will come as and when the teacher wills it? It is all a matter of grace; I need not work on it. These would be universally seen as what they are -- not so attractive or clever cop-outs.

Let me see if I can put it a bit more simply, tersely and directly.

Many years ago, there was a time when I worked at night to pay my way through graduate school. Many were the days when I was too worn out to learn much from a lecture or play catch up at home. It never crossed my mind to say to my professors: I haven't the time to study and understand the assignments. But here I am paying my tuition. Can't the professors read and complete the assigned task on my behalf? Of course, I promise to come for the graduation.

Many of my students in medical and dental programs pay close to $50,000 per year in tuition alone. Would it be alright if one said: I am paying all that I have and can, and I am a dedicated student; I haven't the time (or the inclination and talent?) to do the home work and class work to master the requirements; I think it reasonable that the teacher does the work in my name and the benefit comes to me. I'd be back to collect my diploma. Or, can someone offer a premium in fees and get this special dispensation?  

If making a doctor, lawyer or engineer takes training and schooling that has to be completed by the student and not by proxy or by a substitute, why would it be different for making a Sikh, Jew, Christian, Hindu or what have you?  If making a living takes dedicated attention and work, wouldn't similar logic not apply to the process of making a life? In leaving our efforts to "when God and Guru will it", are we not forgetting that the best prayer is honest self-effort?

I would think a diploma by proxy is a bad bargain both for the individual and for society.

Guru Granth advises us that everyone receives the rewards of his own actions ("Kīṯā āpo āpṇā āpe hī lekẖā sandẖī▫ai" – Guru Granth, p 473) and to do ourselves what we need to do ("Āpaṇ hathī āpṇā āpe hī kāj savārī▫ai", Guru Granth, p 474).

I know that what I decry today is widely found in the religious practices of many, be they Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, or any of the variety of other labels.  Life is one business where one must do one’s own work; it would be an unholy bargain otherwise. No one else can pay our debts, earn us reward points in a heaven or clean up our messes in this life except us. A priest cannot, nor can a Brahmin or a Gyani/Granthi. No holy water can wash away sins -- neither our own, nor of someone else; no ritual bathing can cleanse the mind. 

These are bold and rebellious claims but I assure you citations from the Guru Granth in their support exist aplenty.  Sikhi is a "Do-It-Yourself" system. Saving the world is a powerful idea and a goal worth living and dying for. But saving the self is the only starting point for saving the world.

It is a personal responsibility that cannot be outsourced.

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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