Loaded Dice

Every generation must reinterpret societal practices ­whether religious or secular

I.J. Singh

The gambler never wins in the end, simply because over the long haul, the odds are set to favor the house.  So, gamblers sometimes smuggle loaded dice or marked cards; they hope then to defy the odds and win.  But that’s so unfair and it is illegal.

I am not a gambler but I got roped into a fixed game with odds against me when I entered a discussion on the Internet with my eyes wide open.  In fact, they must have been shut wide.  The bait was irresistible with lures glistening like polished diamonds.  The angler reeled me in with a few words taken out of context from my own essays. How could I resist?  

Readers know that I write periodically on matters that I can connect by gymnastics of logic and mind games to Sikh teaching, history, tradition or practice.  And often readers weigh in on my take.  Over the years I have become addicted to such reading and writing and, like any addict, I find ecstasy whenever I can get my fix.

I had mentioned in one column that some years ago I became an amritdhari Sikh.  It was a public declaration of a very private intention and action but it seemed pertinent in context. A bright Sikh picked it up.  He highlighted the lines indicating my personal transformation to amritdhari and instantly labeled me a “traditionalist.”

I wouldn’t have minded the label because there are many traditions of Sikhism that I revere, even if I fall short in always honoring them.  But he went on to claim that the counterpart of a traditionalist is to be modern or modernist.

My first response was somewhat general.  I pointed out that our lives are mostly too complex to be summarized usefully by a one-word descriptive label.  I know that we often use such handles for convenience of communication, but I doubt that we enhance our understanding all that much.

One-word-labels are hardly ever sufficient. I remember being asked by a pollster some years ago if I was a conservative or a liberal in the American political system. I answered that while conservative on matters of fiscal responsibility, I was an unabashed liberal on human rights, gender issues and racial politics. So, am I a democrat or a republican, he persisted? It depends on the candidate and the political reality, though I do have a party affiliation.

There are many who reject my writing because they label me a “traditionalist” and there are just as many who absolutely detest what I write because I don’t seem to respect the traditions the way they do.  I reckon they are both right.

I have written on Hew McLeod.  His loyal friends are unhappy over what they label my failure to unconditionally laud him.  And I do appreciate him.  But his diehard foes are equally convinced that I have failed to understand McLeod’s failings.  Similarly, an essay on Khalistan that I wrote at the height of the insurgency angered both sides.  I think I must be doing something right.

Over the years I have written a fair amount on all manner of topics.  My larger purpose is to connect Sikh teaching and practice to our lives today.  If we cannot – if Sikhi does not speak to me today as it did to countless others over time – then it is a fossilized tradition and needs to be discarded or modified.

Ergo, the quick black or white handles are not really appropriate. A snap judgment – traditionalist or not -- I would think, does not really capture the reality.  There is less black or white in our lives and a lot more gray.

Ultimately, whatever judgment one makes of my writings does not materially affect me.  Readers have to be satisfied that the label used is accurately reflective of their opinions and based on an honest understanding of what I have said.  Some labels have value judgments embedded in them.

But one critic came back with something that really got my goat.  I can’t do better than to reproduce pertinent parts of our exchange by e-mails.


Said he, “I beg to say that I stand by the label of Traditionalist as against Modernist.  Let me first explain in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, the Sterling Professor & immediate past President of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and one of the leading scholars of Religion in the world with more than 30 books to his credit.  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.  Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition."

So, with Google at my side I explored Jaroslav Pelikan, and found that this was clearly a serious misreading of the noted Church historian who was speaking on the vindication of tradition, not its rejection when he delivered the Jefferson Lectures in 1983.  He covered four issues: rediscovery of tradition, recovery of tradition, tradition as history, and tradition as heritage. Pelikan explored the nexus between history and tradition to elucidate our break with the past that has resulted in rejection of tradition.


Pelikan’s words are meant to shock both those who reject and those who adhere to tradition without proper reflection. Blind acceptance of tradition for tradition's sake is "traditionalism", he warns us; a living tradition embodies the best of its cultural heritage. Dead traditionalism holds its culture hostage. His lectures are an excellent apologia for the role of tradition in society.

My critic, however, went on to quote from my writing of some years ago.  I had written, "I learned a little of the Sikh ways ... I grew to explore the philosophic depth and the beauty of the Sikh faith. Now I can assert that I was born a Sikh but I regard myself as a convert to Sikhism. Hence I had become an amritdhari Sikh".

My critic continued “Since you are now a Khalsa, you are pure & bound to a Belief System and cannot go to reality direct, immediate. The belief system will hinder you; it will never allow you to go beyond its boundaries. It is a sort of imprisonment. The prison may be beautiful, very well decorated, comfortable, and convenient but please remember a prison is a prison.  Only a real man, a man of courage, can face the reality. In the final analysis, traditionalism seems to be too reactionary and too nostalgic to offer a workable way to move through and beyond modernity.”

He added “it is just difficult to accept that one can be a good Sikh especially Amritdhari Khalsa and a good Modernist. The two terms are mutually exclusive because their condemnation of each.” (Emphasis added)

A friend of mine pointed out to him that “The suggestion that being a Khalsa is convenient and comfortable is way off the mark. It takes courage to make a commitment to fight the inner battle and it takes great courage to stand up and be counted and not to be afraid of being called out.” 

Does this mean that members on the forum that hosted this critical formulation between “Traditionalists and Modernists” and yet consider themselves Sikhs are not (or cannot be) modernists?   And then where does the critic place himself?  If the two terms are mutually exclusive, is he then either a Sikh or a modernist?  He and many others seem to have reserved the term “traditionalist” (hence not modern) for any Sikh who wears a turban and has unshorn hair.

In my view it is not that Sikhi and modernity are incompatible. On the contrary Sikhi presents a very modern way of life.  It is that we have never looked at Sikhi through modern eyes. What the mind does not know the eye does not see.

To me the antithesis of being modern is to be primitive and, however uncivilized I may be, primitive I am not.  I do have a driver’s license, a checking account, can hold up my end of a conversation on religion, politics, sex or money, generally know which fork to use with which plate at dinner, and so on.

I didn’t point out all that in such language, but I suggested that there are many Sikh traditions I treasure and some that I deliberately reject.  Some readers will find me not enough of a “traditionalist” while others will think I am too close to traditions they don’t admire.

My critic also claimed that “Sikhism presents itself as the final and definitive religion for mankind.”  Now I really don’t understand where he could have gotten that – not from any authoritative reading on Sikhism that I am familiar with.  So, I resorted to a final longish post retouching on some of the matters raised. 

There is the question of what the word “tradition” means. Even secular societies have traditions; just look around you. In law we term it “precedent.” A “progressive” society gives precedent its due and yet tweaks it to enlarge the envelope and the interpretation with time. We, too, should rethink and interpret tradition whether in a religious society or a secular one.

Every generation must reinterpret societal practices ­whether religious or secular. Only then can a people have a stake in the values and what they mean. Ultimately, the onus falls on the individual to internalize the meaning and import of these traditions.

Traditionalists, like lawyers who routinely look to precedent, are not primitive in their approach even if one disagrees with them. Precedent and tradition provide a sense of continuity that is important to a society’s sense of self. Don’t underestimate its value because it has none to you.

I would interpret the word “traditionalist” to mean one who does not question and reinterpret the meaning of precedent. If done to laws of a secular society it makes for a bad lawyer. If done to religious teachings, it renders them irrelevant and fossilized. So that’s a label I don’t want. The one-word label remains inaccurate, arbitrary and, most importantly, misleading.

That was the first point on the meanings of the terms that we use. I went on to add a second matter in which my critic appeared to cherry pick what he thinks are Sikh traditions to attack them.  First, he sets them up as straw men and then he knocks them down.

To my understanding Sikhism does not allege, as my critic contended that “there is no salvation outside of Sikhism” or that “if you have “Amrit baptism” you are saved.” Sikhism clearly does not teach a doctrine of exclusivity or that an amritdhari is destined for heaven and others are not.

My definition of a Sikh at a personal level is one who calls himself one and I have said that in many, many essays. People on both sides of the spectrum disagree with me and that’s their prerogative. I am willing to enter into a conversation with both sides as long as they are also willing to tone their rhetoric and calmly try to parse the ideas. I also have an essay “A Sikh au Courant” that explores the idea of being a “modern Sikh.”

Now, after so many years, why did I become amritdhari? To understand, one has to get into my head and see my journey through my eyes. Does that make me see all others (non-amritdhari Sikhs or non-Sikhs) as not quite so nice or good people or on the wrong way in life? I don’t know where anyone would get that impression since they may not me well enough to make that judgment; also I hope it is incorrect; the nuances are critical and must not be ignored.

I can see where historically the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition is coming from on the idea of a chosen people and what they have done with it. I understand it but I don’t have to own it. It is not mine nor is it the Sikh position. I have explored this question in an essay “Spin Cycle”.

If readers on both sides of an issue (like Khalistan, Hew McLeod, Science & Religion, or Heaven and Hell etc) find differences with me, what does that make me -- traditionalist or non-traditionalist as many allege? Sometimes both sides respond by claiming that “I.J. Singh does not understand Sikhism.” Perhaps so, but all I can put forth is my own understanding of it. But each looks through its own prism.  Both are right; yet, I can refuse to be boxed by a label.

Does that mean I am always right? Hardly! It means that for a dialogue to continue one must resist putting people in a box with a weighted label. What we need is an open non-judgmental position and an exchange that can teach us both. The purpose of a conversation is not to score points but to illuminate the issues. In an honest dialogue we may start from fixed positions but remain open to the possibility of understanding the other, even if only partially.

And then came the icing on the cake! Another old friend piped up.  He claimed he has known me for 40 years, likes me and that I am a “traditionalist.”  That, I call, damning with faint praise.

My character flaw is that I refuse to accept that some minds are made up, conclusions are already etched in stone, and discussions are, like loaded dice, not open, honest exchanges.  But this is a trait that I refuse to abandon. This drawn out exchange produced a good kind of tiredness; but the results remained so much “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

I wondered if we had been talking to each other or at each other.  Nothing had moved and that seemed like a good time and place to put down the loaded dice.

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August 6, 2020


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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