The Prison of One-Word Labels

I had mentioned some years ago that I became an Amritdhari Sikh....

The gambler never wins in the end simply because over the long haul the odds are set to favor the house. I am not a gambler but I got roped into a fixed game with odds set against me when I entered a discussion on the Internet with my eyes wide open. In fact, they must have been wide shut. 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 any man resist the temptation?

I had mentioned in one column some years ago that 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.

(Loaded Dice picture from Worth1000)

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

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

There are many who reject my writings 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 that they do.

When I wrote on Hew McLeod, his loyal friends were unhappy over what they labeled as my failure to unconditionally laud him. And I do appreciate him. But his diehard foes were equally convinced that I had failed to understand McLeod’s failings. Similarly, an essay on Khalistan that I wrote at the height of the insurgency angered both sides.

I must be doing something right.

But my 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 and immediate past president of the American Academy of Arts and 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… 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.””

But this was 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 continued: “Since you are now a Khalsa, you are pure and 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…

“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)

So where does the critic place himself? If the two terms are mutually exclusive, he is 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.

Sikhi and modernity are not incompatible. On the contrary, Sikhi presents a very modern way of life. It is just 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. However uncivilized I may be, primitive I am not.

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.

But my critic did not stop there. He 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.

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.

If readers on both sides of an issue find differences with me, what does that make me --¬ a traditionalist, in his meaning of the term, or a non-traditionalist as many others 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.

Each side is looking at me through its own prism. Both are right. Yet, I can refuse to be boxed by a label.

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.

Note: The author, Inder Jit Singh, is an anatomy professor at New York University. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, The Sikh Review, and is the author of four books: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias; The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress; Being and Becoming a Sikh; and The World According to Sikhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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