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Fostering Unity and Encouraging Diversity in the Sikh Panth
By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA
Puneet Singh Lamba is a Boston-based software engineering manager and founder of The Sikh Times (sikhtimes.com). The following is a slightly revised version of the paper presented at the conference Tasks Before the International Sikh Confederation (I.S.C.), sponsored by the Institute for Sikh Studies (I.O.S.S.), held at the Shivalik Public School, Phase VI, Mohali (Punjab, India) on April 8, 2006.
The Sikh Times, Mohali (Punjab, India), Apr. 8, 2006
Photo: (L to R) Kiranjot Kaur, Kharak Singh Mann, Sardara Singh Johl, Manjit Singh Calcutta, Gurdev Singh, and Puneet Singh Lamba (Photo Credit: The Times of India, April 9, 2006)
I am honored to share the stage with Kiranjot Kaur, granddaughter of the illustrious Tara Singh, and Manjit Singh Calcutta, both former secretaries of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.).
Thank you for the opportunity to address this august gathering. I wish to express my gratitude to Harbans Lal, Jagpal Singh Tiwana, Jodh Singh Arora, Ishwinder Singh Chadha, Kharak Singh Mann, Kartar Singh Gill, Ashok Singh Bagrian, Charn Kanwal Singh, Gurdip Singh Grewal, Virinder Singh Grewal, Kamalla Rose Kaur, Karamjit Singh Bharij, Laurie Bolger, Hardev Singh Virk, and Parminder Singh (Durham, North Carolina) for their encouragement and comments in connection with this conference.
There is perhaps no better example of unity in diversity than the case of India itself. India is home to twenty-eight states, seven union territories, fifteen official languages, and all of the world's major religions. And yet, in the midst of all this diversity, Kashmiris, Assamese, Gujaratis, Keralites, and Punjabis all think of themselves as Indians, albeit with occasional grievances.
This paper puts forth the suggestion that Sikhism, and in particular the International Sikh Confederation (I.S.C.), adopt a similar model for unity in diversity.
According to such a model, the I.S.C. would treat every Sikh as an equal citizen eligible for the highest office without regard for caste, color, affluence, race, gender and, very importantly, without concern for orthodoxy. Eligibility for office would be based purely on merit and past performance in areas relevant to the organization, such as administration, diplomacy, technology, and management rather than a test of perceived religiosity. Why do I use the term 'perceived religiosity?' I do so because it is not for us to judge the religiosity of another. That determination is to be entrusted to Akal Purakh (God). Therefore, Sikhs desperately need to keep religion out of institutions, especially non-religious ones such as the I.S.C.
Furthermore, the I.S.C. must provide equal representation to all Sikhs in order to be viewed as a democratic institution. As global trends have adequately demonstrated in recent decades, non-democratic institutions have neither the credibility nor the tools to be truly successful. The American Revolution against British colonialism was founded on the grassroots protest against 'taxation without representation.' Representation, I suggest, is the way to engage a larger audience, including, most critically, the youth and the unorthodox, neither of which are adequately represented here today.
Last year I filmed and wrote about a nagar kirtan (street procession) in the Boston area that exemplified the ideal of unity in diversity.
The nagar kirtan was jointly organized by the Punjabi Sikh gurdwara in Milford and the Caucasian (or Gora) Sikh gurdwara in Millis. Gora Sikhs, as Punjabis call them, are generally followers of Harbhajan Singh Puri, better known as Yogi Bhajan. Yogi Bhajan's Sikhs have some practices that might appear foreign to us. For example, they emphasize the personality of Yogi Bhajan, worship Guru Nanak's elder son, Sri Chand, and maintain their own religious hierarchy. However, we ought to recall that babas and sants (holy persons) remain highly popular in Punjab, there's a site commemorating Sri Chand within Amritsar's Golden Temple complex, and a systematized clergy has some definite advantages over an ad-hoc one. Furthermore, there are many practices of the Gora Sikhs that Punjabi Sikhs admire. Women hold many positions of leadership and responsibility, they are unambiguously devoted to the Guru Granth, and steadfastly maintain the 5 Ks.
Further details about this unifying nagar kirtan experience are available in my recently published book, Five Myths and Other Musings on the Sikh Condition.
In this regard there is perhaps a lesson we could learn from Hinduism's 'Boa Constrictor' nature, as Max Arthur Macauliffe characterized it. Macauliffe had implied that Hinduism is so flexible and all-encompassing that it is able to swallow up any dissenting sect and accommodate almost any kind of theological variation in order to remain whole. I am not suggesting that Sikhs should compromise their core beliefs for the sake of unity. However, I am proposing that the I.S.C. adopt a similarly absorptive methodology with regard to Namdharis or Kukas (the first to protest British colonialism), Nirankaris (who gave us the Sikh marriage ceremony, Anand Karaj), and all others who revere the Guru Granth.
Every field of human endeavor experiences evolution; be it science, law, management, or administration. Why then must religion be the only area that remains static? Guru Gobind Singh had the unique vision to grant Guru status to the Sikh Panth. The vital question before us now is whether the Sikh Panth has a matching vision to exercise this authority to evolve the Sikh religion.
Unless we are willing to include Sikhs of all persuasions there really is nothing to confederate. We must, therefore, be weary of a quest for excessive uniformity. A bouquet of flowers is attractive not because all the flowers look the same but because a variety of flowers are arranged to form one single entity. Let us model the I.S.C. on a colorful bouquet of flowers.
Let us strive for pan-Sikhism, i.e. a plural, inclusive Sikhism.
Let us build bridges, not walls.