Noteworthy News and Analysis from Around the World

In-Depth Coverage of Issues Concerning the Global Sikh Community Including Self-Determination, Democracy, Human Rights, Civil Liberties, Antiracism, Religion, and South Asian Geopolitics

Home | News Analysis Archive | Biographies | Book Reviews | Events | Photos | Links | About Us | Contact Us

Face to Faith


The Guardian, Apr. 12, 2008

Photo: A Sikh Dharma kirtan jatha, performing at a gurdwara near Boston, MA

The history of Sikhism is littered with examples of the gurus (teachers) warning against mindless rituals. One of my favourite tales recounts a time when Nanak Dev, the first guru and founder of Sikhism, taking a bath in the river Ganges, saw pilgrims throwing water towards the sun. When asked, the pilgrims said they were offering it to their ancestors. On hearing this Guru Nanak started throwing water in the opposite direction, saying he was sending water to his farm in Punjab. 'How will water reach your crops when it's so far away?' they asked. 'If your water can reach your ancestors, why can't mine reach my fields a short distance away?' he was said to have replied.

To say Guru Nanak detested rituals would possibly be an understatement: his life was dedicated to imploring people to think outside their religious traditions and focus instead on doing good deeds. For example, he spoke out against the Hindu caste system.

I usually remember the foregoing tale around this time of the year thanks to Vaisakhi, the biggest festival in the Sikh calendar. It takes place almost every year on April 13, preceded a week earlier by a huge nagar kirtan (street procession) through Southall, west London.

The paradox is that Vaisakhi is rich with symbolism and ritual. In 1699 the 10th and last guru, Gobind Singh, chose this day to hold a massive open-air ceremony where he called upon five followers in succession to give up their lives for him. After taking each into a tent and apparently cutting off their heads, he then emerged with all five and named them the five beloved ones - Panj Pyare. Sikhs were hence bestowed with a baptism ceremony that meant adopting the 5 Ks - kesh (uncut hair), kangha (a comb), kachera (undergarments), kara (a steel bangle) and kirpan (a sword).

All faiths are covered in symbolism and meaning, and Sikhism is no exception. For historical reasons the gurus felt creating a strong Sikh sense of identity and symbolism was important and necessary. But its particular emphasis on outward signs of faith, each with specific reasoning, creates a tension that isn't necessarily explored by adherents today.

Symbols confer a sense of identity and with them come daily, weekly, yearly rituals. So while the gurus asked that their adherents challenge orthodox ideas, question their faith and ignore meaningless rituals, this doesn't necessarily translate into practice - precisely because these rituals give Sikhs a sense of identity and connection. To challenge these orthodoxies then becomes an attack on Sikhs' identity, and most avoid it.

I was once told off in a gurdwara for kneeling down with my back towards the Guru Granth Sahib (the scriptures). It was a mark of disrespect, I was told. And yet that sits uneasily with another tale. While on his journeys, Guru Nanak stayed the night in Mecca with fellow Muslim travellers. He slept with his feet facing Mecca, which incensed a local cleric. Guru Nanak asked him what direction God was not in so he could turn his feet in that direction. There was no answer.

Symbols, like any ritual, can become meaningless and empty if the focus is entirely on their display and practice rather than the feeling they are meant to convey. Sikhs should know this because their gurus have said it enough times. However, because of the symbolism bestowed by Guru Gobind - which was necessary at the time - there has always been temptation since to push Sikhism further towards becoming a more rule-bound religion steeped in ceremonies.

And yet the real beauty of the faith is that the gurus shied away from diktats on everything. They wanted to encourage critical thinking and to get their followers to challenge the orthodoxy in the way they themselves did in rural Punjab. As they chomp through the delicious array of sweets at the gurdwara this weekend, Sikhs would do well to remember to maintain that critical balance.