Gurfateh Ji. This is the last part of the 3-part interview series. 🙂 Yes I know, it’s a bit lengthy despite just 12 questions but trust me, you’ve got to read it all. It will be absolutely worth your time.
1: What is the Sikh perspective on life, death, and reincarnation?
Sikhi is a spirituality for the Here and Now. The obsession with the afterlife in pre-1469 belief systems is removed from Gurbani.
Physical death is accepted as nothing more than returning the basic elements of life to their sources. Life itself returns to its primary source. And this completes the cycle of life. The verse is Jyoti Mey Jyot Rul Jaya. Physical death is for everyone, and nothing can or needs to be done about it – other than its acceptance as it being part of life and living. There are very few verses about physical death within the SGGS.
The death that is of concern to Sikhi, the death that can and ought to be avoided at all costs, is spiritual death – or death of the conscience. The SGGS is full of verses about such a death.
Reincarnation, as a process, that occurs in the afterlife has no place within Gurbani. Reincarnation in Gurbani is a redefined concept to fit the parameters of Sikhi, which are delineated by life in the Here and Now. Herein reincarnation refers to the cyclic nature of spiritual life and spiritual death. Human life oscillates, like a pendulum, between spiritual life and spiritual death.
The verse of Guru Nanak is Patala Patal Lakh Agasa Agas. The oscillation is between elevated mental states (Agasa Agaas) and low/depraved mental states (Patala Patal). Our spirituality is like, “now you see it, now you don’t.” The objective of Sikhi is to terminate this cyclic nature – to end the cycle of reincarnation that takes place in our Here and Now daily – and to attain spiritual life permanently.
2: Do Sikhs believe in an afterlife? Do they believe in Heaven/Hell, salvation?
A large majority of Sikhs do believe staunchly in the afterlife. But Gurbani does not. A vast majority of what Sikhs believe is derived from hearsay. I call it “hearsay Sikhi.” Their beliefs are derived from what they hear from some sant, baba, clergy, ragi or half-baked parcharak tells them in the process of these people earning their living. When people make their living by talking and narrating – they will tell you what you want to hear.
Less than one-half percent of Sikhs actually read and understand Gurbani on their own to derive their belief systems from such understanding. The keywords are “on our own.” Even those few who try to understand Gurbani by relying on existing translations end up believing in “hearsay Sikhi” because the root/primary/main translation of Gurbani, namely the Faridkoti Translation, is done by the Nirmla clergy. All English translations that are available on the internet are sourced from this Faridkoti Translation. A vast majority of these translations portray Gurbani (wrongly) as supporting discarded concepts such as Heaven, Hell and Salvation in the afterlife.
Gurbani had re-defined Heaven, Hell and Salvation as concepts that apply to life in the Here and Now. For instance, Maran Mukt (Salvation in the afterlife) is rejected in Gurbani, and Jeevan Mukt (Salvation in the Here and Now) is advocated.
3: Does Sikh Gurus’ philosophy encourage belief in miracles?
Hukam is the core of Sikhi. And Hukam is inherently antithesis to miracles. When Guru Nanak was asked to perform miracles by the Sidhs in Achul Batala, his response – as recorded by Bhai Gurdas is Bajho Sachey Naam, Day Hor Kramat Asa They Nahi(n). Meaning: Other than the realization of divine virtues, I have no miracle to show you.
The tragedy is that virtually all the “classical texts” that were composed by the Nirmlas are packed to the brim about miraculous tales, euphemistically called “sakhis.” This is what I meant when I said above that the Nirmlas did more to corrupt and distort Sikhi than any other group.
Unfortunately, these texts are still relied upon to preach and propagate Sikhi in our gurdwaras, institutions and literature. Sikhs do not have the collective will to extricate themselves from this travesty. The outcome is that these fancy miracle tales are making Sikhi increasingly unbelievable and hence unacceptable and thus irrelevant to generations Y and Z.
4: How can Sikh Gurus’ philosophy help in the cultivation of scientific temper in society?
The philosophy of Gurbani is anchored in logic, reason and justification. These are also the pillars of scientific inquiry. For instance, Jup Bani within the SGGS is a step by argument for the human being to acquire realization – which is the meaning of the word Jup.
And this argument is presented in a logical and reasoned justification. But we will only see this facet if we strive to understand the messages within Jup Bani. A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in logic, reason and justification will embrace and contribute to scientific progress.
The tragedy is that our “hearsay” Sikhi has transformed Jup Bani (and other banis, too) into a magical potion. The claim is that if you did X number of recitations per day, then problem Y will get solved. The claim is that one lady got cured of cancer by reciting Jup Bani continuously for 48 hours. The claim is that so and so “sant” obtained miraculous powers by reciting Jup Bani 1,000 times per day.
The list of such ridiculous claims is long. A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in such blind-faith based beliefs will forever see science as an antithesis or even a threat.
5: Can rational inquiry and Gurbani convictions co-exist?
It was a rational inquiry that led me to Gurbani. It was the rational inquiry that led me to understand its messages. That’s because the foundation of Rational Inquiry is that there are messages within Gurbani – messages meant to be understood, accepted, practices, applied, habitualized, inculcated and internalized.
Rational inquiry is the lingua franca of the SGGS. Readers of the SGGS who approach Gurbani with the rational inquiry approach will get to its intended messages.
But a vast majority of us Sikhs approach the SGGS with the “worship” approach or the “faith” approach. The worship approach pre-supposes that the messages are not the foundations of Gurbani; but that Gurbani has an inherent “power” within it – the power to heal, grant me my wishes, and take away my sorrows etc. And that this super-natural power will come through the worship of the SGGS.
The faith approach, in turn, believes that the messages of Gurbani do not need to be discovered by rational inquiry. They cannot be found because the spirituality and intellect of the writers (Gurus and Bhagats) were too high for us. Only the writers know the meanings of what they wrote is an often repeated claim by those who subscribe to the faith approach towards Gurbani. The messages will come to us on their own through repeated readings, recitations and chanting – if done with full faith.
The faith of Gurbani is predicated on rational inquiry. Hence, it is an enlightened faith. It is faith after knowing and after understanding. Kabir defines this faith by saying Jub Janeya Tao Mun Maneya. Once I know/understand, then I believe.
6: What are the barriers to a logical interpretation of Gurbani?
There are three primary barriers. The first is that a non-logical, faith-based, literal interpretation – complete with its Vedic cum Snatan slant – has already been presented to the Sikh world as the first-ever translation and interpretation of the SGGS – in the form of the Faridkoti Teeka in the late 1800s. We know that a group of Benares educated Snatan believing Nirmlas, funded by the Faridkot royalty, did this translation. And for all intents and purposes, they have presented the SGGS as the fifth Vedas.
Virtually all other translations and interpretations have relied to some extent on this very defective interpretation. Throughout its existence and use over one and half centuries, the Faridkoti interpretation has rooted itself within the psyche of the Sikhs at large. Presenting the logical interpretation of Gurbani as an alternative within such a psyche is a significant challenge.
The second barrier is that Sikhs – with minor exceptions – have relegated the task of Gurbani interpretation to our clergy. Our clergy are, in most cases, uneducated and illiterate. Any village idiot can wear the clergy garb and become a granthi or a pathi. This garb is a ticket to overseas travel, employment and foreign country stay for many. Their only training is memorizing some popular tales (sakhis) and faith-based literal interpretations of some hymns (shabds) that they have picked up while under the tutelage of their saints (sants) and babas at their deras, taksals, and sampardas. Expecting logical interpretation from such people is to predict the village cow to render Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
The logic, reason, and justification at the heart of Gurbani will become apparent only when Sikhs take it upon themselves to seriously read, understand, and interpret Gurbani – with the help of dictionaries, encyclopaedias as well as discussion and discourse with other Sikhs on the same path.
In my own experience of conducting understanding Gurbani classes for more than a decade, I find that Sikhs who are most likely to take the path of logical understanding of Gurbani are those whose spiritual canvases are clean – in the sense that they are not tainted or corrupted by the faith-centric, literal and Snatan-slanted and clergy provided interpretations.
The third barrier relates to unlearning and re-learning. Adoption of logical and rational interpretations of Gurbani requires both unlearning and re-learning. Both are painful processes. I know because I underwent the same pangs for some five years. Cognitive dissonance sets in, and many Sikhs cannot handle the notion that all they believed for all their lives needs to be cast out.
7: How can Sikh Gurus’ philosophy help in the cultivation of scientific temper in society?
The philosophy of Gurbani is anchored in logic, reason and justification. These are also the pillars of scientific inquiry. For instance, Jup Bani within the SGGS is a step by argument for the human being to acquire realization – which is the meaning of the word Jup. And this argument is presented in a logical and reasoned justification.
But we will only see this facet if we strive to understand the messages within Jup Bani. A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in logic, reason and justification will embrace and contribute to scientific progress.
The tragedy is that our “hearsay” Sikhi has transformed Jup Bani (and other banis, too) into a magical potion. The claim is that if you did X number of recitations per day, then problem Y will get solved. The claim is that one lady got cured of cancer by reciting Jup Bani continuously for 48 hours.
The claim is that so and so “sant” obtained miraculous powers by reciting Jup Bani 1,000 times per day. The list of such ridiculous claims is long. A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in such blind-faith based beliefs will forever see science as an antithesis or even a threat.
8: Why do Sikh practices appear to be out of sync with the Sikh doctrines in contemporary times?
It is so, as they don’t feel a need to invest their time and energy in wanting to understand the intended messages of Gurbani. Also, they are unwilling to unlearn and re-learn. Sikhs at large have broken away from Gurbani as it was meant to be – understood and followed.
We have dulled our senses into thinking that Sikhi is all about the performance of some practices, rituals, dogmas such as chanting for X number of minutes, reciting Y number of compositions (banis), visiting the gurdwara, and listening to kirtan during our commutes etc. Sikhs are comfortable with out-sourcing of their spirituality, a norm in contemporary times.
And because we are bombarded regularly by our clergy that this “out of sync” thing is fiction and that we are doing just fine with whatever it is we are doing. And that the Guru will give us all that we need so long as we just keep doing what we are doing (rituals, dogma etc.) with full faith and conviction. These sort of self-serving assurances of the earn-a-living clergy acts as opium for our masses.
9: Karl Marx, the German philosopher, once said that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Is Sikh Philosophy a new variety of this opium?
Guru Nanak did not start a religion. He stood like a lone lion in the wasteland and wilderness of spirituality and humanity prevalent in 1469 and roared that religion was the cause of that wilderness. He used the word Ujaarr to describe the desolate situation of humankind. He held the clergy of the three then-existing religions wholly responsible and accountable for the barren soul that humanity had come to possess. The verse is Teenay Ujarray ka Bandh.
So, why would he go and start a new religion? The fact that 15 Bhagats belonging to diverse religions and belief systems were allowed to sit in the SGGS is further evidence that the philosophical foundation of Sikhi is not religion. If it were, then followers of religions other than Sikhi would not have been allowed a place within the SGGS. Gurbani within the SGGS stands firmly and unequivocally against everything that religion stands for – ritual, rites, dogma, exclusivity, superior to thou attitudes, dress, symbols etc.
The Gurus gave us the elixir of life in the form of the messages of Gurbani that are aimed at restoring divinity within humanity. They spent 239 years preparing this elixir, this nectar, this prescription, this remedy to restore the Ujaarr, the wilderness, the wasteland into lush green divinity.
But we Sikhs have spent the past 250 years turning Sikhi into a religion. We handed that task to a clergy class – a class that was severely critiqued and condemned by all 35 composers of Gurbani. Sikhi has become a religion that is run, dictated and controlled by the clergy. We have constructed a structure of clergy. The system runs from the clergy in our local gurdwaras to the apex clergy at our Takhats. Our clergy appear to have become more potent than our Gurus. They have dared to call their edicts “hukam-namas,” too. And have usurped powers that even our Gurus did not exercise, such as excommunicating Sikhs.
The outcome is that we have turned the elixir of philosophy that was Sikhi and Gurbani into the opium of religion that we call Sikhi too. And we have become hopeless but willing addicts of this opium. The sword of “hukam-nama” awaits just anyone who gets to a threshold of being able to influence us to come out of this addiction.
10: Prof. Hardev Singh Virk argued that “Sikhism fails to impact at the global level!” What is your opinion on this?
I agree with Dr. Virk. I can add that the cause of that failure is because “Sikhs have failed to allow Sikhism to impact upon themselves.” We are Sikhs in name and form, but not any more than that.
For instance, Guru Nanak made the equality of gender a core principle of his messages. He spoke out in favour of women in 1469 – an era in which one could have gotten killed for such a message. He wrote bani from the female perspective to show that his heart and conscience were that of a woman. In present times, it should impact at the global level – that the key to gender equality is when men become women at their heart and conscience level. The verse is Purakh Meh Naar, Naar Meh Purkha.
Guess which group of human beings continue to treat women in the worst possible ways? Guess which community has the highest distortion for the male-female ratio in the world? Members of which religion in the world conduct the most number of female infanticides in the world? Guess which community has the highest number of gender-selection clinics in the world?
All of the above is the shame of Punjab – not Africa, or the Middle East or even the rest of India. All the above is the dishonour of the land where Guru Nanak walked, lived and breathed the air. That Punjab has become the biggest transgressor of the message of Guru Nanak.
We have come to a stage where when a Sikh preaches the messages of our Gurus to the non-Sikh world; we come across as hypocrites because the question that arises is: “Yes, that is what your Gurus said, but have you Sikhs put them into practice yourselves?” How then can any sane person expect Sikhism to impact at the global level?
11: Is Sikhism universal? If so, why has it not been so accepted yet?
It is so, as Sikhs themselves have not accepted Sikhism yet – in its true sense. When the world sees us as Sikhs in our deeds, then the notion of Sikhism becoming universal will come to fruition.
When the world sees for itself that Sikhs speak up and stand up courageously without fear and favour; that Sikhs treat their women with respect, dignity, love and equality; that Sikhs display a high sense of integrity, morality and uprightness in their personal and professional life; that Sikhs contribute the lowest numbers when it comes to criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, domestic violence and jail inhabitants – then the world will want to know where all this humanity and divinity is coming from.
Sikhism will become universal not by our preaching about it, but by our living it to the fullest. Else it is all talk, and others are better than us in talking even.
12: Sikh Philosophy is 550 years old. Do we need it in the 21st century?
Although brought to light in the 15th century, ours is a spirituality meant for the 21st century and beyond. But only if we put Gurbani as contained within the SGGS at the core of it all.
The 21st century is an age of reason, logic, inquiry and justification. So is Gurbani. The 21st century is an era of information and knowledge. Gurbani is all about enlightenment – which is brought about by information and knowledge.
The foundational block of Sikh philosophy is the Shabd. Shabd is to spirituality what knowledge is to the 21st century. A human being who shuts his mind to knowledge locks himself out of the 21st century. Because the Sikhs have largely taken the Shabd out of their spirituality, they have shut themselves out of a spirituality meant for the 21st century.
True, we worship the Shabd, we sing it, recite it, chant it – but we don’t want to walk the path of its messages. Enlightenment will come only in walking the path.