Authority and Institutions

There are a lot of things about Baru Sahib that one hears and sees. Surely the institution is doing a great service that many parents, donors and other supporters of their style of teaching and discipline chose for their kids. The score card for the institution however is rather a mixed bag.

I personally did have several occasions to meet with the kids, the Baba and the local hosts in the USA when every summer they would come on a fund raising drive. Invariably the kids had to be cramped in small rooms, following pretty stressful schedules performing kirtan and making other presentations while travelling every couple of days to different Gurdwaras as they moved from location to location for fund raising.

I appreciated the accomplishments of the kids but did wonder what is it that they learnt on these missions. Were these their chosen preferences for voluntary work and if so what was intended to be learnt by what they were doing? I could not find credible explanation about what this activity was and how it fitted in with their academic schedule even whatever the vision of the organizers in structuring their curricula. The only comparison that came to mind was the use of kids from anaatha ashrams who used come fund collecting playing bands – except that possibly these kids did a little more than raise funds. They might have been helping more parents make up their mind to send their kids to Baru Sahib.

I tried talking to several and mostly found them hesitant to say anything. The quality issue of academic institutions is fairly determinable especially when some historical data can be accessed. It is about time we find out how the kids who have left Baru Sahib are doing in life. A comprehensive study, best carried out by the institution itself, would dispel misconceptions and help correct the curriculum designs and life skills ideology of the institution. Purely going by the pass percentages etc will not be adequate. Baru Sahib is trying to sell a paradigm of Sikh living and a Sikh in life. Their products may validate the massive effort that has gone into it and possibly suggest some pointers to improvement.

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Raveena Aulakh has reported on the Ragi Darshan Singh side of story relating to the recent violent incidents at Brampton Gurdwara. It is good that the Ragi ji did not go to the Gurdwara on hearing of eruption of violence. No useful purpose would have been served or his cause helped by his getting hurt.

The Ragi is highly experienced in negotiating the Sikh dynamics and also hopefully has clear notions of how the Sikh religious authority should function; how it could be reformed; and what should be the best course for him to adopt to recover his own position within Sikh Panth and heal the situation?

The reason why I am asking it is that his reported comments do not seem helpful. The assertion of innocence – I did not say anything – is no more likely to be a clincher with so many versions of what happened current. He then bewails the occurrence of violence and goes on to express his resolve that he will go and address sangat when asked.

Whether his pro active defense strategy will help Sikhi and Sikh institutions is wide open – but it can certainly intensify conflict and things can turn uglier before they turn for the better, which they eventually will.

In history the divide among Sikhs is not unknown but unknown certainly is the strategy of barnstorming in pursuit of getting a perceived wrong corrected. Minas, Dhir Mallyas, Ram Rayyiyas, Kukas and several individuals so placed did not choose the path of catalyzing internal conflict for their vindication. May be a lot of cooling needs to be done by many but most importantly by the Ragi. His obvious deep concern for Sikhi will be ill served by the strategy that he seems to have opted, for he is unwilling to contain or condemn. Sikhs await to see and learn by the choices made by those like the Ragi ji, who they held as exemplars.

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We have debated the issue of compensation often written that the that the Gurdwara employees receive in the Diaspora. I have myself often written that among other things, the compensation package of the Bhais/Granthies is inadequate to attract educated persons with college education.

I did have some awareness about the relatively smaller pay packages of those working in the area of Religious services but I admit my surprise at finding how low the pay packages of those with degrees in Theology or Religious Studies are according the 2010 survey by CBS Moneywatch published on Aug 12th.

A degree in Theology brings the 8th lowest paying job with starting salary of $34,700 and mid career salary of $ 51,300. The degree in Religious Studies has a slightly higher ranking of 12 but attracts the same starting salary with the mid career salary of $ 54,400.

Those in the know of numbers and the perks that the Gurdwara employees get would possibly have some degree of sympathy for those who went to colleges to obtain degrees so that they could secure jobs in related fields elsewhere in the American society. In most positions the Gurdwara employees have very limited hours that they have to commit to the Gurdwara and usually are in a position to pick up other part time jobs.

The picture in India is possibly worse. In my conversations with the Faculty at Punjabi University and GND University I was told that the dismal enrollments in their Religious Studies and related programs was because of paucity of employment opportunities.

The view that I am coming to is that the economic lot of the Gurdwara employees is possibly comparable when their perks etc are taken into account. Then why is it that educated youth are not opting for this service? The answer to this may lie in our collective attitude towards them that somehow is not socially accepting, though it is outwardly respectful. The Gurdwara management structures and their methods also may not encourage youth to prefer worknig with them. Whatever the mix of causes, economic factors are not likely to be dominant. Hope members will weigh in.

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We had excellent cooperation from the sangat for typing out the texts of the CT, FL and MA Gurdwara constitutions that I had. I am attaching these with this mail so that a soft copy is available for ease of working. I had already mailed you the soft copy of a Virginia Gurdwara. With this we have now 4/5 samples to use in drafting our own document.

May I request you to please reformat a merged version of these documents for ease of comparison and evolving our own preferred text. Please also put together your suggested text drawing upon the samples.

You could also mail the merged version to me and anybody else who so desires so we can offer suggestions and comments.

I must once again thank Prithi Pal, Jatinder, Anchal and Babita for their help in typing out the texts.

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My exchanges with Devinder ji have been going the expected way – to nowhere!

Now Devinder ji and I have exchanged some messages on the subject going back in years. I have also participated in several conferences with him and did expect the answer that he gave. In a lighter vein, as I continued to think about his sustained campaign, a sort of lyrical composition started forming in my mind. I am putting it down here in good humor and hope you all and Devinder ji enjoy it:

Ik oh beant, ik oh beant kehtai kehtai mujh ko sojhee aayee

Vedantic saree bani ho gayee koey neh samjhai bhai

Gur-aan nai to hum ko purkhau sachi baani di thee

Par hamrai nirmal sadhon ne us ki eh gatt kar dee

Abbh gursikh samjhain gurbani jaise hindu samjhain

Ghor andhar yeh iss karr hooaa hum sabh ho gaye andhai

Iss karan main nishcha kiya yehi dharma hamaarau

Baar baar sabh ko batlaao yeh ho gaya ghor andharo

Yeh kaise hua kiyon hua, main kaisai batlaaoon

Sach tau yeh hai hum sabh soye khol kai lambhai paaon

Par main karoon kya main to bhai bol bol thak gaya

Jis ko bolloon woh hi kehta jo bolai kholay booaa

Sach bataanaa kathin hai yaaro koi nehi hai suntaa

Real aur fake main antar kya hai siraf meri hai chintaa

Iss bheetar samai ki doree lambi hotee jaati

Duniya science discovery te bhi aur aagai hai laagi

Abh tau aaee age information ki yeh koi samjhai naheen

Jo abh bhi bani anvaad neh sudhareo haur kathin ho jaaee

Koi batao merai ko bhai main kis kanai abh jaaoon

GLZ be thaki laagat sun merai  roz kai vaikhaon

Chet rakho yeh ek baat sabh keh gaya jant devindraa

Koi kissi ki sunta nahee yeh kal jug ki hai prathaa

In all humility remembering – hasadyan khedandyan khavndyan painandya vichai hovai mukt! [trusting memory – at this age?]

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The problems at Southington, Norwalk are really no different than at other Gurdwaras. In most places a provision has been made in constitutions regarding some officer positions to be filled by only kesadharis/amritdharis. But my experience is that constitutions are subject to selective compliance by those who control and become important only when the matters get litigated.

We need Gurdwaras for our own sake and therefore even as I have not liked so many things that happen I go there for my own needs. I have however started giving money only for purposes that I think would serve the overall cause – building funds are a low priority for me at least at this time.

I feel that it could take some time before the youth may get involved in leadership positions and then hopefully there may be some change. It is difficult however to predict that the mantle may pass to non-kesdharis because I have found that the emerging activist leadership material is mostly kesdhari.

We need to ponder over the likely reasons for this phenomenon. The problem to me does not seem to be one of equality even though Puneet Lamba would not agree nor would most of active voices on the SD. If at all people like Puneet should attempt to get restrictive provisions amended in their Gurdwaras.

I do not think there is any restriction to non-kesdharis voting rights. Mere verbal attestation of equality or non-discrimination may not change any thing. What is intended here is not just internal acceptance of diversity but acceptance that random mobility between level/choice of observance has no relevance to the conventional understanding of the faith or tradition. The distinction of orthodox and non-orthodox [conservative, reform or the like] will stay superficial because the basic theological thought is shared in spite of Puneet and Virinder seemingly suggesting a reformed belief system without clarifying the theological change.

In any event the historical experience shows that it always was a charismatic leader who being able to lay an acceptable claim to spiritual depth and commitment succeeded in introducing religious reform. It has never been achieved through a show of hands.

To me kesh/kirpan fixation is a serious distraction for us and is not helping. My sense is that Sikhs of all levels of observance will continue to coexist if in a somewhat strained relationship. I don’t see it likely for separate Gurdwaras to come up because caste related factors seem more decisive than these differences. One way for protagonists is to forge ahead and found a Gurdwara with such leadership and praxis [of such equality] and let the congregation grow. It will be a pretty onerous job but may help test the hypothesis and also bring out the questions of changes in rituals, liturgy, kirtan, langar and related traditions.

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Thank you Jagpalji for your summing up on this sorry episode. I agree the Dera is a loser but am relieved that Sikhs may not have lost much.

The initial display of swords and roughing up of the Cop in civilian clothes carrying a revolver did provide some ammunition to Sikh baiters in the media. I think Sikhs have to recognize that naked drawn swords should also not be displayed as a symbol of their angst if weapons are not allowed in Darbar Sahib Precincts.

About any gains to Sikhs – only time will tell. We will come out gainers if the Sikh leadership has learnt the reasons why the Deras are flourishing and address the gaps that afflict our praxis. I also hope Sikhs recognize that leadership to the community at times of need has come only from those so much criticized and discredited. These are the old or graying Sikh institutions. So even as we critique these, to bring improvement, our aim should be to renew and strengthen them rather than encourage centrifugal tendencies. The worst is over for now and that if I go by the way even the Guru’s viewed the outcome would be classified as a success. But again unless we can build on the small positives in the present situation we may soon have to address other incidences that do not quite fit with our view of what should be.

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The manner of start of this topic inspired by my reluctant intervention in an earlier acrimonious debate has forced me to come back and clear the air.

I had in that message said that it is for each of us to try and understand the core thought of the participant when taking position of support or against any one. It was in that context that I shared my sense that writings of Kulbir ji indicate his belief in the composite of Sikhi that includes bana and bani whereas Virinder ji has been very vocal about the futility of bana. 

The comment by Parminder ji may convey the impression that I was critical of Kulbir ji. I am not. I also believe that the shared understanding of Sikhi is a composite of bani and bana – this composite will survive whatever pessimism the changing demographics may tend to induce.

 Coming to the comment by Parminder ji. I am empathetic with his anguish when he says: Guru Khalsa Panth after Banda Bahadur, has become a concept akin to a cult of few of absolute superiority. Its path also has tilted towards miri. Do I need to be afraid or very afraid? Is Panth really in need of the self appointed gatekeepers, where Gurbani and its piri has to be second.

This is an unfortunate impression but articulated quite a bit. I have discussed some related issues in one chapter in my book Searches in Sikhism and a deeper analysis in my work in progress on Guru Granth Guru Panth. Let me add though – there are no easy answers except learning to recognize existence of our internal diversity and trying to evolve some inclusive structures starting at community level before tinkering with the apex. Another aspect we have to be cognizant of is that Guru Panth cannot alter the basic tenets of Sikhi and that includes bani and bana composite – inclusive, as aspired, not enforced.

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Guru Nanak asked Lehna his name and is said to have remarked that you have come to collect what is owed to you – jo tu laina hai – or something to that import. Guru Amar Das remarked when he spotted little Arjan striving to climb his gaddi some thing again recognising the portents. Guru Gobind was likewise seen by a Muslim pir when he was one day old. When Gurus could spot the nadar on these souls prior to jot, how do we accept that their lives prior to Guruship had no meaning. All the inspiring Sikh-Guru relation lore is rooted in the examples of Guru’s lives before their accession to the ministry. To suggest that ‘all the inspiring Sikh-Guru relation lore is rooted in the examples of Guru’s lives before their accession to the ministry’ is ‘all mith stories and have no relevancy with the truth’ is beyond my humble understanding of how Gurus picked their successors. You are welcome to your understanding. I am done. Thank you.

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I would respectfully offer the comment that we should try and get over the urge to immediately challenge SGPC to step in ASAP to promote any project that gets mentioned, howsoever laudable it might seem.  Institutions must act with deliberation and should be encouraged to be deliberative. Let us instead seek support and involvement of community and help in leveraging our efforts by the mainstream in the initiative that will need patience, hard work and financial support more than any thing else.

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Just a comment – we are the only faith whose scripture has an aspect of authentication by a line of Gurus. Others are getting by with what has come down and have even expanded their vision by multiplicity of commentaries over the centuries and in many the two are hardly distinguished. Are we not being too judgmental in our opinions? Do we really believe that there is nothing of value in an explicit rendering of realities of life that has in it all the elements of good and evil, and other conflicted nuances that God has created?

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Karam ji is right in asking about the public engagements of Jathedar Akal Takhat when he visits US for participation in a jaloos/parade in NYC. His predecessors who were given the honor of leading the parade in earlier years were not essentially in the line of religious leadership at his level.

His other engagements therefore are important and one should hope he would have been persuaded to meet with leaders of other faith and humanitarian groups, political leaders and the media. I hope he also has a message for the internal problems of fights in Gurdwara managements that keep on getting bad press almost similar to what some Christian sects keep getting for pedophile priests or polygamist communes.

Another area he must address is about the quality of training of ragis and granthies – more especially locally as is becoming necessary in the Diaspora.

And if he is far sighted he should bring people together to think about what should be done to reduce alienation among youth, how should we facilitate our highly scattered community in this country to stay connected with their Sikhi.

There is a lot indeed that he can do if he were so inspired.

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Amandeep ji has raised several question relating to various Sikh talk groups. While basic information about their membership, traffic volume and moderators et al may be easy enough to put together, the real problem would be in trying to make some kind of assessment of theirimpact, reach or effectiveness as envisaged in the following questions:

  • What effect have these yahoo groups been able to create? Is the effectof discussion felt outside the members?
  • What can be done to implement any decision if reached?
  • How can these discussions be made more tangible in our community?

Methodologies can be evolved for such analysis but they would demand some rigor. As such a few issues may have to be addressed: 

  • Firstly some volunteer research associate support to the person[s] who take it on;
  • Secondly willingness of the sites to share information and allow its usage for the study with any reservations clearly spelt out;
  • Some indication if opinions expressed by individual participants can be cited and commented upon for their likely impact without opening up issues like confidentiality or breach of any laws relating to copyright, privacy, individual’s own sense of outrage at being not represented correctly and the like.

Another important factor that should be considered is to prepare some case studies of changes in profiles of the participants over time to reveal

  • How their views, styles and quality of inputs may have changed or not changed.
  • Their pattern of fade in and out behavior
  • Advocacy of pet themes etc.

It can be a useful study if it is raised above the level of surface observations and should become a resource for further work as also provide leads for initiatives in several areas. Just some initial thoughts!

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Thank you Jasvir ji. While we will be away we will be thinking of you all here. Besides Cherry being here we are blessed to get to know you all and feel so much at home. I hope and pray that our collective lives should improve as we slowly are able to set up a sharing sangat and a Gurdwara that brings and keeps us together.

The Thanksgiving event I mentioned is organized by the Inter Religious Forum and will be held at Calvary United Methodist Church, # 700 Locust Lane, on Nov 21st, 2007 from 7 pm to 9 pm.

I have been involved with the forum and have participated/ made presentations at their events. This year their theme is ‘Thankfulness’ and they had asked me for a quote from the scripture that reflects on the theme to be read out during the function. I felt Gauri Bairagan M IV, p. 167 ‘kanchan naree meh jeeo lubhat hai moh meetha maya’ would be suitable and sent in the original text and its translation. It will be projected on two screens and all participants will also have the text.

Since I will not be here I requested Bhupinder to do the reading and he kindly agreed. That is why we went there together last night for a fuller briefing.

I would suggest more of us should join. I had been taken ill otherwise I had asked Nina Grewal to prepare a shabad to be sung at the function. May be we can do it next year by our own group here. I am glad the kirtan is coming on Dec 1st at Priti’s. I will give you some phones to call in case you do not have their numbers.

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The resolutions passed at the IOSS Conference are progressive and reflective of what Nanak Singh Nishter and some other activists working with forgotten Sikh groups like Sikligars have been pleading for a long time regarding the use of Punjabi language, use of pejoratives and general sense of holier than thou displayed by Punjabi Sikhs. Our approach has been to make them clones of Punjabi Sikhs.

The resolutions relating to enlistment under various groups that are eligible for entitlements in terms of Indian laws has been pursued by Josh Sahib during his tenancy as member of Minority Commission. This is an area where we have been tardy not only in India but even in the US as far as I am aware – Sikhs seldom seek funding and benefits that may be available under the Government schemes. In India such cases can be gleaned from the resolutions adopted and in the US, a case in point would be the George Bush initiative for involving religious organizations in certain community assistance programs.

The key question however will be where do the resolutions lead to? The number of activist and volunteer groups presently engaged in this effort is significant and they came together in a meet convened by Nishkam where I was also invited to speak.

They make an impressive array and my visits to a number of sites in villages where Sikligars live showed the good work being done and the way the Sikligar community, living on village fringes on fallow Panchayat lands had made themselves acceptable to the village society and were a part of it. My interest in these visits was to find out the way they were enumerated in the census and in other classifications for deprived groups. It was a neglected area with little awareness of need for getting people correctly enumerated. My theme in the Nishkam conference as also in Global Minorities Meet in Mar 2008 at Parliament House Annexe, Delhi was the same. IOSS must be congratulated for guiding the conference and I would request Ishwinder ji to elucidate how the follow through will take place. May be it is an eminent initiative for ISC to take on? I would also appreciate if a status report on Josh Survey as it meanders thru the Govt scrutiny can be shared. Has the PM seen it and if so with what outcome?

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Gurmeet ji has raised the very inconvenient questions ‘Will some cyber fellow also share his/her wisdom as to why Patna Sahib and Hazur Sahib are more important than Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib? And Why Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib were not considered/declared as Takhts? Perhaps, Sikhs knew that they would leave them behind in Pakistan whereas Patna Sahib and Hazur Sahib would be managed by the Hindu Governments !!’
My sense is that this is an outgrowth of 18th century when Amritsar regained its centrality in Sikh affairs after the setbacks in the earlier century. The other Takhats are associated with Guru Gobind Singh, which again is a strong Khalsa influence and post Guru period development.
Incidentally even though Nanded and Patna were given the honorific of Takhats the Sikhs in those parts continued to be ignored during the post Guru period resulting in grievous dwindling of sangats and the loss of umbilical connect with them that the Gurus had maintained. The results of this neglect are obvious.

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Raveena Aulakh has reported on the Ragi Darshan Singh side of story relating to the recent violent incidents at Brampton Gurdwara. It is good that the Ragi ji did not go to the Gurdwara on hearing of eruption of violence. No useful purpose would have been served or his cause helped by his getting hurt.

The Ragi is highly experienced in negotiating the Sikh dynamics and also hopefully has clear notions of how the Sikh religious authority should function; how it could be reformed; and what should be the best course for him to adopt to recover his own position within Sikh Panth and heal the situation?

The reason why I am asking it is that his reported comments do not seem helpful. The assertion of innocence – I did not say anything – is no more likely to be a clincher with so many versions of what happened current. He then bewails the occurrence of violence and goes on to express his resolve that he will go and address sangat when asked.

Whether his pro active defense strategy will help Sikhi and Sikh institutions is wide open – but it can certainly intensify conflict and things can turn uglier before they turn for the better, which they eventually will.

In history the divide among Sikhs is not unknown but unknown certainly is the strategy of barnstorming in pursuit of getting a perceived wrong corrected. Minas, Dhir Mallyas, Ram Rayyiyas, Kukas and several individuals so placed did not choose the path of catalyzing internal conflict for their vindication.

May be a lot of cooling needs to be done by many but most importantly by the Ragi. His obvious deep concern for Sikhi will be ill served by the strategy that he seems to have opted, for he is unwilling to contain or condemn. Sikhs await to see and learn by the choices made by those like the Ragi ji, who they held as exemplars.

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Charanji has revived the question about the appropriateness of asking for or levying some monetary fee for religion related services, artifacts or books et al when commenting about the planned event “Asa Ki Var: Beyond Duality”: Workshop in Toronto.

As always our dubidha is that we, both the giver and receiver of transacted object, should not be seen to be trading in the name of our faith even if we recognize that the service fills a felt need and its delivery may entail costs to those engaged in its delivery.

This mind set has perpetuated certain responses in us that inhibit our open -ness to much that we need and could be offered because Gurdwaras are not offering it and possibly cannot either. The examples are multiple and not limited to the present instance.

Yet we feel that what comes from the Gurdwara is legitimately free. We have to rethink – it is the sangat’s contribution, managed by the committee and has a pretty standard fare. In that too there are comments about Ragi’s and Kathakar’s fees and occasionally about other things.

I would personally much rather buy my admission than go through an unnecessary evaluative effort at the end of the event and place a value on what I received. That may not make my participation any more acceptable in the divine court as an act in solidarity with sangat or helping the cause or evidence of upholding any inviolable principles either.

We may think that hosting of GLZ that enables so much of conversation and ability to communicate has somehow been gifted to us. Available as a free service we take it in our stride as given. There are people who are spending money, time and thought to support its going.

While we question small examples of petty contributions asked to support a program, have we ever seriously discussed the budgetary allocations of our major institutions where such data may be available for public information? Do all our contributions end up in altruistic usage? In our personal budgets how much do we spend on Sikhi or other righteous causes – time, thought and money?

If we keep your own institutions starved for resources and do not encourage those who may be trying to do what they can without seeking public largesse there will be others who will fill the need – be it the deras, free lance ragis, swamis, inspirational speakers, musical and publishing majors and several others.

These views keep coming every now and then and they do come at times from people whose commitment is very strong and who have credible record of seva. Several of our institutions have started growing once they delinked their fund raising from the Gurdwaras. That may be the only way considering our continuing expectations and attitudes.

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Thanks for your response to my message. I agree with the assessment about the vulnerability of our highest institutions to the influence of politicized Sant-samaj because they have block votes to pressure the Punjab politicians.

I also feel that the recent episode that played out at Akal Takht was a sordid affair where all the participants acted in a manner damaging to the maan-maryada of Akal Takht as an institution. While I have been critical of the way Akal Takht authority has been manipulated in the recent years, I did apprehend that we may soon find a confrontational situation developing with the divisive fault lines appearing all over, eroding the semblance of any  acceptance of collective authority among Sikhs.

You are both right in saying that Ragi ji should withdraw from open Sangat programs [and] let things cool down. His deliberate choice to actively engage the sangat segments, coupled with his posturing stance at Akal Takht seen by the media as an intended affront are not reassuring about his protestations.

My apprehension is that with his sense of history, his life of devotion and given a vulnerable and divided community, he may be persuaded to adopt agenda restricted to redressal of his grievance related to punishment awarded to him.

The agenda could be reform at the Apex level but no vision to that effect has been articulated by him or those who are supporting him and absent an alternate vision, the mantle of Martin Luther may not quite fit. However his active appearances in sangat may end up only encouraging further divisions and contempt for what is left of collective Sikh institutional framework and help those out to destabilize.

Internal dissidence in religious groups has led to formation of sects and groups and we have had our share. This episode does not however point in that direction except that the DSGMC may want to use it to weaken SGPC further and move in the direction of a decentralized grouping of institutions constituting a multi polar apex. This will sharpen the need for a more acceptable and credible panch jathedar group as the authority with Akal Takht leading. All this however yet is in the realm of possibility and the outcome would depend on how events move, both in India and in the Diaspora.

We must however avoid the possibility of open conflict that turns ugly and violent because it will do nothing constructive yet wash away what little reserve of good will we may enjoy in the communities we live in and bring bad name to Sikhs and Sikhi.

I avoided saying anything all these months but the situation now is turning bizarre. It is no more   je sakta saktai ko maare sort of scenario but is being directed to get out of hand by some of the activists and possibly miscreants. Jagpal ji’s suggestion about ban on discussion on Dasam Granth makes eminent sense for now.

On our parts let us not get provoked. Let us try and keep peace and dignified observance in the Gurdwaras. And let those who have to settle scores use other premises to vent their ire. They should leave the house of Guru alone – Guru is our shared adhaar and not the exclusive mascot of a Jathedar or an ex Jathedar.

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I attended the Delegates session of the World Sikh Convention [WSC] on the 10th April, 2010 and the open session on the 11th – both for over two hours each. I am sharing some observations and Convention asides leaving the outcomes to the press releases by the organisers.

The Delegates session was held in a Committee room in the well provided office complex of the DSGMC and open session in the very spacious and beautiful Lakhi Shah Vanjara Hall within the premises of Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, next to the President’s House in New Delhi. Both the premises were air conditioned and provided a comfortable setting in the over 100 degrees Delhi temperature. Both the sessions were conducted by Harvinder Singh Sarna, under chairmanship of Paramjit Singh Sarna, President DSGMC, his brother.

The Delegates session was conducted in a conference mode with most of those who were to speak sitting around a large oblong table. The proceedings were video recorded and the presentations were mostly uninterrupted.

The room was full with some overflow – possibly a couple of hundred in all. The DSGMC had some sewadars carrying lathis earlier in the morning but I did not see them later by the afternoon. The attendees were mostly shirt and pant clad – no visible presence of sants, babas, nihangs, nirmalas, udasis or rural groups.

Even though the organizers took pains to not link the motivation to call the Convention to recent specific events but the trigger could not be kept under the wraps. Speakers made it clear that the key issues intended to be addressed by the Convention were the excommunication of Ragi Darshan Singh, Nanakshahi Calendar and the status of Dasam Granth .

Considering the complexities and divisive potential of the issues the short comments made by most did not reveal any divide nor did they seem to aim at any radical departures or suggest any concrete steps that could be initiated right away. A brief summary of the drift of ideas expressed is as follows:

The aim of the convention is to strengthen the existing institutions especially the Akal Takht

In recent years the Akal Takht has been led by persons who were not fit [ayog] for the position. Up to the time of appointment of Jathedar Channan Singh, the SGPC did not select the appointee and suggestions from various jathebandis and panthic organizations were sought. That system should be revisited to move the process out of the exclusive control of SGPC to a collegiums that had representation of panthic organizations outside Indian Punjab to rest of India and in the Diaspora. The candidate should be well educated, fully conversant with Sikh ethos, history, issues et al, be an exemplar and have the ability to communicate in multiplicity of languages used by the global Sikh community. His term should be limited [4/5 years] and there should be term limits. The position should be paid from a separate fund set up for the purpose.

This is second convention since the 1995 collective, then called by the SGPC. Such meets should be held every five years in different locales to be co-terminus with the tenure of the Jathedar and review the term of the incumbent.

The Nanak shahi calendar should be reinstated and any review should only be done by those who have the requisite scientific expertise.

Dasam Granth did not exist when Guru Gobind Singh passed the mantle of Guruship to the Granth Sahib. Parallel parkash of Dasam Granth is a subsequent development and cannot be accepted.

Tankhah is sought by an erring Sikh voluntarily. Imposition of tankhah [unless the individual is personally penitent] is not supported by Gurmat.

Hukamnamas issued by the Akal Takht in recent years should be examined for review of any directions not in keeping with Gurmat.

It was speculated that in the coming SGPC elections, a large number of Bibis [including non Sikh] are being prevailed upon to come in as voters because most males may not meet the criteria. So people were asked to watch out for those using women as impostor voters.

There were some comments about the economic and ecological decline in Punjab, the erosion of Sikhi among the youth, the sankat faced by parvasi Sikhs in various societies and the drift evident in Sikh community. There also was a word of caution to not adopt any course that cannot be implemented.

The open session on Sunday the 11th drew large attendance. The roads leading to the Gurdwara had groups of Sikhs coming in with saropas around their necks – possibly those who had travelled in groups by buses and were received. Baisakhi is a couple of days away but I do not want to speculate that the gathering may be larger because of the day being the Sunday preceding Baisakhi.

The atmosphere in the hall was akin to a normal diwan with the difference that the stage was filled with a hundred or more of those who had been sitting around or close to the oblong table the previous day. Prof Manjeet Singh Calcutta, credited as the brain behind the convention, presented the Declaration and elaborated on it. This was followed by a string of speakers mostly those who had spoken the day before and was largely a repeat of the same. A couple of speakers were new like Baba Ram Singh of Damdami Taxal, Panth Preet Singh from Bathinda and may be some others. I was there only for part of the proceedings in both the sessions.

The open session like any diwan had a mix of people listening and others engaged in conversation, some tired and lying down. The attendees this time included rural folks, some dera groups, nihang groups and included women and families – the women significantly were entirely missing in the Delegate session and on the stage.

All in all an event that was well managed, was conflict free and did not attract any demonstrating groups. Those of us in the Diaspora must think why is it that violence and conflict often erupts in our setting more often even as we commend open dialogue and transparency.

I would hesitate to pass a value judgment on the relative sense of concern or commitment about Sikh issues among Sikhs here and there. My sense is that the problems that we face in India shall have to be solved here and that Sikhs here are engaged with the issues. They also, like the rest of Indians seem to display increasing sense of confidence as this ancient society is transforming and the label NRI does not evoke the sort of credentials it may have a decade earlier.

The question that probably should deserve an answer is whether this meet has any pointers to the future. I would say that nothing much is likely to change nor do their deliberations suggest any more detail than the broad road map that has been talked of several times.

What however it may do is to send a message to the SGPC to become more sensitive to Sikh voices. The Punjab polity is not going to change course and these issues will play out in the coming SGPC elections and later the state elections – to what effect, is difficult to say though Congress coming back in the state is in the realm of possibility.

As for Akal Takht issue, the incumbent Jathedar is not likely to face any imminent threat because of voices questioning his yogita for the job. The job description crafted for the position is not easy to fill – we have not institutionalized any process that aims to produce persons with such potential and the structure for selection envisaged will take time and effort to create unless we adopt ad hoc measures that may only bring back the same problems in a different incarnation.

The calendar issue does not seem to have the potential to arouse Sikhs as excommunications and some other more easily grasped issues might. As for the position of SGGS as the Guru, Sikhs do not display any ambiguity nor do they display paranoia about Dasam Granth but as we have seen these issues can divide local communities.

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We have debated the issue of compensation that the Gurdwara employees receive in the Diaspora. I have myself often written that among other things, the compensation package of the Bhais/Granthies is inadequate to attract educated persons with college education.

I did have some awareness about the relatively smaller pay packages of those working in the area of Religious services but I admit my surprise at finding how low the pay packages of those with degrees in Theology or Religious Studies are according the 2010 survey by CBS Moneywatch published on Aug 12th.

A degree in Theology brings the 8th lowest paying job with starting salary of $34,700 and mid career salary of $ 51,300. The degree in Religious Studies has a slightly higher ranking of 12 but attracts the same starting salary with the mid career salary of $ 54,400.

Those in the know of numbers and the perks that the Gurdwara employees get would possibly have some degree of sympathy for those who went to colleges to obtain degrees so that they could secure jobs in related fields elsewhere in the American society. In most positions the Gurdwara employees have very limited hours that they have to commit to the Gurdwara and usually are in a position to pick up other part time jobs.

The picture in India is possibly worse. In my conversations with the Faculty at Punjabi University and GND University I was told that the dismal enrollments in their Religious Studies and related programs were because of paucity of employment opportunities.

The view that I am coming to is that the economic lot of the Gurdwara employees is possibly comparable when their perks etc are taken into account. Then why is it that educated youth are not opting for this service? The answer to this may lie in our collective attitude towards them that somehow is not socially accepting, though it is outwardly respectful. The Gurdwara management structures and their methods also may not encourage youth to prefer worknig with them.

Whatever the mix of causes, economic factors are not likely to be dominant. Hope members will weigh in.

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The manner of start of this topic inspired by my reluctant intervention in an earlier acrimonious debate has forced me to come back and clear the air.

I had in that message said that it is for each of us to try and understand the core thought of the participant when taking position of support or against any one. It was in that context that I shared my sense that writings of Kulbir ji indicate his belief in the composite of Sikhi that includes bana and bani whereas Virinder ji has been very vocal about the futility of bana. 

The comment by Parminder ji may convey the impression that I was critical of Kulbir ji. I am not. I also believe that the shared understanding of Sikhi is a composite of bani and bana – this composite will survive whatever pessimism the changing demographics may tend to induce.

 Coming to the comment by Parminder ji. I am empathetic with his anguish when he says: Guru Khalsa Panth after Banda Bahadur, has become a concept akin to a cult of few of absolute superiority. Its path also has tilted towards miri. Do I need to be afraid or very afraid? Is Panth really in need of the self appointed gatekeepers, where Gurbani and its piri has to be second.

This is an unfortunate impression but articulated quite a bit. I have discussed some related issues in one chapter in my book Searches in Sikhism and a deeper analysis in my work in progress on Guru Granth Guru Panth. Let me add though – there are no easy answers except learning to recognize existence of our internal diversity and trying to evolve some inclusive structures starting at community level before tinkering with the apex.

Another aspect we have to be cognizant of is that Guru Panth cannot alter the basic tenets of Sikhi and that includes bani and bana composite – inclusive, as aspired, not enforced.

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Thank you for your mail and your comment that ‘I concur and respect your views. I have all the respect for Bana but I do not wear it myself.  It is the first step towards spiritualism for every Sikh but it does not mean that those with out it cannot progress in spirituality.’

This is a constructive position that even though well meant, has some inherent difficulties. In what I am saying there may be some semantic rigor but if bana is the first step for Sikh quest for spirituality, then it would in fact tend to make it restrictive for those who believe in gurbani but do not support bana from taking the first step itself. That is why I have always tried to explain that Sikhi as received through transmission and as actually practised accepts the composite of bani and bana where by tradition and implied common consent, bana has been variously practised – tiar bar tiar khalsa, amritdharis, observant keshdharis, less observant keshdharis, sirgumn and sehj dharis. Even the SRM recognises them all as Sikhs [though it does not mention sehj dharis as such but their part of Sikh pantheon is well documented and historically established]. In my limited understanding the intellectual position on who is a Sikh is pretty broad and inclusive.

The situation does get rather restrictive because certain liturgical funtions have been limited to committed amritdharis – primarily at the Takhts. The acts have further sharpened stratification by limiting the voting privileges to keshdharis, now by court ruling, to observant keshdharis and the elected officials to amritdharis. These restrictive clauses are significantly the product of Sikh seige mentality, so apparent in the last several decades.

Given the above position, I do feel pained to hear you say next that ‘the understanding of Akal Purkh & progress on spiritual path should be left to the individual, which cannot be forced in to the throat of others.’

Where is the attempt to force and by whom? If it is mere quest for the divine, there may not be any example of force unless you are referring to the few simple ritualistic observances we follow in Gurdwaras like covering of heads and so on.

I hope you do not misread me. I thank you for your getting in touch and our sharing of some thoughts together.

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Parminder ji has written a very impassioned note. Most of us here who actively keep ourselves absorbed in discussing or debating over esoteric interpretations better pay heed to what he is saying. There is basic lack of shared understanding about our religious institutions that has so deeply impacted our religious life as to create confusion and anxiety in the minds of our youth and increased their alienation.

Let me try and explain in as simple words as I can a couple of the terms/phrases that relate to the points inherent in Parminder ji’s message. Guru Khalsa Panth or more accurately, Guru Panth is a [hypothetical] collective of tiar bar tiar amritdhari Sikhs. This is the conceptual body that was understood to have been vested with collective religious authority by Guru Gobind Singh even as the Guru Manyo Granth injunction was given.

In the macro context Guru Panth is a select sub set of Sikh Panth. Sikh Panth is what we refer to when we talk of Panth. It is a collective of all Sikhs of various shades and hues as far as their observance goes but a shared belief in the Gurus, Guru Granth and the spiritual as well as the religious heritage the Gurus bestowed on us.

Sikhi actually was intended to be path that gave tremendous amount of autonomy to the person of a seeker and their local collective sangat at the dharamsal. The collective was epitome of the divine and the individual could aspire to a direct connect with the divine.

Now let me try and put Parminder ji’s concerns in some perspective. He says: ‘All my adult life, I have witnessed only chaos and mess by the people who freely use Guru Khalsa Panth. It is an intangible concept. In NA, this phrase has been used for all sorts of identity issues, all sorts of fights in the presence of AGGS, where even article of faith, especially srisahib is used when the reasons fail’.

The fights in Gurdwaras and the use of swords must be severely condemned. A lot devolves on us as sangat and my hope is that youth will increasingly step in and get involved not only in seva but leadrship. It is a process – the change will come slowly but it must.

About identity issues – the fact is that identity issues concern all collective groups. With Sikhs however the identity issues get focussed on physical aspects primarily turban/sartorial and the wearing of kirpan. I have been through it a lot especially post Sep 11 when I spent most of my time and energy both in CT and PA where I lived to try and reduce the possibilities of our being targetted by hate groups. I never felt I was working under any direction – in fact most of us who got involved did it out of their initiative. Guru Panth? No it was not directing – I could not even be a part of that collective, if it were there.

Parminder ji next says ‘Give some examples of GKP in any activist role. It has become a force to reckon when it comes to politics and elections. I am probably again articulating a bit. If it is such a holier than thou force, why Sikhs have not used it for the good of society.’

This is right but then GKP is not an active collective. Even sarbat khalsa was more a collective of Sikh Panth than select group – though it too soon became a collective of misaldars and their active supporters. Significantly even the SRM talks of seva under Panthic life and not as some thing associated with khalsa or Guru Panth.

Parminder ji’s next question is very important: ‘Why one perceives it to be divisive and imploding. Why does it not stand on its own accord? Why the devout have always to defend it. And why, on its name good people have to be put down and called patits.’

This is the crux of the problem that Sikh institutions and religious authority are facing. Again if we look here at the stridency, it comes from lay amritdharis and not the visible face that we see as those serving the religious institutions. An instrument to inspire spiritual elevation should encourage inclusiveness, empathy for human failings and motivation to step up and help not just stand back and find fault. Parminder ji it is you, I and all of us. May be we all have to think why and wherefore of it.

I don’t know if I have helped in any way. Let us give it a rest for now and get back to our pet pieces.

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My exchanges with Devinder ji have been going the expected way – to nowhere!

Now Devinder ji and I have exchanged some messages on the subject going back in years. I have also participated in several conferences with him and did expect the answer that he gave. In a lighter vein, as I continued to think about his sustained campaign, a sort of lyrical composition started forming in my mind. I am putting it down here in good humor and hope you all and Devinder ji enjoy it:

Ik oh beant, ik oh beant kehtai kehtai mujh ko sojhee aayee

Vedantic saree bani ho gayee koey neh samjhai bhai

Gur-aan nai to hum ko purkhau sachi baani di thee

Par hamrai nirmal sadhon ne us ki eh gatt kar dee

Abbh gursikh samjhain gurbani jaise hindu samjhain

Ghor andhar yeh iss karr hooaa hum sabh ho gaye andhai

Iss karan main nishcha kiya yehi dharma hamaarau

Baar baar sabh ko batlaao yeh ho gaya ghor andharo

Yeh kaise hua kiyon hua, main kaisai batlaaoon

Sach tau yeh hai hum sabh soye khol kai lambhai paaon

Par main karoon kya main to bhai bol bol thak gaya

Jis ko bolloon woh hi kehta jo bolai kholay booaa

Sach bataanaa kathin hai yaaro koi nehi hai suntaa

Real aur fake main antar kya hai siraf meri hai chintaa

Iss bheetar samai ki doree lambi hotee jaati

Duniya science discovery te bhi aur aagai hai laagi

Abh tau aaee age information ki yeh koi samjhai naheen

Jo abh bhi bani anvaad neh sudhareo haur kathin ho jaaee

Koi batao merai ko bhai main kis kanai abh jaaoon

GLZ be thaki laagat sun merai  roz kai vaikhaon

Chet rakho yeh ek baat sabh keh gaya jant devindraa

Koi kissi ki sunta nahee yeh kal jug ki hai prathaa

In all humility remembering – hasadyan khedandyan khavndyan painandya vichai hovai mukt! [trusting memory – at this age?]

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Guru Nanak asked Lehna his name and is said to have remarked that you have come to collect what is owed to you – jo tu laina hai – or something to that import. Guru Amar Das remarked when he spotted little Arjan striving to climb his gaddi some thing again recognising the portents. Guru Gobind was likewise seen by a Muslim pir when he was one day old. When Gurus could spot the nadar on these souls prior to jot, how do we accept that their lives prior to Guruship had no meaning. All the inspiring Sikh-Guru relation lore is rooted in the examples of Guru’s lives before their accession to the ministry. To suggest that ‘all the inspiring Sikh-Guru relation lore is rooted in the examples of Guru’s lives before their accession to the ministry’ is ‘all mith stories and have no relevancy with the truth’ is beyond my humble understanding of how Gurus picked their successors. You are welcome to your understanding. I am done. Thank you.

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Just a comment – we are the only faith whose scripture has an aspect of authentication by a line of Gurus. Others are getting by with what has come down and have even expanded their vision by multiplicity of commentaries over the centuries and in many the two are hardly distinguished. Are we not being too judgmental in our opinions? Do we really believe that there is nothing of value in an explicit rendering of realities of life that has in it all the elements of good and evil, and other conflicted nuances that God has created?

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<<The fact is when a person is bestowed the status of guru then all his references, places, sayings, writings and relevancies become honourable for the devotees.>>

I have a few related questions. Are all the writings included in the Granth by the Gurus limited to what they wrote after the jot was transferred to them? Was their becoming Guru a process or was it indicative of a discontonuous, quantum transformation? Once they were so transformed by receiving the grace of Guru jot did their earlier life regain some validity or is it to be selectively broken up into periods acceptable and not acceptable? If so why – because if God does not look at our gun/avgun when he blesses us with his kirpa, why should we judge Gurus differently? What is the basis for our celebrating janam divas of Gurus other than Nanak if this is the guiding principle?

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xjsa says “It is the majority of the silent community who do nothing and a minority who control our Gurdwara and act without thinking. Can we force people to keep unshorn long or short hair?” I agree an aggressive minority controls the Gurdwaras but I am not sure they are or can force people to keep or not keep unshorn hair. I do not quite understand what is being said here. Then he goes on to say “I think our membership is the only group who talks about it. If I can inspire some of you to act prudently and sensibly and help educate as many as possible members of our community.” I would like to help – pray tell me your prudent and sensible message to educate our ignorant community.

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