Ecology of Worship

Some Random Thoughts: A Sikhs & Society Reflection

Early yesterday morning, my sister and brother-in-law called me from Hartsdale, NY, that my elder brother, Ujagar, whom and whose family, some of you all would have known for their sewa of Sikhi in the US for almost half a century, had passed away peacefully in his sleep. Ujagar had been unwell for a while but when it happens, it hits one hard, especially when we both had lost our eldest brother, a giant of man, Bharaji Darshan, in July.

A somber day: flooded by random memories of 90 years of growing together, living, talking, agreeing, not agreeing, busily engaged in pursuing our own paths, not dissimilar but own nonetheless, often more as friends – a connection that sometimes can lift siblings to a level of engagement that transcends the narrow  bonds of kul- family collective.

But it is not about Ujagar, Bharaji or me. My thoughts kept revolving around the word, baechain, used in both Urdu wisdom and mundane poetry. It has connotation of a state of undefined restlessness, akin to the beautiful expression we read in Gurbani – Dhardh Karaejae Mahain.

The day before our conversation had turned to words, language, adhiks, aspirated, un-aspirated and how these little changes in emphases, pauses, inflection of sounds, quick twists of the expressions of our angst, moments of joy and wonder lift life into a higher domain of detached vismad, anand, khaera – not sought but received in rare moments – ik chhin, ik pal.

The thought led me to turn to the website of Damdami Taksal and look if I may have been unnecessarily cynical and a shade skeptic about their ‘santhya’ under-graduate programs – perhaps they are not. The site has demonstrated audio recordings of how the sound inflections should flow in uchaaran vekhaya, kirtan and other formats with bells and whistles. My hearing is somewhat depleted and I could not catch the subtleties but it is a window on the Sikhs taking a major step into the area of speech recognition and Forensic caging of Gurbani rendition.

I have termed the above as ‘caging’ advisedly. My thoughts have been oscillating around Guru Nanak for quite some time. Growing up in Pothohar, half my first decade of life was spent there. The rest of my days were mostly out of Punjab. For us, the main center of Sikhi was Punja Sahib. We knew Amritsar. I was born there and so was Ujagar. Had heard of Nanakana Sahib and Kartarpur [Ravi] but never went there. Got to see Dera Sahib and some other sthans in Lahore in my first year College. Schooled in Delhi during the WW II period, we knew, frequented for worship, mainly Sis Ganj Sahib.

A couple of decades later, got assigned to lead our Technology Team, based in the UK, for certain weapon systems acquisitions preceding Bangladesh operations. Took time travelling and camping five weeks visiting and savoring what cultural heritage we could afford, as a family. Had seen rich, diverse religious ambience of Phool Waalon ki Sair, listened to icons like Bhai Chand in Delhi.

There were differences – both sights and sounds – never got to place my finger on really what it was – too busy at work, fickle mindedness, call it what you will. Images are easier to apprehend though perhaps that is also an over simplification by the indolent, witness: eh nethro mereo,har thum main jot rakhi, bin  har awar n dekho koee, har joth nadhree  aayaa. It is a blessing, it is given – a gift. But what of sounds – the same inflection or similar, sounds aroused different emotions in Opera, different in a Cathedral, land of Sound of Music or in Moulin Rouge. Munn,Bach, Karam  has a nexus, its internal chronology – in my mind I was trying to understand and grasp the importance of the phrase.

A decade later, I spent a summer as visiting Professor [?] at Institute of Economics, Zagreb, sharing our awareness and practices of Participative Management. The world was opening up to co-determination and if at all, we Indians, can never restrain our penchant for tall claims. I and my hosts both realized how much of real stuff escapes when our economies are suffering due to grass root policy paralysis in pursuit of our ‘five point’ or ‘Garibi Hataao’ calls.

But that was in the area of work – mundane – not sights, sounds, still reverberating in my mind. The Adriatic coast is unique. Not great entertainment but pebbles on beaches tell different tales. It was still Yugoslavia, but bechain, on the cusp of breaking out of ideologies with little chance of success that had bound them down unless their human spirit reasserted. A multi religious, multi cultural society trying to hold together,as you heard the early morning call by the Muazim in nearby mosque, if you had left the window slightly ajar at night. The sound, filtered, clean,clear conveyed a sense of misgiving.

We, many of us Sikhs have been through that though it is much more than that – the trauma of 1947, 1984, 911 [and hopefully not this contemporary state of tensions in India] have tested us. We have survived and grown. That to me brings the message that life is not a win or lose story. it is the story of continuity punctuated by discontinuities that brings me back to Guru Nanak – Nanakana Sahib and and Kartarpur [Ravi] and ecology of worship.

I saw Nankana Sahib for the fist time in 2004 as a guest of Pakistani Radical Islam Leadership based in Lahore and their famed Institute of Policy Research at Islamabad as a part of a composte Interfaith Group from the US and Europe. I do not know what was this ‘Mongol’ doing in ‘Dwarka Nagri’ [Namdev] but we never know. The hosts took me to Nanakana Sahib, my Nanaka village and a host of interfaith engagements – again ‘I/me’ used advisedly.

There was a lot to take in and share but perhaps my real insight seemed to lay elsewhere. I have talked of Punja Sahib, Amritsar, Dera Sahib, Delhi Gurdwaras,  et al. Enterwereing  the sacred portals of Nanakana Sahib was a different  sight. It was a vista – a garden entry with manicured lawn, trimmed bushes – never seen in a Gurdwara setting. The word Ecology is recent. It had caught the imagination of people. I too had turned to Eco-justice convictions and possibly the first Article on Environment in 2001 was mine. At Southington, CT Gurdwara, we wnt ahead and planted shrubs, bushes, flowering trees, seasonal flowers and the place looked better than an expensive Chruch gifts and Supply store.

And the next year, kind courtesy Nanakana Sahib Foundation via my friend Dr Harbans Lal, my wife and I, aa group  back in Lahore for an Interfaith meet. That is the time when the incident about blasphemy regarding Hazrat Mohammed was at peak in Europe. Finally we were able to confer and the rolled into a Bus to Kartarpur for a day’s retreat. And to me it was a treat of retreat. Ravi has moved away from Kartarpur. As we walked in through a cobbled pathway, I see snow-white Peacock dancing among flower beds that summer morning! Peacock, flowers next to Guru Nanak’s Dargah – I asked the Muslim caretaker family – Hanji eh thae ithae hee rendai haa 500 saal thoon [these have lived here for five centuries since the time of Baba Nanak – right or wrong did not matter to me. They were there. The peacock was dancing in gay abandon. Peahen were picking grain and munching.

Ecology of worship? Now I got some idea of what it might mean. After 1551 floods when the sanctuary that Guru Nanak was washed away, both Sikhs and Bedi Ansh abandoned and as some accounts suggest, the place was just shut down for 47 yesrs. The Muslims though claim, they rebulit the place c 1572.

Faiths survive both by beliefs and reason. Rituals develop and ask a Catholic Bishop ‘what is the most important part of worship’ – the answer likely will be rituals. Why? You create an ecology for belief – the mystery recloaked is not mystery any more. You know what is beneath but your cynicism gets a momentary break – ik chin, ik pal.

That my dear friends is the message that came to me, on passing of my brother. Let dreams live on. All things must pass and so will dreams!

May heaven’s blessings light your way, seeking as ever sarbat kaa bhalaa!


Nirmal Singh,

West Palm Beach, FL, US

Dec. 11, 2020

One thought on “Ecology of Worship

  • January 3, 2021 at 5:19 pm

    Very beautifully written. I especially enjoyed your thoughts on Sikh’s resiliency and continuity through times of discomfort.


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