Interfaith

Sat Siri Akal

We are in Delhi for the last three days. Veena’s Daddy passed away on the 31st and we left the same day.

I have attached the notes that I think I had put together for the last Ahmediya meet on peace that Karamjit, you and I had attended. You can use some of this for your presentation.

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Thank you for your several timely initiatives with regard to so many problems that continuously keep on rearing their heads to disturb the possibility of peaceful enjoyment of life, sometimes in gruesome manners reminiscent of the barbaric in us.

My reference at this time is to the reported unfortunate beheading of two Sikhs by Taliban in Pakistan territory. One is used to reports of tragic events in disturbed areas but this incident possibly would be a first in that the severed heads of the innocent civilian victims were delivered to the lead Sikh Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh in Peshawar – a gesture that possibly has no parallel in its gruesome harshness in the history of inter religious conflict or terrorism in recent times.

The news reports cite the reasons for their decapitation as both the demand for ransom and for the individuals to accept forcible conversion to Islam. Whatever the reasons or the purported frustrations of the perpetrators of this heinous act, it would be tragic if the global inter faith community failed to raise its voice against this incident. I therefore request you [and the other inter faith organizations] to come together on this issue with some activist agenda and not be content with issuing statements or appeals.

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I participated in the Forum on Faith & Politics last night at Lebanon Valley College, Anneville, PA. The forum provided an interesting set up for structured sharing of views on the prompt question: “What sort of role should faith play when citizens make political decisions, and how does that play out in your life?”

They had set up two-student panelist each representing the Democrats and the Republicans. In addition they had an interfaith panel representing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. The response of the student panelists were obviously colored by their partisan positions. The independents did not have a place around the table – nor really much in the minds of the audience. The election is too close now and most seemed to have their minds made up.

In this setting the perspectives by faith representatives was relatively less partisan. The Jews position was from their belief perspective they are supportive of separation between church and state but the political themes are talked of from the pulpit. She however does not tell the congregation who to vote for. In other words the candidacies are evaluated from how they might impact Jews as a faith and as a group but the decision on who to vote is left to the individual.

The Buddhist Sensei said that he had grown up a Baptist and thus had sensitivity to being a minority and could share their concerns in the political arena as he grew. As a Buddhist now and as a Sensei leading a Buddhist prayer group, he felt less compelled by the theological positions of candidates than their political views. He was the only one among us who wore an Obama button on his jacket lapel.

The Muslim position was as expected rather defensive. The speaker cited from Quran to affirm their belief that God had created diversity [of beliefs] for people to follow their conscience and enjoy their spiritual life. She was critical of the negative tone in sending out the DVD Obsession that only reinforced prejudice. She also added that the US Constitution is the only document that comes closest to Sharia law – even more than the constitutions of Muslim countries.

I also shared the Sikh perspective starting with my own experience growing up in the years preceding Indian independence [till 1946] in Delhi. In the run up to the final negotiations for the post British set up the parties that the British recognized were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. So even as the divide was clearly emerging along religious lines, I as a young activist who was finishing school and soon going to college – younger than the College students in the audience – joined protest marches without ever thinking of myself as a Sikh or a minority. The idealist fervor got a bit of beating during the partition when we had to thank God for safe return to Delhi, even though barely with our clothes on. As I grew up and understood my faith teachings I could sense what was guiding my motivations. Gurus taught us that inaction is not a choice and we must be socially engaged and take responsibility for ourselves, families and spare some for the needy. They also gave us the awareness that freedom is a God given right and the divine light within each of us brings a recognition of the confluence of sublime and mundane, political and spiritual, within us and therefore our thought and vision must be supportive of common good, not me first.

I also said that the word politics perhaps occurs only once in SGGS where the Guru says matta masoorat awar sianapp jan ko kichh neh aayeo [M V, p. 498] – your jan knows of no plans, politics or clever ways. The Guru only seeks the love of the lotus feet of the Lord but is willing to give his life in the cause of justice. So while a Sikh talks politics and Sikhs love doing it, our worship services are devoid of political commentary [at least here].

Most of the audience interest after the end of the forum was about us because many of them had heard about us for the first time. That was encouraging and every such encounter has helped because as I found 3/4 of the students who had attended my guest lecture on Sikhism recently brought some more to meet with me and ask some questions. A new religion faculty who speaks some Hindi wanted to learn more on Sikhism so he could teach it himself and even wanted to learn reading Gurmukhi and Hindi. I promised all help because getting the faculty interested with some curiosity generated among the students could indeed make introductory teaching of Sikhism built into the syllabi and thus have some continuity – all at no cost at all to the Sikh community.

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Here are some of the contact email addresses you are looking for: Sikh Media Watch group is now known as SALDEF, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Rajbir Singh Datta, based in Washington DC is their Director. He can be reached at”Rajbir S. Datta <SALDEF>” <info@saldef.org>

The main contact for United Sikhs is Hardyal Singh. He lives in New Jersey and can be reached at Hardayal Singh <harsingh@bankofny.com>

Arvind Mandair is now at University of Michigan, living possibly in Detriot and his email address is Arvind Pal Singh Mandair <arvindmandair@hotmail.com>

I am not quite sure about contacts for others but if I find out I will get back to you. Pushpinder Kaur I believe lives in San Jose, CA. If needed you can tell Rajbir, Hardayal and Arvind that I gave you their contact information.

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Guru Fateh. I am sending this mail from Prof Staub of Dickinson College, Carlisle who had asked me to help out with input on Sikhs & Sikhism in a course at the College.

Since I am returning only in early April, Prof Staub has requested if some of the interactions relating to the course can take place in the interim. This to me would include a visit by the participants to the Gurdwara, interviews with some community members and some broad explanations about our faith and our community in Central PA.

May I request you to connect with Shalom Staub and help out – I will pick from where we are on my return. Thank you both. We are well in Delhi. Our respectful Sat Sri Akal to the sangat,

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Karam Singh said ‘You are right that whilst all other faiths have religious preachers, Sikhs do not have a gurudwara Bhai representing them. I am afraid the Bhai stands no chance when rich Sikhs need to show solidarity with “ white Politicians”. Our “ Bhais” are poor economic migrants who have been imported to fulfill rituals as slaves with poor pay.

I am given to wonder whether some of them used to be staunch Khalistan supporters and have now turned a new leaf? There are so many Gurudwaras in NY – So how are the ecumenical representatives selected from the Sikh community to represent Sikhs?  What credentials does one need to become Ecumenical representative?’

Karam ji you are right that the Gurdwara Bhai stands no chance of representing Sikhs in interfaith gatherings. This is as true in India as in the Diaspora. The main result of this internal disengagement of the Sikh religious leadership with the interfaith world, which is the real world, is lack of our engagement as a religious group, on issues that confront contemporary living. The result is that lay Sikhs have to come forward and fill the gap but unfortunately without some kind of community involvement [the most effective being through the Gurdwara in our case] the engagement remains limited.

You could possibly ascertain the relative position better in the UK.  The Guru Nanak Nishkam Jatha has been in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church starting at the local Archdiocese and claim to be making some headway in developing Sikh-Vatican relationship. May be a comparison of their effort with volunteer lay efforts may give us a better sense.

You are right that some of the Sikhs involved in interfaith activity could well have been Khalistan activists. I would not hold it against them unless in their new incarnations they start insisting on certain rigidities or push for agendas that constrain our involvement further. As far as the question of how persons are chosen to represent us, the problem to me is less about who should – it is more about who would!  Unless of course it is a high visibility photo op when obviously the political factors come into play.

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Amandeep Singh ji and Devinder ji have raised questions about the usefulness of roles of Baba Seenchewal and Sewa Singh as the Sikh faces in the UN supported initiatives for climate change. My understanding is that the UN agencies are trying to co opt all religious traditions in spreading awareness about what is happening to the environment and the urgent need for concerted societal action to save the global ecology.

The impression that the experts are being replaced by Babas and the like is mistaken. Many of us involved in interfaith activities would also be involved in groups that are engaged with several local environmental initiatives. The major role in these initiatives is by local Churches and their Congregations. In fact Christian religious leadership is very actively engaged on environmental issues and have adopted several programs in this regard.

We have a theology that has so much more to say about the inter dependency of all the creation and the sacredness of life sustaining environment but our actions and way of life do not show our concern for the deteriorating environment – in fact we seem to be engaged in extracting the maximum out of the dharti unaware of the permanent damage we may be causing to the very piece of land that we fight over. Sikh religious leadership has been most noticeable by its silence till the media caught on to these two Babas doing what they have done. That is helping spread word firstly about Sikh concerns and actions about environment and secondly gets Sikhs involved at grass root levels. That does not make these Babas the Sikh face that we may be looking for but what choice do we have? Let us therefore not be unnecessarily harsh. They are at least doing some concrete things for the good of the environment.

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These words “Ek onkar satnam” are in Punjabi – the way these have been used in the Sikh scriptures. The origin of the word ‘hukam’ is possibly Arabic while the others possibly originated in the ancient dialects prevalent in the

North Western parts of India where the Sikh Gurus lived. The language is also referred as sant bhasha, the language used by the saints of that period in that region [including Hindus, Muslims, Shudra saints and Sikh Gurus]. I hope that answers your question but if you need more info do let me know.

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Last saturday, 21st Jun, the global Ahmediya Muslim community celeberating the centenery of their Khilafat – a three day event in Harrisburg – had invited me to speak. I met a Khokhar Ahmediya. He was from Qadian. I met another Hundal, who said his great grandfather was a Sikh but turned Muslim. There were Kahlons and Bajwas and lots more of our near and far country cousins.

It was a huge gathering – around 10000 of their own faith; their interfaith session and banquet [mostly from other faith traditions] had attendance of around 700. I was deeply touched hearing a 92 old Jain activist speak with clear voice. He was a frail short man who walked straight, dressed well and met people smilingly.

It was a surprisingly well organized meet. They would have had no less than 500-1000 volunteers. You could not cast a look appearing to be searching or needing something and somebody would catch your eye and offer to help.

The literature on Jihad that they distributed painted Sikh Rule [and Hindu Rajas, Marathas] as extremely oppressive leaving Muslims no safety at all -they were thankful the British occupation ended their persecution!

One of the  volunteers gave me a print of Guru Nanak’s chola said to have ayyats from Quran Majid written on it. The paper also had a Punjabi poem written in shahmukhi extolling Baba Nanak with a note at the bottom saying ‘surely the above shows that Baba Nanak was a Muslim Wali’!

Some from the sangat had also come with me to participate. They noticed the passage about the oppressive Sikh rule and felt not good. The fact is that the historical memory on both sides is hurting and is the main cause of continuing divide among Muslims and Sikhs.

I did not read the the poem and passage in Urdu about Baba Nanak to my friends. I only read it the next day at home. They might have liked it. They may also have wondered how some may be so laudatory of Nanak and express such opinions about the Sikh past.

Our interfaith engagement has to move beyond the routine coming together in a formalised polite environment. We must work to bring some abiding understanding on historical events that does not explode in the face of our protestations of being children of one God, engaged in a shared pursuit for peace as so lucidly espoused and so clearly lived by our Gurus. My after dinner presentation was short and evoked some humor and a lot of good response. It was a good opportunity of being able to talk a little about us to a large multi faith audience. I am attaching the text that I tried faithfully to keep to, though I did interject some comments as I spoke.

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I greatly appreciate the solidarity shown by you and your colleagues at the South Asia Council for Minorities [SACM] for the suffering visited on Sikhs in Pakistan by the warring Taliban and the reported brutal beheading of two Sikhs and sending their severed heads to Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh in Peshawar. Thank you all for the thoughtful and empathetic statement that SACM has issued.

I at the same time feel that while your words sharing the anguish of Pakistani Sikhs as well as the global Sikh community are most welcome, our mission will be served much more effectively if we were to carry this campaign:

  • to the media, in Pakistan, India and indeed in the US, UK and possibly globally
  • to other interfaith groups with a global reach
  • to the human rights groups including in Pakistan

In other words my plea is for concerted activism best given a lead by the Indian Muslim community because their intervention may carry some more credible influence in garnering support for the beleaguered Sikhs and other minority communities in those parts of Pakistan that are witness to such atrocities presently.

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Guru Fateh.

I am writing to thank you and your colleagues for all the help and co operation that I received. My proposal is now with the WPR Secretariate as I continue to work on my paper.

I did feel that the work that you all are doing in concert with S Tilak Singh in the neighboring UP is constructive and the beneficiaries felt enthused about the outcomes especially the availability of Gurdwara facility and educational support.

The  projects also show the importance of good inter-community relations at the local level providing a sense of safety, peace and harmony to the minorities in the area.

My conversations with the Sikligar residents and others point to a felt need to add these facilities in a couple of the villages we went to. My repeated questioning brought the answer that the land was available and the cost of construction for a Gurdwara and a small room for education, computer training or meetings etc would cost around five lakh rupees.

In case you and others concerned agree I would like to help with one such project, in memory of my late father,  in a location closer to Delhi. I would appreciate if you can let me know your views about such a project at your convenience.

Regarding our on-going discussions, I will come back with the specific data about Nishkam that I may need as I work on my paper. In the meanwhile I would appreciate if you can send me the DVD of our conversations with the victim widows. Thank you again and my best wishes to you all.

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Thanks for your posers: ‘One more line of questions regarding the prayer in the Senate: What were you aiming for in this prayer? What principles guided your composition of it?  How does it compare to a prayer you’d give in a Sikh service?’ Let me try and answer best as can.

This prayer is very different from the way a traditional invocation would be offered in a Sikh service. When offering in the Sikh setting, there are certain phrases and cites that are invariably included. For example we start with remembering God and then remember the names of the ten Gurus and finally acknowledge the living Guru, the Granth and after remembering some inspiring events/episodes from Sikh experience, we seek God’s blessings for the purpose/project, for guidance in day to day living, for the gift of prayerfulness and the well being of one and all in the world.

Sikh teachings are very universal and I have tried to structure this prayer around its universality like:

  • One God, who is God of all, not sectarian or Sikh Diety
  • The aspect about righteous living is again universal though the paradigm may vary – I picked a few points that I felt were germane
  • Societal concerns likewise are shared concerns; again limited to my understanding and prioritization
  • Praying for guidance for the assembly is important for their work day is getting started and their work affects us all
  • The last line is seeking good of all, a shared universal supplication by Sikhs at the closing of all their prayers

Almost all the sentences that I used can be supported by cites from the Sikh scriptural literature but I limited myself to just sprinkle a few words here and there to give a flavor to the listeners. My concern obviously was to try and offer an invocation that is universal in spirit and intent but can be traced back to its Sikh linkage. I hope I have been able to do it.

The Sikh message is very universal though in a foreign tongue. The scripture also is a unique interfaith anthology containing not only the compositions of the Sikh Gurus but also of several Hindu, Muslim and Shudhra saints of the time and Sikhs revere their teachings equally. I hope this answers your question and I also hope I am treading the fine line of offering an interfaith Sikh prayer in a reasonably acceptable manner.

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Thank you Jagpal ji for posting the transcript by Sikhnet. On quick glance I do find one error – kal for ghaal. So in deference to your and Jagjit ji’s suggestion I am posting below the text of the prayer and copy and paste of a couple of exchanges with the Reporter:

SIKH INTERFAITH PRAYER

PA SENATE JUNE 10, 2008

Pray, join me in the prayer

Ek onkar satnam

There is but One God, true is His name

We pray to the One God who created this universe with all its colorful diversity, ranng as we call it. We pray to the One God under whose divine ordinance, hukam, this universe abides. We pray to sabhnaa jiaan kaa ik daataa, the One God who provides for and sustains all this creation.

Pray give us the understanding that this world is a dharamsaal, an arena for righteous living. Much of what people can accomplish in life happens through their own ghaal, their endeavor. We pray for kirpa, Thy divine mercy to enable us all to be prayerful, enable us all to provide for our families, enable us all to share with those in need and enable us all not to shy away from doing what is right. That truly is the righteous way.

Help us nurture a society where we all live as a fraternity with none feeling excluded or treated as a stranger; where we say some and listen some; where we bring harmony, peace, caring and sharing to our corporate communal lives and help each and every one of us to grow, develop and contribute towards the common good.

We pray for this sangat, this Assembly. Heavy is your responsibility and difficult are the choices you have to make as leaders of the people. We pray for you individually and collectively to be blessed with the wisdom to conduct your business today and every day in service of and for the well being of the citizens of this Commonwealth.

We close this prayer as always seeking, terai bhaanai sarbat ka bhalla, that   the well being of one and all in the world be Thy will. Wahiguru ji ka khalsa wahiguru ji ki fateh

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You are right Gurmit ji this is good news. Dr Rajwant Singh earlier had given out a release about some Sikh issues that he had raised on this occasion with the US legislators and the White House officials but somehow that release did not get the attention.

However there are a couple of points that do emerge and those of us who are engaged in interfaith activity are familiar with this dynamic but these need to be understood.

The SCORE release says ‘Dr. Singh was one of the few ECUMENICAL representatives who were invited to be part of the welcoming ceremony.  Religious leaders from across America including Dr. Rajwant Singh and his wife, Dr. Balvinder Kaur, were seated next to the dais. Balvinder Kaur sat with Bush’s press secretary Dana Perino.’

You should notice that the Sikh ‘ecumenical’ representative sits along with ecumenical representatives of other faiths. If you look at the pictures that SCORE has sent Dr Rajwant Singh is wearing kurta pyjama with a doshala whereas all other Sikhs are in suits. His wife did not sit with him but was sitting with Dana Perino.

If we were to check the list of all ecumenical representatives we may find that only Sikhs and possibly Hindus would have been represented by laypersons. Most of us do it wearing suits though Rajwant chose to wear kurta pyjama, possibly to convey traditional image associated with ecumenical representatives.

The problem is not only that we do not have ‘Bhais’ who can represent Sikhs in interfaith ecumenical setting but also committee control that keeps Bhais in a sub service position to those in Gurdwara leadership. At the same time interfaith activists feel that Gurdwara committees do not support interfaith engagement and their leadership is seldom ready to get involved in such projects.

Considering this broad scenario my guess is that this was a SCORE initiative conducted in the same manner as they have done several times in the past when they received invitation from the White House and we must commend them for it. The other event was an interfaith meeting with the Pope. It is possible that invitations to that event went also to some other Sikh organizations that have activist credentials in interfaith work. Now that can be problematic for us because we hardly have any intra community communication and most of the time when two or more groups attend an event they cannot come together and if one group takes an uncompromising position [say on ‘tin footie’ kirpan [three foot length sword], or participating in any initiative that may have state involvement], the others would not cross the picket.

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One of our neighbors has Bible classes every Thursday at home – no food, no drinks, no frills. Around 4/5 couples get together at around 7:30 pm and leave at 8:30 pm. The discussion is on a subject – generally based on one line or sentence. Even when they are away somebody has their key to get in and the class goes on.

They all know their Bible fairly well. Even in the Churches and conversation they quote Chapter and verse. It certainly is different kind of knowing. At the Churches the sermons in regular services as well as educational sessions are similar theme based. While in the service there is a formal atmosphere with the clergy in charge, the other sessions often held in the same halls are informal with a lot of ‘testimony’ or sharing of happenings/thoughts invited from the audience and an open discussion on the theme.

Interestingly there are no interpretational differences heard. It is more like connecting the dots. Every body seems to agree – mostly achieved by two stratagems – firstly through deep indoctrination over time and secondly by choices of Churches available. These choices are not only denominational but the interest of the Pastor.

The Judaic practice is similar albeit with some differences. Most Jews do not know Hebrew and pray in local language repeating the Yiddish words after the Rabbi. Sermons are theme based. Discussions are encouraged in some settings.

Muslims start with two things – knowing the language and remembering the text from where they build on reading and understanding. Quoting is by the book. They do practice memorizing.

Our tradition has developed along different lines. Gurus guided us for over two centuries but finally left us with freedom to decide for ourselves. Even the institution of masands was discontinued. Some guideposts are clear – morning/evening banis, kirtan by professional ragis or lay singers, langar, sangat, twin Guruship of Granth and Panth.

Some of our confusion could be due to the way we have interpreted Panth to mean a monolithic, sarbat khalsa, kind of entity alone. To me it seems that we may be mistaken in not recognizing the relative autonomy that the Gurus assigned to sangats. There are also pointers that we may not have given much thought to. For example ‘ik uttam panth suniyo gur sangat —‘ seems to suggest that Panth is sangat of the Guru and Guru is not an abstract set of doctrines or institutional guidelines. Guru is more like an immanent, continuing presence with and within us that we can connect with but not apprehend in its entirety. A sangat therefore has and should have its own flavor – in the same way as diversity and unity abounds in ‘ek aur anek’. Thus understood sangat at Kabul and Patna or Dacca – separated by such long distances could function and grow autonomously in Guru’s times with occasional contacts with Gurus but withered when Sikhs starting thinking of themselves as a monolithic, Punjab and Amritsar centered, Panth. If sangat is seen as possible of diverse we may encourage veechar in Gurdwara setting otherwise we will continue to replicate the same model in our Sukhmani sessions for lack of other examples.

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If we go back to GLZ files we would possibly find reference to an earlier similar collective endeavor by our members to complete a sehj paath in 2007/2008. Most of communications after the initial one or two were between the group spread across continents. The names that come to mind are Giani Jarnail Singh Arshi [Malaysia], Charan Singh [Toronto] and a lady devotee from CA who used to sign off with Wahiguru and no name plus some others. We took commitments in sub groups like CA, East Coast, Malaysia-Australia and co-ordinated through email where one left off quoting the pankti and page number for the next to continue. The system worked very well and we were able to complete the sehj paath in a couple of weeks.

I am not sure if Sukhminder Kaur ji was part of the CA team at the time because no names were mentioned.

I am leaving aside the several questions that can well be raised about maryada, calling of such fragmented effort as collective and its efficacy in Guru’s darbar.

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