It is a season of festivities for Sikhs. The birthday of their founding Guru, Nanak, is coming up for celebration on the 20th November. Early in December Sikhs celebrate the martyrdom of their ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur. The birth anniversary of their tenth and last Guru, Gobind Singh falls in early January. So if you connect with any Sikhs around this time, and there may be some living in your vicinity, the conversation could easily lead to some mention of these upcoming festivities.
Guru Nanak was born into a Hindu family in 1469, in a place later named Nanakana Sahib in his honor. This place is now part of Pakistan, fairly easy driving distance from Lahore. There are not many Sikhs left in Pakistan – most had to leave in 1947 when India was divided. The communal frenzy that then erupted caused huge migration of Sikhs and Hindus to the safety of India and of Muslims to the security that Pakistan offered.
This tragic event would have caused deep anguish to Nanak who believed in and preached the One-ness of all humankind. Let us never forget that there is only One God who sustains all the living beings – sabhna jee-aan ka ik daataa sau main vissar neh jaayee – he sang as his lifelong companion, Mardana, played the rebeck. When the Guru came to, after what is said to be his audience in the Divine Court, his first words were – neh ko hindu neh musalman – there is no Hindu or Muslim; albeit all are children of the same Divine Creator. No doubt then that when the great Guru passed, both the Hindus and Muslims claimed his remains and to this day just outside the walls of the Gurdwara constructed at the place, is a memorial that has for centuries been in the care of Muslim devotees.
A cardinal principal that the Guru espoused was the inherent, God given equality and dignity of each individual. He raised his voice against the age old belief in the caste system that had institutionalized certain discriminatory practices as religiously sanctioned. Likewise he asked the question as to how women, who brought forth the best among men, could be considered unequal or low. Several of his compositions touchingly talk of the ills and injustices that the ordinary people had to suffer at the hands of the powerful, self willed and greedy.
The Guru travelled far and wide spreading his message of. He also met with and shared his divine vision with savants and sages of various beliefs and some accounts of such encounters, in his own words, are included in the Granth. One such discussion with sidha yogis, titled sidh gosti, is a lofty composition in Raag Ramkali that encompasses the Guru’s vision of the Creator, the creation and the vexed questions of human quest and destiny.
Reduced to their pragmatic core the teachings of Nanak promote three values – naam japnaa, wandd chhaknaa, kirt karni – prayer, sharing and honest endeavor. Sikh teachings encourage the believers to practice these values while living their normal lives as householders. This is the essence of Sikh religious life and the Sikh praxis is built around these broad precepts.
There are around twenty three million Sikhs worldwide, making them the fifth largest faith group. About a half million of them live in the US – earliest known immigration going back to the end of 19th century. Singing of hymns – kirtan – is central to their religious service. So is an after service fellowship meal – langar. All are welcome. An easy recognition sign of a Sikh male is their turban that they wear to cover their unshorn hair as part of religious observance.
*Nirmal Singh is a resident of 182, Red Haven Road, New Cumberland and can be reached by email at enveen @ yahoo.com or by phone at 717 763 12
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