The Sikh way of life is frequently described as gadi-rah - (Bhai Gurdas, Var 5.13.1). Free translation of this expression, would be ‘a motorable highway.’ On the other hand, this path is also referred to as ‘sharper than a sword’s edge’ and ‘narrower than hair’s breadth’ - (Guru Granth Sahib p. 918). This comparison seems to contradict its earlier comparison to ‘a motorable highway.’ In reality, however, there is no contradiction whatsoever. The former description refers to its openness and accessibility to all. It is not a private footpath for individual trekking, or a ‘No Thorough Fare’ lane, prohibited to public, unlike some other disciplines monopolized by privileged sections of society, or those that prescribe different paths for different people. The gadi-rah or the highway of Sikhism welcomes everybody without distinction of caste, color, or gender. Once they understand the traffic rules, they can travel together, enjoy the journey and reach the destination. There are no pitfalls, or the botheration of congestion.
The comparison to the edge of a sword, however, refers to a discipline that is required for a successful journey. This is the discipline based on His Law (Hukm) revealed to the Gurus. This discipline is built into Sikhism, as an extension of the one governing the universe. Any deviation from it will stop short of the destination. It conveys the inviolability of His Hukm and the firmness with which it has to be observed. The Sikhs of the Guru are expected to understand and recognize this Hukm and follow it for an enduring peace and happiness - (Guru Granth Sahib page 156).
God, in His mercy, has given to man a wonderful physical form adapted to perform different functions. Biologists have studied the human body, and marvel at the complexity and detail of the functioning of its various organs, although their understanding is still far from complete. Countless organs of the human body are constantly performing functions vital to survival. We know that they are essential, but have only vague ideas about how they perform these functions. Full details may never be understood, but the little knowledge we have acquired, inspires only wonder and awe over their perfection. No scientist has ever claimed that any physical organ of the human body is superfluous, or that he could improve upon its functioning. That would be tampering with perfection and tantamount to gross arrogance.
The Sikh way of life is nothing but an attempt to live in tune with Nature or Hukm. Body is a gift of God. It is sacred and should not be mutilated. Hair, as a part of it, acquires the same sanctity. The Gurus banned shaving or tampering with hair, since it is repugnant to Hukm, and made it a symbol of Sikh identity. One who violates this principle loses the claim to being a true disciple of the Gurus.
Unfortunately, some enthusiasts of the so-called modern civilization have mounted a campaign against hair, particularly the beard. They want to force their civilization on everybody. The process is simple: "Take a razor, shave off your beard, and you become civilized." This view, illogical as it is, cannot be taken seriously and deserves to be ignored. But this is not the view of an isolated crank. The ignorance is widely shared among non-Sikhs, and is spreading among Sikhs as well.
Some Papers in India, claiming to be the National Press, are actively engaged in this process of ‘civilization.’ Two articles, `Do we need facial hair?’ and `A hairy tale’ by Anthony Clavane and Neelam Mathews, respectively, appeared in The Times of India, which ridicule those sporting a beard. These articles drew sharp reaction from Sikh quarters. But, the Paper projects such articles prominently, and does not like a contrary view to see the light of the day. Why?
There is a reason. It is ‘The Gospel of the Razor’ given by the razor industry and supported by the allied cosmetic industries. The stake is tremendous. Neelam Mathews, in her article, states that, "It costs Rs. 250/- a week just to trim it (a beard)." Just think how much it costs to shave off a beard ‘close-enough’ with a razor every morning, and another supplementary operation later in the day to take care of the ‘afternoon shadow’. And then consider the population in billions involved, to know the size of the industry! The figure would be in staggering trillions of Dollars.
It is also a veiled attack on some religious communities that hold hair and beard sacred and essential for their identity. It has taken its toll among Sikhs also, particularly its youth. When they see shaven faces and cropped up heads all around, they think it is the norm. They do not question it, and tend to join the mainstream, oblivious of the fact that, in the process, they are losing their identity, joining the vast anonymity, and discarding their own rich heritage and philosophy.
It is, therefore, heartening that Dr Birendra Kaur has taken up the challenge and made these articles her special target. Being a biologist, she is eminently qualified to speak with authority on the subject of human hair.
While industrialization has played a great role in the progress of mankind, it is not an unmixed blessing. We are acutely aware of the havoc caused by the clandestine drug industry, as is clear from the death penalty prescribed in some countries for this trade. We are also aware of the danger from the tobacco industry, and ceremoniously observe a ‘No Smoking Day’ once a year. The alcohol industry, too, has been identified as a threat, and some Governments are trying to enforce prohibition through law. Unfortunately, we have failed to see the threat to mankind, posed by the razor industry. Recent researches have shown that shaving is one of the possible ways of spreading AIDS.
Respect for the natural human form bestowed by the Creator is a cardinal principle in the religious philosophy preached by the Sikh Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh considered it so important that he included tampering with hair among the ‘four cardinal sins’ that attract ex-communication from the Khalsa Order.
The Sikhs of yore never questioned the Gurus’ judgement. They had the wisdom to realize that the Gurus knew best. But today, when science holds the sway, most people, particularly the youth, demand an explanation or justification for everything. This is all the more necessary in the case of human hair, when cutting / shaving has become a mark of civilization.
In this brief volume, Dr Birendra Kaur has convincingly proved that the human hair is a biological necessity and an organ of the body performing vital functions. Tampering with it is fraught with grave risks and health hazards. Not satisfied with mere positive statements, she has also dealt with common criticism of hair, and exposed how ill informed and ignorant the critics are.
The book is a real contribution to knowledge and addresses questions that had defied answers. It fulfils a long-felt need and, apart from being a morale-booster for Sikhs, it should also save the human race at large.
July, 1998 ------------------------------------------------------------- Kharak Singh