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Multiculturalism and Universality

Alice Basarke

Is Sikhism a universal religion or a culturally specific one ? A tough question, isn’t it ? What is meant by “Universal religion?”. A friend once told me that Sikhism is universal, for no matter where one travels, there is always a Sikh who has been there before you. That may well be true, but no matter how many Sikhs can be found in how many unexpected places, this by itself, is not universality. Rather, by universal it is meant that the teachings of Sikhism have an appeal to mankind that can be appreciated in many places, by many diverse cultures. The belief in one God and the equality of mankind can stir the hearts and minds of people everywhere. That is the universality of the religion. But if Sikhism has the ability to stir the hearts and souls of all mankind, why is it still culturally specific to Punjab ? Or perhaps one should turn the question around to say what has kept Sikhism from adapting to other cultures ? It is only in multiculturalism that universality can take root. The implication of universality is interaction with other cultures and religions. This is the crossroads that the religion of Guru Nanak has reached.

The history of Sikh interaction with other religions starts with Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. In his early teachings, we see him advising some Muslims that they are reading the Koran but missing the truth within it. In another instance, he is scolding Yogis for their conceit and Brahmins for practising empty rituals. The Guru was not condemning any religion, but rather the hypocrisy of its practitioners. Today, all these stern warnings can be applied to his own Sikhs, yet very few of us are willing to see that.

As the history of Sikhism developed, so did the awareness of other religions among the Sikhs. The discovery was unavoidable. In the earliest days, because of the supremacy of Mughal rule, Muslims forced themselves on the Sikh psyche by selective persecution. The British came later, bringing Christianity. When the Sikhs started leaving the Asian subcontinent and dispersing to the four corners of the world, they placed themselves in contact with new experiences with other cultures and other religions. In Singapore, they encountered Buddhism. In Saudi Arabia and the Middle East they found Islam, in Kenya and South Africa they discovered traditional African religions, and in America they came in touch with Christianity, Judaism and secular cynicism. Though the self-exile was voluntary, the Sikhs were ill-prepared for so much upheaval and change. In their 500-year history of interaction with other religions and cultures, Sikhs developed two distinctive ways of coping with their problems — tolerance and self-preservation. Both of these methods of coping have advantages as well as shortcomings. One must be careful in considering both styles in order to come up with a workable formula that will benefit Sikhism and carry it into the next century.

By tolerance, I mean to describe an attitude of live and let live — a willingness to co-exist with one’s neighbours in friendship and harmony, even to learn from new traditions and adapt to new experiences. This style of coping is eloquent testimony to the principles of open tolerance and is very common among the Sikhs. It fits the bon vivant* personality that is also a cultural characteristic of Punjabis. It first shows its ocurrence in Sikh History in the compilations of Guru Granth Sahib, which surprisingly contains the writings of people such as Kabir, Ravi Das, Nam Dev, and many other writers from other religions. The Gurus saw the benefits of being open and tolerant to other beliefs. What needs to be remembered is that the Sikh Gurus, in their wisdom, were selectively open with necessary caution, and included only those utterances in Guru Granth Sahib which are in keeping with the faith of Guru Nanak.

This selective openness with necessary caution was used by other faiths as well. In its early days, Christianity made many difficult and highly controversial adjustments to be in open harmony with its neighbours. For instance, neither Christmas nor Easter, its most widely celebrated holy days, started out as Christian holidays. They have their origin in early pagan cults, which venerated the tree and the hare. Early converts had a difficult time leaving behind such treasured traditions of celebration. Rather than condemn and possibly lose these new converts, the church adapted. The pagan holidays were accepted, but the focus changed from honouring pagan deities to having a Christian spin superimposed on them, that is, the birth and resurrection of Christ. Over the test of time, no one remembers or cares that this was not a unique or exclusively Christian holiday. And no one would argue that Christmas or Easter is not a Christian celebration. They were adapted and then accepted. The Rosary is a string of beads used to keep count of prayers. Catholics adapted this from Islam, which in turn adapted it from the Buddhists. Yet who would argue that a Catholic using his Rosary was not saying a Christain prayer ? Circumcision is another raging discussion that once took place within the early days of the Church. Christ was a Jew. Was it necessary to continue the culturally specific practice of circumcision in order to be a follower of Christ, or to be a Christian ? The obvious answer was ‘no’. The Church chose to drop the restricting cultural tradition and leave itself open to the larger benefits of being universal. These decisions could not have been easy. Great care was taken that no religious tenets were broken. Only the suffocating hold of cultural taboos was removed.

Adaptation is all right as long as it does not interfere with basic teachings and true beliefs of the host religion. However, there are grave dangers hidden in this open attitude. In the most generous attitude of being tolerant to all, one risks the danger of watering down one’s own beliefs, and losing the essence of one’s own religious and / or cultural identity. As an example of how open tolerance can go wrong, I would cite all those who are happy to promote the concept of Sikhism being a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism. There is ample proof that Guru Nanak rebelled against both Islam and Hinduism. He most definitely started a new religion that was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Yet there are still those who think it is an asset to speak of synthesis and keep both sides happy. Political correctness may be the mantra of the day, but in too much acceptance, they sadly lose their own unique identity. Core principles must be adhered to in order that the essential basis of one’s beliefs is never altered. Adaptation is possible, but must be done with extreme caution and careful selection. In other words, culture can be changed to suit the religion, but religion must never be changed to suit the culture.

The need for self-preservation among the Sikhs can be historically justified. From its earliest days, Sikh history shows its people always in danger of being exterminated, assimilated, or both. The threat is not only real, but is omnipresent. What can Sikhs do but retreat and huddle together, devising a style of coping which ensures self-preservation ? This mode is directly opposite to the open tolerance described earlier. It is an effective means of coping with a strange and often hostile environment. But it is also a means of withdrawing into itself and refusing to make any changes no matter how small.

In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh created the order of the Khalsa, giving its followers five distinctive symbols to help them establish their physical identity. The five K’s, kirpan, kesh, kangha, kara, and kaccha, had everything to do with providing identity so as to protect cultural and religious unity, and safeguard the Sikh nation at a time of great persecution.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Sikh unity and sense of identity was at an all time low. Sikhs had abandoned their customs and symbols wholesale. What remained was intermixed with Hinduism. Even the gurdwaras were lost to them, for the British Masters controlled the Sikhs by appointing Hindu overseers of their places of worship. The rise of aggressive Hindu movements such as the Arya Samaj did not help matters for the Sikhs.

To combat total assimilation, new Sikh organisations were formed that were meant to protect Sikh identity. The Singh Sabha emerged with the loud proclamation, “We are not Hindus !” This was followed by the Akali Dal and then the Gurdwara Act which was to ensure that Sikh holy places would be administered by Sikh hands. The threat to Sikh identity did not become less acute with the advent of India’s independence. Indeed it was Punjab that was divided, and the Sikhs who suffered the most in the ethnic cleansing that followed, with tremendous transmigration of people, who were not allowed to keep their land or property and had to move to wherever they were ordered to by short-sighted politicians. A million lives were lost. The most recent group of justifiable self-preservationists are the Khalistanis.

Though much can be said for the self-preservation style of coping, for it was and is necessary to protect oneself from assimilation and death, it too has its very serious shortfalls. Culture and religion can fuse into one. Universality is lost. There is a danger of becoming too introverted and pre-occupied with one self. This pre-occuption can be crippling, and render you unable to progress to the next logical step. Nothing in life remains static for long. Change is inevitable. Those unable to change with time, and to adapt to change and modern living, will make themselves obsolete. It is a great loss to the community that many Sikhs have lost their ability to distinguish between religion and culture. By preaching traditional cultural values, with no ability to explain reasons or necessity, Sikhs are losing the next generation. Our Sikh children want to be included, but feel isolated and rejected by a community that refuses to recognise the reality of the modern world that they live in. The irony of the situation is that a community that lives in the past, and is unable to change and adapt to the modern world, is a community in danger of self- annihilation. If we Sikhs are not able to keep our own children in the fold, who will be there to continue the practice of the Religion of Nanak.

Necessity of Expansion
For any organisation to survive, there have to be individuals who will devote their efforts to recruitment and expansion of their base numbers. In Religion, this is commonly recognised as Missionary work. Sikhism has not had its Crusades, and does not believe in forced conversions. You are not likely to ever find Sikh missionaries passing out pamphlets at airports, and trying to engage you in conversation, or ask you for money. However, expansion has obviously happened at various times throughout its short history. Guru Nanak’s teaching has universal appeal, and he did make a large number of dedicated converts. This was done by word of mouth, and in the larger global context, the numbers were quite small. There is a historical record of the third Guru, in the mid sixteenth century, attracting large number of jats, (peasants) to the fold. The tenth Guru converted a large number of followers after he created the order of the Khalsa in 1699. More expansion took place during the secular reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British are credited with adding numbers to the Khalsa ranks. This was done by giving them excellent military training and paying good salaries to the Sikh soldiers, while insisting that the regiments keep the ‘uniform’ of five K’s. Though these conversions have questionable motives for those that are counting, the numbers of Sikhs did multiply in that period. In modern history, that is post-partition, the Sikhs’ struggle was still on the hot burner. That discrimination continues to run rampant is evident in the withholding of language rights, hydropower, the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple, the November carnage and countless Human Rights abuses against the Sikh population, too numerous to list here. Sikhs have lost vast numbers of their community in this latest struggle. The danger of assimilation is greater than ever, and the need for increasing Sikh numbers is greater than ever.

So far any expansion of Sikh teachings has always happened within the Asian subcontinent. The continuity of essential teachings has remained constant since the time of Nanak to the present-day. The large infusion of jats during the sixteenth century has become a large influence on Sikh tradition and culture. However, it seems that even within the Asian subcontinent, cultural universality is not possible to achieve. Think of the opportunity lost in having large, very large numbers of ‘untouchables’ join the Sikh ranks. Ambedkar wished his followers to embrace Sikhism. He was in a position where he could have brought in millions of souls to the community. Sikhism could have been a force to reckon with. But the community that had been once brought up on the tenets of the ten Gurus to be a casteless society, had sunk so low into the Hindu influence that the potential converts were turned away. Forgetting the Gurus’ teachings, Sikhs have become too conceited to allow themselves to rub shoulders with ‘untouchables’. History would have been quite different, had they adhered to Guru Nanak’s principles. Guru Gobind Singh’s story of the donkey dressed in a lion skin applies today, more than ever. He summed it up beautifully by saying:

“My dear sons, I have not involved you in mere pantomime, as in the case of the donkey. I have freed you, wholly and completely, from the bondage of caste. Do not follow the foolish example of the donkey, and return to your old caste allegiance. If forgetting my words and abandoning the sacred faith, you return to your various castes, your fate will be that of the donkey. Your courage will desert you, and you will have lived your lives in vain.”

Today, expansion by conversion is possible on a much larger, global scale. In North America, there have been converts made by Harbhajan Singh Yogi. This is a most fascinating phenomena in that the conversions are based primarily on acceptance of Punjabi culture. One wonders how many more Sikh converts would be possible if religion was separated from cultural impositions. This also leads one to speculate on the necessity to adapt Punjabi dress, Punjabi food and the Punjabi language before one can hope to become a Sikh. Does this imply that if a Westerner does not like saag and roti*, he cannot learn to appreciate the teachings of the Gurus. If a child wishes to wear blue jeans rather than salwar kamiz, will she be lost to the community ? Is it really necessary to speak Punjabi to appreciate basic religious concepts ? Should we all withdraw from society and chant mantras and learn to dance the Bhangra ? Must we waste our time arguing about whether one should sit on the floor, rather than learning the principles that are behind this custom ? The real question is, what is more important ? The teachings of Guru Nanak or must one adopt the culture of Punjab before one can be allowed to be religiously a Sikh ?

Sikhism does have great potential for universal appeal. So far, however, it cannot claim to be universal because it has been kept culturally specific to Punjab. The first step has been taken by Sikhs who have left Punjab, and travelled around the globe. The question now is whether Sikhism can continue into the twenty first century without making a break with its Punjabi roots. The second part of the same question is even more important. Which adaptations are going to strengthen Sikhism, as any watering down of religious principles would certainly not be acceptable. What is religion and what is culture must be defined and separated. Religious teachings must not be changed, but cultural mores can be adapted to whatever country Sikhism finds itself in.

Attention must be paid towards clear definitions of what is religion and what is culture. For discussion purposes one can make lists of ‘problems’ and debate which one is religious and which one cultural. Some answers are obvious. Others do need more deliberation.

– Here in Canada we have separate gurdwaras for Ramgarhia Sikhs. This is based on caste considerations and segregation. I hear that there are similar arrangements in Punjab.

– Men and women sit separately in gurdwaras. Not only does it look peculiar to Western eyes, but the religion teaches equality, and the Gurus insisted that men and women sit together in langar. Yet in the prayer halls of a religion that professes to be the ‘religion of the householder’, families are unable to sit together in prayer. We see the negative result on young children, as they disrupt everyone’s peace and equilibrium, by running constantly between Mom and Dad.

– Does Gurbani support dietary injunctions for or against any food ? Where and when were such specific dietary rules made ? If there are no dietary restrictions in the religion, should this not be reflected in langar ?

– At the birth of a daughter, congratulatory notes often sound like condolences. At the very least, they seem to say, “Better luck next time, eh ?” Selective abortions on gender basis are commonly practised. The Akal Takht should be commenting on this.

– Is it possible for an Eskimo in the high arctic to become a Sikh ? If he does not have the facilities to bathe every time before reading the scripture, should he be automatically excluded from becoming a convert ? Endless examples could be cited.
It is essential to examine what is really important to Sikhs. Is it the religion of the ten Gurus, or is it the culture of Punjab ? There is no consensus on these questions because many do not understand the difference between religion and culture, and while professing to be Sikhs, are so imbibed with Hindu culture that the differences are blurred and unrecognisable. Sikhism will never be a truly universal religion, if it is tied down to that specific local culture. We Sikhs will have to consider multiculturalism if we wish any success in the next century. The choices are rather limited.

– Adapt universality by keeping the essential core of ‘Sikh religious teachings’, but not limiting its followers to any specific culture.

– Or remain culturally specific and risk being assimilated into Hinduism.
The choice is that simple, and that difficult.



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