On Collectively Shared Meaning
of the Mission
Gajindar Singh Sethi
Sikhism is a religion which believes in the wholeness of life and truthful living. Awareness, action, achievement, and acceptance are the four cornerstones of the mental framework of a Sikh. “Welfare of the whole of mankind”, is his daily prayer. Selfless service and sacrifice are his sacred duties.
Sikhism is the youngest religion, yet its history is full of strife and suffering. In spite of its simplicity, universality, and impressive contributions, it is much misunderstood, maligned, and even marginalised. The creation of the Khalsa, its distinct identity and mission have become controversial topics.
There are ample references in Sikh scriptures and history to affirm that the creation of the Khalsa was the fulfilment of Guru Nanak’s mission. Do we collectively share the meaning of this mission ? Is this mission still relevant ? If so, how shall we pursue this in the coming years ? These are the questions that should stay with “all of us”, the “Nanak panthis”, who constitute the basic congregation of the faithful ones, transforming itself into the Khalsa. The mission is also to be shared with those who, though separated in the course of history, still remained Nanak panthis. It is Guru Nanak’s mission and all Nanak panthis are welcome. In the historical context, the Nanak-panthis include, Singhs, Udasis, Nirmalas, Namdharis, Sehajdharis (Sindhis), Sant Samaj of various deras, and others.
History of all religions shows that interpretations, reformation processes, and personality cults created new assumptions, beliefs, identities, and divisions. Further re-grouping took place because of political affiliations and ambitions. The original mission got ignored and self-interests took over. Sikh psyche is also caught in this.
Our intellectuals might have, in their mind, all the questions and all the answers on the problems facing us. However, may I humbly point out that such knowledge can only change one’s ideas, but may not transform the collective consciousness as well. In view of these intrinsic difficulties a serious ‘dialogue’ is necessary to ensure that all Sikh institutions, sects, organisations and individuals get deeply involved in the mission of Guru Nanak and arrive at a ‘collectively shared meaning’ of the mission.
I am aware that extensive discussions have taken place in finalising the action plans regarding revival of the true spirit of the Khalsa on the occasion of tercentenary celebrations. Discussions do have their validity and usefulness while defining the magnitude and time framing of the activities. Conferences and symposia also help in cross fertilisation of ideas and creation of information and knowledge. However, when we have to spread the message and create collective understanding of the mission talks, discussions and conferences might result in limited success, because, generally, the participants :
– do not want to go very far beyond their points of view, which they assume to be right.
– react emotionally to defend their opinions, when the same are challenged.
– hold that some of the issues are not negotiable or not touchable.
– defend the concepts, ideas, and events with which they identify.
– try to win some point which could promote their self / group interests.
– are afraid of lowering their self-image in the presence of more vociferous persons / groups.
– with their limited knowledge, prefer to deliberate only on the peripheral issues.
Need For A Dialogue.
When communication barriers are to be overcome or when the aim is of reaching understanding on the ‘collectively shared meaning’ of the mission, dialogues at all levels and across, will be better. The aim of the ‘dialogue’ is not to have the approval of the participants to the drafted ‘mission statement’, but to create a spirit of deep understanding between various participants, for it is said,
One may meet, and yet meet not,
For one meets only if one meets in spirit.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 791
In The Present Context
In view of the situation existing in the Sikh psyche today, we should work in the spirit of,
All are partners (in Thy Grace); O dear, thou art alien to none.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 57
Therefore, we have to include all Nanak-panthis in the dialogue. To carry out the proper ground work for an effective ‘dialogue’, we must start with appreciation of the constituents whose involvement is sought.
I have used this title for all those Sikhs who generally accept the basic tenets of Sikhism, that is, faith in the ten Gurus, Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikh institutions. Among these, the amritdhari Sikhs or the Khalsa, follow the Sikh code and practices, and control the Sikh institutions. On the other hand, a large number have remained ‘uncommitted Sikhs’. Many of the latter category of the Sikhs, mostly the youth, have become apostates. This is the real concern. At family level or at the community level there is practically no real communication. Constant propaganda and admonitions on their indifference, disregard for the traditions and dress code, etc., have, in fact, resulted in further alienation of this group. A good point about the uncommitted group is that they have not accepted any other faith and also that they still prefer to be known as Sikhs. A free and affectionate dialogue with young boys and girls could help.
For more than 150 years Udasis maintained Sikh shrines in remote places throughout the country facing all odds. They were revered by the local population and Sikh sangat. It was only in the 19th century that a few mahants got corrupted due to jagirs and rich donations from Maharaja and wealthy Sikhs. The removal of the corrupt mahants from the holy shrines was hailed by everybody. However, during many heated controversial arguments, the new parcharaks also started outright rejection of the institution, creating doubts about the intentions and merit of their founder, Baba Sri Chand. Udasis are carrying on with hurt feelings because of the misquoted episode of history. Could we not assign them a modified role and utilise their services as missionaries ? I am afraid due to their being sidelined, many Udasis have already found their acceptance in the Hindu fold.
The reasons behind their rejection are frivolous. Was it not the Tenth Guru, who had sponsored some Sikh scholars to learn Sanskrit language and Vedic studies at Kashi ? The sect continues to perform their designated task and are examples of pious living, scholarship, and missionary zeal. They are known for their interpretation of Guru Granth Sahib in the Vedantic traditions, by virtue of which they are received in reverence and because of which they have been successful in introducing Sikh thoughts to their Hindu disciples. Their renderings have been misconstrued as against Gurmat. Nirmalas are excellent missionaries and can penetrate traditional Hindu minds where anglicised Sikh scholars cannot. We must request their services.
The Namdhari movement was essentially a movement to save the Sikh masses from moral degradation, drinking, drug addiction, show of wealth, gluttony, infanticide, dowry, etc., in the post Ranjit Singh era. The movement was led by Baba Ram Singh of Bhaini Sahib, who is said to have had attributes of a Gurmukh. He spread the gospel of Naam, congregational singing of Gurbani in frenzy (hence they were called Kukas), Amrit Sanchar, strict vegetarianism, white swadeshi dress, Gurmukhi dastar, and simple mass weddings. Namdharis shunned anglicized education, boycotted the colonial government’s postal system. The sect was suspected of sedition and revolt. In 1872, Baba ji along with many of his disciples, was imprisoned and deported to Rangoon, where he died during his incarceration. Namdharis do not accept Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru as they believe in the tradition of living Gurus. During the first three decades of twentieth century heated controversy on the issue occupied the Sikh minds, with publication of books like Gurupad Prakash by Namdhari scholar Nidhan Singh Alam, and Gurupad Nirnai by Khalsa Samachar. Points raised by Namdharis were not accepted. However, they remain unconvinced till today. Furthermore, when Namdharis joined the Congress movement in 1929, the divide between them and the majority faction led by Akalis became almost permanent for obvious reasons. Still, the Namdhari sect can contribute to the spread of Guru Nanak’s mission. They rely on Gurbani, they continue with unpolluted Sikh traditions, and they have absolute check on apostasy.
The faith of a sehajdhari Sindhi is unquestionable. The older generation of Sindhis worship Guru Granth Sahib as the living Guru. Their recitation of Gurbani and Ardas are with as much devotion as other Sikhs. Their Kirtan has a distinct style. They have great regard for keshadhari Sikhs. They make generous monetary contributions to Sikh institutions. They have chosen to remain sehajdharis since the beginning. They can be allowed to remain so. However, they must be asked to positively involve themselves in the activities of the mission.
Sant Samaj and Others
Deras run by renowned sants spread the gospel of Naam in the traditional style, not in strict conformity with the practices approved by the Sikh institutions. However, their hold on the Sikh peasantry cannot be underestimated. Individuals, like Harbhajan Singh Yogi, also propagates Sikhism in the United States with some deviations. He makes strong impact upon many of his disciples. He has been criticised for teaching yoga and for reverence shown to his person. Whether or not we should seek involvement of such institutions and individuals in the propagation of the mission has to be reasoned out.
Initiating The Dialogue.
The purpose behind the brief background information, in the preceding paragraphs, was not to justify or criticize the divisions or reasons of dissent. The aim is to prepare the participants to initiate and continue the dialogue in spite of the apparent conflicting positions.
Gather together, O brothers,
And attuning yourselves to God, dispel your duality.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1185
Since the mission is continuous the dialogue on this may have to continue parallel with the implementation stages and till the representative groups evince interest. Simultaneous dialogues can be held in different places and at different levels. An assembly of 10 to 20 persons representing a cross section of different age and gender groups will be engaged in the dialogue. Seating arrangement will be in a circle, sitting on the floor or in chairs without a table. Environment — friendly; agenda — basic but non controversial issue; mood — informal, and time duration 1 to 2 hours. Assembly will conclude with all participants holding hands, observing in silence a feeling of togetherness and praying for the grace of Guru for about a minute. The effect is electrifying.
Such assemblies and dialogues can be repeated with the same or changed participants.
Success of the Dialogue
During the periods of serious crisis or war like situations the inner democracy within the Khalsa brotherhood facilitated successful dialogues between the various factions, resulting in adoption of a Gurmatta. However, when the crisis was over, even minor difference of opinions or self-interests divided the community. For a mission or a long-term programme, sharing a common vision by all concerned will be possible only after a serious dialogue, success of which depends upon the following:
– The lead group of the mission has to assume the role of the initiator. A person who speaks less and listens more, will be the best facilitator.
– Listening is an art. Listening without mental resistance, without bias, and without reaction, will only promote understanding.
On listening, even the blind will see the Path.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 3
– Participants will have to learn to give space to others to talk. Nobody should jump in right away, with whatever he has in mind.
– Nobody has to agree to anything. Meeting of minds is the only aim.
– If participants demand results and conclusions from the dialogue, they might end with frustrations. Instead, spirit of acceptance itself might resolve the conflict.
– Speaking clearly and fearlessly on the present challenges will only make the dialogue meaningful. Speaking too much, and about the past, might prove to be counter-productive.
– In dialogue there is no place for the principle of authority or hierarchy. However, humility pays rich dividends.
Guru Panth has enshrined in itself glorious democratic traditions. It is therefore expected that in case of crisis the collective wisdom is shared by all through the system of dialogue. Guru is always present in the sangat to guide. In the 21st century Panthic institutions will have to face challenges, not necessarily from other faiths, but from information technology, that is likely to change the thinking of common man. The process of dialogue, not only creates a wonderful spirit of holy communion (sadh sangat), but also promotes deep involvement of all concerned, in collective responsibility (gurmatta) for social action.
1. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, translation by Dr Gopal Singh.
2. A Short History of The Sikhs, by Teja Singh and Ganda Singh.
3. On Dialogue, by David Bohm.
They who praise Him know not how great is He,
As the rivulets know not the expanse of the sea,
Into which they merge. The king whose dominion,
Is like an ocean,
And hath wealth like a mountain,
Equals not a worm in whose heart dwells the Lord. 
Limitless His praise, limitless its ways.
Limitless His workings, limitless His givings.
Limitless the sounds, limitless the sights,
Limitless the mysteries of His mind.
Limitless the Creation, limitless the expanse,
O, countless struggle to find, who can ?
The more one says, the more is yet to say.
Great is the Lord, high, high His mansion.
He hath the most exalted station.
To know the Highest of the High,
One may try, if one be as high as He.
O He alone knows how great He be.
’Tis Grace that brings us mercy.