Nobody grants anyone rule / sovereignty
— one must grab it through power —
koeI iksI ko rwj n dyhY . jo ly hY inj bl sy lyjY
This proverb is a part of Sikh history and folklore. It has a tremendous hold on the Sikh psyche, mostly for negative purposes. Firstly, where does this akhan (proverb) come from ? Some attribute it to Guru Gobind Singh, others ascribe it to the experience of Sikhs in their struggle for survival with the Mughals that ensued after the death of Guru Gobind Singh and the battle campaigns of Banda Bahadur. This is a minor detail for the historians to figure out. The fact remains that the political conditions prevalent in the last half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th (1650-1750) were the source of this akhan. And it is an important element of the Sikh psyche.
There are two operative words in the proverb, 1. Raj (Rule), 2. Bal (power). It is appropriate that first of all we find out what these two operatives mean, and how these have been understood during the period when they originated, and how they are being interpreted these days and for what purpose. And how can this proverb / axiom be used for the benefit / development of the community ? The simple word Raj / Rule by itself is not very clear. One could derive any meaning one wants, depending upon one’s inclinations and interests, by using appropriate adjectives, like Public Raj, Janata Raj, etc. The meaning could be more clear. At least four categories come under the rubric of Rule : 1) Reign, 2) Lord over, 3) Govern, and 4) Rule. The first two are pretty much related and the last two indicate roughly the same idea.
Ever since man came out of the cave, the need for some sort of organization has been there. Even at the earliest stage of civilization, when man lived by hunting and gathering some natural (wild) berries, there were individuals who were at the head of the pack. In those days the process of selection was very simple, though brutal at times.
An individual who could run faster than others, or carry a bigger sword and so on, was the leader. This leader provided some services to the group (tribe) and in turn he (generally it was he) was granted certain advantages and privileges by the group in the community life. It was a consensual arrangement and it lasted as long as the leader had the physical capability to exercise his power.
As the march of civilization continued, groups of individuals coalesced into tribes. How various tribes came into existence will need a long narration. Some times small groups / tribes existed side by side for long periods. In other cases two or more tribes merged to form a single group : example are the Anglo-Saxons composed of two groups, the Angles and the Saxons, or an amorphous group differentiated into two or more groups. The best example of this are Rajputs and Jats. We find same gotras or subcastes both in Rajputs and Jats. Along the line a sort of hegemony developed. Each tribe would have its own leader or Chief and these Chiefs would be subservient to a Chief who perhaps was leading a bigger tribe or may be was just more clever a person who could muster the support of other chiefs.
It is worth recording that none of these people had absolute power. However, a small group of people, Chiefs and their hangers-on, were able to create a sub- and elite-group, so that the rest of the masses had very little rights (if any) relative to this elite group. How unfairly this elite treated the masses ? Sometimes it is difficult even to imagine. More often the priestly class joined this elite group. Invariably the priestly class enjoyed fewer privileges than the paramount power, but their life was far better than that of the average man. In return the priestly class provided the divine justification for the paramount Ruler. In the Indian context the Raja / Maharaja was declared “nehklanki”, i.e. no sin or crime could be ascribed to the king. In other words the Maharaja could do any thing, no matter how abominable, and still remain Maharaja, without any blemish. In the West it was no better. The principle of the Divine Right of Kings is well known. The subjects were not allowed even the choice of conscience and they had to convert to the religion / dogma of the conqueror / king.
This was Rule of Kings, Emperors, Chancellors and so on. Some of them were quite brutal and even sadistic. To maintain their own privileges, along with those of their cohorts, they used the racist dogma, like Nazis of Germany, cloak of the nehklanki of the Maharajas or the superiority of a particular religion. Aurangzeb of India and his cohorts of Sirhind belong to the latter category.
In the West two different methods have been used to tame the arbitrariness of the Ruler / Lord. One method is that of the French Revolution, when the Kingship was eliminated (king murdered), and then a slow process of democratisation started. That is still going on. Here it is worth mentioning that every revolution did not result in democratisation. In some cases revolution brought dictatorship that was even more despotic than the king it replaced. The Soviet Union is the prime example of that. Great Britain provides the other method of taming the arbitrations of “Divine Kings”. Here slowly, step by step, the power of the king was reduced and the king was no more than the constitutional head of the State, with practically no power of his own.
In India, Hindu Rajas, in collusion with the Brahmins, were considered above the law, nehklanki. The priest and the ruler fleeced the general public. Starting in about the 10th century, the Hindu Rajas were being subdued by the Muslim invaders from Central Asia. The Muslims were not totally successful in removing the Hindu Rajas and the Brahmin priests, but they imposed their own superiority and the Rajas became vassals of the Delhi dynasties. By the time of the Guru, the Mughals had established themselves as the overlords of India. For the average person, their reign was not much better than that of the Hindu Rajas. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, Mughal rule had become despotic and tyrannical, where anybody who was not a Muslim, was a second class citizen. Reason or moral values had no relevance to these rulers. They would not listen to any thing else other than the raw force of the Sword.
It is in this context the fighting prowess of the Khalsa came to the fore. There was no choice. Either the Khalsa had to fight or be annihilated. Ultimately Khalsa forces became victorious and the Mughal empire was gone. In the late 18th century, Sikhs were masters of Punjab and the neighbouring areas. It was a great improvement over the Mughals. However, it would not be unfair to say that further development stopped with the establishment of the Rule of the Sikh Sardars / Maharajas (some may not agree with this conclusion). The Sikh Raj did not develop into what the Sikhs of Guru Gobind Singh’s time believed in or what Guru Gobind Singh’s had envisaged and preached. Guru talks of the sovereignty of people, not of some selected individual Sardars, though they may be Sikhs. It is a well-known fact that the Guru’s forces included Muslims as well. So that ‘people’ for the Guru, included all the people irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
Most of the Sikhs are hind-bound to the history of the the 18th century, in the Sikh struggle for their very survival. We associate power with the power of the sword / fighting power and Raj / Rule with the capturing of the political power, albeit the power to lord over, from opposing party. Before going further, it is worth mentioning that even in the 18th century success on the battlefield was not sufficient. Winning a particular battle is a straightforward matter. What follows the battle is much more complex and of far reaching consequences. Victory on the battlefield provides only an opportunity to start a process, whereby the real objectives, whatever they may be — lord over, colonise, or setting the house in order — are attained.
The paradigm has shifted. The world of today is not the same as that of the 18th century. With the means of transportation and communication, the world has become a global village. What happens in one place is instantaneously flashed all around the world. To lord over, suppress other countries and ethnic groups is simply not on the cards. It is recognised that suppression is still going on in various parts of the world. But unlike of old one, dictatorships and aristocracies of today, be they individuals or groups, are under immense pressure of world opinion and the international community. The evolving concept of Raj is coming closer to what the Sikh Gurus envisaged, and in particular what Guru Gobind Singh fought for. That is, every individual and every group, howsoever defined, racial, religious, has the right to live its own life in harmony with other groups and nature itself, in the glory of the Almighty.
Assuming that physical force will be required from time to time, the question arises how do we obtain that power ? Is it possible just by shouting slogans and going home or is it possible by invoking Guru’s blessings and then doing everything contrary to what the Guru asks us to do ? Mere talk will not take us very far. To perceive everything, all the time through the prism of the fighting power (sword) is self-defeating. But such is the fixation of the community on the fighting power of the sword that we are not even willing to see the issues in proper perspective. Most of the time the battle / cause is lost even before the battle begins. Further, quite often the cause has been lost even when the battle was won. This has been in history in the famous battle of Sabhraon in 1845. Here Shah Mohammed says :
O, Shah Mohammed, in the absence of one sarkar,
The armies have lost the won war.
Perhaps Shah Mohammed’s reference is to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, but sarkar signifies much more than that. Sarkar means a society, especially the rulers, who follow certain rules which are based upon morality and for the well-being of the public at large.
In the twenties, Sikhs made huge sacrifices to free the gurdwaras from the clutches of mahants. At the end the Government of the day had to bow to the wishes of the community. Sikhs won the battle for the gurdwaras, but all the indications are that right after the battle victory, the deterioration started, as if it was inevitable. Today our gurdwaras, under the control of the SGPC, are faction-ridden, and they have become a steady source of superstitions. Selling of pre-completed Akhand Paths should be sufficient to see this point.
In recent times, the Akalis / Sikhs won most of, if not all, the morchas. At the same time it is pretty evident that the benefits of all these victories have been marginal at best. An argument can be built that the Sikhs have won even the recent morcha. My reference is to the events since 1984. At least the community has survived the genocidal policies of Indira Gandhi. But at what cost ? And the price is still being paid !
It is fair to ask : Why is this happening time and again ? Is it our destiny ? The reason is not far to seek, only if we care and dare to look into it. In our fixation on the power of the sword, we have failed to analyse and reflect upon what the constituents of power are. These are : economic power, education, organisation, information and bibek.
Kabir has well said ;
No devotion with starvation is possible;
Here, take back Your rosary.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 656
It is self-evident that every individual needs certain amount of material things to survive and to function. Kabir’s sloka can be interpreted in more than one way. Nevertheless the fact remains that there is nothing about “holiness” in a wretched life of destitution. On the whole, the Sikh community, in Canada or elsewhere, is not a poor community. Leaving aside some individual cases, most of the Sikhs are doing fairly well on this front.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that at the macro level the economic power of the community is not being properly utilized for community development. There is no dearth of donations, but the resources are not being utilized to create social infrastructure for the community. Lack of facilities results in the alienation of the youth, no shelter for battered women and other disadvantaged members of the community. On the other hand, it is not hard to prove that the economic resources of the community are being utilised for anti-Sikh activities and to preach what is totally against Sikh principles and traditions. Granting of siropas to individuals who refuse to partake of langar, as a matter of principle, is a common practice. Some very famous kathakars refuse to join in ardas at the end of a function, and these people are being eulogised and given siropas by our managements.
Education, especially the community aspect of it, has been and still is a weak spot of the Sikh community. Guru Nanak founded the new movement and religion. It is a fact of life that the educated class of the time did not join the emerging faith. Who were the educated class ? As everyone knows, Brahmins were the elite. They had no incentive to join the new emerging casteless society. The Gurus did their best to impart education to the converts.
As luck would have it, the conflict with the Mughal empire became so intense that the very survival of the community was at stake. In that situation, education was the first to suffer. It can be easily realised if we survey the situation when in the second half of the 18th century Sikhs became masters of Punjab. Most of the Sikh Sardars, rulers of Punjab, were illiterate.
It is at that time that the Brahminical rituals made inroads in Sikh practices and Sikh psyche. In fact, a large number, if not most, of Sikh Sardars, in spite of their outward appearance were more at ease with Brahmaical practices. To a considerable extent, this psyche is still with us. The best example of that is Prof. Oberoi, who is telling us that Sikhs are a variety of Hindus only. We have reduced Guru Granth Sahib to the level of the Fifth Veda. There is no attempt to understand the contents of Guru Granth Sahib. Rather, what is being propagated and encouraged is — Akhand Path at every possible occasion; more than one Akhand Path in adjoining rooms of a gurdwara, even Path from more than one Bir in the same room are a common practice.
With the advent of the British rule, there was a new phase in education. The community went for education. The process was slow to begin with, but now every one accepts that education is important. At the same time, the present education of the community is very lopsided. Firstly, our educated class, by and large, knows very little of Sikh history and Sikh religion. They are no less superstitious than the individuals from any backward village. Secondly, most of them are behaving like the Brahmin elites, who used to consider others of lower status, but still would not hesitate to fleece the poor masses. Our educated class likes to derive all the benefits that flow from the group (community) identity. But at the same time they would not participate in any meaningful way in community development.
The situation is further complicated by the unwillingness of the Sikh organizations to develop any systematic approach to the education of the community in general and that of the children in particular. Most of the Sikh leadership (educated or otherwise, gurdwara-based or not) bemoan the current situation, but at the same time they are unwilling to come together and work systematically to develop as to :
– What we should be teaching our children and youth, at various stages.
– How to arrange for the facilities.
– What material we need for education and how to produce or procure that material, and so on.
Of course, review of any programme in relation to its efficacy or otherwise is simply out of the question under the prevailing conditions.
In Sikh religion, great emphasis is laid on sewa / service to the community / humanity. We fail to realise that sewa under the rural conditions of Punjab during the Guru-period and in the city of Ottawa in Canada may not have any resemblance. In the good old days, sewa was at very elementary levels, such as rescuing somebody from a bully, providing food to the hungry for a day or two, working in the gurdwara to fan the sangat and so on. That type of service did not require great organisation. Any individual, if so inclined, could do as much as he wanted and then go home. There was no question of responsibility and continuity. Unfortunately, this is still our idea of sewa. We fail to see that any community need that requires a sustained effort over time, needing special skills and so on, simply cannot be provided by individuals on ad-hoc basis. In the absence of any plan and organisation sewa generally comes to what may be called “non-functional sewa.” Example of this type of sewa is the cleaning of shoes of the visitors to the gurdwara. These are some of the characteristics of non-functional sewa:
– Any one so inclined can perform such a sewa.
– No particular expertise is required.
– Do as much as one wants; one could clean five pairs of shoes or 500, if one wants to.
– The sewa may be available one day and not the next day. And the individuals for whom the sewa is intended do not miss it, when it is not provided (or is withdrawn).
Unfortunately, at this stage, no thought is given as to what services the community needs, what sort of organisation we need to provide for these needs and how any such organisation can be set up and slowly nurtured and modified with the changing environments. Nevertheless, we keep complaining that the leaders are not providing us proper guidance. I have heard people ascribing the ills of the community to individuals who died more than a quarter century ago. With all their faults, please let them rest in peace and get on with the job.
This is a ridiculous proposition. If we know that the leaders are not providing proper guidance, that would imply that we know what the proper action is supposed to be. Then why do we not adopt those proper policies to ameliorate the situation. Perhaps that is too simple and logical. We keep looking for a messiah, who will do everything for us. Believe it or not, we could be waiting for the messiah till the sun burns itself into a black hole.
Everyone will recognise that the present is the age of information. Leaving aside the propaganda aspect of the utilisation of information, there are at least three aspects of information:
– To present a correct image of the community to the outside world and thus safeguard the community from stereotypes and the wrong propaganda of the elements hostile to the community interests. The importance of this aspect should be clear to anybody in the light of the recent experiences of the community.
– Keep members of the community itself informed about the situation inside and outside the community. This includes constantly reminding the community of the core of the value system, that is the basis of the very existence, raison d’etre of the community. What are the threats to this value system, both internal and external, and how those threats can be recognised and countered.
– Recognition and information about the destructive element within the community itself. No community is totally free of such elements. But it appears that the Sikh community is unnecessarily “blessed” with destructive elements. What may take years to build, the destructive elements can destroy in a few hours / days. And it has happened on more than one occasion.
It is ironic that with all the means at its disposal, the Sikh community does not recognise the need for information gathering and its proper dissemination in a consistent, sustained manner (see note at the end). As far as the internal destructive elements are concerned, the community does not want even to hear about it. If someone is bold enough that he dares to bring out the activities of the destructive elements, more often he / she will be dubbed as a trouble-maker, if not a traitor worthy to be excommunicated, nay to be stoned to death. The result is that quite a few members of the community followed the destructive path throughout their lives, have come to be known as sants, mahan preacher and even sant-sipahis.
All the power, in its various forms and manifestations, is needed, but by itself it may not be very useful. The power can be and, in fact, is being used for destructive purposes. This will be the case as long as the power is not tempered with and led by bibek. What is bibek ?
Bibek means ability to discriminate, to discern, to distinguish the real from the unreal, permanent from the transitory, core value from the peripheral, what is relevant from the superfluous or irrelevant, and so on.
Guru Nanak and other Gurus have rightly said, “The only Reality is the Formless Almighty, the rest is all transitory and ephemeral”. Unfortunately, the great truth is being misused to lead astray the innocent and trusting public. Our preachers, ragis, kathakars are more in tune with the rishis, brahmins and sidhas than with the gospel of Guru Nanak. They advocate that sansar is ephemeral and the only thing worthwhile is Nam Japna. They preach it in such a manner that encourages people not to participate in community life, and justify their non-involvement in the community life in any meaningful way.
Nam Japna as preached by our preachers is a very selective approach. True, Guru Nanak has stated that the only Reality is the Almighty. But he has also reiterated that this world is the creation of the Real. And as the creation of the Real, it is real, as long as it lasts, we cannot run away from it. The earth is the dharamsal, abode of good conduct and dharma. In this context, there comes the pragmatic aspect of bibek. It is incumbent on us to figure out how to work out our destiny, while following the path of dharma. Bibek would help us ascertain as to what is possible at a given stage, which means we need, and how we need to organise ourselves to achieve the desired result. It would also tell us what measures we need to employ to protect the fruits of our labour from the internal locust.
The question may be asked, how any individual and the community can acquire the faculty of bibek ? Every individual is blessed with the faculty of bibek. Whether everyone is equally blessed or some individuals are blessed more than others, really nobody can answer this question in a definitive fashion. And there is no need to waste time and energy on this futile endeavour.
The crux of the matter is that we use that with which we have been endowed and blessed. In a different context there is the well- known proverb. “If you don’t use it, you lose it”. Same is true about the faculty of bibek. This faculty operates at two levels — individual and corporate or community level. Here our concern is with the latter. Individually, one may have all the understanding possible, but unless that is transferred to and accepted at the community level, it does not go very far. A rishi, an ascetic, sitting in a jungle may have all the understanding, but it will not help the society at all. How can bibek be practised and developed and acted upon for the community development ?
Sikh Gurus have provided the model, i.e., the model of the sangat. Sangat and community are synonymous. Unfortunately we have narrowed down the composition of the sangat and particularly its scope of action. Generally sangat is assumed to be the people sitting in a gurdwara. Some would like to restrict it further. To people who dress in a particular fashion and so on. If the trend continues, it could reduce Sikhism to an esoteric seat of recluses. Let us hope and pray it does not happen so !
The need of the time is that sangat should be inclusive and not exclusive, where community issues can be discussed, differing opinions expressed and heard. And the proceedings are conducted with a sense of tolerance and decency, without resort to violence and name-calling. Then whatever decision is arrived at, either by consensus or by majority vote, is carried out faithfully.
Unless our gatherings (meetings) achieve this minimum level of decency and continuity, nothing is going to work. This is desired and required at every level, from the smallest gurdwara in a remote village to the offices of the supreme body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
NOTE : In the year 1984, the Sikh community underwent a series of traumatic experiences. This was the time when the Indian Government, under Indira Gandhi, attacked, with full force of the Indian army, the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple complex. The trauma was felt throughout the world. However, it is unfortunate that even this trauma has not awakened the community to the need for information gathering and its dissemination.
After the attack on Golden Temple, the Indian Government unleashed a propaganda blitz against the Sikhs throughout the world. The sting was felt by the most hardened and the timid alike. Sometimes in August 1984, a gathering of the Sikh leadership of Toronto was arranged. The author was also invited to the gathering. There were about fifty individuals in the meeting. The subject discussed was “How we could counter the malicious propaganda of the Indian Government.”
Due to some urgent family concerns, the author left the meeting before adjournment with the statement, “What ever decision is taken would be acceptable to me.” Finally, a committee of 15 members was selected. It was named as Media Committee, and its task was to explore ways and means to counter the propaganda of the Indian Government. The author was nominated as Chairman of the Committee, in his absence.
The author undertook the task in full earnest. However, it is to be noted that within a few hours of the adjournment of the meeting, the very people, who had selected him as Chairman, let loose a virulent campaign stating that he was a Government of India agent. The result was that the author left after two meetings and the whole thing collapsed.
Any sane person would like to ask these questions :
– Was the author not known to these people when they selected him as Chairman ?
– Supposing they came to know certain information about the author after the meeting, why did they not come to the meeting and select another chairman and continue the task ?
That would have been too logical. Unfortunately, we have to face the reality. The Sikh community is so faction-ridden and confused that they would rather stay together in the mud, at the mercy of the people of the ilk of Indira Gandhi, rather than working logically their own destiny.
Priceless His virtues, priceless the Trade,
Priceless the customers, priceless the purchase,
Priceless the dealers, priceless the treasures,
Priceless the weights, priceless the measures.
Priceless the devotion, priceless the absorption.
Priceless the Law Divine,
Priceless the Master’s court — His shrine.
Priceless the approval, priceless the bounties,
Priceless the command, priceless His mercies,
Priceless beyond word, beyond thought,
They who seek to tell grow mute, knowing it not.