Anatomy of a way of life
The World According to Sikhi
I. J. Singh
The Centennial Foundation, Ontario.
Pages 170. $ 20.
Review by Roopinder Singh
One of the most sought-after erudite writers and speakers in the USA and Canada on matters concerning the Sikhs is a Professor, not of religion or philosophy as you might imagine, but of anatomical sciences at New York University.
Dr Inderjit Singh, who traces his roots to Patiala, went to the United States in 1960 on a Murry and Leonie Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. He is a major academic presence in his field in New York, where he has long made his home, but for the Sikhs, especially in the years after 1984, he has emerged as a thinker who engages the younger generations in a dialogue in which he exposes them to the fundamentals of his religion as he sees them. He also sees things from their point of view and conveys that forcefully to those who, when their positions are challenged, take the refuge of tradition.
This collection of 25 essays is his fourth. Why Sikhi and not Sikhism? “Many writers have been moving towards the idea that ism at the end of the word encapsulates the concept and, thus, limits it. The Sikh way is best labelled Sikhi, for this word speaks of a way of life and encompasses Sikhisms history, doctrine, dogma, traditions and institutions. The emphasis in Sikhi teaching is less on fences or rituals and more on a way of life.”
The collection is not in any natural progression. It has evolved out of discussions, rumination and feedback on the Internet columns that the author writes, and each essay stands on its own. A particular favourite is The Shelf Life of a Book. Its amazing the way he takes you on a journey from the Minerva Book Shop in Shimla to his apartment overlooking the Hudson in New York to his new house in Long Island. His meditations on how the longevity of ideas in a book gives the book its lifespan and how the ideas in Gurbani have been with us for almost half a millennium tell us that they need to be read and reread, discusses and debated, understood and integrated into the lives of the readers. The reading and understanding are never entirely done, never completed.
Ouch! His plain truths and observations can hurt. One cannot but agree with him when the author laments: “Rare is a Sikh home adorned with a respectable library of books;” or that the print run of Encyclopaedia of Sikhism was only 2,100 copies; or when in The Nature of Dialogue, he says: “The generation gap between the young and the old is a perennial problem. From the vantage point of the youth, the old are too slow to change, too stubborn to learn new skills, too sent in their ways, too preachy and hectoring in their demeanour. The old sit on their experience and seem to value little else. To them, the young are empty-headed, with no direction, no aims and little sense of where they are in life or where they are going. Youth, the greybeards often think, is wasted on the young. But being young is an intoxicating idea.”
The authors anguish, even anger, at the state of the gurdwaras in the US and elsewhere is palpable. The essays on this are provocatively titled, and understandably he offers no quick fix solutions, only a suggestion that the sangat (the congregation) needs to be more involved.
I. J. Singh sallies forth where others fear to tread. No issue is too sensitive for him. While recounting the horror of 1984 and the fact that the perpetrators have not been punished, he makes a passionate plea to move forward. Inter-faith marriages, same-sex unions, heaven and hell, all are discussed. One would have liked the book to be more widely available, since it provokes the reader to think. In making us cogitate on various facts of life, as seen through the perceptive mind of an individual who is a teacher and a student (Sikh), I. J. Singh forces the reader to think and re-examine shibboleths.