The Sikh Way, A Pilgrim’s Progress

Disagree, don’t be disagreeable

The Sikh Way, A Pilgrim’s Progress
by I. J. Singh.
The Centennial Foundation, Ontario, Canada.
Pages 189. Price not stated.

THERE is no point remembering the past only to glorify it. The glorification of the past amounts to ancestor worship and that has no place in the Sikh view. For a Sikh to recount the heroes of yesteryears in his daily prayer is meaningless if the only purpose is to praise them? If traditions are accumulated knowledge of generations past, the study of history makes that knowledge portable and makes it available to the present. Keep in mind that no man is dead until he is forgotten and that history speaks through you and me.

The Sikh Way, A Pilgrim�s Progress, by I. J. SinghWe too make history, whether or not we like the history we make…. When history speaks through the lives of ordinary people, it becomes their heritage that shapes and sustains them. That is why we should remember history. History is to turn you on, not to wallow in. Santayana reminds us that those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.

Dr Inder Jit Singh is an unconventional author, he writes on a wide variety of subjects, from anatomy to literature to religion. This Guggenheim Fellow who went to the USA in 1960 is a PhD in Anatomical Sciences and a DDS. He teaches at New York University and when needed, uses his analytical mind to dissect through what is often intangible, especially the Sikh religious ethos, with a focus on the experiences and issues that concern the diaspora.

Whether it is “Sikhism, History and Historians” from which the excerpt cited above is taken, or a Sikh perspective on bioethical issues, what is to be seen in I. J. Singh’s writing is a refreshing life, an examination of the subject at hand that includes views that may be different from the author’s perspective, a willingness to project the teachings learnt during a life-long pilgrimage to fresh areas.

Examining the relationship between science and religion, he says, “When religious interpreters fail to explain science and to include it in the reality of human existence, science becomes threatening. Scientific evidence and scientific facts clearly change with new facts and new evidence. Religious revelations, on the other hand, even though made at a point in time and space, are made for all time; it is their timelessness that gives them their worth. “Conflict becomes inevitable when we interpret literally what needs to be understood perhaps metaphorically.”

He explores the issues that arise in bioethics and maintains that they can be examined and resolved with a deep, non-literal understanding of the basic Sikh thought. God seems to be alive and well and can be found in cyberspace, says I. J. Singh, who refers to the electronic Sikh sangat. Though he confesses to enjoying surfing the Net, the writer says that he misses the sangat of live faces which he cannot see on this electronic superhighway. The cyber sangat is not all that sangat can be; it is not like being there. Virtual reality is only virtual; it is not reality after all.

In answer to the old question of whether Guru Nanak intended to start a new religion or was he simply a reformer, Singh maintains that Guru Nanak very consciously and deliberately laid the foundation stone of Sikhism, — an edifice that reached completion under the care of Guru Gobind Singh more than two centuries later.

Speaking about the growing pains of Sikh institutions, the author says that they are in, to put it mildly, disarray. He points out that in the past five or seven years, more than 20 of the nearly 100 gurdwaras in the USA and Canada have faced election-related violence on the gurdwara premises. His pain at the devaluation of the institution of the Akal Takht over time is obvious, as is his anguish over a number of controversial pronouncements made a few years ago. He seeks a new role for the Akal Takht and his suggestion of drawing parallels in rights and duties beaten the jathedars of Takhts and the justices of the Supreme Court of the USA is worth considering.

When he asks if the Sikh diaspora is adrift or in focus, Singh addresses an important issue. “In exploring a religion in the diaspora, it is important to separate cultural and political realities from matters of doctrine. Such delineation is not always easy, however. Religion and culture are often intertwined.”

The cultural baggage that emigrants carry, the time warp that they get caught in, often lands them in peculiar situations where they seem out of sync. As incongruent as this are attempts to impose the socio-cultural order of the mother country abroad. There has to be a dynamic examination of the core values, which must remain unchanged, and have to be protected, just as certain practices sanctified as traditional have to be re-evaluated. It is this dynamism that will give vitality to the religion in the diaspora. In fact, the author goes on to maintain that Sikhism is a religion that is constituted and suited for existence outside the territorial bounds of Punjab.

One would have to but agree with the statement made in “Religion, Morality and Leadership” that “leaders need to operate from a level of trust, and religious leaders need to operate from a higher level of trust because they have to answer to a higher authority.” How true, and how unfortunate the situation that we see today is.

One would recommend a thorough reading of “On Fences and Neighbours in Religion” and “Tolerance in Religions: How Sikhism Views Other Religions” where the author combines a scholarly approach with common sense and sensitivity, a combination which one does not commonly come across.

Whether it is discussing death and dying or faith, grace and prayer, Singh is lucid and persuasive. One could pick up certain statements of the author and pick a bone with them, however, one would be wrong in doing so because they have to be seen in the right context. In any case, the author loves disagreements, provided you are not being disagreeable. As long as he provokes thought and discussion, as his book will, I. J. Singh should be content.

This review by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on Sunday, June 24, 2001