Book Review


Issue 1 2013

Book Review by Manjyot Kaur


Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,” says the Bible verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes. As a Sikh (and thus, by definition, a perpetual student) and an avid admirer of the writings of IJ Singh, I would certainly hope that the first part of this quote is true, but the second part is not the case! Indeed, Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions is IJ Singh’s fifth book, truly an impressive achievement for any author. It is surely as sorely needed as were its quartet of predecessors, not only as required reading in the Sikh community, but also for a wider audience : the public-at-large that remains considerably ignorant of our faith, despite Sikhi’s standing as the world’s fifth largest religion.

Like all of IJ Singh’s writings since the publication of his first collection of essays in 1994, this fifth installment is penned in his inimitable signature style. “I like to connect factoids of Sikh history, as well as snippets of its doctrine and teachings to the way our contemporary society is formed and the way we live,” he avers in the book’s Preface, and this laudable desire is the driving force behind Sikhs Today, as it was in all his earlier works.

“I think it is essential that we define Sikh teachings without compromising them in the context and culture in which they will shape us – and that is here,” as IJ Singh soon goes on to say, firmly situating himself in the North American diaspora, where he has made his home for more than fifty years.

Right from the book’s first essay, Finding, Losing & Having Fun, we are immersed in the US Sikh experience, as the author recalls the mantra of “finding oneself” so emblematic of the American 1960s, and emphasises Sikhi’s embrace of the idea that we must accomplish this aim in our everyday, worldly lives, not by dropping out of society or meditating alone on an isolated mountaintop. Guru Granth, the Sikh scripture and the Eternal Guru of the Sikhs, challenges us to find our self-definition through the universal connectivity that binds us all as “Divine sparks” of the One Creator. In a seeming paradox, it is by joyfully moving away from the self – with our mind grounded in the peaceful equanimity of sehaj and in alignment with Hukam, Divine order – that we truly “find ourselves” and thereby live a full and meaningful life.

The author’s enthusiastic charting of his progress along the Sikh path is especially emphasised in A Sikh Writer’s Journey, echoing the overarching theme of “being and becoming a Sikh” so deeply intrinsic to his entire body of work. For IJ Singh, the act of writing as self-examination is not an onerous task, but rather a transcendental process which “holds the seeds of ecstasy.”

“An examined life and a reality explored is the essence of a life grounded in Sikhi,” he reminds us. Indeed, for anyone who is committed to integrating Sikh teachings into his or her daily existence, how could it be otherwise!

The development of the Sikh nation is another topic that IJ Singh takes relish in recurrently parsing, and his exploration is again clearly evident here, in Vaisakhi Redux. “I have no doubt that nation building is what Guru Nanak had in mind, as did all succeeding Gurus, including Guru Gobind Singh,” the author firmly states. The establishment of new towns by successive Gurus was not because of political and familial rivalries, he opines, considering this overly simplistic interpretation a serious misreading of Sikh history. Instead, each and every Guru whose Guruship lasted for a significant length of time founded a new community of Sikhs as an intentional contribution to the growing “economic and cultural richness and diversity of the Sikh nation,” by which “the infrastructure of a nascent Punjab” was built.

Moreover, along with a shared culture, the Gurus endowed Sikhi with the ideology, philosophy, vision and common ethics that were also necessary components of nation building. Vaisakhi of 1699 was the crowning glory of this process, “when Guru Gobind Singh established, within the feudal, caste-driven society of India, a new Sikh egalitarian nation with democratic institutions of accountability, transparency and participatory self-governance.” “Now the onus of seeing the Guru is on us,” the author reminds us at the end of this powerful essay.

We must ask ourselves: Are we up to the challenge?

IJ Singh’s profound delight in the life of the mind and the world of words and books continues to bequite evident in Sikhs Today.He has often gently chided Sikhs for their perceived lack of interest in these cerebral pursuits that he deems so essential to his own existence, and continues to do so here in On Books & Bookshops Etc. and The World of Words. With On Thinkers, Writers & Public Intellectuals, he takes his passionate paean to the inner life a step farther by lauding “those great minds whose specialty is the expansiveness of their vision,”people with extraordinary abilities to synthesise and stitch together complex, otherwise-isolated ideas and interpret them in the language of the educated layman. While “connecting the dots where others barely see any dots at all,” they “influence the nature, quality and diversity of public debate and dialogue.” As a worldwide cadre of devoted readers would undoubtedly agree, to the list of eminent public intellectuals enumerated in this essay must surely be added IJ Singh himself !

The author’s pinpoints a sense of accuracy in “connecting the dots,” one of the principal hallmarks of his writing, as on full display in Price & Value: A Tale of Two Cities. For who else would have thought of linking New York City with Anandpur Sahib, much less creating an entire essay out of this astute comparison? If Anandpur “speaks to us from a distant, hoary past,” it also still evokes “a revolution of the mind in a people, the transformation of a society, the building of a community and a nation, indeed, of a message that is unique, timeless and universal …” This eloquent elegy to this “centre of a Sikh’s sense of self” not only wryly dubs Anandpur as “the ‘Big Apple’ of Sikh reality” (lending it the playful moniker often given to New York City), but also poignantly portrays this iconic locale as a place of eternal legacy.

In Infinite Courage: Sikhs as Warriors, IJ Singh goes far beyond a basic discussion of Sikh military prowess, so often cited by non-Sikhs when stereotyping Sikhs as “a martial race.” In probing the intriguing concept of the “battlefield of the mind,” as well as the revolutionary sense of empowerment bestowed by the Gurus on a formerly disenfranchised people, he gives an inspirational definition to the true meaning of infinite courage: not the shedding of fear, but the transcendence of it.

The scope of this stirring essay on courage is expanded in Brand Recognition. Here, IJ Singh turns the admission of the fact that “most non-Sikhs remain monumentally unaware of the richness of Sikhi,” into a rousing challenge to all Sikhs. “Do we understand enough of our own beliefs to incorporate them into our lives, so that the market perception of the brand would change, and then others would automatically know us as we know ourselves, and would want to know more?” he demands. Perhaps it is a bit too optimistic for Sikhs to believe others would know us “automatically,” but, as the author says, it nevertheless remains “the only strategy that holds any promise.”

The Tenth Amendment: A Sikh View, is certainly one of the book’s most America-centric chapters. This somewhat circumscribed viewpoint should not be seen as a shortcoming, however, but rather as one of this book’s greatest strengths. After all, this perspective is totally natural, given that the author is indeed very much an American, both in fact and in hispersonal outlook. This essay is an excellent example of IJ Singh’s trademark penchant for joining seemingly disparate concepts to form an integral whole. The Tenth Amendment, providing for separation of powers, is meant to ensure the diversity of power centers in the US and provide a system of checks and balances, with individual states ceding some of their inherent authority (for example, the rights to coin money and to declare war) to the federal government. In this astutely-crafted essay, the author uses the US constitutional framework to draw some much-needed parallels and lessons aimed squarely at Sikhs. When ‘We the People’ return to the Gurus’ idea of “a limited government of delegated powers,” the resulting decentralisation would lead to more participatory self-governance and transparency, and hence a revival of our Sikh institutions. Rediscovering the virtues of the Tenth Amendment is necessary for us, the author opines, as “our global Sikh reality is now much more complex than any time in history, even more so than as Misls during the post-Guru period.”

When Outsourcing Just Doesn’t Work, relating Akhand Paaths (uninterrupted recitations of the Guru Granth) done by proxy with the contemporary business phenomenon of outsourcing, is yet another essay that shows off IJ Singh’s formidable talent for creative dot-connecting and cogent comparisons. He decries contractual agreements with gurdwaras – often historical gurdwaras in India – whereby a reading of the entire Sikh scripture is undertaken in return for monetary donation. Generally, the ones paying the fee are not present at all, or only in attendance when the last four pages of Guru Granth are read. It is not God these people are cheating by this “unholy bargain,” the author declares, but their own selves. Citing examples from his many decades as a professor in academia, he convincingly argues that, since a student needs schooling and training that cannot possibly be completed by proxy, why should putting forth the personal dedication and effort intrinsic to being and becoming a Sikh be any different?

The last essay of this work is Telling Truth to Power, which connects in a most gratifying manner the Zafarnama of Guru Gobind Singh, an epistle the Tenth Master sent to the emperor Aurangzeb, to modern notions of war and peace, and also to the timely (and timeless) idea of speaking truth to authority. “Forgiveness liberates the doer of evil as well as the victim, but mixing the two – forgiveness and forgetting – does not serve the cause of justice, peace or reconciliation,” IJ Singh reminds us. This inspiring chapter brings the collection of thirty essays to a most resounding conclusion.

Fortunately, though, Telling Truth to Power does not quite end the book. It is followed by a valuable Glossary, where nutshell explanations of key Sikh concepts mentioned throughout the work are provided, as well as by a short biographical profile of the author.

The Glossary mitigates one of the book’s few shortcomings: Sikhs Today can sometimes be a bit puzzling, even virtually opaque, to readers who do not possess a firm grasp of Sikh principles. To be sure, IJ Singh is far too active in interfaith matters and outreach activities to ever be accused of being among those who simply “preach to the choir.” He never addresses himself only to committed Sikhs or to those who have at least a modicum of knowledge about Sikhi. However, despite the helpful definitions given in the Glossary, more explanation is definitely needed on some basic Sikh concepts; the essay on Nitnem, the daily devotional readings recited by observant Sikhs, is a prime example of this requirement. More background information would have made such otherwise excellent essays even more instructive and powerful.

On a related note, beginning Sikhs Today with a quote from Guru Granth and the primordial Sikh concept of ‘Guru,’ as the author did in his fourth book, would have been a much-appreciated touch. In this way, all readers (especially non-Sikhs) would know right from the start, at least in some measure, what is involved when the all-important idea of ‘the Guru’ in the Sikh sense is repeatedly discussed throughout the rest of the work.

This book would also have benefitted from more assiduous proofreading and editing. A particular example of this can be found in the Vaisakhi Redux essay, where there is an error in the listing of the names of the Panj Pyare (the first five Sikhs who responded to Guru Gobind Singh’s call for “a head” at the Vaisakhi of 1699). Of course, the author’s accidental substitution of Fateh Singh for Himmat Singh is unquestionably a simple oversight, and in no way a sign of ignorance! However, such an inadvertent mistake would have been caught, and corrected, if more attention to detail would have been part of the red action process.

These minor caveats aside, this work is undeniably “vintage” IJ Singh: a thought-provoking blend of the adroitly parsed ideas, the trenchant wit, and the fearless dialogue and debate for which he is so well known – and so very justifiably celebrated – both throughout the Sikh community and far beyond. In the case of Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions, calling this book “more of the same” is one of the highest compliments it could possibly receive.

Issue 1 2013

A Writer’s Journey

On a cruise for a few days – at sea but not entirely adrift, I hope – my thoughts went to the art of writing and my preoccupation with it.

I have heard it said that, at best, a writer has a single idea that he keeps dissecting and parsing all his life in a myriad different ways. When I first came across this, I was offended. I had always admired writers and writing. And I had not yet written much, but wanted to.

So I felt baffled and insulted at the same time. How could one be a writer by beating up on the same hackneyed idea time and time again, for years on end? I had more ambitious pretensions than that and hoped to do better.

Now, some years later, having published reasonably respectable research articles in experimental biology, spent time with some excellent scientists, supervised the research and writing by doctoral students, and then having published just as many essays and ruminations on Sikhs and Sikhi, I have come to understand and treasure the alluring beauty and the possessive power of a single good idea.

Now I see that happy should be the author who has one good idea in his lifetime to explore and develop. If he is lucky and the theme has any merit, the journey will never end and his whole life would become a commentary on it. It will become the dance of a moth around a flame.

What, then, is that single idea that enthralls me?

It seems to me that being a Sikh, for most of us, is an accident of birth or habit; whereas, becoming a Sikh – the journey – remains the more critical reality.

The one theme that drives all of my writing, then, is to explore the idea of becoming a Sikh in its rich multi-faceted splendour. I really don’t see how a Sikh could be otherwise and still stay true to the label Sikh that brands him a student of life, for as long as life lasts.

The idea is to connect Sikh teachings that come to us from three to five hundred years ago, to our complex, contemporary lives in North America or wherever we live in the diaspora. The Sikh way of life must speak to us today outside Punjab just as completely and meaningfully as it did to countless Sikhs on the sub-continent over the course of five centuries. It must offer sense and substance today, or else it becomes fossilised and irrelevant.

How did this one good idea come to possess me? An apple did not fall on my head, nor was there an electrifying flash of revelation or an epiphany. It must then be pure grace as manna from heaven.

But this single theme is a rainbow of many hues and shades.

There is history. But history has many convoluted, cunning passages and contrived corridors that can and do deceive and defeat us. Yet, history is important; we neglect it at our own peril.

Then there is the very rich tradition of Sikhi. But traditions are rooted in the culture in which they arise and flourish. So, they end up with an enchantingly baffling mix of language, ritual and interpretation, in which the context is rarely free of cultural and mythological baggage. Yet, culture can never be entirely ignored or casually dismissed.

Then there is the pristine purity of the message at the core, hence, divine to those who experience it. But it is framed, articulated and tweaked by the quirks of language, tradition, history and culture.

Ergo, I do not dismiss quite so easily the habits of the heart that we label traditions. Yet, we must continue to weigh them carefully to ferret out what is strictly cultural baggage that may be safely modified or jettisoned, and what connects us to the practice and meaning of Sikhi that we need to nurture.

My meanderings in Sikhi often remind me of the words of T.S. Eliot who said:

We shall not cease from exploration

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Exploration of this splendoured existence allows me much pleasure but, more importantly, it allows me to track my own trail along the path.

Why write?

It is indeed a form of self-indulgence, but it remains a most precise, effective and economical way of examining oneself as minutely and microscopically as one’s talents and inclinations allow. It is like holding a mirror to oneself, and a good mirror can reflect with brutal honesty.

It also holds the seeds of ecstasy.

I find myself standing astride the past, present and future. As I face the future to discern its promise, I stand in the present, on a pulpit for which the bricks and mortar come from the past. When I step off that dais and close my eyes to the past, I have no sense of the present – nothing to stand on, and will have diminished myself to only the tunnel vision of a fancied and unrealistic future.

Thus are the past, present and future inseparably interconnected in the endless march of time.

One thing I have no intention of doing is to preach the message of Sikhi to anyone, for that would require a degree of hubris on my part that I hope and pray I do not have.

The idea is not much different from what I tell my students in human anatomy in the first lecture every year: “I am not here to teach anatomy or, for that matter, anything in particular. I am here to make it possible for you to learn as much as your talents and inclinations allow.”

Whether it is the subject of anatomy or Sikhi, the best I can hope for is to foster a discussion – a need to learn – in the readers’ minds.

Though both my parents were dedicated Sikhs, my mother’s take on Sikhi was purely devotional, while my father’s was largely analytic. It took me a lifetime to see that Sikhi is best accosted by the dual lenses of faith and reason – head and heart. Either one alone is insufficient.

What I do wish for is the camaraderie of fellow travelers – those who do not rob me of my solitude without giving me company. The Sikh savant, Bhai Gurdas, reminds us that some congregations will liberate us, while other associations consign us to everlasting hell

Kahoo ki sangat mil jeevan mukt hoe, kahoo ki sangat mil jum pur jaat hai.

What is the essence of good writing ?

Again, TS Eliot tells us: “Common words exact without vulgarity; formal words precise but not pedantic.”

For me, personally, that remains a distant but much admired goal on my wish list. A bit of fantasia !

Even a cursory reading will convince us all – skeptics and believers alike – that the Gurus practiced that and much, much more. They dissected – simply, directly, minutely, effectively and thoroughly, often with a dollop of humour – complex but essential questions on our sense of self and the goals, constraints and freedoms that constitute our existence.

The more I delve into Gurbani [here, GGS:261], the more I am thrilled by the limitless meaning in “Ek akhar hur munn basat Nanak hote nihaal, meaning that one blossoms when the Word is enshrined in the heart, and that the entire creation inheres in the Word (Akhar meh tribhavan prabh dharay).

Our trouble is that our perceptions, always small and circumscribed, have changed. The allegories, similes and metaphors in Sikh teaching often escape us. These teachings come to us rooted and framed in culture and language that are now often very much alien to us. We lack the context of the time and place when Sikh teaching was elaborated in order to understand the message.

But let me step aside from this and related matters and defer their further consideration to another time.

An examined life and a reality explored is the essence of a life grounded in Sikhi. A line of Gurbani by Guru Amardas comes to mind. It bluntly challenges us with the words: In your life here, what footprints will you leave in the sands of time? –

Eh sareera mairya, iss jug may aaye kae kyaa tudh karam kamaaya [Guru Granth p.922]

My writings have enjoyed such a magical and miraculous run that I am reminded of the words of David Ben-Gurion: “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”

And then my thoughts go to an idea expressed more than once in Guru Granth: “My aimless life has been graced with purpose and direction”

Moorakh kaaray laaiya” [p.449] and “Hum dhaadhi vekaar kaaray laaiyaa [p.150].

Sometimes, however, my thoughts go to Hilaire Belloc’s doggerel:

When I am dead,

I hope it may be said;

His sins were scarlet,

But his books were read.

Extracted from ‘Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions’
by Dr I.J. Singh


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