IV Nishaan 2003 copy


Issue 1 2013

“Inspired by Guru Nanak’s creative mysticism, Sikh architecture is a distinct harbinger of holistic humanism based on pragmatic spirituality”.

Wherever there are Sikhs there will be a gurdwara. It may be a magnificent white ornate building rising high above the trees and houses of a Punjabi village, or it may be a plain flat-roofed building remarkable only for its size compared with the other houses nearby. In the UK, it may be a terrace house or a former Christian church. Strictly speaking, a gurdwara is any place where the Guru Granth Sahib is installed. The unique and distinguishing feature will always be the nishaan sahib, a flagstaff with the yellow flag of the faith flying from it. This serves as a statement of the Sikh presence, enables the traveler, whether he be Sikh or not, to know where solace can be sought. It is not any assertion of authority, but is the freedom to worship.

The presence of Guru Granth Sahib normally means being at a gurdwara, religious centre for the Sikhs, where the egalitarian principles of the Panth are most naturally followed. When Sikhs travel out of their hometowns, either to other parts of their country of residence or foreign places, they usually look for, and soon head to, a gurdwara.

Gurdwaras can be broadly of two types with the Golden Temple at Amritsar (the Darbar Sahib or Harmandir) as the epitome. Gurdwaras are also where any visitor can partake of community meals at the langar. There is a proliferation of gurdwaras worldwide built by Sikhs as part of their religious and social life. Then, of course, there are the historic gurdwaras, essentially in India and what is now Pakistan. These were erected on sites which are important in the history of Sikhism. For example, the Sis Ganj in Delhi marks the place where Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred and the Keshgarh at Anandpur was erected over the place where Guru Gobind Singh instituted the Khalsa. This practice seems to have begun with Guru Hargobind, to whom the first use of the word gurdwara is attributed. He visited places associated with his father or his predecessors, especially Guru Nanak, restored the buildings which he found, encouraging proper teaching and preaching to be given in them.

The Sikh places of worship were originally known as dharmsalas, which normally signifies a rest-house for travelers in its normal Indian context but was used in the early days of Sikhism to denote a room or building used for devotional singing (kirtan) and prayers. Guru Nanak built a dharmsala at Kartarpur and Bhai Gurdas claims, possibly with some poetic licence, that,

Centres of worship were established wherever Baba (Nanak) set foot.

All the Siddh centres (i.e. religious centres) in the world became centres of Nanak’s teaching.

Every house became a dharmsala and kirtan was sung as if it were an unending Baisakhi festival.

                                 (Var 1, pauri 27)

The word ‘gurdwara’ is in fact, compounded of Guru (spiritual guide or master) and Dwara (gateway or seat) and, therefore, the Sikh house of worship has an architectural connotation. These are by and large commemorative buildings connected with the ten Gurus in some way, or with places and events of historical significance. For example, Gurdwara Dera (halting place) Sahib in Batala in Gurdaspur district commemorates the brief stay there of Guru Nanak, along with the party, on the occasion of his marriage, Gurdwara Sheesh Mahal (hall of mirrors) in Kiratpur in Ropar district was built where the eighth Guru, Harkishan, was born. Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj (martyrs’ memorial) in Muktsar in Faridkot district commemorates the place where the bodies of the Sikhs, who were killed in the battle fought between Guru Gobind Singh and the Mughal forces in 1705, were cremated, Gurdwara Ram Sar (God’s pool) in Amritsar stands on a site where the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, compiled the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs, with Bhai Gurdas, his maternal uncle, acting as the amanuensis.

The nucleus of a gurdwara is that of a select room in which the Adi Granth is placed and a sangat (congregation) can be seated to listen to the paath or readings from the Holy Book, as also to sing and recite the sacred verses as kirtan. Quintessentially, Gurdwaras have entrances on all the (four) sides signifying that they are open to one and all without any discrimination whatsoever. This distinguishing feature also symbolises the essential tenet of the faith that God is omnipresent.

Many Sikh Gurdwaras have a deorhi, an entrance gateway, through which one must pass before reaching the shrine. A deorhi is often an impressive structure with an imposing gateway, from where visitors get first glimpse of the sanctum sanctorum. The buildings of Sikh shrines, when classified according to their planform, are of four basic types: the square, the rectangular, the octagonal, and the cruciform. On the basis of the number of storeys, gurdwaras have elevations which may be one, two, three, five, or even nine-storey high. One comes across several interesting variations of gurdwara-design worked out on the permutations and combinations of the aforesaid basic plan and elevation-types.

A gumbad (dome) is usually the crowning feature of a gurdwara. Rarely, a shrine may be flat-roofed, as in the case of Gurdwara Guru-ka-Lahore near Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district. Sometimes, a small one-room shrine is topped by a palaki, a palanquin-like roof, as can be seen in Gurdwara Tahli Sahib in village Tahla in Bathinda district. Gurdwara Bahadurgarh in Patiala district has a palaki instead of a dome as its crowning feature. The architecture of the major gurdwaras is normally in the Mughal style of Shah Jahan which Sikhs find a congenial blend of Muslim and Hindu forms, though they have developed it in a distinctively Sikh manner.

A recurrent element of the gurdwara-design is the preferred use of two storeys to gain sufficient elevation for the shrine. However restrained the design may be, the elevation is usually treated by dividing the facade in accordance with the structural lines of columns, piers, and pilasters, with vertical divisions creating areas of well-modelled surfaces. The most important division is, of course, the entrance which receives more ornate treatment than other areas. The treatment often creates bas-reliefs of geometrical, floral, and other designs. Where magnificence is the aim, repousse-work in brass or copper-gilt sheeting is introduced often with a note of extravagance.

Sikh architecture represents the last flicker of religious architecture in India. The Darbar Sahib, or Golden Temple at Amritsar is its most celebrated example as this is the only monument in which all the characteristics of the style are fully represented. Golden Temple is by far the sheet-anchor of the stylistic index of Sikh architecture. Almost levitating above, and in the middle of, an expansive water-body, the ‘Pool of Nectar’ (Amrit-Sar), the Darbar (court) Sahib, or Harmandar (Lord’s Temple), stirs one deeply with glitters of its golden dome, kiosks, parapets, and repousse-work, and the enchanting evanescence of its shimmering reflections in the pool. With the temple and tank as the focus, a complex of buildings, most of which repeat in their architectural details and the characteristics of the central structure, have come up in the vicinity of the shrine in the course of time.

As a style of building-design, Sikh architecture might strike the lay onlooker as eclectic : a pot-pourri of the best features picked up from here and there. But it embodies much more than meets the casual eye. It shares its stringent regulation with the awesome austerity of Islam’s uncompromising monotheism. And celebrates its lush exuberance with the playful polytheism of Hinduism. Eclecticism might have been its starting-point, but Sikh architecture has flourished to a state of artistic autonomy so as to work out its own stylistic idiosyncrasies. It is now an apt expression of spontaneous outbursts of psycho-spiritual energy that celebrates the immaculate majesty of Being within the churning melange of opposites encountered during workaday existence and the arena for continual becoming. Inspired by Guru Nanak’s creative mysticism, Sikh architecture is a mute harbinger of holistic humanism based on pragmatic spirituality.

Water bodies as an element of design has been frequently exploited in Mughal and Hindu architecture, but nowhere in so lively a manner as in Sikh architecture. Water becomes a sine qua non of Sikh buildings as in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, or Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran, and not merely an appendage to the main shrine. The gurdwara is placed lower down than the structures in the vicinity, unlike a masjid or a mandir which are usually placed on raised platforms.

While sticking to the same basic requirements, different Sikh shrines have developed their own characteristic expressions. It may be recalled that most of the gurdwaras are commemorative buildings, and therefore the sites, on which they have been built, had the intrinsic challenges and advantages which were more fortuitous than premeditated. Most situations have been handled with remarkable imagination and ingenuity. Eventually, no two shrines look exactly alike although there are exceptions such as Dera Sahib in Lahore, and Panja (Palm-impression) Sahib, both in today’s Pakistan. Also, the low metal-gilt fluted dome of the Golden Temple has been copied in these two shrines as well as in the Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran.

This description of a seventeenth-century act of worship not only shows the importance of kirtan, but it also emphasises the Guru Panth, the congregation met in the Guru’s name. It is a tenet of the Sikh faith that where the company of believers (sangat) is, there too is the Guru:

Attuned to you your devotees constantly sing your praises. You are the refuge in which they find deliverance, O Creator Lord. You unite them with yourself…Without the True Guru there is no congregation and and without the Name no one is ferried across the world ocean. He who utters the Lord’s praise day and night merges his light with the supreme light.

(AG 1068; 3rd Guru)

So it has been, and is, in every country of the world that Sikhs reside in, from Norway to New Zealand, from British Columbia to Brunei. In certain parts of the Arab world, there have been archaic laws concerning the rights of other faiths and thus it is a tribute to the sagacity of the Rulers of Dubai that a magnificent Gurdwara has been built in their Emirates on the Gulf.

The Guru Nanak Darbar in Dubai is an incredible amalgam of the essential attributes of a Gurdwawa and sentiments of the State. This is akin to an oasis of Sikh faith in the heart of an Islamic state. The Guru Nanak Darbar is the first ‘official’ Sikh temple in the whole of Gulf for the 50,000 strong Sikh community living in Dubai and has just entered its second year, shimmering like a beautiful mirage amidst the sands of Arabia.


COVER 2 2013


Issue II 2013

Leaning on Each Other

Many readers know that I discovered the virtues of Sikhism only over the years of living outside India and Punjab. So my views are somewhat skewed and don’t always jibe with what passes for the norm.

I understand that whatever the absolute truths that a religion espouses and teaches they are practiced (and come to life) in the culture and the times where they blossom forth. And my cultural bias now is perhaps an odd mixture of Punjabi-Indian and North American; patience is often missing in action.

But I must have been granted a charmed existence. Somehow an interest in Sikhi took root while living in an almost entirely non-Sikh milieu – a miracle wouldn’t you agree? That’s the only way I see it. And today I find myself writing for and serving on the Editorial Boards of the two premier English language Sikh periodicals published anywhere in the world, the monthly ‘Sikh Review’ (Kolkata) as well as the quarterly ‘Nishaan’ (New Delhi). My experience with these two publications has been uniquely satisfying and I must salute two friends who make it possible–the long standing, legendary Saran Singh who has led the ‘Sikh Review’ for a generation and Pushpindar Singh, the Founder-Executive Editor of ‘Nishaan-Nagaara’.

Remember that both are published in India and my roots in India are shallow and shaky at best. Both magazines provide great commentaries on Sikhi but they are like of different species – apples and oranges with almost non-existent overlap in their readership. I suppose that speaks well of the large variety of Sikhs that exist and their variegated relationship to Sikhi. The overarching reality is that they are both India-based publications that thrive in the political and cultural ambiance of India that I have been away from for over 53 years – the dominant part of my life. I have little connection there and less feeling for it.

Since Sikhi comes to us from its over 500 years of grounding in Punjab, my writing for India-based periodicals and readers smacks a bit of the age old cliché that dates from the days of the British Raj and speaks of “carrying coals to Newcastle.”

I would be the first to admit that for many years I have been dismissive of Indian cultural attitudes and idiosyncrasies, whether on science, societal ethos and morality or religion. To me their convictions often appear, in the words of the Guru Granth (p 474) as if written in water that have no substance, “Paani under leek jio(n) jisdaa thaao(n) na thayhu.”

But my experience with ‘The Sikh Review’ and ‘Nishaan’ seems to be working its own merry magic. It is making me more forgiving of human nature and more tolerant, even celebratory, of diversity in Sikhi.

We Sikhs have a longer history in the United Kingdom, East Africa, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore compared to our one hundred years old presence in North America. Living away from India many of us recognise that the overwhelming historical connections to the Hindu culture have seriously influenced and impacted the pristine purity of the Sikh message and practice.

I also argue that we Sikhs need to realise another given: Just as Indian-Hindu culture of India influenced us over the centuries, the Judeo-Christian society in North America and Europe would impact our worldview and practices in the diaspora. Forget not that if Sikhs are a mere drop in the ocean of Hindu society in India; similarly outside India we are an equally small drop in a Judeo-Christian ocean which surely affects our lifestyle and perspective. (Look a bit carefully; it already does).

Just look at the many religions of the world. Christianity presents a very different face in Rome than it does in London, Paris, Cairo or Delhi. I could make similar argument regarding any of the major world religions. It follows then that the diaspora unmistakably will impact and affect Sikh culture, politics and practices; in other words, Sikh communities in Punjab and New York will diverge in fundamental ways, while each holds on to the essentials of the faith. Some divergence is already visible; it will only grow steadily wider with time. Local language, socio-cultural, political and legal realities will continue to define, affect and shape each.

In the foreseeable future I see an evolutionary growth of self-reliant semi-autonomous Sikh communities that dot the globe with an infrastructure that connects them all in a collaborative and interacting whole. In this conglomeration the India-based community will remain the largest, even the most influential, but just one of the global realities of Sikhi’s many voices.

As I see it, semi-autonomous means that communities will focus on local issues and local mechanisms to settle their differences and not run to India-based management models or ape their ways.

Look back in history and see: what I am talking about is not so dissimilar from the reality of the twelve Sikh Misls that defined our community so meaningfully in the post Guru Period. The Misls functioned pretty autonomously and effectively until Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the legendary ruler of Greater Punjab consolidated his powers and successfully undermined possible alternative centers of power in his own domain. (He certainly undermined both the Misl structure and the independent functioning of the Akaal Takht). My take here, therefore, hearkens productively of a ‘back to the future’ idea.

Here then is a shift in focus. Even though I harbour a dismissive cast to many Indian cultural habits, I am not really working both sides of the street against each other by living in America and writing for India-based publications. It is no longer just “carrying coals to Newcastle” with which I started this conversation today. The idea here is not to overthrow the existing order, never mind how dysfunctional it may appear to many of us, but to regalvanise and reorient it. Always keep the fundamentals in mind; they are sacrosanct and not dispensable.

The direction and purpose is to create a collaborative reality which will necessarily be noisy but, at the same time, chock full of the fertility of human ideas.

In today’s global world it is more like turning to each other and not turning on each other; not diminishing each other but learning to lean in and lean on each other to create a reality that is greater than the sum of the parts.

And that’s how my mind connects more than 50 years of twelve issues a year venerable monthly ‘The Sikh Review’ with the fledging quarterly ‘Nishaan-Nagaara’ that is now just producing its 50th issue.

I am honoured and enhanced by my association with both. It is a gift of grace.

Dr I.J. Singh

Issue III 2013

Nishaan final Issue III-13

Guru Nanak’s Message

Inder Mohan Singh, Chairman, Chardi Kalaa Foundation, writes on

Challenges and Opportunities for today’s flat, inter-connected world


Our world has been shrinking since the industrial revolution and has also become flatter and much more interconnected with end of the cold war, economic globalisation, widespread adoption of the Internet and web technologies, as also social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. We are in a major transformational period, full of both opportunities and challenges for humanity. Freer global trade, more efficient use of capital and labour across national borders, widespread access to knowledge and greater opportunities for innovation have all led to a global economic boom, which may appear as a mirage in the midst of recent economic crises.

People in even the poorest and most remote parts of the world now have phenomenal access to knowledge, and to information about the rest of the world. This leads not only to greater economic opportunity and empowerment, but also enhanced social and political awareness. We see this in the growing protest movements against totalitarian and corrupt governments, such as the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

Increased mobility and migration create societies that are more heterogeneous than ever before. Demographic trends in developed countries – lower birth rates and aging populations – lead to increased immigration into these countries. With the rise of pluralistic societies around the world, religions and cultures come into conflict. We see a rise in fundamentalism and religious bigotry, as well as a backlash against ‘foreign’ cultures. The rise of global Islamic terrorism and the post 9/11 responses to it confront the world with critical challenges of our time.

Differences in race, culture and language continue to cause conflict around the world. Pluralistic societies appear to be the future of mankind, but we still have a lot to learn about resolving conflicts between different sections of society. In spite of signal advances, women who represent half of all humanity, continue to face discrimination in large parts of the world. Economic disparities and potential shortages of critical natural resources such as oil and water are looming as additional areas of global conflict. Rapid economic growth in China, India and other emerging nations increases the pressure on our planetary environment, and exacerbates the threat of climate change.

We are at a major transformational period, which is full of both challenges and opportunities for humanity.

Guru Nanak’s Prescription for today’s World

Five hundred years ago in Northern India, Guru Nanak preached a beautiful universal message of faith, love and truthful living. His message was not meant for any particular ethnic group. He addressed all humanity. As we look at his teachings and life in the context of the current global environment and the challenges that face us, we find that he provides us with very valuable insights and prescriptions for today’s flat, interconnected world. Guru Nanak’s values, formulated centuries ago, are incredibly in tune with modern notions of an egalitarian, democratic society which values individual freedom and dignity, coupled with personal responsibility and social awareness. His revolutionary universal approach to the conflicting religious movements of his time provide a compelling roadmap for the promotion of interfaith engagement and mutual respect, thus overcoming the barriers that divide humanity in today’s global environment.

Long before swift air travel and the World Wide Web, Guru Nanak set out to do the next best thing – he physically travelled much of the world on foot and by boat, over several decades, making four epic journeys known as ‘Udasis’. He journeyed west across the Middle East, through Mecca and Baghdad, north to Afghanistan and Tibet, east as far as Assam and south all the way to Sri Lanka. Besides Guru Nanak (and Marco Polo), we know of few who have travelled through so much of the pre-Industrial Revolution world. Everywhere he went he “networked” in current parlance, with a wide range of spiritual seekers, scholars and leaders of different faiths and sects.

Guru Nanak’s message focussed on the core principles of spirituality, which are at the heart of most faiths. He proclaimed faith in one loving and just God who creates and nurtures all living beings. The God of Guru Nanak is formless, all-pervading spiritual force shared by all religions, who is beyond human limitations of fear, hatred greed or envy. He asked that we focus on the shared essential elements of all faiths rather than the more superficial differences that separate them:

Sagal dharam meh sresht dharam

Har ko naam jap nirmal karam

“Of all religions, the most exalted

is to worship the Lord and do good deeds.”

[SGGS p. 895]

According to Guru Nanak we are all are children of the One Divine Creator and people of faith should recognise the Divine Light in all. So long as someone fails to see the Divine in others, and holds feelings of hatred or contempt in his heart, he will never be able to experience the Divine Presence within himself.

Guru Nanak averred that social ranks based on religion, race, gender, class or caste, were meaningless and that discrimination based on such labels was immoral. Although the primary focus of Guru Nanak’s teachings is spiritual, his path is a balanced, integrated one that combines internal, spiritual enlightenment with an active, engaged life.

Divinely inspired beings can and should be a force for good in society, according to Guru Nanak:

Brahma gyani parupkar umaha

“The Enlightened God-conscious person takes delight in doing good deeds for others.”

[SGGS p. 273]

Guru Nanak’s message was carried on through nine Gurus who followed him. They led the evolving Sikh community over the next two tumultuous centuries, and in the process provided powerful real-life examples of living by the principles taught by Guru Nanak as well as how to apply them to a range of different challenging situations.

Now let us look at how Guru Nanak’s message addresses many of today’s challenges.

Interfaith Engagement and Understanding

With the rise of pluralistic societies around the world, religions and cultures have come into conflict. Different faiths have to learn how to get along through greater interfaith tolerance and understanding. Instead of exacerbating the divisions by taking narrow, divisive approaches to each other’s faiths, people of faith should be able to join in promoting fairness and justice around the world and be a force for world peace.

Interfaith engagement and dialogue have been a key part of Sikhi since the time of Guru Nanak, long before the advent of what is now called the interfaith movement. At a time when the environment in India was full of conflict between Hinduism and Islam, he laid foundations for the Sikh faith with a universal message for all humanity, emphasising equality for all, regardless of race, creed, caste or gender.

He taught that all are created by the same one Light, whether we call him Ram, Allah or by any other name. “See the Divine Light in all,” was his message. “There are no strangers nor enemies.”

It is said that he started his mission with the message that “there is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman”. A popular couplet from the time of Guru Nanak illustrates the love and high regard of both Hindus and Muslims had for him:

Baba Nanak shah fakir, Hindu ka Guru Musalmaan ka Peer.

“Nanak the holy man is the guru of the Hindus and the peer (or spiritual teacher) of the Muslims.”

Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture is a unique example of this universal attitude and includes hymns written not only by Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus, but also compositions by both Hindu and Muslim religious thinkers, as well as writings by inspired beings from different social backgrounds including the lowest castes considered by Hindus to be untouchables. It is the only scripture which includes texts of those belonging to other faiths, whose spirit conformed to the teachings of Sikhism.

The holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple at Amritsar has four doors, each facing a cardinal direction, to indicate that all are welcome. The cornerstone of the Golden Temple was ceremoniously laid by Mian Mir, a celebrated Muslim Sufi saint.

An example of religious tolerance unparalleled in history was the personal sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru after Nanak, who gave his life to protect the right of freedom of religion for the followers of Hinduism, a religion other than his own. Aurangzeb, the zealous Muslim ruler at the time was on a crusade to convert all his subjects to Islam by force, starting with Kashmir. Threatened with forced conversion to Islam or facing death, a delegation of Kashmiri Hindu religious leaders appealed to Guru Tegh Bahadur for assistance. The Guru took up their case and refusing to convert to Islam, so accepted martyrdom. The decisive event was the seed of the process that led to the disintegration of the Mughal empire, and made possible the survival of Hinduism in India.

The Guru Granth Sahib condemns vilifying the religions of others bed kateb kaho mat juthe, joohta jo na beechaaray

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran are false. Those who do not contemplate and realize the truths in their scriptures are the ones who are false.”

[SGGS p. 1350]

Addressing Conflict and Discord

In the world today, as during Guru Nanak’s times, there was continuing conflict between different religions as well as between ethnic and social classes. Guru Nanak’s response to these conflicts as well as to injustice and social inequities, and so on, has much to teach us today.

He advocated a principled life, one that is directed not only to personal spiritual growth and salvation, but also to being an active, contributing member of society and a positive force for welfare of the community. A spiritually enlightened person who follows the path shown by Guru Nanak sees the universal Divine light in all, and is not driven by hatred, discrimination, or being judgmental of any individual or group based on race, caste, gender, religion, nationality, wealth or social status.

Na ko bairee nahi begaana sagal sang hum ko ban aaee

jo prabh keeno so bhal maanio eh sumat sadhu te paaee

sabh meh rav rahiaa prabh eko pekh pekh naanak bigsaaee

“I see no stranger, I see no enemy – I get along with everyone.

Whoever God has created, I accept as good. This is the sublime wisdom I have obtained from the Holy and Wise.

The Divine Light of God is pervading in all. Beholding Him, Nanak blossoms forth in joy.”

[SGGS p. 1099]

The Naam-conscious person overcomes his own haumai or ego and is not driven by anger or a desire for revenge. He can thus be a force for peaceful resolution of conflicts:

Fareed burai da bhalaa kar gussa man na handhaai

dehi rog na lagaee palai sabbh kichh pai

“Fareed, answer evil with goodness; do not fill your mind with anger.

Your body shall not suffer from any disease, and you shall obtain everything.”

[SGGS p. 1381]

He is motivated towards acting for the welfare of others, in other words, for social causes.

Brahm giaanee parupkaar umahaa …..

brahm giaanee kai hoi so bhalaa

“The God-conscious being delights in doing good deeds for others. ….

The God-conscious being acts in the common good.”

(SGGS pg 273)

By following the path shown by Guru Nanak, enlightened Naam-conscious beings address many of today’s global challenges, by working for global fairness and justice, for equality and freedom for all, through dialogue and debate instead of force.

Social activism and combating social and political injustice has historically been an essential part of Sikhi. Guru Nanak did not turn a blind eye to political repression nor consider it outside the realm of religion, but undertook political protest through his writings, speaking out against the cruelty of rulers. He wrote a number of passages about the Mughal invasion of India by Babar, who became the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty which ruled over much of India for more than two centuries, and he described the brutalities that he personally witnessed. He condemned exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful and spoke up for fairness and justice for all. Individual freedom, including freedom of religion, was an important right for which Guru Nanak and the Gurus after him carried on as a major crusade.

Not unexpectedly, Guru Nanak and the Gurus who followed him were seen by the ruling powers as a threat. Guru Nanak and Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, underwent imprisonment, while Guru Arjan and Guru Teg Bahadur, the fifth and ninth Gurus, were executed at the orders of the rulers. Through personal sacrifice the Gurus and countless Sikhs demonstrated the value of non-violent means in social and political causes.

Peaceful protest based on principle–and a willingness to make personal sacrifices–can be a powerful means of political transformation. This has been successfully demonstrated in recent history by Mahatma Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the USA and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. However, there are times when all peaceful attempts fail and force is the last recourse against evil and injustice. Few would argue that evil wrought by Hitler should have been opposed only through peaceful protest. The actions in Bosnia and Libya provide contemporary examples of necessary use of force by the international community.

In the dire circumstances that followed Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom, Guru Gobind Singh declared that “when all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword.” In fact, it would be immoral and cowardly to submit without resistance.

Guru Gobind Singh transformed the Sikhs, who were till then a relatively passive peasant community into a brave, freedom loving people who shook the powerful Mughal Empire, and were able to put an end to the recurring invasions of India by Muslim invaders from the west. They also played a major role in India’s struggle for freedom against the British in the 20th century.

Yet, we must emphasise that Guru Gobind Singh did not condone violence but armed struggle was used only a last resort after all attempts at peaceful resolutions failed. He makes this very clear in his stirring composition, Zafarnama that when injustice goes too far and all other means have been exhausted then it is righteous to use the sword. In fact at that point it is one’s fervent duty to act. Under Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhs never initiated a conflict, only responded to aggression. He never tried to conquer any territory nor create a state.

The Sikh resolution for dealing with conflict, discord and injustice offers a distinct three-level approach: resolving conflict though discussion and debate, based on mutual respect and goodwill. Naam-conscious beings, who see the divine light in all can play a major role in bringing about this kind of resolution; peaceful non-violent protest only when those in positions of power and authority are driven by their haumai, and are not amenable to solutions based on mutual respect. This requires commitment and personal sacrifice. And, finally, when all else fails, armed struggle against injustice and tyranny, and in defence of liberty is appropriate.

Inequity and Discrimination

“Recognise the Divine light of God in each individual, and treat all equally without discriminating against anyone based on race, caste, religion, gender or social position”. This revolutionary concept was aimed at the very foundations of caste–bound Indian society and is one of the most basic teachings of Guru Nanak.

Where Hindus justified the caste system based on religious texts, Guru Nanak emphasised that there are no such distinctions in the eyes of God.

Janoh jot na poochoh jaatee aahai jaat na hai

“Recognise the Lord’s Light within all, and do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter.” (SGGS p. 349)

The Sikh scriptures declare that all men and women are created equal, as are pots of different sizes, shapes and colours fashioned from the same clay by God, the Cosmic Potter:

Aval allah noor upaaia kudrat ke sabh Bandai

ek noor te sabh jag upjia kaun bhalai ko mandai

maatee ek anek bhant kar saaji sijranharai

na kachh poch maatee ke bhandai na kachh poch kumbhaarai

sabh meh sachaa eko sooee tis ka keeaa sabh kachh hoee

“In the beginning, Allah created the Light; from that light, He has created all mortal beings.

From the One Light, the entire universe welled up. So who is good, and who is bad?   ….

The clay is the same, but the Cosmic Potter has fashioned vessels of many kinds.

There is nothing wrong with the pot of clay – there can be no error by the Potter.

The One True Lord abides in all; by His power, every thing is fashioned.”

[SGGS p. 1349]

Alleviation of poverty in the world

One of the most reassuring outcomes of globalisation has been the rise of emerging nations like China, India, Brazil and others, with a gradual shift towards equitable distribution of resources and incomes between advanced nations of the West and rest of the world. Millions of people are rising from poverty into a growing middle class. At the same time the advanced nations are facing a crisis as their workers have now to compete in a global labour market.

Still, in both advanced and emerging nations, the gap between the rich and poor has continued to increase over the last several decades. Most wealth is increasingly concentrated with a minority of the population at the very top, even as the vast majority continue in their struggle for economic survival. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, which has found echoes in many countries around the globe, was an expected reaction to this.

Guru Nanak articulated that simply amassing of money was foolish and, if obtained by exploiting the weak, positively criminal. The true use of wealth is to help create a fairer and more contented society. This is a message for all of us in today’s turbulent economy.

Compassion and charity are important values promoted in Guru Nanak’s compositions.

Ghaal khaai kichh hathau dai

naanak rah pachhanai sai

“One who works for what he eats, and gives some of what he has in charity

– O Nanak, he knows the Path.”

[SGGS p. 1245]

In Guru Nanak’s travels, he preferred to visit with the poor and humble rather than the wealthy who flamboyantly made offerings for the Guru. In his own words:

Neecha andar neech jaat neechee hoo at neech. Naanak tin kai sang saath vadiaa so kia rees

jithai neech samaaleean tithai nadir teri bakhsees

“Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very meekest of the meek. Why should he try to compete with the great?

In that place where the lowly are cared for- there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down.”

[SGGS p. 15]

Gender Inequality

Half of humanity comprises women, who continue to face discrimination in many manners, in many parts of the world. Even if the feminist movement has done much to address gender discrimination in western societies, women in much of rest of the world still face serious issues including violence, illiteracy, and economic and social deprivation. It is increasingly apparent that education and economic empowerment of women plays a major role in raising the economic level of families and nations, as well as lowering birth rates.

Several centuries ahead of any such feminist movement, Guru Nanak spoke out against gender discrimination in the rigidly patriarchal Indian culture. He confronted established order with the radical assertion that women were equal to men and worthy of every respect.

Guru Nanak taught that God is beyond gender and can be experienced as both Father and Mother.

Tum maat pitaa hum baarik terai

tumree kirpa meh sookh ghanerai

“You are our mother and father; we are Your children.

In Your Grace, there is so much joy!”

[SGGS p. 268]

Both men and women are infused with the same Divine light. Instead of being denigrated and mistreated, woman should be cherished and respected:

Bhand jameeai bhand nimeeai bhand magan veeaah

bhandoh hovai dosti bhndoh chalai raah

bhand mooa bhand bhaaleeai band hovai bandhaan

so kio mandaa aakheeai jit jamai raajaan

bhandoh hi band oopjai bandhai baajh na koi

naanak bhndai baahara eko sachaa soi

“We are born of woman, we are conceived in the womb of woman.

We make friendship with woman; through woman, future generations are born.

When one woman dies, we take another one, we are bound with the world through woman.

Why should we talk ill of her? From her, kings are born.

From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

O Nanak, God alone can exist without a woman.”

[Guru Nanak in Asa Di Vaar, pg. 473]

Guru Nanak and the Gurus who succeeded him actively encouraged the participation of women as equals in worship, in society, and on the battlefield. The practice of sati or widow burning and female infanticide were forbidden and remarriage of widows encouraged. Amazingly all of this occurred in the midst of the male–dominated Muslim and Hindu societies in India, many centuries before the feminist movement in the West!

Sadly, present day Sikh society has not been able to fully overcome old cultural traditions and live up to the ideals of gender equality taught by Guru Nanak. Sex selective abortions driven by a desire for male children are driving down the sex ratio in Punjab. Still, it is encouraging to note that all Sikh religious organisations including the Akal Takhat have spoken up against this practice.

Environmental Issues, Climate Change.

In emerging nations, rapid economic growth and rising standards of living are simultaneously causing deterioration of the environment, and adding to the threat of climate change. While these issues were perhaps, not of significant societal concern at the time of Guru Nanak, hence not explicitly addressed by him, his life and teachings clearly supported active participation in the environment movement.

Guru Nanak himself was a great lover of nature. In his poetry he loves to talk about the beauty of nature, often seeing in it the reflection of God as the wondrous artist who has painted a marvelous nature on a cosmic canvas.

In Kirtan Sohila, the Sikh bedtime prayer, there is that beautiful verse by Guru Nanak describing his vision of how the whole universe is constantly worshiping the Creator in a majestic colourful ritual with lights and music, using the imagery of the famous Hindu Aarti ritual performed during the worship of idols in the temple of Jagannath Puri.

Gagan mai thaal ravi chand deepak banai taarika mandal janak moti

dhoop malaanlo pavan chavaro karai sagal banrai phoolant joti

kaisi aartee hoi bhav khandanaa teri aarti

“Upon that cosmic platter of the sky, the sun and the moon are the lamps. The stars and their orbs are the studded pearls.

The fragrance of sandalwood in the air is the temple incense, and the wind is the fan. All the plants of the world are the altar flowers in offering to You, O Luminous Lord.

What a beautiful Aartee, lamp-lit worship service this is! O Destroyer of Fear, this is Your Ceremony of Light.”

(SGGS p.13)

Guru Nanak taught that the purpose of human life is to grow spiritually and to achieve a state of harmony with God and His creation. Guru Nanak’s vision is a society comprising God-conscious human beings. To these spiritual beings the earth and the universe are sacred, and all life is part of a Universal Unity. We are all completely connected! According to Guru Nanak, the reality humans create around themselves is a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth – the external environment of human beings – is only a reflection of the instability within humans. The increasing barrenness of the earth’s terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans.

Guru Nanak advocated a highly disciplined life with a focus on spiritual progress, while remaining fully engaged in the world and upholding one’s responsibilities. Inherent in this personal discipline is a simple life style, free of greed, selfishness and possessiveness. The emphasis is on mastery over the self and the discovery of the self, not mastery over nature, external forms, and other beings. Sikhism clearly teaches against a life of conspicuous, wasteful consumption. The Guru recommends a judicious utilisation of material and cultural resources available to humankind.

Sikhism opposes the idea that the human goal lies in “harnessing” nature. The objective is harmony with the Eternal – Creator – which implies a life of harmony with all existence.

Guru Nanak’s divinely inspired message of universal love and mutual understanding and respect turns out to be more relevant then ever in today’s increasingly interconnected, flattening world. It speaks to us across the centuries and provides us with important guidelines to address the challenges that we collectively face.

1-64_Nishaan IV-13

Issue IV 2013

29 Years and counting…

What difference do years make?


In June 1984, when the Indian army attacked the Harmandar (Golden Temple) in Amritsar and 40 other gurdwaras across Punjab, the government was able to ring Amritsar and Punjab with two of the heaviest security cordons ever seen. No one – certainly not a Sikh – was able to cross it. No news filtered out on the fate of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the Darbar Sahib for the commemoration of Guru Arjan’s martyrdom.

In 1984, the Indian government exerted absolute and full control over all media – press, television and radio. Rumours abounded but not an iota of news filtered out of Punjab.

The world has changed – and how. When Iran was in turmoil, the Iranian government failed to put a curtain of isolation around the country. The news filtering from there kept us glued to our televisions day and night.

Thanks to technology that did not exist in 1984 – the ubiquitous Internet, Cell phones, Twittering and You tube – the whole world knew what happened on the streets in Tehran just as it happened. The eyes of the world were and are upon Tehran, and the government is held to some restraint and worldwide embarrassment.

Less than six months after that army attack of June 1984, the Indian prime minister was assassinated and a reign of terror was let loose over unsuspecting Sikhs in Delhi and many cities across northern India. Once again, Sikhs were held up as the face of terrorism by the Indian government – in total disregard of the truth. And the world believed it.

The world has changed for the better. The iron control that was possible in 1984 can no longer happen. The way the Indian government was able to portray Sikhs as terrorists across the world is no longer possible. The ignorance that most Indians still live in about what exactly happened in 1984 would not exist.

My Indian friends never tire of labelling the period “those bad or unfortunate times” that happened 29 years ago. The ball and chain of the past will only hold us back, they say. The new mantra is that India is now on a fast track of moving forward and even the financial troubles that plague the developed world can’t tie India down.

Already the deniers of history tell us the “troubles” of 1984 lasted only three days in Delhi. The reason that not more than a handful of people have been charged with the wholesale killings of Sikhs over those days, they claim, is because a really monumental tragedy never happened. Perhaps a handful of people died. In any case it was anti-Sikh rioting – spontaneous because the country’s beloved prime minister had been assassinated by Sikhs.

Yes, I too, am tired of listening to the same old litany of half-truths and distortions. I won’t dwell on the history. It is quite well established. Within six hours of the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1984, truckloads of armed thugs materialised in Sikh neighbourhoods. They had lists and addresses of Sikh-owned homes and businesses. They were armed with kerosene and weapons. They went on a spree of killing, burning, raping and looting. No Sikh was safe anywhere in India’s capital city and many other towns and cities across the country.

Three days later, as if obeying an unseen commander, the frenzy stopped. Where were the police and army for those days? Safe in their barracks, of course. The government admitted to the death of over 2700 Sikh men, women and children in Delhi alone. That comes to better than 1300 victims for a 24-hour day or a shade over 50 per hour – almost one per minute.

And all the victims were unarmed. In 1984-India, trucks were not easily available; kerosene was rationed, requiring standing in lines forever; and lists of addresses were and still not easily assembled. In those pre-Google days, one could not download addresses at the touch of a button.

India has never shown such remarkable efficiency. To put a genocidal killing spree together within hours speaks of a sea change in management skills that has not been seen before or since. That’s why I don’t label it anti-Sikh riots. There was no spontaneity to the violence. Riots they were not.

The next step was monumental in its deception. The new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, signed an agreement with Sikh leaders promising to hold an inquiry and bring the guilty to trials. There have been over ten Inquiry Commissions in the past 29 years. Only a handful have been arrested for killing several thousand. In the meantime, evidence continues to degrade and disappear.

I think any government that treats its own citizens with such callousness has no right to govern. Yet, as our friends tell us, we must move forward. The ball and chain of the past will not save us. So, what is now for us to do?

The past is a prologue to the future. Without our connection to history, we become like an untethered balloon floating off to somewhere we may not want to go.

But the past must not hold us back, fixed in one place in time and space. In our personal lives, there is many a story that would be embarrassing to relive. Often they leave an indelible mark in our lives. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could rewind the clock and expunge such times? If it were only so easy.

To move beyond such horrendous sins requires that we face them, acknowledge them and atone for them. And then we can carry forward with us the lessons learned.

How then to accomplish all that?

World opinion would likely not come to our aid all that readily.

Why? Because global realities and geopolitics tell us that India is the only counterweight to China, the only possible competition to China’s growing heft in Asia. Also, we need to keep the Islamic world in check – it sits astride the world’s oil resources and has access to a nuclear arsenal as well. India is ideally suited geographically and strategically to help us manage that stalemate.

To deny the logic of the injustice done to the Sikhs would be Orwellian. It does not wash. One can’t escape the irony in that the India-born George Orwell named his fiction (Nineteen-Eighty-Four) for the year to which India and its bureaucracy gave its evil life.

The Indian judiciary, though not entirely independent, can deliver a modicum of justice. If that seems too awkward, perhaps a Truth & Reconciliation Commission would suffice. But that requires some truth and a lot of honesty, no matter how embarrassing it turns out to be. Many countries, besides South Africa, have tried this route successfully.

The way of such a Commission need not be embarrassing; it could even be liberating. Many nations – Sierra Leone, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Timor and Peru have trod this path. India and Pakistan need to too.

From such a step, honestly undertaken, neither the Indian government nor the Sikh leadership is likely to emerge unscarred and unscathed.

I think of all the times that we Sikhs have been accused of acting without patience and having gone too far. Now I know that we have been patient long enough and that we did not go far enough.

Now 29 years and several Inquiry Commissions later I would say: Never let the story die.

The essay has been taken from Dr IJ Singh’s book entitled ‘Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions’, wherein, he dwells upon “matters that are fundamental to what we are and how we develop a sense of self.”

Dr I J Singh

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