Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Role of Religion in Modern Era, and Sikhism

This was delivered at the 27th Bir Memorial Lecture, on 23rd October 2011 at India International Centre, New Delhi

I indeed feel greatly privileged and honored to deliver the 27th Bir Memorial Lecture on the topic, ‘The Role of Religion in Modern Era, and Sikhism.’

As some one who has nourished a firm faith in the ancient axiom, since I learnt it at school, ‘Faith moves mountains’, I feel more deeply convinced today, in the proverbial ‘ripe age’, that the collective destiny of humanity on our tiny planet – only one known so far to be sustaining human life – would for ever be determined by the eternal spiritual values taught by all the prophets of all the peoples in all the lands.

I am, however, acutely conscious of my individual inadequacies in dealing with the discipline of Divinity; debatable theological, philosophical, socio-anthropological and above all the explosive political dimensions of the seminal subject. I would, therefore, approach the issues involved more as a seeker-Jigyasu-and a way farer – a Musafir – whom the Almighty has bountifully blessed with duties of long travels and living sufficiently longer among peoples of distant lands, professing different faiths.

While engrossed in my thoughts about ‘religion’, I felt that one’s family exercises the most impressionable influence in inculcating the primary religious colors and elementary moral values. I belong to an era when the grandparents used to be loving friends, philosophers and guides to grand children for their basic moral training. I do recollect how my grand father had fondly made me learn by heart the Hanuman Chalisa before I was even admitted to school. The grandmother had ensured that I was able to recite the Rahiraas in the evening soon after I was able to learn the Gurumukhi script at school. I further vividly recall how my grandmother, who would remain busy reciting the Bhagat Maal and the Bhagawad Gita, did not allow me to go to cinema to see film Bhagat Kabir saying, “no, no, they must have distorted the life-story of Kabir mixing vulgar songs and dances!” I can also recall an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in Punjab, for any transgression of the Panthic values, when the first film with the background of Sikhism ‘Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai’ had been released.

The socio-religious scene in India since Independence has been subjected to an interesting spectrum of cultural influences. The exponential increase in 24x7 TV channels in the recent decades would seem to have redefined the atmosphere in families. The satellite channels have dwarfed the planet to be ‘a global village’ in the truest sense of the term. I do remember the day when the mercurially brilliant Z.A. Bhutto had termed the inauguration of the TV station in Amritsar as ‘cultural aggression’ on Pakistan by India! The socio-political analysts in India point out that the TV serials about the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata had deeply impacted the cultural horizons in South Asia. The daily increasing channels serving a big variety of stuff rooted in alien values of morality and saints and Sadhvis groomed to look better than models would seem to be scripting the new era codes of moral etiquettes.

The term ‘modern era’ would seem to denote interesting interpretations. The eminent sociologist, Prof. T.N. Madan, explains that modernity embraces larger and deeper perspectives of human freedom and choices in religious options. The modernists in India, according to Madan, entertain anxieties about future of secularism in India and in South Asia. I vividly recall how about fifty years ago, as a fresh student of BA, on the suggestion of my Professor of Sociology, I had studied the book, ‘Hints for Self Culture’ by Lala Har Dial (1884-1939), the celebrated encyclopedic-scholar and Ghadarite revolutionary. The chapter titled ‘Comparative Religion’ in the book had made such an abiding impression on my mind that I seem to carry it till today. Please permit me to quote from this book, dedicated ‘To a Young Fellow-Rationalist’, date-lined April 6934 AH (Anno Historiae), equivalent to 1934 A.D.,

Study the great religions carefully … their origin, history and present position. For social progress, they have been what the mighty rivers have been for the material prosperity of mankind. They have supplied the life-giving waters of Ethics, which are, however, very dirty and turgid on account of the large admixture of superstition…Comparative religion is a fascinating study; it will introduce you into the presence of noble sages and saints, who will teach you the social virtues of self denial, temperance, patience, simplicity and love…borrow their virtues, and reject their errors,…rub and rinse and wash and cleanse the old religions; but don’t rub and wash away the Ethics altogether.

As for the most mystifying concept of ‘God’, the Special Millennium issue, interestingly date-lined January 1st 1000-December 31st 1999, of prestigious London weekly The Economist, had put ‘GOD’ in its celebrated column ‘Obituary’, and had observed, “When your friends start looking for proofs of your existence, you’re heading for trouble. That was God’s situation as the millennium got into its stride… Few ordinary folk, though they had different names for him, doubted the reality of God. He was up there somewhere (up, not down; in his long career, no one ever located him on the seabed), always had been always would be. Yet not quite so far up, in the churches and monasteries of Europe, many of its cleverest men would be racking their brains for ways of proving it… They (God’s troubles) were largely his own fault. Like many great personalities, he had countless admirers who hated each other - and he let them do so… For one of infinite knowledge, he was strangely careless how he spread what bits of it to whom… Each set of believers had its version of what he was like and what he said. No wonder cynics began to hint that, if believers differed so widely, belief might be a mistake …Christians nationalized God, as Jews had long since, like some coal mine… The Christians turned not cheeks but swords against Muslims, Jews and each other. Muslims, while averring that “in religion there is no compulsion”, did the like to them and to Hindus, and put to death apostates from Islam… The test will come on Judgment Day, when man, we are told, will meet his maker. Or will it be God meeting his?”

The world has indeed witnessed the weirdest developments in the first decade of the new millennium. The century of dominance by the USA would seem to be fading, mired in many an insoluble problems. President Barrack Obama, the precocious son of an African evokes an image of a brave boy on the burning deck in the poem Casabianca, struggling to put out so many fires. Is this the intensity of darkness before the break of a new dawn for humanity? Will the ancient civilizations of Asia reclaim their roles not only in the global economic arena but also in building a more moral and humane new world order? Are the fault lines of the religions of children of Abraham likely to get repaired by their interaction with the oriental creeds characterized by the credo of pluralism and a continuous process of renewal? The leaders of all religions have to guide their flocks into the modern era of multiculturalism with attendant realities of an intimately interconnected planet. The minds of seven billion inhabitants of the planet would need to be fine tuned to the transformed world of instantaneous communications and global culture. The saint-astronomer of the modern era, Carl Sagan (1934-2006) indeed speaks the most telling poetic-scientific truth about humanity, rather the entire phenomenon of life on earth, “Every breath you take includes a billion oxygen molecules that have been at one time or the other in the lungs of the 50 billion humans who have ever lived.”

The pilgrimage of independent India after a much deliberated and conscious choice on path of religious freedom and secularism certainly makes an illuminating chapter in the history of modern world. The learned scholars have traced ‘Bharat’s Dharma Nirpekshta’ to an eternal ethos of the Hindu way of life, a legacy of an Asoka, an Akbar, and a Ranjit Singh. It was also hailed as the epitome of the national freedom struggle with MK Gandhi, RN Tagore, Maulana AK Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and their many visionary comrades, not to forget the most self sacrificing soldiers of Neta Ji’s Azad Hind Fauj exemplified by the trial and triumph of Sehgal, Dhillon, Shah Nawaz from the Red Fort. The task of formulating an unprecedented legal frame work of India’s secular polity was diligently and faithfully performed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who had the first hand experiences of the perversities and persecutions of the religious and caste kind. The deeply brutalizing wounds of Partition would, however, not stop bleeding and injecting cancerous virus of communalism in India’s body politic. India certainly needs eternal vigilance and sincere commitment by the main stream political parties to the genuine values of a secular way of life, fully backed by the spiritual and religious institutions. The multicultural and pluralistic traditions of the nation have to be carefully nourished and perceptions of the minority groups must be addressed effectively and expeditiously. The religious minorities must also come out of their ‘stay apart’ mentality to embrace broader values of our uniquely multicultural country.

Coming to the historical and philosophical evolution of Sikhism in the contemporary contexts, one is indeed overwhelmingly impressed by the unique universality of teachings by great Gurus and inspired Bhagat-saints representing their different faiths and distant regions of India and honorably included in the Sikh faith book compiled in 1604 by Guru Arjan Dev Ji (1563-1606). The book was bestowed the ‘highly exalted status of Sri Guru Granth Sahib’ in 1708 when Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666-1708) declared the line of human Gurus to be closed; updated Guru Arjan’s Book by adding work of his father, Guru Tegh Bahdur Ji (1622-1675) and nominated the augmented book as his eternal successor. The Granth Sahib, to quote Prof Pritam Singh (Patiala), “is the most lavishly bedecked, the most richly appareled, the most magnificently housed, the most demonstratively venerated and the most ceremoniously apotheosized book of all times and places.” The consecration of Sri Guru Granth Sahib as ‘Eternal-Living Guru’ indeed represents the most momentous development in religious-philosophical, socio-cultural and literary-linguistic domains in the history of India. The realm of spirituality was never the same again after the revolution of Sikhism upholding the values of human fraternity based on fair play, freedom of conscience and fellow feeling among all children of Almighty.

The founder of the faith of Sikhism Sri Guru Nanak dev Ji (1469-1530) has been universally acclaimed as Satiguru, the True Guru, Teacher par excellence. Guru Ji’s prime composition, the Japji - literally sacred recitation, remembrance, of Guru’s divine utterances - has been rightly hailed as the quintessence of philosophy of Sikhism. The Japji is preceded by a short, cryptic, highly revered basic precept popularly known as the Mool (Root) Mantra (Hymn) that succinctly summarizes the three key elements indispensable for the soul in its quest for fulfillment in God. They are: faith in one God as the sole reality; meditation on the Name, the sole Truth; and the Guru whose grace makes it possible for the devotee to realize God. The Japji is such a rare treasure-ocean of thoughtful contemplation that deeper a devotee delves into its nectar, the more he is blessed with the gems of liberating thoughts. The Japji expounds, in the most exquisite poetic language, the fullest concept of God; the human quest for Divine; the Divine Will and Order; the path of loving adoration of God; cultivation of a virtuous way of life; dignity of Human Life and the profoundest cosmological Truths. The human soul is on the wings of ecstasy of liberation when reciting the immortal Bani of the Japji,

Spheres there are beyond our own; /And numberless more beyond these, / What power sustains these spheres aloft? Eternal Thou art, O Lord of the Universe! / Ever True is Thy Name,/ Thou who hast created this Universe,/ Art, has ever been, and shall ever be…Guru’s word to the human soul is as vital/ as air is to man’s very being,/ Water is the source of all life,/ And Mother earth its benign sustainer,…At the True Master’s seat shall our deeds/ be judged aright...

The quad-centenary of the martyrdom in 2006 of the fifth Master, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, was the solemn occasion for the community to introspect deeply on his sterling contribution in consolidating the Sikh religion by compiling the Holy Scripture and strengthening the Sikh traditions and institutions. Guru Arjan Dev Ji, by the unique imprint of his individual character and conduct, has become the personification of an exemplary ideal for moral courage, unflinching faith, complete surrender to the Divine Will, cosmopolitan spirit and love for all humanity. The Sukhmani Sahib-the Panacea for the (aches of) Mind-indeed provides a perfect solace to the soul yearning for the peace of mind. This Psalm of peace and equipoise, according to Prof Puran Singh, ‘flows in an ambrosial stream of hope and light from the bosom of the Guru.’

I recently had the opportunity to once again live through the Bani of the Ninth Master Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji to rediscover how deeply the Guru’s verses epitomize the values of the spiritual heritage of not only of India of his epoch but of the entire humanity. The soul piercing hymns drive home the truths of ultimate destiny of a human being and how one should aspire for an honest life detaching from greed, pride, luxury, sensuality –“the pleasures of Maya-Illusion-are unstable like the wall of sand.” The Guru’s supreme sacrifice of life in the mythological city personifying the heart of Hindustan and his immortal message in a deeply mystic poetry in the popular language of India will continue to inspire eternally all the people confronted with tyranny and injustice.

Inspired by the life transforming teachings of the great Gurus, the followers of Sikhism have made the most conspicuous contribution in all walks of the national life of India and have distinguished themselves in the world reflecting their dynamic and vibrant character steeled by their faith. The community has gone through many tragic experiences too-may be quite disproportionate-and continues to be confronted with many avoidable controversies in the modern era. The Community, according to many well wishers of the Panth, could handle the contemporary socio-cultural and political issues in a more pragmatic and imaginative manner. The various recent significant historical landmarks including the Tercentenary of the Founding of the Khalsa Panth in 1999; the 400th anniversary of compilation of the Granth Sahib in 2004 and the Tercentenary of the Bestowal of the status of the Eternal Guru on the Granth Sahib in 2008 have been the momentous occasions for the Sikh community for the collective soul searching and the resolute rededication to the values and teachings enshrined in the Granth Sahib.

Like all the human societies, the Sikh community has also certain complex issues to address in a sincere and forthright manner. The Sikh community, as ordained so emphatically by the Gurus and considered the single greatest asset of the faith, has not been able to discard the curse of the caste divides in the practical social life. The matrimonial columns of The Tribune on the last 31st July listed under the title Sikh-Bahti, Tonk Kashatry, Ramdasia, Bawa, Lobana, Mazhbi, Rajput, Kumhar, Kamboj, Nai and had separate categories listed Jat Sikh; Sikh Khatri; Sikh Arora; Sikh Khatri / Arora; Ramgarhia / Dhiman, etc.…No wonder that the split wide apart between the pious principles and perverted practices had disillusioned Dr BR Ambedkar to return from Amritsar with a heavy and empty heart. How profoundly the heart of the thinker-Doctor had been touched by the soul stirring Shabads of Amrit Bani sung so melodiously in the serene precincts of Harmandar Sahib eulogizing ‘Manab Ki Jaat Sabhai ek Pehechanbo’- Recognize, understand that the entire race of humanity is one!

The Sikhs, as per the blessings of the Gurus, have prospered more when they are away from their original homes. The soil of Punjab, of course, remains the anchor of their emotional, cultural, spiritual moorings and even some divisive aspirations too. It is important that the various Sikh organizations- with the SGPC / the DSGMC in the forefront (By the grace of Wahiguru, they are known to have abundant resources) put their houses in perfect order. They should play more constructive role in promoting high quality education and health services in healthy competition with other communities and should actively undertake campaigns to check the social evils including the serious problems of drinking, drug addiction,dowry and sex selection. The Panth has played a pioneering role in the past against such malpractices. The Sikhs settled abroad have a much greater responsibility to highlight the positive image of the community. The violent incidents like the one in Vienna tarnish the reputation of the community and must not be allowed to happen. The sensitive issues of activities of the sects and cults should be better allowed to be tackled within the laws of the land. The question, ’Who is a Sikh?’ is extremely sensitive and should not be treated as a game of short tem political gains. The deep historic ties and contemporary realities dictate that the promotion of Hindu-Sikh harmony must remain the primary focus the spiritual leaders of the two communities.

I have been deeply humbled to note that H.H. the Dalai Lama has also delivered the Bir Memorial Lecture. To me, the mirthful monk philosopher has truly transformed himself to be the conscience keeper of our modern epoch. Let us carefully listen to his words of quintessential wisdom,

For true global harmony, it is necessary to understand the diversity of other cultures and traditions through love and respect for every human being, every religion ,every country…it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone-the key is to develop the inner peace…In today’s increasingly complex and interdependent world, we are compelled to acknowledge the existence of other cultures, different ethnic groups, and, of course, other religious faiths..

To conclude, let us all pray with the immortal words of the Tenth master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji exhorting the people of India, nay, this entire world to remember:

Dehura Maseet Soi, pooja au niwaj oee,
Manas sabai ek, Pai anek ko bharmao hai /…
Alah abhekh soi, Puraan aou Quran oee,
Ek hi saroop sabai, ek hi banao hai.

Temple and mosque are same sacred spots;
Worship (of Ishwar) and prayer (to Allah) are indeed one
Humanity is one, impressions may be many…
He is Fathomless and Formless;
Puraan and Quran speak one Truth
Divine Essence is One; permeating the whole cosmos.


Recordings from the Lecture: