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Sikhs and Soft Power

The first week of President Barack Obama’s administration has been important in several respects, perhaps most notably because of the announcements that the Guantanamo Bay facility will close and that the United States, “without exception,” will not torture. While these statements are vitally significant in their own right, they are, in my view, part of a broader theme that the new administration is putting forth — namely, that the United States will regain its position in the world and safeguard its security interests by demonstrating, through action and example, what the nation truly stands for.

This concept, put forth most eloquently by Joseph Nye, Jr., is called “soft power.” It calls for a state to attract others to its causes not just by force or economic coercion, but through attraction. The Obama administration, including newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has rebranded this foreign policy strategy, generally naming it “smart power.” (Perhaps the term “soft power” sounds weak and overly accommodating.)

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“Voice Of America” On The Sikh Inaugural Ball

Here is a report by “Voice Of America” that takes a look at the Sikh Inaugural Ball (Publius covered it earlier here) as part of the Indian-American take on the Obama inauguration story. An interesting perspective following the recent discussion on the TLH post: Sikh or Indian?.

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Thoughts?

What’s changed?

Yesterday, the newly inaugurated president said, the world has changed and we must change with it.

But just what has changed? In the euphoria of yesterday’s ceremonies, some seemed to expect that from now on, the sun would always shine and no one would ever go hungry again. The inaugural ceremony itself provided ample examples of both what had and hadn’t changed.

What hainauguration_2.jpgd changed, at least for a few days in DC was that people were exuberant. Strangers became friends. Hugs, high-fives, and tears were shared with neighbors crowding the national mall, cafes, and homes throughout the city. People were generous. An older woman from California gave her flannel shirt to a younger woman who had been waiting beside her in the bitter cold since 6:30 in the morning.

But in some areas where organization was lacking, the chaos vividly showed that when peoples expectations were unfulfilled, survival of the fittest remained the governing natural law. A Congressman reportedly tried to drive through people waiting in line and got stuck in the crowd when they surrounded his vehicle. At least 4 ambulances were seen transporting people injured by the crushing crowd. These scenes resembled a Delhi train station more than the Washington DC Im used to.

So, whats changed?

In Richmond Hill, early Sunday morning, another Sikh youth became a victim of a hate crime. Jasmir Singhs hair and beard were pulled, and he was stabbed in the eye. He may lose his eyesight. [link]

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Sikhi Comes Alive Through History- A Glimpse Into Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji’s Life

This past weekend at the Toronto Sikh Retreat a workshop was offered on Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. I personally think its great when we are given the opportunity to delve into the lives of our Gurus. We get to see Sikhi come alive through history. Our Gurus become real as we learn about Sikh principles through their life experiences. No longer are they just pictures on the walls or names to memorize, but perfect humans who overcame personal and communal challenges. Their strong convictions and stead-fast adherence to the values of humility, patience, justice, and equality during difficult times highlights the strength of Sikhi as a practical religion than just a philosophy. I hope more conferences and retreats will take this approach.

During the retreat Guru Tegh Bahadur Jis life and bani was discussed by participants. As a young boy he was taught by Bhai Buddha Ji and Bhai Gurdas Ji. The former taught him archery and horsemanship, while the latter focused on ancient classics. Thus, Guruji was both a fighter and intellectual that had a deep appreciation for music along with the sword. The Mahima Prakash says: “Sri Tegh Bahadur was the summit of knowledge. He was a recluse at heart, a king in demour. His patience was unmatched, so was his generosity.”

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Sikh Authors at the Jaipur Literature Festival

I was excited to come across information about the Jaipur Literature Festival which will be held January 21st through the 25th in Rajasthan (mainly excited because itwill coincide with a trip I’m planning to take to the area!). The festival is directed by author and historian,William Dalrymple.

bluback.jpgEntering its fourth year, the festival will be hosting some of the best-known national and international writers including Vikram Seth, Michael Ondaatje, Pico Iyer, Simon Schama, Colin Thubron, Patrick French, Tariq Ali, Tina Brown, Mohammed Hanif, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Coleman Barks, Pankaj Mishra, Chetan Bhagat, Ahmed Rashid, Charles Nicholl, Hari Kunzru, Michael Wood, Nandan Nilkeni, Paul Zacharia, Prasoon Joshi, Shashi Tharoor, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Tarun Tejpal, Wendy Doniger, U R Ananthamurthy, among many others.

While perusing through their list of authors, Iwas surprised bythe smallnumber of Sikh writers who will be in attendance leading me to ask which (if any)other Sikh authors were invitedandwhether Sikh authors were, in general,being recognizedfor their work.While we attempt to address these questions,Iwanted to use this space to highlight a couple ofSikh authors who did show up on the list.

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The First Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference — Part II

I. Introduction

My last post, which addressed the First Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference held by the non-profit group United Sikhs, generated significant discussion. In an attempt to re-focus and reinvigorate that discussion, I wish to first clarify what the post was not about — it was not intended to serve as an indictment of the United Sikhs’ work overall, to criticize specific projects or initiatives other than the conference, or to compare their efforts to that of other Sikh organizations with greater financial resources. Some of the comments did touch on these subjects, though this was not my intention.

My sole interest was and remains the manner in which the United Sikhs decided, on its own, to describe the conference and the report to the public, including necessarily the Sikh members of it. I wrote that it was “the United Sikhs characterizations of the conference and report” that I found problematic. Regrettably, the comments to my post — some made spiritedly by United Sikhs Director Mejindarpaul Kaur and others working for or affiliated with the United Sikhs — have done little to assuage my earlier concerns.

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Chinese take-out and matinees

Are how I usually spend December 25th (unless, like this year, Gurpurab services fall on the same day). When I was younger, my family and I would spend the week of Christmas collecting items for donation, volunteering with the local soup kitchen, and generally reflecting on, and brainstorming, how we could help others during a sometimes lean time of year. I like to think this tradition has morphed as I’ve grown older (into a year-long commitment to service), but something about December always makes me feel more thoughtful.

My parents also went out of their way to explain that as Sikhs we did not celebrate Christmas, but they explained the significance of the Sikh religious holidays that tend to fall around this time of year. I didn’t feel like I had to trade — presents were not really an expectation or feature of the season after I passed the age of 7. Instead we spent loooooong hours at the gurdwara for services.

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Sikh Students Coming Together

We tend to complain a lot. Really, we do. We complain about thelack of activisimby Sikh youth. We complain about not being able to understand Gurbani or be able to do Kirtan. We complain about the disconnect between Sikh elders and Sikh youth. It’s the status quo – to spend time dwelling on what’s wrong in our community rather thancelebrate what’s actually going right.

However, in recent years we’ve been seeing an increased number ofSikh student or Sikh youthsikhstudents.jpg run events – which means it’s becoming clear that the status quo is no longerokay. I think itis not only important, but necessary, for Sikh youth to take more of an active role in their community. So it was refreshing for me to hear about this studentinitiated event which is beingplanned in collaboration with the Sikh Student Associations across California. This Diwan Night, which is to be held on January 24th 2009 in Southern California, will bring together Sikh students from across California for a night of Rehraas, Kirtan,Sewaand Langar.It’s important to support these types of initiatives and encourage Sikh youth to participate incoordinating these events. I hope this is one of many student initiated events which brings various organizations together in the hopes of actively involving youth in Sikhi.

The event is on January 24th, 2009 from 5-11pm at Walnut Gurdwara. If you would like to participate in Kirtan, call GaganKaur at 602 538 5507. For general information, call Rimmy Kaur at 818 309 7282.

The First Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference?

unitedsikhs.jpgTo my surprise, I came across a news article with the headline, “Sikhs Agree on a Global Civil Rights Agenda.” When did we do that??

It turns out that the United Sikhs — a non-profit organization that addresses various civil rights issues on behalf of Sikhs, especially and including the French ban on conspicuous articles of faith — issued a press release indicating that the group held the First Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference at which the First Global Sikh Civil Rights Report was presented and adopted.

At the outset, I should note that I respect the United Sikhs’ work, most notably its humanitarian efforts. I also appreciate its interest in developing a set of broad Sikh civil rights issues and recommendations on how to tackle those very issues. The Report itself contains a wealth of information on the Sikh experience in many different countries, most of which are often overlooked in discussions of the Sikh diaspora. The breadth of the report is impressive; a lot of effort seems to have been put into its publication.

That said, the United Sikhs’ characterizations of the conference and report are troublesome in at least several respects — its factually inaccurate, grossly misleading, and plainly self-serving.

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Seva for a Cold Winter

For those of you in the California Central Valley, a small group of folks from the Tracy sangat will be giving out coats, blankets, and socks in Modesto, Stockton, and Tracy . If you’re in the area and would like to donate or know families in need who could benefit from some extra help this season, please head on over to the Larch Community Center this Saturday at 10AM.

WHERE: Larch-Clover Community Center, 11157 W. Larch Road, Tracy, CA
INFO: Dottie Smith, 831-5920

Toronto Sikh Retreat: The Spiritual Pick-Me-Up

For those of you that have never attended a retreat before, its not like the Sikh camps you went to as a kid. Its not Sikhi boot-camp, but a chance for you to explore you own spirituality and really examine how you’re incorporating Sikhi into your life.

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The Toronto Sikh Retreat has been held in various forms for almost a decade. Never formalized into a full organization, its always been a fluid mix of Sikh students and young professionals coming together to put them on.

What I love about the retreat is that the workshops and activities are all planned by the youth and EVERYTHING is meant to be interactive. Even the divaans are two-way. At no point does anyone lecture to you or claim to know the right answer. The facilitators are merely individuals who have taken the time to do their homework on a particular topic so that they can guide the workshops.

Best of all, the retreats are a blast. They’re one of the funnest and most energizing weekends of the year for me. I look forward to them all year.

TSRThis year retreat promises to be amazing. The organizers have added an extra day to allow for lots of outdoor fun and more opportunities for informal discussion. The first workshop covers the life of Guru Tegh Bahadur and why his sacrifice is as relevant in today’s age as it was over three hundred years ago. The other workshop is going to be on we can use our creativity to express our Sikhi and spirituality. Also, this year there’s going to be an open mic night where attendees will be able to showcase their hidden “talents”.

The location of the retreat is also worth seeing. Nestled next to a great big toboggan hill, the Ecology Retreat Centre has separate buildings for the divaan hall, dining/meeting hall and sleeping quarters. As a creature comfort myself, I can tell you the accommodations and bathrooms are just fine. *So it doesn’t matter where you are on the path of Sikh, the retreat is a chance to recharge your spiritual batteries, push your own thinking and make a ton of new friends.

The Toronto Sikh Retreat runs from January 8th to 11th, 2009. It will be held at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Orangeville. For more registration and information visit the TSR website or the TSR blog.

Sikh Inaugural Ball

inaug.jpgAs someone who is excited about the incoming administration, I have thought about ways in which I would like to participate in the presidential inaugural, when President-Elect Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States. In particular, I thought about attending an inaugural ball — a politically-oriented prom of sorts. As a result, I reviewed this Washingtonian blog post, which contains a list of many of the inaugural balls taking place on or around the date of the inauguration, January 20, 2009.

To my surprise and delight, the list included a “Sikh Inaugural Ball.” The ball is hosted by an organization I had never heard of: the Sikh Community Center. The web site for the ball states:

Here is your chance to make a statement and be seen and heard — in WASHINGTON! — when the entire world will have their eyes and ears on the most important event ever to take place! Don’t you wish you were there?

On January 20th, 2009 the inauguration of Americas 44th President is just such an occasion that you will not want to miss.

You’ll also want to meet other like-minded people so you can make the connections you will need over the next 4 or 8 years!

The Sikh Community Center is proud to announce that the 1st EVER SIKH INAUGURAL BALL takes placejust a few blocks from the White House at Ascot, I-The Indian Experience Restaurant.

Whether or not to attend the inaugural festivities is an undoubtedly difficult decision — because of the exorbitantly high prices for rooms, parking issues, and the limits of public transportation, for example. But if you are considering making the trip to D.C., the Sikh Inaugural Ball is an option.

Please note: I make no representations about the quality of this event — as always, buyer beware!

A new Sikh award

A new contest + award is in place for Sikhs. Who will be the Chic Sikh of the Year for 2008?

The sponsor is Sikhchic, the online magazine which promotes Sikhs in the arts (and also invites articles on an array of subjects). The nomination process is completely transparent, which makechic_sikh_of_the_year.pngs it interesting. Anyone can nominate by simply entering a nomination and the reasons for it as a comment. It then gets posted, so you can see all of the nominations here. So far, the illustrious nominees include: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Singh Twins, Fauja Singh, Amandeep Singh Madra, and I.J. Singh.

The award doesn’t have to be awarded to a Sikh. It’s unclear how much of a connection a nominee has to have to the Sikh community- whether they have to commit a Sikh-like deed or act to somehow promote/improve the Sikh community. It also doesn’t have to be to a person- it can be to an institution. There are many organizations that have done some really interesting things in the past few years for the Sikh community, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing some of them nominated.

Awards validate ideals- confirm that they mean something. It ‘s unclear so far what ideals this award will recognize since the parameters for nomination have been left purposefully vague. I guess we’ll know more when an awardee is chosen.

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A Look at the Spinning Wheel

I spent the past weekend surrounded by Sikh Art and Film at the annual Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Hollywood. I usually attend these events with high expectations, hoping to be inspired and moved and there are always one or two films that provide that sustenance. The films were creative, such as The Making of Liverpool – an artistic animation inspired by a painting by The Singh Twins which explores 800 years of Liverpool’s history. The films were educational, such as Cultural Safari – directed by Sandeep Singh and produced by the Kaur Foundation – describing the basics of Sikhi for children of all ages [I have to say that this is one of the most impressive educational films I have come across]. The films were also daunting, such as Warrior Boyz – made by Baljit Sangra which touched upon the root causes of gang violence in the Punjabi community of Vancouver. A favorite of the crowd was Kuldip Powar’s Unravelling – a poetic inter-generational dialogue between the film director and his grandfather about the experience of war all posed in Urdu poetry.

There were many other well-made films such as 35, Kabaddi Cops, and Right to Turban which rightfully deserve mention (and have been discussed or will be discussed in future posts), however what I appreciated most about the weekend was the final day of the festival – which was devoted to lectures on Sikh Art and History. Staff from the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail and other UK-based organizations presented the attendees with a glimpse into the historical legacy of the Sikhs. One of the lectures was titled the Epic of Saragarhi and discussed the 21 soldiers of the Sikh regiment who defended a remote post against an estimated 10,000 hostile tribesmen. Michael O’Keefe from the British Library discussed Sikh artifacts and paintings and detailed an image of Maharani Jindan Kaur’s Gutka of the Sukhmani Sahib (see picture to the left). The day ended with a panel showcasing Sikhs in Theatre and Music, including traditional music and also hip-hop. Mandeep Sethi and Jagmeet Singh, rappers from LA, ended the festival with amazing performances showcasing their incredible talent of telling stories through hip-hop.

While the film festival brought together a plethora of Sikh art mediums – what it did seem to be missing was the representation of women and the voice of women in these films. The films were predominately made by men and the issues discussed were predominately issues affecting men. This brought several issues to mind – do young Sikh women not feel encouraged to enter the field of Film? Do the current male Sikh filmmakers not feel comfortable telling the story of Sikh women? It seems to be of vital importance that as we develop and promote Sikh films, we ensure that the stories we tell are representative of the entire Sikh panth and pay particular attention to the stories of Sikh women.

I will leave with this quote, mentioned by Harbinder Singh of the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail, but also very pertinent to the theme of this weekend’s film festival.

Until lions tell their own history,
History will always glorify the hunters.
– African Proverb

Slumdog Millionaire

A movie you might be interested in, Slumdog Millionaire, is being released in major cities today and most other North American cities throughout the next few weeks. The plot might sound corny to the skeptical (it involves some romance), but if it’s as well done as it seems to be from the trailer, it could be one of those poignant, moving films that only come along once every few years (in the genre of Born into Brothels). The trailer gives away a lot, so if you like to be surprised, don’t watch all (or any) of it. (The skeptic in me is hoping it’s not a touristy, voyeuristic ride into areas that most movie-goers will only go to through the movie…)

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An interesting theme that came up in the making of the movie is product displacement. Apparently Mercedes and “a well known soft drinks company” objected to their products being shown in a slum and demanded that their logos be removed, which was done digitally, costing tens of thousands of pounds. Yet, the Benz folks were perfectly happy having their logo appear on a gangster’s car when it was parked outside his mansion. So it’s ok to engage in mass (probably violent) crime as long as you’re wealthy. Mercedes will hang with you. But if you want to try to earn an honest living, and just can’t make it out of poverty- sorry, no such luck. [Timesonline]

The car manufacturer and a well-known soft drinks company believed that their brands would be sullied if their products were shown in one of Bombays shantytowns. [Timesonline]

Hey, Mercedes and fizzy drink company- you may have missed one of the points of the movie-you know, here’s the human struggle and spirit, from the eyes of someone you didn’t realize you had so much in common with??… Never mind. (I’m trying to not let their stupidity ruin the movie for me.)

More absurdity, synopsis and release dates below the fold.

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Sikh outreach through theatre

Some ideas are just better communicated through modes other than writing. Theatre, through the unfolding of a story and through the body language of its actors, can sometimes convey meaning and ideas more effectively than just written words alone.

Some Sikh youth from Rockland, MD have decided to use theatre to engage non-Sikhs in learning about Sikhs- a wonderful idea.

bullah__theatre.JPGTwo plays are being planned for the fall expressing themes of diversity, mutual respect, interfaith and justice. They will both be staged on Saturday December 13, 2008 at the Wooten High School in Rockville, Maryland.

Where did this idea come from?

Last fall, Guru Gobind Singh Foundation had some of its kids take part in a play The Lorax, a musical adaptation from the famous Dr Seuss story book which was staged by kids from many different faiths. This play, adopted to create awareness about environment, was coordinated by the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and was staged by the Childrens Theater Company of New York.

After going through this experience, GGSF decided to form the Rockville Chapter of Childrens Theater Company last May to explore the possibility of staging a play depicting the concepts of Guru Granth Sahib. Dedicated to Building Character Onstage, the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) of New York develops in children and youth a keen sense of citizenship while introducing them to the incomparable magic of theatre through their full participation in the creation and performance of musicals and plays. [link]

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Blue-turbanned Sikh at the first presidential debate

sardar_at_first_presidential_debate.pngWere you watching the Presidential debate last Friday? Did you catch flashes of a sardar in a blue turban? I assume that anyone who did was equally as surprised as I was (though happily so). Well, who is the mystery man? He’s Arvinder Singh Kang, a twenty five year old who was the only Punjabi, and the only Sikh at the University of Mississipi when he came from Punjab to do a graduate degree.

I came to the U.S. in the fall of 2005, as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi. From a proud Sikh family, I was the first kid from my village and from my maternal and paternal lineage to come to America for studies.

I brought twenty-something Puggs (turbans). I knew Japji Sahib by heart and had been exposed to Sikh history more than I had been to comics. All through my undergrad years, I had taught my juniors how to wear a turban. There was no doubt, whatever the circumstances might be, I would always be a Turbanator!

While boarding a plane from London’s Gatwick Airport, I sat beside a Sikh girl living in Houston who was born and raised in London. “…So it’s going to be hard to keep a turban in university”, she said in a lovely British accent.

“Much nee te kuch nee!” (What’s a man without a mustache) I had quipped. [link]

You can read more from Arvinder at Sikhchic.

Spinning Wheel Festival: A Celebration of Sikh Arts

Heads-up friends, the season of the Spinning Wheel Festival is about to begin across North America this autumn. Celebrating Sikh films and art, the first stop will be in New York City on Saturday, October 04, 2008 at the Asia Society & Museum (p.s. thats next Saturday). Buy your tickets NOW! The wonderful Rabbi Shergill will be performing at the opening gala (yes I am really biased here I heart Rabbi Shergill) and DJ Rekha will be literally spinning at the after party.

Films a the NYC festival will range from documentaries on Pahelwani (i.e. Panjabi wrestling) and Kabaddi-playing Canadian police officers to issues affecting the Sikh community from 1984 and post-9/11 hate crimes. There will also be short and feature films. For example, one on a young boys struggle to keep his hair while his family fears the obstacles he will encounter and another on a young Sikh doctor struggling with the inequities of the American Health System and ultimately his own identity. The Holy Duels of Hola Mohalla is a film looking at the Khalsa Panth.

The films seem interesting both in content and presentation. The stories are grounded in the realities many of us encounter everyday. You can get a full listing of the films and their synopses here.

In the past, I have attended the Spinning Wheel Festival at one of its many North American stops and found it a great space for artists and art-enthusiasts to be exposed to Sikh creativity. I remember there being a panel discussion with the directors and the audience. We dont have too many of these creative opportunities in our community even though we spend plenty of time and space advertising foreign medical schools in Poland, China, and the Caribbean.

I have found that some films are really hit or miss at these festivals, but its expected sense the focus is on cultivating and inspiring creativity; while, building a permanent Sikh film festival for years to come. Cash prizes are awarded to the bests in various categories. I have been told that the listing and quality of films varies across the different North American stops.

At the end of the day why not go, especially if its close by. I personally think its worth a visit as an act of supporting Sikh arts and learning about the various issues affecting our community. Sometimes we get too caught up in our own worlds and dont realize these issues are taking place or we are in amidst of them and they become normal parts of our lives leaving very little room for reflection or exposure to others perceptions. Thus, its an opportunity to get a fresh/new look at various issues.

Lastly, the arts, from painting and photography to films and music, are our communitys soul! They help us speak in ways we cant always articulate. So go save your soul and attend a Sikh artistic event! :)

Okay, enough of the attempt at convincing the other North American stops will be:

  • Toronto, Canada from October 10-12, 2008 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
  • Hollywood, California from November 14-16, 2008 at the Writers Guild Theatre.

Are yall thinking of going? What have your experiences been at the various Spinning Wheel Festivals? Does anyone know of other North American stops?

p.p.s. The Toronto and Hollywood poster is really interesting isn’t it … a conversation in of itself!

Police Patrol by Delhi Sultanate and Sukhmani Malik

In light of the Indian government’s response to this past weekend’s bombings in Delhi, this video seems especially poignant (not to mention sweeet!).

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[hat tip: chapati mystery]

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A review of the Sikh Research Institute’s First Webinar

Update: wow, I did an AWFUL job of summarizing SRI’s first webinar. (Apologies to the good folks at SRI) Here’s a better summary:

Sikh Theology – A Gurmat Framework: The first session comprised of introducing an approach to Sikhi and recognizing how Guru Nanak Sahib revolutionarily delivered a message of Oneness through illustrating a direct connection between ideas and practice. We engaged in understanding what ‘Guru’ means in the Sikh context and how we can begin to comprehend the Guru’s wisdom, Gurmat. To develop this understanding, three facets of bani (scripture), tavarikh (history) and rahit (lifestyle) were introduced. The greatness of a religion is when harmonious balance between Ultimate reality and visible form is exemplified thru the aforesaid facets. We concluded with Puran Singh’s rendering on the Guru’s vision, “It sweetens you and your sweetness sweetens all life around. At your sight, the lamb and the tiger must drink at the same pool.”

And some info on session 2:

Bani – The Message: In session two, we continued to build on our understanding of the Guru’s message; We engaged in actively learning about the scriptural canon, the Guru Granth Sahib. In covering topics as the compilation, contributors, structure, language and content of Guru Granth Sahib, we tackled questions such as, “How do we know Guru Granth Sahib is the Guru?” and “What is the Sabad Guru?”; thus, facilitating and inspiring us to continue to build our personal relationship with Guru Granth Sahib.

And 3:

Tavarikh The Revolution: Having concentrated on the written form of our Gurus message (Bani) last week, this week in session three, Tavarikh The Revolution, we will turn our focus on to how our Gurus exemplified The Message. We will walk through the lives of Guru Nanak Sahib through Guru Gobind Singh Sahib and try to understand them through a social, political, economic and spiritual framework. We will cover a range of issues, from touching on the ramifications of negating the need of a Divine intermediary, to the economic center created by the Guru Sahibs, to the activism of both social and political kind. In surveying the inspiring history of our Gurus, we hope to remind ourselves of how relevant, active and exemplary the revolution of Sikh? is.

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