Sharing The Guru’s Gift

TLH_On_Common_Ground.jpgA few weeks back, we attended our first Sikh Parade of the season.
 
Like every year, we love making the trip downtown to join our sangat and spend a beautiful spring day outside celebrating Vaisakhi.  Amongst the sea of kesri dastaars and chunnis, there was keertan, gatka, and jakaaray filling the streets.
 
As we began marching down the main avenue, I started to notice the passerby’s reaction to us.  Some were irritated they had to wait for us to cross the street, some took out their camera phones to take pictures of us, but the vast majority looked, well…confused.
 
And who can blame them? 
 
None of our floats and few of our signs would make any sense to a non-Sikh.   The overlapping keertan, jakaaray, and political slogans were obviously all in Punjabi.  And there was little to no interaction between us and the onlookers.  I wondered, why did we come here to do this? 
 
If our purpose was to have a nagar keertan and to celebrate Vaisakhi in our own traditional way, then why waste the time and money to do it out here?  Why not just do this on our own Gurdwara premises?  But if our purpose was to educate the greater community on who Sikhs are, then what exactly were we doing to accomplish that?  Sure, many people were taking pictures of us, but was it because of the spectacle we created?  Or because people were so happy to see the Sikhs that they’ve heard so much about – followers of Guru Nanak,  brave soldiers, and defenders of the downtrodden?  Which do you think?
 
If we were so interested in educating others about us, perhaps we could have delegated volunteers to walk through the sidewalks handing out information cards (no bigger than an index card), explaining who we are and what we’re celebrating…or at least hand out free water bottles with labels reading “Happy Vaisakhi from the Sikh Community” and maybe they’d be encouraged to learn more about us later.  Given the recent news regarding Sikhs in the US and Canada, we could really use all the positive PR we can get.  And since we’re already here marching through a major metropolitan society, why not take advantage of it?
 
As the parade went on, I started to grow more frustrated.  I kept thinking, Sikhs have been in the US for over 100 years, is this really the best we can do?
 
Toward the end of the parade, as we all congregated at the park to listen to shabad keertan and speeches, a young couple riding bikes passed through.  Since it is common for festivals to occur during this time of year in the city, the couple decided to stop and check out what was going on.  They parked their  bikes and sat right behind us to take in the sights and sounds.  After observing the crowd, interacting with our kids for a bit, and seeing folks come back from the langar tent with plates full of hot food, the woman got up and said to the man, “Looks like there’s food over there, I’m going to get something to eat.”  The man replied, “Do you have any money on you?”  My wife then kindly interrupted and said “You won’t need it, it’s our free community kitchen…it’s called langar.”  The woman smiled and said “Well that’s nice” and made her way to the langar tent.
 
Somewhere in all my cynicism, I lost sight of why we were there.  We were there that day to celebrate the Guru and his gifts.  And in all of Guru Sahib’s brilliance, his gift of langar is still finding ways to bring people of all races, religions, cultures, socio-economic groups, and beliefs together to share a common meal. 
 
I looked around…I saw how efficiently the sevadaars were managing the langar line.  For a moment, I thought about all the men and women who woke up early that morning to make food for hundreds of people.  I noticed all the humble volunteers who swiftly filled everyone’s plate with a smile on their face.  Then I saw all the sevadaars who were quickly picking up the trash and recyclables and disposing of them properly, leaving the park spotless!
 
if I looked close enough – there was love, service, and humility all around us – and if this is what passersby learn about Sikhs, then all is not lost.  In fact, this is the essence of who we are…and no pamphlet is going to show you that.
 
There is a lesson to be learned here…even outside of just our parades.  So often we try to find creative ways to explain to non-Sikhs exactly who Guru Nanak’s Sikhs are, when sometimes, all we need to do…is show them the Guru Nanak in us.


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30 Responses to “Sharing The Guru’s Gift”

  1. randep says:

    RP Singh,

    Your remarkable post brings for a very interesting contradiction that I think finds root in the feeling of estrangement that religious communities (even Christian ones) feel in contemporary secular democracies. So I thank you for your post.

    What I would like to focus on is the feeling of insecurity when you wondered what "passerbys" thought. This feeling of insecurity, I believe, Sikhs feel whether in India, Punjab, and here in the West. But perhaps we ought to question where this feeling of insecurity and humiliation comes from, and why white people/americans/passerbys have such a domineering power over us. Maybe we can question how that position of power functions to corn the foreigner/non-whites/non-christian/non-secular into being defensive. It is this defensiveness that corners RP Singh into disparaging the marvelous nagar kirtan into "a spectacle"! This is quite a remarkable fact! Just by the mere presence of white people/Americans/Christians/secular people, RP Singh describes celebrating in the Nagar Kirtan to become estranged, humiliated, and insecure to the point where he takes up reducing the Nagar Kirtan to a mere spectacle.

    With this as a case example in mind, it seems worth investigating the extent and degree to which we have been psychologically traumatized and abused in the many faces of colonialism and racism that have perpetually weighed down on strange, irrational, and marginal persons in America such as us. It is my personal conviction that some sincere introspection in times such as this when without any great vision sheds light . That is why The Langar Hall ultimately falls short of overcoming the colonialist cycles of abuse and response. One only need look at the title of this blog "Progressive Sikh Blog", here, because the sense of "progressive" employed by The Langar Hall continues the secular cycle of identity politics and the reduction of religion. What do I mean by this?

    I mean that, ultimately, this post prescribes the very same old obeisance to your colonial masters. First you invoke "love, service, humility". Then with an ironic twist immediately follow that if you do not properly worship your colonial master, "all is lost". Maybe, I would suggest, "love, service, humility" –these tired old phrases that everyone is eager to claim– would demand challenging the tyranny of racism in all its subtlety and a willingness to stand face to face against the powerful people and movements.

  2. randep says:

    RP Singh,

    Your remarkable post brings for a very interesting contradiction that I think finds root in the feeling of estrangement that religious communities (even Christian ones) feel in contemporary secular democracies. So I thank you for your post.

    What I would like to focus on is the feeling of insecurity when you wondered what "passerbys" thought. This feeling of insecurity, I believe, Sikhs feel whether in India, Punjab, and here in the West. But perhaps we ought to question where this feeling of insecurity and humiliation comes from, and why white people/americans/passerbys have such a domineering power over us. Maybe we can question how that position of power functions to corn the foreigner/non-whites/non-christian/non-secular into being defensive. It is this defensiveness that corners RP Singh into disparaging the marvelous nagar kirtan into "a spectacle"! This is quite a remarkable fact! Just by the mere presence of white people/Americans/Christians/secular people, RP Singh describes celebrating in the Nagar Kirtan to become estranged, humiliated, and insecure to the point where he takes up reducing the Nagar Kirtan to a mere spectacle.

    With this as a case example in mind, it seems worth investigating the extent and degree to which we have been psychologically traumatized and abused in the many faces of colonialism and racism that have perpetually weighed down on strange, irrational, and marginal persons in America such as us. It is my personal conviction that some sincere introspection in times such as this when without any great vision sheds light . That is why The Langar Hall ultimately falls short of overcoming the colonialist cycles of abuse and response. One only need look at the title of this blog "Progressive Sikh Blog", here, because the sense of "progressive" employed by The Langar Hall continues the secular cycle of identity politics and the reduction of religion. What do I mean by this?

    I mean that, ultimately, this post prescribes the very same old obeisance to your colonial masters. First you invoke "love, service, humility". Then with an ironic twist immediately follow that if you do not properly worship your colonial master, "all is lost". Maybe, I would suggest, "love, service, humility" –these tired old phrases that everyone is eager to claim– would demand challenging the tyranny of racism in all its subtlety and a willingness to stand face to face against the powerful people and movements.

  3. Uncleji says:

    Dear RP Singh
    I feel must thank you for your post. I really think you've captured the feeling of unease & frustration at the insular nature of most Sikh activities and institutions. Your practical ideas for involving others are good too.

    On a personal level non sikh visitors [who are not all white agents of western imperalism;) ] to Gurdwaras are at best ignored rather then engaged with and treated as potential ambassadors on behalf of sikhism. At worst they will get shouted at by a sevedar for inadvertently breaching protocol which no one could be bothered to explain. (Apologies if I have read in more then I should)

    Regards

    Uncleji

  4. Uncleji says:

    Dear Randep – I confess at one point that I had moment of guilt about offending the other communities (note the plural) till I went to a football match. But there is not a hint of this in the RP's article and nothing in to justify your curious freshman post-colonial studies rant.( apologies if you were indulging in some post-modernist trolling).

    What seems that we should take the opportunity to demonstrate the values of Sikhi and do (for the one of a better word) and simply know who we are and what we believe.

    As for the what does progressive mean it. For me it means to stand against " powerful people and movements " include the reactionaries within our communities who seek to enslave us to their notions of identity politics.

    regards
    Uncleji

  5. Uncleji says:

    Dear RP Singh
    I feel must thank you for your post. I really think you've captured the feeling of unease & frustration at the insular nature of most Sikh activities and institutions. Your practical ideas for involving others are good too.

    On a personal level non sikh visitors [who are not all white agents of western imperalism;) ] to Gurdwaras are at best ignored rather then engaged with and treated as potential ambassadors on behalf of sikhism. At worst they will get shouted at by a sevedar for inadvertently breaching protocol which no one could be bothered to explain. (Apologies if I have read in more then I should)

    Regards

    Uncleji

  6. Uncleji says:

    Dear Randep – I confess at one point that I had moment of guilt about offending the other communities (note the plural) till I went to a football match. But there is not a hint of this in the RP's article and nothing in to justify your curious freshman post-colonial studies rant.( apologies if you were indulging in some post-modernist trolling).

    What seems that we should take the opportunity to demonstrate the values of Sikhi and do (for the one of a better word) and simply know who we are and what we believe.

    As for the what does progressive mean it. For me it means to stand against " powerful people and movements " include the reactionaries within our communities who seek to enslave us to their notions of identity politics.

    regards
    Uncleji

  7. randep says:

    i am sorry you feel offended, and i am sorry you have taken offense at what I thought was my quite sincere try to draw out the OP's point. I encourage you to engage the issues and not merely employ personal attacks and name calling (i.e. referring to others' thoughts as "rants"). With this in mind, I would like to continue having a civil discussion here.

    I understand your worries about insular communities, or that Sikhs form an insular community and that this displeases you. But what if we even questioned the very assumption that Sikhs owe allegiance to any communities, even their own. What if we questioned whether Sikhs should even be a community, or whether we have ever been a community. What if we shouldn't even want to be a community. John Caputo, a very brilliant and charitable Christian philosopher, sees this very clearly. He speaks of the philosopher Derrida, saying:

    ====================
    "What he [Derrida] does not like about the word community is its connotations of "fusion" and "identification". After all, _communio_ is a word for a military formation and a kissing cousin of the word for "munitions"; to have a _communio_ is to be fortified on all sides, to build a "common" (_com_) "defense" (_munis_), as when a wall is put up around the city to keep the stranger or the foreigner out."

    –from Deconstruction in a Nutshell, by John Caputo
    =====================

    What this brilliant remark shows is that your allegiance to "Sikh" community is part of the process which itself is responsible for being insular and inbred. After all, there is a reason why community and "communalism" are so close together. As long as you are primarily engaged in "simply knowing who we are and what we believe", you make a boundary between you and others. It involves saying "who we _aren't_ and what we _reject_", which will happen to be Christians, Hindus, tyrants, capitalists, the bourgoise, greed, lust, evil, the middle-class, etc. This, in turn, reinforces a sort of insularity and ego-ism, so long as we continue this process of pushing the stink outside our walls, outside of our communities. But, this sly tactic, this "sianpa" will ultimately never succeed.

    That is why The Langar Hall, as you have just demonstrated, is never interested in asking deep and tough questions. But, instead, it is interested in pushing this simplistic ideology of communal identity worship. I am not here saying that Sikhs should no longer be religious. I am saying that Panth is something that requires more risk and less self-worship, something that is beyond the petty matters of "what we believe" that have tortured Christian ideologies and factions. Panth requires more commitment and humility than the self-worship in claiming to be an "ambassador on behalf of sikhism".

  8. FelixQ says:

    As a member of the racist colonial elite, I'm heartened to see the direction this thread is taking. They're fighting amongst themselves, just as we planned! We've put so much effort into the ideological divide&conquer strategy, it's so nice to observe it bearing fruit.
    Seriously, though, there is a shrill defensiveness that borders on paranoia present on both sides of this discussion. If you view the world from the perspective of a victim, you will always be a victim. On the other hand, if you're worrying about moulding yourself into the type of religious package that will sell best on the open market, that's honestly very sad.

  9. randep says:

    i am sorry you feel offended, and i am sorry you have taken offense at what I thought was my quite sincere try to draw out the OP's point. I encourage you to engage the issues and not merely employ personal attacks and name calling (i.e. referring to others' thoughts as "rants"). With this in mind, I would like to continue having a civil discussion here.

    I understand your worries about insular communities, or that Sikhs form an insular community and that this displeases you. But what if we even questioned the very assumption that Sikhs owe allegiance to any communities, even their own. What if we questioned whether Sikhs should even be a community, or whether we have ever been a community. What if we shouldn't even want to be a community. John Caputo, a very brilliant and charitable Christian philosopher, sees this very clearly. He speaks of the philosopher Derrida, saying:

    ====================
    "What he [Derrida] does not like about the word community is its connotations of "fusion" and "identification". After all, _communio_ is a word for a military formation and a kissing cousin of the word for "munitions"; to have a _communio_ is to be fortified on all sides, to build a "common" (_com_) "defense" (_munis_), as when a wall is put up around the city to keep the stranger or the foreigner out."

    –from Deconstruction in a Nutshell, by John Caputo
    =====================

    What this brilliant remark shows is that your allegiance to "Sikh" community is part of the process which itself is responsible for being insular and inbred. After all, there is a reason why community and "communalism" are so close together. As long as you are primarily engaged in "simply knowing who we are and what we believe", you make a boundary between you and others. It involves saying "who we _aren't_ and what we _reject_", which will happen to be Christians, Hindus, tyrants, capitalists, the bourgoise, greed, lust, evil, the middle-class, etc. This, in turn, reinforces a sort of insularity and ego-ism, so long as we continue this process of pushing the stink outside our walls, outside of our communities. But, this sly tactic, this "sianpa" will ultimately never succeed.

    That is why The Langar Hall, as you have just demonstrated, is never interested in asking deep and tough questions. But, instead, it is interested in pushing this simplistic ideology of communal identity worship. I am not here saying that Sikhs should no longer be religious. I am saying that Panth is something that requires more risk and less self-worship, something that is beyond the petty matters of "what we believe" that have tortured Christian ideologies and factions. Panth requires more commitment and humility than the self-worship in claiming to be an "ambassador on behalf of sikhism".

  10. FelixQ says:

    As a member of the racist colonial elite, I'm heartened to see the direction this thread is taking. They're fighting amongst themselves, just as we planned! We've put so much effort into the ideological divide&conquer strategy, it's so nice to observe it bearing fruit.
    Seriously, though, there is a shrill defensiveness that borders on paranoia present on both sides of this discussion. If you view the world from the perspective of a victim, you will always be a victim. On the other hand, if you're worrying about moulding yourself into the type of religious package that will sell best on the open market, that's honestly very sad.

  11. Bhagwant Singh says:

    I have no desire to offend, I like to seek views on girls/women leading the Nagar Kirtan and flag bearers and Panj Piarays. We are in the process of organising an event in our city and this issue has come to light. Any view is most welcome. I have not reached a view or conclusion on this matter.

    I think this issue does raise the matter of equality in our practice and projection of the faith. How should we handle it.

    Bhagwant

  12. RanDipStick says:

    Hey Randeep Singh Hoetee, can you own up to your own identity? Or is Randep a way of subverting the colonial gaze? In that case, it makes sense, and its good work.
    P.S. Im sorry Caputo is retiring. And that Derrida is dead. Looks like you'll have to carve out your own understanding of what it means to have a 'Sikh perspective' vis-a-vis the other sikh perspectives. How tragic.

    "Why does his "us" and "we" always refer to this particular group of brown people from Punjab, etc.? "
    That's too easy'
    Because Prabhsharandep told them they weren't part of your religion/spirituality/way of life/non-secular interpretation of Sikh/i/ism/. The AKJ is waiting to be told that they are not Sikh. Then everyone else too. Right?

  13. Sewa says:

    Too many years of invasion of Punjab have made us insecure, about our language , about our beliefs et cetra

    That said very beautiful Jaloos

  14. Bhagwant Singh says:

    I have no desire to offend, I like to seek views on girls/women leading the Nagar Kirtan and flag bearers and Panj Piarays. We are in the process of organising an event in our city and this issue has come to light. Any view is most welcome. I have not reached a view or conclusion on this matter.

    I think this issue does raise the matter of equality in our practice and projection of the faith. How should we handle it.

    Bhagwant

  15. RanDipStick says:

    Hey Randeep Singh Hoetee, can you own up to your own identity? Or is Randep a way of subverting the colonial gaze? In that case, it makes sense, and its good work.
    P.S. Im sorry Caputo is retiring. And that Derrida is dead. Looks like you'll have to carve out your own understanding of what it means to have a 'Sikh perspective' vis-a-vis the other sikh perspectives. How tragic.

    "Why does his "us" and "we" always refer to this particular group of brown people from Punjab, etc.? "
    That's too easy'
    Because Prabhsharandep told them they weren't part of your religion/spirituality/way of life/non-secular interpretation of Sikh/i/ism/. The AKJ is waiting to be told that they are not Sikh. Then everyone else too. Right?

  16. Sewa says:

    Too many years of invasion of Punjab have made us insecure, about our language , about our beliefs et cetra

    That said very beautiful Jaloos

  17. Ali says:

    a group of people who come together to honor that which is true should be concerned with that only. the need to reach out to your neighbors and prove that you are safe and friendly is a need that arises from a lack, and that lack should not be conflated upon the Truth. I would not be identified as a Sikh by any of you but my heart bows to that which i encounter in the Guru. And for me it is the same reality which i encounter in the Ka'aba towards which I pray five times a day. When our concern is the prime concern, the opinion of other people is irrelevant. The people of truth recognize truth, regardless of where it is. The thirsty know water regardless of their origin. If we approach anyone we approach them in respect to that reality. Otherwise, to approach them in some sort of cultural dialogue whose bounds have been determined from the start by those who hold power will only result in the conclusion:
    "Well you are the same profane thing that I am, in fact, you are a worse off version of me, cuz you have all that useless 'mystic' baggage." . Look, I know that we need to somehow live without losing who we are, but a false sense of who we are is as bad as becoming white-washed. There is a zen axiom commanding practitioners to 'practice as if your head is on fire.' None of us can be ambassadors to the world for whatever we wish to represent for as long as we are full of ourselves. If we devote ourselves to exactly what we have been commanded to do, our actions themselves will speak volumes. It is through our actions that we prove to the profanity of the contemporary age that this is something they have never encountered before, b.c it escapes the four corners of their classification system. Our explanations usually only rip away the incomprehensible element of all our actions which gives them their spiritual value. We shouldn't be the ones who go to these bystanders and tell them, "hey, we are the same thing you are, why don't you go eat our food and listen to our 'music.'" Rather, let the silence which permeates even the sound of scripture guide them to that reality which can never be something you have already seen, or known, or experienced. One of my own teachers told me that, when the devil can't trick you anymore from outside, he enters within and comes to you in the shape of everything that was ever dear to you. Its good to be kind and loving neighbors, but there is a point where this softness has to stop because there is something greater than even the fear we invoke in the hearts of white folk, and that which is greater is the concern of everyone, regardless of their affinities.

  18. Ali says:

    a group of people who come together to honor that which is true should be concerned with that only. the need to reach out to your neighbors and prove that you are safe and friendly is a need that arises from a lack, and that lack should not be conflated upon the Truth. I would not be identified as a Sikh by any of you but my heart bows to that which i encounter in the Guru. And for me it is the same reality which i encounter in the Ka'aba towards which I pray five times a day. When our concern is the prime concern, the opinion of other people is irrelevant. The people of truth recognize truth, regardless of where it is. The thirsty know water regardless of their origin. If we approach anyone we approach them in respect to that reality. Otherwise, to approach them in some sort of cultural dialogue whose bounds have been determined from the start by those who hold power will only result in the conclusion:
    "Well you are the same profane thing that I am, in fact, you are a worse off version of me, cuz you have all that useless 'mystic' baggage." . Look, I know that we need to somehow live without losing who we are, but a false sense of who we are is as bad as becoming white-washed. There is a zen axiom commanding practitioners to 'practice as if your head is on fire.' None of us can be ambassadors to the world for whatever we wish to represent for as long as we are full of ourselves. If we devote ourselves to exactly what we have been commanded to do, our actions themselves will speak volumes. It is through our actions that we prove to the profanity of the contemporary age that this is something they have never encountered before, b.c it escapes the four corners of their classification system. Our explanations usually only rip away the incomprehensible element of all our actions which gives them their spiritual value. We shouldn't be the ones who go to these bystanders and tell them, "hey, we are the same thing you are, why don't you go eat our food and listen to our 'music.'" Rather, let the silence which permeates even the sound of scripture guide them to that reality which can never be something you have already seen, or known, or experienced. One of my own teachers told me that, when the devil can't trick you anymore from outside, he enters within and comes to you in the shape of everything that was ever dear to you. Its good to be kind and loving neighbors, but there is a point where this softness has to stop because there is something greater than even the fear we invoke in the hearts of white folk, and that which is greater is the concern of everyone, regardless of their affinities.

  19. RS says:

    RP Singh –

    I have been going to the sikh vaisakhi celebrations in LA for the last 5+ years. I think it is the same one your attended and wrote about.

    I have felt the same way you feel. The "messaging" we have on our floats and other places does not communicate to non-sikhs (onlookers) as to what the religion is about, why we have gathered like this etc.

    Hopefully you can pass on or your message to the leadership (folks who organize vasakhi) so something could be done on that end.

    Excellent Post and Thank you!!!!

    Regards,

    RS

  20. RS says:

    RP Singh –

    I have been going to the sikh vaisakhi celebrations in LA for the last 5+ years. I think it is the same one your attended and wrote about.

    I have felt the same way you feel. The “messaging” we have on our floats and other places does not communicate to non-sikhs (onlookers) as to what the religion is about, why we have gathered like this etc.

    Hopefully you can pass on or your message to the leadership (folks who organize vasakhi) so something could be done on that end.

    Excellent Post and Thank you!!!!

    Regards,

    RS

  21. Bhupinder Singh says:

    Waheguru G ka Khalsa

    Waheguru g ke fateh to My Sikh Family

    watch it and give me ur views….

  22. Bhupinder Singh says:

    Waheguru G ka Khalsa
    Waheguru g ke fateh to My Sikh Family

    watch it and give me ur views…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNRXZ0Zf4bg