Sikhi for Profit?

Guest blogged by Navdeep Singh Dhillon

hds2.jpgFor my first post as a guest blogger, I wanted to address an issue that has been irritating me since September, when I first read about it. [An anonymous]Mehmaan wrote a post titled Valarie Kaur, the peddler of self-promotion. Mehmaans claim is essentially that Valarie Kaur is a big pakhandi.

Mehmaans singular criterion for reaching the conclusion that Valarie Kaur is not just a pakhandi, but a big pakhandi, is that she is using social media and her website to promote herself as a speaker and to sell her documentary, Divided We Fall, inaccurately called a movie in the post.

I have never met Valarie and dont know her family, but do want to clarify Valarie Kaurs achievement, relegated to the realm of frivolity with the express purpose of making money, by Mehmaan in order to prove a point.

On September 11, the mood against anyone brown, especially Sikhs, changed drastically, and it culminated with the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15. At that time, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Even text messaging wasnt normal everyday behavior. So there was no immediacy with information. I remember receiving emails through newsgroups I happened to be a part of documenting the steadily rising violence and blatant racism towards brown people. And then switching on my television to see zero updates on the backlash. Instead, it was just the same devastating image of planes crashing into the Twin Towers, followed by a turbaned and bearded Bin Laden. So what Valarie Kaur did at 20-years-old is nothing short of phenomenal. Along with her cousin, she went to document the brown experience on a cross-country trip, armed with plenty of panache, zero technical skills and a video camera. The fact is that there is no other documentary, which I am aware of, that weaves such a powerful narrative, intermingling a compelling personal story, and creating the link between not only Sikhs, but anyone of color, including the Japanese-American survivors of camps in the United States.

Given the fact that Valarie Kaur poured countless hours on a documentary that seems to stand on its own and to this day, stand alone, really why wouldnt she pour countless hours into promoting it? After all, shes created the message, but shes not done with getting the message out there. There are still millions of people to reach. It is only because of her tireless self-promotion that people can find this documentary at places like Netflix, that it is still being shown at Sikh and other film festivals, that you can find it on the web.

What I found particularly offensive was the line we have all heard her heart-wrenching, tormented, and soul-searching story as she climbed out of the pits of hell, all for being namedValarie (shudder!). When 9/11 took place, we were all trying to make some sense of what was happening to our country and to our community. I was thousands of miles away watching in disbelief and sadness at the tragic loss of life. My wife and sister-in-law were at work in mid-town Manhattan. Sikh organizations across the country were trying to deliver the universal message of understanding and hope that Valarie Kaur is still delivering.

Hip-hop artists in the Sikh community have all written exactly one track on 1984, generally around the time Jakara 2009 spent its conference taking a long look back at the issue. One could say that these rappers created these pieces of art specifically to capitalize on the opportunity to promote themselves at said conference, no? Otherwise, the timing is eerily impeccable. Does that make them less reliable or truthful as artists? All of these rappers use social media and their websites to promote themselves. Heavily. And all of them, without exception, make some money going on tours akin to speaking engagements. One of them owns a Sikh clothing line with variations on images of the Khanda, amongst other things. Perhaps he shouldnt be making any money from this endeavour, or use social media to advertise his clothing line? Everytime these rappers do a show, write a blog, come out with a new youtube video, or free download of their mp3 album, I know about it through numerous wall posts on Facebook, newsletters in my email, and Twitter. But this, Mehmaan doesnt have a problem with.

Mehmaan writes I do believe that she created her movie out of earnestness. I believed in it and as a student, even hosted her on my college campus. I am even a subscriber to her newsletter. However, in her last self-promotional newsletter it all made sense. Her movie was never about Sikhs, never about Americans, and worst off never even about Balbir Singh Sodhi. Even Sodhis widow was just a backdrop. The movie is about promoting Valarie Kaur. She has made a career out of it.in fact you can book her for your next corporate talk just go through her publicist Leigh Bureau.

At first Mehmaan says that Valarie Kaur made the movie with good intentions, but then contradicts this sentiment by stating that her intentions at 20 were coldly calculated to further her career. It is unclear to me whether Mehmaan has a problem with the message in Valaries documentary, or the fact that she has a publicist. Because the message of unity, mutual respect, and universal human rights seems like a message that deserves to be spread. Why wouldnt we as Sikhs want that message furthered?

The point of my post is not to solely defend Valarie (and again, I do not know her or her family personally), or to start a fight with Mehmaan, but to raise some questions. Why shouldnt people like Valarie Kaur be compensated for the work they are doing and what is wrong with self-promotion in this respect? Does contributing something meaningful to the community mean that it is unjustified to be able to feed oneself? Just because Valarie and others like her are artists, does that mean they are required to be starving? Is there a section of Gurbani I missed that says Seva is a mandatory career choice, even if that ends up putting us in debt, rather than being a meaningful part of our daily lives?

Lets take the Valarie Kaur scenario one step further. Lets say she decided to take this documentary to Hollywood and use it as a calling card to show what she is capable of. Is there some sort of ethical boundary that shes crossing by using a documentary she made from scratch to boost her career? And if so, who are we to decide what that boundary is?

One organization I have immense respect for is the Sikh Coalition, and while they do plenty of pro-bono work, they pay some of their employees and do make some personal profit (gasp!) I doubt Amardeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition expects their corporate accountant to do their taxes for free in the spirit of Seva. An author of a Sikh childrens book obviously writes a book to impart a message, but also to make a profit to support themselves financially, so they can continue to do these things.

There is, however, a valid point to Mehmaans post and the finger being pointed does deserve to be pointed, but the direction is a little misplaced.

Those who we should have the real problems with are the alleged Sikh holy men, elected Gurdwara officials, and so-called Gianis, who use Sikhism as a money-making scheme, by taking advantage of peoples trust under the guise of spirituality. People who, in effect, own Gurdwaras (or deras, personal fiefdoms, really) and run them as a for-profit business, rather than existing for the service of the community should be the ones who we should be casting our eyes on, rather than the Valarie Kaurs of the world, who take their work and their message seriously, even if that means being a peddler of self-promotion.


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14 Responses to “Sikhi for Profit?”

  1. Jasmeet singh says:

    Very well said and interesting observation about the hip hop dudes!

  2. Gurumustuk says:

    You could say that I'm also one of the people that profit on Sikhi, however I don't look at it that way. People say "profit" as if that were the sole goal. Actually most people who work in non-profit organizations or do service projects do it for the mission and the service. Getting money is just the logistic that enables one to continue and do this service well.

    You can read my two blog posts on this topic from earlier last year…

    What do you do for a living? http://www.mrsikhnet.com/2010/09/15/what-do-you-d

    Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief? http://www.mrsikhnet.com/2010/09/15/doctor-lawyer

  3. being fan of sikhi , well its so good for her to perform nicely to audience luckily she done it well … Toronto Security Services

  4. Luxifero says:

    I believe a great way to have refuted Mehmaans insinuations would have been to reference Bhagat Dhana's observations.

    Have a look. They are very interesting.

  5. Preeti Gularia says:

    This is a fantastic post and a subject I really wish more people were writing about. Things like bullying and hate crimes towards Sikhs has a lot to do with our own ignorance and lack of integration with other cultures, religions and races.

  6. Anamika Mehta says:

    Well said, Navdeep. These lines strike me as very true: "Does contributing something meaningful to the community mean that it is unjustified to be able to feed oneself? Just because Valarie and others like her are artists, does that mean they are required to be starving? Is there a section of Gurbani I missed that says Seva is a mandatory career choice, even if that ends up putting us in debt, rather than being a meaningful part of our daily lives?"

    These days, it seems like everyone thinks it has to be either/or, but to truly be able to do the creative work that people like Valarie are doing, they must be able to feed themselves. (Especially because, with such limited funding for the arts today, no one else is out there willing to feed them or give them any other kind of kudos for their work.)

    Art and commerce needn't be mutually exclusive. And I think it's only people who don't understand the energy and effort that goes into creating things like meaningful documentaries, music or books who will comment on why these artists, musicians and writers are "profiting" from their very own work. If he can't argue with the message of Valarie's film, then I see no point in deriding her for continuing to "pimp" said message.

  7. Luxifero says:

    Navdeep,

    I think I may be wrong. I may have mixed up the Bhagats. I'm going to go back and find the right reference. Sorry.

  8. Daas ka daas says:

    There is a fantastic book, titled "Economic thought of the Sikh Gurus" that freed me to aspire to create wealth and enact it philanthropically wherever it is needed. I'm going to draw what I've learnt from it for this post. I encourage all able Sikhs to find a copy of this book and find your gems in it.

    The relationship of Sikhs and money when pertaining to community/spiritual matters we're still in infancy.
    Institutionally, we Sikhs are neophytes. There is little, to no sustainability or succession planning and with the disease of elections in our Gurdwaras, too many remain handcuffed and invite politicking and empire building on a yearly basis. The resulting hesitance to do things that matter to not rock the boat and yet do nothing leaves our community turning away the future youth in vast majorities.

    Let there be no confusion. This blog is frequented by a mindset interested in Sikhi that is in the small minority. In the less than 5% of all Sikhs range. The rest have either done away, or are well on their way and are on the path of consuming other viewpoints, be it social, cultural, professional, philosophical, or religious.

    What's could be a major factor? In North America, we have a much more evolved appetite for anything we take in. TV, movies, books, magazines, everything has a polish, and consumability to it.

    Take everything we call Sikh. Much is done on donations, volunteerism and the resulting product, polish, fit and finish does not compare to something Oprah, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra might put out out. Sure, some say, it's not necessary. It's not about fit and finish as much as the functionality Sikhi provides. As the same nay sayers of packaging Sikhi in the best way possible buy their superiorly designed and packaged and enabling iPods, iPhones and Macs.

    Why do I mention this? One thing that is different from living in North America than India is the enabling power of money. In India one could generally chase after their dreams living frugally. More people have the ability to generally do whatever they want (like many are pursuing a lifetime specialization in drugs) without too much need to worry about eating or paying for a roof over their head. You could even procure the resources for your passion and pursue it with relative ease compared to North America.

    Life in North America, however, is time, and resources ($). You need both. Even having all the time in the world, it can only get so far without money. When I read Guru Nanak's instructions to work hard and honestly, he doesn't say to shy away from money. He just said to work honestly. He ate his own cooking. Guru Nanak wasn't a lazy guru who sat around telling us to work hard and then let himself live the good life. He worked his fields, farming like he instructed. It's a nice way to separate the charlatans from the real deal. When he asks me to share my earnings with others, there's an understanding that Sikhs wouldn't hurt from have something to give in abundance.

    This is all, very, ironic, when the Punjabi's new religion is money. The pursuit of money, houses, status, jobs. Ever heard of the amrit shakh running a liquor store? There's one a few minutes away from me. Yet, someone on this site some how gets through the great and educated and democratic admin system to be able to attack a person Valarie Kaur or someone else trying to etch out a survival (forget thriving) in Sikh based matters that are not controlled by the economic elephant of Gurdwaras.

  9. Daas ka daas says:

    Regarding attacking an individual, ms valarie kaur whom no one (including me) knows:

    It's hard to have any movement without money, and this blog is another example. It started with the same energy that all good things do, and all rocket blasts level out. It's a reality that people get jobs, married, have families and other commitments. This blog however, if about being broadly based and broadly engaging the Sikh community at large would get there differently than it does now. If this 5% can't agree, and be a model of co-operation, respect, dialogue, this site might as well shut down.

    Take on the other hand a Langar Hall of your dreams. What would it be like? How often would it be updated? How new would the content constantly be on it? Would that be a part or full time venture of one or more person's time? How might a specialist's time be made available to create content for free? Would you consider paying, for something you valued, if nothing else for good content to be put together for you? If so, how much? If not, why?

    For the lazy "mehmaans" using Ms. Valarie Kaur as target practice, I'll say this much. Langar Hall was no where in 2001, when she was. I've never met Miss Kaur, for all I know, the article might be true. But my nature is to treat people better than that and such a post results in a less than pleasant taste left in my mouth. I don't identify with the Langar hall supporting this type of public admonishment and putting their stamp of approval on it.

    Let's not forget that this blog does not know the difference between journalism and opinion pieces, let alone journalistic integrity or editorial awareness. Writing, constantly, possibly under different names is a lot of work. Proof? Try writing your own blog. It's unfortunate that short sighted thinking in actually having journalistic and editorial expertise as a part of this, or most Sikh sites are its' Achilles heel. Over time there is no variety, just more of the same. Be it the first to cover a sikh story. By cover, comment. By comment, not objectively, just what you think should be right.

    For those who meet these types of haters, remember Guru Nanak's words. Those doing things well will often be dumped on. It's a sign that there's something there that won't be easy, but will have worth.

  10. Daas ka daas says:

    @Gurumustuk, Veer, I'd like to address two things. I think you're the last person to profit from sikhism. The floor you slept on while building a Sikhnet each night is not because of profit. There's not a single finger pointer that would devote an iota of their life like you did. Maybe you'd never say it, so I'll do it.

    I would, however like to comment on what you said about profiting from Sikhism. I'm really going to do my best to focus on the apparatus of Sikhnet which I'd like to speak to, and in no way you. Please accept my heartfelt apology if any of this is felt by you personally. The institution of Sikhnet as a forum to for Sikhs (for better or worse) was championed and innovated by you in the 90's, and it's easy for people to be weekend warriors with an opinion otherwise and be doing nothing themselves.

    Today's Sikhnet, and the apparatus around/in Sikhnet now, however, is quite a bit more evolved. This is not directed at you individually but certainly the entity that has grown beyond you. It's clear that there are those around Sikhnet who do actively engage in packaging, selling and profiteering from their version of Sikhism. This version of Sikhism is spread across many websites, some selling yoga as sikhsm, some selling sikhism through certain books or courses, and so on.

    While I have no issues with yoga, Gurbani itself is clear on yoga, let alone statues of yogis at gurdwaras.

    As mentioned by a wise Sikhnet sage many years ago in the old Sikhnet days, if this type of falsehood exists to still introduce a true, and complete Sikhism to a new western audience, solely, completely and absolutely centered around the Sri Guru Granth Sahib as the way of life to be a sikh, the rest of us look forward to that day.

    I for one, think selling a clear and pure product to ask for support for more of that to be created is fine. However, I think we all can see the difference between this and the other sikh products (including and beyond 3HO and Sikhnet). Part of me wonders how much money and time it would take to recreate Sikhnet on a bare bones budget and sacrifice like yours today.

    Bhul Chuk Maaf,
    Daas

  11. Egalitarian says:

    Thanks for writing this, Navdeep. I know TLH embraces a wide range of views, which is great. However, I don't know why they endorse this 'peddler' narrative. I know that not every blog represents the views of TLH. Having said that, I'm sure they wouldn't post something grammatically incoherent. So why endorse an incoherent narrative? At the end of the day, it's illogical and just nasty. We can do better than Fox news.