LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
AN INSIDER'S LOOK AT THE SIKH RELIGION
A few years ago while teaching a world religions course I gave an assignment to interview a head of a religious organization (one of which was distinct from one's own religious tradition). One of my better students, Gwynn Sens, conducted a very impressive interview with a Sikh gentleman who went by the name of Captain Singh. His responses offer us an insider's look at the Sikh tradition and Sikh politics.
Interview conduct on April 5. 1995
At the International Institute of Gurmat Studies
La Habra Heights, California
Captain Singh: Let me start by telling you Sikhism is one of the world's simplest faiths, yet a very strong discipline and the results produced by it have been very powerful too.
Gwynn: In western religions we have an image/description of God. How would you describe God?
Capt. Singh: I think that is a very interesting question. I could speak on this alone for several hours. But, let me give you the description of God. Actually, it's very hard, nobody can describe God. No words can describe God and no power on this earth, howsoever, can describe God. Because nobody knows how great God is, except God himself. But a little bit about him will tell you a lot about him and there are sacred Sikh scriptures called Sri Guru Granth Sahib. It runs into 1430 pages. The very first writing is the definition of God in there. Because through the 1430 pages of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib there is nothing else but love of God, praise of God, God in many forms. It tells you of earth life and lots more but everything pivots around God. That is step number one. If ever anyone wants to become a Sikh, this is the first thing that person has to understand, that is, there is one God. You have to believe that there is God. In this world there is two kinds of people, ones who believe in God and ones who do not believe in God. To be a Sikh, you have to believe in God. You'll probably ask me what does the word Sikh mean itself. It's a Sanskrit word, or derived from Sanskrit. It means a follower, a student. In the Sikh faith, it means a seeker of God, a seeker of truth, a student of God, a disciple of God, not any human being. So, there's one God, and that God is nothing else but truth. He's the creator, the only creator. God is fearless. These are some of the things we give, everything else, every other being in this world will be afraid at some time or the other of something or the other. God is not afraid of anything. God has no enemies, God gives love to everyone. God is deathless, timeless. Death and time has no effect on God. God is ageless. Death and time go on by God, they do not go in God. Am I making sense? A very important point is God does not come into the womb of a mother ever. In other words, God has no mother, God has no father, God has no parents. He's the creator of all mothers, all fathers and all wombs. He does not come into any womb. When the First Great Guru, the founder of Sikh faith, gave this definition to the people who believed differently in God, they were surprised and they asked him, who gave this to you? Then how is God existing? The Great Guru said (Guru Nanak) "God is self created". They asked him "who creates God?" Because people were used to images and altars and they thought God had form, whereas, the Great Guru preached that God is formless. God is neither he, God is neither she. God has no sex. God has no form. God has no name. God has no body. God does not belong to America, India or Pakistan. He belongs everywhere, the suns, the moons, the spaces, everything that you see with the naked eye and the things you cannot see are His creations. So that is the kind of God we believe in. Now this is very important, Gwynn, because you'll come across things while we talk. You have to understand, if you want to understand truly Sikhism, how Sikhs are suppose to understand and believe in God. Along with this, let me tell you, the main difference between our thinking and some of the world's great religions, for instance, I've seen people who believe in Jesus, out of respect or adoration for Jesus, call him God. Muslims do not call Mohammed as their God, but sometimes they do mix him up with God. We have very strict injunction, never, never, never, to mix up this source of inspiration of the Ten Great Gurus with God. It's written there, only in one place, no where else, this kind of strong language has been used. Should you ever treat me as God, may you burn in the pit of hell. That means a follower has not even understood what Sikhism stands for. Our Ten Great Gurus, we bow our heads to them in greatest reverence, but never will we make a mistake. As Sikhs we will never say, "My Guru is my God." Because my Guru is not my God. That's what my Guru taught me. He said no more. So its very, very important for a Sikh to understand how great God is. That's why, if there is ever a mistake, God has no mother, has no father. All the prophets had mothers and fathers, so right there it kills itself. So you can go by the definition and you will know what we mean by God. Now, I don't know if you are going to ask the question, but let me give the answer. You have not asked about hair, beards and turbans, have you?
Capt. Singh: You don't want to ask about that?
Gwynn: I would love to hear the answer, go ahead. I am familiar with the Khalsa, is that what you mean?
Capt. Singh: Khalsa is a little different. I don't know what you know about the Khalsa, but I'll be happy to answer that for you too. The very fact that I just described to you, we will in God and in his wisdom. We believe there is nothing superior to God. Right? As I just described to you. We believe God, in his greatest wisdom, created all beings, all animals, birds, everything, all creatures, including human beings. And in His greatest wisdom, when He designed us, according to His design, look at your own body. I have some hair here, but nothing here. You can see all over your body. Eyebrows grow in this little curve here, and this top. They are not bushy, they're not that big. My moustaches, I never trimmed them, they stopped here. My beard, I've never trimmed, it's stopped here. Likewise, you have eyelashes that don't grow one mile long, very beautifully they curve and look nice on your face. Men have hair on different parts of their body where women don't have, and likewise you have hair under your armpit. He knows best. If we truly believe in He gave us these different lengths of hair on our bodies. He knows why he gave them to us. We may or may not find answers in the near future. But even if we don't find answers, it doesn't matter. The very fact that he gave me this length here and this small length here and He wanted this length of hair on the top of my head, whether I'm man or woman, it's His desire, and if I'm trying to cut it down, He could of done it two inches here and the top of my head too. Therefore, they decided no. He desires that I should have this long --let me have this long. As for where I am concerned, what I can do is let me have it clean, absolutely clean, neat and brushed. Shampooed. Following that tradition from this kind of thought, Sikhs are not suppose to use razors on their bodies, from the time of birth. We are not allowed to cut our hair from any part of our bodies. We roll the hair on the top of our head to protect it from dirt, etc. We just wrap around a piece of cloth, which is turned to be different forms now through the space of time. Different people tie it differently. This one is called a turban. To keep our hair clean, we have instructions to keep a comb handy, in fact all the Sikh men keep a comb in their hair, in a knot of hair under the turban, like I have a wooden comb. We are advised to use, preferably, a wooden comb. We comb our hair twice a day and we are encouraged not to dye them. Now probably you have better dyes, but in the olden times, the dyes were not good for our hair and we were told not to dye them.
Not only that, the Sikhs believe that all those that believe in God, irrespective of their faith (because there is only one God), are devotees of God, whether it is a Christian devotee, or a Sikh devotee, or a Buddhist devotee, or a Muslim devotee. The name Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, "where does it come from?" It comes from the source that inspired you. If you happen to be in this part of the world and you were lucky enough to meet Jesus through someone, then you became Christian. But you are still a devotee to God. I happen to be in a part of the world where Jesus was not available at that time, but I happen to meet Guru Nanak. Still there is God and a devotee. The relationship is still there. We call those sources of inspiration and we believe there is no need (I'm answering a question that comes later on here) for anyone to try to convert people to replace their sources of inspiration. Knock on people's door to tell them they are no good, follow my source of inspiration?
Gwynn: How do Sikhs feel about conversion into your tradition?
Capt. Singh: We, as a rule, are not encouraged to try and run after people to convert them to your faith and appease your numbers and give the world the impression that unless you convert to Sikhism, you are going to go to hell. On the contrary, you will be amazed, Guru Nanak went around saying a prayer, which reads something like this (speaking in Punjabi) "Oh my kind master, Lord, I pray unto you, save this burning world". He's not talking about Punjab. He's not talking about India. He's talking about the entire mankind. "With your kind grace, save this world". The next line is very important and this is the one that talks about this conversion business and that one says (speaking in Punjabi, again) "It doesn't matter to me from which source he/she is inspired. My prayer unto you, dear God is, please take that person into your arms, if that person is inspired to come and meet with you". How you are inspired does not matter so long as you are inspired rightly into God's arms and we should be tolerant enough to accept other's sources of inspiration. One source of inspiration will never be there in this world. Jesus was born less than 2000 years ago, what was the source of inspiration before that? Guru Nanak and the other Nine Great Gurus came into the world only 500 years ago. Could Sikhs say, "Unless you turn around and be Sikhs you will go to hell?" Does that mean before 500 years ago everybody went to hell? Or can we turn around and say that before Jesus came into this world everybody burned in hell? No, that's not likely. So lets not be shortsighted. Let's accept that as the world goes on, God's prophets will keep coming into different parts of this world. And they will continue to keep giving this good message of love God and be one with him. We should accept it.
Gwynn: Do you have many westerners converting to the Sikh tradition?
Capt. Singh: Yes, we have thousands of them converting to the Sikh faith and some of them are doing it in a very beautiful manner. But at the same time, they are inspired on their own. If they are inspired, and anybody wants to become a Sikh, we have no right to stop that person. You must welcome them to come join your brotherhood but you are not there to go and be on the move to convert people because they don't belong to it.
Gwynn: Sikhs believe in reincarnation, correct? Could you explain what occurs after death? What determines our form at rebirth and how can we escape the cycle of death and rebirth?
Capt. Singh: That's a very, very good question. I don't know if anyone in this world can answer this question with absolute correctness because nobody talks to us after death, There is no one who could tell us what occurs after death. Nobody has ever told us what happens after one dies. There is no communication, no telephones, no televisions, nothing has been established in the world beyond so far. But from what we study and what we understand, it looks like when bubbles rise out from the sea, you can see them separately, when they merge back, where do they go? What happens then? Out of the ocean, like a bubble we rise and the bubbles go back and merge back into the sea, so do we merge back to God. And what happens is like if you put water into a bottle, a glass bottle, and you throw it back into the water, a swimming pool, for instance, it will float long and be the same. And that bottle, a flat, bottle, a big bottle, will remain those bottles so long as those bodies or forms are there. Break the bottle and let the water merge back, you cannot tell which water, which bottle. So we are all bottles, different kinds, blue bottles, red bottles, black bottles, the skin, it matters not. According to the instructions given to us, it would be a great sin to discriminate based on their culture, religion, color of their skin or nationality, country, etc. Absolutely no! You cannot do that. If you're doing it, you are not a good Sikh.
Gwynn: If nobody knows what occurs after death, then how do we know that we are reborn?
Capt. Singh: We do die. According to the scriptures, there are eighty-four hundred thousand species and you start at the beginning. It takes you how many hundred of thousand years to come to the best possible form at the top of the cycle, the human form. And you go through all those things and you get to the top, according to the Sikh scriptures, the Hindu scriptures and probably the Buddhist scriptures also will support this, I'm not sure, the human form is the closet form to God and the best opportunity for a human being to liberate our self and merge back with God. We believe we are born out of God, its God's place to separate us to wander about and then merge back with him. So after death we do not die. The Guru says nothing dies, nothing is born. That is a higher philosophy. It's like standing in front of a wardrobe, you pick up a dress and wear it and then you discard it. You wear another one. You're just changing one form into another one. Actually, you are never born, you never die. You live forever. That's what we believe in. Therefore, that is why, according to the strict Sikh instructions, we are discouraged from grieving. Do not grieve. "Why do you grieve?" they say. So what comes after death, two things can happen. One, you merge back with God and your cycle of life and death are gone forever. You're at peace like the bubble is at peace with the rest of the sea. To that bubble will happen whatever happens to the sea. Right? The other one is that you, out of the flowing river, rise like a bubble and fall to the ground. It will take you ages, probably to evaporate from there, go up into the mountains, become a little cloud and one day come back to the sea. I'm just trying to give you an example. And the other one is you'll probably end up wandering through the eighty-four hundred thousands species, depending upon how you have lived your life, and through the cycle, whether you have meditated or not, whether you have had the desire to go back to God or not. If you haven't, then you go through the cycle. It's given in the scriptures that if you do not do that, then you must complete cycles of life and death until you finally merge back with God. Now whether you start at the beginning, the middle or in the upper higher portions, nobody can say. God decides that for you and it is based on how well you have done in this and in previous lives. So what determines the escape? The Guru says that only escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, other than being an absolute good human being, you must remember God always. Examples given are like a stove with a pilot light, its always there within us, but when you turn the knob it glows up into a bigger flame that can cook a million times faster and better and you have so much warmth there. Like that, all of us have a speck of God within us. It is up to us whether to turn it into a glow or not. As humans, with God's grace, we can turn the knob by meditation and there is a lot of steps given in the sacred holy scriptures. There is many factors there and I will just say a few of them here, like "Don't bother yourself or waste your time on tattling against others. You have a given number of breaths. Don't waste them. While sleeping, awaking, eating, studying, remember God. Like you remember someone you love and care for and you just cannot forget while doing everything else, your thoughts are fixed on your beloved. Likewise, remember God in your heart and surely God will guide you and help you and you can escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
Gwynn: Do you feel God is responsible for, or interacts with our actions? Or do you feel that our actions are predetermined?
Capt. Singh: No, what I can say here is, God has created the system. He has injected us into the system. The rest is up to us. How we do, how we fare, we get the award or reward accordingly. So you can say it is a combination of all things. In the writings of the Gurus, which in general terms is called gurbani, the wise of the Gurus. In gurbani, the Gurus says that because you can of your karmas, because of your actions, you get the form of the body out of the eighty-four hundred thousand species. Only with His grace you can get liberated.
Gwynn: Do Sikhs still have separate prayer rooms in their homes? Is it as popular here in the United States as in India?
Capt. Singh: Yes and no. Let me add here, the Sikhs who have moved out of India, most of them, particularly the early settlers, they totally broke themselves from their roots. They got away from their country of their birth and their faith weakened. Particularly so, because they were in a land which was totally foreign to them and were somewhat intimidated by the same things that were happening here and did not have enough courage to stick to their born beliefs. Many of them cut their hair, discarded their turbans and did not practice their faith in the way they were suppose to. Let alone having separate prayer rooms, probably some of them did not have enough money even to have a respectable living. But later on, as the time passed, and I will say the last 15 or 20 years the Sikhs who have been migrating here and they are comfortable financially, they always want to have it. It is their desire. Some have been able to put them in, some not. To have a separate room, it may be a small room, where they keep their sacred scriptures and they like to pray. So, the idea will always be there, because it is ingrained in our teachings that every Sikh's house is a temple. That is what should distinguish a Sikh from somebody else. There should be chanting of God's name in that house. That's what makes it pious. Now talking about pious or non-pious things, I'm shifting to a question which does not exist on your list here, do Sikhs believe in auspicious, inauspicious moments and also are there good or bad times, good or bad numbers, that the Sikhs believe in, like 13? The answer to all these questions is no. We don't believe in good moments, or bad moments, good days or bad days, good numbers or bad numbers, and we do not believe in superstitions either. Like whether it is a black cat, a brown cat, whether it goes in front of you or behind you, the side of you. It doesn't make any difference to a Sikh. Whereas, if a cat crosses your way in India, most people would turn back home and go and wait there until some time passes. Otherwise, something bad may happen. In India, if someone is leaving the house and you sneeze, that person will never go anywhere, they will come back. It doesn't make a difference to a Sikh. They are all superstitions.
Gwynn: What is the function of the Gurdwara? Who maintains the temple? How is it financed?
Capt. Singh: The Gurdwara is equal to a church. Gur dwara is two words combined into one. Gur is for Guru. Dwara is like door or house or place of the Guru. So Gurdwara is a place where you must have the sacred Sikh scriptures. The Gurdwara serves quite a few functions in India and here too. The traditions started in the times of Gurus themselves when they were in physical form. People congregated and asked them questions and they would answer those questions for their personal congregation about God, life and other things and that's how the tradition began. After the Gurus left and they ordered that there would no longer be any physical Gurus, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred Sikh scriptures were enshrined and installed as the living Guru of the Sikhs. After that, you will always have a Sikh temple wherever in the world, in a central place on a pedestal, that's what makes the Gurdwara. People can go there and pray there and also every Gurdwara must have a kitchen where food will be cooked and served there, irrespective of caste, color, religion, country of the people. Nobody has been given the authority to say "Who are you?" "Why should I serve you?" Nobody can ask that question. Go and demand food there. Go and demand shelter there. Now, of _ourse the Gurdwara is used to teach the language of the scriptures and of course, the culture and it is a place where you socialize and meet people of your country back home. Who maintains the Gurdwara? It is maintained under donations that come in large numbers. Sikhs are great donors. They will give hundreds of thousands when a question of Gurdwara comes up. You tell them we want gold on that Sikh temple, you will find gold coming in tons. Ask for gold otherwise, nobody will give you. That's how it is financed.
Gwynn: When I asked how it is maintained, I meant, are members responsible for the upkeep of the temple?
Capt. Singh: Yes the upkeep is done by a committee. What happens is all the people who go to the Gurdwara choose a representative body and that small body keeps the accounts, maintains the Sikh temple, just like any other management.
Gwynn: Does the committee serve for any length of time?
Capt. Singh: Yes, it is different with different temples. There is no hard and fast rule for that. You can choose your people. See, I believe that this question arose in your mind because there are some churches which are run individually by a ministry of so and so. There's no such ministry by an individual. Every Sikh temple is open to every Sikh. You can't say that you belong just to this temple. Once your a Sikh, you can go to any temple in the world. It's common to the entire Sikh community. You can make one, but every Sikh is welcomed there.
Gwynn: In what language are the temple ceremonies spoken? Are the hymns in the Adi Granth in this same language? Is this language taught in the home or does the young members learn the hymns at the temple services?
Capt. Singh: The language in the temple is certainly mostly Punjabi. That's the language of the sacred Sikhs scriptures. It may not be absolutely accurate to say that that is the language of the scriptures, although it mostly it is. The sacred Sikh scriptures has about 36 contributors. All of them did not speak absolute Punjabi. They spoke different languages, there's Sanskrit, there's Persian, but most part is Punjabi. What is Punjabi? Punjabi is the language of the people in the Punjab. Punj means five, ab means water. A state through which five rivers flew was called Punjab. That is where the Sikhs started and that is why it is called the homeland of the Sikhs. It is in the western part of India between Pakistan and India. A little troubled state. Are the hymns in the Adi Granth in the same language? Mostly yes. Is this language taught in the home or does the young members learn the hymns at temple services? As for the language is concerned, people try to keep up with it, but it's very hard. Most of the kids speak the language of the country they are in. Like people in Thailand speak Thai fluently. In Japan, they speak that language, in China, they speak that language. In here, they are more fluent in English than there own language. Sikhs have a hard time catching up with their language because sometimes they don't have time to teach their children. They try to learn it in school, if it is a Sikh school, yes. Or a home, or there are arrangements made in Sikh temples or most of them go to Sikh camps, Sikh residential camps. That's what I do in my spare time. In the last twenty-two years, I've helped about fifty-one camps all over the world in which thousands of young Sikhs come and participated. They not only learn Punjabi but they learn the Sikh religion, culture, history, heritage, etc. They learn the hymns also. Hymn singing is very important in Sikhism. The hymns are the lines taken from the sacred Sikh scriptures and most of them, Sri Guru Granth Sahib is based on rugus it is set to music by the Ten Great Gurus. They describe that these should be sung in the following manner. Based on the famous Indian rugus. Because singing is less boring, I guess.
Gwynn: Are the camps open to all the kids? Are they financed by families?
Capt. Singh: Yes, mostly they are paid by the parents. All of us give what we do, all our service, most of the time, myself and all the friends that go with me end up loosing part of there own salaries at work, just in the form of service. We do have to charge the kids because we have to pay a large sum of money for the campsites, the food, etc. etc.
Gwynn: You mentioned Sikh schools.
Capt. Singh: There are far and few.
Gwynn: Are families encouraged to send there children to the Sikh schools or are they encouraged to mesh with the community in which they live?
Capt. Singh: Both things are there. See, in India there are hundreds of them, teaching the Sikh youngsters, in Thailand there are a few. In the states, I don't know if there are any. In England they have started schools. If the school comes up, Sikhs like to send their kids there, because they like to keep informed about their faith.
Gwynn: For a better understanding of the temple ceremony, I'd like to ask a few questions about what occurred:
Gwynn: Are the singers invited guests or are they assigned (duty)?
Capt. Singh: If you mean by this that some of them are employees? Is that what you mean?
Gwynn: From my observation, not knowing what was occurring, it appeared that some members sang and then there were a couple of men that seemed to me to be guests. They seemed to sing differently. I didn't understand the language, but one of them seemed to speak a lot. He was very cheerful and I thought he was an invited guest.
Capt. Singh: You're right.
Gwynn: Was I right? How about that.
Capt. Singh: You know what happens. Normally, I'm saying normally, anybody can preach in Sikhism. You can preach, she can preach, I can preach. You do not have to be professional to preach. You do not have to be a minister to preach. Like whatever I'm sharing with you because whatever little I know, I'm sharing it with you. That's what we do in the temple. In any Sikh temple, anybody can share whatever information you have. So that is one and since everybody is encouraged to sing, people can volunteer by saying "May I sing one hymn?" "May I sing one line?" And we say, "Sure come along", "Do that". Men and women have equal rights in Sikh. At the same time, there are some people who have made it there occupation to sing professionally. Out of deep love of the scriptures. They have devoted there full time and they go from one Sikh temple to the other singing. But they're paid some money so they can make a comfortable living. You can call them as our guests. They can be attached to one Sikh temple, yet visit the other Sikh temples as there guests. So if there are nine Sikh temples, if five or six of them have their own singers, other Gurdwaras can request them to come and sing for them, to be guests for them.
Gwynn: What is the purpose of the children sweeping over the scriptures?
Capt. Singh: That's a very good question.
Gwynn: What is the name of the item that they sweep with?
Capt. Singh: Actually, it is not sweeping over the scriptures. I'm not sure if you have seen any films with Asian backgrounds. In the good 'ol times, the emperors from Asia and Middle East countries too. This is how they were distinguished from common people. When they sat, they sat on a very high throne. Number one, and they wore a different kind of clothing, royal clothing. So that they looked better than the others. It happens, even today, you have different distinctions on people of higher hierarchy like Generals, some stars and some ribbons, and all to distinguish them from ordinary people. Similarly, the kings and big lords used to sit on a raised platform and they had a canopy over their head. Most of them wore impressive headgear and they had jewels around their heads so that you could say "Oh, he's got richness reflecting from his head". Some of them had plumes. A few women on the left and right side doing that kind of thing (waving arms up and down) so that everyone did not have that honor. There were a few people at the beckon command. The thing that went over them in the good 'ol times was called chauwr. That showed that this man was a great man. Some one was standing doing that to show the world that we respect this head that sits here. So it is symbolically accepted by the Sikhs. I'll give you the history of this in a minute or two. This is just simple tradition. You would see that there is a canopy on the top and a gold thing in which the sacred scriptures were kept, beautifully covered with expensive scarves. The thing that was moving over the sacred scriptures is called chauwr. In the olden times, people had fans, or different kinds of things made of peacock feathers, something like that. Now what happened was, in the times of the Ten Great Gurus, the Mughal rulers, "Are you aware of the Mughals?" They ruled India for a very long time, they came from Afghanistan, conquered India through Punjab. Took away all the beautiful women, wives, daughters, and mothers, took them to Afghanistan by the hundred thousands, put them on high pedestals, tore away their blouses and their clothes, rotated them on pedestals and put them at a price. They were sold as slaves from one person to the other. Those poor girls and women hopped from home to home for two (pisa) each. Those Mughals who took away all the precious wealth of India to their country. India was a weak country. Men were weak. How weak, that's a totally different subject. It will take a lot more time to explain that to you. But it should suffice to tell you that those Mughals when they ruled India, they ordered everyone to be converted to Islam to the Muslim faith. All those that refused were fined and the fine was called jessier. They must pay the fine if they don't convert to Islam. The idea was to burden them financially so that they convert to Islam. Different methods people have used over the ages to convert other people to their way to thinking. Which we talked earlier, the Sikhs don't recommend. One of the things, when the Sikhs appeared on the scene the Mughals ordered "No non-Muslim is allowed to ride a horse", "No non-Muslim can keep a sword", "All non-Muslims must wear only a red turban", because everybody wore a turban. Turban is not only something that comes only to the Sikhs. Everyone in Asia wore a turban, including Burmin. Muslim, Hindu, Sikhs, everybody wore a turban. It was only the prerogative of the emperor to have a canopy and somebody standing behind him doing this kind of a thing (fanning) as a gesture to tell the world that he is the greatest man in the world and that he could sit on a raised platform, nobody else, and nobody was allowed, other than the emperor to wear a plume. Because that was a sign of royalty. The Sikhs were trained to revolt. They said, "All Sikhs must learn horseback riding, practice it good", "All Sikhs must wear their swords, called Kirpan". The challenges were there and they were getting ready for that. "No Sikh will wear a red turban", that was the order. They must wear blue and more conspicuous, separate color so that the world can see. Let him come and grab your turban and ask him to remove my turban, put you off your horse, take away your sword, if he has the guts. In every Sikh temple, put the canopy up there , and over the head of the Guru, let people do that, ask him to take it away, if he has the guts. That was the challenge that was given to the Mughal emperor in a kind of revolt against his atrocities. That tradition of victory, of reward continues against bad and wrong practices. And the tenth guru, as you can see those pictures there, see the first guru on the left side of the tenth guru, he wore those plumes and he said, "If you have the guts, come and take it away from my hand". He said "Nobody can touch us". That kind of a power he generated into the people and that is how they became very strong and one of the best warriors in the world. That is a tradition when the sacred Sikh scriptures sit there, somebody when you pray or read from there. But in a regular Gurdwara, it reminds us of the old challenges and how we overcame those challenges.
Gwynn: What are the items that lay in front of the alter and what do they represent?
Capt. Singh: What did you see?
Gwynn: I did not see them all. I saw them when the children were picking them up. I did see large circles.
Capt. Singh: Large circles are. . . What do you call that on top? (pointing to an object hanging on his bulletin board).
Gwynn: The boomerang?
Capt. Singh: That is it, boomerang. Those large circles are boomerangs. It is a weapon. Good 'ol times, they export it with a glove, cut a few heads, and it would come back to you. It's a weapon. All that you saw there was mostly weapons. Weapons from the good 'ol times. Like swords, small swords and checkah, we call them checkah, the circle is checkah. And maybe you saw one or two prayer beads. The combination of the weapons and prayer beads were in front of the sacred scriptures as more of a decoration than anything else. Because this has been a tradition, the Sikhs are known as saints and warriors. These are two different aspects that represent a Sikh. Our education as a Sikh, our training as a Sikh is basically you have to be a saint. Do all those good things that a saint would do. At the same time, what distinguishes us from some other great faiths in the world is that we do not accept lying down. The things that some of the others do is like there is no such thing as you offer one cheek, then the other, then the other, the whole day you keep getting kicked back, no nothing doing. One is fine, tell them O.K. It's my turn now. I'll give you one then I don't want to see you in this area again. A Sikh will never raise his hand. A Sikh will never fire the first shot. The rule is never threaten anyone. The second part, equally important, accept no threats. We learned the hard way. When the Mughals took all our women folk and then we learned we have to be strong. We have to fight back, otherwise there is no balance in this world. That is why the Sikhs were ordered to take up arms against tyranny. The fact that it (the weapons) is lying lower than the scripture level tells one more important thing. All the weapons and the warrior take the secondary position. You are a saint first and then to defend the faith you be a warrior. If you're a warrior and not a saint then you can be a tyrant. We don't want that.
Gwynn: What occurs when the items are stored away?
Capt. Singh: It is a small little prayer. Wherever my great teacher is, that place is pious. I somehow left it in between again, from the word pious, I remember one thing I wanted to include earlier. That was, I said there was no omens we believe in, no bad moments. A Great Guru said "A place where God is not remembered is bad". That time is bad, that place is bad, where God is not remembered. All those places are auspicious, all those moments are auspicious, all those places are good when you talk of God, like we're doing now. This is like a real temple. Now, what happens? Nothing happens. They go back and they get stored. That's all. Whether they open the sacred scriptures, it's not a must. Let me add here, that it is not a must that you have those weapons there. There was one more thing that you did not ask about. There must have been some money there also.
Gwynn: Yes, I assumed it was for the temple upkeep.
Capt. Singh: That money, people make as contribution to the temple of that community. In front of the sacred Sikh scriptures there was the sweet pudding also. That's called Karahparshad. In the times of the Great Gurus, there was a tradition that all those who came to meet with him, like if somebody comes to your house, you offer something to them. In India, particularly, I don't know about other Asian countries, when somebody comes to you, you do offer something to them. There is a big background to this, in fact, I will not dwell on that right now. The practice was that when people congregated, at the end of the congregation, somebody on behalf of the guru gave that sweet pudding, "Did you take some?"
Capt. Singh: That one is kept there, it is a tradition, even in the times of the gurus, when the congregation was about to be over, they would give it to everyone. Very briefly let me tell you, you know India was and is still divided into a very bad caste system. Four castes and one caste does not interact with the other caste. Sitting together, they will never eat from the same. To counter all those things, the guru started this tradition, he said "From one pot I will serve you all, we are all brothers". You haven't asked this question yet, and that is, "Why are all Sikh men all over the world, there last name is Singh. All women, their last name is Kaur. Singh means a lion. Kaur means a princess. This tradition also started from the same factor, because the four caste levels you could distinguish or you could tell from the last name what caste you are from. "Oh, you are the lowest", "Oh, you are the middle". Only from the last name. The guru eliminated the last name from all the Sikhs so that you could not tell. He gave Singh because people were very cowardly at that time. All women were not treated good, women's lib was started five hundred years ago with Sikh women. The Sikh women don't need it any more. The guru said "You are my beloved princesses, my daughters". "You must be respected". "How can this world be without you?" He admonished men for being rude to women and for being bad to women. He said "What would you do without them?" Daughters, mothers, wives, you need them. Without women this world cannot be. So give them rights, give them equal respect. So the Sikh tradition started that you must respect women folk. Normally, when women were married, not Sikh women, she would take the last name of the family she went to. Since he eliminated the name, he said "You don't have to take anybody else's name". "You are an individual, you are a princess, you keep your Kaur". It gave them a lot of self-respect too. The Karaparshad, before they serve it to the congregation, they bring it before the guru for a sampling of all of it then they mix it with the rest of it and then it is served. People who cook food and the Karahparshad bring it to the guru. He would bless it, just touch it with his hand and then it would be served. Same tradition is borrowed now for the prayer.
Gwynn: Why do men sit on one side of the room, while the women sit on the opposite side?
Capt. Singh: There's no hard and fast rule on that. It's just cultural. In India, women and men sat separately. In fact, women were never permitted in the temple or mosques. Are you aware of that? Whatever they wanted to do, they could do it best at home. That was the feeling. Whereas, the Sikh gurus said, "Nothing doing". Allow them to come into the temple and pray as you do. So that tradition began and the women sat separately from men because I think they could have a less divided attention. At least in the prayer. Some of the naughty ones might be still pinching some women, who knows? (Chuckle) Will you forgive me? If they sit alone they maybe can meditate or concentrate better. I may be wrong. But there is no hard and fast rule.
Gwynn: So it would not be odd, if a woman sat on the same side as a man.
Capt. Singh: Absolutely not. In the big congregations, in the open congregations, even in India now, the whole family sits together. That is a very good observation
Gwynn: Is it common practice for all members of the family to attend the temple ceremony?
Capt. Singh: Yes that is true.
Gwynn: What is Karahparshad made from?
Capt. Singh: It is made from flour, sugar and butter and water. That's all.
Gwynn: Why is vegetarianism practiced in the temple and not necessarily in the member's daily lives?
Capt. Singh: Very good question. The main reason is, all people of all faiths come to pray. If you have not veg food, it might offend those who don't take non-veg food, so it was decided that vegetarian food would only be served in a Sikh temple. No non-veg food is ever made in a Sikh temple. Also, there is no injunction against the eating of non-veg food for the Sikhs, as a rule, yet it looks like that, in their hearts, Sikhs feel that it is better to be a vegetarian than a non-vegetarian, except then it is a question of your own life and death situation. Keeping that in mind, also the fact that if you eat meat, then it kind of acts as a barrier to some extent in your meditation and your concentration. Like foods like all kinds of meats, drinking, drugs, they interfere with your meditation. Therefore, it is better to eat as simple of food as possible. If you want to concentrate and be able to meditate properly. As it is, one cannot easily concentrate. The mind is so powerful, it takes all your strength. All these different kinds of food. If they are not simple foods, they cannot help you. It's encouraged to have vegetarian food in the temple.
Gwynn: Is vegetarianism recommended in the Adi Granth?
Capt. Singh: Now, I'll be very honest and frank with you. This one question is in the parties in the old manners, quoting the same gurbani (the guru's words). There put in a way that both seem very convincing. It's O.K. to eat when your need is for survival and the other say not to eat. In the Sikh Code of Conduct, the Sikhs finally decided to add that meat killed with one stroke can only be eaten if it must be eaten. Slow cutting of the animal is totally bad. Like the Muslims cut the animal very slowly and let the blood run out and then they kill the animal, I think. That practice is not done. If they must eat an animal, it must be killed in one stroke so that the animal does not suffer any pain. Right now it's left to the people's choice. Why this ambiguity? I must also tell you the difference, I've been using the term Sri Guru Granth Sahib, you have been using the Adi Granth. You have not asked me the difference. There is a very important difference between the two.
Gwynn: I did not know that.
Capt. Singh: Let me answer that now, before I forget. There is, truly speaking, not much of a difference. Adi means original. Granth means scriptures. The original scriptures, from the Guru onwards. When the guru started writing, incidentally, the Adi Granth or the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the only scriptures or religion in the world that is still preserved in the most original form. Without the change of a comma. This is not a second or third interpretation. It's as the word was spoken and signed as correct by the Tenth Guru. The difference is, Adi Granth was the name of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib until such time it became the guru. Before guruship was honored upon it, the Tenth Guru ordained that after I leave, the Adi Granth will be known as Sri Guru Granth Sahib from henceforth, this will become the guru. At the time of the ninth guru, the Adi Granth was stolen by one of the cousins of the guru. Because they thought the wealth of knowledge that is in this, if somehow they could take it with them, the whole world would bow before them and they'll have all the richness of the world. They challenged the tenth guru that if you are truly the guru in line with the other gurus, why don't you write it down yourself? He said, "If that is what you wish my brothers, I will do that". So he sat down and recited the whole of the 1430 pages and a scribe to start writing. The entire thing, out of memory was reproduced and put together and then was given Sri Guru Granth Sahib. And there is not a difference of a comma. Now both of them are available and compared, they are the same. That is the difference between the two names given to the same scriptures, before and after.
Gwynn: How do you become a Sikh leader?
Capt. Singh: A religious Sikh leader, or a political Sikh leader? They are two differences. Normally, you must be a religious man first and then lead politically. These days, people have very little spiritual background and they become political leaders. And as a result, they have all those weaknesses that we are not suppose to have. As a Sikh, you are a contented person and you understand the way of life and therefore, as a political person, you will be more balanced, more better and more understanding of other people. When you're not having that background, you will be like any other person. There are people, who by virtue of being rich or people with status, they become political leaders. If you truly want to become a Sikh leader, in the real sense of the word, you don't want to be one. A Sikh is suppose to be, the richer you are in spiritual wealth, the humbler you become and the humbler you are, you don't want that light. But people will push you out and request you to lead them and guide them. So I would say, that if you are truly a man of faith and you have some knowledge about your faith and you want to help people then you can lead. They don't elect you as a religious leader and it is not a regular profession. Anybody can lead. If you knew something about Sikhism and you wanted to share it with people, then you could lead. To lead a Sikh prayer, you could read from the sacred Sikh scriptures, as some lady might have done that, I don't know, I wasn't there. You can lead if you have any of this.
Gwynn: Is there a hierarchy of leadership in the Sikh tradition?
Capt. Singh: I would say no. Not so far. I don't know about tomorrow. There isn't any. That would be only tradition, not religion or anything. Maybe they should have one, I don't know. We don't have one right now.
Gwynn: So there isn't anybody who is above you, that you answer to or correspond with?
Capt. Singh: The emphasis is on equality. Every Sikh thinks in himself to be as important as the other. Therefore, it is very difficult to start a hierarchy in Sikh people. Nobody wants to be inferior or superior to anybody else. They look down upon you if you think you are a big shot. Therefore, actually there is nothing of that kind. But what happens, if for example you started a Sikh temple and some people elected you as a president. If that's what you want to call a hierarchy, then yes, you are the president, he or she is the vice president or the secretary. That is all that we would have. Or they could probably have a head priest and priests, as designated by this committee. Because you can read the scriptures, therefore, you have more experience and more age and that qualifies you as a head priest. Someone younger, with lesser knowledge is a junior priest.
Gwynn: Outside of your work at the temple, do you lead a normal life? Are you married, children, etc.?
Capt. Singh: If this question was directed to me, as you can see, I am teaching Sikhism by my own choice. Nobody made me a leader, if anything, it is out of my love for the gurus, the Sikh way of life. Of the desire to help others understand Sikhism. That's all I can say about myself. As a rule, every Sikh must follow three principles: Number one, he must earn his livelihood by honest means. The other one is he must meditate and the third, he must share with others. It means you must work hard, sweat a little, work hard, earn your livelihood by an honest means and give away some of it to help others. That is a true way of a Sikh way of life. Whether you are a leader or not. There has never been a paid Sikh leader. You must earn your livelihood and real good, by honest means. I mean there are people who are not honest. I cannot say that there are no dishonest Sikhs. There are, it's unfortunate. There is no restriction on marriage. They must be married. Marriage is encouraged. Not only amongst the priests, everybody. All Sikhs are encouraged to lead a family life, a good family life, to have children and be a normal person in the world. Like myself, I have these boarding care homes. I work all the time, I have my family here. Likewise, all Sikhs will do the same.
Gwynn: How would you describe the people in your tradition?
Capt. Singh: They are very hospitable people. Speaking of hospitality, can I offer you something now? Are you sure? If you go to India, you'll find how hospitable they are, how warm. If you go/pass through their village, they will stop you and force something, you must eat something, you must be tired, put out a cot for you. "Come on rest a little while before you go further." Good 'ol people.
Gwynn: Are any marriages arranged in the Sikh tradition?
Capt. Singh: Mostly in the good 'ol times. Now Sikh boys and girls have started doing it. There's no restriction as far as our faith is concerned, as to we must choose this way or that way. That is more of culture. You can choose your own partners. Mostly it is considered best, whether you are choosing yourself or otherwise, if it is with the consent of the parents. As you know, the Sikhs mostly, their family structure is very stable. Man and wife, mother and father, both parents are there for life and therefore, the family is very stable. Mostly joint families are there in India, the grandfather will live together. Now as families are moving out and spreading out, the grandparents stay separately. Otherwise all of them stay together. The good 'ol times, all the uncles, all the grandchildren, everybody, twenty or thirty people would live together. But now, immediate families live together and maybe the grandparents could go and stay with one of the sons or daughters.
Gwynn: That's in India?
Capt. Singh: Yes. Here, now the boys and girls have started picking out their own partners with the consent and blessings of the parents. There are no restrictions. They can marry outside, so long as the other person accepts to follow the same faith, because there will be no dispute between them.
Gwynn: Do you feel the Sikh tradition is being threatened by intermarriage within the different religions?
Capt. Singh: I don't think so. If you, as a Sikh, are strong enough. There is no threat. If you are not, yourself a good Sikh, then who is threatened? You see, I personally feel, whatever your faith is, it is better to marry a person who has the same religious inclinations. There is so many conflicts in a human being's life and marriage means it should be an amicable relationship. And when the most important thing, their faith, is different, in one state or the other, there is going to be conflict. Between yourselves and your children. It is better for parents to be the same faith. I would say that the Sikh tradition is not being threatened or anything. In fact, I know many young Sikhs have married Philippine, or American girls and they are really happy. The reason is because those girls have accepted the Sikh way of life and the children are growing as Sikhs, so there is no problems there.
Gwynn: So generally, the children would practice the religion of the father in a marriage of mixed religions?
Capt. Singh: The people I know, where girls have accepted their man's faith mostly, but they do go to their own Sikh temple also. The Sikh boys normally have their wives convert to their faith. I think this is happening everywhere. The girls are following their man's faith.
Gwynn: At what age are children baptized into Sikhism?
Capt. Singh: There is no formal age. Only when a child is born, informal baptism is performed by the mother, or the family members, or even the priest of the temple can come and do it for you. But the formal baptism is a very beautiful practice. It can be carried on any time when you're ready for it in your lifetime.
Gwynn: Is it done in the home or the temple?
Capt. Singh: It can be done in the home or the temple, anywhere. There is no problem. But it has to be done in the presence of the sacred Sikh scriptures and there must be five people present.
Gwynn: Do you feel other religions contain truth? Do you feel they can reach God through their worship/devotion?
Capt. Singh: This question was partly answered earlier because as I said there is a deity prayer we have and that is from any inspiration, from any path, if anyone wants to rise and pray to God, then that person is accepted. There is no problem with us. We feel that all religions have truth. They all try to teach good things. They have been very helpful to mankind in their own spheres.
Gwynn: What do you think needs to occur to resolve the conflicts in the Punjab?
Capt. Singh: This question is a political question, not a religious question. It is very difficult to answer in a few minutes because it has a very intricate and complicated background. Punjab happens to be one of the best states in the entire country and the world. Punjab has been feeding the entire country out of it's own resources, you can say 80% of Indian people. It's such a small piece of land. People are so hardworking, yet there is dispute there. It is created, and there are different opinions on that, the main reason is people are jealous of the Sikhs and Sikhs have refused in the past to follow blindly the new practices that were introduced in the country, like the social practices. Sikhs are God loving and the social practices do not lay that much emphasis on God because they come from the big brother, the Soviet Union. Their concerned with the big brother or India, and they brought in communism. Almost the entire country has come to communism in a milder form. Punjab has refused to do that. Russia is mad with Punjab because Sikhs do not accept communism. Communism says no God and when you say no God, it means no Sikh. Therefore, Sikhs believe that the Soviet Union, in collaboration with India are trying to kill Punjab. So that if there is no Punjab, there are no Sikhs and no obstacle in the way of spreading communism there. That was the toughest area. More than 35% of the Indian Army were Sikhs. If there were 100 Generals in the British Army, I could safely say that 99 were Sikhs. They respected Sikhs so much. Now Sikhs are less than 1% of the army. They reduced us. There is not a single factory in Punjab. No big business in Punjab. The government has given all those to other states. They have been discriminating against us. When Britishers wanted to liberate India and give it it's freedom. If one thousand Indians died seeking liberation for it's country, more than 900 dead were Sikhs. And today we are termed as terrorists. Which is wrong. The thing is, we are very self-respecting people. We have been discriminated against. When it was time for partition, Britishers offered to divide India into three countries based on the three major religions, Hindu, Muslim and Sikhism. Somehow the Hindu prevailed upon the Sikhs, in spite of the fact, the Muslims said "Beware of these Hindus, they are snakes, they will bite you". The Sikhs said "No, no, no, they are our brothers". Sikhs acted most naive at that time. They accepted partnership with the Hindus and the Hindus promised you will have full freedom, this is your country and you will have full say. As soon as India was divided into two, there was a lot of discrimination against the Sikhs. Our language was not given the importance other languages were and there were so many discriminations against the Sikhs. Our language was not given the importance other languages were and there were so many discriminations against the Sikhs and the communists started killing them. The Sikhs said O.K., if you can't keep the promises you made to us, let us go our separate way. Let us have our own country. They said, "What country?" That is the whole trouble. The Sikhs say, after forty years after the partition of India, you have not been able to keep up your promises, what will happen forty years from now. Believe me, I was there during the time when Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister was assassinated. Next few days, what they have done to the Sikhs, (maybe one day, I should write something, and tell the world I was there) more than 50,000 Sikhs cut their hair in one night. From then to now, more than 100,000 young Sikhs have been killed by fake encounters. You can not imagine in a country like this one, what a fake democracy means. People in the police uniforms were not Sikhs, but they were ordered to grow their hair, wear turbans and pretend to be Sikhs and go to villages, kill men at night, and in the morning wear their uniforms. When the people would come to the police station to report, they would not record any of the reports. Fake encounters. So much is going on. Sikhism is suffering in India. Believe me. And what the Indian government now calls total peace, there is peace like there's peace in the graveyard. There is no young Sikh left in India. There will be no parentage in the next ten or fifteen years, because there is no young Sikh left. Either they are kids or older people. And all that is there, the effort of the Indian government is, cut their hair and march them back into Hinduism and once the turban is gone, their hair is gone, mustaches and beards are gone, they will forget what their faith is. That's what is happening. No Sikhs speaks Punjabi there anymore. Believe me, I went there and I cried. I didn't realize what freedom meant, before I came to this country. I couldn't believe people could talk about the President of this country, the way they could and talk about anything so boldly. In India, gosh, open your mouth and you're dead by evening. And nobody would even know where your bones are. And yet, with all the resources, India, the great country of ahimsa of Gandhi, it's all talk, believe me. We're making a big fool of the entire world. India was a great country. India had beautiful traditions. I love India still, believe me. I love the land. I served in the Indian Army, That's how I became a Captain. I was a Captain. I couldn't have served the country, to defend the country if I didn't love it. I don't hate it, yet. But I feel sorry for that land. That country which now has 80% Hindu population. They claim it to be Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan. It has to be Hindu, the language has to be Hindi, and the country's name only for the Hindu. Throw the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Christians into the sea. That is what the dream is. Which is unfortunate. That is what is wrong with that country. India is sick. It's not a bad country. You would love all the people. A lot of them are still good. Very good people. Despite all that, it's still a great land. It is the politicians that have corrupted it real bad. If someone, someday, corrected the political situation there. It will be a country, probably one of the best in the world still.
Gwynn: Do the Sikhs need a leader?
Capt. Singh: Sikhs need a lot of help now. Because their own inner strength has been weakened in India and there is a big pressure on them. Their own survival is being threatened. Although, they have regrouped themselves into cities where they have great majorities and the areas in which they live and the streets like Holbrook Street (the street of the house in Anaheim where the interview took place), if you would enter on either side, they would have high iron gates on both sides of the streets. It's there in Delhi, the capital of India. Should the non-Sikhs come to kill the Sikhs, they have iron gates to stop them. They have small fortresses. Every street where the Sikhs are, they are trying to defend themselves by putting up iron gates there. That's the state of fear in that country. I have no hesitation in telling you that. So the problem will only be resolved if the Sikhs will be able to muster enough strength from other people, from other countries, to be able to show them what is wrong with that country. What is happening is that other countries, like this country, knowing full well with what is happening with the Sikhs, they are naturally concerned with some other factors which are more important as a country than the suffering of one small community. In the overall interest of America, they have to have good intuitions. They have to overlook its excesses with one of its own communities at this point in time.