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.