SIKH SYMBOLS AND CONFORMISM
by Sirdar Kapur Singh (1973)
Sardar Pushpinder Singh Puri has written a very interesting and informative article in the February issue of the Sikh Review. He informs us that the younger generation of Sikhs in Canada defines Sikhism ‘in a slightly different way than it is defined in the native Punjab.’ He goes on to tell us that there, in Canada, ‘a Sikh especially the young one, considers that so long as he expresses his faith in the teachings of Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh and considers the Guru Granth Sahib as the holy scripture of the Sikh religion, he is a Sikh.’ He goes on, ‘the hint is clear, he is not prepared to accept the traditional physical outlook (sic) of a Sikh, which was made compulsory by Guru Gobind Singh by imposing on the Sikhs the five Ks. He advocates the essence of Sikhism in the script and soul and not in the physical requirements.’
The writer concludes the point by informing us that the young Sikh in Canada ‘pleads that the need of the time is different and that to fit in the Canadian pattern of life we will have to look like others.’
Mr. Puri offers an apology for all this by adding that, ‘though the faith from tradition is shaken, faith in Sikhism stays.’
While it is possible to understand and even appreciate the attitudes of the younger generation of the Sikhs in Canada and elsewhere outside India, it is not easy to accept it either as logical or as otherwise capable of defense from the point of view of the Sikh doctrines and the historical role the Sikhs are required to play according to the vision of the Gurus.
The psychological need to look like others who are in a majority and also in a position to impose their approval judgements on a strange minority amidst them, is all too obvious. The writer of these lines, while a student at Cambridge in the Great Britain during the forties of this century, was personally made aware of this social stress for a number of years. But the more
he has thought over this question, the more he is convinced that those who surrender to the foreign social ethos of non-Sikh societies neither display any exemplary integrity or strength of character, nor much proficiency in logical thinking and nor even practical wisdom. Conformism is the easiest response to antagonism and stresses of a social and emotional character such as the presence of a strange minority in foreign social surroundings generates. Conformism
releases an individual from the terrible tension of being different from othrs all the time, in a foreign social atmosphere, but when this has been said, all has been said in favor of the attitudes of the young Sikhs in Canada and elsewhere.
Firstly, it is not easy to sympathize with a point of view which arrogates to itself the authority to define Sikhism, ‘in a slightly different way,’ from how it has been defined by the founders of Sikhism and the collective national consensus of the historical Sikh community. This arrogation is escapist cowardice, if words are not to be minced. It would perhaps be less presumptuous and more honest to adopt and declare an attitude of a personal incapacity to act upon and
sustain the true definition of religious requirements than to assume the competence to ‘redefine’ what ought to be the true Sikhism. Heresy, apostasy and defection from a religion are more honest names for the attitude that underlies the claim to ‘redefine’ a religion. Those who shirk from calling a spade a spade and do not admit this truth to themselves merely push their
personalities into emotional conflicts and complexes which do more damage to themselves than the gains they seek to achieve by the circuitous path they thus follow. Is it more profitable from the point of view of individual himself to be utterly honest with oneself and admit what he really intends and does, or is it a cleverer or wiser path to conceal the true contours of one’s own hidden urges and temporary emotional problems such as arise in the case of Sikhs when they try to transplant themselves in a social milieu altogether strange from, if not hostile to, the fundamental insights into Reality, represented by the religious way of life of their ancestors? Any psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst practitioner will not hesitate as to what advice to give under the circumstances. By arguing falsely that while they are actually defecting from Sikhism they are merely ‘re-defining’ it, is to create greater problems than those which are sought to be solved. This is one important aspect of the problem to be seriously considered by the younger generation of Sikhs in Canada.
The second point, which is no less important for them, is that in Sikhism, unlike many older religions such as Islam, Mahayan Buddhism, and certain varieties of Christianity, mere verbal assent to a faith is of no avail. The young Sikh in Canada seems to think that he has the capacity and authority to separate the essence of Sikhism from the formally non-essential, and that
thereby he achieves access to the kernel of religion and discards the husks. What that ‘essence’ and ‘kernel’ is, he alone presumes to be the final judge of it. It was maintained in the past, in the older religions, that if a votary of religion just makes a true and unreserved assent to a certain verbal formula, which was supposed to encese the ‘truth’ of that religion, the devotee was automatically saved thereby. From Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, constant and
repeated stress was laid on the divergence of religious stand of Sikhism on the point, namely, that the essence of religion is not the dogma or the formula, for, what people think is relatively secondary; what matters is the true substance of the dogma and the formula which is expressed in the acts of men and not in the mere words or utterances of men. This, incidentally, is the
new movement of humanism where Catholics, Protestants, and Marxists move in common disregarding different formulae and ideologies that separate them. This central truth of Sikhism is enshrined in the revelation of Guru Nanak himself,
galli[n] bhist[i] na jaiai chhuttai sachch[u] kamai
"the goal can be achieved only through the deed and not
the word." 
It is obvious, therefore, that the very claim which the young Sikhs of Canada thus make of redefining Sikhism for themselves is not only highly presumptuous, but it also constitutes a defiance of the starting point of Sikhism. Thereby, these young Sikhs do not accept or
practise Sikhism, but repoudiate and defect from it. It is necessary for the young Sikhs to be clear in their minds on this second point also.
The last point to bear in mind is as to what culture, which includes the practice of religion, consists in. In the UNESCO sponsored book, Traditional Culture in South East Asia, the following definition of culture is given:
Culture means the total accumulation of all material objects, ideas and symbols, beliefs, sentiments, values and forms which are passed from one generation to another in any given society.
The belief, therefore, of the young Sikhs of Canada that they can diverge from the culture of the older Sikh generations nurtured in Punjab and yet can remain whole Sikhs is shown to be altogether fantastic when this definition of culture ins kept in view. What the young Sikhs of Canada are doing is not a continuation of the culture of their ancestors but a hiatus and a
break from the culture and let there be no mistake about it. No matter how unpleasant and unpalatable this truth sounds to the rebellious young mind planted in the current chaotic, moral and spiritual, atmosphere of the Western societies, it is the truth.
The keshas, the turban, the iron bangle and all these details which keep the Sikhs and the Sikh life separate from the majority of mankind surrounding them, are of the utmost spiritual importance when they are properly considered. They are the fence surrounding their daily
life, they are not the daily life itself. They make it possible for Sikhism to survive, but they are not the reasons for that survival.
The Sikhs from Punjab, who during the unsettled history of the community during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, settled in U.P. and Mysore and other parts of India, were completely submerged in the surrounding sea of Hindus by the end of the nineteenth century as soon as they gave up their peculiar Sikh symbols, and outward Sikh forms. They even forgot their origins as Sikhs and it is only now, during the last twenty or thirty years, that evidence has been dug up and discovered from the past memories and other bits of evidence concerning these communities that they are originally Sikhs from the Punjab. The sturdy Sikhs from the Punjab who settled in the early twentieth century in South America, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, have
been almost completely submerged into the majority Catholic Christian community by the middle of the twentieth century once they abandoned their peculiar religious symbols.
It requires no prophetic insight to know the fate of these young Sikhs in Canada once they abandon the peculiar symbols of Sikhism ordained by the Guru himself to whom they profess their total allegiance in this world and the next. This fate shall be no different from the fate of those who turn their backs on the Sun in whose light they hope to walk and move about.
True, Sikhs remain Sikhs inspite of every pressure and temptation, because it is basically good and satisfying to be a Sikh and not because they are forbidden to shingle or shave or to smoke the deadly nicotine poison. And, it is basically good and satisfying to remain a Sikh because of the deep spirituality and the profound faith in the Word of the Guru, and not merely because of observance of certain forms or verbal assent to certain formulae. But this neither detracts from the vital relevance of these forms and formulae to the all-important question of ultimate survival, nor authorizes any one to deviate from or redefine Sikhism as originally revealed by the Gurus. Such a stance is simply impermissible as well as dangerously unwise.
When at the location of present-day Muktsar the Sikh elders of Majha, in 1706 A.D. presumed to request Guru Gobind Singh to reshape his posture towards the political power by ‘redefining’ Sikhism, the response of the Guru was sharp and to the point:
Sikh hovat lebe updes[i]. devat ho biprit vises[u],  "
a true Sikh hears and obeys but you are cursed and contrary and presume to advise and guide the Guru."
The present age calls not for prohibitions, it is true, but for positive contribution of religion though
conditions necessary for preserving the ethos and the milieu out of which that contribution is most likely to come, must also be preserved and sustained with utmost care and devotion. One cannot live without the other and this is the arcane meaning of the part of our congregational prayer in which we ask from the Unseen Power that "each Sikh may be given the strength to
remain steadfast in his faith in Sikhism upto his last breath on this earth with his sacred hair and symbols unmolested."
The Great Samkracharya taught the fundamental classification of huamn activity and goals into two categories. The preya thoughts and actions are those which give easement to immediate stresses and problems and lead to the passing pleasures of life. The shreya actions and attitudes in life are those that ultimately lead to enduring satisfaction and spiritual achievements. The claim of religion is to teach men to sift the preya from the shreya. The path which the
young generation of Sikhs propose to tread in Canada and elsewhere is the road to the preya mode of life. The path which Sikhism claims to show men is the shreya mode of life. When one is young and feels the pulsations of bewitching spring of sensations and pleasures as the only real thing in life, one is irresistibly drawn to the preya. But when the hectic pulls of sensations and passing pleasures weaken and are slackened and the mind matures and gains strength
for appreciating and pursuing enduring values of life, then it is the shreya path which appeals to properly cultured human mind. Throughout the modern western societies, in which are to be included the Communist forms of societies, there is evident the uncontrolled yearning for the preya to the exclusion of the shreya. But this is only a passing phase. As the signs already
indicate on the horizon, the mankind must turn its face to the Sun of religion as refuge from the uncertainties and frustrations of the modern western way of life.
Sikhism and its formal life represent the Light to which mankind is destined to return sooner or later and it seems, sooner than later. Has not the Guru prophesied this in the Sikh scripture itself that the eternal Truths of religion cannot be finally abandoned by man:
eh vastu taji nah jai nit nit rakh[u] ur[i] dharo. 
 Var Majh, Slok, M 1, AG, 141.
 Sikh hovat lebe updes[i]. devat ho biprit vises[u],
 Mundavani M5, AG, 1429.
[Originally published in the Sikh Review, April 1973, under the title "The Sikh Symbols and the Sikh in