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Sikh Social Activism – Ruminate, No Talk, No Walk* –

Dr Nirmal Singh**

The Sikh Precept for Socially Responsible Religious Life
The Sikh precept has very clear markers regarding human social responsibility. Believers are persuaded that a devotee has to be a man of the world and a man of God, a saint and a soldier at the same time. This implies that it is not enough to understand and espouse the moral and ethical principles but one has to live by them in the real world and, if needed, be ready to defend what is righteous.

Guru Nanak was deeply troubled by the pervasive presence of corrosive influences at all levels of the society. He lamented that the religious leadership was actually interested in amassing worldly possessions and did not inspire trust, spoke untruths, engaged in petty squabbles and committed grievous hurts to people.1 At another level kashatriyas who were traditional protectors of the societal mores, had abjured their role2 and those whose job was to administer justice had turned corrupt and would do anything for graft.3 While the rulers forgetting their roles and responsibilities had turned into butchers,4 lay citizens were content to be apathetic, almost blind in ignorance and dumb like effigies filled with straw.5 Nanak also describes unwelcome effects of and concern over alien influences on culture, language and the way of life.6

In his compositions generally referred to as Babarvani, Guru Nanak has condemned greed and pleasure-seeking ways of people and has strongly deprecated the ruling elite for their failure to protect the country. He has ridiculed the attempt to fight the invaders by using miracles and casting spells. The Guru has also commented that if one beats up his equal, it might not be a cause for grievance... (but) if a tiger mauls herding cattle, the Master must answer7 the innocent and weak must be spared. Even though the Guru seems to chide God for not showing compassion when the suffering screamed in pain, the answer is obvious – it is for the humans to resist individually and collectively all that may ail the society.

Guru Arjun has talked about a vision of an ideal society and called it halemi raj – ruling through humility, modesty and seva (service). This ideal of societal transformation is founded on the individual struggle of a person to fight and win over evil propensities. Those who lead are mentored into giving up their evil propensities and demonstrate fitness by undergoing a rigorous, transparent test – like a wrestling bout. With truth as its foundational principle, the inner working of this society is not oppressive, coercive or degrading of the dignity of the individual. Gursikhs (Sikhs of the Guru) are its pace setters, exemplars, role models as well as mentors for others to be better citizens.

Guru Gobind Singh in Zafarnama8 or the Epistle of Victory, a verse in Persian addressed to Aurangzeb makes several comments reflective of the Guru’s thoughts on conflict, its inherent ethical dilemmas and ingredients of righteous rulership. We will look at these briefly – the numbers in parenthesis refer to the verse as numbered in the original text:

One who proclaims to be a true believer and faithful to his faith must demonstrate that his belief is not merely a verbal protestation but also guides his societal behavior. He must not break a promise made in all solemnity. (47) If such a person were to make a swearing declaration on his scripture or give an assurance to another in the name of his beliefs then I having been given a sworn solemn undertaking of safe passage he ought not to have pounced on the party assured to leave and then imprison them when having left their defenses they were vulnerable.(25)

His decision to join the battle was not easy. He questions ‘what kind of chivalry is this in war that countless hordes should pounce upon just forty of us? (41) I had perforce to join battle at that stage and I too fought with the muskets and arrows as best as I could, (21) because when a situation is past every other remedy it is righteous to unsheathe the sword to defend and to dispel the aggressor. (22) I would have had nothing to do with this battle otherwise. (23) But even as we fought we did not hurt or molest those who had not aggressed against us. (28)

The Guru makes several comments about what a ruler should or should not do. He must be cognizant that God could not have wished for him to create strife but instead to promote peace, harmony and tranquility among the people. (65) Nor should the ruler use his strength, power and resources to harass, suppress or deprive the weak. This will only weaken the society, erode his ability to rule effectively and make the State unsafe.(109) He should not recklessly shed blood of others lest heaven’s rage should befall him.(69)

In spite of all that happened the Guru is gracious, kind and compassionate and wants the matter to be brought to close without any lingering resentment. He says ‘if only you were gracious enough to come to the village of Kangar, we could then see each other face to face.(58) Come to me so that we may converse with each other, and I may utter some kind words to thee.(60). You are bound, indeed by your word on the Koran, let, therefore, the matter come to a good end, as is your promise.(76)’

The Gurus variously related these precepts to temporal living for the individual, family, local community and their web of relationships. A brief look at such teachings follows:

Relating to the Temporal
Sikhs are guided to relate the precept to their temporal living. A true devotee sees God’s light in all and therefore judges not others; endeavors to develop morally, ethically and spiritually; relates to his environment in a state of inner harmony and is a productive and constructive member of society contributing to amiable relations.

Each house is a dharamsal - a cradle for prayer and cultivating righteous values. The family supports itself by honest and earnest endeavor, gives some for the common good and helps promote moral, ethical and spiritual development of each member without impeding their temporal pursuits. Men and women are enjoined to be steadfast in marital fidelity and their parental responsibility.

A habitat or a community is the mini world in which a person grows up; sets up his own family; earns his living; relates to others and deals with those passing through. This is the conglomerate that offers him choices of the company that he picks that may determine his destiny, in here and beyond.

The social order in this setting must promote equality. No institutionalized discrimination based on ethnicity, beliefs, class, caste, economic status, gender, etc., is accepted. What is discriminatory, oppressive or unjust should be resisted – absent that one must have sagacity to accept life as it unfolds. Persons in positions of power must be held accountable. Their decisions must be made after deep deliberation and should be able to withstand moral scrutiny and tests for justice and being equitable. At an extended plane, all the above activities are carried out in and as a part of the totality of our surrounding ecological environment. This world and this life are important and one should bring the two in harmony to comprehend inter-connectedness between God and nature, attain inner peace and experience the ecstatic beauty and joy in divine dispensation.9

Developing the Praxis
The mnemonic expression deg, tegh, fateh, going back to the Guru’s time, inspired Sikh living. Sikhs also adopted these three words for inscription on their seals and coins when they succeeded in establishing suzerainty over parts of North India in the early eighteenth century. The word deg carries the connotation of general benevolence, tegh of protecting the good from evil and fateh of victory in this righteous endeavor. This twin concept of charity and valor and the supplication for sarbat ka bhala (well being of one and all) in the concluding line of ardas (ritual Sikh supplication) gives expression to the Sikh prayer that their day should be filled with deeds to secure the well being of all.

Gurus promoted seva to help the devotee to grow spiritually even as one works for the betterment of others. Seva has the connotation of devotion to the divine and altruistic service. It must be an expression of love, not of pity or reciprocity, for as the Guru says ‘one who is good if good is done unto him and not otherwise, does not love but only trades in love.’10 Make your supplication in ever so many ways to the divine that such love is for the low of the lowest – all not limited to the like-minded or co-religionists or in return.11

Gurus also instituted daswandh, an obligation, similar to tithes. While giving continued at the individual level, the tradition of daswandh provided the much-needed resources to support collective seva at the community level by the Gurus.

There are several anecdotes about Nanak’s personal inner compelling urge for helping the needy. As a young lad in his teens, his father gave him some money to go out and conduct business. On returning home when asked about the business transacted and profit made, young Nanak said that having met a group of pious people who were hungry, he used up the money to feed them. The father was distraught and admonished him that one should make deals that are profitable. Nanak replied that this was indeed a real deal – sacha sauda – that will yield gain in the court of the Lord. The episode so often narrated to the young by the parents underscores in a simplistic way the importance of seva in service of the virtuous. Unlike ritualistic feeding of Brahmins considered as daan (charity) that was decried by Guru Nanak, feeding the hungry is – parupkar – altruism, a value highly commended.

In his later years, Nanak settled down at a place that came to be known as Kartarpur, and set up a dharamsal – where the devotees used to gather every evening to sing God’s praises and share a community meal. Breaking caste restrictions and other inhibiting prevalent practices, none was excluded or not made welcome to the dharamsal. Association of women signaled involvement of children and families. Building of bathing pools, shared food in langar and encouragement of sporting activities by successor Gurus strengthened the social bonding and the importance of spirit of sharing, seva, community hygiene and physical fitness in religious life.

The community grew and the dharamsal, over time, became the center where prayer and seva moved in tandem. Characteristic features of dharamsal from the beginning included providing shelter and food for the needy and wayfarers by the Guru and the congregation. Thus in addition to seva by individuals at personal level and of their own volition, Gurus gave impetus to collective seva by the community in supporting projects and services for benefit of the people and gurdwaras became nodal points for organizing such activities.

Gurus interceded with the Rulers seeking relief for the farmers hit by drought. The multi dimensional message that actively involved, ethical and inclusive community living was conducive for spiritual progression caught imagination of people and became its own strong message of inclusiveness at a time when other models were seen to be withdrawn, exclusive or elitist.

The Gurus had to make tremendous sacrifices to secure freedoms, security and safety of the people. Guru Arjun when forced to act against his beliefs chose to face gruesome tortures and die rather than submit. The Guru did not give up his resolve nor did he utter a word of hate. He just raised the bar. Guru Hargobind and successor Gurus maintained a retinue of armed followers to protect the nascent community and others from oppression by officials, raiders and foreign invaders. He transformed Sikh activism to take to armed defense in the face of force. He did not initiate any fight but did not evade it when it was inevitable. Bhai Gurdas points to the Guru’s valor as vanquisher in battles fought for the common good.12

Guru Har Krishan, when just eight years old, contracted small pox tending to the sick in Delhi and died. Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life so that Hindus could have their freedom of faith. This he understood to be his creed that all men, without distinction must have this freedom even if it meant for him to give up his life to arouse people’s consciousness. The ultimate sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur to protect the right of Hindus to practice their religion is possibly the only one of its kind in religious history.

With Guru Gobind Singh the process of acculturisation of Sikh resolute activism saw its culmination. The Khalsa had a visible identity and purpose. Ranjit Nagara sounded loud and clear that the Sikhs were determined to no more accept oppression, intrusion, insults or intimidation. They were now ready to protect what was righteous and resist what was not with the use of arms, if needed. The call of Guru Nanak that ‘step onto my path with your head in your hand if you desire to play this game of love - once on, care not for what anyone says but hearken the call’13 was understood and internalized by the Sikhs.

A chronicle from that time shows that apart from making sacrifices for shared humanity, some Sikhs had imbibed the message of treating friend and foe alike even as the Imperial army frequently invaded them at Anandpur. After a day of skirmishes as the weary sun was going down, an old Sikh, Kanhaiya was tending to the wounded of both sides and ministering sips of water to the thirsty. Seeing this the Sikhs were upset and asked Guru Gobind Singh to stop Kanhaiya from comforting the enemy. The Guru asked them to call him and ask – why? Brought before the Guru, Kanhaiya humbly said, “Lord you told us to recognize all human race as one.14 When I go tending the wounded and I look at them I see your image in each of them. If you pervade in all, I see only you and no enemy!”

Guru Gobind Singh also set examples so difficult to grasp and emulate. He persevered not to withdraw in spite of mounting odds and pressure from his mother and Sikhs during the fifth battle of Anandpur. Later at Chamkaur after his two elder sons were martyred it is said that his ‘mental composure showed glow of divinity upon the glorious end of his sons.’15 May be he was contemplating the irrevocable play of Divine will or perhaps had concluded that this was the way protracted conflicts in pursuit of righteousness may come to end.

Verses 77 - 80 of Zafarnama perhaps offer an explanation. The Guru told Aurangzeb that thoughtless acts of tyranny might stoke fires rather than put out a spark. By their reckless treachery and killing of minor children of the Guru, Muslims made the seeds of resistance spread to sprout far and wide. This was no victory for Aurangzeb. It was the beginning of defeat. Sikhs did not forget the winter of 1705. The saga of Chamkaur, Sirhind and Machhiwara became an unforgettable part of the Sikh lore and the spark lighted that cold winter soon turned into a raging fire against Muslim rulers and foreign invaders who tried to intrude into the land of their Gurus.

The Sikh lore, symbols, rituals and artifacts surrounding religious observances do not let Sikh sense of social responsibility easily suffer dilution and help in its transmission. The contours of Sikh activism, its scriptural basis, the way Gurus’ responses influenced and defined it has two facets:

– A proactive urge to blunt the ill effects of institutionalized societal discrimination and ameliorate human condition through encouraging social equality, self-reliance, sharing and seva;

– A reactive response not to give in to oppression or injustice but to resist it through non-violent means even if it means making supreme sacrifices and if all else fails resort to limited use of force to obviate the immediate cause of dissonance.

Early Sikhs
Guru Gobind Singh, a little before his passing in 1708, invested Banda with authority to carry on the struggle in Punjab and a Hukumnama from the Guru instructing Sikhs to join Banda Bahadur in war against Mughal tyranny was provided. This was the start of a new phase of Sikh engagement to transform society reeling under inapt misrule that was marked by ascendancy of a see-saw armed struggle to carve out space that could bring some sense of safety and security in an environment where disparate forces were jostling for power.

Banda received enthusiastic support in his mission from Sikhs who were highly inspired by the Khalsa doctrine and motivated to avenge those who had committed tyrannous acts against the Gurus. He also got sufficient support of zamindars who had taken to armed resistance against Mughal authority during the last phase of Aurangzeb’s rule as well as the deprived classes who were not beneficiaries of the existing order.16 Many groups of Hindu Jats, Gujars and Rajputs aligned with Banda for plunder.

Banda seized Government treasuries at Sonepat and near Kaithal in late 1709 and gave it away to his rank and file. He attacked Samana, the village of the executioner of Guru Tegh Bahadur and massacred its inhabitants. Similar fate was meted out to habitats of Muslim Ranghars notorious for rape and rapine, Pathans who had deserted Guru Gobind Singh and the hated town of Sarhind to take revenge on Wazir Khan.

The carnage let loose by Banda had a salutary effect in bringing down lawlessness. He abolished zamindari and declared cultivators as owners of land. His injunction for troops was strict observance of rules of conduct laid down for the Khalsa of not using tobacco, drugs or intoxicants and not committing theft or adultery. He wanted to once again usher in the mythical satyug. This brought him the goodwill of vast majority of population.

Banda’s role, a mix of benevolence and ruthlessness was short-lived. Finally defeated, taken captive he was killed in a gruesome manner. He was conscious of mercilessness he had inflicted. It is reported that one Mohammed Amin Khan, who was standing near him asked him, “From your manner so far you appear to be a man of virtue, who believes in God, and in doing good deeds. You are also very intelligent. Can you tell me why you are having to suffer all this here?” His reply was, “When the tyrants oppress their subjects to the limit, then God sends men like me on this earth to mete out punishment to them. But being human, we sometimes overstep the laws of justice, and for that we are made to pay whilst we are still here. God is not being unjust to me in any way.”

The reactive Sikh social engagement had started in earnest. John Surman and Edward Stephenson of East India Company who had witnessed how the Sikhs of Banda were massacred, wrote to their governor at Fort William: “It is not a little remarkable with what patience Sikhs undergo their fate, and to the last it has not been found that one apostatized from his new formed religion.”

This scenario was reenacted several times during the tumultuous 18th century. Sikh bands actively fought the rulers and invading forces in a series of drawn out guerrilla encounters and progressively succeeded in gaining the upper hand. The conflict was seen as struggle to subdue evil. Sacrifices made by Sikh men, women and children are part of history and also memorialized in Sikh ardas.

During this difficult period too the gurdwara continued with its proactive activities to the extent possible. Additionally, it became the center for deliberations by the community, for taking consensual decisions, for coordinating strategic and logistic effort and keeping the community abreast of developments. Sikhs in fact developed a tradition of sarbat khalsa – (corporate collective of Sikhs) that decided by adopting gurmattas (Guru’s directive] in presence of Guru Granth Sahib giving their decisions religious sanction, accepted as binding on all the devotees.

Even though late in the century Sikhs succeeded in bringing significant parts of Punjab in their control but there is evidence that their endeavor was not always driven by motive to establish their rule. To cite one example, in 1780’s Sikhs had gained control over Delhi, but agreed to retire most of their soldiery back to Punjab on an understanding that Baghel Singh would be allowed to build seven gurdwaras in Delhi to commemorate Sikh sacred sites. He was given charge of city octroi posts and could keep 6/l6th of revenue collection to pay for construction and his troop upkeep. He diligently completed his mission while remitting the balance cash to treasury regularly. His troops also kept peace and order in the city.

There are many other recorded anecdotes about the way Sikhs conducted themselves. We will cite a couple that reflect on our subject:

– James Browne, who was an employee of East India Company recorded that the misaldars were not rigid about their levies and accepted what the farmer could pay of the moderate rent mostly in kind. The cultivators were thus treated with empathy and never molested by their soldiers.

– A Brahmin girl was forcibly abducted by Mir Hassan Khan, the Chief of Jalalabad. Sikhs under the command of Baghel Singh rescued the girl but her parents refused to accept her back because she was considered defiled. The Sikhs warned that the property of anyone who discriminated against the girl would be confiscated and given to the girl. They also gave the girl title of ‘Daughter of the Khalsa’.

– Forster who travelled through India at the time wrote, “Being at the time in Rohilkhand — I saw two Sikh horsemen who had been sent from their country to receive the tribute which was collected from the revenues of certain custom houses. The manner in which these people were treated or rather treated themselves, I frequently wished for the power of migrating into the body of Sicque (Sikh) for a few weeks - so well did these cavaliers fare. No sooner had they alighted, then beds were preferred for their repose, and their horses were supplied with green barley pulled out of the fields. The ‘Kafilah’ travelers were contented to lodge on the ground, and expressed their thanks for permission to purchase what they required; such was the difference between those who were in and those who were out of power.”

Towards the end of 18th century, young Ranjit Singh emerged as the Sikh leader who in a systematic manner worked to create a well-governed Sikh rule. He also was able to bring order to the western frontier and stop further invasions from across the border. Population in the region was thus able to enjoy relative peace for the first time in several centuries.

During the half-century of Sikh rule, the Sikh social activism received State patronage and it thrived as well as diversified. Sikhs had earned a lot of goodwill through their sacrifices and conduct. As the ruling elite now, they displayed the sagacity to be non-discriminatory, just and generous. It was a period when for a short while the society did not need reactive activism from them – it was ensured through governance.

Coming of the British
The coming of the British created new challenges for the Sikhs. Under their rule Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were soon joined in a three-way struggle in an environment that did not seem to lend any abiding advantage to anyone group. A couple of developments however seem to be relevant to our discussion. Firstly the British tended to acknowledge Sikh martial traits and reinforced their self-image of valor. This provided a continuing link with their immediate past experience and sublimated into Sikh readiness to continue to espouse causes that they held dear or in patriotic fervor unmindful of sacrifices that it may entail. The Kuka movement was one such case in 1870’s followed by the Gurdwara reform movement of 1920’s though the likes of Ghadrite movement, Jallianwala Bagh, Bhagat Singh episode and the INA possibly fall in the same genre with dominant Sikh involvement.

The other development was the growth of competitive as well as assimilative pressures that Sikhs began to experience, especially from Hindus. This brought the question of Sikh identity into forefront that turned the confident, gregarious Sikh psyche into increasingly obsessively defensive mindset.

Both these developments have played into the way Sikh activism has since taken shape. It seems to have been hit by the recognition that under the new political dispensation, being small in numbers and with limited resources Sikh’s ability to espouse social causes and to make a difference in the social arena was severely constrained. The sacrifices they made during the various causes mentioned above did not help their becoming participants in the mainstream political or social conversations. Even their successful non-violent movement has not received any recognition by the political pundits and historians because it might have taken some sheen off the icon of ahimsa that they were trying to project to the rest of the world. They turned inward in a self-critical mode, not quite sure how to position themselves in and engage with the emerging social milieu. What we witness today is a legacy of what transpired before.

Contemporary Scene and Issues
As we have seen institutionalization of seva among Sikhs centered around the dharamsal which in the time of Gurus served not only as a place of worship but also as a vehicle for community building and channelizing their altruism. All offerings and daswand came to the Gurus who used the resources for the common good. Considering the state of societal development at the time, these practices were highly egalitarian and served the pressing needs of people without any distinction or discrimination. The traditions developed also integrated social responsibility into the Sikh way of life.

Over the centuries, Sikhs have continued to channel most of their offerings in the name of the Guru to the gurdwaras. Experience however seems to suggest that gurdwara as an institution has not been able to deliver upon the promise of dharamsal underpinning the integrated concept of socially responsible involvement inherent in the Guru’s teachings and praxis. Whereas the Gurus displayed deep sensitivity to serve continuing as well as emerging needs, in more recent times most of the funds have begun to be used up to pay those providing liturgical services and langar; with the bulk of capital expense being incurred for construction of ostentatious gurdwaras to the neglect of societal problems and needs.

Professional ragis and kathakars do fulfill a need but they seem to have become a strong vested interest constantly on the move offering their fare to the congregations globally. Without going into the complexity of issues surrounding this development, it can be said that an increasing share of giving by the laity is going to support these activities.

The character of langar has also changed. Starting as a symbol of social equality, sharing and feeding the needy it seems to be becoming more of a signature Sikh practice. Shared mainly by the congregants, it is acquiring the character of an elaborate fellowship meal in place of its egalitarian social and altruistic purpose. So even as its associated costs have soared, its social impact has more likely declined.

The elaborate building structures do look good when new but generally suffer from lack of maintenance and in any case mostly the total decor may not go with the outward glitz and expensive building materials used. There is a shared apprehension that the kar seva Babas have failed to preserve the heritage value in most of the reconstruction projects. Most of gurdwaras, historical ones included, have hardly any great collection of artifacts compared to their equivalents in other faith traditions.

If we look at the Sikh Code of Conduct, Sikh Rehat Maryada (SRM), we find that notwithstanding its extolling the Sikh collective activism, it has remained a pious declaration of intent. The SRM says that ‘the concept of service is not confined to fanning the congregation, service to and in the Guru ka Langar, etc. A Sikh’s entire life is a life of benevolent exertion. The most fruitful service is the service that secures the optimum good by minimal endeavor. That can be achieved through organized collective action. A Sikh has, for this reason, to fulfill his/her Panthic obligations, even as he/she performs his/her individual duties’ (Article XXIII). The code also enjoins on the Khalsa Sikhs to pay daswandh to the Guru (Article XXIV, p).

Clearly seva is not constrained within any specific bounds and its simple forms including caring for congregation’s comfort, offerings and seva in the langar and various sweeping and cleaning jobs in the gurdwara do not add up to the sum total of Sikh seva. These examples if at all reflect the common denominator of seva practices in all gurdwaras and thus serve as easily understood illustrations.

The call to contribute daswandh to the Guru and for collective effort to achieve optimum good with minimum endeavor points to other seva projects undertaken by the gurdwara. That seva is Panthic obligation. It is intended to be effective and has to aim at and realize results. It must contribute to amelioration of human condition and have clear markers to assess its effects.

Thus viewed seva as popularly understood and practiced in gurdwaras is not what it is intended to be either in terms of gurbani or its more pragmatic temporal application as enunciated in the SRM. What we witness in the gurdwaras is ritualistic replication that has little merit spiritually and does little to serve the needy.

There are several needs and problems in various societies that call for collective effort by the community. These include helping the poor and needy; environmental degradation; disaster relief; education and research; advocacy, discrimination issues, media relations; promoting arts and culture and developing relations with the mainstream society. Some issues that tend to be particularly stressful for families but have not received any active support or even attention from the gurdwaras include:

- Marital maladjustments, divorces, single parenting
- Dysfunctional families, domestic violence, extended family tension
- Youth alienation, teen suicides
- Loneliness, isolation, absence of support system
- Cultural inhibitions

Some of these issues could be traced to structural problems. Committees elected by the congregants - generally for a short term of one year, now manage most Gurdwaras. Apart from being focused on the short term this structure has some serious flaws. Gurdwaras as an institution delivered in Guru’s times because the authority was vested in the Guru who had demonstrated abilities to provide spiritual guidance and leadership. In the present set up the liturgical staff has no authority or even voice in the Gurdwara and the committee members, who may be astute politically, mostly have little understanding of gurmat.

This problem becomes critical when we try and relate to other faiths or to the agencies in the secular world. Taking the interfaith issues first. Now these are a major concern of the religious activists if for no other reason than the negative influence of religion as a social divider. One can join in inter-religious conversations but to bring about reconciliation and to move beyond historical animosities the dialogical engagement would benefit if the interlocutors could influence change. In our case it is an accomplishment if we can get a gurdwara functionary to come to a meeting let alone talk of forgiveness or reconciliation or even agree to have an interfaith service in the gurdwara precincts because of the fear of – maryada ulanghna – breech of tradition.

The situation gets murkier when we come to agencies dealing with issues confronting the global society. The faith of miri-piri and manas ki jaat sabhai eko pehchanbho is totally out of depth here. The most pressing problems facing humanity are broken homes, human rights violations, environmental degradation, armed conflict and the like. Where and in what activist manner are we seized of these issues as a faith community? Who should the agencies working in these areas get in touch with to get our position or involvement as a concerned group? The problem of female infanticide has just received promise of active interest from SGPC when the directive against kurimars has been part of Sikh ethos from the time of Guru Gobind Singh. The cleanup of Bain Nadi has been accomplished by a lone volunteer and till today we have not heard a word of concern from the SGPC or the Akal Takhat regarding the poisons running through the water resources of this land of five rivers where the Gurus sang songs extolling water as pita and jit harya sabh koe.17

One reason is that gurdwaras presently do not afford any opportunity for community to consult internally and the sangat is not in the loop on decision processes, choice of projects or asked to actively get involved in any socially responsible intervention with the world external to the Gurdwara. This explains why initiatives of the type at Duxbury are not even heard of in our sangats.

Social engagement of religious groups is not bounded within the confines of beliefs, rites and rituals or esoteric symbolisms. Faith traditions grow within certain cultural milieus and some culture related characteristics come to be associated with religious groups. In our case instead of trying to unravel our cultural heritage and showcasing it we seem to act as if cultural influences can only pollute religious purity. This is also inhibiting our potential for effective social engagement in a world where the other faith groups use all the cultural trappings that help the cause they are pursuing.

I also sense that our inability to consolidate our gains and build on our successes has contributed to our declining ability to make an impact socially. We are endowed with an excellent theology on social responsibility. We were the last religious group to cede rule to the British. In independent India we achieved early economic success by taking avidly to the green revolution. However we either kept our advantage under sacred wraps or squandered it away.

Thankfully in India there is a growing sense of buoyancy among Sikhs and they are now more visibly engaged in eradication of social evils and improvement in the condition of their fellow beings. I am quite impressed with the range of gurdwara based programs like hospitals and schools that I have seen grow over the last two decades. Sikhs have also responded to the problems arising from the 80’s to develop activist forums, and their help to disaster victims has been quick and visible. There are several other initiatives that are reassuring that Sikh activism is reviving.

Situation relating to the Diaspora however is not as comforting. Their involvement with issues of social concern is only marginal, if so. Their main focus has been to establish gurdwaras and organize Sikh camps for the youth. In recent years, some initiatives to reach out to the mainstream gained urgency because of post September 11 experiences. There also have been some projects to establish Sikh chairs in a few universities, exhibitions of Sikh art and artifacts at some well-known galleries and film festivals. The core issues that remain the concern of social activists have not witnessed Sikh involvement as a faith group. The reasons for this phenomenon are the same as in the Indian situation, only a bit more pronounced. At the individual level too Sikh giving has found its way more to India than to local causes ostensibly in a nostalgic bid to reconnect with their roots or possibly because of other pragmatic considerations. There too most of contribution is intended for religious projects with only a small portion going for other socially relevant initiatives.

We do have problems in our social activism at the present time. This lapse possibly does not seize our attention weighed down as we are with internal identity issues and growing alienation among the youth. We also are still struggling to figure out how to position ourselves as a minority to be able to effectively engage the mainstream as a faith group on issues of broader social concern. In the process we are turning inwards, with a hunker down mentality talking more about what the Gurus said and did rather than trying to carry their example and mission forward.

We have to move beyond ruminating. We can recall our acts of social responsibility a million times in our ardas – it will not enable us to engage effectively in causes that are of importance in today’s context. That ability will only be enhanced if we talk about what is impeding us presently to become more engaged and involved as a faith group. Once we are able to think through I have no doubt we would succeed in repositioning ourselves as concerned social activists very quickly and effectively. Sikh transition from ruminating to talking will not come easy. Walking is not a problem once they get to know the way – if at all they will have to be dissuaded from plunging headlong!


1. moorakh pandit hikmat hujat sanjai kareh pyar -[M I, Guru Granth Sahib, p.469], qazi kurh bol mal khaaye. brahman nhave jia ghave -[M I, Guru Granth Sahib, p.662]
2. khatriyan te dharam chhodiya [M I p.663]
3. qazi hoe rishvati vadi laike haq gavai [Bhai Gurdas, Varan 1/30]
4. kal kate raaje kasaai dharam pankh kar udhriya -[M I, Guru Granth Sahib, p 145]
5. andhi rayat gian vihooni bhaah bhare murdaar -[M I, Guru Granth Sahib, p.469] , I Basant Hindol p.1191
6. Basant Hindol, Guru Granth Sahib, p 1191
7. Je sakta sakte ko maare ta man raus na hoyi – sakta seeh mare pai vagai khasme saa pursai (M1, p. 360)
8. Full text see Dasam Granth, Chapter 14, pp. 2263-72
9. See author’s book, Exploring Sikh Spirituality, Chapter VI, Faith and Environment that looks at the Sikh Perspective on environment and ecological issues.
10. changey changa kar money mandey manda hoey. aasaq ahu neh aakhiey jeh lekha vartey soey -Var Asa, Slok M II, Guru Granth Sahib, p.474
11. seva karo das dasan ki anik bhanl tis taro nihora -Gauri M V, Guru Granth Sahib, p.204
12. dal bhanjan gur surma vadh jodha bau parupkari
13. jo tho proem khaelan kaa chaao sir dhhar thalee galee maeree aao eith maarag pair dhhareejai sir dheejai kaan n keejai- Slok Varan te Vadhik, M I, Guru Granth Sahib, p 1410
14. manas ki jat sabh eicay pehchanbo – Dasam Granth
15. Gateway to Sikhism, Life of Guru Gobind Singh, Battle of Chamkaur
16. Muzzafar Alam, Sikh Uprising Under Banda Bahadur in Grewal & Banga, Patiala, p. 40-45
17. The reader may find the following extract from the executive summary of a Bitter Harvest: Farmer suicide and the unforeseen social, environmental and economic impacts of the Green Revolution in Punjab, India as instructive: ‘This report takes issue with these declarations by exploring the Revolution’s darker side. In so doing, one quickly encounters an increasing, unmistakable and brutal pattern of farmer suicide across the state. The links between the Green Revolution and this suicide epidemic are found in a web of interconnected crises that have enveloped rural Punjab over the last several decades; crises born of the same processes that so greatly increased rice and wheat yields to begin with. This report examines three such critical issues: increasing rates of rural inequality, ecological collapse both in soil and water systems, and skyrocketing levels of debt among Punjabi farmers.

* This paper was presented at International Seminar on "Religion and Human Social Responsibility" organised by Prof Harbans Singh Department of Encyclopeadia of Sikhism, Punjabi University, Patiala on February 26-28, 2008
** U. North Texax Health Science Centre, #6415, Amicable Drive, Arlington, TX 76016 UK. Email <enveen@yahoo.com>


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