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Christopher Finnigan

July 10th, 2019

“Sikhs have this feeling that they are misunderstood” – Pritam Singh

3 comments | 14 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christopher Finnigan

July 10th, 2019

“Sikhs have this feeling that they are misunderstood” – Pritam Singh

3 comments | 14 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As part of LSE South Asia Centre’s collaborative initiative with the High Commission of India to the UK ‘100 Foot Journey Club‘, leading academics and community leaders gathered at LSE in March 2018 to discuss the importance and relevance of Shri Guru Granth Sahib, and the life of Shri Guru Gobind Singh ji. Here, Pritam Singh (University of Oxford) talks to South Asia @ LSE about the ecological perspective of Shri Guru Granth Sahib and the place of Sikhism and Punjab in India.

What was the ecological perspective of Shri Guru Granth Sahib and what is its relevancy today?

The ecological message is very central to Shri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) – the holy scripture of the Sikh faith – because nature is seen as the creator and at the centre of life. By life this means not only human life but also non-human life; it is a perspective really on the whole universe. There is one very famous shabad (word) in SGGS: pawan guru, paani pita, mata dharat mahat.  It means that the air is a teacher, water is the father and the great earth is our mother. They inter play with each other and create this universe, which really is a celebration of nature, and within it the water is perhaps the most central part of this philosophy. The current ecological crisis of our planet Earth makes the ecological perspective of SGGS extremely relevant today by signalling to us to place ecology at the centre of our modes of functioning – globally, nationally, locally and individually.

How and why does water form such a central part of this perspective?

Water obviously plays such an important role in the creation of life, but water has a specific significance too in the Punjab region where Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of the Sikh faith, was born and where the early growth of Sikhism took place. The word Punj-ab means the land of five (panj) rivers with water (ab) as its defining identity. There has always been the issue of water in Punjab, whether in terms of its abundance or scarcity. It is no surprise that the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, is situated in the middle of the sprawling pool called the sarovar. Water fertilises agriculture and produces life and food and is the source of the livelihood of the people; so in a way, the early period of the rise of Sikhism was surrounded by water and is enriched by the narratives of water. The significance of water, including the current politico-economic battles over the sharing or diversion of Punjab’s river waters to neighbouring states in India continues, which has resonance with the historically formed Punjabi/Sikh imagination over water. The current global ecological crisis with its implications for dreaded water scarcity makes water even more salient in that imagination.

To what extent does the geography of the Punjab explain some of the traditions in the Sikhism?

Communities in the Punjab only survived where there were water resources. In Sikh theology, history and socio-political practice the discourse on water is centrally important. It has fed into the shared imagination and different art forms of life of Punjabi people, especially in the realm of poetry.  This is reflected in the teachings of Sikhism which, in turn, have influenced poetry, music and other art forms.

Each successor guru (teacher) after Guru Nanak created a new town, and the towns were generally where they dug up new wells. The tenth and the last living guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), who bestowed the eternal guruship on SGGS after him, created a Khalsa brotherhood baptismal ceremony in which water is central to the ceremony.

Is there a duality of the Punjab’s place in India?

From a political and socio-culture perspective, the Punjab, reorganised as a Punjabi speaking state since 1966, is a Sikh majority state, while the rest of India is obviously Hindu majority. Sometimes in India, there are communication gaps between the Sikh majority Punjab and the rest of India where the overwhelming majority of the states are Hindu majority. Such communication gaps emerge especially when it comes to observing or carrying out certain religious or socio-cultural rituals in Punjab that appear foreign to the rest of India, for example carrying arms. Many people both inside and outside India are alarmed at or at least find Sikh young men and in some cases even Sikh women carrying arms such as the sword somewhat threatening and assume that they are violent terrorists. In reality, they are just performing a daily tradition, and in fact, for them it is a symbol of their readiness to fight against oppression.

Sikhs want to shape a way of life that is in conformity with their vision of themselves that does not put them in conflict with the confines of the democracy they live in. Within any democratic system, there has to be a majority and there has to be a minority, but how the difference between them is accommodated is very important. Most of the political formations in India have been so Hindu majoritarian in their composition and political culture that they have not been sensitive to the concerns of minorities.

Take language. There was a legitimate democratic demand in the 1950s and 1960s to create a Punjabi-speaking state where Punjabi would be the official language of the state in the same way, as for example, Gujarat was constituted as a Gujarati-speaking state where Gujarati was the official language. But when it came to Punjab, the desire for the Punjabi language being recognised by creating a Punjabi speaking state was viewed as an attempt to create a Sikh majority state. It should, in principle, have been irrelevant which religious community became the majority or minority in a new state based on linguistic criterion. This, in fact, was considered irrelevant when other states were created on linguistic basis. But in Punjab, it was projected as the main issue which made the Sikhs feel that they are treated differently and in a discriminatory way. There is a long history of discriminatory practices on the issue of creating a Punjabi-speaking state.

Nehru opposed Punjabi being recognised as a full-fledged language on a par with other regional languages where the principle of carving out states based on language had already been accepted. This showed complete ignorance of the history of the Punjabi language and succumbing to one’s prejudices in dictating state policy. He once declared that during his lifetime he would never agree to a Punjabi speaking state, which would be a Sikh majority state on the border of India. The corollary of this is that a Punjabi-speaking state would have been acceptable to him if it was a Hindu majority state and such a state being on the border would not be perceived as a threat to the integrity of India.

Therefore, Sikhs have this feeling that they are misunderstood. Take river waters in Punjab. It is a very controversial issue and relates to the patterns of river water distribution and practices of discrimination in those patterns of distribution. But when a person in Punjab raises this issue, he/she is dubbed and projected as a separatist in the mainstream Indian media – so there’s a constant tension between Punjab and the Indian state. I have examined in depth the interconnected ideas mentioned here in my book Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy A second edition/Indian reprint of this book has been brought out in 2018 for wider circulation in South Asia.

Do you think there is something that separates the Sikh community from other communities in its ability to create wealth?

It is a difficult question to answer in short in a straightforward easy way. Different religious traditions do differ in the way their moral-ethical systems relate to wealth creation. The usual example of Protestant ethics being conducive to the rise of capitalism is often cited. In understanding the relationship between the development of capitalism in Punjab and the moral-ethical system of Sikhism, two key components of Sikh ethos namely kam karo (do labour) and wand shako (share the fruits of labour) offer complex and multi-layered perspectives.  Kam karo highlights the value attached to work that has removed many of the taboos about participating in different kinds of work. The removal of these taboos therefore has increased the mobility of labour, and that mobility of labour allows for greater movements of capital and facilities capitalist development. In contrast with that, the Brahminical caste system operating in majority of the Indian states creates multiple forms of taboos about different kinds of work and thus hinders the mobility of labour and growth of capitalism.

In central India, for example, a poor but upper caste Brahmin will not do certain kinds of agricultural work that is associated with lower caste status. But in Sikhism that taboo is removed. And you see this with Sikh women, too. They don’t feel taboos around agriculture work that exist elsewhere in Hindu majority Indian states.

Kam karo by highlighting the value of work/labour is simultaneously a condemnation of those who do not do labour and thus depend upon exploitation of the labour of others. This is a powerful critique of capitalism that is based on appropriation of surplus value from the work of labour and for capital accumulation, which is the lynch pin of capitalism. Further, the invocation to wand shako (sharing the fruits of labour) has a strong distributive dimension which is the anti-thesis of capitalism. It is no surprise that though the institutional control of the Sikh institutions remains in the control of those who are wealthy rural and urban Sikh capitalists; the mass impulse of Sikhism shaped by Sikh ethical teachings is more oriented towards equality and distribution. I am currently working on two papers (Sikhism and Capitalism, and Marxism and Sikhism) where I plan to elaborate my reflections on this issue.

What marks Sikhism out as distinct in its ideas of religion and community?

In Sikhism, religion and politics are intertwined. Politics is viewed as concerning the everyday material concerns of life and religion is viewed as an ethical/spiritual oversight over those material concerns. This intertwining is an enormous source of strength but also a source of much misunderstanding. Looking at the everyday household activities which are considered very important for a Sikh way of life might be useful to understand this relationship between material and the spiritual. A Sikh is not supposed to meditate by leaving the household, renouncing everyday life and disappearing into the forests or some other site removed from the everyday life of material activities. Instead, a Sikh is required to become a god-loving person while working and living the life of a householder (grahshiti).  A working life and a spiritual life are not two different domains. The dialectic of the spiritual and the material is combined in the daily life of people. One doesn’t become a god-loving person by renouncing work, but by incorporating it in being an ethical or spiritual person and balancing the material and work activity by ethical and spiritual orientation.

This intertwining or mixture of religion and politics has also been misunderstood by Hindu majoritarian institutions as well as by secular leftists in India. This misunderstanding is responsible for not appreciating the significance of Golden Temple in Amritsar in the Sikh imagination. In the Golden Temple complex, there is Harmandar Sahib, which is source of spiritual inspiration, but Akal Takhat was created as an institution and a direct political challenge to the Mughal Empire. The challenge to the Mughal empire was that the Mughals might have an historically created empire, but the Sikhs had sovereignty through their Akal (beyond history and time) Takhat (the throne).

In Sikhism, practical political decisions are taken by people through collective consultation between them. When Shri Guru Gobind Singhji conferred the status of Guru on to SGGS, he ordained the Sikhs that they would seek spiritual guidance from SGGS but to resolve their political issues, they would have to depend upon the collective wisdom of the sangat (the community).  This inherently democratic mode of arriving at decisions concerning most important material issues confronting the community has been misinterpreted as communal, where the Indian discourse on communalism has come to attach negative connotations to communal in contrast to the worldwide practice where communal is celebrated as collective and cooperative. I have discussed this abuse of the word ‘communal’ in the Indian discourse on communalism in a paper titled ‘Institutional Communalism in India’.

How do these ideas of spiritualism and materialism relate to the idea of a Spiritual Economy?                

As the spiritual domain is associated with the economic, the material is guided by the spirituality. These two modes of activities are not therefore separate. Look at the importance of the Golden Temple, or rather the fascination with the mystique of the Golden Temple. It has gold which as a material shines as a display of its material wealth, but it would not have had the mystique it has now if it did not have spirituality associated with it. It is a combination of spiritualism and materialism. I have published a paper on this which expands on this theme.

How does Sikhism view the caste system?

The gurbani teachings can be viewed as a challenge to two paradigms: the paradigm of the Mughal Empire and the paradigm of the Hindu caste system, as through gurbani all human beings are equal. But interestingly and sadly enough that egalitarian casteless vision has remained in the territory of the gurdwara. In the gurdwara, there is no discrimination based on caste though even in the gurdwara, the Sikh reformers had to fight and defeat some upper caste priests in the early part of the twentieth century who had started reintroducing the Brahmanical caste practices against the Dalits. As you move out of the gurdwara, the caste divisions re-emerge in Sikh society though not in that vicious form as in Hindu society.

One possible explanation of the re-emergence of casteism in Sikh society is that due to the hugely hegemonic power of Hinduism, Sikhism like Christianity and Islam being a minority religion in India is affected by caste divisions which are intrinsic to Hinduism. These minority communities in India are not supposed to recognise caste but find it difficult to avoid the cultural dominance of caste-based Hinduism. When someone says Sikhism must fight against Hinduism, the crux of this means resisting this caste influence. When Sikhs are viewed as separatists because of this resistance against caste-dominated Hinduism, this separatism is a progressive separatism, which says we don’t want to have these hegemonic influences. This aspect of separatist instinct among the Sikhs is not normally understood and appreciated while some of the sectarian dimensions of that separatism get over highlighted and thus overshadow the complex nature of Sikh-Hindu relations in India.

How do you see Guru Gobind Singhji as a political leader?

He is just marvellous. When all four of his sons had died – two fighting in a battle against the Mughal rulers and the younger two who were aged 9 and 7 having been bricked alive by one Mughal chieftain – he never spoke of revenge against Muslims. He was therefore able to attract the support of some genuinely religious Muslim leaders such as Pir Budhu Shah. He knew his fight was against oppression but not against Muslims. To reach that level when two of his younger sons as young as 9 and 7 years old were murdered in a most brutal way, he remained at that high level of morality and spirituality – I think that’s somewhere close to being god.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured photo: Pritam Singh sitting next to Mr M P S Bedi at ‘Shri Guru Gobind Singhji: Understanding the sacred word’, LSE, 22 March 2018. Credit: LSE South Asia Centre. 

Find out more the ‘100-foot Journey Club’ about hosted by LSE South Asia Centre in collaboration with the High Commission of India. Read Pritam Singh’s contribution to the LSE South Asia Centre’s paper Shri Guru Gobind Singhji CELEBRATIONS MARKING THE 350TH PRAKASH PARV OF THE GURU. Listen to Pritam Singh’s contribution to Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji ‘Understanding the Sacred Word’ on 22 March 2018.

Pritam Singh is Academic Visitor at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford; a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

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