The never say die determination and supreme dignity of labour has characterised the Sikh community. It is not without reason that we are yet to come across a Sikh with a begging bowl anywhere in the world. Their absolute belief in their capacity to redeem themselves from the seemingly most insurmountable odds propels them to not allow themselves to humiliate themselves, and that is an attribute that all other communities can learn from. Prof. Ashoka pays tribute to the courageous Sikhs, exclusively for Different Truths.
Sikhism as a religion has never ceased to fascinate me for a variety of reasons. I have always admired the never say die determination and supreme dignity of labour that has characterised the Sikh community. It is not without reason that I am yet to come across a Sikh with a begging bowl anywhere in the world. Their absolute belief in their capacity to redeem themselves from the seemingly most insurmountable odds propels them to not allow themselves to humiliate themselves, and that is an attribute that all other communities can learn from.
The history of this religion is equally fascinating and inspiring. Sikhism emerged when caste and religious divisions were tearing apart the entire Indian society. We had Guru Nanak Dev who taught us the futility of these artificial divisions emphasising on the unity of the Divine. He was emphatic that in order to attain spiritual enlightenment, it was not necessary to perform rituals or visit the designated holy places. In fact, he pointed out very clearly that performance of rituals and making pilgrimages was meaningless unless we were prepared to make a sincere effort towards enlightening ourselves.
I have personally perused and studied his teaching and periodically study the Guru Granth Saheb, and on each occasion, I feel I understand my place in the world better. It is true that the bulk of the teachings are in compete for conformity with the Vedantic teachings. In fact, I find a remarkable similarity between Vedanta as expounded by Ramakrishna (centuries later) and Guru Granth Saheb. Even the teachings of Guru Gorakhnath who lived about four centuries earlier bear semblance to its basic precepts as do the teachings of Jalaluddin Rumi.
But the fact remains that these teachings were not readily available to most at the time Sikhism emerged. Therefore, it would not be out of order to state that Sikhism brought home the Vedantic principles in a much more effective manner than the earlier scholars.
Much later, when Guru Gobind Singh created the ‘khalsa’, which he perceived as the attainment of spirituality to wage a battle against injustice to the entire humankind, he identified the Sikh symbols. A Sanskrit and a Persian scholar of immense repute, he defined the Sikh identity (the word Sikh being derived from the Sanskrit expression ‘shishya’ meaning follower) and exhorted all the Sikhs to aim for spiritual attainment through a battle against every injustice that was prevalent in the world. In the process, he lost his offsprings and had to endure unmentionable hardships but did not allow this to deter him from his chosen path. Despite his enormous learning and charisma, he did not let any of his own teachings to be included in the Guru Granth Saheb which he decreed would henceforth be the guiding light for the followers of Sikhism.
The most remarkable feature of the scripture is that it is not time bound and freely includes wisdom from the non-Sikh sources e.g. Kabeer, Sheikh Faridi, Ravidas, etc. It was his expressed wish that the place of worship i.e. Gurudwara should be open to everyone to imbibe spiritual guidance (not just to the Sikhs). Spirit of human service was considered a sine qua non and that is perhaps the reason that the Gurudwaras are supposed to provide langars to all the needy. While this is a stipulated requirement in other faiths as well, it is most zealously observed in the Gurudwaras as is the tradition of kar sewa. The Sikh deference to all faiths is exemplified by the fact that just as many non-Sikhs frequent the Gurudwaras in Punjab as the Sikhs. In addition, until quite recently, the drummers in the Gurudwaras invariably had to be from the Muslim religion. It is for this reason alone many, myself included found the Punjab problem in the 80’s to be surreal and motivated primarily by politics than religion.
It is adherence to these values that have enabled the Sikhs to weather innumerable storms in their six hundred years long history. Like other faiths, there have been moments of introspection over some of the activities by some of its less distinguished adherents but it is to the credit of the community that it has learned to accept Aroor Singh, one of its senior Jathedars as a betrayer for the felicitatory treatment he meted out to General Dyer immediately after the Jallianwalabagh massacre.
While the Sikhs numerically constitute the sixth largest religion in the world, there has been absolutely no tradition of proselytisation at any stage in the Sikh history. Nearly every household in rural Punjab has Hindus and Sikhs within the same family and intermarriages are very common.
We all know the strides Sikhs have made in the military sphere. They are massively over-represented in numerical terms within the armed forces. It has produced some of the most distinguished soldiers the country has ever had which include several chiefs of different branches; the only Marshal of the Air Force the country has ever produced viz., Arjan Singh was a Sikh. The most visible face of Indian triumph in the 1971 war viz., Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora was a Sikh. Sikhs have played a distinguished role in the police force. And perhaps not just Indian but international hockey owes a debt of gratitude to the community. There have been sporting icons in other sports just too many to be elaborated here.
Indian freedom struggle produced Sikh icons like Bhagat Singh and his uncle Ajit Singh who still inspire reverence. Going back a little further, Maharaja Ranjit Singh has become a part of the folklore.
Because of the rich musical tradition, Sikh musicians and artists have ruled the roost in every era (the most respected painter of this century, Amrita Shergill was Sikh and that too from my own mofussil town). And the agricultural tradition in Punjab that inspired the success story post-independence was primarily the work of the Sikh agriculturists.
Sikh businessmen have made enormous strides not just in India but in East Africa, Europe, North America antimestralasia.
And we are all aware of the enormous contribution of Sikhs to literature which includes volumes and anthologies in Punjabi, Urdu and even English.
I can recommend at least a dozen tomes and chapters that have dealt with the history of Sikhs that I have gone through, and that includes Khushwant Singh’s chapter in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
While all these volumes are erudite, to my surprise, they have completely ignored at least two other areas where Sikh contribution has been phenomenal.
Not widely known, one of the most respected Hindi litterateur, who distinguished himself not just with prose and poetry was a Sikh from my own region (Purvanchal). I am of course alluding to Ayodhya Singh Upadhyaya Hariaudh. His command over language was such that despite not having had the benefit of education beyond class 8, he was a full professor of Hindi literature at the Banaras Hindu University and regularly used to teach Masters Courses. So popular and erudite was he that his magnum opus viz., Priya Pravas was considered to be second only to Jaishankar Prasad by a poll of Hindi professors in India.
Again not as well-known as he should be, Mahip Singh ended up winning several prestigious Hindi awards for his very emotive and literally exhilarating stories in chaste Hindi.
I might add that I had the good fortune to attend the Sangrur Litfest a few years ago where Sikh contribution to Sanskrit was acknowledged but there was no mention of the contributions of these stalwarts in Hindi.
Even more glaring was the complete omission of the Sikh contribution to science. None of the volumes I perused made any reference to Bawa Kartar Singh, who was in his heyday regarded as one of the foremost chemists in India given the breadth of his contribution to this field. That he was the direct descendant of Guru Amar Das makes it even more surprising.
No history of Indian science would be complete without an acknowledgement of the contributions by Autar Singh Paintal, who until his death was regarded the most promising biomedical researcher in the country. And where would the world be had it not been for the stellar contributions by Gurdev Singh Khush on rice?
I am confident there are many others and my sincere hope would be that people more qualified than myself would make an effort to address these deficiencies.
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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