CHALLENGES FOR SIKH STUDIES IN THE ACADEMIA
Speech in the US Library of Congress, Washington
– AJEET COUR
A Chair of Sikh Studies in any University will have to be designed as a catalyst of scholarly investigation, and not mere basking in the glory of Sikh history, and the triumphs of Sikhs over the last five centuries. In fact, all of us are so intoxicated by the new celestial light shown to the humanity by Guru Nanak and other nine Gurus who followed, by the great poetry of the Holy Book: Guru Granth Sahib, by all our valor and victories, by the great glory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire, that we hardly do any introspection about our more recent history and our social milieu. If we succeed in establishing such Chairs of scholarly research in Sikh Studies, shall we be able to investigate some uneasy, thought-provoking questions too? :
TEACHINGS OF GURU NANAK & HIS PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL REVOLUTION:
The corner-stone of Guru Nanak’s philosophy was the launch of a social revolution against the inhuman tyranny of the sanctified upper castes: the Brahmins, leashed against the lower castes: the Shudras: the cobblers, the weavers, the dyers, the tailors, the scavenger, the water-carriers, , the potters, the washer men, the sweepers, the carpenters, the chamaars- those who remove the hides of dead animals and made shoes, and those who work in the cremation grounds. The untouchables! The apartheid!
He decided to change the social fabric of society by raising his voice against the caste system which was the most degenerated social system, which had divided human beings into the superior most Brahmins and the lower caste ‘shudras’. He believed that Shudras are the genuine workers who kept the wheels of society moving with their labor.
He laid the foundation of Sikhism on the basic principle of erasing the class-divide, treating all human beings as equals, children of One God, proclaiming that all human beings are equal, the children of the same Creator. Upper castes and lower castes, Hindus and Muslims, all belong to one single family.
Guru Nanak gave a new orientation to the social fabric! Making ‘sangat’, the congregation of pure-hearted followers of the Guru, and ‘pangat’, the community kitchen where everybody was supposed to sit in a row, on the floor, cross-legged, without distinction of caste or creed or religion, and eat together!
These were made the foundation stones of his philosophy. He gave extraordinary respect to the lower castes by saying loud and clear that those who work with their hands and do honest labor are closer to God.
It required great courage and valor to launch such a movement challenging the Brahminical hierarchy, because one such previous attempt by Gautam Buddha had been crushed by Adi Shankaracharya, whose resolve to revive the supremacy of Brahmins pushed Buddhism out of India. Their monasteries were destroyed, and several of them were killed.
Nanak taught the respect of honest labor, and sharing one’s earnings with the needy! Helping those who are trampled over by the high and mighty. Negating all rituals which enabled the Brahmins to become “special species”, Nanak launched this great revolution and took his message, in his long travels spread over several years, across several thousand miles, not only all over India, but also to Tibet, Samarkand, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, in those times, about five hundred years back, when there were no trains, jeeps or airplanes.
Nanak’s ideology was based on direct, deep and passionate love with God who was not someone to be afraid of, because He is a beloved friend, a lover. Before Nanak, during eleventh century, Sufism had also brought in their liberal philosophy against the fundamentalism of Islam. The Bhakti Movement had also been launched around the thirteenth century by those who revolted against the Brahminical supremacy like Basava and Akka Mahadevi in the South of India, but were crushed by the Brahmins. Basava was murdered for uttering his ‘vachanas’ in his own mother-tongue, Kannada.
PRINCIPLES OF EQUALITY OF ALL MANKIND, TAKEN TO THEIR ZENITH BY GURU GOBIND SINGH:
The same principles of equality of mankind were taken to its zenith by the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who created Khalsa by baptizing the Five Chosen Ones who had offered their heads to their Guru. Out of these five, three were from the lower castes: Bhai Mohkam Chand was a washer man from Dwarka, Bhai Sahib Chand was a barber, and Bhai Himmat Rai was a ‘bhishti,’ the water carrier. So it was a casteless brotherhood of inspired people, who were saints at heart and fearless soldiers against all kinds of tyranny. Those who were treated as untouchables were touched with divine light. Guru Gobind Singh bowed before them, and drank the holy water, ‘Amrit’ (nectar), from the same bowel from which they had taken it, in a gesture of supreme brotherhood. That was the ultimate declaration of the equality and brotherhood of Khalsa – The Guru initiated the Khalsa, and the five Khalsas then served the nectar to their Guru, initiating Guru Gobind Singh in the Khalsa brotherhood.
It was not only a beautiful gesture; it was the final proclamation that Sikhs, the Khalsa, will be one single family, without any caste hierarchy. And he ordered that Sikhs won’t mention their castes with their names: “all Sikh men will be Singhs, the lions, and all Sikh women Kaurs (Cours), the princesses.” These are the fearless ones, the lion-hearted, who showed their valor in great battles, resulting in the golden period of Sikh history, culminating in the great glory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s great empire, the zenith of Sikh history.
The scholars working on Sikh Studies should be investigating through their research programs how Sikhism has digressed and where those principles have vanished today! Who has been responsible to bring back the caste system with vulgar vengeance in the liberal Sikhism for which ten gurus worked so hard to liberate the society, for which the Fifth Guru Arjan Dev and Ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed their lives, for which the Tenth Guru sacrificed his four sons, his family, and ultimately his own life ?
Where has the beautiful philosophy of equality of mankind vanished? Where have the democratic principles of ‘Sangat’, the congregation of the seekers and enlightened ones, and ‘pangat’, eating together as a family, and ‘Gurmatas’, the unanimous decisions.